Picking their way single-file along a narrow animal path, Nathan paused to wipe sweat from his eyes and glance back.
They’re still keeping us at the back of the line, he reflected. Now, is that because we’re young, undergraduate, or black?
He shrugged his shoulders and scanned the forest. Many times over the past six weeks, he had been struck by the numbing sameness of the rainforest. Although parts looked different, he could never tell where he was.
Trees grew tall and straight, buttressed by wide, powerful root systems. Their lush green crowns bunched together in the forest canopy, over a hundred feet above. Emergent trees such as the Kapok, or Ceiba tree, penetrated the canopy to create a towering overstory layer favored by eagles and bats. Most of the forest’s wildlife lived at the level of the understory—the branch layer—and above, completing their entire life cycle without ever descending to the ground. In the spots where the thick canopy blocked the sun’s rays, the starved undergrowth remained sparse, permitting easy passage.
Where the canopy thinned, the undergrowth responded to the sun’s nurturing rays by exploding with growth. Shrubs and saplings knotted together in a competition to suffocate one another—to survive. Vines and liana wove the dense mess into jungle, rendering areas virtually impassable. Those brave enough to venture into those areas found that certain vines struck and bit, only to recognize them as vipers too late.
Where forest gave way to jungle, the composting groundcover perpetually stewed in its own fermented juices. Mud sucked at the feet and clung to the boots until they were caked. Insects and snakes, many of them poisonous, teemed in this fertile environment. The groundcover squished underfoot and rebounded with each step. If it moved on its own, you ran.
Despite the beauty, the atmosphere was stifling. Temperatures bordered on intolerable, humidity tickling one hundred percent. Nathan felt as if his lungs could barely squeeze enough oxygen from the hot, humid air, thick with the ripe odor of an ecosystem recycling itself. The treetops and groundcover misted for hours in the mornings. Rain fell virtually every afternoon, filling scoop-shaped epiphytes overhead and then emptying like tipped buckets upon whatever lay below.
The calls of the rainforest only stopped for a reason. When the birdsongs and monkey chatter stilled, a person quickly discovered the reason. At that point, they hid, ran, or died. Equally disconcerting was the fact that when the rainforest transformed to jungle, visibility decreased to a matter of a few yards.
Progress was slow. Nathan stopped for a moment and pondered his surroundings. The native translator bringing up the rear stepped up beside him. Mark, directly in front of him, had advanced only a few steps. All the same, Nathan knew he had to keep up or he would lose him in the thick vegetation. Keeping an eye on his brother’s dun-colored backpack, he nodded in greeting. “How’s it going, Tonto?”
The Indian was a member of the Mandahuaca tribe. His given name was such a convoluted mix of H’s, X’s and Y’s that Nathan had given up on mastering it. To the rest of the team, the interpreter was Bud. To Nathan, he was Tonto. Unlike the guides, who were nearly naked, Tonto wore a t-shirt and shorts, although he moved through the forest barefoot. He’d been educated by American missionaries, and had made a bit of a career for himself translating for tourists and explorers.
Early in their acquaintance, some mystery had bridged their cultures and persons, and they had formed a bond. Neither had saved the other’s life or honor, nor had they stood side-by-side battling a common adversity. Theirs had simply been a meeting of souls.
“Copacetic,” the Indian replied. It took a sharp mind to be a translator, and he’d been doing the job long enough to have picked up some decent American slang. “How you doing, Jane?”
“No, no,” Nathan chuckled. “It’s Kemosabe. Ke-mo Sa-be. Work on it.”
“You call me Tarzan, I call you Kemosabe, Jane.”
Nathan laughed. Tonto’s sense of humor was one of the things that had drawn the two young men together. “Man. It’s so hard to get good help these days.”
“Not that easy to find good bosses, either.”
Mark was as far ahead as Nathan dared let him get, and Nathan started to move forward with Tonto at his side. His face grew serious.
“What’s the situation with the guides, Tonto? Is it really that bad? You think they might ditch us?”
Tonto shook his head. “Where Dr. Wogan wants to go—is very dangerous. Nobody wants to go there. But they need money. I think they’ll stay. But they’re not happy. They want more pay. I understand why.”
“You’re not thinking of taking off on us, too, are you?”
“Not my style, Jane. I signed up, I stay on.”
“If they run off, can you guide us back?”
“I translate for a reason. I’ve spent more time with books than in the jungle. Amazon’s larger than America. Easy to get lost.”
Tonto pondered for a moment, as if struggling to explain a complex formula. “Look. We walked in a circle for six weeks.” He drew a big “C” in the air in front of them. Then he closed the mouth of the C with a straight line. “But we walk home straight. Two weeks, maybe. How, though? What rivers and zigzags? The guides know—but I don’t. Do you?”
Nathan digested this. He was glad Mark was not close enough ahead to overhear their conversation. “Can we retrace our steps?”
This time Tonto’s headshake was accompanied by a shrug of his shoulders. “After rain, I’d have a hard time even finding yesterday’s camp.
“It rains every day,” Nathan said.
“You got it, Jane.”
Tonto fell back to his place at the end of the line.
Nathan reflected on the danger. Their beans, rice, flour and dried fruit would easily last another three weeks. The mules could go from pack animals to pot roast if protein took priority over the soil samples they carried. For five weeks, they’d supplemented their rations through fishing, hunting, and trade with natives they had encountered. Food shouldn’t be a problem if they stayed on schedule. . . If.
If they lost their guides, their rations could easily run out before they chanced upon civilization on their own. Furthermore, it was the guides’ job to steer them to receptive villages. Without guides, they could stumble upon hostile natives as easily as they could upon friendly ones.
There were other uncomfortable signs besides the guides’ restiveness. They’d lost one mule to snakebite early on. About a week in, a grad student had come down with a life-threatening fever. He’d recovered, but they’d had to leave him behind in a small village that, fortunately, had a radio.
Now, almost a third of the group was slowed down by mild dysentery—and the threat of malaria was ever-present.
I guess things could be worse, Nathan thought.
Just then, a gun blasted up ahead, followed by a burst of short, shrill screams.
The gun exploded again, severing the screams, and the forest fell silent.