Booming waves drowned out the shouts of men. Luis was wedged between two soldiers, and rowed like mad against powerful cross currents that threatened to dash them into rocks. All pretense of status and rank had been cast aside in the struggle for survival.
The fleet surged upward atop a bulging swell and began to shift sideways.
The stern was partly obscured by mist and slashing water, but Luis could still make out Rodrigo and Angel, who held on to the rudder for all they were worth, their teeth grit, faces showing the strain of a three hour long ordeal.
Luis struggled not to vomit.
He wasn’t successful.
ORINOCO RIVER DELTA
Luis blinked. Mud brown water. Lush green foliage filled with lurking fauna.
The armed flotilla glided silently up river in glorious sunlight, carried forward by strong winds. Soldiers had removed their coarse shirts and slumped in their seats, exhausted.
In this heat, there was little else one could do.
Over the past few days they had passed rowed through milky white waters, as if doused in flour, fought dangerous currents, sudden storm squalls, and twice met curious Indians, who had come out to the flotilla in canoes bearing gifts of fruit and cassava bread. Luis had been impressed by their generosity, but his father had insisted on paying them. That was no surprise, and Luis knew why: Rodrigo believed that gifts made slaves. Yet the Indians had refused the offered trinkets, wanting nothing in return, which frustrated Rodrigo and made him suspicious. He would not eat the food until Bartome had, and only then the next day. In the evenings dense mist had engulfted them, followed by thunder and lightning and then a great downpour.
Now there was not a cloud in the sky, just brilliant sun and punishing heat. Luis’ shirt was drenched in sweat and clung to his body. He noticed that even his father had unbuttoned his tunic.
But there were sights to be enjoyed: pink river dolphins leapt playfully alongside the ship, teasing Spanish soldiers who reached out and tried to touch them for good luck. One swept by Luis so close he leaned out and brushed the back of one with an open palm. It felt cold and smooth and wet, like ceramic.
Ahead the river widened. Luis could see flocks of flamingos, the colour of fresh meat, balanced atop shallow sandbars, preening.
Angel grunted. “This heat. My God. It’s such shit.”
Rodrigo, beside him, mopped sweat from his brow, and turned to the First Captain. “Take us closer to the shore, in the shade of the trees. Out of the sun.”
After reading the diary, Luis was loathe to go anywhere near the jungle, however inevitable that would ultimately be. “Father, do you think…”
Rodrigo shot him a condescending look, and Luis fell silent.
Orders were given, and the men set back to their oars. The ships veered closer to the greenery. It looked knotted and impassable, but as they came under its shadow, Luis felt a wave of relief. It would have been wonderful if not for the swarming mosquitoes.
An hour later, the river bifurcated. Currents swirled and intertwined, mud into blue-green.
Rodrigo ordered Abuljar brought forward. Bartome and two monks awkwardly guided the man to the prow.
The monks were named Cristobel and Diego. Diego appeared ill: pasty skin, red eyed, feverish. Rodrigo did not seem to notice; his attention was focused on Abuljar. “Time for our friend here to earn his keep, eh?” He slipped fingers beneath Abuljar’s jaw, and turned his face up. “Do you remember this river fork?” He waited impatiently for an answer. “Well? Which way? To El Dorado.”
Abuljar shivered and turned away, eyes darting this way and that, like a trapped animal. Bartome noticed the man’s distress. “Take your time, Abuljar. Have no fear. You are safe.” He patted the man on the arm. His voice was soothing.
Abuljar looked left with a blank expression, then right, and cringed. “No!” he whimpered. “I will not go back.”
The monks held him fast.
Angel seemed to enjoy the man’s discomfort. “Ha! He does not seem to like that way.”
It was enough to convince Rodrigo. “That way it is.” He smiled down at Abuljar. “There. You see? Not so hard after all.”
Abuljar continued to whimper and squirm.
“Don’t you worry,” said Rodrigo. “They’ll regret what they did to you. We’ll teach them a lesson they’ll not soon forget.”
THIP! Diego stiffened and slapped a hand on his neck, as if he’d been bitten by an insect. He gasps in pain and lowers his hand, but there are no insect guts smeared on it.
Luis leaned in close. “Brother. What is–”
Sunlight glinted off something sticking out of his skin. It was a small sliver of wood, the section closest to the skin coated in a thin film of gleaming reddish goop.
It took a moment for Luis to process the implication. “Darts; poison darts!”
The befuddled Monk touched it with a finger, then collapsed.
All at once the air was filled with whistling death. Darts peppered the Brigantine like wooden rain drops. Men hit on exposed skin fell like rag dolls.
“Savages!” snarled Rodrigo, pulling a pistol from his belt. To the First Captain, he yelled, “Take us to the centre of the river. Now!” There was a loud crack as the flint struck and then a bang of exploding gunpowder. A puff of smoke drifted back over the boat. He looked accusingly at Angel and Luis. “Well? Fire into the trees!”
Angel scrambled back for his weapons. Luis grabbed the caliver and aimed, but there was nothing he could see to shoot at.
“Turn!” shouted the First Captain to the man at the stern, behind the makeshift altar. “Take us into the centre of the river!”
Bartome pushed Abuljar down and placed his body protectively over him, turning his back to the bank. Cristobel pulled Diego’s limp body over and huddled behind it.
Luis looked towards the stern. Soldiers on the bank side of the brigantine that had shields grabbed them and set them against the bulwark. The others scrambled for oars or crossbows. There was the sharp twang of bolts being released, then sporadic musket fire.
But all anyone could see was faceless jungle green.
The flood of darts thinned.
“Row, fools!” shouted Rodrigo, berating the men. “Leave your weapons until we’re out of range!”
Angel pulled two pistols out from his wool sleeping roll and brandished them menacingly. “Come out! Face us, cowards!”
“Row!” shouted the First Captain. A dart hit him in the cheek. He gasped, staggered, and fell onto the rowers.
“Darts,” breathed Luis, slipping back into a low crouch, only his eyes above the bulwark. He scanned the bank, but still could not find a target. A dart struck the top of the gunwale, sticking in it. He looked at it for a moment, fascinated. “Of course. No penetrating power.”
Luis set down the gun. He pushed his breastplate aside, grabbed his Morion helm and settled it on his head, then and dug under the thwart for the heavy leather tarp wedged beneath.
“What are you doing?” demanded Rodrigo, kneeling down. Luis gaped. Three darts stuck out of his heavy tunic. “Eh?” Rodrigo grunted, then picked them out and sniffed them, before flicking them into the river. “Stink of Machineel fruit. Damn beach apples, there’s no antidote.”
“An idea,” said Luis. He awkwardly unfolded the tarp, trying to keep low. “Help me,” he asked Cristobel, but the petrified monk just shook his head and refused to move. Bartome, heavy black robe dotted with wood splinters, reached over and flipped over the last fold. Finally Luis was ready. “Lean over!” he ordered, then swept it up over the rowers, covering them.
They were drawing away from the shore.
Luis cocked his caliver.
“Shoot, you woman!” admonished Angel.
“I can’t see anything.”
“So? Keep their heads down!”
He fired a shot and started to reload. There were soft plinks in the water. Luis noted the darts were falling short. “Stop. You’re wasting ammunition. It’s futile. We’re out of range.”
Angel turned on Luis and glared, his eyes unblinking, demanding; after a pause, he fired a shot off towards shore, without even looking.
“You’re an idiot,” said Luis.
“I must have killed a dozen,” replied Angel. “A dozen more than you.” Angel reloaded his pistol as the ships glided onward, upriver.