فصل 09

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فصل 09

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CHAPTER NINE

A Death

Next morning, Ayesh was walking in front of her mother when she felt the snake move under her bare foot. It struck below her ankle as she screamed. By the time her father got to her, she was in shock and her right foot had doubled in size. A boy of fifteen, the fastest runner in the tribe, was sent to get Rachel.

There were four poisonous snakes in their part of the Pantanal, and Rachel usually had the medicine to cure their bites, but she’d been unable to find the medicine for this type of snake during her last trip to Corumba.

Ayesh was small and thin, and she’d probably die without medicine. Rachel prayed as she ran behind the boys.

A group of Indians took Nate and Jevy into the village, where the chief wanted to see them. His wife was preparing breakfast. While they were eating, Jevy and the chief talked. After a few sentences, Jevy translated them into English.

Nate ate, listened, and watched the village for Rachel.

She wasn’t there, the chief explained. She was in the next village looking after a child who’d been bitten by a snake. He wasn’t sure when she’d return.

“He wants us to stay here tonight, in the village,” Jevy said.

Nate wished he’d brought the satellite phone. Josh must be very worried. They hadn’t talked in almost a week.

Lawyer Valdir took the early call from Mr. Stafford.

“I haven’t heard from Nate O’Riley in days,” Stafford said.

“We have had many storms down here.”

“You haven’t heard from your boy?”

“No. They are together. The guide is very good. The boat is very good. I’m sure they are well.”

They agreed that Valdir would call when he heard something from the boat. Valdir walked to the window and looked at the busy streets of Corumba. There were many stories about people who entered the Pantanal and never came back. Jevy’s father had piloted the river for thirty years, and his body was never found.

Welly found the law office an hour later. Valdir came out to see him.

“Who are you?” he demanded.

“My name is Welly. Jevy hired me to work on the Santa Laura.”

“Where is Jevy?”

“He’s still in the Pantanal. The boat sank. Jevy and Mr. O’Riley left in the small boat to find the Indians.”

“When?”

“A few days ago. I stayed with the Santa Loura. A storm hit, the biggest storm ever. It rolled the boat over in the middle of the night. I was thrown into the water and picked up later by a cattle boat.”

“Where was Jevy during the storm?” Valdir asked.

“Somewhere on the Cabixa River. I fear for him.”

Valdir walked back into his office, closed the door, and returned to his window. Mr. Stafford was 3,000 kilometers away.

Jevy could survive in a small boat. He decided not to call Mr. Stafford for a few days. Give Jevy time, and surely he would return to Corumba.

During dinner Nate heard that the girl had died. A messenger arrived and delivered the news to the chief, and it swept through the huts.

As Rachel entered the village with her Indian assistant Lako, everybody stood and stared. They lowered their heads as she walked by their huts. She smiled at some, paused long enough to say something to the chief, then continued to her hut. She was tired and suffering and anxious to get home.

Lako found Nate and Jevy as the sun was falling behind the mountains. Nate followed the boy along the trail to Rachel’s hut. She was standing in the door.

“I’m sorry about the little girl,” Nate said.

“She is with the Lord.” She sat outside the door. The boy stood under a tree, almost hidden by the darkness. “I cannot invite you into my home. Only married people can be indoors at this time of day.”

“How long did it take you to get used to living here?” Nate asked.

“A couple of years. I missed home for three years, and there are times now when I would like to drive a car, eat a pizza, and see a good movie. But you adjust. I became a Christian when I was fourteen years old, and I knew that God wanted me to be a missionary. I put my faith in Him.”

“Can we talk about Troy?” The shadows were falling fast. They were three meters apart and could still see each other, but the darkness would soon separate them.

“If you must,” she said, her voice tired.

“Troy had three wives and six children that we knew about. You, of course, were a surprise. He didn’t like the other six. He left them almost nothing, just enough to cover their debts. He gave everything else to you.”

“I haven’t seen Troy for twenty years.”

“That’s not important. He left his fortune to you. I have a copy of the will for you.”

“I don’t want to see it.”

“And I have some other papers which I’d like you to sign, maybe tomorrow morning. Then I can be on my way.”

“What kind of papers?”

“Legal stuff, all for your benefit.”

“You’re not concerned with my benefit.” Her words were much sharper. “You don’t know what I want, or need. You don’t know me, Nate, so how can you know what’s good for me?”

“OK, you’re right. But it is very important for you to see these papers and sign them. All the heirs must tell the court, either in person or in writing, that they understand the will. It’s required by the law.”

“And if I refuse?”

“Honestly, I haven’t thought about that. It’s routine. Everybody always cooperates.”

Rachel was quiet for a moment, then she changed the subject. “Do you have family?” she asked.

“I’ve had a couple. Two marriages, two divorces, four children. I now live alone.”

“Divorce is so easy, isn’t it? We marry, then divorce. Find someone else, marry, then divorce. Find someone else. The Indians never divorce.”

“You’ve never married?” Nate asked.

“No. I thought I was in love once, in college. I wanted to marry him, but the Lord led me away. He wanted me here. The boy I loved was a good Christian, but he was weak physically. He would never have survived as a missionary.”

“How long will you stay here?”

“I don’t plan to leave.”

“So the Indians will bury you?”

“Most World Tribes missionaries retire and go home. They have families to go back to.”

“You’d have a lot of family and friends if you went back now. You’d be quite famous.”

“That’s another good reason to stay here. Money means nothing to me. You’re part of a culture where everything is measured by money. People work all the time to earn money to buy things. They want to impress other people. It’s sad. You’re a very lonely person, Nate. I can sense it. You don’t know God.”

“I believe in God,” Nate said, truthfully but weakly.

“It’s easy to say that,” she said, her words still slow and soft. “But saying is one thing, living is another. That boy under the tree is Lako. He’s seventeen, small for his age, and always sick. Lako is the first to catch every disease. I doubt he’ll live to be thirty. Lako doesn’t care. He became a Christian several years ago. He talks to God all day long. He has no worries, no fears. If he has a problem, he goes straight to God and leaves it there. That little Indian has nothing on this earth, but he knows that when he dies he’ll go to heaven. Lako is a wealthy boy”

Very gently, she touched Nate’s arm and said, “You’re a good person, aren’t you, Nate?”

“No, I’m not a good person. I do a lot of bad things. I’m weak, and I don’t want to talk about it. I didn’t come here to find God. Finding you was hard enough. I’m required by law to give you these papers.”

“I’m not signing the papers and I don’t want the money. I’m sorry you came. You’ve wasted a trip.”

Lako said something.

“He needs to go to his hut,” Rachel said, rising to her feet. “Follow him.”

Nate slowly stood. “I would like to leave tomorrow,” he said.

“Good. I’ll speak to the chief.”

“I need thirty minutes of your time, to show you a copy of the will.”

“We can talk. Good night.”

Josh met Judge Wycliff and showed him the video of Troy Phelan signing his testament. They watched the first part of the video without comment. It began with old Troy sitting in his wheelchair, being examined by the psychiatrists. The examination ended with the agreement that Mr. Phelan knew exactly what he was doing. Wycliff smiled to himself.

The room cleared. The camera across from Troy was kept on. Troy took out the second will, and signed it four minutes after the mental examination had ended.

“How are they going to sort this out?” Wycliff asked. It was a question with no answer. Rex and Libbigail had already started to contest the will. The other heirs would quickly do the same.

“What about the will he signed first?” Wycliff said.

“He didn’t sign it.”

“But I saw him. It’s on the video.”

“No. He signed the name Mickey Mouse. From 1982 until 1996, I prepared eleven wills for Mr. Phelan. The law says that with each new will, the old one has to be destroyed. When he signed the new one, we - Mr. Phelan and I-burned the old one. He enjoyed it. He’d be happy for a few months, then one of his kids would make him mad, and he’d start talking about changing his will. If the heirs can prove he wasn’t sane when he signed that handwritten will, then there is no other will. They were all destroyed. His estate will be divided between all his children.”

“Why would he give eleven billion to an illegitimate daughter who’s a missionary? Sounds a little crazy, doesn’t it? Do you think that Phelan was crazy?” Wycliff asked Josh.

“No. Strange, and very mean. But he knew what he was doing.”

“Find the girl, Josh.”

“We’re trying.”

The next morning, Rachel spoke to the chief.

“He thinks there’ll be a storm,” she said to Nate when the meeting was over. “He says you can go, but he will not send a guide. It’s too dangerous.”

“Can we get back without a guide?”

“It wouldn’t be wise. The rivers run together. It’s easy to get lost. Even the Ipicas have lost men during the rainy season.”

“I need to get back,” Nate said. “This trip has already taken too long. We have to talk.”

“I have to go to the next village for the funeral of the little girl. Why don’t you go with me? We’ll have plenty of time to talk.” Lako led the way. Rachel followed him, then Nate. He tried to persuade Rachel to take the money.

“If you had lots of money, you could buy lots of medicine. You could fill your shelves with all the medicines you need. You could buy a nice little boat to take you to Corumba. You could build a hospital and a school, and spread Christianity all over the Pantanal.”

She stopped and turned. “I’ve done nothing to earn the money, and I didn’t know the man who made it. Please don’t mention it again.”

“Give it away. Give it all to charity.”

“It’s not mine to give.”

“It’ll be wasted. Millions will go to the lawyers, and what’s left will go to your brothers and sisters. And, believe me, you don’t want that. Those people will cause a lot of unhappiness if they get the money.”

She took his hand. Very slowly she said, “I don’t care. I’ll pray for them.”

They stopped by a stream for a few moments to rest.

“You said last night that you were weak,” Rachel said. “What does that mean?”

“I’m an alcoholic,” Nate replied. “I’ve hit the bottom four times, I have no money. I’m in trouble for nonpayment of taxes. I may go to jail, lose my license, and not be able to practice law. You know about the two divorces. Both women dislike me, and they’ve poisoned my children. I’ve wrecked my life.”

“Anything else?” Rachel asked.

“Oh, yes. I’ve tried to kill myself at least twice. Once last August, then just a few days ago in Corumba. I almost drank myself to death on cheap vodka.”

“You poor man.”

“I’m sick. I have a disease. I’ve admitted it.”

“Have you ever confessed to God? He won’t help you unless you ask. You have to go to Him, in prayer. He can forgive all your sins and you’ll become a new believer in Christ.”

“I don’t know how to pray,” he said.

She squeezed his hand. “Close your eyes, Nate. Repeat after me: Dear God, forgive my sins, and help me to forgive those who have sinned against me. Give me the strength to overcome temptations and addictions.”

Nate repeated her words, but he was confused. Prayer was easy for Rachel because she did so much of it. For him, it was strange.

They opened their eyes but kept their hands together. There was an odd sensation as his burdens seemed to lift; his shoulders felt lighter, his head clearer. But Nate carried so much baggage he wasn’t certain which loads had been taken away and which remained. He was still frightened by the real world. It was easy to be brave deep in the Pantanal, where there were few temptations, but he knew what waited for him at home.

“Your sins are forgiven, Nate,” she said. “We’ll pray again tonight.”

“It’ll take more for me than most folks.”

“Trust me, Nate. And trust God. He’s seen worse.”

“I trust you. It’s God who worries me.”

She squeezed his hand tighter, and for a long moment they watched the water.

“I’ve been thinking about the funeral,” Nate said. “I don’t want to see a dead child. Jevy and I will go back to the village.”

“Very well. I understand.”

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