Ucayali River, Peru
East of the Pacaya Samiria National Reserve
“Remember to keep watch, Ignacio,” said the elder. He brushed a circling fly from before his face and then lowered the hand to rest once again on the grip of a belted machete as time worn as its owner. “If a caiman has you for his morning meal, I will have no one to carry the jugs for me.”
A hint of a grin broke the stoic expression his mixed Spanish and Indian ancestry usually held. Gaze sweeping the shoreline, he maintained his vigil as his grandson walked into the river.
Slender and bronzed from a merciless sun, the boy stopped and bent to fill the jugs when the water reached his shins. At the reminder of the fierce brother to the alligator, Ignacio cast a wary glance in the direction of every splash he heard about him. He frowned and shook his head.
“Papito,” he sighed with exasperation, calling his abuelo by the family nickname. “Every day we come to the river and every day you tell me the same thing. I am a man now! When will you stop warning me of the caiman as if I were a child?”
The leathery-skinned man benevolently nodded agreement. Unfortunately, his grandson had become a man, forced to grow beyond his years in a land that allowed little time for children to enjoy their youth. Jungle predators, the harsh climate, disease, poverty, drug runners, armed bands of leftist guerillas, these and more cared nothing for the innocence of a child. They demanded the strong survive, and the weak perish cruelly.
“Only when the dirt is tossed on my grave will you no longer hear me speak of the caimans! They are like this river, the cabrones—treacherous and unforgiving. Someday you too will be standing here warning your children of them.”
The jungle weathered elder drew sullen. When he spoke again, his tone held regret. “Our lives are hard enough, Ignacio, without our seeing a loved one torn apart before our eyes.”
The willowy boy rose from the water, his thin arms straining against the weight of the jugs. Whipping his head to move thick locks of black hair from his face, Ignacio turned to face his beloved abuelo standing on the shore. His eyebrows drew downward as he tried to understand the change in his grandfather. Such was the manner of old men who kept dark secrets well-guarded, allowing fragments to escape against their will.
Fear clutched the boy’s throat when Papito’s eyes flared.
“Jump, Ignacio! Jump away!”
Adrenaline flooded the young man’s body. He released his hold on the jugs and tried to leap to the bank, but his feet held fast to the river bed. The heavy weight of the water-filled jugs had sunk him deeper than he realized into the mushy mud. He lost balance and fell forward into the shallow water. Jerking his legs frantically to free himself, he clawed and crawled his way toward shore, spraying a wall of mud-swirled water and river debris about him.
The machete cut an arc through the air as it cleared its sheath. Arm waving over his head, Papito raced past his grandson toward the river, ready to make a stand against the black caiman drifting slowly in their direction.
“You will not take this one!” Years of anguish, anger, and fear permeated his voice. Papito shook the razor-sharp weapon with a deadly grip, yet the long, blackish figure in the river only floated closer, undisturbed by the old man’s readiness for mortal combat.
Ignacio stood blinking and wiping mud from his face. He stared at the caiman a moment, squinted to better focus, and then ran to his grandfather, laying a hand on his taut arm. “Wait, Papito. Do you see? It is a man holding onto a log!”
The boy crept toward the water’s edge as the elder gradually lowered his machete to chest level. They stood cautiously studying the log and figure drifting toward them. Leaves, blades of grass and streaks of mud painted the wide back of a man, camouflaging his skin. His head was turned to the log with mouth open, hard-pressed against the bark, barely above the waterline. An arm of knotted muscle draped the log.
Ignoring any dangers, Ignacio raced into the river until he was almost waist-deep. He pulled the log toward shore, all the while trying to keep the stranger’s face upright to prevent drowning. When the log lodged into the riverbank, the boy tried to lift the unconscious man. The limp weight was too great for him and the arm about the log held it in a death grip.
A feeble groan came from the lips of the mud-streaked, naked giant. One eye opened briefly, rolled and showed white then closed.
“Help me, Papito. Hurry, he’s alive!”
The elder jabbed his machete into the ground and grabbed a wrist. Papito and his grandson pried the arm from the log and together tugged until the body slid through the mud and lay fully ashore.
Ignacio knelt by the nearly lifeless man’s head and gently rubbed the river’s filth from his face. Another low groan flowed from the man’s lips, only this time carrying with it the mental suffering of a wounded soul. The boy leaned close, his ear almost touching the river giant’s mouth.
“Que dice? What does he say?” Papito asked anxiously, examining the half-dead stranger as he sat beside him across from his grandson.
No reply. Ignacio remained bent over the man, eyes half-closed, straining to hear the slightest word.
Sympathetically shaking his head, Papito slowly sat upright, his eyes flushed with pity. He made the sign of the cross.
“Madre de Dios, this poor creature looks as if he has been tortured or beaten. Do you see the bruises and scars on his body?”
The grandfather gently brushed mud and strings of river weeds from the battered man’s chest, carefully eyeing the red splotches left by dozens of ant and insect bites.
“Here… look… these are from a whip or a knife.” Papito traced several of the wounds with a fingertip and shook his head. He leaned closer to study them. “No, they were made by the claws of an animal.”
Still stunned by their discovery of the stranger, the boy eased back onto his heels, glanced at the wounds, and stared at the warrior-like features of the man who now lay upon death’s doorway. Compared to the people of his village, here was a giant among men that easily stood a head taller than any of them. Ignacio had never seen anyone so muscled and strong in appearance.
Long black hair imbedded with twigs, mud, and grass hung matted from his head, and a wild, mud-smeared beard veiled his cheeks and throat. His deeply tanned skin told of relentless days under the jungle sun, but about his groin where a tattered loin cloth of some form had once been, a paler tint portrayed his true color.
“Tell me, Ignacio. Did he say who did this to him?” The grandfather’s brown eyes were stretched wide on his wrinkled face, his gaze blending curiosity and dismay.
At first the boy shrugged then turned to him with an innocent expression. “He keeps saying Moloc.”
Horror swathed the old man’s face. Mouth agape, he recoiled from the wounded giant as if he were a viper about to strike. The elder rose, grabbing his grandson’s arm with such force the boy fell back into the dirt.
“Come away from him. Pronto! Do as I say.”
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