Beyond Dead End
by Gary Inbinder
Part 1 appears|
in this issue.
“Wake up, Moran; it’s time for your medicine.” Moran lay in a hammock strung between two trees, covered with mosquito netting and shaded with a blanket. Doc supported his head as he dosed him with a filmy white liquid in a tin cup.
Moran groaned and almost gagged as he swallowed the bitter dose. He coughed feebly to clear his throat. “Where — where are we?”
“Near the portage. You’ve been down with fever for two days. It’s broken, but it’s tricky — could recur without warning. You need rest.”
Moran wiped his sweaty forehead with the back of his hand. Then he grabbed Doc’s shoulder for support, sat up and glanced round the camp-site. “I don’t see the Glamroks. Where are they?”
“Buggered off in the middle of the night, and they took one canoe and half our goods. But all’s not lost. I know this territory. There’s a Dushai village not far from here. I’ll take the canoe and go for help. I should be back in two days — or three at most. I’m leaving the medicine kit, food and water, a pistol and extra ammo.” Doc smiled and patted Moran’s shoulder. “It’s all right, nothing to worry about. It’ll all work out in the end, I’m sure.”
Moran was not so optimistic, but then he had given himself up for dead some time earlier, perhaps as far back as when he had left Earth. “Okay, Doc, you’re the boss. But try not to be too long, will you? I’m feeling awfully weak.”
“Just keep thinking about that City of Gold. Don’t look to where you were; look forward to where you’re going. That’s what I always say.”
* * *
“C’mon, Daddy, wake up. It’s lunch-time.” The little girl giggled and pinched Moran’s cheeks.
“Yeah, Dad, you’ve been snoozing forever. Mom’s gonna have a cow,” said the boy.
Moran peered through the film of mosquito netting. He thought he saw the hazy forms of his children. He lifted the net and tried to touch them, but they pulled back. His cracked and blistered lips moved, but all that came out was croaking, like an old bullfrog. The kids laughed.
Bill said, “Let’s go, Dad. You’ve been in the sun too long. Mom says you’ll fry like bacon.”
Moran rolled out of the hammock and fell to his knees. He staggered to his feet and followed voices, sounds, shadows. Everything was blurred and disorienting. He thought he was home on Earth, walking through the back yard to the kitchen. As he stumbled through brush and tangled vines he thought: “Damned weeds; where did they all come from? I’ve got to get some weed killer. Write it down — make a list — weed killer...”
He bumped into a tree trunk; he thought it was the kitchen door. “Nan, Nan, where are you? Let me in. I can’t see a damn thing.” Moran blacked out.
* * *
Light slanted in from the veranda — a mild breeze cooled Moran’s face. His eyes flickered open. He was lying on a cot, on a plank floor beneath a thatched roof. He took a couple of deep breaths and focused his attention on a Terran woman holding a damp cloth to his head. After a while he noticed that the woman was young and attractive; she wore a gauzy shift over her lean, handsome body. “What... what?” he stammered, still too confused to form a coherent question.
The woman smiled and put her hand on his lips, gently. “You’ve been very ill, Mr. Moran, but you’re much better now. Though I’m afraid I have sad news about your friend. He came to us in a bad way. He’d been bitten by a poisonous snake. I did my best to save him, and he did live long enough to tell us where you were. We gave him a Christian burial. I’ll take you to his grave when you’re well enough.”
Moran grasped the woman’s hand. “Questions... I have questions.”
“Please, Mr. Moran, you must rest now. You’re safe here; I’ll care for you. There will be plenty of time for questions, later.”
She eased his head back onto the pillow and stroked his forehead. Her warm brown eyes and soft voice were soothing, almost hypnotic. Moran sighed and drifted into a deep, peaceful sleep.
* * *
Her name was Miranda. Her parents had been mineralogists, survivors of a secret expedition to the unknown country. Abandoned by their Glamrok bearers, the expedition had reached the Dushai village, more dead than alive. The people cared for them, nursed them back to health and accepted them into the tribe. According to Miranda, the so-called “devil people” were loving, gentle and innocent.
Miranda did not remember her mother; she had died shortly after giving birth. But her father and a few expedition members had lived long enough to teach her their language and the rudiments of reading and writing. Her father had a Bible, and he often compared this place to the Garden of Eden and its people to Adam and Eve before the fall.
When Moran was well enough to walk, Miranda led him up a green hillock to Doc’s grave. There, within the shade of a tall, spreading tree, Moran knelt and placed a spray of scarlet, yellow and violet flowers next to a little cross made of sticks. Well, old man, Moran thought, you almost made it to your City of Gold. Rest in peace. Then he and Miranda left flowers on the graves of her parents and the other expedition members.
On the way back, Moran surveyed their surroundings. The village was sheltered within a small, emerald-green valley next to a clear, swift-running tributary of the great river. A misting, precipitous fall fed the stream, and high above the falls a perpetual rainbow arced in a bright, cobalt sky.
The Dushai resembled the Glamroks physically, but their smiling faces, laughter and acceptance of strangers was in stark contrast to their wary, up-country cousins. There were no more than a few dozen of them, and they seemed to have everything they needed: clean, fresh water, plenty of fish, fruits, nuts, greens and nutritious roots. And they had taught Miranda the natural remedies that had restored Moran’s health. All in all, the place seemed like an Eden. Nevertheless, Moran could not forget the City of Gold and the old man’s dream of returning to Earth a famous and wealthy man.
One evening while dining on the veranda, he asked about the city.
Miranda frowned and gazed down at her hands. “I’ve heard the legend. After all, that’s why my parents came here.”
“Well, is there such a place?” he asked eagerly.
She looked up. A tear had started in the corner of her eye. She brushed it away quickly. “When they were well enough, my parents and the other explorers took some Dushai guides and searched hereabouts. But father gave it up long ago. He said it was futile. There’s nothing here worth exploiting.”
“I see,” said Moran with a tinge of disappointment in his voice. He gazed into her eyes. She seemed about to cry, and it affected him deeply. He smiled and took her by the hand. “Miranda, have you... have you ever thought of going back? I mean, back to your own people.”
“These are my people, and everything I could ever want is here. And especially so now... now that you...”
She didn’t finish her sentence. Moran took her in his arms and kissed her, feeling all the soft, warm contours of her body beneath the thin material of her dress. In the shadows a few Dushai smiled as they watched the Terrans making love.
* * *
They tried to have children — and failed. A girl and a boy; both had been born prematurely, both of them died. The Dushai wept as they watched the Terrans bury the babies on the hillock next to their grandparents.
Moran grew bitter, resentful — and bored. Finally, he told Miranda he had had enough of “Eden.” He was going back to Dead End. He begged her to leave with him, and she agreed reluctantly.
Eight Dushai bearers accompanied them to the portage. On the way, the Dushai did not laugh and sing as was their custom. Instead, they hummed a funeral dirge, grim as their morose Glamrok cousins. They left Moran and Miranda a canoe and enough food and potable water to get upriver to the Glamrok village. Then, the “devil people” disappeared into the jungle.
* * *
Dawn and not a cloud in sight; the sun blazed orange on the horizon and the olive-green river steamed like a Turkish bath. The patrol boat’s captain lifted his cap, wiped a thin film of sweat from his eyes, focused his binoculars and scanned ahead.
Looking over the port bow, the captain spotted a man and a woman squatting on the riverbank about forty yards downstream. Their clothes were torn, their arms scratched and bleeding as though they had been running through prickly scrub. Vultures circled overhead; a few impatient scavengers hopped in the mud, squawking and flapping their wings.
Alligators, appearing at a distance like half-submerged logs, swam nearby, watching and waiting. The captain gave a blast on the horn to get the couple’s attention; a flurry of bats swooped up from the dense rainforest, blackening the sky.
Moran turned his head in the direction of the approaching boat; he got up slowly, and began feebly waving his right arm. Three arrows whizzed out of the jungle; Miranda fell to her knees, and then rolled onto her side. The captain spotted the Glamroks, about thirty feet from the fallen woman. “Fire into the trees,” he ordered.
The boatswain opened fire with the boat’s bow machine gun. The gun clattered; dozens of spent cartridge cases clinked onto the wooden deck. Along the riverbank, clumps of chopped green leafage and splinters of brown bark flew into the air, shrieking monkeys clambered up vines and screeching birds scattered, winging upward to escape the bullet-riddled trees. The boatswain ceased firing.
The helmsman stopped the boat’s engine and they anchored in the shallows. A pair of alligators torpedoed through the water, targeting the freshly killed body on the mud-bank. The boatswain chased the alligators with a few bursts from his machine gun.
Two crew members jumped overboard, waded to the bank, scared off the vultures and covered the corpse with a tarp. Armed with assault rifles and grenades, two more crewmembers went ashore to search the fringes of the swamp. After a few minutes, they returned to the boat, dragging three bodies through the mud and carrying the dead men’s weapons.
The crew hoisted the bodies aboard and laid them on deck. The boatswain recognized the dead Glamroks from wanted posters. “There’s a bounty on these men, captain. They jumped the reservation. One of them was a renegade leader.”
The captain smiled. “At least we’ll get some extra pay for this morning’s work.” He walked down from the bridge to the bodies and knelt by Moran, who was cradling Miranda and weeping uncontrollably.
“Forgive me, Miranda,” he cried. “I didn’t know... I didn’t know.”
What Moran did not know was this: during the years he had sojourned among the Dushai, the government had pushed south in force. The new administration had decided to search for the City of Gold.
“Lift anchor, and shove off,” the captain shouted. “We’re returning to base camp.” The engine sputtered and then roared to life. Turbid water churned at the stern as the boat put about. The little craft chugged upstream past emerald forest, dangling vines, branches filled with howling monkeys and cackling birds.
The patrol boat rounded a bend and entered a narrow channel. The slowing engine groaned, spewing gray clouds of reeking exhaust; whirling propellers roiled muddy backwash. Naked children from a pacified village swarmed onto the rickety dock. They laughed and pointed at the approaching vessel.
The captain stared as Moran wept over Miranda’s body. Poor bastard, he thought, you should never have gone beyond Dead End.
Copyright © 2013 by Gary Inbinder