Richard Harding Davis.

Three gringos in Venezuela and Central America online

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When the alligator is on a bank, and you at-


tempt to crawl up on it along the opposite bank,
the birds make such a noise, either on its ac-
count or on their own, that it takes alarm, and
rolls over into the water with an abruptness you
would hardly expect from so large a body.

On our second day at Dr. Pazo's ranch we
divided into two parties, and scoured the wilder-
ness for ten miles around after game. One party
was armed with shot- guns, and brought back
macaws of wonderful plumage, wild turkeys, and
quail in abundance ; the others, scorning any-
thing but big game, carried rifles, and, as a re-
sult, returned as they set forth, only with fewer
cartridges. It was most unfortunate that the
only thing worth shooting came to me. It was
a wild-cat with a long tail, who patiently waited
for us in an open place with a calm and curious
expression of countenance. I think I was more
surprised than he was, and even after I had
thrown up the ground under his white belly he
stopped and turned again to look at me in a
hurt and reproachful manner before he bounded
gracefully out of sight into the underbrush. We
also saw a small bear, but he escaped in the
same manner, without waiting to be fired upon,
and as we had no dogs to send after him, we
gave up looking for more, and went back to pot
at alligators. There were some excellent hunt-
ing-dogs on the ranch, but the Pazo brothers
had killed a steer the night we arrived, and had


given most of it to the dogs, so that in the
morning they were naturally in no mood for

There was an old grandfather of an alligator
whom Somerset and I had repeatedly disturbed
in his slumbers. He liked to take his siestas on
a little island entirely surrounded by rapids, and
we used to shoot at him from the opposite bank
of the river. He was about thirteen feet long,
and the agility with which he would flop over
into the calm little bay, which stretched out from
the point on which he slept, was as remarkable
as it was disappointing. He was still asleep at
his old stand when we returned from our unsuc-
cessful shooting tour, so we decided to swim the
rapids and crawl up on him across his little island
and attack him from the flank and rear. It re-
minded me somewhat of the taking of Lungten-
pen on a small scale. On that occasion, if I
remember correctly, the raw recruits were uni-
formed only in Martinis and cartridge-belts ; but
we decided to carry our boots as well, because
the alligator's island was covered with sharp
stones and briers, and the sand was very hot, and,
moreover, we had but vague ideas about the cus-
toms of alligators, and were not sure as to
whether he might not chase us. We thought
we would look very silly running around a little-
island pursued by a long crocodile and treading
on sharp hot stones in our bare feet.


So each of us took his boots in one hand and
a repeating-rifle in the other, and with his money-
belt firmly wrapped around his neck, plunged
into the rapids and started to ford the river.
They were exceedingly swift rapids, and made you
feel as though you were swinging round a sharp
corner on a cable-car with no strap by which to
take hold. The only times I could stop at all
was when I jammed my feet in between two
stones at the bed of the river, and was so held
in a vise, while the rest of my body swayed
about in the current and my boots scooped up
the water. When I wanted to go farther I
would stick my toes between two more rocks,
and so gradually worked my way across, but I
could see nothing of Somerset, and decided that
he had been drowned, and went off to avenge
him on the alligator. It took me some time to
get my bruised and bleeding toes into the wet
boots, during which time I kept continually look-
ing over my shoulder to see if the alligator were
going to make a land attack, and surprise me
instead of my surprising him. I knew he was
very near me, for the island smelled as strongly of
musk as a cigar-shop smells of tobacco ; but when
I crawled up on him he was still on his point of
sand, and sound asleep. I had a very good
chance at seventy yards, but I was greedy, and
wanted to come closer, and as I was crawling
along, gathering thorns and briers by the way, I


startled about fifty birds, and the alligator flopped
over again, and left nothing behind him but a
few tracks on the land and a muddy streak in
the water. It was a great deal of trouble for a
very little of alligator; but I was more or less
consoled on my return to find that Somerset
was still alive, and seated on the same bank from
which we had both started, though at a point
fifty yards farther down-stream. He was en-
gaged in counting out clamp Bank- of - England
notes on his bare knee, and blowing occasional
blasts down the barrel of his rifle, which had
dragged him and itself to the bottom of the
river before the current tossed them both back
on the shore.

The two days of rest at the ranch of Dr. Pazo
had an enervating effect upon our mules, and
they moved along so slowly on the day following
that we had to feel our way through the night
for several hours before we came to the hut
where we were to sleep. Griscom and I had lost
ourselves on the mountain-side, and did not over-
take the others until long after they had settled
themselves in the compound. They had been
too tired when they reached it to do anything
more after falling off their mules, and we found
them stretched on the ground in the light of a
couple of fluttering pine torches, with cameras
and saddle-bags and carbines scattered recklessly
about, and the mules walking over them in the


darkness. A fire in the oven shone through the
chinks in the kitchen wall, and showed the
woman of the house stirring something in a cal-
dron with one hand and holding her sleeping
child on her hip with the other, while the daugh-
ters moved in and out of the shadow, carrying
jars on their heads and bundles of fodder for the
animals. It looked like a gypsy encampment.
We sent Emilio back with a bunch of pine torches
to find the pack-mules, and we could see his
lighted torch blazing far up the trail that we had
just descended, and lighting the rocks and trees
on either side of him.

There was only room for one of us to sleep in-
side the hut that night, and as Griscom had a
cold, that privilege was given to him ; but it
availed him little, for when he seated himself on
the edge of the bull-hide cot and began to pull
off his boots, five ghostly feminine figures sat up-
right in their hammocks and studied his prep-
arations with the most innocent but embarrass-
ing curiosity. So, after waiting some little time
for them to go to sleep again, he gave up any
thought of making himself more comfortable,
and slept in his boots and spurs.

We passed through the pretty village of Trini-
dad early the next morning, and arrived at night-
fall at the larger town of Santa Barbara, where
the sound of our mules' hoofs pattering over the
paved streets and the smell of smoking street


lamps came to us with as much of a shock as
docs the sight of land after a week at sea. Santa
Barbara, in spite of its pavements, was not a
great metropolis, and, owing to its isolation, the
advent of five strangers was so much of an event
that the children of the town followed us, cheer-
ing and jeering as though we were a circus pro-
cession ; they blocked the house in which we
took refuge, on every side, so that the native
policemen had to be stationed at our windows
to wave them away. On the following morning
we called to pay our respects on General Louis
Bogran, who has been President of Honduras
for eight years and an exile for two. He died
a few months after our visit. He was a very
handsome man, with a fine presence, and with
great dignity of manner, and he gave us an
audience exactly as though he were a de-
throned monarch and we loyal subjects come
to pay him homage in his loneliness. I asked
him what he regarded as the best work of his
administration, and after thinking awhile he
answered, " Peace for eight years," which was
rather happy, when you consider that in the
three years since he had left office there have
been four presidents and two long and serious
revolutions, and when we were in the capital the
people seemed to think it was about time to
begin on another.

We left Santa Barbara early the next morn-


ing, and rode over a few more mountains to the
town of Seguaca, where the village priest was
holding a festival, and where the natives for
many miles around had gathered in consequence.


There did not seem to be much of interest
going on when we arrived, for the people of the
town and the visitors within her gates deserted
the booths and followed us in a long procession


down the single street, and invaded the house
where we lunched.

Our host on this occasion set a table for us in
the centre of his largest room, and the popula-
tion moved in through the doors and windows,
and seated themselves cross-legged in rows ten
and fifteen deep on the earth floor at our feet,
and regarded us gravely and in absolute silence.
Those who could not find standing-room inside
stood on the window-sills and blocked the door-
ways, and the women were given places of
honor on tables and beds. It was somewhat
embarrassing, and we felt as though we ought to
offer something more unusual than the mere
exercise of eating in order to justify such in-
terest ; so we attempted various parlor tricks,
without appearing to notice the presence of an
audience, and pretended to swallotv the eggs
whole, and made knives and forks disappear in
the air, and drew silver dollars from the legs of
the table, continuing our luncheon in the mean-
time in a self-possessed and polite manner, as
though such eccentricities were our hourly habit.
We could see the audience, out of the corner of
our eyes, leaning forward with their eyes and
mouths wide open, and were so encouraged that
we called up some of the boys and drew watches
and dollars out of their heads, after which they
retired into corners and ransacked their scantily
clad persons for more. It was rather an ex-


pensive exhibition, for when we set forth again
they all laid claim to the dollars of which they
considered they had been robbed.

The men of the place, according to their
courteous custom, followed us out of the town
for a few miles, and then we all shook hands and
exchanged cigars and cigarettes, and separated
with many compliments and expressions of high

The trail from Seguaca to our next resting-place
led through pine forests and over layers of pine-
needles that had been accumulating for years.
It was a very warm, dry afternoon, and the air
was filled with the odor of the pines, and when
we came to one of the many mountain streams
we disobeyed Jeffs and stopped to bathe in it,
and let it carry us down the side of the moun-
tain with the speed of a toboggan. We had
been told that bathing at any time was extreme-
ly dangerous in Honduras, and especially so
in the afternoon ; but we always bathed in the
afternoon, and looked forward to the half-hour
spent in one of these roaring rapids as the best
part of the day. Of all our recollections" of
Honduras, they are certainly the pleasantest.
The water was almost icily cold, and fell with
a rush and a heavy downpour in little water-
falls, or between great crevices in the solid
rocks, leaping and bubbling and flashing in the
sun, or else sweeping in swift eddies in the com-


pass of deep, shadowy pools. We used to im-
prison ourselves between two rocks and let a fall
of water strike us from the distance of several
feet on our head and shoulders, or tear past and
around us, so that in five minutes the soreness
and stiffness of the day's ride were rubbed out
of us as completely as though we had been
massaged at a Turkish bath, and the fact that
we were always bruised and black and blue when
we came out could not break us of this habit.
It was probably because we were new to the
country that we suffered no great harm ; for
Jeffs, who was an old inhabitant, and who had
joined us in this particular stream for the first
time, came out looking twenty years older, and
in an hour his teeth were chattering with chills
or clinched with fever, and his pulse was jump-
ing at one hundred and three. We were then
exactly six days' hard riding from any civilized
place, and though we gave him quinine and
whiskey and put him into his hammock as soon
as we reached a hut, the evening is not a cheer-
ful one to remember. It would not have been
a cheerful evening under any circumstances, for
we shared the hut with the largest and most
varied collection of human beings, animals, and
insects that I have ever seen gathered into so
small a place.

I took an account of stock before I turned in,
and found that there were three dogs, eleven


cats, seven children, five men, not including five
of us, three women, and a dozen chickens, all
sleeping, or trying to sleep, in the same room,
under the one roof. And when I gave up at-
tempting to sleep and wandered out into the
night, I stepped on the pigs, and startled three
or four calves that had been sleeping under the
porch and that lunged up out of the darkness.
We were always asking Jeffs why we slept in
such places, instead of swinging our hammocks
under the trees and camping out decently and
in order, and his answer was that while there
were insects enough in-doors, they were virtually
an extinct species when compared to the num-
ber one would meet in the open air.

I have camped in our West, where all you
need is a blanket to lie upon and another to
wrap around you, and a saddle for a pillow, and
where, with a smouldering fire at your feet, you
can sleep without thought of insects. But there
is nothing green that grows in Honduras that is
not saturated and alive with bugs, and all man-
ner of things that creep and crawl and sting and
bite. It transcends mere discomfort ; it is an
absolute curse to the country, and to every one
in it, and it would be as absurd to write of Hon-
duras without dwelling on the insects, as of the
west coast of Africa without speaking of the
fever. You cannot sit on the grass or on a fallen
tree, or walk under an upright one or through


the bushes, without hundreds of some sort of
animal or other attaching themselves to your
clothing or to your person. And if you get
clown from your mule to take a shot at some-
thing in the bushes and walk but twenty feet
into them, you have to be beaten with brushes
and rods when you come out again as vigorously
as though you were a dusty carpet. There will
be sometimes as many as a hundred insects
under one leaf ; and after they have once laid
their claws upon you, your life is a mockery,
and you feel at night as though you were sleep-
ing in a bed with red pepper. The mules have
even a harder time of it ; for, as if they did not
suffer enough in the day, they are in constant
danger at night from vampires, which fasten
themselves to the neck and suck out the blood,
leaving them so weak that often when we came
to saddle them in the morning they would stag-
ger and almost fall. Sometimes the side of
their head and shoulders would be wet with
their own blood. I never heard of a vampire
attacking a man in that country, but the fact
that they are in the air does not make one sleep
any the sounder.

In the morning after our night with the varied
collection of men and animals we put back again
to the direct trail to Tegucigalpa, from which
place we were still distant a seven days' ride.


WE swung our hammocks on the sixth .night
out in the municipal building of Tabla Ve ; but
there was little sleep. Towards morning the
night turned bitterly cold, and the dampness rose
from the earthen floor of the hut like a breath
from the open door of a refrigerator, and kept us
shivering in spite of sweaters and rubber blankets.
Above, the moon and stars shone brilliantly in a
clear sky, but down in the valley in which the
village lay, a mist as thick as the white smoke
of a locomotive rose out of the ground to the
level of the house-tops, and hid Tabla Ve as
completely as though it were at the bottom of
a lake. The dogs of the village moved through
the mist, howling dismally, and meeting to fight
with a sudden sharp tumult of yells that made
us start up in our hammocks and stare at each
other sleepily, while Jeffs rambled on, muttering
and moaning in his fever. It was not a pleasant
night, and we rode up the mountain-side out of
the mist the next morning unrefreshed, but satis-
fied to be once more in the sunlight. They had
told us at Tabla Ve that there was to be a bull-
baiting that same afternoon at the village of


Seguatepec, fifteen miles over the mountain,
where a priest was holding a church festival.
So we left Jeffs to push along with the mozos,
and by riding as fast as the mules could go, we
reached Seguatepec by four in the afternoon.


It was a bright, clean town, sitting pertly on
the flat top of a hill that fell away from it evenly
on every side. It had a little church and a little
plaza, and the church was so vastly superior to
every other house in the place as was the case


in every village through which we passed as to
make one suppose that it had been built by one
race of people and the houses by another. The
plaza was shut in on two of its sides by a barrier
seven rails high, held together by ox-hide ropes.
This barrier, with the houses fronting the plaza
on its two other sides, formed the arena in which
the bull was to be set at liberty. All of the
windows and a few of the doors of the houses
were barred, and the open places between were*
filled up by ramparts of logs. There was no
grand-stand, but every one contributed a bench
or a table from his own house, and the women
seated themselves on these, while the men and
boys perched on the upper rail of the barricade.
The occasion was a memorable one, and all the
houses were hung with strips of colored linen,
and the women wore their brilliant silk shawls,
and a band of fifteen boys, none of whom could
have been over sixteen years of age, played a
weird overture to the desperate business of the

It was a somewhat primitive and informal bull-
fight, and it began with their lassoing the bull
by his horns and hoofs, and dragging him head
first against the barricade. With a dozen men
pulling on the lariat around the horns from the
outside of the ring, and two more twisting his
tail on the inside, he was at such an uncomfort-
able disadvantage that it was easy for them to


harness him in a net-work of lariats, and for a
bold rider to seat himself on his back. The bold
rider wore spurs on his bare feet, and, with his
toes stuck in the ropes around the bull's body,
he grasped the same ropes with one hand, and
with the other hand behind him held on to the
bull's tail as a man holds the tiller of a boat.
When the man felt himself firmly fixed, and the
bull had been poked into a very bad temper
with spears and sharp sticks, the lariat around
his horns was cut, and he started up and off on
a frantic gallop, bucking as vigorously as a Texas
pony, and trying to gore the man clinging to his
back with backward tosses of his horns.

There was no regular toreador, and any one
who desired to sacrifice himself to make a Sagua-
tepecan holiday was at liberty to do so ; and as a
half-dozen men so sought distinction, and as the
bull charged at anything on two legs, the excite-
ment was intense. He moved very quickly for
so huge an animal in spite of his heavy handicap,
and, with the exception of one man with a red
flag and a spirit of daring not entirely due to
natural causes, no one cared to go very near him.
So he pawed up and down the ring, tossing and
bucking and making himself as disagreeable to
the man on his back as he possibly could. It
struck me that it would be a distinctly sporting
act to photograph a bull while he was charging
head on at the photographer, and it occurred to


Somerset and Griscom at about the same time
that it would be pleasant to confront a very mad
bull while he was careering about with a man
twisting his tail. So we all dropped into the
arena at about the same moment, from different
sides, and as we were gringos, our appearance
was hailed with laughter and yells of encourage-
ment. The gentleman on the bull seemed to be
able to control him more or less by twisting his
tail to one side or the other, and as soon as he
heard the shouts that welcomed us he endeavored
to direct the bull's entire attention to my two
young friends. Griscom and Somerset are six
feet high, even without riding-boots and pith
helmets, and with them they were so conspic-
uous that the bull was properly incensed, and
made them hurl themselves over the barricade
in such haste that they struck the ground on the
other side at about the same instant that he
butted the rails, and with about the same amount
of force.

Shrieks and yells of delight rose from the
natives at this delightful spectacle, and it was
generally understood that we had been engaged
to perform in our odd costumes for their special
amusement, and the village priest attained gen-
uine popularity for this novel feature. The bull-
baiting continued for some time, and as I kept
the camera in my own hands, there is no docu-
mentary evidence to show that any one ran ,away


but Griscom and Somerset. Friendly doors were
opened to us by those natives whose houses
formed part of the arena, and it was amusing to
see the toreadors popping in and out of them,
like the little man and woman on the barometer
who come out when it rains and go in when the
sun shines, and vice versa.

On those frequent occasions when the bull
charged the barricade, the entire Ime of men and
boys on its topmost rail would go over backward,
and disappear completely until the disappointed
bull had charged madly off in another direction.
Once he knocked half of a mud-house away in
his efforts to follow a man through a doorway,
and again a window-sill, over which a toreador
had dived head first like a harlequin in a panto-
mime, caved in under the force of his attack.
Fresh bulls followed the first, and the boy musi-
cians maddened them still further by the most
hideous noises, which only ceased when the bulls
charged the fence upon which the musicians sat,
and which they vacated precipitately, each tak-
ing up the tune where he had left off when his
feet struck the ground. There was a grand ball
that night, to which we did not go, but we lay
awake listening to the fifteen boy musicians
until two in the morning. It was an odd, eyrie
sort of music, in which the pipings of the reed
instruments predominated. But it was very
beautiful, and very much like the music of the


Hungarian gypsies in making little thrills chase
up and down over one's nervous system.

The next morning Jeffs had shaken off his
fever, and, once more reunited, we trotted on
over heavily wooded hills, where we found no
water until late in the afternoon, when we came
upon a broad stream, and surprised a number of
young girls in bathing, who retreated leisurely as
we came clattering down to the ford. Bathing
in mid-stream is a popular amusement in Hon-
duras, and is conducted without any false sense
of modesty ; and judging from the number of
times we came upon women so engaged, it seems
to be the chief occupation of their day.

That night we slept in Comyagua, the second
largest city in the republic. It was originally
selected as the site for a capital, and situated
accordingly at exactly even distances from the
Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea. We found
it a dull and desolate place of many one-story
houses, with iron-barred windows, and a great,
bare, dusty plaza, faced by a huge cathedral.
Commerce seemed to have passed it by, and
the sixty thousand inhabitants who occupied it
in the days of the Spaniards have dwindled down
to ten. The place is as completely cut off from

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Online LibraryRichard Harding DavisThree gringos in Venezuela and Central America → online text (page 5 of 11)