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Disclaimer: The characters of Xena and Gabrielle are the property of Universal and Renaissance Pictures. No copyright infringement is intended.
Warning: This story is alternative fiction. Please do not read if you are under age or if it is illegal to do so in your end of the swamp.
Note: All the flora and fauna described in this story are real, as are the Indian groups and natural topography. They are a collection of descriptions and experiences taken from my own field notes of the area. Cats Paw is being studied as a possible treatment for cancer.
By Anne Azel
Morgan Andrews peered out of the Cessna's window with eyes sparkling with excitement. Below the undulating grasslands of the Grand Savanna spread out in all directions cut here and there by wide muddy rivers and belts of trees. Grey, wispy clouds occasionally blocked the view below and then Morgan's eyes would turn with interest to observe her traveling companions. At the very back, hedged into the tail section, was a retired couple from Florida. They had just sold their citrus orchards and were now traveling in their years of retirement. Morgan liked them. They would have been good parents, caring and full of fun. Morgan had met Betty and Joe Harris just this morning in the tourist van that had picked them up at their hotel to bring them to the small air strip.
She had also met Arthur Berkler, a businessman on his way to bid on rainforest timber lots. He sat beside her in the middle row of seats, his brief case open on his lap. Morgan had been reading over his shoulder periodically on the two hour flight and now knew quite a bit about Berkler's offer. She smiled. It was lucky for Berkler that he worked for a company that developed wood products and not medicines. Morgan's mission to the area was far more secretive. Berkler was way over weight and was taking up far more than his share of space. Fortunately, at this altitude the air in the Cessna was cool and crisp. Morgan was glad because he'd been pretty hot and sweaty when they'd first been allotted their seats in the "flying tin can" as Betty called it. Berkler seemed content to ignore them all and this suited Morgan just fine as she had pretty strong feelings on companies that cut down the rainforest.
The little plane bounced over some rough air and Morgan swallowed. Please don't let me embarrass myself by throwing up in here, she prayed. The craft was old and stuffy and smelt of dusty leather seats and sweat. The plastic windows were scratched and the pilot's radio sat on his dashboard attached to the plane by thin, green and red wires. A gapping hole in the control panel indicated where the old radio had been removed. Normally, flying didn't bother Morgan, but she felt a little uneasy in a plane that was clearly held together by local creativity and luck.
The clouds now had surrounded them and they flew blindly through the grey. Moisture beaded on the windscreen and rolled along the side windows. The pilot a big, burly
Brazilian seemed bored. Now and again he would fiddle with the dials on the radio. His skin was copper and his five o'clock shadow heavy already although it was not yet passed noon. His face had that blotchy, fleshiness of a heavy drinker, Morgan noted with some concern. He looked quite old but maybe not, she concluded on second thought, his hair was without grey and was thick and wavy, curling around the large, black earphones that he wore. Morgan wished she had a set. The six-seater's engine roared noisily making any conversation difficult except at a yell.
The person who really interested her however, was the tall woman who sat by the pilot. She had sauntered out on to the airstrip at the last minute and had talked to the pilot in rapid Portuguese and then had turned and quickly covered the distance back to the main hanger with long, purposeful strides. The pilot had asked Morgan politely to move from the front seat that he had assigned her into the middle one where she had to wedge beside a hot, sticky Berkler. A few minutes later the tall woman had reappeared and swung into the copilot's seat where Morgan had been.
She was startling handsome. With lean, classic plains to her face and a tall, willowy body that managed as she moved to conveyed at once the grace of a leopard and the strength of an ox. Her eyes were pale blue in juxtaposition to her dark hair and complexion and there was something not quite mortal about them. They were ice cold and seemed to glow with their own inner light. For a second, they had met Morgan's and she had been held fast by them until the woman had released her by turning away. The brief eye contact had sent shudders up Morgan's spine.
The strange woman was dressed in tough khaki shorts and a cotton, sleeveless button down shirt. She wore ankle hiking boots of much polished brown leather and a wide tooled, leather belt. She looked like she had fallen from the pages of a Ralf Lauren safari ad. Yeah right, snorted Morgan to herself, one look at the lady's tough confidence left no doubt that she was the real thing. Not that there could be any doubt of that when she turned around to reveal that the strap across her chest held in place on her back, a brown leather sheath containing a machete.
The woman slipped this weapon off as she swung into her seat and closed the door nodding to the pilot that he could now taxi for take-off. All conversation in the little six seater stopped at her arrival, all eyes fixed on her. If the woman was aware of this, she gave no indication, she simply ignored everyone. Now all Morgan could see of the strange woman was her shoulders and the top of her dark head. She caught herself wishing she was in Berkler's seat so that she could observe the profile of the woman as they flew. Morgan noted that Berkler kept looking up and his eyes would travel hungrily up and down over the woman in the co-pilot's seat. Forget it Berkler, she'd eat you alive, Morgan thought with a mental giggle. That is if she noticed you at all!
Morgan snapped out of her musings. Their little plane was still surrounded by grey, wet cloud. I guess this is why it's called a rainforest, Morgan reasoned trying hard not to give into panicy thoughts of running into a mountain or a plane or the single engine stalling with the rain!
She looked up and almost gasped to see those blue eyes staring back at her through a mirror attached to the back of the window visor that the strange woman had just flipped down. "You Andrews?" asked a deep and melodic voice rolling over the "r" in her name in a manner that Morgan found very pleasant.
"Yes," she responded just as cryptically more out of shock than design.
The eyes gave a single nod. "I'll be guiding you into the villages," stated the woman and the visor snapped up effectively ending the conversation. Morgan found she was holding her breath and when she released it her heart pounded wildly. This is my guide! Oh boy!
Wait until my family finds out I'm lost in the jungles with Amazon woman!
The clouds started to break up much to Morgan's relief and when again she could get a good look at the ground from her window she saw the green canopy of the rainforest at the edge of the Grand Savanna. Morgan was surprised that there was no gradual change, rather the rainforest met the grasslands as a solid wall on the very edge of the huge Amazon basin. Within a few minutes the grasslands were left behind and now Morgan looked down on the solid, canopy of the rainforest. Here and there its lush growth was cut by a wandering river, dried up switch back that had not yet returned to the jungle or a still, round lake. The foliage was dotted now and again by the bright red leaf of some jungle vine or by the blue ghost tail of an Indian fire miles below. Morgan squirmed with delight. Her dreams of adventure were finally coming true!
The pilot slowed the small planes engines and banked. Now over Berkler's body, Morgan could see through the opposite window a grassy compound and airstrip cut from the rainforest. The plane leveled and dropped slowly, kissing the ground with it's back wheels first and then bouncing down on it's nose wheel. The metal bird was once again a lumbering earth creature. Morgan's face was glued to the window as the plane bumped down the dirt airstrip and then turned ninety degrees and taxied along until it turned again and came to a halt in sight of the buildings of the compound.
The dark haired woman opened her door immediately as if she had found the confined space of the aircraft too much to bare for a second longer. Before the pilot had shut down, the strange woman was already striding away. The pilot folded the co-pilot's seat back allowing Morgan to squeeze out and jump down onto the compound's grass. Now the cool, crisp air trapped inside the small aircraft was replaced by the intense heat and humidity of the Amazon. The air at mid-day was stifling, and soggy to breathe and seemed some how to be strangely lacking in oxygen.
Betty squeezed out and Morgan offered her hand to the older woman as she slipped down from the plane. "Thanks," Betty smiled, "My God, if Joe had told me before we left that we'd be flying in this little bitty thing for three hours, we'd still be in Florida today! I was so scared!"
Morgan laughed and gave the woman a reassuring hug, "You had every reason to be scared. All that bouncing around, you were lucky you didn't end up with my lunch in your lap!"
Betty's husband Joe came around from the other side of the plane, " Honestly, you girls, I thought women were supposed to be the tougher sex these days. Hell, that wasn't so bad," he drawled slowly. Morgan liked the way Joe held on to words giving them far more syllables than they should have.
Betty gave her husband an affectionate poke in the ribs then turned back to Morgan who was retrieving her bag from the pilot. "He flew 'copters in Viet Nam so he's used to flying by the seat of his pants," she explained. Turning back to her husband she laughed, "And I'm plenty tough to have put up with you for thirty odd years!"
Morgan followed along behind the others enjoying the gentle banter of the Harris's as her eyes wandered over Los Amazonos compound with great interest. She was truly interested in getting first impressions of her new surroundings but she had to admit that she was looking to for the tall, dark haired woman that was to be her guide.
From Carlos's hut, Kris watched the group her face deadpan. Her eyes lingered on the petite woman with the strawberry blond hair. She seems a little stiff from her plane ride but relatively fit anyway, she concluded letting her eyes trail up the new comer's frame. Nice. Seems too young to be a research doctor. Of course, anyone with any ability or experience would want to stay back home and make a career for themselves not come out here to do field research. That sort of activity was for undergraduates. Kris sighed, shit, I hope she's not some tree lover or a fanatic out to save the world by devoting her life to the study of earth worms.
Carlos wrapped a blanket around his shoulders and sauntered over to stand at Kris's side. "That little one, humm, she is nice," he leered playfully.
Kris snorted, she was well aware that the handsome and flirtatious Carlos was a happily married and loyal man. He just felt he was letting his Latin blood down if he didn't play the game. Kris decided to played along. With a movement as quick as lightening, her arm shot up and her hand grabbed his jaw in a vise grip. Turning his face so that his surprised eyes met hers, she gave him her most intimidating look, "She's mine," she whispered softly with an edge of anger, "Don't...touch." Carlos swallowed hard and Kris held him for a second longer before smiling with bright white teeth and patting him affectionately on the cheek.
"Mother of God! Kristinia Thanasis, don't do that! You scared me half to death!"
Kris shrugged and raised her hands as she backed away playfully, "Do what?!" she asked innocently. She turned and let Carlos enjoy looking at her long lean body as she retrieved her machete and ducked her head under the strap. Over her shoulder she said, "Gotta go talk to Fernando." Then she was gone. Carlos shook his head glad that Kris saw in him a friend. He'd hate to have her as an enemy because he suspected that all the rumours about her were true.
Morgan saw the woman from her cabin as the dark-haired woman crossed over to the main building where the dining hall and kitchens were. She saw her hug the short, round owner who's name was Fernando and then settle herself along side him at the open air bar on the verandah. Surely, he wasn't her husband! Morgan turned away annoyed by the woman's display of affection towards the man for reasons that she could not explain.
The heat was awful. Her clothes stuck to her and rubbed uncomfortably. She got out shorts and stripped her blue jeans off. Time to reveal her real self anyway, she thought pulling her pant leg off the brace on her right lower leg. It wasn't that she minded the brace, after seven years she had come to except it, but she hated the part were people were too polite to ask. She sighed and slipped her shorts up over her muscular legs and tucked her cotton T-shirt down over her flat, hard stomach. The clothes were cool and yet conservative enough to cover most of her scars.
She heard the Harris's emerging from the bungalow beside hers. They had all been invited by Fernando to have an afternoon drink on the verandah. Morgan looked around to make sure that everything was packed away, as Fernando had cautioned them to do when he had greeted them and allotted bungalows. He had explained that the monkeys felt free to help themselves to loose articles. What was it that Fernando had joked? Something about the monkeys being here at five o'clock...Morgan smiled and made a metal note to take a picture of her bungalow for the folks back home. It consisted of a grass hut on three foot high posts. There was a small covered verandah with a hammock and a room beyond that contained two single beds covered in mosquito nets, a wood sink, and behind a grass partition, there was a crude shower offering cold, brown water and a toilet of dubious origins. By the sink were three old whiskey bottles filled with fresh water. The walls of the bungalow only went up about five feet. The rest was open to allow for air circulation except for the posts that supported the grass roof.
Satisfied that everything was stowed properly, Morgan closed her door and stepped down the stairs of her porch. She knew without looking up that those pale, cold eyes were fixed on her. She could feel it like a icey tingle running up her spine. She forced herself to look up and make eye contact as she headed over to join the others.
Berkler had cornered Fernando at the bar and was talking to him and Betty and Joe were ordering drinks from the local bar tender come waiter. The dark haired woman vaulted over the verandah rail and met her half way along the path. This close, Morgan had to look up into those eyes. The woman was at least a head taller than herself. "We need to talk," stated the taller woman looking down at Morgan with a scowl.
Now looking at the woman close up for the first time, Morgan realized that she was older than herself by a number of years. "O.K.," agreed Morgan turning to follow an already retreating figure. The woman strode over to a large round grass building with a conical shaped roof of thatch. She held open the door with one arm and waited for Morgan to go ahead. Inside was sort of a rough conference area of wood benches and a rustic lab. Like all the buildings the smell of moldy grass and damp cement floor was strong.
"The university uses this facility as a field lab. You are welcome to use its limited resources while you are here. Sit," commanded the woman.
"Am I a dog?" inquired Morgan colour rising in her faces as her green eyes flashed with sudden fire.
The woman's mouth rose slightly on one side in what may have been a smile and intense blue eyes slowly looked her up and down. Morgan held her ground, "No, you're not," said the older woman with a soft, dangerous voice. " Please be seated Ms. Andrews. I am Thanasis, Kris Thanasis. The older woman folded onto a bench and placed one long bent leg up on the next row. She raised a dark eyebrow and Morgan shelved her anger and sat.
Morgan met the woman's eyes and said very determinedly, "Don't even go there."
The older woman looked puzzled and then surprised, "Go where?"
"You are going to say that a cripple doesn't belong in the rainforest. And when you do I'm going to tell you to go to hell," stated Morgan mounting anger colouring her face.
The eye brow went up again. "No. No, actually I wasn't," responded Kris with quiet control. "If you want to try walking with that brace on that's your decision and you live with any consequences. It just adds one more complication for me, that's all."
"I am not a complication, Ms. Thanasis," growled Morgan.
"That remains to be seen. What species of flora are you after, out there?" asked the dark-haired woman her ice-blue eyes locking on Morgan's.
Morgan hesitated. "We'll discuss that when we get to the area."
The eyes narrowed. "I'm not interested in your petty little patient wars, Ms. Andrews. I just don't want to waste my time walking in the wrong direction. What do you think this plant can do for mankind?"
Morgan raised a hand and pushed back her hair," I wont know for sure until I find and test it. Don't worry Ms. Thanasis, all I need is a guide. I'll handle the rest."
The angular face hardened into stone and the eyes flashed with anger, "Let's test that theory, shall we?" she purred viciously getting up in one smooth movement and moving to the screen door. Kris pushed it open and held it for the petite woman that still sat in surprise on the bench. Kris made a point of watching Morgan's leg as she pushed herself awkwardly to her feet and plowed passed the taller woman with grim determination etched on her face. Kris smiled cruelly. I'll soon wipe that look off your face, you stubborn little bitch, she thought.
Kris set off down a narrow bush path through the jungle. The path ended sloping down a rutted, muddy hill to the river bank. She turned at the bottom to watch Morgan gingerly work her way down. My luck, thought Morgan, steep, uneven hills the one thing that's difficult for me! She side stepped across a wide rut and shifted her weight to her braced leg. Just as she did, her foot slipped on the muddy surface and she toppled forward.
Hard, warm arms snatched her out of the air and up into Kris's arms. The taller woman had in a slit second covered the distance back up the embankment to break Morgan's fall.
"Hang on tight," she instructed the surprised doctor and flipped with Morgan in her arms down to the pebble beach below. There she lowered the small woman's feet to the ground.
Morgan stood stiffly. She was angry at herself and a bit dizzy from the flip, one forgotten arm still clinging to the taller woman's muscular forearm for support. Silence. Then, Kris took the smaller woman by the shoulders and gentle turned her around so that she leaned against the taller woman's body. Over Morgan's shoulder, she pointed with her long arm to the brackish water of the river. "There. Do you see them? Stingray. Spotted ones. You find plain ones in here too."
Morgan twisted her body and looked for a long time into Kris's eyes. Out here, only a few feet into the jungle, the eyes had softened into the palest sky blue. "I fell," she stated
"I caught you," stated Kris matter-of-factly. "That's an added complication. But as you saw, I'm up to it. Are you? Can you let me help you or are you going to be pig-headed and fall some place when I'm not there to help?" she challenged.
Morgan turned and watched the mud-coloured bodies of the river stingrays drift gracefully in the shallow water. One suddenly darted forward leaving a cloud of mud behind. "They can move really quickly when they want to," she observed.
"Yes," answered Kris standing behind her. Silence. Then a surprise decision, " Do you want to skip drinks and go for a paddle down stream in the dugout?"
Morgan turned with curious green eyes that searched the blue depths, "I'd like that a lot," she softly responded.
Kris nodded seriously and moved away to push the twenty foot log dugout off the pebble beach and into the tea coloured water. She picked up a hand made paddle of dark wood, the blade of which was shaped like the "spades" on a deck of cards. Turning she met Morgan's eyes and reached out her hand to offer the little doctor help in stepping into and walking along the two foot wide hull to a cross plank that was used as a bench. For a second Morgan hesitated, then she smiled and put her hand in the strong woman's and allowed her to provide balance as she moved back to the seat. "You back flipped to the beach with me in your arms," stated Morgan shaking her head in disbelief as she watched her guide push the canoe into deeper water and quickly run along the gunwale passed Morgan to take her place in the stern.
"It's a skill that's not greatly in demand these days," responded the guide dryly. Morgan looked over her shoulder at the strong woman and saw the sparkle in her eyes and laughed. Then she turned back and let Kris propel them down the river with silent, powerful strokes.
Kris watched the shore line as she paddled with slow, long strokes. Why the hell had she done that?! She'd been angered by Morgan's attitude and had planned on humiliating her and then putting her on the first plane home. Instead, she'd saved her hide, her face and had offered her the scenic tour of the river. Shit! What's going on with you, Thanasis?! The truth was she kind of liked the little doctor's spirit. She wasn't going to let the brace hold her back and when it didn't work out, she'd admitted her mistake without any excuses. Kris had to admit that she was reluctantly starting to like Morgan. Maybe guiding her wouldn't be so bad.
"See the holes along the bank, The Green Kingfishers nest in them this time of year when the water is low. But when the rainy season comes, they'll be underwater and then the electric eels use them for nesting," explained Kris.
"Subletting, huh? They do that where I come from too," remarked Morgan happily and was rewarded with a snort from behind her.
"That bare tree with the dark fruit hanging in bunches is called a bat tree. The fruit looks like bats hanging from the branches of a dead tree so the birds leave the fruit alone," Kris instructed with a brief explanation. They moved on down the river, mostly in agreeable silence unless Morgan asked a question or Kris provide information in her cryptic style of speech. It was nearly dusk when they nosed against the beach again and Kris slipped passed Morgan once more balanced on the thin side of the canoe. She pulled the heavy dugout farther up the beach and then reached out to offer Morgan a hand in moving along the narrow craft and stepping out. Then she let Morgan go and busied herself tying up the craft and stowing the paddle.
"Thanks, that was great! I learned so much!" enthused Morgan, her eyes wide with excitement at all the amazing things that she had seen in just a small span of time.
"Good," stated Kris in a business like tone, "'Cause the reason I wanted to talk to you is to tell you I can't guide you to the villages for a few days. Fernando's regular guide Carlos is recovering from malaria so I'm going to help him and take the tourists out," finished Kris with a scowl.
"The Harris's are in for a rare treat then," responded Morgan confidently and Kris looked up in surprise. "Ahh...I mean....would it be O.K. if I go along too? Just to fill in the time until you're free?"
Kris raised an eyebrow in surprise then nodded as she turned and headed up towards the bank. She looked at Morgan and offered her hand. This time there was no hesitation, Morgan walked over and allowed the powerful woman to pull her up the hill. Once at the top, Kris was quick to let go and let Morgan handle the path herself. Half way along the trail, Kris stopped and placed her long, slim fingers around Morgan's shoulders. Leaning close she whispered, "Look up slowly, see the big beak sticking out of the hole in the trunk. It's a toucan nest."
"Toucans!" whispered Morgan with a stifled giggle, "Like in Fruitloops?"
Kris nodded with a ghost of a smile, "Yeah, except in real life their not very nice birds. They steal the eggs off other birds. That's what the long beak is for, reaching into nests.
It's not very practical in flight. They sort of undulate up and down as they fly," explained the tall woman demonstrating with her hand. " The beak keeps pulling them down."
Morgan nodded and the two moved off along the trail. Kris was an incredible source of information, Morgan realized. She spoke English with no accent and yet she also seemed to be just as comfortable in Portuguese and Spanish. Who was she? She was incredibly strong too! Morgan knew from her training as a doctor that few athletes would have had the flexibility and strength to have done that backflip while holding someone.
They stepped out of the rainforest and into the cleared compound just as an incredible noise broke out. Instinctively, Morgan took a step towards the taller woman. "What's that?" she asked.
Kris shrugged, "The five o'clock monkeys," she stated matter-of-factly. "The spider monkeys have learned that the compound is a safe zone. So at dusk which is around five o'clock, they come out of the near by forest and sleep in the trees of the compound at night safe from their natural night predators like the jaguar."
Morgan listened to Kris's explanation as she watched the small bodied monkeys with the long arms, tails and legs swing and jump through the trees. They squawked loudly as they swung into tree trunks, missed branches or bumped into each other. "Good grief! In the Tarzan movies they never have these problems!" laughed Morgan.
Kris gave a short bitter laugh. "Yeah, well in real life, things can be surprising, especially when you're swinging through the trees!"
"Another one of your rarely used talents, Ms. Thanasis?" teased Morgan.
"That's Kris," stated the tall woman as she walked off. Morgan watched the woman break into a run, eating the ground up until she disappeared down past the bend in the airstrip. She shook her head. They'd got off to a pretty rocky start thanks to Kris Thanasis's cryptic manner and her own thin skin reaction. And yet in just a short time, she found herself really drawn to this strong, mysterious woman. Strange. She sighed and headed over towards where the others still sat on the verandah.
As she stepped up onto the verandah she felt rather than saw those that were sitting there take quick looks at her leg. She gave a metal sigh. Here we go again. Maybe I should just wear an explanation written on a cardboard sign around my neck! "Morgan! Where have you been?! Come and sit down here," Betty said patting the seat beside her on the couch.
Joe however, leaned forward from where he sat in the bamboo arm chair and touched the brace on Morgan's right leg. "Hell, honey, what happened to you?!" he inquired with his long drawl conveying both curiosity and concern at once.
"Joe!" exclaimed Betty in shocked embarrassment, "Maybe Morgan would rather not..."
Morgan laughed and gave Joe a warm look of affection. Thanks Joe for just getting it over with, she thought. "Actually, in my undergraduate year, I had my leg flattened when I was run over by a car," explained Morgan. "There was so much damage that I need this plastic support up the back of my leg in order to stand or walk with any kind of reliable stability." Morgan turned her leg a little so Joe could see the plastic brace that molded to the back of her leg up to knee height. Velcro straps on leather wrapped around her leg held it firmly in place.
"Well honey, I hope you got his license number!" barked Joe genuinely upset for Morgan.
"Oh yeah," responded Morgan simply as she thought bitterly, yeah, I had lots of time when they backed over us three times! Perhaps her face revealed too much at that thought, for Betty reached over and gave her hand a squeeze and Joe sat back and quickly changed the subject . The rest of the time before dinner passed in pleasant conversation mostly involving Morgan prompting the Harris's to talk about the family orchard business that one of their sons now owned and their growing number of grandchildren. Morgan felt like she was part of a Humphrey Bogart movie as she sat on the bamboo and wicker couch and looked across the grassy compound to the darkening rainforest. The sky was inky black and dotted with a dazzling array of stars. With delight, Morgan saw, for the first time, the Southern Cross constellation that adorns the Australian flag . The night air was cool and carried on it's fragrant, earthy scent, the buzz of crickets and a thousand other insects that made the Amazon their home.
Julio, the waiter, called them into the dinning hall that was a large room with screened walls and a wood roof. Inside, picnic benches in a row acted as the dining table. With careful concentration Julio served their meal of chicken, beans and mealy potatoes that were a pale purple in colour. Fire ant sauce was available as a garnish and the group laughed at Berkler's face when he took a big bite of chicken that he had covered in the bright red mixture saying that he liked hot Mexican food! Morgan tried a little bit and found it to be very hot but acidic too. She figured she could adjust to the taste but she wasn't sure that she could get used the crunchy little bits of thorax in the mix.
The room went quiet and Morgan looked up to see the dark-haired woman behind her. With a graceful movement she silently claimed a seat beside Morgan and Julio rushed to see to getting her a meal. "Fernando," she remarked as a greeting.
Fernando looked up from tearing his bread a part, a delighted smile on his face, "Ah, my beautiful warrior, you honour me!" Kris's eyebrow went up in mock annoyance and then she turned her attention to her meal.
Morgan liked the woman's scent. She'd clearly showered after her run and smelt of soap and sun dried spice. The woman's body radiated a warm heat as she sat only inches away from the petite doctor. "Morgan," interrupted Joe's voice into her musings, "What kind of doctoring do you do?"
Morgan lowered her fork, "Well, after my car...accident, it was clear that I couldn't stand long enough to perform any lengthy surgery and that was the area I was interested in pursuing. So I ended up in research. I work for a drug company. I'm sort of the mad scientist you see in movies sitting in a lab full of boiling test tubes! I don't normally do field work but well... this assignment came up and ...well...I just needed to get away," she explained. A lump formed in her chest and she found it hard to keep the lightness in her voice. No one seemed to notice. Betty used the opportunity to launch into some tale about how a friend of her's had got into plastic surgery in a big way and was working through her dead husband's estate at an alarming rate. As Morgan sat there feeling the anger and fear building inside her again a strong hand reached behind her and rubbed her back for a second. Morgan looked up at the silent woman beside her but there was no indication that she had touched her. Morgan gave the strong arm a small bump of thanks with her shoulder and was rewarded with a quick look and smile from Kris. At the end of the table, Fernando watched with sad, interested eyes.
After the meal, Kris said goodnight and disappeared. For awhile the remaining five sat on the verandah with their coffee and talked. Berkler explained the need for lumber and how companies like his provided jobs and opportunities to underdeveloped nations. Morgan spent her time trying hard to mind her own business.
After eating in the kitchen, Carlos wearily returned to the building that acted as a central dorm to find Kris filling a backpack with clothes. " I thought you were staying and helping me out?" he asked in surprise.
"I am," muttered Kris in a preoccupied manner. "I decided to board in with Morgan."
Carlos' eyes got real big. "My god! Kris, I had no idea that you and her... I would never have..." he spluttered until Kris cut him off.
"I don't know her Carlos, nor am I planning on jumping her bones, it just makes sense with this unscheduled lay-over to establish a working relationship with her while still living in relative comfort. It's always a piss-poor time to find out you can't work together out on the trail," Kris explained with disinterest from inside the bathroom as she gathered her personal articles from the shelf.
Carlos nodded in agreement. He'd been on a few excursions in his time were the combination of personalities had made for a very miserable trip. "I am sad. I hoped to spend the night with you sleeping in the hammock beside mine. Ahhh!" he finished in surprise as Kris pinched his bum in passing.
Kris looked at him over her one shoulder as she hefted the backpack onto the other, "Just as I thought," she winked looking him over slowly, "All talk and on action. Poor Maria!" and she sauntered out the screen door.
Carlos laughed and shook his head, "That one, eeeh, so bad!"
When Morgan reached her bungalow, she found that a flickering oil lantern was sitting on a table just inside her door. She smiled at the thoughtful service and switched off her torch that she and the Harris's had shared on the walk back to their cabins. There was no electricity into this remote area and the generator that powered the main lodge was only run for four hours each night. Stepping inside she almost jumped out of her skin, her heart beating rapidly until she realized it was Kris sprawled on one of the cots under a thin mosquito net. She was in her underwear reading her flight journal. "You scared me half to death! I didn't know we were sharing a cabin."
Kris looked around her journal. "Yeah, I'm staying here. It'll give us a chance to work out a routine," she explained going back to her book.
Morgan nodded and turned to her bags, hesitating. Then she sighed. Out on the trail, Kris was going to see the scars. She might as well get it over with she concluded slipping her T-shirt over her head and then turning to sit on the edge of her bed to remove her shorts more easily from over the brace. Looking up she met startling blue eyes looking at her. "Not very pretty, huh?" she said looking down at the scars that criss-crossed her torso as she bent to remove the brace from her leg.
"You're in great shape," observed the guide, "That will make it easier on the trail. You got any internal injuries that I should know about?" Kris asked keeping the situation on a professional level sensing Morgan's discomfort.
Morgan shook her head. "No, all healed now, pretty much," she responded glad of Kris's objectivity and forthrightness. She got up and moved over to the crude hollowed log that was used as a sink. Pouring water from the whiskey bottle she washed and brushed her teeth then after using the facilities and washing her hands again, she headed for her cot.
Kris ducked under her net and walked over. "Get in and I'll tuck the mosquito net around you. The smallest opening and the buggers nail you." Morgan slipped under the white sheet and Kris lowered the net that hung from a central hook over the cot. Carefully, she tucked the edges under the mattress all the way around. Then she capped the oil lamp and padded over to her own cot. Morgan could hear the springs of her cot creak as she got in and then heard her tucking the netting around her own bed.
Silence. "Those scars on your abdomen, are they bullet holes?" asked Morgan.
"Yeah," responded Kris openly.
"Was there damage?" she asked.
"I heal well. There's no problems," came the reply.
"I've got a few enemies," came the startling response.
Morgan fell silent. This woman was becoming more and more of a mystery to her. Fernando had pulled her aside before she had left tonight, Little one, he had said, You can trust your life to the warrior but always remember that she is dangerous. Be careful.
Was this what he had meant? That Kris Thanasis had an dark history? Or was there more?
Breakfast was a merry affair with much teasing and banter back and forth between a group of strangers who now, by the nature of their isolation, were becoming close friends. Even the business orientated Berkler had relaxed a bit and had told some tales of his experiences with custom agents. Today, Fernando would be arranging for Berkler to meet with local government representatives in the lumber town some hundred and fifty miles to the east. The roar of the Piper Cub could be heard warming up on the air strip as they finished breakfast.
Kris had not had breakfast with them. When Morgan had woken sleepily from a hot, stuffy night under her mosquito net, she found that Kris had gone. Her backpack was neatly lying on the centre of her made bed. Morgan had rubbed the sleep from her eyes and tried to shake off the dull headache and queasy stomach from jet lag and the oppressive heat. Had she only arrived in South America two days ago? She forced herself to swing up into a sitting position on the edge of her bed and automatically reached for her brace. Her hand stopped half way. The plastic brace had been lined by a layer of cotton. Anger raised quickly and then subsided. Kris was the expert. If she felt the brace needed a lining, then she'd better use it. Actually, it made sense. The material would absorb moisture. She had noticed yesterday that the normally comfortable brace was damp and rubbing against her skin by midday.
Then she noticed the folded piece of paper tucked behind the strap of her brace. Morgan picked it out and unfolded it.
Didn't want to wake you when you'd had such a restless night. The cotton will help prevent chaffing that could lead to tropical ulcers. Bang out your shoes before putting them on. Ugly things like Black Widow spiders like warm shoes to sleep in.
I'll see you after breakfast. K.
Morgan followed Kris's instructions. First, because she realized that Kris was worth listening to and second, because she suspected that not to follow orders might not impress the mysterious woman that the local inhabitants called "Warrior." Before she left for breakfast, she made her bed and left her bags neatly in the centre. She wanted to send a message to her guide that she was a fast learner and could be trusted to fit into a routine. After all wasn't that the reason Kris was bunking in here?
Kris finished her run and trotted through the kitchen to grab one of the flat cakes that Fernando's wife fried for breakfast. She munched on it contentedly as she headed back to Morgan's cabin. Morgan was gone of course, Kris had heard her laughter from inside the dining hall as she passed. Her eyes slid to Morgan's bed and she gave a satisfied nod. Morgan had left everything ship shape and the cotton material had clearly been used. Turning to her own pack, she found a note written on the back of the one she had left Morgan.
I hope I didn't keep you awake tossing about. Thanks for worrying about my safety. I appreciate your attention to details and will try to live up to the standard when we are out on the trail. M. P.S. Banged out the shoes really well! No stowaways, thank God!
Kris smiled and dug into her pack for her toilet bag and then headed for the shower. Behind the partition she turned on the water and stripped down. The small enclosure contained the lingering smell of Morgan's morning rites. There was a faint fragrant scent of sweet grass and herbs that really appealed to the guide. So far things were working out O.K. The next few days should indicate whether Morgan was going to be a hazard or a help on the trail. So far, except for the surprise of the brace, the kid seemed to be measuring up. But Kris was worried about the look of hurt and confusion that seemed to haunt the girl's eyes. Emotional troubles were the last thing she needed out in the rainforest and Morgan was clearly running from someone or something from the way she had reacted in the dinning hall and the nightmares that seemed to plague her dreams last night.
Kris toweled off scowling. She hated dealing with unknowns. And she hated emotion. I'll just have to play it by ear, she thought. At least she found herself liking Morgan. That was a good start anyway, she concluded tucking her shirt into her shorts and zipping the fly. Then she sat on her cot and put on socks and her hiking boots. Checking to make sure everything was neat, she headed out to act as nurse maid to three inexperienced tourists! Christ, how my life has changed! she mused darkly.
The next few days proved to be surprisingly fun for Kris. The Harris's turned out to be a happy and willing pair and the foursome spent each day exploring under Kris's leadership. The first day, she took them down river in the dugout. Along the way, she would point out the many exotic birds of the area, or a lazy Cayman basking in the sun. They hung over the side of the dugout and watched stingrays gracefully fly underneath or looked up in delight to see flocks of parrots fly over head. Kris found that she was seeing the land again through the delighted eyes of her charges.
O.K., she had to admit she'd shown off some too. She'd run along the gunwales to the delight of the Harris's and dived into the tannin stained water coming up a few seconds later with a serving dish size matamata in her hands. With care, she placed it in the dugout and then used her arms to propel herself up and into the canoe once again. Then to a raptured little group, she explained that the coarse looking turtle was one of the oldest unchanged species on planet earth. She showed them it's leathery shell and cute little pointed nose and then gently lowered it back into the water. Morgan passed her a towel with complete adoration in her eyes that made Kris feel ten feet tall. Really it was ridiculous the way she was reacting to this little tourist group of hers!
Betty has called her a hero too! My God! If the woman only knew who she was being guided by! It had happened later on the first day when they had stopped for a swim at a beach. After lunch, Joe had wanted to try his hand at fishing and Kris had given him a line from the canoe's supplies and caught a grasshopper to bait it with. Joe pulled a flipping fish to shore after only a few casts but as he reached for it, Kris dived from nowhere and just got her hand in the way. The flapping, orange piranha bit down on Kris's finger and she had to pry it's jaws open to get it's sharp teeth out of her flesh. Removing it from the hook, Kris killed it quickly. Blood dripped freely from her hand. Suddenly, Morgan was there with a first aid kit gently holding Kris's hand and applying pressure. "Hey, its O.K. I'll just put a little gasoline on it to kill any infection," she'd shrugged.
Morgan looked up in disbelief. " Do I look like the kind of doctor that allows my patients to disinfect their wounds by frying their skin with chemicals?!" In the end Kris had been forced to sit on the edge of the beached canoe while Morgan disinfected the wound properly and bandaged it. "If it's still bleeding when we get back, I'm going to put a stitch in," she warned and Kris raised an eyebrow in disbelief.
It was then that Betty declared their guide a hero eventhough the very embarrassed guide in question had tried to explain to her group that the perpetrator of the crime was the solitary, orange piranha that rarely attacked unless provoked and was not the dangerous grey piranha that swam in schools and could rip a large animal to it's bones in minutes. She explained how, before they had swum, she had tested the water by throwing a bit a sandwich meat to see if it would attract such a school. "I knew there were solitaries in the water we were swimming in but it wasn't dangerous until you caught one," she'd explained.
Before they had left the beach that day, she had carefully packed the fish away in the cooler that had held their lunch. That night, at dinner, the cook proudly served Joe his piranha as an appetizer much to the delight of Kris's group. They each took a turn tasting the dark, oily flesh very pleased with their adventure of having swum with the piranha and eaten one too.
"That was a really nice thing you did bringing back the piranha for Joe," Morgan had commented later that night when she had finally cornered the reluctant Kris to let her look at the bitten finger. Kris blushed at the praise. She wasn't used to being seen as "nice." "My God! Look at this!" exclaimed Morgan running her finger over the closed skin where the bite had occurred. "Boy, do you heal quickly!" Kris had smirked and pulled her hand away with an "I told you so" expression.
On the second day, Kris had taken them on a five mile hike through the jungle. As they walked along she would stop and explain the use of various plants or point out birds high above in the canopy. She'd catch insects to show them including a little elephant bug that got it's name from the small trunk that it waved about. They stopped on top of a massive cutter ant colony and watched the line of workers carrying the leaves like sails on their backs to the massive nest. Kris explained that they would chew the leaves up to make a fertilizer on which a fungi would grow that was the ants' only food. Tired and bursting with knowledge, the little party had retired early. Kris had asked to see Morgan's leg and was pleased to see that the cotton seemed to be preventing any chaffing at least on this easy walk. "Do I pass muster?" Morgan had asked a little annoyed.
"Yes," Kris had responded bluntly.
"Would you have refused to take me if the brace was rubbing," asked Morgan.
"Yes," responded Kris meeting Morgan's eyes. "What gives you nightmares?" asked Kris.
Morgan's face closed. She got up without a word and disappeared behind the partition. A second later Kris heard the shower running. Guess I'm not going to find out the answer to that question any time soon, she sighed.
On the last day of the Harris's tour of the Amazon, Kris took them up river in the dugout. She showed them how the butterflies massed on the sandy spits to mate and how the cormorants spread their wings to warm in the sun after diving in the cool water for fish. Much to her party's delight, she took them to a water falls that bounced down terraces of rock. There they had spent most of the afternoon sliding down the smooth rocks to the pools of deep water beneath each small falls.
At first Morgan had sat at the edge of the lower pool, content to watch the others. Now and again she would lower herself into the pool and cool off. Her brace left safely on shore. Suddenly, the tall body of the warrior was beside her. "Do you want to go for a slid?" she had asked. Morgan had explained that without her brace she couldn't climb up the rocks and Kris had playfully whispered in her ear, "I know." Then she had picked a surprised Morgan up as if she was a rag doll and had gleefully run up the rocks to where the Harris's were waiting. As soon as she reached the top, she lowered Kris to her feet but stood behind her offering her quiet support. The Harris's pushed off down the layers of falls splashing from one to the other with much laughter. Then Kris lowered herself into the stream and pointed to the space between her legs. "Sit here and I'll take you down in my arms," Kris had explained to the nervous Morgan and Morgan had lowered herself to the ground and slipped into place within the protective walls of the larger woman's body. With a strong push they were off down the falls until they broke over the last lip and fell with a splash into the bottom pond. The day had gone really well, Kris thought. She really couldn't remember when she had last ...well...just played. It had felt good. It was a surprising revelation to Kris that she could have fun playing.
That night after Kris had said good bye to the Harris's after dinner, she found Joe had followed her out. "Ahhh, listen Kris," he said reaching for her hand, " This is just a little something from Betty and I for the great tour. You really put yourself out for us and we appreciate it," Joe smiled and actually patted the stunned warrior's cheek. Blood roared through Kris's body and her hand clutched into a fist around the money.
Then Morgan was there pushing against her chest, "Hey Kris, before you take off could you give me a hand?" she asked smiling back and forth between Joe and Kris.
Kris gave a weak smile, "Sure Morgan," she choked out raising her hand to punch the money back at Joe. To her surprise she found Morgan's hand wrapped around her shaking fist.
"That's great! Come on!" Morgan bubbled happily pulling Kris back into the darkness, "I'll say good bye in the morning, Joe," she called over Kris's stiff shoulder as she continued to pull the woman away.
"Sure thing sweetheart," called Joe oblivious to how close he'd come to getting punched out by one insulted warrior.
Once they were a good distance from the dinning hall and out of sight, Morgan turned around and took Kris gentle by the forearms. "Kris, what is it? I could feel you in the dining hall. This awful anger... What happened?" she asked with worry.
Kris still bristled with anger. Through clinched teeth she hissed, "He tipped me," and opened her hand dropping the bills on the ground. Morgan covered the laugh that came bubbling out with a hand. "It...is..not...funny!" emphasized Kris in a harsh whisper.
"Kris, its O.K. He didn't mean to insult you. He doesn't realize that you are not what you seem," explained Morgan gently giving her a shake. "Look, take the money," she went on bending to pick it up and handing it out to Kris, "And tell Fernando that Joe gave it to you to share amongst the others." Kris hesitated for a long moment and then slowly took the money. "You O.K. now?" Morgan asked. Kris nodded looking pouty. "Come on, I really need you to show me what and how to pack," Morgan said and took Kris by the arm again keeping up a one way conversation with her guide back to their cabin.
With stiff, abrupt words Kris instructed Morgan in the proper gear necessary for such a expedition. And while Morgan packed and then repacked to fit everything in, Kris sat on her bed and dismantled and cleaned first a hand gun and then a rifle. Morgan realized that Kris was just barely holding her anger. She tried to hold her tongue but just couldn't. "Kris, we're not taking those with us are we?" she asked trying not to sound disapproving.
Blue eyes looked up sharply. They burned with an inner fire that caused Morgan to take a step back in surprise. Long, strong fingers rubbed the dark metal surface with hungry strokes. "Yes, we are," came the determined reply.
Morgan sank down on her cot and tried to control the beating of her heart before she continued. She swallowed, her eyes unwillingly sliding back to Kris's hands as they caressed the gun metal. "I...I...don't like guns," she stated.
"I do," came the argumentative response.
"Are they necessary? I mean, you didn't carry any weapons the last three days," argued Morgan using a shaky hand to brush a piece of hair behind her ear.
Kris snorted and got up, her body bristling with violent energy. "We're not going on a tourist sightseeing hike here, kid. We're going into really dangerous territory. And we'll be out there alone of a very long time. If you're afraid of guns then maybe you're not up to this field work," she snarled.
Morgan was in her face in a second but much to her surprise her forward movement accelerated and she found herself flipped onto her back on Kris's bed. Kris slammed a knee into her chest and held her down, "Don't... ever...come at me!" the warrior snarled looming over the petite blond. Morgan's world scoped and tumbled into one dark night seven years ago. The pavement was wet with winter snow and blood. Her blood and Rick's. The heavy weight of his dead body pinned her to the cold ground. "Morgan! Morgan!" she heard someone calling but she couldn't escape. Her body was too broken and Rick lay dead on top of her.
Sometime later, Morgan became aware of warm, strong arms holding her. A beautiful deep voice sang softly in Spanish close to her ear. With effort she tried to open her eyes.
"Hey, you O.K.," asked Kris softly looking with worried eyes into Morgan's face.
Morgan nodded and ran a shaky hand over her damp face. "I think you had a panic attack or something. You sure you're O.K. I didn't mean to scare you that badly. I was just reacting. I wasn't going to hurt you," Kris tried to explain, awkwardly patting Morgan's shoulder.
Morgan nodded and then realizing she was laying on top of her guide who was gingerly holding the smaller woman in her arms, she pulled away and sat on the edge of the cot. "I'm O.K. , Kris. It wasn't really you. Not that you're not pretty scary when you're angry!" she added with a nervous giggle. "It was just for a minute there I flashed back... I...' Morgan stumbled to a halt.
"It wasn't just a car accident, was it?" probed Kris bluntly reaching to put her hand on Morgan's arm.
Absently, Morgan reached out and played with Kris's long fingers much to the dark-haired woman's surprise. "No, I knew this Hispanic man in meds. We were just good friends, you know," Morgan explained looking at Kris for understanding. Kris nodded. "He'd been in a street gang but had straightened himself around and had gone back to school. Anyway, to make a long story short, another gang saw him out walking with me. They shot him in passing then circled back and ran over us...a few times. It had snowed and Rick was on top of me. That's why I survived," she finished looking down and realizing that she had been playing with Kris's hand. She dropped it, "Sorry!" She got up quickly moving across the room and back to her bags, "I'd better finish packing," she muttered. Kris nodded and got up and left.
Kris stood moodily in the early dawn light. A troop of Howling Monkeys were near by
and their cries echoed across the misty rainforest mountains like an eerie wind through a canyon. She was in a rotten mood. She was still mad about the tip and upset with what had happened between Morgan and her last night. It was sure to effect their working relationship. Morgan would be scared of her now. She'd got a good taste of what a savage I can be, she thought. Maybe it was for the best. And then there was all the other shit that Kris's pragmatic mind was having a hell of a time coping with, like how had Morgan felt her anger towards Joe; and her own rage at those that had tried to kill Morgan, as if it was anything to her! And there was the nervous, turmoil she was feeling about upsetting Morgan too. She shook her head to clear away the confusion and broke into a run.
Morgan waved good-bye to the plane that was taking the Harris's on to a tour of the Andes. Now there was only her and Kris. At least she hoped that was the case. She hadn't seen Kris since last night. She sighed softly and turned to walk smack against the chest of the warrior in question. In a black T-shirt and runner's shorts stretched tight over her muscular body and glistening from her run she looked like a deadly black panther. Morgan squealed in surprise and Kris immediately stepped back, her blue eyes dark and wary. "You scared me half to death!" panted Morgan one hand spread over her chest.
Kris's face was etched stone, "Which time?" she asked coldly.
Morgan looked up in shock wondering if she should dodge the confrontation. No. Tell her the truth. "You scared me when you told me you have enemies. Ones, who hate you so much that they would shot you. It scared me when I was told to trust you with my life but to never forget that you are dangerous. It scared me when you flipped me and held me down like I was no more than a rag doll. And it scares the shit out of me that you are taking those guns." Blue eyes narrowed and blazed with cold fire. "But do you know what really scares me, Kris?" The blue eyes contacted hers with sharp interest. "What really scares me is that I might not measure up and you wont guide me." The blue eyes opened in startled confusion. For a second, they almost warmed as the silence hung between them.
"I'm the only guide who knows the area so I'm stuck with you. We leave in twenty minutes," came the response at last as the tall woman turned and strode off to change and grab her gear.
Morgan managed a weak smile, " That...had been close."