THE FIRST SEARCH
THE SEARCH had to commence at once, and that for two weighty reasons.
The first of these was—and this was a question of life or death—that this proof of Joam Dacosta’s innocence must be produced before the arrival of the order from Rio Janeiro. Once the identity of the prisoner was established, it was impossible that such an order could be other than the order for his execution.
The second was that the body of Torres should be got out of the water as quickly as possible so as to regain undamaged the metal case and the paper it ought to contain.
At this juncture Araujo displayed not only zeal and intelligence, but also a perfect knowledge of the state of the river at its confluence with the Rio Negro.
“If Torres,” he said to the young men, “had been from the first carried away by the current, we should have to drag the river throughout a large area, for we shall have a good many days to wait for his body to reappear on the surface through the effects of decomposition.”
“We cannot do that,” replied Manoel. “This very day we ought to succeed.”
“If, on the contrary,” continued the pilot, “the corpse has got stuck among the reeds and vegetation at the foot of the bank, we shall not be an hour before we find it.”
“To work, then!” answered Benito.
There was but one way of working. The boats approached the bank, and the Indians, furnished with long poles, began to sound every part of the river at the base of the bluff which had served for the scene of combat.
The place had been easily recognized. A track of blood stained the declivity in its chalky part, and ran perpendicularly down it into the water; and there many a clot scattered on the reeds indicated the very spot where the corpse had disappeared.
About fifty feet down stream a point jutted out from the riverside and kept back the waters in a kind of eddy, as in a large basin. There was no current whatever near the shore, and the reeds shot up out of the river unbent. Every hope then existed that Torres’ body had not been carried away by the main stream. Where the bed of the river showed sufficient slope, it was perhaps possible for the corpse to have rolled several feet along the ridge, and even there no effect of the current could be traced.
The ubas and the pirogues, dividing the work among them, limited the field of their researches to the extreme edge of the eddy, and from the circumference to the center the crews’ long poles left not a single point unexplored. But no amount of sounding discovered the body of the adventurer, neither among the clumps of reeds nor on the bottom of the river, whose slope was then carefully examined.
Two hours after the work had begun they had been led to think that the body, having probably struck against the declivity, had fallen off obliquely and rolled beyond the limits of this eddy, where the action of the current commenced to be felt.
“But that is no reason why we should despair,” said Manoel, “still less why we should give up our search.”
“Will it be necessary,” exclaimed Benito, “to search the river throughout its breadth and its length?”
“Throughout its breadth, perhaps,” answered Araujo, “throughout its length, no—fortunately.”
“And why?” asked Manoel.
“Because the Amazon, about a mile away from its junction with the Rio Negro, makes a sudden bend, and at the same time its bed rises, so that there is a kind of natural barrier, well known to sailors as the Bar of Frias, which things floating near the surface are alone able to clear. In short, the currents are ponded back, and they cannot possibly have any effect over this depression.”
This was fortunate, it must be admitted. But was Araujo mistaken? The old pilot of the Amazon could be relied on. For the thirty years that he had followed his profession the crossing of the Bar of Frias, where the current was increased in force by its decrease in depth, had often given him trouble. The narrowness of the channel and the elevation of the bed made the passage exceedingly difficult, and many a raft had there come to grief.
And so Araujo was right in declaring that if the corpse of Torres was still retained by its weight on the sandy bed of the river, it could not have been dragged over the bar. It is true that later on, when, on account of the expansion of the gases, it would again rise to the surface, the current would bear it away, and it would then be irrevocably lost down the stream, a long way beyond the obstruction. But this purely physical effect would not take place for several days.
They could not have applied to a man who was more skillful or more conversant with the locality than Araujo, and when he affirmed that the body could not have been borne out of the narrow channel for more than a mile or so, they were sure to recover it if they thoroughly sounded that portion of the river.
Not an island, not an islet, checked the course of the Amazon in these parts. Hence, when the foot of the two banks had been visited up to the bar, it was in the bed itself, about five hundred feet in width, that more careful investigations had to be commenced.
The way the work was conducted was this. The boats taking the right and left of the Amazon lay alongside the banks. The reeds and vegetation were tried with the poles. Of the smallest ledges in the banks in which a body could rest, not one escaped the scrutiny of Araujo and his Indians.
But all this labor produced no result, and half the day had elapsed without the body being brought to the surface of the stream.
An hour’s rest was given to the Indians. During this time they partook of some refreshment, and then they returned to their task.
Four of the boats, in charge of the pilot, Benito, Fragoso, and Manoel, divided the river between the Rio Negro and the Bar of Frias into four portions. They set to work to explore its very bed. In certain places the poles proved insufficient to thoroughly search among the deeps, and hence a few dredges—or rather harrows, made of stones and old iron, bound round with a solid bar—were taken on board, and when the boats had pushed off these rakes were thrown in and the river bottom stirred up in every direction.
It was in this difficult task that Benito and his companions were employed till the evening. The ubas and pirogues, worked by the oars, traversed the whole surface of the river up to the bar of Frias.
There had been moments of excitement during this spell of work, when the harrows, catching in something at the bottom, offered some slight resistance. They were then hauled up, but in place of the body so eagerly searched for, there would appear only heavy stones or tufts of herbage which they had dragged from their sandy bed. No one, however, had an idea of giving up the enterprise. They none of them thought of themselves in this work of salvation. Benito, Manoel, Araujo had not even to stir up the Indians or to encourage them. The gallant fellows knew that they were working for the fazender of Iquitos—for the man whom they lvoed, for the chief of the excellent family who treated their servants so well.
Yes; and so they would have passed the night in dragging the river. Of every minute lost all knew the value.
A little before the sun disappeared, Araujo, finding it useless to continue his operations in the gloom, gave the signal for the boats to join company and return together to the confluence of the Rio Negro and regain the jangada.
The work so carefully and intelligently conducted was not, however, at an end.
Manoel and Fragoso, as they came back, dared not mention their ill success before Benito. They feared that the disappointment would only force him to some act of despair.
But neither courage nor coolness deserted the young fellow; he was determined to follow to the end this supreme effort to save the honor and the life of his father, and he it was who addressed his companions, and said: “To-morrow we will try again, and under better conditions if possible.”
“Yes,” answered Manoel; “you are right, Benito. We can do better. We cannot pretend to have entirely explored the river along the whole of the banks and over the whole of its bed.”
“No; we cannot have done that,” replied Araujo; “and I maintain what I said—that the body of Torres is there, and that it is there because it has not been carried away, because it could not be drawn over the Bar of Frias, and because it will take many days before it rises to the surface and floats down the stream. Yes, it is there, and not a demijohn of tafia will pass my lips until I find it!”
This affirmation from the pilot was worth a good deal, and was of a hope-inspiring nature.
However, Benito, who did not care so much for words as he did for things, thought proper to reply, “Yes, Araujo; the body of Torres is in the river, and we shall find it if——”
“If?” said the pilot.
“If it has not become the prey of the alligators!”
Manoel and Fragoso waited anxiously for Araujo’s reply.
The pilot was silent for a few moments; they felt that he was reflecting before he spoke. “Mr. Benito,” he said at length, “I am not in the habit of speaking lightly. I had the same idea as you; but listen. During the ten hours we have been at work have you seen a single cayman in the river?”
“Not one,” said Fragoso.
“If you have not seen one,” continued the pilot, “it was because there were none to see, for these animals have nothing to keep them in the white waters when, a quarter of a mile off, there are large stretches of the black waters, which they so greatly prefer. When the raft was attacked by some of these creatures it was in a part where there was no place for them to flee to. Here it is quite different. Go to the Rio Negro, and there you will see caymans by the score. Had Torres’ body fallen into that tributary there might be no chance of recovering it. But it was in the Amazon that it was lost, and in the Amazon it will be found.”
Benito, relieved from his fears, took the pilot’s hand and chook it, and contented himself with the reply, “To-morrow, my friends!”
Ten minutes later they were all on board the jangada. During the day Yaquit had passed some hours with her husband. But before she started, and when she saw neither the pilot, nor Manoel, nor Benito, nor the boats, she had guessed the search on which they had gone, but she said nothing to Joam Dacosta, as she hoped that in the morning she would be able to inform him of their success.
But when Benito set foot on the raft she perceived that their search had been fruitless. However, she advanced toward him. “Nothing?” she asked.
“:Nothing,” replied Benito. “But the morrow is left to us.”
The members of the family retired to their rooms, and nothing more was said as to what had passed.
Manoel tried to make Benito lie down, so as to take a few hours’ rest.
“What is the good of that?” asked Benito. “Do you think I could