The chief tried to deny this although he didn’t stand much of a chance of being believed with a nun’s rosary and crucifix hanging around his neck. His elders shuffled from foot to foot again, scowling like schoolboys in front of the headmaster so Alberto piled on the pressure. They had already seen what the government could do. Did they wish the white man’s great bird to drop more fire from the sky on their villages?
One by one, more Indians had been emerging from the forest into the clearing. I had been aware of this for some time and so had Alberto, but he made no reference to it. They pressed closer, hanging together in small groups, shouting angrily. I won’t say working up their courage for fear didn’t enter their thinking.
I glanced once at Sister Maria Teresa and found her – how can I explain it? – transfixed, hands clasped as if in prayer, eyes shining with compassion, presumably for these brands to be plucked from the flames.
It was round about then that Alberto raised the question of the two missing nuns. The response was almost ludicrous in its simplicity. From denying any part inthe attack on Santa Helena in the first place, the chief now just as vehemently denied taking any female captives. All had been killed except for those who had got away.
Which was when Alberto told him he was lying because no one had got away. The chief jumped up for the first time and loosed off another broadside, stabbing his finger repeatedly at Pedro. I noticed the outsiders had crept in closer now in a wide ring which effectively cut off our retreat to the forest
Alberto gave me a cigarette and lit one himself nonchalantly. “It gets worse by the minute. He called me here to kill me, I am certain of that now. How many do you make it out there?”
“At least fifty.”
“I may have to kill someone to encourage the others. Will you back me?”
Before I could reply, the chief shouted again. Pedro said, “He’s getting at me now. He says I’ve betrayed my people.”
In the same moment an arrow hissed through the rain and buried itself in his right thigh. He dropped to one knee with a cry and two of the elders raised their spears to throw, howling in unison.
I had already unbuttoned the front of my oilskin coat in readiness for something like this, but I was too slow. Alberto drew and fired the Mauser very fast, shooting them both in the body two or three times, the heavy bullets lifting them off their feet.
The rest turned and ran and I loosed off a quick burst to send them on their way, deliberately aiming to one side, ripping up the earth in fountains of dirt and stone.
Within seconds there was not an Indian to be seen. Their voices rose angrily from the jungle all the way round the clear-ing. When I turned, Pedro was on his feet, Sister Maria Teresa crouched beside him tugging at the arrow. “You’re wasting your time, Sister,” I told her. “Those things are barbed. He’ll need surgery to get the arrowhead out.”
“He’s right,” Pedro said, and reached down and snapped off the shaft as close to his thigh as possible.
“Right, let’s get moving,” Alberto said. “And be prepared to pick up your skirts and run if you want to live, Sister.”
“A moment, please, Colonel.”
One of the two men he had shot was already dead, but the other was having a hard time of it, blood bubbling between his lips with each breath. To my astonishment she knelt beside him, folded her hands and began to recite the prayers for the dying.
“Go Christian soul from this world, in the name of God the Father Almighty who created thee…”
Her voice moved on, Alberto shrugged helplessly and re-moved his cap. I followed suit with some reluctance, aware of the shrill cries of rage from the forest, thinking of that half-mile of green tunnel to the jetty. It suddenly came to me, with a sense of surprise, that I was very probably going to die.