Swimming the Amazon
by Ron Van Sweringen
My name is Jack Long, J.L. for short. It was 1944 and I’d drunk myself halfway across the world. A coward, running from the war and a fear of dying. Now I found myself on the banks of the Amazon river. Trapped in a steaming jungle that I had hoped would protect me. I kept reliving the nightmare over and over. Trying to figure out how and why I was still alive.
I called him Captain Nick. Short for a Greek surname that I couldn’t begin to pronounce. He saved me from getting sliced up in a bar fight one night. Out of pity, he agreed to let me work for him on the River Queen. She was a decrepit old mail packet that he ran up and down the Amazon river. In return, he fed me and provided a dry place to sleep. A fifth of cheap scotch whenever we reached a river trading post was the cincher. It was the best offer I’d had that my foggy brain could remember.
* * *
The arrangement worked well for a few months. Until the day we picked up three passengers. I had a bad feeling about them when they came aboard. I’d never cared much for missionaries.
She was thin and dried-up looking. as if there’d never been much juice to her. Her husband was older. He wore a dirty linen suit two sizes too small and a battered Panama hat. He carried a black bible, held over his heart, as if for protection. A lot of good it was going to do him now.
I found it difficult to believe that the child had been produced by the lineage at her side. I guessed stranger things had happened, but it was hard to imagine how.
* * *
The nightmare began about four hours after casting off. We had been held up for almost a week by day after day of heavy rain. It was risky, but because of the weather delay, Captain Nick decided to take the river’s main current to make up for lost time.
The River Queen suddenly shuddered violently. She had struck a sunken log and her hull was breached. Then the failure of the forty-year old steam engine sealed our fate. Caught in the massive current without power, she was helpless. We began to sink.
The captain’s frantic sounding of the emergency steam whistle seemed useless. The five of us on board were going to drown; there was no doubt about that. Sucked under by the raging current. Of the lot, the child seemed to me the saddest affair. Innocent and fair-haired, clinging to her mother’s skirt, panic in her eyes.
* * *
The bow of the River Queen was now less than a foot above water. I figured we didn’t have much longer. It was then that I noticed him: a lone Indian standing in a canoe. He was near the river bank and I blinked twice to be sure he was real. “Captain Nick,” I shouted, “look!”
All eyes were suddenly fixed on the distant stranger. “Oh my God,” the preacher said, his voice quivering. A look of disbelief covered his wife’s drained face.
Captain Nick raised his hands over his eyes to block out the burning sun. He said nothing at first, his lips pursing together in a downward motion. “He’ll never make it,” he grunted softly, “the current’s too strong.”
It was amazing, but slowly the Indian drew closer. We could see him quite clearly then. He was muscular, of medium height and naked except for white and black designs painted on his body and face. Red and yellow feathers crowned his streaming black hair and a bone necklace hung around his neck.
“He is the chosen one,” Captain Nick said, “but he won’t make it.”
I wondered what he meant, but I was intent on watching the Indian. He began paddling the canoe on a diagonal toward us. He sliced through the current by bending low and paddling with great strength. At times the canoe appeared to lose ground and be in danger of capsizing. Still the Indian would not give up. I watched in amazement his strength and determination.
When he was was within a few arms’ lengths of the River Queen, Captain Nick threw him a rope. He caught it handily, pulling himself toward us. I had not realized how small the canoe was until then. It could not carry more than three people.
Captain Nick swept the frightened child up in his arms and handed her to the Indian. Her mother followed willingly. The preacher surged after them but was pushed back instantly. “No,” Captain Nick shouted at the horrified man, “only two can go.” The Indian released the rope and the canoe raced away in the current. I watched the mother and child disappear. Huddled together arms around each other.
“I’m glad,” I said letting out a sigh of relief, “but why did the Indian risk his life?”
“For the prize,” Captain Nick answered. “He’s a head hunter.”
“My God!” I screamed, “why did you give him the girl? Why didn’t you shoot the bastard?”
“It was her only chance,” he replied. “She may be ransomed. Otherwise she’d have drowned.”
The shock of his words stung me almost as much as the cold river rushing over the deck of the River Queen.
The preacher screamed as he was sucked away in the current. His hand shot up, sending the bible heavenward toward the burning sun. I closed my eyes, remembering how, as a kid, I’d learned how to float at the beach at Coney Island.
Copyright © 2013 by Ron Van Sweringen