The Death Drum
By A. Hyatt Verrill
Author of "The Treasure of the Golden God," "Beyond the Green Prism," etc.
From Amazing Stories Magazine, May 1933. Digitized by Doug Frizzle 2007
THIS is a very impressive story about the South American jungle, of the ways of explorers and of the life of the Indians. Mr. Verrill is one of the world's leading authorities on the ethnography of this region and he is also a great authority on South American archaeology. Here he depicts the white men and natives in intercourse, and we are sure that the story will be highly appreciated by our readers. The strange effects of the Indians' death-drum are a prominent feature of the story.
Illustrated by MOREY
I WAS crossing the Plaza San Martin in Lima, Peru, when hurrying footsteps and a voice calling my name, caused me to turn. The man who was approaching me looked as if he might just have escaped from the torture chambers of the Inquisition. He was clad in a strange mixture of ragged garments, patched with native Indian cloth and pieces of llama skin, and a worn and filthy poncho. On his feet were raw-hide sandals, and he wore a battered, disreputable felt hat jammed on his shock of long, unkempt hair. His face, covered with a straggling beard, was the color of leather and the parchment-like skin was drawn as tightly over the bones as the skin of an Incan mummy. His eyes, so deep set within their sockets that they seemed mere pin-points, burned with the unnatural fire of fever and his long, claw-like fingers were constantly moving, the hands opening, closing, as if striving forever to grasp some intangible something. "I'm Stirling!" he exclaimed as he reached my side. "I'm the sole survivor of the Matson expedition, I—"
"You mean you're Richard J. Stirling?" I demanded.
"And that Matson and the others are—"
"Dead! All dead! Oh, my God, yes!" he cried. "Yes, I'm Stirling—Richard J. No wonder you didn't recognize me—" he laughed hoarsely, a terrible mockery of a laugh—"but that damned consul wouldn't believe me. He wanted proofs—Proofs after two years wandering in the jungles! And he wouldn't believe my story—said I was mad or that 'twas all imagination or hallucination due to fever. He was looking out the window when he saw you. "There's Verrill," he said. "Go tell him your yarn. He knows the interior and the Indians. Perhaps he'll swallow such an impossible story. So I hurried after you. You will believe, won't you? You know what incredible things occur in the bush, don't you? You'll know I must be telling the truth. Say you'll believe me! My God, if someone doesn't I’ll go mad I—"
"Hold on!" I interrupted. "You're all wrought up. Of course the consul wouldn't believe anything. He doesn't know any more about the country than any of the other young asses our government sends out. Yes, I'll probably believe your story unless it deals with the scientifically impossible—with the supernatural or occult. Anything else, however improbable, might be true. But come over to the club. I'm on my way to lunch, and I’ll bet you'll be glad to eat some real white man's food and take the taste of roasted grubs and broiled monkeys out of your mouth by a good pisco cocktail." "But—but I can't go to the club like this," he protested. "I'm a disgrace, a scarecrow. I'll—"
I GRASPED his arm. "Bother how you look!" I told him. "You're my guest, and you've just come out of the bush. Food first, old man, and a good drink, and then for your story."
"But, but I must tell you!" he cried, his hands working nervously again, "I'll go really mad—I'll go—Oh, God! I can hear it now, all the time, in my sleep— beating in my brain—the Death Drum! If I don't tell you—"
"Brace up!" I commanded him. "You're nervous, wrought up—been through too much. Stirling. But you're safe now. Everything will be all right. And you can tell the story much better after you've eaten and have calmed down."
As I sat across the table from the weird being, who had gulped down his cocktail and was glancing about like some hunted animal or a jungle Indian, I could scarcely believe that the drawn, haggard, ragged, unkempt derelict was Dr. Richard J. Stirling, the dapper young ethnologist, who, two years before, had plunged into the Amazonian forests with the Matson expedition. But I knew what hardships and privations will do to a man; the marks of the jungle were upon him, and I had no reason to doubt the statement of his identity. What his story might prove to be I couldn't guess. Perhaps it might be the recital of strange but perfectly obvious facts, perhaps, as the consul had so lightly assumed, it would prove merely the wanderings of an unhinged mind. It was obvious that he had undergone terrific hardships and suffering, and it was evident that he was really a sick man. Whatever his tale, he would be the better for the telling of it; it would relieve his mind, and moreover I was very curious to hear it. But he needed good food first, and the way in which he was wolfing it down indicated how hungry he was.
"I suppose you went to the consul to enlist his aid," I hazarded.
"Only to the extent of getting him to cable to the States for funds," he told me. "I have friends there, and some money. I didn't expect charity. But he wanted proof of my identity. I—"
"I'll gladly send a cable for you," I assured him, "but what you need most of all is a darned good rest and medical attention. Just as soon as you've told me your story I'm going to take you down to the Anglo-American hospital at Bellavista and let Dr. McCornack look after you. You've been through a lot, I know, and you've been racked with jungle fever. Now if you're through we'll go into the smoking room, find a snug corner and you can tell me your tale."
The Story of the Jungle
"START at the beginning," I told him when we were comfortably ensconced with pipes going. "All I know about the Matson expedition is that it was supposed to be a scientific exploration of the unknown portion of the Gran Pajonal, although everyone knew that it was primarily a prospecting trip in Matson's personal interest. Also, I prophesied that it would fail. It was too large—fifteen white men could never get through with all the equipment necessary—it was badly outfitted and, yourself excepted, there was not a member of the party who was competent to explore unknown jungles. But as the expedition expected to be gone eighteen mouths we weren't particularly worried when it was a few months overdue. Unforeseen circumstances are always arising, there are invariably delays in jungle exploration, and there were chances that the party had gone down some river and had come out over in Brazil, Guiana or Venezuela. However, some of Matson's friends tried to get the government to send planes over the Pajonal to see if the party could be located, but the government wouldn't risk it. It's a dangerous place for a plane, and two that attempted to fly across about three years ago were never heard from. I—"
"I can tell you about those, too," Stirling exclaimed, interrupting my words. "They were brought down and destroyed just as were Matson and all the rest. The Death Drum of—"
"Hold on!" I admonished him. "We'll never get anywhere that way. I want a connected story—in proper sequence, old man. Let me see. The expedition started in at the Chicaguey River, I believe. Now fire away and tell me just what happened after you left the last outpost of civilization at Merced."
"Not much for several weeks," said Stirling. "Just the usual things—jungle rivers, half-civilized Indians. It wasn't until we got into the Pajonal itself that anything unusual happened,"
"All right, begin where anything unusual did happen;" I told him, whereupon he proceeded to narrate the following amazing tale.
"The trouble really began when we ran into some terrible rapids and lost two of our cayucos * with most of the provisions and a lot of equipment. I advised Matson to turn back, but he wouldn't listen. He said there would be game in abundance in the pajonal, that there were plenty of fish in the streams, and that Biddle, the botanist of the party, would be able to tell us of edible plants, and that we could easily live off the country and conserve our remaining supplies for emergencies. Two days later our Cholo or Indian carriers deserted us. But we didn't mind that. We didn't really need them, now that there was nothing much for them to carry, and their going meant just so many less to feed. Besides, we still had six Chuncho Indians along. But Matson was wrong. The farther we pushed into the pajonal the less game we found. I have never seen a place so barren of animal life. Even the monkeys were scarce. All we could find were a few macaws, parrots, toucans and now and then a boa or anaconda, and it was almost an impossibility to catch fish. If it hadn't been for our Chunchos we would have starved. It takes a lot of parrots and toucans to feed twenty-one men. But even the Indians had trouble getting fish. They shot a few with their bows and arrows, but most were secured by using mazetta —you know the stuff—the leaves which are pounded and thrown into the water and that stupefy the fish. But mazetta was terribly scarce. Biddle of course proved an utter flop. He didn't feel sure which fruits and roots were edible—he went entirely by their botanical relationships to other edible things—and several of us were deathly sick after eating some tubers he recommended. There was no use in arguing with Matson. He insisted we would go on—said it would be farther and harder to get back to Merced than to reach a tributary of the Maranon and go down to the Amazon. There were thirteen besides him and myself, and the others were all tenderfeet, as far as jungle work was concerned, so they stuck by Matson and it was hopeless for me to try to influence them. And of course I couldn't desert and go back alone.
* Small fishing boats used in Venezuela.
The Meeting of the Indians in the Wilderness
THEN we met the first of the Pajonal Indians. So far we hadn't seen a sign of human beings—not even a deserted clearing or village. It was about seven weeks after we left Merced that we came to an Indian village beside a small stream. They were a subtribe of the Campas, I think, head-hunters of course, but friendly and peaceful enough. But as usual they didn't have any too much food for their own use. Still, the chief agreed to trade, and all was going pretty well when Matson happened to see the shrunken head of a white man among the old chief's trophies. He flew into a terrible rage, knocked the chief down, and seizing all the shrunken heads threw them into the fire. Then he declared he would take all the food in the village and pay nothing for it. For a space I thought there would be a fight, but instead, the Indians slunk off into the jungle and left their village to us.
I tried to conciliate Matson, pointed out that the head might have been there for years, that it might have been captured from some other tribe, and that, anyway, his high-handed actions could do us no good and in all probability would result in trouble; that the Campas would carry word of the incident to other tribes, and that even if they did not unite against us they would refuse to supply food. Matson merely laughed at me.
"You may know a whole lot about Indians—scientifically," he said. "But you're an ass when it comes to handling them. Beat 'em, kick 'em about, put the fear of God into 'em. I've manhandled a lot of 'em in my time and I know how to treat the devils. Think I'm afraid of a few lousy savages? Not much. And if they refuse to trade we'll just help ourselves, see? Now I'm running this outfit, and if you don't like the way I'm doing it, just turn around and hoof it back to Merced—or to some of your pet Indians."
We stayed in the deserted village that night, had the first good meal we'd had in weeks, and no signs of the Indians. But the next day, as we were marching single-file through the forest, Biddle and McGuire were killed by poisoned blow gun darts, and Johnson, the surgeon of the party, was fatally wounded by an arrow; yet we never saw nor heard an Indian. That was the worst part of it. You know how it is. No sign of a human being; just the jungle, silent, green, steaming; all of it mysterious shadows with just a trickle of sunlight here and there; gigantic trees, great fantastic buttresses, twisted, twining vines; a tangle of lianas (vines) overhead, damp soggy earth under foot; perpetual twilight. And then a sharp startled cry and a tiny sliver of palm wood sticking in some one's skin —and five minutes later, a dead man.
Cremation of the Victims—Foiling the Head-Hunters
WHY they didn't kill every one of our party is a mystery. Perhaps they thought they had evened scores, or maybe we got beyond their tribal limits before they had time to kill more of us. But I guess it was because we carried the dead men with us, so they couldn't get the heads. We couldn't bury them— eyes were watching us we knew, and the bodies would be dug up and mutilated the moment we left. So we carried them along until we came to an open space beside a river. The river bank was out of blow gun range from the forest, and we didn't fear arrows very much, so we camped there. We didn't intend to let the Campas get our friend's heads, and we didn't like the idea of sinking them in the river for the crocodiles to eat, so we decided to cremate them. We built a big fire and placed the bodies on it. Then Elwin read a burial service—he was a religious youngster—studied to be a parson, he told me—and always carried a Bible. Perhaps cremation is all right—when done properly in a crematory. But that funeral pyre was a nightmare. God, it makes me sick to think of it now! Every few moments the fire would slump down on one side and the bodies would slide off—blackened, scorched, the flesh dropping from the bones! Horrible! Ghastly! And we'd have to get hold of them—Lord, will I ever get the stench of burning flesh from my nostrils!—and put them back in the flames. But at last it was over. Only the ashes remained. And then we had to sit there through the night. We didn't dare to sleep. We didn't dare to let the fire go down. I can't tell you how terrible it was. Sitting there with the black forest a few rods away, knowing lurking savages were watching, waiting, for a chance to put an end to one's life with a poisoned dart, expecting every instant to feel the twinge of pain that meant swift, terrible death, imagining a creeping naked Indian in every flickering shadow, and with the odor of burned human flesh still in the smoke of the fire.
But morning came at last. And with daylight we found our Chunchos had gone. I couldn't blame them for slipping away during the darkness, though how they ever managed it without some one seeing them is a mystery, I can't explain. But, however, they did it, they were gone. And we were alone—twelve white men in the heart of the Gran Pajonal, with vindictive head-hunters in the jungle about us, with no supplies, no porters to carry what equipment we had, no doctor in case of illness or injury, no guides.
To have pushed on through the jungle would have been suicidal. Our only hope was to take to the river. It was wide enough so we would be safe from blow-gun darts if we hugged the opposite shore. But we would have to build boats, or a raft. It would have been easy to have made woodskins, the name for canoes, if our Chunchos had been there and if the jungle hadn't been filled with the Campas. But we couldn't even approach the edge of the forest to cut trees without exposing ourselves to the darts. We talked it over for hours. Even Matson realized the predicament we were in, though he wouldn't admit it was all his fault. At last we decided to try to swim the river, and if we made it, build some sort of a raft on the farther bank. Of course it was an awful risk. The stream swarmed with caymans (alligators). There were probably cannibal fish, and the current was swift. But it was better than staying there to starve or being shot down by poisoned darts.
Everyone of us knew how to swim; but young Elwin said he had never swum fifty yards before. Still, he was willing to risk it and Condon—a big good natured Irishman—offered to give him a hand if he got tired. Then we had to decide what we could take over. Most of the stuff we could leave until we had made a raft when we could cross over and get it. That is, if the Indians didn't get it first. But we had to take that chance, and the only opportunity they would have would be while we were crossing. Once we were over we could keep the stuff covered by our rifles. But we solved that.
Attack by Indians and Two of the Party Wounded
BARLOW offered to stay behind—alone—and guard the stuff until we could come back for it. He wasn't so keen on swimming, he said, and he'd rather risk the Indians than the crocodiles. Then Elwin said he'd stay, too. We thought that it was lucky he did, for Condon was grabbed by a cayman and carried down. But if he had known what was in store for him I guess the youngster would have chosen the crocodile way.
The rest of us made it. We had carried matches and an axe, and there was plenty of bamboo and balsa.* While we worked we heard Barlow shoot, but we couldn't see any Indians, and both he and Edwin seemed all right. So we went on working. Suddenly we heard a scream and turned to see Barlow fighting with the Indians. We grabbed our revolvers—we'd left the rifles on the other side—but we couldn't shoot. If we had we'd have been as likely to hit Barlow as the Campas. They were fighting hand-to-hand on the bank. The Indians were using their long-bladed stabbing spears and Barlow was using his clubbed rifle. We couldn't understand why he didn't shoot, and we couldn't see a sign of Elwin. It was all over in a minute, but it seemed hours before Barlow broke away, dashed down the bank in a shower of spears and arrows, and dove into the stream. He was a wonderful swimmer and he got across all right. The Indians had crept along the bank and had rushed him and Elwin, he told us. The first warning he had was a cry from Elwin—that was the yell we had heard—and his rifle jammed. They got Elwin, cut him down with a spear; but he wasn't killed. Barlow saw them carry him off, writhing, unable to speak or scream, with blood pouring from the big hole in his throat where the spear had struck.
* The Spanish word basta means a raft. It is used to designate a tree indigenous to South America, sometimes, called corkwood. It is the lightest wood known, weighing 7 or 8 pounds to the cubic foot, about one-eighth of the specific gravity of water. It is used as an insulating material for dry ice containers (solid carbon dioxide) and for other analogous purposes, as for beverages or for ice cream. Its botanical name is Ochroma lagopus.
Barlow himself had a dozen wounds on his body and limbs. But none were serious. Of course the Indians carried off all our stuff. We took a few pot shots at them, but it didn't do any good, and we couldn't afford to waste ammunition—we had only a few rounds left anyway—with days, weeks, perhaps months of jungle ahead of us. There was only one hope. The stream must flow to the Maranon or to some Amazon tributary, and if there weren't big rapids or falls, and if we could manage to get food enough to keep us alive, and if we didn't have trouble with the Indians, we would eventually reach some outpost of civilization. We got the raft launched late that afternoon. But we couldn't start off in the dark so we camped. We hadn't seen any signs of Indians on our side of the river, but the Campas might have cayucos and might steal on us during the night, and we couldn't sleep. That night we heard the war drums across the river. It meant that every tribe for miles would be against us. We couldn't count on any food from Indians after that.
Nothing happened that night, and as soon as it was light we started down stream—ten white men on a crazy raft of balsa and bamboo tied together with vines, with no food, no outfit, with less than a hundred loaded cartridge among us, and hundreds of miles of jungle and forest, unknown currents and rapids ahead. We didn't have one chance in ten thousand of getting through, but it was the only chance. But Matson had got as cock-sure as ever. He was impossible, but the others—all young fellows with no experience—thought him infallible. I didn't count. I was just a scientist. And Matson hated me because he knew I had been right about the Campas and the fearful mess he had made of everything.
IT was on the second day, I think, that we found Elwin—or what was left of him. Even Matson turned pale and grew sick when we found the body. It was floating down stream, nude, horribly mutilated, headless, of course. We had to do something about it so we towed it ashore and buried it I couldn't help telling Matson what I thought.
"The Campas have got another white man's head to take the place of the one you burned," I reminded him. "Damn you, Matson, you're as guilty of Elwin's murder as if you had killed him yourself."
Matson grew purple with rage. For a moment I thought he would kill me. But he was just a big bluffer, and for the first time the others took my side. Besides, he knew it was true. But he never spoke to me after that. We managed to get on somehow for the next two or three weeks. We didn't strike any bad rapids. We didn't meet Indians, and we got food enough to keep us alive. Once we killed a sixteen-foot anaconda and we feasted on him for three days. Now and then we got a cayman and ate its tail. We brought down a few monkeys and herons, and caught some fish. But we needed vegetable food. Bamboo shoots and grass and water-lily roots were all we had. But there weren't any mosquitoes, none of us had fever, and our health was all right. It began to look as if we might get through after all. You must never lose hope.
It was then that we met the Xinguays. I don't know how long we had been on the river. We didn't keep count of days, but I should say it was about three weeks when we came to the Xinguay village. It wasn't on the main stream. We were darned hard up for food, and coming to a big backwater or lagoon, we went into it, hoping to find game. We hadn't seen a sign of Indians for days. We hadn't heard a war drum since we had taken to the raft. And as it looked like a game country and we had to have food, we decided to risk meeting any stray Indians and to go into the bush on a hunt. No one wanted to remain on the raft alone; and no one wanted to go into the jungle alone. We all wanted to keep together, and as we had no equipment to lose we moored the raft and started into the forest. Of course we separated somewhat. But game seemed as scarce as ever. Still, we found some deer tracks and that was promising, and after a time I knocked over a big crested curassow that I saw in a tree. We stopped right there and cooked and ate him. We felt better then, but we were just as madly off for our next meal as before. So we went on.
After an hour or two we came to a hill, or rather a small mountain. It was the first high land we had seen since leaving Merced, and as we might get a good idea of the country from its summit, and as it was as good a place to hunt for game as any, we decided to climb to the top. For the first five or six hundred feet the slopes were jungle covered. Then we came to open forest. At about fifteen hundred feet we came out of the forest to the edge of a lake and there was the Xinguay village. We came upon it so suddenly and unexpectedly that we didn't have time to dodge back before we were seen. I knew the moment I saw the people that they were an unknown tribe. They were a taller, lighter race—no "white Indians" of course, but not brown like the Campas and Jivarros. And their head dresses and ornaments were new to me. Of course they saw us instantly and scuttled into their houses like so many scared rabbits. Matson swore and grinned. "Now we'll get food," he exclaimed. "No danger from that bunch, they're scared stiff at sight of us. Come along. And if any one of 'em shows fight just knock him down. There aren't more than a couple of dozen bucks in the place, so if anything breaks we can clean 'em out easy enough."
"Look here, Matson," I said, "If you treat these people decently I don't believe we'll have any trouble. I doubt if they have ever before seen white men—that's why they ran off at sight of us. But don't fool yourself into thinking they're harmless if aroused. And for Heaven's sake don't start your rough-house tactics here—we've had enough trouble through your methods already."
He ignored me completely- and turned to the others. "Remember what I told you," he said. "Don't stand any nonsense, and this time if trouble starts, clean 'em up—that's where we made a mistake with that other bunch. Come along.
The Village of the Xinguay Indians
THERE wasn't a soul visible when we entered the village, but we knew the Indians were there. And if they had been hostile they could easily have killed us from their hiding places. Of course I didn't know their dialect, but I thought they might understand Putamo, which is a sort of lingua-franca of the bush, you know, so I shouted out that we were friends and wanted to trade for food. Evidently they got the meaning, for pretty soon one or two men appeared, and I had the jolt of my life for they wore heavy beards falling over their chests. Yes, just like those bearded Sirionos you reported from Bolivia. And I noticed they didn't carry blow guns, just heavy bows and wooden-tipped arrows and war clubs. They couldn't speak Putamo, even if they understood it, but they were good at sign language and they led us to a big open space and passed around chicha and food—roasted wild yams, manioc and some smoked meat. One by one others appeared, but most of them kept some distance away. They were friendly enough, and even Matson couldn't find any excuse for brutality, but the only things we had to trade were the clothes on our backs and whatever odds and ends we had in our pockets. I spoke to Matson about this and he laughed. But he wouldn't answer me directly and turned to Jerome. "Tell Mr. Know-it-all, that I'm not going to do any dickering with this bunch," he said. "Well stay here till we get fed up and rested, then we'll help ourselves and beat it. These fellows with the whiskers are about as dangerous as a couple of canary birds. I'll bet if we shot one of the bunch, the others would turn tail and run—like as not they've never even heard a gunshot."
I was about to say something but bit my lip. What was the use? Matson was brutal, conceited, utterly incompetent. It was a great pity he hadn't been killed in place of Barlow or Condon or one of the others. If he had, what followed wouldn't have occurred and the rest of us would have come through. But it wasn't Matson himself I was thinking of. He deserved all that was coming to him. No, the worst of it was that we—the others—would be the ones to suffer for his crazy-headed behavior. Still, the Xinguays seemed so peaceable and timid that I felt that even if we did help ourselves to their supplies they probably wouldn't resist or even protest, and so there wouldn't be any trouble. God, how little I knew them!
Finding the Death Drum
AFTER we'd eaten and rested a while we began wandering about the village—that is, I wandered about among the houses, for I was tremendously interested in the people and their customs—but the others went over to the edge of the lake for a swim. "Say, Doc!" exclaimed Pembroke when they came back, "there's a queer looking dingus over back of the big house that may interest you—looks like pipes out of a church organ."
Wondering what he had found, I went across the little open plaza-like space in the centre of the village and walked back of the big house as Pembroke called the council-house. I didn't have to hunt to find the "dingus." And I was interested. As Pembroke had said it looked a bit like organ pipes—three big wooden cylinders, the largest twenty feet long and a foot in diameter, the ones next to it a little shorter and smaller and the third about six feet in length. The three big tubes were bound together with lianas (vines) and rested horizontally on a wooden framework. Of course you have guessed what the thing was—a gigantic Pan's pipes, and that's what I took it to be, at first. But it was a lot more than that. Inside the ends that pointed towards the plaza, were a lot of criss-Crossed strings, and at the other end of the contrivance—where a Pan's pipes would have mouth pieces—-there was a queer arrangement of wood, like some sort of a drum with three bamboos leading from it into the big pipes. I was examining the thing, when I happened to look up, and found there were Indians all around watching me. And they didn't look pleased or friendly either. Well, I hadn't touched the thing, and thank God I hadn't, so there was no harm done. But evidently the thing was taboo to me—probably some religious or ceremonial object I decided—so I gave the chief some empty pistol cartridges I had in my pockets and walked away, and felt the incident was closed. I guess perhaps it would have been at that, if Matson had behaved himself. But he was one of those fools who always want to show off before other men and impress them. And the Xinguay chicha (fermented drink) was pretty strong and Matson had taken a lot of it. He was hilarious, he was laughing boisterously, and I was worried. "I think we'd better get out of here before we have any trouble." I told Pembroke, "Matson's half drunk and he's as dangerous as a spark in a keg of gunpowder when in that condition. Better suggest it's time we should leave." And as I didn't want to start trouble I kept in the background.
"All right, he says to tell the Indians to bring in all the food they have," Pembroke told me after he had talked with Matson. "When we've taken what we want we'll be off."
“I won't," I told him flatly, "That is, unless Matson agrees to give them something in return. You can tell him that's final."
Matson jumped to his feet when Pembroke delivered my ultimatum. For the first time in days—and for the last time forever—he spoke to me directly.
"Damn you!" he shouted, "Think you'll stop me that way, do you? Well. I do my business my own way. If these beggars don't bring in the grub I'll take it. I take what I want when I want it; see? Come on, boys!"
I don't know whether the others were cowed and afraid of Matson, or whether they thought they must do as he told them. But they followed him blindly, always. I knew if he began raiding the village that there would be trouble, and hurrying to the chief I tried to explain that Matson and the others wanted food for their journey. He turned and gave some order to the other Indians, and they hurried off. Then I yelled to Pembroke to tell Matson that I had told the chief, and to come back and wait for the people to bring provisions.
The Search for Food and the Attack
BUT it was too late. Matson had pushed his way into the first house. I heard shrill cries from inside the hut—women's cries, I thought. Then Matson's guffaw and a curse. Almost at the same instant I heard a strange, low toned, throbbing sound—like the distant booming of a drum. I couldn't seem to place it. It sounded far off, yet it seemed to be near, and I could feel its pulsation rather than hear them. And it appeared to come from all sides. I turned to ask one of the Indians what it was, but there wasn't an Indian in sight. All this happened in an instant, you understand —the woman's cry, Matson's laugh and curse, the strange throb which was growing louder and stronger like the roar of an approaching airplane. The others must have heard it, too, for they had all halted, standing in the open space in the centre of the village, looking about, listening.
The next instant Matson came staggering from the hut carrying a big basket in one hand and dragging a young girl with the other. "Go ahead, help yourselves, boys!" he shouted. "Plenty of grub for the takin', an' girls if you want 'em. Cheer us up on our trip. Come—"
As if conjured by magic a weird, terrifying figure appeared from somewhere—a figure wearing a horrible, grotesque mask and clad from head to foot in a cloaklike garment of leaves, bark and feathers. With upraised stabbing spear he rushed straight at Matson. With a single, swift motion, Matson dropped the basket of food, whipped out his revolver and fired from his hip. The masked figure spun around and crashed to the ground. Matson glared about, smoking pistol still in his hand. "Try to stick me, will you!" he shouted. "Come on, try it, you devils." Turning to the struggling, screaming girl he dealt her a vicious blow with his revolver barrel. She collapsed senseless, and her captor kicked her aside. All this time—it had been but a few brief moments—I was aware of that pulsating, throbbing roar, each second increasing in volume, until the air seemed vibrant with it. There was something indescribably menacing in the sound—like the warning humming of angry bees. Meanwhile, the girl regaining consciousness dashed for safety into the bush; at this action there was a new note.
The Death Drum Is Heard with New Power
OH, my God, how can I describe it! It came like the shriek of a lost soul, like the wail of a tortured spirit. It was as if all the fiends of hell were screaming for vengeance. It was as if the very heavens were being rent asunder, the universe torn to shreds! It terrifies me even now. I'll go mad thinking of it! Never for an instant, day or night, has it ceased beating upon my brain, tearing at my ear-drums! It was not only the awful sound itself—as if a thousand steam whistles were blowing within six inches of my ears, it was an actual physical thing, tearing at me like a hurricane, pounding me like a million hammers. It seemed to be crushing my skull, searing my brain. I felt blinded, deafened, tortured as if on a rack. And dimly, through the agony, the dread terror, the indescribable vibrating sound that seemed disintegrating my very bones, I saw Matson and the others struggling, writhing, falling prone there in the open space beside the body of the masked Indian.
That was my last sensation. When I again returned to consciousness, utter silence reigned; but within my brain was a chaos. All the agonies of the damned seemed centered in my head and body. I was powerless to move, I was paralyzed. I felt as if I were being spun at terrific speed lashed to the rim of a gigantic flywheel. I don't know how long I had been unconscious. I can't even say how long I lay there, conscious, suffering tortures beyond human endurance, motionless, dead save for the spark of reason, the ability to suffer, in my brain. Nothing seemed real except the agony. Everything else seemed a dream, a nightmare. Yet I remembered what had occurred. I remembered Matson dragging the girl from her hut, the masked Indian, the sequel, the terrible, soul-searing, mysterious sound —and—yes, that fearful scene that I had glimpsed the moment before I had lost consciousness—the sight of Matson and the others, writhing in agony, falling in contorted shapes to the earth.
Recovering from the Effects of the Death Drum— An Attack
WITH an almost superhuman effort I forced my eyes to open. With an even greater effort I managed to turn my head so I could see something other than the sky above me. A horrified groan escaped my lips. Standing over me was a bearded savage Xinguay with a short bone-headed spear in his hand. Another instant and—Sheer horror galvanized me into life. With a wild inarticulate cry I sprang up. The effect upon the Indian was amazing. He reeled back as if struck, the spear fell from his hand, and with a hoarse yell of abject terror he fled.
I couldn't understand it. Remember, my mind was in a turmoil and I was sick, nauseated, weak, and every bone on my body aching. It was like break-bone fever only worse. Then it dawned upon me. No wonder the Indian had fled; he had thought me dead and I had come to life. Thought of death whipped my mind to memory of my comrades. Were they all dead? I stared at them where they still lay, silent, motionless, where they had fallen just before I lost consciousness. The Xinguays had withdrawn. They were standing on the farther side of the open space, gazing at me, not knowing what to expect from a dead man who had come to life; all their superstitious fears were aroused. I rather wondered why they should act that way, why they didn't reason that I had merely been unconscious. But later I knew. Good Lord, no wonder they thought me immortal! With difficulty, groggily, every step bringing a groan of agony from my lips. I moved towards the bodies of my comrades. Bodies! Oh, God have mercy! They were mere heaps of-pulp, blobs of jelly under their garments! Ugh!!—" Stirling shuddered as he spoke to me, and his face paled at the recollection—
"It was too ghastly for words. But I must tell you, I'll go stark, staring mad if I don't. There was nothing human about them—they were like stranded medusae cast up on a beach—shapeless, formless. Only their eyes! Their eyes—"
Stirling almost screamed the words. He shook as if with a chill. Sobs racked his emaciated frame. But in a moment he regained control of himself, and continued:
"No, no, I must't give way! he exclaimed. I must go on! Their eyes! It was the most ghastly, most horrifying, most terrible sight!
Only by their clothing could I distinguish one body from another. Matson, Pembroke, Jerome, Barlow and the others—nothing but blobs of pink, pulpy flesh, as boneless as though a steam roller had passed over them. They were— Yes, that was it! They were like dead octopuses with the featureless heads taking the place of the devil-fishes' bodies, with their goggle eyes staring upward at the sky. Suddenly something seemed to snap in my brain and I laughed wildly, maniacally.
A Lone Survivor of Fifteen Men
OF all the fifteen white men who had set out from Merced, I alone survived; a single white man in the heart of the Gran Pajonal, a single civilized human being among unknown savages! For a moment I think I must have gone quite mad. I screamed, yelled, cursed, laughed by turns. Thank God that in His mercy He so willed it, for it was that temporary fit of madness that saved me, that enabled me to survive, that let me escape and that brought me here—here to tell you of the Death Drum, to let the world know the fate of the fourteen men of the Matson party. Of course you know why. You know that a crazy man is safe among any Indians, that they regard him with superstitious awe, as a being in touch with the gods. How long I was out of my mind, I don't know. It couldn't have been but a short time, for when I became rational I was still there in the plaza. But now the Indians—or at least two of them, one of whom was the chief—were near me, kneeling, kowtowing to me. They managed to make me understand that they only awaited my commands. Commands for what? I wondered. Then I understood. My orders as to the disposal of my dead comrades. I didn't know then how the Xinguays disposed of their own dead. But I felt sure it would not be by burial, I tried to tell them what I wanted done. But it was no use. Besides it would have been impossible to have dug graves, or even one big grave, for the nine. And I was too weak, too shaken, too utterly sick at heart to care very much what became of those poor, distorted, shapeless, pulpy things that had once been my fellow men.
So I told the Xinguays to do whatever they did with the bodies of their own people. I was almost afraid to watch. I knew the Xinguays were not head-hunters. And even if they had been, the heads of my comrades would have been worthless to them. But I didn't know what even more horrible funeral rites might be in vogue. Some of the jungle tribes have pretty rotten customs, you know—boiling, macerating, cannibalism. But I needn't have worried The Xinguays used burial caves. It was almost more than I could endure— watching them lift those boneless horrible things, that had been men, upon litters. But it was done at last. I didn't know any burial service and no one but Elwin had had a Bible. But I managed to say a prayer as the funeral cortege started for the caves. I was too weak to go with them, and that was all I could do.
It was better, once they had been taken from sight. The whole thing seemed more like a nightmare, an unreality without them. And, now that my brain was working more calmly, I wondered what had really happened, what had killed my comrades, what had been the cause of their revolting disfigurations. There hadn't been a blow struck, I hadn't seen an arrow discharged or a spear thrown and yet— Suddenly it dawned upon me! It was that noise, that fearful, soul-searing vibratory note! It seemed incredible, utterly preposterous. But I knew it must be so. The agonies I had suffered from it, the brain-racking pounding as if actual blows were being struck upon my skull, the fact that I had fallen unconscious from its effects convinced me. And was it so incredible, so fantastical? I remembered that my professor of physics in college had taught us that steel, stone—any substance—can be destroyed by some certain vibration. That if the proper vibratory wave were struck the strongest edifice would crumble. I remember he pointed out that rhythmic vibrations are so destructive that in the days of horse-drawn vehicles all bridges bore signs requesting that drivers walk their horses over the structures, and that he had told of a man who had broken the trunnions of a huge, sea-coast defense cannon by tapping them regularly, and with measured strokes, with a tack hammer.
If metal, if stone—could be disintegrated by vibrations, why not animal tissues, bones? That was it! Disintegrated! That was the word! That was what had happened! My comrades, standing there in the plaza, had been disintegrated by that hellish vibratory note from the Death Drum. No wonder their bodies had been shapeless, pulpy! Every bone, every vestige of their skulls had been disintegrated, reduced to powder!
But why hadn't I been killed? I had heard the note.
I had felt the excruciating agonies that had torn me, as it rose louder and louder. And I had lost consciousness.
I COULD think of but one answer. I had been apart from the others—twenty yards at least from the spot where they had stood. I must have been outside the sphere of death—just on the verge of the vibrations that killed. Probably, I thought—and later I knew this to be the case—the damnable, hellish contrivance projected its deadly vibratory notes in a beam of waves of sound just as a search light projects its beam of light. And just as an object on the edge of the light-beam may be but faintly illuminated, and an object beyond that may be entirely outside the range of its light, so I had been but slightly touched by that awful beam of vibrations which had been directed upon my comrades.
But that didn't account for some things. A beam of light might be controlled, confined to a certain sharply defined area. But the sound of the Death Drum—any sounds—travelled in all directions. If it had been the sounds that had destroyed my comrades, that had so nearly killed me, why hadn't everyone—even the Indians—within hearing of the hellish thing been affected? And how could human beings— the Indians—operate the awful device, stand beside it and not be disintegrated?
There was another matter, too, that kept hammering at my brain. Why had the eyes of my comrades escaped destruction? Why had they remained intact when flesh and bone had been reduced to jelly?
I couldn't reason it out; but I found out later. And I know you'll want to know, so I may as well tell you now. You remember I spoke of the masked Xinguay? Well, the reason he was masked, the reason he was clad in leaves and feathers, was because wood and leaves are immune to the effects of the vibrations. Just as rubber, bakelite, glass serve as insulators against electric currents, so wood and leaves served as insulators against the death-dealing waves of sound from the Xinguay's Death Drum.
Wood and leaves and yes—one other substance: water! That's why the eyes remained untouched. And the sounds—outside of the concentrated, focussed beam from the projectors, are not dangerous. They are merely sounds. Even the Indians operating the damnable thing were safe enough. But they didn't take chances. They wore long coats of leaves and wooden masks. How could they see? How could they leave openings for their eyes without danger? How could they leave hands and feet unprotected? you ask.
They covered their hands and feet with beaten bark cloth, and tiny holes let them see without danger, for their eyes are in themselves ample protection to their brains— Don't you see? Besides, they never get the full effect of the vibrations—they were careful about that. I don't think even their masks could have saved them if they had entered the beam itself.
Protection from the Death Drum
BUT wood, leaves are wholly unaffected, I've seen the Xinguays turn their terrible, ghastly Death Drum towards the jungle and destroy game, enemies, and yet leave the trees, leaves, ferns, even the delicate flowers untouched. Only animal matter is disintegrated, and not all of that. Skin, integument, hair, are not injured, but the vibrations pass through them and utterly break down other tissues and bone. What is the effective range of the damnable thing? I don't know. Half a mile at least, perhaps more.
At certain times of the year vast numbers of water fowl came to the lake. I've seen the Death Drum bring these down by hundreds, thousands, and the lake was fully half a mile from the village. It was like a cannon in a way. It could be swung to right or left, elevated or depressed, aimed in any direction.
You said three airplanes vanished in the Pajonal. I found them. Twisted masses of metal and wood overgrown with vines and brush. I had learned to talk Xinguay fairly well by that time, and I asked the Indians about the planes. They seemed greatly surprised when I told them they were white men's machines and were flown by human beings. They had thought them giant birds, they told me—dangerous, gigantic birds of prey coming to attack them. So they had turned to their one greatest means of self-protection and defense—the Death Drum—and had "killed" the great birds. They were puzzled to find the birds' "bones" had not been destroyed. But as the planes had taken fire when the pilots had been disintegrated and they had plunged into the forest, there were no traces of human beings for the Xinguays to find.
But I'm getting way ahead of my story. I must go back—back to that awful day when I sat there, alone, a solitary white man in the Xinguay village with all that remained of my nine comrades laid to rest among the bodies of the Indians in the burial caves in the mountain side.
OF course I had gathered the fire arms. There were six rifles and eight revolvers—I never carried a pistol myself—a regular arsenal for one man. But it was awful trying to get the ammunition. I took one cartridge belt—from what had been Matson—but I almost fainted before I got it. But the Indians didn't mind—they were accustomed to such sights—and when I made them understand what I wanted they brought me all the cartridges there were. The one really sensible thing that Matson had done was to see to it that all the rifles and pistols were of the same calibre and used the same ammunition. I almost forgave him all the rest because of that foresight, for I had about four hundred rounds that I could use in any one of the guns. With care that should last me a long time, I decided. And it might be a long time before I had a chance to get out of the Pajonal. Of course I didn't need so many fire-arms.
But some of them might give out or get rusty so I decided to keep them all—at least for a time. And I would see to it that they weren't loaded—the Xinguays might get fooling with them; and I'd keep one revolver ready for use in case of emergency. But the main thing that occupied my mind as I sat there, while the Indians were off conducting the funeral, was how I could manage to escape and find my way back to civilization.
After a time the Xinguays returned and held a council. I couldn't understand what they said, but I guessed they were discussing my case. And I judged by their tones that they didn't agree about me. But I wasn't worried. You know how it is. You've been in a lot of tight places yourself, and you know how, after a man has gone through a lot and has dangers confronting him wherever he turns, he gets so accustomed to them that they don't mean any thing to him. It just doesn't seem to matter, you know. That's the way I felt. I wasn't afraid any more. If worse came to worst I could make an awful mess of things—with my guns and four hundred cartridges—before I used the last one on myself. In fact I found myself unconsciously filling the guns' magazines. But guns wouldn't be much use as long as the Xinguays had that damnable Death Drum. For a moment I even had a wild idea of destroying or smashing the thing— a few well placed rifle bullets would do the trick. But that, I knew, would make my death certain. And if the Indians did decide to get rid of me, it was not likely they would go to the trouble of using the Death Drum to kill me. If they had wanted to do so, they could have killed me at any time, while I'd been dazed, half crazy, almost faint, standing over by the bodies of Matson and the others. No, I didn't think I was in any peril as far as the Indians were concerned. They regarded me almost as a sort of god—a dead man come to life. And they thought me crazy. I'd have to play the fool if I stayed among them long. If I acted like a rational being all the time they might begin to think me a sham.
The Honesty of Primitive Indians
AFTER a time the council broke up and the chief and another man came over to where I was sitting. Oh, I forgot to mention that I had our nine machetes, as well as the guns. They were my real treasure. Any Indian would give anything he owned for one of them. Of course they could have helped themselves and I wouldn't have been in any position to protest. But really primitive Indians are honest, as you know, and I counted on that. Well, the chief began to talk and use signs. For a time I couldn't get the drift of what he meant, but when it finally dawned upon me I began to think I must be really crazy. He was asking my forgiveness for having killed the rest of the party! He and his people hadn't realized, he told me, that the white men were gods—Imagine, Matson a god! If I demanded it, he went on, he would order the girl who had caused the trouble, to be sacrificed to appease the spirits of my comrades. She had not appeased Matson.
But if I would forgive them, they would be my slaves, my wish would be law. And the old fellow even thought I had done his tribe a tremendous honor by permitting the bodies of the slain gods to rest in the caves with the defunct Xinguays. Still, some of the tribe must have had more sense, or else they were less superstitious than the others, for the fellow with the chief—who was the witch-doctor I found out later —wanted to know how it was possible for gods to have been killed. That started an argument between the two factions. The chief insisted that, as I was a god, as all admitted, then my friends must have been gods too. I could see a lot of trouble ahead if any doubts were left unsettled, so I told them that the reason my fellows had been killed was because they hadn't had time to prepare themselves—which wasn't far from the truth at that—and that I was the only one who had been able to do so. And to clinch the matter I gave both the chief and the medicine-man a machete. After that anyone who questioned my divinity would have signed his own death warrant.
There isn't any use boring you with all the details of what happened after that. The Xinguays gave me a good house to myself—offered me the pick of the girls for my wives—which I didn't accept—and supplied me with the best of food. But I wanted to get away, to get back to my fellow men, and I didn't dare suggest that, nor could I sneak off by myself. In the first place I didn't know how they would take the idea of losing their white god, and as there was a guard constantly watching over me I couldn't run off. I wouldn't have tried that anyway. Bad as it was to be a virtual prisoner among the Xinguays it was a lot better than wandering through the jungle alone. The fact that I had weapons and plenty of ammunition didn't alter that. I knew a white man couldn't live off the jungle. I didn't even know which direction to follow, and I didn't have equipment. Any accident, any illness would mean an awful lingering death alone in the bush. Perhaps I might have considered using the streams—drifting down to some place where there were white men—if I had had a canoe, and if there had been a river near. But the Xinguays didn't have canoes and there wasn't any river in the valley. In fact the valley was an extinct volcano crater, I discovered. And there wasn't a member of the tribe who ever had ventured beyond the crater's rim. Everything beyond the summit of the ridge was Tumai—Taboo—too them. Outside, they said, there were devils; terrible devils who sometimes came to the valley and attacked them. Only by the Death Drum could these devils be destroyed. And even with that means of defense the Xinguays lived in constant dread of these devils.
Learning the Xinguay Language
OF course I didn't find out all this right away. Not until I had learned a bit of the Xinguay language. But that wasn't hard. I always had a knack at learning Indian dialects, and my knowledge of Putamo was a big help. I couldn't understand how the chief and some of others happened to understand Putamo, if they had never been beyond their valley. But after I could talk with them I found out. Years before, they had found a strange man—an Indian— wandering near the lake. He was a great medicine man they said, because he knew how to make fire by using a bow-drill and how to weave bark fibre into cloth and many other things. And with the idea that by so doing they might acquire merit and some of his superior knowledge, the chief and a few others had learned his language. That, they explained, was why my party had been received so well and had been welcomed. Because I spoke to them in Putamo they had at once decided we were great medicine-men or superior beings. But all this must bore you. I don't know how long I had been with the Xinguays—it must have been months—when the "devils" appeared. The first warning I had was when a man came running into the village from the jungle shouting that the devils were coming.
Instantly everyone began yelling and running. The women and children scuttled off somewhere, the men, seizing their weapons, raced after them, and then from the Council House appeared a group wearing those fearsome wooden masks and bark robes. I knew what that meant. The Death Drum was about to be used. I didn't lose any time. Grabbing two of my rifles and all the cartridges I could carry I rushed in the direction the women and armed men had taken. Whoever or whatever the "devils" might be, it was evident a battle was near, and I didn't believe in devils who could resist steel-jacketed bullets. And I kept as far from the Death Drum as possible. But I didn't get very far. Something whizzed past my head, and instinctively I dropped to the ground. I've found that's the best way. If you duck behind a tree you can't see your enemy without exposing yourself, and I knew by the sound of the thing what it was—a poisoned dart. But if you fall flat the Indian will think he's got you and nine times out of ten will show himself. But of course you know all that. Anyhow it worked. Not fifty feet away an Indian stepped from a clump of palmettos. He carried a blow gun and I didn't wonder the Xinguays thought his kind were devils. From head to foot he was painted black with white and scarlet stripes and figures. He wore a big bone skewer through his nose. There were feather ornaments in his cheeks, and he wore a headdress with horns that gave him the appearance of Satan himself. All this I saw in the fraction of a second that he stood there before he dropped with a bullet through his brain.
At the report of my rifle the jungle seemed suddenly to be alive with the "devils." Yells, cries, came from every side. From clumps of bush, from behind trees, from thickets, painted, fantastically decorated Indians appeared as if by magic. But, instead of rushing me, they turned and ran. Evidently they hadn't counted on being greeted with fire arms. Probably they had never even heard a gunshot. But they couldn't outrun bullets.
For the first time in my life I wanted to kill. I don't know why, exactly. Probably because they had tried to get me. Maybe because these savages were after the Xinguays and the Xinguays were my friends —my people as I had almost come to think of them. I've had trouble with hostile Indians before then, but I'd never felt any urge to do any unnecessary killing— if they went off and left me I was satisfied. But this was different. I was mad to kill, and I blazed away as fast as I could shoot. I don't know how many I hit. But I saw several go down. Then, suddenly, I heard that sound—the throbbing of the Death Drum, and the blood seemed to freeze in my veins. Suppose the Xinguays should turn the horrible thing in my direction! They were bent on wiping out the "devils." The woods were full of the raiders. The Xinguays didn't know I was there and at any instant— Seized with a panic of fear I leaped up and raced blindly, madly through the jungle, unmindful of danger, heedless of possible savages and poisoned darts, my one idea to escape that awful sound vibrating through the forest in my rear. Not until I fell, utterly exhausted, did I stop. Then, burying my face in the ground, covering my ears, I waited. But nothing happened. At last, with an effort, I sat up, listened.
The Effects of the Death Drum Far Off
ALL was silent The awful sound of the Death Drum had ceased.
Still trembling, I looked about, trying to get my bearings, I was far up the hillside. Below me between the trees I could see the gleam of the lake. It was lucky for me that I had run. As I slowly retraced my steps towards the village, I almost stepped on what remained of one of the "devils." I had thought that nothing on earth, nothing in hell could be more awful, more horrible than—than what I had seen there on the village plaza. But this thing in the jungle was worse. And made even more unspeakably horrible by the painted stripes and figures covering it. Nauseated, filled with dread loathing, as terrified of finding another of the things, as a small boy in a cemetery at midnight, I picked my way onward, staring ahead, shaking with dread at what I might see. But I couldn't avoid them. Good Lord? the jungle was full of them! And here and there, too, I came upon little piles of feather-covered pulp, remains of birds struck down by that devilish sound.
Yet all that I had seen in the forest was nothing to the sight which greeted me when at last I reached the village. The place was a charnel house. No, NO! A thousand times worse than that! Oh, my God, words cannot describe it! I don't know how many of the savages had attacked the villagers. I don't know how many had been destroyed. I turned away sick, faint with the horror of it. Yet some of the raiders must have survived. Some must have managed to escape the vibrations of the Death Drum, for I saw Xinguay women wailing beside the bodies of their men. And all of these slain Xinguays were headless!
Death of the Head-Hunters
THAT explained it. The "devils" were head-hunters. And that was why the Xinguays regarded them as devils, for by taking their victims' heads the raiders robbed them of their souls, according to Xinguay belief. A headless body could not even be placed in the burial caves among the other Xinguay dead. It was merely offal, and as such was consigned to the same fate as the disintegrated remains of the head-hunters. What that fate was I soon learned. At one spot on the mountain side there was a bare rocky cliff, inaccessible from below, and at its base was a yawning black hole—the opening to some bottomless subterranean fissure whence, at times, a column of sulphurous steam floated upward. I had found the place during my wanderings, but I had given little heed to it, aside from making a mental note that it proved the volcano wasn't as dead as it seemed, but was only sleeping. And I never dreamed—never could have imagined—the use to which it was put by the Xinguays. It was their Inferno—their private hell! Carrying the decapitated bodies of their slain comrades, and the shapeless things that had been head-hunters, the Indians climbed to the summit of the cliff and dropped their burdens into the yawning, steaming pit below—consigned them directly to Hades—to the place where "devils" belonged!
It's funny how a man's mind works sometimes. In the midst of all the horrors a quaint thought came to me, and I actually chuckled. What would be the result should the Xinguays get possession of the shrunken heads of their tribesmen? How could they adjust matters, once the headless bodies had been destroyed and then the bodyless heads were recovered?
But I soon found out. A party of the Xinguays came out from the jungle carrying two human heads. The beards proved them Xinguays. Evidently some of the fleeting raiders had been overtaken and killed and their grisly trophies had been retaken. Of course there was a great to-do. A funeral ceremonial dance was held, and the two heads were carried off and placed in the burial cave. You see the heads were all that counted. They were the abiding places of the souls, and the rest of the body didn't amount to anything. That discovery was like a tonic to me. I was so interested, scientifically, that, for a time, I was quite happy. Even that damnable, maddening reverberation in my head seemed to let up. It really was a great discovery, for it was the key to the origin of head hunting.
You see it, don't you? By taking an enemy's head an Indian not only destroyed his foe's chances of a happy hereafter, but—so he believed—had the soul under his control—literally took possession of the other, body and soul, as it were. That's why headhunting is such a wide spread custom among savages all over the world. Yes, I know the question that's in your mind. Why didn't the Xinguays take heads? I asked myself the same question, but it's easy to answer. Their only enemies were the head-hunters whom they believed to be devils. And as devils aren't supposed to have souls nothing could be gained by taking their heads. And even if by some chance they did have souls, they would be dangerous things to have about. Besides, most of the head-hunters were killed by the Death Drum, so there weren't any heads to collect.
I COULD tell you a lot about the Xinguays—interesting ethnological stuff—but that must wait. If I can ever get this damnable hammering of the Death Drum out of my ears, and can shake off the horror of it by telling about it, I'll write a monograph on the Xinguays. And they weren't a bad lot—not when I came to know them and understand them. But they were an amazing paradoxical people—absolutely primitive in some ways and far advanced in others. Still in the stone age, but with that infernal Death Drum which was ahead of anything our scientists have invented in the way of weapons. And they believed in a human soul and in heaven and hell and a hereafter. Yes, and in a supreme being—a Creator, too. Of course I know the Incas had that same belief; but I'll swear the Xinguays had never been in touch with the Incans. Fact is, I don't believe they were Indians—really. I'm positive they were Semitic—descendants of some wanderers from eastern Europe of the Mediterranean who reached South America ages ago and became isolated in the interior. But that's neither here nor there. I mustn't bore you with my suppositions and theories.
I don't know how long I lived with the Xinguays. Time didn't seem to matter much. And always the one thing uppermost in my mind was to get away— get back to civilization. Queer, isn't it? All my life, pretty nearly, I'd been getting away from civilization whenever I could—crazy to be in the bush, among uncivilized tribes of men. And then, when I was there in the heart of the Pajonal and among primitive savages, I was mad to get away. I don't know why, either. I had everything I really wanted—good food, a comfortable house, everyone trying to please me, nothing to worry about—even a dozen wives or more if I had wanted them. Maybe it was that damned Death Drum. I seemed to hear it all the time. I woke up in the night, shaking, clammy with horror from nightmares in which I felt it tearing at my brain, felt it disintegrating my bones. I tried to force myself to throw off my terror of the thing, to forget the unspeakable horrors I had witnessed. I told myself that death was death, no matter how it came to one, that what happened to a human body after life had fled didn't matter. I argued to myself that it wasn't any worse than the electric chair, that a high explosive shell could create horrors beyond anything I had seen, and that I had no need to fear the thing.
Effects of the Death Drum on the Mind
BUT it wasn't any use. I guess the vibrations must have affected my brain when I got a touch of them that first day. But I wasn't crazy. I was sane enough in every other way—too sane, perhaps. If I had been mad it might have been easier. During the day it wasn't so bad. I kept my mind busy, you see. I could forget things while studying the language and the customs and beliefs of the tribe. And I taught them a lot of things—showed them how to make pottery, how to set up a loom and weave really good cloth, how to improve their weapons. I even introduced crossbows. If there had been any metallic ores available I would have fixed up a smelter of some sort. But everything was volcanic of course. I had steel tools—made them out of the machetes and the extra guns and pistols. That was some job, but it helped to kill a lot of time. First I had to make charcoal. Then a forge and bellows. After I had managed to cut a rifle barrel into sections the rest wasn't so hard. It was just a matter of progression. Stone hammer and machete for cutting the heated steel. A light steel hammer, a heavier one, to forge. Cold chisels next. Then other tools. Each one I finished made the next one easier. I even managed a saw—pretty crude but it would cut timber, and files of sorts. Knives and spear and arrow heads were easy. And the lock-springs of the guns were transformed into fish hooks. Of course, all this settled all doubts as to my status as a god. And I had another purpose in view. I thought that if I rose high enough in the estimation of the people, and if I provided them with superior weapons and utensils, I might eventually induce them to do away with their Death Drum. But I came near to getting myself into a nasty mess when I suggested that I hadn't realized or understood it before, but it seemed that the infernal contrivance was sacred. It was more than a fetish. The Xinguays actually believed a special god lived in the thing —a sort of guardian spirit—who came out and destroyed their enemies when they pounded on his home. I had been so filled with horror of the thing that I hadn't even mentioned it before—much less investigated it or questioned the Xinguays about it. But this new phase of the matter aroused my interest. For the first time I began to realize matters I had overlooked. Why was it that they possessed only one of the beastly things? Why weren't there a lot of them? And how had these savages—who were so primitive in all other ways, invented and constructed the device? But they didn't know the answer any more than I did. The Death-Drum had always been there, they said. They didn't even have any tradition as to who made it or when it was made. Perhaps that's why they regarded it as so sacred—as the abode of a war-god; thought it was of divine origin, created for their special benefit, you know.
No Traditions About the Death Drum
BUT I'm getting away from my story. Still, all that is important, it all has a hearing on what happened. As I said, I was obsessed with the desire to get away. But I couldn't see how that was possible. It began to seem as if I were fated to remain there among the Xinguays for life. But I couldn't stand the thought of that. Hope was the only thing that kept me up. And I decided that I would have to take the chance of the jungles, the chance of finding my way out or dying in the uninhabited bush. I even began to plan for that, I could carry sixty or seventy pounds of food with me. With care, and by subsisting on anything edible I might find—grubs, snails, lizards —with the birds and game I might get, I should be able to keep going for a month anyway. Clothing didn't matter so much. And the khaki clothes I had worn were still in pretty fair shape for somehow, with some wild idea that I might need them later, I had put them aside soon after the head-hunters' raid and had worn only a breech clout like the Indians. My boots were the big problem.
The Need of Shoes for Traveling
I COULDN'T accustom myself to going barefooted. If I had had any sense, and hadn't been so nauseated and crazed with horror, I would have saved the boots that the other men had been wearing. They hadn't been injured by the vibrations of the Death Drum. But it was too late now. God knows it would have been bad enough to have—well—to have handled and cleaned them at the time. But now—after months —even the thought made me feel faint. But I hadn't been such a fool as to wear out my boots. You see I had always had that thought uppermost in my mind —that some day, somehow, I would get away, and then I'd need my boots and my clothing. So I had made sandals out of bark and a sort of moccasins from the hide of a deer. But my boots had been pretty well worn when I reached the village and I knew they wouldn't last me through a trip out of the Pajonah. And once in the jungle I wouldn't have time to stop to make footgear. I would have to keep going if I expected to make it. So I busied myself making sandals and moccasins, until I had half a dozen pairs. With a rifle and ammunition—I wouldn't need a revolver—and a machete and a knife, I would find a sixty pound load about all I could carry. But the load would grow lighter each day, so I wouldn't have so much to tote when my strength failed or I became tired. The mere physical hardships and perils I would be forced to face didn't worry me much. I had always carried a flint and steel made of those Spanish mechas, the inflammable wick with a flint and steel, you know, so I could make fire.
I wasn't afraid of wild beasts or snakes, and as I was in splendid physical shape I wasn't troubled about being taken down with fever or sickness. Of course an accident might happen—I might break a leg or an arm or something—but that was a small chance. The thing that really troubled me was the direction I should take. Of course I knew in a general way where I was. I knew I was in the Gran Pajonal, but that's like a man knowing he's somewhere in the State of Texas or in the middle of the Sahara. I didn't know whether I was nearest the Brazilian, the Ecuadorean, the Colombian or the Peruvian settlements. To be sure, the stream down which we had drifted hadn't been far from the crater—we had walked it in a few hours. But I couldn't recall the direction we had followed. And unless I could rig up some sort of a raft or boat, a river or stream wouldn't help me. In fact it would hinder me, for as you know the jungle is always thickest near a stream. And I couldn't afford to waste time following a roundabout route along a river. I spent hours, days racking my brain, trying to visualize the country as it appears on the maps, trying to calculate the route we had taken, the relative distances to various points. But the more I thought of it the more confused I became, the more hopeless my chances appeared. Then Fate stepped in and forced my hand.
THE first earthquake came about midnight. It was pretty sharp, but I didn't pay much attention to it. I had gone through a lot of worse 'quakes, and there weren't any buildings to tumble on top of one out there in the jungle. The Xinguays didn't seem to be scared either. At least I didn't hear them shouting or moving about. It was a long time until the second shock came—an hour at least, I should say; but I'm not sure, because I had fallen asleep after the first. The second was terrific, and everyone began yelling and running about. But nothing happened, and pretty soon the village quieted down again. I lay awake, waiting for another shock—there usually are three, you know—and wondering whether it would be worse than the others. But when it came it didn't amount to much—only a tremor. So I decided it was all over and went to sleep.
I was awakened by shouts and a dull, throbbing roar. For a moment I thought it the Death-Drum. But somehow it was different—a duller, deeper, steadier sound. The Indians were rushing about like mad, and I jumped up and ran out, too.
The Eruption of the Volcano
MY first impression was that there was a thick fog—one of those heavy white mists that occur in the early morning in the jungle. Then my eyes began to smart, and I noticed a queer odor—sort of hot and earthy.
The old chief came running to me, jabbering excitedly and gesticulating. He was so excited I couldn't understand what he was trying to say. But he pointed up at the mountain side and then down toward the lake. The vapor was lifting—being blown aside by the breeze—and then I saw. Up on the side of the crater, where the bare cliff showed above the trees, a column of steam was roaring up from the pit where the Xinguays had disposeel of the dead head-hunters. It must have been spouting for two hundred feet in the air, and every few moments it would die down a little and then burst up twice as far, carrying masses of stone and rocks with it. I knew what it meant. The old volcano was waking up —those 'quakes had disturbed its sleep—and at any time the whole valley might be blown sky-high carrying us with it. And when I turned to look at the lake I knew we didn't have any time to spare if we were to get away before the eruption took place. That lake was a seething cauldron, a hissing, steaming, roaring crater. And it wasn't water that was boiling up in great bubbles that exploded with the detonations of heavy artillery. Not water but lava—incandescent, molten lava!
I turned to warn the chief to flee, but he had gone. I shouted to the Indians to run for their lives, but they paid no attention, even if they heard me, which I doubt. They were all hurrying toward the Council House, carrying their weapons, the men struggling to put on their masks and leaf cloaks. Poor superstitious fools! Suddenly faced with danger they were turning to the one means of defense. They were trusting to the guardian god to save them; trusting to their Death Drum to destroy this new enemy, this devil who menaced them!
MADLY I dashed to my hut- I seized my rifle, grabbed up my clothes and machete, and raced for the jungle-covered slopes beyond the village. There had been no time to hunt for food; to have attempted to carry any load would have been suicidal. But I never gave that matter a thought. Deadly peril, danger of imminent death, spurred me on. Behind me I could hear the ever increasing thunder of the exploding lava, the roar of the escaping steam, and, through the bedlam of sound, the throbbing, pulsating whining note of the Death-Drum, that even in the face of greater dangers sent chills of horror along my spine.
By merest chance I had chosen the easiest way up the side of the crater, for I had raced blindly in the direction farthest from the ever increasing volcanic activity. But it was hard enough going even at the best, and driven by terror as I was I seemed to barely crawl up the jungle-covered slope. It was like a nightmare—one of those fearful dreams when one strives to rush from some awful peril and finds oneself barely able to move, held back by some invisible force, compelled to drag oneself an inch at a time toward safety.
Hemmed in by dense forest I could see nothing of what was taking place. But I could hear. The air fairly trembled to the thunder of the volcano's pent-up forces suddenly released. And as the sharp crackle or rifle fire cuts through the roar of cannonading, as the shrill notes of a piccolo are heard through the deep tones of the basso, so through that thunder of sound that shook the earth and caused the very trees to tremble, I could hear the deadly note of the Death-Drum, as the poor, ignorant, helpless savages sought to destroy the devil that threatened them, sublime in their faith that their god would not fail them in their time of greatest need.
Panting, stumbling, I hurried on. Each moment I expected the end of everything. Every instant I expected the bowels of the earth to be torn asunder in one terrific, overwhelming eruption.
But minute after minute passed and still there was no outburst, still I struggled on. At last I gained the summit of the ridge. I was about to rush down the farther side when suddenly I realized the futility of my efforts to save myself from the impending doom. It was as hopeless for me to try to escape from the volcano as for the Xinguays to attempt to still it with their Death-Drum. When the eruption came, everything within miles would be destroyed. I could no more outrun the blasts of gas, the hail of stones and ashes, the molten lava, than the head-hunters I had killed could outrun my bullets.
I would be no safer dashing onward through the jungle than standing on the crater's rim. From far below me came the rumbling roar, the heavy detonations, but they seemed to be decreasing, growing fainter and fainter; and suddenly I was aware that the heat of the Death-Drum was no longer pulsating through the other sounds. I threaded my way between the trees until I could gaze down into the crater. I could scarcely believe my eyes. Not a trace of the place, not a vestige of the village remained.
Covering the whole floor of the crater, extending for a hundred feet or more up the sides of the great bowl, was a vast sheet of milky, steaming, boiling water!
The Disaster—The Effects of the Eruption
THE appalling disaster almost overwhelmed me. I can't explain how I felt, or the sensations that swept over me. And they weren't due to the fact that the Xinguays had been completely wiped out, nor because of the awful death they had met. No, I think it was the sudden realization that I was alone, alone on the crater's rim, a puny, tiny, infinitessimal thing, surrounded by chaos and destruction. All my former terrors of an eruption were forgotten. It didn't seem to matter whether I lived or died. What was one man, one human being to the forces of Nature? Of what importance was I, a mere atom in the scheme of things of the universe? Nothing! No more than an ant, a grain of sand.
Yet, so strong is man's instinct of self-preservation that, unconsciously almost, in the midst of these reflections I found myself hurrying onward, thinking how I might manage to survive. My plight was desperate. For months I had hesitated to attempt to make my way to civilization, fearing to take the chance even when provided with food enough to last me for weeks, with ammunition enough and to spare. Yet here I was without food, with only a few rounds of ammunition, without shoes, alone in the Gran Pajonal, the largest area of unexplored jungle in the world. What I had feared to do Fate had forced upon me. As full realization of my position came to me I was half-minded to give up, to put an end to myself. Then I cursed myself for a coward and a fool. I would go on. I would fight to the end. If I found myself unable to go farther—starving, facing a certain lingering death—there would still be time enough to put a merciful bullet through my own brain. In the face of what was ahead I forgot what lay behind. I no longer even thought of the eruption. I didn't believe there would be one anyway. Abruptly I remembered that I was almost naked and was still carrying the garments that, instinctively, I had snatched up. I stopped, put on my ragged, patched clothes and again resumed my way through the forest.
That afternoon I shot an agouti. It was the only living creature, other than small birds, that I had seen. Partly sheltered by the outflung root buttresses of a huge mora tree I built a fire, cooked my meat and passed the night. I felt more cheerful, more confident when another day dawned, I might yet pull through, I decided. I might find enough game to keep me going. The agouti would provide food for the day, and if I were lucky enough to kill a deer or some large animal, I could smoke the meat—smoke it over a fire—and live on it for many days.
The Journey to Civilization Begun
I COUNTED my cartridges. I had twenty-two. Even if I shot some creature every other day I had enough ammunition to last me for over a month —that is, if I didn't miss. I would have to be careful, be sure every shot counted. And I would have to keep a sharp lookout for anything edible—nuts, fruits, snakes, lizards, frogs—which would help conserve my ammunition. I decided that unless something went amiss I should be able to survive for nearly two months, and I ought to strike some outpost or some village of semi-civilized Indians in six weeks, if at all.
No use trying to give you a detailed account of my wanderings. It wouldn't interest you, and it isn't important—just the usual thing, the thing you and scores of others have been through. Just the endless jungle, damp, soggy underfoot; endless, giant tree trunks, a dense impenetrable roof of green, a tangle of lianas drooping from the lofty branches; shafts of sunlight here and there; occasional small streams, impassable patches of thorn and saw-grass; the notes of invisible birds hundreds of feet above; hour after hour with no sign of life, and a weary, despairing man plodding on and on and on. There's nothing like the jungle to take the self-conceit out of a man, to destroy his inherent superiority complex. I don't think I ever had fully realized it before. I had always been with other men—white men or Indians—and unconsciously one compared oneself with others—and can always find ways in which one is their superior. But alone in the jungle! That's when a man realizes what he really is. Only an atom. I know just how an ant must feel in an acre of corn. And the silence! I had never noticed that before. Not a silence devoid of sound, but a silence made the more obtrusive, the more terrible because of the sounds—the dropping of a nut that makes one jump, the falling of a twig that fairly crashes, the twitter of a bird that seems to pierce one's ear-drums. Lord, how it got on my nerves! Sometimes I had to shout, scream and yell just to break that awful vast silence. And for hour after hour I sung, whistled, talked to myself—anything to hear a steady sound of some sort. Of course that frightened what game there was, so for other hours I had to force myself to be as silent as the jungle creatures. Yet through it all, within my brain I could still hear that accursed Death-Drum beating, beating, beating, beating!"
Stirling, trembling, wild eyed, he reached for the decanter on the table before us, poured himself a stiff drink and gulped it down. With shaking fingers he filled and lit the pipe I had given him. Presently he continued.
Ten Days in the Pajonal—A River Is Reached
"I MUST have been in the Pajonal for ten days when I came to the river," he said. "It flowed toward the west, so I felt I must be on the Pacific water-shed. That would mean I would come out in Peru or Ecuador if I followed down the stream. But of course I couldn't be certain of that. The river might turn and twist in every direction. It might really flow to the east, to the north or to the south. But whatever its course I made up my mind to trust to it. I couldn't stand much more of that jungle tramping. It wasn't a large stream—not much more than a good sized brook, and the current wasn't swift. There might be rapids ahead, but it wasn't mountainous country. I thanked God I had a machete, for without it I never could have made the raft. It wasn't much of a raft at that—just a few sections of the cecropia tree trunks—you know, the ones the Indians use for floating timbers; like gigantic bamboos. Two or three of the pieces lashed together with vines was all I needed. That and a long pole and a sort of crude paddle I backed out of a piece of a palm tree.
It floated me all right, and you can't imagine what a joy it was—just to stand there and guide the thing, and float along between the banks with no real effort.
I felt as if I had licked the jungle. I laughed at it, shook my fist at the dark forest as I swept onward, cursed it. And there was more game along the stream. The first day I saw a tapir, two deer and an ocelot. I shot one deer, but I let the others alone. I couldn't have carried the tapir even if I had killed him. I didn't want the ocelot, and there wasn't any sense in wasting a shell on a deer I didn't really need.
After the first two or three days I felt sure the stream flowed southwest. It turned and twisted of course; but I kept watch of the sun and found the general direction. I calculated it must flow into the Maranon, but it didn't really matter where it flowed. The main thing was that there would be settlements or Indian villages somewhere along the stream. I never gave a thought to the possibility of running into hostile savages. I was so lonely, so crazy to see another human being, that I would have yelled with delight at sight of a cannibal Amuensha.
You, no one, can imagine what I suffered from loneliness on that trip. It hadn't been so bad even in the jungle. There I had been compelled to keep my mind busy—picking my way, avoiding obstacles, searching for game, but when floating down the river where there was nothing to occupy my mind, the stark horrors of the past weeks kept obtruding themselves. The more I tried to forget them the more vivid they became. I would have given anything— would have sold my soul were such a thing possible —just to have heard the sound of a human voice, just to have had some human being to talk to.
The Meeting with Head-Hunters
I GUESS it was about a week after I had taken to my raft that I met the first Indians. I awoke one morning to find them standing over me. For a moment I thought I was still asleep and dreaming. But they were real enough. They were brown-skinned, had long black hair, wore bands of red and yellow feathers about their heads, had skewers of bone tipped with feathers through their ears and had heavy strings of metallic-green beetles' wings about their necks. Both wore breech clouts of a peculiar reddish-brown cloth with a geometrical design in white. Both carried long paddle-shaped wooden clubs, and both held long-hafted lances. All this I took in at ray first glance, but my gaze was focussed upon the spears. They had steel blades! That was the one detail I really saw, for it meant the Indians were in touch with civilization!
I gave a shout and leaped up so suddenly that the Indians sprang back with startled cries and upraised weapons. But they didn't strike, although I couldn't have blamed them if they had, for I must have looked like a wild man or a real devil. But I guess they thought me crazy, for I was so overjoyed, so delirious with delight at seeing men—even savages—and knowing I was done with that lonely awful jungle, that I danced and laughed and shouted like a madman. I spoke to them in Xinguay, but they didn't understand. I tried them with Putamo but with no better result. I spoke in Quichua and a puzzled frown came over their foreheads as if they were trying to make a mental translation of the words. Then I tried Jivarro. Instantly their faces lit up. They understood that tongue and one of them replied in a Jivarro dialect. I could talk to them.
Of course I knew they were head-hunters. But that didn't worry me in the least. Head hunting isn't just a hit-or-miss game like shooting rabbits. There are certain formalities to be observed in collecting heads. And a head isn't of any value as a trophy unless taken from an enemy slain in battle. Besides, if they had wanted my head they could easily have killed me while I slept. But I don't think it even occurred to me that they were head-hunters—not just then. I was too overjoyed at having the company of human beings to think of anything else or to care. I was so happy that I actually cried. The relief, the reaction was too great for me to control my feelings. Oblivious of their weapons I flung myself upon the Indians, patting their backs, shaking their hands, talking to them as if they had been long-lost brothers.
For a few moments the Jivarros seemed scared— they didn't know whether to turn and run or not. But pretty soon they began to grin and to answer my questions. Then, driving their spears in to the earth, points down as a sign of peace, they squatted down and accepted the smoked venison I offered them. By that time I had calmed down enough to talk sensibly and coherently. But I was awfully disappointed when they told me they had never been to the settlements and didn't know anything about them. But white men had been to their village—which was only a few hours' walk from where they had found me— so I knew I could make it. I think that was the happiest day of my life.
The village didn't amount to much—perhaps a dozen houses and about fifty people— and most of the men were away when we arrived. They had gone off on a head-hunting raid, my two friends told me. The Jivarros—or rather the Muyas, for they were not true Jivarros but a sub-tribe—treated me well enough. But I was mad with impatience to be off. The trouble was that none of the men remaining in the village knew the route to the settlements, except their general direction. And I couldn't bear the thought of going alone. I had had all of the solitary jungle travel I could stand. But none of the Indians could go with me without permission of the chief, so I was forced to wait until he came back with his raiders.
How Heads Are Shrunken as Trophies
WHEN the party finally returned they came in triumph with nearly a dozen heads, and for the next few days they were far too busy to bother with me. Did you ever see a shrunken head prepared? No, I thought not. Well, I have. I thought it would be pretty horrible—although nothing compared to what I'd been through. But it wasn't. Not half as bad as the dissections in a medical school. The Indians don't just chop off the heads. First they make a V-shaped incision in their victim's body, with the point of the V just above the navel, and extending up and over the shoulders and around the neck. Then they peel off the triangular flap of skin until the neck is exposed and sever it neatly between the cervical vertebrae. Then they turn the skin inside out, like stripping off a glove, as far as it will go. Did you ever try your hand at taxidermy— at skinning birds for specimens? I thought so. Then you know how it is when you skin a duck or a woodpecker—how you have to make a cut through the skin at the back of the head in order to get the skin over the skull. It's the same with a human head. When the skin is off the Indians soak it in a sort of tanning solution made of bark and leaves. That stops the hair from falling out and cures the skin. While it's soaking in this, the head-shrinker collects a lot of round stones of various sizes, and some coarse sand, and places them in a fire. After two or three hours he takes the head from the liquid, lets it drain, through the slit in the back of the scalp and turns the skin right side out.
Then he sews the lips together or skewers them in place with little slivers of palm wood, and taking the largest of the hot stones he drops it into the skin through the neck-opening. Then he keeps moving the head about, turning it this way and that, rolling it back and forth, so that the hot stone comes into contact with all parts of the skin. It steams and smokes and stinks of burned leather, and the head begins to shrink and toughen as it dries. When the first stone cools off the Indian dumps it out and puts in a smaller stone. He keeps this up, using smaller and smaller stones as the head shrinks, and all the time moulding the nose, lips and features to keep their shape.
I had always supposed it was a long process—that it took weeks, months to shrink a head. But it doesn't. The whole process requires only about thirty-six hours, and the head shrinks to its permanent size in a few hours. When it is reduced to the limit of the stones, the hot sand is used, the flap of skin is tied over the neck opening, and the head is hung up in the smoke of a fire to blacken and cure.
There's a lot of ceremony about all this. It has to be done in a special sort of hut at a distance from the village—so the spirits of the heads won't hide in the houses—and the head-shrinkers have to live alone in the medicine-hut and watch the heads until they are finished. There isn't anything very strange or remarkable or mysterious about shrinking heads—I could do it myself and make a better job of it than the Jivarros. Of course you know that they shrink animals' heads also—mostly sloths and monkeys. They believe they are descended from sloths, so when they kill one they shrink its head as a sort of honor—like keeping the head of one's ancestor on the parlor mantel. Sometimes they even shrink the entire bodies of their enemies. I never could find out just why they do that. It's a big job—and messy—and takes a lot of time and trouble. I think they do it just as a stunt—to show their skill and prove what they can do in the shrinking line.
Appearance of the Shrunken Heads
THEY'RE repulsive-looking things—like the dead bodies of grotesque hairy dwarfs, for of course the hair doesn't shrink and the skin looks actually wooly.
But I saw one trophy that was really beautiful. Don't laugh. It was the head and upper portion of the torso of a young woman. The features had been perfectly preserved. And it hadn't been smoked black like the heads—just a deep rich brown. Looked as if sculptured from some rich dark wood. It was a unique thing—Lord what a specimen for a museum—and I asked about it. The Indians regarded it as a great fetish, for the woman had been a real Amazon, a female warrior, who had led her tribe to battle and had a bigger collection of heads than any chief in the Pajonal.
But I'm getting off the track again. All this is an old story to you. Well, after the head-shrinking ceremonies were over, and the village settled down to a normal existence again, I talked to the chief. He was a crafty rascal and I could see that he wanted my rifle. But he was honest. He could have killed me or had me killed any time, and could have taken my gun and my head at the same time. But he didn't. He wanted to trade for it. And the only thing that I wanted was to get to the settlements, so I promised to give him the rifle if he would send some of his men to guide me out. He was willing to agree to that, but he had had dealings with white men and didn't trust them. He was frank about it, too. Told me he couldn't feel sure I'd stick to my bargain. That after I reached the white men's villages I might not send back the gun, and insisted on having it handed over before I left. Anyway, I decided, I wouldn't need the rifle if I had the Indians with me. There wouldn't be any necessity of my shooting game, and if we should run into hostile Indians shooting would only make matters worse. Besides, I didn't have many cartridges left. I had to smile when I though of that. After he had used up the ammunition the gun wouldn't be much use to the chief. But he didn't want it to use as a weapon—just as a sort of sceptre or talisman. Well, the upshot of it all was that I agreed. And I thought it the best bargain any man ever made.
I started off with two Indians—the same two who had found me asleep. I thought all my troubles were over, that in ten days or so I would be back among white men. Everything went well for the first two or three days. The Indians carried food—dried meat and fish, manioc meal, corn, and they had an uncanny knack of finding game. On the fourth day we came to a river. That would carry us to within two days' march of the white men, the Jivarros told me. It was marvelous, the way they made a canoe. Stripped a cylinder of bark from a tree, laced the ends together with vines, forced the sides apart with sticks and our boat was ready.
A Disaster Came—An Attack by Indians
IT was on the third day that disaster came. As we swept around a bend, yells, and savage cries came from the jungle. The Jivarros tried to back water, but it was too late. Before they could grasp their weapons there was a shower of long arrows and spears from the savages on the bank and one of my Indians toppled over with a six-foot arrow through his body. He almost upset the canoe as he fell. But that was what saved me, for I lost my balance and rolled into the bottom of the craft. And I had sense enough to stay there. The other Indian had been hit, but he shouted back defiance and hurled his throwing-spear. An arrow nicked my shoulder, but I knew it wasn't poisoned. The next moment we were out of range. The Jivarro with me was in bad shape. A spear had got him through one side, laying the flesh open to his ribs, and a devilish jagged-headed arrow had buried itself in his thigh. He was getting weaker every minute, and, as soon as I dared, I swung the canoe into the bank on the side opposite to where the Indians had been and tried to do something for the fellow. I managed to bind up the wound in his side after a fashion, but it was tough getting that broken arrow-head out of his leg. It meant cutting and cutting deep. But he never winced or groaned while I did it. Then he tried to describe some sort of a vine I was to find and bind onto the wounds. I started out to hunt for it and after a time I found what corresponded to his description. But it had taken me an hour of more and when I got back there wasn't any need for it, for the man was dead.
The Canoe Drifted Away
AND as if this wasn't enough, I found the canoe had gone. In my anxiety to save the Indian I had neglected to pull the craft far enough up the shore, and now it was somewhere down the river with all the provisions in it.
For a time I raved and cursed. I was worse off than ever. I didn't even have a gun. All I had was my machete and my knife, for the Indians' bows and arrows had been in the cayuca.
After a time I calmed down some. I forced myself to think clearly, to look ahead, to face my chances of life and death. The Jivarros had told me that five days on the river would bring us to two days' walk from the settlements. We had already been three days on the river. That meant two days more by boat, and two days afoot, from where I was stranded with the dead Jivarro for company. I tried to figure out what speed we had been making and decided that six miles an hour would be a fair average, and if a man made two miles an hour walking through the jungle he was doing well. That meant that the nearest outpost of civilization couldn't be much over one hundred miles distant. One hundred miles! Not much of a distance as measured by railways, motor cars, power boats or airplanes, but a terrific distance, an interminable distance to a man alone in an unknown jungle, without food, without firearms and with a wounded shoulder—my entire arm was now aching, swollen and almost useless, but luckily it was my left shoulder that had been hit. I remembered the medicinal leaves I had gathered, and managed to get some of them on the wound and secured in place by rags from my clothing. But it wasn't the wounded arm that troubled me, nor was it so much the question of being able to live somehow. It was the fact that I didn't know the direction in which the settlements lay. Of course I knew the route led down the river valley, but I didn't know where the Indians had planned to leave the stream or what direction they had planned to follow afterward. It was all pure guesswork, and guesswork in the jungle is the next thing to committing suicide.
Last Days of the Escape from the Jungle
BUT it was no use sitting there beside the dead Jivarro. Anything was better than that. First I would see if I couldn't find something with which to make a raft. But there were no bamboos, no balsa trees, not even reeds there. I couldn't make a cayuco the way the Indians had, for with my bad shoulder I couldn't climb a tree. And I doubt if I could have managed it alone under the best of conditions. But I did accomplish one thing. I found some crawfish under the stones in the stream, I found snails, I caught a lizard. All edible, and building a fire I cooked all the things, tied them in a wild plantain leaf, and started on my almost hopeless journey. Day after day I tramped, following the general direction of the stream, for I figured that by walking for six days I would cover very nearly the distance we could have travelled by canoe in two days, and I hoped that when I reached the spot I might find some sort of a trail to the settlements.
There is no sense in boring you with the details of that awful journey. It was terrible, a nightmare. Talk about your "Green Hell!" No man can realize what I went through. When I had had my rifle I had never thought of wild beasts. But now they were added to the other terrors. The jungle seemed to be alive with jaguars, ocelots, pumas. Their tracks were everywhere, and I could hear them howling, snarling about in the black jungle every night. Snakes didn't trouble me. I wanted to find snakes. I welcomed them, for they were food. But snakes were scarce, as usual. Once I stumbled on a guan's nest with half a dozen eggs. They were nearly ready to hatch, but I wolfed them down chicks and all. I dug grubs from rotten logs, burrowed into ants' nests for the eggs and fat queen-ants. I gathered caterpillars and even slugs. I dug in the earth for worms and searched beneath stones for newts, lizards and toads. Anything that was flesh or alive I ate. I had forgotten there was such a thing as squeamishness. At times I would hear bits of nuts or fruit dropping from the tree tops where parrots and macaws were feasting, and I would crawl about on hands and knees, carefully gathering the fragments and devouring them ravenously. I gnawed at the roots of plants, chewed palmetto shoots, and ate the seeds of plants which I knew were not poisonous. Sometimes I had a feast when I came to a clump of low palms with their bunches of oily, hard berries. But too many of these brought on intense nausea. I found the unrolled fronds of tree-ferns could be eaten, and even hard-shelled giant beetles, when roasted and stripped of their armor, helped to sustain my life.
I think that for several days I must have been quite out of my head, for I can't remember any of the details of my wanderings. Sometimes I thought myself hack among the Xinguays and I would run screaming through the jungle trying to get away from the vibrations of the Death-Drum pounding in my brain. At other times I thought I was struggling with Matson and would come to my senses to find myself wrestling with trailing vines that barred my way. I was surrounded with horrors. Terrifying savages sneaked from tree to tree, forever dogging my footsteps. Gigantic jaguars crouched on branches overhead. Enormous serpents lay coiled in my path. Shrieks and banshee-like wails came from invisible monstrous beings. All visions, all the creations of an overwrought brain and a weary, starving body, no doubt, but as terrible, as real to me, as though they were actually there.
The Village of the Friendly Quichas
AND then suddenly, without knowing how or when I got there, without memory of having left the jungle, I found myself in a little Quichua village surrounded by towering bare mountains. I was on a rude couch in a tiny stone hut, and a stolid-faced, scarlet cheeked, unspeakably filthy Indian woman was feeding me some sort of hot broth. But my brain was clear. I knew I was not dreaming, that I was not crazy. And I knew I was out of the jungle, that I had reached the fringes of civilization.
The Quichuas were kind to me. They told me they had found me wandering on a mountainside, where the montana—the jungle of the lowlands—ends and the Andes begin. I had been in their village three weeks, dead to the world, delirious with fever. They had cared for me as tenderly, as assiduously as though I had been a descendent of the Incas, instead of a half-crazed, wasted wreck of a white man. Abjectly poor, living in that bleak desolate land, subsisting on frozen potatoes and barley, yet the Quichuas had even slaughtered a llama kid to provide me with broth. Christians? Not as we know the word! Sun worshippers, pagans in the eyes of our race; but the best of Christians in heart and deed and in the eyes of God.
When I was strong enough they took me to the nearest station on the railway. For the first time in two years I saw my fellow white men, heard my mother tongue. And they jeered at me, treated me as if I were a pariah! They wouldn't listen to me, wouldn't believe me, wouldn't even give me a passage on a train—not even if I rode on a freight car.
If it hadn't been for the Indians I wouldn't be here now—telling you all this. But the Quichuas went into the market, they went among their tribesmen telling my story and gathering a centavo here, another there, until they had enough to see me on my way. That speaks a lot for our superiority, our civilization, our Christianity, doesn't it?
And on the train, when, after all those months of exile in the jungle, all the horrors and sufferings I had undergone, I tried to speak to white people, crazy to talk to some one in my own language, mad for a little human kindness, some show of friendliness, someone to whom I might unburden my mind. I was rebuffed, ignored, avoided as though I had been a leper. Lord, how it hurt! It was as bad as the silent jungle, worse than being among savages — the loneliness of being among my own kind with no one to talk with, no one who would listen, no one to give me a kind glance, a bit of sympathy! And when I got here and went to the consul and he laughed at me—"
Stirling's head sank to his arms and his emaciated frame shook with convulsive sobs.
I rose and patted his shoulder gently. "All that is over now, old man," I said. "Those morons on the train, those roughnecks at Coya, that ass of a Consul aren't worth considering. I believe you. I believe every word you have told me. And I'll cable to your friends and will see that you have anything and everything you want while you are here. Also, I shall tell that counfounded Consul what I think of him. But now, off to the hospital for a good long rest under the doctor's care."
Poor Stirling! In the quiet shelter of the hospital he found the rest so sorely needed by his racked body and tortured nerves. The only rest that could silence that throbbing of the Xinguay Death Drum in his brain—eternal rest.