The Popular Magazine on June 15 of 1911
Slave-trade was what bandits or people seeking riches turned to once they realized that the rubber trade would not pan out for every foreigner who landed in the Peruvian jungles. Our main character had been a slave-trader, but got his act together and discovered that life had to consist of something else for him.
“Roger Casement, an Irishman travelling the Putumayo region of Peru as a British consul during 1910-1911 documented the abuse, slavery, murder and use of stocks for torture against the native Indians.” (Wikipedia)
IQUITOS was a magnet for wanderers and a safe hiding-place for men who must turn their faces from civilization. Rubber drew adventurers and criminals to this Peruvian frontier town as gold lured them to the Klondike.
Among the motley crowd of rubber hunters boarding the Amazonas for the up- river trip was a Spaniard, upon whom all eyes were trained. At the end of the gangplank, Captain Valdez stopped him and tried to send him back. The rubber hunter, however, appeared to be a man whom it would be impossible to turn aside.
“There’s my passage,” he shouted. “I’m going aboard.”
No one in Iquitos knew him by any other name than Manuel. He headed the list of outlaw rubber hunters, and was suspected of being a slave hunter as well. Beyond the Andes was a government which, if it knew aught of the slave traffic, had no power on that remote frontier. Valdez and the other boat owners, however, had leagued themselves together and taken the law into their own hands, for the outlaws destroyed the rubber trees instead of tapping them, which was the legitimate work, and thus threatened to ruin the rubber industry. Moreover, the slave dealers alienated the Indians, and so made them hostile.
Captain Valdez now looked doubtfully at Manuel. The Spaniard was of unusual stature; his cavernous eyes glowed from under shaggy brows; his thin beard, never shaven, showed the hard lines of his set jaw. In that crowd of desperate men he stood out conspicuously. He had made and squandered more money than any six rubber hunters on the river; he drank chicha and had a passion for games of chance; he had fought and killed his men.
“I’m going aboard,” he repeated, pushing past Valdez.
“One more trip, then, Manuel,” said the captain slowly. We’re going to shut down on you outlaws.”
“They’re all outlaws. Every man who has nerve enough to go as far as the Pachitier is an outlaw. Valdez, do you think I’m a slaver?”
“You’re suspected—among others,” replied the captain warily.
“I never hunted slaves,” bellowed Manuel, waving his brawny arms. “I never needed to sell slaves. I always found cowcha more than any man on the river.”
“Manuel, I’ll take you on your word. But listen—if you are ever caught with Indians, you’ll get the chain gang or be sent adrift down the Amazon.”
“Valdez, I’ll take my last trip on those terms,” returned Manuel. “I’m going far—I’ll come in rich.”
per deck were the pilot house, the captain’s quarters, and a small, first-class cabin, which was unoccupied. The twenty-four passengers on board traveled second-class, down on the lower deck. Forward it was open, and here the crew and passengers slept, some in hammocks and the rest sprawled on the floor. Then came the machinery. Wood was the fuel used, and stops were made along the river when a fresh supply was needed.
Aft was the dining saloon, a gloomy hole, narrow and about twelve feet long, with benches running on two sides. At meal times, the table was lowered from the ceiling by a crude device of ropes and pulleys.
The night of the departure this saloon was a spectacle. The little room, with its dim, smelly lamp and blue haze of smoke, seemed weirdly set between the vast reaches of the black river. The passengers crowded there, smoking, drinking, gambling. These hunters, when they got together, spoke in very loud tones, for in the primeval silence and solitude of the Amazonian wilderness they grew unaccustomed to the sound of their own voices. Many languages were spoken, but Spanish was the one that gave them general intercourse.
It was a muggy night, and the stuffy saloon reeked with the odors of tobacco and perspiration and the fumes of chicha. The unkempt passengers sat coatless, many of them shirtless, each one adding to the din around the gambling board.
Presently the door of the saloon was filled by the form of a powerful man. From his white face and blond hair he might have been taken for an Englishman. The several gambling groups boisterously invited him to play. He had a weary, hunted look that did not change when he began to gamble. He played indifferently, spoke seldom, and lost at every turn of the cards. There appeared to be no limit to his ill luck or to his supply of money.
Players were attracted from other groups. The game, the stakes, the din, the flow of chicha—all increased as the night wore on.
Like the turn of the tide, the silent man’s luck changed. After nearly every play he raked in the stakes. Darker grew those dark faces about the board, and meaning glances glittered. A knife gleamed low behind the winner’s back, clutched in a lean hand of one of the gamesters. Murder might have been done then, but a big arm swept the gamester off his feet and flung him out of the door, where he disappeared in the blackness.
“Fair play!” roared Manuel, his eyes glowing like phosphorus in the dark. The sudden silence let in the chug of machinery, the splashing of the paddle wheel, the swishing of water. Every eye watched the giant Spaniard. Then the game recommenced, and, under Manuel’s burning eyes, continued on into the night.
At last he flipped a gold piece on the table and ordered chicha for all.
“Men, drink to Manuel’s last trip up the river,” he said. “I’m coming in rich.”
“Rubber or Indians?” sarcastically queried a weasel-featured Spaniard.
“Bustos, you lie in your question,” replied Manuel hotly. “You can’t make a slave hunter of me. I’m after rubber. I’ll bring in canoes full of rubber.”
“Manuel, where will you strike out?” asked one.
“For the headwaters of the Palcazu. Who’ll go with me?”
Few rubber hunters besides Manuel had ever been beyond the junction of the Pachitea and the Ucayali; and the Palcazu headed up in the foothills of the Andes. Little was known of the river, more than that it marked the territory of the Cashibos, a mysterious tribe of cannibals. None of the men manifested a desire to become Manuel’s partner. He leered scornfully at them, and cursed them for a pack of cowards.
After that night he had little to do with his fellow passengers, used tobacco sparingly, drank not at all, and retreated sullenly within himself. Manuel never went into the jungle out of condition.
The Amazonas turned into the Ucayali, and day and night steamed up that thousand-mile river, stopping often for fuel, and here and there to let off the rubber hunters. All of them bade Manuel good-by with a jocund finality. At La Boca, which was the mouth of the Pachitea and the end of Captain Valdez’s run, there were only three passengers left of the original twenty-four—Bustos, Manuel, and the stranger who seemed to have nothing in common with the rubber hunters.
“Manuel,” said Bustos, “you’ve heard what the Palcazu is—fatal midday sun, the death dews, the man-eating Cashibos. You’ll never come in. Adios!”
Then Captain Valdez interrogated Manuel.
“Is it true you are going out to the Palcazu?”
“That looks bad, Manuel. We know Indians swarm up there—the Chunchus of the Pachitea, and farther out the Cashibos. We’ve never heard of rubber there.”
“Would I go alone into a cannibal country if I hunted slaves?”
“What you couldn’t do has yet not been proven. Remember, Manuel—if we catch you with Indian children, it’s the chain gang or the Amazon.”
Manuel, cursing low, lifted his pack and went down the gangplank. As he stepped upon the dock a man accosted him.
“Do you still want a partner?”
The question was put by the blond passenger. Manuel looked at him keenly for the first time, discovering a man as powerfully built as himself, whose gray eyes had a shadow, and about whom there was a hint of recklessness.
“You’re not a rubber hunter?” asked Manuel.
“Why do you want to go with me? You heard what kind of a country it is along the Palcazu?”
“Yes, I heard. That’s why I want to go.”
“Ha, ha!” laughed Manuel curiously. “Seqor, what shall I call you?”
“It’s no matter.”
“Very well, it shall be Seqor.”
Manuel carried his pack to a grove of palms bordering the river, where there was a fleet of canoes. Capmas Indians lounged in the shade, waiting for such opportunity to trade as he presented. Evidently Manuel was a close trader, for the willing Indians hauled up several canoes, from which he selected one. For a canoe, its proportions were immense; it had been hollowed from the trunk of a tree, was fifty feet long, three wide, and as many deep.
“Seqor, I’m starting,” said Manuel, throwing his pack into the canoe.
“Let’s be off, then,” replied Seqor.
“But—you still want to go?”
“I’ve taken out strangers to these parts—and they never came back.”
“That’s my chance.”
“Seqor, up the Pachitea the breeze seldom blows. It’s hot. Sand flies humming all day long—mosquitoes thicker than smoke—creeping insects—spiders, snakes, crocodiles, poison dews, and fevers—and the Cashibos. If we get back at all, it will be with tons of rubber. I ask no questions. I, too, have gone into the jungle and kept my secret. Seqor, do you go?”
Seqor silently offered his hand; and these two, outlaw and wanderer, so different in blood and the fortunes of life, exchanged the look that binds men in the wilderness. Whereupon Manuel gave one of the eighteen-foot, wide-bladed paddles to his companion, and, pushing the canoe off the sand, began to pole upstream close to the bank. None but the silent Campas Indians saw their departure, and soon they, and the grove of palms, and the thatched huts disappeared behind a green bend of the river.
The Pachitea, with its smooth current, steamed under the sun. The voyagers kept close to the shady side. The method of propelling the canoe permitted only one to work at a time. Beginning at the bow, he sunk his paddle to the bottom, and, holding it firmly imbedded, he walked the length of the canoe. When he completed his walk to the stern, his companion had passed to the bow. Thus the momentum of their canoe did not slacken, and they made fast time.
Gradually the strip of shade under the full-foliaged bank receded until the sun burned down upon them. When the tangled balls of snakes melted off the branches, and the water smoked and the paddles were too hot to handle, Manuel shoved the canoe into the shade of overhanging vines. It was a time when all living things, except the heat-born sand flies, hid from the direct rays of the midday sun. While the Spaniard draped a net over the bow of the canoe these sand flies hummed by like bullets. Then Manuel motioned his comrade to crawl with him under cover, and there they slept away those hours wherein action was forbidden.
About the middle of the afternoon they awoke to resume their journey; leisurely at first, and then, as the sun declined, with more energy. Fish and crocodiles rippled the surface of the river, and innumerable wild fowl skimmed its green width.
Toward sunset Manuel beached on a sandy bank, where there was a grove of siteka trees. He had gone into the jungle at this point and brought out rubber. The camp site was now waist deep in vegetation, which Manuel mowed down with his machete. Then he built two fires of damp leaves and wood, so they would smoke and somewhat lessen the scourge of mosquitoes. After that he carried up the charcoal box from the canoe and cooked the evening meal.
Manuel found it good to unseal the fountain of speech, that always went dry when he was alone in the jungle. It took him a little while to realize that he did all the talking, that Seqor was a silent man who replied only to a direct question, and then mostly in monosyllables. Slowly this dawned upon the voluble Spaniard, and slowly he froze into the silence natural to him in the wilderness.
They finished the meal, eating under their head nets, and then sat a while over the smoky fires, with the splash of fish and the incessant whining hum of mosquitoes in their ears. When the stars came out, lightening the ebony darkness, they manned the canoe again, and for long hours poled up the misty gloom of the river.
In the morning they resumed travel, slept through the sweltering noon, and went on in the night. At the end of the fifth day’s advance, Manuel pointed out the mouth of a small tributary.
“So far I’ve been. Beyond here all is strange to me. White men from Lima have come down the river; but of those who have gone up farther than this, none have ever returned.”
What a light flashed from the eyes of his partner! Manuel was slow to see anything singular in men. But this served to focus his mind on the strangest companion with whom he had ever traveled.
Seqor was exceedingly strong and implacably tireless; a perfect fiend for action. He minded not the toil, nor the flies, nor the mosquitoes, nor the heat; nothing concerned him except standing still. Seqor never lagged, never shirked his part of the labor, never stole the bigger share of food, which was more than remarkable in the partner of a rubber hunter.
So Manuel passed through stages of attention, from a vague stirring of interest to respect and admiration, and from these to wonder and liking, emotions long dormant within him. The result was for him to become absorbed in covert observation of his strange comrade.
Seqor ate little, and appeared to force that. He slept only a few hours every day, and his slumbers were restless, broken by turning and mumbling. Sometimes Manuel awakened to find him pacing the canoe or along a sandy strip of shore. All the hot hours of their toil he bent his broad shoulders to the paddle, wet with sweat. Indeed, he invited the torture of the sun and flies. His white face, that Manuel likened to a woman’s, was burned red and bitten black and streaked with blood.
When Manuel told him to take the gun and kill wild fowl, he reached instinctively for it with the action of a man used to sport, and then he drew back and let his companion do the shooting. He never struck at one of the thousands of snakes, or slapped at one of the millions of flies, or crushed one of the millions of flies, or one of the billions of mosquitoes.
When Manuel called to Seqor, as was frequently necessary in the management of the canoe, he would start as if recalled from engrossing thought. Then he would work like an ox, so that it began to be vexatious for Manuel to find himself doing the lesser share. Slowly he realized Seqor’s intensity, the burning in him, the tremendous driving power that appeared to have no definite end.
For years Manuel had been wandering in wild places, and, as the men with whom he came in contact were brutal and callous, answering only to savage impulses, so the evil in him, the worst of him, had risen to meet its like. But with this man of shadowed eye Manuel felt the flux and reflux of old forces, dim shades drawn from old memories the painful resurrection of dead good, the rising of the phantom of what had once been the best in him.
The days passed, and the Pachitea narrowed and grew swifter, and its green color took on a tinge of blue.
“Aha!” cried Manuel. “The Palcazu is blue. We must be near the mouth. Listen.”
Above the hum of the sand flies rose a rumble, like low thunder, only a long, unending roll. It was the roar of rapids. The men leaned on their paddles and trudged the length of the canoe, steadily gliding upstream, covering the interminable reaches, winding the serpentine bends. The rumble lulled and swelled, and then, as they turned a bend, burst upon their ears with clear thunder. The Palcazu entered the larger river by splitting round a rocky island. On one side tumbled a current that raced across the Pachitea to buffet a stony bluff. On the other side sloped a long incline of beautiful blue-green water, shining like painted glass.
Manuel poled up the left shore as far as possible, then leaped out to wade at the bow. Seqor waded at the stern, and thus they strove against the current. It was shallow, but so swift that it made progress laboriously slow, and it climbed in thin sheets up the limbs of the travelers. Foot by foot they ascended the rapid, at last to surmount it and beach the canoe in a rocky shore.
“Water from the Andes!” exclaimed Manuel. “It’s years since I felt such water. Here’s a bad place to float a canoe full of rubber.”
“You’ll have jolly sport shooting this rapid,” replied Seqor.
“We’re entering Cashibos country now. We must eat fish—no firing the guns.”
Wild cane grew thick on the bank; groves of the white sitekas led to the dark forest where the giant capirona trees stood out, their tall trunks bare and crimson against the green; and beyond ranged densely wooded hills to far distant purple outline of mountains or clouds.
“There’s cowcha here, but not enough,” said Manuel.
They rested, as usual during the blistering noon hours, then faced up the Palcazu. Before them stretched a tropical scene. The blue water reflected the blue sky and the white clouds, and the hanging vines and leaning orchid-tufted, creeper-covered trees. Green parrots hung back downward from the branches, feeding on pods; macaws of gaudy plumage wheeled overhead; herons of many hues took to lumbering flight before the canoe.
The placid stretch of river gave place to a succession of rapids, up which the men had to wade. A downpour of rain joined forces with the stubborn current in hindering progress. The supplies had to be covered with palm leaves; stops had to be made to bail out the canoe; at times the rain was a blinding sheet. Then the clouds passed over and the sun shone hot. The rocks were coated with a slime so slippery that sure footing was impossible.
Manuel found hard wading; and Seqor, unaccustomed to such locomotion, slid over the rocks and fell often. The air was humid and heavy, difficult to breathe; the trees smoked and the river steamed. Another chute, a mill race steep as the ingenuity of the voyagers, put them to tremendous exertions. They mounted it and rested at the head, eyes down the glancing descent.
“What jolly sport you’ll have shooting that one!” exclaimed Seqor; and he laughed for the first time; not mirthfully, rather with a note that rang close to envy.
Manuel gazed loweringly from under his shaggy brows. This was the second time Seqor had spoken of the return trip. Manuel’s sharpening wits divined a subtle import—Seqor’s consciousness that for himself there would be no return. The thing fixed itself on Manuel’s mind and would not be shaken. Blunt and caustic as he was, something withheld his speech; he asked only himself, and knew the answer. Seqor was another of those men who plunge into the unbroken fastnesses of a wild country to leave no trace. Wanderers were old comrades to Manuel. He had met them going down to the sea and treading the trails; and he knew there had been reasons why they had left the comforts of home, the haunts of men, the lips of women. Derelicts on the drifting currents had once been stately ships; wanderers in the wilds had once swung with free stride on sunny streets.
“He’s only another ruined man,” muttered Manuel, under his breath. “He’s going to hide. After a while he will slink out of the jungle to become like all the others—like me!”
But Manuel found his mind working differently from its old habit; the bitterness that his speech expressed could not dispel a yearning which was new to him.
While making camp on a shelf of shore he was absorbed in his new thoughts, forgetting to curse the mosquitoes and ants.
When the men finished their meal, twilight had shaded to dusk. Owing to the many rapids, travel by night had become impossible. Manuel drooped over one smoky fire and Seqor sat by another. After sunset there never was any real silence in the jungle. This hour was, nevertheless, remarkably quiet. It wore, shaded, blackened, into wild, lonely night. The remoteness of that spot seemed to dwell in the sultry air, in the luminous fog shrouding the river, in the moving gloom under the black trees, in the odor of decaying vegetable life.
Manuel nodded and his shoulders sagged. Presently Seqor raised his head, as if startled.
“Listen!” he whispered, touching his comrade’s arm.
Then in the semidarkness they listened. Seqor raised his head net above his ears.
“There! Hear it?” he breathed low. “What on earth—or in hell? What is it?”
“I hear nothing,” replied Manuel.
Seqor straightened his tall form and stood with clenched hands.
“If that was fancy—then—” He muttered deep in his chest. All at once he swayed to one side. And became strung in the attitude of listening. “Again! Hear it! Listen!”
Out of the weird darkness wailed a soft, sad note, to be followed by another, lower, sweeter, and then another still fainter.
“I hear nothing.” repeated Manuel. This time, out of curiosity and indefinable portent, he lied.
“No! You’re sure?” asked Seqor huskily. He placed a shaking hand on Manuel. “You heard no cry—like—like—” He drew up sharply. “Perhaps I only thought I heard something—I’m fanciful at times.”
He stirred the camp fire and renewed it with dry sticks. Evidently he wanted light. A slight blaze flickered up, intensifying the somber dusk. A vampire bat wheeled in the lighted circle. Manuel watched his companion, studying the face, somehow still white through the swollen fly blotches and scorch of sun, marveling at its expression. What had Seqor imagined he had heard?
Again the falling note! Clearer than the clearest bell, sweeter than the saddest music, wailed out of a succession of melancholy, descending tones, to linger mournfully, to hold the last note in exquisite suspense, to hush away, and leave its phantom echo in the charged air. A woman, dying in agony and glad to die, not from disease or violence, but from unutterable woe, might have wailed out that last note to the last beat of a broken heart.
Seqor gripped Manuel’s arm.
“You heard that—you heard it? Tell me!”
“Oh, is that what you meant? Surely I heard it,” replied Manuel. “That’s only the Perde-alma.”
“Perde-alma?” echoed Seqor.
“Bird of the Lost Soul. Sounded like a woman, didn’t it? We rubber hunters like his song. The Indians believe he sings only when death is near. But that signifies nothing. For above the Pachitea life and death are one. Life is here, and a step there is death! Perde-alma sings seldom. I was years on the river before I heard him.”
“Bird of the Lost Soul! A bird! Manuel, I did not think that cry came from any living thing.”
He spoke no more, and paced to and fro in the waning camp-fire glow, oblivious to the web of mosquitoes settling on his unprotected head.
Manuel pondered over the circumstance till his sleepy mind refused to revolve another idea. In the night he awoke and knew from the feeling of his unrested body that he had not slept long. He had been awakened by his comrade talking in troubled slumber.
“Lost soul—wandering—never to return! Yes! Yes! But oh let me forget! Her face! Her voice! Could I have forgotten if I had killed her? Driven, always driven—never to find—never—”
So Seqor cried aloud, and murmured low, and mumbled incoherently, till at last, when the black night wore gray, he lay silent.
“A woman!” thought Manuel. “So a woman drove him across the seas to the Palcazu. Driven—driven! How mad men are!”
Seqor had turned his face from his world, to drift with the eddying stream of wanderers who follow no path and find no peace, to be forgotten, to end in evil, to die forlorn—all for a woman.
In the darkness of this Peruvian forest, Seqor lay amid the crawling vermin unconsciously muttering of a woman. Night spoke aloud thoughts deep hidden by day. Seqor had a sailor’s eye, a soldier’s mien; he had not shrunk from the racking toil, the maddening insects, the blood-boiling heat; he was both strong and brave; yet he was so haunted by a woman that he trembled to hear the fancied voice of his ghost of love in the wailing note of a jungle bird. That note was the echo of his haunting pain. Seqor’s secret was a woman.
Manuel understood now why he had been inexplicably drawn to this man. A ghost had risen out of his own dead years. It rolled back time for Manuel, lifting from the depths a submerged memory, that, like a long-sunken bell, rang the muffled music of its past.
Out of the gray jungle gloom glided the wraith of one he had loved long ago. She recalled sunny Spain—a grassy hill over the blue bay—love—home—dark in his inner eye. And the faint jungle murmuring resembled a voice. Thus after absence of years, Manuel’s ghost of love and life had come to him again. It had its resurrection in the agony of his comrade. For Manuel there was only that intangible feeling, the sweetness of remembered pain. Life had no more shocks to deal him, he thought; that keen ache in the breastbone, that poignant pang could never again be his. Manuel was life worn. He felt an immunity from further affliction, and consciousness of age crept across the line of years.
How different from other mornings in the past was the breaking of this gray dawn! The mist was as hard to breathe, the humidity as oppressive, the sun as hot, and the singing spiteful, invisible, winged demons stung with the same teeth of poisoned fire—all the hardship of jungle travel was as before, yet it seemed immeasurably lessened.
For many years Manuel had slaved up these smoky rivers, sometimes with men who hated him, and whom he learned to hate. But no man could have hated Seqor. In these enterprises of lonely peril, where men were chained together in the wilderness, with life strained to the last notch, there could be no middle course of feeling. A man must either hate his companion and want to kill him, or love him and fight to save him.
So Manuel loved Seqor, and laughed at the great white wonder of it, lightening it all; and once again the sealed fountain of his speech broke and flowed. Back in the settlement chicha had always loosed Manuel’s tongue, liberated wild mirth, incited fierce passions; here in the jungle the divining of another’s pain, such as had seared him years before, pierced to the deeps of his soul, and brought forth kind words that came haltingly through lips long grimly set to curse.
In the beginning of that new kinship, Seqor looked in amaze upon his changed comrade, and asked if he had fever. Manuel shook his shaggy head. Seqor then fell silent; but he listened, he had to listen, and, listening, forgot himself. A new spirit fused the relation of these men.
“Seqor, we are hunters,” said Manuel. “I for gold that I do not want and shall easily find, you for—”
“Peace, Manuel, peace, that I ceaselessly want, but will never find.”
Onward the voyagers poled and waded up the blue Palcazu. The broken waters held them to five miles a day. Only giants could have made even so many. The slimy rocks over which floundered the hydra-headed balls of snakes, the stench of hot ponds behind the bars, the rush of current to be fought inch by inch, the torrents of rain, the bailing of the canoe, the merciless heat, and the ever-whirling, steel-colored bands of venomous flies—these made day a hell, rest a time of pain, sleep a nightmare; but the hunters, one grim, the other gay, strengthened with the slow advance.
Often Manuel climbed the banks, to return saying there was cowcha, more than he had seen, yet still not enough. They must go higher, to richer soil. They camped where sunset overtook them. As they sat over the smoky fires or fished in the river or lay side by side under the tent, Manuel talked. He had gone over the vast fund of his wilderness knowledge, experience in that sun-festered world, stories of river and jungle, of fights and fevers. Circling back on his seafaring life, as castaway, mariner, smuggler, he dredged memory of the happenings of those years till he reached the catastrophe that had made him a wanderer.
“What made me a caucho outlaw?” he queried, whipping his big hand through the flying swarm about his face. “A woman! What sends most wandering men down the false trails of the world? What drove you, comrade? Perhaps a woman! Quien sabe? I loved a girl. She had eyes like night—lips of fire—she was as sweet as life. See my hand tremble! Seqor, it was years ago—five, maybe ten, I don’t remember—what are years? We were married, and had a cottage on a grassy hill above the bay, where the wind blew, and we could see the white ripples creeping up the sand. Then a sailor came from over the sea; a naval man, Seqor, of your country. He had seen the world; lie could fascinate women—and women change their love. She walked with me along the beach in the twilight. The wind tossed her hair. I repeated gossip, accused her of loving this man I had never seen. She acknowledged her love; proudly, I thought bravely; surely without shame. Seqor, with these same hands I forced her to her knees, stifled her cry—and slowly, slowly watched the great staring eyes grow fixed and awful—the lips fall wide—”
“You strangled her?” burst from Seqor in passionate force.
“I was a fiend,” went on the Spaniard. “I felt nothing except that her love had changed. I fled over the seas. For long my mind was dark, but clearness came, and with it truth. How I knew it I can’t say—these things abide in mystery—but my girl was innocent. Then hell gaped for me. Burning days—endless nights under the hateful stars—no rest—her last cry, like the Perde-alma, Seqor—her great, wide eyes—the beat, the beat, the eternal beat of pain, made him you see a thing of iron and stone.
“What was left, Seqor? Only a wild life. You see the wanderer with crimes on him thick as his gray hairs. Ah! What I might have done—might have been! I see that in your eyes. What a man might have been! Holy Mercy! A braver part no man ever had chance to play. I could have left her free. I would not have heard the hound of remorse ever baying my trail. I could have hidden like a stricken deer, and died alone. But I was a blind coward. Men see differently after years go by. What is love? What is this thing that makes one woman all of life to a man? Constant or fickle, she is fair to him. Bound or free, she answers to nameless force.
“Where did you—all this happen?” asked Seqor hurriedly and low.
“It was at Malaga, on the Mediterranean.”
Seqor stalked off into the gloom, whispering.
Manuel did not notice his comrade’s agitation; he was in the rude grip of unfamiliar emotions. His story had been a deliberate lie, yet it contained truth enough to recall the old feeling out of its grave. He thought he had divined Seqor’s secret, his sacrifice, the motive behind his wandering in a God- forsaken land. He believed it was to leave a woman free and to forget. He felt the man’s burning regret that he had not spilled blood in vengeance. So he had lied, had made himself a murderer, that by a somber contrast Seqor might see in forgiveness and mercy the nobler part.
Deep in Manuel’s bitter soul he knew how he had lied—for that woman of his youth had not been innocent; he had not harmed her, and he had left her free. Seqor would believe his fabricated tragedy, and, looking on this hulk of a man, this wandering wretch, haunted by what he might have been, and, thanking God for his clean hands, might yet see the darkness illumined.
More days the hunters poled and pulled up the Palcazu, to enter, at length, the mouth of a deep estuary coming in from the north.
This water was a blue-green reflection of sky and foliage. It was a beautiful lane, winding between laced and fringed, woven and flowered walls. The heavy perfume of overluxuriance was sickening. Life was manifold. The estuary dimpled and swelled and splashed—everywhere were movements and sounds of water creatures. Gorgeous parrots screeched from the trailing vines; monkeys chattered from the swishing branches. Myriads of bright-plumaged birds, flitting from bank to bank, gave the effect of a many-colored net stretched above the water. Dreamy music seemed to soar in the rich, thick atmosphere.
The estuary widened presently into a narrow, oval lake, with a sandy shore on the north. Crocodiles basked in the sun, and, as Manuel turned the canoe shoreward, they raised themselves on stumpy legs, jaws wide, grotesque and hideous, and lunged for the water.
“Cayman! I never saw so many,” exclaimed Manuel, striking right and left with his paddle. “Where I find caymans, there’s always cowcha. Seqor, I believe here is the place.”
They ascended the bank, and threaded a maze of wild cane rising to higher ground. The soil was a rich alluvial. Manuel dug into it with his hands, as if, indeed, he expected to find gold there. The ridge they mounted was not thickly forested. Manuel made two discoveries—they were on the borderland of the eastern Andes, and all about them were rubber trees. Whether or not Manuel cared for the fortune represented by one hundredth part of the rubber he could see, certain it was that he ran from one tree to another clasping each in a kind of ecstasy.
“Iquitos will go mad,” he cried. “A thousand tons of cowcha in sight! It’s here. Look at the trees—fifty, sixty feet high! Seqor, we shall go in rich, rich, rich!”
They packed the supplies up from the river to escape the sand flies, and built a shack, elevating it slightly on forked sticks to evade the marching ants and creeping insects. Inside the palm-leaf walls they hung the net, fitting it snugly in the cramped space. By clearing away the underbrush and burning the ground bare, they added still more to the utility of their camp site, and, as far as it was possible in that jungle, approached comfort.
A troop of monkeys took refuge in the tops of some palms and set up a resentful chattering; parrots and macaws swelled the unwelcoming chorus; a boa wound away from the spot, shaking a long line of bushes; and an anteater ran off into the sitekas.
Manuel caught up his gun, making as if to pursue the beast, then slowly laid the weapon down.
“I’d forgotten. We’re in Cashibos country now. I’ve seen no signs, but we had best be quiet. At that we may have to shoot the jaguars. They stalk a man.”
The rubber hunters worked from dawn till the noonday heat, rested through the white, intense hours, resumed their tasks in the afternoon, and continued while the light lasted. The method of honest rubber hunters was to tap a tree in the evening and visit it the next morning to get the juice. This was too slow a process for Manuel—as it took several days for a flow of a few ounces.
He was possessed with exceeding skill in the construction of clay vessels to catch the milky juice and in extracting rubber. He carried water from the river and fashioned large clay repositories, one for so many rubber trees; also he made small vessels and troughs. These baked hard in the sun. Then he cut the trees so the sap would flow freely. They would die; but that was of no moment to the outlaw. He had brought a number of kettles, in which he made a thick steam by heating palm nuts. Taking a stick with a clay mold on the end, he dipped it first in the milk, and then dried the milk in the stream. From a vessel full of milk, he got one third its weight in rubber.
“Seqor,” he said proudly, “I can make a hundred pounds of rubber in a day.”
It was a toil-filled time, in which the united efforts of Manuel and Seqor were given to making an immense cargo of rubber. Swiftly the days passed into weeks, the weeks summed months, and the rainy season was at hand. Soon the rubber hunters must expect a daily deluge, a flooded, sticky forest, intolerable humidity, and sun like an open furnace door.
Manuel awoke from his lust for rubber.
“The canoe won’t hold another layer,” he said. “She’ll be loggy enough now. We can rest and drift clear to Iquitos. How good! We must be starting.”
Like a flitting shadow, a strange, sad smile crossed Seqor’s face. Its meaning haunted Manuel, and recalled the early days of the trip, before the craze for rubber had driven all else from his mind. A wonderful change had come over Seqor. He gave all his strength to the gathering of rubber, but no longer with a madness for sheer action. He no longer invited the torture of the stinging pests. He ate like a hungry man, and his sleep was untroubled. Even his silence had undergone change. The inward burning, the intensity of mind forever riveted upon the thing that had been the dividing spear of his life, had given place to austere tranquillity.
Other enlightenment flashed into Manuel’s darksome thought. The fancy grew upon him that he had come to be to Seqor what Seqor was to him. He sensed it, felt it, finally realized it.
Pondering this man’s deep influence, he tried to judge what it meant. Something shook his pulse, some power from without; some warm, living thing drew him to Seqor. It was more than the intimate bond of men of like caliber, alone in the wilds, facing peril carelessly, dependent upon one another. Too subtle it was for Manuel, too mysterious for his crude reasoning; always it kept aloof, in the fringe of his mind. He floundered in thought, and seemed to go wandering in the realms of imagery, to become lost in memory, where the unreal present mingled with the actual past, through both of which ran Seqor’s baffling, intangible hold on his heartstrings.
“Maybe I’ve got a touch of fever,” he soliloquized.
Another day went by, and still he hesitated to speak the word for departure. More and more the task grew harder, for added watching, thought, realization, strengthened his conviction that Seqor intended to remain alone on the Palcazu. Had the man come to hide in the jungle, to face his soul in the solitude, to forget in the extremes of endurance? Yes, but more! He sought the end—annihilation!
Manuel had never feared to use his tongue, yet now he could not speak. It was midday, and he lay beside Seqor in the shack, sheltered from the torrid heat. Usually absolute silence prevailed at this hour. On this day, however, gentle gusts of wind beat the fronds of the palms. What a peculiar sound! It had no similarity to the muffled beating of the heart heard in the ear; yet it suggested that to Manuel, and wrought ominously upon his superstition.
He listened. Sudden, soft gust—gentle beat, beat, beat hastening at the end! Was it the wind? How seldom had he heard wind in the jungle! Was it the fronds of the palms or the beating of his heart or of Seqor’s? His blood did beat thick in his ears. Then a chill passed over him, a certainty of some calamity about to be, beyond his comprehension; and he wrenched decision out of his wavering will, and swore that he would start down the Palcazu on the morrow, if not with this strange companion, then alone.
Manuel fell into a doze. He awakened presently, and sat up, drowsy and hot. He was alone in the shack. Then a hand protruded under the flap of the netting and plucked at him.
“Hurry! Hurry!” came the hoarse whisper. “Don’t speak—don’t make a noise!”
Wide awake in a second, Manuel swept aside the flap and straightened up outside. Seqor stood very close to him. On the instant, low, whirring sounds caught his ear. From the green wall of cane streaked little things that he took for birds. Bright and swift the glints of light shot through the yellow sunshine. All about him they struck with tiny, pattering thuds and spats. Suddenly the shack appeared to be covered with quivering butterflies. They were gaudy, feathered darts from blowguns of the cannibals.
“Cashibos!” yelled Manuel.
“Run! Run!” cried Seqor. He thrust his coat over Manuel and turned him with a violent push. “Run for the river!”
The frenzy of his voice and will served almost to make Manuel act automatically. But he looked back, then stood with suspended breath and leaden feet.
Bronze shadows darted through the interstices of the cane. Then the open sunlight burnished small, naked savages, lean, wild, as agile and bounding as if they were made of the rubber of their jungle home.
Seqor jerked Manuel’s machete from a log of firewood, and rushed to meet them. His back was covered with gaudy butterfly darts. The sight held Manuel stricken in his tracks. Seqor had made his broad body a shield, had stood buffer between his comrade and the poisoned darts of the Cashibos.
Like a swarm of copper bees shining in the sun, the cannibals poured out of the cane, incredibly swift and silent, leveling their blowguns and brandishing their spears.
Seqor plunged at them, sweeping the machete. A row of nimble bodies wilted before him, went down as grain before a scythe. Again the blade swept backward, to whistle forward and describe a circle through tumbling, copper-colored bodies.
Rooted in horror, Manuel saw the first spear point come out of Seqor’s back. Another and another! They slipped out as easily as if coming through water. Seqor dropped the machete, and swaying, upheld by spears, he broke that silent fight with a terrible cry. It pealed out, piercingly shrill with pain, horrible in its human note of death, but strange and significant in its ringing triumph. Then he fell, and the Cashibos hurdled his body.
Animal instinct to survive burst the bonds that held Manuel as paralyzed. One leap carried him behind the shack, another into the cane, where he sprang into headlong flight. The cane offered little resistance to his giant bounds. Soon he reached the bank of the river. The canoe was gone. Rows of caymans lay along the beach. So swiftly he leaped down that he beat them into the water. Then, drawing Seqor’s coat tight around his head and shoulders, he plunged out with powerful strokes.
He had gained the middle of the estuary, when he saw arrowy gleams glance before him. Like hissing hail, a shower of darts struck the water. Then it seemed that gaudy butterflies floated about his face. Diving deep, he swam until compelled to rise for breath.
As he came up, a crocodile rolled menacingly near. Manuel hit it a blow with his fist, and dove again. The coat hindered rapid swimming under water. He rose again to hear the crocodile swirling behind him. Darts splashed big drops on his cheeks, tugged at his head covering, streaked beyond him to skitter along the surface of the estuary.
Reaching shallow water, he crawled into the reeds. White-mouthed snakes struck at him. The bank was low and overhung with rank growths. Manuel scrambled through to the solid ground; and then turned to have a look at his pursuers.
Up and down the sandy beach a hundred or more Cashibos were running. How wild they were, how springy and fleet! How similar to the hungry, whirling sand flies! For a moment the disturbed caymans threshed about in the estuary, holding the cannibals back. Presently several of the most daring waded in above the commotion; then others entered below.
Manuel breasted the dense jungle. Before him rose an apparently impenetrable wall of green. He dove into it, tore through it, leaving a trail of broken branches, twisted vines, and turned leaves. In places he ran encumbered by clinging creepers; in others he parted the thick growths with his hands and leaped high to separate them. Again he bent low to crawl along the peccary trails.
Despite the obstacles, he went so swiftly that the jungle pests could not get at him; the few which did could not keep their hold, because of the scraping brush. Soon he ran out of a vine-webbed canebrake into a grove of sitekas, rubber trees, and palms. At every bound he sank into the moist earth, still he kept on running. He heard a scattering of animals before him, and saw a blur of flapping birds.
The day seemed to darken. He looked up to see trees branching at a height of two hundred feet, and intermingling their foliage to obscure sun and sky. Here was the dim shade of the great forest of the Amazon tributaries. Sheering off to the right, he ran until the clinging earth clogged his feet.
The forest was like a huge, dim hall full of humming life. Lines of shrieking monkeys hung on the ropelike vines that reached from the ground to green canopy overhead. Birds of paradise sailed like showers of gold through the thick, hazy air. Before him fled boas, peccaries, ant-eaters, spotted cats, and beasts that he could not name.
Manuel chose the oozy ground, for there the underbrush was not higher than his knees. On and on he wallowed through the moist labyrinth of intricate thickets, of aisles lined by the red capironas, of peccary trails worn in the earth, of glades starry with exquisite orchids. A fragrance of nauseous sweetness, like that of rotting jessamine and tuberose, mingled with fetid odor of wet, hot earth, of ripe life and luxuriance. The forest was steeped in a steam from overheat, overmoisture, overgrowth.
The gloom deepened. Somewhere back of Manuel rasped out the cough of a jaguar. He quickened his weary steps, soon to strike rising ground and pass out of the dark forest into groves of sitekas. The day was waning. He ascended a ridge, following the patches of open ground where the baked clay shone white. This hard ground would hide his trail from the cannibals, but he had no hope of eluding the jaguars. Still, he could climb out of reach of the hunting cats. It was the little, winged devils, the tiny, creeping fiends that most menaced his life.
He strode on till the shadows warned him of approaching night. Selecting a group of palms with tops interlocking, he climbed one, and perched in the midst of the stems of the leaves. Laboriously he broke stem after stem, bent and laid them crosswise in the middle of the tree. Then he straddled another stem, let his feet hang down, and lay back upon the rude floor he had constructed. Finally, wrapping head and face in Seqor’s coat and hiding his hands, he composed himself to rest.
He was dripping wet, hot as fire, pulsating, seething, aching, his whole body inflamed. Gradually the riot of his nerves, the race of hot blood subsided and cooled. Night set in, and the jungle awoke to the hue and cry of its bloody denizens. Mosquitoes swarmed around his perch with a continuous hum not unlike the long, low roll of a drum. Huge bats whizzed to and fro, brushing the palm leaves. Light steps on the hard clay, rustling of brush and snapping of twigs attested to the movement of peccaries. These sounds significantly ceased at the stealthy, padded tread of a jaguar. From distant points came the hungry snarl, the fighting squall, the ominous cough of the jungle cats.
Sometime late in the night Manuel fell asleep. When he awoke the fog clouds were mustering, bulging, mushrooming all in a swirl as they lifted. Like a disk of molten silver, the sun glared through the misty curtain. The drip, drip, drip of dew was all the sound to break the silence. Manuel’s cramped muscles made descending to the ground an awkward task.
He estimated that his flight had taken him miles into the interior. Evidently for the time being he had eluded the Cashibos. However, his situation was gravely critical, and he would never be safe until he got clear of Palcazu territory. It was impossible for him to protect himself from the jungle parasites. His instant and inflexible determination was to make his way back to the river, find his canoe, or steal one from the cannibals, and, failing both, lash some logs together and trust to the current.
The rains were due; soon the rivers would be raging floods; he would make fast time. Manuel had no fear of starvation, of the deadly heat, the fatal dews, the rainy season fever, or of the Cashibos. What he feared was the infernal flies, ticks, ants, mosquitoes—the whole blood-sucking horde. Well he knew that they might bite him blind, poison his blood, drive him mad, actually kill him before he got out of the jungle.
As he was about to start, a small leather pocketbook fell from Seqor’s coat. Manuel picked it up. He saw again those broad shoulders covered with the gaudy butterfly darts. He drew his breath with a sharp catch. Fingering the little book, unaccountably impelled, he opened it. Inside was a picture.
He looked down into the dark, challenging eyes, the piquant, alluring face of the woman who had been his sweetheart wife!
Manuel smiled dreamily. How clear was the vision! But almost instantly he jerked up his head, hid the picture, and gazed furtively about him, trembling and startled. The glaring jungle was no lying deceit of the fancy.
Slowly he drew forth the picture. Again the proud, dark eyes, the sweet lips, the face arch with girl’s willfulness, importunate with woman’s charm!
Manuel shifted his straining gaze to Seqor’s coat.
“Seqor! He was the man—that sailor from over the sea—whom she loved at Malaga! What does it all mean? I felt his secret—I lied—I hatched that murderous story to help him. But he knew I did not kill her!”
Manuel pitched high his arms, quivering, riven by the might of the truth.
“He recognized me! He knew me all the time! He saved my life!”
Manuel fell backward and lay motionless, with his hands shutting out the light. An hour passed. At last he arose, half dazed, fighting to understand.
With Seqor’s coat and the picture before him, he traced the wonderful association between them and him. There were the plain facts, as clear in his sight as the pictured face of the woman who had ruined him, but they were bewildering: he could feel but not comprehend them. They obscured their meaning in mystery, in the inscrutable mystery of human life. He had freed her, had left her to be happy with the man she loved.
Had she betrayed him, too? It was not impossible that a woman who had ceased to love one man would cease to love his successor. Some subtle meaning pervaded the atmosphere of that faded coat, that leather book, that woman’s face, with its smile, and by the meaning Manuel knew Seqor had suffered the same stunning stroke that had blighted him. Seqor had cried out in the night: “Oh God, let me forget!”
It was the same story—hell in the mind, because one day on a woman’s face shone that mysterious thing, a light, a smile for him alone, and on the next day it vanished. Fever in the blood, madness to forget, wandering, a hunt for peace, and the wasting years—how he knew them!
Manuel thought of Seqor, of his magnificent strength, of the lion in him as he sprang to meet the Cashibos, of the gaudy butterfly darts imbedded in his back, of the glory and pathos of his death. What his life might have been! A strung cord snapped in Manuel’s breast; his heart broke. Bitter salt tears flowed for Seqor, for himself, for all miserable wretches for all time. In that revealing moment he caught a glimpse of the infinite. He saw the helplessness of man, the unintelligible fatality of chance, motive, power, charm, love—all that made up the complexity of life.
How little it mattered, from the view of what made life significant to him, that he was a rubber hunter, lost in the jungle, hunted by cannibals, tortured by heat, thirst, hunger, vermin! His real life was deep-seated in the richly colored halls of memory; and when he lived at all, it was when he dreamed therein. His outside existence, habits of toil, and debauchery were horrors that he hated. On the outside he was a brutalized rubber hunter, unkempt and unwashed, a coarse clod, given over to gaming and chicha. In that inner life he lived on a windy hill, watching white sails on a blue sea, listening to a woman’s voice.
But some change had come that would now affect his exterior life; something beautiful crowned the hideous span of years. His companionship with Seqor had softened him, and the tragedy, with its divine communication of truth, was a lightning flash into the black gulf of his soul.
By its light he felt pity for her, for Seqor, for himself, for all who lived and loved and suffered. By its light he divined the intricate web and tangle and cross and counter-cross of the instincts and feelings of human nature—all that made love transient in one heart, steadfast in another, fleeting as the shadow of a flitting wing—wonderful, terrible, unquenchable as the burning sun.
By its light he saw woman, the mother of life, the source of love, the fountain of joy, the embodiment of change—nature’s tool to further her unfathomable design, forever and ever to lure man by grace and beauty, to win him, to fetter him in unattainable, ever-enthralling desires. By its light he saw himself another man, a long-tried, long-failing man, faithful to his better self at the last.
Manuel set forth toward the river, keeping in the shade of trees, walking cautiously, with suspicious eyes ever on the outlook. He walked all day, covering twice the distance he calculated he had fled inland. When night fell, he went on by the light of the stars until the fog obscured them. The rest of the night he walked round a tree with covered head. In the morning the sun rose on the side he had thought was west. He had become lost in the jungle.
Heretofore panic had always seized him on a like occasion; this time it did not. Taking the direction he thought right, he pressed on till the midday sun boiled his blood. Succulent leaves and the pith of small palms served as food. He moistened his parching mouth with the sap of trees. Lying down, he covered himself with the coat and a pile of brush and slept; then awoke to trudge on, fighting the flies.
He entered the great jungle forest, and sought his back trail, but did not find it. Swampy water allayed his thirst, and a snake served for meat. The jaguars drove him out of the forest. He began to wander in a circle; and that night and the following day and the next were but augmented repetitions of what had gone before.
The rains did not come. The fronds of the palms beat in the still air. Manuel heard in them a knell. Bitten blind, flayed alive by pests, he fell at last with clouded mind. The whizzing wheel of flies circled lower; the armies of marching ants spread over him; the red splotches of ticks on the leaves spilled themselves upon him like quicksilver. He crawled on through the hot bushes. The light of his mind wavered, and he raved of infernal fires. He was rolling in fire; forked tongues of flame licked at his flesh; red sparks ate into his brain. Down, down under the heated earth, through hot vapors blown by fiery gusts! It was a jungle with underbrush of flame, trees in the image of pillars of fire, screeching red monkeys in service as imps, birds of dazzling coals; and over all and under all and through all a vast humming horde of living embers that bit with white-hot teeth.
As Manuel’s reason flickered, ready to go out forever, the rain descended, and it cooled him and washed him clean of insects. It slaked his thirst and soothed his blinded eyes. At length the tropical cloudburst roared away, leaving the jungle drenched. Manuel followed a rushing stream of water that he knew would lead him to the river. In him resurged effort and resistance.
By nightfall he had come to the border of cane. Like an eel through grass, he slipped between the stalks to the river. On the opposite shore faint lights twinkled. At first he took them for fireflies. But dark forms moving across the lights told him he had stumbled upon an encampment of the Cashibos.
The river seemed uneasy, stirring. It was rising fast. By dawn it would be bank full with a swift current. Under the pale stars the water shimmered, steely black in the shade of overhanging shore, dead silver in the center, where the fish swirled and the crocodiles trailed dimpling wakes.
Without hesitation, Manuel stepped into the water, noiselessly sinking himself to his neck. With his ear level with the surface, he subordinated every sense to that of hearing. The river was a sounding board, augmenting the faint jungle sounds. Crossing would be as safe for him then as it would ever be.
Grim as death, Manuel trusted himself to the river. He glided off the shoal without making a ripple, and swam deep with guarded strokes. Fish sported before him; spiders and snakes grazed his cheeks; caymans floated by with knotty snout parting the current, and lines of bubbles bursting with hollow sound betrayed the underwater passage of more of the lazy reptiles.
Once Manuel felt the swirl and heave of water disturbed by a powerful force. A soft river breeze wafted to him the smell of burning wood and the dull roar of distant rapids. He crossed the shimmering space between the shadows of shore. Looking backward, he descried a circle of black snouts lazily closing in upon him. He quickened his strokes. The twinkling lights disappeared. All before him was black. He felt slimy reeds touch his face, and, lowering his feet, found the bottom, and cautiously waded out. Then he crouched down to rest to gather all his wit and strength for the final move.
Toward the bank he could not see his hand before his face; riverward there was a glancing sheen of water that made the gloom opaque. He began to crawl, feeling in the darkness for a canoe. Moving downstream, he worked out of the marshy sedge to ground worn smooth and hard. It was a landing place for canoes.
He strained his eyes. All about him were shadowy, merging shades without shape. The low murmur of strange voices halted him; he was within hearing of the cannibals. Then in him awoke the stealth and savage spirit of a jaguar stalking prey. Gliding up the trail, he peeped over the bank. Fires flickered back in the blackness, lighting wan circles that were streaked and shadowed by moving, dark forms. With fateful eyes Manuel watched.
Below him a slight splash drew his attention. He fancied it too thin, too hard and dead, to be made by water creature. Again it broke the silence, unnatural to his trained ear. It was the splash of a paddle. Soundless as the shadows about him, Manuel glided down to the edge of the river and lay flat, hugging the sand.
A long, low canoe, black against the background of the river gloom, swept in to the landing gloom, swept in to the landing, grated on the sand, and spread gentle, lapping waves against the beach. A slender form, smooth and wild in outline, stepped out within a yard of Manuel.
Like a specter Manuel loomed up, and his hands closed vise-tight around the neck of the cannibal. He lifted him clear of the ground, and there held him, wrestling, wriggling till fierce struggles ceased in spasmodic convulsions and these subsided in a slow, trembling stretch.
When the body hung limp, Manuel laid it down, and looked up the dim trail leading to the camp of the Cashibos. Upon him was the spell to kill. He saw again the gaudy butterfly darts in Seqor’s back; he heard again that strange, terrible cry of triumph. Over him surged Seqor’s grand disdain of life. Almost he yielded to an irresistible impulse to make that the end.
“If I had my machete—” he thought. Then he threw off the insidious thrall, and, stepping into the canoe, picked up the paddle and pushed out into the river. The twinkling lights vanished in the foliage. There was no sound of pursuit; the dreamy jungle hum remained unbroken. He paddled the light canoe swiftly with the current.
The moon rose, whitening the river lane. A breeze bore the boom of the Palcazu in flood. Once upon that river of rapids, Manuel would scorn pursuit. Slackening current told him that backwater had swelled the estuary. Soon his ears filled with the rumbling of waters, and he turned out of the estuary into the sliding, moon-blanched Palcazu.
As he dipped into the glistening channel of the first rapid, the canoe, quivering and vibrating, seemed to lurch into the air. Shock on shock kept the bow leaping. Manuel crouched low in the stern. It took all the strength of his brawny arms to keep the canoe straight. Whirling suck holes raced with him; frothy waves curled along the gunwales. One rapid led into another, until the Palcazu was a thundering succession of broken waters. It ran wild for freedom. In the plunging inclines, the silver-crested channels, the bulging billows, were the hurry and spirit of the river. The current, splitting on black-headed stones, hissed its hatred of restraint. Manuel guided the canoe from side to side, glancing along the gulfs, fringing the falls, always abreast of the widest passages.
A haze crept over the moon and thickened to gray fog. Shadows shrouded the river, hanging lower and lower, descending to mingle with the spray. Manuel paddled on while the hours passed.
The fog curtain lightened to the coming of dawn. Manuel evinced no surprise to find himself gazing upon the misty flood of the wide Pachitea. He had run the Palcazu in one night. Paddling ashore, he beached the canoe to bail out water he had shipped in that wild ride.
All night he had felt a balancing of some kind of cargo in the bow. Upon investigating, he found the bottom of the bow covered with palm leaves. These he lifted to discover two naked little savages cowering on a mat of woven reeds.
“Cashibos!” ejaculated Manuel. “Boy and girl. They were in the canoe last night when I strangled that fellow, their father, probably. What’s to be done with them?”
The boy was a dark copper color; his hair grew straight down over his low forehead; he was pot-bellied and altogether ugly. The girl was younger, lighter in color, slim and graceful, and pretty in a wild way, like a bronze elf of the jungle.
“What’ll I do with them?” repeated Manuel. “I can’t kill them, or leave them here to starve or be eaten by jaguars. I’ll take them down the Pachitea and turn them over to a Campas tribe.”
Having decided, Manuel folded a palm leaf and used it to bail out the canoe. In the bottom he found a bunch of dwarfish bananas and some dried fish. Here was good fortune in the way of food. He arranged the palm leaves across the gunwales, making a sun, rain, and dew shield. Then, pushing off, he paddled into the swollen current.
The blazing sun rose; the sand flies wheeled with the drifting canoe; the afternoon rain poured; night came, with its cloud of singing mosquitoes, its poison dews and fogs.
That day passed, and another like it. Every hour the canoe drifted speedy as the current. The Cashibos children lost their fear of Manuel. The boy jabbered and played; the girl smiled at Manuel, which persuaded him not to give them to a Campas tribe, but to take them home and care for them himself.
Three more days and nights the canoe drifted. Manuel’s strength had returned, but it troubled him to think. Something had happened up the river. He had for his pillow a ragged coat that fascinated him, and which he treasured.
Early the next morning he turned the green bend at La Boca to come abruptly upon the Amazonas, lying at the dock. Men shouted from her decks; there was a thudding of bare feet.
“Is it the outlaw?”
“Yes—yes. Those shoulders and arms—it’s he!”
Manuel’s blotched face, swollen out of all proportions, was unrecognizable.
Captain Valdez leaned hard over the rail. “Manuel, is it you?”
“Where’s your cowcha?”
“Lost, captain, lost! A great rubber forest, captain—I had tons of cowcha—it’s lost—all lost!”
“I suppose so,” replied Valdez ironically. “That’s a fine cargo to pay you—two half-grown Indian kids. The nerve of you, Manuel, dropping into La Boca with slaves.”
“Slaves!” echoed from Manuel. His gaze traveled from Valdez’s face to the little bronze Cashibos, once more huddling, frightened, in the bow. “Slaves? Ha! Ha! Ha!”
“Manuel, you had your choice,” went on the captain, “and now you must abide by it. I’ve caught some of you slave hunters this trip. There’s Bustos in irons. Your choice Manuel—the chain gang, or the river?”
“The river for me!” said Manuel. “Only up instead of down!”
“Up! But, Manuel, there’s a chance down the Amazon. You—”
The rubber hunter faced up the wide Pachitea. His stentorian cry froze the words upon Captain Valdez’s lips. It rolled out, a strange, trenchant call to something beyond the wild, silent river.
“Fever,” whispered one of the fettered slave dealers.
“Bitten crazy,” said another.
Manuel started the canoe upstream. He did not look back.
Captain and crew and prisoners on the boat thrilled to Bustos’s mocking farewell.