The Treasure Hunter - Chapter 5 - Gold of the Andes
ROBIN MOORE HQUSASFVN
ARRIVING TAN SON NHUT 1600 PAN AM FLIGHT 201 FROM HONG KONG WEDNESDAY 21. HAVE RESERVATION AT CARAVELLE HOTEL AND GREAT IDEA FOR NEW FIND. JENNINGS.
- Chapter 5 - Gold of the Andes
The sergeant major of Headquarters United States Army Special Forces Vietnam at Nha- Trang. Republic of Vietnam. handed me the telegram when I returned from the Green Beret operation in Tay Ninh. It was the first time I had been able to smile since the somber experience of seeing Lieutenant Perkings blown up in front of me when he stepped on a North Vietnamese mine two days before.
The cable had been waiting for me for two days, which meant that Howard would be hitting Saigon the next day. I wondered if he was really coming just to see me. I knew that the Indians who ran Vietnam's currency black market sent couriers down from Hong Kong every few days, preferably Caucasians. They wore vests lined with gold for sale to rich Vietnamese anxious to convert their wealth into something more stable than 1964 piastres. And, of course, anything that had to do with gold would be of interest to Howard.
In Saigon I stopped by the Special Forces Command Liaison Detachment, wrangled a jeep and driver from my friend Colonel Lanyard, and headed for Tan Son Nhut International Airport.
Howard was the first man off the plane, standing tall and looking heavier than I had ever seen him, as I had suspected he might. I didn't ask any questions.
"If you can hold out for half an hour, we’ll be through this damn traffic and at the Caravelle," I told him in the jeep. "There's a fine air-conditioned bar on the top floor."
"The stewardess was generous," Howard said. "I'm sure glad you could get out to meet me, Robin."
"So am I," I replied. "When you get out in the boonies, there's no telling when you'll make it back to Nha- Trang. It's lucky I got your cable. By the way, have you got time to come up? We've got the most beautiful beach in Vietnam, and it's covered with girls."
A momentary light showed in his eyes, and then he shook his head. "I just dropped in to say hello, and then I'm on my way."
I stole a glance at the suspiciously full chest and stomach my lean friend was sporting. He caught my look but said nothing.
At the Caravelle Hotel, Howard showed his passport and registered. "You go on up to the bar," he said. "I'll drop in my room and wash up and change." I watched his glance sweep the lobby of the Caravelle and pause as it fell on the dark-skinned Indian sitting across from the registration desk. The Indian stood up and put down the copy of Newsweek he had been reading.
"I won't be long, Robin."
"No sweat. The waitresses are beauties."
We rode up in the elevator and Howard got off on the fifth floor. I went on to the top and made for the cocktail lounge. True to his word, Howard showed up in about fifteen minutes. He had changed clothes, and he looked considerably slimmer and more relaxed.
We sat for a couple of hours nursing our drinks while Howard brought me up to date. He filled me in on his adventures and his troubles with the Batres brothers in Peru, then, motioning for another round, he filled me in on Hong Kong. He had arrived there with the remaining Peruvian gold still in the flight bag he had purchased at the Lima airport. The manager of the President Hotel in Hong Kong had previously managed a hotel in Montego Bay, and he and Howard were old acquaintances. When Howard explained that he had some valuable gold artifacts to sell, the manager arranged a meeting with a Chinese gentleman who happened to be connected with the cultural department of the People's Republic of China.
Howard had been somewhat reluctant to do business with the Red Chinese, but he knew that over half the commercial businesses in Hong Kong are owned and controlled by Chinese Communist representatives and that contact with them would be inevitable. He met with the man, and with a minimum of haggling, they agreed on £10,300 sterling for the remaining pieces.
The next morning he dropped off the gold and picked up the check, then immediately cashed it for one thousand English £10 notes. And then he'd sent me the cable.
That night Howard and I went through one of those all- night bull-sessions, and somewhere between the first drink and dawn it became clear that Howard was now totally committed to treasure hunting. He studied, planned, evaluated, and dedicated himself to the labors, both physical and mental, with the attitude of a professional.
He told me about his new idea, born out of study and plain old East Texas horse sense.
"You know what a wealth of gold there is in northern Peru," he said. " And when I was in Bogota, looking for the emeralds, I visited the Banco Republico Gold Museum. It's the largest collection of its kind- 14,000 pieces. All other museum and private collections together amount to about one-fifth of that figure."
He said, "Well, don't you see?"
"Dammit, Robin," he said impatiently. "Struck right in between southern Colombia, where they've found a lot of gold, and northern Peru, where they've found a lot of gold, is Ecuador. There has only been one major dig in Ecuador. That's where I'm heading." He paused. "I wish to hell you'd come along."
But I couldn't leave Vietnam then, and he knew it. So, after a few more days looking around Saigon with me, he boarded Pan Am One, the "round-the-world" flight that starts on the west coast of the U.S. and ends up in New York, the hard way.
The next day Howard deplaned in London for a session with civilization.
Robin knows that my stint in London was not entirely fun and games. I had work to do.
Sandwiched in between long sessions at the British Museum and the Royal Geographical Society, I did enjoy the good food and a couple of months of high living. But research was my primary objective, and I squeezed my academic sources until they were wrung dry. I've always felt that what makes the difference between a professional treasure hunter and a mere thrill-seeker is the amount of preparation one is willing to invest. I invest heavily.
Once I had absorbed all the information available, I headed for Ecuador.
I stopped off in Miami in order to re-equip myself with the latest metal detection equipment, and then caught a flight to Quito. The capital of Ecuador sits on a 9,000-foot plateau, and is therefore blessed with a mild year-round climate even though it is only 15 miles south of the equator. The city is a hodge-podge of architectural styles, with ancient Indian adobe buildings sprinkled among early Spanish churches and starkly modern structures.
The elegant Hotel Quito was my first stop. I rented a suite for two months, and then decided to do something sensible about the large amount of cash I was carrying. Soon I was sitting across a desk from a pretty young girl who handled gringos for the Banco Popular. By the time I had opened a checking account, I also had talked the young lady into having dinner. And by the time dinner was through, she had agreed to accompany me on a preliminary search for possible burial areas east of Quito. She had some vacation time due her, and, she felt sure she could get away. We decided to leave the next day, as soon as she had called the bank.
Anita was the bright, emancipated daughter of a well-to-do family, but her parents, who lived in another town, were never aware that their daughter had become so liberated as to go flitting off into the back country with a gringo. But there were practical reasons for taking her along- in addition to being beautiful, Anita spoke Spanish, and if I would be venturing into head-hunting territory it was vital for me to be able to communicate quickly.
I rented a Land Rover and bought a tent, sleeping bags, and other basic equipment necessary for a short trip into the rugged high country. We headed east from Quito into the mountainous area, which is breathtaking both in beauty and in its lack of oxygen. The snowcapped ranges push up eighteen or nineteen thousand feet into the clear blue sky. Our first stop was to be in the small city of Cayambe.
On our first evening in Cayambe, Anita found an old man who knew many tales and legends about the area. We met him in the front part of his general store, a setting typical of so many I had seen in my travels. The shelves were stocked meagerly with cans of Heinz’s Baked Beans and boxes of Kellogg’s Corn Flakes, alongside the customary kerosene lamps, coils of rope, and spools of thread. Behind one counter was an incredible sight-a dust-covered rack half stocked with a couple of dozen View Master stereo slides. I’ve often wondered who sold them to the poor, unsuspecting store owner. I’ve also wondered who the hell bought the other half of the stock. The sales abilities of both suppliers and retailers throughout the world never fail to amaze me.
After the old man attended to my purchase of three cans of beans, he invited us into his office in the back of the store. The room was musty and cluttered with eons of carelessness. We sat down at a rickety old desk, and he pulled open a drawer. There, neatly organized, were fifteen tennis-ball-size human heads. The old man handled each offering with a casualness that made his sales pitch seem even more ghoulish. I was fascinated by one head, which was topped with red hair and ringed with a tiny red beard. I remembered that shrunken heads compress skin pigments so that Indian heads look ebony and white ones seem brown. I realized I was looking at the head of a white man. As I held the miniature redhead in my hands, I was told-on good authority- that the head was that of a treasure hunter. It seems the poor chap had come from Canada to buy art antiquities and managed to get himself caught by the notorious Jivaros Indians, who did their art work on his head.
I found out later that the story was entirely a figment of the old man's imagination-that the head had really belonged on the body of a free-lance missionary who had allowed his Messianic zeal to overrule his prudence. Several months after I saw the head, it turned up in Quito, in the British Embassy. The embassy, following the rules, packed up the "remains" and shipped them off in a diplomatic pouch to the deceased man's relatives in England- which must have been a hell of a shock for the family.
I didn't buy any heads, but I did manage, through Anita, to learn about a route that would take us near to where I felt there might be burial mounds. After some joking about how the Jivaros Indians would love working on my head and especially my long nose, the old man advised us that banditos were known to be active in the area I was planning to visit. That was unwelcome news indeed, but I decided to do some exploring anyway.
The next day, we struck off toward the mountain pass that led into the interior. The road- if it could be called that- headed southeast over a twisting, climbing course that required eleven hours to travel. Some of the route was so dangerous that I made Anita walk while I drove the Land Rover with one foot hanging out the door, ready to jump to safety if the road collapsed. It was nearly dark when we arrived in the village of Oyacachi.
Anita proved her worth again when she was able to borrow a small hut for us to sleep in. The owner was in the hospital, recovering from the loss of an arm in a machete fight. Oyacachi was situated eleven thousand feet up in the Andes, so our physical activities were accompanied by a chest-aching breathlessness.
Anita and I made friends with the inhabitants, and one afternoon I sketched a rough representation of a burial mound- a tola or huaca. Most of the people looked blank, but then Anita showed the drawing to an old man named Segundo, and I saw nods of recognition. Yes, there were such structures, but the local natives considered them to be the work of nature. Yes, they were accessible, but they were in a valley, three days travel to the east. Yes, there had been some old pottery seen in the area, and there was a small river, which had produced gold nuggets.
That night I told Anita I was going into the area. To my surprise, she said: "You are wrong, Howard."
"Dammit, I know there's gold there," I said. "What do you mean, wrong?"
I was mistaken about her objections. "I know you are right about the gold," she said seriously. "But you are wrong to take such treasures from the graves."
One of the disconcerting aspects of treasure hunting is the constant wrangle you face with people who think you are defiling holy places.
"Anita," I said, mustering up my most convincing tone of voice, "the graves I dig belong to a civilization long gone from this earth. No semblance of their beliefs or faith exists in the world today. I do not desecrate the tombs; I honor them by letting posterity know what kind of men lived back in those days."
"It is wrong to disturb the sleep of the dead," Anita said doggedly.
Many Latin Americans feel this way. Perhaps it is because they are the end product of Roman Catholic missionary efforts to convert the mystical beliefs of a sophisticated multi-god civilization to an essentially alien monotheism. The priests of Spain were backed up with a tough army which felt it was functioning with a mandate from Rome- convert or kill. The Indians realized they must change in order to survive, and they cloaked themselves in the thin mantle of Christianity. But a reverence for the old ways has persisted.
I tried to reason: "Look at it this way. Those graves were the easiest place for the living to place the dead in order to expedite their trip to the 'other world.' That's why they put in treasures, to make the afterlife rich. We Christians feel we will pass on into a spiritual life after our soul has gone to God. Material possessions are of no use in the afterlife."
She listened, then thought about it. Then she changed her tack. "You have no right to take any treasure from my country," she said. "My country is poor, not rich like your almighty United States."
I sighed. " Anita, just answer me this: What has Ecuador done to explore its national heritage?"
It was an exercise in rhetoric. Only Mexico has made any major effort to discover and share its pre-Columbian ancestry. That's one of the main reasons I've stayed away from the Aztec ruins; the field is too competitive and the restrictions too tightly maintained.
"These are our national treasures," she argued.
"These treasures belong to all mankind. Your government should encourage people like me to discover these artifacts instead of leaving them buried in the ground and withholding them from the world."
This was my major point of contention. I believe that any government that knows there are relics of the past hidden from view is wrong in not trying to share those relics.
"What the hell right has Ecuador or Italy or Turkey or Peru or any other nation to, withhold such treasures from the world? Dammit, more people visit the Metropolitan Museum in New York or the British Museum in London than live in most of the places where treasure is found. Talk about fair, what the hell do the Inca or Maya or Aztec civilizations owe to the people who just happen to live in those countries today? I say nothing."
"You have no right to decide such a matter."
"Well, then, tell me who does have the right?" No answer.
"Does the right belong to your government, which doesn't have the resources to finance proper programs of excavation?" No reply. "Or does it belong to your historians, who sit around in your university, not anxious to get off their fat duffs? Or maybe the pompous archaeologists, who wrap themselves in academic praise, spending years writing scholarly papers before sharing the fruits of efforts financed with other people's money?"
"Well, you still have no right to make such a decision," she said.
I saw I wasn't going to win this argument, so clearly it was time to quit. "Look, Anita," I said, "would it make you feel better if I worked with your government?"
She smiled and nodded.
"Okay," I said. "If I find anything, I'll take it to your government and let them decide what I can keep. They can pay me for whatever they want."
That seemed to pacify her. I knew I couldn't do any such thing, but I would have to continue her education another time.
The next day Anita helped me negotiate with Segundo. I arranged for him to be my guide and foreman for the expedition, and we worked out a financial deal for the hiring of twenty workers, along with a few horses and enough pack mules to carry provisions for two months. The men hired on for forty cents a day, but the animals cost me fifty cents a day- a commentary on the state of values in that part of the world.
We spent another two days buying provisions, then I drove Anita back to Quito and purchased the additional equipment I felt would be needed: medical supplies, digging tools, and a large quantity of canvas to use for making tents and packs. Because old Segundo had delivered such a stern warning about banditos, I picked up a used Winchester .30.30 lever-action rifle and enough ammunition to carry on a private war. The manager of the Hotel Quito agreed to store my "city clothes" while I was in the bush. Finally, I said goodbye to Anita and headed back to join up with Segundo at Oyacachi.
Segundo was ready with the men, animals, and food. I transferred my heavy load of metal detectors and personal supplies from the Land Rover to mule packs, and we set off the next morning in a drizzling rain, with the temperature near the freezing mark. The dampness promoted a heavy, slick growth of grass right up to the snow line, which made the footing treacherous for man and beast.
The second day out two of our pack mules slipped on the slick grass, then rolled five hundred feet down the side of the mountain to their death. I left four Indians and two mules behind to recover those grain sacks that had not split open. The rest of us moved on, climbing higher and higher into a weird world of snowcapped mountaintops blanketed in cold, wet, silent clouds.
On the third day we crested the mountain range at sixteen thousand feet, and suddenly we were on the east flank of the Andes, with an incredible view. Segundo was in the lead, and he halted the march a few hours later. Calling me to his side, he pointed in the direction of several valleys stretching away to the east.
"Tolas," he said.
I strained to see. Either Segundo had a vivid imagination or damned good eyes: I could see no sign. I lifted my binoculars from the horn of the saddle. Then I saw them. Columbus may have erred when he identified the North American natives as Indians, and Balboa was certainly wrong when he tagged the Pacific Ocean as "peaceful." But as I studied the shape of the mounds off in the distant valley, I felt pretty safe in concluding that I was indeed looking at pre-Columbian tolas. There were seven mounds of various sizes, all situated along a fast-running river, and all in the classical shape of the tola, with smooth sides and flattened tops. There had to be gold there.
Using a combination of broken Spanish and sign language, I asked, "How long to get there?"
"Three, four hours," Segundo replied in Spanish.
"Then let's get moving."
We arrived at the first mound about an hour before nightfall. I spurred my tired horse to the river bank, looking for the telltale signs of ancient habitation. Suddenly I was no longer weary. Hundreds of pieces of broken pottery littered the edge of the river.
That first night was miserable. There had been no time to construct a solid camp, so I joined the Indians, who were huddled on the ground, wrapped in blankets or pieces of canvas. I used a poncho to keep out the wetness, and by morning, a thin covering of ice sparkled on the ground and on everyone's bedding.
I supervised breakfast for the workers, and then assigned all of them to begin digging into the bases of two of the mounds. It was vital to prove that they really were man-made mounds before pitching a permanent base camp. Within an hour, there was a pile of highly polished potsherds in front of the camp-fire. Convinced, I asked Segundo to assign half of the workers to building adequate semi-permanent shelters. This was going to be our home for the next two months.
When the conquistadors came to South America in the 1500's, the god-emperor Atahualpa ruled a realm that ran three thousand miles along the Andes-the Kingdom of Quito. There was enormous wealth here, but Pizarro's brutality resulted in Atahualpa's death by the most hideous form of execution that the Spanish had devised, the garrote which is still in use today.
During my research in London I had come to realize that Ecuador holds no major niche in the annals of Inca history. At the time of Pizarro's conquest, Ecuador had been occupied by the Inca for only about fifty years, and was a poorer out-post of the empire. Pizarro first landed on the coast of Ecuador, but he soon determined that the center of the sprawling Inca Empire lay to the south, in Peru. After Atahualpa's capture, great treasures were sent from all parts of the realm to form part of his ransom-the famous "room full of gold as high as a man could reach"- and one such shipment, out of the northern city of Quito, was supposedly lost in the rugged Llanganati Mountain region. But as far as the Spanish were concerned, the great centers of Inca wealth, and of Spanish plunder, were not in Ecuador. And this view has been held ever since.
Yet all research and logic pointed to a pre-Columbian Ecuador as rich as the more famous areas, and it still seemed possible to me that I might discover something that had been over-looked by the rapacious Spanish. After all, the trip from Quito had been arduous and dangerous. It seemed possible that the natural barriers of the snowcapped mountains would have been enough to prevent the Castilian plunder of the area.
"Work... work... work," I silently urged the men who were hacking at the grass at the base of one of the mounds. I was eager to see the foliage trimmed back, anxious to start my search.
In the camp, Segundo was guiding the construction of sod houses. I decided a hut would be warmer and less confining than my tent, so I marked out a twelve-foot square for myself. In a few hours the workers had dug down into the mushy soil, erected four walls made from squares of sod, and covered the top with sticks and more sod. Pieces of burlap sacking were hung as a door, and a kerosene lantern provided sufficient light, although the smoke from the wick stung my eyes and nostrils. By the end of the day the base camp was fully in operation, and the digging party had recovered quite a few more potsherds. After a few shots of whisky, I crawled into my sleeping bag in peaceful contentment.
The next day the heavy digging began. After much explanation and instruction to Segundo, I divided the crew. Picks and shovels went into action at two of the mounds, one more than 30 feet high and the second about 25 feet. I wanted an exploratory trench cut through all the way to the ground level, which meant the removal of literally tons of earth. This would take many days, so I took off on my horse to hunt for some game, which would provide fresh meat for the camp.
During the journey into the valley I had noticed plenty of deer, and sure enough I spotted a large herd of deer less than a mile east of the camp. I picked out a dry doe and dropped her with one shot from the .30.30 Winchester. (A dry doe is a deer that is not suckling its young. It tastes a lot less gamey than a mother and is more tender than a buck. Some hunters will come across a herd and blast away at the biggest buck they can see, but they'd better have teeth like a shark.) I spotted a second dry doe and dropped her with another shot, then dressed the carcasses and slung them across the rear end of my horse. The workers, who had heard only the two shots fired, seemed to be impressed as much with my marksmanship as they were with the venison.
The first grave was uncovered late that first morning.
There was no gold in the grave, and the pottery arranged ritualistically around the skeleton was rather crude. It did not, alas, represent a wealthy community or advanced culture. By nightfall more graves were exposed, and the quality of pottery was improving, but we discovered only one very plain gold nose ring. Nevertheless, I still had faith in my theory. I ordered two more trenches cut into the mounds, hoping that the quality of the graves would improve as the digging went deeper.
The next morning I left Segundo in charge of the dig and took a shovel and large frying pan to the nearby river. The day was cold, and a freezing drizzle added to my discomfort as I began the back-breaking work of washing a pan of sand and gravel.
"Panning" falls into the category known as "placer mining" and is primarily a process called "sifting"; that is, using gravity to separate the heavier metal from the surrounding matter. In 1848 the old sourdough panners discovered gold at Sutter’s Mill, California, and the resultant rush created a city out of the tiny village of San Francisco. Colorado’s "Pikes Peak or Bust" rush happened two decades later, and the famous Klondike finds occurred at the turn of the century. Gold panning made men rich overnight and produced instant inflation: Eggs sold for $1 apiece and a shack rented for $100 a week.
It takes a lot of practice and a hell of a strong back to pan for gold. First, the material to be panned must be obtained from as deep as possible- down to bedrock, if you can manage it- because the heavy particles of gold settle downward during movement of the sand and gravel. Normally, a large pan specially designed for the purpose is shoveled brimful of the material to be panned; then, squatting in the shallow water near the bank, one begins the tedious job of washing the forty or so pounds of mud and gravel, holding the pan between the knees. After first pulverizing any clods of clay, the pan is dipped into the water and a swirling motion is commenced that gradually washes clean the material at the top. As the water in the pan absorbs the clay, dirty water is carefully spilled out and clean water dipped in. This is repeated until the water remains clean, even after the material is swirled and scrubbed with one's hands. Then the larger rocks are removed, and a sloshing, side-to-side motion replaces the swirling, allowing the lighter material to "float" to the top and be spilled over the side- gradually and very carefully. The water is replenished and the sloshing is repeated over and over again, until finally nothing will be left in the pan but a crescent-shaped residue of black material around the edge.
If the material is very rich or the gold in the stream very coarse, it is possible that gold might now be visible, when the black material is spread out on the bottom. Since most methods of separating the "color" from the black residue are rather complicated, most miners collect the material at this point and save it up for reworking later, back at camp. I'm told that a practiced hand can wash a pan to this point in twenty to thirty minutes. It takes me about an hour, and after two pans I am usually done for the day, with half the muscles in my body complaining.
But this time all I wanted was confirmation that there was gold in the region. It came within an hour, as I washed the first pan down to the black residue. As I swirled the pan, dots of gold gradually began to appear. I had seen gold panned in Colorado and Wyoming by professionals, but I had never before seen so much "color" in a pan. The river was rich in gold.
Of course, that didn't really prove that the natives had used the plentiful gold for their own jewelry or ceremonial objects. In fact, my research in London had indicated a strong probability that the mountain Indians had bartered gold with the tribes along the coast, who used it to produce the artifacts found in tombs throughout the coastal plains areas of Colombia and Peru. Still, it was encouraging to find the raw material available in such abundance- surely some of it would have remained in the area.
From six laborious pans I netted nearly two ounces of high-grade gold. I was tempted to call off the burial digging and put my work force to the task of panning, but there were not enough pans, and there were no trees around from which to make sluice boxes. I went back to the mound and waited for graves to be uncovered.
My anxious and frustrating wait ended on the sixth day. One trench had been deepened, and I moved in for a sweep with my detector. A strong signal indicated a substantial amount of metal. The grave was cleared in three hours, and my patience was rewarded. We had removed two ceremonial gold knives and several animal figures representing monkeys and jaguars. But the major find was a beautifully crafted gold statue of a little man wearing an elaborate headdress and sporting an erect penis. My theory was solidly confirmed, and I ordered the dig to go forward.
Over the next four weeks the Indians cut trenches through four of the seven mounds. It was heavy work: The mounds ranged in height from fifteen to thirty feet, and a lot of earth had to be moved to cut a trench from top to ground level.
After a trench was dug, I always set the Indians to digging a trench in a new mound while I investigated the one at hand privately. The graves were widely scattered in the mound, and I was increasingly disappointed by the artifacts I recovered. There was gold, but not nearly as much as I had hoped. Except for the horny little gold Indian, the artifacts were crudely made and far between. I had recovered a total of eighteen gold objects, including discs, animal figures, and two plain ceremonial knives. Not bad, but I'd hoped for more.
I was prepared to continue excavating new digs until food supplies made it necessary to leave, but our activities had be- gun to draw a crowd. For several days, Indians had been appearing on the hills overlooking the valley, and although my people told me they were probably the head-hunting Jivaros, I wasn't particularly concerned. They had blow guns and spears, but I had a Winchester .30.30. However, a second crowd had come from downstream, setting up camp about two miles below us. Through the binoculars, I counted at least thirty armed men.
"Quien estan los hombres?" I asked Segundo.
He looked down into the valley. " Banditos, senor ," he said without expression.
Bandits were a different proposition. Although they had no way of knowing what we were doing, from what I had heard and read I knew they would kill us merely for our camping equipment. I had a strong hunch they intended to raid us, so I decided we would leave the next morning before dawn.
Right after our evening meal we buried the picks and shovels. I knew where to find them in case I should return, and I didn't want our animals to have to carry anything unnecessary. We were going to have to travel light and fast.
We were on our way before daybreak, and by the time it was light we were climbing the mountain. The Indians were grumbling about not having a good night's sleep, and I began to wonder if my concern had been unwarranted. None of the Indians seemed at all worried about the banditos.
Then the morning mist cleared. We were about a thousand feet above the camp and some four miles away, but I could easily see men on horseback milling about our sod houses. As we watched, smoke spiraled up into the sky from the grass roofs. At last the Indians seemed to realize that their lives might be in danger, and they quickly picked up the pace, heading westward up into the Andes. I stayed behind for a few minutes and watched through my binoculars as the bandits formed around their leader, who was pointing up into the hills, directly at me. Then, kicking their horses into action, they galloped across the valley after us.
I waited until they were only a mile from my vantage point, and then rattled off a fusillade of shots with the .30.30. The bandits pulled to a sudden halt as I reloaded and fired another volley; then I jumped on my horse and followed after the Indians. The bullets were not intended to hit the banditos, but hopefully the shots would cause them to slow down out of respect for my rifle.
The journey into the valley had taken three days, but we made the trip back to Oyacachi in two. If the banditos did follow us, they never caught up. In Oyacachi I paid off the crew, adding a bonus of two weeks' salary. I said goodbye to Segundo, telling him I would be back in a year or so for another dig.
The Quito Hotel - now called the Hotel Intercontinental Quito, is a plush hostelry with a casino, a ballroom, three bars, two good restaurants, and a large swimming pool. After those cold, wet weeks in the Andes, these creature comforts drew me like El Dorado. I arrived in the lobby unshaven, filthy with road dust, and followed by a couple of bellboys carrying my muddy gear. If the manager disapproved, he was kind enough never to indicate it. In fact, we later became good friends, and he was always interested in hearing about my trips.
Shortly after I arrived, I learned that another friend, who was also interested in my treasure-hunting trips, was practically on his way to Quito to meet me. Beauregard Morton from Atlanta was just waiting for the cable to hop onto a jet and join an expedition. Ever since Beau had helped me sell the gold artifacts from the Batres brothers adventure, he had been cajoling me to take him out after Inca gold.
It was against my better judgment, but I sent off a cable inviting Beauregard to join me. Everybody thinks treasure hunting is romantic until they get out in the bush. Still, Beau might be useful to me in disposing of gold artifacts. I decided I would give him as uneventful a treasure hunt as possible, just to get it out of his system.
In fact, there was someplace I wanted to go. Two Oyacachi Indians had told me of some ruins in another valley on the Amazon side of the Andes. Each of them, independently, had described the ruins of a very large stone building constructed against a cliff. They were afraid to go near it, but they spoke of huge round stone columns that had fallen to the ground. I had never heard or read of any pre-Columbian architecture with round columns, so the ruins fascinated me, and I was determined to have a look.
Beau finally arrived, eager to find and share treasure.
"I’m an excellent horseman, Howard," he assured me.
"But have you ever ridden steep mountain trails? This kind of riding is pretty dangerous. You can fall down a mountain and break your neck."
"Don’t worry, it won’t happen."
We bought supplies, rented another Land Rover, and left the next morning for Oyacachi. There I hired twenty-five Indians andrented about thirty horses and mules. With provisions for a two-month stay, we set out on a trail leading southeast into the Andes.
Three days out, as we were entering the high mountains, Beau’s nervousness began to increase. "Would you like me to carry the rifle, Howard?" he asked.
"Something wrong with your revolver?"
"No..." He paused a minute and then said, "But I should have bought a rifle back in Quito." He stopped his horse to let me come alongside.
"You’d better go on, Beau, the trail isn’t wide enough here."
He started on again and talked over his shoulder. "Did you hear those cats almost in our camp last night? Must have been a bunch of jaguars or pumas." He looked around worriedly. "You know, they could jump us anywhere along the trail here."
"They won't attack people unless it's an old animal and can't hunt, or unless it's a female with a cub she's protecting."
"Just the same," Beau said nervously, "I'd feel better with a gun in my hand."
A few minutes later I noticed he was carrying his revolver in his right hand. He would jerk it up to sight and aim at almost any noise he heard, and spent more time peering into the trees alongside the trail than he did watching the path ahead.
At last, the inevitable happened. Rounding a bend in the narrow trail, Beau heard a noise in the bush and spun to point his gun. The sudden motion startled the horse, which sidestepped off the trail, slipped, and went down heavily. Beau was thrown clear, but he crashed into the dense undergrowth and disappeared.
I slid down from my horse and ran to where Beau had fallen. His horse was up and stamping around, so I quieted the animal and tied it to a tree. Then I ran to Beau, who was pulling himself up out of a tangle of growth, cursing and groaning.
I couldn't find much wrong on examination, but Beau complained of sore ligaments in one leg, and he worried about possible internal injuries. So we turned back. It had been a mistake to let him come, I knew, but what really hurt was that we were within one day's ride of those strange columned ruins.
I left all of my gear with Segundo in Oyacachi, intending to return. By the time we reached Quito, Beau had made a miraculous recovery and decided he would wait until he got back to Atlanta to see a doctor. He took the evening flight out. I suspect he is still telling the story of his narrow escapes in the wild Andes.
After seeing Beau off I returned to the hotel and asked for my key at the desk.
"Senor Jennings," the clerk said, "the manager would like to see you as soon as possible."
I went directly to the manager's office, and found him there.He asked if I had a good trip, and we talked about generalities for a minute or two. Then he said, "I am somewhat concerned about a Peruvian who checked into the hotel a few days ago. He has questioned several members of the staff about you and asked when you would return to Quito. He has been sitting in the lobby every day, waiting. Wait a moment and I'll check."
He looked into the lobby, and then returned and described where the man was sitting. I asked if he knew the man's name and was surprised it was not Batres. I assured him it was nothing important, but thanked him for his concern.
I only glanced at the man on the way to the elevator to avoid letting him know that I had been tipped off. After I had showered and changed, I returned to the lobby and bought an American newspaper, then sat down to have a closer look at this Peruvian. He was quite a large man for a South American. His clothes were cheap and rumpled, and he looked out of place here in the hotel, but he also looked dangerous. I had the distinct feeling that I was in trouble.
The man was apparently unaware that I had been tipped off because, though he ignored me during the day, he followed me everywhere I went that night. I guessed he was trying to catch me in the right circumstance, at night, when I would be easy to take. I decided it was time that we met.
In those days the old Hotel Colon had one of the best restaurants in the city. The hotel faced onto a well-lighted street, but the side streets beside it were dark, and on one side of the hotel was an L-shaped alleyway leading to the service en- trance. This alleyway, I thought, was as good a place as any for our confrontation.
That night I parked my car on the dark side of the street, and I noticed he was not far behind. I waited in the Land Rover for a few moments to give him time to catch up, then I walked casually into the unlighted alleyway. As soon as I was out of his line of sight, I hurried around the corner, stopping with my back against the wall and my gun in hand. He didn't appear. After a few minutes I walked back out to the street. I didn't see him anywhere, so I had dinner and returned to the hotel.
The next night I did exactly as I had done the night before, and this time as I stopped around the corner I heard him running up the alley. He slowed as he came around the corner. In the dim light I could just see the gun in his hand. He didn't see me until my gun smashed down on his arm. He cursed in pain and anger as his gun clattered on the pavement.
In spite of his pain, he grabbed for me with his left hand. I whipped my gun hand up and caught him across the jaw. He yelped once, and then dropped to the pavement. He was obviously stunned, and I decided not to wait around to find out what he would do when he recovered his senses.
I drove straight back to the hotel and telephoned a lawyer I knew in Quito. I told him the whole story, and ended by asking him to send an ambulance for the Peruvian. He came to the hotel later with an affidavit he had prepared for my signature, but he also advised me to leave the country immediately, before I got caught up in the ponderous Ecuadorian legal system.
There would be no outbound flights until late the next morning, so I took my gold from the hotel safe, loaded up the Land Rover, and drove off for Cali, Colombia, four hundred miles to the north. I had no trouble crossing the border at Tulcan, and checked into the Bolivar Hotel in Cali with the intention of relaxing for a few days.
I was now faced with the inevitable problem of how to smuggle Ecuadorian gold artifacts out of antiquities-conscious Colombia. This was back in the days before the rash of skyjackings, so the use of electronic devices for baggage inspection was not a problem. I finally came up with a technique I was to use many times. I tied the pieces of gold from different lengths of cord to the top of my plastic suit bag, making sure they were evenly distributed from top to bottom. Since most of the pieces were flat, there were no major bulges when the bag was packed with my suits, and I could carry the bag over my arm onto the airplane and hang it in a coat rack that was easily visible from the seat.
I passed through Colombian customs unchallenged and connected with a BOAC flight from Panama to London. The day after my arrival, I took eighteen artifacts to the prestigious Bond Street auction gallery, Sotheby's. Their pre-Columbian expert selected ten pieces, including my small man with the out-sized erection, paying a total of £3, 700. The little man brought £1,500 all by himself, enough to offset all of the expenses for the Ecuadorian adventure. Through a friend associated with the gallery, I met a pre-Columbian art buyer from Cologne, Germany, and he paid $4,200 U.S. for another eight pieces.
I had telephoned my lawyer friend in Quito to have the Land Rover picked up where I had left it in Cali. Later, in a letter, he informed me that during the Peruvian's first day in the hospital the police had persuaded him to confess that he had entered Ecuador for a criminal purpose- which meant that my testimony would not be necessary at any time. The Peruvian was in the hospital for two weeks before his trial, at which he was sentenced to prison for three years. He would not admit his intent to kill me, but claimed that the Batres family had paid him $200 plus expenses to work me over-just short of killing.
So, for my effort in Ecuador I realized a healthy profit, the natives of Oyacachi made a pretty good wage, and a sleazy thug hired by the Batres brothers ended up in prison, with a face bent badly out of shape. It had been a satisfying venture, though I still wondered about that ruined building with the round columns.
The Treasure Hunter - Chapter 5 - Gold of the Andes
The Treasure Hunter - Chapter 6 - Paulaya, River of Gold
The Treasure Hunter - Chapter 8 - Coaque, The Golden City
The Treasure Hunter - Chapter 9 - Coaque, Revisited