CHAPTER IX. THE UPS AND DOWNS OF HONDURAS
The train carried me back up the river to Zacapa, desert dry and stingingly hot with noonday. Report had it that there was a good road to Jocotan by way of Chiquimula, but the difference between a "buen camino" and a mere "road" is so slight in Central America that I concluded to follow the more direct trail. The next essential was to change my wealth into Honduranean silver, chiefly in coins of one real, corresponding in value to an American nickel; for financial transactions were apt to be petty in the region ahead of me. In the collection I gathered among the merchants of Zacapa were silver dollars of Mexico, Salvador, Chile, and Peru, all of which stand on terms of perfect equality with the peso of Honduras, worth some forty cents. My load was heavier, as befitted an exit from even quasi-civilization. The rucksack was packed with more than fourteen pounds, not counting kodak and weapon, and for the equivalent of some thirty cents in real money I had acquired in the market of Guatemala City a hammock, more exactly a sleeping-net, made of a species of grass by the Indians of Coban.
Under all this I was soon panting up through the once cobbled village of Zacapa and across a rising sand-patch beyond, cheered on by the parting information that the last traveler to set out on this route had been killed a few miles from town for the $2 or so he carried. Mine would not have been any particular burden in a level or temperate country, but this was neither. The sun hung so close it felt like some immense red-hot ingot swinging overhead in a foundry. The road - and in Central America that word seldom represents anything better than a rocky, winding trail with rarely a level yard - sweated up and down sharp mountain faces, picking its way as best it could over a continual succession of steep lofty ridges. Even before I lost the railway to view I was dripping wet from cap to shoes, drops fell constantly from the end of my nose, and my eyes stung with salt even though I plunged my face into every stream. My American shoes had succumbed on the tramp to Retalhuleu and the best I had been able to do in Guatemala City was to squander $45 for a pair of native make and chop them down into Oxfords. These, soaked in the jungle of Quiragua, now dried iron-stiff in the sun and barked my feet in various places.
I had crossed four ranges and was winding along a narrow, dense-grown valley when night began to fall. The rumors of foul play led me to keep a hand hanging loose near my weapon, though the few natives I met seemed friendly enough. Darkness thickened and I was planning to swing my hammock among the trees when I fell upon the hut of Coronado Cordon. It was a sieve-like structure of bamboo, topped by a thick palm-leaf roof, with an outdoor mud fireplace, and crowded with dogs, pigs, and roosted fowls. Coronado himself, attired in the remnants of a pair of cotton trousers, greeted me from his hammock.
"May I pass the night with you?"
"To be sure, senor. You may sleep on this bench under the roof."
But I produced my hammock and he swung it for me from two bamboo rafters of the low projecting eaves, beside his own and that of a horseman who had also sought hospitality, where a steady breeze swept through. His wife squatted for an hour or more over the fireplace, and at length I sat down - on the ground - to black coffee, frijoles, tortillas, and a kind of Dutch cheese.
Long before morning I was too cold, even under most of the contents of my pack, to sleep soundly. It was December and the days were short for tramping. This one did not begin to break until six and I had been awake and ready since three. Coronado slept on, but his senora arose and, covering her breasts with a small apron, took to grinding corn for tortillas. These with coffee and two eggs dropped for a moment in hot water, after a pin-hole had been broken in each, made up my breakfast, and brought my bill up to nearly eleven cents.
I was off in the damp dawn. Any enumeration of the rocky, slippery, twisting trails by which I panted up and over perpendicular mountain ridges under a burning sun without the shadow of a cloud, would be wearisome. Sweat threatened to ruin even the clothing in my bundle, it soaked even belt and holster, rusting the weapon within it, and leaving a visible trail behind me. Once, at the careless nod of an Indian, I strained up an all but perpendicular slope, only to have the trail end hundreds of feet above the river in a fading cow-path and leave me to climb down again. Farther on it dodged from under my feet once more and, missing a reputed bridge, forced me to ford a chest-deep river which all but swept me away, possessions and all, at the first attempt.