What struck me most about the scene in front of me was the consistency of the cloying mud between the scraggy mangrove trees. Mud, of varying degrees of consistency and shades of red. It was exhausting to look at it, never mind navigate your way through mile after mile of it, the thirsty trees drooping over it in the heavy wet air. What causes this slurry, I wondered, rather than the tributaries and green island copses I was used to back home?
I had been travelling through this mud for ten days before reaching the conclusion that I would have to find a way of making this environment work for me. It seemed that I was physically weakening. If I did not find a way of sheltering for at least a day or two with dry feet and a decent sleep I would be too weak to fight my pursuers if they found me. I resolved to find a way of making this small dryish yet still lush area of swampland in front of me work for a day or two. Who knew where my pursuers were at this point? I had not heard them for days. Perhaps they had given up? Until now I did not dare stop in case they had not. Witnessing the sudden beheading of one of the gang wives for talking to the wrong person was enough to persuade me that I could not allow them to catch up with me now that I had grabbed a few items and escaped.
The first thing I did on reaching the almost semi-dry embankment was use my flash city-boy hunting knife, purchased from one of those luxury outdoor stores reserved for bankers like me, to sharpen a stout branch that had failed to vanish into the mud to rot. I inserted this horizontally to create the beginning of a foundation platform across some tall tree roots, which protruded like stilts from the wet ground, sufficiently away from the trunk to have the effect of creating a shelf.
Repeating the operation a dozen or so times, creating a rough basketweave platform, I reckoned I had enough space to sleep on, but would it be enough to keep me, and more importantly my poor soggy feet dry for a couple of days? I thought not, so I used the platform to reach higher for more leaves and branches to carpet the surrounding area to be sure of some hours of relief for my ailing skin.
After this I created a dry leaf path to my water source, a small spring pond which seemed to be filled with frogs. At least I would be able to eat, between those and the large fish that lazily parked by the banks of the pond. I filled my canteen and hoped that the algae in the water was the good stuff rather than the bad.
I felt a little better after starting a small fire on the only dry mud nearby, lighting up some dead leaves and twigs with sunlight and my spectacle lens. I tended the fire carefully to encourage enough flame to take care of the more hydrated branches I had managed to strip down from above. The unaccustomed feeling of warmth was welcome after the many days of wading through the swamp groves.
After an hour or two I could feel sensation returning to my numb feet and felt comfortable enough to stupify a fish by tickling it into providing me with a hot meal, just as my father had taught me a few decades before. The luxury of hot food struck me, used as I was to expensive and decadent Wall Street service restaurants. Nothing, I thought to myself, would ever compare to the flavour of a hot meal after the lengthy trek escaping my kidnappers.
Remembering what my father had taught me, I used some rags to secure my basketweave bed more thoroughly and screened it off from potential viewers with some upright branches and a lot of ferns and leaves. Now the only thing between me and comfort was any potential rain. I had one small piece of tarp left from the car I had stolen during the first leg of my journey. It was just enough to sleep under, if I curled up, I thought. There was no point in making a more secure roof as I would have to move on as soon as my feet dried out and it was not the rainy season quite yet.
As night fell, I hung my wet shoes up on a low branch to dry, ate some of my fish and watched the fire. I was frightened, not only of my pursuers but of potential attacks from animals, but I did my best to relax whilst I enjoyed the unaccustomed warmth. As my clothing and skin dried, I relished the hard-earned comfort.
I was becoming pleasantly drowsy and inclined to sleep as the female approached. I had hoped it was just a passing rodent or lizard hunting crickets. When she spoke she sounded angry, or was it fear?
“Who are you?” The sharp female voice woke me up instantly.
“Uh…..” I gasped as she produced and aimed a rifle. Was this the end? She was small, muscular, better able to cope with this environment than I. I wondered if she was from one of the tribes, but her clothing seemed too American.
“Don’t even think about reaching for a weapon, hombre. I asked who you are.” She had one eye shut, I noted, as she aimed the gun at me. Not so used to armed confrontation then, I thought. The gang had tended to be more assertive with the fish-eye stare prior to taking you prisoner.
The woman was small, buxom, with long black shiny hair. She looked as I did, unkempt by days of trekking but her wide green eyes spoke to me of a fierce physicality and will to win.
“I’m John.” I said simply, holding my hands in a rather token fashion above my head. “Please don’t kill me. I’m not armed.” By this time I was looking at her full lips. I might as well enjoy the view prior to dying, I reasoned.
“What’s to stop me from killing you and taking your camp, such as it is?” she snarled. “It’s not like anyone would know or care.”
“Nothing, but I think you might prefer to enjoy some fish with me. I don’t plan to fight back, so killing me might be a waste of your time, unless you’re a cannibal.” This was a faint attempt at humour in the hope of softening her up. “What’s your name?” A distant memory of humanising yourself with assailants floated across my mind. “What are you running from?”
“I am Jacinta Escritas. I run from nothing.” She looked diffident.
Now I was frightened. Jacinta was the sister of Pablo Escritas, leader of the gang in opposition to the drug cartel whose men were in pursuit of me as an escaped hostage. I was in real trouble.
“Okay. What can I do to avoid death?” I was at least no longer thinking about her waist and hips by this point.
“Is okay, I am on my own.” Jacinta almost smiled. “You know who I am then?”
“Of course. But you should know Carlos Eduardo’s men are after me. This is dangerous territory for you.”
“How long have you been running?” Jacinta’s beautiful green eyes narrowed. “They don’t often come this far into our territory.”
Their territory? A tiny glimmer of hope entered my mind. I was out of Carlos’ territory and into Pablo’s. Carlos’ men would not follow me here.
“Ten days I think. This is the first time I have stopped for more than a sleep break. My…..feet.” I indicated the still sodden swollen skin on my feet.
“I see yes.” Jacinta lowered the rifle. “Why did Carlos want you?” She removed one arm from her backpack, preparing to use it as a seat.
“I was a hostage. They took me from my bank in Paraguay.”
“You are a banker?” Jacinta actually laughed at this idea. “You don’t look much like a banker right now, hombre.”
“They wanted us to process….” I stumbled across the words.
“A very large amount of money. Of course. They took you though? You must be important.” Jacinta removed a small loaf of bread from her backpack and passed me a chunk before sitting on her backpack and helping herself to some fish. She squinted up at me on my lumpy tree platform
“Kinda.” I smiled ruefully. “Probably not as important as the sister of Pablo Escritas.”
“Oh yeah, very important.” Jacinta relaxed a little, one corner of her mouth turned up with amusement. “I have some lotion and socks though, for those feet. We can see how they are in the morning. You should be okay for a day or two but you can’t stay here forever. This is dangerous country for you no matter whose men find you.”
“I know. If I had had the petrol I would have been with the car I stole from the camp.”
“That’s how you got away?”
“Yeah I got the car with some of my stuff, but no petrol can.” I grimaced. The tank had been almost empty, by the time I had gone a mile I had had to abandon it and head into the thick forest. “First couple of nights I slept…” I pointed upwards.
“In the treetops?” Jacinta’s eyebrows raised.
“Yes in the canopy. Like a monkey. When the men passed under me, I just headed in the opposite direction.”
“You survived. Surviving is always good.” Jacinta smiled and wiped her mouth. “We should sleep.” A woman of few words, I thought. I like that.
Settling to a companionable night on the platform, Jacinta and I slept with our backs to one another for warmth. She seemed very comfortable with this, I did not detect any tension between us. She did however, sleep hugging her backpack, which made me wonder what was in it.
Evidently we trusted each other, we did not awaken until the morning light was strong. I was aware of feeling better than I had felt for days, not surprising after the headlong rush away from my pursuers. Jacinta boiled some water, a wise precaution that I had not thought of. She had a lighter hanging off her belt, I gathered from this that she trekked frequently.
“What are you doing out here?” I asked.
“I was on the way back from one of our suppliers. Better not to ask.” Jacinta grinned at me, a steely expression in her eye as she polished her gun. “Don’t worry, nothing for you to see.”
At this moment, a crashing from the sides of the camp heralded the arrival of unwanted visitors. Two burly South American men appeared, brandishing large machetes they had clearly been using to make progress through the swamp groves. They were small, wide, dressed like Americans from the fifties, very stylish for Paraguay. They seemed surprised to see us. Jacinta was quick to aim her gun, although I was aware from watching her clean it that it was not loaded.
“What do you want, gringos?” Jacinta snarled. “You better put those machetes down.” It was clear she meant business, but my fear was realised when one of the men put his machete to my throat. I was still resting my feet, so he had me by the throat from his position behind the platform.
“Who is this guy, Jac, is he something to do with you?” The man grinned at her, I could see his teeth glint as I looked up at him. “Does it matter to you if we kill him?” I put my hand to my hunting knife under the tarpaulin and did my best to keep still.
“Just some guy, nothing to me.” Jacinta nodded nonchalantly and I noted her edging towards the second man. “What do you want with him?”
“You know this guy?” I spluttered.
“In passing.” Jacinta half smiled as she aimed at him. “Put him down Mika, he isn’t yours anymore. I’m taking him for Pablo.”
At this point I realised these were Carlos’ men and they had come into Pablo’s territory to find me. All was probably lost. I kept my eyes on Jacinta, hoping for some sort of sign that we were getting out of this alive.
“Hey Chico!” she said, almost turning towards the other man. “Move in a little closer, try not to make me shoot you.” Chico duly did as he was told and moved to my right hand side. I could just about slash both of them now, I thought, but not in time to prevent me being chopped by either machete. “You guys should drop the machetes.” She sounded so laid back. Little did the men know we were pretty much defenceless, or so I thought. “I don’t wanna shoot you, but I will if I have to.”
“Naw, naw, we are taking this guy back to Carlos, we should just take you too.” As Chico turned to look me over, Jacinta made her move and smacked him away from me with the rifle.
Quick as a flash, I drew out my hunting knife and plunged it backwards into the stomach of Mika, the only part of him I could reach. I then quickly jumped to my right to grab Chico, who was making a lunge for Jacinta, having evidently realised that he was not going to be shot.
The stabbing seemed to have the desired effect, Mika had reeled back, leaving Chico pinioned between me and an irate Jacinta, who by this time was twisting his arm and wrist to obtain his machete. Her amazing strength struck me, amongst my other racing thoughts of survival.
Once it had fallen to the ground Mika, bleeding profusely, staggered forwards. I punched him, which had little effect, then pushed him, which caused him to fall backwards into the mud, still holding his machete.
“Is okay, he won’t get up.” Jacinta was more experienced in such matters than I, evidently. Still wrestling with Chico, she seemed on top of things, however I felt the need to prove myself somehow and assisted her in restraining him. When I finally had his arms behind his back, weakened as he was by the trek to find us, Jacinta got a rope from her backpack and strapped his hands together in a shibari inspired harness she seemed to invent as she tied it.
Chico, suitably chastened, sat still.
“Now Chico, I don’t think Mika will be going back with you. You take a message to Carlos for us, eh?” Jacinta had her gang leader head on now, I could see.
“Yes. What shall I tell him?” Chico looked rueful.
“Our territory, our hostage. No more straying, or there will be repercussions.” You can rest here for one hour, then you start running home, okay? That’s more than fair.” Jacinta looked almost maternal. I was aware of finding her more attractive than ever. “You get off those feet.” She motioned back at the platform. I was being sent to bed. I glanced over at Mika, who appeared to have passed out from blood loss by this time. “Naw, he almost dead.” She was amazingly cool about this. I guessed she had seen it all before.
She fed Chico some of her bread and gave him a drink of water. He thanked her. We also ate from the stock in her backpack prior to her giving me the lotion I needed. Some local version of cornbread, something like a chargrilled spiced polenta. When you are hungry it is all good.
After Chico had stumbled back into the forest, thanking her for his life, I hazarded a question:
“So, am I now a hostage of Pablo?”
“Sure, until I get you to a road you can be anything you want.” Jacinta laughed.
“Is it wrong that I quite like that idea?” I tried.
“Behave yourself, gringo.” Jacinta snarled and gave me a stern look whilst handing me some socks.