“You have to understand. We didn’t mean to kill him. We just didn’t know any better . . . back then.”
Nathan Jones felt himself tense up in the cozy microfiber embrace of his favorite recliner and pinched the sting out of his eyes. Was he talking to himself? He dabbed his budding tears away with a tissue, then looked up, a little startled, as the doorway facing him filled with a familiar form.
“Hey, Pops. You ready?”
At forty-two, his son Martin’s tight afro was as dark as ever—unlike his own still-thick hair, which was grey on the sides and speckled on top. With a melancholy pang, Nathan remembered that Martin’s soft, kind eyes were a tribute to his mother. May she rest in peace.
Martin leaned down smoothly and made an adjustment on the tripod that supported the camera pointed at his dad.
His athletic build, Nathan thought proudly—that’s all mine.
“You sure you’re up for this, Pops?” Martin asked, gently.
“Ready as I’ll ever be,” Nathan said. It took an effort to hide his welling emotion.
“It’s recording to hard drive, Pops. I’ll edit it later. You can talk all day if you want.”
Nathan nodded, and then collapsed the recliner’s footrest as he swung himself forward and leaned toward the camera.
“You want me to stay while you tell it?” Martin asked.
“That would be nice, thanks.”
“Okay, Pops. Don’t worry. I think you need to get this out once and for all. It’ll be good for you.”
Nathan sighed heavily and rubbed the side of his face. “Okay, then . . . once more, from the beginning. . .”
The Amazon, 1965
“Hey, Nate. Remind me why I volunteered for this trip.”
“I dunno. ‘Cause you’re dumb?”
“That must be it.” Mark Jones slapped his hand to the back of his neck. Sweat splashed from between his fingers and a well-fed mosquito flew off to a safe distance. “Why aren’t they biting you?” He inspected his empty hand for casualties, and then wiped the sheen of sweat onto his pant leg.
Despite being fraternal twins, Nate and Mark were about as different as two young men could be. Nate glanced at Mark’s auburn-grey skin, and held up the back of one of his own hands by way of comparison. Nate was tall, thin—and as their Aunt Clara always said—”nearly as black as a Negro could be.” Mark was short and husky with auburn-tinted hair, a “red Negro” on Auntie’s color scale.
“Maybe they don’t bite me because they like lighter meat,” Nate said. “Maybe I’m too spicy for them.”
Nate’s strong, angular features contrasted sharply with Mark’s round, less defined face. Mark’s dull, faraway eyes and slow words hinted at dimwittedness. But Mark wasn’t dumb. Mostly, Nathan mused, he was just a big goof-off.
“Oh yeah?” Mark thumbed at the expedition leader, who stood to one side, directing the packing of the group’s equipment onto the backs of their five mules. “Then why don’t they bite him?”
Nate smiled at Professor Gwyn Wogan’s unusually pale complexion and wavy red hair—a source of quiet jokes among their native Indian guides. They had taken to calling him “the ghost” behind his back.
“Skeeters like it less spicy, not totally bland. Ask ‘em if you don’t believe me.” Nate winked at his brother and got a smirk and lowered headshake in reply. “You using the bug spray?”
“Naw. Makes me itch.”
“And those mosquito bites don’t?”
“Naw, those itch, too.”
Nate looked at his brother and shook his head. He scanned the remnants of their camp. Clingy tan soil was exposed beneath the cleared undergrowth. Well-spaced tree trunks disappeared into the misty ceiling of the tropical rainforest. A muddy path led down to one of the myriad tributaries that coursed through the Amazon.
Mostly, Nate eyed the seven Americans and three Indians that completed their motley group of twelve. Except for the professor, his long-haired assistant Scott Campbell, and Charles Hawley, who represented the company that sponsored the expedition, the Americans were all student volunteers. Nathan and Mark were the only blacks and the only undergrads—two social stigmas that ranked them only slightly above their native Indian helpers in the team pecking order.
Four of the Americans—Arthur, Duke, Frankie and Hugh—were grad students hoping this trip would pad their resumes and improve their career prospects. Hawley was tagging along in case they discovered anything of value. If they did, ADR Chemical wanted immediate closure, meaning containment and perpetual mining rights.
Nate watched Professor Wogan work. At 5’8”, the professor was trim, energetic, and corded with muscles. Nathan squeezed one of his own rock-hard biceps and wondered if he would be in as good shape when he reached his mid-fifties.
His gaze swung skyward, but his mind drifted back to Wogan’s sophomore class in Geochemistry at Cornell. They quickly found the professor’s generous grading scale to be only one of the course’s attractions. Not only did he create interest in the subject, but he also shared alluring tales of previous students who had achieved wealth and success through modern-day prospecting, or by selling their skills to the petroleum industry.
If Nate had known then what he was just beginning to understand—that the vast majority of prospectors returned home frustrated and penniless—he would have prospected a summer job at the university library. Instead, he was serving as an unpaid pack-bearer for a professor whose only real, measurable success was in the classroom. How had Wogan persuaded an industrial giant to sponsor a grant for him to prospect in the Amazon, anyway?
Raised voices and another neck-slap from his brother jerked Nathan out of his reverie. He stood up from the stump he sat upon, grabbed his pack from the ground by one shoulder-strap, and motioned his brother to follow him to the source of the noise.
It was nothing new. For the last two weeks, the guides had argued for better wages on a daily basis. The farther they led the group from civilization, the more their demands increased.
The Indians, dressed in ragged shorts—their only concession to civilization—gesticulated threateningly in Wogan’s direction as the professor shouted back at them, red-faced with anger and frustration. The native translator stood between the two factions with outspread arms as if to part the waters of the Red Sea, his head jerking back and forth as he struggled to keep up with both sides of the verbal battle. Other team members ringed the foursome in a loose circle. Everybody was aware that the guides were bargaining with the lives of the expedition. Paying them too early or promising too little could threaten their willingness to lead the group home. For the guides, the forest was their home; they could slip off into it at any time. Only the promise of payment kept them from doing so.
As the two brothers drew closer, the translator threw up his arms, turned his back and stomped off to the edge of the clearing. He sat on the tree stump Nathan just vacated, concern etched in the furrow between his wide-set brown eyes. With their translator gone, both sides launched a few more shouts and gestures but then recognized the futility of any further effort. The two guides turned and stormed off, casting malignant glances over their shoulders, hissing warnings like snakes.
Another step would have taken Nathan into the loose circle of observers, but Charles Hawley glanced over his shoulder and saw him coming. He sidestepped directly into his path, blocking him from the group. Nathan almost stumbled into the man’s back, and briefly considered slamming into him, as if by accident.
Instead, he brought himself up short and turned to roll his eyes at his brother, who now stood behind him. Scott Campbell glanced in their direction. He flung a beaded, blond hair-braid over one shoulder with a flick of his head and said to Hawley, “Be cool, man.” Then he stepped aside to make space, reached out to take Nathan by his elbow, drew him alongside and collegially draped one arm over his shoulders. Mark stepped to Campbell’s other side.
Hawley just shrugged and edged away from him without so much as a glance in his direction.
The quiet ones are always the most dangerous, Nathan thought to himself. Not like that bigoted graduate student in their group, Duke, who can’t stop talking about Malcolm X’s murder, and how some “righteous Son of the South” is going to “do the same for Martin Luther King, Jr. someday.”
“You know, Campbell, you’re all right,” Nathan said, “For a white guy, that is. When we wean your Scottish ass off of that shortbread and butterscotch, who knows? You might even darken up a bit.”
“When we get back home, swing by for supper,” Campbell said, smiling. He dropped his arm from Nathan’s shoulders. “When you taste my fried chicken, you’ll know we’re members of the same club.”
Campbell got both the inflection and timing just right. If he had flubbed either, his taunt wouldn’t have come off as a joke. It might even have backfired. As it was, they just glanced at one another and laughed.
“I hired two guides in hopes of avoiding this,” Wogan said, his eyes never leaving the guides, who now sat huddled together at the base of a tree.
“Think they’ll desert us?” one of the graduate students asked.
“Not a chance. I’m paying them six months’ salary for two months’ work.”
“It’s still peanuts,” Nathan said.
The professor tore his eyes from the pair and turned to face him. “Maybe to you. To them, a hundred dollars a month is a fortune. I really can’t understand their problem. Twenty years ago, at the end of the war, they’d have made fifty cents a day.” Turning to the group, he said, “Just in case, we’ll post a guard at night. To keep an eye on our gear, and to make sure nobody tries to sneak away.”
A couple team members groaned, but most nodded soberly with understanding.
“Okay,” Wogan said, turning a circle among them, “one more week and three more sites, then we’re all going home. Sort out your packs, load the animals and let’s get going.”