CHAPTER VII. THE FATAL "TAMBO NO. 9"
We were three weeks at tambo No. 9 before the sharp tooth of necessity began to rouse us to the precarious situation. Occasionally a lucky shot would bring down a mutum or a couple of monkeys and, on one occasion, a female tapir. Thus feasting to repletion, we failed to notice that the lucky strikes came at longer intervals; that the animals were deserting our part of the forest. During these three weeks we were not wholly idle. The Chief had the men out every day making excursions in the neighbourhood to locate the caoutchouc trees. As soon as a tree was found, they set to work bleeding the base of it to let the milky sap ooze out on the ground where it would collect in a small pool. Then they would fell the tree and cut rings in the bark at regular intervals so that the milk could flow out. In a few days when the milk had coagulated, forming large patches of caoutchouc, they would return for it. The pieces were washed in the creek and then tied into large bundles ready for transporting.
In all they located more than 800 caoutchouc trees. At this time too I made my remarkable discovery of gold deposits in the creek. It seems to me now like the plot of some old morality play, for while we were searching eagerly for the thing that we considered the ultimate goal of human desires - wealth, the final master, Death, was closing his net upon us day by day. Our food supply was nearly gone.
While strolling along the shores of the creek in search of game, I noticed irregular clumps or nodules of clay which had accumulated in large quantities in the bed of the stream, especially where branches and logs had caused whirlpools and eddies to form. They had the appearance of pebbles or stones, and were so heavy in proportion to their size that my curiosity was aroused, and throwing one of them on the bank I split it open with my machete. My weakened heart then commenced to beat violently, for what I saw looked like gold.
I took the two pieces to my working table near our tambo, and examining the dirty-yellow heart with my magnifying glass, I found the following: A central mass about one cubic inch in size, containing a quantity of yellowish grains measuring, say, one thirty-second of an inch in diameter, slightly adhering to each other, but separating upon pressure of the finger, and around this a thick layer of hard clay or mud of somewhat irregular shape. It immediately struck me that the yellow substance might be gold, though I could not account for the presence of it in the centre of the clay-balls.
I carefully scraped the granules out of the clay, and washing them clean, placed them on a sheet of paper to dry in the sun. By this time the attention of the other men had been attracted to what I was doing, and it seemed to amuse the brave fellows immensely to watch my painstaking efforts with the yellow stuff. I produced some fine scales I had for weighing chemicals for my photographic work, and suspended these above a gourd filled with water. Then I went down to the creek and collected more of the clay-balls and scraped the mud of one away from the solid centre of what I took to be grains of gold. A fine thread I next wound around the gold ball and this was tied to one end of the balance. After an equilibrium had been established, I found that the weight of the gold was 660 grains. Next I raised the gourd until the water reached the suspended ball, causing the opposite pan of the scales to go down. To again establish equilibrium, I had to add 35 grains. With this figure I divided the actual weight of the gold, which gave me 18.9, and this I remembered was close to the specific gravity of pure gold.
Still a little in doubt, I broke the bulb of one of my clinical thermometers and, placing the small quantity of mercury thus obtained in the bottom of a tray, I threw a few of the grains into it, and found that they immediately united, forming a dirty-grey amalgam. I was now sure the substance was gold and in less than five hours I collected enough to fill five photographic 5 x 7 plate-boxes, the only empty receptacles I could lay my hands on. I could have filled a barrel, for the creek was thick with the clay-balls as far as I could see; but I had a continuous fever and this, with the exhaustion from semi-starvation, caused me to be indifferent to this great wealth. In fact, I would have gladly given all the gold in the creek for One square meal. If the difficulties in reaching this infernal region were not so great, I have no doubt that a few men could soon make themselves millionaires.
The deadly fever came among us after a few days. It struck a young man called Brabo first; the next day I fell sick with another serious attack of swamp-fever, and we both took to our hammocks. For five days and nights I was delirious most of the time, listening to the mysterious noises of the forest and seeing in my dreams visions of juicy steaks, great loaves of bread, and cups of creamy coffee. In those five days the only food in the camp was howling monkey, the jerked beef and the dried farinha having given out much to my satisfaction, as I became so heartily disgusted with this unpalatable food that I preferred to starve rather than eat it again. At first I felt the lack of food keenly, but later the pain of hunger was dulled, and only a warm, drugged sensation pervaded my system. Starvation has its small mercies.