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Jack Higgins – The Last Place God Made

Somehow I got the body across Munro’s shoulders, followed him up the ladder, chains rattling against the wooden bars. There were only half a dozen passengers and they were all comfortably settled under an awning in the prow where they caught what breezes were going. The rest of the prisoners al-ready squatted in the stern and a couple of guards lounged on a hatch-cover, smoking and playing cards.

One of them glanced up as we approached. “Over with him,” he said. “And throw him well out. We don’t want him getting into the paddle wheels.”

I took him by the ankles, Munro by the shoulders. We swung him between us in an arc out over the rail. There was a splash, ibis rose in a dark cloudsblack against the sky, the beating of their wings filling the air.

Munro crossed himself. I said, “You can still believe in God?”

He seemed surprised. “But what has God to do with this, senhor? This is Man and Man only.”

“I’ve got a friend I’d like you to meet some time,’ I told him. ‘I think you’d get on famously.”

He had one cigarette left, begged a light from the guard and we went to the rail to share it. He started to crouch. I said, “No, let’s stand. I’ve been down there long enough.”

He peered at my face in the half-darkness, leaning close. “I think you are yourself again, my friend.”

“I think so, too.”

We stood there at the rail looking out across the river at the jungle, black against the evening sky as the sun set It was extraordinarily beautiful and everything was still. No bird called and the only sound was the steady swish of the paddles. Munro left me for a while and went and crouched beside Ramis, the man who had already spent some time at Machados.

When he returned he said quietly, “According to Ramis we’ll be there in the morning. He says we leave the Negro about twenty miles from here. There’s a river called the Seco which cuts into the heart of the swamp. Machados is on some kind of island about ten miles inside.”

It was as if the gate was already swinging shut and I was filled with a sudden dangerous excitement. “Can you swim?”

“In these?” he said, raising his hands.

I stretched the chain between my wrists. There was about two and a half feet of it and the same between the ankles. “Enough for some sort of dog paddle. I think I could keep afloat long enough to reach the bank.”

“You’d never make it, my friend,” he said. “Look there by the stern.”

I peered over the rail. Alligators’ eyes glow red at night. Down there, tiny pin-pricks gleamed balefully in the darkness as they followed the boat Eke gulls at sea, waiting for the leav-ings.

“I have as great a desire for freedom as you,” Munro said softly, “but suicide is another matter.”

And suicide was the only word for it, he was right enough there. In any event, the moment had passed for the guards put their cards away, formed us into a line and put us back in the hold.

It was Ramis who saved me by cutting his throat just after dawn with a razor blade he had presumably secreted on his person, since Manaus. He took several minutes to die and it wasn’t pleasant listening to him gurgle his life away there in the semi-darkness.

We were perhaps two or three miles into the Seco at the time and it had an explosive effect on the rest of the prisoners. One man cracked completely, screaming like a woman, tramp-ling his way through the others in an attempt to reach the ladder.

Panic swept through the group then, men kicking and cursing at each other, struggling wildly. The hatch went back with a crash, there was a warning shot into the air and everyone froze. A guard came halfway down the ladder, a pistol in his hand. Ramis sprawled face-down and everyone stood back from the body. The guard dropped in and turned him over with a foot. He was a ghastly sight, his throat gaping, the razor still firmly grasped in his right hand.

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