Thursday 29 November 2018

Demons of El Dorado: Part 6

I really ought to edit this more, but here goes anyway...


Luis yanked the reins of his horse and brought his horse to a halt. He deftly dismounted and tied his horse to a post, then ran to catch up to Rodrigo and Angel. They had finer mounts, and were more accustomed to riding than Luis. After hiding the bodies at the church they had rushed Bartome, Abuljar and some monks into a wagon and sent them ahead. 

It would not be long before the bodies were discovered. 

Speed was their only asset left.

A servant he recognized bowed and pushed past him, towards his horse. There was no time to ask him what he was doing. Everything was moving so quickly, and his father was not telling him everything.

The dock was packed with men, mules, and cargo, and it stank of fish, tar, sun cooked wood, and human sweat. They walked past a moored galleon, half unloaded, and weaved between stacked crates and barrels of rum. Surly, sunburnt men glared at them as they passed. Luis imagined they were jealous of his fine clothes, which made them stand out like sore thumbs in a crowd. He hated being looked at, being the centre of attention, but it was not to be helped. There was no time for petty anxieties anymore. 

Soldiers milled about ahead, while shirtless sailors and dock workers, bodies glistening in the sun, loaded supplies aboard a row of six sturdy brigantines. Each ship was sixty feet long, broad, with two banks of oars and a mast, cannon mounted at the prow. Buff-bowed shallops. Ship’s boats, really, if Luis wasn’t mistaken. Much like what Cortez had used at the siege of Tenochtitlan, they would make for decent river craft. 

Luis felt a gust of cool sea breeze on his face, and looked up at the sky. It was clear azure, not a cloud to be seen. A small mercy.

Rodrigo and Angel had stopped just ahead, before a crowd of men. Bartome was there. Two monks flanked Abuljar, holding the poor soul up. Abuljar’s head was downcast, which was fortunate enough. No one who saw the man’s eyes would want to be anywhere near him. Rodrgio was speaking to Sergeant Mendez, who commanded the small contingent of troops who oversaw the de Guerra plantations on the island. He must be coming too. Someone to help control their mercenaries. Luis also recognized the quartermaster, Antonio. 

There must have been over two hundred soldiers on the dock, waiting to board the ships. This was a large expedition for such short notice. It was fortunate the mercenaries had nowhere else to go now that the English had captured their original destination. Luis smiled. They’d be much happier seizing El Dorado, anyway. If the tales were true, they were all going to be very rich!

He listened for a moment to the discussion his father was having. Concerns over the supplies, the amount of food and water, and especially the speed of departure. There was nothing Luis could add, nor would his input be wanted. He went over to examine their newly acquired ships. He ran a hand over the bulwark. The wood was smooth and freshly stained. The ship was new, or relatively so. No barnacles would be on the bottom to slow their progress.

“It isn’t the ships you should be worried about,” said a voice from behind. He recognized it immediately: Esteban. Luis turns and embraces his friend and teacher, then looked down at the open chest beside him, filled with books. 

“My library,” observed Luis.

The Moor nodded. “The servants brought it.” Esteban looked at Luis like he was a fish out of water. “You’re mad. You know that, do you not?”

Luis shrugged. “We’ll likely never return. And if we don’t, if we must live out the rest of our days in some fetid swamp, cut off from civilization, I’d just as soon have my books.”

“Fair enough.”

There were shouts back down the dock. The expedition was getting underway. 

“What’s the great rush with all this?” asked Esteban. “This city you seek, is it going somewhere?”

“No.” Luis could not bear to tell Esteban the truth. It would be too shameful to admit to a Moslem, a captured infidel, the dishonor that had been washing over his formely august family. Especially not after what happened in the church. True, this was The New World. Rules here were looser, lives cheaper, than in Spain. But Luis couldn’t help but think they were all on a path to damnation. 

“Captain! Prepare to set sail!” It was his father, Rodrigo. Soldiers gathered up their gear and clambered aboard the ships, along with a few sailors to steer the ships. The soldiers, however, would be providing the manpower.

Rodrigo and Angel approached, trailed by the quartermaster, who seemed flustered: “But, Don Rodrigo, the supplies are not yet all loaded.”

Rodrigo ignored the man and slapped a sailor on the back, who looked up quizzically. Rodrigo pointed at a mooring line. “Undo that. Hurry. We leave at once.”  It would have been beneath Rodrigo’s station, or that of Angel or even Luis, to do it himself. Hidalgo did not stoop to physical labour. 

Angel saw the chest as he passed and laughed. “Stupid waste of space. Books are shit.” He waved ahead. The prostitutes were further down the dock, surrounded by a group of grinning soldiers. They stepped back as Angel stormed towards them. Luis grunted. It looked like there’d be some of the fairer sex accompanying the expedition. He turned and looked back, over the roofs and up the hill, towards the citadel. 

A cloud of smoke rose over the road. 

Esteban followed his gaze, squinted. “What’s wrong?”

“A… little misunderstanding.”

“What did you do now?” growled the Moor.
“Me?” exclaimed Luis, incredulous. He gave Esteban a sharp look. The mischevious Moor was being insufferably cheeky. “It wasn’t my fault.”

“That’s what you always say.” Indifferent. Judging. 

“That’s totally untrue. I’ve never said that, to the best of my recollection. By any measure, I am the most proper and law abiding of all the de Guerra family.”

The Moor smirked and slapped him on the back. “That’s why you get in so much trouble.”

“Help me with this.” Luis gestured at the chest, and stepped round, and grabbed the handle on one end. Esteban took the other and together they heaved it onto the bulwark and into the waiting grasp of two sailors. 

“Put your back into it, you louts!” Luis could hear Angel’s gruff voice over his shoulder. Angel was prowling along the dock like an angry panther. He grabbed Luis’ arm. “Don’t stoop so low, brother. You’ll bring dishonor on us all.” He let go and stomped on. “Faster, you sons of bitches! Crippled crones would be done by now!” Angel booted a slow sailor in the rear, but did nothing to help himself. 

Sailors rushed loading the remaining supplies. Luis watched his horse, along with Rodrigo’s and Angel’s, being trod past and onto the fourth brigantine, which had a roof of sorts made out of thatch and animal skins. The ships sat dangerously low in the water. If they hit rough seas, Luis imagined they’d all be doomed. He looked for reassurance from his father, but Rodrigo and the First Captain, Luis thought his name was Aragones, something like that, continued to argue. 

Luis stopped and watched.

Aragones was waving a list at Rodrigo. “Don Rodrigo, we’ll need another hour or two, at least. Please! Be reasonable.”

Rodrigo stepped up into the man’s face and glared. “Cast off. Now.”

There were shouts from the road leading toward the docks. Between the buildings a troop of horses was fast approaching. Soldiers.

Luis grabbed hold of his pistol. “Get ready,” he said quietly to Esteban, and they stepped over behind some crates. 

Horsemen rounded the bend and reached the far end of the docks. The lead cavalry man held aloft the banner of Don Philip’s family. Even from this distance Luis recognized the man beside him, dressed in fine armour: Santino Philip, the Don’s eldest son. 

“Father!” shouted Luis. Rodrigo turned and Luis pointed at the approaching soldiers. “It’s Santino, Philip’s son!” 

Rodrigo swore and drew two gold handled pistols. “Get aboard!” he shouted at Luis, and headed back down the dock, shouting orders to the confused mercenaries, who didn’t know what was going on. Sergeant Mendez raced after him, leading a dozen heavily armed men.

Luis stayed behind the barrels, beside Esteban. 

There was a puff of smoke at the far end, two hundred feet away. Then a half-dozen more. A mercenary fell. Shards of wood spat from struck barrels. Men yelled in alarm. Everyone scattered for cover.

The Moor was smiling. “I begin to see why your father was in such a hurry.” He drew his pistol. “It always is interesting with your family. I should tell you some stories of your brother. Stay down.”

“They can’t hit us from here,” said Luis, unsure of his words even as he uttered them. “We should help.” He started to get up. 

“Hold.” Esteban pushed him back down. “It’s a confused mess up there. You’re likely to be shot by your own men. They’re as skittish as chickens.” 

Rodrigo and his men were now engulfed by drifting white smoke. Esteban was right. The scene was one of mayhem. Troops surged forward past them, towards the fighting, but Angel roared at them to stop, and to get in the ships. 

Luis could not stand to be shamed any further. He slipped away from Esteban and began to urge the men into the boats as well, waving his pistol in the air. “Get aboard! Set sail!”

A puff of smoke belched from a second story window overlooking the dock. Buildings lined the length of it. Luis cursed. Philip’s troops were occupying the houses, firing down into Rodrigo’s men from the left flank. “The windows!” he shouted to the soldiers. “Fire on those windows!” There was a loud crack beside him as a sniper’s bullet blew slivers of wood off a crate, causing Luis to cringe involuntarily. In his fine armour he was a prime target, along with Angel. He raised his pistol, sighted, and fired a shot at the smoke. 

Don Rodrigo charged towards them out of the smoke. He cast about for the quartermaster, found him cowering behind a pile of ropes, and hauled him out. “Cast off now!”  He shoved the Quartermaster away, and gestured at the soldiers. “Cast off! Any one who refuses, shoot them!” Sergeant Mendez and two men started herding soldiers and sailors aboard. 

“What’s going on?” demanded one of the mercenaries, a big fellow with a bushy, untrimmed beard. His armour was collected in a rope net he held over his shoulder, and he held his caliver loosely in his right hand. He spat a large black wad of tobacco. “I’ll not fight.” He pointed towards the end of the dock. “Those are men of the city watch, down there.” Chin jutted out, he planted his legs wide apart. “What are you getting us caught up in, eh?”

Rodrigo snapped up a pistol and shot him in the chest. The man staggered and fell between the dock and the brigantine with a loud splosh. Rodrigo furiously rounded on the others. “Do you want to be rich or dead? Get in the ships!” They obeyed. He began to reload his pistol.

The first two brigantines were moving away from the dock. Soldiers were pushing hard against it with oars and halberds.

Luis scanned the building windows and saw a man, not thirty feet away, raise an arquebus and aim it at his father. Acting on instinct Luis fired his second shot and hit the man in the arm. The arquebus roared, but the shot went hopelessly wide. 

Esteban fired and hit the sniper in the forehead. The man toppled out of the window and into stacked bins of spice. 

Don Rodrigo and Angel climbed into the middle Brigantine. The prostitutes were already aboard, sheltering in the makeshift altar that had been set up near the ship’s stern. Abuljar must be there somewhere. He could see Bartome, crouched low against the bulwark and trying to look as small as possible. Luis started to follow. A flurry of bullets struck in front of him. He dropped back in a panic. Philip’s troops had occupied the buildings opposite, and were now pushing their way up the dock from Luis’ right. 

A Sailor untying the last mooring line was hit. The four ounce metal ball blew a chunk out of his tanned chest. He fell dead. 

Angel, crouching behind a supply crate aboard the brigantine, looked in askance at Luis. “Get that! The line! Hurry up, or we’ll leave you behind!” Soldiers beside him hefted oars and began to push against the dock. Angel pulled out a knife and began cutting the line. Rodrigo pulled Mendez aboard. One of his troopers was hit in the back and fell against the bulwark, then slipped away, down into the water.

Luis crouched back as bullets zipped by. Esteban looked over at him from behind a crate nearby. He was pointing at the barrels Luis lay behind, but his words were lost in the cacophony.

“What?” shouted Luis back, perplexed. Everyone was demanding his attention all at once.

Rodrigo, face was red with fury, shouted, “Cut that line or we’re all dead men!” 

“Hurry!” yelled Angel. “Father is watching! Don’t be a coward! I’ll cover you!”

Luis looked back again to Esteban, who cupped his hands around his mouth and shouted, “Gunpowder! You’re behind a barrel of gunpowder!”

Luis’ eyes went wide. Sparks and bullets and shards of wood were everywhere, but this was obviously no place to stay. He slipped up to a crouch, drew his sword, and ran for the brigantine. 

Soldiers focus their fire on Luis. Bullets and crossbow bolts whizzed by as he ran. 

A musket shot singed his shirt.

He stopped short, by the mooring line, planted his legs wide, and swung his sword down with all his might, slicing the line clean through with one blow. A bullet hit him in the back, knocking the wind out of him and causing him to fall forward. He grabbed the bulwark with his left hand and found himself looking down into the dark sloshing water. A body bobbed up and down below him, face up, eyes looking blankly up into his. He swallowed hard. His sword was pulled from his right hand. He raised his head. Angel and Mendez grabbed at his arms. Luis could feel his feet sliding along the dock, closer and closer to the edge as the ship drifted away from the dock. Bullets struck the bulwark, but there was nothing he could do. Suddenly they had him by the torso and he was hauled aboard the brigantine, and awkwardly rolled onto the bottom of the boat, dizzy and disoriented. A moment later he saw Esteban elegantly leap aboard, only to be undone by uneven footing of ropes and pouches, and found himself falling into a group of soldiers, who cursed and pushed him roughly off. 

Luis sat up. The crescendo of battle floods back into his consciousness.

Angel shoved a caliver into his chest. Luis took it up and leaned against the bulwark. Philip’s men now lined the dock, and were firing haphazardly at them, but they were becoming more organized as they consolidated their control along the dock’s length. Luis spotted Philip. He set the caliver against his shoulder, steadied it as best he could, and fired. Philip jerked back, but remained standing. But it had been a hit. A palpable hit! Luis couldn’t help but grin. 

Something struck him as wrong. The ship was angling round, facing towards the dock, rather than away. Soldiers were rowing madly, one side rowing forward, the other back. A moment later he saw why, as Rodrigo set a match to the cannon’s fuse, and it boomed. The shell hit the gunpowder barrels, setting them off. A massive explosion blew apart a section of the dock. 

“That will teach them to challenge the de Guerra,” crowed Rodrigo, a fierce smile on his face. He turned to the soldiers. “Now row, to sea, for all you’re worth!”

Luis looked back at the dock. Fiddled with reloading his pistol while the soldiers rowed madly.

The ship had fully turned and was pulling out to sea before Santino Philip had recovered enough to rally his men, the ones not deaf from the explosion. 

The ship pulled further away from the docks. 

Santino had his men form up into ranks, then theatrically waved his sword in the air. He then sliced it downward. A thunderous volley cracked the air, and the stern of the ship was peppered with shot. Chunks of the altar were blown off, and a sailor’s skull blown open. The man collapsed atop the prostitutes, who, in a fit of horror and revulsion, toppled his corpse over the side. 

The soldiers at the oars bent forward and covered their heads.

“Row!” ordered Rodrigo, storming amongst them. “Row! Distance, that’s your only armor now!” 

Luis, focused on reloading his pistol, wasn’t paying attention. “Almost…”

Esteban grabbed a befuddled Luis by the tail of his shirt, sticking out from below his armored breastplate, and roughly hauled him backward. Luis dropped the ball of shot and swore.

Bullets peppered the hull of the ship, sliced through rigging, and cut holes in the sails. The quartermaster gouted blood from his chest and dropped into the gleaming, cerulean blue, staining it.

Luis shifted himself round, facing Esteban. “What did you do that for?” he demanded, scouring the floor of brigantine for the lost ball.

Esteban grinned back. “You’re welcome.”

As the ships pulled out of range, Angel stood up and planted his hands on hips. He made obscene gestures at those on shore. “I shit on your mothers, you bastards!” he bellowed. 

He laughed as Santino and his men rushed along the dock, back towards the city. 

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