The River Wolf
The Negro moved his hand slowly over the cryptic symbols, as if doing so would somehow reveal their secrets. Carved deeply into the natural stone, the symbols were small regular groupings of horizontal lines, some with partial circles, which looked as if they were supposed to be the sun rising over the horizon. He scraped dirt out from between them with one fingernail. "There is definitely a pattern here." He muttered absently, fascinated by the underlying symmetry.
"What is it?" The Brazilian held his lantern closer to the markings. Teeth chattering, he shivered beneath his gaudy wool coat. Too warm to wear in the jungle heat and humidity, it left him soaked with sweat. In these dark, damp recesses, it cooled rapidly, leaving his flesh clammy and the cold penetrating to the bone – he was worse off than had he left it outside or not worn it at all.
"I don't know, but it is there." The Negro, whose gift for associating such patterns and formulas was well known, reassured him.
Another man, a white man, older than both the Negro or the young Brazilian, frantically sketched the markings and, more importantly to him, the drawings next to them, remaining oblivious to any discussion. Open atop one knee, he balanced a cumbersome, leather bound volume. He wrote in it using a thin stick of graphite. Despite being wrapped in paper, the graphite still managed to cover his hands, leaving dirty blotches on the book.
"Here they come." The voice, speaking English with a heavy Spanish clop, carried from the tunnel entrance and reverberated off the walls.
"Damn." The man with the graphite muttered and redoubled his efforts. "Line up the men!" He barked in response.
"Aye, sir." The voice called back. Those familiar with the dialect recognized the hasty garble and distinctive pronunciation as Chilean.
Making a few final scrawls, the man slammed the book shut and shoved it and his graphite into a worn and weathered sabretache. Slinging the sabretache over his shoulder, he grabbed the hilt of his sword with his left hand and jogged up out of the cavern, wincing when the bright sunlight stung his eyes.
The natural cavern gave way to a man-made facade. From the outside, it looked as if the blocks and pillars, each covered in elaborate and disturbing depictions of animals, people, and creatures which were a bizarre mixture of the two, had been built and lain in place rather than carved from the face of a natural rock outcropping. Centuries ago, an army of craftsmen, considerably more skilled than those existing in the area today, took great pains to make it appear as if great stone blocks had been dragged through the jungle and lifted up to this small jungle hillock.
"Caláis la bayonetta!" The Chilean accent belonged to a trim, mustachioed man some thirty years of age. Unlike the young Brazilian who followed the older man from the ancient temple, he wore a proper, although faded and thread-bare, naval uniform.
At the Chilean's command, eighty-seven bayonets snapped into place with a crisp precision born of hard training and harder experience. The man with the sabretache, Capitaine Eligus Bronsan loosened his 'cutlass', which was more akin to a sabre, from its scabbard and then raised his pistol.
"Preparáis!" Cartridges and wadding were dropped down barrels. Ramrods slid sharply from holders and were jabbed downward atop cartridges and wadding. Almost as one, ramrods went back into their sleeves with a rasp. Percussion caps were fitted to hammer locks, locks pulled back and clicked into place.
The entire process was complete in less than twenty seconds. It should have been less, but months of irregular drill wore on the men, dulled their edge.
"Apuntáis!" The rifles were lifted to shoulders and aimed at the rapidly approaching war canoes.
Aboard the canoes, arms pumped fiercely as the native Indians propelled their crafts through the water, churning white foam at the bow, coming directly at the line of rifles. Four or five Indians stood in each canoe, maintaining a steady balance despite the furious paddle strokes, they took aim at the defending Europeans. They used old flintlocks, sold to them by the Spanish for use in their war against the colonials.
Firing sporadically, without discipline or command, and too far away, they posed no posed no serious threat to the European defenders. A light scattering of bullets pounded harmlessly into the ground, far short of the stone walls, others buzzed harmlessly into the jungle. Thrown by the force of the recoil, a few were tossed into the river.
A half dozen of Bronsan's younger, less experienced men, those who had not spent most of their adult years fighting both for and against Napoleon, issued retorts. Tiny explosions accompanied a 'zing' and a few harmless splashes, throwing up water and muck in front of the lead canoes.
"Tener Firme!" Bronsan shouted angrily. "Don't fire until they land." He said in English. "And for God's sake, keep them away from the boats." Spanish was the people's language, French, the language of government and la guerre, but English was the language of the sea. And, despite their diverse mixture of French, Spanish, English, Negro, and even native Arawak, his men were sailors all.
Switching to Spanish, he ordered those who had fired to step back and reload. His grammar was imperfect and his pronunciation poor. English was his birth language and over the years, the accent became more pronounced instead of less. As the years grew to decades, it became a point of pride, even his French was slipping.
Those half dozen stepped back, men in the second line, rifles primed and ready to fire, stepped up and took aim. Many of the men wore their old uniforms, but most wore no particular uniform. Some, the more adventurous and independent, wore native dress, loin cloth and feathers, necklaces of bone and monkey skulls. No matter what their dress, their clothes were frayed and worn, some hanging in tatters, threadbare from the months spent along the river and tramping through jungle.
With Bronsan taking command, Vasquez, the mustachioed Chilean, readied his own weapon. A Ferguson rifle, his gun was a breech-loader converted from flintlock to percussion cap. Vasquez unscrewed the Ferguson's handle, lowering the screw plug and opening the breech. He tore open a paper cartridge with his teeth and poured a small amount to prime the pan and the remainder, including the ball, into the breech. In a bare fraction of the time it took to ready the muzzle-loaders, Vasquez loaded, locked, and aimed the Ferguson at the fast approaching Indians.
At one time, all of these sea soldiers, les equipages, bore Fergusons. But, that was the Navy, properly funded by tariffs and duties. The Bureau would never pay for such extravagances.
"Vasquez." Bronsan called casually to the Chilean, displaying an utter calm that Vasquez knew was only a show for the men’s benefit. Vasquez' uniform was of white trousers and light blue frock coat. Bronsan wore a white shirt, sleeves rolled, collar open, it was stained yellow under the arms and damp with sweat.
Vasquez shot Eligus Bronsan a bare glance, his eyes leaving their target for only a fraction of a second. "Eh?"
"Take some men and keep those savages away from my boats."
Vasquez uncocked the rifle, gently lowering the hammer over the firing cap. "Aye, sir." He said, slinging the rifle over his shoulder. Holding rifle and sword with one arm, he ran along the line, selecting a handful of men, slapping them on the shoulder as he ran passed.
At a steady run, he led them to the boats, which were banked on the river some quarter mile away. Unless they swam, the boats were their only means of getting back to the steamers. A contingent of men were left on guard, but Bronsan was much more comfortable having Vasquez secure their escape.
The first canoes struck the muddy embankment with a thud. Howling like mad monkeys, the Indians surged forward. Bare feet slapped against the muddy embankment. Their black hair was thick on top and shaved to the skin on front, sides, and back. They wore only thin loincloths, their nearly naked bodies were covered in a red dye made from crushed berries and accented with black dots made from ash, water and berry dye. The leaders, tribal shaman, stood distinct, wearing brightly colored plumage.
Behind the wall, nervous fingers rested over triggers and still the Captain did not give the order to fire. Another premature shot went off, striking an Indian dead. Bronsan was ready to remand angrily, but there was no time, so instead yelled "Fire!" and brought the sword down with a hiss that cut the air.
A wall of bullets knocked down the foremost of their attackers, dropping them where they stood. Bodies fell into the mud and slid beneath the river's surface. The first line stepped back. The second line stepped forward and, with another round of fire, more Indians dropped, a few made it through, while many more landed from the river.
When the first line stepped forward again, reloaded and ready to fire, Bronsan yelled "fire at will" loosing another mixed round of molded balls and rifled bullets and letting loose the second line. Bronsan cocked his own weapon, pulling back the twin hammers of an old artillery pistol, also converted from flint-lock to percussion, and took careful aim.
Bronsan waited patiently as an Indian who had slipped through the first round of fire, came ever closer. Brandishing a war club imbedded with sharpened stones, a frenzied hatred burned in the Indian's eye, a hate that did not exist when he, Bronsan and several other of the tribe and crew sat around the Carib's fire.
With a reluctant pause, Bronsan pulled back on the trigger, setting off the dual caps. Strangely, the explosion was not twice as loud as a single cap, or so he always thought. The Indian flopped back like a rag doll, chest and face spattered in blood and jagged tears of flesh. Bronsan's pistol used a cartridge of tiny pellets instead of a single ball, like grapeshot from a ship's cannon.
Then there was no more time. A few dozen savages broke the line and swarmed up the stone wall. The wall, eight to ten feet from the jungle floor, was constructed of large, uneven blocks, cracked, eroded, and grown through with vines. The wall and temple, castle, tomb, or whatever their original purpose, were ancient, never having been built during the long oral tradition of the Carib tribe that now defended it. To them, it was a creation of the gods, sprouting from the ground and foliage that eroded and overwhelmed it.
Bronsan's men thrust bayonet points into the savages, kicked at them, beat them with rifle butts, anything to push them back from the wall and gain time to reload their weapons. Bronsan thrust his finely balanced and honed 'cutlass' through the neck of a savage climbing to his left, producing a jet of blood.
Arrows clacked against the wall, skittered over it and landed in tree trunks and bodies with a 'thunk.' One sailor, struck in the left shoulder by an arrow, fell to his knees, gasping for breath. Administered so close to the heart, the poison coating the arrowhead coursed through his body and was immediately pumped into his lungs. In a moment, he fell over dead, clutching at his throat, still fighting for air.
While the first line engaged this savage equivalent to 'les enfants perdu', the second line were given the time to fire into those who followed. And, thus it went as the second wave of boats thudded up onto the shore and spewed its cargo of savage fodder and then the third. The defenders fired round after round into the rush of attackers, but as the fourth wave landed, they were making little progress. The lines split as more and more defenders engaged in hand to hand combat or were struck down by poison arrows.
Canon thundered and the river burst, spraying a column of water straight up. A war canoe at the rear capsized, throwing its occupants into the river. A deep crimson, an Indian torn by grapeshot, seeped to the surface. The canons fired again, this time shot churned the mud on the bank and tore away at the soft green inner flesh of the trees.
Startled into confusion, the Carib stopped their advance. Seeing their retreat cut off, seeing their brothers shot down and then cut down, they panicked. Brightly plumed leaders tried to halt the retreat, but soon gave up and scuttled to the nearest canoes.
It was the Dragonfly, Vasquez' gunboat, chugging up the river, black smoke pouring from her stacks. She was wreathed in wisping clouds of grey smoke, the remnants of cannon fire. Bronsan's men whooped in triumph, holding up their rifles and cursing the scattering savages.
* * *
Night came quickly, the sun swallowed by the vast, uneven greenery surrounding and confining them. They were enveloped in the noise of the jungle: the cawing of birds, screeching of monkeys, chirping and squeaking of insects and frogs. As the bright green of the shoreline became an impenetrable black wall, the sounds became palpable.
Huddled together for their own protection, the ships and boats of the expedition kept as much water between themselves and the black wall of the jungle embankments as possible. All of the ships were paddle wheel steamers. Vasquez' Dragonfly was a side-wheeler of the Penguin Class, a twenty year old 2nd Class Sloop purchased from the navy. The Archer Fish and Oxford were both river transports, purchased from a private mercantile fleet. They were side-wheelers with ancient beam type engines and shallow draughts. The heavy beam and lever that drove the paddles protruded high and was exposed over the ships' sides. Both ships were rated as 3rd Class Sloops, but neither had seen naval service and neither exactly fit the specifications assigned by the navy to that rating. But, the required forms had lines to be filled.
At the center of the formation, surrounded and protected by the other ships, was the Argentio. The Argentio was a stern-wheeled, low keeled barge. Wide and flat, she carried most of the expedition's equipment, supplies, and crew.
But, foremost among them, almost too large for her intended mission of river explorer, was Pour Mon Loup de Rivière. Her name was painted in delicate floral script on her stern and prow, but she was simply known as 'River Wolf'. The River Wolf was a side wheel paddle steamer. Rated as a 2nd Class Frigate, she was nearly fresh from the shipyard and was the only ship specially commissioned and built for the expedition.
The entire expedition, all five ships, was on alert. Armed sentries prowled the decks. Those on the upper decks peered nervously over the sides every time a fish splashed in the water. Lookouts perched in each of the River Wolf's three masts and the two masts of Dragonfly, Archer Fish, and Oxford. Out at sea, their attention would be focused on the horizon. Here, with only the river between them and the dangers hidden in the jungle, they watched the waters, sensitive to any disturbances that would indicate a quietly approaching canoe or even individuals swimming toward them.
Only the Argentio had no masts. She relied entirely on her engines, or those of the other ships should she need a tow. Most of the expedition's crew were housed on Argentio. The ship was usually the noisiest and most raucous. But, now, under Bronsan's fear of Carib reprisal, it was quiet and dark.
A canvas awning was stretched taut over the deck just aft of the River Wolf's foremast. Its side flaps were lowered, forming a tent to fend off the mosquitoes, but mostly to keep in the light. Oil lamps burned inside, casting an orange glow and bulky shadows. Within the tent, a pair of stewards cleared plates and cutlery from the captain's table, a temporary fixture that would be put back into stowage after the meal.
The table had been laid with fresh fish, fresh fruit, and freshly killed meat, roast monkey and bird, the animals were shot from the trees and fished from the river. They were living off the land, just as Napoleon's Grand Army, and they were doing it aboard ship. Even the wood used in the engines as a substitute for coal was chopped from the jungle and dried on board.
Now, the meal was decimated, empty bowls, plates, and cups, were shoved to one side, making room for Bronsan's hand-drawn map. Charts and maps, both official and hand made, half-covered it and were strewn across the rest of the table.
Mendosta, the oldest of the five men, traced a thick, calloused finger over Bronsan's map while aping the gesture with his other hand, using a map printed by Le Bureau Examen Continental. "Look, . . . they are the same. We passed that tributary not three days ago." He looked up at the others, eyes finally settling on Bronsan's.
Battillana, the Brazilian, the youngest of them, leaned back in his chair and shook his head as if with some authority. He was the one in proper uniform, dress uniform at that, as he wore for every meal at the captain's table. Perfume gently wafted from him, covering the exertions of the day. "Three days there, three days back and only the Holy Mother knows how far down the tributary and how far into the jungle."
"We already know the Bureau map isn't worth a damned." Vasquez added. "We took soundings there. It was too shallow for either Dragonfly or River Wolf."
"Ah, . . . your precious River Wolf." Mendosta waved contemptuously and fell back into his chair. The flimsy cloth and wooden construct moaned weakly in protest and bent as if to snap. "By the Mother's Holy teat, . . ." He muttered under his breath. " . . . River Wolf can be left behind. We can fit all the supplies and men we will need in Argentio. Archer Fish and Oxford can tow her if need be."
Farmer, the captain of the Argentio, was a great, hulking Negro, formerly a slave of the North American States. As the barge's captain, he was the expedition's de facto quartermaster, tending to their equipment, supplies, and the catalogue of specimens gathered on their journey.
"Using the Archer Fish and the Oxford to tow Argentio . . ." Farmer quickly made calculations based on tonnage, horsepower, and draft, in his head. Bronsan always admired the way in which the man could track so many numbers without so much as a scrap of paper or a pilot's book. “ . . . would mean leaving half our supplies with River Wolf and Dragonfly." And no one questioned the Negro’s calculations.
They paused in their discussion as the tent flap was pulled aside. In walked the expedition's surgeon, reeking of the chewed root liquor made by the Arawak. He stumbled to Bronsan and handed the captain a slip of paper before stumbling back out.
Bronsan shook his head in disgusted resignation and looked at the paper. It was the final butcher's bill for the day's activities - eight dead, three wounded seriously, eighteen on the sick list. At least those on the sick list should be fit for duty in a few days. "Martinez is dead."
"Which one?" Asked Vasquez.
"He was barely pricked in the thigh by one of their little darts." Battillana said. He, along with Farmer, was in the temple with Bronsan. Mendosta was left behind to tend the fleet.
"It's all or nothing with those bloody savages and their damned frog poison." Said Bronsan.
After taking in a long, slow lungful of smoke from a thick cigar, crudely wrapped in dried tobacco leaves, Bronsan stood and stretched. "God's Teeth, I am tired. The bloody Carib want our heads. They know we found the map. If they know where it takes us, they'll be waiting. The bloody jungle is theirs’ and I don't much like the idea of wandering around it blindly." He looked over his shoulder as a large insect pounded repeatedly against the tarpaulin. "No force should be detached on the eve of battle . . . “ He slipped neatly into French.
" . . . affairs may change during the night - every Brigade may be vital." Mendosta, Farmer, and Vasquez added in hearty chorus.
Bronsan shook his head, lips pursed. “Tomorrow we head East. We are already late and I’m not going to lose that bloody great ship to Tamislov because of l'Empereur's little games.
"No - we have a respectable showing, excellent charts, good data, some interesting specimens. If l'Empereur is greedy for more gold, he can send someone out later." He could see the disappointment in Mendosta’s face and the relief in the other’s. He suspected Mendosta's disappointment came from the thought of returning to his wife and family more than lost gold, but added, "We'll come back. I will put it in our next proposal to the Bureau. But we must keep quiet about it for now. Not a word to anyone until we get to the Institute."
"The crew will talk." Mendosta warned.
Bronsan laughed. "Of course they will talk, it's what crews do. They’ll brag about rogering a few Indians and then killing their husbands. They will talk about a lost, lonely, and haunted temple in the middle of the jungle. But we are the only ones who saw that map. They can talk all they want. But until it's in my proposal, no one is going to know anything." He folded the hand-drawn map and took it with him, leaving the rest for the stewards to put away.
* * *
After supper, Bronsan watched as the captains climbed down rope ladders to the gigs surrounding Pour Mon Loup de Rivière. Oarsmen pulled, splashing the water and sending the gigs to their ships. Drawing smoke from the thick cigar, he thought 'What would I do if the enemy's army appeared now in my front, or on my right, or my left, or astern?' - Maxim VIII.
A full watch, loaded guns, matches lit, grapeshot ready to blast into the river at the first sign of approaching canoe. Sentries with loaded rifles stood atop the paddle wheel boxes, watching over the blind spots, which were of less concern on the river than the open sea.
Satisfied that all questions were well answered, he took one last, long drag on the tobacco-leaf cigar and flicked its ashes over the side. The stewards rolled the awning, tossing ropes over the yard lines and hoisting it up out of the way. Bronsan passed by, asking politely for a cup of hot water to be brought to his cabin.
He made his rounds, checking on each watch division, finally stopping on the quarterdeck. Satisfied, he went below decks.
The great cabin was smaller than what he was used to, but for many months now, it was home. While most of the crew would not agree, Bronsan found his own small cabin to be quaint and comfortable, he would miss it, but not overly much.
From around his neck, he took a key that he kept tucked under his shirt and unlocked the sea chest bolted to the cabin's floor. From it, he took a large, leather-bound book. He set the book on the desk next to a tin cup filled with steaming water. On a long narrow shelf a little more than an arm length from the desk, sat a paper pouch filled with dried tobacco leaves. Stretching over, he took a few leaves from the pouch and crumbled them into the cup.
This was something he would never miss; drinking Arawak tobacco like it was the strong tea he loved so much. He gave it a few minutes to brew, then sipped at the hot, bitter, noxious brew, hoping not to find the religious revelations of the Arawak shamans who used it in their ceremonies.
The desk drawer, perfectly fitted by the ship's carpenter, slid easily. From within, he found a steel nibbed ivory pen amid the shuffle of papers, envelopes, pencils, and quills. The pen was decorated with elaborate scrimshaw depicting the eighteen hundred thirty-three Battle off Cape Horn. Bronsan, in command of a small squadron, chased a fleet of British Royal Navy ships from the Straights of Magellan and kept them from rounding the Horn.
The good old days: the shear panic, helplessly tossed and turned by the steely, gray ocean, carried up to the peaks and sliding straight down into the troughs, all they could see were the monstrous waves like steely gray walls taller than their ships, the constant threat of capsize, and the abject luck that made them heroes instead of penguin fodder. The good old days - indeed.
Forcing such reminisces from his mind, he concentrated on the report. He plotted it carefully before committing any of it to paper. With all of the soundings, and sightings, and observations le Bureau required of them, paper was scarce among his humble expedition. After eight months, he could barely afford a draft copy.
Making the endeavor a greater challenge, English may be the language of the sea, but here, in the interior, under the scope of the Bureau, a wholly governmental and, therefore, French organization, the log entry had to be in that language. And, while he spoke it well enough and could listen and understand, writing it was a skill leaving much to be desired.
And, if he found french difficult to write, it was nothing as compared to this metered standard of measure. The knots, yards, feet, and hogsheads with which he was so familiar were gone, replaced by meteres, kilometeres, grammes, and litres.
Much of the Expedition's paper went to conversion calculations. Unlike Farmer, Bronsan could not keep all those decimaled numbers in his head or draw them out and apply them without so much as a notation. Even after all the years in which the metered, or metric, system was imposed, he still found it necessary to refer to the numerous conversion tables prepared by the Institute.
He turned the logbook until it was centered on the desk. Inscribed in the rich, thick leather was a flowery script that gave him a headache when he stared at it too long.
Le Bureau Examen Continental
Les Républiques-Unis de l'Amérique du Sud
Président Napoleon Bonaparte I
Capitaine de l'Expédition don Eligus Bronsan
The oversized book opened with a creak. Bronsan flipped through the pages, arriving at the next blank one. Dipping the pen into the ink well, he blotted it sparingly and wrote the date at the page's top margin: le 9ième de janvier, 1844.
It was the golden age of the second Napoleonic era. The wars for independence and unification, wars against Spain, Portugal, and the republics themselves, were at an end. Internal conflicts, economic strife, and border disputes were removing themselves from the battlefields and settling in the more contentious and convoluted halls of government. After twenty-three years, the continent, and even the world, had finally reconciled itself to Napoleon's rule, Napoleon's South America.
Copyright 2000, Scott Langley
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