[part 2 of 2 continued...]
"I wouldn't advise anyone to go into the Aucas in search of gold," he said, "unless they know what they're doing, and are prepared to meet any eventuality. But there are still many rivers -hundreds, in fact -outside Auca territory which are available to gold hunters, with little or no danger involved, except, of course, the primitive life one must lead in working them."
In developing his concession, Dr. Paulik plans to build a large open camp clearing the jungle around it for a distance of a hundred meters. "This will eliminate the danger of a surprise attack, and with a hundred or more men in my crew," he added, "the Aucas will have enough sense to stay away."
But I was still unconvinced. I wanted to take a trip into Auca territory for two specific reasons: Was there really gold in these rivers in the quantity that Dr. Paulik suggested? And just how dangerous were the Aucas?
To that end, I flew to the Amazon, and contacted a good friend of mine, Fausto Rueda. I had heard indirectly that his father, Juan, with a group of Yumbu Indians, was panning gold deep inside Auca Territory. Once each week, the group returned for new supplies and to sell their gold. Fortunately, I had arrived over a weekend and found Fausto's father in the village. He readily gave me permission to accompany him on his return trip.
Early one morning, long before the rising of the sun, our Johnson outboards roared into life, and in the semi-darkness, Juan Rueda and his forty-odd followers, consisting of, a motley crew of desperate-looking Jivaros and Yumbos, piled into the three canoes, hell-bent for adventure and gold. Fausto decided to come along at the last moment, and we entered the third canoe, which he felt was slightly safer. Generally, in an Auca ambush, it is always the first craft that receives the brunt of the attack.
Three hours after leaving port, we entered a small tributary and proceeded eastward through a maze of rivers and streams that eventually brought us deep into the jungle. If I had not realized I was in Auca terrain, I think I could have enjoyed the trip. The jungle has about it an aura of deceptive beauty and an overpowering loneliness. On either side of the banks of the many rivers we traversed was a wall of green, gigantic trees that jutted toward the blue sky above, and looking carefully, I could discern clusters of orchids cascading downward from the towering branches. Because this was a sanctuary no one dared to enter, there were thousands of monkeys and tropical birds. Gigantic crocodiles, sunning themselves on a mud flat were aroused by the sound of our motor and beat a hasty retreat into the brown waters as we approached.
The possibility of an unexpected encounter was always uppermost in my mind, and I noticed that the Indians in our canoe kept their guns at the ready, their eyes searching the rim of the dense foliage for any strange movement. They were taking no chances.
Finally, about three o'clock that afternoon we reached the playa and the camp. It consisted of a handful of palm-thatched shelters, under which the men slept. All cooking was done over open wood fires at the edge of the river. We hurriedly unloaded the canoes and prepared for the evening. At dusk, we ate a hasty meal of boiled rice, yucca, bananas and freshly caught fish. No sooner had night fallen than the jungle-wise Juan placed ten of our Indians in a semicircle around the camp. In case of attack, a shot would be fired, and thereafter, the rest of the men, quickly taking their guns, would rush to a small circular trench dug in the sand, from which vantage point they would not only be protected from the deadly lances of the Aucas, but would be strong enough to ward off any sudden raid. Sentries worked for four hours, and then were relieved by another group.
At two o'clock in the morning, I took my position in the trench with Fausto and several other Yumbos. All the Indians were armed with rifles, none very modern, but if nothing else, they could make a lot of noise. I carried a Colt forty-five. Lying in the shallow ditch facing the jungle, we kept our eyes alert for any strange movements.
Suddenly, Fausto poked me in the ribs with his elbow. "Listen!" he whispered.
I strained my ears, but could hear nothing more than the raucous cries of birds. But now, for some strange reason, there appeared to be more of them. First, they seemed to emanate from the deep jungle to our right. Then, almost immediately, the calls were answered from the opposite direction.
"They're the Aucas," Fausto told me. "They use bird calls when they are signaling each other."
But that night nothing happened, and at the first blush of dawn, we left the trench and returned to camp. When I questioned Juan about the birdcalls, he merely shrugged and laughed disdainfully. "Of course, they were Aucas," he said. "They do that every night. Two weeks ago, they threw several lances at us from the jungle, but no one was wounded. We sent them scurrying away with our rifles, and they haven't bothered us since."
After breakfast, most of the men, taking shiny tin pans, walked to the river's edge and peered down into the sunlit water, searching for a gleam of gold.
I walked along with Juan, an old hand at this game, who knew exactly what he was doing. Occasionally, he would stop and point a stubby finger toward the edge of the bank. "See that glimmer?" he remarked. "That's flake gold. It's a good place to pan, but we'll come back to it later. You'll find that in certain pockets along the river bank, gold has a way of becoming trapped and can be found in much greater quantity."
Ten minutes later, we stopped at just such a pocket, and I gasped in amazement. The shallow water, only about two feet deep, danced with a golden glint. "Now, watch," Juan said as he rolled up his trousers and stepped into the water. He filled his pan with the golden sand and for several minutes rotated it gently, eliminating the twigs, leaves and other debris until all that was left were dozens of lustrous gleaming gold particles and nuggets, some only as large as pinheads, others the size of walnuts.
Now, at long last, I was finally convinced.
The gold was here, all right, and in great quantities. But unfortunately, it would take a large army of well-equipped men to recover it. In spite of the fact that gold was in the rivers and ten Indians continuously guarded those who panned, the air was electric with excitement and all of us secretly kept our eyes on the perimeter of the jungle. Momentarily, we expected to be attacked by a deadly enemy. All of us, too, kept our weapons within easy reach, ready to fire at the first whirr of a barrage of Auca lances flying in our direction.
That night, Juan collected the gold from his workers and poured it into small leather sacks. According to their agreement, his share was fifty per cent of everything recovered; the balance was divided equally among the other men upon their return to port. All of them, without doubt, were earning more money than they ever had before. But in my opinion, they deserved every penny of it. This was definitely no adventurous "lark," but a continuous struggle against an unseen and dangerous foe.
At the end of the week, we returned to port, and Juan took with him twelve small bags of gold-quite a haul for just six days' work.
In retrospect, my journey into the Amazon was little different, but perhaps a bit more exciting than other jungle expeditions I had undertaken over the past few years. Old Dr. Paulik had been right. The gold is in the rivers, and there is little danger from Auca attack as long as we went in force and maintained a continuous vigil. I think, too, that the Aucas will eventually get used to the idea of strangers in their midst, and perhaps will confine their raids to small pueblos outside their own territory. I am convinced that someday a successful and friendly contact will be made with these savages, which will permit an exchange of trade goods and various staples for their gold.
So far, only a handful of people can speak the dialect of the Auras, but this is relatively unimportant, as, up to the present moment, it has been almost impossible to contact them. So furtive are their movements, they have become known as the "Shadow People."
But red-blooded prospectors and sourdoughs have never been known to be timorous of heart. And one thing is certain: as long as it is remotely possible to retrieve this fabulous fortune from the forbidden Rain Forest of the Amazon, you may rest assured that there will be many who are willing and anxious to pit their intelligence and daring against the primitive cunning of the naked Aucas, guardians of the golden bonanza.