The next morning Luis watched as bodies were wrapped in thick blankets. The faces of the dead men were purplish. Their eyes were closed, but Luis had caught sight of them beforehand, and they were puffed and bloodshot. Bartome pressed a cup into hand of one, then withdrew to Rodrigo, who was standing in front of Luis.
Bartome rubbed his hands together. “Succumbed to the poison over night. Ojeda had a fever, as well. Nothing I could do, I’m afraid.”
Rodrigo swatted a mosquito on his neck. “That’s twenty men. Soon I’ll have no army left.” He turned and looks accusingly at Luis and Angel.
Luis just looked down at a thwart and said nothing. The expedition was enduring the same privations and trials as had friar de Riverra. At least they were in boats, rather than on shore, where it could only be worse. Luis waved a hand in front of his face to clear the insects away, but the effect was only temporary. They were thick and numerous enough to be mistaken for living smoke, and they never seemed to tire.
While friar Bartome gave the men last rites, Luis settled down by his chest of books and belongings. He unlatched the top and flipped open the lid. Gently he lifted out a Bible. He could not bear reading more of Riverra at the moment, and instead took heart in reading the holy word.
Water thundered over gashes of black rock, drowning out the incessant sound of the jungle. Luis watched Rodrigo clamber up over water slicked rocks and stand beside his men: two dozen Spanish soldiers who lined the shore, gripping thick ropes which stretched out to the Brigantine Luis stood upon. Rodrigo was issuing orders, but Luis couldn’t hear him above the rush of the angry waters. The soldiers however, began to pull, and slowly trudge their way up the rocks to the top of the rapids. Luis, Angel and a half dozen sailors desperately used poles to guide the ship between teeth like rocks. The spray of water was a welcome relief to the miasma of insects, but there was little time to think of it, so challenging was the turbulent river.
Twice Luis nearly stumbled and fell headlong into the maelstrom, to a watery death. Only at the last moment was he able to recover his balance by placing his oar ahead of himself. If the water had been any deeper, his journey would have ended.
“Heave!” came Rodrigo’s faint voice through the white noise and foam. “Come on, you bastards. Put your backs into it.”
With tremendous effort, the Brigantine cleared the last rocks and bobbed into swirling waters above. Wood and ropes creaked ominously, but the ship held together, and Luis breathed a deep sigh of relief as they were drawn towards shore.
Supplies had been stacked on the riverbank, transported up the side of the rapids by foot, to make the ships lighter. The remaining Brigantines were anchored a few yards upstream.
Men laughed with relief and exhaustion as the last brigantine drew near. Luis leaned over the side and planet his oar, Angel doing the same on the opposite side, and they thrust in unison. The soldiers let the rope go slack as the boat slid against the shore with the soft crackle of pebbles grinding against the hull.
“Good work!” Rodrigo slapped a burly soldier’s bare, sweaty back. The man grinned in return, displaying rotten teeth. “Double ration of rum for the men.”
An ill soldier’s legs gave way, and he collapses. Two disheveled comrades rush to help.
“Filthy jungle,” cursed Rodrigo. He strode into the water and grabbed hold of the gunwale beside Luis and Angel. “Right you two. Let’s get the boats loaded, eh? Tonight we’ll sleep ashore. Get a fresh start in the morning. Don’t worry. We’ll beat this jungle yet.”
A bright scarlet flock of birds spun, dived, then soared over the flotilla and away over jungle green. Luis watched them until they were out of sight, marveling not only at their beauty, but how easily they could escape the mud, insects, and filth of the jungle.
He wished he was a bird and rubbed his eyes. They were still swollen and sore, his face puffy from having accidentally slept beneath a Machineel tree the night before.
There was a series of soft sploshes. Luis looked back as more blanket wrapped bodies, weighted with stones, slipped over the side of two trailing Brigantines.
Luis looked at them blankly. They swiftly sank, wreathed in sunbeams and floating bits of plant detritus. There was no time to bury them, and no one was interested in going ashore unless absolutely necessary.
Crocodiles glided out from the shade of the riverbank to investigate.
The dead men would not rest in peace for long.
Luis and Estaban stood on a sandy beach, facing each other with leveled swords. The brigantines were lined up behind them, the men encamped at the edge of the jungle. Several men were dug wells in the beach, hoping to refill water kegs that had burst in the heat. Small fires had already been lit, and a dinner of salted fish, candied citron and wine was being prepared. Luis’ mouth watered at the very thought of a good meal. Best of all, t he air was sweet and fresh and clean, and the strong breeze kept the bugs and humidity at bay.
Angel lounged nearby on a tarp and watched, his harem clustered behind him. A metal flask was passed between them, along with sweets and preserved fruits.
He brought his mind back and focused on Esteban, who could detect it if his thoughts wandered, damn the man. Their swords rattled against each other as they sought advantage. Luis stepped forward, making a play to the right, but was blocked. With Esteban, Luis could make no grandiose assaults or colourful, theatrical gestures: any such maneuver would leave him exposed to counter-attack, and he’d lose the match. Between expert swordsmen, it was a deadly chess game, one of careful maneuver punctuated by calculated attack. Victory frequently built not on brilliance but opponent error.
There was a sharp blur as Esteban tested Luis’ defense; Luis gave way, stepping back, giving ground to maintain distance and keep Esteban from gaining advantage. Then just as suddenly Luis was on the attack, sword probing, jostling, until, sensing victory, Luis overextended with a jab that left him exposed.
Esteban tapped him on the flank. “Voila, you are dead,” laughed Esteban, and he straightened up. “You have to stop falling for that. I was leading you into your doom.”
“Damnit, I thought I had you,” said Luis as he planted his hands on his knees and caught his breath.
“Don’t make such grandiose attacks. They leave you open.”
Angel laughed. “Give it up, Moor! You’d have better luck training a dog to fence. Or a priest. Haw!”
“He’s right you know.” Luis sat down amidst the supplies and kegs and loosened his shirt.
Esteban paused for a moment, then sat beside him. “You might have given up on you, but I haven’t. More training tomorrow. We keep practicing until you’re the best swordsman in the jungle.”
Luis wiped sweat from his brow. He looked over at his older brother, who was now catching almonds in his mouth, tossed by Hermenia. “I’ll never be as good a swordsman as Angel is.”
“Angel’s good. He’s very good, and he knows it,” said Esteban quietly. “But he rarely practices. That will be his downfall.”
Morning mist drifted over the glistening, still river. As the flotilla rounded a lazy river bend, thatched huts came into view.
“Look!” shouted a soldier. “Women. Naked women!”
“God be praised!” said a second, and he pointed ahead with a shaking hand.
Luis stepped up to the prow to see for himself. A half dozen native women bathed at river’s edge, before the huts, their magnificent, round breasts bare.
Then they noticed the ships. They looked up, stared. One ran towards the huts on the hillside. The others remained where they were and smiled.
“They seem friendly,” said Luis as Angel stepped up beside him.
“Friendly enough. Nice tits, eh? We can have some fun here. Eh, lads?”