Jim had stopped answering my questions. The waiting was too much. After a half hour like this, clutching the gun against my knee, I was simply going crazy. To break the tension, I asked, What'd you do in Brazil?
I didn't expect an answer, but Jim coughed two or three times and put his rifle down on the deck.
I spent three years in the jungle mining for gold.
Tell me, I said, still trying to breathe normally.
* * *
It takes over your life, he said while keeping his eyes focused on the boats that now seemed to be moving a little farther away. Everything changed for me the first day I walked into that camp. The smell of pig shit was everywhere. Jim shook his head slowly, remembering.
I had a friend in Canada who had signed a lease with the Brazilian governmentthey call it an alvaráto work twenty thousand acres in the deep jungle south of Manaus. He made a proposal for the two of us to go into business together. Why not? I was fifty-two years old and my life was in ruins. I found out that my partner didn't know anything about surviving in the jungle. His first visit to the camp the guy got scared, and he never came back in. I ended up doing it myself.
Jim took the cigar out of his pocket and put it in his mouth, but he didn't light up.
Now just imagine a few Brazilian Indians sifting dirt and gravel at the edge of a riverbank in the middle of the Amazon, he continued. On this first trip, I brought along four men from the city. I didn't know them at all, but they were supposed to have experience finding gold.
I was exhausted and hungry. I trekked through the jungle with the men for four days to get there. One of them spoke ten English words, but mostly I was guessing about things I'd never seen before. My partner had said there would be some basic house where we would live. I figured bunks and even a shower. There wasn't any house. There was an old pigpen made from tree trunks rotten with termites. It was all that was left from a mining operation ten years earlier. The jungle had grown over everything. The hovel was filled with shit. I guessed some wild pigs still used it. I couldn't imagine sleeping a night there. For lunch we ate a large anteater that one of the natives shot beside the river; it was a big animal with claws the size of a man's hands. My guys considered anteater great eating, but the animal had a terrible smell from ants. They cooked the meat with a sweet guava paste to kill the smell, but it was just awful. They cut up the rest of the anteater and tossed it in an old rusty barrel for later.
It was hot, a hundred degrees or more, with humidity worse than anything I had ever felt. I needed to get cool, but I was frightened to swim in the river because of snakes and who knew what was in there. I was thirsty and bitten raw by mosquitoes and ants. Worst of all, after walking sixty miles in the heat I was dead tired; maybe I was sick. I needed to sleep for a week in a cool room. There aren't any cool rooms in the jungle. But these little men I hired, they had such energy and patience. Hour after hour they sifted the dirt with large sieves called batillas. I was sweating and thinking, What the hell am I doing here? Maybe I was sick with malaria. I had no idea. I looked into one of those sieves and I saw a few clumps of hard, shiny metal. It was gold.
Jim paused a minute and lit his fat Cuban cigar, which seemed preposterous given our circumstances, but it calmed me a little. He wasn't thinking any more about the boats. He was remembering and barely nodding his head to some interior music.
Just seeing it, my God, what runs through your mind. The lust. What I could do with this! I mean, there was so much more money in this dirt than I had ever made in business. More than I had ever dreamed of. To hell with everything else. It starts exploding in you, that I could do anything, I could have anything on earth. I could be a billionaire like De Beers. This goes through your mind. Why the hell not? It's all around me on this property, tons and tons of gold; just look at the clumps rolling around in the batilla. I'm calculating the money, all the things I'm going to buy, when all of a sudden I'm looking around to make sure that no one sees what we've got here, this fortune that's just a half a foot beneath the ground. We've got to protect this property, because someone could take it. Maybe someone is watching right now from the trees across the river. How can we protect it? We'll need guns. People would kill us to get this gold. And it was mine. All mine.
Excerpted from The Dream Merchant by Fred Waitzkin. Copyright © 2013 by Fred Waitzkin. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Dunne Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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