- Historic Sites
T.r.’s Last Adventure
June 1973 | Volume 24, Issue 4
During these backbreaking weeks the six leaders had been eating only two meals a day, consuming each day the contents of one provision box packed in New York by Fiala (the camaradas carried separate rations); but now they made each box last a day and a half or even two days. Only when some large bird or monkey was shot, or a fish caught, was there really enough food. In the evenings the men from North America would sit around discussing what they would eat when they got home. Cherrie craved griddlecakes and maple syrup; Kermit dreamed of strawberries and cream; T.R. said that he would choose a mutton chop “with a tail to it!” In addition to the generally weakened condition of the entire party caused by short rations, two men were now down with jungle fever. For several days Cherrie was too weak to make entries in his diary.
At the end of March they discovered that they were crossing a range of mountains “about the height of the lower ridges of the Alleghenies. ” The river here entered a rapids three kilometers long that took them three days to portage; one kilometer below was another set of rapids that cost them an additional day. “We thought we had reduced our baggage before, “T.R. wrote, “but now we cut to the bone.” Kermit’s shoes had finally given out, a casualty of so many hours spent in the water among the sharp rocks, and he took his father’s spare pair. In addition to the clothes on his back the Colonel retained only one set of pajamas, one spare pair each of drawers and socks, half a dozen handkerchiefs, a wash kit, a pocket medicine case, and a little bag containing extra spectacles, needles and thread, gun grease, adhesive plaster, and his purse and a letter of credit to use at Manáos. T.R. still had a cot—the others were all sleeping on hammocks by then—but two tents were abandoned.
For this descent Rondon cut a trail for the camaradas to carry their burdens to the foot of the new rapids, while Kermit and Lyra, with four of the best watermen, worked the canoes down the gorge on rope. Because of the constant fear of hostile natives, someone had to stand guard with a loaded rifle. In four days, T.R. wrote of this effort, the party had “accomplished a work of incredible labor and of the utmost importance; for at the first glance it had seemed an absolute impossibility to avoid abandoning the canoes when we found that the river sank into a cataract-broken torrent at the bottom of a canyon-like gorge between steep mountains. ” Nonetheless, one dugout was lost.
On April 2 the expedition started out on the river once more, “wondering how soon we should strike other rapids in the mountains ahead, and whether in any reasonable time we should, as the aneroid [barometer] indicated, be so low down that we should necessarily be in a plain where we could make a journey of at least a few days without rapids.” For a month they had been descending an uninterrupted series of rapids. They had lost four of the seven canoes with which they had started and one of the three built en route, one man, and a dog, “which by its death had in all probability saved the life of Colonel Rondon.” The camaradas were dispirited, occasionally asking one or more of the leaders if they thought they would ever get out of the jungle alive, “and we had to cheer them up as best we could.” Reconnoitering ahead, Rondon, Lyra, and Kermit discovered yet another series of “sinister rapids.”
“Under such conditions whatever is evil in men’s natures comes to the front,” T.R. wrote of the situation as they confronted the grueling portage. “On this day a strange and terrible tragedy occurred. ” One man alone of the original sixteen camaradas had proved worthless; he was a huge, surly man of European background named Julio. He constantly shirked tasks and had been caught stealing food on several occasions. At the outset of this day’s portage one of the men accused Julio of stealing some dried meat, and a Negro corporal named Paishon rebuked him for lagging behind. Yet no one paid attention when Julio casually picked up a carbine and followed Paishon down the portage trail. A minute later a shot rang out, and three or four of the men ran back to say that Julio had killed Paishon and run off into the woods. The Colonel and the doctor tried to find the killer but shortly lost his track in the dense undergrowth; they feared he had gone amuck and would try to wipe out the entire party.
Paishon was simply and quickly buried along the portage trail where he had been slain. The expedition’s cook noted that the corporal had fallen forward on his hands and knees, “and when a murdered man falls like that his ghost will follow the slayer as long as the slayer lives.” The party could not immediately stop to pursue Julio, but three days later he appeared on the bank and called out that he wished to surrender. Roosevelt feared that if the murderer were taken he would prove a menace to the party: they could ill afford to maintain a round-the-clock guard over him, and meanwhile he would be but an extra mouth to feed. Rondon, however, felt that it was his duty to bring the man back to civilization and to justice. But meantime the canoes had swept on past Julio, he had disappeared once more into the wilderness, and the two men sent back to take the murderer never found him.