Tuesday, October 08, 2013

River (Pt. XIV)

Jonah's performance grinds forward. Not a single soul has left the area around the food cart. Hector, forgotten behind the counter, rests on his elbows, himself caught up in the show. La abuelita rocks on her stool, working her beads. Passers-by from the esplanade collect on the periphery. Flo moves from the bench to a place in the shade, nearer to Jonah, tickling the edge of his vision. Only Eddie seems to have lost interest. He sits with his back to Jonah, staring out at the river. It bothers Jonah, but he files it away for later analysis. The show must go on.


The years rolled swiftly past. Eligius began to bud into manhood and by his twelfth year, worked the farm with Máximo. He learned to harvest indigo alongside the slaves. He learned to slaughter and butcher livestock and salt the meat for sale to the Spanish garrisons in San Juan and Bayamón. Whipcord muscles knotted his arms and legs.

Máximo was well-pleased. If the boy would ever assume management of the estate, he must first learn the work, truly. But his actions proved him eager to do so.

Tastes for vivid, exotic apparel did not wane in the fashionable quarters of the great European cities.
Máximo's decision to raise indigo brought him great wealth. He doubled the number of slaves on his estate and cleared land much further inland. In time, his holdings became so expansive that it took him a full day to walk the perimeter which extended from the shore well into the hinterland.

But peril loomed at the far corners of
Máximo's lands. Runaway slaves and castaways inhabited the shadows of the highlands, and more than once, Máximo saw evidence of their presence. Cold ashes from campfires, carcasses of poached animals, discarded clothes and broken tools. Now and then a shallow grave. Máximo never left the homestead unarmed, but the vagabonds themselves stayed out of sight.

On the water, El Cocodrilo del Mar's reputation grew. Every merchant ship carried tales of his plunder. In San Juan, the Governor proclaimed a bounty of 500 doubloons that carried all the weight of an old crone's mutterings at the campfire. All knew that more than gold or soldiers would be needed to capture the Crocodile. Some said he could breathe water; that he dwelt in an underwater cave not a cannon shot's distance from El Morro itself; that he knew of every ship that passed through the mouth of San Juan bay. They said he was a master of disguise and deception and spoke fifteen languages and was at home among any crowd. The people believed he had the run of the city, and frequented the brothels and taverns in the township. He was said to carry a string of human ears around his neck and a pouch at his belt, filled with the powdered bones of victims of his piracy.

The more responsible citizens of San Juan,
Máximo and the Governor among them, scoffed at such romantic notions. And yet, no matter what he said, the Governor was never without an armed escort when he passed through San Juan's streets, and they said he burned a lamp in his chambers all through the night. 

For Eligius, El Cocodrilo was an exciting whisper passed between the slaves when they rested in the courtyard after the day's labors. Entertaining, yes. But life was cutting indigo and slaughtering livestock or learning letters from Lupe's stern hand.

In his fourteenth year, on the very anniversary of the day when Lupe had found him, Eligius's stood on the far edge of the Fuentes' territory, staring at markings in the mud of a stream bank. He did not know of the anniversary; Lupe had never told him the story. Nor did he know that he stood beside the very stream by which Lupe had found him all those years ago. What interested him were the markings.

Two sets of prints from two very different animals pocked the soft mud beside the slow-moving water.

The first set was the cloven-hoof markings of a boar. The animal was known to Eligius. He'd seen it rooting in the mud over the past several weeks.
Máximo had recently instructed the boy on the use of the matchlock musket and when Máximo left the estate that morning, Eligius decided that this would be the day that the beast would die. He entertained visions of presenting the carcass, dressed-out and ready for salting, to Máximo upon the older man's return.

The other set of prints intrigued Eligius greatly. They were bootprints. Each print had a distinct heel and sole that suggested sturdy boots. Nothing that a lawless refugee might be expected to wear.

Eligius spoke to Ancianito, the old mestizo slave who had accompanied him on his patrol. 'What have we here, old one?' he asked.

'Caution, young master,' said Ancianito. 'There is danger here.'

'A poacher,' the boy said. 'Go back and fetch my father. Tell him what passes. I will follow this trail and take the lay of the land.'

Ancianito hesitated. 'Young master, think on it carefully. Escaped slaves don't wear boots...'

'Don't worry, old man,' the boy replied. 'These outlaws are craven. They flee before the righteous.' This was a truth that Lupe had taught him.

'Master, this is not a common vagabond.'

'Ancianito, do as I say,'Eligius

Disapproval showed in the reluctance of the old man's steps and the sullen set of his shoulders. Nonetheless he obeyed. Eligius waited until he was swallowed in Spanish elm and satinwood.

Eligius checked the powder in the pan of the heavy musket and stowed the match in his breast pocket. It was a heavy, awkward weapon, but after weeks of practice he could fire and reload nearly as quickly as
Máximo. He'd seen the wounds it inflicted when Máximo brought down pigs at fifty paces. Whoever might be up the trail ahead of him would do well to avoid a similar fate.

He proceeded cautiously, but it was not easy going. Holly and itamo real choked the stream-banks and with each step. But the trail of his quarry was clear. The pig and the man (Eligius assumed it was a man) used the stream as their highway.

Verdant canopy concealed the sun. The heavy musket and the difficulty of progress wore on
Eligius. Sweat poured into the boy's eyes, and doubt gnawed at his heart. He was well beyond the boundaries of the Fuentes estate. Never before had he been this far into the interior. Perhaps it would be best to turn back and meet Máximo. Ancianito had spoken truly: Eligius had no idea who or what lay ahead. 

He came to a bosky area where the stream widened into a calm, green pool. A dim light filtered through the leafy canopy. Shadows shrouded the undergrowth. A round stone at the water's edge offered an inviting resting place. Eligius leaned the musket butt-down in the crook of an elm and sat down to catch his breath.

As his breathing calmed, the boy became aware of the sounds around him. He heard the kow-kow-kuk of a lizard-cuckoo, the croaking of coquí, but beneath those there was only silence. No grunts from a rooting boar; no sound of man. Eligius took comfort in the thought that his pursuit was likely forlorn. 

'You'll find your musket to be of little use in this terrain.' The voice seemed to come from the trees overhead. 

Panic gripped Eligius heart. 'Who's there?' he cried, springing to his feet and reaching for the musket. 

Movement flashed in the corners of his vision. A rustle in the shadows. A gleeful laugh. Splashing in the shallows. Before any of it could register, Eligius stared into the maw of a pistol, match alight and hissing. He froze.

'Don't get frisky, boy.' A leering face came into focus behind the pistol. 'Stay where you are.'

'That's right, lad, nice and easy.' A second voice. Eligius did not take his eyes off the bore of the pistol, pointed directly at his face. 

More shapes came out of the shadows. Three, four, six --too many to count. 

'Señor Abaroa, lower your firearm.' The second voice carried a tone of command. 

The pistol dropped. Eligius's vision cleared.

A motley assortment of at least a dozen men surrounded him, leaning against tree boles, squatting in the shallow water, seated on low branches. They were clad mostly in rags, but each man had a weapon of some kind --a firearm or a blade --at hand or tucked in his belt.

The pistol-holder grinned like a maniac. He was bald, his eyes seemed unfocused, and the corners of his mouth trembled. Eligius was stilled to a deadly calm --the fellow was mad.

 'A long-barreled musket is not a weapon for the forest, lad.' Again the commanding voice. 

Eligius slid his eyes toward the source. A tall, slender figure stood nearby. He held Eligius's musket before him, examining it with interest. He had a sharp chin honed to a point by a goatee and black curls hanging at his shoulders. His clothes were several cuts above those of his companions. He sported a wide-brimmed hat from which sprouted a dazzling parrot plume. Despite the heat, the man wore a seaman's jacket and knee-high leather boots. Eligius saw the boots and knew that the pursuit was ended.

'Who are you?' the boy asked.

Soft laughter rippled among the men. The tall stranger smiled. 'Don't you know?' he asked.

An impossible realization dawned on Eligius, but he did not answer. He thought of Lupe and Dolores and his vision blurred.

El Cocodrilo smiled with his eyes. 'Now, now, lad, none of that. With any luck, no harm will come to you.' 

To be continued...

Read Part I here.Read Part II here
Read Part III here
Read Part IV here.
Read Part V here
Read Part VI here
Read Part VII here
Read Part VIII here
Read Part IX here.  
Read Part X here
Read Part XI here
Read Part XII here.  
Read Part XIII here
Read Part XIV here
Read Part XV here.  
Read Part XVI here
Read Part XVII here
Read Part XVIII here.

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