“They don’t have a radio, so I usually fly in over the settle-ment just to let them know I’m here,” Hannah told me. “The nuns enjoy it, but this isn’t weather to fool about in.”
“It is of no consequence,” Alberto said calmly. “They will have heard us land. The launch will be here soon.”
The mission, as I remembered, was a quarter of a mile up-stream on the other side of the river. Alberto told Lima to go and wait the launch’s arrival and produced a leather cigar case.
Hannah took one, but I declined and on impulse, opened the cabin door and jumped down into the grass. The rain hammered down relentlessly as I went after the sergeant. There was a crude wooden pier constructed of rough-hewn planks, extending into the river on piles, perhaps twenty or thirty feet long.
Lima was already at the end. He stood there, gazing out across the river. Suddenly he leaned over the edge of the jetty, dropping to one knee as if looking down at something in the water. As I approached, he stood up, turned to one side and was violently sick.
“What’s wrong?” I demanded, then looked over the edge and saw for myself. I took several deep breaths and said, “You’d better get the colonel.”
An old canoe was tied up to the jetty and the thing which floated beside it, trapped by the current against the pilings was dressed in the tropical-white robes of a nun. There was still a little flesh on the skeletal face that stared out from the white coif, but not much. A sudden eddy pulled the body away. It rolled over, face-down and I saw there were at least half a dozen arrows in the back.
Lima climbed up out of the water clutching an identity disc and crucifix on a chain which he’d taken from around the nun’s neck. He looked sicker than ever as he handed them to Alberto and stood there shaking and not only from the cold.
Alberto said, “Pull yourself together for God’s sake and try and remember you’re a soldier. You’re safe enough here any-way. I’ve never known them to operate on this side of the river.”
If we’d done the sensible tiling we’d have climbed back into the Hayley and got to hell out of there. Needless to say, Alberto didn’t consider that for a second. He stood at the end of the jetty peering into the ram, a machine-gun cradled in his left arm.
“Don’t tell me you’re thinking of going across?” Hannah demanded.
“I have no choice. I must find out what the situation is over there. There could be survivors.”
“You’ve got to be joking,” Hannah exploded angrily. “Do I have to spell it out for you? It’s finally happened, just as every-one knew it would if they didn’t get out of there.”
Colonel Alberto ignored him and said, without turning round, “I would take it as a favour if you would accompany me Senhor Mallory. Sergeant Lima can stay here with Senhor Hannah.”
Hannah jumped in with both feet, his ego, I suppose, unable to accept the fact of being left behind. “To hell with that for a game of soldiers. If he goes, I go.”
I don’t know if it was the result Alberto had intended, but he certainly didn’t argue. Sergeant Lima was left to hold the fort with his revolver, I took the other machine-gun and Han-nah had the automatic shotgun he habitually carried in the Hayley.
There was water in the canoe. It swirled about in the bottom breaking over my feet in little waves as I sat in the stern and paddled. Hannah was in the centre, also paddling and Alberto crouched in the prow, his machine-gun at the ready.
An old log, drifting by, turned into an alligator by flicking his tail and moving lazily out of the way. The jungle was quiet in the rain, the distant cough of a jaguar the only sound. On the far side of the river, sandbanks lifted out of the water, covered withibis and as we approached, thousands of them lifted into the rain in a great, red cloud.