Thursday, 12 April 2012
Thirty Years in the Jungle -Chs 15-18
From 'Thirty Years in the Jungle' by A. Hyatt Verrill, 1929. Digitized by Doug Frizzle, April 2012.
Chapter 15 Off for the Unknown
Bocas del Toro, Panama and Costa Rica borders, circ. 1914—The end of the line—Señor Toro—Simple housekeeping—Tisingal—The story of the lost mine—Discouraging news—I meet Cordova.
AT Bocas I had heard vague rumours of other Indians in the interior. No one seemed to have any definite knowledge in regard to them, but from what I could learn they were very different from the Boorabbees and unlike any Indians I had visited. Neither did anyone appear to know exactly where these Indians were to be found, but all agreed that it was somewhere within the wild, practically unknown mountain region along the Costa Rican boundary. Vague and meagre information to be sure, but I had found many an interesting tribe with less, so, leaving Bocas, I crossed to the mainland whence a railway led northward into Costa Rica.
The jolting, rocking banana train dropped us at a tiny outlying station far up the line. I say station, but the place was far from being worthy of the appellation. Beside the uneven weed-grown tracks there was a tiny "tin" hut of corrugated iron. Beyond this a half-acre of partly-cleared land, mostly mud, and in the centre of this a ramshackle unpainted building of roughly sawn planks raised a few feet above the soggy, rain-soaked earth.
Its roof was patched, its gallery sagged, its doorway and windows leered and it gave one the impression of having been on a prolonged spree, and much the worse for its debauch. This was the "store," canteen and trading-post in one, the last outpost of civilization, if civilization it could be called, in the wild, tropical land.
As we alighted and our dunnage was tossed into the partial shelter of the "station," a burly figure appeared in the doorway of the store and came splashing through the mud towards us. Thick-set, broad-shouldered, bull-necked; with a mottled, bloated face covered with a stubble of beard and topped by a mop of reddish hair, he was far from a prepossessing looking character. He introduced himself as Señor Anastasio Toro, a name which seemed to fit him to perfection, and informed me that he was the agent, manager, commandante, alcailde, corregidor, storekeeper and proprietor combined.
As is so often the case, Señor Toro's character belied his looks. He proved a most genial and good-natured fellow, a bit of a braggart and boaster, but good-hearted, friendly and hospitable. Bellowing, like his namesake the bull, to the peons, he ordered them to shoulder our luggage, and led the way through the stinking mud to the store. The door gave entrance to an immense bare room, its dingy white-washed walls decorated with a curiously incongruous assortment of old newspaper cuts, gaudy chromos of religious subjects, figures of nude women from Parisian and Argentine periodicals, and flamboyant advertising posters of beer, rum, steamship lines and feminine underwear. On one side of the room was a high plank counter littered with odds and ends of everything from patent medicines to cheap jewellery; back of this were shelves piled high with calico, blankets, cotton cloth and bandana handkerchiefs. Saddles, guns, rope, hats, lanterns and countless other articles hung from hooks in the ceiling, and heaped high in confusion upon the floor and in corners were deer and ox hides, "biscuits" of raw rubber, cacao, coco-nuts, fustic, jerked meat, dried fish, sarsaparilla, Indian baskets, and a thousand and one jungle products.
On the opposite side of the room was a roughly made bar with a surprising array of bottled spirits behind it, and with an oily-haired, yellow-skinned, bland-faced Chinese bartender serving fiery rum to a group of wild-looking, fierce-whiskered, sandal-shod fellows in rubber-coated cotton ponchos.
Shouting boisterously but good-naturedly, Señor Toro shoved the brigandish fellows aside, vaulted over the bar, and produced glasses and an unopened bottle of Scotch. Keeping up a running fire of questions, all roared as if every one within hearing were deaf, our host served the drinks, swallowed half a dozen glasses of whisky in rapid succession, and without ceasing his interrogations to enable me to reply, led us across the room and up a flight of rickety stairs. With an all-embracing wave of his arms he invited us to take our pick of the rooms, and, in response to a shout from below, rushed off.
The four rooms opening from the hallway were equally dirty, but it was shelter of sorts, and, selecting the least draughty and least rubbish-piled of the four rooms, I changed my sopping clothes for dry garments, bundled the damp and never-washed bedding into a corner, spread my own blankets, and with Tom's (my black camp-boy's) help, brought something resembling order out of the chaos.
We were interrupted by Toro's bellow summoning us to dinner, and descended to find him awaiting us in a cubbyhole of a room which served as dining-room and kitchen combined. Planks laid across saw-horses served as a table and were covered with a piece of fresh cotton cloth. Cracked dishes and cheap steel cutlery were piled hit or miss. There were huge piles of native bread, mounds of violent orange-coloured tinned butter, an immense kettle of steaming black coffee, and a battered gallon tin of thick san-coche or native stew. Upon the grid above the smoky clay stove, a loin of venison was broiling, and from the oven of a rusty oil range Señor Toro was raking sweet potatoes and plantains. But despite surroundings and appearances, the meal was excellent, and I complimented friend Toro upon his culinary skill. This pleased him immensely and he fairly beamed. "Nothing like being able to do everything for oneself," he roared. "No women messing about here. Has the Señor observed? Here am I, keeping house as well as you please; me myself—chambermaid, mozo, and cook. Why should I want servants? And women! Caramba, Señor, one never knows where one is at with women. Three things there are which no man may ever count on—a woman, a cat and a pigeon. One thinks one has them, that they are tame, and then, first thing—Psst!—one finds them as wild and savage as ever. Is it not so, amigo mio? You tell me you come here to search for Indios. So be it, Señor, if you would have it that way," here he winked and grimaced knowingly. "But between ourselves, my friend, you cannot hoodwink Don Anastasio Toro. It is Tisingal you seek. Por Dios, that is excellent," he roared with laughter. "Most excellent, amigo. Never have I known of better. Many Señores have come this way—some say they search for animalitos, others for birds, some for butterflies, others for rubber, for oil, for timber, for land—for everything. But never before has one come searching for Indians! Santissima Madre! Who but an Americano would have thought of that? But well I know all—even you, Señor—search for the gold of Tisingal. Buenissimo, amigo, never will I say aught to set tongues wagging, Señor —depend upon it. And may you find great wealth and go with God."
It was useless to try to convince him of the contrary. To his mind a stranger could only visit this out-of-the-way, God-forsaken spot for one real purpose—to search for the lost Tisingal mine—the will-o'-the-wisp that had defied all for centuries, whose secret was still guarded by the vast, impenetrable, unknown jungles stretching northward for hundreds of miles through Panama and Costa Rica.
Somewhere within that wild, unmapped region, somewhere within the fastnesses of those mighty, forest-covered mountain ranges, lay the long-lost mine which, if we are to believe the old records and stories, was the richest mine in all New Spain. And of all the old Spanish mines Tisingal has perhaps the most romantic history. Mail-clad, the Dons came overseas, ruthless, cruel, caring nothing for life or bloodshed where gold was to be won, murdering the Indians who resisted the invaders, enslaving those who were friendly.
Through the jungles they hewed a way, over the mountains they struggled. In cumbersome craft they conquered the rapids until at last they found Indians rich in gold, Then, through the torture of the Indians they learned of Tisingal, and riches beyond belief were theirs. What mattered it to them if the mine with its rotten quartz bursting with precious metal lay weary leagues from the sea? What mattered it if the jungle hemmed it in, if savages lurked in the forests? Against steel armour, stone and wood-tipped arrows fell impotently; spears and clubs were of no avail when opposed to firearms and cross-bows. The Indians, cowed, starved, enslaved, toiled ceaselessly under their inhuman masters, hewing the jungle, laying corduroy roads, hauling the great logs to form stockades; dragging the boulders from the rivers' beds and blocks of stone from the mountain-sides to build forts and bridge abutments; carrying on their bent shoulders enormous loads through the wilderness; burrowing like human moles in the gold-filled earth. By hundreds they died, but the supply of Indians seemed inexhaustible, and slaves were always to be had for the taking.
Slowly the rough road was completed, forts and walls were erected, and the mine with its winches and buckets, its mill and machinery came into existence. Houses, barracks, even a church arose within the jungle, and to guard the mine from possible invaders, bronze cannon were hauled over leagues of road from the distant port and were mounted with their grim muzzles commanding the narrow pass that led to the richest of the Dons' mines in the New World. For years a steady stream of gold flowed from Tisingal to the coast and overseas to Spain.
And then came the day of retribution, the day when, unable to bear their burdens, to submit to the cruel rule and torturing lash of the Dons longer, the Indians rose en masse. Taken by surprise, the Spaniards, outnumbered, herded together, were massacred to the last man. Though Indians fell by scores, for the Dons fought valiantly, there was no cessation until the last white man fell lifeless. Then followed destruction until only the smouldering ruins marked the site of the little town. For days the Indians toiled, until at last no vestige of the mine remained, until bridges had been destroyed, until even the roadway had been obliterated. Then again the forest swallowed the Indians. But ever, for months thereafter, skulking figures kept vigil beside the trail, and no Spaniard lived to reach the ruins of the place and carry back news of its fate to the settlements on the coast. Soon the spot was scarcely distinguishable from the rest of the jungle. Trees, creepers and vines obliterated the gash through the forest that once had been a road, and Tisingal became only a memory, and even its exact location was lost to the world.
Many attempts were made to find it, however, to wrest once more its wealth from the mountains. But they all came to nothing—the Indians saw to that, and the searchers' bones were added to those of the butchered Dons and the murdered Indians.
Since then dozens, scores of men have defied death, lured on by the fabulous wealth lying somewhere in the forest, but no man has ever found it, or, finding it, lived to profit by his discovery. No one can say how many lives have paid the penalty of seeking Tisingal; no one can say what toll the Indians have taken, for the silent jungle tells no tales and never gives up its dead.
And so, if Señor Toro believed, as he did, that I, too, was in search of the lost mine, he had every cause to wish fervently that I might "go with God." And it was no wonder that he should be convinced that Tisingal was my real objective. That anyone in his sane senses should be in search of Indians, should be willing to undergo hardships and face the perils of nature and savages for the purpose of scientific study, was quite beyond his comprehension. So I abandoned trying to convince him that Tisingal held no interest for me, and fell to questioning him about the jungle, the waterways and the Indians.
He shook his head and declared it would be impossible for me to travel by river into the Indian country. Yes, there were Indians there. Untamed, uncivilized tribes. How many? That he could not say. Who were they? "Quien sabe?" Some he knew were Terribis—good enough fellows for Indians—peaceful and not hostile if let alone. But they resented strangers entering their country. Personally he knew some of them—he had traded with them, had met them on the river and in the bush, had even visited some of their nearer villages. But their headquarters—the home of their Cacique, or king, never. And he had no wish to attempt to do so. He had no desire to feel an arrow in his back, and Indians—like women, cats and pigeons—were uncertain, unreliable things, he added. Obviously he was not an adventurous soul, for all his bluster. In the first place, he averred, I would not be able to secure men to accompany me. No peon of the place, he vowed, and no doubt truthfully, would care to leave the apology for civilization and go into Indian-inhabited jungles. In the second place, he added, even if I could secure men, I could not obtain a canoe, for the only craft available were the big, dug-out cayucas of the local banana growers. Finally, to clinch the matter, he reminded me that it was only the beginning of the rainy season, that the rivers were low and would be impassable for a canoe, and that, should I, by some miracle, ascend the streams, a torrential downpour might result in a flood to destroy us all.
But in my many years' experience in Latin America I had learned to greatly discount the statements of the natives; I had always found that where there is a will there is a way; and I still had a lot of faith in my luck.
And luck did not desert me this time. By the time dinner was over and Toro had cleaned up by the simple method of placing the plates and dishes on the floor within reach of the dogs, fowl and pigs, the rain had ceased and the sun was shining in a blaze of glory beyond the green-clad hills; birds were singing and chirping in the dripping trees, and flocks of noisy parrots and macaws were winging with hoarse, raucous voices overhead.
It was too inviting to remain indoors, and accompanied by Tom, I picked my way across the quagmire of a clearing, reached firm ground beyond the crazy, irregular railway line, and strolled towards the river. In one respect Toro had not exaggerated. The river was low, for sand-bars showed above the surface in many places, and scores of huge crocodiles were basking in the last rays of the setting sun. I began to fear that our host was right, that the rivers were too dry to permit ascending them in a canoe; and to attempt to travel overland through the jungle was, I knew, impossible.
Presently, from around an outjutting point, a cayuca appeared, its two occupants steering the craft with their paddles as it drifted with the currents towards where we stood. As its prow grated upon the shore, the forward man leaped out—a huge, coal-black, wild-looking negro in much-patched and ragged garments.
Feeling sure he could supply me with definite information regarding the state of the river, I greeted him and put my query. The fellow grinned, doffed his battered hat and returned my greeting. "But why does the Americano wish to know of the river?" he asked, ignoring my question. "Does he think of going in search of Tisingal?"
Obviously the lost mine was uppermost in everyone's mind here. "No," I replied. "I desire to visit the Indios—the Terribis and others. Señor Toro tells me it is impossible. He says no man here will accompany me— that all fear the Indians; that I cannot secure a cayuca, and that the rivers are too low for a canoe to pass."
The negro threw back his head and roared with laughter. "So!" he exclaimed.
"Then does Señor Toro prove himself a great liar and a greater fool. Of a truth he would dare not to go—he has good reason; and neither would these sons of Panama pigs who think themselves men. And as for the cayuca, Caramba! he is right. There is not a canoe fit to travel in at this accursed spot. But if the Señor wishes—and will pay—I, Jesu Maria de Cordova, of the Cauca, will accompany you. And there is no better cayuca than mine in a hundred leagues. Is it not so, compaisano mio? " turning to his companion for confirmation.
The latter, a slim, muscular, lithe-limbed, half-breed showed his white firm teeth in a delighted grin. "Si, si, compaisano" he exclaimed, nodding his head. "It would be a spree, a journey after my own heart. And when do we start, Señor Americano?"
"As soon as possible," I replied. "But how about the water? Can your cayuca make it?"
"Señor," declared the negro. "For twenty years— ever since I left the Cauca Valley when, by the will of God, the cause of General Gonzales failed and I cared not to be shot for a rebel—have I travelled up and down this river. Its ways I know as well as I know the ways of my own wife—”
"In that case, compaisano, thou knowest nothing of it," chuckled the other.
"Be still, Pepe," the negro commanded. "Interrupt not thy betters when they are speaking to an American caballero. A thousand pardons for his rudeness, Señor. He is but a boy and knows no better. But the ways of the river I do know, and though it is low of a truth, and doubtless the smaller streams are lower, yet will I carry you and your mozo through. Of a truth, yes, even if I have to carry you upon my back. But what of the pay, Señor?"
I laughed. "And the more the pay the easier will be the going, I suppose."
Cordova grinned and scratched his woolly head. "In a way, yes," he admitted. "But a thousand—five thousand pesos could not make the going easy. I leave the amount to you, Señor. Of a truth it matters not much to us. So seldom do we earn an honest peso—"
"Or one not so honest," interrupted Pepe.
"Si, thou art right," laughed the negro. "Si, honest or not, the pesos we earn are so few that we have all but forgotten how they look. Here we seldom use money, Señor, We trade, and that robber and liar, Toro, cheats us and keeps us for ever in debt. But enough to buy clothes, Señor, and to leave something with the Señora while we are gone."
"Perhaps two pesos a day for each of you," I suggested.
"But for the cayuca, Señor?" pleaded the negro. "Surely a peseta a day for such a fine cayuca—and the risk is so great. The—"
"Bueno, then," I exclaimed. "Two pesos for each of you and a peseta for the canoe, and you furnish your own food. And now, to seal the bargain, take this and go to the cantina and drink to our journey."
As I spoke I handed Cordova a half-dollar.
"Señor Americano, I give you ten thousand thanks," he exclaimed, with a low bow. "Truly it is the will of God that brought me and Pepe to this spot to-night. I go to drink to your health and the cursing of your enemies. And," he added with a grin as the two started up the trail, "to tell that red-headed bull that he is a thrice-accursed liar."
Whether or not he kept that part of his promise, I shall never know. But I am inclined to think that he did, for Jesu Maria de Cordova, the ex-colonel of the Colombian army, was a man of far different material than Toro and his Panamaneans.
At any rate, when Tom and I returned to the store, Cordova and Pepe were still drinking and were boasting of being Colombians who were not afraid of Indians, jungles or anything else. The few natives present were halfheartedly trying to argue in their own favour, while Toro, bellowing like a bull as usual, was swearing that if anything happened to me, he, as local representative of the Government, would be held responsible, and that he forbade Cordova to undertake the trip.
"Por Dios!" shouted the big negro, waving his cup and glaring savagely. "And do you think then I am a pig of a Panamanean to obey you? Carrajo, Don Anastasio, the Señor Americano will have something to say as well. Think you he is one to be ordered to this or that or the other by such as you? He—Ah, but the Señor himself comes. Patron!" he cried, turning to me. "Look you, Patron mio, El Toro yonder forbids me to take you up the river. Is it not a joke then?"
"Very much of a joke," I assured him. "But Señor Toro means well, and I absolve him of all responsibility. I take all the risks. You see, Señor Toro, I have found my men and have found the cayuca. We start at daybreak to-morrow."
Toro spread his hands and shrugged his shoulders in a gesture of hopeless resignation. "Bueno!" he exclaimed. "The Señor will do as he will. I have done my duty. But the Señor, I know, goes to his death. No one has ever sought Tisingal and returned."
"But I am not seeking Tisingal," I reminded him.
"Then, Señor," he declared solemnly, "you are mad. But all Gringos are mad. Señor, let us drink to your safe return, though I fear it will not be. But may you go with God, Señor."
Chapter 16 In the Land of Tisingal
Panama, near Costa Rica, 1914—Hard going—At the Indian hut—Word of the king—Hard going—Terrible days—The soldier-hermit—The Indians' god—Tisingal again—At the Commisario's—We are given an escort.
IT is one thing to plan to start on a trip at daybreak and quite another thing to do so. My Colombians' libations on the previous night had made them oversleep. The rain was falling steadily and as if it never intended to stop. There were innumerable small details to be attended to— countless articles to be purchased, after much haggling— by my boatmen. And by the time all was ready and we at last embarked, it was nearer noon than dawn.
Everyone in the neighbourhood, which is not saying much, came to the river-side to see us off, and I could not help laughing at the woebegone, lugubrious expression on Toro's face as he shook hands in farewell and, with bared head, as though already attending my funeral, repeated once more his fervent, "May you go with God."
Within a few hours I began to feel that perhaps friend Toro had been right after all. The river shoaled rapidly, and Cordova and Pepe were forced to forgo paddles, and to pole the cayuca upstream. If this largest portion of the river was so dry, what would be the condition of the smaller streams farther on? But if the water was low it had one advantage: there was little current and we made fairly rapid progress. Moreover, it was raining and there was every prospect of the waters rising and not falling as we proceeded. By sundown we had travelled many miles and reached the first rapids. Here the canoe was run ashore at the edge of a great park-like savanna dotted with groves of trees, and with the mountains rising in the background. It was a lovely spot in which to camp, but, as it turned, no camp was needed, for my negro colonel's home was close at hand. Though merely a thatched cane hut it was neat and clean, and the accommodations, while primitive, were far better than we had found at Toro's.
With the manners of a grandee, Cordova informed me that his house and all it contained were mine; but Pepe, as usual, had his joke at his friend's expense by naively asking him if he included his wife with the other contents of the domicile.
By daybreak the next morning we were off, but several hours were consumed in getting the heavily-loaded cayuca through the rapids, which, though not dangerous, were swift and, in the river's low state, were so shoal that the craft had to be half-lifted and half-forced through the broken water. Then the punting recommenced, and, for hour after hour, we worked steadily upstream, Cordova with consummate skill picking the deeper portions of the river, until at noon we came to a fork where two streams joined.
We were then in jungle country, with great trees rising above the banks, and with the impenetrable bush stretching away on every side. The left-hand stream was far the larger and more promising of the two, but Cordova declared that it dwindled rapidly, and that no Indians dwelt about its head-waters, whereas the right-hand branch rose in the distant mountains and led to the Indian country. But as we proceeded up this, even Cordova admitted that the streams were far lower than he had thought. Almost at once we came to rapids—a mile-long stretch of broken, rushing water—through which the canoe had to be forced by main strength. Throughout the afternoon we did little more than push the craft upstream as rapid after rapid was encountered, until exhausted, soaked through and through, and with aching muscles, we decided to call it a day and made camp in a grove of giant bamboos.
But the worst was yet to come. A few hours after breaking camp the next morning, the stream dwindled to a mere rill flowing through the wide, deep river-bed of smooth, water-worn cobbles and boulders. It was impossible to force the laden cayuca farther, and there was nothing to do but unload it, portage its contents upstream to some deeper spot, and restow the cargo. It would have been bad enough under any conditions, but to tramp over those slippery, uneven cobbles with a load on one's shoulders was a real nightmare. And it was fully two miles to the nearest spot where there was enough water to float the canoe with its cargo. The sun was now shining from a cloudless sky, the stones of the river-bed fairly scintillated with heat, and it was like walking over red-hot coals. But the job was done at last, and again we embarked. But not for long. Very soon the stream divided, each narrow current following its meandering channel across the mile-wide expanse of countless millions of cobbles, and a reconnaissance was necessary in order to determine which branch to follow.
Throughout the rest of the day we alternately poled, pushed, dragged and forced the cayuca onward, and tramped with blistered feet across the stone-strewn playas as we portaged our cargo around impassable stretches. At last, just as we were about to make camp, we heard the yelping of dogs ahead, and, rounding a bend, saw a small clearing in the jungle beyond the edge of the playa. Drawn upon the cobbles was a battered dug-out, and half-hidden under the trees was a thatched hut.
"Indios, Señor," replied Cordova to my query. "Terribis. I know them well. In truth, Señor, I am a padrino of Juan's children."
Pepe chuckled. "And of how many Indios art thou the compadre?" he asked.
Cordova grinned. "God knows," he declared. "They are beyond counting. But what would you? There are no priests here, and must not someone be a godfather to the little ones? Si, Señor Americano, it is as Pepe says. I am many times godfather, and many have I baptized and christened. Si, Señor, I have even married and buried them—and quite as well as any frocked Padre at that. Not that the Indios care—for they are pagans, as you know, though the ceremony and the candle and the holy-water are great magic in their eyes."
"Holy-water!" I exclaimed, astonished and amused at the big negro's self-appointed religious duties.
"Si, Señor," he chuckled. "Always I carry it with me, a bottle full, for even aside from the christening of Indiolitos it is wise to have holy-water with one. Death comes swiftly and without warning in the montana, Señor. May God forbid that I may need it to console the last moments of the Señor Americano."
"Amen!" I exclaimed, as we started across the playa. "But another day like this and you will need it, my friend."
The occupants of the hut proved to be a wrinkled-faced old Indian, his two wives and several children. He was, as Cordova had said, a Terribi, but a sophisticated, semi-civilized aborigine who spoke Spanish fluently. But he was an agreeable and intelligent fellow, and I plied him with questions about the Indians of the far interior. His replies were, on the whole, encouraging. His tribe, he declared, had been decimated by influenza introduced by Indians who had gone to the settlements to trade. Many had died, many others were ill. How many there were he could not say. There were no villages, the Indians dwelling in isolated houses containing one or two families each, and many days' travel apart. Somewhere—very far—with an all-embracing wave of his hand, dwelt the king; but the Indians of the lower river knew nothing of him. He and his kind were gente—civilized people—while the king and his people in the mountains were bravos. Yes, he declared, they were of the same tribe, Terribis, though, he added, that was the name given them by the Spaniards. In their own tongue they were Shayshan. But there were also the Doraks, savages. It would be well if the Señor did not meet them.
Would it be possible for me to reach the home of the king? I asked.
The old fellow smiled, and for a moment gazed thoughtfully into space. "Once," he replied at last, "I went as far as Bocas del Toro. There I saw boats that went without sails or paddles. There I saw great birds that white men made to fly in the sky. Can the white man visit the Shayshan king? Who can say? To the white man all things are possible. But it is a long journey—the rivers are dry, and the king is not one to be seen easily."
But of the Indians' customs, habits or life he either could not or would not tell anything of importance. To his family he spoke in his native tongue, and the dialect aroused my interest. It was quite distinct from that of any other tribe I had met in Panama, and the more I studied the words I jotted down in my notebook the more puzzled and interested I became. Many of the words bore a striking resemblance to those of Guatemalan and Honduras dialects; one or two were distinctly Mayan. Was I upon the verge of an ethnological discovery? Were the Shayshans remnants of some race from the north, perhaps even descendants of some ancient Mayan colony? I was determined to know, determined to overcome all difficulties and visit the Shayshan king and his bravos subjects.
Cordova and Pepe, meanwhile, had been conversing earnestly in low tones with a sturdy Indian youth who had come in from the fields, laden with manioc roots. Presently the big negro rose and joined me. "Señor," he said. "I have good news. Chico yonder will go with us. He knows the river even better than myself, and, being an Indio, we will be safer if he is with us. And he asks no pay other than tobacco and a knife or two. Does the Patron approve?"
"And it will be two more hands to help in carrying the impedimenta and in managing the cayuca," Pepe reminded us. "With Chico along the Señor will not need to labour like a common peon."
"Bueno" I assented. "But does the boy know the way to the king's house?"
Cordova lowered his voice. "Señor Patron," he rumbled. "All the Indios know well where their king lives. But they will not tell unless one is a friend. But with Chico we can reach the home of a comisario, and if the señor wins his friendship then will all be well."
"A comisario?" I repeated. "What do you mean by that?"
"There are many comisarios," he explained. "Just as El Presidente in Panama has his governors and his alcaldes, so the Indio king has his comisarios. He is a great man, señor, and cannot be seen by all his people, nor can he be everywhere among them. So his comisarios rule their districts and report to their king. And Chico here knows how we may reach a comisario, that is, if the Saints permit us to go that far."
Obviously the Shayshan king was an aloof and difficult monarch to meet, and, equally obviously, he surrounded himself with considerable mystery, doubtless more greatly to impress his subjects with his importance.
But, as I well knew, an Indian along with us would gready facilitate matters, so Chico was prompdy added to our party, and was presented with an advance payment of tobacco and knife, as well as with a gift of a file. With Chico's help, the going was far easier and quicker than on the preceding day. In the first place he insisted upon taking along his own canoe, a ticklish, narrow, semi-cylindrical dugout about twenty feet in length by eighteen inches in width, and which would almost float on a heavy dew. Part of our cargo was transferred to this, and, as a result, we were able to navigate many shoals and rapids without portaging. And when it did become necessary to portage the cayuca's cargo, the heavier packages could often be transferred to Chico's dug-out and transported by water, instead of being carried overland to the next stretch of navigable river.
The first day under the new system was bearable. The sky was overcast, in several places we were able to make portages through jungles over soft earth, and often, for several hours at a time, we had little difficulty in travelling by river.
But the days that followed were indescribable. Never, in all my experience, have I had harder or more horrible going. Often fifty or more portages were made in a day. Frequently they were from five to six miles in length. Always the "road" was over the bare river playa, the mile-broad bed of stones of every size from tiny pebbles to immense masses of glass-smooth rock weighing many tons, all scattered in a confused jumble, all ready to roll or turn at a touch. At every step one was in imminent peril of a sprained ankle or broken limb. Until one has actually experienced it, no one can imagine the hardship and suffering endured when tramping for mile after mile over such a place. One moment one's feet are sinking to the ankles in burning-hot, loose gravel; the next instant one is clambering over delicately balanced boulders a yard or more in height and with yawning crevices between them; one slips and stumbles across stretches of loose, rolling cobbles; splashes through stagnant pools where the green slime, slippery as grease, covers invisible stones beneath the surface; one is alternately drenched by showers and broiled by a merciless sun. Again and again I was on the point of turning back. Nothing on earth seemed worth the exhaustion, the suffering the wrenched muscles, the swarms of gnats and flies, the seemingly endless struggle to cover a few miles when countless miles still lay ahead. Yet the terrible trip was not without interest. Under any other conditions it would have been fascinating to any scientist or lover of nature. Bird and insect life was abundant and strange. Wherever there was a pool of water there were flocks of peculiar, snipe-like wading birds with coral-red legs and beaks, and which were so unafraid of man that we could almost touch them. Everywhere the jungles were alive with toucans, parrots, macaws and countless other birds. Water-ouzels ran nimbly across the rocks and up and down the precipitous river banks, flirting their pale-yellow tails and fluttering their wings. Far overhead the great king-vultures wheeled in endless circles. Magnificent crested-eagles perched upon the topmost limbs of giant dead trees. In the clumps of wild guava bushes dotting the playas saucy tyrant-flycatchers had their immense bulky nests. Hanging like some strange fruits to the branches of gnarled, water-worn snags, were the clustered nests of the flute-voiced orange and black orioles. Humming-birds darted like flashing jewels from flower to flower of blazing orchids decking every tree, and as we tramped across the stones we flushed great moth-like nightjars from their elliptical, lavender-spotted eggs laid upon the bare rocks. Sapphire-blue morphos flitted back and forth in the shade of the jungle's edge, velvety, black butterflies with emerald bars across their six-inch wings swarmed about the edges of pools. Several times we caught glimpses of spike-horned brocket-deer. Once a tapir snorted and dashed from a pool into the forest. Always the bellow of howling-monkeys came from the jungles' depths, and white-faced capuchins and long-limbed, black, spider-monkeys chattered and scolded at us from the walls of foliage. The country teemed with game. On every sandbar and stretch of mud were innumerable imprints of hoofed and clawed feet where jaguars, ocelots, pacas, peccaries and other wild creatures had come to drink. But we had far too much to occupy our minds and our tired bodies to bother with the life all about us. All our faculties were devoted to our slow, laborious progress that seemed endless. Only Chico the Indian remained calm, contented, impervious to everything. While we cursed, struggled, panted and toiled, he smiled, wasted no breath and remained happy and unruffled. And despite our snail-like pace, we were making progress. The country was becoming wilder, the river's banks higher; great stone cliffs and bluffs rose here and there, and each time we had a brief glimpse of the mountains in the distance they were nearer, clearer.
From the time we had left the Indians' hut, days before, we had seen no sign of a human being. It was an uninhabited, untouched wilderness, and it seemed incredible that any man could ever have passed that way before.
Hence it was a most amazing thing when, in passing an outjutting point of land, we saw a wild-looking man hurrying from the jungle to the water's edge, and shouting to us in Spanish. Despite his ragged and wild aspect, and his sun-browned skin, his grey beard and moustache proved him no Indian. Here, I thought, was some castaway of the bush, some unfortunate wanderer who saw salvation in our approaching canoes. But the fellow's first words proved my surmises wrong.
"Señor!" he exclaimed as soon as we were within conversational distance. "It is the will of God that I saw you approaching. For three months, Señor, I have tasted no tobacco. Has the Señor, by the grace of God, a little to spare that he can sell to me? But a thousand pardons, caballero," he cried, as the cayuca grated on the stones. "So long have I dwelt far from my fellow-men that I have forgotten myself. Permit me, Señor, to introduce myself. Señor, I am General Valdez Jimenez at your service. And if the caballero will do me the great honour of partaking of such humble hospitality as I can offer, my house and all it contains are the property of the Señor."
I was astonished. Here, in the very back of beyond where I had thought no civilized man had trod before, I was speaking to an educated, courteous Spaniard who, despite his rags, bore himself with the dignity and manners of a grandee.
Mutual introductions over—and the general having been supplied with the coveted tobacco—he led the way to his house—a thatched, open hut of the Indian type elevated some ten feet above the ground upon stout posts. Had I come upon his residence minus occupants I should have thought it merely the home of an Indian, for there was nothing within or about it to indicate that it was the abode of a civilized white man. And, to add to the deception, two cow-eyed, shy Indian women were busy at culinary operations in one corner.
The story of this queer character was as remarkable as was his appearance in this remote spot in the heart of the jungle. A Spaniard by birth and a general in the army of Colombia, he had become so disgusted with the politics of his adopted land that he had betaken himself to the bush, and for thirty years he had dwelt with his Indian wife here in the jungle far from the haunt of civilized men. But even to this most isolated and unknown spot, news of the outer world had filtered through. Word had reached the general of Panama's declaration of independence, and, strapping on his rusty sabre, and embarking in his dug-out, the old soldier had journeyed to civilization to offer his services in behalf of the new republic. But long before he reached his destination the bloodless revolution was over; Panama was free and a recognized republic, and, finding his services were not needed, General Jimenez, like the King of France, turned about and retraced his weary way to his jungle home, which never but on that one occasion had he left.
"Doubtless the Señor seeks Tisingal?" he suggested when he had told me his story.
"Do all think of but nothing else than Tisingal?" I asked.
The general shrugged. "But of what else is there to think?" he replied. "Si, Señor, for thirty years I have thought of Tisingal. For thirty years have I searched for it. But, as the Señor may see for himself, without success. But it is here—here somewhere in this forest among these mountains. But only the Indios know where. If the Señor seeks—"
"No," I interrupted. "I care nothing for Tisingal. I search for Indians—bravos—I am a scientist and am studying the Indians of the country. Think you, mi general, I can reach the house of the Shayshan king?"
The old veteran smiled. "The fortune-teller of Valencia can tell one that when it rains the streets will be wet," he responded. "But the proverb says not that the fortuneteller can say when it will rain while the streets are still dry. And I, Señor, am not even a fortune-teller. King Polu have I seen thrice in thirty years. But whether or not the Señor will see him—quien sabe? But," he continued, "he is not hostile if one goes to him in peace. Only the Indios, knowing the secret of Tisingal, think, as do all others, that no strangers come this way unless they seek for the lost mine; and they wish no one to find it. And there are the Doraks, Señor,—savages, bravos, horrible. Go not beyond the Shayshan country into the land of the Doraks, Señor. But si, of a truth I think that with Chico here, and with the Coronel Cordova, and after making friends with the Comisario, the Señor may visit King Polu if the Saints and God permit, and if the river be not too dry, and if there is no accident—which God forbid."
In a way the general's words were encouraging. Evidently there was a king; obviously it was not beyond human power to find him, for the old soldier had visited him. I plied the general with questions, but could get little information of value. The king, he declared, was a strange, retiring man surrounded by mystery and superstition. He was an unusually intelligent Indian, and, so it was said, he had, as a boy, lived for a time in the settlements and had acquired much knowledge of civilization as well as a mastery of Spanish and some ideas of Christianity. As to the truth of this the general could not say, but King Polu at least spoke and understood some Spanish. Also, he added, as if the fact were of great importance, the Shayshan king was something of a cripple, one leg being shorter than the other and partly useless. "And he is a great magician and deals in unholy matters," added the old warrior, piously crossing himself. "All the Indios say their king moves through the air at night as a great bird and watches their doings. Myself, I cannot say if this is true, but once, as I lay awake, I saw a monstrous bird flit past—black against the moon. Such a bird, Señor, as no man had ever seen before, and, Señor"—again crossing himself—"I saw that the bird flew unsteadily and that one wing was shorter than the other. Si, I, General Valdez Jimenez, am a devout Catholic, and I believe not in supernatural matters, but—quièn sabe? The Indios know many things we know nothing of, and, perchance, being pagans, they may deal with the Devil. Si, Señor, it may be that here —so far from the Holy Church and the good Padres—the Devil or other evil things may prevail at times. And so, Señor, always I have with me an Indian santo—the image of the Shayshans' god—for who can say that in the Indians' country the Indians' gods may not have power to guard one from evil?"
As he spoke he drew from the bosom of his tattered shirt—where they were suspended by cords about his neck—a greasy scapular and a little golden image. I gaped in utter amazement. It was a beautifully wrought figure of Kulkulcan, the plumed-serpent god of the ancient Mayas!
Nothing would induce him to part with it. To him it was as sacred as to the Indians among whom he had dwelt for so long that he had acquired their beliefs and superstitions, although professing—a bit half-heartedly—his faith in his own religion.
Even Cordova was not entirely free from belief in the occult powers of the Indian sorcerers or "medicine-men," despite his self-appointed task of carrying on as a representative of the Church, and he believed implicitly in ghosts, witches and other supernatural matters. Once the subject was broached, the conversation was all of uncanny occurrences, and weird and hair-raising tales were related regarding seemingly inexplicable and incredible things which, according to the story-tellers, actually had been witnessed by them. No doubt there was a certain amount of truth —or at least foundation—for some of these yarns, for I have, personally, experienced happenings which it is difficult to account for; but largely they dealt with strange, impossible, and wholly imaginary monsters and spirits of the bush common to Indian folk-lore tales throughout tropical America, and which have been handed down by word of mouth through countless ages.
But Cordova and the general had much else to talk over. Cordova had heard of the general, but he had never met him, and now that the two ex-officers of the Colombian forces had been brought together by such a strange chance, they talked over old times, their campaigns, and gossiped of persons they had known. To be sure, they had belonged to opposite factions, and, in former days, would have been deadly enemies; but that night in the general's hut they met on common ground and all former differences were forgotten in their common interests and reminiscences.
We left the general's home in a torrential shower the next morning, and until he was hidden from sight by a bend in the stream, we could see the old Don standing motionless in the drenching rain and wistfully watching us. I had been the first white man to visit him for ten years or more, and our short stay had been an epoch in his solitary, hermitlike existence.
At the end of a week it seemed to me that we must have traversed the entire length of Central America, but Chico, Indian like, would not commit himself. It was always "Un poco mas lejo" (A little farther) to all questions as to the distance to the comisario's house. And then, quite suddenly and without a word of warning from Chico, we were there. No one but an Indian would have dreamed that there were human beings within one hundred miles. No boat was drawn upon the bank, no opening showed in the fringe of dense jungle, no tell-tale smoke rose above the trees, and no sounds of voices or even of dogs issued from the forest.
A scarcely distinguishable trail led from the verge of the stone-strewn playa into the bush, and, with Chico in the lead, we trudged along. Half a mile inland we came upon a small clearing and were vociferously welcomed by yelping curs who rushed snapping and growling towards us from the three thatched huts. As we reached the largest of these, the comisario appeared in person. He was a dignified-looking, keen-faced Indian, and, much to my surprise and momentary disappointment, he was clad in a white homespun cotton coat and trousers. His appearance, in fact, was far more that of a well-to-do native planter than an India bravo. But I soon found that his more or less conventional costume was a mere veneer, and that he and his family were at heart as primitive and unspoiled by civilization as I could wish. All—men and women both—wore clothing, to be sure, but the garments of the women were a blaze of gay colours, their necklaces and other ornaments were of teeth, bones and shells, and there was not a vestige of articles or utensils of civilization in the houses. Finely-woven hammocks swung between the palm-wood timbers; baskets, calabashes and peculiar pottery vessels were scattered about; beautifully finished bows and long arrows were resting on the rafters overhead, and two young Indians were occupied in painting each other's faces. Upon a fire of glowing coals a great earthen olla was boiling and sending forth appetizing odours, and one of the women was busily crushing cacao beans on a wooden slab by rolling a heavy oval stone back and forth upon it.
No one exhibited the least surprise at our appearance, and Chico, quite as a matter of course, informed me that the sphinx-faced comisario had been aware of my approach for the past four days. How he had received the news he did not reveal, but I have no doubt that couriers telling of my plans had been sent overland from the Indian hut where I had first stopped.
Toluka, as the comisario was called, seemed quite friendly, but he did not appear at all enthusiastic over my proposed visit to his king. However, by the time I had been there a few hours, he unbent under the influence of presents to himself and family, and not only gave his official permission for Chico to guide us to the king's castle, but volunteered to send one of his own boys with us so we would be under governmental protection, so to say.
And once Toluka had discovered the contents of my trade-chest, his commercial instincts were aroused and he brought forth innumerable articles of great ethnological interest to trade. There were musical instruments—flutes of bone and clay, ocarinas of animal skulls and pottery, flageolets, rattles and a small drum; woven cotton head-fillets; necklaces, carved wooden fetishes, feather-fans, wooden stools and even a feather head-dress, all of which I added to my collections. Also, I learned that the Shayshans used blow-guns, although there were none at Toluka's; but he assured me that I would find plenty at the king's, as well as many other objects I desired.
Such a keen and insatiable bargainer was the old fellow that I actually believe I could have acquired his home and his family had I so desired. But my stock of trade goods was limited, and I felt certain that I would find more specimens at the royal residence, and so brought our business transactions to an end, much to the comisario's regret.
The rest of the day we rested, and I made good use of my time by acquiring a fairly complete list of Shayshan words, with the result that I became convinced that these Indians actually were of Mayan ancestry, or at least of a race which had come under Mayan influence in times past.
We made an early start, accompanied by a bright-eyed youth who gabbled incessantly with Chico and performed most amazing acrobatic stunts in balancing himself on the gunwale of his ticklish cayuca as he poled the craft along. He was a cheerful, willing fellow, a great help in portaging, and he took everything as a huge joke. And we certainly needed some one of an optimistic disposition. All that had gone before was as nothing compared to the following three days. It was all up-grade, and the river, although very low, tore through its rocky bed like a mill-race. Often the united strength of all six of us was required to drag our canoes against the current, and I tried to imagine what it would be like in the rainy season with the river in full flood. Then it would fill the bed from bank to bank; and the water-swept bluffs and trees, and the bare rounded boulders on either side showed that the torrent would rise for fully fifteen feet above its present level. Here and there immense trees were stranded high and dry upon the playa, and in one spot we passed an uprooted, battered tree over sixty feet in length and five feet through at the base which had been carried down by the raging waters and had been left, firmly wedged between two enormous rocks, ten feet above my head. Yes, bad as it was in the dry season, I thanked my lucky stars I had not attempted to reach the Shayshan territory in the rainy season.
If current tradition and history were true, and Tisingal actually lay somewhere in this wild, untamed land, then superhuman indeed must have been the labours of the old Dons. It seemed utterly impossible that any human beings could have transported supplies and equipment, machinery and tools, even a bell and cannon, over this route to the lost mine, or that they could have built a road through this impenetrable wilderness. But of course they worked with slave labour, loss of life and suffering meant nothing to them if gold was to be won, and, as we toiled onward, I wondered how many worn and tortured men had died along the way, and how many millions in precious metal had been carried down this self-same river to enrich the coffers of the King of Spain or to fall into the hands of the daredevil buccaneers.
Meanwhile the country had been steadily getting wilder and rougher. The river-bed had become a canon; huge masses of grey, pink and green porphyry had taken the place of boulders. On every side rose lofty mountains covered with dense forests. Often we toiled for several hours, lifting and carrying the cayucas over impassable cataracts or through foaming rapids. To traverse the dry river-bed was like scaling the walls of some ruined castle. Scrambling, climbing, with bruised barked shins and hands, we surmounted the barriers of smooth-faced rocks, leaped—with fear gripping our hearts—across the yawning chasms between them, or crawled, crept and wormed our way through the cavern-like interstices among them. To portage our goods necessitated herculean efforts. No living man could force his way for a hundred yards with a load upon his back or shoulders. Each parcel and package had to be lifted, hauled, carried piecemeal from one rock barrier to the next. And then came a time when it was obvious that our craft could go no farther. Before us the river-bed was barred by a great dyke of jagged, razor-pointed, black lava. Through a narrow break in this the river poured in a roaring, plunging torrent, and on both sides the mountains rose in sheer thousand-foot precipices to the low-hanging clouds.
Apparently all our terrible efforts had been for nothing. We had come to the end of our rope. Further progress was impossible.
But Chico and his fellow-tribesman merely grinned, as, calmly and deliberately, they drew their canoes from the stream, began packing the contents of the boats into portageable packages, and showed unmistakable indications of continuing onward. Evidently they knew of some route, and, encouraged, Cordova and Pepe fell to work. But Chico promptly interfered. Only the lighter and most essential articles could be taken, he declared. The rest must be left in the canoes. In reply to my questions he pointed towards the frowning, multicoloured wall of stone that rose on our right. "The road too narrow," he announced. And then, as though stating a most ordinary and well-known fact, he added: "No mas lejo" (Not any farther). "The king's house here!"
Chapter 17 The Guardians of the Lost Mine
Panama, near Costa Rica, 1914—We meet the Crown Prince—In the palace of the king— Descendants of the Mayas—Home life at the palace—A wily chief—The Princess has a tummy ache—The king's gratitude—A surprising invitation—At the gateway to Tisingal—The Doraks arrive—A Jekyll and Hyde tribe.
WAS it possible we had reached our goal? I was not kept long in doubt.
Shouldering their loads, the two Indians picked their way across the stony river-bed towards the precipitous cliff. At the base of the overhanging wall a narrow, scarcely visible trail had been cleared, cut and cleaned among the debris fallen from above. It wound about enormous masses of rock, passed through a tunnel-like aperture under piled-up fragments from the precipice, zigzagged back and forth, ascended a short, steep, outjutting spur, and detoured into the rushing stream, until at last we came to the end of the trail.
Pointing dramatically ahead, Chico exclaimed: "Mira, Señor! La casa del Key!" (Look, sir! The house of the king!).
Before us the bare rocky playa came to an end. The river flowed in a broad swift expanse stretching from bank to bank, and burbling musically over miniature rapids. Above our heads rose the cloud-hung precipice. On the farther shore the land sloped gently upward to a high hill crowned with jungle, and rising, tier after tier, to the distant towering mountains. Up from the pebbly beach stretched a broad sweep of smooth greensward dotted with clumps of lime and palm trees, and upon the summit of the grassy hill stood a large hut, its thatched roof of palm leaves gleaming like gold in the afternoon sunshine.
It was the home of the Shayshan king, and, gazing at it, all our long journey, my sore and blistered feet, all the hardships I had suffered were forgotten, for we had accomplished the seemingly impossible; had arrived safely at the residence of the Caçique of the Shayshans.
Our arrival evidently had been expected, for a group of Indians had gathered at the water's edge below the "palace," and a long, narrow canoe was being poled towards us, its single occupant balancing himself upon the after-end, and handling his frail and cranky craft with incredible dexterity. He was a stocky, sturdy youth and proved to be the crown prince—truly we were being received with high honours.
He was as thoroughly democratic and unassuming as a much more famous and important prince, and, having greeted us in his own tongue—not a word of which I understood—he commenced chatting with my two Indian guides.
We were expected to cross over in the royal barge, but to me it appeared impossible that our entire party and our dunnage could be ferried across the swirling river in such a frail and obviously tricky craft. But it would not do to show my doubts in the presence of royalty, and, as it was either trust to the canoe or swim, I followed my men and belongings into the canoe.
I scarcely dared to breathe, for the water was within an inch of the gunwales, the least movement caused the cayuca to tip dangerously, and a dozen times I felt sure the dugout was on the point of capsizing. But the Indians, and especially the prince, were as unconcerned as though on dry land—but of course the equipment did not belong to them.
Standing erect, the prince poled his craft against the current and performed feats of balancing that would have shamed an expert performer on the slack wire. Almost before I realized it, we reached the shore, and I stepped on to dry land below the house of the king.
Like all Shayshan houses, the "palace" was open on three sides, was built upon posts several feet above the earth, and was floored with strips of black palm wood. Its thatched roof was steeply-pitched and had low eaves. A hearth of baked clay held an ever-smouldering fire, and its furnishings consisted of carved wooden stools, bark-cloth mats, large earthenware pots, baskets, a platform-like affair of split palmwood on which were calabashes and baskets of provisions, and three or four hammocks of pita-hemp fibre.
Squatting near the hearth were several women and girls, while naked princes and princesses played and rolled about like brown kittens.
The king himself reclined in a hammock. He was of indefinite age—but apparently still a young man—with copper-coloured skin, a remarkably high forehead, an aquiline nose, a firm-lipped mouth, keen brown eyes, and was obviously an Indian of most superior intelligence. Much to my surprise he was dressed in cotton shirt and trousers, but upon his thick black hair rested the regal crown of eagle feathers and macaw plumes.
He displayed no signs of either curiosity or surprise at my appearance and, through the medium of Chico as interpreter, he received me most hospitably, had carved wooden stools placed for myself and my men, and placed himself and his house at my service with almost Castilian politeness.
Then the welcoming calabash of thick, unsweetened chocolate was passed around, and, having drunk this with due ceremony, I explained the reason for my visit.
Almost at once I found that—as I had been told by the old soldier-hermit—King Polu understood Spanish perfectly. He did not deny it, but declared he could not speak the language well, and our conversation proceeded in a sort of three-sided dialogue with Chico helping out when the king was at a loss for a Spanish word. I soon found that the king of the Shayshans was a most unusual man for a Central American Indian. Unlike his fellows, he was as stoical and reserved as any Sioux or Apache, and he possessed all the eloquence, all the love of the dramatic and the power of simple poetical expression of the North American Indians.
When I asked him how long his family had ruled the Shayshans, he rose and led me to the open side of the house facing the river. Stretching out his arm the king pointed to the towering mountain-side high above the rushing stream.
"Once," he exclaimed, pointing to the water-worn crags hundreds of feet in air, "the river flowed on top of the mountain. But even then my fathers were kings of the Shayshans."
Also, despite all I had heard, he was a most amiable and friendly chap. He assured me that to find all the members of his tribe would be a long, weary and probably hopeless task, for they were scattered through the mountains miles apart. But, he added, to save me trouble and to help me, he would send a messenger to the outlying tribesmen with orders for all to gather at his house and to bring in such of their possessions as they were willing to trade.
If ever a reigning monarch led a care-free life it was Polu. With only a few subjects to rule, and with half a dozen deputies to aid him, the king's duties were far from onerous. All day long he lolled in his hammock, varying the monotony at times by walking to the river to bathe, or by fashioning a feather head-dress or some other article. Never did he waste breath in unnecessary conversation, and when he spoke, whether in his own tongue or in broken Spanish, it was in the odd sing-song peculiar to his tribe. And while General Jimenez had spoken the truth when he said one leg of the king was shorter than the other, Polu was by no means a cripple and could walk as well as any member of his tribe.
My suspicions that the Shayshans were of Maya stock and perhaps the oldest of Central American tribes were rapidly confirmed. Not only was the language strongly Mayan, but the feather head-dresses used were precisely like those depicted on Mayan sculptures and figured in the engravings and paintings made in the days of the Spanish conquest, and unlike those of any other known tribe. Even more remarkable was the fact that the Shayshan's bows were designed to be bent round side out, thus differing from the bows of any other race. Aside from their bows and arrows the Shayshans used blow-guns, eight to ten feet in length; but instead of darts, these Indians used spherical clay pellets which, at a distance of thirty or forty yards, were as effective as a small calibre rifle for killing large birds and small mammals.
Except for maize and a few plantain and cacao trees, the Shayshans raised nothing in the way of foodstuffs. An almond-like nut, the boiled fruit and flower-buds of the Piva palm, and a wild potato-like tuber were their mainstays, helped out by game and fish. Corn was eaten whole, and the cacao beans, instead of being fermented and made into true chocolate, were roasted like coffee and ground to a powder from which a beverage resembling thick black coffee was made. The Indians drank this in inordinate quantities, taking it boiling hot and almost incessantly from morning until night.
The Shayshans appeared so shy, so friendly and so docile that I could not imagine them in the role of hostile savages. And Polu and the others declared they had always been peaceful, and that while they distrusted and disliked the Spaniards, by whom their ancestors had been enslaved, they had never fought but, for their own protection, had merely moved farther and farther into the wilderness.
But by this time I had come to the conclusion that Polu was a wily fellow and that his long head and sphinx-like face concealed a great deal more guile than one might suppose. When I asked about other tribes who were supposed to inhabit the inaccessible mountains, Polu seemed very loath to answer, and professed the greatest dread of them, although claiming to be at peace with all his neighbours. And when I proposed visiting the Doraks, Polu and his friends showed the greatest concern. They declared it would mean my certain death, explaining that while a Shayshan might enter and pass through the Dorak country, provided he did not linger, no white man would be permitted to set foot beyond the border of Shayshan territory.
When pressed for a reason the king evaded the question, and I began to feel certain he was trying to keep something from me. As I puzzled over this I remembered Señor Toro's words, the tale of the old general, the universal belief that the Shayshans held the secret of the lost Tisingal mine. Also, I recalled Polu's evident desire that I should not visit his subjects, and his suggestion that I remain with him while his courier summoned the tribesmen. Was there, after all, some truth in the rumours? Could it be that the wily king was trying to avoid any possibility of my stumbling upon the secret? Was I, as they say in the game of "hunt the thimble," getting warm?
It was a rather fascinating, amazing conjecture, and it was by no means impossible or improbable that fabulously rich Tisingal might be located comparatively near King Polu's palace.
But I had no interest in mines, old or new, and I had no intentions of searching for Tisingal, especially if to do so might result in arousing the resentment or the suspicions of the Indians and the failure of my purpose in visiting them. Nevertheless, the romantic aspect of the matter appealed to me; my exploring instinct was aroused, and —well, I doubt if there is anyone who would not be a bit thrilled at the thought of being within bow-shot of a long-lost, incredibly rich mine which countless men had sought in vain, and whose history was one of tragedy, drama, bloodshed and mystery.
But the most guarded and adroit questioning failed to draw any definite information from Polu and his fellows, even though I felt sure I had convinced them I was not searching for gold. It might be, they said, that the Doraks knew of the old mine. They themselves had heard from their fathers, who had heard it from their fathers, that long ago the Spaniards had a mine somewhere in the mountains and that the Dons had forced the Shayshans to labour as slaves. But, they declared, they knew nothing; they had no knowledge of gold; it was valueless to them, and if they knew where the mine was they would gladly tell me, for was I not their friend, had I not given them presents, lived with them like a brother, and dwelt in the king's house?
So, deciding that my imagination had overridden my common sense, and that in all probability the Shayshans knew nothing definite about Tisingal, I busied myself with my scientific work and forgot all about the lost mine.
Then, as so often happens, Fate intervened and opened the sealed lips of the Shayshan king. His daughter—a chubby brown princess of eight—was seized with an agonizing but far from dangerous fit of colic, the result of eating far too many oily piva-palm nuts. Her shrieks and screams in the middle of the night aroused every one, and the Indians—firmly believing some evil spirit of the darkness had taken possession of her—added their wails, lamentations and incantations to the uproar.
At first Polu and his copper-coloured queen would have none of the white man's medicine. But when the most potent of charms and Shayshan "medicine," the beating of drums, the slaying of a fowl, and application of "magic" wood and fungus failed to exorcize the "devil," the Shayshans, as a last resort, turned to me.
Very quickly the little princess' tummy responded to proper treatment, her screams of agony changed to sobs, the sobs to whimpers, and soon she was sleeping quietly and soundly on her mat of pounded bark beside the queen. I very much doubt if Polu slept again that night. When I tumbled into my hammock he was sitting motionless, staring into the black starlit night, and when I awoke at dawn he was in precisely the same position, immobile as a bronze statue, his mind evidently concentrated on some deep and important matter. In fact I could almost believe his spirit was wandering about in the form of a giant bird, as the old general had believed, and that only the shell of his body was seated there in the hammock.
Not until the invariable chocolate was passed to him did he return to earth. Then, having gulped down the steaming drink, he rose, took down a long and powerful bow and a sheaf of wicked-looking arrows, and very carefully examined each one in turn. Evidently, I thought, the king was preparing to go on a hunt. Then, to my surprise, he requested me to accompany him.
For a time he walked in silence. Not until we had passed beyond sight and hearing of the house and were well within the jungle did he speak. Then, halting, he turned, beckoned me to his side and grinned. His Spanish was crude and limited, and my recently acquired knowledge of Shayshan was even more limited. But we had always got along famously and there was no possibility of misunderstanding him.
Rubbing his stomach, he twisted his face into an agonized expression. "Wasit" (child), he exclaimed, "mala, mucho mala!" (sick, very sick). Then he closed his eyes and sighed contentedly. "Mekano shabi wasit bueno" ("I am grateful, you were good to my child"), he declared.
"Oron" (yes), I replied. "Wasit kaba warang" (" I am glad the child is well"), I continued, anxious to please him by using his own dialect.
Polu squinted his eyes and the half-quizzical expression I had often noted—an expression suggestive of crafty shrewdness which always reminded me of the look in an elephant's eyes—came over his face. For fully a minute he studied me. Then he turned abruptly and pointed towards the sombre green mountains, their sides still streaked with shreds of night mist, their shadows purple, fathomless, mysterious.
"Batagoa!" (come), he ejaculated. "Tisingal!"
I could scarcely believe my ears, I was absolutely dumbfounded. Polu did know the secret of the lost mine! He was about to reveal it to me, was taking me to it as proof of his gratitude for curing the little princess!
For seemingly endless hours we climbed the mountains through a misty penetrating drizzle. Mile after mile I followed Polu into the shadows of the vast forest. I completely lost all sense of direction. I was drenched to the skin and was heartily sick of it all when the king suddenly halted and signalled for me to draw close. Carefully parting the drooping ferns and interlaced creepers, he pointed to a pile of rotting, moss-grown masonry rent asunder by the snake-like twisted roots of great trees, and almost hidden in the accumulation of decaying vegetation.
Here, buried in the jungle, was the age-old work of civilized men, and, unquestionably, as proved by the mortar, of Europeans. Polu walked a few yards farther, and, stepping aside, showed me a stretch of roughly-paved roadway beside which were the almost vanished hardwood logs of what once—centuries before—might have been a stockade or massive gate. Was it possible I was actually gazing at the remains of the approaches to Tisingal?
Then, while my mind was still a chaos of sensations, Polu, with furtive glances about, as though desecrating a tomb, bent low, and pressing through a thicket, halted among the trees. Before him lay two large cylindrical objects half-buried in the earth. At first glance I took them for moss-covered logs, and then, with fast-beating pulse, I bent over them. There was no doubt about it; they were cannon! Cannon of bronze; ancient guns of small bore, ornately-ringed, bell-mouthed, and thick with the verdigris of centuries of drenching tropical rains and ever-dripping moisture.
Carefully scraping away the growth upon them, I could distinguish figures and letters upon the metal. Corrosion had almost obliterated them, but here and there a letter was decipherable, and the date, "1515," was quite plain upon one.
I had thought that ancient mines—real or imaginary— held only a passing interest for me, and yet, as I knelt there beside those centuries-old guns in the heart of the forest, I felt a wave of exultation such as I seldom have known. Tired muscles, aching limbs, the weary tramp, reeking garments and innumerable intolerable ticks were forgotten. Beyond the shadow of a doubt I was looking upon objects that many a man would have given half his life, thousands of pounds to behold—the ancient Spanish guns that once guarded the way to the richest mine in the New World; the long-lost, long-sought, almost mythical Tisingal! And, strangest of all, that which no other civilized man had been permitted to see had been revealed to me through a child's attack of colic!
Unquestionably I was the first civilized man to view these relics of the past and live to tell of it during all the years that had passed since Tisingal had been lost to the world. Near by, hidden in the rank growth, was wealth beyond one's wildest dreams. If I had dared enter that ominous jungle alone, a silent arrow might have sped from some lurking, watching savage, and my bones might have been added to those of other seekers for Tisingal.
As I stood there in the shadowy forest, with the yelping toucans and chattering parrots breaking the oppressive silence, and looked upon those ancient bronze weapons, the whole tragic story of the mine came vividly to me. No wonder, I thought, that the Doraks maintained an endless vigil and kept all civilized men from rediscovering Tisingal. Gold and the white man's lust for wealth have always been the curse of the Indians, and I was thankful that the secret was so well and effectively guarded. My only regret was that I had no camera. I had not taken it as I left Polu's house, for I had thought I was merely going on a hunt. But I doubt if even Polu's gratitude would have permitted him to let me use it.
Now the king was becoming nervous. He was impatiently urging me to go, was peering furtively about, searching the jungle as if in fear of stealthy, hostile savages. Perhaps it was pure imagination, or perhaps the king's fears were contagious. At any rate I felt that we were being watched, that unseen eyes were upon us, and that I stood very close indeed to death.
So, with a last glance at the mute guardians of the old mine, I turned, and, in Polu's footsteps, threaded my way along the indistinguishable trail that led to the domains of my silent companion.
At last we came forth from the jungle with the king's house in view, and instantly I halted in amazement. Gathered in a little group before the thatched hut were half a dozen wild-looking, naked savages!
Who were they? Had the hostile Doraks swept down on the Shayshans to demand retribution for betraying the secret of Tisingal to a stranger?
But before I could ask a question, before I could utter a word, they had caught sight of us and, in the twinkling of an eye, had vanished.
Oddly enough, Polu did not seem at all surprised or disturbed. He could not or would not understand my queries, and he merely grinned amiably as we hurried across the few rods of open grassland to his palace.
Then I understood. Seated in the house were the Shayshans the king's courier had summoned. They were wild-faced, shock-headed, shy-looking tribesmen, but each and all garbed in ragged shirts and much-patched trousers. At sight of the white man they had hurriedly transformed themselves from untamed savages to semi-civilized Indians—at least outwardly.
Not until much later did I learn the real truth, however. Not until I was leaving for my long and thrilling trip down stream did Polu, with a twinkle in his keen eyes, reveal the secret. The Shayshans and the Doraks were one and the same! A Jekyll and Hyde tribe—peaceful, quiet, friendly and with an external veneer of civilization, or wild, savage, hostile as conditions called for—the Shayshans were the sole guardians of the lost mine!
Chapter 18 How I Became an Indian Chief
Panama circ. 1915—Wild tales—An unconquered race—In the Guaymi country—My friend, Neonandi—Descendants of the Aztecs— The council—Letter-strings—The temple on the mountain-top—The sick dance-chief—The coming of Montezuma— The ceremonial—I become an Indian chief—The strange stick-dance—Tense moments—Montezuma's farewell.
EVER since I had arrived in Panama I had heard wild and lurid tales of the Indians in the remote districts. Obviously many of these were purely the result of the vivid imaginations of the Panamaneans; others were as evidently vastly exaggerated, while some, I felt sure, had a certain groundwork of facts and truth. But one and all agreed in certain respects, and there seemed to be no question that some of the Indians of the Isthmus were far from friendly with the natives, that they held their territories inviolate and kept out intruders, and that they were practically untouched by civilization, Christianity, or the influence of other races.
Among the tribes of which many of these stories were told, were the Indians of the high mountains and lofty interior plateaus of the wildest portions of northern Panama, where, according to all reports, dwelt the mountain Guaymis.
Never had the Guaymis been conquered. For years they carried on a relentless warfare with the Spaniards, until the Dons, deciding that the game was not worth the candle, left the aborigines in undisputed possession of their ancestral mountains. To be sure, some of the Guaymis were enslaved, some were conquered, and some became civilized subjects of Spain, for the Guaymí race was a large one made up of many tribes and sub-tribes who were constantly fighting among themselves. But the true Guaymis of the still-unexplored mountains never gave in, their independence is still recognized by the Panama Government as the "Zona de los Indigenos," and while they are quiet and peaceable and give no trouble—as long as they are left alone—they owe allegiance to no one.
I had been warned that it would be impossible for me to penetrate into the Guaymi country, that every white man who had attempted it had been driven out, and I knew that only a few months previously two American naturalists and their party had been chased from Guaymi territory and had barely escaped with their lives. Like many other tribes, the Guaymis had profited by experience; they knew that if one stranger were permitted to enter their territory others would follow, and that very soon they would have neither territory nor freedom left. They had no ill feeling towards civilized man, for, through the centuries, many had become semi-civilized themselves, many had made visits to the outlying settlements and towns, and many had learned to speak a little Spanish. Also, in order to obtain cloth, tools and firearms they had for years carried on a more or less regular trade with the Panamaneans. But they came and went like shadows, appearing in the border settlements singly or in small parties. Silent, shy and uncommunicative, they remained only long enough to dispose of their beautiful and highly-valued woven pita-hemp bags, their rubber, coffee and cacao, and then vanished again into the unknown fastnesses of their mountains. From time to time, too, various men had attempted to enter the Indian zone, attracted by stories of rich gold deposits, of oil or of rubber. But none had ever gone far. They might penetrate the mountains for a certain distance, might visit the semi-civilized Indians on the fringes of the country, might trade with the outlying tribesmen—but that was all. If they attempted to go farther they were ordered away, although I could find no evidence that any stranger had been killed or injured by the Guaymís for many years.
Personally I had little fear of being ordered out. I had had much experience with various reputedly hostile tribes; I had learned their ways, their psychologies, and several of their dialects; and never had I been harmed or threatened. And I felt I would be just as successful with the Guaymís. Most important of all, I had already made a firm friend of one of the Guaymí chiefs. To his house I went first of all, and, as I had expected and hoped, with him to vouch for me the rest was easy.
For days I dwelt in chief Neonandí's house. I picked up a working knowledge of the dialect, I met many of the tribe, and I secured much valuable information and many specimens. The house, like all Guaymí houses, was a huge affair built of split logs and roofed with thatch. Around the inside of the walls were a number of small platforms partitioned off by mats of fibre or palm-leaves and each of these was occupied by a family. Thus the building was a sort of apartment or communal house. Each family had its own fire, but the benches, the open centre floor and everything else was used in common. These Indians were remarkably clean and had a wonderful idea of sanitation. All drinking water was kept in stopped jars out of reach of dirt or dogs, all food was hung up or placed on palmwood frames or shelves, and no poultry or other live stock was allowed in the house. The house-site was carefully selected so that there was no chance of drainage into the stream used for drinking water, and even latrines were provided in the near-by jungle. Altogether the Guaymís were a fine lot of Indians, tall, stalwart, well-proportioned, with small hands and feet, straight or slightly aquiline high-bridged noses, brown or even hazel eyes, brown or black hair, and with pale-ochre or russet-coloured skins, many of the women being light olive and no darker than a brunette European. They have no villages, the tribesmen being scattered over an immense area—a house here, a house there, often many hours' or even days' marches apart—while the whole country is divided roughly into three districts, each ruled by a separate chief—one of whom was my friend, Neonandí, another his cousin, while the third, to whom the others are subject, was known as Montezuma. How he came by that name, none of the Indians knew. They could only tell me their head chief had always been a Montezuma, and this, together with other facts, convinced me that the Guaymis were the direct descendants of some long-forgotten Aztec province. Many of their customs and habits were distinctly Aztecan, many of their religious beliefs and deities were identical with those of the Aztecs, over forty per cent of the words in their language were Nahua or Aztec, and they—alone of all known existing Indians—still used the ancient Aztec spear-throwing-stick or atlatl which the Guaymís called "n'adli."
Having made these discoveries I was all the more anxious to get into the heart of the Guaymí country, to visit the other chiefs—and most especially Montezuma—to meet as many of the tribe as possible, and to witness some of their dances and ceremonials.
Neonandí had no objections to guiding me to any portion of the Indian country I wished to visit, but he pointed out that it would be a hard, difficult and long trip, that it would be impossible for me to visit all or even a fraction of the houses, and he offered to try and arrange matters so my work would be made much easier and simpler.
The next day Indians by the dozen arrived at the house. All wore their feather head-dresses of eagle, heron, owl, wild-turkey or other feathers; all were dressed in their gorgeously coloured shirts and ornately decorated trousers; all were bedecked with beautifully woven bead-collars and breastplates, necklaces of jaguar and peccary teeth, human scalp-locks, and personal charms or fetishes; and all had their faces painted in red and black in elaborate patterns.
Silently and gravely they would enter the great house, mutter their greetings and, as Neonandí introduced them, would place the right hand on my head and the left on their own breast. Then, seating themselves, they would remain silent, staring fixedly ahead and waiting, as motionless and as patiently as so many stone images. At last all had arrived and Neonandí began talking. I could not catch all he said, but from the words I understood and his eloquent gestures I knew he was urging my cause. In his gorgeous clothes, and with his chief's crown of long iridescent green quetzal feathers—the Aztecs' emblem of a chief—he looked every inch a king. Whatever he said evidently met with approval, for every now and then some Indian would grunt "K'wank!" (good) and nod his head. When the chief at last ceased speaking another Indian rose and talked, and again the others grunted assent. When several had spoken and approval appeared to be unanimous, Neonandí explained that he had proposed sending word to the other chiefs, who in turn would send word to their subjects, calling upon the tribesmen to gather at a certain rendezvous on a certain date so that I might thus visit them all together, and that the others present—all of whom were sub-chiefs and councillors, had agreed.
This seemed an excellent plan, but one of the younger sub-chiefs had an even better idea. Perhaps, he suggested, many Indians would not come merely to oblige a stranger and a white man; for white men were not liked and the wilder and shyer Guaymís might prefer to keep away. But if they were summoned to a ceremonial dance, they would be sure to come. All agreed with this, and preparations were at once made to send word to the chiefs and the tribesmen.
Neonandí brought out a number of plaited cords of palm-leaf, some black, some white, some chequered black and white, and some striped. In these the Indians commenced tying knots, arranging them singly and in groups of various combinations. They were astonishingly like the quipos of the ancient Incas, and, to my surprise and delight, I discovered they were used in precisely the same manner. Each cord had its own meaning or key, the white ones signifying one kind of a message, the blacks another, and so on, while knots indicated the details. It was amazing to find what long and intricate messages could be conveyed in this simple manner.
When all were ready, several young Indians appeared from outside the house, their faces painted with designs indicating they were couriers from Chief Neonandi, and on official business. The face painting of the Guaymis is not purely ornamental, but every design, mark and pattern has its definite meaning, and, in order that these may be always the same, the Indians use carved or engraved wooden stamps for imprinting the pigments on the skin.
Each courier carried a chakara or pouch containing parched maize, a bit of dried meat and some tobacco. Each was given a number of the letter-strings and, silently as ghosts, they slipped from the house into the night and started on their long journey over the mountains. I was surprised that they did not use horses, for the Guaymís all own tough and wiry ponies and are splendid horsemen. But Neonandi assured me that they could travel faster and farther afoot; and later, when I journeyed over the mountains and saw the awful trails and fearfully rough and broken country, I was not surprised that the couriers preferred Shank's mare.
The meeting had been arranged for eight days later, and in due time we left Neonandís house, the chief having placed a carved wooden figure or "proxy" in the doorway to guard his home during his absence—and headed into the mountains. The going was hard but the scenery was superb. There were cloud-piercing peaks, roaring rivers, tumbling cataracts, rich mountain valleys and vast upland plains or savannas. Most of the time we were well above the jungle, often above the timber-line, and stunted live-oaks and coarse grass were the only forms of vegetation. Three days of fearful trails—traversing razor-edged ridges with yawning abysses on either side, skirting terrific precipices where a misstep meant certain death, fording torrents, scrambling up one precipitous mountain-side and sliding down another—brought us at last, tired, aching and sun-baked, to the meeting-place. A marvellously beautiful spot it was! In the midst of a maze of cloud-draped ranges a great flat-topped, isolated mountain rose like a stupendous pyramid. Upon this, in the centre of the level space at the summit, stood the ceremonial house or temple, an immense structure of fresh thatch and timber especially erected for the occasion. It was fully one hundred feet in length by sixty feet wide and fifty feet high, with its eaves reaching to within two feet of the ground. A few yards to one side was a smaller building—put up, I found, for my own use. But it was already occupied. Just inside the door was a small raised platform, and, squatting upon this and thoroughly at home, was a shrewd-faced, wrinkled little Indian whose owl-feather head-band and insignia showed him to be a medicine-man. Bobbing and grinning he declared—to Neonandí and myself—that he had installed himself within the entrance to my hut for the purpose of guarding me from evil spirits. But I soon found the wily fellow had more selfish motives for being there. No Indian could come to my hut to trade without passing this Cerberus at my gates, who permitted no one to enter without paying toll—or perhaps better, duties—in the shape of articles of native handiwork, which, later on, he disposed of to me at a good profit. He was a leech, a grafter and a parasite no doubt, but he was a medicine-man and as such was regarded with a certain amount of respect and fear, and, as through him I secured many specimens which I might not have obtained otherwise, and as he was rich in folk-lore, and was a veritable mine of information for me, I permitted him to remain.
Already scores of Guaymís had gathered on the mountain-top, dozens of spirals of blue smoke rose from the camp-fires, and the gorgeously coloured costumes of the assembled Indians gave a most striking effect as they moved about, the women cooking the evening meal, the men busy with preparations for the dance, and the children running, jumping and rolling about here, there and everywhere.
I had scarcely settled myself in my hut when Neonandí, who had slipped away, returned and informed me that the "dance-chief" was very ill, and that unless he recovered no ceremonial could be held. Would I try to cure him? I agreed to try, and Neonandí led the way to the great temple and, stooping low, we squirmed under the eaves and entered the building.
Within, the beams and rafters were hung with flowers, birds' skins, and streamers of dyed cotton. In the centre stood an altar-like table piled high with every variety of food known to the Guaymís, and decorated with maize-stalks, flower-covered coffee-tree branches, sugar-cane flowers, and brilliant orchids. Round two sides of the building were rows of roughly-hewn log benches and carved wooden stools, and in a farther corner was a small raised platform enclosed by a yard-high partition of woven palm leaf.
Here, wrapped in innumerable skins and bark-cloth blankets, lay a wizened, grey-headed old Indian, his face drawn and pinched with pain. I diagnosed his case as nothing worse than colic, gave him some pills, and assured him and Neonandí that he would be quite well by the following day.
As we emerged from the great house the Indians gathered about and gazed at me almost reverently, for word had spread that I was doctoring the dance-chief, who, to their minds, was a most sacred personage and a great witchdoctor. If he sought my help, they reasoned, I must be an even greater medicine-man!
I had thought that all the participants in the forthcoming ceremonial were now present, but throughout the night and the day following the Indians continued to arrive, until on the morning of the great day over one thousand Guaymís were gathered on the mountain-top. Most assuredly Neonandi's letter-strings had done their work well!
Montezuma, however, had not appeared. Neonandí was sure that he would attend, but as hour after hour passed without a sign of him even the assembled Indians began to think that their head-chief had failed them. Then from far off came the faint sound of a cow-horn trumpet, and instantly the Indians were on the alert. Shouting "Montezuma! Montezuma!" they commenced beating drums and blowing horns and whistles.
Soon, from beyond a projecting spur of the mountainside, a little group of mounted Guaymís appeared and, to a welcoming roar of salutation, the ruler of all the Guaymís came riding into our midst.
I had pictured the Guaymi king as an old, grim-visaged Indian, but to my amazement he was a young man, a finely-built, well set-up and very light-skinned Indian, with regular features, a dignified expression, broad forehead, and intelligent face. His costume was in no way different from that of his subjects, though his crown of sacred quetzal plumes, set off by a band of golden and scarlet macaw feathers, was a most regal affair.
Also, much to my surprise, Montezuma addressed me in fairly good Spanish, although it developed later that a few set phrases comprised his entire knowledge of that language. He seemed very friendly, told Neonandí that he would order his subjects to permit me to photograph them, and added that he would instruct them to bring all the handiwork they possessed and trade with me. Then, accompanied by Neonandí and two medicine-men, he disappeared into the temple.
As the sun set the Indians lit flaring torches; and when night fell they gathered in a great throng about the ceremonial house. Drums boomed, flutes and whistles shrilled, and rattles shook, until the barbaric music rose to a deafening roar. Then, slowly at first, but with ever-increasing speed, the Indians commenced dancing round and around the temple, chanting in unison, keeping time to the throbbing drums and piping flutes, and alternately stooping low or leaping up in regular order, until the moving stream of figures appeared like a great serpent gliding in sinuous curves about the building.
Suddenly the music stopped, and silently the dancers faded away, ducking under the eaves of the temple. From within came a weird chant, a wailing cadence, and the slow measured beat of drums. I was anxious to enter and watch what was going on, but Neonandí warned me against it. The evil spirits were being driven out, he explained, and if I went near they might take possession of me. A few moments later, however, when the music had ceased, the chief touched my arm and beckoned for me to follow him. I was to enter the temple to witness the sacred ceremonies of the Guaymís, to see what no other white man had ever looked upon!
Inside, a few guttering torches cast a fitful glare over the scene and filled the great building with resinous smoke. Round one side the men were seated—row after row of closely packed, savage-looking figures, staring fixedly ahead, smoking their ceremonial pipes of carved stone, and giving not the least sign that they had noticed my entrance or were aware of my presence. Between them and the central altar-like structure was a fire of huge logs, and over this girls were cooking thick, unsweetened chocolate, while near by others stirred an immense pot of rice chicha.
Moving silently about, other girls were passing the chicha and bitter chocolate to the men; and on the opposite side of the altar sat scores of women, their long hair falling over their faces and their eyes fixed upon the floor. All about the altar were placed small earthenware effigies of birds, beasts and reptiles, with a few human figures, some monsters that resembled ogres or devils, and many miniature clay pots, dishes and plates.
All this I took in at a glance, and then seated myself on a low stool that had been reserved for me. Also, I accepted the chicha and chocolate handed to me and endeavoured to sit as silently and immovably as the Indians, while expectantly awaiting the next item on the programme.
Presently Neonandí rose, approached the altar, and began to harangue the assembled Guaymís. What he said I could not catch, for he spoke rapidly and used many words I had not before heard, but now and then a phrase was intelligible. As he ceased speaking a chorus of "K'wanks!" came from some of the Indians. Next Montezuma stepped forward, arrayed in all his gorgeous regalia and with the long quetzal feathers of his crown gleaming like emeralds in the torchlight. Very eloquently he spoke, and as he concluded a roar of "K'wank! K'wank!" came from the audience. Many, however, remained silent, showing no signs of either approval or disapproval.
Montezuma resumed his seat, and a strange and impressive figure came hopping to the centre of the floor. Wonderfully clad, decorated with strings of scalp-locks, feathers and animal skins, his chest covered with beadwork and teeth, a crown of immense white aigrettes upon his head, and his wrinkled features almost concealed by intricate painting, I scarcely recognized the old dance-chief whom I had doctored the preceding afternoon.
In a high, cracked voice he addressed the Indians, leaping in air, waving his arms to emphasize his words. When he ceased at last every man present shouted "K'wank! K'wank!" The vote, whatever it was, was unanimous.
The next moment Neonandi and Montezuma came forward, and grasping my arms, led me, astonished and unresisting, to a spot beside the altar. Was I, I wondered, to be sacrificed? Had all this ceremony been planned to lead up to this end? I couldn't believe it, but I must admit I did feel nervous. Neonandi's grin and Montezuma's smile reassured me, however.
Then, in broken Spanish Neonandi proceeded to explain, and his words were even more amazing than anything that had gone before. I had, he said, been duly elected a member of the tribe! He had proposed it, Montezuma had seconded it, and the old high-priest had carried the motion without a dissenting voice. It was evidently up to me to say something; so, as well as I was able, I made an impromptu speech in a weird mixture of Guaymi and Spanish, which was duly—though I fear far from literally—interpreted by Neonandi, and was greeted with uproarious applause.
The next instant the dance-chief came hopping from his corner carrying a basket and a bag. Thrusting his claw-like hand into the latter, he drew out a bead collar and gorget, which he quickly placed about my neck. Next came a string of jaguar teeth and a fillet of scalp-locks. A painted drum was hung over my shoulder, and then, as Montezuma deftly drew the tribal mark of the Guaymis across my cheeks, and added two round spots below them and a line down my nose, the dance-chief placed a crown of hair from the giant ant-bear upon my head.
I was absolutely dumbfounded, for I knew enough of Guaymí customs to realize that I was not only being made a Guaymí, but a medicine-chief as well, for the crown of ant-bear hair is the emblem of that rank, as are also the painted dots on the cheeks.
I was, I knew, being most highly honoured by my Indian friends, but I confess I felt rather silly and horribly conspicuous with all those Guaymis staring at me, for even the women had brushed back their hair and had turned to gaze at the unique ceremony of transforming a white man into an Indian. And I was nervous as to the further steps in the initiation. Should I be forced to endure some torture to prove my fitness to become a member of the tribe, or to undergo some other and perhaps equally unpleasant and impossible test?
But I need not have worried. The initiation—at least in my case—was very simple, once I had been elected by vote and decked in the full regalia of a Guaymí medicine-chief. Neonandí, Montezuma and the dance-chief saluted me in Guaymí fashion, addressed me as "brother," and made short speeches.
These were greeted with howls of approval and a bedlam of drums, whistles, rattles and trumpets. Then, when I had swallowed a calabash of chocolate, the ceremony was at an end, and I resumed my seat amid my fellow-tribesmen. I was a full-fledged Guaymí chief, honoured as no other white man had ever been—and all because I had cured an old Indian of indigestion!
Scarcely was I seated when the assembled Indians rose and commenced a slow, wailing chant. The barbaric music was resumed, while the old dance-chief took his place beside the altar, carrying a "devil-slick" in one hand.
Then, in perfect rhythm, the Indians began dancing round and round the altar. Every now and again one would shout the name of some bird, beast, person or spirit. Then, leaping aside from the line of dancers, he would seize a handful of food from the altar, thrust some in his mouth, stoop quickly and drop some into one of the tiny clay dishes, and throw the remainder into the fire. At the same time the dance-chief would pick up the image of the creature or being whose name had been called, together with the dish of food, and breaking them into bits, toss them into the flames.
This continued until the last of the food and the last of the images had been destroyed. It was a strange and interesting rite, and Neonandi gladly explained its purpose to me. The images, it seemed, represented persons, beasts, birds and supernatural beings who could not attend the ceremony in person, but whose spirits were believed to have entered the figures for the occasion. The food on the altar was for them, for being unable to eat while in their clay forms, the Indians acted as proxies, while the dance-chief broke the images in order to release the spirits so that they might return to their own bodies. And he burned the fragments in order to prevent evil spirits from taking possession of them.
When the last image had been disposed of the ceremony came to an abrupt end. The Indians gathered in groups, laughing and chatting, and presently all had slipped from the building. Outside all was in readiness for the grand finale—the strange "stick-dance," dear to the hearts of the Guaymis. About a cleared level, flaring torches had been placed, although the bright moonlight rendered them unnecessary; and round this spot the women and most of the men were squatted, waiting for the fun to begin. At one side stood the band—gaily bedecked with feather crowns and immense sloth-skin head-dresses—carrying drums, flutes, whistles, trumpets and rattles. Near them, and arguing loudly, were several Indians, some carrying seven-foot poles about three inches in diameter, pointed at one end and brilliantly painted, and all wearing strapped to their backs stuffed skins of jaguar, otter, deer and peccary bedecked with feathers, bead-collars and scalps. These were the dancers, and there appeared to be great difficulty in deciding who should start the dance. And when I saw it in full swing I was not surprised that each man hesitated to be the first victim, for compared to the Guaymi stick-dance Rugby football is a gentle game.
Presently, however, all was satisfactorily arranged. The band struck up, marched several times around the arena, and took up its position at one side. Two Indians sprang into the open space, one carrying his heavy stick poised like a harpoon in both hands. Instantly they began to dance, the one without a stick hopping in the air, spreading his feet wide apart, dodging back and forth, and constantly looking over his shoulder at the other, who, with poised stick, shuffled and skipped about in time to the music.
Presently he lurched forward, the pole hurtled through the air, and with a dull thud struck the other's leg. He went down as if shot, and a roar of merriment and applause arose from the onlookers. Limping, but with a broad grin, the fellow picked himself up and once more began to dance. Once again his opponent threw the stick, but this time the other dodged, the staff sped harmlessly between his legs, and the crowd fairly screamed with delight.
Now it was his turn, and as the other danced he threw the stick and brought the fellow down at the first throw. By this time the arena was crowded with dancers and stick-throwers, and the heavy staves flew thick and fast. According to rules, the dancer must serve as a target until he evades the stick, whereupon the thrower takes his place. Amid the fusillade of sticks and the tangle of dancers, I could not understand how anyone was sure who hit another, or whose partner dodged. That some Indian was not crippled or killed seemed miraculous, but the stuffed skins on the dancers' backs protected their spines, and Neonandi assured me that serious injuries were rare. Still, it was emphatically no child's game, and when the Indians urged me to try my hand—or rather feet—I felt that being a Guaymi had its drawbacks. However, I was a member of the tribe, I could not well refuse, and it would have ill-befitted a medicine-chief to show signs of cowardice. So, with a stuffed ocelot skin on my back, I hesitatingly entered the dancing space.
Being a new hand at the game, the Indians considerately arranged that I should have the part of stick-thrower instead of dancer. I am quite sure, too, that the fellow who danced allowed me to bowl him over repeatedly, and I am equally certain that when at last he dodged and I took his place he purposely avoided hitting me. The assembled Guaymis, however, like the good sportsmen they were, applauded my success as loudly as though I had been an expert. Throughout the night the fun continued, until all were too weary or too bruised to dance longer. By dawn, too, many of the Indians had vanished, slipping like ghosts into the fastnesses of the mountains.
I had accomplished far more than I had hoped for, but I greatly regretted that I had been unable to take a photograph of the stick-dance. But when I spoke of this to Montezuma and Neonandi, the two chiefs at once solved the difficulty. A special stick-dance would be held by daylight for my benefit!
Never in all the history of the Guaymis had such a thing been done before, but Montezuma's word was law, and though some of the Indians demurred at first, they went through the dance. But despite all the chiefs could do, the participants would insist on watching me and my camera, and they took far more interest in my actions than in the dance.
All through that day the Indians continued to leave —often with no word of farewell to anyone, sometimes coming to my hut to bid good-bye to Neonandí and myself—but still hundreds remained.
That night, as we sat in my hut, the Indians began dropping in until the walls were lined with the Guaymís. Presently a fellow slipped in whom I recognized as an Indian who had worn a remarkable head-dress of sloth-skin during the day, and who had objected most strenuously to being photographed.
Suddenly he emitted an agonized groan and slumped to the floor. I hurried to him to find him gasping, his face contorted, and apparently dying. Here was a pretty how-do-you-do. If the fellow expired every Indian—with the possible exception of Neonandí and Montezuma—would be convinced he had been destroyed by having been photographed, and, as practically all present had also been snapped, they would begin to fear for their own lives. In that case, my life would not be worth a brass farthing. Even though I was an honorary member of the tribe, even though Neonandí and Montezuma stood by me, nothing could save me if that miserable Indian died on my hands. Nervous, frightened, my mind trying to formulate some plan, I dragged the fellow into the light and warmth of the fire. I could find no heart-beat, no breath. I forced open his eyelids and found the eyes rolled up, and never a quiver resulted when I touched them. I forced open his lips, poured whisky down his throat, rubbed him, slapped him, tried artificial respiration, and finally, at the end all my resources, wrapped him in blankets and placed him close to the fire. All the time the Indians were gazing, fixedly, silently at me. Their eyes gleamed, their stern lips were set, and I felt it would be but a matter of minutes before they sprang upon me. Neonandí was as nervous, as worried, as myself. But he was powerless to prevent an attack under such conditions, and, I fear, he was not entirely free from superstitions regarding the cause of the Indian's apparent demise. There was nothing I could do. Any effort to resist those sullen, glaring savages would have been worse than useless, and so, striving to remain calm and to show no signs of fear, with the idea of bluffing the watching crowd, I calmly filled and lit my pipe and nonchalantly seated myself in my hammock. Slowly, the minutes passed; each second I thought would be my last, and then—so unexpectedly that it was downright uncanny—the miracle happened! The "dead" Indian sighed, he opened his eyes, he rose to his feet, and without a word he stalked from the hut and vanished into the night! He had had a fit, nothing more.
It had been a close call for me, but it brought most unexpected results. The Indians, quite convinced that their fellow-tribesman had actually died, saw in his resurrection some great and awesome magic on my part. Had they not seen him dead? Had I not brought him back to life? Their new white medicine-chief was a mighty witchdoctor indeed. They gazed at me in awe, regarded me as a superior being, and vied with one another in bringing me their choicest possessions. But, thank Heaven, they did not bring a really defunct Indian and ask me to restore him to life!
By the next morning only Neonandí and his people and Montezuma and his retinue were left of the hundreds who had gathered on the mountain-top. Montezuma had already urged me to visit his section of the kingdom, and when he prepared to depart he repeated his invitation, addressing me as "brother" and assuring me of protection and perfect freedom wherever and whenever I might travel through the Guaymís' lands.
"You are one of us," he said. "Though your skin is white, you are my kinsman and brother and a medicine-chief. You are Cuviboranandi" (the white stranger who came over sea to become a medicine-chief). "Every Guaymí in the land knows of you, and whenever you return, even though all of my blood and all those who have been here are dead, still will you be known as a Guaymí and welcomed everywhere—even among the most barbarous and savage of my people."
I feel sure he spoke the truth. An Indian's memory is long, and, no doubt, should I ever return to the Guaymí country, I should be regarded not as a stranger and a white man, but as an Indian. The chances are, however, that I shall never go back, and only my picturesque regalia and the memory of the weird night ceremony on the mountain-top will remain to remind me that I am a Guaymi Indian chief.
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- Jungle Chums -Chs 1-3
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- On the Return of the Medicine Stick
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- Thirty Years in the Jungle -Ch 9-11
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- The Story of the First Carib
- The Lost Mine -Part1
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- As an armed forces brat, we lived in Rockcliff (Ottawa), Namao (Edmonton), Southport (Portage La Prairie), Manitoba, and Dad retired to St. Margaret's Bay, NS.
Working with the Federal Govenment for 25 years, Canadian Hydrographic Service, mostly. Now married to Gail Kelly, with two grown children, Luke and Denyse. Retired to my woodlot at Stillwater Lake, NS, on the rainy days I study the life and work of A. Hyatt Verrill 1871-1954.