CHAPTER ONE

They emerged from the dense undergrowth without the rustle of a leaf or stirring of the humid air, three hunters warned by instinct that something was not right. They stopped less than fifty feet from Professor Terry Castro’s camouflaged observation post, completely naked except for the ochre paint covering their faces and the bows strapped to their backs.

He studied the three men: all well over six feet tall with light-colored skin, dirty yellow hair, and ice-blue eyes. Sinewy muscles stood out like ropes under taut skin. Gnarly hands and large feet, flaccid genitalia, bodies nearly hairless, only flared nostrils and darting eyes moved as they sought the source of discord in their jungle.

Castro checked the four students with him in the narrow observation post, each handpicked to be part of the Berrie University summer anthropology program. They sat as statues with mouths agape, staring at the clearing. When Castro looked back the hunting party had melted into the jungle. He prayed that the remote cameras had been working.

They exhaled in unison, smiles beginning to spread across faces as they realized they had just been first hand witnesses to history. Tom Wise, the only underclassman in the group, began to rise. Castro raised his hand, palm out, to signal stop.

S-s-s-THUNK!

Feathers quivered inches from Castro’s right ear, attached to a short shaft buried in a tree trunk that was part of the back wall of the observation post.

“Get down!” Castro shouted as he dove for the dirt floor. Fear mixed with sweat from the heat and humidity, his clothes sticking to him like a second skin, he waited for the next arrow.

The acrid smell of urine permeated the air. He turned his head slightly and saw a wet stain spreading on the back of khaki shorts; the student he had thought would develop into the leader of this group.  A muffled whimper escaped from Sarah Carpenter,  the only female student on the team, as she tried to keep her terror under control. They all lay against the back wall, instinctively curled in a fetal position with their arms and hands covering their heads. One of the student’s shoulders convulsed as he sobbed silently.

A minute passed. Two. Musty dampness seeped into their skin from the earthen floor. The fetid odor of decaying vegetation mixed with the smell of urine and fear as the five breathed a primordial soup. An eternity, it seemed, until the chirrup of a bird broke the quiet. A monkey chittered. Castro became aware of the buzz and hum of insects. The jungle slowly regained its rhythm.

Carefully he rose to one knee and peeked through a crack in the wall of vines and bamboo. The clearing was as it had been, no sign of the strange white-skinned hunters.  Slowly the four students gathered their courage and stood. Castro motioned them to evacuate the blind. Once outside, they turned and began a measured retreat to their Toyota Land Cruiser, single file with Castro in the rear, afraid to look back. Scientists no longer, just survivors.

Castro had warned the students that the trip could be dangerous, but he had meant disease or injury.  Nothing in his experience suggested that the inhabitants of the Peruvian Amazon would be hostile. The central Amazon basin had its alleged head hunters, but that was a thousand miles to the east and a century ago. Yet he couldn’t shake the thought: I should be dead. They must shoot flying birds and running animals for survival. Six-foot-three, two hundred fifteen pound Dr. Terry Castro should have been an easy target.

“The arrow!” he blurted.

They stopped in unison at the exclamation.  He ordered them to continue to the truck and wait for him. He was going back for the arrow.

Castro retraced his steps to the observation post, his eyes darting as he strained to see through the dense curtain of jungle foliage on both sides of the path. He saw nothing but vines, bromeliads, orchids, ferns, and bamboo, and bugs suspended in shafts of sunlight sifting through the green canopy a hundred feet overhead. The hunters, if they were there, were invisible.

He slid into the back of the observation post, wiggling between two palm trunks to gain entrance. The arrow was still there. It seemed small, even frail. He unsheathed his knife and began digging into the tree, careful not to cut the shaft of the arrow. The tree wood was soft and it took only a few minutes to free the arrow.

Castro cradled it in both hands, marveling at the primitive artistry. The head was three inches long and not more than a half inch wide, barely wider than the shaft itself.  It appeared to be made from pounded metal and had streaks of a dark, varnish-like substance covering it.  It was set in a smooth wooden shaft, split to accept the arrowhead, which was held in place by a thin piece of hide tightly wrapped and covered with a transparent red substance. Castro rubbed the head with his thumb to see if the dark streaks would rub off. To his surprise a thin line of red, and then two droplets of blood, formed on his thumb. Upon closer observation he discovered  microscopic razor-sharp ridges on the flat sides, running the length of the head.

Odd, he thought as he sucked the blood off his thumb. What’s the purpose? He turned to leave.

Standing in the clearing was the tallest of the three hunters–over seven feet tall–a blow pipe held by a long angular arm, pressed to his mouth.

——–

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