He had a couple of large sacks with him which he handed to the soldier in the boat. He went down the ladder and cast off. “I’ll send him back for you. I’ve got things to do. You’ll find Alberto at the priest’s house. He’ll fill you in.”
He sat down in the prow, lighting another of his inter-minable cigarettes and shoved his hands into the pockets of his leather coat, looking about as fed-up as it was possible to be.
I was completely mystified by the whole affair and keen for an early explanation, so I turned away and hurried along the jetty. There was a sentry at the land end who looked bored and unhappy, sweat soaking through his drill tunic. There were two more beside a machine-gun in the church porch.
I found Alberto in the priests’s house. He was lying on a narrow bed, minus his breeches, his right leg supported across a pillow while his medical corporal swabbed away at a couple of leg ulcers with cotton wool and iodine. Alberto, who looked anything but happy, was obtaining what solace he could from the glass in his left hand and the bottle of brandy in his right.
“Ah, Senhor Mallory,” he said. “I would not wish these things on my worst enemy. Like acid, they eat right through to the bone.”
“Better than having them on your privates.”
He smiled grimly, “A sobering thought. Has Captain Hannah explained things to you?”
“He said something unintelligible about Christmas presents for the Huna, then took off across river. What’s it all about?”
“It’s simple enough. I’ve managed to lay hands on a half-breed who’s been living with them. He’s fixed the position of their main village for me on the map. About forty miles into the bush from here.”
“You’re going to attack?”
He groaned aloud and moved restlessly under the corporal’s hand, sweat beading his forehead. “An impossibility. It would take us at least three weeks to force a way through even if my man agreed to lead us which he would certainly refuse to do under those circumstances. It would be suicide. They’d pick us off one by one.”
“What about reinforcements?”
“There aren’t any. They’re having trouble with the Civa along the Xingu again and the Jicaro are making things more than difficult along their stretch of the Negro. My orders are to come to some sort of terms with the Huna, then to abandon Santa Helena. I’ve just sent the mission launch down to Landro with everything on board worth saving.”
“And why am I here?”
“I want you to fly to this Huna village with Hannah. Drop in a couple of sackfuls of trade goods of various kinds, as a gesture of goodwill. Then I’ll send in this man who’s been living with them to try and arrange a meeting for me.”
He reached for a clean glass as the sergeant started to ban-dage his leg, half-filled it with brandy and passed it across to me. I didn’t really want it, but took it out of politeness.
He said, “I’ve been making inquiries about you, Mallory. You were friendly with that madman Buber when you were on the Xingu. Probably know more about Indians than I do. What kind of chance do you think my plan has of working?”
“Not a hope,” I said. “If you want the truth, that is.”
“I agree entirely.” He toasted me then emptied his glass. “But at least I’ll have made the kind of positive step to do something that even Headquarters won’t be able to quarrel with.”
I tried the brandy which tasted as if someone had made it in the bath. I placed the glass down carefully. “I’ll be off then. Pre-sumably Hannah is straining at the leash.”
“He isn’t too pleased, I can tell you that” Alberto reached across and picked up my glass. “Safe journey.”
I left him there and went out into bright sunlight again. The heat was terrific, dust rising from the dry earth with each step, and the jungle was already beginning to creep in at the back of the hospital, lianas trailing in across the roof from the trees. It didn’t take long. People came and went, but the forest endured, covering the scars they left as if they had never existed.