22. Jungle encounter

Atias and Marthee stood to one side while two little green men took Fagen's carbine and pistol, smashed them on the rocks, and then threw them over the cliff into the river below. Another man took Gracio's small bolo from its scabbard, tested the edge with his thumb, laughed derisively, and then jammed it back in place.

Satisfied they were unarmed and harmless, the chief stepped forward. A fierce looking man with a grim face and broad, muscular chest, he ignored Gracio and walked in a circle around Fagen, looking him over from head to toe. He gazed deep into the American's eyes for a long moment, then opened his mouth and yanked at his tongue. Fagen willed himself not to pull away or make a defensive move. He had no idea who or what they were up against and thought it best to follow Atias' lead and stand still. The headman finished by pinching the skin on both Fagen's arms, and then he turned his back on him.

Suddenly the chief spun around, shouted and stomped the mud at his feet. In an instant four men tackled Fagen and dragged him to the ground. At first startled, and then bewildered by their amazing strength, Fagen put up no fight. The chief came forward, leaned over and brandished the hideous shrunken-head talisman in his face, and then drew his bolo and pressed the edge deep into the American's throat. Fagen felt the blade cut flesh, knew he was to be killed then and there, and wondered whether the grim image of that wild man's countenance would pass with him into the next world. He looked up at the morning sun, saw it climb into the leafy branches overhead and tried to concentrate on the sound of water rushing through the ravine. The chief pressed harder, and Fagen felt a warm trickle of blood run down his neck and across his shoulder. He closed his eyes and waited for death.

"OWUOOO!" Atias cried out and moved with lightning speed, locking his fingers around the chief's wrist and in a silent, face-to-face tug of war, lifted the knife away from the American's throat.

"OWUOOO!" He howled the war cry again, his jaws open wide, feet firmly planted, muscles straining in the contest to control the knife. The two men stood over Fagen, their battle of wills taking center stage over his execution. Fagen watched in horror, and it occurred to him that even if Atias overpowered the chief, won the struggle for dominance, respect or whatever they fought for, their lives were forfeit anyway. The headman's cadre of fearsome, camouflaged soldiers surrounding them armed with spears, bolos and crossbows made that a virtual certainty.

Fagen couldn't understand. Unless they'd just wanted new ornaments to dangle from their hideous amulets, why'd they permit them to cross into their territory? Why had the chief picked him to die first and not the sheepish Gracio? Had Atias and Marthee been deceived too? Had their tribal cousins promised safe passage, and then double-crossed them? Whatever the situation, they were outnumbered, unarmed and at the mercy of headhunters, and Fagen saw no reason to expect any quarter.

OWUOOO! Atias screamed again into his opponent's face. Perspiration poured off the two men as they fought for the knife. Gradually, the chief's strength began to fail, and then fear crept into his eyes. Atias, his fingers locked around the man's wrist, forced the bolo up between them until its lethal blade was only inches from the headman's throat. The guide had won the silent contest of strength, and Fagen guessed it only a matter of seconds before the chief gave a signal and the arrows began to fly. Then Atias did the unfathomable. Still locked onto the chief's wrist, he pushed the warrior's arm high over his head and brought the bolo down in a sweeping arc until the point penetrated the skin over his own heart. Then he let go.

Silence reigned in the forest. Two-dozen men stood frozen in their places, unable - or unwilling to move and watched while the chief, his knuckles white on the handle of the bolo, fought to regain his composure. Atias stood before him, his arms at his sides, smiling, as if to welcome the blade into his chest. The headman had only to apply the slightest pressure, the knife would slide between the ribs, and the guide would be dead before he hit the ground. Atias' smile grew broader, and he exposed the few brown teeth that remained in his mouth. "Owuooo," he whispered in the chief's face. "Owuooo."

The warrior leader gazed into Atias' eyes for a long moment, and then he too smiled and said, "Owuooo." Atias grinned and nodded his head. The chief turned to his men, said something, and then laughed out loud, his rough chortle like the clanking of steel on steel. All at once his men laughed too, and then Atias and Marthee joined in. A moment earlier, that heavily armed band of fierce little men in headdresses and green paint had been ready to kill, and now they laughed hysterically. Lunacy to Fagen, madness, but suddenly, inexplicably, he felt the urge to laugh too.

The chief gave a signal, and the men released him and helped him up. Gracio leaned against a rock, his face drained of color. Hearing death's knell had been too much for him. The danger now past, his legs buckled, and he fainted. That set off a fresh round of laughter, and the chief waved his staff over Gracio, the grisly shrunken heads flopping wildly, inches from his face.

Fagen wondered what happened, what chance occurrence took place to turn those men from friend to foe and back again, but at that point he didn't care. He wanted only to be on the trail. When all the merriment died down, Atias made a speech in a low, singsong monotone. He got his message across by pointing at the two lowlanders, and then back across the ravine several times. Fagen thought he heard his name, but saw no recognition in the chief's eyes and was mindful of how little the outside world intruded there. The chief barked a command, and a man stepped forward carrying one of the gruesome shrunken-head staffs, which he presented to Atias, its magic power a shield to ward off evil spirits for the duration of their journey. Atias accepted the ghastly, evil-savored gift with great humility, and without another word spoken the travelers set out on the path, Marthee no longer having to urge the reluctant Gracio forward.

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1. Fagen arrives in the Philippines

2. White soldiers bring their prejudice with them

3. Fagen hears another side of the story

4. Dinner with Colonel Funston

5. Fagen's first taste of combat

6. Fagen meets Clarita

7. More than fair?

8. The water cure

9. Fagen gets his fortune told

10. Imperialism exposed

11. Sergeant Rivers speaks his mind

12. Genocide

13. Fagen meets El Presidente

14. Bad news comes to Fagen

15. Fate takes over

16. San Lazaro leper hospital

17. An offer Fagen can't refuse

18. Funston makes a plan

19. "Capitan" Fagen

20. Funston assembles his team

21. Morality, ethics and war

22. Jungle encounter

23. Commencement

24. Benevolent assimilation

25. Colonel Bloody Shirt pays a call

26. Fagen declares war on God

27. Major Baston tastes his own medicine

28. Funston on the march

29. Fagen goes home