Chapter 9

This entry is part 10 of 44 in the series Smile

Chapter Nine — Prospecting For Gold

The crowing of the roosters and the ringing of the bells awakened me early next morning.

Jock and Chase were already up. I dressed and walked out to the back yard of the hotel where Jock was having a shower. A barrel was set up on a tripod about seven feet in the air. The barrel had holes in the bottom and a little way off was a pump with a pipe going from it to the top of the barrel. Chase was pumping like mad and grinning widely. It would be his turn next for a shower. I entered into the spirit of the thing, and took my turn at the pump and the shower.

After we had shaved, breakfast was ready. There was more of that thick black coffee and some hot milk, then the breakfast. The cook brought us something that looked like pizza pie covered with tomatoes, cheese, peppers and I didn’t know what else. It was filled with small chunks of white meat that looked and tasted a lot like scallops. It was delicious so I ordered a second helping. I was really hungry. After we finished breakfast, I told Jock it was the most delicious pie I’d ever eaten and asked what they called it.

Jock grinned. “Iguana pie,” he chuckled.

I had helped eat the big lizard after all!

There must be millions in gold lying at the bottom of the Rio Coco. Every sand or gravel bar gave up gold. For days we dug, panned and tested the bars. In the bottom of every pan, gold! Little flakes — too tiny — too flat. This gold had traveled a long way. Looking at it through my glass I could see that the tiny particles were beaten flat-flake gold. Somewhere up the river must be the mother lode.

We kept going upstream until we came to a high narrow canyon. Here was rapid water and rocky cliffs, and no longer a trail. To go farther would be useless. It would cost a fortune to build a road through this canyon, but probably someday someone will do it, I concluded.

This was not what I was looking for. We must look somewhere else, so we returned to Ocotal. Several people told us that there was much more gold on the Rio Jaciro. They advised us to go to the town of Quilalí and start from there.

Quilalí is about fifty miles east of Ocotal so we packed the Jeep well and started out again. We climbed a high range of mountains where there were beautiful pine forests and not so much jungle. We found widened places in the road every so often and ox carts could pull aside to let us pass. On top of the mountain was a sawmill that a North American named Jones had installed. We stopped to look it over. Jones seemed to be doing all right. The natives felled and bucked the trees and dragged them to the mill with oxen.

Jones was glad to see us and we had dinner with him. I asked him where he sold the lumber.

“Most of it goes abroad, mostly to Germany,” he said. “We haul it from here to Managua by truck, ship by rail to Port of Carinto and from there it goes by boat. Cheap labor makes it possible for me to operate. I pay the fellows here about one cordoba an hour. That’s about fourteen cents in U.S. money.”

Jones had a gold mine all right, but in lumber; mining was out of his line. He wrote a letter for us before we left.

“Take this letter,” he said, “to the Judge of Quilalí and it will introduce you. Make friends with the Judge and I’m sure he will help you. Let me give you a little advice. These people here are friendly, but you must be very careful not to offend them. If someone offers you something to eat, eat it, or something to drink go ahead and drink it. There is much voodoo and witchcraft here. Never laugh at any of their customs, regardless of how strange they seem to you.”

That evening we arrived in Quilalí which was much like Ocotal only much smaller, probably around two thousand people. The sound of the Jeep engine brought everyone to their doors. It was the only automobile in the town. We parked in front of Hotel Quilalí and Jock went in to arrange a place for us to sleep. We were unpacking some things from the Jeep when up walked a big, fat Negro woman.

“Who are you?” she asked. “Where are you going? Where do you come from?”

After we told her she said, “Come down to my house. My house is your house. I am from Bluefields. I cook white bread just like you do in North America. I will bake some white bread just for you.”

“What is your name?” I asked.

She grinned, “Just call me Nigger Woman. That’s what everybody calls me.”

So that evening we had dinner with Nigger Woman. She operated a little cafe and store. She chased the pigs and chickens out of the dining room, spread a snow white tablecloth on the table and we had a very fine dinner. After we had eaten I offered her a cigarette. She shook her head, took a leaf of tobacco, tore part of it off, rubbed it in her hand and rolled it into the damnedest cigar I had ever seen. She clamped the thing in her strong white teeth, and I held a match for her.

In her store there was corn, rice and un-roasted coffee. People here roast their own coffee, I learned.

“Señor Joe,” said Jock, “we need more coffee.”

“How much?” I asked.

“Better buy about ten cord worth.”

So I ordered the coffee. Nigger Woman dragged out her scales. I had certainly never seen scales like them. It was a board with a nail driven through its center and on each end of the board was a tin can. There was a pile of stones on the counter. With the big black cigar clamped firmly between her teeth, carefully she selected several stones, put them in the can on one end and put coffee beans in the can on the other end until the scales balanced. She poured the coffee beans on a sheet of old newspaper and tied it up with some sort of grass or vine.

It was hard for me to keep a sober face.

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