“My wife has washed your clothes,” he said. “They are almost dry now except for the leather jacket and boots which will take longer, but first we eat. Talk can come later.”
It was a simple enough meal. Fish cooked on heated flat stones, cassava root bread, bananas. Nothing had tasted better. Never had my appetite been keener.
Afterwards I dressed and Nula brought more coffee then disappeared with the children. Bartolomeo offered me a cigar and I leaned back and took in the night.
It was very peaceful, whippoorwills wailed mournfully, tree frogs croaked, water rattled against the raft. “Don’t you need to guide it?” I asked him.
“Not on this section of the river. Here, the current takes us along a well-defined channel and life is easy. In other places, I am at the steering oar constantly.”
“Do you always travel by night?”
He shook his head. ‘Usually we carry green bananas, but this time we are lucky. We have a cargo of wild rubber. There is a bonus in it for me if I can have it hi Belem by a certain date. Nula and I take turn and turn about and watch during the night.”
I got to my feet and looked out into the pale darkness. “You are a lucky man. This is a good life.”
He said, “Senhor, I owe you more than sits comfortably on me. It is a burden. A debt to be repaid. We will be in Belem in a month. Stay with us. No one would look for you here if there should be a hue and cry.”
It was a tempting thought. Belem and possibly a berth on a British freighter. I could even try stowing away if the worst came to the worst.
But then there was Hannah and the fact that if I ran now, I would be running, in the most fundamental way of all, for the rest of my life. “When do you reach Forte Franco?”
“If things go according to plan, around dawn on the day after tomorrow.”
“That’s where I’ll leave you. I want to get to Landro about fifty miles up the Rio das Mortes. Do you know it?”
“I’ve heard of the place. Thisis important to you?”
“Good.” He nodded. “Plenty of boats coming up-river and I know everyone in the game. We will wait at Franco till I see you safely on your way. It is settled.”
I tried to protest, but he brushed it aside, went into the hut and reappeared with a bottle of what turned out to be the roughest brandy I’ve ever tasted in my life. It almost took the skin off my tongue. I fought for air, but the consequent effect was all that could be desired. All tiredness slipped away, I felt ten feet tall.
“Your business in Landro, senhor,” he said pouring more brandy into my mug. “It is important?”
“I’m going to see a man.”
“To kill him?”
“In a way,” I said. “I’m going to make him tell the truth for the first time in his life.”
I slept like a baby for fourteen hours and didn’t raise my head till noon the following day. During the afternoon I helped Bartolomeo generally around the raft in spite of his protests. There was always work to be done. Ropes chafing or some of the great balsa logs working loose which was only to be expected on such a long voyage. I even took a turn on the steering oar although the river continued so placid that it was hardly necessary.
That night it rained and I sat in the hut and played cards with him in the light of a storm lantern. Surprisingly he was an excellent whist player – certainly a damned sight better than me. Eventually, he went out on watch and I wrapped myself in a blanket and lay in the corner smoking one of his cigars and thinking about what lay ahead.
The truth was that I was a fool. I was putting my head into a noose again with no guarantee of any other outcome than a swift return to Machados and this time, they’d see I got there.