The Bridge in the Jungle, p.1B. TRAVEN
The Bridge in the Jungle
First published in Great Britain by Jonathan Cape 1940 Published in Penguin Books 1975 Copyright © B. Traven and R. Lujan 1969
To the mothers
of every nation
of every people
of every race
of every colour
of every creed
of all animals and birds
of all creatures alive on earth
About the Author
'Stick'm up, stranger!'
'Can't you hear, sap? Up with your fins. And you'd better snap into it!'
Through my sweat-soaked shirt I distinctly felt it was not his forefinger nor a pencil that was so firmly pressed against my ribs. It was the real thing all right. I could almost figure out its caliber — a .38, and a heavy one at that. The reason why I had been slow to obey his first order was that I believed it a hallucination. For two days while marching with my two pack mules through the dense jungle I had not met with a single human being, white, Indian, or mestizo. I knew I was still far away from the next rancheria, which I expected to reach about noon tomorrow. So who would hold me up? But it happened. From the way he spoke I knew he was no native. He fumbled at my belt this way and that; it was quite a job dragging my gun out of my holster, which was as hard and dry as wood. Finally he got it. I heard him back up. The way he moved his feet back on the ground told me that he was a rather tall fellow and either fairly well advanced in years or very tired.
'Oke, now. You can turn round if it pleases your lordship.'
Fifty feet to the right of the jungle trail along which I had come, there was a little pond of fresh and not very muddy water. It had glittered through the foliage, and from the tracks of mules and horses leading to that water hole I knew that it must be a paraje where pack trains take a rest or even spend the night. So I drove my tired mules in to water them. I needed a short rest myself and a good drink.
I had not seen anyone near nor had I heard anything. Therefore I was astonished when, as if coming from a jungle ghost, the gat was pushed between my ribs.
Now I looked at him, who, as I had rightly guessed, was taller than I and slightly heavier. Fifty or fifty-five years. An old-timer, judging from the way he was dressed (which was not much different from my own get-up), cotton pants, high boots, a dirty sweat-soaked shirt, and a wide-brimmed hat of the cheap sort made in the republic.
He grinned at me. I could not help grinning back at him. We did not shake nor tell our names. Telling other people your name without being asked for it seems silly anyhow.
He told me that he was the manager of a sugar plantation about thirty miles from where we now stood, but that he preferred to manage a cocoa plantation if he only could get such a job. I told him that I was a free-lance explorer and also the president, the treasurer, and the secretary of a one-man expedition on the lookout for rare plants with a commercial value for their medicinal or industrial properties, but that I would take any job offered me on my way and that I hoped to find, maybe, gold deposits or precious stones.
'I should know about them, brother, if there were any around here. See, I'm long enough in this here part so that I know every stone and every rubber shrub and every single ebony tree you'll ever see. But then again, that goddamned beautiful jungle is so big and so rich — well, what I mean to say is, there are so many things that can bring money home to papa if you only know how to use them and how to doll them up when selling them, and besides that you may actually find not only gold but even diamonds. Only don't get tired looking for them.'
I felt the irony he had not put into his words but into the corners of his nearly closed eyes while speaking.
Having watered his horse, filled his water bag, and gulped down a last drink from the pond, scooped up with a battered aluminium cup, he tightened the straps of the saddle which he had loosened so that the horse might drink with more gusto, mounted his beast, and then said: 'Two hundred yards from here you can pick up your gat where I'll drop it on my way. I'm no bandit. But you see, brother, what do I know about you? You might be in some kind of new racket. You seem to be green around this section of the globe. At places like the one we have had so much pleasure together — I mean this one here — a guy that's in the know doesn't take any chances, if you get what I mean. That's the reason why I relieved you of your rusty iron for a while — just to keep you from playing with it. You might have taken me for a bum after your packs and beasts and you might have slugged me just for fear of me. I know greenies like you who get dizzy in the tropics — specially if they're trailing alone through the jungle without seeing a soul or even a mole for a week. Then they see things and hear things and they talk alone to themselves and listen to the talk of ghosts. Sure, you get what I mean. In such cases the first who has his iron out is the winner, you know. I'm always happy if I can be the winner over a greeny like you. Because it's the greenies I'm ten times more afraid of than a hungry tiger. A tiger, I know what he wants if I meet him, and maybe I can trick him, but a greeny who has been three days alone on a jungle trail, you never know what he might do when he sees you suddenly standing before him. Well, so long, brother, and good luck in discovering a new kind of rubber shrub.'
I went after him and I saw him drop my gun. This done, he spurred his horse and two seconds later the jungle had swallowed him.
When I found myself once more alone with my mules, a strange sensation came over me that I had dreamed the whole intermission. I tried to think it all through and then I knew that every word I had heard him say, whether in my imagination or in reality, was a true statement of facts. You can easily fall victim to any sort of hallucination when you're travelling alone through the jungle, if you're not used to it. I decided to be on my guard against the jungle madness he had talked about. I also decided that the next time I met someone in the jungle I would do my best to be the winner — by doing exactly what that man had done to me.
Three months later, in an entirely different region, I was riding across the muddy plaza of an Indian village when I saw a white man standing in the portico of a palm-roofed adobe house.
'Hi, you! Hello!' he hollered at me, 'Hello yourself!'
It was Sleigh.
He invited me into his house to be introduced to his family. His wife was Indian, a very pretty woman, with a soft, creamlike, yellowish skin, brown eyes, and strong, beautiful teeth. He had three kids, all boys, who easily could pass as American boys from the South. His wife was at least twenty-five years younger than he. The oldest of the kids was perhaps eight years old, the youngest three.
His wife fried me six eggs, which I ate with tortillas and baked beans. For drink I had coffee, cooked Indian fashion, with unrefined brown sugar.
On my entering the house his wife had greeted me: 'Buenas tardes, senor!' accompanied by an almost unnoticeable nod of her head, which wore a crown of two thick black braids. After this short salutation, nearer to suspicion than to friendliness, I did not see her again. N
The house was as poor as could be. There was practically no furniture, save one cot, a crude table, three crude chairs, and a hammock. Besides these things there were two trunks in the room, old-fashioned and besprinkled with mud. The house had two doors, one in front, the other at the back leading to a muddy and untidy yard. Yet there were no windows. The floor was of dried mud.
Sleigh, whose first name I never learned, did not invite me to stay overnight. It was not that he was ashamed that he could not offer me a bed; it was simply in accordance with a rule that a man travelling by horse or mule over the country knows best when to stay overnight and where, and therefore he is not urged to change his plans. If on the other hand the traveller were to ask whether he might stay overnight, he is sure to meet with unrestricted hospitality.
I did not ask Sleigh what he was doing here and how he made his living, nor did he by word or gesture indicate that he was curious to know what sort of business brought me through that little native village so far out of the way of regular communications.
One year later I was making a rather difficult trip on horseback on the way to the jungle sections of the Huayalexco River, where I hoped to get alligators, the hides of which brought a very good price at that time. My task turned out to be far tougher than I had expected.
At certain places along the river-banks the jungle was so dense that it would have taken many days of hard work with the help of natives to clear the banks sufficiently to enable me to approach the points where alligators were supposed to be found. Other parts of the region were so swampy no one could pass them to reach the banks. I then decided to ride farther down the river, expecting to locate territory easier to hunt in. Indians had told me that on my way downstream I would meet with a number of tributaries which at that time of the year were likely to abound with alligators.
One day while on this trip down the river I came to a pumpstation practically hidden in the jungle. This pump-station was railroad property. It pumped the water from the river to another station many miles away, from where it was pumped on to the next railroad depot. For about a hundred miles along the railroad there was no water all the year round save during a couple of months when the rainy season was at its height. Hence the need to pump water to that depot. Part of this water served the engine. The greater part, though, was carried by train in special tanks to the various other depots and settlements along the railroad track, because all the people living there would have left the depots and the little villages if they were not provided with water during the dry season.
The pump-master, or, as he liked to be called, el maestro maquinista, was Indian. He worked with the assistance of an Indian boy, his ayudante. The boiler was fired with wood, some of it brought in from the jungle by an Indian wood-chopper on the back of a burro, the rest carried, in the form of old, discarded timber and rotten sleepers, from the depot.
The boiler looked as if it were ready to burst any minute. The pump, which looked as though it had been in use for more than a hundred years, could be heard two miles away. It shrieked, howled, whistled, spat, gurgled, and rattled at every nut, bolt, and joint — and the first day I was there I stayed a safe distance away in the fear that this overworked and mistreated dumb slave might throw off its chains and make a dash for freedom. The railroad, however, was justified in using this old pump until it broke down for good. To dismantle it, take it to the depot, and ship it to a junk yard would have cost more than half the price of a new pump. So it was cheaper to keep it where it was and let it work itself to death. Owing to the difficulties of transportation and mounting, it would have been bad economy for the railroad to bring down a new pump at this time, especially since the railroad expected that any day now an American company would strike oil near by and that this company would then take care of the water problem for a hundred miles along the track.
About seventy yards from the pump a bridge crossed the river. This bridge, built and owned by the oil company and made of crude heavy timber, was wide enough so that trucks could pass over it, but it had no railings. The oil company had considered railings an unnecessary expense. Had there been railings on the bridge, perhaps this story would never have been told.
'We have lots of alligators in that river, montones de lagartos, senor, of this you may be assured,' the pump-master said to me. 'Of course, you will understand, mister, they are not right here where the pump is.'
I could understand this very well. No decent alligator who respects established morals would ever be able to live near that noisy pump and keep fit to face life's arrows bravely.
'You see, mister, I wouldn't like them around here, never. They would steal my pigs and chickens. And what do you think, and you may not believe it, but it's true just the same, they even steal little children if they're left alone for a while. No, around here there are very few if any and these are only very small ones, too young to waste a bullet on. Farther down and also upstream, three or four miles from here, you will find them in herds by the hundred — and bulls, dear me, I think they must be three hundred years of age, so big they are.'
I nodded towards the opposite bank. 'Who lives over there? I mean right there where the huts are.'
'Oh, there, you mean. There is prairie, mucha pastura. In fact, it's sort of a cattle ranch. Not fenced in. All open. It belongs to an Americano. After you pass that prairie there's thick jungle again. If you ride still farther through that jungle about six or eight miles, you'll find an oil camp. Men are drilling there, testing holes to see if they can find oil. So far they haven't, and if you ask me, I think they never will. That's the same people what have built this bridge. You know, if they want to drill for oil they have to get all the machinery down here from the depot. Without a bridge they couldn't pass the river with such heavy loads. They tried it a few times during the dry season, but the trucks got stuck and it took them a week to get them out again. The bridge has cost them a lot of money, because the timber had to be brought fifteen hundred miles, and, believe me, mister, that cost money.'
'Who lives on that ranch over there?'
'A gringo, like you.'
'That's what you told me before. I mean who looks after the cattle?'
'Didn't I tell you right now? A gringo.'
'Where does he live?'
'Right behind that brush.'
I crossed the bridge on my horse, pulling my pack mule along behind me.
Behind a thick wall of tropical shrubs and trees I found about ten of the usual Indian chozas or jacales — that is, palm-roofed huts.
Women squatting on the bare ground, smoking thick cigars, and bronze-brown children, most of them naked, a few dressed in a shirt or ragged pair of pants, were everywhere. None of the little girls, however, was naked, although only scantily covered by flimsy frocks.
From here I could see across the pasture which the pumpmaster had called the prairie. It was about a mile long and three-quarters of a mile wide. On all sides it was hemmed in by the jungle. The tracks where the oil company's trucks had passed over the prairie were still visible.
It was quite natural to find an Indian settlement here. The pasture was good and there was water all the year round. The Indians need no more. The pasture was not theirs, but that didn't bother them. Every family owned two or three goats, two or three lean pigs, one or two burros, and a dozen chickens, and the river provided them with fish and crabs.
The men used to cultivate the land near their huts, raising corn, beans, and chilli. But since the oil company had started to exploit its leases, acquired twenty years before, many of the men had found work in the camps, from which they came home every Saturday afternoon, remaining until early Monday morning. The men who did not like the jobs, or who could not get them, made charcoal in the bush, which they put into old sacks to be transported by burro to the depot, where it was sold to the agents who came once a week to every depot on the railroad l
Neither the women I saw nor the children paid any attention to me as I passed them. During the last two years they had become used to foreigners, because whoever went to the oil camps by truck, car, or on horseback stopped at this settlement, or at the pump-station, even if only for an hour or two, but frequently for the night if they arrived at the bridge late in the afternoon. Everyone, even the toughest truck-drivers, avoided the road through the jungle at night.
Among the huts I noted one which, although built Indian fashion, was higher and larger than the rest. It was located at the end of the settlement, and behind it there was a crudely built corral. No other hut as far as I could see had a similar corral.
So I rode up to that hut which boasted a corral and, obeying the customs of the land, halted my horse respectfully about twenty yards away to wait until one of the inhabitants would notice my presence.
Like all the other jacales, it had no door — only an opening against which, at night, a sort of network of twigs and sticks was set from the inside and tied to the posts. The walls were made of sticks tied together with strips of bast and Manas. Therefore if a visitor didn't wait some distance from the house until he was invited in he might find the inhabitants in very embarrassing situations.
I had waited only a minute before an Indian woman appeared. She looked me over, said: 'Buenas tardes, senor!' and then: 'Pase, senor, this humble house is yours.'
I dismounted, tied horse and mule to a tree, and entered the hut. I found the Indian woman who had greeted me to be the wife of my old acquaintance Sleigh. After recognizing me she repeated her greeting more cordially. I had to sit down in a creaking old wicker chair which was obviously the pride of the house. She told me that her husband would be here any minute now. He was out on the prairie trying to catch a young steer which had to be doctored because it had been gored by an older bull and now had festering wounds.
It was not long before I heard Sleigh ordering a boy to open the gate of the corral and drive the steer in.
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