by Hyatt Verrill
From The Wide World magazine, May 1923; digitized by Doug Frizzle January 2009.
Illustrated by John De Walton, Photos by the Author
Meeting a native who claimed to know the location of a mountain of fabulously rich copper ore, the Author and a companion made an eventful journey through the little-known
AS a rule people think of
With a friend I had become somewhat interested in the mining possibilities of the country, and when one day a native bought in some samples of ore and told a wonderful tale of a "mountain of copper" on the Veraguas coast we decided it was worth investigating. Of course, neither of us took his story literally—we knew the natives' habit of exaggerating everything—but as Bert had to go up the coast to attend to the shipment of some mahogany logs we decided that, after finishing with them, it would be comparatively easy to continue by sailing vessel to the alleged copper mountain. The steamer which had been chartered to bring down the logs, and on which we were to travel to
Late on the following afternoon we reached
Martinelli, the Italian owner of the sawmill, who was literally "monarch of all he surveyed" hereabouts, had several sailing-craft, and not only rented us a small schooner, but volunteered to go along and show us some other outcrops of ores en route.
The schooner, it may be mentioned, was built entirely of mahogany cut in the neighbouring forest. This district is very rich in timber, especially mahogany, and the logs which Bert shipped were from forty to sixty inches in diameter, and in colour and figure far superior to Mexican or
Our crew consisted of six natives who judging by appearances, were all cut-throats or pirates; but certainly were not sailors as was proved by subsequent events. In addition, there was my black boy, Claude; a villainous-looking, half-breed ruffian, who served as cook or steward; a morose, brooding, one-eyed individual who posed as skipper; the native whose story was responsible for our expedition; and old Martinelli —fat, fiercely-moustached, a gentle voiced—in all thirteen men, which perhaps accounted for the events that transpired.
There was a good, off-shore breeze, and we soon left
With the land-breeze which springs up at daybreak we slipped away from our anchorage, hoping to make Bahia Honda before the wind failed. The sea, scarcely rippled by the breeze, was clear as crystal and, seated on the heel of the bowsprit, we amused ourselves for hours by watching the innumerable bright-hued fishes which played and swam about the bows. Huge yellow and violet dolphins; enormous tuna and yellow-tails; flashing blue bonita and albacore, and scores of lesser fishes were constantly in sight. It was a veritable
MILLIONS OF SEA-SNAKES
It was while watching these interesting creatures that I caught sight of a dull brown, yellow-spotted snake about four feet in length which was swimming alongside. Its flattened tail identified it as a true sea-snake, and I called the others' attention to it. They told me that the bite of these serpents was deadly, and that they inhabited these waters in great numbers. Martinelli and the natives declared that as we approached Coiba and Jicaron Islands I would see them by hundreds, but I considered this an exaggeration and was tremendously surprised to see another and another of the snakes until, presently, they were everywhere in sight. A half mile ahead I noted a large school of porpoises jumping about, while overhead wheeled and screamed scores of sea-birds— boobies, frigate birds, pelicans and gulls— which constantly swooped down among the porpoises. Apparently there was a large school of small fish at the spot, but neither porpoises nor the birds paid the least attention to our approach and, to my amazement, I found they were feeding upon the strange sea-snakes, which actually filled the water. There were countless thousands of them, and for hours we sailed through a sea was fairly alive with the serpents, while the surface eddied and rippled with the squirming, wriggling mass.
Fortunately the breeze held all day, although fitful and baffling, and Bert and myself became thoroughly disgusted with lack of seamanship on the part of the crew. They hadn't the remotest idea how to trim sail, and when, as we were sailing dead before the wind, I winged out the sails, the skipper frowned and muttered and the moment my back was turned ordered them to be changed. In the afternoon when we swung in towards Bahia Honda and had a beam wind, the surly skipper insisted upon close-hauling all sail so that we merely drifted to leeward, and we soon discovered that we must grin and bear it unless we openly mutinied. Even Martinelli took the incompetency of the crew and skipper as a matter of course and, when we remonstrated with him, merely shrugged his shoulders and replied that "Manuel is the captain, so he must know best."
As a result of this we barely made Bahia Honda at sunset and were obliged to anchor in a very exposed position close to shore. Close as we were to the rocks, however, thirty fathoms of chain ran out ere the anchor found bottom, and when we swung around the overhanging branches of the trees fouled our mainmast. Luckily, the night was calm and everything went well, except for the discovery that the water cask leaked and that we were entirely out of water. As a result we were obliged to wait for coffee until two of the men rowed across the bay to a small island where there were a few huts and a spring. During their absence the crew amused themselves by diving overboard and gathering pearl shells from the reef along shore. They reported shell very abundant, but after bringing up a few bushels and finding no pearls they gave it up. Bahia Honda is perhaps the most perfect harbour and the most beautiful bay in
We left Bahia Honda with a very light breeze, but the sea, a few miles out, was ruffled with white-caps from a good wind and two big, four-masted barques were bowling along at a great clip a dozen miles off the coast. We therefore expected that our captain would make an offing and catch the breeze, but he had no such intentions. We entreated, cajoled, threatened, and even tried to bribe him, but all without avail, for he insisted on hugging the coast and trying to sail through the narrow channels between the numerous islands close to shore. The breeze was here completely cut off, and each time the schooner was laboriously brought about, by use of the sweeps, she would drift back and lose all she had gained. As we were thus drifting aimlessly about an enormous devil-fish or giant ray leaped from the water a few rods ahead, and turning in air fell with a terrific splash. Again and again the huge creature leaped, and presently it was joined by a second and third, until the resounding splashes and peculiar hissing noise of the sweeping whip-like tails could be heard on every side. Now and then one of the monsters would swim beneath our boat, plainly visible through the clear water, and the crew became absolutely panic-stricken. Despite our orders, they tugged at the sweeps and drove the schooner close in shore and anchored. It was evident that here they intended to remain, although it was not mid-afternoon, and they gave as a reason that the "sea-devils" would leap up and seize the vessel's masts and pull her over! It was useless to ridicule them or curse them for their folly, and though we fumed and swore at the delay we were obliged to give in and make the best of it. Half a mile away there was a beautiful beach, bordered by coco-palms shading a tiny village, and taking the small boat and Claude, we rowed ashore. The first man who greeted us was a coal-black negro who, to our utter surprise, spoke to us in English with a decided brogue, which at once identified him as a native of Montserrat in the
"Hello." I exclaimed, "where did you come from, and how long have you here?”
Later it transpired that he had drifted to this tiny out-of-the-way spot after tiring of labour on the Canal, like many another West Indian one finds here and there in the most distant and inaccessible parts of the Isthmus. He at once took us in charge and seemed to consider himself our self-appointed chaperon and guide; feeling perhaps, that as he was the sole representative of
WE TAKE COMMAND.
The next morning we managed to get under way again, and as we saw no more devil-fishes the men were in good humour, although casting many fearful glances over the sides as we passed among the islands. We had no more than caught the full of the breeze, however, when the captain tacked and commenced to repeat his tactics of the previous day. It was evident that something would have to be done if ever we were to reach our destination, and presently a brilliant idea occurred to me. Claude had received a farewell present from the Montserratean in the shape of a jug of palm wine, and commandeering this, I proceeded to do my best to get the captain drunk. It took a lot of time and a lot of wine, but at last the deed was accomplished and the skipper slumbered noisily in the hold, whereupon we promptly shut and fastened the hatch and took command. At first the crew hesitated to obey us and looked ugly, but the sight of an automatic and a threat to throw them overboard soon brought them to terms and, trimming sail, we headed straight out to sea. Half an hour later we were bowling along to the sweeping wind with lee rail awash and the crew huddled in a frightened knot forward. By the time the rocky point that marked our objective port was sighted, curses and resounding knocks on the hatch apprised us of the fact that the skipper had regained consciousness, but we gave no heed until we swung around a little wooded island and cast anchor in a charming bay. Oddly enough, the rascal appeared to bear no resentment towards us for the treatment we had given him, and no sooner appeared on the deck than he begged for more wine, and seemed very sad when we refused it; but the scheme had worked so well that we intended to save the remainder for future emergencies. Our copper mountain native was in high spirits, and proudly pointed to the rocky shore across the bay which, sure enough, was a beautiful pale-green, and Bert and I began to believe that for once a native had not exaggerated.
With Claude bearing the precious demijohn of wine, and accompanied by our guide, we rowed ashore in high hopes, but one glance at the green rock was enough—it was merely green serpentine with no trace of ore. Nevertheless, our guide insisted that he had brought the samples from the cliffs on the other side of the bay and, leaving Claude seated on his jug, regaling himself with oranges from the tree over his head, we started along the shore towards the cliff. But everywhere we found the same serpentine formation, with no sign of copper, and thoroughly disgusted, we relieved our feelings somewhat by telling the native our opinion of him, and then retraced our way along the beach. It was bad enough to have travelled all this distance and to have wasted our time on a wild-goose chase; but the sight that greeted us as we approached the orange tree was the last straw. Curled comfortably in the shade, snoring lustily, was Claude, while a few feet away sat the captain, the cook, and one of the men—just finishing the last of the wine! All three were maudlin drunk and in no condition to do anything, but there was no use in cursing or scolding and so, after rousing Claude and relieving our minds on him, we managed to pile the crowd into the boat and start them on their way. They managed to get through the first of the surf in safety, but as the second breaker approached, the boat swung around, the wave caught it broadside on, and the next instant all were struggling in the water. Their ducking served to clear their heads, however, and eventually everyone gained the schooner safely. Much to our surprise the skipper made no objection to starting at once and, hoisting sail, we stood out for the entrance to the bay. The wind was blowing directly against us, but with a couple of tacks it would have been easy to have cleared the point. Instead of keeping the sails close-hauled and heading up into the wind, however, the miserable apology for a captain insisted in easing off his sheets and sailing free. As a result, when he came about, he was no nearer the offing than when he started. Over and over again he repeated this manoeuvre, and I longed for a supply of liquor to enable me to again get him below decks and to take charge myself. When, on the fifth tack, the schooner “missed stays" and came within a dozen feet of going on the rocks, I could stand it no longer and, unceremoniously kicking the skipper down the companion-way, I took the helm, while Bert cowed the crew and drove them forward. Then, with Claude's help, we proceeded to beat out of the bay and half an hour later cleared the point and set a course for Bahia Honda. As night came on the crew begged piteously for us to go inshore and anchor, and even the skipper joined in and promised to obey us implicitly in future if we only wouldn't tempt fate and the devils by sailing at night. But we were in control and, paying no heed, kept on our course, taking turns at the tiller, and by daybreak we passed
It was imperative that we should be back in the capital within four days, and apparently it was an impossibility. There were no horses available, and to walk twenty miles to Soná was out of the question. The only chance seemed to be to sail to Puerto Mutis, on
Then came the question of saddles, and another house-to-house search of the town was necessary before we gathered together enough odds and ends of ancient saddlery to rig up three makeshift affairs. Never have I ridden such a bone-breaking, hard-gaited, obstinate, worthless beast as that which fell to my lot, and I verily believe that I used more energy in keeping the nag moving than he exerted in making the trip. To add to our troubles, it commenced to pour soon after we left Montijo, and we were speedily soaked to the skin and shaking with the chill wind, while the saddles became water-soaked, sodden and wrinkled, and galled us horribly.
It was a beautiful country through which we were passing, with green rolling hills divided by rich valleys through which poured noisy sparkling streams. Scattered over the hills and valleys were cultivated lands, planted with upland rice, sugar cane and yams, neatly walled with stone or fenced with brush, and with the thatched homes of their owners half-hidden among bananas and bread fruit trees. But we were in no mood to admire the scenery and hurried onward at the best speed we could get from our sorry mounts, and after six hours of torture reached the outskirts of
With the abolition of slavery and the uprising of the Indian slaves, as well as the wars of independence, the mines were gradually abandoned, many were lost sight of, and to-day not a single gold-mine is operated in the province—or, for that matter, in the entire Republic. Old Santiago has become of no importance, a dilapidated little country town, down-at-the-heels and shabby, reminding one of some proud old hidalgo whose poverty has reduced him to rags, but who still lives in the visionary glory of his past.
The streets are roughly paved and grass-grown; the ancient church tower bears good-sized trees sprouting from the cracks in the masonry. Many a fine old house has been given over to Chinese shops or drinking places, and the people are a polyglot race of every shade and colour. There are, however, a few neat, well-kept houses; there are good shops about the plaza; there is a hospital, a large jail, a telegraph station, and a pretty flower-filled plaza, while a few of the noble old Veraguas families still cling tenaciously to their ancestral homes. For its existence, the town depends mainly upon cattle and rice—the surrounding hills and valleys being very rich—while the adjacent plains and prairies are ideal for cattle.
On the way from Montijo I had picked up a few pieces of "float" malachite, and while awaiting our dinner I examined these on the porch of the hotel. Presently a wild-visaged horseman drew up, and after watching me intently for a moment, remarked that he knew where there were "prettier green stones than those." In reply to my questions, he stated that he had some of the stones at his home and, wheeling his pony, he dashed madly off, scattering naked children, squealing pigs, and squawking chickens from his path. Half an hour later he came dashing back and handed me some of the richest samples of copper ore I had ever seen.
Of course we were immediately interested and plied the fellow with questions. He insisted that there were quantities of the ore and that it was near, but he admitted that he had never seen it and did not know its exact location, explaining that the vein had been discovered by a friend. However, he agreed to take us to this man and promised to be ready at daybreak the next day. We realized that to look up this prospect would mean the loss of the best part of a day, but it was so alluring that we decided to attempt it, even though it meant riding all night to make up for his lost time.
The fellow didn't show up at dawn, but he did arrive by nine o'clock—which was surprisingly punctual for a native—and, mounted on fresh horses and with better saddles, we cantered out from
The only occupant was a young Indian girl whose front teeth were filed to needle-like points, and who was at once sent off in search of her husband, who soon returned with her.
During her absence our guide had made himself thoroughly at home and helped himself liberally to his friend's store of chicha and was, as a result, quite hilarious. Rushing out he seized his friend by the hand, slapped him on the back, kissed his cheeks and, dancing about, cried: "Juan, Juan, we are millionaires!"
Juan, who proved to be a Porto Rican, was a quiet, polite little chap, and gave little heed to his brigandish comrade. He had a number of additional samples, and gladly agreed to lead us to the spot where he had obtained them, as soon as he had had some breakfast.
AN ODD CHARACTER.
As we chatted while he waited for his meal, I discovered that Juan had travelled quite extensively and had even been to
In confirmation he went to an old chest and brought forth a bundle of hand-bills, testimonials, clippings, etc., all of which referred to one "Juan Fuente" and his remarkable feat of burying subjects alive while in an hypnotic state and disinterring them after several days. I have met with many surprises and many curious characters during the years I have knocked about out-of-the-way places in the tropics, but I do not think that any equalled this discovery of a skilled hypnotist and circus performer living in a thatched hut with an Indian consort in an obscure corner of Veraguas. Juan, however, seemed to take it quite as a matter of course, and assured us that he had frequently buried his Indian mate, a statement which she smilingly confirmed. Indeed, he even offered to give an exhibition then and there, but we were satisfied to take his word for it. Subsequently, however, I did witness a demonstration of his strange power, and saw him bury a man for over an hour under eight feet of earth and afterwards revive him without the least sign of injury or inconvenience on the part of the subject.
The natives’ ideas of distances are very vague, and our brigand's "near" proved to be a five hours' ride. En route we stopped for our lunch at a little village, where Señior Brigand promptly proceeded to get outrageously drunk. He soon became a great nuisance and we were all thankful when he finally became quarrelsome and was promptly arrested and locked up by the Alcalde.
When we at last reached the spot whence the copper had come we could find no trace of any more, and although Juan and a native, who lived near, searched diligently for an hour or more not a single piece of ore could they locate. Both insisted, however, that it was there and had merely been covered with mud by the rains, and at last, alter much digging about, the vein was uncovered.
It was now too late to make an examination, however, and having secured samples we headed back for the nearest village. This place, known as Atalya, was like many of the neighbouring villages of Veraguas, a most quaint and interesting spot. In these tiny, out-of-the-world hamlets time seems to have stood still. As one enters these places one seems to step back four centuries, for the people live exactly as did their ancestors in the days of Pedro Arias and the Conquistadores.
They are strictly patriarchal, and the oldest man of the most prominent family is, to all intents and purposes, the ruler. They hardly recognize the sovereignty of
A WEIRD NIGHT RIDE.
Here, at Atalya, we stopped to rest and feed our horses and ourselves ere starting on the night ride towards Agua Dulce. By the time this was accomplished it was nearly midnight, and directions as to the trail we should follow were very vague. The night was pitch dark; we knew nothing of the innumerable narrow paths that branched and forked and crossed in a perfect maze and which, in the blackness, could hardly be distinguished from the surrounding jungle. It was of no avail to drop the reins and trust to the horses, for unless constantly urged onward they would immediately stop and commence to browse. But somehow or other we managed to keep to a path, and by sheer luck at last saw a light ahead and came to a tiny hut. After a deal of trouble the occupant was routed out and induced to give us directions for reaching the main road. From his sleepy, mumbled sentences we learned we had already passed the spot where we should have turned off, and there was nothing for it but to go back. An hour was spent without finding the branch trail, and once more we retraced our way to the old man's hut and bribed him to go with us. When he showed us the way we no longer wondered that we had missed it, for it was merely a gully, filled with stones, which bore no resemblance to a road, but the old fellow directed us to go straight ahead until we sighted a telegraph line and then to follow that to the right. To sight a telegraph wire in the inky night seemed hopeless, and as the posts used here are merely sticks, and as they usually sprout out and bear leaves, they are indistinguishable from any other trees in the darkness.
At times it seemed as if we must give up. Once Claude's mule stepped in a hole and threw his rider, but fortunately neither Claude nor his mount was injured, and at last, after what seemed an interminable distance, I found the telegraph line by the simple but unpleasant method of running foul of a guy-wire which raked me from my saddle.
Soon afterwards we came out upon the broad, main road, and turning eastward urged our steeds into a trot. For a number of miles the road was fairly good and its light colour could easily be distinguished from the darker surrounding bush; but it soon became full of pools, ruts, and stones, with treacherous holes and cave-ins, caused by the heavy rains; and where it ran across the plains or portreros it was impossible to tell which was road and which grass; the only means of finding our way being to keep constantly on the lookout for the telegraph poles, which on the plains were of iron. Several times our horses shied violently as some prowling animal or snake crossed our path; once a jaguar wailed and screamed from a patch of jungle; silent-winged nightjars flitted like spirits past our faces in a startling manner, while from every side came the incessant croak and whistle and boom of myriads of frogs. Our eyes, strained to see the road and the posts, played us strange pranks and constantly deceived us. At times the grassy portreros appeared like vast lakes and the road seemed dwindling to a thread as though being inundated. At other times the track appeared to be a score of yards in width and we would guide our horses to the side, where it looked smoother, only to find our mounts floundering up to their bellies in mud and water which filled the ditches.
Welcome indeed was the first saffron hue above the distant mountains warning us that daybreak was near, and still more welcome was the sun itself and the warmth it gave to our chilled bodies and limbs, for the nights in Veraguas are really cold, and no one starts out to ride at night unless provided with a thick woollen poncho.
A half-hour stop for coffee at a native hut and we were off again, pounding along the stony, rutty, muddy road, and picking our way carefully over the rotten planks of the bridges that spanned the larger rivers. Had our horses and saddles been good it would not have been so hard, and since that time I have ridden between Santiago and Agua Dulce scores of times without giving a thought to the trip, but our horses were miserable specimens with a hard, jolting, nerve-racking trot as their only gait, and our saddles were fearful. Every wrinkle, scam, and projection had worn through my skin until it bled; every muscle and bone ached, we were tortured for lack of sleep and nearly famished.
Ever since leaving Santiago we had been crossing grassy prairie lands, ideal for grazing and capable of supporting vast numbers of cattle, but nowhere were there more than a few hundred to be seen, and these uncared-for, poorly bred, undersized, and lean from the attacks of ticks, which the native owners never attempt to eradicate.
Constantly we met pack-trains, each horse tied to the tail of the one before him, while the peon drivers plodded doggedly behind. And ever and anon we turned aside for huge-wheeled, lumbering carts, drawn by two or four half-tamed bulls yoked, Spanish fashion, by the horns and goaded on by broad-hatted, sandalled, swarthy drivers whose fierce moustaches and glittering eyes seemed out of keeping with their soft-voiced "Buenas Dias."
Mainly these pack-trains and carts were laden with salt from Agua Dulce, for the salt flats of this town have been famed since the earliest Spanish days, and from far and near the natives come to town to secure their salt supply.
Apart from salt, Agua Dulce has little of interest and still less of attraction, and serves only as the port of entry to the district.
At three in the afternoon we flung our bodies from the saddles at the Agua Dulce hotel, after twenty-nine hours in the saddle with but three hours' rest.
Our first inquiries were for the steamer. Which we found would not sail until 6 p.m. and a good shower-bath and a square meal made us feel quite ourselves again. But imagine our chagrin when the agent informed us that it was quite impossible for us to take the steamer, as it was completely filled! Although she was only licensed for sixty passengers, he told us, he had already sold a hundred and fifty tickets! After all we had undergone, however, we had no intention of giving up now, and we promptly wired the owners in
But we were not yet through with our troubles, for when we endeavoured to secure a coché to take us to the dock—which is two miles from the town—we found that every available vehicle in town was already engaged. At last—less than twenty minutes before sailing time—I secured a condemned, broken-down buggy and an apology for a horse and a diminutive darky for a driver. Bert had already started to walk to the steamer to hold her until my arrival, and Claude and I undertook to harness the horse. Evidently he had never been driven before and, ancient as he was, he remonstrated forcibly when we attempted to put him in the shafts. Then finding his strength failing, he calmly sank to earth and closed his eyes in blissful repose. By dint of prodding, whipping, and a handful of corn held before him he was at last raised to his feet, and before he could collapse a second time we piled into the carriage and urged the equine wreck forward. Apparently, however, we had harnessed him wrong-end first, for each time we touched him with the whip he promptly stopped and commenced to back, while if the whip was not used he remained motionless. Here, indeed, was a deadlock, and the problem appeared insoluble, but at last we discovered that if the small boy ran ahead with the halter rope, while Claude trotted alongside and used the whip, while I remained in the carriage and held the reins, we could make some progress. We had covered nearly half of the distance in this fashion when one of the wheels came off and dumped me and the luggage into the road. By superhuman efforts we righted the trap, made temporary repairs, and proceeded, while the driver of every vehicle returning from the dock shouted the encouraging news that the steamer had left. However, this proved to be mere pleasantry on their part, for we found the steamer still in the stream, and we need not have hurried in the least, as she was hard and fast in the mud, having filled and sunk as far as it was possible. When we at last clambered over her rail I was not surprised, for in addition to the hundred and fifty passengers she was loaded with freight in her hold and with three hundred pigs and over a hundred cattle on her lower deck. For four hours the pumps were kept going, until at last she floated, and then, with a farewell blast of her whistle, she started down-river. It is impossible to describe that trip of sixteen hours from Agua Dulce to
Fortunately for all of us the sea was calm, but we were mighty thankful when at last we swung around