فصل 05

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فصل 05

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CHAPTER FIVE

The Slide

Nate woke up, covered in blood. It was still raining. Milton and Jevy were lying on top of each other, but moving and struggling to get out of their seats.

Nate found a window and stuck his head out. The plane was on its side, with a wing cracked and folded under the cabin. Blood was everywhere, but it was from the cow, not the passengers.

The boy with the stick led them to a small stable. Out of the storm, Milton dropped to his knees and began to pray. They sat in the dirt for a long time, watching the rain, hearing the wind, thinking of what could have been, saying nothing.

Marco, the owner of the cow, appeared an hour later and began a heated discussion with Jevy and Milton about the value of the cow.

“I’ll pay for the creature,” Nate said to Jevy.

Jevy asked the man how much, then said, “A hundred dollars.”

“Does he take American Express?” Nate asked, but the humor missed its mark. “I’ll pay it.” He’d pay as much as that to stop Marco complaining.

The deal was settled and the man became their host. When he realized Nate was from the States, he sent for his wife and kids. They ate rice and black beans around a small table. The children sat on the floor beside the table, eating bread and rice, watching every move Nate made.

Marco had a small boat with a motor. The Paraguay River was five hours away. Maybe he had enough gasoline, maybe he didn’t. But it would be impossible to get there with all three men in the boat.

Jevy had a plan. There was an army base on the edge of Corumba. When the sky cleared, Nate carefully unpacked the satellite phone and turned on the power. The signal was strong, and Marco and his family gathered around. He wondered if they’d ever seen a phone.

Jevy called a friend who found phone numbers. He then explained the situation to an army officer and asked for help. After all, they had had a plane crash. Finally, the commander himself came to the phone. He and Jevy traded army talk for five minutes-places they’d been to, people they knew - then Jevy explained what had happened.

“No problem. A helicopter is ready. Give us an hour,” the commander said. Milton smiled for the first time that day.

An hour passed. The sun was dropping quickly in the west; dusk was approaching. The army would not be able to rescue them at night.

It was Tomas, the youngest child, who heard the sound first. He said something, then stood and pointed. The sound grew louder, and they saw the helicopter. When it landed, four soldiers jumped down and ran to the group. Nate knelt among the boys and gave them each ten dollars. Then he picked up his bag and ran to the helicopter.

It was dark in Corumba when they flew over the city half an hour later. They landed at the army base west of town, where the commander met them and received their thanks. He sent them away in a military vehicle driven by a young soldier.

As they entered the city, the car stopped in front of a small grocery store. Jevy walked inside and returned with three bottles of beer. He gave one to Milton, and one to Nate.

After a slight hesitation, Nate took off the cap. The beer was very wet and cold, and thoroughly delicious. And it was Christmas. He could handle it.

The first stop was the hotel. Nate went to his room, where he undressed and stood in the shower for twenty minutes.

There were four cans of beer in the refrigerator. He drank them all in an hour, assuring himself that this was not a slide. Things were under control. He’d cheated death so why not celebrate? No one would ever know. A few beers here and there. What was the harm?

The phone woke him. His neck, shoulders, and waist were already dark blue-neat rows of bruises where he had hit the side of the plane.

“How are you?” It was Valdir. “Jevy said he thought you were OK.”

“I’m fine, just a little sore.”

“Very well. I have some good news. I rented a boat yesterday.”

“Good. When do I go?”

“Maybe tomorrow. They’re getting it ready. Jevy knows the boat.”

“I’m anxious to get on the river. Especially after yesterday.”

After Valdir hung up, Nate got up and moved slowly around the room. He saw the empty beer cans in the wastebasket. He would deal with that later. This was not a slide. He had nearly died yesterday and that changed things. Every day was a gift now.

Why not enjoy its pleasures? Just a little beer and wine, nothing stronger.

Nate dressed and walked into town. The stores were locked and the streets were empty. He went back to the park and looked down at the great Pantanal in front of him.

Somewhere in the vast wetlands before him was Rachel Lane. She would soon be one of the richest women in the world. How would she react to the news of her good fortune? The possible answers made him uncomfortable.

They had learned little about Rachel. Evelyn Cunningham, her mother, was from the small town of Delhi, Louisiana. When she was nineteen, she moved to Baton Rouge and found a job as a secretary in one of Troy Phelan’s companies. She was a beautiful woman and Troy spotted her during one of his visits from New York. Within a few months, Evelyn was pregnant.

Troy’s people arranged for Evelyn to go to a hospital in New Orleans, where Rachel was born in November 1954. Evelyn never saw her child. Troy arranged for the quick, private adoption of Rachel by a minister and his wife in Montana. Evelyn took ten thousand dollars and returned to Delhi. She moved in with her parents, rarely left the house, and began to miss her daughter.

She wrote letters to Troy, none of which were answered. As the years passed, Evelyn became more and more depressed. She killed herself on November 2, 1959, on Rachel’s fifth birthday. She drove her parents’ car to the edge of town and jumped off a bridge.

Rachel was an only child. Her adoptive father, Mr. Lane, died when she was seventeen. Troy re-entered her life as she was finishing high school. Maybe he felt guilty. Maybe he was worried about her college education and how she would afford it. Rachel knew she was adopted but had never shown an interest in her real parents.

Troy met Rachel sometime in the summer of 1972. Four years later, she graduated from the University of Montana. Gaps appeared in her history after that. Nate suspected that only two people could tell him about the relationship. One was dead; the other was living like an Indian somewhere out there, on the banks of one of a thousand rivers.

Nate walked down the block. A car stopped next to him and Jevy leaned out.

“Let’s go for a ride,” he said. “I want you to see the boat. My father was a boat captain.”

“Where is he now?” Nate asked.

“He drowned in a storm.”

“Wonderful,” Nate thought.

They stopped at the edge of the river bank to admire their boat, the Santa Loura.

“How do you like it?” Jevy asked.

“I don’t know,” Nate replied. The boat was at least eighty meters long, with two decks. It was larger than Nate expected. There was a small boat tied to the back which had paddles and a motor.

“No other passengers?” Nate asked.

“No. Just you, me, and Welly, the deckhand, who can cook.”

Nate walked to the back of the boat, where there was a hammock.

“This is yours,” Jevy said. “You’ll have lots of time to read and sleep.”

Nate sat carefully in the hammock, then swung around until he was fully inside it. Jevy gave him a push, then left to have another chat with the mechanic.

Late in the afternoon, Nate stopped at a small store a few blocks from the hotel. He walked in to find a beer, maybe two. He was alone on the far side of the world. It was Christmas and he had no one to share it with. A wave of loneliness fell upon him and Nate began to slide.

He saw the bottles of alcohol, all full and unopened. His mouth was dry. He grabbed the counter and thought about Sergio back at the hospital and Josh and the ex-wives and the ones he’d hurt so many times when he crashed. Nate pointed at the vodka. Two bottles.

He walked back to the hotel. It would be dark in an hour, and Corumba was gently coming to life. The sidewalk cafes and bars were opening, a few cars moved about. Nate went to his room, where he locked the door and filled a tall plastic cup with ice. He placed the bottles side by side, and opened one. He slowly poured the vodka over the ice, and promised himself that he wouldn’t stop until both were empty.

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