III. A JAGUAR-HUNT ON THE TAQUARY
The morning after our arrival at Corumba I asked Colonel Rondon to inspect our outfit; for his experience of what is necessary in tropical travelling has been gained through a quarter of a century of arduous exploration in the wilderness. It was Fiala who had assembled our food-tents, cooking-utensils, and supplies of all kinds, and he and Sigg, during their stay in Corumba, had been putting everything in shape for our start. Colonel Rondon at the end of his inspection said he had nothing whatever to suggest; that it was extraordinary that Fiala, without personal knowledge of the tropics, could have gathered the things most necessary, with the minimum of bulk and maximum of usefulness.
Miller had made a special study of the piranhas, which swarmed at one of the camps he and Cherrie had made in the Chaco. So numerous were they that the members of the party had to be exceedingly careful in dipping up water. Miller did not find that they were cannibals toward their own kind; they were "cannibals" only in the sense of eating the flesh of men. When dead piranhas, and even when mortally injured piranhas, with the blood flowing, were thrown among the ravenous living, they were left unmolested. Moreover, it was Miller's experience, the direct contrary of which we had been told, that splashing and a commotion in the water attracted the piranhas, whereas they rarely attacked anything that was motionless unless it was bloody. Dead birds and mammals, thrown whole and unskinned into the water were permitted to float off unmolested, whereas the skinned carcass of a good-sized monkey was at once seized, pulled under the water, and completely devoured by the blood-crazy fish. A man who had dropped something of value waded in after it to above the knees, but went very slowly and quietly, avoiding every possibility of disturbance, and not venturing to put his hands into the water. But nobody could bathe, and even the slightest disturbance in the water, such as that made by scrubbing the hands vigorously with soap, immediately attracted the attention of the savage little creatures, who darted to the place, evidently hoping to find some animal in difficulties. Once, while Miller and some Indians were attempting to launch a boat, and were making a great commotion in the water, a piranha attacked a naked Indian who belonged to the party and mutilated him as he struggled and splashed, waist-deep in the stream. Men not making a splashing and struggling are rarely attacked; but if one is attacked by any chance, the blood in the water maddens the piranhas, and they assail the man with frightful ferocity.
At Corumba the weather was hot. In the patio of the comfortable little hotel we heard the cicadas; but I did not hear the extraordinary screaming whistle of the locomotive cicada, which I had heard in the gardens of the house in which I stayed at Asuncion. This was as remarkable a sound as any animal sound to which I have listened, except only the batrachian-like wailing of the tree hyrax in East Africa; and like the East African mammal this South American insect has a voice, or rather utters a sound which, so far as it resembles any other animal sound, at the beginning remotely suggests batrachian affinities. The locomotive-whistle part of the utterance, however, resembles nothing so much as a small steam siren; when first heard it seems impossible that it can be produced by an insect.
On December 17 Colonel Rondon and several members of our party started on a shallow river steamer for the ranch of Senhor de Barros, "Las Palmeiras," on the Rio Taquary. We went down the Paraguay for a few miles, and then up the Taquary. It was a beautiful trip. The shallow river - we were aground several times - wound through a vast, marshy plain, with occasional spots of higher land on which trees grew. There were many water-birds. Darters swarmed. But the conspicuous and attractive bird was the stately jabiru stork. Flocks of these storks whitened the marshes and lined the river banks. They were not shy, for such big birds; before flying they had to run a few paces and then launch themselves on the air. Once, at noon, a couple soared round overhead in wide rings, rising higher and higher. On another occasion, late in the day, a flock passed by, gleaming white with black points in the long afternoon lights, and with them were spoonbills, showing rosy amid their snowy companions. Caymans, always called jacares, swarmed; and we killed scores of the noxious creatures. They were singularly indifferent to our approach and to the sound of the shots. Sometimes they ran into the water erect on their legs, looking like miniatures of the monsters of the prime. One showed by its behavior how little an ordinary shot pains or affects these dull-nerved, cold- blooded creatures. As it lay on a sand-bank, it was hit with a long 22 bullet. It slid into the water but found itself in the midst of a school of fish. It at once forgot everything except its greedy appetite, and began catching the fish. It seized fish after fish, holding its head above water as soon as its jaws had closed on a fish; and a second bullet killed it. Some of the crocodiles when shot performed most extraordinary antics. Our weapons, by the way, were good, except Miller's shotgun. The outfit furnished by the American Museum was excellent - except in guns and cartridges; this gun was so bad that Miller had to use Fiala's gun or else my Fox 12-bore.