T.r.’s Last Adventure

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In this tense situation the party had tried to hurry the dangerous portage and had lost another canoe. Jumping in the water to help with an overturned dugout, T. R. had badly bruised his leg; the resulting inflammation, he now wrote in deliberate understatement, “was somewhat bothersome.” As luck would have it, the bruised leg was the one that had been seriously injured in a carriage accident in 1902, and Roosevelt developed what his son called “a veritable plague of deep abscesses.” Doctor Cajazeira lanced the abscesses to relieve the inflammation and inserted a drainage tube. There was “an added charm” to this primitive operation, Roosevelt observed, in the enthusiasm with which the numerous insects “took part therein.” But T.R.’s condition was not a matter to be taken lightly; concurrently he had a sharp attack of fever that completely debilitated him for the next fortyeight hours.

“The scene is vivid before me,” Kermit later wrote ofthat night, as he and the doctor divided a watch over the delirious Roosevelt. “The black rushing river with the great trees towering high above along the bank; the sodden earth under foot ; for a few moments the stars would be shining, and then the sky would cloud over and the rain would fall in torrents, shutting out sky and trees and river. ” T. R. started reciting poetry—“ In Xanadu did Kubla Khan/A stately pleasure dome decree .…” Then he would enter into an incoherent monologue, mostly focusing on the lack of supplies; he wondered if Kermit and Cherrie were getting enough food. “I can’t work now,” Kermit heard him say, “so I don’t need much food, but he [Kermit] and Cherrie have worked all day with the canoes; they must have part of mine. ”

Colonel Rondon himself had nearly given in to despair; only that morning he had proposed that they abandon the canoes rather than attempt another portage and that the party fight its way out of the jungle on foot, “every man for himself.” When he came out of his fever, T.R. called Cherrie and Kermit to his bedside. “Cherrie, I want you and Kermit to go ahead. We have reached a point where some of us must stop. I feel I am only a burden to the party.” He had morphine in his kit and thought of ending his life there. But, he later told newspaperman O. K. Davis, he knew that his son would leave neither him nor his body in the jungle. “So there was only one thing for me to do, and that was to come out myself. ”

At this point, Cherrie later claimed, it was twenty-four-year-old Kermit who held the expedition together—working nearly naked in the water with the canoes, his legs cut and bruised and swollen with insect bites, suffering occasionally from attacks of fever himself. They finally got through the “sinister rapids” of the jungle homicide and out once more on the broad river, where the relentless sun, Kermit recalled, “hung above us all the day like a molten ball and broiled us as if the river were a grid on which we were made fast.” To a sick man like his father, Kermit knew, the heat must have been intolerable.

“How I longed for a big Maine birchbark such as that in which I once went down the Mattawamkeag at high water!” T.R. wrote of his final days on the Dúvida. “It would have slipped down these rapids as a girl trips through a country-dance.” But the pattern of brief runs on the wide river and long, laborious portagings around the numerous rapids continued through the first two weeks of April. Easter Sunday, April 12, was passed “in the fashion with which we were altogether too familiar,” the Colonel recorded wearily, but late in the afternoon of the next day “the river began to run in long and quiet reaches.” And the day after that they made fifteen kilometers; for the first time in several weeks they camped where they did not hear the sound of rapids. Fish were caught, a monkey and some birds that tasted like turkey were shot, and the camaradas gorged themselves on nuts—which unfortunately made them sick the next day. Thus it was “a sorry crew” that embarked on the morning of the fifteenth. “But it turned out a red-letter day. ”

The previous day the party had noted what seemed to be cuttings of rubber trees, perhaps a year old but very likely the work of pioneer rubbermen pressing into the wilderness. Two and a half hours out on April 15 they spied a board on a post with the initials “J. A.”—evidently marking the farthest point upriver from the Amazon penetrated by a rubberman and claimed as his own. An hour after that they came upon a newly built house in a planted clearing, and all cheered heartily. “No one was at home, but the house of palm thatch was clean and cool. A couple of dogs were on watch, and the belongings showed that a man and a woman and a child lived there and had only just left.” An hour later a second house was sighted and they were welcomed to it by “an old black man who showed the innate courtesy of the Brazilian peasant, “T.R. wrote. Civilization, however rude, had been reached; and the Dúvida proved to be what these frontier rubbermen called the Castanho, an affluent or western branch of the Aripuana, which eventually flowed into the Madeira and thus led to the Amazon. Henceforth they would be following a river that, if still not on any maps, was at least known to men of the wilderness.