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Those who know call that part of the jungle the hellhole of creation for good reason. And they call the Indians who live there the fiercest humans on earth for even better reason. It's why no one wants to go there. It's why no one does go there. It's why those who do rarely come out alive.
Which is also why the lone American girl who ran through the jungle really had no business being there. At least according to those who know.
Tanya Vandervan jogged to a halt atop a cleared knoll and tried to still her heavy breathing. She'd run most of the way from her parents' mission station, hidden by trees a mile behind, and in this heat, a mile's run tended to stretch the lungs.
She stood still, her chest rising and falling, hands on hips, her deep blue eyes sparkling like sapphires through long blond hair. The rugged hiking boots she wore rose to clearly defined calves. Today she had donned denim shorts and a red tank top that brightened her tanned skin.
Still drawing hard but through her nose now, she lifted her eyes to the screeching calls of red-and-blue parrots flapping from the trees to her left. Long trunks rose from the forest floor to the canopy, like dark Greek columns supporting tangled wads of foliage. Vines dripped from the canopy-the jungle's version of silly string. Tanya watched a howler monkey swing suspended by a single arm, whether provoking or protesting the parrots' sudden departure, she could not tell. She smiled as the brown mammal reached a flimsy arm out and nabbed a purple passionfruit from a vine before arching back into the branches above.
A gunshot suddenly echoed through the valley and she jerked toward the plantation. Shannon!
An image of him filled Tanya's mind and she ran down the knoll, her heart thumping steady again.
To her right, the clearing butted against hills that rose to a black cliff, looming a mile to the plantation's north. The Richtersons' large two-story white house sat still in the midday air, white like a marshmallow on a sea of green.
On Tanya's left grew fifty acres of the plantation's exotic crop: Cavash coffee beans, commonly regarded among connoisseurs as the finest coffee in the world. Shannon could be there working the fields, but she doubted it-he'd never taken much interest in his father's farming.
His father, Jergen, had fled Denmark and carved out this living because of his hatred toward the west. The west is trampling out the earth's soul, he would say in his booming voice. And Washington's leading the charge. One of these days America will wake up and their world will be different. Someone will teach them a lesson and then they might listen. They were just words, nothing else. Jergen was a coffee farmer, not a revolutionary.
Shannon spouted his father's rhetoric on occasion, but really, it was love, not hate, that drove his world. Love for the jungle.
And love for Tanya.
The thunder of gunfire boomed again. Tanya smiled and broke to her left, sprinting around the fields toward the firing range.
Tanya saw them when she cleared the last coffee bush-three blond Scandinavian heads bent over a rifle with their backs to her. Shannon's father, Jergen, stood on the left, dressed in khaki green. The visiting uncle, Christian, stood to the right, a brother look-alike.
The bare-chested young man between them was Shannon.
Tanya's heart jumped at the sight and she pulled up, stepping lightly.
Shannon stood tall for eighteen, over six feet, and wrapped in muscles that seemed to grow larger each day. Countless hours in the sun had darkened his skin and lightened his long blond hair. She often teased him, suggesting he take a comb to his head, but in reality she rather liked the way those loose strands fell down his neck and into those bright emerald eyes. It meant she could sweep his hair aside with her fingers, and she liked touching his face that way. His pectoral muscles flared from a rippling stomach and met broad shoulders. Today he wore only loose black shorts-no shoes on this man.
Tanya smiled at the image of being carried on those shoulders, down the mountain, while Shannon insisted she was as light as a feather.
His carefree voice drifted to her. "Yeah, the Kalashnikov's good up to a few hundred yards. But it's no good for long range. I like the Browning Eclipse," he said, motioning to another rifle on the ground. "It's good out to a thousand."
"A thousand?" his uncle said. "You can hit targets that far?"
Shannon's father spoke softly. "He can hit a quarter at eight hundred yards. He's championship material, I'm telling you. In the States he'd win anything in his class."
Tanya stopped twenty paces behind the three men and crossed her arms. For all of their manly prowess, they hadn't noticed that she was watching them from the brush. She'd see how long a woman could stand behind them without being noticed. Ten to one when they did notice her, it would be Shannon's doing. But the wind blew in her face-he wouldn't be smelling her so quickly today. She smiled and stilled her breathing.
"Show him, Shannon," his father said, holding the rifle out to him.
"Show him? Where?" Shannon took the rifle. "The targets are only two hundred yards out."
Jergen looked past his brother to the plantation's far end. "Yes, but the shed's a good way off. How far would you say that is, Christian?"
All three faced the distant structure, sitting against the tall forest. "Must be a good thousand yards. Maybe more."
"Twelve hundred," Jergen said, still looking at the small barn. "And that weather vane propped on top, do you see it?"
Christian lifted his field glasses from his chest and peered north. "That rooster? You can't expect Shannon to hit that from this distance."
"No, not just the rooster, Christian. The rooster's head."
"Impossible." He lowered the glasses. "There's no way. The best marksman in the world would have trouble putting a round there."
"A round? Who said anything about a round? That rooster there's been rusted in place for years now. I'll place money on the boy placing three rounds in its head from this distance."
Shannon gazed stoically at the distant target. Tanya knew he could shoot, of course. Anything to do with hunting and sport he did well. But she had to use her imagination to even see the rooster's head. There was no way this side of Jupiter a professional marksman, much less Shannon, could hit a target so far away.
The three men faced away from her, still unaware that she watched.
Shannon suddenly cocked his head over his shoulder, smiled, and winked at her.
She smiled and returned the wink. For a moment they held stares, and then Shannon returned his gaze to the rooster. Tanya took a step closer, swallowing.
"Show him, Shannon," Jergen said, glasses still at his eyes.
Shannon flipped the rifle in his hands, gripped the bolt, and chambered a round in a single smooth motion. Kachink!
He dropped to one knee and brought the gun to his shoulder, squeezing his eye to the scope. His bronzed cheek bunched on the wood stock. Tanya held her breath, anticipating the first detonation.
Shannon adjusted his grip on the rifle once and sank slowly to his haunches. For several long seconds nothing happened. Father and uncle stared ahead, each through their own binoculars. Tanya breathed, but barely. The air grew deathly still.
The first shot came suddenly, Crack! and Tanya started.
Shannon flinched with the recoil, chambered another round-Kachink-steadied himself briefly, and squeezed off another shot. And then a third, so close to the tail of the second that they chased each other to the target. Echoes reverberated across the valley; father and uncle stood frozen, binoculars plastered to their eyes like generals on the battlefield.
Without lowering his rifle, Shannon twisted his head and drilled Tanya with his bright green gaze. A broad smile split his face. He winked again and stood.
His uncle grunted. "My dear goodness! He's done it! He's really done it!"
Tanya walked forward and laid a hand on his arm. The breeze lifted his shoulder-length hair, and she noted the thin sheen of sweat that covered his neck and chest. He bent and kissed her lightly on the forehead.
Tanya took his hand and pulled him while his father and uncle still gazed through their binoculars. "Let's go for a swim," she whispered.
He laid the rifle against a bale and took after her.
He caught her within ten paces and together they plunged into the trees, laughing. The shrieks of howler monkeys echoed through the canopy like wailing clarinets.
"You know what the natives say?" Shannon said, slowing to a walk.
"What do they say?" she asked, panting.
"That in the jungle if you move, they will see you. Unless they're downwind, in which case they see you anyway, with their noses. Like I saw you sneaking up behind us back there."
"No you didn't!" She swung around and faced him on the path. He pulled up, pretending to study the branches. But she saw the sparkle in his emerald eyes.
Her heart swelled for him and she grabbed his head and pulled him to her mouth, kissing him deeply. The heat from his bare chest rose to her neck. She released him and glared mockingly.
"The wind was full in my face! There was no way you smelled me. Admit it, the first you knew I was behind you was when you turned around!"
He shrugged and winked. "If you insist."
She held him, wanting to kiss him again, but resisting for the moment. "Okay, that's more like it," she said, smiling, and they walked again.
"The Kalashnikov," Shannon said.
"The Kalashnikov," he repeated, grinning slyly. "It's what I was talking about when you walked up behind us."
She stopped on the path, recalling the discussion. "Come on, you oaf." She grinned mischievously. "Beat me to the pool."
She ran past him, springing on the path ahead of him, placing each footfall on the squarest surface possible with each stride as he'd taught her. He could have passed her easily; could've probably taken to the trees and still reached the pool ahead of her. But he remained behind, breathing down her neck, silently pushing her to her limit. The path quickly entered thick, shadowed underbrush, perpetually damp under the canopy, forcing her to skip over the occasional stubborn puddle. Thick roots encroached on the muddy trail.
She veered to a smaller path-scarcely an indentation in the brush. The sound of crashing water grew in her ears and a haunting image flashed through her mind: Shannon standing next to the falls by the black cliffs, over a year ago. His arms had been spread and his eyes were closed and he was listening to the witch doctor's mutterings before the old bat Sula's death.
"Shannon!" she'd cried.
Their eyes flickered open as one-Shannon's bright green, Sula's piercing black. Shannon smiled. Sula glared.
"What are you doing?" she'd asked.
At first neither replied. Then the old bat's lips screwed into a smirk as he said, "We are talking to the spirits, my flower of the forest."
"Spirits." She shot Shannon an angry glance. "And what spirits are you talking to?"
"What is my name?" the old witch doctor asked.
"And where does my name come from?"
She hesitated. "I'm not sure I care."
"Sula is the name of the god of death," the old man said past his twisted grin. He waited, as if that should bring her horror. "Sula is the most powerful spirit on earth. All the witches before me took his power and his name. And I, too, have. That is why I am called Sula."
Shannon had stepped aside and was watching the man with something that hovered between intrigue and humor. He looked at Tanya and winked.
"You might think it's funny," she'd snapped at Shannon. "But I don't!" She faced the witch doctor, suppressing an urge to pick up a rock and throw it at him.
His eyes had narrowed to slits and he'd simply slipped into the forest.
She'd never told her father about the episode-a good thing because he might have come unglued over it. The Yanamamo tribe was known as "the Fierce Ones" for good reason-they were perhaps the most violent people on earth. And the source of their obsession with death was clearly spiritual. So her father insisted, and she believed him.
One month after the incident, Sula had died, and with him, Shannon's curiosity of his power. The tribe had buried him in the forbidden cave to three days of wailing. None in the tribe had yet worked up the courage to become Sula. To take on the spirit of death. To take on Satan himself, as her father put it. The tribe had been without a witch doctor for one year now, and as far as Tanya and her parents were concerned, that was good.
Tanya shook the memory off. It was over. Shannon was back to his old self. With Shannon still at her heels, Tanya broke from the jungle and pulled up at the cliff's edge, overlooking a waterfall that plunged twenty feet into a deep aqua pool below. Their pool.
She spun, panting. His body rushed by her, stretched out parallel, and soared over the cliff. She caught her breath and watched him fall in a swan dive before he could even see the water. If he ever miscalculated, he'd break every bone in his body on the rocks below. Her heart rose to her throat.
But he did not miscalculate. His body broke the surface silently and disappeared. For a while he didn't reemerge, and then he shot from the water and threw his long locks back with a flick of his neck.
Without a word, Tanya spread her arms and fell toward him. She broke the surface and felt the welcome chill of mountain water wash up her legs.
In that moment, free-falling into the pool's deep, she thought she had indeed come to paradise. She had been taken by her God, plucked at a young age from the suburbs of Detroit, and deposited in a jungle haven where all her dreams would come true.
She broke the surface beside Shannon. He kissed her while she still drew breath and then they struck for a sunny rock on the far side. She watched him pull himself effortlessly from the water and sit facing her, his legs dangling into the pool.
Tanya reached him and drew herself up to his knees. "Are all plantation boys as full of themselves as you?"
He suddenly reached in and lifted her from the water.
Tanya laughed and fell forward, knocking him onto his back. He put his arms over his head and lay on the warm rock. The sun glistened off tiny beads of water on his chest. She propped herself up beside him and traced the droplets with her finger.
There was nothing she could imagine as lovely as Shannon. This stunning specimen of a man with whom she was madly in love. God had brought her into the jungle seven years ago for this, she thought. To find the man she would spend her life loving. To one day marry him and bear his sons. He swallowed and she watched his Adam's apple rise and fall in his throat.
"I love you, Tanya," Shannon said.
She kissed his cheek. He drew her down and kissed her lips. "I think . . ." He kissed her again. "I really think I'm madly in love with you," he said.
"Always?" she asked.
"Till death do us part?"
"Till death do us part," he said.
"I swear it."
Tanya kissed his nose lightly.
"And I love you, Shannon," she said.
And she did. With every living cell she loved this boy. This man. Yes indeed, she thought. This was paradise.
It was the last day she would ever think it.