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CHAPTER XVII AT ATTACK
HOWEVER, if Manoel, to avoid giving rise to a violent scene on board, said nothing on the subject of Torres, he resolved to have an explanation with Benito.
"Benito," he began, after taking him to the bow of the jangada, "I have something to say to you."
Benito, generally so good-humored, stopped as he looked at Manoel, and a cloud came over his countenance.
"I know why," he said; "it is about Torres."
"And I also wish to speak to you."
"You have then noticed his attention to Minha?" said Manoel, turning pale.
"Ah! It is not a feeling of jealousy, though, that exasperates you against such a man?" said Benito quickly.
"No!" replied Manoel. "Decidedly not! Heaven forbid I should do such an injury to the girl who is to become my wife. No, Benito! She holds the adventurer in horror! I am not thinking anything of that sort; but it distresses me to see this adventurer constantly obtruding himself by his presence and conversation on your mother and sister, and seeking to introduce himself into that intimacy with your family which is already mine."
"Manoel," gravely answered Benito, "I share your aversion for this dubious individual, and had I consulted my feelings I would already have driven Torres off the raft! But I dare not!"
"You dare not?" said Manoel, seizing the hand of his friend. "You dare not?"
"Listen to me, Manoel," continued Benito. "You have observed Torres well, have you not? You have remarked his attentions to my sister! Nothing can be truer! But while you have been noticing that, have you not seen that this annoying man never keeps his eyes off my father, no matter if he is near to him or far from him, and that he seems to have some spiteful secret intention in watching him with such unaccountable persistency?"
"What are you talking about, Benito? Have you any reason to think that Torres bears some grudge against Joam Garral?"
"No! I think nothing!" replied Benito; "it is only a presentiment! But look well at Torres, study his face with care, and you will see what an evil grin he has whenever my father comes into his sight."
"Well, then," exclaimed Manoel, "if it is so, Benito, the more reason for clearing him out!"
"More reason - or less reason," replied Benito. "Manoel, I fear - what? I know not - but to force my father to get rid of Torres would perhaps be imprudent! I repeat it, I am aafraid, though no positive fact enables me to explain my fear to myself!"
And Benito seemed to shudder with anger as he said these words.
"Then," said Manoel, "you think we had better wait?"
"Yes; wait, before doing anything, but above all things let us be on our guard!"
"After all," answered Manoel, "in twenty days we shall be at Manaos. There Torres must stop. There he will leave us, and we shall be relieved of his presence for good! Till then we must keep our eyes on him!"
"You understand me, Manoel?" asked Benito.
"I understand you, my friend, my brother!" replied Manoel, "although I do not share, and cannot share, your fears! What connection can possibly exist between your father and this adventurer? Evidently your father has never seen him!"
"I do not say that my father knows Torres," said Benito; "but assuredly it seems to me that Torres knows my father. What was the fellow doing in the neighborhood of the fazenda when we met him in the forest of Iquitos? Why did he then refuse the hospitality which we offered, so as to afterward manage to force himself on us as our traveling companion? We arrive at Tabatinga, and there he is as if he was waiting for us! The probability is that these meetings were in pursuance of a preconceived plan. When I see the shifty, dogged look of Torres, all this crowds on my mind. I do not know! I am losing myself in things that defy explanation! Oh! why did I ever think of offering to take him on board this raft?"
"Be calm, Benito, I pray you!"
"Manoel!" continued Benito, who seemed to be powerless to contain himself, "think you that if it only concerned me - this man who inspires us all with such aversion and disgust - I should not hesitate to throw him overboard! But when it concerns my father, I fear lest in giving way to my impressions I may be injuring my object! Something tells me that with this scheming fellow there may be danger in doing anything until he has given us the right - the right and the duty - to do it. In short, on the jangada, he is in our power, and if we both keep good watch over my father, we can spoil his game, no matter how sure it may be, and force him to unmask and betray himself! Then wait a little longer!"
The arrival of Torres in the bow of the raft broke off the conversation. Torres looked slyly at the two young men, but said not a word.
Benito was not deceived when he said that the adventurer's eyes were never off Joam Garral as long as he fancied he was unobserved.
No! he was not deceived when he said that Torres' face grew evil when he looked at his father!
By what myeterious bond could these two men - one nobleness itself, that was self-evident - be connected with each other?
Such being the state of affairs it was certainly difficult for Torres, constantly watched as he was by the two young men, by Fragoso and Lina, to make a single movement without having instantly to repress it. Perhaps he understood the position. If he did, he did not show it, for his manner changed not in the least.
Satisfied with their mutual explanation, Manoel and Benito promised to keep him in sight without doing anything to awaken his suspicions.
During the following days the jangada passed on the right the mouths of the rivers Camara, Aru, and Yuripari, whose waters instead of flowing into the Amazon run off to the south to feed the Rio des Purus, and return by it into the main river. At five o'clock on the evening of the 10th of August they put into the island of Cocos.
They there passed a -"seringal."- This name is applied to a caoutchouc plantation, the caoutchouc being extracted from the -"seringueira"- tree, whose scientific name is -siphonia elastica.-
It is said that, by negligence or bad management, the number of these trees is decreasing in the basin of the Amazon, but the forests of seringueira trees are still very considerable on the banks of the Madeira, Purus, and other tributaries.
There were here some twenty Indians collecting and working the caoutchouc, an operation which principally takes place during the months of May, June, and July.
After having ascertained that the trees, well prepared by the river floods which have bathed their stems to a height of about four feet, are in good condition for the harvest, the Indians are set to work.
Incisions are made into the alburnum of the seringueiras; below the wound small pots are attached, which twenty-four hours suffice to fill with a milky sap. It can also be collected by means of a hollow bamboo, and a receptacle placed on the ground at the foot of the tree.
The sap being obtained, the Indians, to prevent the separation of its peculiar resins, fumigate it over a fire of the nuts of the assai palm. By spreading out the sap on a wooden scoop, and shaking it in the smoke, its coagulation is almost immediately obtained; it assumes a grayish-yellow tinge and solidifies. The layers formed in succession are detached from the scoop, exposed to the sun, hardened, and assume the brownish color with which we are familiar. The manufacture is then complete.
Benito, finding a capital opportunity, bought from the Indians all the caoutchouc stored in their cabins, which, by the way, are mostly built on piles. The price he gave them was sufficiently remunierative, and they were highly satisfied.
Four days later, on the 14th of August, the jangada passed the mouths of the Purus.
This is another of the large affluents of the Amazon, and seems to possess a navigable course, even for large ships, of over five hundred leagues. It rises in the southwest, and measures nearly five thousand feet across at its junction with the main river. After winding beneath the shade of ficuses, tahuaris, nipa palms, and cecropias, it enters the Amazon by five mouths.
Hereabouts Araujo the pilot managed with great ease. The course of the river was but slightly obstructed with islands, and besides, from one bank to another its width is about two leagues.
The current, too, took along the jangada more steadily, and on the 18th of August it stopped at the village of Pasquero to pass the night.
The sun was already low on the horizon, and with the rapidity peculiar to these low latitudes, was about to set vertically, like an enormous meteor.
Joam Garral and his wife, Lina, and old Cybele, were in front of the house.
Torres, after having for an instant turned toward Joam as if he would speak to him, and prevented perhaps by the arrival of Padre Passanha, who had come to bid the family good-night, had gone back to his cabin.
The Indians and the negroes were at their quarters along the sides. Araujo, seated at the bow, was watching the current which extended straight away in front of him.
Manoel and Benito, with their eyes open, but chatting and smoking with apparent indifference, walked about the central part of the craft awaiting the hour of repose.
All at once Manoel stopped Benito with his hand and said:
"What a queer smell! Am I wrong? Do you not notice it?"
"One would say that it was the odor of burning musk!" replied Benito. "There ought to be some alligators asleep on the neighboring beach!"
"Well, nature has done wisely in allowing them so to betray themselves."
"Yes," said Benito, "it is fortunate, for they are sufficiently formidable creatures!"
Often at the close of the day these saurians love to stretch themselves on the shore, and install themselves comfortably there to pass the night. Crouched at the opening of a hole, into which they have crept back, they sleep with the mouth open, the upper jaw perpendicularly erect, so as to lie in wait for their prey. To these amphibians it is but sport to launch themselves in its pursuit, either by swimming through the waters propelled by their tails or running along the bank with a speed no man can equal.
It is on these huge beaches that the caymans are born, live, and die, not without affording extraordinary examples of longevity. Not only can the old ones, the centenarians, be recognized by the greenish moss which carpets their carcass and is scattered over their protuberances, but by their natural ferocity, which increases with age. As Benito said, they are formidable creatures, and it is fortunate that their attacks can be guarded against.
Suddenly cries were heard in the bow.
Manoel and Benito came forward and looked.
Three large saurians, from fifteen to twenty feet long, had managed to clamber on to the platform of the raft.
"Bring the guns! Bring the guns!" shouted Benito, making signs to the Indians and the blacks to get behind.
"Into the house!" said Manoel; "make haste!"
And in truth, as they could not attack them at once, the bst thing they could do was to get into shelter without delay.
It was done in an instant. The Garral family took refuge in the house, where the two young men joined them. The Indians and the negroes ran into their huts and cabins. As they were shutting the door:
"And Minha?" said Manoel.
"She is not there!" replied Lina, who had just run to her mistress' room.
"Good heavens! where is she?" exclaimed her mother, and they all shouted at once:
"There she is, on the bow of the jangada!" said Benito.
"Minha!" shouted Manoel.
The two young men, and Fragoso and Joam Garral, thinking no more of danger, rushed out of the house, guns in hand.
Scarcely were they outside when two of the alligators made a half turn and ran toward them.
A doze of buckshot to the head, close to the eye, from Benito, stopped one of the monsters, who, mortally wounded, writhed in frightful convulsions and fell on his side.
But the second still lived, and came on, and there was no way of avoiding him.
The huge alligator tore up to Joam Garral, and after knocking him over with a sweep of his tail, ran at him with open jaws.
At this moment Torres rushed from the cabin, hatchet in hand, and struck such a terrific blow that its edge sunk into the jaw of the cayman and left him defenseless.
Blinded by the blood, the animal flew to the side, and, designedly or not, fell over and was lost in the stream.
"Minha! Minha!" shouted Manoel in distraction, when he got to the bow of the jangada.
Suddenly she came into view. She had taken refuge in the cabin of Araujo, and the cabin had just been upset by a powerful blow from the third alligator. Minha was flying aft, pursued by the monster, who was not six feet away from her.
A second shot from Benito failed to stop the cayman. He only struck the animals carapace, and the scales flew to splinters but the ball did not penetrate.
Manoel threw himself at the girl to raise her, or to snatch her from death! A side blow from the animal's tail knocked him down too.
Minha fainted, and the mouth of the alligator opened to crush her!
And then Fragoso jumped in to the animal, and thrust in a knife to the very bottom of his throat, at the risk of having his arm snapped off by the two jaws, had they quickly closed.
Fragoso pulled out his arm in time, but he could not avoid the chock of the cayman, and was hurled back into the river, whose waters reddened all around.
"Fragoso! Fragoso!" shrieked Lina, kneeling on the edge of the raft.
A second afterward Fragoso reappeared on the surface of the Amazon - safe and sound.
But, at the peril of his life he had saved the young girl, who soon came to. And as all hands were held out to him - Manoel's, Yaquita's, Minha's, and Lina's, and he did not know what to say, he ended by squeezing the hands of the young mulatto.
However, though Fragoso had saved Minha, it was assuredly to the intervention of Torres that Joam Garral owed his safety.
It was not, therefore, the fazender's life that the adventurer wanted. In the face of this fact, so much had to be admitted.
Manoel said this to Benito in an undertone.
"That is true!" replied Benito, embarrassed. "You are right, and in a sense it is one cruel care the less! Nevertheless, Manoel, my suspicions still exist! It is not always a man's worst enemy who wishes him dead!"
Joam Garral walked up to Torres.
"Thank you, Torres!" he said, holding out his hand. The adventurer took a step or two backward without replying.
"Torres," continued Joam, "I am sorry that we are arriving at the end of our voyage, and that in a few days we must part! I owe you - - "
"Joam Garral!" answered Torres, "you owe me nothing! Your life is precious to me above all things! But if you will allow me - I have been thinking - in place of stopping at Manaos, I will go on to Belem. Will you take me there?"
Joam Garral replied by an affirmative nod.
In hearing this demand Benito in an unguarded moment was about to intervene, but Manoel stopped him, and the young man checked himself, though not without a violent effort.
Turn to the next chapter: CHAPTER XVIII THE ARRIVAL DINNER