My eyes opened wide. I had gone from gently slumbering to fully alert in an instant. My ears strained to hear if anything followed. Nothing but the sway of the trees lining the jungle opening we were camped in. I threw back the blanket protecting me from from the open air and reached for my upturned boots beneath the hammock.
"Who was that?" I shouted, "Speak up, who's still here?"
"I'm here sir, Godfrey. And so's the guide."
More name called out. As I laced up the boots I head Jameson barking out orders on my behalf. Ge was a retired army sargent now serving as my second on this expedition. "Who was it, Jameson? Get them lined up."
"Yes sir. RIGHT, you 'eard 'im! Get roused and get in line." The whole camp was moving now as people jumped into their boots and formed a ragged line.
"Looks like it's young Scott sir." said Jameson, matter of factly.
I wasn't too familiar with a lot of the faces. Most of them were hired right before we set off, to manhandle our kit. Scott, though, was another matter. He was a young ship hand eager to see more of the world than a ship's hold. We'd hired him even before the we had docked. Jameson had taken the lad under his wing and looked after him. He was enthusiastic and willing to share in the work which was enough for me to allow him to stay with us.
Jameson, Andrews. Take 2 men each and look for Scott. "You two." I pointed to a pair at the end of the line wearing distinctive red shirts. "What are your names?"
The pair looked at each other. "Vincent" replied one, the other "Paul".
"You're with me." I barked, "Godfrey, look after the camp until we return. And get that damn fire going!". With that I marched into the woods, turning momentarily to check that Paul and Vincent were following.
The growth wasn't particularly think at the edge of the jungle, but enough to obscure the night sky and with it the bright moon that had enabled us to navigate to this point easily.
"We can't see very well and lanterns aren't going to do us any good in these conditions." I whispered to my 2 men. "Stay close, within a couple of yards and we'll circle around the camp."
"Yes Mr Smith." They both replied unenthusiastically. I placed myself in the middle of them so I could hear them both and we trudged off clockwise. Paul and Vincent were obviously scared. With every step, they edged close to me until we were walking almost shoulder to shoulder.
"Spread out a bit." I whispered impatiently. "We won't find anything like this. If so, we'll do it again properly."
The men got the idea and spread out. As we carried on they didn't approach and I occasionally lost sight of them as we passed on different sides of trees. I was conscious of keeping the light of the re-lit fire in sight on my right side. to make sure we didn't venture out too far.
When I thought we had covered roughly half the distance around the clearing I became concerned. We had not encountered any of the other groups and there had not been any commotion in the camp to suggest that Scott had been found. Paul, on my left, became agitated and started rustling the foliage around him. "What was that? I just heard something!" he squeaked, I could sense that he was on the verge of deserting us and running back to camp.
"Stay where you are, man. We'll never hear anything if you insist on making that racket.!" The noise on my left subsided but Vincent on my right had started to hyperventilate noisily.
"Be quiet, the both of you." Anger was creeping into my voice, masking the edge of fear that I was feeling for myself. The rustling became less.
"Now, quietly, what was it you heard?" I couldn't just trust that Paul's nerves weren't playing tricks on him. He rustled a little more.
"Well?" The rustling continued but there was still no answer.
"Follow me." I whispered to Vincent and turned toward the deep jungle and the rustling. Vincent drew closer to me, almost treading on my heals as approached the noise.
As we got close, there was a final increase in activity and then quiet. We carried on in that direction. The light from the moon and the camp fire behind us was now non-existent as we crept forward slowly, feeling the terrain with our feet. I stepped on a branch and when my wait moved on to it fully, I felt it give and roll away. I attempted to keep my balance but only succeeded in falling onto my bottom where my feet had been shortly before. Vincent, who had been so close behind, tripped on an outstretched arm and fell forward.
"Urgh, god! What's this mess?" He exclaimed. I was unable to see what he was referring to in the darkness so I crawled forward, feeling my my to him. He was trying to get up and busy tripping over, making more noise in the process. Then, unexpectedly I felt something warm under my hand. It was covered in fabric, it was an arm! I felt my way up as Vincent ignited his lighter.
"Argh! It's blood! he screamed, looking at his hands, "It's blood! He's DEAD!" Before I could say anything he spun round and headed off into the foliage.
"Wait...stop!" I cried, "You going the wrong way!. He ignored me and carried on until I couldn't hear him any more.
I sighed shakily. I had to know who this was. Was it Paul? Was it Scott? And what had happened? I pulled out my own lighter and examined the body under the dingy orange glow. It was Paul, his neck and shoulders were covered in blood. I peered closer. He had a wound on the side of his neck. Had he been bitten?
I doused the lighter and stayed crouched. It was far too gentle and deliberate a sound to be Vincent finding his way back. It was someone trying to remain stealthy. I knew some of the party could move through the jungle quietly, but none had a reason to stalk me. This was more likely to be an attacker! The sound of my heart pounded in my ears and my whole body felt as though it had been dipped in ice cold water. I was going to be next unless I did something about it! I shifted position silently, so I was facing in the direction of the clearing. Then, suddenly, I burst up and forward, hoping to surprise my would be attacker. I pushed branches aside and fled toward the dim light of the camp fire. I could hear the vegetation being trample behind me, I was definitely being followed. I hoped to god that nothing tripped me before I got free of the trees!
I made the clearing and sped up, lengthening my stride and ignoring my burning muscles and lungs. My pursuer had stopped making sounds a little before I left the trees but I dared not pause to check behind me. The silhouette of Godfrey's lanky body grew bigger as I approached the camp.
"Get a gun!" I shouted at him. I wasn't in the habit of issuing firearms to my men, that usually caused more accidents than solutions but I still packed them, for situations like this. As I crossed the perimeter, Godfrey exited the store tent with a revolver in each hand. His face displayed sheer panic, he looked from side to side frantically trying to see where the foe might be. I reached him, grabbed one of the guns and spun around. I stood peering into the darkness, trying to see if anything was there. I hadn't been followed.
"Mr Smith, what's happening?" asked Godfrey. His educated voice wavered.
"I think we have an intruder. Have you heard from any of the others?"
"No sir, not since you sent Jameson back for the other men?"
"Was he by himself?" It was unusual to for him to use my authority like that, the men were sufficiently scared of him for that to be unnecessary.
"Yes sir. Well, I think so. He just kind of called over from the perimeter and dashed off again." The remaining gun in Godfrey's hand was now beginning to shake. "Sir, the guide has been yammering something about evil spirits in this area. Said it was something the local parents tell their kids about. Just a silly ghost story I thought but now he wont say anything. He just stays knelt down, praying to the jungle spirits or something."
I took a look around the camp. I could only see Godfrey and the guide on his knees next to the fire. Neither of them were what I would call fighters.
Off to one side I heard some heavy footsteps. Slowly the silhouette of Jameson became apparent.
"Sir, good to see you again. Thought the spirits might have got you." He sounded tired, almost bored.
I looked at Godfrey, who just shrugged. "I didn't say anything to him before sir."
"Where did you hear about spirits, Jameson?" I called back.
Jameson slowly came closer and it grew easier to see him. His white shirt sleeves were now red, as was his mouth, chin and neck. On the side of his neck, I could just make out a small wound.
"Now sir, I never said I heard about them. I met them in person." His voice had almost become jovial, nonchalant, "They very much want you to meet them too."
I stretched out my arm, pointing the gun at him, and squeezed the trigger of the gun. A round exploded from the barrel. Jameson didn't flinch. Surely I couldn't have missed?
"That won't do you any good sir." Jameson continued walking towards us slowly. I raised the gun at him again. This time I squeezed the trigger repeatedly until there were no more bullets left. As the smoke cleared, Jameson arrive just in front of me. He had a couple of bullet holes in his chest and one in his forehead.
"I told you it won't do you any good!" said Jameson as he gently removed the empty revolver from my hand. There was a sound and I looked around me I saw the men that had gone into the jungle walking up to the fire. They were all covered in blood, with wounds on their necks. From the direction that I had emerged from the jungle I saw Paul and Vincent in their distinctive red shirts.
As Jameson put one hand on my shoulder and the other on the side of my head I prayed that I would not suffer any pain.