The Naked Jungle by akablonded

The Naked Jungle - akablonded

~~~

*Vieux Carre – The French Quarter in New Orleans, Lousiana

**Cinco Sentidos – Five Senses (Portuguese)

***Catholic – Universal; broad; far-ranging

****Caiman – South American crocodile.

*****Blunderstones – Workboots

This story is a Sentinelization of THE NAKED JUNGLE, the 1954 film directed by Byron Haskin, starring Charlton Heston and Eleanor Parker.

~~~

The Cascade cut through the seemingly placid waters of the Araguaia River. If its meandering, hither and fro, stem to stern, around the small, canopied vessel, mirrored the random thoughts of both captain and passenger (both of whom studied its vagaries) neither shared this salient observation with the other. The conversation between the two – the 6’4” Negro master of the ship and his smaller, long-haired male companion -- was much less esoteric and centered on the unusual fauna that seemed to flourish in South America.

"That's a Siji bird, Mr. Sandburg."

"Is it rare?"

"You usually don't see them this far down river. Something scared it."

"Perhaps it is the presence of interlopers, Captain Banks."

"You are referring to us? No, they are used to my boat. Although the jungle doesn't often see someone as - pardon the choice of words - exotic as you."

"You've never met a person of Jewish descent before, captain?"

"No. I confess I have not."

"Are we so different, then?"

"No, you misunderstand. I am paying you a compliment, young man."

"Thank you."

"And, since you are to be the guest of James Ellison, I would dare no disrespect, Mr. Sandburg. Mr. Ellison is quite formidable."

"Is he?"

"Yes. And I speak as a friend of his. I would not wish to know him as an enemy. A very tough man is Mr. Ellison. But then, he would have to be, to live in the jungle."

"Even more so, to thrive here."

"You are most … perceptive."

"Thank you. That is singularly the kindest – and least suggestive – thing anyone has said to me since I arrived in your country."

Simon Banks wisely said nothing.

At length, his lone passenger turned toward the tall black man. "I haven't had a chance to ask you before, but how well do you know Mr. Ellison?"

"I brought him upriver on this same boat, many years ago."

"What kind of man is he?"

"Beg pardon?"

"What is Mr. Ellison like?"

"I thought you had made his acquaintance at some juncture – that you knew him."

"No. I only knew his younger brother, Steven. I have never met James Ellison personally. I've only seen his daguerreotype that Steven carried with him. It wasn’t a particularly flattering portrait. I must say that his looks are striking, but his bearing is quite severe.”

Banks considered the perfect profile staring off into the horizon. “I was most sorry to hear of young Ellison's passing. From the few times we met at his brother’s ranch, I found him to be a charming, self-possessed young man."

"Yes, he was that. And more, to those fortunate enough to share his company for an extended period of time."

The comment faded into the ether, quickly camouflaged by a cacophony of avian squawking.

"The Ellisons do look alike, in some respects."

Blair’s voice became wistful. "Steven was thought handsome by New Orleans society."

"If he was considered handsome, were you, if I may be so bold …"

"Me? Interesting question. What word did you use? Exotic?"

Simon Banks wanted to say (but would have had his tongue cut out before he’d ever utter such words), "as beautiful as any woman I have ever seen -- or longed for."

Instead he continued his description of the elder Ellison. "You can understand why. The life here has taken a toll on his psyche. It has made James Ellison fierce-looking. But, that happens to all of us who dare to call the jungle 'home.'"

“I will bow to your experience, Captain Banks. Home, to me, was always more amenable. It was filled with love and laughter and gaiety. New Orleans was exciting and cosmopolitan. It could be vulgar and even dangerous at times. But I hated leaving it, my circle of intimates … well, my world.”

"Then, how is it you are coming here?"

"It was arranged."

"I'm sorry, I don't understand."

"It is a somewhat lengthy story. Suffice it to say, that Monsieur Ellison proffered an invitation to visit at the plantation when he found that his brother and I had been such good … friends."

Everything left unsaid hung heavily in the air above their heads.

"We're getting close to Ellison's land. It begins just beyond that next bend."

"Then, I'd better start getting my things together."

"There's no hurry. We won't reach his dock for a few hours."

"The plantation is that large?"

Simon Banks laughed loudly and good naturedly.

“This is another universe, Mr. Sandburg. Expansive as it is, the size of the plantation is secondary. Beyond the next bend, Jim Ellison has more power than a king. Be aware, my young friend, that on Cinco Sentidos he makes and breaks whatever rules he chooses. Above all else, remember that." A pregnant silence followed, the same tell-tale variety that Blair Sandburg had heard before. He’d never liked it.

“You know, don't you?”

“What do you mean?”

“Please, Captain, do me the courtesy of being honest. You haven't mentioned it the whole trip, but I think you know all there is to know."

Simon Banks sighed, and took a puff of the cigar he had been rolling between his even, white teeth before speaking, as though searching for the right word or phrase.

“Your name is Blair Jacob Sandburg. You come from New Orleans. You are well educated and well traveled. James’ brother, Steven, was your … your …”

"He was."

"He fell ill of the fever which claimed so many throughout the city last year. As he sickened, Steven wrote and asked his older brother to look after you should the worst happen."

“It did.” The young man diverted his gaze into the distance, valiantly attempting to keep his voice firm. He almost succeeded. "Steven was the kindest, most decent man I ever knew. He promised me that James would become …"

"Your protector?"

"You must have psychic abilities. That is the exact word Steven used. I can only trust that James Ellison is as honorable and true of heart as his younger sibling."

“He is a man of his word.”

“But what about his heart, Captain?”

“The jungle takes many a toll on a man. The heart is often the first casualty.”

At those words, Blair Sandburg donned a masque of calmness, an almost insouciance, as though any hint of emotion in front of a stranger might prove to be his undoing.

Was this the single most disastrous mistake of Blair Sandburg’s young life? Would he be sentenced to the life of an impoverished demimondaine, condemned to an awful fate far from everything he had known and everyone he had loved? Sandburg fought to keep fear from sweeping him away.

"Please take no offense. We speak plainly here, Mr. Sandburg. Too plainly for someone of a refined nature. If we were in more civilized surrounding, I would not have presumed to speak so."

"Is there not a culture here among the indigenous population? A civilization, if you will?"

"Ah, I see you are a student of the world, Mr. Sandburg. Yes. There is one. A noble, if primitive, savage variety.”

“Once one strips superficialities away, good captain, we are all brothers under the skin. Family is family. Social morays and class distinctions may color how we interact with one another, yet, we are all born into a small circle of people, we grow, and we are part of a larger tribe and learn to adhere to its rules. We mature, and then start the cycle again. It is the tapestry of the human race …”

"Just so, my young friend. Just so."

”And then, there is the great equalizer: love. The thing that brings joy to the heart, mind and soul. When all is said and done, it is the reason we live.”

“Not every love is a happy one, Monsieur. This I can attest to, from personal experience.”

“One cannot help whom one loves. "

"You and the younger Ellison …"

"Yes."

"It is not unheard of even here, Monsieur. Rules are less important. Living and staying alive are paramount. Still, James Ellison was more than a little unhappy with his brother's choice of lifestyle."

"It seems you know a great deal about the Ellison family."

"I do. I am Jim's best friend and confidante. Proximity and necessity have annealed us together. Life in the jungle makes it so. And as commissioner of this area for my government, I have to know everything that goes on. Besides, I'm what you might call nosy. Sandburg, look! Tapirs!"

Simon Banks pointed to the opposite shore. There stood two hoofed mammals, nervously eyeing the boat. The pair lapped water from the river with their long, rubbery snouts.

"You usually don't spot them during the day. Tapirs are excellent swimmers, spending much of their time in water and mud."

"How marvelous!" The younger man exclaimed, suddenly diverted from the serious conversation and clearly delighted at the chance occurrence of seeing the rare creatures.

Since the younger man seemed totally mesmerized by the animals, Banks thought better of mentioning that their flesh was considered a delicacy by the locals.

"Do they herd or are they solitary?"

"Tapirs are often found in pairs."

"Like other mammals … le Bon Dieu has designed them to need the comfort and solace of their own species."

"Well said, young gentleman."

Blair Sandburg blushed ever so slightly at the compliment. "Will you be stopping off at Mr. Ellison's plantation?"

"No, not this time. Just long enough to let you disembark. I have business further upriver which I cannot afford to delay."

"It's a shame. I could use –"

"An ally?"

"I was going to say 'friend' – if I might be so bold to presume."

"You may call me friend, young Sandburg."

"Thank you."

"How could it be otherwise? Even in our short congress together, your openness and candor, your discerning eye and pleasing nature make you the sort whom people befriend."

Blair Sandburg blushed again, making his eyes look even bluer, and presenting what Banks thought was an uncommonly pretty picture. The smaller man sought to deflect the other's scrutiny.

"A little while ago that Siji bird flew overhead. So they usually flock?"

"Yes. But something has caused them to stray from their usual habitat. They are much farther up the Araguaia than normal. There have been many such sightings lately. My government wants to know why."

"It sounds very mysterious."

"I hope there proves to be a commonplace explanation. At any rate, after tomorrow, I will not see you again for a little while. But, when next we meet, I have a feeling that you'll know more about Ellison than I do."

"Anything is possible, my good captain. Anything is possible."

The two men fell into a companionable silence.

The land pulsated with life – raw, primal, unfettered, yet not totally unfamiliar. After all, Blair Jacob Sandburg had been a citizen of the world since birth. Even though he had been raised in New Orleans by a gypsy Madonna of a mother, and always considered the Vieux Carre his home, the young Jew had traveled throughout the mid-East and Europe with Naomi Sandburg and her lover of many years, Dr. Eli Stoddard. “Pere Docteur” – as Blair called the wonderful man -- had cared for his mistress and her child as though they were his legitimate family. Of course, a legal union could never be, the difference in their stations precluding any such relationship. Still, Stoddard made sure that Blair was well-schooled by the Benedictine monks who had emigrated to New Orleans from the St. Meinrad Abbey in Indiana. Unfortunately, the good doctor had made no lasting provisions for Blair’s further education should something unfortunate occur.

And it did. A deadly accident on Eli Stoddard’s last expedition to Borneo left his mistress and her child bereft and to their own devices. The news was delivered via a trusted manservant to a distraught Naomi Sandburg and an inconsolable Blair, along with a small amount of money. It was secreted in a Sulawesi shaman’s bag, along with a written pledge of love to both. That and several books on archeology and anthropology was the sum total of Stoddard’s bequest.

Yet even with the formidable obstacles that the tragedy visited on the Sandburgs – or, perhaps because of them – young Blair grew into an extraordinary human being. The undeniable beauty the world saw was just the tip of the iceberg, as nautical men were fond of saying. Blair’s intelligence, quick wit and charming naiveté intermingled with a compassionate soul.

If Sandburg had been a different sort, he might have used all of his gifts to a more profitable advantage. But abiding decency and self respect precluded such action.

Steven Ellison fell under Blair’s spell the first moment they met. If the younger Ellison had been initially ensnared by the alluring trappings, he was soon tethered to Blair Sandburg by his “shining boy’s” open and caring heart. And they’d found one another in New Orleans, a city that ardently encouraged being ensnared and tethered. It was an exciting backdrop for the blossoming relationship. As they grew to know one another more intimately, the two exchanged a great many stories – and secrets --about themselves and their families.

While the ones Blair told were windows into the bohemian lifestyle he and Naomi led, the few Steven shared revolved around an unhappy family and always came back to the bizarre malady of his older brother. Steven hinted that it had been inherited from Grace Newell-Ellison, their mother.

Because of it – William Ellison decided to tear his family away from their comfortable home in New York and resettle in the virtual no-man’s land of South America.

Steven hated his life in South America. But his suffering was nothing compared with that of his brother.

Steven recalled James’ agony at sounds that were too loud, lights that were too bright, smells that no one else could detect, his skin so sensitive that he could barely wear clothing, and taste so skewed that all foods were virtually unpalatable. Worse, James Ellison was an unpardonable embarrassment to their father. William Ellison showed no mercy to his eldest son, treating him like a freak of nature, an aberration not to be tolerated.

His tyranny over the family ultimately sent Grace, the boys’ mother, onto a boat in the dead of night. She disappeared from their lives in a port downriver and was gone forever. James Ellison was eleven; Steven, eight.

Without Grace’s presence to intervene in the turmoil, the two brothers were pitted against one another at every opportunity William Ellison could arrange. Any feelings between them were squelched by their hard-hearted father. At length, in his 18th year, Steven took the all the money left him by his mother and emigrated back to New York to attend university.

In the intervening years, Steven Ellison returned to South America only a handful of times, including for the funeral of William Ellison. There were few people at the service – mostly business acquaintances -- so it was not difficult for Steven to see his elder brother still plagued by the “affliction,” when James sat, still as death, long after the preacher had finished the eulogy and brought the service to an end.

Over the months of Steven and Blair’s interlude, the mysterious condition of James’ five senses niggled at the back of Sandburg’s brain. It sent him to the personal library of one of Eli Stoddard’s friends. Doctor John Kelso (“Uncle Jack,” to Blair) gladly let Sandburg avail himself of any and all the books lining the numerous shelves. Settling back in a comfortable tufted chair, with a steaming cup of tea in hand, Blair turned the page on one of the heavier volumes, and inadvertently spilled some of the hot drink onto his lap. Muffling a curse, Blair wiped away the remains of the Oolong leaves, and suddenly remembered a story he’d heard at an afternoon soiree he and Steven had attended, hosted by the artist Emmanuel Robineaux. The story concerned the exploits of Sir Richard Burton, the English explorer. It was said that, because of his adaptability and linguistic skills, a disguised Burton journeyed Mecca to learn about the culture of the indigenous people. Further, rumor had it that Burton had translated the Kama Sutra, an ancient Indian text on carnal knowledge and intimate behavior between men and women.

As stimulating as that subject was, the story which captured Blair Sandburg’s was that of the tribal watchmen, those individuals whose ordained purpose was to guard the villages and their people by the development and use of what could only be described as preternatural sensory abilities. Burton had called them sentinels. In all tribal cultures, every village had someone who patrolled the border. Not a scout. More of a watchman. As Burton explained, the Sentinel would watch for approaching enemies, changes in the weather, movement of game. Tribe survival depended on it.

It came at a high price for the Sentinel. Even though he – or she – would be one of the most important members of the community, the individual’s senses would be honed by solitary time spent in the wild. Blair reflected that it was the same for saints and sinners throughout time: “being in the world, but not of it.”And back to James Ellison, pray tell, what could be more solitary than carving out an empire in the wilds of South America? Far from all things familiar, from whatever creature comforts were available, and the bonhomie of one’s own kind?

Sandburg’s brilliant, relentless mind began putting pieces of the two seemingly disparate puzzles together, and, ultimately realized that Steven’s brother might, in fact, be one of these “sentinels” – gifted or cursed with five heightened senses, depending upon how they were developed and used by the individual. James Joseph Ellison was very likely a sentinel. It was all to be found in the letters from James, if one were persuaded to look and see. Blair had found a cache of them, penned in precise, no-nonsense handwriting, whilst going through Steven’s things after the funeral. The letters were ensconced in a chest carved from a single piece of Brazilian mahogany, a birthday present from the older Ellison brother. The top was inlaid in obsidian with the figure of cat. After some thought, Blair had determined that it was actually a jaguar, Panthera onca, the New World feline. The only relief on the magnificent surface was the cat’s eyes – two small, perfect sapphires. The gift from the ruler of a foreign kingdom, Sandburg fancifully thought, to the young prince of another dominion.

Or perhaps a peace offering between warring factions.

In any case, James Ellison’s letters were a revelation because contained therein, Blair Sandburg found neither an inflexible martinet, nor a golem devoid of feelings.

No, the missives painted a very different picture. There were glimpses of a wounded, lonely, but sterling soul. There was an undercurrent of a profound sadness, an unabated longing, and an overwhelming need to bond again with something.

Or someone. Someone who might be able to lower all of James Ellison’s self-erected barriers. At the very least, guide him back to kith and kin.

Perhaps more. A paragraph in the last letter Steven received struck Blair Sandburg as if a gloved hand had smote his cheek: “Loneliness, brother, is the most terrible poverty. I am glad, at least, to be only one carrying this particular Ellison ‘curse.’ I wish you the happiness I fear I shall never, ever possess.” The anguish and raw honesty made Sandburg long to lessen the other man’s suffering. However impossible to believe, the words made Sandburg want to love James Joseph Ellison in any way he might be allowed – to show him he was worthy of the most profound of emotions.

In his heart, Blair felt he was not betraying his relationship with Steven Ellison. True, the two men had been lovers and companions, but neither had shared the profound bond of a spiritual connection which would last a lifetime on earth, and beyond.

One soul housed in two bodies.

Of course, a scenario in which Blair Sandburg would ever meet James Ellison – and the two falling into one another’s tender embrace before pledging undying love --- was but a fairytale dream.

And then the letter and ticket arrived with an emissary from the offices of Steven’s lawyers.

So, here was the self same Blair Jacob Sandburg on his way to meet a destiny thought impossible just a few months ago.

At length, the Cascade, with its red and white striped canvas top and embowed edges fluttering in the breeze, pulled slowly into the dock. A small cadre of natives was waiting. A dozen pairs of eyes poured over Blair Sandburg, appraising him, judging him.

As if sensing his small passenger's discomfiture, Banks spoke softly. “Mr. Ellison will probably be here soon to greet you himself. Well, goodbye, young sir."

“Goodbye, Captain Banks and thank you for your many kindnesses."

“Your servant, Mr. Sandburg.”

The two shook hands before Blair Sandburg disembarked. Everything he owned in the world was housed in one large steamer trunk and two Gladstones.

As the Cascade drifted back into the current, Simon Banks tipped his Panama hat toward the figure standing still as death on the pier.

Blair Sandburg waved in acknowledgement at the receding ship, even as a young male from the group spoke enthusiastically to him. “You are very welcome here, friend of Ellison."

The appellation garnered Sandburg's full attention. A teenage girl standing next to the first native handed him a small bouquet of colorful flora. Their smell was intoxicating.

“We are very glad you come. We hope being very much in love with you and you being much in love with us." The young woman then curtsied, dark knees flashing from beneath her skirt. Blair smiled kindly at the little speech, obviously practiced many times.

“We think you very handsome." Several of the other girls giggled shyly.

"Thank you for welcoming me. And the lovely flowers." As Blair made a show of sniffling them appreciatively, an older Indian stepped from behind the crowd. His demeanor was, to Sandburg’s way of thinking, regal. “My name is Incacha. I am Ellison-lord's number one man. Whatever you wish, it is me you will ask."

“Thank you, Incacha. Where is Mr. Ellison? I was given to understand he would be here.”

“Whatever you wish, I see it is done." No explanation for Ellison’s absence was offered.

“Did you understand my question? Where is your master?”

“I understand plenty. Much words I am taught. He come from the jungle. Send message, say he very dirty. He does not wish to meet you like a dirty man. Please. You will come?”

“Thank you." Blair found himself escorted to a waiting phaeton, pulled by matching bay geldings in highly-polished livery and tack. A startlingly beautiful girl, of perhaps 14 years, stood on the periphery of the crowd. The child-woman spoke haltingly to Incacha in their native tongue. Her dark eyes matched the glistening black hair that hung down to her waist. She looked anxious for a moment as the older native answered her back. Unexpectedly, Incacha grabbed her by her elbow and shoved her toward Sandburg.

“Her name Maya. You want her?”

“Want her? Good God! What about her family?” Blair asked in an alarmed voice.

“Oh, they are glad to lose girl. Make plenty. Give her first to Ellison-lord. He no want. Say for new Sandbird-lord." Incacha malapropped. “Maya. Go to house with Sandbird-lord. Unload things. Get fancy man bath."

Blair Sandburg held his hand up, and shook his head in the negative at the very notion. “There’s no need, really -”“

“Maya, she be servant, Sandbird-lord. Your number one girl. Make room clean. Bring coffee in morning. Give bath." Blair Sandburg resigned himself to doing what he did best – observing the world around him, and adapting as best he could to the customs of the people. He had done it among the rich and privileged in New Orleans. He could do it here, in the wilds of South America.

“Well, I suppose I could use some help. And coffee in the morning with le petit dejeuner would be heaven. But I can certainly bathe myself. Do you speak any English, Maya?”

“Yes, Sandbird-lord."

“Then, I will ask for your help when I need it. Understand?”

“Yes, Sandbird-lord."

“Please call me by my given name. It is Blair Sandburg.”

“Yes, Blairsanbird.”

"No. 'Blair Sandburg. '"

The girl look puzzled. "Not Blairsanbird?" She brightened after a moment. "Sandburg-lord."

“Well, that will do for now. You may unpack my things, Maya – but no bath. That, I will do myself.”

“Yes, Sandburg-lord.”

“I hope you and I are going to be very good friends, Maya."

“Yes, Sandburg-lord."

“What was Mr. Ellison doing in the jungle?”

“Yes, Sandburg-lord."

“That isn't all the English you know, is it, Maya?”

“Yes, Sandburg-lord."

"Well … you will teach me your language. And I will try to teach you mind. Is that fair, Maya?"

“Yes, Sandburg-lord."

With that, Blair, Incacha and Maya boarded the carriage for the five-minute ride to the main house. Seemingly hewn out of the jungle, it was a truly magnificent edifice, like many Blair had seen in fashionable sections of New Orleans. But the jungle might reclaim it at a moment’s notice, were it not for James Ellison’s iron-fisted intervention.

Stepping down from the phaeton, Blair followed Incacha and Maya down the courtyard and toward a separate apartment. A black jaguar representation decorated the veranda tiles.

Hat in hand, Incacha preceded Blair and Maya and strode into the room through the open doorway.

"The room, she is fine for you?"

"Why, yes. It's one of the finest rooms I've ever been in." Blair spoke truthfully. It was a magnificent, tastefully appointed suite.

“Good. We go now. Get you cool drink. Come back soon.”

“Thank you. I believe I will take that bath before Monsieur Ellison – Ellison-lord – arrives. It was a long, tiring trip upriver.”

“We go now.”

“Thank you.”

With that, the two servants left. Blair Sandburg stripped off the suit coat, shirt and trousers which were plastered to his body in the hot, humid air. As he opened one of his Gladstones to retrieve a change of clothing, Blair looked around the spacious room. It took him only a moment to realize the huge closet and tall armoire directly behind him were filled to overflowing. There were all manner of garments and footwear, designed specifically for a person of his particular height and build. He called loudly to Incacha whom he could see half-way down the courtyard.

“Incacha, please come back.” The native re-entered the room.

“What is all this?”

“Ellison-lord, he has left you many fine clothes. From nearby villages and faraway places. All for Sandburg-lord.”

“But it wasn't necessary."

Incacha looked unhappy. "Not good?"

"No. It’s all good. Wonderful. It's just that –"

“No understand, Sandburg-lord …”

“You don't have to understand. It’s enough that Monsieur doesn’t want them.”

A disembodied voice boomed from the doorway.

“Ellison-lord … I … sorry ….”

"Leave us. James Ellison. Your servant, sir.” The surprisingly rich baritone belonged to a mountain of flesh and bone – and a superiority based not in attitude, but in natural selection of the fittest. (At least that is what Charles Darwin had purported in his ORIGIN OF THE SPECIES.) The mountain removed his Panama and bowed. “You are Monsieur Blair Sandburg, I take it?”

“Yes, I am." Blair assayed the powerful-looking titan, a full head taller and at least three stones heavier than himself. It took only a split second to realize that James Ellison was one of the handsomest men he had ever laid eyes on. The Adonis he’d once seen in Pompeii come to life in the warm Brazilian climate. Short Brown hair, deep golden-colored skin, and eyes the color of glacier ice.

“We will keep them here tonight, and I’ll have them disposed of before you arise in the morning.”

“You misunderstand, I --”

“You are not dressed for dinner, Monsieur Sandburg. You are not dressed at all. This may not be New Orleans, but we are not a heathen, godless lot. I shall return when you are more … presentable."

Standing only in an undershirt and knickers, an embarrassed Blair Sandburg attempted to explain. “No, please. I am sorry for my state. I wanted to wash all the dust and dirt off before we met. And I wasn’t aware of the dinner hour here on your plantation. I'm not undressed, I am just --"

Deshabille?

“I didn’t know that you spoke French.”

“And why would you? I don’t, by the way.”

“Well, Steven and I spoke in many languages … of many things …”

“My brother discussed his family with you, Monsieur?”

“My name is Blair."

I know that, Monsieur, and --"

“I'm just trying to be friendly."

“And you seem to enjoy interrupting me."

“You don't like being interrupted?”

“No, but never mind."

“You'll get used to me, Mr. Ellison."

“Will I?”

“I hope so."

“Frankly, you're not what I expected."

“Worse or better?”

“Just … more. But then my brother’s taste in --"

“Friends?”

“Very well … ‘friends' …”

“Was, perhaps, more … catholic than your own.”

“That might be as close to the truth as anything that will be said between us.”

“I’m sorry. I’m confused, Mr. Ellison. Your letter invited me here, did it not?”

“At the behest of Steven, I asked you to come to my home if a time arose that you needed shelter and protection."

"Did you make so chivalrous an offer to any others?”

“Do you wish the truth?”

“I know the truth about your brother, Mr. Ellison. I’m interested in your answer.”

“Then, no. Actually, none, other than you.”

“I am aware of that.”

“You are, are you?”

“Yes.”

“Well, I have to say that you’re –“

“More than you expected?"

“Yes.”

“I think if I study that a while, it might turn out to be a compliment."

“Are you making fun of me, sir?”

“I'm sorry. We haven't made a very good start, have we?"

“No, I suppose not."

“And I should be – no, I am – most grateful to you, Mr. Ellison, but, as I said before, I might not be what you expected."

“Believe me, Mr. Sandburg, I had no expectations. But then, you might have said the same thing.”

“What do you mean?”

“I am nothing like Steven."

“I don't know you well enough —“

“Uncouth, perhaps."

“Mr. Ellison, please –“

“Not quite what you might have pictured, related as I am to so fine a gentleman as the late Steven Connors Ellison."

“Do you wish a quarrel between us?"

“No, Monsieur. The truth is I don’t have the time to argue with a … a… guest?”

“You make the word sound … insulting.”

“Take it as you will. Did you and my brother never have cross words?”

“I prefer calling them spirited exchanges.”

A clearly agitated James Ellison slapped the Panama hat against his rock-hard thigh. “How exactly did my brother … find you?”

“He advertised in the New Orleans papers."

“What?”

“Steven was looking for a tutor to learn the Italian language.”

“Why?”

“He had planned a trip to Europe. There were many applicants for the position.”

“And why was that, Mr. Sandburg? What was it in my brother’s ad that drew such interest?”

“New Orleans is awash with well-educated, poor young men, Mr. Ellison.”

“But, in this sea of well-educated, poor young men, he picked you. Why is that?"

“He didn’t.”

“He didn’t pick you?”

“No. I didn't apply. He met me at church.”

“’Sandburg’? At church? Isn’t that unlikely?”

“I am a Jew, if that is what you are implying.”

“Then, why—“

“I worked at the hospice at the Church of the Seven Sorrows. I was repaying a debt. You see, le bonne soeurs – the good sisters – cared for my mother as she lay dying.”

“I’m sorry.”

“So was I, Mr. Ellison, that I could not afford a hospital or better physicians. And so, Naomi—“

“Naomi?”

“Naomi Sandburg, my mother. Naomi, who in her lifetime, cared for the poor and downtrodden, died in the arms of the wonderful Felicians. But it was after many months of suffering.”

“And you –“

“Had to repay them. I tended the sick who came for help and solace.”

“How did my brother come to be at the hospice?”

“As a work of mercy. He brought foodstuffs and yard goods and books for the unfortunate. The gesture was wonderful. As was your brother. It was the beginning of our friendship.”

“So, you and he –“

“Shared a love of books and music and conversation. And even though I was poor, Steven treated me like an equal. A thing many others did not.”

“I can’t believe that a man of your culture and … obvious charms …”

“Mr. Ellison, shall we call a ‘spade a spade’ as they say in the gaming houses?” Blair Sandburg stood as tall as he could and summoned all the courage he dared. “You knew the situation between your brother and myself when you extended your invitation."

“You seemed to have been important to him.”

“Whether you believe it or not, I was. And he, to me. Did your brother explain –”

“Somewhat. Steven did not leave the entire story to my imagination. I presume he felt that this plantation is a long way from civilization."

“If your imagination is … so vivid … and the thought so … repugnant … then why …"

"Did I ask you here?”

“Well, yes.”

“Because I loved my brother. No matter what he thought. No matter what anyone thought. He was my only living relative, and he meant a great deal to me.”

The raw voice was pained, like that of a wounded animal. Blair’s reply resonated with the same regret. “And to me, also. Steven was …”

“I want no details.”

“But –“

“Monsieur, let us have no further discussion. Dress, please. We do everything by schedule here in the tropics. We eat early. We go to bed early. Dinner's at seven."

"That is early."

“The air becomes less oppressive after sundown.”

"And what about bed?"

"Whenever you wish, Monsieur. Treat this apartment and these rooms as your own. You're here and you're welcome."

"I shall endeavor to make myself just that in your eyes, so that you will appreciate the company and my stay with you, however long it is."

"Perhaps when you get to know me a little better, you won't care to stay."

"For your dear brother's sake, I will try my best."

"As will I. Your servant, sir."

James Ellison bowed from the waist, and was gone as quickly as he had come into Blair Sandburg's life, not unlike a vortex the younger man had seen in the desert. And what did the book of Hosea say? "They have sown the wind, and they shall reap the whirlwind."

Blair Sandburg, late of the French Quarter in New Orleans, Louisiana, shuddered from a cold chill even in the thick, late-afternoon air. He wondered what seeds he had planted to deserve this fate … of being dropped into the arms of one clearly hostile James Joseph Ellison, master of a 10-thousand acre plantation in the middle of the jungle, and of whatever Blair’s future was to be.

Standing in the middle of the large room, Blair barely noticed the rain which had suddenly begun pelting the windows. Thoughts of Steven, and everything Blair had left behind, rushed through his mind, and settled into his wounded heart as though carried on a whirlwind.

***

Whatever fairytale dream Blair Sandburg had envisioned surrounding his meeting with James Joseph Ellison, owner of the Brazilian plantation which was to be his new home, nearest relative to his beloved Steven, and, in all probability, a sentinel with heightened senses, it disappeared soon after Sandburg’s arrival and first meeting with the master of Cinco Sentidos.

Dinner seemed interminable, since the conversation was virtually one-sided. By the time coffee arrived, Blair Sandburg was at a loss for words – something he thought could never happen. The younger man had tried his best to be pleasant, amusing, and informative. He told of his upbringing, his education, and his travels.

All seemed to fall on deaf ears. James Ellison looked as though he were in some sort of reverie.

Tense and wordless, the two men sat opposite one another. The stillness was broken when Incacha brought in an ornate silver coffee service and placed it on the side table.

Blair made one last attempt. "That smells quite strong. May I pour you a cup, Monsieur Ellison?"

After a moment, James Ellison's eyes flickered ever so slightly. He returned from whatever faraway place he had retreated to – away from the obvious tedium of having to deal with his brother's leavings, or so it seemed to Blair Sandburg.

At length, the large man deigned to answer his one and only dinner guest. James Ellison grimaced at the wafting scent of the coffee, as though he’d smelled something malodorous.

"Yes."

"I myself am used to the taste of chicory."

"I see."

"The chicken was very good."

"It was lizard, actually."

"Really? Iguana?"

"You are not surprised?"

"In my travels, Mr. Ellison, I have dined on a great many odd things. You didn't eat very much. In fact, you barely touched your meal. Was the lizard not to your liking?"

Jim Ellison took another drink of whisky, which he had consumed freely over the course of dinner. "I find I have little appetite these days. Everything tastes foul to me."

"What about the liquor?"

"Equally bad, but it does have the ability to numb the senses."

"And why would you want to do that?" Possibly, here was a way to start the conversation with Ellison about his senses.

"Do you always ask so many questions, Monsieur?"

The moment passed.

Blair Sandburg smiled, as he wiped the corners of his mouth with the Irish linen napkin. The cloth was elegantly embroidered with a large "E."

"How else may man increase his storehouse of knowledge and assuage curiosity, if not by asking questions?"

"Are you deliberately baiting me, Monsieur?"

"No, I don't think so. I'm just trying to converse a little."

"Why?"

Blair studied James Ellison's face as he answered as precisely and as unemotionally as he could, all the while wishing that dear Steven were in the room to intercede for him. He noticed that the other man's nose twitched, not unlike a large carnivore tracking the scent of its prey. It made Blair Sandburg even more uncomfortable – if that were possible.

"And what is that scent you’re wearing? Is it your habit to bathe in such essence?”

“You are mistaken, Mr. Ellison. I'm not –“

“Don’t lie to me. I’ve smelled it on you since the moment you walked into my house. It permeates everything.”

“I tell you I wear neither cologne nor perfume. No matter what your nose tells you.” Blair rose to his feet. “However, if something about my person offends you, if the ‘essence’ as you call it, is repugnant to you, I will go and try to scrub it off.”

“I didn’t say it offended me.”

“What did you—“

“Never mind.”

Blair Sandburg placed his own untouched coffee cup back on the table, before standing and throwing a stiff nod toward the sullen man. “Well, this is been a very long day for me. I am rather tired. I will leave you, if you don’t mind.” Blair stood and bowed deeply. “Your servant, Monsieur Ellison.”

“Good night. And, Mr. Sandburg --” James Ellison drained his glass, and slammed the crystal tumbler down on the table with more force than was necessary, “welcome to Cinco Sentidos.”

Sandburg left the room in slow, deliberate strides.

Jim Ellison waited for a moment before picking up the napkin the young man had used to wipe around his lips. Ellison paused for a moment, before holding the linen to his nose. He breathed in deeply, as though the fabric contained pure, rarified air of a type heretofore undiscovered. The fragrance of the young man seemed to calm his senses, senses that had made the past several weeks a living hell, a nightmare of sounds, sights, and smells all out of control.

Its soothing effect made James Ellison uneasy, and, for some reason, angry – angry at himself, the curse he lived with, and most of all, the young stranger who had this unwitting, yet potent power over him.

***

By the third evening in which Blair Sandburg dined with James Ellison, the meal – like virtually everything else connected with being a “guest” on Cinco Sentidos -- had become just one more tedious, trying event to be gotten through.

A colorful, but oddly silent macaw in a gilded cage next to the long, highly polished table eyed the two of them. From his plate, James Ellison threw it a grape.

“There’s something wrong with that bird. He hasn’t said anything for days. Usually, he’s unstoppable. You like, Monsieur. It’s rather irritating.”

“I’m sorry. I really am trying to be as pleasant as possible.”

“I know. I find it … irritating.”

Rather than rise to the bait of the taunt, the nonplussed Sandburg elected a different tact – the reliable, non-argumentative subject of weather.

“The climate's very pleasant here. It's not nearly as hot as I thought it would be.”

“This is winter.”

That's right. We are quite far south. How far?”

“Does it matter?”

“Not really. I was just trying to make conversation.”

“Why?”

“I can't think of a single reason.”

“We'll have our coffee in the other room. Come this way.” The request was more in the nature of a command.

“I believe my brother wrote that you played a musical instrument. Violin? Pianoforte? Flute? Guitar?"

“Yes.”

“To which?”

“All.”

"Really?"

"Yes."

“Then play.” Ellison pointed to the magnificent instrument sitting in the corner. “I'd like to hear the damned piano once before the termites get at it.”

Blair seated himself as commanded, awaiting further instructions. When none came, he cleared his throat and asked, “Is there anything you would like to hear?”

“I know nothing about music. Anything will do.“

For a moment, Blair gathered himself, then began a nocturne by Frederic Chopin. It was one of Steven’s favorites. His graceful fingers stopped on the seventh bar.

“Why did you stop?“

“I’d forgotten how sad it is. I'll play something else.“

“Don’t bother. I'd like my coffee now. Would you mind? “

“Certainly.” Blair rose from the padded piano bench and walked to the settee, eased himself onto its velvet surface. He carefully lifted a Limoges demitasse and poured the seaming liquid into it.

James Ellison remained silent, but watched every movement of his guest, down to the placing of the Chawner silver spoon on the saucer.

“So, you and my brother conversed in several languages. Over coffee. With chicory.”

As Blair handed James Ellison the cup, he spoke effortlessly. “Mais oui. nous parlerions … more often than not, we would speak in French. I also speak Italian, Spanish, Greek, Latin –"

"Hebrew?"

"Yes, Monsieur. I have studied the language of my people. I can even make myself understood in Farsi and Hindi, after a fashion.”

“You do seem remarkably accomplished. I presume, then, you could learn the tongue of the natives here."

"Yes, Monsieur. After a fashion."

The silence in the room grew until Blair could tolerate it no longer. He finally spoke.

“So, what is your pleasure, sir?"

“Nothing that I can think of. I was merely trying to see if you were everything my brother claimed in his letters.”

“Since I was not privy to Steven’s missives to you, I can only reiterate that I am as I have represented myself. I do speak several languages, play musical instruments, converse intelligently, ride well, shoot effectively, and am fairly well-educated. I also have very nice teeth. Would you care to count them? That's what one does with horses when bought, isn't it?”

“You also have quite a temper, Monsieur.”

“Yes, I know.”

“Well, I don't mind. I have a temper myself. You merely surprise me. You're very... There must be something wrong with you, to take the offer of a stranger, an unknown ‘Blessed Protector,’ when I am quite certain there would be many in New Orleans to do so. At the very least, to help assuage your loneliness. Why are you here?”

Blair Sandburg could stand this inquisition no longer. “So, now I actually see why you invited me. You wanted to see the ‘charity case’ who belonged to your brother.”

“You are incorrect, sir. You are an invited guest in my home. You were important to Steven. How could I not make the offer, particularly since it was the last thing my brother asked of me?”

The mocking tone belied James Ellison’s words. Blair Sandburg leapt from his seat, angry at the volley of thinly-veiled insults, and angrier at himself for listening without attempting to stop them.

“Until this very moment, I didn’t realize how much you truly … hated your brother. The one member of the family whom William Ellison elected to show what little affection was present in his stony heart. Yes, Steven told me how your father pitted the two of you against one another. And even though you thought your father hated you, you were distressed at the estrangement from him which lasted until the day he died.”

“You’re wrong about my hating my brother, Monsieur. I loved him.”

“Then you envied him. Your brother was outgoing, charming …”

Lightning fast, Ellison grabbed the smaller man’s wrist. “And what else?”

The pain could not daunt Blair. “… and usually very drunk.”

A feral look washed over James Ellison’s face. He dropped Sandburg’s wrist. “So, Steven was dissolute. I suspected as much.”

“Most of the money you sent me to pay my debts actually paid his.” Blair rubbed the skin under his shirt cuff.

Ellison looked momentarily unsettled. “Apparently that did not change your opinion of him. Or perhaps it was easier that way to ‘use’ him. And vice versa.”

“I never used Steven. We comforted one another.”

“He was a weakling. You turned that to your advantage.”

“I did not. I ... loved him.”

“Please do not speak of that. But, now you have me curious. Before Steven, how many others offered ‘comfort’? And did you benefit from their largesse?”

“I refuse to speak about this any longer, Monsieur Ellison. Not only is it the height of ill manners, it is surely none of your business. Even if you gave me the price of a boat ticket here, you do NOT own me.”

Ellison looked incensed. “You will never know the true price of my invitation to you. You've seen my house. It took me seven years to build, to make it what it is. They laughed at me up and down the river, but it's what I wanted. Once completed, I wanted it to be filled with beautiful things and the best people. And I wanted a family I could be proud of in this domicile that I'm proud of, on the land that I took out of the river and the jungle with my bare hands. The only condition was that, no matter what or who entered as part of that plan, it – or they – should be unsullied and worth the effort. The piano that you were sitting at was never played by anyone before it came here.”

“If you knew more about music, Mr. Ellison, you'd realize that a good piano is better when it's played. That is not a very good piano. I find I have grown fatigued. I wish you a good evening.”

“I'm not finished with you, Monsieur Sandburg.”

“But I am with you. Good night, Mr. Ellison.”

***

Blair Sandburg finished his correspondence, and instructed Maya to take it and place in the leather bag bound for the mail boat. Blair wrote to several friends in New Orleans of the great adventure he had undertaken, of the wild beauty of his new surroundings. He glossed over his interactions with James Ellison, and avoided confessing the terrible mistake he had made in trying to find a place for himself with Steven’s people.

What a laugh that was. Steven’s ‘people’ consisted of that miserable bastard of a brother who seemed to delight in tormenting him. Blair had tried his best to forge a link with James Ellison on any level. He was failing miserably, and at a loss of what do next.

And to think, Sandburg had had every intention of engaging Ellison on the subject of his senses from his arrival. To perhaps acquaint James Ellison with the exploits of Sir Richard Burton and the story of sentinels. He’d then hoped to find a way to determine just how sharp Ellison’s were, and help Steven’s brother control his senses, rather than the other way around.

A commotion outside the garden wall distracted Blair from his introspection. He walked out through the moon gate and was confronted by a large group of men, and James Ellison looking, for all the world, like a presiding judge. One who was extremely unhappy at Blair Sandburg’s uninvited presence.

“Go back to the house, Monsieur.”

“I heard the voices and the drums. If it's some kind of ceremony, I'd like to watch. As you may or may not know, I have a fondness for anthropology and the study of native traditions.”

Ellison looked as hard as granite.”This is no place for you. Go back to your rooms.”

“I'd like to watch.”

“Will you do as I say?”

“I can’t see what harm my viewing the proceedings would do.”

James Ellison grabbed Blair’s shoulder and twisted him to look at what was about to happen.

“Then watch.”

Blair saw a handsome young lad – no more than 17 – suddenly assaulted by an older, machete-wielding native who stepped out of the mob.

Horrified, Sandburg seized James Ellison’s sleeve and shook it violently. “They’re going to kill him! Stop them!

The bigger man disengaged his hand roughly. “He stole the man's wife, now he's being punished. I can't stop it. No one can.”

In a few seconds, the youth’s knees buckled and he sank to the ground. Trails of blood ran down his strong body and dampened the dirt around him. At length, the victim lay motionless.

“They’ve killed him! How could you permit it, ‘Ellison-lord’?” Sandburg spit the name out like an epithet.

“It's over. I suggest you pay attention to what I say in the future.”

“Have you no heart, no feelings at all? And you, Incacha! I thought you were decent. You're as bad as your master!”

Ellison’s voice was disturbingly quiet. “Incacha is decent. The dead man was his son.”

“I … I didn’t realize … how could I have known?”

Blair Sandburg stood by helplessly and watched as they removed the body. Ellison spoke brusquely, without an iota of sympathy. “You made another mistake. A big one, but not as bad as others in your life. Your worst mistake was leaving New Orleans. In any case, you'd better see exactly what you're up against down here. Come with me.”

Blair Sandburg found himself pulled along the road down toward the lock system by a nettled James Ellison. When they reached the overlook, Ellison pointed toward the deceptively calm waters below. “Without these locks, my whole plantation would be 12 feet under the river, where I got it from. It took me five years to get a foothold here. I started with 100 acres and four men. I learned to speak Chopec and nearly forgot the English language in that time. I was really no more than a boy. The irrigation moat was built by men who had never seen one -- or a ‘white devil’ -- in their lives. By that time, I had a hundred men. I used to lose two or three a week to headhunters. Now I have eight hundred Indians working for me on nearly 10,000 acres of river bottom, We are eaten by flies, worms, lice, and are subject to half a dozen diseases men get in the jungle, all for this,“ Ellison picked a cacao pod and pressed it into Blair’s gloved hand, ”so that your friends may drink chocolate with their breakfast in New Orleans. Go ten miles in any direction from here and it's civilized. But go ten paces beyond where I stopped and you're in the bush, the living jungle, where no man has a name and the only law is to stay alive, even if you live like a beast. In the jungle, man's just another animal.”

Blair Sandburg shook he head vehemently. “I don't believe that.”

Ellison grunted. “Kutina! Come here.” A tall, striking Indian trotted over to where the two men stood. “This is Kutina. Kutina, this is Sandburg-lord.”

Kutina bowed his head before Blair.

“Kutina here and his brothers were the first native men who worked for me. He's more civilized than the rest. He's like Incacha, with Mayan blood running through his veins. The Mayans were one of the most intelligent races in the history of the world. They were mathematicians, architects, builders. But they stayed in the jungle too long. Kutina, show ‘Sandburg-lord’ your treasure.”

Proudly, Kutina pulled an old shrunken head out of the pouch he wore around his neck. “Kutina treasure.”

Sandburg felt ill, but smiled weakly at the object whose sewn-shut lips parodied his own countenance.

Ellison ordered his man back to work. “You can go back to work now, Kutina.”

“Yes, Ellison-lord.”

Blair fought not to vomit.

Ellison took in the pale face, the tremor in the shoulders, and, for a moment, forgot the anger at his guest’s … disobedience. His voice became less biting. “After this, stay in the house. Civilization ends on the other side of your veranda.”

Blair Sandburg fled, unaware that a set of ice-blue eyes followed his retreat all the way back to his rooms.

***

Several hours later, a tentative knock at the door saved Blair Sandburg from what would undoubtedly be a long night of restless anguish. He assumed a dinner tray was being delivered.

“Who is it?”

Blair was surprised, when he heard James Ellison’s voice.

“It is I … Ellison. May I come in?”

Blair breathed in the yogi style learned during a summer in Rishikesh, India. The beautiful village nestled at the foot of the Himalayas always brought a smile to his face – and his heart – for it had been the last time he, Naomi and Eli Stoddard had traveled together.

“The door's open.”

James Ellison walked in quietly, respectfully. “Please don't be disturbed.”

“I'm not, Mr. Ellison.”

“James. My name is James.” Ellison paused for a moment. “I haven't asked before, but I hope you've been comfortable here. These rooms... they used to be mine. I thought you might like them.”

Blair sat on the edge of the bed playing nervously with a thread on his nightshirt. Though enveloped in the calf-length night garment, Blair felt decidedly naked. “I do. Perhaps while you're here, you'll open that for me.” He pointed to the veranda door. “It seems to be stuck.”

James Ellison took two large steps and lent his considerable brawn to the edge of the door. “It's rusted. Things rust... ...very quickly here... ...or rot away. The environment is corrosive. The jungle swallows up everything.” The door swung outward. ”Even men, sometimes.” The tall man turned back toward his guest. “You've been reading... “

Blair looked down at the gild-edged tome lying on the satin sheets. “I found it in your library. Poetry.”

“I don't read much myself. I bought all those books by weight. Eight hundred pounds of books is what I ordered.”

“Whoever selected them for you has very good taste.” Sandburg smiled gently, knowingly. “It was you, wasn't it?”

Jim Ellison focused on an invisible spot somewhere over Blair Sandburg’s head before nodding in the affirmative.

“Then why lie about it, James? Are you afraid I might think you weak for reading poetry?”

“Perhaps. As Fontaine says somewhere in there, ‘Each man is three men: What he thinks he is, what others think he is and what he really is.’

Blair knelt up, making his night shirt gape to reveal a chest covered with golden curls of hair. “And which Ellison are you, James, here and now?”

“The last. The real Ellison …” James took a step toward the bed.

And then, another. “Uncertain ...”

The two men were now a hair’s breadth away from one another.

“...complex, a little pompous, even... laughable, sometimes.”

Blair whispered. “I've never laughed at you.”

James head lowered, and whispered back, into the smaller man’s ear. “I know ... and I've appreciated it in my fashion. I've written a letter... to my brother’s attorney in New Orleans.” He planted a small chaste kiss on Sandburg’s brow. “He'll make all the necessary arrangements. You will want for nothing. When you leave …”

Blair pulled away, as if stung by a hornet. “And when is this to take place?”

James Ellison extended his hand to touch the flowing chestnut tresses. “The commissioner will be arriving tomorrow. You'll go with him.”

“I … I hadn't realized that you were in such a hurry to see the last of me.”

Ellison dropped the lock of hair. “it's not that. The hurry, I mean. It's not wanting to get rid of you, it's just... I don't like what's happening to me. I tried to embarrass you – to hurt you. I'm not like that usually. And when you get back home to New Orleans, and reconnect with your old life, you'll realize it was better to end it before it began. You'll be happier with your own kind. Someday you'll find what you're looking for.”

Blair cast his eyes downward, feeling a blush on his cheeks. “Perhaps I will. I truly hope the same for you … that you find what you’re looking for.”

“Yes. Well... I wanted to say these things before you … we won't have time to talk tomorrow.”

“Then this is … goodbye?”

“Yes …”

“James ...”

“What is it, Blair?”

“I pray that I haven’t misunderstood, but … do you wish …would you want …” And with the words evaporating into the ether about them, Blair Sandburg cautiously reached his hands on either side of the big man’s face and drew it to his own. His full moist lips, now aflame with fire and fervor found purchase on those of James Ellison, who, at once was equally surprised and aroused to a height heretofore unimagined. Possessively, savagely, triumphantly, he grabbed Blair around the waist and crushed the smaller man’s torso to his own, consumed with wild longings and physical cravings for another human being he’d only fantasized in half-remembered dreams.

“Yes, yes … since the letters …my torment… my own!”

From Stephen’s letters. It was there that James Ellison had first read in detail of this incredible free spirit, this astounding soul, this exotic and erotic youth now lying under his own trembling body. Those long, languid love maps. Soaring epistles to the eccentricity and eroticism of the New Orleans native. Treasure the serendipitous Steven had stumbled upon. In a small alcove of a chapel-turned-infirmary, he’d discovered a saint’s face on one of the hospitallers. Save for lips that were too ripe and a mouth too sensuous.

In an instant, Steven decided to make the beautiful stranger his own, confiding to James on paper that his first thought had been to spirit Blair Sandburg away with promises of pleasures and financial considerations.

But, in short order, he’d found that this was to be no ordinary liaison. Because Blair Sandburg was as extraordinary and unique an individual as Steven had ever met. So, the seduction of Blair Sandburg was, at first, intellectual. Once that was accomplished – the younger Ellison had a first-rate mind -- the rest followed in a blur of lust and laughter, and even moments of love.

All of this, Steven shared – initially to taunt his brother, James was convinced.

But then, the mood of the letters changed. As Steven’s relationship flourished, he wanted James to know the details – and be happy for him. He wrote about everything. Big and small, long and short. Exercises in pleasures shared, adventures savored. Life lived to its fullest. And what it was like when men were with one another. Unimagined ways. Forbidden ways. Ways James had not known, but ways that had become James Ellison’s secret desire and wish.

But not for all men.

For just this one.

His brother’s lover. All for Blair Jacob Sandburg.

As time wore on, even more telling what was not in the letters. While cherishing his life with the younger Ellison, Blair Sandburg had not returned Steven’s love in totality. In page after page, Sandburg’s beauty was extolled, as were his virtues, his intelligence, nay, all aspects of the young gentleman. But the last line of the last letter James Ellison ever received from Steven – only two weeks before the grime news of his brother’s death from fever – said it all: “Jim, he loves me in gratitude, in friendship, in all ways … except the most important one. He still seeks the other half of his soul. I know that I am ill, brother. But should I take leave of this earth, I beseech you to make provisions for him. And I pray that, after I die, my beautiful shining boy will find a safe harbor … and love.”

And now, Blair Sandburg was here. About to be his. No one else’s ever again. James chanted, in an almost devotional frenzy …”I’ve wanted you …” even as he roughly pulled Blair’s silken nightshirt off and threw it on the nearby rug “… needed you …” running calloused hands down the sturdy frame, James finally rested them on firm, round buttocks “… needed this …”.bracing his face against Blair’s, Ellison effortlessly lifted his young lover off the bed, urging him to wrap his short, muscular legs around him. James’ fingers frantically searched for – and found – the hidden rosebud opening. Claiming what he now knew to be his -- and his alone -- a ferine James Ellison bit into the soft flesh of Blair Sandburg’s neck and simultaneously inserted a thumb into the secret aperture.

Blair mewled in the throes of building passion. James lay the other man down amid the bed linen. “It was I you were waiting for, wasn’t it, Blair?”

“Oh, God, James! From your letters! Yes!”

Somewhere deep within James Ellison heart, he’d known.

It was truly love forged through the letters.

Passion stoked through the posts.

Ellison’s voice, gravelly with emotion, now answered, even as he sunk his full manhood into awaiting vessel below him. The promise exacted by his brother – to help Steven’s beloved find a safe harbor and love – would be fulfilled.

Here.

Now.

“He has, Stephen. He has.”

***

The next hours swept the two lovers into a maelstrom of carnal exploration. And with the passage of each minute, James Ellison acknowledged that he now held everything of value in his solitary life within his sunburned arms.

For his part, as he slowly drifted into a deep sleep, Blair Sandburg knew he had found his other half, at last.

***

As Blair lay sleeping, James Ellison heard footsteps approaching the bedroom suite door. He slid silently from the bed before Incacha and another unknown native could knock.

If the nude figure of “Ellison-lord” surprised either, it did not show on their faces. Instead, the look of apprehension – nay, fear – on his foreman’s and that of the runner from Albert Hauseman’s plantation upriver confirmed what James Ellison and his “cursed” senses already knew.

The worst was actually happening.

Maribunta. The ants were on the march.

Toward Cinco Sentidos.

Toward the men and women of the plantation.

Toward his life.

Toward Blair Sandburg, now the reason for his life.

“Incacha, go. I’ll meet you and the men at daybreak. Take him –“ Ellison nodded toward the runner ”-- and get him something to eat and drink before he goes on to warn the other ranchers.”

“Sim. Venha comigo.” Incacha nodded, as did the other man, then both turned and walked quietly away toward the other side of the house where the kitchen lay.

As James Ellison closed the door, resolve swept through him. He and his men needed to be ready sooner than he’d expected. Preparations were well underway to do battle with the approaching enemy. Once completed, it would all become a waiting game – and a test of will and nerve. Perhaps the greatest of his life.

Just one last thing had to be done.

But would the young man sleeping so soundly cooperate?

***

Before dawn, James woke Blair with gentle kisses on his beloved’s eyelids. Sweetly, almost chastely the smaller man returned the gesture of profound affection with a soft flutter on James’ lips – so soft that only someone with heightened senses would feel it.

Ellison did and smiled under the assault.

“Rouse yourself, my own.”

“Why should we leave our bridal bed, James?” Blair punctuated the question with long strokes along Ellison’s magnificent chest and downward to the very evident, throbbing proof of his manhood.

“Because Simon Banks will be here sometime today – runners came late yesterday to inform me.”

“Must I prepare for his arrival quite so early?”

James took both of Blair’s hands and rubbed the backs of them against his face. “No, you need to pack. You’re leaving with him on the afternoon tide.”

Blair lay as still as death. “You’ve decided I should leave? After last night?”

“The runners brought other news about what has been happening in the jungle. I need you to be anywhere but here, Blair.”

“Why? What is it?”

“Can you, for once, not argue with me? Please just do as I say and –“

“Obey the great ‘Ellison-lord’? But, of course. I am just … ‘entertainment’ who tarried here for some little while, and who now must be off to the next port. Is that what you’re saying?”

“God damn it, Sandburg! Get up out of this bed and pack! At once!” An angry, naked James Ellison jumped out of the enormous bed, and reached for his riding pants. He threw them on, then grabbed his boots and shirt and stalked from the room.

The coming apocalypse might prove Ellison’s undoing. How could he tell Blair Sandburg that the only thing worse than dying without him would be dying with him?

***

As his boat neared the plantation landing, Simon Banks saw the figure upon the river-bank, pacing to and fro, regarding the vessel with singular interest. James Ellison’s massive form, combined with an almost palpable energy radiating on the shore, somehow suggested a proud, fearsome animal – perhaps the black jaguar of the South American jungles.

Once Banks had landed and tied the Cascade to the pier moorings, he accompanied the other man to the terrace where drinks were served by one of the household staff.

Jungle noises intruded into their conversation, but the two paid them no mind. Ellison puffed almost distastefully at a huge cigar before casting it aside as the commissioner came quickly to the point of his visit.

“Unless they alter their course - and there's no reason why they should – they will reach your plantation within five days at the latest.”

“Well, it was decent of you, paddling all this way just to give me the tip.”

“Tip? Why, man, it’s a warning!”

“I don’t care, Simon. Even a float of caimans couldn't drive me from this plantation of mine.”

“But, think, James! Maribunta! These aren't creatures you can fight. They're an elemental force, a gigantic catastrophe! Ten miles long, two miles wide. Ants, nothing but ants! Each one as big as your thumb. Each, a fiend from hell. Unless you clear out at once, there'll he nothing left of you but a skeleton, picked as clean as your own plantation will be.”

“Simon, I'm not getting out.”

“But you can't fight this —“

“Yes, I can! I've got the best weapon there is, Banks. There is intelligence.”

“Can't I make you understand the hideous—“

Jim Ellison held up his hand, demanding a halt to all intercourse. “I think it is you who do not understand. In the years since I settled here, I've met and defeated more than one catastrophe: flood; drought; plague -- events that caused many of my neighbors to flee for their lives. Why? Because all my life, I have lived with one credo: the human brain needs only to become fully aware of its powers to conquer even the elements.”

“James, your obstinacy is endangering not only your own life but the lives of your workers and their families. You don't know these ants! I tell you, you don't know what they can do!”

But Ellison merely stood there, regarding the other man with a strange look on his face. The commissioner knew in that instance it was hopeless.

Ellison lowered his voice. “I ask one final favor of you, Simon.”

“Anything, my old friend.”

“Take … Sandburg with you. Back down river.” The pleading visage conveyed more than a thousand words could ever have done. Simon Banks understood. “And please. Don’t share what you’ve told me with him.”

“But, why? Doesn’t he have the right to—“

“No.” Ellison shouted, throwing the cigar into the dirt at his booted feet. He trampled it ruthlessly. “There will be no discussion on this point. Take him away.”

“Where?”

“Anywhere … safe.”

“He’ll not be happy when he finds out.”

“Mr. Sandburg is nothing, if not adaptable. And if something … untoward were to come to pass, I would want Steven’s … my … he must be secure.”

“This is important to you.”

“It is … yes.” If Simon Banks thought the ‘yes’ might mean “More than my own life,” he said nothing.

The commissioner saw a clearly unhappy Blair Sandburg being escorted down the hill.

“Monsieur.”

“Captain Banks. We meet again.”

“Sooner than I would have thought.”

“Myself, as well.”

James Ellison turned his handsome face downward, locking eyes with the smaller man.

”Captain Banks has promised to transport you, Monsieur, back to a city on the coast where you can easily make any other travel plans you wish.”

“What I wish—“

“At the Banco Republico, there is a letter of credit in your name which will assure your comfort and security.”

“You owe me nothing.”

“Steven –“

“He owed me nothing either.”

“I owe you a great deal … Blair.”

The look of longing, of unbridled passion overlaid with an extraordinary sadness, was almost too tender, too heartbreaking for Simon Banks to witness. Averting his eyes, he turned and studied the currents in the river.

Nothing more was said. At James Ellison’s command, one of the field hands on-loaded Blair Sandburg’s meager luggage and trunk, filled only with the clothes he’d brought – was it mere weeks ago?

And then came the inevitable moment of parting. Banks’ crewman cast off the mooring lines, and the Cascade nosed its way into the middle of the Araguaia, beginning its journey back to civilization.

And away from James Joseph Ellison, master of Cinco Sentidos -- the one true love of Blair Sandburg’s life.

Long after the others on the dock lost sight of the vessel, Ellison watched. He extended his senses until he heard the voice – audible to none, save himself – whisper softly, “Goodbye, my blessed protector. Adieu, mon amour.”

The only other sound the tall plantation owner heard was the breaking of his own heart.

***

As James Ellison continued watching the small boat drift around the curve in the river, he could not help wondering about the strange look he’d seen in Simon Banks’ eyes. Undoubtedly, the commissioner thought him insane. But, Ellison knew his own powers. He was sure of himself. Intelligence, directed correctly, always made man the master of his fate.

So, that night, James Ellison called his Indian workers together in front of the plantation house and finished laying out the plans. He saw their faces go ashen with a shared terror as he told them the ants were coming, watched them as they milled around, muttering.

Ellison said nothing more to them. Finally, Incacha, spoke in the Chopec dialect.

“But, Ellison-lord, we have worked hard here for these many years. All of us. We have built the finest plantation in this district. We all share in it. It has been a home for all of us and our families. Now, the ants come.”

“So?”

“Those ditches we dug last year, the pipe we put in the ground -- that was for the ants?”

“That was for the ants.”

Incacha’s face became even more serious. “If we moved our families across the river, the ants could not reach them?”

“Yes, that's right. What about you?”

Uncertainty laced the foreman’s answer. “The ants are mighty. We know what they can do. All of us think that you are mighty.” Sounds of assent from the other workers filled the air. “We will stay with you, Ellison-lord, and fight against the ants.”

In his heart, Ellison knew the men would give him that answer. He’d counted on it. He thought of his friend, the commissioner, and wondered what Banks would say at such unquestioning confidence. Would he still think Ellison insane?

***

Commissioner Simon Banks thought a good many things, as his launch cruised down river. All that night, he could not get James Ellison out of his mind. One man who calmly evaluated his chances against a deadly menace, coolly decided he could win, and was willing to stake his life on it, to risk a horrible death for it. It was terrifying. And yet - it was fascinating.

And, of course, there was Blair Sandburg, the x factor which, of necessity, now played a role in everything that James Ellison did.

Sandburg was virtually mute the entire trip back to the city. He barely acknowledged Banks’ checking him into The Prospect, per James Ellison’s specific instructions. The small, expensive hotel was a haunt for well-heeled visiting Americans.

“Try to get some rest, Monsieur. I will keep you posted on any news coming downriver.”

Unshed tears made Blair Sandburg’s eyes luminous. “Thank you, Captain Banks. I am a little tired. And sick of soul. Good-bye.”

A uniformed bellman led the unhappy young man away to one of the larger suites at the end of the building.

Simon Banks watched the receding figure. He hoped that James Ellison would be able to atone for Sandburg’s suffering.

If James Ellison survived.

***

The next morning, after a good night’s sleep, Simon went to his office in the center of town. Over his first cup of strong, mountain coffee, Banks sent for his new assistant, Rafe Van Rijk. Together, they went to the huge wall map of the district hanging in the conference room and checked the last reported position of the ants.

“From a runner last night, we heard they had reached here, commissioner.” Van Rijk tapped the map with his index finger. “About 50 miles above this fork in the river.”

"Traveling southeast?”

“Yes.”

“Directly toward Ellison’s.”

“Is his --”

“It’s the plantation at the bend in the river. When would you say the ants will reach there?”

“I imagine within two days.”

“The day after tomorrow?” Simon Banks spoke softly, almost to himself. “Then there’s still time.”

“For what, sir? What do you mean?”

What did Banks mean? Still time for what? For his friend, James Ellison to flee? Or still time for him to …

Even as Simon Banks rejected the thought with horror, the commissioner knew that Ellison's fight was drawing him back toward that plantation, and … death.

Now past all doubt, He had to.

James Ellison was his friend.

“Rafe, you are in charge until I return. And, if you value that handsome skin of yours, don’t share what you know with Monsieur Sandburg, whom I brought with me from Cinco Sentidos. If he finds out why Ellison sent him here – and he doesn’t kill you – James Ellison will. Or I will do the honors.”

A puzzled Rafe Van Rijk didn’t hear what Banks whispered under his breath as he donned a hat and walked out the door: “… if either Jim or I make it out alive!”

***

It was 10 o'clock in the morning when Simon Banks rounded the bend on the Cascade for as many times in two days and saw Ellison's plantation before him. He put in at the dock and tied up the launch. Then he saw James Ellison, standing on the bank above him, arms folded, Panama hat cocked to one side of his head, and that same smug grin on his patrician face. Simon Banks made his way up to him.

The birds in the jungle created an almost unbearable cacophony. Ellison’s face looked pinched for a moment, then he shook his head, before speaking. “Back with another warning, my friend?”

“No. Back to stay awhile.”

Ellison grunted his acknowledgement.

Simon Banks stepped off his launch. “You don't seem very surprised.”

The two tall men walked up the path to a small lean-to reserved for livestock.

“I'm not. I thought you'd be back. Here, come along.” Two saddled horses waited patiently. “You'll want to ride around the plantation, take a look at what my men and I rigged up.”

“Yes, I'd be interested in seeing a madman’s work.”

“And the ants. We'll be a getting a glimpse of them before long, I should think.”

Without enthusiasm, Simon Banks answered. “Yes ... the ants.”

The commissioner had to admit that the defenses Ellison devised were quite impressive. Surrounding three sides of the plantation like a huge horseshoe was a 12-foot wide ditch. The ends of this horseshoe-shaped ditch ran into the river which formed the fourth side of the plantation. At the up-river entrance to the ditch, Ellison had constructed a dam where river water could be diverted into the ditch.

A large hand-wheel controlled the floodgate of the dam. Apparently Ellison had ordered it opened immediately after Banks’ arrival, for, as the two men now approached the ditch and rode along it, the commissioner could see that it was nearly full.

The horses slowed to a walk before stopping. Ellison patted the neck of his bay gelding. “How do you like it?”

Simon Banks dismounted for a closer look at what appeared to be a moat around a castle -- James Ellison’s castle.

“It's … reassuring.”

Jim Ellison laughed. “Unless the ants know how to build rafts, they won't reach the plantation. This is only the outer moat. There's a better one than this. Come along. We'll go up on the high ground where the buildings are. We can get a view from there.”

Simon Banks remounted, and followed his friend over the next hill. “Ellison …”

“What is it?”

“I didn't see any women or children around the plantation, or any animals, for that matter.”

“That's right. I moved them across the river.”

“Then you admit to the danger?”

“Not danger, Simon. It’s a matter of efficiency.”

“Efficiency?”

“Cuts down the efficiency of the men if they're worried about their families. Critical situations only become crises when oxen and women get excited. And … others.”

Simon Banks made a wry face. “I see. That’s why you sent the young Monsieur away.”

“It is a private matter between Mr. Sandburg and myself.”

“He was … unhappy being sent away. Even unhappier when he found out just before I left –“

Ellison’s face blazed with fury. “You told him? After I asked you not to?”

“I did no such thing. Unhappily, the situation is common knowledge. It is literally what everyone in town speaks of.”

The conversation was interrupted as the two men arrived at the second ditch. It was much smaller than the other. Ellison’s and the commissioner’s mounts slowed to a walk. “See this ditch? You've noticed how all the buildings are on this piece of high ground? This inner ditch surrounds them. It's lined with concrete.”

“But, but even filled with water, this is no barrier. It's not big enough. Why, if the ants get this far, they'll—“

“-- get no farther. This ditch wasn't built for water. You see the pipes leading into it? See those storage tanks up on the hill? Gasoline. We can throw up a wall of flame. Care to bet they won't like that? Simon! Do you hear that?”

“What, James?”

“Can’t you …my God! It’s happening! Look! Over at the edge of the jungle! All those animals!”

The sounds of thousands of hooves and paws now beat a wild tattoo in the air.

“They’re running like the wind! Everything from jaguars to monkeys! They’re running for their lives!”

“Can they escape?”

“They'll be all right so long as they don't get caught between the river and the ants. They can outrun the crawlers. But if they get trapped, it's either the ants or the caimans. Simon! Look! There on the horizon! There are your ants!”

It was a scene of horror no man could ever forget. Certainly not Simon Banks. Over the range of hills, as far as the eye could see, crept a darkening hem, ever longer and broader, until the shadow spread across the entire slope, then downward, downward, uncannily swift. And all the green herbage on the entire slope was being mowed as by a giant scythe, leaving only the vast moving shadow, extending, deepening -- and always moving nearer.

“They're hideous! Ellison, we can't last against that! Look at them! They'll fill your ditches with their corpses and still have enough to destroy every one of us! We've got to run!”

“No! They haven't gotten to us yet -- and they never will!”

The hostile army was approaching in perfect formation. No human battalions, however well-drilled, could ever hope to rival the precision of that advance. Along a front that moved forward as uniformly as a straight line, the ants drew nearer and nearer to the water ditch. As they approached, two outlying wings of the army detached themselves from the main body and started marching along the sides of the ditch, no doubt expecting at some point to find a crossing. And during this hour-long flanking movement, the main army remained still.

Across the scant 12 feet of ditch, Simon Banks stared at them. And they seemed to stare back, a solid mass. Every one was fully an inch long with reddish black body and long legs.

Suddenly, a sound so unearthly as to freeze the blood jerked Ellison’s and Simon Banks’ heads in the direction of the jungle on the far side of the ditch. Coming toward the ditch at a stumbling gallop was a singular being: a writhing, animal-like blackened statue with a shapeless head and four quivering feet. It was a stag, covered over and over with ants. Ellison threw up his rifle, took aimed and squeezed off a round. The stag fell lifeless to the ground, its agonies at an end. Horrified as the commissioner was, his curiosity impelled him to glance at his watch. He had to know how long the ants would take.

After six minutes, only the white polished bones of the stag remained.

Banks could see a change in James Ellison. Gone was the sporting zest of the novel contest. In its place was a cold, violent purpose. James Ellison had to beat the ants because now he knew how long it would take them once they got to the plantation – and its population. And to his home.

His world.

All had to be protected.

That’s what James Ellison did best.

***

Around four in the afternoon, the ants' scouts had still found no crossing. There was a stirring among the main army. Suddenly, an immense flood of ants, about a hundred yards in width, commenced pouring in a glimmering-black cataract down the far slope of the ditch. Thousands drowned instantly but the rest began using the bodies as bridges. Ellison immediately swung into action.

Men’s voices rang in the air.

“Incacha?”

“Sim, Ellison-lord?”

“Get to the dam! Open the floodgate a little more. We've got to get the water in the ditch moving faster! Look at them drown!”

“But they keep coming.” Simon Banks shouted back. “Even though the current carries many of them away, they're advancing!”

“We'll fix them … Incacha?”

“Yes, Ellison-lord?”

“The shovels and gasoline sprinklers. You passed them out to the men?”

“It has been done.”

“Then, get all hands up here in a hurry! This looks like the spot for action. Simon?”

“Yes?”

“Are you beginning to see what I was talking about?”

“What do you mean?”

“About intelligence being more than a match for anything it tackles? The ants have no intelligence. If they had, they'd have attacked along the whole length of the ditch instead of a narrow front like this. They would have been across by now.” Ellison’s laugh was hard. “Too bad I'm not running their campaign for them.”

“You can joke about it like that with the ants halfway across the ditch?”

James Ellison did not answer. Instead, he roared at the workers. “Use your shovels now! Dump sand and clods of earth on them!”

The sounds of scared men’s conversations and dirt being moved echoed in the fetid air.

James Ellison pointed to one of the men. “You! The one with the gasoline sprinklers! Start pumping!”

Banks took in the horrific action. “Look at the ones on the far side of the ditch. Whole clumps of them are rolling into the water. The rest are using them for bridges!”

There was no smile on James Ellison’s face now. “They’re smarter than I thought. They're widening their front, too. Some of them are getting across. Grab a shovel. Let’s make them regret it.”

Screams from one of the workers made Jim Ellison fall to his knees and grab his ears.

“Ellison! What’s the matter with you?”

“I’m … I can’t … why is he screaming?”

Simon Banks helped his friend back to his feet. “Your worker is in trouble! The ants are on his shovel and his arms!”

James Ellison yelled at the top of his lungs. “Into the gasoline! Douse your yourself!”

The man threw his upper body into the strong-smelling liquid. The other men stopped in their tracks, watching with a fatal fascination as their fellow worker scraped the insects from his skin.

“Don't stop now, the rest of you! Club them! Club them!”

A old field worker yelled at Ellison. “We can't hold them back, Ellison-lord. We must run!”

James Ellison’s voice was a cold fury. “Don't stop now! The water's moving faster! Keep at them!”

“Your man’s got the floodgates open!”

“Yes! They can't hold their own against the current now. Look at them, Simon! The water's carrying them away! We've beat them! We've won!”

It was true. Ellison had won. At least, the opening round. The floodgates were left open to forestall any night crossing.

When dawn came, however, the dark blanket was still there, motionless across the ditch. It was then they noticed the feverish activity on the other side of the plantation. A grove of tamarind trees lined the far end of the ditch -- and every tree swarmed with the crawling insects. But instead of eating the leaves, they were merely gnawing through the stems, so that a thick green shower fell steadily to the ground.

“It looks as if it's feeding time for our friends, eh?”

“Incacha, have all the gasoline pumps brought here. Get everyone over here except the lookouts on the other side. And pass out the shovels.”

“Sim, mestre.”

“I underestimated them when I said they didn't have intelligence.”

“What do you mean?”

“I said if they wanted to get across, they'd have to have rafts. That's just what they've got. Those leaves are their rafts.”

Even as James Ellison spoke through clenched teeth, the leaves went tumbling down the far bank by the thousands. The current drew them away from the bank and each leaf carried several ants. A handful of farmhands began pointing and screaming in different dialects.

“Don't worry! As long as you keep spraying them and shoveling dirt on their rafts, they can't land!”

“But there will be too many, Ellison-lord!”

Simon Banks agreed with the unfortunate assessment. “Look, Jim, more leaves in the ditch all the time. They'll have a solid carpet to walk across in a minute! The ditch is drying up!”

Ellison snapped back an answer. “Yes, of course, it's drying up. That's the plan. Those are the orders I sent to the dam.”

“Are you insane? As soon as it's empty, what's to prevent the ants from swarming over here?”

Incacha yelled frantically as he pointed. “Look!”

“The water's way down! It's almost dry! They'll be able to come across the bottom!”

“They won’t make it, I tell you! The man at the dam will have opened the gates by now.”

“To flood the ants?”

“Right.”

“But what a chance to take! If anything should happen—“

The sound of flood water surged through the ditch. “Here it comes! Here comes the water!” Triumphantly, Jim Ellison pointed to the rumbling torrent heading toward them. “Now we'll give the crawlers in the ditch a good ride -- out into the river! There! Look at them go!”

The tactics were successful.

At first.

The violent flow of water at the original depth raced through the ditch, overwhelming leaves and ants, and sweeping them along.

Three times, the ditch was emptied.

Three times, the ants raced across its bottom.

And three times, the rushing water - arriving just in time - carried them away.

But by the fourth time, as the water lowered nearly to the bottom of the ditch, the wearied, fearful men waited in vain for the rushing water. Incacha sidled up to where James Ellison and Commissioner Simon Banks stood. “Ellison-lord … Senor…”

“What's the matter, man?” James Ellison thundered at his foreman. “What's gone wrong at the dam?”

“The ants! Just as the man at the dam lowered the water almost to the bottom, the ants attacked. Before he could open the floodgates, he was almost surrounded. He ran. The ants kept coming. They are across the ditch!”

Ellison stood motionless, absorbing the news of his defeat. Without a word, he raised his pistol and fired three shots into the air. This was the prearranged signal for all men to retreat, instantly, to the second line of defense, the concrete ditches more than a mile from the point of invasion. Soon after they arrived, the natives began silently straggling in. Ellison waited until all of them had gathered. Then he spoke. “Men, we'll smash the crawlers yet. Anyone who thinks otherwise can draw his pay and push off. There are rafts enough on the river and time still to reach them.”

Each and every member of the crew let it be known that they would stay with their “Ellison-lord” until it was finished – one way or another. The tall man’s eyes glistened with the hint of unshed tears.

“Good. Good. Thank you, men. And you, Simon?”

“Can I persuade you to give up the fight?”

“You cannot.”

“Then, I stay, too.”

James Ellison smiled at his friend. “I knew you would.”

One of the workers ran toward them. “A few of the ants have reached the ditch!”

”They're trying to get across?”

“No.”

“I didn't think they would. There's plenty of food out there for them. My fields and orchards, the work of years. It ought to last them until morning anyway.”

All of them – Ellison, Banks, and the workers -- were safe for that night.

The next morning, however, the black swarm was solid around them and their shock troops were hard at work. They were dropping shreds of bark and twigs and leaves into the gasoline-filled ditches to form a floating bridge across the surface of the liquid.

Ellison stood silently watching this operation. Banks could see a grudging admiration in his face.

After several hours, the attack came. Down the ditch the ants poured -- millions of them -- and across the bridge of twigs, rapidly approaching the inner side. Ellison stood motionless, watching them … watching them ...

“Ellison, for the love of God, don't play statue! They'll be on us in a moment!”

James was shaken from his fugue by the urgency in Banks’ voice.

“Let them fill the ditch first. All right! Now! Everyone, get back! Incacha, hand me the torch.”

“Sim, Ellison-lord.”

James Ellison lit a match, threw it into the pool of gasoline. It burst into flame, and tongues of fire from the ditch shot into the air, devouring ants by the millions.

“Be consigned to hell, all of you!”

It took some time before the gasoline burned down to the bed of the ditch, but when it did, the devils came back for more.

Again, Ellison fired the ditch to destroy them.

And still again they came on.

But, at each successive firing, the path of the ants grew easier because of the film of ash which now covered the gasoline. As they returned to the assault, time after time, a slow, sickening horror crept into Banks’ mind. He looked quickly at Ellison, then at the gasoline tanks. Jim read his friend’s gaze and nodded slowly.

“That's right. We could hold them off forever if our supply of gasoline was unlimited. But it isn't. We've got enough to fill the ditch once more.”

“But, Ellison, isn't there any other way? We've got to do something!”

“Yes, I know, I know. There must … wait, I have an idea!”

“What is it?”

“We'll flood the whole plantation!”

“How, man?”

“The river's higher than any point except this ground we're on here. If the river was dammed all the way, it'd overflow that stone breakwater and flood the whole plantation. We've got to close the floodgate at the dam - that'll do it!”

“You're crazy! The dam is more than a mile away! More than a mile of ants!”

But James Ellison seemed not to hear. “Men! Listen to me! There's still a chance! By shutting the floodgates to the damn and flooding the whole plantation from the river! The moment I'm over the ditch, set fire to it! That'll allow time for the flood to wash away the ants! Then all you have to do is wait for me!”

Banks grabbed his friend’s well-muscled arm. “It's impossible! You can't!”

“That's where you're wrong. I'll get there and I'll get back. Take care of things while I'm gone. And Simon,“ Jim Ellison’s voice dropped, speaking in an almost voiceless whisper, “do the same with Blair. Please?”

Simon Banks knew what James Ellison was asking.

“Yes.” If the worst came to pass, Commissioner Simon Banks would take the young Sandburg under his own protection.

The two men shook hands silently. Banks watched Ellison calmly pull on high leather Blunderstones, draw gauntlets over his hands, and stuff the spaces between breeches and boots, gloves and arms, with gasoline-soaked rags -- even though his skin felt it was peeling away from so caustic a liquid. He shielded his eyes with close-fitting mosquito goggles and plugged his nostrils and ears with cotton. Then the natives drenched his clothes with gasoline. Incacha who also acted as doctor and shaman to the men, smeared a salve over his “Ellison-lord,” made a sign of blessing on the American’s forehead and over his heart, before nodding that all that could be done, had been done. Finally, James Ellison was ready. Having prepared himself for the run, he realized that this was as it should be: Ellison would meet the ants and defeat them -- or be defeated by them.

Ellison versus the ants.

Yes, it was right that it should be like this. But now there was no more time for thought of a blue-eyed stranger who had stolen his heart like a thief in the night -- and of what might have been.

Now was a time for action. Ellison took a deep breath, then bounded across the ditch in among the ants. He ran in long, equal strides, dodging the trees and shrubs and every obstacle in his path. And except for the split seconds James Ellison’s soles touched the ground, the ants would have no opportunity to alight on him.

Onward, Ellison ran. Halfway to the dam, he felt ants under his clothing, and a few on his face. James Ellison struck at them mechanically, scarcely conscious of their bites, dialing down the pain the insects inflicted by sheer force of will.

Slowly, the dam drew nearer, the distance from Ellison growing less and less.

Now, only a hundred yards away.

Seventy-five.

Fifty.

Twenty-five.

He was there! James Ellison gripped the ant-covered wheel. But hardly had he seized it when a phalanx of ants flowed over his hands and arms. He strained as the wheel creaked. Slowly, almost imperceptibly at first, it turned, then turned more. The floodgates were swinging slowly shut. And then it was shut, and the water began rising rapidly, behind the breakwater, closer to the top. Closer, closer, closer …

And then it was spilling over. The flooding of the plantation had begun. James Ellison let go of the wheel and started back through the ants. He was coated from head to foot with the fiends. Tongues of fire stabbed at him as they bit into his sensitive flesh. Ellison almost lost his head with the brutal pain as he ran, knocking ants from his body, brushing them from his bloodied face.

Then one ant bit Ellison just below the rim of his goggles. He managed to tear it away, but the agony of the bite and its venom drilled into the eye nerves. Almost blinded, he saw now through circles of fire into a milky mist.

Yet, James Ellison kept moving. If he tripped and fell, there would be no tomorrow. Or future with a beautiful enigma waiting for him downriver.

James Ellison ran on, his heart pounding as if it would burst, blood roaring in his ears, a giant's fist battering his lungs, and still, all he could think of was Blair Sandburg.

All he could see was that face, that smile.

All he could regret was to never again have love personified in his bed, in his arms, and in his heart.

Dimly, near the horizon, James Ellison saw that wall of flame at the ditch. But it was so far away. As he stumbled and fell, Ellison felt himself being swarmed over – devoured. Trying to rise but falling … a great weight of all those horrid insects … Then, suddenly, the memory of the half-devoured stag stabbed in his brain. Six minutes, then nothing but bones …

Ellison couldn’t let it happen to him! He couldn't die like that! He couldn’t leave Blair Sandburg …

With each and every muscle straining, heart near the breaking point, James Ellison struggled to his feet, and dragged himself forward, toward the flame.

The ditch! The ring of flames! Closer, now! Only a little further! Ten steps! Just 10 steps! Then nine … just eight more, and he would find Blair. And beg for his forgiveness … and his love ….

***

It seemed that Simon Banks and the plantation workers had waited for hours, when all at once, through the blazing ring around them, an apparition hurtled and fell full length on the ground.

It was James Ellison -- alive with ants, unconscious, with blazing eyes and lacerated face. They rushed to him, stripped off his clothing, and tore at the ants that covered him. His body seemed almost one open wound. In one place, Simon Banks could see bone. Later, as the curtain of flame lowered, the commissioner looked out to where the blanket of ants had been. He saw only a vast expanse of water, covering the entire plantation and working its way to within a few feet of the concrete ditch.

The ants were gone – drowned.

James Ellison had won.

*** His body swathed from head to foot with bandages, James Ellison lay in a hospital bed.

Alive.

Still in command.

“Everything in order?” James Ellison’s voice asked, husky and strained.

“Everything's in order, James.” A moistened cloth touched at the corners of his mouth. The scent of the hand holding it could only belong to one person. Despite the pain, James Ellison grabbed Blair Sandburg around the waist, pulled him down to the bed and kissed him.

“I’m back and alive,” he chuckled weakly, even as he buried his face in the long, auburn hair, “even if I’m a bit … streamlined.”

“Your wounds will heal. Then we will…”

“Talk?”

“Yes. Definitely. We will talk.”

James Ellison lay back into the comfort of the many pillow behind him, and smiled as broadly as he could, given the bandages on his face. “Talking? More talking? I almost think I’d prefer the ants.”

The end

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Acknowledgements: Thanks to Mongoose clan (editors, writers, betas, artists, et al) who encourage me -- and one another-- to keep cranking these puppies out. We hope you SENTINEL fans appreciate all the effort. And Happy Anniversary to all of us!