At a place, with the name of Nova Aurora, again consisting of one hut, we found a quantity of skins stretched in the sunlight to dry. They were mostly the hides of yellow jaguars, or pumas, as we call them in the United States, and seven feet from the nose to the end of the tail was not an unusual length. Although, as we learned, they had been taken from the animals only a few weeks previously, they had already been partly destroyed by the gnawing of rats. A tapir, weighing nearly seven hundred and fifty pounds, had been shot the day before and was being cut up for food when we arrived. We were invited to stay and take dinner here, and I had my first opportunity of tasting roast tapir. I found that it resembled roast beef very much, only sweeter, and the enjoyment of this food belongs among the very few pleasant memories I preserve of this trip.
While they were getting dinner ready, I noticed what I took to be a stuffed parrot on a beam in the kitchen. But when I touched its tail I found that it was enough alive to come near snapping my finger off. It was a very large arara parrot with two tail feathers, each about thirty-six inches long, a magnificent specimen worthy of a place in a museum. Parrots of this particular species are very difficult to handle, being as stupid and malicious as they are beautiful. They often made me think of dandies who go resplendent in fine clothes but are less conspicuous for mental excellences.
After having indulged in black coffee, we were invited to give the house and the surroundings a general inspection. Directly behind the structure was the smoking hut, or defumador, as it is called. Inside this are a number of sticks inclined in pyramid form and covered with palm-leaves. In the floor a hole was dug for the fire that serves for coagulating the rubber-milk. Over this pit is hung a sort of frame for guiding the heavy stick employed in the smoking of the rubber. At this time the process had not become for me the familiar story that it was destined to be. Beneath the hut were several unfinished paddles and a canoe under construction. The latter are invariably of the "dugout" type. A shape is roughly cut from a tree-trunk and then a fire is built in the centre and kept burning in the selected places until the trunk is well hollowed out. It is then finished off by hand. Paddles are formed from the buttresses which radiate from the base of the matamata tree, forming thin but very strong spurs. They are easily cut into the desired shape by the men and receive decorations from the hands of the women who often produce striking colour effects. A beautiful scarlet tint is obtained from the fruit of the urueu plant, and the genipapa produces a deep rich-black colour. These dyes are remarkably glossy, and they are waterproof and very stable.
After sunset the launch was off again. Everything went quietly until midnight, when we were awakened with great suddenness. The launch had collided with a huge log that came floating down the stream. It wedged itself between the side of the boat and the lighter and it required much labour to get ourselves loose from it. After we got free, the log tore two of the canoes from their fastenings and they drifted off; but the loss was not discovered until the next morning, when we were about thirty-five miles from the scene of the accident.
Two more days passed without any incident of a more interesting nature than was afforded by occasional stops at lonely barracaos where merchandise was unloaded and fuel for the engine taken in. We were always most cordially received by the people and invited to take coffee, while murmurs of "Esta casa e a suas ordenes"—This house is at your disposal—followed our departure. Unlike many conventional phrases of politeness, I do not know that the sentiment was entirely exaggerated, It is typical of the Brazilian and is to be reckoned with his other good qualities. They always combine a respect for those things that are foreign, with their decided patriotism. The hospitality the stranger receives at their hands is nothing short of marvellous, and no greater insult can be inflicted than to offer to pay for accommodations. I find any retrospective glance over the days I spent among these people coloured with much pleasure when I review incidents connected with my contact with them. There is a word in the Portuguese language which holds a world of meaning for anyone who has been in that land so richly bestowed with the blessings of Nature, Brazil. It is saudades, a word that arouses only the sweetest and tenderest of memories.
There were seven more days of travel before we reached the headquarters of Floresta, the largest rubber-estate in the Javary region. It covers an area somewhat larger than Long Island. Coronel da Silva, the owner, lives in what would be called an unpretentious house in any other place but the Amazon. Here it represents the highest achievement of architecture and modern comfort. It is built on sixteen-foot poles and stands on the outskirts of a half-cleared space which contains also six smaller buildings scattered around. The house had seven medium-sized rooms, equipped with modern furniture of an inexpensive grade. There was also an office which, considering that it was located about 2900 miles from civilisation, could be almost called up-to-date. I remember, for instance, that a clock from New Haven had found its way here. In charge of the office was a secretary, a Mr. da Marinha, who was a man of considerable education and who had graduated in the Federal capital. Several years of health-racking existence in the swamps had made him a nervous and indolent man, upon whose face a smile was never seen. The launch stopped here twenty-four hours, unloading several tons of merchandise, to replenish the store-house close to the river front. I took advantage of the wait to converse with Coronel da Silva. He invited me cordially to stop at his house and spend the summer watching the rubber-work and hunting the game that these forests contained. It was finally proposed that I go with the launch up to the Branco River, only two days' journey distant, and that on its return I should disembark and stay as long as I wished. To this I gladly assented. We departed in the evening bound for the Branco River. On this trip I had my first attack of fever. I had no warning of the approaching danger until a chill suddenly came over me on the first day out from Floresta. I had felt a peculiar drowsiness for several days, but had paid little attention to it as one generally feels drowsy and tired in the oppressive heat and humidity. When to this was added a second chill that shook me from head to foot with such violence that I thought my last hour had come, I knew I was in for my first experience of the dreaded Javary fever. There was nothing to do but to take copious doses of quinine and keep still in my hammock close to the rail of the boat. The fever soon got strong hold of me and I alternated between shivering with cold and burning with a temperature that reached 104 and 105 degrees. Towards midnight it abated somewhat, but left me so nearly exhausted that I was hardly able to raise my head to see where we were going. Our boat kept close to the bank so as to get all possible advantage of the eddying currents.
I was at length aroused from a feverish slumber by being flung suddenly to the deck of the launch with a violent shock, while men and women shouted in excitement that the craft would surely turn over. We were careened at a dangerous angle when I awoke and in my reduced condition it was not difficult to imagine that a capsize was to be the result. But with a ripping, rending sound the launch suddenly righted itself. It developed that we had had a more serious encounter with a protruding branch than in any of the previous collisions. This one had caught on the very upright to which my hammock was secured. The stanchion in this case was iron and its failure to give way had caused the boat to tilt. Finally the iron bent to an S shape and the branch slipped off after tearing the post from its upper fastenings. It was a narrow escape from a calamity, but the additional excitement aggravated my fever and I went from bad to worse. Therefore it was found advisable, when we arrived, late the next day, at the mouth of the Branco, to put me ashore to stay in the hut of the manager of the rubber estate, so that I might not cause the crew and the passengers of the launch inconvenience through my sickness and perhaps ultimate death. I was carried up to the hut and placed in a hammock where I was given a heavy dose of quinine. I dimly remember hearing the farewell-toot of the launch as she left for the down-river trip, and there I was alone in a strange place among people of whose language I understood very little. In the afternoon a young boy was placed in a hammock next to mine, and soon after they brought in a big, heavy Brazilian negro, whom they put on the other side. Like me they were suffering from Javary fever and kept moaning all through the afternoon in their pain, but all three of us were too sick to pay any attention to each other. That night my fever abated a trifle and I could hear the big fellow raving in delirium about snakes and lizards, which he imagined he saw. When the sun rose at six the next morning he was dead. The boy expired during the afternoon.
It was torture to lie under the mosquito-net with the fever pulsing through my veins and keeping my blood at a high temperature, but I dared not venture out, even if I had possessed the strength to do so, for fear of the mosquitoes and the sand-flies which buzzed outside in legions. For several days I remained thus and then began to mend a little. Whether it was because of the greater vitality of the white race or because I had not absorbed a fatal dose, I do not know, but I improved. When I felt well enough, I got up and arranged with the rubber-estate manager to give me two Indians to paddle me and my baggage down to Floresta. I wanted to get down there where I could have better accommodations before I should become sick again.
FLORESTA: LIFE AMONG THE RUBBER-WORKERS
It was half past five in the morning when we arrived at the landing of the Floresta estate. Since it was too early to go up to the house I placed my trunk on the bank and sat admiring the surrounding landscape, partly enveloped in the mist that always hangs over these damp forests until sunrise. The sun was just beginning to colour the eastern sky with faint warm tints. Before me was the placid surface of the Itecoahy, which seemed as though nothing but my Indian's paddles had disturbed it for a century. Just here the river made a wide turn and on the sand-bar that was formed a few large freshwater turtles could be seen moving slowly around. The banks were high and steep, and it appeared incredible that the flood could rise so high that it would inundate the surrounding country and stand ten or twelve feet above the roots of the trees—a rise that represented about sixty-seven feet in all.
When I turned around I saw the half-cleared space in front of me stretching over a square mile of ground. To the right was Coronel da Silva's house, already described, and all about, the humbler barracaos or huts of the rubber-workers. In the clearing, palm-trees and guava brush formed a fairly thick covering for the ground, but compared with the surrounding impenetrable jungle the little open space deserved its title of "clearing." A few cows formed a rare sight as they wandered around nibbling at the sparse and sickly growth of grass.
By-and-bye the sun was fully up; but even then it could not fully disperse the mists that hung over the landscape. The birds were waking and their calls filled the air. The amorous notes of the inamboo were repeated and answered from far off by its mate, and the melancholy song of the wacurao piped musically out from the vastness of the forest. Small green paroquets flew about and filled the air with their not altogether pleasant voices. These are the same birds that are well-known to the residents of New York and other large cities, where a dozen of them can often be seen in charge of an intrepid Italian, who has them trained to pick cards out of a box for anyone desiring his fortune told for the sum of five cents. Here they must provide by their own efforts for their own futures, however. Even at this hour the howling monkey had not left off disturbing the peace with its hideous din.
Gradually the camp woke up to the day's work. A tall pajama-clad man spied me and was the first to come over. He was a very serious-looking gentleman and with his full-bearded face looked not unlike the artist's conception of the Saviour. He bade me welcome in the usual generous terms of the Brazilians and invited me into the house, where I again met Coronel da Silva. This first-mentioned grave-looking man was Mr. da Marinha. The kindness with which he welcomed me was most grateful; especially so in my present physical condition. I noticed what had not been so apparent on my first meeting with him, that recent and continuous ravages of fevers and spleen troubles had reduced him, though a fairly young man, to the usual nerve-worn type that the white man seems bound to become after any long stay in the upper Amazon region.
Not knowing where I might stop when I left Remate de Males, I had brought with me a case of canned goods. I only succeeded in insulting the Coronel when I mentioned this. He gave me his best room and sent for a new hammock for me. Such attentions to a stranger, who came without even a letter of introduction, are typical of Brazilian hospitality.
After a plentiful meal, consisting of fried fish and roast loin of tapir, which tasted very good, we drank black coffee and conversed as well as my limited knowledge of the Portuguese language permitted. After this, naturally, feeling very tired from my travels and the heat of the day, I arranged my future room, strung my hammock, and slept until a servant announced that supper was served. This meal consisted of jerked beef, farinha, rice, black beans, turtle soup, and the national Goiabada marmalade. The cook, who was nothing but a sick rubber-worker, had spoiled the principal part of the meal by disregarding the juices of the meat, and cooking it without salt, besides mixing the inevitable farinha with everything. But it was a part of the custom of the country and could not be helped. De gustibus non est disputandum.
When this meal was over, I was invited to go with the secretary, Mr. da Marinha, the man who had first greeted me in the morning, to see a sick person. At some distance from the house was a small barracao, where we were received by a seringueiro named Marques. This remarkable man was destined to figure prominently in experiences that I had to undergo later. He pulled aside a large mosquito-net which guarded the entrance of the inner room of this hut. In the hammock we found a middle-aged woman; a native of Ceara. Her face was not unattractive but terribly emaciated, and she was evidently very sick. She showed us an arm bound up in rags, and the part exposed was wasted and dark red. It was explained that three weeks before, an accident had forced a wooden splinter into her thumb and she had neglected the inflammation that followed. I asked her to undo the wrappings, a thing which I should never have done, and the sight we saw was most discouraging. The hand was swollen until it would not have been recognised as a hand, and there was an immense lesion extending from the palm to the middle of the forearm. The latter was in a terrible condition, the flesh having been eaten away to the bone. It was plainly a case of gangrene of a particularly vicious character.
Suddenly it dawned upon me that they all took me for a doctor; and the questions they asked as to what should be done, plainly indicated that they looked to me for assistance. I explained that I had no knowledge of surgery, but that in spite of this I was sure that if something were not done immediately the woman would have little time to live.
I asked if there was not a doctor that could be reached within a few days' journey. We discussed sending the woman to Remate de Males by canoe, but this idea was abandoned, for the journey even undertaken by the most skilful paddlers could not be made in less than eighteen days, and by that time the gangrene would surely have killed the patient.
Coronel da Silva was called in. He said that the woman was the wife of the chief of the caucheros and that her life must be saved if possible. I explained my own incapacity in this field once more, but insisted that we would be justified in undertaking an amputation as the only chance of preventing her death.
I now found myself in a terrible position. The operation is a very difficult one even in the hands of a skilful surgeon, and here I was called to perform it with hardly an elementary knowledge of the science and not even adequate instruments. At the same time, it seemed moral cowardice to avoid it, since evidently I was the one best qualified, and the woman would die in agony if not soon relieved. I trembled all over when I concluded that there was no escape. We went to the room and got the bistoury and the forceps given me by a medical friend before I left home. Besides these, I took some corrosive sublimate, intended for the preparation of animal skins, and some photographic clips. The secretary, after a search produced an old and rusty hacksaw as the only instrument the estate could furnish. This we cleaned as carefully as possible with cloths and then immersed it in a solution of sublimate. Before going to the patient's hut I asked the owner and the woman's husband if they were reconciled to my attempt and would not hold me responsible in case of her death. They answered that, as the woman was otherwise going to die, we were entirely right in doing whatever we could. I found the patient placidly smoking a pipe, her injured arm over the edge of the hammock. By this time she understood that she was to have her arm amputated by a surgical novice. She seemed not to be greatly concerned over the matter, and went on smoking her pipe while we made the arrangements. We placed her on the floor and told her to lie still. We adjusted some rubber cloth under the dead arm. Her husband and three children stood watching with expressionless faces. Two monkeys, tied to a board in a corner were playing and fighting together. A large parrot was making discursive comment on the whole affair, while a little lame dog seemed to be the most interested spectator. The secretary took the bistoury from the bowl containing the sublimate and handed it to me with a bow. With a piece of cotton I washed the intended spot of operation and traced a line with a pencil on the arm.
Imagine with what emotions I worked! After we had once started, however, we forgot everything except the success of our operation. I omit a description of the details, as they might prove too gruesome. The woman fainted from shock just before we touched the bone,—Nature thus supplying an effective, if rude, anaesthetic. We had forgotten about sewing together the flesh, and when we came to this a boy was dispatched to the owner's house for a package of stout needles. These were held in the fire for a few seconds, and then immersed when cold in the sublimate before they were used to join the flesh. By the time it was done, I was, myself, feeling very sick. Finally I could stand the little room of torture no longer, and left the secretary dressing the wound. Would she recover from the barbaric operation? This question kept coursing through my head as I vainly tried for a long time to go to sleep.
The next day, after an early observation of my patient, who seemed to have recovered from the shock and thus gave at least this hope of success, I spent my time going around to visit the homes of the seringueiros. They were all as polite as their chief, and after exchanging the salute of "Boa dia," they would invite me to climb up the ladder and enter the hut. Here they would invariably offer me a cup of strong coffee. There were always two or three hammocks, of which I was given the one I liked best. The huts generally consist of two rooms with a few biscuit-boxes as chairs, and Winchester rifles and some fancy-painted paddles to complete the furniture.
The following day I arose with the sun and, after some coffee, asked a huge small-pox-scarred fellow to accompany me on my first excursion into the real jungle. Up to this time I had only seen it from my back porch in Remate de Males and from the deck of the launch Carolina, but now I was in the heart of the forest and would indulge in jungle trips to my heart's content. We entered through a narrow pathway called an estrada, whose gateway was guarded by a splendid palm-tree, like a Cerberus at the gates of dark Hades. The estrada led us past one hundred to one hundred and fifty rubber trees, as it wound its way over brooks and fallen trees. Each of the producing trees had its rough bark gashed with cuts to a height of ten to twelve feet all around its circumference. These marks were about an inch and a half in length. Alongside of the tree was always to be found a stick, on the end of which were a dozen or so of small tin-cups used in collecting the rubber-milk. Every worker has two estradas to manage, and by tapping along each one alternately he obtains the maximum of the product. This particular estrada was now deserted as the seringueiro happened to be at work on the other one under his jurisdiction.
It was in a sense agreeable to work there as the sun could not penetrate the dense foliage and the air was therefore cool. After we had walked for about an hour, my big guide complained of being tired and of feeling unwell. I told him he could go back to the camp and leave me to find my way alone. Accordingly he left me and I now had the task of carrying without assistance my large 8 x 10 view-camera, a shotgun, a revolver, and a machete.
Gradually my ear caught a terrible sound which to the uninitiated would have seemed like the roaring of a dozen lions in combat, but the dreadful notes that vibrated through the forest were only those of the howling monkey. I always had a great desire to see one of this species in the act of performing this uncanny forest-concert, therefore I left the rubber pathway after placing my camera on the ground, up against a rubber tree, and commenced following the noise, cutting my way through the underbrush. I walked and walked, but the sound seemed to remain the same distance away, and I stopped to reconnoitre.
I hesitated whether to proceed or not, fearing I might lose the way and not be able to find my camera again. The monkey was not visible at all; it fact, it was not possible to see anything, unless it was very close by, so dense was the foliage. I laid my automatic pistol on a fallen tree-trunk, and was trying to figure out the chances of getting a look at my simian friend and at the same time not losing my valuable property on the pathway, when I heard another startling sound, this time near-by. I prepared myself for whatever species of animal was due, and could feel the excitement a hunter knows when he thinks he is about to get a sight of big game. Suddenly the undergrowth parted in front of me and a herd of wild boars came trotting out. I drew a bead on the biggest of the lot and fired, letting five soft-nose bullets go through his head to make sure; the others fled, and I hastened to the spot to examine my prize more closely. It was a boar of medium size, weighing in the neighbourhood of one hundred and twenty-five pounds, and he had a fine set of tusks. He was rather vicious-looking and was doing considerable kicking before he gave up the ghost. It was impossible for me to carry him through the bush owing to the fact that I had the valuable camera and apparatus to take care of, so I made a mental note of the spot, and cut his ears off. It took four hours' search to find the camera, in spite of my belief that I had not gone far, and it was late in the afternoon when I arrived at headquarters.
The very next morning there was a good opportunity to see the smoking of rubber-milk. A seringueiro had collected his product and when I went to the smoking-hut I found him busy turning over and over a big stick, resting on two horizontal guides, built on both sides of a funnel from which a dense smoke was issuing. On the middle of the stick was a huge ball of rubber. Over this he kept pouring the milk from a tin-basin. Gradually the substance lost its liquidity and coagulated into a beautiful yellow-brown mass which was rubber in its first crude shipping state.
The funnel from which the smoke issued was about three feet high and of a conical shape. At its base was a fire of small wooden chips, which when burning gave forth an acrid smoke containing a large percentage of creosote. It is this latter substance which has the coagulating effect upon the rubber-milk. When the supply of milk was exhausted, he lifted the ball and stick off the guides and rolled it on a smooth plank to drive the moisture out of the newly-smoked rubber. Then he was through for the day. He placed the stick on two forked branches and put some green leaves over the funnel to smother the fire. On top of the leaves he put a tin-can and a chunk of clay, then filled the hole in the ground with ashes. Under this arrangement the fire would keep smouldering for twenty-four hours, to be used anew for the next repetition of the smoking process.
In the afternoon we again went out to hunt. This time I took only a 12-gauge shotgun. As we travelled through the forest I was impressed once more by the fascination of the grandly extravagant vegetation.
But there is little charm about it, nothing of the tranquillity our idyllic Catskills or even the sterner Adirondacks, create. There is no invitation to repose, no stimulus to quiet enjoyment, for the myriad life of the Amazon's jungle forest never rests. There is always some sound or some movement which is bound to stir in one the instinct of self-preservation. You have to be constantly alive to the danger of disagreeable annoyance from the pests that abound, or of actual bodily harm from animals of the reptilian order.
Were I in possession of adequate descriptive power I could picture the impression that this jungle creates upon the mind of one from the North, but now, as I once more sit in a large city with sky-scrapers towering about me, and hear the rattling noise of the elevated railway train as it rushes past, my pen fails me and I have to remove myself on the wings of thought to those remote forests, fully realising, "Beatus ille, qui procul negotiis, ut" etc., etc. Then I can feel again the silence and the gloom that pervade those immense and wonderful woods. The few sounds of birds and animals are, generally, of a pensive and mysterious character, and they intensify the feeling of solitude rather than impart to it a sense of life and cheerfulness. Sometimes in the midst of the noon-day stillness, a sudden yell or scream will startle one, coming from some minor fruit-eating animal, set upon by a carnivorous beast or serpent. Morning and evening, the forest resounds with the fearful roar of the howling monkeys, and it is hard, even for the stoutest heart, to maintain its buoyancy of spirit. The sense of inhospitable wilderness, which the jungle inspires, is increased tenfold by this monstrous uproar. Often in the still hours of night, a sudden crash will be heard, as some great branch or a dead tree falls to the ground. There are, besides, many sounds which are impossible to account for and which the natives are as much at a loss to explain as myself. Sometimes a strange sound is heard, like the clang of an iron bar against a hard, hollow tree; or a piercing cry rends the air. These are not repeated, and the succeeding stillness only tends to heighten the unpleasant impression which they produce on the mind.
The first thing that claimed our attention, shortly after we started, was a sound of breaking branches and falling leaves, somewhere in the distance. Through the trees I could perceive that it was a big dark-grey monkey, which we had alarmed. He was scrambling up a tall tree when I fired at him. I evidently missed, for I could see him prepare for a mighty jump to a lower tree where he would be out of sight. But in the jump he got another load of pellets, which struck him in the back. His leap fell short of the mark and he landed headlong among some bushes, kicking violently as I came up to him. As he seemed strongly built and had a rather savage expression, it did not seem wise to tackle him with bare hands, therefore, as I desired to get him alive, I ran back and procured my focussing cloth, which I tied around his head. Thus I got him safely back to the camp, where he was tied to a board and the bullets extracted from his flesh. Then his wounds, which were not serious, were bound up and he was put into a cage with a bunch of bananas and a saucer of goat's milk to cheer him up a bit.
The suddenness with which these monkey delicacies disappeared, convinced me that his complete recovery was a matter of only a short time, unless perchance some hungry rubber-worker, surreptitiously, had removed these viands while nobody was looking, for bananas and milk are things which will tempt any Amazonian from the narrow path of rectitude; but it was not so in this case. The conviction as to recovery proved right, and with the improvement of his health he displayed a cheerful and fond disposition that decided me to take him back with me to New York when I should go. I have since been informed that he belonged to the Humboldt Sika species. I watched him for several months and came to like him for the innocent tricks he never tired of playing. One night he managed to liberate himself from the tree near the hut where he was tied. He disappeared for two days, but on the third he returned, chains and all. He had doubtless found life in the jungle trees not altogether cheerful with a heavy chain secured to his waist, and he had returned reconciled to captivity and regular meals. There is at present one specimen of this kind of monkey at the Bronx Zooelogical Gardens in charge of the head keeper.
At the time of low water, the so-called prayas appear at the bends of the river; they grow with the accumulation of sand and mud. They are wide and often of a considerable area, and on them the alligators like to bask in the sunshine of early morning and late afternoon, and the tartarugas, or fresh-water turtles, lay their eggs. These eggs are laid in the months of September and October on moon-lit nights and are somewhat smaller than the ordinary hen's egg, the yolk tasting very much the same, but they are covered with a tough parchment-like shell. Here on the upper Amazon the people prepare a favourite meal by collecting these eggs and storing them for two or three weeks, when they tear open the shell and squeeze out the yolks, mixing them all up into a mush with the inevitable farinha. Few people, except native Brazilians, ever acquire a relish for this remarkable dish.
I spent a whole day waiting for the elusive alligators on one of these sand-bars, but evidently they were too wise, for they never came within camera-range. I did, however, see some tapir-tracks, leading down to the water's edge. After the long wait I grew discouraged, and chose a camping place farther up the river, where I prepared a meal consisting of turtle eggs and river water. The meal was not absolutely undisturbed, as the air was full of a species of fly that derives its principal sustenance from the bodies of various dead animals always to be found through the jungle, whose teeming life crowds out all but those fittest to survive.
I had begun my vigil before sunrise, when there are two or three hours very cool and humid. In the dry season the dew which collects is of the greatest importance to animal and plant life. For the tired and thirsty wanderer, the calyx of the beautiful scarlet orchid, which grows abundantly in this region, contains the refreshment of two or three ounces of clear, cool water. But you must look carefully into this cup of nature to see that no insects lurk in its depths to spoil the draught.
I have previously described the breakfast table of the millionaire Coronel R. da Silva, with its black beans, the dreadful farinha, the black coffee, and the handful of mutilated bolachas or biscuits. The only variable factor was the meat, sometimes wild hog, occasionally tapir, and very often the common green parrot or the howling monkey. At most meals the pirarucu fish appears, especially on Mondays when the rubber-workers have had the whole of Sunday in which to indulge in the sport of shooting this gamy two-hundred-pound fish. They carry their pirarucu to headquarters and courteously offer the best cuts to the Coronel, afterwards cutting the rest into long strips and leaving them to dry in the sun. Jerked beef was always to be relied upon when other supplies ran low.
There must have been some terrible mystery connected with the milk. There were twenty-one cows on the place, but never a drop of milk from them was to be had. I was always afraid to ask any questions about this deficiency for fear I might be treading on dangerous ground, but with the lack of any other explanation I ascribe it to continual sickness from which the cattle must probably suffer, in common with every other living thing here.
During the month of September, the number of patients from fever, pleurisy, and accidents, at Floresta headquarters, amounted to 82% of the population. A fever resembling typhoid resulted in several cases from drinking the river-water. The Coronel claimed that Mangeroma Indians living in the interior about 150 miles from Floresta had poisoned the creeks and affluents of the Itecoahy to take revenge upon the traders who brought the much dreaded Peruvian rubber-workers up to the Itecoahy River estates. These Peruvians are hated because they abduct the women of the indigenous tribes, when on their expeditions far into the forests where these tribes live, and consequently they are hunted down and their entrance to the region as far as possible prevented.
At this morning hour in New York (Floresta is on the same meridian as New York), thousands of toilers are entering the hot subways and legions of workers are filing into their offices and stuffy shops to take their places at the huge machinery which keeps the world in motion. At the very same hour a handful of rubber-workers are passing my house, returning from their first trip in the estradas, where they have been tapping the trees, and on their way to the huts and a frugal breakfast. Here in the wilds of Brazil there are no subways, no worry about the "market," nor indeed any thought for the morrow. Nature supplies the rubber trees, and the "boss" the tools to work them with; the philosophy of the rubber-worker goes no farther. A shirt, trousers, and a hat are all the dress that fashion requires, and often the worker even finds the shirt superfluous. He wears a pair of overalls, and carries slung over his shoulder his rifle and the little hatchet for tapping the trees, besides a small rubber bag in which he keeps a supply of farinha and jerked beef, should he be prevented from reaching his hut in regulation time.
The seringueiro is free in his movements and in his mind, he is a quick and keen observer of nature, and an expert in knowledge of the cries and calls of the animals of the forest. He knows their habits and hiding-places to perfection, and he could probably astonish the naturalist by informing him of many things he has observed that his brother scientist never has heard of. He knows the names of the trees and plants in the forest and what they can be used for, though his knowledge of them is often supplemented by superstitious imaginings. He knows the multitudinous fish of the Amazon, whether they are to be caught with a net, speared, or shot with bow and arrows, or, if the hunter is of a progressive disposition, shot with rifle ball. There are varieties that have, as yet, not been seen, classified, or identified by the scientist of to-day—I am positive of having seen several such.
The inhabitant of this region is clean in his habits and in his mind as soon as he gets away from the evil influence of civilisation—which for him is the town of Remate de Males or "Culmination of Evils." He takes a bath at least twice a day, and attends closely to the cleanliness of his wardrobe, which for that matter does not absorb any considerable amount of time. As a rule, he is industrious, but frequent attacks of fever, dysentery, liver and spleen complaints, or pneumonia make him in the end, like all living things here not native to the forests, sluggish in general, and irritable on occasion.
A little distance from the headquarters lies a beautiful lake. It is not wider than the Itecoahy itself, four hundred feet on an average, and is about five miles long. It runs parallel with the river, and has only one outlet. In the dry season this amounts to nothing more than a little rivulet across which a large fallen tree has formed a natural bridge, but in January, when the waters rise, the creek is so full that the servants of Coronel da Silva can wash the linen there. After some weeks of sojourn at Floresta, I found my way to this lake, and it was here that I was able to observe some of the largest specimens of Amazonian reptiles in their haunts, where the equatorial sun had full opportunity to develop an amazing growth of faunal and floral life.
It was a most enchanting stretch of water. I had heard of the dangers lurking beneath its surface long before I saw it, so when I arrived there one morning I was surprised to find a placid lake, set in picturesque and romantic surroundings. My first impulse was to exclaim, partly to myself, and partly to the Indian Joao who accompanied me, "Why, this is Lake Innocence," so peaceful did it appear. In fact, so much did it charm me that during the remainder of my stay at Floresta there was hardly a day some part of which I did not spend in the immediate vicinity of this lake. But it was treacherous. It was the home of six or seven old alligators and of young ones—too numerous to count; the oldest reaching a length of about seventeen feet. They would lie perfectly still under the banks, among the dead branches and snags, which made the shores generally inaccessible to boat or canoe, but when a person approached they would make their presence known by violent splashing in the water and repeated loud grunts, very much resembling those of a walrus. Then they would burrow under the soft mud and remain quiet for an hour or two. In the early forenoon, before the sun became too hot, they would sun themselves, but in the sweltering mid-day hours they remained buried in the mud, and were then very hard to rouse.
I found, on the shores of the lake, two alligator nests, formed of many twigs and branches stuck together, half in the water and half in the soft slimy mud. There they deposited their eggs, oblong tough ones; and one could always count on finding the female in the neighbourhood, should one desire to visit her. I came near stepping on one of these female alligators during a morning hunt with my camera. I was intently examining a group of eggs I found under a cluster of branches, when I was startled by a splash in the water and a loud grunt. As fast as the muddy ground would let me, I scrambled up the bank, and when I reached the top I saw the alligator swimming away from the very spot where I had been standing, its small close-set eyes fastened on me. Then it disappeared in the mud.
My next encounter occurred one forenoon, when I was sitting close to the dried-up canal which formed the outlet of the lake. It was almost mid-day. I was sitting in the shade, safe from the blazing sun, enjoying a peaceful smoke. The air was fairly vibrating with heat, causing the blood to surge through my veins. Not a sound was heard except the irritating buzz of the ever-present mosquitoes. For some time I had been aware of the slow, stealthy movement of a large body near-by, though only half consciously. The heat made me sluggish and sleepy, but suddenly I awoke to the fact that the moving thing, whatever it might be, was near me. Mechanically, I released the "safety" of my automatic pistol, and then realised that out of the reeds near me was creeping a medium-sized alligator. He was making straight for the water, and I do not know whether he was cognisant of my presence or not. He was moving steadily, advancing a few inches, stopping for a minute, then resuming the journey. I believe I was not more than five feet from the head as it emerged from the fringe of reeds. I raised my camera, secured a focus, and snapped the shutter. The click of the apparatus and perhaps my movement drew his attention. He stopped abruptly. The long jaws opened toward me, displaying an enormous expanse of pink flesh and two rows of shining teeth. I lost not a second in throwing aside the camera and jumping back to a position of relative safety, whence I fired into the open mouth of the beast. I killed him. On examining the carcass, I noticed that he had unusually large eyes, indicating that he was a young specimen.
A few days later I again went to this lake—which, from my remarks, had now come to be generally called "Lago Innocencia"—to catch fish with my Indian friend Joao. He carried a bow, four arrows with detachable heads, and a harpoon six feet long. The little boat which we found close to the outlet of the lake was pushed away from the shore, we each seized one of the peculiarly decorated paddles, and were off, looking for finny game. We paddled quietly along near the shore, now and then receiving a bump from some concealed snag which nearly upset us. It requires considerable skill to navigate one of these poorly-made dugouts, the slightest move causing a disproportionate amount of disturbance of equilibrium.
Suddenly Joao jumped up, his black eyes glowing with excitement. He motioned me to keep quiet, but it was quiet superfluous for him to do this, as I was unable to talk, or even look around, for fear the canoe might upset. He seized the harpoon, and with a powerful swing sent it into the water ahead of us, at the same time grasping the line which was attached to the end. The spear sank deep into the water, and then by the vivacity with which it danced around I could tell there was something on the end of it. As he began to pull in the line, the struggle became so violent that I crept forward on my knees in the bottom of the canoe and helped him recover the spear. Only after some strenuous balancing feats and a stiff fight by both of us, did we land our game. It was a large flat fish at least four feet square, with a long whip-shaped tail, at the base of which were two barbed bones each about three and a half inches in length. Our first act was to sever this tail with a hatchet, as it was far too active to make the fish a pleasant neighbour in close quarters. When the sting-ray, or, as the Brazilians call it, the araya, was dead, I cut out the two barbed bones and no longer wondered why these fish are so dreaded by those who know them. Joao told me that they attack anyone who ventures into the water, and with their sharp, barbed bones inflict a wound that in most cases proves fatal, for the bones are brittle and break off in the flesh. Superstition and carelessness are the main factors that make the wound dangerous; the people believe too much in an ever-present evil spirit which abides in all the vicious and fiendish animals of the forest and swamp. Once wounded by any of these malignant creatures, they believe there is no hope of recovery and they hardly try to survive. Besides, lack of proper care and treatment of a wound generally results in its terminating in a case of septicaemia and ultimately gangrene.
I have mentioned the pirarucu several times as being the largest edible fish of the Amazon. When full grown, it attains a weight of two hundred and fifty pounds. In Lake Innocence we saw this remarkable fish feeding close to the shore in shallow water, surrounded by a school of young ones. The old one was about seven feet in length and the others but recently hatched, from nine to ten inches. The Indian who pointed them out to me stood up in the bow of the canoe and, fitting one of his five-foot arrows to the bow-string, sent it through the air and into the head of the big fellow.
The bow which he used was of his own manufacture. It was about seven and a half feet long, very tough and straight, and made of Caripari wood. The shafts of the arrows were made of long straight reeds, the stalks of a certain species of wild cane. The detachable part of the arrow is a short but extremely hard piece of wood upon which is fitted an iron head with two barbs. When the point pierces the flesh this hard piece comes off, but remains attached to the shaft by a short stout cord. This allows the shaft free play so that it will not break during the struggles of the victim. Then there is a line attached to the head itself so that the hunter can handle the struggling animal or fish by means of it and of the shaft of the arrow. The whole contrivance is a marvel of ingenuity in meeting the conditions the Amazon hunter is called on to face. When the arrow struck this particular pirarucu, at close range, he made straight for the shore, hauling the canoe and its contents after him at considerable speed. We got tangled among the low branches and fought the fish in considerable danger of being overturned—and I should not at all care to be capsized on Lake Innocence.
Finally, we got our prize ashore. I sent the Indian to headquarters, telling him to go, as fast as he could and bring assistance so that we could get the fish home. I myself mounted guard over the carcass to see that neither the turkey buzzards nor the carnivorous mammals should destroy it. If we had left it alone for even a short time, we would have found, on our return, little to remind us of its existence. The Indian returned shortly with two men. They stuck a pole through the great gills of the pirarucu and in this fashion carried it to the settlement.
These waters contain great quantities of another and smaller fish known as the piranha, scientifically termed Serraselmus piraya. This is quite as much dreaded by the natives as the alligator, or even as the shark along the coast. Its ferocity seems to know no bounds. It will attack other fish and bite large pieces out of their fins and tails. Although it is not much larger than the herring it can make fatal attacks on man when in large numbers.
Mr. C.B. Brown in his work on Guiana gives the following account of this fish:
The piranhas in the Corentins were so abundant and were so ferocious that at times it was dangerous to go into the water to a greater depth than the knees. Even then small bodies of these hungry creatures would swim in and make a dash close to our legs, and then retreat to a short distance. They actually bit the steering paddles as they were drawn through the water astern of the boat. A tapir which I shot as it swam across the water had his nose bitten off by them whilst we were towing it to the shore. The men used to catch some of them for the sport of it, and in taking the hook from the mouth produced a wound from which the blood ran freely. On throwing them back into the water in this injured condition, they were immediately set upon and devoured by their companions. Even as one was being hauled in on the line, its comrades, seeing that it was in difficulties, attacked it at once.
I heard about these fiends but had no opportunity to witness their ferocity until one day, in crossing the river in a dugout, we wounded a wild hog that had also decided to cross at the same time and at the same place. The man with the stern paddle seized his machete as he saw the hog swimming close by the port-side of the canoe and stabbed it in the shoulder, intending to tow it ashore and have a luxurious dinner of roast hog. But his dream was never realised, for the piranhas which had tasted the blood, I suppose, came in large numbers and set upon the unfortunate hog. In a minute the water seemed to be boiling, so great was the activity of the little demons as they tore away pieces of the flesh until it was vanishing by inches. When we reached the other shore there was not enough left of the hog to furnish a single meal.
Later I learned that certain Indian tribes leave their dead in the river for the piranhas to strip the flesh from the bones. It is then customary to take the remaining skeleton and let it dry in the sun, after which it is rubbed with the juice of the urucu plant (the Bixa orellana), which produces a bright scarlet colour. Then it is hung up in the hut and the Indians consider that a token of great reverence has been thus bestowed on the deceased.
Before leaving the subject of fish, I will mention another species, smaller than the piranha, yet, although not as ferocious, the cause of much dread and annoyance to the natives living near the banks of the rivers. In fact, throughout the Amazon this little worm-like creature, called the kandiroo, is so omnipresent that a bath-house of a particular construction is necessary. The kandiroo is usually three to four inches long and one sixteenth in thickness. It belongs to the lampreys, and its particular group is the Myxinos or slime-fish. Its body is coated with a peculiar mucus. It is dangerous to human beings, because when they are taking a bath in the river it will approach and with a swift powerful movement penetrate one of the natural openings of the body whence it can be removed only by a difficult and dangerous operation.
A small but hard and pointed dorsal fin acts as a barb and prevents the fish from being drawn back. While I was in Remate de Males the local doctor was called upon to remove a kandiroo from the urethra of a man. The man subsequently died from the hemorrhage following the operation.
Largely through the danger of the attack from this scourge, though perhaps not entirely, the natives have adopted the method of bathing in use. A plunge into the river is unheard of, and bath-houses are constructed so as to make this unnecessary. A hole about eighteen inches square is cut in the middle of the floor—built immediately above the water—through which the bather, provided with a calabash or gourd of the bread-fruit tree, dips water up and pours it over himself after he has first examined it carefully. The indigenous Indians, living in the remote parts of the forest, do not use this mode of protection, but cover the vulnerable portions of the body carefully with strips of bark, which render complete immersion less dangerous.
During my walks in the forest I often came across snakes of considerable length, but never found any difficulty in killing them, as they were sluggish in their movements and seemed to be inoffensive. The rubber-workers, who had no doubt had many encounters with reptiles, told me about large sucurujus or boa-constrictors, which had their homes in the river not many miles from headquarters. They told me that these snakes were in possession of hypnotic powers, but this, like many other assertions, should be taken with a large grain of salt. However, I will relate an incident which occurred while I lived at Floresta, and in which I have absolute faith, as I had the opportunity of talking to the persons involved in the affair.
Jose Perreira. a rubber-worker, had left headquarters after having delivered his weekly report on the rubber extracted, and was paddling his canoe at a good rate down the stream, expecting to reach his hut before midnight. Arriving at a recess in the banks formed by the confluence of a small creek called Igarape do Inferno, or the Creek of Hell, he thought that he heard the noise of some game, probably a deer or tapir, drinking, and he silently ran his canoe to the shore, where he fastened it to a branch, at the same time holding his rifle in readiness. Finally, as he saw nothing, he returned to the canoe and continued his way down-stream.
Hardly more than ten yards from the spot, he stopped again and listened. He heard only the distant howling of a monkey. This he was used to on his nightly trips. No! there was something else! He could not say it was a sound. It was a strange something that called him back to the bank that he had left but a few minutes before. He fastened his canoe again to the same branch and crept up to the same place, feeling very uneasy and uncomfortable, but seeing nothing that could alarm him—nothing that he could draw the bead of his rifle on. Yet, something there was! For the second time he left, without being able to account for the mysterious force that lured him to this gloomy, moon-lit place on the dark, treacherous bank. In setting out in the stream again he decided to fight off the uncanny, unexplainable feeling that had called him back, but scarcely a stone's throw from the bank he had the same desire to return,—a desire that he had never before experienced. He went again, and looked, and meditated over the thing that he did not understand.
He had not drunk cachassa that day and was consequently quite sober; he had not had fever for two weeks and was in good health physically as well as mentally; he had never so much indulged in the dissipations of civilisation that his nerves had been affected; he had lived all his life in these surroundings and knew no fear of man or beast. And now, this splendid type of manhood, free and unbound in his thoughts and unprejudiced by superstition, broke down completely and hid his face in his hands, sobbing like a child in a dark room afraid of ghosts. He had been called to this spot three times without knowing the cause, and now, the mysterious force attracting him, as a magnet does a piece of iron, he was unable to move. Helpless as a child he awaited his fate.
Luckily three workers from headquarters happened to pass on their way to their homes, which lay not far above the "Creek of Hell," and when they heard sobbing from the bank they called out.
The hypnotised seringueiro managed to state that he had three times been forced, by some strange power, to the spot where he now was, unable to get away, and that he was deadly frightened. The rubber-workers, with rifles cocked, approached in their canoe, fully prepared to meet a jaguar, but when only a few yards from their comrade they saw directly under the root where the man was sitting the head of a monstrous boa-constrictor, its eyes fastened on its prey. Though it was only a few feet from him, he had been unable to see it.
One of the men took good aim and fired, crushing the head of the snake, and breaking the spell, but the intended victim was completely played out and had to lie down in the bottom of the canoe, shivering as if with ague.
The others took pains to measure the length of the snake before leaving. It was 79 palmas or 52 feet 8 inches. In circumference it measured 11 palmas, corresponding to a diameter of 28 inches. Its mouth, they said, was two palmas or sixteen inches, but how they mean this to be understood I do not know.
This event happened while I was living at headquarters. I had a long talk with Perreira, but could not shake his statement, nor that of the three others; nevertheless, I remained a sceptic as to this alleged charming or mesmeric power of the snakes, at least so far as man is concerned.
At that time we were awaiting the arrival of the monthly launch from the town of Remate de Males, and had spent a day weighing rubber at the camp of one of the employees, half a day's journey from headquarters. The rubber-pellets were loaded into our large canoe to take up to Floresta. We spent the evening drinking black coffee and eating some large, sweet pineapples, whereafter we all took a nap lasting until midnight, when we got up to start on our night trip. It had been considered best to travel at night, when it was nice and cool with none of the pestering insects to torture us, and we were soon paddling the heavy canoe at a merry rate, smoking our pipes and singing in the still, dark night. Soon we rounded a point where the mighty trees, covered with orchids and other parasitic plants, sent their branches down to the very water which in its depths was hiding the dreaded water-snakes. The only sound we heard was the weird calling of the night-owl, the "Mother of the Moon" as the Indians call it. Except this and the lapping sound of water, as we sped along, nothing disturbed the tranquillity of the night.
I was in the act of lighting another pipe when one of the men cried out:
We all stopped paddling and stared ahead at a large dark object, resting on a moon-lit sand-bar not far from us. Then someone said, "Sucuruju." Few people can comprehend the feeling that creeps into one's heart when this word is pronounced, under such circumstances, in the far-off forest, in the middle of the night. The word means boa-constrictor, but it meant a lot more at this moment. An indescribable feeling of awe seized me. I knew now that I was to face the awful master of the swamps, the great silent monster of the river, of which so much had been said, and which so few ever meet in its lair.
Running the canoe ashore we advanced in single file. I now had a chance to inspect the object. On a soft, muddy sand-bar, half hidden by dead branches, I beheld a somewhat cone-shaped mass about seven feet in height. From the base of this came the neck and head of the snake, flat on the ground, with beady eyes staring at us as we slowly advanced and stopped. The snake was coiled, forming an enormous pile of round, scaly monstrosity, large enough to crush us all to death at once. We had stopped at a distance of about fifteen feet from him, and looked at each other. I felt as if I were spellbound, unable to move a step farther or even to think or act on my own initiative.
The snake still made no move, but in the clear moonlight I could see its body expand and contract in breathing; its yellow eyes seeming to radiate a phosphorescent light. I felt no fear, nor any inclination to retreat, yet I was now facing a beast that few men had ever succeeded in seeing. Thus we stood looking at each other, scarcely moving an eyelid, while the great silent monster looked at us. I slid my right hand down to the holster of my automatic pistol, the 9mm. Luger, and slowly removed the safety lock, at the same time staring into the faces of the men. In this manner I was less under the spell of the mesmerism of the snake, and could to some extent think and act. I wheeled around while I still held control of my faculties, and, perceiving a slight movement of the snake's coils, I fired point-blank at the head, letting go the entire chamber of soft-nose bullets. Instantly the other men woke up from their trance and in their turn fired, emptying their Winchesters into the huge head, which by this time was raised to a great height above us, loudly hissing in agony.
Our wild yelling echoed through the deep forest. The snake uncoiled itself and writhing with pain made for the water's edge. By this time we were relieved of the terrible suspense, but we took care to keep at a respectful distance from the struggling reptile and the powerful lashing of its tail, which would have killed a man with one blow.
After half an hour the struggles grew weaker, yet we hesitated to approach even when it seemed quiet and had its head and a portion of its body submerged in the water. We decided to stay through the night and wait here a day, as I was very anxious to skin the snake and take the trophy home to the States as a souvenir of a night's adventure in this far-off jungle of the Amazon. We went up in the bushes and lit a fire, suspended our hammocks to some tree-trunks, and slept soundly not more than ten yards from the dying leviathan.
We all got up before sunrise, had our coffee in haste, and ran down to see the snake. It was dead, its head practically shot to pieces. We set to work, stretching the huge body out on the sand-bar, and by eight o'clock we had the entire snake flat on the ground, ready to measure and skin.
It was a most astonishing sight, that giant snake lying there full length, while around it gathered six Amazon Indians and the one solitary New Yorker, here in the woods about as far from civilisation as it is possible to get. I proceeded to take measurements and used the span between my thumb and little finger tips as a unit, knowing that this was exactly eight inches.
Beginning at the mouth of the snake, I continued to the end and found that this unit was contained eighty-four times. Thus 84 times 8 divided by 12 gives exactly 56 feet as the total length. In circumference, the unit, the "palma," was contained 8 times and a fraction, around the thickest part of the body. From this I derived the diameter 2 feet 1 inch.
These measurements are the result of very careful work. I went from the tail to the nose over again so as to eliminate any error, and then asked the men with me also to take careful measurements in their own manner, which only confirmed the figures given above.
Then we proceeded to skin the snake, which was no easy task under the fierce sun now baking our backs. Great flocks of urubus, or vultures, had smelled the carcass and were circling above our heads waiting for their share of the spoils. Each man had his section to work on, using a wooden club and his machete. The snake had been laid on its belly and it was split open, following the spinal column throughout its length, the ventral part being far too hard and unyielding. About two o'clock in the afternoon we had the work finished and the carcass was thrown into the river, where it was instantly set upon by the vigilant piranhas and alligators.
Standing in front of this immense skin I could not withhold my elation.
"Men," I said, "here am I on this the 29th day of July, 1910, standing before a snake-skin the size of which is wonderful. When I return to my people in the United States of America, and tell them that I have seen and killed a boa-constrictor nearly eighteen metres in length, they will laugh and call me a man with a bad tongue."
Whereupon my friend, the chief, rose to his full height and exclaimed in a grieved tone: "Sir, you say that your people in the north will not believe that we have snakes like this or even larger. That is an insult to Brazilians, yet you tell us that in your town Nova York there are barracaos that have thirty-five or even forty stories on top of each other! How do you expect us to believe such an improbable tale as that?"
I was in a sad plight between two realities of such mighty proportions that they could be disbelieved in localities far removed from each other.
We brought the skin to headquarters, where I prepared it with arsenical soap and boxed it for later shipment to New York. The skin measured, when dried, 54 feet 8 inches, with a width of 5 feet 1 inch.
Kind reader, if you have grown weary of my accounts of the reptilian life of the Amazon, forgive me, but such an important role does this life play in the every-day experience of the brave rubber-workers that the descriptions could not be omitted. A story of life in the Amazon jungle without them would be a deficient one, indeed.
There is a bird in the forests, before referred to, called by the Indians "A mae da lua," or the "Mother of the Moon." It is an owl and makes its habitation in the large, dead, hollow trees in the depths of the jungle, far away from the river front, and it will fly out of its nest only on still, moonlit nights, to pour forth its desolate and melancholy song. This consists of four notes uttered in a major key, then a short pause lasting but a few seconds, followed by another four notes in the corresponding minor key. After a little while the last two notes in the minor key will be heard and then all is still.
When the lonely wanderer on the river in a canoe, or sitting in his hammock, philosophises over the perplexing questions of life, he is assisted in his dreary analysis by the gloomy and hair-raising cry of the mother of the moon. When the first four notes strike his ear, he will listen, thinking that some human being in dire distress is somewhere out in the swamps, pitifully calling for help, but in so painful a manner that it seems as if all hope were abandoned. Still listening, he will hear the four succeeding melancholy notes, sounding as if the desolate sufferer were giving up the ghost in a last desperate effort. The final two notes, following after a brief interval, tell him that he now hears the last despairing sobs of a condemned soul. So harrowing and depressing is this song that, once heard, the memory of it alone will cause one's hair to stand on end and he will be grateful when too far away to hear again this sob of the forest.
A surprise was in store for me one day when I visited the domicile of a rubber-worker living at the extreme end of the estate. I expected to find a dwelling of the ordinary appearance, raised on poles above the ground, but instead this hut was built among the branches of a tree some twenty feet above the level of the earth. I commenced climbing the rickety ladder leading to the door of the hut. Half-way up a familiar sound reached my ear. Yes, I had surely heard that sound before, but far away from this place. When I finally entered the habitation and had exchanged greetings with the head of the family, I looked for the source of the sound. Turning round I saw a woman sitting at a sewing-machine, working on a shirt evidently for her husband. I examined this machine with great curiosity and found it to be a "New Home" sewing-machine from New York. What journeys and transfers had not this apparatus undergone before it finally settled here in a tree-top in this far-off wilderness!
One afternoon while sitting in the office at headquarters discussing Amazonian politics with Coronel da Silva, Francisco, a rubber-worker, came up and talked for a while with the Coronel, who then turned to me and said: "Do you want to get the skin of a black jaguar? Francisco has just killed one on his estrada while collecting rubber-milk; he will take you down to his barracao, and from there he will lead you to the spot where the jaguar lies, and there you can skin him."
I thanked Francisco for his information and went for my machete, having my pistol already in my belt. I joined him at the foot of the river bank outside the main building, where he was waiting for me in his canoe, and we paddled down-stream to his hut. On our way (he lived about two miles below Floresta) he told me that he was walking at a good rate on the narrow path of the estrada when he was attracted by a growling and snarling in the thicket. He stopped and saw a black jaguar grappling with a full-grown buck in a small opening between the trees. The jaguar had felled the buck by jumping on its back from the branches of a tree, and, with claws deeply imbedded in the neck, broke its spine and opened its throat, when Francisco drew the bead on the head or neck of the jaguar and fired. The jaguar fell, roaring with pain. Francisco was too much in a hurry to leave the narrow path of the rubber-workers and go to the spot where the victim was writhing in its death agonies, but hastened on for his dinner. Remembering later that the Coronel had offered an attractive sum of money for any large game they would bag for my benefit, and having finished his dinner, he paddled up to headquarters and reminded the Coronel of the promised reward. When we came to the hut of the rubber-worker a large dog greeted us. This dog looked like a cross between a great Dane and a Russian greyhound; it was rather powerfully built, although with a softness of movement that did not correspond with its great frame. Francisco whistled for the dog to follow us. He carried his Winchester and a machete, while I discovered that my pistol had been left unloaded when I hurried from headquarters, so I was armed with nothing but a machete. After walking for nearly half an hour, we slowed down a little and Francisco looked around at the trees and said that he thought we were on the spot where he had heard the growlings of the jaguar. It was nearing half-past five and the sun was low so we launched ourselves into the thicket towards the spot where the jaguar had been killed.
We advanced rapidly; then slower and slower. The great dog at first had been very brave, but the closer we came to the spot we were looking for, the more timid the dog became, until it uttered a fearful yell of fright, and with its tail between its legs slunk back. There was nothing to do but to leave the contemptible brute alone with its fear, so we pushed ahead. Suddenly we came to the place, but there was no jaguar. There were plenty of evidences of the struggle. The mutilated body of a beautiful marsh-deer was lying on the moist ground, pieces of fur and flesh were scattered around, and the blood had even spurted on the surrounding leaves and branches. Francisco had wounded the jaguar, no doubt—at least he said so, but plainly he had not killed it nor disabled it to such extent that it had remained on the spot.
We commenced searching in the underbrush, for it was evident it could not be far off. The bloody track could be followed for some distance; in fact, in one place the thorny roots of the remarkable pachiuba palm-tree, the roots that the women here use for kitchen graters, had torn off a bunch of long, beautiful hair from the sides of the jaguar, which very likely was weak and was dragging itself to some cluster of trees where it could be safe, or else to find a point of vantage to fall upon its pursuers.
We searched for some time. The forest was growing dark, and the many noises of the night began. First came the yelping of the toucan, which sounded like the carefree yap-yap of some clumsy little pup. Then came the chattering of the night monkeys and the croaking of the thousands of frogs that hide in the swamps. And still no traces of the jaguar. Again we separated. The dog had run home utterly scared. Now and then we would whistle so as not to lose track of each other. I regretted that I had been so careless as to leave my ammunition at home, as it might happen that the wounded and enraged cat would spring at us from some dark cluster of branches, and then a machete would hardly be an adequate weapon.
We searched for over an hour until it was pitch dark, but, sad to relate, we never found that jaguar. We went home silently. Francisco did not secure the reward.
This incident is of no particular interest as the result of the excursion was nil and our humour consequently very bad. But it serves to show how the mind of man will be influenced by local surroundings, and how it adapts itself to strange customs, and how a novice may be so greatly enthused that he will, half-armed, enter upon a reckless hunt for a wounded jaguar.
THE FATAL MARCH THROUGH THE FOREST
Thus I lived among these kind and hospitable people for five months until one day my lust for further excitement broke out again, induced by a seemingly commonplace notice posted outside the door of the storeroom. It read: "The men—Marques, Freitas, Anisette, Magellaes, Jerome, and Brabo—are to make themselves ready to hunt caoutchouc in the eastern virgin forest." Puzzled as to the meaning of this, I consulted the Chief and was informed that Coronel da Silva was about to equip and send out a small expedition into the forests, far beyond the explored territory, to locate new caoutchouc trees, which were to be cut and the rubber or caoutchouc collected, whereupon the expedition was to return to headquarters with these samples and a report on the number of trees observed. This greatly interested me, and I asked the Chief, Marques, whose wife I had operated upon previously, if I could accompany him on this trip. He consented unwillingly, saying that it was very dangerous and that the same number of men that went out never came back. However, this was too rare a chance to let pass, and I made my preparations to accompany the expedition on this journey into regions where even the native caucheros had never before been.
On a Monday morning we all assembled at the Floresta headquarters, where Coronel da Silva bade us good-bye, and at the same time once more warned me against venturing on this trip, but I was determined and could not be persuaded to give it up.
The expedition consisted of the six men, above mentioned, all, except the Chief, Marques, unmarried. After leaving the main building we went down to the store-room where we chose the necessary articles of food—enough to last us for three or four weeks. Our staples were to be dried pirarucu, the largest fish of the Amazon, some dried or "jerked" beef, and a large quantity of the farinha, the eternal woody and unpalatable meal that figures on every Brazilian's table. Besides these, we carried sugar, coffee, rice, and several bottles of "Painkiller" from Fulton Street, N.Y. Hammocks and cooking utensils completed our outfit. I took with me a large plate camera, photographic plates and paper, chemicals, scales and weights; also a magnifying glass, a primitive surgical outfit, and a hypodermic needle with several dozen prepared "ampules." My men were armed with the usual .44 Winchesters and some ancient muzzle-loaders, while I had my 9mm. automatic Luger pistol. When we were fully packed, each man carried a load weighing eighty-five pounds, strapped by means of bark strips to the shoulders, with his rifle in his left hand and a machete to clear the path in his right.
Thus equipped, we left headquarters, not knowing how or when we would see it again, while the natives fired a farewell salute, wishing us God-speed.
After a few hours by canoe, up the Itecoahy, we left the river and turned our faces inland. Our way now led through dense forest, but for four hours we travelled in a region familiar to the rubber-workers, and we were able to follow pathways used by them in their daily work.
Let no one think that a jungle trail is broad and easy. As I stumbled along the tortuous, uneven path, in the sweltering mid-day heat, pestered by legions of piums or sand-flies and the omnipresent mosquitoes, climbing, fallen trees that impeded us at every turn, I thought that I had reached the climax of discomfort. Little could I know that during the time to come I was to look back upon this day as one of easy, delightful promenading.
The four hours' march brought us to an open place, apparently a clearing, where the estrada suddenly seemed to stop. Exhausted, I threw myself on the moist ground while the Chief explained our position. He said that we were now at the end of the cut estrada and that beyond this we would have no path to follow, though he had somewhat explored the region farther on the year previous, during a similar expedition. We found that the undergrowth had been renewed to such an extent that his old track was indistinguishable, and we had to hew our every step. When we resumed the march I received a more thorough understanding of what the word jungle really means. Ahead of us was one solid and apparently impenetrable wall of vegetation, but my men attacked it systematically with their heavy machetes. Slowly we advanced, but I wondered that we made any progress at all. The skill of these sons of the forest in cutting a pathway with their long knives became a constant wonder to me. Where an inexperienced person would have lost himself, looking for a round-about easy course, these men moved straight ahead, hewing and hacking right and left, the play of the swift blades seemingly dissolving all obstacles in their path. Some idea of the density of the growth can be gathered from the fact that if a man moved off he became instantly invisible although he might be only a yard or two away.
Late in the afternoon we reached a small hut or tambo built on the former trip by the Chief. It was nothing but a roof on poles, but it was a welcome sight to us as it meant rest and food. We were tired and hungry and were glad to find a small creek close by where we could refresh ourselves, taking care to keep out of the reach of the alligators and water-snakes swimming close to the weeds by the shore. For our supper we gave the dried pirarucu flesh a boil and soaked some farinha in water, eating this tasteless repast with as much gusto as we would if it had been roast beef. Let me here recommend this diet for any gourmet whose appetite has been impaired, and he will soon be able to enjoy a stew of shoe-leather. One of the men, a good-natured athlete, Jerome by name, was sent out after fresh meat, and brought back a weird little animal resembling a fox (cuti). We decided to test it as a stew, but, lacking salt, we found the dried pirarucu preferable.
The excitement of the night was furnished by ants, which had built a nest in the tambo where we had swung our hammocks. The visitors swarmed up poles and down ropes and would not be denied entrance. Wads of cotton smeared with vaseline and bandaged around the fastenings of the hammock proved no obstacle. It was impossible to sleep; mosquitoes came to the assistance of the ants and managed to find their way through the mosquito-net. To complete the general "cheerfulness," the tree-tops were full of little spider-monkeys whispering mournfully throughout the dark and showery night.
The second day's march took us through the region which the Chief had explored the year before, and we spent the night in another tambo built on that occasion. Our progress, however, was made with increasing difficulty, as the land had become more hilly and broken and the forest, if possible, more dense and wild. We were now at a considerable distance from the river-front and in a region where the yearly inundation could never reach. This stage of the journey remains among the few pleasant memories of that terrible expedition, through what I may call the gastronomic revel with which it ended. Jerome had succeeded in bringing down with his muzzle-loader a mutum, a bird which in flavour and appearance reminds one of a turkey, while I was so lucky as to bag a nice fat deer (marsh-deer). This happened at tambo No. 2. We called each successive hut by its respective number. Here we had a great culinary feast, so great that during the following days I thought of this time with a sad "ils sont passe, ces jours de fete."
Now, guided by the position of the sun, we held a course due west, our ultimate destination being a far-off region where the Chief expected to find large areas covered with fine caoutchouc trees. The ground was hilly and interspersed with deeply cut creeks where we could see the ugly heads of the jararaca snakes pop up as if they were waiting for us. There was only one way of crossing these creeks; this was by felling a young tree across the stream for a bridge. A long slender stick was then cut and one end placed at the bottom of the creek, when each man seizing this in his right hand steadied himself over the tree to the other side of the deep treacherous water. It required steady nerve to walk this trunk, such as I did not possess, therefore I found it safer to hang from the levelled bole by my hands and travel across in that manner. Tambo No. 3 we constructed ourselves, as we did every other for the rest of the journey. We always selected a site near a creek that we were following, and cleared away the underbrush so as to leave an open area of about twenty-five feet square, always allowing one tree to remain for a corner. A framework of saplings tied together with strips of matamata bark was raised for a roof, and across this were laid gigantic leaves of the murumuru, twenty-five to thirty feet long. The hammocks were then strung beneath, and we managed to keep comparatively sheltered from the nightly rain that always occurs in these deep forests. After the frugal meal of pirarucu and dried farinha, or of some game we had picked up during the march, we would creep into our hammocks and smoke, while the men told hunting stories, or sang their monotonous, unmelodious tribal songs.
It must have been about two o'clock in the morning when I was awakened by a terrific roaring which fairly made the forest tremble. Sitting up and staring fearfully into the darkness, I heard the crashing of underbrush and trees close upon us. My first thought was of a hurricane, but in the confusion of my senses, stunned by the impact of sound, I had few clear impressions. My companions were calling one another. The noise grew louder, more terrifying. Suddenly the little world around me went to smash in one mad upheaval. The roof of the tambo collapsed and fell upon us. At the same instant I felt some huge body brush past me, hurling me sprawling to the ground. The noise was deafening, mingled with the shrieks and excited yellings of my men, but the object passed swiftly in the direction of the creek.
Some one now thought of striking a light to discover the extent of the damage. The tambo was a wreck; the hammocks were one tangled mass. Jerome, who had jumped from his hammock when he first heard the noise, followed the "hurricane" to the creek and soon solved the mystery of the storm that swept our little camp. He told us, it was a jaguar, which had sprung upon the back of a large tapir while the animal was feeding in the woods behind our tambo. The tapir started for the creek in the hope of knocking the jaguar off its back by rushing through the underbrush; not succeeding in this, its next hope was the water in the creek. It had chosen a straight course through our tambo.
The next day we were successful in killing two howling monkeys; these were greeted with loud yells of joy, as we had not been able to locate any game during the last twenty-four hours' march. This is easy to understand. We were much absorbed in cutting our way through the bushes and the game was scared away long before we could sight it.
After the ninth day of wearisome journeying, the Chief found signs of numerous caoutchouc trees, indicating a rich district, and it was accordingly decided that tambo No. 9 should be our last. We were now fully 150 miles from the Floresta headquarters and some 120 miles back in the absolutely unknown. That night the temperature went down to 41 deg. Fahrenheit, a remarkable drop so close to the equator and on such low ground, but it was undoubtedly due to the fact that the sun never penetrates the dark foliage of the surrounding dense forests where the swamps between the hills give off their damp exhalations.
Up to this point I had not feared the jungle more than I would have feared any other forest, but soon a dread commenced to take hold of me, now that I could see how a great danger crept closer and closer—danger of starvation and sickness. Our supplies were growing scant when we reached tambo No. 9, and yet we lingered, forgetful of the precarious position into which we had thrust ourselves, and the violated wilderness was preparing to take its revenge.
I suppose our carelessness in remaining was due in part to the exhausted state to which we had been reduced, and which made us all rejoice in the comfort of effortless days rather than face new exertions.
THE FATAL "TAMBO NO. 9"
We were three weeks at tambo No. 9 before the sharp tooth of necessity began to rouse us to the precarious situation. Occasionally a lucky shot would bring down a mutum or a couple of monkeys and, on one occasion, a female tapir. Thus feasting to repletion, we failed to notice that the lucky strikes came at longer intervals; that the animals were deserting our part of the forest. During these three weeks we were not wholly idle. The Chief had the men out every day making excursions in the neighbourhood to locate the caoutchouc trees. As soon as a tree was found, they set to work bleeding the base of it to let the milky sap ooze out on the ground where it would collect in a small pool. Then they would fell the tree and cut rings in the bark at regular intervals so that the milk could flow out. In a few days when the milk had coagulated, forming large patches of caoutchouc, they would return for it. The pieces were washed in the creek and then tied into large bundles ready for transporting.
In all they located more than 800 caoutchouc trees. At this time too I made my remarkable discovery of gold deposits in the creek. It seems to me now like the plot of some old morality play, for while we were searching eagerly for the thing that we considered the ultimate goal of human desires—wealth, the final master, Death, was closing his net upon us day by day. Our food supply was nearly gone.
While strolling along the shores of the creek in search of game, I noticed irregular clumps or nodules of clay which had accumulated in large quantities in the bed of the stream, especially where branches and logs had caused whirlpools and eddies to form. They had the appearance of pebbles or stones, and were so heavy in proportion to their size that my curiosity was aroused, and throwing one of them on the bank I split it open with my machete. My weakened heart then commenced to beat violently, for what I saw looked like gold.
I took the two pieces to my working table near our tambo, and examining the dirty-yellow heart with my magnifying glass, I found the following: A central mass about one cubic inch in size, containing a quantity of yellowish grains measuring, say, one thirty-second of an inch in diameter, slightly adhering to each other, but separating upon pressure of the finger, and around this a thick layer of hard clay or mud of somewhat irregular shape. It immediately struck me that the yellow substance might be gold, though I could not account for the presence of it in the centre of the clay-balls.
I carefully scraped the granules out of the clay, and washing them clean, placed them on a sheet of paper to dry in the sun. By this time the attention of the other men had been attracted to what I was doing, and it seemed to amuse the brave fellows immensely to watch my painstaking efforts with the yellow stuff. I produced some fine scales I had for weighing chemicals for my photographic work, and suspended these above a gourd filled with water. Then I went down to the creek and collected more of the clay-balls and scraped the mud of one away from the solid centre of what I took to be grains of gold. A fine thread I next wound around the gold ball and this was tied to one end of the balance. After an equilibrium had been established, I found that the weight of the gold was 660 grains. Next I raised the gourd until the water reached the suspended ball, causing the opposite pan of the scales to go down. To again establish equilibrium, I had to add 35 grains. With this figure I divided the actual weight of the gold, which gave me 18.9, and this I remembered was close to the specific gravity of pure gold.
Still a little in doubt, I broke the bulb of one of my clinical thermometers and, placing the small quantity of mercury thus obtained in the bottom of a tray, I threw a few of the grains into it, and found that they immediately united, forming a dirty-grey amalgam. I was now sure the substance was gold and in less than five hours I collected enough to fill five photographic 5 x 7 plate-boxes, the only empty receptacles I could lay my hands on. I could have filled a barrel, for the creek was thick with the clay-balls as far as I could see; but I had a continuous fever and this, with the exhaustion from semi-starvation, caused me to be indifferent to this great wealth. In fact, I would have gladly given all the gold in the creek for One square meal. If the difficulties in reaching this infernal region were not so great, I have no doubt that a few men could soon make themselves millionaires.
The deadly fever came among us after a few days. It struck a young man called Brabo first; the next day I fell sick with another serious attack of swamp-fever, and we both took to our hammocks. For five days and nights I was delirious most of the time, listening to the mysterious noises of the forest and seeing in my dreams visions of juicy steaks, great loaves of bread, and cups of creamy coffee. In those five days the only food in the camp was howling monkey, the jerked beef and the dried farinha having given out much to my satisfaction, as I became so heartily disgusted with this unpalatable food that I preferred to starve rather than eat it again. At first I felt the lack of food keenly, but later the pain of hunger was dulled, and only a warm, drugged sensation pervaded my system. Starvation has its small mercies.
I became almost childishly interested in small things. There was a peculiar sound that came from the deep forest in the damp nights; I used to call it the "voice of the forest." To close one's eyes and listen was almost to imagine oneself near the murmuring crowd of a large city. It was the song of numerous frogs which inhabited a creek near our tambo. Then I would hear four musical notes uttered in a major key from the tree-tops close by, soon answered by another four in a similar pitch, and this musical and cheerful(!) conversation was continued all night long. The men told me that this was the note of a species of frog that lived in the trees.
One day the jungle took the first toll from us. Young Brabo was very low; I managed to stagger out of my hammock to give him a hypodermic injection, but he was too far gone for it to do him any good. He died in the early afternoon. We dug a grave with our machetes right behind our tambo. No stone marks this place; only a small wooden cross tied together with bark-strips shows where our comrade lies—a son of the forest whom the forest claimed again.
The arrival of Death in our camp showed us all how far we were in the grasp of actual, threatening danger. We stood about the grave in silence. These men, these Indians of the Amazon, were very human; somehow, I always considered them equals and not of an inferior race. We had worked together, eaten and slept and laughed together, and now together we faced the mystery of Death. The tie between us became closer; the fraternity of common flesh and blood bound us.
The next day I arose and was able to walk around, having injected my left arm with copious doses of quinine and arsenical acid. Borrowing thus false strength from drugs, I was able, to some extent, to roam around with my camera and secure photographs that I wanted to take home with me to the States.
I had constructed a table of stalks of the murumuru palm-leaves, and I had made a sun-dial by the aid of a compass and a stick, much to the delight of the men, who were now able to tell the hour of the day with precision. The next day I had another attack of fever and bled my arm freely with the bistoury, relieving myself of about sixteen ounces of blood. Shortly after nine o'clock in the morning I heard a shot which I recognised as being that of Jerome's muzzle-loader; soon afterward he made his appearance with a splendid specimen of a jet-black jaguar, killed by a shot behind the ear. He skinned it after first asking me if I wanted to get up and take a photograph of it, but I was too weak to do it and had to decline.
The Chief one day brought into camp a fine deer and a mutum bird, which relieved our hunger for a while. As we were preparing a luxurious meal, Jerome returned with two red howling monkeys, but we had all the meat we could take care of, and these monkeys were rejected and thrown away.
By this time the Chief informed us that enough caoutchouc trees had been located to justify our return to the Floresta headquarters with a satisfactory report—of course, excepting the death of poor Brabo. Furthermore it was decided that owing to the lack of provisions we should separate. He directed that the men Freitas, Magellaes, and Anisette should take a course at a right angle to the Itecoahy, so as to reach this river in a short time, where they were to procure a canoe and secure assistance for the rest of us. This, of course, was a chance, but under the circumstances every step was a chance. The Chief himself, Jerome, and I would retrace the route which we had lately travelled and reach Floresta that way. The evening before our departure I did not think myself strong enough to carry my load a single step, but the hypodermic needle, with quinine, which had now become my constant stand-by, lent me an artificial strength, and when the packing was done the next morning, I stood up with the rest and strapped the load on my shoulders.
We parted with the other three men before sunrise, with clasps of the hand that were never to be repeated, and so turned our faces toward the outer world. My only hope was to retain sufficient strength in my emaciated, fever-racked body to drag myself back to Floresta, and from there, in the course of time, get canoe or launch connection to the frontier down the river, and then wait for the steamer that would take me back to "God's Country," where I could eat proper food, and rest—rest.
The jungle no longer seemed beautiful or wonderful to me, but horrible—a place of terror and death.
In my drug-dazed sleep on that back-track, I started up in my hammock, bathed in a sweat of fear from a dream; I saw myself and my companions engulfed in a sea of poisonous green, caught by living creepers that dragged us down and held us in a deadly octopus embrace. The forest was something from which I fled; it was hideous, a trap, with its impenetrable wall of vegetation, its dark shadows, and moist, treacherous ground.
I longed for the open; struggled for it, as the swimmer struggles up for air to escape from the insidious sucking of the undertow.
Starving, weak from fever, oppressed by the thought of death, but lashed on by stimulants and the tenacity of life, I headed with my two comrades out of the world of the unknown, toward the world of men—to Life.
WHAT HAPPENED IN THE FOREST
On the second day of the return trip, we had a remarkable experience. Probably not more than two hundred yards from the tambo where we had spent the night, we heard the noise, as we thought, of a tapir, but nothing could surpass our astonishment when we saw a human being. Who could it be that dared alone to disturb the solitude of the virgin forest, and who went along in these dreary woods humming a melody?