Riley scrambled to the hut, ghostly white in the breach of darkness.
"Jack's dead!" He struggled to catch his breath. "His body it's... its hung on a tree!"
Jaws fell. Jack was our survival guide for this trip.
I asked the inevitable. "Are they coming for us?"
"I thinks so?" said Riley.
I turned to the missionary Ray Hall who was calmly sitting with his bible open, and pulled out a picture of his wife and baby used as a bookmark.
Chambers, the pilot of a Cessna, our only escape, tugged on his forty-five tethered to his belt loop. He painted a dry smile. "You folks in this sorry excuse of a shelter realize, I only have room for two, which leaves one guy behind for soup?"
Finding an unmarked tributary from the Amazon River, we had made contact with a never before known tribe. Jack, our dead guide was supposed to pave the way, but not with his blood.
My journey and the reason for it flashed in fast motion. Riley was a photographer and editor who traveled with me for the "National Geographic Magazine." The missionary and our survival guide had flown in ahead of us.
"Not so fast," Chambers muttered, as he stroked his pistol. Riley attempted to pass the pilot for a seat in the plane. "I haven't decided."
I raised my hands for calm. "OK how do we do this?"
Riley looked at me, lathered in sweat to his neck. "What are you saying Jim? We haven't got much time! I can hear the drums!" His walnut eyes swelled.
I didn't want to say it, but he didn't have a family, like the missionary. The editor was at best a loose friend on these expeditions. I was the writer, and he was no easy burden. The pilot hadn't found pleasure in his exaggerated adventures. Riley possessed an ego as long as the Amazon River, and it wasn't lost on this square-jawed pilot.
I have to admit, I thought of how often he splashed my articles with a sea of red, as a power surge, I think? Expendable? Maybe? As a divorced editor who drank too much, and offered me his shredding abilities, he didn't exactly raise a meritorious bar in a moments notice. I started having more sympathy for the young missionary, who in one nights stay, I found both intelligent and humble.
"The three of you draw straws," the pilot barked, and without hesitation he pulled strands from our bamboo hut.
"What!" said Riley. "You can't be serious!" He looked at the missionary for help.
The missionary approached us as if we should find some hidden force field.
"Gentlemen, I have a calling here. I knew the risk when I took this trip," he said. And the drums grew louder.
"I have prepared a lifetime for this. God willing my life will be spared. But I believe this might well be the last tribe living beyond the sound of the gospel. For me, their souls are my treasure."
"Okay then," said Riley, wiping the sweat from his forehead. "Let's go already?"
The pilot Chambers nodded a confused approval, and Riley pushed passed him for the plane.
Are you ready? Said Chambers, looking hard in my direction.
"Give me a moment, I'll catch up."
"We only have a minute. When you hear the engine turn, you need to leave."
Shaken to my core, I looked toward Ray Hall the young missionary. He sat down, feverishly writing a letter. "Do me a favor friend, look up my wife in the 'states, and give her this letter."
"Is that all?
" Promise me, you will deliver this letter without fail to my wife and child?" His emerald eyes splashed through me.
"I promise," and nearly choked on my words, as we embraced. I felt the current of his life racing through me.
I heard the steady whine of the engine. I ran for it!
As the Cessna motored into the artery of the Amazon, and we lifted, relief washed over the face of my editor. Secretly, I clutched the missionary's letter, as if it were a treasure map.
Fingers of darkness lingered, as we climbed into the sun, and I knew then, what I must write. I will write of this missionary's heroic life, his family, and his faith. It deserved to be the greatest UN-EDITED story, I ever told.
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