River of Fire

by Gladys Swedak


Six research scientists came to a South American jungle in search of the gas emissions people of the area had reported smelling; now there were only two, William High Moon and Judy Brown, left to tell their story. Gloria Wells, Angie Blake, Bill Wong and Joe Erickson were dead.

They had followed the reports up a river deep into the jungle where they found a cave emitting the gaseous smell. On entering the cave, the scientists accidentally started a flash fire that killed four of the team. The fire chased William and Judy through the jungle. They couldn’t retreat the way they had come. It was engulfed in flame. They had run to another branch of the river where, as if a Higher Power had left it just for them, they found a small dugout canoe on the bank, too narrow to sit but wide enough to stand and pole push down the river. Still, the fire followed them.

“William,” Judy said fear clouding her voice, “We have to make it.” She pushed her long pole into the muddy river bottom. She was a strong, tall, slender woman in her early thirties, short reddish brown hair, which made her look like a man, but you couldn’t mistake the body under the oversized men’s shirt and pants. Her childhood dream had been to be a model but her father insisted she follow him into the world of science. That is why she was here in this jungle in the middle of nowhere trying to out-run a wild fire.

“We will,” her companion said. William was a lean, broad shouldered, narrow hipped, full-blooded Navajo, with pitch-black hair, cut short for the first time in his life. “We have too. What we found is of world importance. It will supply many countries with power for years when it is harnessed. Hopefully this fire will burn itself out before it consumes too much of the forest.” He pulled his pole out of the mud as Judy pushed hers in again. His mind raced: what am I doing here? Here in the middle of a jungle on fire. I know I had to come to protect Judy from whatever she gets us into. She is my woman, my soul mate, even if she doesn’t see it that way. To her, I’m only her friend.

By poling opposite, they travelled a little faster. Finally, they seemed to be leaving the fire behind. It was no longer racing them down the river. It still crowned overhead but not as fiercely or as hot.

“Oohh!” Judy tried to keep her balance as the dugout did a little shudder from side to side. “What was that? Something hit us.”

“Yea, I felt it too. Maybe it was a rock,” William said, trying to calm Judy. He wasn’t sure what had rubbed the boat, but knew it was no rock.

SPLASH!

Suddenly they were both sitting in the muddy river bottom, wet to their necks. The little dugout had overturned and was lying upside-down toward the river bottom. The river wasn’t deep but the muddy bottom made it too slippery and impossible to hold on to the dugout, to turn it upright. They left it, and half-swimming and half-crawling, headed for the bank, muddy and soaked when they finally arrived on dry land. They lay panting for a few minutes.

“Now what?”  William mumbled under his breath. Somehow I have to get us out of here.

“What did you say?” a shivering Judy asked.

“Nothing, just mumbling to myself.”

BANG! – BANG!

William reached for his knife, as he sat up, but the knife his father had made for him when he was a child was not in the sheath in his boot. “Darn, it must have fallen into the river. Stay put, Judy,” he said. “I’m going to see what that was.”

“That was a gun shot, stupid, someone is firing at us. We are not as alone as we thought, and there is no way you are leaving me here.” Judy stood as they looked at each other. She saw William’s desire to protect her, but she was just as determined she wasn’t going to be left here alone by the river.

“Okay, but keep close behind me. We have no idea who or what is doing the shooting.”

“Don’t worry, I will. I’ll be like that leach on your shirt!” She reached up and slapped it off, then tried to become a part of him by putting her hands on his back.

They moved slowly, so as not to make any unnecessary noises, inching their way along the river bank. As instinct took over, William snuck through the forest without making a sound. Judy followed willingly, stepping in his footprints.

BANG! 

Another gun shot. When they rounded a bend, they saw a human form dressed in a snakeskin.

BANG!

It was that thing that was doing the shooting, the thing holding what looked like a buffalo gun, aiming at something on the other side of the river.

William picked up a thick wet piece of driftwood. “Hello,” he called hesitantly to the human form as they approached.

“Um, hello to you,” the snakeskin clad form said. “Who are you and what are you doing on my river? Did you start that fire upriver?”

“Your river?” Judy asked, peaking her head around William’s shoulder.

“Yes, my river.”

William hid his surprise from the English speaking snake clad form. “My name is William High Moon and this is Judy Brown. We are scientists who came to find out what was causing the gas emissions. In finding it, we inadvertently started that fire.” He put down the piece of driftwood. “Now would you tell us who you are and what you are doing here?”

“I am Ken Adams. People call me the snake man because I wear the skins of the reptiles I kill. You still haven’t told me what you are doing on my river and why you look like river rats.”

“We were trying to get away from the fire and the dugout we found hit something and we ended up in the river,” William said.

“Most likely, Sam,” Ken replied with a smile. “He is a large sturgeon I have been trying to catch for years. He keeps outsmarting me. One of these days he will fill my dinner plate.”

William and Judy started to shiver. Now that they were no longer fighting to survive, and their fear was diminishing, the cold of the drying mud was affecting them even in the warm jungle.

“Would you like to come to my cabin and clean up,” Ken asked. “You both look worse than I do when I wrestle a crock in the river.”

Shivering, Judy said, “Yyess plleeasee.”

“Lead the way.” Then William added, “Didn’t know a body could get so cold in the jungle.”

“It’s partly shock,” Ken said, as he led them to his cabin. “It isn’t far and you may warm up some just walking.”

The pathif it could be called a path–was strewn with downed decaying trees and covered with twisted vines. The sun was setting and the fire behind them had slowed and appeared to have burned itself out, but in the distance the sky still glowed of bright red, orange and smoke. Before long they came to an open manicured compound.

“Beautiful,” Judy looked around, astonished by what she saw. “How do you keep the jungle back?” The grass was a shamrock green, encircling a grape vine-covered cabin that could be any country cottage found in New England.

WOOF, WOOF!

Before Ken could answer, a big, black, brown, and white, short-haired thing that sounded like a dog, had the head of a wolf, body of a St. Bernard, and the bushy upturned tail of a husky, came bounding towards Judy on long slender legs. Ken said, “Jack, down!” while lowering his hand from shoulder height to his waist. The dog-like creature hesitated before leaping, and then laid down at Ken’s feet.

“The shower is around back, you can’t miss it. Ladies first?”

“Yes, yes please, ladies first,” Judy pleaded. The mud had dried to a hard shell, making it difficult to walk, and she wanted out of this mud suit as soon as possible.

“Okay,” William said, “but hurry or I just may join you.”

“I will be as fast as I can. I don’t want any company.”  She looked at Ken and asked, “Maybe I can take a long leisurely shower later. It has been so long since I have enjoyed a real shower.”

“Sure, as long as there is warm water,” Ken replied.

By the time William and Judy had cleaned up and put on the dry clean clothes Ken loaned them, a delicious dinner was ready. As they ate something that tasted like beefsteak, with garden fresh potatoes and veggies, William and Judy related again why they were in this part of the jungle.

“Yes, I’ve smelled something odd at times. I reported it once to the authorities but they didn’t have any idea what it was, or didn’t want to say.” Ken rose and went to the stove. “Coffee? I have the best coffee in the world right here.”

“Yes, with cream, if you have it,” Judy said. “Dinner was delicious. Thank you.”

“Yes, that was delicious beef.”

Ken had his mouth open and stopped.

“No, don’t tell us it wasn’t,” Judy said.

“Whatever it was, it was good. Black, no cream or sugar,” William said as Ken poured the coffee. “Now would you tell us why you are here.”

Ken put the coffee pot on the table, sat down and with a faraway look in his eyes, began to relate why he was in this jungle. “I came to take my parents bodies home after they were murdered by rebels. Instead, I stayed to get away from a life that was leading me nowhere. Here I can try to protect the reptiles of the area.” He paused, as if in deep thought and then continued, “My parents were missionaries, and I grew up in this house. They had cleared the compound and something they did has kept the jungle back all these years. I am still not sure what they did. Mother started the garden. I have her green thumb, so continued with it and it provides me with fresh vegetables and fruit. My father sent me to Chicago to live with an aunt and get an education. Just before I graduated from business collage, rebels killed them. When I got here I realized they wouldn’t have wanted to go back, as this was home. I buried them and stayed on to do my part in preserving the ecosystem.”

“Seems like a hard and lonely existence,” Judy said. “Have you ever wanted to go back to America?”

“No, never have. I grew up here and this is home. America never was.”

Judy took a sip of hot coffee. “That was the best coffee I have ever tasted.”

“Thanks, I grow it myself.”

“It is good, Ken,” William said, taking a big drink. “Never tasted anything like it at home.”

Judy held her cup in her hands, savouring the aroma. “Do you have communication here, a phone, or two-way radio?  Ours was lost with the rest of our equipment. We were to be picked up by helicopter tomorrow at the cave site but there is no way we can get back there now.”

“Yes, of course, there is a two-way in the kitchen. I keep in touch with friends almost daily. I’ll show you.”

William watched Judy as she went with Ken into the kitchen, and when Ken came back, he said, “Oh, I love that woman, but to her I am only a friend.”

“Ken,” she called from the kitchen, “can a helicopter land in the compound?”

“Yes,” Ken said, glancing at William with a you’re-a-lucky-guy look, “but it has to be during the day as the night light isn’t working right now.”

“Thanks,” she called back.

While she was in the kitchen, the two men realized they had a connection. “I feel I can tell you anything,” William said. “I know we’ve just met. But I feel like I can trust you.”

“I had that feeling when I first met you as well, all covered with mud,” Ken said and laughed. “You said you were in love with Judy. Why don’t you do something about it?”

“I’ve told her, but what else can I do. She says she just wants to be friends, so I have to accept it.” William looked toward the kitchen. “For now, that is.”

All was quiet when the kitchen door opened and Judy returned.

“The chopper will be here tomorrow afternoon,” she said. “Did I interrupt something? It got quiet all of a sudden.”

“No, of course not,” William said.

Judy looked at them with a yea-sure look, but didn’t push the point. “May I have that long shower now, Ken?  I have been looking forward to it. That is a great shower.”

“Sure.”

Going out to the shower, Judy looked up at the millions of stars that seemed just above her head. Maybe I should duck to keep from bumping against them? She knew only in places like this did the stars seem to be close enough to touch. No city lights to dim them, nothing to interfere with their brilliance. After turning on the shower, she took off the pants and shirt Ken loaned her, and stepped into the still warm water. It was a canvas enclosure with a huge barrel overhead filled with water fresh from an artesian well. The sun warmed the water to a pleasant temperature during the day. She looked up, circling in the warmth, letting the water run over her body. The stars seemed to be circling the barrel, like miniature windows into another world. After what seemed a short time the water cooled. She took one last look at the dark sky and saw a shooting star and made a wish.

SCRATCH, SCRATCH…WOOF!

“Jack, is that you?  What do you want?”

WOOF!

“No, there is no room for you. Besides I am coming out, the water is getting cold.” She turned the water off and dried with the fluffy white towel Ken gave her. Putting on the pants and shirt again she opened the door, but didn’t find Jack standing outside. It was a smaller version of him. One that had a heavier body, but the rest was the same. “Who are you?” she asked.

WOOF, WOOF!

“Come on, let us see who you are,” she went around the cottage and entered the living room. “Ken, who is this miniature version of Jack?”

“What?” Ken looked at the version of a younger Jack.

“He wanted to join me in the shower,” Judy replied, indicating the pup, who now sat at her feet. “I thought it was Jack, until I got out. The shower was great, by the way, but it is cold now. I used all the warm water.”

“I have no idea, never seen him before.” He talked to Jack as if the dog could answer him. “Who is this?”

From the fireplace where he was sleeping, Jack rose up and sauntered over to Ken and looked up at him with a how-would-I-know? expression on his face.

The pup seemed to have attached himself to Judy, as he followed her to the table. “May I have him, Ken? William, I may have another passenger for the chopper tomorrow as there will be two of us.”

“Sure. I have never seen him before and he has taken a liking to you. If he is anything like his father, he will be easy to train to do exactly what you want him to do. Being as he picked you, he will be yours for the rest of his life. He will have no other.”

Jack went back to his spot in front of the fireplace, settled down, and shut his eyes. He had no interest in what was going on.

Judy walked around the table and gave a cute short curtsey, as she said, “Good night, gentlemen.” She was feeling happy, a freedom she had never felt before, and it felt good. “I would love to explore the compound before the chopper arrives tomorrow. It is fascinating. Come, Wilber.”

“Wilber?” William and Ken said together, looking at her with an are-you-crazy-lady? look.

“Where did that come from?” William asked.

“I don’t know. He seems like a Wilber. Good night.”

Wilber rose and obediently followed Judy to the room Ken told her she could use for the night. Undressing again, she got into a queen size bed with a beautiful rainbow-coloured homemade quilt. “I’ll have to remember to ask Ken about it in the morning.” Then she fell into a deep sleep with Wilber at her feet.

Ken and William were still sitting at the table when Judy got up.

Ken rose from the table. “Morning, how did you sleep?  Breakfast is ready, whenever you are.”

“Morning to both of you,” Judy said. “I had a wonderful sleep, but it looks as if you didn’t go to bed.”

“We didn’t.” William was admiring the sheen of Judy’s hair in the sunlight, after the shower and brushing she must have given it. “This fellow is interesting and I have learned a lot about this jungle.”

“I’m starving,” Judy said, sitting down at the beautiful carved oak table.

“Eggs, bacon, fried potatoes, and toast with homemade jam. How does that sound?” Ken asked, bringing the steaming plates to the table.

“Great. I‘m hungry, even after that dinner last night,” William said.

Wilber having followed her from the bedroom looked up at Judy as if asking for his breakfast. Then he saw his father’s dish and went and helped himself to his food.

“See, I told you,” Ken said, taking a bite of bacon. “A very smart dog.”

“That quilt on the bed is so beautiful,” Judy said with longing in her voice. “Did your mother make it?”

“Yes, she made it. Whenever they went to Chicago, she would always bring back a load of material, and the little leftover scraps she made into quilts. I have quite a few she made, stored in trunks. Would you like to take one home?”

“Oh, yes please. I would love one.”

After breakfast and refilling Jack’s dish, Ken showed them his home. The immediate area was cleared and well looked after. Ken’s green thumb was much in evidence. At the back, hidden by a wall of trees, was a watering hole for swimming, a stable with half a dozen horses and a pen with a few pigs. There were no cattle, so where had the beef come from last night? Judy knew better than to ask and William was sure he didn’t want to know. They came back to the cottage for lunch, before the chopper arrived, and realized a friendship had developed between them that a lifetime of city living would never have produced.

“We will be back,” William said. “Or at least I will. This is my kind of life. I just might be the partner you told me you were looking for last night.”

“Great,” Ken replied, shaking his new friend’s hand. “I will be looking forward to your return. Bring your wife when you come.”

“Wife?” Judy asked, jealousy showing in her voice. “What wife?”

“You, of course.” William laughed.

“We will see about that. There’s the chopper.”  She went to Ken, gave him a hug, and kiss on the cheek. “Yes,” she whispered in his ear, “I will return as William’s wife. Maybe you will come to the wedding?” Then she pulled back. “Bye, Ken, we will be seeing you, and thanks for Wilber, who I see is already in the chopper.”

“Let me know when and I will be there. Bye!” Ken waved as his new friends entered the chopper and took off. He thought to himself, I miss you already.

WOOF! Jack added.

“When they get back,” Ken explained to Jack, “I will have everything ready for the new partnership.”

In the helicopter, as they flew away from their new friend, Judy asked the pilot to fly over the area where the fire had been burning.

As they turned around they saw that the fire hadn’t burned itself out. It was coming towards the compound, crowning from tree to tree.

“We have to call Ken,” William said. “He has get away as fast as he can. There is no way he would survive that fire.”

The pilot handed Judy the radio, as she was sitting in the front beside him. “Ken,” she called excitedly into the radio. “Ken, the fire is coming your way. You have to leave now!”

No answer…only the crackling of an open line. The helicopter circled around and they saw nothing but smoke and fire.

“Sorry guys,” the pilot said. “We have to go. I can send a rescue party back when we land but it may be too late.”

Judy looked back at William and Wilber. Would their friend be still there when they returned?

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