''The Vulture'' Short Story By Arthur Olney Friel

Last Updated:
The Vulture Short Story By Arthur Olney Friel
  • Story Name : The Vulture
  • Author Name : Arthur Olney Friel (1885–1959)
  • Author Country : United States
  • Published Year : 1921
  • Story Type : Short Story

I believe that story of yours, senator. You tell me that while you two North Americans were far out on the great ocean, steaming southward on your way to explore our Amazon headwaters, a vulture came speeding from nowhere and settled in the rigging of another boat near you, and that soon afterward a terrible storm swept that vessel to her doom.

Yes, I believe it. For I know, as all Brazilians know, the fiendish power those ugly birds have of smelling death even before it strikes. And we, the rubber workers of the wild Javary region, who see a lot of death, also see a lot of those vile things that live on death.

Sometimes, senhores, we see vultures without wings, which walk about in the shape of men. Yes, human vultures, who, like their foul air brothers, detect human weakness and come from afar to prey on it until their victims are reduced to skeletons.And now, while we stream on down the Amazon, I can tell you the tale of one of those creatures—a tale of the bush but yet not of the bush, for these things came about not in the depths of the unknown jungle but in a jungle town on the banks of the Javary.

That town is Remate de Males. In your language, Remate de Males means "culmination of evils." Yet it is not a bad town, as these upper Amazon towns go. It got its name, I have heard, from the sufferings of the first people who settled there—fever and famine and other misfortunes that attacked them until, out of twenty settlers, only four survived. Even now, it is not a real town like Manaos and other places along this great river.

But to us seringueiros, who toil for months among the dangers and diseases of the swamplands, it is a place where we can go and amuse ourselves when the floods drive us from our work. And when men have laboured long in the wilderness with Death always lurking behind them, any town where they can play is not a bad place to be.

At the time of high water, I came into Remate de Males with a young comrade, Pedro Andrada, who, like myself, worked on the big seringal of Coronel Nunes. We were more than fellow workers; we were comrades. Recently we had been out on a long roving trip along the Brazilian-Peruvian frontier and had come back so gaunt and tired that we were glad to rest for a time at the headquarters of the coronel.

But after a few days of ease, we found this very dull, since most of the other men had gone out to spend their time and money at their homes, or, if their homes were too far away, at Remate de Males. So, after drawing some money from the coronel, we paddled down the river for several days until we reached the town.

There we hitched our dugout to one of the posts before the door of a trader named Joaquim, whom we knew well, and went inside. Several friends of ours were loafing there, and for a time they kept us busy telling of our adventures on that rambling trip. Then we asked what we could do to enjoy ourselves. They grinned.

"If you have a pocketful of money, you can do anything you like at the house of Urubu," answered one.

"The house of the vulture?" "I do not understand," I said.

"You are behind the times, Lourenço," another man laughed. "You have not been here since the last flood; is it not so?" "We now have a real urubu, and he will give you any game you like and pick you clean."

"This sounds interesting," said my comrade Pedro, his brown eyes twinkling. "Remate de Males is becoming quite a city. What sort of thing is this Urubu of which you speak?

Then Joaquim the trader spoke, his tone sour:

"In himself, he is a remate de males."If there is anything worse than him, I have not yet seen it. "He takes the life from honest men and devours their bodies afterward."

The men looked at one another. Then one said:

"That is a hard thing to say, Joaquim. I think you are jealous because we spend money there instead of here. "Urubu is no cannibal."

"Where are Ricardo Bautista and Alberto Alencar?" demanded Joaquim. "Each was drunk at his place, and the next morning each was gone." Gone where? "No man has seen them since.

Nobody spoke. Joaquim went on.

"I would not say that he actually ate them." But there is a jacare-assu—a huge alligator—living under his house, and perhaps that reptile could tell him things if he would. "A jacado does not live where it finds no food."

Again, there was silence. Then Helio Alves said slowly:

"I have been wondering what became of that girl, Januaria. You remember her, friends—the big girl with the very red mouth. I liked her. The last time I saw her, she said she was going to quit him. That was nearly a week ago. "Has anyone seen her lately?"

The others shook their heads. A fellow named Miguel said:

"There has been no boat this week. She must be here still. Perhaps she is sick."

"Ask that Jacare under the house where she is," sneered Joaquim.

"I will ask Urubu to his face where she is," growled Helio.

"And I will ask Maria, my own sweetheart, what has become of her," added Miguel.

I broke in then and told them we were still waiting to learn who and what this Urubu might be. Miguel told me:

"His name is Aracu. But some man who was half-drunk in his place, so that his tongue got twisted, called him Urubu, and the name fitted him so well that he has been Urubu here ever since. He looks like a king vulture.

"They tell me he came first to Nazareth, across the river in Peru. He wanted a house here in Remate de Males, where more people come, but he could not find one empty and he would not build one. Instead, he got Domicio Malaguetta to drink and gamble in his place in Nazareth. Domicio owned the finest house here, except for the hotel. Before long, that house and everything in it belonged to Urubu.

"Domicio and his family had to go and live in a mean little barracao, where he and his wife died of fever." The place that used to be Domicio’s home is now a house of entertainment run by Urubu. Perhaps you remember Domicio.

I did remember Domicio. He had been quite a prosperous trader and a steady sort of man, though fond of his drink. I was sorry to hear of his miserable end. As I thought about it, I remembered something else.

"Domicio had a pretty young daughter," I said. "What has become of her?"

"She is in the house of Urubu. She had no money, and a girl must live. She is not so pretty now.

At this, we scowled. The daughter of Domicio was nothing to us, but this thing displeased us. Miguel went on:

"There are other girls." Where they come from, I do not know, but they come here with Domengos Peixoto. Domengos is a great friend of Urubu, and he seems quite prosperous now. "He wears a gold watch and chain, travels up and down the big river, and does not drink as hard as he did."

This was surprising news to us. When we had last been here, this Domengos Peixoto had been a low, ragged drunkard whom nobody liked and nobody would trust—a hanger-on at places where card games were played and always thirsting for a drink. It was hard to imagine him sober, well dressed, and travelling about like a gentleman.

"I see," said Pedro, his voice hard. "Domengos travels on the river—and brings girls here. I see. I think I will go and look at Domengos. "I am curious to know how he looks with his face washed."

"He is not here now," said someone. "He has been away for a time."

"Then I will look at this Urubu who owns Domengos." "I suppose I shall not offend you by offering to buy you all a drink."

Everyone sat up as if they had suddenly heard a voice calling them.

"To show you how offended I am," Miguel laughed, "I will allow you to buy me two drinks."

We filed out, leaving Joaquim to look after us glumly but wistfully.After what he had said, he could not well go to the house of Urubu and drink. Perhaps he consoled himself with some of his own cachassa when we were gone.

In our dugouts and montarias, we paddled up the street, where the water was several feet deep, to the house of Urubu. Pedro and I had never been in it before, for Domicio Malagueita had not invited seringueiros to be his guests. Now we found it fitted with the furnishings of a comfortable home, but with some partitions taken out to make a long room across the front.

In this room, around several small tables, sat a few men and girls quietly playing cards. Another girl, lolling in a richly coloured hammock at one end, was picking idly at a wire guitar. A sort of bar ran half-way across the room beside the farther wall, and on it were a liquor jar and a few cups.

"Wake up!" shouted Miguel. "Here are Lourenço Moraes and Pedro Andrada, with a six-month's thirst and pockets full of money. Where is that Urubu? "We want drinks!"

They woke up. The men, most of whom knew us, shouted greetings. The woman swiftly looked us over, smiled, and called to us. The one in the hammock sat up, and I saw that she was the Malagueita girl. She had been rather proud and shy, but now she was as bold as any of them. She made eyes at my handsome partner and asked if he would buy her a drink too.

"I buy for all, little one," said Pedro, as if he did not remember her. "My thirst is long and my pocket is strong." Boys and girls, let us see who can empty his cup the quickest. "Who fills the cups?"

"I," a deep voice behind the bar said.A door had opened there, and beside the jar and cups stood Urubu.

As Miguel had said, the man looked like a king vulture—that bird that drives the common buzzards from their feasts to gorge himself. Bulky and squat, with humped shoulders, he also had the vulture’s head and face. His head, blunt as a bullet, was red and bare except for a little black hair. His nose was a hooked beak. His eyes were as cold as those of the bird of death. His mouth was a hard slit. His hands, curled around cups on the bar, looked like claws. Looking at him and remembering what I had just been told, I felt that the drunken man who named him Urubu had been only drunk enough to speak the truth.

He watched us with a cold stare. His mouth stretched into a smirk.

"What is your pleasure, sir?" he asked.

"What have you?" Pedro wanted to know.

"Anything you like." "Cachassa, of course," and he pointed a thumb at the jar, "or aguardiente, cauim—all those things." "There is also fine liquor from Europe and North America—cognac, whisky, gin, cordials—whatever you wish, senhores."

"I have drunk no liquor but cachassa for months," said Pedro. "I want something fancy." "Make me a tail of the cock."

Urubu stared. So did the rest of us.

"A what?" demanded Urubu.

"The cock's tail."An American whom I knew as Santarem used to make them for himself, and they are very fine. They are made by mixing several things together. "Can you make one?"

"Certainly I can make you a cocktail, sir." "I did not quite understand you."

He reached under the bar, produced several bottles, mixed up the liquors, and asked—

"What will your broad-shouldered friend have?"

I said I would have a cocktail, too. The others ordered their drinks, and we quickly emptied our cups.

Pedro and I burst out coughing. That drink was the worst I had ever swallowed. Everyone laughed at us except Urubu, whose face was like wood.

"What do you call that?" demanded Pedro angrily. "That's not the tail of the cock."

"Perhaps you have forgotten the taste of a real cocktail," answered Urubu, with a slight sneer in his tone. "Or perhaps you are accustomed to such drinks as are made for girls."

"Perhaps you are accustomed to mixing drinks only for ignorant Indians—the kind of Indians who eat rotten turtles," retorted Pedro. "And if you think me a girl, step out here and I will show you how girlish I am."

For a moment, it was very quiet. Unwinking, expressionless, the vulture eyes of Urubu stared into the hot brown eyes of my comrade. Then his slit of a mouth stretched again, and he shrugged his humpy shoulders.

"Do not be so hasty, senhor," he said. "That was only my little joke." Perhaps the American senhor made his cocktails differently—there are several ways of mixing those drinks. "Will you have some of the North American whisky?"

"I will drink anything to take this taste out of my mouth."

"Then here is something very fine."

The beak-nosed man set a bottle on the bar.

"You see, it is a new bottle, and the cork has not been drawn."

"Yes, and I see that I do not want it," refused Pedro. "I have seen that label before. The American senator had a bottle like that one. He said that the stuff in it looked like whisky and tasted like whisky, but it was really Old Crow. I do not want anything made from old crows. "Give me some cachassa."

Urubu said nothing more. I had some cachassa also, and the familiar taste soothed my tongue. The vulture-man glanced at the Malagueita girl, who stood beside Pedro and drank with him. She immediately invited Pedro to sit in her hammock and let her entertain him.

"Gladly, my lady," he accepted. "I have not heard a guitar for a long time." And they turned away.

I too turned and took a few steps toward one of the card tables. Then I whirled on my heel. As I expected, the eyes of Urubu were on my partner’s back, and there was a threat in them—a threat of evil that put me on my guard. I strode to the bar.

"More meat for the jacare," I said in a low tone. "Was that what you were thinking?"

For the first time, his eyelids flickered. His unpleasant gaze centred on my face. After a minute, he answered:

"I do not get your meaning, Senhor."

"I think you do," I shot back. "And make no mistake." "We are men of the bush, he and I, and we are accustomed to jacares—and to urubus also."

With another shrug, he said he did not quite grasp my little joke. I said no more, for no more was necessary. But Helio, who had been standing nearby, now spoke up.

"I do not see Januaria here," he said. "Where is she?"

"She has a fever," Urubu answered promptly. "I sent her down to the Solimoes, where the air is better."

"When? How? "To what place on the Solimoes?"

"When? when she was hospitalised"The fever came on her late at night, and I saw it would be bad, so I sent her out at once to Tabatinga."

"How?" insisted Helio. "Who took her?"

"By canoe. Ricardo Bautista and Alberto Alencar were here, and they paddled away with her.

"Ricardo and Alberto! "They disappeared weeks ago."

"I know. They had no money left, so they went down river to earn some. They came back together late that night, and I coaxed them to take her away until she was well. "Ricardo was a friend of Januaria, you remember."

Helio nodded slowly as if that were true, but he could not believe the rest of it. Without saying anything further, he took another drink and then sat down at a table. The rest of us also drifted to the tables, and I sat for a time smoking, drinking, and talking to a couple of men who, like myself, were not in the mood for cards. One of the women bothered me at first with her attentions, but after I succeeded in discouraging her, I was left in peace.

The Malagueita girl, I noticed, was softly singing love songs to Pedro, but he did not seem very interested. After a time, he looked at me, moved his head toward the door, and arose. Urubu, who had been standing quietly and waiting, looked sharply at our rolls of milreis as we paid for all the drinks. Then he asked why we left so soon.

We told him the truth—that we must find a place to live. He urged us to stay there, saying he could make room for us and would make us very comfortable. The girls, of course, said the same. But we refused and went out.

"A cold rascal," said my partner as we paddled away. "He spoiled my thirst, and I dislike him very much." But I intend to see more of him. "He interests me."

Back to the store of Joaquim we went, and there we tied our canoe as before.

"We have seen your Urubu, and we do not like him," I told him. He grinned in a satisfied way.

"I knew you would not," he answered. "You two are not blind spendthrifts, and you have heads on your shoulders." "Yet if you would buy supplies here, you had best buy them now, for Urubu will get your money as he gets that of others."


"By drink, gambling, women, or in other ways." I know you are not easily made drunk and are not passionate gamblers or lovers of women, but he will get you in some way. I am surprised that he did not ask you to stay there until your money was gone.

We answered that Urubu had done so, but that we preferred to live elsewhere and had come to ask if he knew of a place. We added that if we could find a house where we could live by ourselves, we should want to buy a number of things in his store. It did not take him long to think of the place we wanted, and soon we were settled in a small barraco facing the river Tecuahy.

Before long, a montaria came up to our door, and in it was Helio, looking both doubtful and grim.

"I do not believe Urubu’s story of Januaryia," he growled. "She showed no sign of sickness when I last saw her." And the part about Ricardo and Alberto sounds queer to me. They did not disappear at the same time, and they were not comrades as you two are, so why should they work together and return together? And they were rough, hard men who thought only of themselves, and if they came back with money, they would not let a girl’s sickness interfere with their staying here and drinking.

"What is more, they have had plenty of time to return from Tabatinga, but they have not come back." The tale does not sound good to me at all. And what Joaquim said about the jacare disturbs me. "It is true that a jacare-assu lives under the house of Urubu—I have seen the beast myself."

"Miguel was to talk to his sweetheart," I reminded him. "Perhaps he will learn something."

"He has talked to her and learned nothing," Helio replied. "I have just seen Miguel." Maria said she knew nothing about January’s sickness or her going away. She would not talk about it, and she seemed afraid Urubu might overhear what Miguel said.

"That does not look very good either," said Pedro. "The story of Urubu may be true, and we cannot prove it is not." But there is one thing you can do, Helio, if you are really interested in this matter. Say nothing to anyone, but start at dawn tomorrow and go to Tabatinga. "It is only about thirty miles, and you can soon learn whether your girl is there."

"I will do it!" vowed Helio. "I will go before anyone else is awake." "When I come back, I will tell you what I find out."

He left us, putting a vicious punch into his strokes as he pulled away.

"I think," said Pedro, watching him, "that before long Helio and Urubu are going to have trouble."

"And I think," I added, "that if anyone else here disappears, I should like to kill that jacare and see what is inside him."

"I had the same thought," he said, nodding. "But I hardly believe there will be anything new before Helio returns."

He was not quite right. Before Helio came back to us, something new did come about, and as a result of it, my comrade forced himself into the affairs of the Vulture.

In the next two or three days, we went several times to the house of Urubu. We lost a little money at cards, but not enough to hurt us much. We drank as much as we liked, but that was only enough to make us merry. And though the girls did their best to charm us, we paid no more attention to them than to the men—joking with them, playing cards with them, and buying drinks, but not allowing any foolishness.

We knew that this was not at all what Urubu wanted, but he gave no sign of impatience. The flood waters were high, we could do no work, and he had no reason to suppose we should go elsewhere before the dry season. So he watched and waited, as a true vulture watches and waits for its victim to fall into its power.

Then came a boat. Domengos Peixoto boarded the boat.Domengos brought a girl with him.And then Pedro woke up.

The boat was one of these fine English steamers of the Amazon, which call at Remate de Males to leave passengers and mail. We were loafing in Joaquim’s place when she came in, and for a minute we thought a fight had started down the street, for we heard yells and the explosions of rifles. But then came the hoarse roar of the whistle, and we knew the shouting and shooting were only the celebration that always welcomes the steamer.

Like the other men in the store, we started for our canoe. But in the confusion, some man got into our craft and paddled off in it before we could reach it. We quickly grabbed the next boat, a good-sized montaria, and pulled away to the river.

Only four people left the steamer: two travelling traders, Domengos, and the girl. We paid no attention to the traders, but we were interested in the other two. Domengos, standing with his stomach sticking out, looked for a boat to take him to the house of Urubu but found none. Then he saw us and the roomy monastery we had borrowed.

"Here!" he called. "Come here to me." Take us to Urubu’s place, and I will give you a drink."

At his offensive tone, we growled.

"We can buy our own drinks," retorted Pedro. "We are not boatmen for such as you. You can swim ashore. "Unless you bathe more often than you used to, it will do you good."

Domengos scowled, and his face seemed to swell. He eventually swallowed his rage and changed his demeanor.

"Oh, you are my old friends Pedro and Lourenço! I have not seen you for months, and I did not know you. "Won't you take me and my niece to the house, old friends?"

"That tone sounds more familiar," said Pedro contemptuously. "It is the same one you used when you begged drinks from us last year. You can go...

He stopped with a queer sort of gulp. His eyes had shifted to the girl, and sudden surprise had shot into his face.

I had only glanced at her, but now I looked at her more closely. She was rather small, but she appeared healthy, strong, and pretty on the outside. These things were to be expected of a girl going to the house of the vulture, but it was something else that interested me—she seemed shy, and she was looking at Domengos as if Pedro’s scorn had stirred up doubt about her companion. Then Pedro spoke again, and like Domengos, he had changed his manner.

"You can come with us." "We have room for you."

Puzzled, I helped him move the montaria into position. Domengos started to get in, but Pedro blocked him.

"Hand the lady in first," he told him. "Have you no politeness?"

Domengos showed his teeth, but handed the girl down into the montaria. Pedro helped her to seat herself. Then, before Domengos could get in, he shoved the boat away.

Domengos teetered on his toes and narrowly escaped stepping off into the river. Other men in boats around us laughed.

"What is this?" demanded Domengos. "One of your jokes?" "Come back and take me in."

"I have changed my mind," grinned Pedro. "You can swim." Lourenço, paddle hard! "Straight to our barracuda!"

Much astonished, I heaved on my paddle, and we surged away. Pedro also stroked hard a few times. Then he turned, faced the girl, and asked sharply:

"Angela, what are you doing here?"

A little cry of surprise came from her.

"Pedro! Pedro Andrada! I did not know you! "How big you have grown!"

"Three years make a difference in a man in this Javanese country," he said. "Here, a man must either be strong or die." But how did you get here? "Do you know that man Peixoto?"

Domengos' yells were cut off before she could respond.

"Stop them!" he bellowed. "They are stealing her!" Capito, they stole my niece! They are kidnappers of the bush! They will hold her for ransom—or worse! Will you allow a female passenger to be stolen right in front of your eyes?Stop them!"

"Halt there!" barked an English voice behind us.

Pedro only shoved his paddle into the water. We almost lifted the boat with our strokes.

"Halt!" roared the voice again. A moment later, a bullet smacked on the water beside us, followed instantly by the crack of a rifle.

Pedro tossed his paddle in the air and held it there. I lifted mine too. The montaria kept going by itself, but as we took no more strokes, no more bullets came. The same voice barked orders on the steamer, and a ship’s boat of men took the water and spurted after us.

While they came, Pedro turned again to the girl.

"Angela," he said, "when I knew you in Santarem, you were a good girl."

"And I am now!" she cried, her head high.

"I believe you. That is why I am doing what I am doing. Peixoto is not your uncle. You must not go with him. "He is a lying dog, and he takes you to a place where no girl can go and remain good."

The ship's boat then swept up, backed oars, and came to a halt.A gray-moustachioed, grim-faced officer with a rifle in hand snapped:

"Hand over the lady, and be quick! "What do you mean by this?"

"I mean to see that she is protected," Pedro explained with dignity. "You do not understand the matter. Peixoto is a liar and much worse—much worse.He brings an innocent girl here to put her in the house of the vulture. Perhaps you can judge what sort of house that is by the name of it.

"I know this girl—we grew up in the same town, Santarem. "She can tell you whether I am a woman-thief or an honest man."

The keen eyes of the officer went to her. And though she was much disturbed, she nodded quickly.

"It is true," she said. "I know Pedro, and he is to be trusted." And I do not know that other man well. He told me he would get me a fine place to work in the house of an English gentleman, where I could care for the children and live very well. He told me to say I was his niece so that we could travel without questions. Oh, what shall I do now?"

"Do not trouble yourself about that, Angela Mea," Pedro soothed her. "You shall be well cared for until you can go home." "You see, senhor, it is as I said."

The officer gazed shrewdly at him, at me, at Angela, and at other men in the boats around us. Snapping down a finger at one of those men and holding it like a revolver, he barked:

"You! "What sort of a man is Peixoto?"

The man laughed harshly and told him just what sort of man Peixoto was. The officer nodded.

"I have wondered about him before this," he said. "He will not travel on our ship again. Give way!"

The oars dipped. The boat moved, turned, and went back to the steamer. We saw Domengos being taken off, and not very gently.

"I think, Pedro," I said as we watched this, "that you have pushed Domengos off his perch." The officer said he would no longer travel on the English boats. If he cannot bring women here, he will be useless to Urubu. He will soon be ragged and dirty again, whining for drinks as he used to. "Are you not ashamed to have ruined such a worthy citizen?"

Pedro grinned and made some answers, but I lost them because the other men around us laughed and drowned out his words. And the thing I had predicted came true, senhores—Domengos did become once more a hanger-on and beggar. But it was not because Urubu dismissed him. The big boats do not call often at that town, and before the next one came, several things had happened that stopped any attempt he might have made to travel again.

Now we pushed on toward our barraco, and there we heard more of the story of Angela. Domengos had found her, she said, not at Santarem but at Ega, a town much nearer to us and on the river Teffe. In the years since Pedro had left Santarem, her mother had died, and her father had moved to Ega, taking Angela with him. Then he too died, and she had to work in the house of an Italian settler whose wife was ill-tempered and treated her badly. This was very disagreeable for the girl, but she could not leave because she had no other home and was never given any money.

Then Domengos came, looking important and telling the people of Ega that he was an upriver trader. He visited the white people of the town, who were glad to learn from him the latest news of affairs along the big river, and in this way he came into the house where she lived.

Soon after that, he managed to talk with her alone and ask her questions, and she told him her whole story. Then he told her his lie about the English gentleman he knew whose wife wanted a girl to help her with the children and who would give her money and pretty things to wear. So, believing all he said and thinking him very kind, she took her few belongings and ran away from her bad-tempered mistress.

On the way up the river, he treated her well, she said, and it was not until she heard Pedro’s contemptuous answers that she began to suspect he was not the respectable trader he claimed to be. Even now, she finds it difficult to accept that he is so evil and asks if we are certain.We left no doubt in her mind about that. We pointed out that he would not dare treat her ill on the steamer because there she could appeal to the captain and make trouble for him; but after he got her into the house of Urubu, she would have found him a low dog.

We told her little about the vulture and nothing at all about the disappearance of a girl and two men at his house. But she had heard enough to know it was far from being the sort of place she had expected, and now she looked very forlorn.

She found it difficult to hold back her tears as a poor little girl, homeless, penniless, and deceived, with only us two hardened bushmen for friends and her dream of a happy life with kind people broken.And when she stepped to the doorway and looked at the flooded town, she could not keep them back any longer.

"Even the town is dirty and dismal!" she cried. "Santarem and Ega are clean, green towns with fine sandy beaches, but this is nothing but a drowned mudhole." "And the air—the air is so damp it chokes me."

"Have courage, Angela," Pedro said. "You shall leave it on the next boat that goes down." We would put you on that steamer that brought you, but it is up-bound and must go many miles westward before turning down again. "This is a dreary place, as you say, but no harm shall come to you here."

"But where can I go from here?" I have no money, and one cannot travel for free on the steamer. I have nothing at all—that Peixoto must have my bundle with my other dress and my beads and all."

"Do not trouble yourself about the money," he urged her. "We will see to that." And if Domengos has anything of yours, he will not keep it for long. "I will go and get it now."

Taking his rifle, he stepped toward the door. I too picked up my gun, but he told me to stay there and see that nobody bothered Angela. I hesitated, and then I suggested that we take her with us and leave her for a time with Joaquim and his wife. This little barraco, I said, was no fit place for her, though it was good enough for him and me, and she would be more comfortable and fully safe at Joaquim’s place. He agreed that this was so.

"Come, Angela," he said. "You will like Paula, the wife of Joaquim, for she has a very good heart." And it will be better for you to stay there than here, for one never knows what may happen, and later on in your life some spiteful person might say you lived with two men here, and it might do you much harm."

So we took her to Joaquim’s home. As we expected, he had already heard of the matter from other men, and after one look into Angela’s innocent face, he consented to her staying with his family. Paula, a motherly woman, was also glad to have her there, and the girl herself seemed to feel better for their hearty welcome.

"Now she will be safe," Pedro said as we paddled away.

"If she doesn't develop a fever," I added.

He nodded grudgingly, and I knew he thought of her words about the air choking her. The air of the Javary is heavy, and it is loaded with disease, as you senhores know well. And it is an odd thing but true that people accustomed to the air of the Amazon often get sick and die soon after leaving it for one of the branch rivers, even though they go only a few miles from the main stream. I wish now that I had not said that. But it was said, and I could not call it back. Neither of us spoke again until we reached the house of the vulture.

Domengos had arrived there before us, but neither he nor Urubu were in the big room. The men and girls loitering there sat up with a jerk as we strode in with our guns. We saw that they had heard the news. Nobody spoke, and they all watched us in tense silence.

"Where is that cachorro?" growled Pedro, looking at him.

"That dog? Somebody replied, "What dog?"

"Peixoto, that dog."He's carrying a bundle that isn't his."

"He is inside talking with Urubu," a man answered. "The bundle he brought is there on the bar."

In six strides, Pedro was at the bar and had seized a small package. I stood back and watched every one. As my partner turned away, the door behind the bar opened, and through it came Domengos and Urubu.

"Behind you, Pedro," I said.

He whirled and faced them. But they made no threatening move. I do not think they knew we were there, for we had spoken quietly, and Urubu looked slightly surprised. Domengos seemed distressed; his face glistened with sweat, and he cringed like a kicked cur. Urubu, I judged, had been saying unpleasant things to him.

"I thank you, Domengos, for leaving this bundle where I could get it so easily," Pedro mocked. "It will go straight back to its owner." "If either or both of you wish to do anything about this matter, now is the time."

"You will pay me the passage money spent on your woman," sputtered Domengos.

"Are you sure?" "Come here to me and collect it."

Domengos opened his mouth and let it stay open, but no words came. He looked sideways at Urubu, whose harsh face remained expressionless. We knew well that the money spent on bringing Angela here had come from the pocket of the vulture, not from that of Domengos. But he said no word.

Then Pedro cursed them both. He cursed them thoroughly and well. He called them such names that no real man would have swallowed. Yet he said nothing of the jacare under the house or of the two men or the girl who had disappeared. He used fighting talk, meant to goad them into fighting then and there.

But he had forgotten the nature of vultures. A vulture does not attack anything dangerous, and Urubu is not fighting right now.And Domengos, looking at our faces and our guns, not only cringed still more—he cowered behind the bar.

When Pedro stopped, Urubu spoke coldly.

"Your talk is for Domengos, not for me." If he deceived any girl, that is his mistake; I want no girl here who does not come of her own volition. When you are older, you will realise that this is not the place you describe.Our girls are well treated, as they will tell you, and no girl needs to stay here unless she wants to. And if Domengos has brought you a friend who does not know men, that is your good fortune—if you care for green fruit. "Every man to his taste."

"Bah!" snorted Pedro. "I will waste no more words on you except to tell you again that you are a foul liar."

He spat and turned to the door. I backed out, keeping my eyes on the pair behind the bar. We paddled away.

As we cruised down the street, an odd thing happened. Up in the air, two birds got to fighting, and one of them came tumbling down into the water, stunned and bleeding from a beak-blow to the head. We swung toward it, but before we reached it, the water around it seethed and it was dragged under. Several fish showed for an instant on the surface. We knew them for piranhas—those strong-jawed fish that, maddened by blood, will chop to fragments any wounded creature they find.

"Piranhas!" muttered Pedro. "Here in the street! Perhaps they, and not the jacare-assu, could tell us what became of Ricardo and Alberto.

"If so, we shall know when the waters go down," I said. "There will be bones." "The jacare would swallow everything and leave no bones."

"Weeks must pass before this street will be dry," he answered. "Unless I am mistaken, we shall learn more before that time." And we did.

Back at Joaquim’s place, we gave the bundle to Angela. She had become more cheerful now, and with the return of her little treasures, she smiled again. The smile and the warm look of gratitude she gave Pedro made me realise for the first time how pretty and appealing she was. I thought, too, that this strong but gentle-hearted comrade of mine was just the kind of man she should have to protect her through life, and I saw Paula glance at Joaquim as if the same thought came to her.

But the young couple themselves seemed to have no such idea. Angela only asked whether he had had any trouble getting the bundle, and he said no; he had simply picked it up and walked out with it.

Then we settled down to await the return of Helio. We did our waiting at Joaquim’s, and there other men joined us—the quieter and steadier ones who did not care for the attractions of the Vulture’s house but who liked a drink and a card game when in the mood. Joaquim, of course, was a trader, and his store was not built for a place of entertainment, but Pedro suggested that it would be good business to make room for some gaming tables, sell us our drinks, and take some payment for the use of his store. When we pointed out that this would draw some trade away from Urubu, he consented at once, and it was done.

Soon there were three sets of men in the town: those who would not go to the house of the vulture, those who did go there for the women, and those who went to either Joaquim’s or Urubu’s as the whim took them. Through these men who went back and forth, we kept well informed as to what went on at the Urubu house.

There was little news at first—a fight or two caused by drink and jealousy over the girls, but nothing of personal interest to us two. Then Miguel told us that both his girl, Maria, and the Malagueita girl were asking about us.

"I think, friends, that Urubu has been expecting you to tyre of staying away and come back to have a lively time there," he said. "But now he is trying to learn through the girls whether you intend to keep drawing business away from this store. "And Anna Malagueita, your little friend of the hammock and guitar, seems eager to have you come and see her again, Pedro."

"Tell Maria that Urubu will be in a hotter place than this before we spend any more money in that house," said Pedro. "And I hope Anna will find a friend who will amuse her in my place." I stay here."

When we saw Miguel again, he grinned and told us the Malagueita girl had asked him many questions about Angela and whether she and Pedro were living together.

He had said no, that Angela lived at Joaquim’s, and Pedro saw no more of her than anyone else there. Then she told him to warn Pedro to be careful lest some unexpected misfortune come to him.

"She would not say what sort of misfortune," he went on. "Perhaps she does not know." But she was very anxious that I tell you, and she was nervous lest Urubu know that she sent the message. "There is something behind it, I am sure."

"Thank her for me," said my partner, "and tell her I will keep my eyes open." And tell her if there is anything I can do to help her in return, she has only to send word to me.

The truth was that Miguel was wrong when he said Pedro saw little of Angela. He was with her quite often, going into the family quarters behind the store and talking with her and Paula while I sat outside and told stories with other men. But Miguel spent more time at Urubu’s place than with us, and he did not know this.

The warning did not bother us, but it did make us keep our eyes open. And that same night, when we entered our barraco rather late after a game at Joaquim’s, we nearly stepped on a big snake.

It was a suruzuzu. As you know, the bite of that snake means swift and sure death. Even a small one will kill a strong man, and this one was more than six feet long. If we had not been a little more careful than usual, one of us would have died that night.

It was our habit, on returning late, to find our hammocks and sleep without making any noise. But this time, with the warning fresh in our minds, we thought it well to light a candle and look around us. And there on the floor, not far from us, was that deadly thing.

It had not yet coiled to strike, but lay as if about to do so. I yelled, jumped away, and threw my machete at it. The knife cut the reptile with its edge downward, allowing it to be easily killed with a rifle-butt.

"As Miguel said, there seems to be something behind that warning," said Pedro. "This barracuda is surrounded by water. So is the whole town. "How did this beast come here?"

"Snakes sometimes come floating down on drifting trees," I reminded him. "It is possible that some small driftwood lodged against our door for a while and the suruzuzu crawled off it." But it is not at all likely."

"No. It will do no harm to look further and see whether we have any other guests."

After throwing the snake outside, we made a thorough search but found nothing. Then, still suspicious, we inspected our rifles, which had been left in the house while we were away. No harm had been done to them or to anything else in the place. There was no sign that anyone had been there. So we said no more and went to sleep.

The next night, a more violent thing happened. A heavy, solid blow struck the barraco, and we sprang from our hammocks to find the place shaking dangerously. A grinding, crushing sound was passing slowly along one side, and when we got a light, we found the wall on that side had caved in. We peered out just in time to see a large tree drifting away downstream.

We had been unpleasantly close to death. You understand that the barraco was built high on poles, just as all houses there must be built to stand above the flood waters.

The floating tree had come very close to knocking it off its posts and crumpling it into a wreck from which we would have little chance of escaping. Held in that sunken cage, carried away down the black waters among alligators and piranhas and other evil things—no, we should not have had much chance. It was our luck that the house happened to be firm and that the heavy tree had not hit it squarely.

The night was dull, but not black. We could see a short distance out across the Tecuahy, but nothing strange was in sight. We listened, but heard nothing. As on the night when we found the snake, there was no sign that it was not mere chance. Yet we were quite sure it was not chance at all, for this reason: there was little current around our house, and the drifting things that came down usually passed by at quite a distance, out where the flow was stronger. It seemed almost impossible for such a thing to happen unless a boat somewhere above us had drawn that tree aside and guided it to strike us. And, as I say, the night was not so dark that men could do this.

"It seems to me, Lourenço," said Pedro, "that before that thing hit us I heard voices and paddles." Perhaps I was dreaming. Perhaps I was not dreaming but was partly awake and really heard it. I am not sure. "But things are becoming interesting in this house."

"Quite so," I agreed. "This is so intriguing that I'm going to sit up for a while and see if anything else comes."

And I did sit up, with my rifle across my lap, while my partner dozed with his own gun close at hand. But nothing at all happened before morning.

Related Post