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South From Orinoco
Bob Sanderson

          In that part of Venezuela that lies between the Rio Orinoco and the frontier of Brazil, is one of the world's last areas of wilderness where large areas of "free mining” are open to any man who seeks to go there with a diamond screen and a gold pan to pursue his fortune.

          The hunting and fishing is stupendous, the winter climate excellent (a blanket between midnight and dawn). Life can be lived with a hammock, shotgun and miner's pan.

          Here is the story of the writer and his partner who swung a deluxe trip on $1800 each. The two worked like tiny ticks deep in the fur of their green hell, riding the crest of a diamond boom camp and ferreting through the remote unknown jungle prospecting for gold. As for the diamonds and gold - they found them both.

South From Orinoco

           Our rented truck lurched through the sprawling thatched huts and stopped at the end of the road on the brink of the hill above the wide river. My partner Carl, the driver, and I clambered stiffly from the doorless truck cab, removed our dusty nose kerchiefs, and unloaded the mining and exploration equipment onto the bare baked clay. The driver departed immediately, the overheated truck motor snarling for mercy under his heavy foot. He had neither spare tire nor left headlight. I hoped his St. Christopher medal would see him safely back to Cuidad Bolivar.

          Already the short tropic dusk was climbing the hills of the diamond and gold country beyond the river, as I searched out a path and descended the hill toward the water. I sensed I was walking in a sort of no-man's land between the stalled edge of civilization and the raw edge of the jungle. The place was a logical end for the two-hundred-mile, eighteen-hour trail. Right now it was as quiet as an anesthetic, as all such places are when strangers arrive. The people had pulled into their thatched shells like turtles, to watch and wait and listen from within.

          Soon, I stood at the brink of the wide Paraqua's eddied current, gazing out over the writhing waters that moated the edge of the jungle unknown. Behind me my old world was fast dying with the fading tropic day. Overhead the ragged palm fronds clattered softly in the perpetual east winds. I was the tired traveler arrived. I slipped off my trousers and sneakers and lowered my hot, dusty body down a giant vine into the cool evening water.

          The snow and cold of winter were long gone from my mind as I swam refreshed out into the current we were soon to travel so far against. For here in December it was late spring. The newly arrived dry season promised us the falling river level and sunny skies we needed for six months of mining and exploration. The waters that lapped about my head were to be my bathtub, my drinking fountain, and my highway to success or failure in the months to come.

          Back at the open shelter where Carl and I had slung our hammocks, I relieved my partner. Hanging his faded blue corduroy shirt on the eave pole, he gathered soap, towel and flashlight and went to take his own dip. I put a match to the mantel of the gas lantern until it glowed white. By the sterile light I built a fire and put on a kettle of meat.

          Fresh meat here sold for thirty-five cents a pound, any cut but we had found that generally prices, particularly as one traveled south from the Orinoco River, were not cheap in oil-inflated Venezuela. Nor was the equipment we had shipped from New York via tramp steamer to the small Orinoco port of Ciudad Bolivar. We had outboard motors, aluminum boats, motor compressors, air hose, diving helmets and masks, medicines, tent, tools and a large rubber raft we planned to use for a diving platform. There was no duty on mining equipment, but handling, port charges, and red tape, together with local trucking had cost another ninety dollars.

          The eighteen hundred dollar bankrolls that each of us had started with in New York were peeled close to the core. But now there was little else to buy, I reflected, as I stirred the stew and leaned back against the plump sacks of food staples for which we had paid a hundred and eighty dollars in the busy Ciudad Bolivar market. With these sacks of beans, rice, flour, sugar, salt, onions, limes and dried fruits and with fish and game plentiful and without restriction in the jungle, we could live a long time.

          In the morning we sorted our equipment into two groups. By far the largest pile was the diving apparatus for recovering river bottom diamond alluvials. The smaller pile bristled with shovel and pick handles, crowbars, miner's bars and the necessary miscellany for placer mining both gold and diamonds.

          Diving operations were closer to hand and had first priority. Our shiny new compressors soon chuffed enough air to swell the large rubber raft which, decked with a solid plank platform, afforded a large stable working area. For our first crew we chose a quartet of the most capable from among the miners who volunteered to help the raft launching. No pay was involved. The crew worked for their food and a share of the profits. They promptly named their large ungainly craft “el monstro" - - the monster.

          Our motor compressors and diving masks were much more efficient but considerably more complicated to operate than the old-fashioned, hand-cranked piston pumps in local use. For purposes of breaking in our new crew, Carl and I felt that nearby operations were preferable. We were unsure about our new men's ability in the underwater world, and it was always possible that our new apparatus would need adjustment or alteration. Closeness of spare men and spare parts was reassuring.

          To find a suitable first location, we took our crew in an outboard powered dugout and took bottom samples up and down the many channeled river. At promising holes, a smooth pole put straight down over the side made it easy for one of the boys to climb down and bring up sample gravels with a bucket. This material we washed through the regular round, triple sectioned diamond screens in search of shiny raisin-like stones, and a smaller jet black "punta lapiz" (pencil points) which indicated diamond bearing formation. On the second day we found a good indication with slow current and shallow (twelve feet) of water. Next morning we positioned the platform and began breaking in the crew.

          Camp was on an island about ten minutes downstream. Shortly after sun-up we finished a breakfast of soft oatmeal. (A heavy breakfast or one containing greases will nauseate the stomach under prolonged water pressure.) Then we hopped barefooted into the aluminum boat and dugout canoe, putted the outboards upstream to the barge. After checking the gas and oil levels of the compressor motor, I spun the flywheel and adjusted the needle valve until the motor caught and evened to a smooth chug-chug.

          While the accumulator tank built up pressure, the men drew lots for the preferred position of first dive. The last man must wait until the end of the day before eating lunch. The winner today is Eugenio, a serious lad determined to make his fortune in diamonds. If he succeeds, his success will go to his waistline but never to his head. He adjusts his belt of lead weights, tests the emergency de-clasp pin, wets his face and the diving mask he prefers over the awkward metal helmet. When the tank pressure hits thirty-five pounds he descends the ladder deliberately and drops into the dark water while Martin pays out the life and air lines.

          Martin is a slender, hard, capable miner who is just as weathered and indestructible as the weathered old straw hat he wears - - The type of man who never needs or asks for anything from the medicine kit. To him, ambition is a folly. He knows that banked money can never buy back the pleasures of a Saturday night once they are forfeited to parsimony. The other divers look to him for swift action in time of trouble, but they would never think of asking him for a short loan. They would expect him to be just as short on cash as they were, or at least to say so even if it were not the truth.

          Bubbles boiling to the surface above Eugenio show he has quickly located the hole and now he demands the bucket by jerking twice on the lifeline. Raphael sends the bucket down the lifeline and then tauts the coarse rope just enough to be sensitive to further signals. Raphael is the largest and the youngest (twenty-two) man on the crew. To the complicated aspects of life he gives no worry or attention. He cannot swim but no one could work in deep dangerous water with greater tranquility or send up more material.

          Raphael is a handsome curly-headed chap. I often thought his round face and gold teeth would look well under a derby. He looks childishly un-desperate compared to his associates, as he stands waiting on the rope.

          Now he feels a sharp tug on the bucket line. It is the signal to pull up. He pulls up the bucket with an ease that belies its weight, dumps it into constancio's waiting diamond screens, and dispatches the empty back into the river. Canstancio begins manipulating the screens quickly, quietly, deftly.

          Constancio is the eldest of the crew. He has the best disposition and the fewest teeth. His actions are deliberate and sure. During arguments between other crewmen he looks the other way and whistles softly. I was an island of trust in his cut-throat world, the only one to whom he would give his money for safekeeping. He is thriftily saving money for a trip to Russia, which he will never make. As he twirls and jiggles the screens in the water, his old felt hat is cocked far to one side to shade the early sun. The hat looks like a cap, for since the time long ago when the sweatband rotted out he has compensated for the added crown size by folding up and under both the back and sides of the brim.

          Within a short time Eugenio has sent up twenty buckets, and now encounters a large boulder in the work hole. By three jerks on the lifeline he signals for the bar and Martin sends the light bar down on a small rope. Soon the obstructing boulder is pried free, Eugenio jerks the line once and Martin takes in the bar. The strain and effort of prying free the boulder has taken Eugenio's breath. Now he signals for more air by four jerks. I turn up the compressor to higher rpm for a few minutes, then slacken it back slowly. At the end of his thirty buckets, Eugenio gives the lifeline a single hard jerk. He wants up. I help Martin pull on the lifeline while Raphael takes in the air hose. Roughly unmasking and dropping his belt, Eugenio medicates his goose-pimply skin by a swig of strong black, heavily sugared coffee from the beat-up thermos.

          The only signal not used in the dive we had just watched is a series of short, urgent jerks from topside. This notifies the diver that his material is "making diamonds”, to work close and mark the spot well for the next man down. On our third day of operation we used this happy signal for the first time. Sparkling out of the fine wet gravels in the bottom screen was our first stone. It was less than half a carat - - forty-six points on my pocket diamond balance - - but it was clear white. By sunset there were two more stones alongside it in my pocket diamond bottle.

          Encouraged by this success we moved the raft to faster, deeper water. In the stronger current the boys needed heavier belt leads to hold them in working position. Lead shoes are not used as the diver wants to feel the nature of the bottom with his bare feet which has a marked advantage.

          Our luckiest day in the new location brought up twenty-one diamonds. These averaged approximately sixty percent industrial, forty percent gem. The two best stones so far were a couple of pure blue-whites weighing respectively two carats ten points and two carats thirty-five points. Modest successes were knitting the crew together. They were fast becoming a faultlessly integrated working crew. Carl and I had shown them everything we had learned from our experiments in the states and turned over all diving except exploration to them.

          A few days before Xmas, the rich pocket played out. My partner and I held one of our "hammock conferences" which were to settle almost all general staff decisions of the coming months upstream. The hammock conference was logical because here in the jungle there was no comfortable place to sit down, and since our hammocks had jungle roofs they were impractical for sitting. The tropic day and night were ever divided into two almost equal periods of twelve hours each. Even the hard work on the apparatus would not enable us to sleep that long. So, of an evening we became accustomed to lying on our backs in hammocks slung ten or twelve feet apart and carrying on intense conversations without being able to see each other. It was like talking from inside two sacks, and it had its advantages. It was conductive to objective, impartial conversations.

          Our hammock decision this particular session was to move upriver to richer diggings. Once established for the season with our diving units, I would be free to commence land mining. But our ragged crew had other ideas and with an ingenuity astonishingly incompatible with their stolid unenterprising workaday imperviousness, they began delaying tactics. They were simply determined not to get away from the settlement before holiday celebrations (rum, women, cockfights and firecrackers) came to an exhausted end. I utilized the time by taking my Indian and dugout upstream to prospect our next location.

          Upriver I chatted with miners on the four or five rigs that had gone upstream while we were breaking in our new crew and equipment. These men were Venezuelan flotsam, heavily sprinkled with a truly international collection of odd-lot characters from Brazil, British Guiana, Trinidad, the French penal colonies, Italy, Spain, Germany, Poland, Lithuania, Holland, Belgium and Estonia. They all professed their mining operations to be doing horribly, but through my Indian talking to their Indians, I discovered that they were recovering some nice stones. Well-satisfied with the prospects I returned to expedite our departure.

          On the second of January our fleet of four boats swung out into the swift current and headed upstream. The ill-assorted convoy started out in orderly unity but the craft, ranging from twelve-foot aluminum boats to a monstrous forty-foot dugout, had motors from five to twenty-two horsepower. Each had a different speed, a different gasoline capacity and consumption rate, and paused for refueling at different intervals. They soon straggled up and down the river, which curved continuously and was full of different island channels. Once lost from sight of the other boats, you could never know whether you were first or last. Once when I was the straggler, I raced to gain ground and became first without being aware of it. I passed the other boats while they had pulled in under the trees for refueling or took a different channel around islands a mile or two long.

          Carl and I were as worried as a mother duck over her straggling ducklings. Our heavy loads of supplies and equipment, everything we had, was staked on the successful arrival of this tiny armada sailed by the most casual of sailors. None of the craft had more than a narrow freeboard. The crew of eight men (we had readied another apparatus), a cook, four drums of gas, two dogs, the cook’s chickens and heavy equipment had sunk the gunwales far too low for safety in these uncertain waters. The river was a succession of rapids, fast water, submerged boulders, underwater reefs and whirlpools.

          These South American rivers have dread whirlpools the like of which I had never known except in literature. They are formed by the huge trough of the river tripping Over and contorting about the violent distortions of the bedrock. The vortexes whirled and sucked like a funnel into hell. Once I remember riding in a thirty-foot dugout powered by a twenty-five horsepower motor, with a pilot experienced in the local waters. In one of the smaller of these "caracols (snails) we were thrown around three times before we could escape through the periphery of the swirling core to safety.

          The flotilla arrived with only minor mishap after many weary hours of dodging underwater boulders, detouring from blind channels and replacing the broken shear pins of rock- clobbered propellers. The smallest dugout had cracked her bottom by grounding at full speed on a large boulder in still water (still water is most dangerous because the boil of a current over a submerged obstacle will reveal its location.) We had all shipped some water and one bowman had broken a paddle in a rapids in a successful effort to keep the prow from crushing against a sharp rock.

          It was late the afternoon of the second day when we tied up alongside the island chosen to be our new jungle home and began clearing away the vines and undergrowth. My arm still tingled with the disconcerting vibration of the steering handle. My eyes ached from the brutal water-glare of the harsh sun. We were now close to 06" 00.1 N. latitude with the full fire of the tropic sun almost overhead.

          The value of the cook's chickens was soon apparent. The area simply crawled with vicious little red ants whose bite was like a hotfoot inserted with a hypodermic needle. The sharp-eyed chickens lived on these ants. Mosquitoes were of little bother, for our camp faced the northeast winds that perpetually freshened one with the sense of just having come from swimming. Our worst enemy was “plaga", small flying insects whose stealthy bite is only felt later when a small scabbed welt rises and itches for as long as three days.

          When camp was well-organized and the two diamond rigs running smoothly, Carl agreed to handle the diving operations while I departed for a long exploration trip toward the Brazilian frontier.

          This was my first taste of living in a complete jungle wilderness; a raw life devoid of comfort but full of adventure and new experience. Steering our dugout along shore and up all tributaries in search of promising rock formation, I shot and fished daily. My two men considered this a part of the necessary work and were glad to assume camp chores while I shot turkey, pig, tapir, tigre, large duck, alligator, deer and snakes large enough to eat me whole. Fishing was unsurpassed and I caught dozens of large fish for which I knew no name.

          Compared to diving apparatus, land mining equipment was restfully simple. Our outboard canoe carried two sets of diving screens, a wooden gold pan, two digging shovels, a root-cutting shovel, two sturdy pails for handling gravels, a strong pick, a long slender bar for probing gravels and a shorter heavy bar for moving heavy rocks, and a small iron mallet for pointing the bars when they became dull from probing among the rocks. Machetes, jungle hammocks, first aid kit, provisions, and gun and fishing equipment filled out our cargo.

          Where block quartz and conglomerate pebbles indicated promising gravels, we probed with the bar to determine consistency and depth, and then washed samples all the way down to bedrock. We worked the diamond screens directly over the gold pan. After the sieving for diamonds was done in the normal way, we tested for gold by washing the sands that had passed through the screens. I had never worked the native-style wooden gold pan before and was pleased to find that, because it balanced so finely on the water during flotation and rotation, such work was amazingly easy on the wrist muscles.

          Where block quartz and conglomerate pebbles indicated promising gravels, we probed with the bar to determine consistency and depth, and then washed samples all the way down to bedrock. We worked the diamond screens directly over the gold pan. After the sieving for diamonds was done in the normal way, we tested for gold by washing the sands that had passed through the screens. I had never worked the native-style wooden gold pan before and was pleased to find that, because it balanced so finely on the water during flotation and rotation, such work was amazingly easy on the wrist muscles.

          At the end of the exploration, we had only thirteen diamonds and a small quantity of gold. But I had the information 1 wanted on the entire watershed. I had made up my mind that the area was most promising in gold. On the return trip downstream our gasoline supply gave out and we paddled for twelve hours a day, living principally on alligator meat, turtle eggs and fish. By the time I rejoined Carl, the long hours of paddling, hours of handling heavy gravels, miles of chopping machete trails through the jungle, had shaved my weight ten pounds.

          Carl warned me not to be surprised at the influx of miners. Strange boats were everywhere and a sort of Venice of the tropics was being founded downstream on a site I distinctly remembered with only three huts. All traffic came and went by outboard canoe and the waterfront was often so jammed with craft that one had to double park.

          During my absence our divers' luck had been excellent at times, though spotty. Recovery was more difficult than at our first location down below. Spasmodic rains upriver raised and lowered the water level and interfered with production. The best gravels here were difficult to extract because they lay under a hard "false cap" as thick as five inches. On the bottom, this false cap felt like conglomerate but could be broken by pounding on a sharp bar with a sledgehammer. Under water, in fast current, this is not easy work.

          By now we had three apparatus working and were feeding fourteen people, sometimes more. Provisions disappeared at an alarming rate. I took the large canoe downriver for provisions and also to get some mercury and other items I would need on my next upstream exploration. These included primers, powder and shot for my gun, I was running low on ammunition and would soon need these reloading supplies. For about ten days I stayed to help Carl reorganize the base camp operation, then left to continue upriver explorations. Though I had not previously succeeded in discovering a commercial deposit, I had isolated the gold-bearing formation and felt success was only a matter of time and determination.

          In the area we planned to work, the majority of the creeks showed fine gold dust, or "oro de mantequilla", so named because the flecks floated like specks of butter oil on the water of the gold pan. On the seventeenth day we found luck. The fortunate creek was so small we had to abandon the dugout near the mouth and proceed by machete trail. In a high ravine, at the bottom of an eight-foot test hole, we hit commercial gold. It was a great day. We were so fevered by our find that all conversation was conducted in a voice three times normal volume.

          As we worked away in the freckled sunlight, deep under the high jungle foliage, we were a ragged looking trio. Capsizing in a rapids had cost us much of our provisions and all of our extra clothing- What we wore on our backs now was in such tatters that we dared not wash it for fear of final disintegration. Both my men were thin and gaunt from recurrent malarial fevers. Laboring so long in the dungeons of the jungle had also bleached their suntan.

          Food supplies became critical. Much of the provisions not lost in the rapids had soured from the resultant wetness or gone wormy. I remembered when George discovered the worms in the beans - - after that we sorted them before putting them on to boil and threw the wormy beans into a separate can for discard. But thrifty Otto insisted on saving them. In the end we ate the wormy beans too. I had long since shot off most of the game in the area and it was a long trip to the river for fish. When our food was down to what could be put in one cracker can, we cached our equipment, we camouflaged the trail leading from the creek to the diggings and left at daylight for downriver.

          At base camp I was astonished at the change in my partner. He was twenty-five pounds lighter and hollow-eyed. The energetic spring common to both his thought and action was limp. A severe attack of malaria had pinned him on his back for over a week. A fever of a hundred and five had seared his brain into delirium for three days. He assured me that now his appetite was returning and he would soon be back to normal.

          After waiting five days, during which Carl made consistent gains, I felt he was beyond danger of recurrent attack. During this time I reprovisioned as inconspicuously as possible for an extended stay upriver. Before daylight on the sixth morning I shoved off with five men, boards to build a sluice box, more mercury and a small motor pump to empty our holes and provide a controllable wash stream for the sluice box.

          We set up a seven-day workweek, opening and gutting the jungle as we worked up the treasure-floored ravine. The overburden continued heavy and full of large, hard-to-manage boulders. It was hard, grueling work, and after two or three weeks tempers began to fray.

          The men stopped talking for tear of argument, but unspoken personal antagonisms were just as obvious as the spoken. One night I had to step in between a butcher knife and a machete to stop a small difference of opinion. I dared not send the offending personality away for fear he would reveal our operations and location to others. But meanwhile the yellow stuff kept rolling in and each night I weighed the hard-won day's take on my pocket balance and wrapped it away in metal foil.

          After many weeks, our luck, which had begun to fade after the third week, ran out at last. We hit a shallow bedrock ledge and there were no more gold gravels. Excavations showed a contact surface where three different types of bedrock came together. We searched both up and down the ravine and into the hills on both sides, but the pay gravels were gone for good.

          It was just as well. It was now late April, with the wet season almost upon us. Every day we heard the growl of distant thunder, and sometimes short showers freshened us with their huge cool drops as we worked. There was little point to staying longer. Re-working the odd spots we had missed was only intermittently productive and I knew a single heavy downpour in the hills above us would flood our diggings almost overnight. Also, I suspected that some of the men knew where I kept the gold and in the jungle one never knows. I issued the order to pullout.

          Back downriver again, miners were everywhere. I was astonished at the influx of people. In an area where Carl and I had known almost everyone by his first name (but not his last), between a thousand and fifteen hundred people were living and working. At the nearby Indian village where the aborigines formerly went barefooted and paddled small canoes, the red men now wore black rubber miner boots and drove outboard motors. We had fallen, partly by luck, into a big mining boom.

          When making the rounds of our diving rigs, I hardly recognized our original crew. I remembered them as they had joined us four months ago wearing faded apparel ventilated by large rents. Now they sported un faded khakis and creamy new straw hats. Though all alcoholic liquors were strictly prohibited, the area technically being Indian country, on weekends the boys were dunking their tonsils in cheap rum at fifteen dollars a bottle. Each had his favorite acquaintances among the assorted professional women who had followed the boom upriver to mine the miners. Standard fees were thirty bucks for an all-night consultation, or half that much for a short service call.

          As a part of my return celebration Carl took me to the cinema at the newly mushroomed village. An important looking cop whose uniform consisted of a cap and a billy frisked us for weapons at the door. (On Sundays I saw him with a sabre as well.) We sat on the slivery plank bench seats under the star-studded tropic night and watched an old 16 mm. projector that made noises like a teletype machine as it flickered an abominably bad Argentine film onto a bed sheet screen stretched between two poles. When the wind billowed the screen, the rippling distortion made it seem as if all the action were going on under water. Directly behind the screen were the living quarters of the owner. During reel changes his kiddies came out and played foolishly in front of the audience.

          After the show we treated ourselves to a coca-Cola (sixty cents a bottle) and walked among the makeshift business houses of the transient merchants. I priced a few items out of practical curiosity - - a five pound can of dried milk was four dollars twenty and fish hooks thirty cents apiece. Wide inquiry finally located a toothbrush to replace the one I had lost upriver, for a mere dollar eighty. All transactions were, of course, in Venezuelan bolivars each worth about thirty cents U.s.

          Our production figures were tabulated in flop-eared note- books each weekend. They varied greatly. Sometimes an apparatus averaged eighty carats a week for two or three weeks, but such a pinnacle was too good to last. One rig, during a high water period when it changed positions and crews frequently, once yielded only sixteen carats during the worst three week period. Personnel to man the rigs became an increasingly difficult problem since the better men were getting ahead and buying their own apparatus. Toward the end of the season two of our former crews were running competition right alongside us. It was a free river and the only right observed was the right of prior occupancy. Even then someone might move your anchor in the night.

          Against production were the high costs of operation. Costs pyramided as the boom swelled, until late in the season when production fell off and the international gem market took a skid. Merchants who had formerly been haughty and arbitrary now reduced prices and became solicitous as the family physician as they tried to liquidate stocks before the rainy season exodus commenced. Diamond buyers conserved their finances and bid warily on consignments of stones.

          Although heavy rains had not yet hit our location, they had already deluged the headwaters. Rocks, which a short time ago had pierced high out of water, were now mere swirls under the foam-capped current. One by one the divers found the increasing depth (twenty-two meters maximum) too deep for them, and production gradually ebbed.

          The second week in May we had only one apparatus left in operation. The water was rising daily, the skies becoming more ominous. Reluctantly, we loaded all remaining supplies aboard the big raft and pulled anchor for downriver. At the village where we had launched our equipment six months before under a cloudless sky, we now pulled it ashore for rainy season storage.

          As we pulled the outfit from the water and carried it piecemeal up the bank to a thatched shed behind a grove of stunted banana trees, I took a mental inventory. We were far from rich. There are few mining dollars that are easy dollars. But the twelve-hour days, the long nights working by gas lantern to repair a compressor or a pump so that the crew could start uninterrupted work at daybreak, had repaid us Our equipment was still good and we had thirty-two carats, the selected cream of our find, to take back to the states with us.

          The last pieces of the disassembled equipment reached the shed just in time. Overhead now the sullen skies stopped muttering. Violent thunder blasted open the clouds which had been bloating for days. Through the stick-barred window I could see the floppy green banana leaves wilted and dripping in the windless downpour, and beyond was the rain- pocked river, no longer an obstacle but instead my highway to the country beyond.

          I thought back to the beginning when there were just the two of us. Then six, ten and finally, over twenty men in our outfit. Now, again, there were only Carl and myself. The last men had fled us as soon as production stopped. The two of us were tanned and agile. Our "sackily” fitting clothes and trimmed belt ends attested to our healthily reduced weights.

          During those long, hard months passed upstream, many times I had longed to get away from my uncomfortable lot. I had cursed the wet, the insects, the wormy beans, the maggot infested meat, the taunting vastness of the treasure-rich jungle, the evasive sabotage of the jungle gods.

          Now, in the hour of leaving, I mellowed. Regretfully; I knew the rough and tumble was over. My beard would go, my sneaker pampered feet would feel the pinch of polished straight jackets, my throat would be ensnared with a necktie. After Pan American would come the New York subways with their jostling crowds and stale air. The months had made a change in me. Was I, perhaps, leaving civilization and returning to the jungle? On which side of the wide, enigmatic Paragua River lay which shore? I felt like a night boatman confused upon the River Styx.

          That evening as I zipped myself for the last time into the jungle-weathered hammock that had been my bed and roof for half a year, I tried to probe my true feeling. Life had never been tougher than in those months south of the Orinoco. But, in a different sort of way, it had never been better. In that jungle frontier I had found one of the few places left on earth today where a fellow on his own has a fair fight to strike it rich and, ever more important, to be a man's man in accordance with the age-old terms of primitive nature.

          For this last, I felt sincerely grateful. My truant thoughts at last assembled and brought to bed, I relaxed fluidly into my hammock and listened. Outside the thunder was over. The rain steadied for the night. I cooled my lungs deeply with the rain-washed air until, tired from the hard labor of the day, I fell into deep untroubled sleep.

© 2003 Chronicles of Bob