A Little Knowledge

Antonio Velez mopped the perspiration from his eyes.  He’d spent the last month living with a small Indian tribe in the Amazon. This deprived existence was for his thesis as a Social Anthropologist – and Archeologist  leading on from that.

Now he was making his way out of the jungle to the border where he would find civilization to ferry him home to Columbia and the hallowed halls of learning at Columbia University.  He moved forward, watching the ground for clues to the trail as his Indian companions had taught him, when he was brought to an abrupt halt.

‘Ha! Where you from?’ The guttural voice belonged to a swarthy, muscled man standing in his path. He wore a dirty shirt and tattered trousers, but heavy, serviceable boots. On his back Antonio saw that he carried a pack like his own, a rifle barrel protruding from the top. He was not alone. Two more  individuals, unshaven and similarly encumbered, silently stepped out of the surrounding shrubbery to join their companion.

‘Back there – ‘ Antonio inclined his head to indicate the direction, without taking his eyes off the unkempt men.

‘Only Indian there. You think we crazy?’ The swarthy man uttered a sneering guffaw. His friends sniggered. ‘You want to claim forest – yeah? You in our place – this our trees.’

‘My studies,’ Antonio began.  His stomach tightened. The Indians had warned him to keep clear of the men that came with noise to take away the trees. These people sometimes seconded the Indian men from the tribe to labour for them, with promises of good food and metal equipment.  If these labourers  returned to their people, it was usually without those things and instead, with a desperate need of alcohol.

‘No – I don’t want to claim anything here. I was just learning about the Indian tribe.’ Antonio hoped  the men would understand but they continued to block his path.

‘You don’t need all that.’ The man in the middle gestured at Antonio’s pack. ‘What you got?’

Antonio opened his arms, palms upwards – ‘Look I just have my food and water and my notes. I need to get to Columbia.’

‘Yeah.’  The man sneered and looked at his companions. He said something in a gutter-Spanish dialect and then turned back to Antonio. ‘We take all you stuff eh. We let you go. No give, we say adios right here.’ The man reached up behind his back and meaningfully tapped the protruding rifle barrel. ‘You alone – we need your stuff.’

‘I’ll die without my food and water. I need my notes…my medicine..’  Antonio’s voice trailed off as the men began to swing their packs off their backs and tug out their rifles. Antonio swung his own pack off his back and stepped back, his hands up.

With yells of derision and triumph the men grabbed his pack.  But this was not enough. The man at the centre aimed his rifle at Antonio’s feet. ‘See you run, eh – like the Indian,’ and fired a shot. Antonio did not wait for more. He ran back the way he had come, but blindly. When he stopped, he heard the men still hooting with laughter and progressing into the distance.

All was still. Even the pervasive jungle insects had quietened as if shocked into silence. Antonio shivered as if he had a fever.  His teeth chattered. He took deep breaths. He was hopelessly disoriented.  Think! he told himself. He sat down where he was and took counsel from all he had learned from the Indian tribe – how to track, what to look for when hunting prey..at least he could plainly see where he had come from. The leaves were torn; here a bent twig; there soil dislodged.  Step by step he made his way back to where he had met the tree fellers.

Now he could make out their untidy passage; it was a clearer trail than he had made. They had no need to be careful; three against one. Nevertheless, he had to find them. Without his pack he could not hope to survive. It took hours of careful but hurried tracking, sometimes stopping or even going back to make sure he hadn’t missed a sign. He was in a fever of anxiety that the signs would fade; the vegetation would spring back.

Daylight was fading when he heard ahead the harsh voices of the captors of his pack. He saw a flicker of warm light reflected on the broad leaves of a vine – heard the crackle that denoted wood in a fire. Antonio crouched . He peered through the shrubbery and saw three pup tents sited by a fire. The men were passing round a bottle he recognised – his precious medicinal whisky. Beside one of the tents he saw his pack. It still looked intact – minus his whisky bottle.

Antonio bottled his fury and found patience as their laughter grew and their talk became slurred. As the flames died down and the whisky bottle emptied, the men retired one by one to their tents. Antonio waited as the night frogs commenced their lusty chirrups and very soon loud snoring from the tents accompanied their orchestra.

Antonio crept forward and with a stifled gasp of relief, swung his pack on to his back.  He did not hasten away however. These men would kill him without thought if they found him. They had each left their rifles at the door of their tents. He took those and their packs that they had carelessly left beside the fire. It took a couple of stealthy walks into the camp, each time his heart like a lump in his throat, to remove their equipment.  The rifles he flung one by one far into the jungle in different directions. The packs, he emptied far and wide amongst the bushes and was pleased to discover a compass which he kept.

The tables were totally turned now.  Antonio crept away knowing that survival was no longer a certainty for these men who thought so little of the Indians.  What knowledge these men had, without  their modern weaponry would serve nothing for them now in the dominion of the Brazilian natives. And should the Indians find them,  they had even less hope.

Antonio, moreover, had gained the best story he could hope for to illustrate his thesis on his Indian tribe.  Indeed knowledge in place transcends knowledge of place in every circumstance.

This started as an exercise for my writing group, but became an illustrative short story instead, of what real knowledge can be. In this case, it is about survival.

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