CHAPTER VI. THE FATAL MARCH THROUGH THE FOREST
It must have been about two o'clock in the morning when I was awakened by a terrific roaring which fairly made the forest tremble. Sitting up and staring fearfully into the darkness, I heard the crashing of underbrush and trees close upon us. My first thought was of a hurricane, but in the confusion of my senses, stunned by the impact of sound, I had few clear impressions. My companions were calling one another. The noise grew louder, more terrifying. Suddenly the little world around me went to smash in one mad upheaval. The roof of the tambo collapsed and fell upon us. At the same instant I felt some huge body brush past me, hurling me sprawling to the ground. The noise was deafening, mingled with the shrieks and excited yellings of my men, but the object passed swiftly in the direction of the creek.
Some one now thought of striking a light to discover the extent of the damage. The tambo was a wreck; the hammocks were one tangled mass. Jerome, who had jumped from his hammock when he first heard the noise, followed the "hurricane" to the creek and soon solved the mystery of the storm that swept our little camp. He told us, it was a jaguar, which had sprung upon the back of a large tapir while the animal was feeding in the woods behind our tambo. The tapir started for the creek in the hope of knocking the jaguar off its back by rushing through the underbrush; not succeeding in this, its next hope was the water in the creek. It had chosen a straight course through our tambo.
The next day we were successful in killing two howling monkeys; these were greeted with loud yells of joy, as we had not been able to locate any game during the last twenty-four hours' march. This is easy to understand. We were much absorbed in cutting our way through the bushes and the game was scared away long before we could sight it.
After the ninth day of wearisome journeying, the Chief found signs of numerous caoutchouc trees, indicating a rich district, and it was accordingly decided that tambo No. 9 should be our last. We were now fully 150 miles from the Floresta headquarters and some 120 miles back in the absolutely unknown. That night the temperature went down to 41 deg. Fahrenheit, a remarkable drop so close to the equator and on such low ground, but it was undoubtedly due to the fact that the sun never penetrates the dark foliage of the surrounding dense forests where the swamps between the hills give off their damp exhalations.
Up to this point I had not feared the jungle more than I would have feared any other forest, but soon a dread commenced to take hold of me, now that I could see how a great danger crept closer and closer - danger of starvation and sickness. Our supplies were growing scant when we reached tambo No. 9, and yet we lingered, forgetful of the precarious position into which we had thrust ourselves, and the violated wilderness was preparing to take its revenge.
I suppose our carelessness in remaining was due in part to the exhausted state to which we had been reduced, and which made us all rejoice in the comfort of effortless days rather than face new exertions.