Of the six hundred species known, about half belong to the Old World, and half to America. In America they are chiefly found growing on the Continent—although several species are natives of the West India Islands—while on the Eastern hemisphere the greatest number of species belong to the islands.
I might tell you a great deal of the importance of these noble trees to the human race, for they are as useful as they are beautiful. Almost every sort has its particular use in the economy of human life. Not only do they serve certain purposes in Africa, Asia, America, and Oceanica, but in all these divisions of the earth there are whole nations who live almost exclusively upon one or another species of palm.
A discovery has lately been made in regard to an African species, which it is to be hoped will have an important influence in doing away with the infamous slave traffic so long existing in that unhappy country. You have heard of palm-oil. Well, it is extracted from the nuts of a species of palm. The oil is no new discovery, but it is only lately that it has been found to be as quite as good for the manufacture of candles as either spermaceti or wax.
The consequence has been a great increase in the traffic of this article on the western coast of Africa; and the native princes, finding that it is more profitable than slave-selling, have in many parts given up the last-named atrocious commerce, and have taken to gathering palm-oil. If a palm-tree can effect what has baffled the skill of the combined philanthropists and powers of Europe, then, indeed, we shall say, "All honour to the noble palms."
But I might go on talking of palms until our little volume came to an end. I must, therefore, no longer speak generally of these beautiful trees, but confine myself to such species as came under the observation, and ministered to the wants, of the new settlers.
A HOUSE OF PALMS.
The first species of palms that attracted the observation of Don Pablo and his party, was that known as the "patawa" palm. It belongs to the genus Oenocarpus. There are several species of this genus in South America, but none more beautiful than the "patawa." It is a palm with a straight smooth stem, and pinnate leaves—the stem being sixty feet in height, and about a foot in diameter. The stem becomes smooth only in old trees. In the young ones, and even in those that stand in a thick shady forest, it presents a very shaggy appearance, and is completely hidden by the bases of the old leaves that have decayed and fallen off. From the margins of these bases grow spinous processes of nearly three feet in length, which point upward. These are used by the Indians to make the arrows of their "blow-guns," of which more hereafter.
From the fruits of this palm a most delicious drink is manufactured with very little trouble. The fruit itself is about the size of a plum, but of an oval shape and deep violet colour. It grows in large clusters just under the leaves. To make the drink, the fruits are thrown into a vessel of hot water, where they remain for a few minutes until the pulp becomes soft. The hot water is next poured off, and cold water is substituted. In this the fruits are crushed and rubbed with the hands until all the pulp is washed from the stones. The liquid is then strained so as to separate the stones and other substances, when it is ready for use, and a most luxurious beverage it is,—in its taste bearing some resemblance to filberts and cream.
A palm called the "assai" has a small sloe-like fruit which produces a similar beverage—thick and creamy, and of a fine plum colour. In all the Portuguese settlements the "assai" is a favourite drink, and is taken along with cassava bread, as we use milk or coffee.
It was not on account of its fruit, however, that Don Pablo rejoiced at beholding the "patawa" palms. Perhaps Leon thought more about the rich clusters of oval plums, but his father looked only to the straight smooth stems which were designed for corner-posts, beams, and the heavier woodwork of the house.
In a few minutes Guapo was busy with his axe, and one after another fell the princely trunks of the "patawa" until enough were cut down for their purpose.
Don Pablo next looked out for some palm of a more slender trunk for the rafters and joists.
This was soon found in the "catinga," which is a species of the "assai palm, the one of which we have just spoken as producing the assai wine." The catinga was the very thing for the rafters. It is tall, nearly forty feet high, but quite slender. It is one of the smooth palms, with pinnate leaves, not unlike those of the "patawa." There is a peculiarity about its top,—that is, there is a column or sheath of several feet in length, out of which the leaves spring, and, at the lower end of this column, and not immediately at the root of the leaves, the fruit clusters grow. This sheathing column is of a red colour, which gives the tree a strange look.
Another peculiarity of the catinga is that its roots grow out of the ground, and form a little cone from the top of which rises the stem. The fruits of this sort are smaller than the true assai, but a drink is also made from them which some people consider more delicious than that either of the assai or patawa. The rafters then were got from the catinga.
Now for the thatch, that was the next consideration.
"Master!" cried Guapo, pointing off into the woods. "Yonder's 'bussu,'—very thing for thatch!"
Guapo indicated a very singular-looking tree, with a thick, clumsy, crooked, and deeply ringed stem. It was not a bit like either of the palm-trees they had already cut down. Its trunk was not over ten or a dozen feet high, but then, such leaves! They were not pinnated like those already described, but what is termed "entire," that is, all in one piece, and thirty feet in length by full five in width! Fancy two or three dozen of these gigantic leaves standing up almost erect from the top of the thick trunk, and you may form some idea of the "bussu" palm. There are many palm-trees whose leaves are used for thatching houses, but of all others for that purpose the bussu is the best.
These great fronds have a mid-rib, and from this, on both sides, run veins in a diagonal direction to the edge. When they are used for thatch the leaf is split up the mid-rib, and then each half is laid upon the rafters, not straight, but in such a way that the veins of the leaf will lie in a vertical direction, and thus serve as gutters to guide the rain-water down the roof. A very few leaves will thatch a house, and a covering of this kind, when properly laid on, will last for ten or twelve years. So much are the bussu-leaves prized for thatch, that the Indians, in parts where this palm does not grow, often make a canoe voyage of a week to procure them!
The spathe which contains the flowers is also put to many uses. It is of a long spindle shape, of fibrous, cloth-like texture, and brown colour. The Indians use it as cloth. It makes an excellent bag, in which the native carries his paints or other articles; and a large one, stretched out, makes a very comfortable cap. Indeed, Guapo used the first spathe he laid his hands upon for this very purpose.
There remained now to be found some palm-tree that would split easily, and make laths for the roof, as well as planks for the door, shelves, and benches. They soon discovered the very palm for these purposes. It was one of the genus Iriartea, and known as the "pashiuba" palm. It was a tree that differed from all the others in its aspect. It was a noble-looking tree, rising, with a smooth stem, to the height of seventy feet. At its top, there was a sheathing column swollen larger than the stem, and not unlike the sheathing column of the catinga already mentioned, except that that of the pashiuba was of a deep green colour. Its leaves, however, differed materially from those of the catinga. It is true, that, like them, they were pinnate, but the leaflets, instead of being slender and tapering, were of a triangular shape, notched along the edges, and not growing very regularly out from the mid-rib.
Their general arrangement, as well as the form, therefore, gave the tree a different, and, perhaps, more beautiful aspect. But the most singular characteristic of the pashiuba was its roots. I have said that the roots of the catinga rose above the surface of the soil. So did they, but only to a limited height, forming a little cone. Now the roots of the pashiuba stood up to the height of ten or a dozen feet! Each root was nearly straight in itself, but there were a number of them, and they sloped upwards so as to make a sort of pyramid, out of the apex of which grew the stem. There were wide spaces between the roots—so wide that you could easily pass through, and a full-grown man might stand upright with his head under the very base of the stem. Fancy a man standing under the trunk of a tree that rose seventy feet above his head!
There were young trees of the same species growing around, and these were miniature models of the older ones. Sometimes these lesser ones are supported on three roots, like the tripod of a surveyor's compass, and this gives them a somewhat ludicrous appearance. There are many species of this sort of palms, which are classed under the genus Iriartea. In most of them the fruit, which is small oval and red or yellow, is bitter and uneatable; but their wood is prized for many purposes. The wood of the species which Don Pablo had found is hard on the outside, but soft within, and splits readier into laths and planks than any other kind of palm.
Guapo attacked the roots with his axe, and enough trunks were soon felled to make laths, doors, and all sorts of benches.
The different kinds were now collected on the edge of the stream, and were tied together by a rope-like, creeping plant, called a "Sipo," so that they formed a rude raft. The leaves of the "bussu," with great clusters of the fruits of the catinga and patawa, were laid upon the raft; and then, Guapo, mounting himself on top of all, pushed out with his long pole, and ferried the whole across. The others walked round by the bridge, and were just in time to assist Guapo in mooring his somewhat unwieldy craft.
Next day the framework of the house was put up, and on the day after the walls. These were made of bamboo-canes, plenty of which grew near the bottom of the valley. They grew wild, for the slopes of the Andes are the favourite soil of these gigantic grasses. They were set on end, side by side, and then tied to each other and to the beams of palm-trees. On the third day the "bussu" leaves were laid on, and the house was finished.
TRACKING THE TAPIR.
It has been already mentioned that the stream in front of the house was wider than at other parts, forming a sort of lake. There was a slow current down the middle, but at the sides the water was nearly stagnant, and there grew in some places bunches of flags interspersed with beautiful white lilies. Among these could be distinguished that gigantic nympha so celebrated under the name of Victoria regia—for South America is the native country of this rare plant.
Every night, as our party were resting from their labours, they heard strange noises proceeding from the water. There was plunging and plashing, and now and then a snorting sound like that sometimes uttered by frightened swine. Perhaps it would have puzzled any of them to tell whence these sounds proceeded, or what animal gave utterance to them, for there could be no doubt they were caused by an animal. Some of them guessed "alligators;" but that was not a correct guess, for although there are plenty of alligators in all the rivers of tropical America, there seemed to be none in that particular place.
In truth, they might have remained long in the dark about what creature they thus heard sweltering about nightly, for they could neither see nor hear anything of it in the day; but Guapo, who knew every sound of the Montana, enlightened them at once. Guapo had been a keen tapir-hunter in his time, and understood all the habits of that strange animal. It was a tapir, then, which they had heard taking his regular nightly bath, and regaling himself on the roots of the flags and nymphae.
Have you ever seen a tapir? Not a living one, I fancy; perhaps the skin of one in a museum. He is an interesting creature, for this reason—that he is the largest land animal indigenous to South America. The llama and guanaco stand higher because their legs are longer, and they are far inferior to the tapir in bulk and weight: while the bears of South America, of which there are two or three species, are small-sized bears, and therefore less than the tapir. In fact, no very large land animals were found indigenous in the southern division of the American continent. There were none of the bovine tribe, as the buffalo and musk-ox of North America; and no large deer, as the elk and moose of the Northern latitudes. The deer of South America, of which there are several undescribed species, are all small animals. The tapir, then, in point of size takes precedence in the South-American fauna.
His rounded body gives him some resemblance to a great hog, or a donkey with its hair shaved off; but, in fact, he is not very like either; he is more like a tapir than anything else—that is, he is a creature sui generis. Perhaps, if you were to shave a large donkey, cut off most part of his ears and tail, shorten his limbs—and, if possible, make them stouter and clumsier—lengthen his upper jaw so that it should protrude over the under one into a prolonged curving snout, and then give him a coat of blackish-brown paint, you would get something not unlike a tapir.
To complete the resemblance, however, you would have to continue the erect mane over the forehead, between the ears, and down to the level of the eyes, which would give that crested appearance that characterises the tapir. Instead of hoofs, moreover, you would give your donkey large toes—four upon the fore feet, and upon the hind ones three. A little silky hair upon the stumped tail, and a few thinly scattered hairs of a brown colour over the body, would make the likeness still more striking; and it would be necessary, too, that the donkey be one of the very biggest kind to be as big as a big tapir.
The tapir is a harmless creature, and although it has a good set of teeth, it never uses them for the purpose of defending itself. When attacked by either men or fierce animals, it tries to escape by flight, and if that fails, submits to be killed; but there is no "fight" to be got out of a tapir.
The tapir leads a very solitary life, being met with alone, or sometimes in the company of the female. The latter has but one young at a birth, which follows her until able to provide for itself; when they associate no longer together, but part company, each taking its own way.
This animal is called amphibious, because it spends part of its time in the water; but, although it has been called the American representative of the rhinoceros and hippopotamus, it is not so much a water animal as either of these. It seeks its food in the river, or the marshes that border it, and can remain for several minutes under water; but for all that most of its time is passed on dry land. It sleeps during the day in some dry spot upon a bed of withered leaves, from whence it sallies every evening, and makes to the marshy banks of some well-known stream. It frequently leaves its lair during rain, and goes in search of food. Like hogs it is very fond of wallowing in a muddy place; but, unlike these slovenly animals, it does not return to its bed until it has plunged into the clear water, and thoroughly purified itself of the mud.
One habit of the tapir—and an unfortunate one for itself—is that in going its rounds it always follows the old track. In this way a path is soon formed from its lair to its feeding-place, so conspicuous that a hunter might trail it upon the run. It is easy, therefore, to "waylay" a tapir. Guapo knew this well, and had already, while over among the palms, marked the track of the one that came nightly to the stream, and had settled it in his mind that that particular tapir had not many days to live. In fact, Leon coaxed him to fix the tapir-hunt for the next morning, which Guapo, with Don Pablo's permission, accordingly did.
Guapo was anxious as any of them to kill the tapir, for, like many Indians, he was fond of its flesh, though that is by no means a palatable article of food. On the contrary, it is dry, and to most people tastes disagreeably. Guapo, however, liked it exceedingly; and, moreover, he wanted the tough skin for some purpose of his own. The wild Indians value the skin highly, as it is the best thing they can procure for "viches," or shields, to ward off the poisoned arrows of their enemies.
Next morning, an hour or so after daybreak, Guapo started for the hunt, accompanied by Leon. Don Pablo remained at home with his wife and the little Leona. Now, had the tapir-hunter possessed a gun, or even a bow and arrows, his plan of proceedings would have been different, and he would no doubt have chosen a different hour for the hunt. He would have chosen the twilight of the evening or morning, and would have hid himself in the bushes, so as to command a view of the track which the tapir would be certain to take on his way to or from the water. He would then have simply shot the creature as it was going past; but this is not so easy a matter neither, for the tapir, fearful of enemies while on land, always travels at a trot. As Guapo had neither bow nor gun, nothing in fact but his machete, how was he to get near enough to use this weapon? Clumsy-looking as the tapir certainly is, he can shuffle over the ground faster than the fastest Indian.
Guapo knew all this, but he also knew a stratagem by which the amphibious brute could be outwitted, and this stratagem he designed putting in practice. For the purpose he carried another weapon besides the machete. That weapon was a very pacific one—it was a spade! Fortunately he had one which he had brought with him from the mountains.
Now what did Guapo mean to do with the spade? The tapir is not a burrowing animal, and therefore would not require to be "dug out." We shall presently see what use was made of the spade.
After crossing the bridge, and getting well round among the palms, the hunter came upon a path well tracked into the mud. It was the path of the tapir,—that could be easily seen. There were the broad footmarks—some with three, and others with four toes—and there, too, were places where the animal had "wallowed." The tracks were quite fresh, and made, as Guapo said, not an hour before they had arrived on the spot.
This was just what the tapir-hunter wanted; and, choosing a place where the track ran between two palm-trees, and could not well have gone round either of them, he halted, rested his machete against a tree, and took a determined hold of the spade. Leon now began to see what use he intended to make of the spade. He was going to dig a pit!
That was, in fact, the very thing he was going to do, and in less than an hour, with the help of Leon, it was done—the latter carrying away the earth upon "bussu" leaves as fast as Guapo shovelled it out. When the pit was sunk to what Guapo considered a sufficient depth, he came out of it; and then choosing some slender poles, with palm-leaves, branches, and grass, he covered it in such a manner that a fox himself would not have known it to be a pit-trap. But such it was—wide enough and deep enough, as Guapo deemed, to entrap the largest tapir.
It now only remained to get the tapir into it, but therein lay the difficulty. Leon could not understand how this was to be managed. He knew that at night, as the animal was on its way to the water, it might step on the covering, and fall in. But Guapo had promised him that he should see the tapir trapped in an hour's time. Guapo had a plan of his own for bringing it that way, and he at once proceeded to put his plan into execution.
They started along the trail going from the water, and towards the lair of the beast. The hunter knew it would not be very distant—perhaps a quarter or half-a-mile, perhaps less. Before starting he cautioned Leon to keep close behind him, and not to make the least noise. So little as a whisper or the rustling of the brush, he alleged, might spoil all his plans. Guapo marched, or rather crouched, along; at first freely, but after some time his step grew more stealthy and cautious. He knew that he was getting near to his sleeping victim.
After stopping and repeating his caution to his companion, he proceeded as before until they had got better than a quarter of a mile from the water. Here they began to ascend a gentle hill, where the ground was dry, and strewed with fallen trees. At some places the trail was difficult to make out, and Leon would soon have lost it had he been left to himself. But there was no fear of Guapo losing it. A hound could not have followed it more surely.
Suddenly Guapo stopped—then went on a few steps—then stopped a second time, and made a sign for Leon to come up. Without speaking, he pointed to a little thicket of scrubby bushes, through the leaves of which they could just make out some large brown object perfectly at rest. That was the tapir himself—sound asleep.
Guapo had already instructed his companion that when they should arrive near the den of the animal, they were to make a wide circuit around—Leon going one way, while he himself took the other. Both now drew back a little, and then parted—the hunter going to one side, and Leon in the opposite direction. After making their circuit, they met at some distance beyond the back of the den; and then Guapo, telling the other to follow him, and, without observing any further caution, walked straight towards where the tapir lay.
The Indian knew by experience that the latter, when roused, would make directly along its accustomed trail to the water, for to the water it always flies when alarmed by an enemy. When they had got within a few paces of the den, a movement was seen among the leaves—then a crackling noise was heard, as the huge body of the animal broke through the bushes, and took to flight. He did not trot according to his usual gait, but went off in a gallop, with his head carried in a singular and awkward manner between his fore-legs! You have, no doubt, seen a donkey sometimes gallop in a similar style.
Guapo bounded after, followed by Leon, who kept close at his heels. Of course the tapir was in sight only a few seconds, but the hunter knew that he would take the beaten track, and therefore was at no loss. They made no unnecessary noise—lest the tapir might be frightened from its path—but ran on in silence.
They soon got back to the pit-fall, Guapo of course leading the way.
"Hola!" cried the latter, when he came in sight of it, "hola, young master! he's in the trap!"
Sure enough he was; and the next moment they stood upon the edge of the pit, and beheld the great brown body struggling and tumbling about at the bottom.
Guapo did not pause a moment, but leaped in, machete in hand. He had no fear of the animal biting him, for he knew it would not do so; but Guapo, in his hurry, had leaped carelessly, and his foot slipping, he fell over the smooth body of the tapir. The latter in its fright jumped upward, and the next moment Guapo was undermost at the bottom of the pit!
The animal had no design of trampling the hunter; but seeing that it could easily leap out—the pit being shallowed for it by Guapo's body and the fallen branches—it made a spring, and came out on the edge. Leon had got round upon the side next the river, but he chanced to be on the wrong side just then; for the heavy tapir dashing past, knocked against him, and sent him sprawling among the trees. Before he could recover himself, or Guapo climb out of the pit, a loud plunge in the water announced that the animal had escaped to an element where it might defy their pursuit.
Both were quite crest-fallen and disappointed, but Guapo especially so. He had prided himself very much on his skill as a tapir-hunter, and his pride was mortified at the result. He seemed very much chagrined; and as he and Leon returned toward the house, he stopped at intervals and looked into the water. Then shaking his machete in a threatening manner, cried out,—
"Dive away, old thick-skin! Dive deep as you will, I'll have your hide yet!"
THE POISONED ARROWS.
The result of the tapir chase determined Guapo to have himself better armed. There was one weapon—and a very efficient one too—which he knew how both to make and use. That weapon was a "gravatana," or blow-gun, sometimes called "pocuna." He had had an eye to this weapon all along, and had already provided the materials necessary for making it. These materials were of a varied character, and had cost him some trouble in getting them together.
First, then, for the blow-tube itself he had cut stems of a slender palm-tree, a species of Iriartea, but not that sort already described. It was the Pashiuba miri of the Indians. This little palm grows to the height of from twelve to twenty feet, and is never thicker than a man's wrist. Its roots, like the others of its genus, rise above the ground, but only a few inches. The stems which Guapo had chosen were of different sizes. One was about the thickness of the handle of a garden-rake, while the other was not over the diameter of a walking-cane. Both were hollow in the heart, or rather they contained pith like the alder-tree, which when forced out left a smooth bore.
Having cut these stems to a length of about ten feet, and pushed out the pith, Guapo inserted the smaller one into the bore of the larger, which fitted tightly all the way—for he had chosen it of the proper thickness to this end. The object of thus using two stems instead of one will not, at first, be understood. It was for the purpose of making the tube perfectly straight, as this is a most important consideration in the gravatana. The outer and stronger stem corrected any bend that there might be in the inner one, and they were carefully arranged so that the one should straighten the other.
Had it not been perfectly straight, Guapo would have bound it to a post and made it so; but it happened to come quite right without further trouble. The tube of the lesser one was now cleaned out thoroughly, and polished by a little bunch of the roots of a tree-fern, until it was as smooth and hard as ebony. A mouthpiece of wood was placed at the smaller end of the table, and a sight was glued on the outside. This "sight" was the tooth of an animal,—one of the long curving incisors of a rodent animal called the "paca," which is found in most parts of tropical America. To make the instrument look neater, Guapo had procured the tough shining bark of a creeping plant, which he wound spirally around the outside from the mouthpiece to the muzzle; and then the gravatana was finished.
There was yet much to be done before it could be used. Arrows were to be made, and a quiver in which to carry them, and poison to dip their points in—for the arrows of the blow-gun do not kill by the wound they inflict, but by the poison with which they are charged.
The next thing, then, to which Guapo turned his attention was the manufacture of the arrows. These can be made of cane, reeds, and other kinds of wood; but the best materials for the purpose are the long spines of the patawa palm, of which I have already spoken. These spines grow out from the lower part of the leaf-petioles, and, in young trees and those much sheltered, remain upon the trunk, giving it a very shaggy appearance. They are often three feet in length, about as thick as large wire, rather flattish, and of a black colour. To make the arrows, Guapo cut them to the length of fifteen or eighteen inches, and then pointed them sharply at one end. About three inches from the points he notched them all, so that they would break in the wound rather than drop out again, in consequence of the struggles of the animal.
About two or three inches from the thick end of the arrow Guapo wrapped lightly around the shaft some strands of the soft silky cotton, which he had procured from the pods of the great "ceiba," or silk-cotton tree, already mentioned. This he fastened on with a fibre of an aloe plant—one of the bromelias; and the cotton, when thus secured, assumed a conical or spindle shape, having its larger end towards the butt of the arrow. When inserted into the gravatana, the swell of the cotton filled the tube exactly,—not so tightly as to impede the passage of the arrow, nor so loosely as to allow of "windage" when blown upon through the mouthpiece.
The arrows were now ready, with the exception of the poison for their tips; and this was the most important of all, for without it both blow-gun and arrows would have been useless weapons, indeed. But Guapo was just the man who knew how to make this poison, and that is more than could be said of every Indian, for it is only the "piaches" (priests, or "medicine-men") who understand the process. Nay, more, there are even some tribes where not an individual knows how the arrow-poison is made; and these have to procure it by barter from others, paying a high price, and sometimes going a great distance for it.
This celebrated poison is known under different names, but those of "curare," "ticuna," and "wouraly," are the principal.
It is one of the most deadly poisons yet discovered—as much so as the upastiente of Java, or the bean of St. Ignatius—but it is perfectly harmless when swallowed, and, indeed, it is often taken by the Indians as an excellent stomachic. Should it get into the blood, however, by means of an arrow-wound, or a sore, no remedy has yet been discovered that will cure it. Death is certain, and a death similar to that caused by the bite of a venomous serpent. So say those who have suffered from it, but recovered on account of their having been only slightly wounded, or lightly inoculated with it. Let us see, then, how Guapo prepared this deadly mixture.
He had gone out to the forest, and returned carrying a bundle of slender rods. They were pieces of a lliana, or creeping plant. It was the bejuco de curare, or "mavacure," as it is sometimes called. The leaves he had stripped off, and left behind as useless. Had he brought them with him, they would have been seen to be small leaves of an oblong-oval shape, sharp at the points, and of a whittish-green colour. Don Pablo knew the plant to be a species of Strychnos.
Guapo with his knife first scraped all the bark, as well as the alburnum or white coating, from the rods, which last he flung away. The mixture of bark and alburnum was next placed upon a smooth stone, and mashed into a fibre of a yellowish colour. This done, it was gathered into a heap, and placed within a funnel, which had already been made out of a plantain-leaf. The funnel was a long narrow cone, and to strengthen it, it was set within another funnel made of the thick leaf of the "bussu" palm, and then both were supported by a framework of palm fibres.
Underneath the apex was placed a small pan—which could afterwards be put over the fire—and then cold water was thrown into the funnel along with the bark. A yellowish liquid soon commenced to filter and drip into the pan, and this liquid was the curare, the arrow poison. It still required, however, to be concentrated by evaporation; and for this purpose the pan was transferred to a slow fire, where it was kept until the liquid became thickened by the heat.
Another process was yet required before the curare was ready for the arrows. It was sufficiently concentrated and deadly, but still too thin to adhere properly to their tips, and for this purpose a mixture of some gummy juice was necessary. This Guapo soon prepared from the large leaves of a tree called the "kiracaguero," and poured it into the infusion; and then the curare turned from its yellow colour to black, and was ready for use. The change of colour was produced by the decomposition of a hydruret of carbon; the hydrogen was burned, and the carbon set free.
Guapo now dipped a few of his arrows, and carefully deposited them in a large joint of bamboo, which served as a quiver. I say carefully, for had one of these arrows dropped with its poisoned point upon his naked foot, or wounded him elsewhere, he never would have prepared any more curare. But he handled them with care, and the remainder of the liquid he poured into a small gourd (similar to that in which he carried his coca-lime), which he closely corked up with a piece of the pith from a palm.
Don Pablo, with Dona Isidora and the children, had watched with interest all this process. At first, they were afraid to go near, believing that the fumes of the liquid might be injurious. This was long believed to be the case, in consequence of the absurd tales spread abroad by the old missionaries, and even at a later period by the traveller La Condamine. These asserted, that when the Indians wished to make the curare poison, they selected for this purpose the old women of the tribe, whose lives were not deemed of any value; and that several of these always fell a sacrifice while "cooking" the curare!
This silly story is now refuted; and Guapo not only assured his companions that there was no danger, but even tasted the curare from time to time while in the pan, in order to judge when it was sufficiently concentrated. This he could tell by its taste, as it grew more and more bitter as the evaporation proceeded. The arrow-poisons of South America are not all made from the creeping plant, the mavacure. Among some Indian tribes a root is used called "curare de raiz;" and with others the poison is produced by a mixture of several species of juices from the plant Ambihuasca, tobacco, red pepper, a bark called "barbasco," from a tree of the genus Jacquinia, and a plant of the name "sarnango." Of all these the juice of the Ambihuasca is the most powerful ingredient, but the making of this species of poison is a most complicated process.
Guapo was not long in having an opportunity to test his gravatana, and this was just what he desired, for the old Indian was not a little vain of his skill, and he wished to make a show of it in the eyes of his companions. His vanity, however, was the more pardonable, as he was in reality a first-rate shot, which he proved to the satisfaction of everybody within half-an-hour. The instrument had scarcely been finished and laid aside, when a loud screaming and chattering was heard in the air, and on looking up a flock of large birds was seen flying over the heavens. They were still high up, but all of a sudden they darted down together and alit on a tall tree that stood nearly alone.
Here they continued their chattering, only in a lower and more confidential tone; and they could be seen, not hopping, but climbing about, sometimes with their backs and heads turned downward, and, in short, clinging to the branches in every imaginable way. These birds were all of one kind, each of them full eighteen inches in length, and of a uniform colour over the body, which was a purple, or deep indigo—their beaks only being white. In the sun their plumage glistened with a metallic lustre. They were, in fact, a rare species,—the ana, or purple macaw.
Without saying a word, Guapo seized his gravatana and arrows, and stole off through the underwood towards the tree upon which the macaws had perched. In a few minutes he stood under it, screened from the view of the birds by the broad leaves of a plantain that happened to grow beneath. This cover was necessary, else the macaws, which are shy birds, might have uttered one of their wild, choral screams, and flown off. They did not, however, and Guapo had a fair chance at them. All his movements could be observed by the party at the house, as he was on that side of the plantain.
He was seen to adjust an arrow into the tube, and then raise the gravatana to his lips. Strange to say, he did not hold it as we do a common gun,—that is, with the left hand advanced along the tube. On the contrary, both hands were held nearly together, at the lower end, and close to his mouth. Now, you will wonder how he could hold such a long tube steady in this way. It is, indeed, a very difficult thing, and much practice alone can accomplish it. As they watched him narrowly, his chest was seen to expand, his cheeks rose with a strong "puff," and some of them thought they could perceive the passage of the little arrow out of the tube.
However this might be, they soon after saw something sticking in the side of one of the macaws, and could see the bird pecking at it with its great beak, and trying to pull it out. In this it appeared to have succeeded after a short while, for something fell from the tree. It was the shaft with its cotton "boss" that fell down. The point, broken off where it had been notched, was still in the body of the bird, and was infusing the deadly venom into its veins. In about two minutes' time the wounded bird seemed to grow giddy, and began to stagger. It then fell over, still clutching the branch with its strong, prehensile claws; but after hanging a moment, these too relaxed, and the body fell heavily to the ground. It was quite dead.
Long before it came down Guapo had pushed a fresh arrow into the tube, and given a fresh puff through it, wounding a second of the macaws. Then another arrow was chosen, and another victim, until several had been shot, and the creatures upon the tree could be seen in all stages of dying. Some, on receiving the wound, uttered a cry and flew off, but the poison soon brought them down, and they invariably fell at no great distance from the tree.
At length Guapo was seen to desist, and walk boldly out from his ambush. To the surprise of all, the remaining macaws, of which there were still six or seven upon the tree, showed no fear of him, nor did they attempt to fly away! This was explained, however, by their subsequent conduct; for in a few seconds more they were seen, one by one, falling to the ground, until not a single bird was left upon the tree. All of them had been killed by the arrows of the blow-gun!
Leon now ran out to assist Guapo in gathering his game. There were no less than eight couple of them in all, and they were all quite dead—some of them shot in the thigh, some in the neck or wing, and others through the body. None of them had lived over two minutes after receiving the wound. Such is the quickness with which the "curare" does its work!
As a hunting instrument for most species of game the South American Indian prefers the gravatana to any other; and with good reason. Had Guapo been armed with a rifle or fowling-piece, he would have shot one macaw, or perhaps a pair, and then the rest would have uttered a tantalising scream, and winged their way out of his reach. He might have missed the whole flock, too, for on a high tree, such as that on which they had alit, it is no easy matter to kill a macaw with a shot-gun. Now the gravatana throws its arrow to a height of from thirty to forty yards, and the least touch is sufficient to do the business. Its silence, moreover, enables the hunter to repeat the shot, until several head of game reward his skill. The Indians use it with most effect in a vertical or upward direction; and they are always surer to kill a bird with it when perched on a high tree, than when seated on a low shrub or on the ground.
As we have observed that the curare can be taken inwardly without any danger, it will be evident to all that game killed by the poisoned arrows may be eaten with safety. Indeed, there are many epicures in South America who prefer it in this way; and when a chicken is wanted for the table, these people require that it should be killed by an arrow dipped in curare.
Guapo kept his promise with the tapir, and on that very same day. Shortly after the macaws had been brought in, little Leona, who had been straying down by the water's edge, came running back to the house, and in breathless haste cried out, "Mamma, mamma! what a big hog!"
"Where, my pet?" inquired her mother, with a degree of anxiety, for she fancied that the child might have seen some fierce beast of prey instead of a hog.
"In the water," replied Leona; "among the great lillies."
"It's the tapir," cried Leon. "Carrambo! it's our tapir!"
Guapo was busy plucking his macaws, but at the word tapir he sprang to his feet, making the feathers fly in all directions.
"Where, senorita?" he asked, addressing little Leona.
"Down below," replied the child; "near the edge of the river."
Guapo seized his gravatana, and crouched down towards the bank, with Leon at his heels. On nearing the water, he stopped; and, with his body half-bent, looked down stream. There, sure enough, was the huge brown beast standing with his body half out of the water, and pulling up the roots of the flags with his great teeth and long moveable snout. It was not likely he would return to his former den after the chase he had had; and fancying, no doubt, that all the danger lay upon the opposite shore, he had come to this side to browse awhile.
Guapo cautioned Leon to remain where he was, while he himself, almost crawling upon his belly, proceeded along the bank. In a few minutes he was out of sight, and Leon, seeing nothing more of him, kept his eyes sharply fixed upon the tapir.
The latter remained quietly feeding for about ten minutes, when the boy saw him give a little start. Perhaps, thought he, he has heard Guapo among the weeds—for the tapir has good ears—and that was what caused him to make the motion. The tapir stopped feeding for a moment, but then recommenced, though evidently not with as much eagerness as before. Presently he stopped a second time, and seemed undetermined as to whether he should not turn and take to the clear water. In this way he hesitated for several minutes; then, to the astonishment of Leon, his body began to rock from side to side, and the next moment, with a plunge, he fell heavily backward, making the waves undulate on all sides of him. The arrow had done its work—he was dead!
A loud shout from Guapo echoed along the river, and the Indian was seen plunging forward to the dead tapir, which the next moment he had seized by the leg, and was dragging towards the bank. He was here met by the whole party, all of whom were anxious to see this rare and singular creature. Ropes were soon attached to the legs, and Guapo, assisted by Don Pablo and Leon, drew the huge carcass out upon the shore; and dragged it up to the house.
Guapo at once skinned it, carefully preserving the hide to make soles for his sandals and other purposes; and that night all of them tried a "tapir-steak" for supper. All, however, Guapo alone excepted, preferred the flesh of the purple macaws, which, cooked as they were with onions and red pepper, were excellent eating, particularly for Spanish-American palates. Guapo had all the tapir to himself.
The bamboo palm-house was now quite finished, and several articles of furniture too—for during the nights both Don Pablo and his trusty man Guapo had worked at many things. You will, no doubt, be asking where they procured lights,—will you not? I shall tell you. One of the loftiest and most beautiful of the palm-trees—the wax-palm—grew in these very parts, for the lower slopes of the Andes are its favourite habitat. Out of its trunk exudes wax, which has only to be scraped off and made into candles, that burn as well as those made of the wax of bees. Indeed, the missionaries, in their various religious ceremonies, have always made large use of these palm-candles.
Another "wax-palm," called "Carnauba," is found in South America. In this one, the wax—of a pure white colour, and without any admixture of resin—collects upon the under-side of the leaves, and can be had in large quantities by merely stripping it off. But even, had neither of these palms been found, they needed not to have gone without lights, for the fruits of the "patawa," already described, when submitted to pressure, yield a pure liquid oil, without any disagreeable smell, and most excellent for burning in lamps. So, you see, there was no lack of light in the cheerful cottage.
But there were two things, you will say, still wanting—one of them a necessary article, and the other almost so—and which could not possibly be procured in such a place. These two things were salt and milk. Now there was neither a salt-mine, nor a lake, nor a drop of salt water, nor yet either cow, goat, or ass, within scores of miles of the place, and still they had both salt and milk!
The milk they procured from a tree which grew in the woods close by, and a tree so singular and celebrated, that you have no doubt heard of it before now. It was the palo de vaca, or "cow-tree," called sometimes by an equally appropriate name arbol del leche, or "milk-tree." It is one of the noblest trees of the forest, rising, with its tall straight stem, to a great height, and adorned with large oblong pointed leaves, some of which are nearly a foot in length. It carries fruit which is eatable, about the size of a peach, and containing one or two stones; and the wood itself is valuable, being hard, fine-grained, and durable.
But it is the sap which gives celebrity to the tree. This is neither more nor less than milk of a thick creamy kind, and most agreeable in flavour. Indeed, there are many persons who prefer it to the milk of cows, and it has been proved to be equally nutritious, the people fattening upon it in districts where it grows. It is collected, as the sugar-water is from the maple, simply by making a notch or incision in the bark, and placing a vessel underneath, into which the sap runs abundantly. It runs most freely at the hour of sunrise; and this is also true as regards the sap of the sugar-tree, and many other trees of that kind.
Sometimes it is drunk pure as it flows from the tree; but there are some people who, not relishing it in its thick gummy state, dilute it with water, and strain it before using it. It is excellent for tea or coffee, quite equal to the best cream, and of a richer colour. When left to stand in an open vessel, a thick coagulum forms on the top, which the natives term cheese, and which they eat in a similar manner, and with equal relish. Another virtue of this extraordinary tree is that the cream, without any preparation, makes a glue for all purposes as good as that used by cabinet-makers, and, indeed, Don Pablo and Guapo had already availed themselves of it in this way.
So much for the palo de vaca.
It still remains for me to tell you where the salt came from; and although the milk-tree was ever so welcome, yet the salt was a thing of still greater necessity. Indeed, the latter might be looked upon as an indispensable article in household economy. You, my young reader, know not what it is to be without salt. With whole sacks of this beautiful mineral within your reach, almost as cheap as sand, you cannot fancy the longing—the absolute craving—for it, which they feel who are for a period deprived of it.
Even the wild animals will make long journeys in search of those salt-springs—or, as they are called, "licks"—which exist in many places in the wilderness of America. For salt, Don Pablo and his companions would have exchanged anything they had,—their sugar, plantains, cocoa, coffee, or even the cassava, which was their bread. They longed for salt, and knew not how they could get on without it. The only substitute was the "aji," or capsicum, of which several species grew around, and almost every dish they ate was strongly spiced with it. But still this was not salt, and they were not contented with it.
It was now that they found a friend in Guapo. Guapo knew that among many of the Indian tribes the fruit of a certain species of palm was manufactured into salt; and he knew the palm, too, if he could only get his eyes upon it. Seeing his master and the rest so troubled upon this head, Guapo rose one morning early and stole off among the groves of palm, on the other side of the river. There, in a marshy place, with its roots even growing in the water, stood the very tree,—a small palm of about four inches in diameter and twenty to thirty feet high. It was thicker at the base than the top, and the top itself rose several feet above the tuft of pinnate, feathery fronds, ending in a pointed spike. It was the "jara" palm, of the genus Leopoldinia.
It was the fruits upon which Guapo bent his eyes with earnestness. Each one was as large as a peach, of an oval shape, slightly flattened, and of a yellowish green colour. They grew in large clusters among the bases of the leaves; and Guapo was not long in ascending several trees—for the jara is a smooth-skinned palm, and can be climbed—and breaking off the spadices, and flinging them to the ground. He had soon collected a bag-full, with which he hurried back to the house.
All wondered what Guapo meant to do with these fruits, for they tasted them and found them very bitter. Guapo soon showed them his intention. Having prepared a sort of furnace, he set the nuts on fire; and when they were thoroughly reduced to ashes, to the great joy and astonishment of all, these ashes, which were as white as flour, had the taste of salt! It is true it was not equal to "Turk's Island," nor yet to "Bay" salt, but it proved to be good enough for cooking purposes, and satisfied the craving which all had felt for this indispensable article.
THE CANNIBAL FISH AND THE GYMNOTUS.
About this time an incident occurred that was very near having a fatal termination for one of the party—Leon. The day was a very hot one, and as the cool water looked inviting, Leon could not resist the temptation of taking a bath. Having undressed himself, he plunged into the river nearly in front of where the house stood, and began splashing about quite delighted. The rest were not heeding him, as each was engaged with some occupation within the house.
Leon at first kept wading about in a place that was not beyond his depth, but, by little and little, he took short swims, as he wished to practise, and become a good swimmer like Guapo. His father had not only given him permission, but had even advised him to do so. And it may be here remarked that all parents would do well to take the same course with their children and allow them to acquire this healthful and useful art. No one can deny that thousands of lives are annually sacrificed, because so few have taken the trouble to learn swimming.
Well; Leon was determined to be a swimmer, and at each attempt he made a wider stretch into the deep water, swam around, and then back again to the bank.
In one of these excursions, just as he had got farthest out, all at once he felt a sharp pain as if from the bite of some animal, and then another, and another, upon different parts of the body, as if several sets of teeth were attacking him at once!
Leon screamed—who wouldn't have done so?—and his scream brought the whole household to the edge of the water in less than a score of seconds. All of them believed that he was either drowning or attacked by a crocodile. On arriving at the bank, however, they saw that he was still above water, and swimming boldly for the shore—no signs of a crocodile were to be seen!
What was the matter?
Of course that question was asked of him by them all in a breath. His reply was that "he could not tell—something was biting him all over!"
The quick eye of the mother now caught sight of blood—around the swimmer the water was tinged with it—her piercing shriek rent the air.
"O God! my child—my child! Save him—save him!"
Both Don Pablo and Guapo dashed into the water and plunged forward to meet him. In the next moment he was raised in their arms, but the blood streamed down his body and limbs, apparently from a dozen wounds. As they lifted him out of the water they saw what had caused these wounds. A shoal of small fish, with ashy-green backs and bright orange bellies and fins, was seen below. With large open mouths they had followed their victim to the very surface, and now that he was lifted out of their reach, they shot forward and attacked the legs of his rescuers, causing Don Pablo and Guapo to dance up in the water, and make with all haste for the bank. As soon as they had reached it, they turned round and looked into the water. There were these blood-thirsty pursuers that had followed them up to the very bank, and now swam about darting from point to point, and ready for a fresh attack on any one that might enter the water!
"They are the 'cannibal fish!'" said Guapo, in an angry tone, as he turned to attend to Leon. "I shall punish them yet for it. Trust me, young master, you shall be revenged!"
Leon was now carried up to the house, and it was found that in all he had received nearly a dozen wounds! Some of them were on the calves of his legs, where the piece of flesh was actually taken out! Had he been farther out in the river, when first attacked, he might never have reached the shore alive, as the fierce creatures were gathering in far greater numbers when he was rescued, and would most undoubtedly have torn him to pieces and eaten him up!
Such has been the fate of many persons who have fallen among the "cannibal fish" in the midst of wide rivers where they had no chance of escape. These ferocious little "caribes," or "caribitos," as they are called (for the word carib signifies cannibal), lie at the bottom of rivers, and are not easily seen; but the moment an attack is made by one of them, and a drop of blood stains the water, the whole shoal rises to the surface, and woe to the creature that is assailed by their sharp triangular teeth!
Of course the wounds of Leon, although painful, were not dangerous, but the chief danger lay in the loss of blood which was pouring from so many veins. But Guapo found ready to his hand the best thing in the world for stopping it. On some mimosa-trees, not far from the house, he had already observed—indeed, so had all of them—a very singular species of ants' nests of a yellowish brown colour. The ants themselves were of a beautiful emerald green. They were the Formica spinicollis. These nests were composed of a soft cotton-down, which the ants had collected from a species of Melastoma, a handsome shrub found growing in these regions; and this down Guapo knew to be the best for blood-stopping.
Even Don Pablo had heard of its being used by the Indians for this purpose, and knew it by the name of "yesca de hormigas," or "touch-wood of ants." He had heard, moreover, that it was far superior even to the ants' nests of Cayenne, which form an article of commerce and are highly prized in the hospitals of Europe. Guapo, therefore, ran off and robbed the green ants of their nests, and speedily returned with the full of his hands of the soft "yesca." This was applied to the wounds, and in a few minutes the bleeding was effectually stopped, and Leon, although still suffering pain, had now only to be patient and get well.
Strange to say, another incident occurred that very evening, which taught our party a further lesson of the danger of taking to the water without knowing more of its inhabitants. Just as they had finished supper, and were seated in front of their new house, the mule, that had been let loose, stepped into the river to drink and cool its flanks. It was standing in the water, which came up to its belly, and, having finished its drink, was quietly gazing around it. All at once, it was observed to give a violent plunge, and make with hot haste for the bank. It snorted and looked terrified, while its red nostrils were wide open, and its eyes appeared as if they would start from their sockets. At length it reached the bank, and, staggering forward, rolled over in the sand, as if it was going to die!
What could all this mean? Had it, too, been attacked by the "caribes?" No; that was not likely, as the bite of these creatures upon the hard shanks of the mule could not have produced such an effect. They might have frightened it, but they could not have thrown it into "fits"—for it was evidently in some sort of a fit at that moment.
It might have been a puzzle to our party not easily solved, had Guapo not been upon the spot. But Guapo had witnessed such an incident before. Just before the mule gave the first plunge Guapo's eyes had been wandering in that direction. He had noticed an odd-looking form glide near the mule and pass under the animal's belly. This creature was of a greenish-yellow colour, about five feet in length, and four or five inches thick. It resembled some kind of water-snake more than a fish, but Guapo knew it was not a snake, but an eel. It was the great electric eel—the "temblador," or "gymnotus."
This explained the mystery. The gymnotus, having placed itself under the belly of the unsuspecting mule, was able to bring its body in contact at all points, and hence the powerful shock that had created such an effect.
The mule, however, soon recovered, but from that time forward, no coaxing, nor leading, nor driving, nor whipping, nor pushing, would induce that same mule to go within twenty feet of the bank of that same piece of water.
Guapo now bethought himself of the narrow escape he himself had had while swimming across to the palm-woods; and the appearance of the gymnotus only rendered him more determined to keep the promise he had made to Leon,—that is, that he would revenge him of the caribes.
None of them could understand how Guapo was to get his revenge without catching the fish, and that would be difficult to do. Guapo, however, showed them how on the very next day.
During that evening he had made an excursion into the wood, and returned home carrying with him a large bundle of roots.
They were the roots of two species of plants—one of the genus Piscidea, the other a Jacquinia. Out of these, when properly pounded together, Guapo intended to make the celebrated "barbasco," or fish-poison, which is used by all the Indians of South America in capturing fish. Guapo knew that a sufficient quantity of the barbasco thrown into the water would kill either "temblador," caribe, or any fish that ever swam with fins.
And so it proved. In the morning Guapo having prepared his barbasco, proceeded to the upper end of the lake-like opening of the river, and there flung his poison into the stream. The slow current through the valley greatly favoured him, and from the large quantity of roots he had used, the whole pool was soon infected with it. This was seen from the whitish tinge which the water assumed. The barbasco had scarcely time to sink to the bottom when small fish were seen coming to the surface, and turning "wrong side uppermost." Then larger ones appeared, and in a few minutes all the fish in that particular stretch of water, with several gymnoti, were seen floating on the surface quite dead. To the great joy of Guapo and Leon, who sat by the bank watching, hundreds of the little caribes, with their bronze gills quite open, and their yellow bellies turned up, were seen among the rest.
But Guapo had not made this great slaughter purely out of revenge. He had another object. They were not too well off for meat, and a dish of fish would be welcome. Guapo and Don Pablo had already provided themselves with long-handled nets, and they soon scooped out several basketfuls of fish. Among others they netted numerous "caribes," for these little monsters, fierce as they are, are not surpassed for delicacy of flavour by any fish in the South American rivers. The gymnoti approached the bank, where Guapo fished them out, not to eat—although they are often eaten. There was not a spark of electricity in them now. The barbasco had cured them of that; any one might have handled them with safety, as there was not a charge left in their whole battery.
The lake was quite cleared of all its dangerous denizens, and Leon might bathe with safety, as soon as he got well; and over the fish-dinner they could now laugh at the adventures both of Leon and the electrified mule.
In about two weeks from their arrival in the valley, the house, with a stable for the horse and mule, was completed, and all the necessary furniture as well. Had you entered the establishment about this time, you would have observed many odd articles and implements, most of them quite new. You would have seen boxes woven out of palm leaves, and bags made of the fibrous, cloth-like spathe of the "bussu," filled with the soft, silky cotton of the bombax, to be afterwards spun and woven for shirts and dresses.
You would have seen baskets of various shapes and sizes woven out of the rind of the leaf-stalks of a singular palm called "Iu," which has no stem, but only leaves of ten feet long, growing directly out of the ground. You would have seen chairs made of split palms and bamboo, and a good-sized table, upon which, at meal-time, might be noticed a table-cloth, not of diaper, but, what served equally well, the broad smooth silken leaves of the plantain. There were cups, too, and plates, and bowls, and dishes, and bottles, of the light gourd-shell (Crescentia cujete), some of the bottles holding useful liquids, and corked with the elastic pith of a palm. Other vessels of a boat-shape might be noticed.
There were large wooden vessels pointed at the ends like little canoes. They were nothing more than the spathes or flower-sheaths of one of the largest of palms, the "Inaga." This noble tree rises to the height of one hundred feet, and carries feathery fronds of more than fifty feet in length. The spathes are so large that they are used by the Indian women for cradles and baskets; and their wood is so hard, that hunters often cook meat in them, hanging them over the fire when filled with water!
Many other singular implements might have been noticed in the new home. One, a cylinder of what appeared to be wood, covered thickly with spinous points, hung against the wall. That was a grater, used for the manioc, or yucca roots; and it was a grater of nature's own making, for it was nothing more than a piece of one of the air roots of the "pashiuba" palm, already described. Another curious object hung near this last. It was a sort of conical bag, woven out of palm-fibre, with a loop at the bottom, through which loop a strong pole was passed, that acted as a lever when the article was in use. This wicker-work bag was the "tipiti." Its use was to compress the grated pulp of the manioc roots, so as to separate the juice from it, and thus make "cassava." The roots of the yucca, or manioc plant, grow in bunches like potatoes.
Some of them are oblong—the length of a man's arm—and more than twenty pounds in weight. When required for use, the bark is scraped off, and they are grated down. They are then put into the tipiti, already mentioned; and the bag is hung up to a strong pin, while the lever is passed through the loop at the bottom. Its short end goes under a firm notch, and then some one usually sits upon the long end until the pulp is squeezed sufficiently dry. The bag is so formed that its extension, by the force of the lever, causes its sides to close upon the pulp, and thus press out the juice. The pulp is next dried in an oven, and becomes the famous "cassava" or "farinha," which, throughout the greater part of South America, is the only bread that is used. The juice, of course, runs through the wicker-work of the tipiti into a vessel below, and there produces a sediment, which is the well-known "tapioca."
There are two kinds of the yucca or manioc-root,—the yucca dulce, and yucca amarga—the sweet and bitter. One may be eaten raw without danger. The other, which very closely resembles it, if eaten raw, would produce almost instant death, as its juice is one of the deadliest of vegetable poisons. Even while it is dripping from the tipiti into the vessel placed below, great care is always taken lest children or other animals should drink of it.
There were no beds—such things are hardly to be found in any part of tropical America—at least not in the low hot countries. To sleep in a bed in these climates is far from being pleasant. The sleeper would be at the mercy of a thousand crawling things,—insects and reptiles. Hammocks, or "redes," as they are called, take the place of bedsteads; and five hammocks, of different dimensions, could be seen about the new house. Some were strung up within, others in the porch in front, for, in building his house, Don Pablo had fashioned it so that the roof protruded in front, and formed a shaded verandah—a pleasant place in which to enjoy the evenings. Guapo had made the hammocks, having woven the cords out of the epidermis of the leaf of a noble palm, called "tucum."
Their home being now sufficiently comfortable, Don Pablo began to turn his attention to the object for which he had settled on that spot. He had already examined the cinchona-trees, and saw that they were of the finest species. They were, in fact, the same which have since become celebrated as producing the "Cuzconin," and known as Cascarilla de Cuzco (Cuzco bark).
Of the Peruvian-bark trees there are many species,—between twenty and thirty. Most of these are true cinchona-trees, but there are also many kinds of the genus Exostemma, whose bark is collected as a febrifuge, and passes in commerce under the name of Peruvian bark. All these are of different qualities and value. Some are utterly worthless, and, like many other kinds of "goods," form a sad commentary on the honesty of commerce.
The species, which grew on the sides of the adjacent hills, Don Pablo recognised as one of the most valuable. It was a nearly-allied species to the tree of Loxa, which produces the best bark. It was a tall slender tree—when full grown, rising to the height of eighty feet; but there were some of every age and size. Its leaves were five inches long and about half that breadth, of a reddish colour, and with a glistening surface, which rendered them easily distinguished from the foliage of the other trees. Now it is a fortunate circumstance that the Peruvian-bark trees differ from all others in the colour of their leaves.
Were this not the case, "bark-hunting" would be a very troublesome operation. The labour of finding the trees would not be repaid with double the price obtained for the bark. You may be thinking, my young friend, that a "cascarillero," or bark-hunter, has nothing to do but find a wood of these trees; and then the trouble of searching is over, and nothing remains but to go to work and fell them. So it would be, did the cinchona-trees grow together in large numbers, but they do not. Only a few—sometimes only a single tree—will be found in one place; and I may here remark that the same is true of most of the trees of the Great Montana of South America. This is a curious fact, because it is a different arrangement from that made by nature in the forests of North America.
There a whole country will be covered with timber of a single, or at most two or three species; whereas, in South America, the forests are composed of an endless variety. Hence it has been found difficult to establish saw-mills in these forests, as no one timber can be conveniently furnished in sufficient quantity to make it worth while. Some of the palms, as the great morichi, form an exception to this rule. These are found in vast palmares, or palm-woods, extending over large tracts of country, and monopolising the soil to themselves.
Don Pablo, having spent the whole of a day in examining the cinchonas, returned home quite satisfied with them, both as regarded their quantity and value. He saw, from a high tree which he had climbed, "manchas," or spots of the glistening reddish leaves, nearly an acre in breadth. This was a fortune in itself. Could he only collect 100,000 lbs. of this bark, and convey it down stream to the mouth of the Amazon, it would there yield him the handsome sum of 40,000 or 50,000 dollars! How long before he could accomplish this task he had not yet calculated; but he resolved to set about it at once.
A large house had been already constructed for storing the bark, and in the dry hot climate of the high Montana, where they now were, Don Pablo knew it could be dried in the woods, where it was stripped from the trees.
A PAIR OF SLOW GOERS.
At length, all things being ready, Don Pablo and party set out for a day's work among the cinchonas. As it was the first day of bark-gathering all went along to enjoy the novelty of the thing. A "mancha" of the cinchona trees was not far off, so their journey would be a short one. For this reason, the horse and mule remained in the stable eating the fruits of the "murumuru" palm, of which all cattle are exceedingly fond. Even the hard undigested stones or nuts, after passing through the bodies of horses and cattle, are eagerly devoured by wild or tame hogs, and the zamuros, or black vultures, when hungered, take to the pulpy fruit of this thorny palm-tree.
It was a very early hour when they set out, for Don Pablo and his people were no sluggards. Indeed, in that climate, the early morning hours are the pleasantest, and they had made it a rule to be always up at daybreak. They could thus afford to take a siesta in their hammocks during the hot noontide,—a custom very common, and almost necessary, in tropical countries. Their road to the cinchonas led up the stream, on the same side with the house. After going a few hundred yards, they entered a grove of trees that had white trunks and leaves of a light silvery colour. The straight, slender stems of these trees, and the disposition of their branches,—leaning over at the tops,—gave them somewhat the appearance of palms. They were not palms, however, but "ambaiba" trees. So said Don Pablo, as they passed under their shade.
"I shouldn't wonder," added he, "if we should see that strange animal the ai. The leaves of these trees are its favourite food, and it lives altogether among their branches."
"You mean the 'nimble Peter,' do you not, papa?"
This inquiry was put by Leon, who had read about the animal under this name, and had read many false stories of it, even in the works of the great Buffon.
"Yes," replied Don Pablo; "it goes by that name sometimes, on account of its sluggish habits and slow motions. For the same reason the English call it 'sloth,' and it is known among naturalists as bradypus. There are two or three species, but all with very similar habits, though, as usual, the French classifiers have separated them into distinct genera."
"Why, Buffon says," rejoined Leon, "that it is the most miserable creature in the world; that it can scarcely get from tree to tree; that some remain in the same tree all their lives, or, that when one has eaten all the leaves off a tree, it drops to the ground, to save itself the trouble of getting down by the trunk, and, that when on the ground it cannot move a yard in an hour. Is all this true?"
"Totally untrue. It is true the ai does not move rapidly over the ground, but the ground is not its proper place no more than it is that of the orang-otang, or other tree-monkeys. Its conformation shows that nature intended it for an inhabitant of the trees, where it can move about with sufficient ease to procure its food. On the branches it is quite at home, or, rather, I should say, under the branches, for, unlike the squirrels and monkeys, it travels along the under sides of the horizontal limbs, with its back downward. This it can do with ease, by means of its great curving claws, which are large enough to span the thickest boughs. In this position, with a long neck of nine vertebrae,—the only animal which has that number,—it can reach the leaves on all sides of it; and, when not feeding, this is its natural position of repose.
"Its remaining during its whole life in one tree, or suffering itself to fall from the branches, are romances of the early Spanish voyagers, to which M. Buffon gave too much credit. The ai does not descend to the ground at all when it can help it, but passes from one tree to another by means of the outspreading branches. Sometimes, when these do not meet, it has cunning enough to wait for a windy day, and then, taking advantage of some branch blown nearer by the wind, it grasps it and passes to the next tree. As it requires no drink, and can live without any other food than the leaves of the cecropia, of course it remains on a single tree so long as it has plenty of leaves. See!" exclaimed Don Pablo, pointing up; "here are several trees stripped of their leaves! I'll warrant that was done by the ai."
"A-ee!" echoed a voice in the most lugubrious tones.
"I thought so," cried Don Pablo, laughing at the surprise which the voice had created among the rest of the party. "That's the very fellow himself,—this way,—here he is!"
All of them ran under the tree to which Don Pablo pointed, and looked up. There, sure enough, was an animal about the size of a cat, of a dark hay colour, with a patch of dirty orange and black upon the back. This could be easily seen, for the creature was hanging along a horizontal branch with its back downward, and its huge curving claws, all in a bunch, were hooked over the branch. Its hair was thick and rough, and no tail was visible, but its small round head and flat face was almost as like the human face as is that of any monkey. Indeed, the others would have taken it for a monkey,—Guapo excepted,—had they not been already talking about it.
"Oh, yonder's another!" cried Leon, pointing higher up in the tree; and, sure enough, there was, for the ai is usually found in company with its mate. The other was a copy of the one already observed, with some slight difference in size—no doubt it was the female one. Both had observed the approach of the party, and now uttered their melancholy "Ayee—a-ee!" that sounded anything but agreeable. In fact, so very disagreeable is the voice of this creature, that it has been considered its best weapon of defence. Beside the utterance of their cry, neither of them made any effort to escape or defend themselves.
Don Pablo and the rest were about to pass on and leave the ais to their leaf diet, but Guapo had other notions on that subject. Ugly as these creatures were, Guapo intended to have one of them for his dinner. He, therefore, begged Don Pablo to stop a moment until he should get them down. How was this to be done? Would he climb up and drag them from the tree? That is not so easily accomplished, for the ais, with their crescent claws, can hold on with terrible force. Besides, they were out upon the slender branches, where it would have been difficult to get at them.
But Guapo did not intend to climb. The tree was a slender one—he had his axe with him—and the next moment its keen blade was crashing through the bark of the ambaiba wood. A few minutes served to bring the tree down, and down it came, the ais screaming as it fell. Guapo now approached to seize them, but about this he used some caution. Both finding themselves without hope of escape, prepared for defence. Buffon asserts that they make none. That is not true, as was seen by all the party.
Throwing themselves on their backs, they struck out with their fore-arms in a sort of mechanical manner. These with the long horny claws they kept playing in front of their bodies, striking alternately with them, and rapidly, as a dog will do when suddenly plunged into water. Guapo did not put his hands near them. He knew they would not bite, but he also knew that he might get a scratch with the sharp claws, and that he did not wish for. But Guapo had a way to take them, and that he now put in practice. Lopping a couple of branches from the tree, he held one out to each of the ais, and touched them with it on the breast.
Each, as soon as it felt the branch, clutched it tightly between its powerful fore-arms and held on as if for life and death. It would have taken a stronger man than Guapo to have pulled either of the branches away again. The thing was now done. Giving his axe to Leon to carry for him, Guapo lifted an ai, still clinging to the branch, in each hand, and carried them off as if they had been a pair of water-pots. He did not wish to kill them until he got them home, alleging that they were better for eating when freshly butchered.
The bark-hunters now continued their route, and shortly after entered a little glade or opening in the forest, about an acre in size. When they had reached the middle of this, Guapo threw his ais upon the ground and marched on.
"Why do you leave them?" inquired the others.
"No fear for them," replied Guapo; "they'll be there when we come back. If I carried them into the woods, they might steal off while we were at work, but it would take them six hours to get to the nearest tree." All laughed at this, and went on, leaving the ais to themselves. Before passing out from the glade, they stopped a moment to look at the great, conical nests of the termites, or white ants, several of which, like soldiers' tents, stood near the edge of the glade. It was yet early, the air was chilly, and the ants were not abroad; so that, after gazing for a while on these singular habitations, the bark-gatherers pursued their way, and were soon under the shadow of the cinchona trees.
In a few minutes the work began—that work which was to occupy them, perhaps, for several years. The first blow of Guapo's axe was the signal to begin the making of a fortune. It was followed by many others, until one of the cinchonas lay along the sward. Then Guapo attacked another, as near the root as was convenient for chopping.
Don Pablo's part of the work now began. Armed with a sharp knife, he made circular incisions round the trunk, at the distance of several feet from each other, and a single longitudinal one intersecting all the others. The branches were also served in a similar way, and then the tree was left as it lay. In three or four days they would return to strip off the bark both from trunk and branches, and this would be spread out under the sun to dry. When light and dry it would be carried to the storehouse. So the work went merrily on. The trees were taken as they stood—the very young ones alone being left, as the bark of these is useless for commerce.
The Dona Isidora sat upon a fallen trunk, and, conversing with her husband, watched the proceedings with interest. A new and happy future seemed at no great distance off. Little Leona stood beside Guapo, watching the yellow chips as they flew, and listening to some very fine stories with which Guapo was regaling her. Guapo loved little Leona. He would have risked his life for her, would Guapo, and Leona knew it.
Leon was not particularly engaged on that day. When the bark was ready for peeling he intended to take a hand with the rest. He could then employ himself in spreading it, or could lead the mule in carrying it to the storehouse. Leon did not intend to be idle, but there happened to be no work for him just then; and after watching the bark-cutters for awhile, he sauntered back along the path, in order to have a little fun with the ais. Leon had no very great confidence that he would find them in the place where they had been left, and yet he believed in Guapo. But it was hard to understand that two animals, each endowed with a full set of legs and feet, should not be able to make their way for a distance of twenty paces, and escape! After the rough handling they had had, too! He would have a peep at them, anyhow, to see how they were coming on. So back he went.
On getting near the glade their voices reached him. They were there, after all! He could hear them utter their pitiful "ay-ee—ay-ee!" and, as he thought, in a louder and more distressing tone than ever. What could be the matter? They had been silent for some time, he was sure, for such cries as they now uttered could have been heard easily where the rest were. What could be the meaning of this fresh outburst? Had some new enemy attacked them? It seemed like enough.
Leon stole forward, and peeped into the glade. No—there was nothing near them! But what was the matter with the creatures? Instead of lying quietly, as they had done when left behind, they were now rolling and tumbling backward and forward, and pitching about, and dancing first on their feet and then on their heads, and cutting all sorts of strange capers! Could it be for their own amusement? No; their lamentable cries precluded that supposition; besides, their odd attitudes and contortions bespoke terror and pain!
"Carrambo!" muttered Leon. "What's the matter with them?"
They seemed inclined to escape towards the trees; but, after making a few lengths, they would fall to the ground, tumble about, and then, getting up again, head in the opposite direction!
Leon was puzzled,—no wonder. He looked around for a solution of this queer conduct on the part of the ais. No explanation appeared. At length he bethought himself of going up to them. Perhaps, when nearer, he might learn what set them a-dancing.
"Ha!" he ejaculated, struck with some sudden thought. "I know now; there's a snake at them."
This conjecture—for it was only a conjecture—caused him to stop short. It might be some venomous snake, thought he. The grass was not long, and he could have seen a very large snake; but still a small coral snake, or the little poisonous viper, might have been there. He fancied he saw something moving; but to get a better view he passed slowly around the edge of the glade, until he was nearly on the opposite side to that where he had entered. He still kept at a good distance from the ais, but as yet discovered no snake.
To his great surprise, the ais now lay stretched along the grass, their struggles appeared each moment to grow less violent, and their melancholy cries became weaker and weaker. Their contortions at length came to an end. A feeble effort to raise themselves alone could be perceived,—then a spasmodic motion of their long crooked limbs,—their cries became indistinct; and, after a while, both lay motionless and silent! Were they dead? Surely so, thought Leon.
He stood gazing at them for some minutes. Not a motion of their bodies could be perceived. Surely they had no longer lived! But, then, what could have killed them? There was no snake to be seen; no animal of any kind except themselves! Had they been taken with some sudden disease,—some kind of convulsions that had ended fatally? This seemed the most probable thing, judging from the odd manner in which they had acted. Maybe they had eaten some sort of plant that had poisoned them!
These conjectures passed rapidly through the mind of Leon. Of course, he resolved to satisfy himself as to the cause of their death, if dead they actually were. He began to draw nearer, making his advances with stealth and caution—as he was still apprehensive about the snake.
After he had made a few paces in a forward direction, he began to perceive something moving around the bodies of the animals. Snakes? No. What then? A few paces nearer. See! the whole ground is in motion. The bodies of the ais, though dead, are covered with living, moving objects! Ha! it is a "chacu" of the white ants.
Leon now comprehended the whole affair. The ground was literally alive with the terrible termites. They had made their foray, or "chacu," as it is called, from the neighbouring cones; they had attacked the helpless ais, and put them to death, with their poisonous stings! Already they were tearing them to pieces, and bearing them off to their dark caves! So thick were they on the bodies of the animals, that the latter had suddenly changed their colour, and now appeared to be nothing more than living heaps of crawling insects!
It was a hideous sight to behold, and Leon felt his flesh creep as he looked upon it. Still he felt a curiosity to witness the result, and he stood watching the busy crowd that had gathered about the ais. He had heard strange accounts of these white ants; how that, in a few minutes, they will tear the carcasses of large animals to pieces, and carry them away to their dens; and he was determined to prove the truth of this by observation. He did not go any nearer, for he was not without some dread of these ugly creatures; but, happening to find himself beside a small tree, with low horizontal branches, he climbed up, and sat down upon one of the branches, resting his feet upon another. He was inclined to take the thing as easily as possible.
His perch commanded a full view of the operations of the termites, and for a long time he sat watching them with interest. He could see that it was not the same set that were always on the carcasses of the ais. On the contrary, one host were always leaving the spot, while another took their places, and from the great conical houses fresh bands appeared to issue. In fact, two great parallel belts of them, like army columns, stretched from the "hills" to the ais, going in opposite directions.
Those which travelled towards the cells presented a very different appearance to the others. These were loaded with pieces of torn flesh, or skin with tufts of hair adhering to it; and each ant carried a piece by far larger than its own body. Their bodies, in fact, were quite hidden under their disproportionate burdens. The others—those which were coming from the conical hills—were empty-handed, and presented the appearance of a whittish stream flowing along the surface of the ground!
It was a most singular sight; and Leon sat watching the creatures until his head was giddy, and he felt as though the ground itself was in motion.
THE PUMA AND THE GREAT ANT-BEAR.
All at once the attention of the boy was called away from the crawling millions. A rustling among some dead leaves was heard. It appeared to proceed from the edge of the glade, not far from the ant-hills. The branches of the underwood were seen to move, and the next moment a slender cylindrical object, about a foot and a half in length, was protruded out from the leaves. Had there not been a pair of small eyes and ears near the farther end of this cylindrical object, no one would have taken it for the head and snout of an animal. But Leon saw the little sparkling black eyes, and he therefore conjectured that it was some such creature.
The next moment the body came into view, and a singular creature it was. It was about the size of a very large Newfoundland dog, though of a different shape. It was covered all over with long brownish hair, part of which looked so coarse as to resemble dry grass or bristles. On each shoulder was a wide strip of black, bordered with whitish bands; and the tail, which was full three feet long, was clothed with a thick growth of coarse hair, several inches in length, that looked like strips of whalebone. This was carried aloft, and curving over the back. But the most curious feature of the animal was its snout.
Talk of the nose of a grey hound. It would be a "pug" in comparison! That of this animal was full twice as long, and not half so thick, with a little mouth not over an inch in size, and without a single tooth! It was certainly the oddest snout Leon had ever seen. The legs, too, were remarkable. They were stout and thick, the hinder ones appearing much shorter than the fore-legs; but this was because the creature in its hind-feet was plantigrade, that is, it walked with the whole of its soles touching the surface, which only bears and a few other sorts of quadrupeds do.
Its fore-feet, too, were oddly placed upon the ground. They had four long claws upon each, but these claws, instead of being spread out, as in the dog or cat, were all folded backward along the sole, and the creature, to avoid treading on them, actually walked on the sides of its feet! The claws were only used for scraping up the ground, and then it could bring them forward in a perpendicular position, like the blade of a hoe, or the teeth of a garden-rake. Of course, with feet furnished in such an out-of-the-way fashion, the animal moved but slowly over the ground. In fact it went very slowly, and with a stealthy pace.
Although Leon had never seen the creature before, he had read about it, and had also seen pictures of it. He knew it, therefore, at a glance. That proboscis-looking snout was not to be mistaken. It could belong to no other creature than the tamanoir, or great ant-eater, by the people of South America called the ant-bear. It was, in fact, that very thing; but to Leon's astonishment, as soon as it got fairly out of the bushes, he noticed a singular-looking hunch upon its back, just over the shoulder. At first he could not make out what this was, as he had never heard of such a protuberance, besides, the tail half hid it from his view. All of a sudden the animal turned its head backwards, touched the hunch with its snout, gave itself a shake, and then the odd excrescence fell to the ground, and proved to be a young ant-eater, with bushy tail and long snout, the "very image of its mother." The large one was thus seen to be a female that had been carrying her infant upon her shoulders.
It was close to one of the ant-hills where the old tamanoir placed her young upon the ground, and turning away from it, she approached the great cone. Erecting herself upon her hind-feet, she stood with the fore ones resting against the hill, apparently examining it, and considering in what part of it the shell or roof was thinnest and weakest. These cones, composed of agglutinated sand and earth, are frequently so stoutly put together that it requires a pick-axe or crowbar to break them open.
But the ant-eater knew well that her fore-feet were armed with an implement equal to either pick or crow, and she would certainly have made a hole there and then, had she not noticed, on looking around to the other side, that the inhabitants of the hill were all abroad upon one of their forays. This seemed to bring about a sudden change in her determination, and, dropping her fore-feet to the ground, she once more threw up her great tail, and returned to where she had left her young one. Partly pushing it before her with her snout, and partly lifting it between her strong fore-arms, she succeeded in bringing the latter to the border of the path along which travelled the ants.
Here she squatted down, and placed herself so that the point of her nose just touched the selvedge of the swarming hosts, having caused the youngster by her side to do the same. Then throwing out a long worm-like tongue, which glittered with a viscous coating, she drew it back again covered with ants. These passed into her mouth, and thence, of course, into her capacious stomach. The tongue, which was more than a foot in length, and nearly as thick as a quill, was again thrown out, and again drawn back, and this operation she continued, the tongue making about two "hauls" to every second of time! Now and then she stopped eating, in order to give some instructions to the little one that was seen closely imitating her, and with its more slender tongue dealing death among the termites.
So very comic was the sight that Leon could not help laughing at it, as he sat upon his perch.
An end, however, was put to his merriment, by the sudden appearance of another animal—one of a different character. It was a large cat-like creature, of a reddish-yellow, or tawny colour, long body and tail, round head, with whiskers, and bright gleaming eyes. Leon had seen that sort of animal before. He had seen it led in strings by Indians through the streets of Cuzco, and he at once recognised it. It was the Puma—the maneless lion of America.
The specimens which Leon had seen with the Indians had been rendered tame and harmless. He knew that, but he had also been told that the animal in its wild state is a savage and dangerous beast. This is true of the puma in some districts, while in others the creature is cowardly, and will flee at the sight of man. In all cases, however, when the puma is brought to bay, it makes a desperate fight, and both dogs and men have been killed in the attack.
Leon had not been frightened at the tamanoir. Even had it been a savage creature, he knew it could not climb a tree—though there are two smaller species of ant-bears in South America that can—and he therefore knew he was quite safe on his perch. But his feelings were very different when the red body of the puma came in sight. It could run up the smoothest trunk in the forest with as much ease and agility as a cat, and there would be no chance of escaping from it if it felt disposed to attack him. Of this the boy was fully conscious, and no wonder he was alarmed.
His first thought was to leap down, and make for the cinchona-trees, where the others were; but the puma had entered the glade from that side, and it was therefore directly in his way: he would have run right in its teeth by going toward the cinchona-trees. He next thought of slipping quietly down, and getting into the woods behind him. Unfortunately, the tree on which he was stood out in the glade quite apart from any others, the puma would see him go off, and, of course, could overtake him in a dozen leaps. These thoughts passed through the boy's mind in a few seconds of time; and in a few seconds of time he was convinced that his best course would be to remain where he was, and keep quiet. Perhaps the puma would not notice him—as yet he had not.