There was some sort of thud in the shadows a yard or two behind. My hand went through the slit in my pocket and found the grip and trigger guard of the Thompson. There was a Hum lance embedded in the earth beside the track, a necklace of monkey skulls hanging from it.
“What does it mean?” Sister Maria Teresa asked.
“That we are forbidden to go back,” Alberto said. “The decision as to what to do with you is no longer mine to make, Sister. If it is of any consolation to you at all, you have prob-ably killed us all.”
At the same moment, a drum started to boom hollowly in the middle distance.
We put a bold face on it, the only thing to do and moved on,Pedro in the lead, Sister Maria Teresa following. Alberto and I walked shoulder-to-shoulder at the rear. We were not alone for the forest was alive with more than wild life. Birds coloured in every shade of the rainbow lifted out of the trees in alarm and not only at our passing. Parrots and macaws called angrily to each other.
“What did you say?” I murmured to Alberto. “A chief and five elders?”
“Don’t rub it in,” he said. “I’ve a feeling this is going to get considerably worse before it gets better.”
The drum was louder now and somehow the fact that it echoed alone made it even more sinister. There was the scent of wood-smoke on the damp air and then the trees started to thin and suddenly it was lighter and then the gable of a house showed clear and then another.
Not that it surprised me for in the great days of the Brazilian rubber boom, so many millions were being made that some of the houses on the plantations up-country were small palaces, with owners so wealthy they could afford to pay private armies to defend them against the Indians. But not now. Those days were gone and Matamoros and places like it crumbled into the jungle a little bit more each year.
We emerged into a wide clearing, what was left of the house on the far side. The drumming stopped abruptly. Our hosts were waiting for us in the centre.
Thecacique or chief was easily picked out and not only because he was seated on a log and had by far the most magni-ficent head-dress, a great spray of macaw feathers. He also sported a wooden disc in his lower lip which pushed it a good two inches out from his face, a sign of great honour amongst the Huna.
His friends were similarly dressed. Beautifully coloured feather head-dresses, a six-foot bow, a bark pouch of arrows, a spear in the right hand. Their only clothing, if that’s what you could call it, was a bark penis sheath and various necklaces and similar ornaments of shells, stones or human bone.
The most alarming fact of all was that they were all painted for war, the entire skin surface being coated with an ochre-coloured mud peculiar to that section of the river. They were angry and showed it, hopping from ‘one foot to the other, rattling on at each other like a bunch of old women in the curiously sibilant whispering that passed for speech amongst them and the anger on their flat, sullen faces was as the rage of children and as unpredictable in its consequences.
The chief let loose a broadside. Pedro said, “He wants to know why the holy lady and Senhor Mallory are here? He’s very worried. I’m not sure why.”
“Maybe he intended to have us killed out of hand,” I said to Alberto, “and her presence has thrown him off balance.”
He nodded and said to Pedro, “Translate as I speak. Tell him the Huna have killed for long enough. It is time for peace.”
Which provoked another outburst, the general gist of which was that die white men had started it in the first place which entitled the Huna to finish. If all the white men went from the Huna lands, then things might be better.
Naturally Alberto couldn’t make promises of that kind and in any case, he was committed to a pretty attacking form of argument. The Huna had raided the mission at Santa Helena, had murdered Father Conte and many nuns.