Jack Higgins – The Last Place God Made

I tried to sit up and saw that I was entirely naked except for my chains and my body was blotched here and there with great black swamp leeches.

A hand pushed me down again. “Please to be still, senhor.”

My friend from the island crouched beside me puffing on a large cigar. When the end of it was really hot he touched it to one of the leeches which shriveled at once, releasing its hold.

“You are all right, senhor?”

“Just get rid of them,” I said, my flesh crawling.

He lit another cigar and offered it to me politely then con-tinued his task. Beyond him in the shadows the two children watched, faces solemn in the firelight.

“Are the children all right?” I asked.

“Thanks to you, senhor. With children one can never turn the back, you have noticed this? I had put into that island to repair my steering oar. I turn my head for an instant and they are gone.”

Steering oar?I frowned. “Where am I?”

“You are on my raft}senhor. I am Bartolomeo da Costa,balsero.”

Balserosare the water gipsies of Brazil, drifting down the Amazon and Negro with their families on great balsa rafts up to a hundred feet long, the cheapest way of handling cargo on the river. Two thousand miles from the jungles of Peru down to Belem on occasion, taking a couple of months over the voyage.

It seemed as if that little bit of luck I had been seeking had finally come my way. The last leech gave up the ghost and as if at a, signal, a quiet, dark-haired woman wearing an old pilot coat against the evening chill emerged from the hut and crouched beside me holding an enamel mug.

It was black coffee and scalding hot. I don’t think I have ever tasted anything more delicious. She produced an old blan-ket which she spread across me then suddenly seized my free hand and kissed it, bursting into tears. Then she got up and rushed away.

“My wife, Nula, senhor,” Bartolomeo told me calmly. “You must excuse her, but the children – you understand? She wishes to thank you, but does not have the words.”

I didn’t know what to say. In any case, he motioned the chil-dren forward. “My son Flaveo and my daughter Christinas senhor.”

The children bobbed their heads. I put a hand out to the boy, forgetting my chains and failed to reach him. “How old are you?”

“Seven years, senhor,” he whispered.

I said to Bartolomeo, “Did you know that before I inter-vened, this one rushed on thejacare to save his sister?”

It was the one and only time during our short acquaintance that I saw Bartolomeo show any emotion on that normally placid face of his. “No, senhor.” He put a hand on his son’s shoulder. “He did not speak of this.”

“He is a brave boy.”

Bartolomeo capitulated completely, pulled the boy to him, kissed him soundly on both cheeks, kissed the girl and gave them both a push away from him. “Off with you – go help your mama with the meal.” He got to his feet. “And now, senhor, we will see to these chains of yours.”

He went into the hut and reappeared with a bundle under one arm which when unrolled, proved to be about as comprehensive a tool kit as I could have wished for.

“On a raft one must be prepared for all eventualities,” he in-formed me.

“Are you sure you should be doing this?”

“You escaped from Machados?” he said.

“I was on my way there. Jumped overboard when we were on the Seco. They shot the man who was with me.”

“A bad place. You are well out of it. How did they fasten these things?”

“Some sort of twist key.”

“Then it should be simple enough to get them open.”

It could have been worse, I suppose. The leg anklets took him almost an hoursbut he seemed to have the knack after that and had my hands free in twenty minutes. My wrists were rubbed raw. He eased them with some sort of grease or other which certainly got results for they stopped hurting almost immedi-ately, then he bandaged them with strips of cotton.

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