A story: Walking Alone, Chapter 5

“Yeah, something happened in Brazil, Josh told Sandra’s mother while they were trying to figure out the reason for her daughter’s disappearance and possible death. “I’d forgotten all about it. But now I think it may be coming back to bite us. Or at least bite Sandra.”

The more Josh thought about their time in Brazil, the more clearly memory returned, and with memory came first suspicion and then certitude. There must be a connection between her disappearance or death or whatever happened in the Sandia Mountains and that documentary she and Frank and Josh filmed in the narrow, tea-colored backwater in the Brazilian rain forest.

* * *

It was a different world, a strange world. They rode horses deep into the Brazilian jungle on narrow dirt paths. When the paths ran out, they bought two dugout canoes from villagers and poled their way along tiny streams overhung with vines wrapped around the trunks of 100-foot-tall trees where unseen monkeys howled to mark their passage.

The group consisted only of an indigenous guide and the three of them—Sandra, Frank and Josh, the cinematography team chasing down illegal gold miners.

“It’s risky,” the police chief in the nearest town warned them. He was obese and half-drunk and lolling in a hammock. He hardly inspired confidence. Still, a warning was a warning.

Sandra, hesitant, looked at Josh.

Josh, fear starting to gnaw at his self-confidence, stared at Frank.

Frank, undeterred, shot back, “I don’t have a problem with taking chances.”

When did Frank start taking the lead. When did he become the decisive one? When had he changed? This trip seemed to have brought out a new dimension of his character.

Perhaps it was because Frank was the only of trio to know Brazil well. He had studied Portuguese there, had lived and worked in Sao Paolo for several years, had lobbied in Washington on behalf of the Brazilian Cattlemen’s Association.

Where to find Mountain Musing: The Independent will cease to publish Wally Gordon’s “Mountain Musing” column in early December. Thereafter his column may be accessed at wallygrdon.blogspot.com.

Simultaneously, just as Frank seemed to be emerging from a cocoon, under the pressure of enervating heat, immobilizing fear and the terrifying blank sheet of unknown dangers, his two companions seemed to wither.

Now, for the first time in their lives, Sandra and Josh looked to Frank for leadership—Frank, the small, bungling, awkward friend and colleague who’d known both of them forever and had always followed their lead; who’d watched as the Josh-and-Sandra team solidified their personal and professional relationship and as the jungle project came together, piece by piece: the financing, the contacts, the travel arrangements, the gold-mining theme, the plans for the production and eventual distribution of the film.

After three days in the jungle, they saw what they had come for: an illegal gold-mining operation deep inside an indigenous reserve. Adjacent to the mine was an airstrip, and on the airstrip a helicopter with Brazilian Air Force markings. Hiding in the thick forest, Sandra photographed the scene with a telephoto lens. She wasn’t sure how clear it would all be to the casual viewer, but she kept shooting and shooting and shooting.

The helicopter kept its engine roaring, its long blades rotating and stirring up the dust of the minuscule landing field.

A fat man in a white suit climbed out of the helicopter, ducked beneath the whirring blades and walked over to a group of miners. One of them stepped forward and shook the fat man’s hand. They talked for a minute or two.

Then the miner handed the fat man a thick envelope.

He turned and walked back to the helicopter. It immediately rose into the morning sky.

They had what they came to get. They found out later that the fat man was the minister of mines.

The three Americans and their indigenous guide began the long journey back to civilization by canoe and on horseback.

As the long, torrid, almost unbearable days in the jungle spooled out, Josh’s impression of a new Frank gelled. But he could never put his finger on exactly when the change transpired or what caused it. He asked Sandra if she’d noticed it too. She hesitated but finally agreed. Why the hesitation, she who never doubted herself or her reactions to other people. On all sides, the triangular dynamic had Josh puzzled.

• • •

It finally occurred to Josh what in retrospect he felt should’ve been obvious all along. The one person who might hold the key to Sandra’s fate was Frank. No one else had been as close to both Josh and Sandra for as long as Frank.

He’d been Josh’s closest friend for nearly half a century. Once upon a time long, long ago he’d been in love with Sandra. Or at least he seemed to be so although he’d never discussed it with Josh. In fact, it was Frank who’d introduced his friend Josh to his friend Sandra, who’d watched as the two collaborated in work an observed their budding romance.

He remained the confidante of both as their relationship blossomed and finally seemed to wither in the weeks between their return from Brazil and her disappearance in the Sandia Mountains.

She moved out of Josh’s house, stopped confiding in him, and largely withdrew from work on the film just as it was entering the final production stage. And in the worst blow of all, she refused to explain herself to Josh. She never offered any reason for the change in their relationship. They remained friends and sometime lovers, but it wasn’t the closeness they’d previously had.

With no clue as to her motives, Josh did what any lover would do: He blamed himself. He must’ve done something wrong, injured her powerful pride in herself as a photographer, a woman, a lover. But what? He’d always wanted only to honor, respect and love her.

It made no sense to him.

Maybe, Frank held the key.

NEXT WEEK: THE CONCLUSION 

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