The Treasure Hunter - Chapter
To: Robin Moore
HQUSASFVN, Nha Trang
Special Forces APO 68712 San Francisco
Having a wonderful time;
stay where you are.
There are only a few
thousand lovelies here;
I can handle all by myself.
See you someday. Howard
Chapter - 6. PAULAYA, RIVER OF GOLD
The postcard, featuring a sultry belly dancer, seemed appropriate for Robin, who was out in the stupid jungles of Vietnam trying to get his butt shot off. I was in Casablanca at the time, trying to warm my bones after the cold, wet nights in the mountains of Ecuador.
But after two months of sitting around, wanderlust was taking hold again. Despite the pleasures Morocco offered, I had been giving serious thought to the next venture. Ecuador was still there, with its vast, unexplored, gold-rich burial grounds, and I would go back someday, but not now. The last trip had been a bit too chilling.
I found myself remembering the night Robin and I had slipped out of Roatan Island, and recalling Riley Gough's talk about a river of gold, the Paulaya River. The notion of scooping virgin nuggets of gold up in my hands was appealing. I had discovered gold the Indians had found and worked into artifacts, gold the Spanish had taken from the Indians, and gold the pirates had taken from the Spanish. Now I felt a compulsion to find some of my own gold.
I invested a couple of days of research in the public libraries .of Casablanca, but came up with very little in the way of information. Although the Spanish did at one time run a sizable gold-refining operation in Honduras, the country had never been a world leader in the production of the precious metal. They did have some producing mines, though. Maybe I wouldn't find El Dorado, the gilded city of Spanish and Indian myth, but I would settle for a hoard of gleaming yellow nuggets.
There are two major methods of mining gold. One is by digging out lodes beneath the surface of the earth, much like the mining of coal in deep-shafts; the other is placer mining, used by the old sourdoughs in the Klondike. Most of their nuggets were the size of a pea or smaller, but there were always stories of a stream filled with nuggets the size of walnuts. (Gold nuggets can be big, in fact. The "Welcome Stranger Nugget," which was found in Australia, weighed 2,520 ounces, or close to half a million dollars in today's gold market.)
Dreaming of a riverbed rich with gold, I left my Moroccan pleasure domes and headed back to Honduras by way of Miami.
I had not forgotten the old business with the Peruvian Batres brothers, and I knew their agents might tip them off if they knew I was in town. I was not eager to face another assassination attempt, so I avoided the Racquet Club and checked into a small motel near the airport. By this time, Robin had finished his first tour of duty in Vietnam and was in Jamaica working on his Green Berets manuscript. I telephoned him there.
"Hell, no, I won't go up any damn Honduran River," he said. "You think I'm crazy?"
He had already proved that by offering himself as a target to the Viet Cong, but I laughed and suggested we meet in Kingston in a couple of days. Robin gave me the address of a house in the suburbs of Kingston, and two nights later when we met there a large party was in full swing. He filled me in on the Green Berets and I told him about Ecuador. Reluctantly, he introduced me to a five-foot-nine blonde girl whose name was not Pru Potter. Much to my amazement, Pru chattered quite knowledgeably about mining techniques.
"Where the hell did you learn all that?" I asked.
She smiled. "I've been prospecting and potholing for gold since I was fifteen."
"Potholing?" I had never heard the term.
She nodded. "My father bought me the diving equipment." she said vaguely. Then she explained that potholing involves diving into holes of mountain streams at depths the early placer miners couldn't reach.
Damn. I thought to myself. I wonder...
"If you're wondering about taking me along on the gold- hunting trip Robin told me about. I'd love to come with you." she said. "I’ll pay my share of course."
I weighed the pluses and minuses: I was heading into a territory of Honduras that is unmapped. There are grisly stories about savage Indians in the area, it would be a grueling trip, and I was planning to be there for several months. It was no place for a girl. A pretty girl. Naturally I invited her along.
"But listen," she said earnestly. "I'm going as your partner, not your playmate, okay? Agreed?"
I agreed, not believing a word of it. It took several days for me to accept that we were really to keep things platonic.
When I finished my business in Kingston. Pru accompanied me to Miami. For two days. we shopped for the clothing and equipment necessary for our preliminary inspection trip. Our plan was to make an initial survey, then if things looked promising, we'd mount a major attack on the Paulaya River.
We flew to San Pedro Sula and were pleased to find that the feeder airline in Honduras had started servicing Roatan Island with twice-daily flights. We arrived in Oakridge that same day.
While renewing acquaintances and introducing Pru around to my friends in the village. I kept asking about Riley Gough. At last we heard that Riley was due on the island in two days- maybe.
Honduras' 350-mile coast on the Caribbean is not serviced with any regular schedule. Riley's boat sailed when he wanted it to. It carried whatever he felt could make money along a route that took him as far west as Puerto Cortes and eastward to the mouth of the Paulaya River, where his family lived in the small village of Plaplaya.
We were at the dock when Riley's boat arrived. While it was being unloaded, I chatted with him and jokingly accused him of getting me hooked on the idea of gold up the river. He regarded me seriously for a few moments arid then offered to help in any way possible. "How about a lift to the mouth of the river?" I asked. A few hours later we were sailing east on Riley's boat.
We reached the river the next morning, somewhat wobbly from the rough trip. Riley maneuvered his boat through the entrance channel in the sandbar and docked, then took us to the local store serving Plaplaya. It was owned by Bill Wood and his wife, the only other outsiders in the tiny Sambo town.
I outlined my ideas for the inspection trip. Bill Wood nodded. "Gold is the whole purpose of our store," he said. "The Indians come down river with gold they've panned to trade me for goods."
Pru and I looked at each other happily. "Maybe you know someone we could hire as a guide?"
Bill thought a moment. "There's an old Indian named Concho who lives about forty miles up river. He's spent most of his life panning gold, and he knows the river better than anybody. He's too old to work now so I guess you could hire him."
Pru and I started out with Bill the next morning in his pit-pan, a narrow canoe dug out from the single log of a mahogany tree and powered by an outboard motor. These boats are basically unstable, especially at slow speeds, and they capsize easily. But with a l0-h.p. outboard pushing it along at a speed of 15 to 20 m.p.h., and with a man in the bow using a paddle for quick course changes, the pit-pan can negotiate the rapids with surprising agility. (Coming downstream is trickier, since one must maintain a speed greater than that of the current for stability, which allows for less time to steer around rocks.)
For the first ten miles, the river was deep and slow moving, but as the terrain began to rise, the speed of the water increased. Beyond the junction of the Sico River, the Paulaya narrowed considerably, and dense jungle crowded the river on both sides. The current was stronger, and we began to hit stretches of white water. I saw what a job I'd have getting a barge up the river. Aside from the rapids, with their sharp rocks pointing up through the foaming water, there were many places where floods had carried down massive trees and jammed them in the rocks. These often had to be cleared before we could proceed even in the narrow pit-pan.
We finally arrived at Concho's thatched-roof shack. After much ceremonious discussion, the old Indian and I settled on a price for his services. Concho then suggested that the small village of Las Champas, thirty miles farther up river, was the best place for us to see the old Spanish gold workings. Bill agreed, and we got back into the pit-pan and set out shortly after lunch. Darkness caught us ten miles short of the village.
Bill pointed to a sandbar in the middle of the river. "We'd better spend the night there, so the downriver wind will blow away some of the mosquitoes."
On the narrow sandbar Pru seemed a bit nervous, and while Bill and Concho secured the pit-pan she said quietly, "Howard, may I put my sleeping bag next to yours? I'm afraid of the alligators I saw in the river."
"You can sleep in my sleeping bag if you want to."
"Then I'd be scared of you."
We spent a very uncomfortable night. Before morning, I had figured out that as the wind blew our mosquitoes down river, it blew new mosquitoes in as replacements.
The next morning, while Bill was putting the gear back in the pit-pan, Concho asked me to watch him work a couple of pans of the sandbar. He was an expert with a gold pan, and in a few minutes he showed me the gleaming flecks of gold that he had separated from the sand.
Concho pointed up the river. "Gold there much heavier. But find color all along river."
As we approached Las Champas, Concho pointed out large mounds along the river bank, the tailings of early Spanish workings. Because of the depth of the river at this point, the Spanish had only been able to work the river banks. In some places, using slave labor, they had been able to divert the river by digging canals.
Pru and I agreed: if the river banks had been productive, the untouched deeper parts of the river should be doubly rich.
Las Champas is a town of six Indian families living in four thatched-roof shacks high on a steep bank overlooking the river. Except for Bill Woods, who had been this far up river once before, most of the Indians had never seen white people, and tall, blonde Pru received great attention.
The next day, with Concho and two Indians along to do the digging, we began working our way up the bank of the river. The Indians dug down about four feet to bedrock, then Concho panned the material just above the bedrock. The material from the bottom of each hole produced rich color. We spent three days at Las Champas making tests. I worked right alongside Concho, and I learned again what I already knew: Panning is back-breaking work. I couldn't help but think about those old forty-niners who panned gold all day. Either they were a sturdy breed, or there were lots of rich hunchbacks around Sutter's Mill.
By the time we finished the testing, I was convinced we would recover a lot of gold if our dredge could remove the overburden from the base rocks in the riverbed. I selected a camp site a few hundred yards upstream from Las Champas and hired two of the Indians to clear the land during the next six or seven weeks before our return.
On the way down river to Plaplaya, we stopped to examine several of the sections that were clogged with trees. Bill agreed to hire a crew of Sambos from the coast to clear the logjams.
The rapids remained the most serious problem. It was going to be extremely difficult to tow a huge, equipment-laden barge that far up the river over those treacherous rocks- we'd be lucky if they didn't rip the bottom out of it.
With our preliminary survey completed, we hitched a ride back to Roatan Island with Riley Cough. After indulging ourselves with a few days of relaxation, we then flew to Miami, where the next two weeks were spent shopping for supplies and studying dredging techniques in the landfill capital of America. Most visitors are unaware that ninety percent of glittering Miami Beach was a swamp at the turn of the century, and that there are still dozens of land reclamation operations in progress in the vicinity of the city.
At one major dredging location in North Miami, we made friends with the project engineer, an amiable man who enjoyed adventure vicariously. No jungles for him, but he was fascinated with the project, and he helped me design a functional, durable, dependable barge which would draw no more than ten inches of water, even when fully loaded. He also guided me in the selection of a very expensive, eight-inch, heavy-duty gravel pump and a General Motors 471 diesel engine to power it.
Pru and I had grown closer during the weeks together, so it was no real surprise when the platonic phase of our relationship ended one balmy night in a Miami hotel room. By morning, our partnership had moved to anew and infinitely more satisfying plateau.
We completed arrangements to have the pump and engine shipped to Honduras, and flew to San Pedro Sula to have the barge built.
For the next three weeks I supervised the construction of the vessel, working with the German owner of a Honduran steel- fabricating plant. Although I made some minor changes in the barge plans, by the middle of the fifth week it was complete and I arranged to have it shipped overland to the port city of Puerto Cortes while I went on ahead. The barge arrived just as the diesel and gravel pump were being uncrated. Setting the operating equipment in place was tricky and had to be handled by welders from the local steel plant, since alignment was critical.
The barge was 15 feet wide and 35 feet long, made entirely of heavy-gauge steel, with four large hand winches carrying reels of one-half-inch steel cable for pulling it up river and for holding it in place while we were dredging. The gravel pump and engine were welded carefully into place, and two 25-foot sluice boxes were lashed to the deck, along with twenty-five 55-gallon drums of diesel fuel. We were ready to go.
Early on a Tuesday morning Riley Gough arrived with his boat. We took the barge in tow, and Pru and I joined Riley on his boat for the 200-mile trip in the open sea to the Paulaya River. It was a memorable journey. The barge slewed about wildly, its shallow draft making it dangerously unstable in the rough seas. I spent the day running from one tow line to another as the weight shifted and the hitches creaked and snapped. Several times I was certain my $20,000 investment and all our dreams of gold would end up on the bottom of the Gulf of Honduras- next to a Spanish galleon, no doubt. The first night out, I summoned up enough energy to keep a flashlight playing on the lines, but finally I had to sleep. Pru took over while I fell into a bunk fully clothed.
During the middle of the third morning out, we sighted the mouth of the Paulaya River coming up on our starboard bow. Riley waited for high tide before crossing the sandbar; then, incredibly, we were back in the lagoon at the coastal village of Plaplaya. When we were docked, I climbed onto the barge and performed a thorough inspection. It was bone dry; the design and construction were perfect. In a surge of euphoric relief, I did a flying swan dive into the lagoon.
We paused for three days in Plaplaya, laying in our last- minute provisions and buying a large dug-out canoe, which I fitted with an outboard engine. I hired four oxen for pulling the barge through difficult rapids and shallows and recruited twenty local blacks as a labor force. (These blacks, called "Sambos" along the Mosquito Coast and "Caribs" on the Bay Islands, are descendants of 4,000 rebellious Carib-Negro slaves taken from the island of St. Vincent at the end of the eighteenth century and dumped on Roatan Island. They speak both English and Spanish, and remain in villages along the coast, rarely venturing inland.) We installed two 60-h.p. outboards on the stern of the barge, and with Bill's dugout in the lead and mine at the rear, we began plowing our way up the river.
For the first ten miles the water was deep and the river wide, and we chugged along easily. Then, after passing the junction of the Paulaya and Sico rivers, we ran into the first of the rapids and logjams we had seen on our inspection trip. For the next sixty miles the outboard motors were virtually useless because of the shallow water. For several days we traveled less than a hundred yards, at the expense of sweat, cuts, bruises, and occasionally, a broken bone. At one point, the pressure that the water against the front of the dredge was so strong that the cables pulled a huge tree out by the roots, causing the barge to swing wildly and then tilt sideways, throwing one of the men overboard. He disappeared under the barge just as I leaped for the winch on the other side and slapped the release lever. The dredge dropped back downstream with a hell of a grating and scraping noise, then ran smack into two large boulders. As it bounced to a stop, the submerged man popped to the surface in front of us, unharmed except for a bruised leg and a few scrapes on his arms and back.
Luckily. the sharp stones of the riverbed had not punctured the hull. Now we had to get the damn thing off the boulders and floating again. We spent two whole days unloading everything and making an overland portage of our equipment and supplies and then were forced to use all four winches, the four oxen, and all of my hired help to free the barge and pull it over the rapids.
The incident had cost us more than time and bruises. Our powerful radio transmitter, which I had planned to use to call for a charter plane if there were an emergency, had been ruined by water that had poured over the decks.
We picked up old Concho at his shack, and then returned to our grueling battle up the river.
We were more than pleased to see the tiny Indian village of Las Champas two weeks later. The strain had been incredible, but at last we were there. As we began the laborious unloading process, Pru found a quiet spot high up on the bank and sat down to relax for a moment.
Suddenly I heard a piercing scream. I ran to Pru, who was holding her arm. Her face was pale with fright.
"It was a snake-a big one," she cried.
I moved her hand. The two fang marks were oozing blood. I jerked out my shirttail, tore off a strip, and put a tight tourniquet above the wound. The workers and villagers beat the bush looking for the snake so we could identify the type of poison to combat, but it was gone into the dense undergrowth. I had Pru lie quietly on the ground while I strung a hammock in a small shack; as I carried her there, Concho brought my medical supplies from the dredge.
Whether or not to use serum for snake bite is always a difficult decision. It is a horse-serum base, and the allergic reaction it may produce can be as severe as the bite, sometimes causing death. In a hospital, where respirators, oxygen, and antihistamines are available, the reaction can be controlled- but we were five days away from a hospital, and without our transmitter, we were totally isolated.
It seemed likely that the snake was poisonous, probably a pit viper called a barbamarilla, judging from the wound and Pru's fleeting glimpse. Within an hour my fears were confirmed. Pru's arm began to swell painfully. I began releasing the pressure of the tourniquet every twenty minutes, which unfortunately allowed minute amounts of the poison to filter into her system along with her blood. She soon began developing stomach spasms. I administered a full injection of serum from the Wyeth Snakebite Kit, then an antispasmodic shot. In another hour, her pain was so great that I gave her a shot of morphine to ease the torture. I could do no more now than pray.
By midnight Pru was in a coma, her breathing shallow. I thought I was going to lose her. Then, toward morning, her breathing and color improved and she regained consciousness. Because she was still in terrible pain, I gave her another injection of morphine and she drifted off into a heavy but more normal sleep.
For several days Pru was very ill and only able to retain liquids. In some cases a snake bite can leave a person a permanent invalid, but Pru proved to have a strong constitution and an even stronger determination. She refused to consider returning down river to a hospital. Though she had to relearn some of her coordination, in three weeks she was walking around normally; and except for a loss of weight, she was fully recovered.
During Pru's illness I supervised the construction of a permanent camp. Our sleeping quarters would be a large tent, but the kitchen was built of bamboo with a thatched roof, to keep animals out of our food supplies. We made gravel walkways and hung kerosene lights within the camp, then we strung barbed wire fences to discourage strangers and animals who were attracted by the lights. I had acquired a vicious-looking mongrel named Jep back in Plaplaya, so I was not too worried about Indian interlopers.
However, once the local people learned that I possessed a medical kit and some skill, we began to hate Sunday mornings.Saturday night meant homemade rum, and the resultant booze- brawls produced a collection of wounds that would have delighted any medical student. My initial venture into surgery was on a boy of about seventeen who had been sliced with a machete from his left collarbone down across his chest and stomach to his right hip bone. For three hours, sweat poured from my forehead as I labored through sew and tie, sew and tie, sew and tie. When the last suture was tied off, I injected him with a massive dose of antibiotics. He was on his feet the next day and working for me within two weeks.
Concho selected the spot to begin our dredging operation. It was a deep hole and we found it covered with about four feet of overburden-mud, stones, and silt. We probed with steel rods. Below the mass of natural debris was solid bedrock- gold would have settled there.
For the next week I trained the laborers in the operation of the equipment and handling of the barge. We pushed and shoved, we handled and coaxed, and finally we attached the steel cables to sturdy trees, and the barge was anchored. The work was backbreaking, and I began to understand why the Incas, who associated gold with their gods, called gold "The Sweat of the Sun."
I spent a considerable time in the water under the barge, wrestling the suction pipe into the hole. At last we began pumping. As we went deeper the rocks were bigger, and someone had to remove them from the opening of the intake pipe. The Sambos were fearful of working underwater where the alligators lived, so that task fell to me. Using a hookah diving rig, I would lash a rope around the rock, and then use the winch to pull the obstruction free.
Our two sluice boxes were fitted together and floated on the downstream side on buoys of empty fuel drums. All along the bottom of the sluice were a series of riffles, or traps, about two inches high. As the material ran down the long ten-degree slope of the sluice, the heavier materials would be caught behind the riffles while the useless gravel and sand were washed on out the end. The procedure was critical: if the pump dredged too fast, the gold would be washed away along with the sand and gravel. If the pumping action was too slow, the gold would not be picked up from the riverbed. When I was not in the water directing the scoop of the suction tube, I stationed myself at the pump engine with my hand on the power lever, monitoring the speed of the water flow.
At the end of the first full week of operation, we were delighted to find that we had twelve ounces of gold. Not a fortune, but a major encouragement. It was late October- if the annual rains held off another month, we would easily recover our investment.
During the next three weeks we pumped up four hundred and eighty ounces of gold. While Pru and I were weighing out the nuggets, a splash of water dropped on my head. Then I looked at Pru and noticed tiny droplets bouncing off her khaki shirt. The first rains had begun to fall.
That night we heard thunder far up the river in the mountains. In the morning the Indians insisted we should not work. I was tempted to order the pumps started, but old Concho pleaded with such conviction that I agreed to move the dredge around a bend in the river, where the current eddied. As I surveyed the temporary anchorage, I wished that we could shelter our valuable barge in some safe backwater, but this was the best we could do.
That afternoon the water level began to rise and trees started coming down the river. Massive trunks of mahogany came roaring down on us like locomotives, some of them preceded by roots that reached 25 feet across. If the barge had been in the channel, anyone of those trees could have capsized it.
By evening the river level had risen five feet and was still climbing. I slackened the mooring lines as the water rose, which it continued to do all through the night.
The rains finally stopped the next day, but the flood waters stayed with us for the next week, bringing our operation to a halt. During the enforced lull, Pru and I took horses and explored the surrounding jungle. There was abundant game- deer, ocelot, jaguar, wild boar, and endless varieties of tropical birds, including a very edible wild turkey- and we saw much evidence of old Spanish activities, particularly the piles of tailings along the river from their mining operations. There are few Indians left in the area, thanks to the Spanish cruelty in handling slave labor and to the snakes, tuberculosis, and intestinal parasites that cut so many Indian lives short. There is a small tribe of Paya Indians (closely related to the Maya) living a few miles east of the Paulaya, but their numbers are diminishing fast. We saw no substantial old ruins, though the forests are littered with potsherds and some of the Indians claim to have found gold artifacts. We did dig into three man-made mounds, but found only crude pottery fragments that weren't encouraging.
When the flood waters receded, we found that they had carried silt and gravel fill into our working area under the surface of the river. In effect, we had to start from scratch, frustrated by the knowledge that another heavy rain could set us right back to the start again. Even so, by the end of November we had collected eight hundred ounces of gold, despite several interruptions by torrential rains. We had reached our break-even mark, and work would be nearly impossible from that point on.The river was twelve feet over normal, and we were forced to man the securing lines day and night. Our graveled camp area was surrounded by a sea of mud. I had to face the depressing truth: We were confronted with sitting out the two-month rainy season.
Every two weeks Bill Woods traveled upstream in his pit-pan with supplies and mail. On one of his trips in early December , he delivered a letter, mailed six weeks before, from the United States Bureau of Customs. According to the letter, I had been found in violation of Public Law 19, US Code 1592, PL 31 CFR 54.8, and a whole wrath of other numbers and references and declarations, which all boiled down to the charge that the gold I had brought in from Peru and sold to the Southern museum had not been declared as gold, and that I did not have a license to import gold.
As I remembered the situation, I had declared the gold as artifacts, but I had not placed a value on it because I had no way of knowing the value. As for the license, I had not known that such a permit was necessary. (Incidentally, a license is required by law, but it is the easiest free permit you can obtain. All you have to do is apply to a United States embassy or consulate, and it will be issued immediately.) The shocker was that penalties totalling $270,000 had been imposed on me. I couldn't believe it-over a quarter of a million dollars!
I felt that the Batres brothers had won at last-they were the only ones I could think of who could have tipped off customs. I wrote an explanatory letter to U .S. Customs, adding that I would be out of the country for several months, but that I would arrange a meeting as soon as I returned. The mental burden of this legal problem began weighing on my mind.
The rains continued and tension built between Pru and me. I had become a rotten companion, so when I suggested she go home for the Christmas holidays, she agreed. We also agreed that she could come back if she wanted to, but I privately guessed that I'd never see her again. I took her down river to Plaplaya the next day, and she went on alone to La Ceiba to catch a plane for civilization and home. I returned upstream, the journey made far easier by the swollen flood waters that covered the treacherous rocks of the rapids.
In a few days I was regretting that I had let her go. Except for the Indians and our work crew, I had no one to talk to, and, besides, everything in the tent reminded me of the girl. Depression deepened. For the next six weeks, I was never entirely sober and kept feeling more sorry for myself every day. Loneliness, anger at the Batres brothers, and concern over my government's claim for a quarter of a million dollars, all preyed on my thoughts constantly. At one horrible time during that period I seriously considered never leaving the peace of the jungle, where problems were simple and basic. Then another problem developed.
I had been doing a considerable amount of diving while we were dredging, and apparently I had swallowed a large quantity of river water. Suddenly I was hit with the unmistakable symptoms of intestinal parasites and amoebic dysentery. Although I had been strict about chlorinating and purifying our drinking water, rivers and lakes in tropical lands are notorious for their dangerous infections, and within days I was a very sick man. The best of my medication had been used up in treating the Indians. What I had left was ineffective. I began dropping weight and losing strength rapidly.
By mid-February the rains stopped, and we cranked up the dredge. I was weak from my illness, but I still kept the pumps going twelve hours a day. Then other smaller annoyances began to crop up.
Opossums started raiding the cook shack. Jep would bark at night, and I'd clamp a flashlight onto the barrel of the rifle and blast away. I killed nearly thirty scavenging animals, which I threw into the river.
Then one night the dog barked, and I pulled my weak frame out of bed, grabbed the rifle, and pushed open the cook shack door. Thereon the floor of the shack stood a huge alligator, at least twelve feet long, staring at me. The .22 was too small for such a brute, but I emptied the magazine into him. He casually finished tearing out the rear wall and departed. Evidently he had developed an appetite for the opossums I had thrown into the river and had dropped in to see where his supply was coming from.
Bill Woods had brought us twenty-five chickens to supply some meat and eggs, and I had built a pen to keep them safe from marauding animals. One night I heard a commotion in the pen. I taped my flashlight to my twelve gauge, double-barreled shotgun and ran out of my tent. The gun light framed a large jaguar in the pen with a chicken in his mouth. I fired both barrels. Everything went quiet. I had killed the jag, but I had also killed all except two of the chickens.
I was losing my battle against the jungle.
By mid-March I had claimed more than thirteen hundred ounces of gold, but I was so ill that I could only sit or lie on the dredge and watch the operation. I even required help in climbing the riverbank up to the camp. Realizing that I was a sitting duck for anyone who decided to steal my gold hoard, which I kept buried under the plastic floor of the tent, I also began to feel that the dysentery could easily kill me if I did not get medical attention soon.
A late storm up river finally decided me. We could hear the thunder and see the lightning. Before the high water could reach Las Champas, I ordered the camp struck and the gear loaded onto the dredge. We cut loose the sluice box and pulled the support pipes from the river, then released the cables and started downstream. I took my gold and went alone in my dug-out canoe, ostensibly to spot any logjams in the river, but also to keep on my guard against theft.
We had spent more than two weeks fighting our way up river. Sliding down on the flood crest, the trip to Plaplaya required only two and a half days. I arrived at the mouth of the river a six-foot three-inch l40-pound skeleton, barely able to lift my eighty-two pounds of gold. In fact, I could barely walk.
After a few days of rest, I decided to take the dredge back to Roatan, where I could perhaps sell it. I hired Riley Gough to tow it up the gulf to Oakridge, and once again spent the night watching my barge as it bounced in the sea. Mooring lines broke twice during the night, and both times I was forced to jump aboard to relash the lines. I have seldom pushed myself so close to the absolute limits.
We spent nine hours on a crossing that normally required five, approaching the dock at Oakridge shortly after dawn. As we reached the mooring, I had a delirious vision of Pru standing on the dock waiting for me. There she was, pretty as a picture. But it was no vision. She had returned the day before and was trying to find a boat that would take her to Plaplaya.
Pru tried to nurse me back to health, but with little success. After a few days we chartered a plane to fly us to the hospital in La Ceiba. On arriving in the city, I took Pru and my heavy duffle bag to the Banco Centrale, where I maintained a current account. Walking up to the manager, I plopped the bag on his desk.
His greeting was cordial. "Senor Jennings, what can we do for you?"
"You can buy this gold."
He looked confused, but smiled. "Of course."
"... about eighty-two pounds worth," I added.
When he'd recovered from the shock, he sent for a clerk with a set of scales. The bank was used to the Indians coming in with a few ounces to sell, but he had never seen this much at one time. In an hour, I walked out of the bank with $45,000 deposited in my account. Pru helped me check into the local hospital, but then I urged her to go home. We made plans to meet in London as soon as I could travel, and I weakly kissed her goodbye.
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