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by James Rollins
William Morrow, 2002
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The anaconda held the small Indian girl wrapped in its heavy coils, dragging her toward the river.
Nathan Rand was on his way back to the Yanomamo village after an early morning of gathering medicinal plants when he heard her screams. He dropped his specimen bag and ran to her aid. As he sprinted, he shrugged his short-barreled shotgun from his shoulder. When alone in the jungle, one always carried a weapon.
He pushed through a fringe of dense foliage and spotted the snake and girl. The anaconda, one of the largest he had ever seen, at least forty feet in length, lay half in the water and half stretched out on the muddy beach. Its black scales shone wetly. It must have been lurking under the surface when the girl had come to collect water from the river. It was not unusual for the giant snakes to prey upon animals who came to the river to drink: wild peccary, capybara rodents, forest deer. But the great snakes seldom attacked humans.
Still, during the past decade of working as a ethnobotanist in the jungles of the Amazon basin, Nathan had learned one important rule: if a beast were hungry enough, all rules were broken. It was an eat-or-be-eaten world under the endless green bower.
Nathan squinted through his gun's sight. He recognized the girl. “Oh, God, Tama!” She was the chieftain's nine-year-old niece, a smiling, happy child who had given him a bouquet of jungle flowers as a gift upon his arrival in the village a month ago. Afterward she kept pulling at the hairs on his arm, a rarity among the smooth-skinned Yanomamo, and nicknamed him Jako Basho, “Brother Monkey.”
Biting his lip, he searched through his weapon's sight. He had no clean shot, not with the child wrapped in the muscular coils of the predator.
“Damn it!” He tossed his shotgun aside and reached to the machete at his belt. Unhitching the weapon, Nathan lunged forward'but as he neared, the snake rolled and pulled the girl under the black waters of the river. Her screams ended and bubbles followed her course.
Without thinking, Nathan dove in after her.
Of all the environments of the Amazon, none were more dangerous than its waterways. Under its placid surfaces lay countless hazards. Schools of bone-scouring piranhas hunted its depths, while stingrays lay buried in the mud and electric eels roosted amid roots and sunken logs. But worst of all were the river's true man-killers, the black caimans -- giant crocodilian reptiles. With all its dangers, the Indians of the Amazon knew better than to venture into unknown waters.
But Nathan Rand was no Indian.
Holding his breath, he searched through the muddy waters and spotted the surge of coils ahead. A pale limb waved. With a kick of his legs, he reached out to the small hand, snatching it up in his large grip. Small fingers clutched his in desperation.
Tama was still conscious!
He used her arm to pull himself closer to the snake. In his other hand, he drew the machete back, kicking to hold his place, squeezing Tama's hand.
Then the dark waters swirled, and he found himself star ng into the red eyes of the giant snake. It had sensed the challenge to its meal. Its black maw opened and struck at him.
Nate ducked aside, fighting to maintain his grip on the girl.
The anaconda's jaws snapped like a vice onto his arm. Though its bite was nonpoisonous, the pressure threatened to crush Nate's wrist. Ignoring the pain and his own mounting panic, he brought his other arm around, aiming for the snake's eyes with his machete.
At the last moment, the giant anaconda rolled in the water, throwing Nate to the silty bottom and pinning him. Nate felt the air squeezed from his lungs as four hundred pounds of scaled muscle trapped him. He struggled and fought, but he found no purchase in the slick river mud.
The girl's fingers were torn from his grip as the coils churned her away from him.
He abandoned his machete and pushed with his hands against the weight of the snake's bulk. His shoulders sank into the soft muck of the riverbed, but still he pushed. For every coil he shoved aside, another would take its place. His arms weakened, and his lungs screamed for air.
Nathan Rand knew in this moment that he was doomed -- and he was not particularly surprised. He knew it would happen one day. It was his destiny, the curse of his family. During the past twenty years, both his parents had been consumed by the Amazon forest. When he was eleven, his mother had succumbed to an unknown jungle fever, dying in a small missionary hospital. Then, four years ago, his father had simply vanished into the rain forest, disappearing without witnesses.
As Nate remembered the heartbreak of losing his father, rage flamed through his chest. Cursed or not, he refused to follow in his father's footsteps. He would not allow himself simply to be swallowed by the jungle. But more important, he would not lose Tama!
Screaming out the last of the trapped air in his chest, Nathan shoved the anaconda's bulk off his legs. Freed for a moment, he swung his feet under him, sinking into the mud up to his ankles, and shoved straight up.
His head burst from the river, and he gulped a breath of fresh air, then was dragged by his arm back under the dark water.
This time, Nathan did not fight the strength of the snake. Holding the clamped wrist to his chest, he twisted into the coils, managing to get a choke hold around the neck of the snake with his other arm. With the beast trapped...