CHAPTER X. THE FIGHT BETWEEN THE MANGEROMAS AND THE PERUVIANS

I was sitting outside the maloca writing my observations in the note-book which I always carried in my hunting-coat, when two young hunters hurried toward the Chief, who was reclining in the shade of a banana-tree near the other end of the large house. It was early afternoon, when most of the men of the Mangeromas were off hunting in the near-by forests, while the women and children attended to various duties around the village. Probably not more than eight or ten men remained about the maloca.

I had recovered from my sickness and was not entirely devoid of a desire for excitement - the best tonic of the explorer. The two young hunters with bows and arrows halted before the Chief. They were gesticulating wildly; and although I could not understand what they were talking about, I judged from the frown of the Chief that something serious was the matter.

He arose with unusual agility for a man of his size, and shouted something toward the opening of the maloca, whence the men were soon seen coming with leaps and bounds. Anticipating trouble, I also ran over to the Chief, and, in my defective Mangeroma lingo, inquired the cause of the excitement. He did not answer me, but, in a greater state of agitation than I had previously observed in him, he gave orders to his men. He called the "wireless" operator and commanded him to bring out his precious apparatus. This was soon fastened to the gunwales of the canoe where I had seen it used before, on my trip to the neighbouring tribe, and soon the same powerful, xylophonic sounds vibrated through the forest. It was his intention to summon the hunters that were still roaming around the vicinity, by this "C.Q.D." message. The message I could not interpret nor repeat, although it was not nearly as complex as the one I had learned before. After a while, the men came streaming into the maloca from all directions, with anxiety darkening their faces. I had now my first inkling of what was the cause of the commotion, and it did not take me long to understand that we were in danger from some Peruvian caboclos. The two young men who had brought the news to the Chief had spied a detachment of Peruvian half-breeds as they were camping in our old tambo No. 6, the one we had built on our sixth day out from Floresta. There were about a score of them, all ugly caboclos, or half-breed caucheros, hunting rubber and no doubt out also for prey in the shape of young Mangeroma girls, as was their custom. The traps set by the Indians, as described in a previous chapter, would be of no avail in this case, as the number of Peruvians was greater than in any previous experience.

The enemy had been observed more than ten miles off, in an easterly direction, when our two hunters were on the trail of a large herd of peccaries, or wild boars, they had sighted in the early morning. The Peruvians were believed to be heading for the maloca of the Mangeromas, as there were no other settlements in this region excepting the up-creek tribe, but this numbered at least five hundred souls, and would be no easy prey for them.

I now had a remarkable opportunity to watch the war preparations of these savage, cannibal people, my friends, the Mangeromas. Their army consisted of twelve able-bodied men, all fine muscular fellows, about five feet ten in height, and bearing an array of vicious-looking weapons such as few white men have seen. First of all were three club-men, armed with strong, slender clubs, of hard and extremely tough Caripari wood. The handle, which was very slim, was provided with a knob at the end to prevent the club from slipping out of the hand when in action. The heavy end was furnished with six bicuspid teeth of the black jaguar, embedded in the wood and projecting about two inches beyond the surface. The club had a total length of five feet and weighed about eight pounds. The second division of the wild-looking band consisted of three spear-men, each provided with the three-pronged spears, a horrible weapon which always proves fatal in the hands of these savages. It is a long straight shaft of Caripari wood, about one inch in thickness, divided into three parts at the end, each division being tipped with a barbed bone of the sting-ray. These bones, about three and a half inches long, were smeared with wourahli poison, and thus rendered absolutely fatal even when inflicting only a superficial wound. Each man carried two of these spears, the points being protected by grass-sheaths. The third division was composed of three bow-and-arrow men, the youngest men in the tribe, boys of sixteen and seventeen. They were armed with bows of great length, from six to seven feet, and each bore, at his left side, a quiver, containing a dozen big-game arrows fully five feet long. These arrows, as far as I could ascertain, were not poisoned, but their shock-giving and rending powers were extraordinary. The arrow-heads were all made of the bones of the sting-ray, in themselves formidable weapons, because of the many jagged barbs that prevent extraction from a wound except by the use of great force, resulting in ugly laceration.

The fourth and last division consisted of three blow-gun men, the most effective and cunning of this deadly and imposing array. As so much depended upon the success of a first attack on the Peruvians, who not only outnumbered us, but also were armed with Winchesters, the blow-guns were in the hands of the older and more experienced men. All, except the club-men, wore, around the waist, girdles fringed with mutum plumes, and the captains added, to their uniforms multi-coloured fringes of squirrel tails. Their faces all had the usual scarlet and black stripes. The Chief, and his principal aide, or sub-Chief, had on their gayest feathers, including head ornaments of arara plumes and egrets. The club-men were naked, except for their head-gear, which consisted simply of a band of mutum plumes. When the warriors stood together in their costumes, ready for battle, they presented an awe-inspiring sight.

The Chief gave the order for the bow-and-arrow men to start in single file, the others to follow after, in close succession. The Chief and I fell in at the rear. In the meantime I had examined my Luger automatic pistol to make sure of the smooth action of the mechanism, and found besides that I had in all thirty-seven soft-nose bullets. This was my only weapon, but previous narrow escapes from death and many close contacts with danger had hardened me, so I was willing to depend entirely upon my pistol. The women and children of the maloca stood around, as we disappeared in the jungle, and, while they showed some interest in the proceeding, they displayed little or no emotion. A couple of sweethearts exchanged kisses as composedly as if they had been bluecoats parting with the ladies of their choice before going to the annual parade.

Soon we were in the dark, dense jungle that I was now so well acquainted with, and, strange to say, the green and tangled mass of vegetation contained more terrors for me than the bloody combat that was to follow.

For an hour we travelled in a straight line, pushing our way as noiselessly as possible through the thick mass of creepers and lianas. About three o'clock, one of the scouts sighted the Peruvians, and our Chief decided that an attack should be made as soon as possible, before darkness could set in. We stopped and sent out two bow-and-arrow men to reconnoitre. An anxious half hour passed before one of them returned with the report that the Peruvians were now coming towards us and would probably reach our position in a few minutes. I could almost hear my heart thump; my knees grew weak, and for a moment I almost wished that I had stayed in the maloca.

The Chief immediately directed certain strategic movements which, in ingenuity and foresight, would have been worthy of a Napoleon.

We were between two low hills, covered with the usual dense vegetation, which made it impossible to see an advancing enemy at a distance of more than five yards. The three blow-gun men were now ordered to ascend the hills on each side of the valley and conceal themselves about half-way up the slopes, and towards the enemy. They were to insert the poisoned arrows in their guns and draw a bead on the Peruvians as they came on cutting their way through the underbrush. The bow-and-arrow men posted themselves farther on about five yards behind the blow-gun men, with big-game arrows fitted to the bowstrings, ready to shoot when the first volley of the deadly and silent poisoned arrows had been fired. Farther back were the spear-men with spears unsheathed, and finally came the three brave and ferocious club-men. Of these last warriors, a tall athlete was visibly nervous, not from fear but from anticipation. The veins of his forehead stood out, pulsating with every throb of his heart. He clutched the heavy club and continually gritted his white, sharp-filed teeth in concentrated rage. It was wisely calculated that the Peruvians would unconsciously wedge themselves into this trap, and by the time they could realise their danger their return would be cut off by our bow-and-arrow men in their rear.

After a pause that seemed an eternity to most of us no doubt, for the savage heart beats as the white man's in time of danger and action, we heard the talking and shouting of the enemy as they advanced, following the natural and easiest route between the hills and cutting their way through the brush. I stood near the Chief and the young club-man Arara, who, on account of his bravery and great ability in handling his club, had been detailed to remain near us.

Before I could see any of the approaching foe, I heard great shouts of anger and pain from them. It was easy for me to understand their cries as they spoke Spanish and their cursings sounded loud through the forest.

The blow-gun men, perceiving the Peruvians at the foot of the hill only some twenty feet away, had prudently waited until at least half a dozen were visible, before they fired a volley of poisoned arrows. The three arrows fired in this first volley all hit their mark. Hardly had they gone forth, when other arrows were dexterously inserted in the tubes. The work of the blow-gun men was soon restricted to the picking out of any stray enemy, their long, delicate, and cumbersome blow-guns preventing them from taking an active part in the melee. Now the conflict was at its height and it was a most remarkable one, on account of its swiftness and fierceness. The bow-and-arrow men charging with their sting-ray arrows poisoned with the wourahli took the place of the cautiously retreating blow-gun men. At the same instant the spear-men rushed down, dashing through the underbrush at the foot of the hill, like breakers on a stormy night.

The rear-guard of the Peruvians now came into action, having had a chance to view the situation. Several of them filed to the right and managed to fire their large-calibre bullets into the backs of our charging bow-and-arrow men, but, in their turn, they were picked off by the blow-gun men, who kept firing their poisoned darts from a safe distance. The fearful yells of our men, mingled with the cursing of the Peruvians, and the sharp reports of their heavy rifles, so plainly heard, proved that the centre of battle was not many yards from the spot where I was standing.

The club-men now broke into action; they could not be kept back any longer. The tension had already been too painful for these brave fellows, and with fierce war-cries of "Yob - Hee - Hee" they launched themselves into the fight, swinging their strong clubs above their heads and crashing skulls from left to right. By this time the Peruvians had lost many men, but the slaughter went on. The huge black clubs of the Mangeromas fell again and again, with sickening thuds, piercing the heads and brains of the enemy with the pointed jaguar teeth.

Suddenly two Peruvians came into view not more than twelve feet from where the Chief, Arara the big club-man, and I were standing. One of these was a Spaniard, evidently the captain of this band of marauders (or, to use their correct name, caucheros). His face was of a sickly, yellowish hue, and a big, black moustache hid the lower part of his cruel and narrow chin. He took a quick aim as he saw us in his path, but before he could pull the trigger, Arara, with a mighty side-swing of his club literally tore the Spaniard's head off. Now, at last, the bonds of restraint were broken for this handsome devil Arara, and yelling himself hoarse, and with his strong but cruel face contracted to a fiendish grin, he charged the enemy; I saw him crush the life out of three.

The Chief took no active part in the fight whatever, but added to the excitement by bellowing with all his might an encouraging " Aa - Oo - Ah." No doubt, this had a highly beneficial effect upon the tribesmen, for they never for an instant ceased their furious fighting until the last Peruvian was killed. During the final moments of the battle, several bullets whirred by me at close range, but during the whole affair I had had neither opportunity nor necessity for using my pistol. Now, however, a caboclo, with a large, bloody machete in his hand, sprang from behind a tree and made straight for me. I dodged behind another tree and saw how the branches were swept aside as he rushed towards me.

Then I fired point-blank, sending three bullets into his head. He fell on his face at my feet. As I bent over him, I saw that he had a blow-gun arrow in his left thigh; he was therefore a doomed man before he attacked me. This was my first and only victim, during this brief but horrible slaughter. As I was already thoroughly sick from the noise of cracking rifles and the thumping of clubs smashing their way into the brains of the Peruvians, I rushed toward the centre of the valley where the first attack on the advance guard of the enemy had taken place, but even more revolting was the sight that revealed itself. Here and there bushes were shaking as some caboclo crawled along on all fours in his death agony. Those who were struck by the blow-gun arrows seemed simply to fall asleep without much pain or struggle, but the victims of the club-men and the bow-and-arrow men had a terrible death. They could not die by the merciful wourahli poison, like those shot by the blow-gun, but expired from hemorrhages caused by the injuries of the ruder weapons. One poor fellow was groaning most pitifully. He had received a well-directed big-game arrow in the upper part of the abdomen, the arrow having been shot with such terrible force that about a foot of the shaft projected from the man's back. The arrow-head had been broken off by striking a vertebra.

The battle was over. Soon the urubus, or vultures, were hanging over the tree-tops waiting for their share of the spoils. The men assembled in front of the Chief for roll-call. Four of our men were killed outright by rifle-bullets, and it was typical of these brave men that none were killed by machete stabs. The entire marauding expedition of twenty Peruvians was completely wiped out, not a single one escaping the deadly aim of the Mangeromas. Thus was avoided the danger of being attacked in the near future by a greater force of Peruvians, called to this place from the distant frontier by some returning survivor.

It is true that the Mangeromas lay in ambush for their enemy and killed them, for the greater part, with poisoned arrows and spears, but the odds were against the Indians, not only because the caboclos were attacking them in larger numbers, but because they came with modern, repeating fire-arms against the hand weapons of the Mangeromas. These marauders, too, came with murder and girl-robbery in their black hearts, while the Mangeromas were defending their homes and families. But it is true that after the battle, so bravely fought, the Indians cut off the hands and feet of their enemies, dead or dying, and carried them home.

The fight lasted only some twenty minutes, but it was after sunset when we reached the maloca. The women and children received us with great demonstrations of joy. Soon the pots and pans were boiling inside the great house. I have previously observed how the Mangeromas would partake of parts of the human body as a sort of religious rite, whenever they had been successful with their man-traps; now they feasted upon the hands and feet of the slain, these parts having been distributed among the different families.

I crept into my hammock and lit my pipe, watching the great mass of naked humanity. All the men had laid aside their feather-dresses and squirrel tails, and were moving around among the many fires on the floor of the hut. Some were sitting in groups discussing the battle, while women bent over the pots to examine the ghastly contents. Here, a woman was engaged in stripping the flesh from the palm of a hand and the sole of a foot, which operation finished, she threw both into a large earthen pot to boil; there, another woman was applying an herb-poultice to her husband's wounds.

Over it all hung a thick, odoriferous smoke, gradually finding its way out through the central opening in the roof.

This was a feast, indeed, such as few white men, I believe, have witnessed.

That night and the next day, and the following four days, great quantities of chicha were drunk and much meat was consumed to celebrate the great victory, the greatest in the annals of the Mangeromas of Rio Branco.

Earthen vessels and jars were used in the cooking of food. The red clay (Tabatinga clay) found abundantly in these regions formed a superior material for these utensils. They were always decorated symbolically with juices of the scarlet urucu and the black genipapa. Even when not burned into the clay, these were permanent colours.

Men and women wore their hair long and untrimmed as far as I could observe. The older and more experienced of the tribesmen would have quite elaborate head-gear, consisting of a band of mutum plumes, interspersed with parrot-tail feathers, while the younger hunters wore nothing but a band of the mutum plumes. The body was uncovered, save by a narrow strip of bark encircling the waist. A broad piece, woven of several bark-strips into a sort of mat, protected the lower anterior part of the abdomen. The women wore no clothing whatever.

Their colour was remarkably light. Probably nothing can designate this better than the statement that if a Mangeroma were placed alongside of an Italian, no difference would be noticeable. Their cheek-bones were not as high as is usual with tribes found on the Amazon; they seemed to come from a different race. Their eyes were set straight without any tendency to the Mongolian slanting that characterises the Peruvian caboclos and the tribes of the northern affluents. The women had unusually large feet, while those of the men were small and well-shaped. The general appearance of a young Mangeroma was that of a well-proportioned athlete, standing about five feet ten in his bare feet. No moccasins, nor any other protection for the feet, were worn.

The supply of wourahli poison had run low and three wourahli men were to go out in the forest to collect poison plants, a journey which would require several days to complete. This occasion was set as the time of my departure.

It was a rainy morning when I wrapped my few belongings in a leaf, tied some grass-fibres around them, and inserted them in the large pocket of my khaki-coat. The box with the gold dust was there, also the boxes with the exposed photographic plates. Most of the gold had filtered out of the box, but a neat quantity still remained. One of my servants - a handsome girl - who, excepting for the labial ornaments, could have been transformed into an individual of quite a civilised appearance by opportunity, gave me a beautiful black necklace as a souvenir. It was composed of several hundred pieces, all carved out of ebony nuts. It had cost her three weeks of constant work. I embraced and was embraced by almost everybody in the maloca, after which ceremony we went in procession to the canoe that was to take me down to the Branco River. The Chief bade me a fond farewell, that forever shall be implanted in my heart. I had lived here weeks among these cannibal Indians, had enjoyed their kindness and generosity without charge; I could give them nothing in return and they asked nothing. I could have stayed here for the rest of my natural life if I had so desired, but now I was to say good-bye forever. How wonderful was this farewell! It was my opportunity for acknowledging that the savage heart is by no means devoid of the feelings and sentiments that characterise more elevated, so-called civilised individuals.

For the last time I heard the little dog bark, the same that had licked my face when I fainted in front of the maloca upon my first arrival; and the large arara screamed in the tree-tops as I turned once more towards the world of the white man.

The journey was without incident. The wourahli men set me off near the mouth of the Branco River, at a distance which I covered in less than five hours by following the banks. I was greeted by Coronel Maya of the Compagnie Transatlantique de Caoutchouc, who sent me by canoe down the old Itecoahy, until we reached the Floresta headquarters.

Here I gave Coronel da Silva an account of the death of Chief Marques, and the brave Jerome, which made a deep impression upon this noble man.

The three men, Magellaes, Anisette, and Freitas, had returned in safety after they separated from us.

I met the wife of Chief Marques. She was the woman whose arm I had amputated. When I saw her she was carrying, with the arm left to her, a pail of water from the little creek behind headquarters. She was a different woman, and I was pleased to know that my desperate surgical operation had resulted so well. Her cheeks were full and almost rosy. Her health, I was told, excepting for occasional attacks of ague, was very good.

Soon after, the launch arrived from Remate de Males and I put my baggage on board. The Coronel accompanied me down river for about forty-eight hours and then, reaching the northern extremity of his estate, he bade me a fond good-bye with the words: "Sempre, illustrissimo Senhor, minha casa e a suas ordenes," "My house, most illustrious Sir, is always at your disposal."

When I arrived at Remate de Males I had another attack of malaria, which almost severed the slender thread by which my life hung; my physical resistance was gone. But I managed to develop my plates before breaking down completely, and after having disposed of my small quantity of gold dust, for which I realised some three hundred and forty dollars, I was taken down to the mouth of the Javary River, where I had landed almost a year previous, now a physical and, I might almost say, mental wreck. I stayed in the house of Coronel Monteiro, the frontier official at Esperanca, for five long days, fighting with death, until one afternoon I saw the white hull of the R.M.S. Napo appear at a bend of the Amazon, only five hundred yards away.

Closer she came - this rescuing instrument of Providence. She was none too soon, for I had now reached the last notch of human endurance. She dropped anchor; a small gasoline launch was lowered into the water; three white-coated officers stepped into it - they came ashore - they climbed the stairs. The captain, a stout, kind-looking Englishman, approached my hammock and found therein a very sick white man. I was carried aboard and placed in the hands of the ship's physician. At last those black forests of the Amazon were left behind. After twenty-two days' sail, Sandy Hook lighthouse loomed on our port side, and soon after, I could rest - rest, and live again!