The Golden Conquest – Part 10

“You!  What on earth are you doing here?”

“Stefano, my brother.” The young man’s grin was wide, his eyes bright. “It is you. Oh, praise God. I didn’t know when I would ever see you again. It’s so wonderful to see you, brother.”  He moved to hug his sibling but Stefano stiffly avoided the embrace.

“I said, what are you doing here? You should be back at the monastery. You weren’t expelled, were you?”

“No. No, I—I mean—uh—I am here with Father de la Vega. We are going with Senor Cortes to the new lands to . . .”

“Don’t be a fool, boy. The western lands are no place for a school boy. Go back to Spain.  Go back to your books and parchments.”

“Why are you saying this, Stefano? We are brothers, family. Aren’t you at all happy to see me?”

The soldier’s eyes narrowed as he lowered his voice. “We were never family. We lived together only because father said so. But he’s dead now and the pretense is over.”

“But our mother . . .”

“Your mother, not mine.”

“What? What do you mean?”

“Listen, brat.” Stefano stepped close, his voice tight and angry. “It’s time you knew the truth. Your mother was his second wife. He kept us from telling you—made us accept you as part of the family, always favored you, but he’s not here now. And neither is Joaquin. Our big brother wouldn’t let us tell you even at the funeral. Well, I’m tired of lies.”

“You mean . . . we’re half-brothers?” Stefan gave a sharp laugh and shook his head.

“I’m not even sure of that. There were rumors. Your mother was quite pretty and, well, Father was away a lot. Who knows whose little bastard you really are?”

Henrico felt as if he had been struck. He stood dazed, staring at his brother’s face without speaking. He felt as if the ground beneath his feet was crumbling away. The smirk on Stefano’s face faded but his eyes remained hard. 

“Go,” he said, “Go back to Spain.” 

The young Benedictine spun away and stumbled out of the hall. His eyes stung and he fought against a sob that spilled from his throat.  A grim tightness constricted his chest till he felt as if he could not breathe. He ran down the hill, not thinking or seeing where he went and wandered the darkened streets in confusion. He looked up suddenly at the sound of a barking dog and realized he did not know where he was. In dejected silence he slumped against a stone wall while his thoughts raced back to his childhood. There had always been a distance between himself and his brothers that he had never understood, a barrier that kept them apart. His father seemed to care for him but was often aloof and sometimes harsh. The love he had known had come from his mother. She had been his rock and now even that seemed threatened. Who could he trust? Who could he turn to? 

A crash of breaking glass shook him from his stupor and he looked up to see three figures approaching out of the shadows. The first finished draining a bottle of wine and following the lead of his comrade threw it against the stone wall. Henrico scrambled to his feet as the men stepped into the light. Montoya. The novice shrunk back and attempted to move aside. Too late. The men recognized him and moved to block his escape.

“I’ve been looking for you, monk.” Montoya’s words were slurred by the wine, his face creased in a cruel sneer.  He stepped forward and pulled a long-bladed knife from his belt. “It’s time for one more dance, boy and this will be the last one.” 

Henrico held out his hands, palms upright and began to back away. “I’m unarmed. Just leave me be.”

“Oh, we’ll leave you alright . . . in the gutter.” Montoya looked past him for a moment and jerked his head. “Felipe, don’t let him past.” 

The novice glanced behind him to see that the seaman had picked up the broken bottle and moved between the wall and the street. Edging back to his right Henrico found that way blocked by Cordoba. The bully grinned as he smacked a cudgel against his hand. The Benedictine was surrounded and trapped.

“There’s three of you,” he said, desperation making his voice shrill, “Are you afraid to face me alone?” 

Montoya laughed and waved his companions back. He stepped ahead, weaving the knife before him. The blade slashed through the air but the monk leapt back out of reach. Montoya circled to his left and lunged forward. Henrico side stepped and struck out his fist. Pain shot through his hand but the stabbing ache was overcome by the satisfying crunch his fist made against the sailor’s face. The sailor staggered back, blood streaming from his broken nose. He wiped the blood with his hand and swore.

“Bastard, you’ll suffer for that.” He stabbed out again with his knife. Henrico darted back but stumbled on a loose stone.  The seaman was on him in an instant, hacking at his throat. The Benedictine threw an arm up to block the blow and screamed as the blade cut into his flesh. Gritting his teeth, he punched Montoya in the face once again and rolled away. The two combatants, each bloodied now, clambered back to their feet and continued to circle each other warily. Henrico looked around, frantic to escape. With Felipe on one side and Cordoba on the other, he could see no way out and nothing he could use as a weapon. Montoya advanced once again.

“Would you gentlemen mind if I joined the festivities,” a voice called from the shadows. Ponce D’Amarco stepped into the light drawing his sword as he did. “Really, Henrico, it seems I am always interrupting your fun.”

“You’re not wanted here, d’Amarco.” Montoya glared at the nobleman and swore. “This is not your affair.”

“Ah, but I’ve decided to make it so.”

“What kind of game do you think you’re playing? You can’t have things both ways.” 

“I suggest.” The young aristocrat’s voice took on a hard edge. “That you and your—ah, friends leave . . . now!” He lifted his sword slowly. Felipe had been moving stealthily closer and suddenly lunged forward with the broken bottle. D’Amarco parried the strike easily with the flat of his blade and pounded the hilt into his attacker’s face. The man crumpled to the ground with a groan. Raising his sword once again, he spoke again. “As I said, it’s time for you to go.”

“You bastard,” Montoya cursed, “You know what the Dom . . .” His words were cut off as the courtier’s blade whipped out, the tip coming to rest against the bully’s neck. D’Amarco’s smile was grim.

“Enough talk. Save your breath while you still can and leave this place.”

Snarling with anger the sailor backed away. Motioning Cordoba to help their fallen comrade, he sheathed his knife, and slunk back into the shadows.

“This isn’t over,” he called as they slipped away, “I swear it’s not.”

D’Amarco stood for a moment till he was sure they were gone and then turned to the injured monk. Returning his sword to its scabbard, he inspected Henrico’s wound. The courtier pulled out a silken cloth from his doublet and skillfully bound the cut. “There, I think you’ll survive.”

Henrico’s face was pale and a sheen of sweat covered his brow. He felt chilled and fevered at the same time. He started to step away but staggered and almost fell. D’Amarco steadied him with one arm and then stooped to pick up the bottle of wine Cordoba had dropped.

“Come, my friend,” his rescuer said with a whisper, “You need to rest. My inn is not far.”  Slipping his arm under the Benedictine’s uninjured one he supported him as they walked down the street. Henrico nodded his assent and glanced at the aristocrat. There was something almost cynical on the man’s face for a moment. A wave of nausea forced his eyes to the ground as the quiet blackness of the night closed in after them.

Father Garcilosa sat on the edge of his bed and prayed in the moonlight. The weeks in Cuba had passed slowly and he had watched Henrico become sullen and withdrawn. The priest knew something had happened the night of the Governor’s fiesta but not all of it. Something was troubling the lad. He did his work diligently but without joy. A spark had gone out of the young monk. The priest was not sure what had happened. It had to be more than the fight with Montoya. He hoped Henrico would open up to him and share his troubles. In the interim, Father Garcilosa would continue to pray.

Other thoughts came to his mind. Captain Quintero was also disheartened. He had been unable to find a cargo to take back to Spain.  The captain had shared with Father Garcilosa his concerns about his crew. He feared not for their safety but with losing them to others. The longer they lingered in port the more stories they heard of the wealth and splendor of the lands to the west. And the more they were tempted to join Cortes on his expedition. The priest shook his head slowly as his reflections and prayers turned to Cortes.

Tensions between the charismatic general and the island’s governor were growing. Cortes had judged it best to increase the distance between them and had moved his base out of Havana. For reasons Garcilosa did not understand, he had taken Brother Sebastian and d’Amarco with him. Once in his own camp the soldier began take on more and more authority, and placed himself in solitary command. Velazquez saw what was happening and his anger and jealousy grew. Everyone was beginning to wonder how the conflict would end. A soft knocking on his door pulled the priest away from his musings. Cautiously he opened the door of his room to find Olmedo waiting for him. 

In hushed tones, the first mate explained his mission. Quintero wanted them aboard ship as soon as they could be there. They should bring all their belongings. The streets were dark and quiet as the clerics hastened to the harbor. The sailors were silent and even the oarlocks of the boat that carried them out to the Gabriella had been muffled with rags. The ship lay in deep shadows, men gliding over the deck and up the rigging like ghosts. The final clicks of the capstan sounded like gunshots as the anchor was secured home. The ship turned slowly to catch the wind and began to move soundlessly out of the harbor. Olmedo motioned the two clerics into Quintero’s cabin.

The air in the small room was stale and warm. Canvas was draped over the already shuttered windows to prevent any stray light from escaping. Only after the door had been firmly closed did Quintero move to uncover a small lantern to dispel a portion of the gloom. Leaning forward, he spoke in a hoarse whisper.

“There’s been a change in plans, my friends. I’m afraid the Governor has decided to remove Cortes as head of the mission.”

“What does Cortes plan to do?”

“Just what you’d expect, Father. Hernan is starting out now, before Velazquez can act. We’ll rendezvous with his flotilla at dawn and then proceed westward.”

“I see. But what of your plans to return to Spain and what of your cargo?”

“I’ve changed my mind. I won’t be going back to Spain because the only cargo I could find to carry was for Cortes. It’s onboard already. Sixteen horses, three pieces of artillery and a couple of tons of powder and shot; all for Cortes’ forces. Of course, they’ll be replaced with something even more valuable once we make landfall.” The sea captain shrugged and spread his hands. “A man has to make a living.” 

When the two clerics came on deck the next morning, they found the Gabriella in the midst of ten other vessels. They had found the rest of the fleet and joined them on their westward journey. Within days, they once more sighted land. The ships skirted the lush green coastline of the place, exploring the bays and inlets of an area Henrico would later learn was called the Yucatan. Cortes did not make camp but continued westward. Only rarely did any of the expedition go ashore and then only to seek information and fresh supplies. On one such occasion, Father Garcilosa and Henrico were allowed to accompany the shore party.

The young Benedictine was fascinated to watch Cortes as he led the men away from their boats and along a jungle path. He seemed so confident, totally unafraid.  A village had been spotted from the ships and Cortes strode boldly into the center of it. At first the village seemed deserted but after a few moments dark eyes could be seen peering from the foliage. Cortes ordered a blanket spread out upon the ground and a variety of trinkets laid upon it. He then sat cross-legged on the blanket. He did not have to wait for long.

An old man came first. When he was able to approach Cortes and even take one of the trinkets from the blanket without any harm occurring to him, he turned and gestured to the trees. Within moments over a hundred natives drifted into the clearing. One of them of them came and sat on the blanket across from Cortes. He carried an ornately carved staff and worn a headdress decorated with bright feathers. Henrico heard a murmur go through the men around him.  The band of the chief’s headdress shone dully in the sunlight. It was made of gold.

Cortes waved one of the sailors forward to stand beside him. The man had joined him in Cuba and could speak some of the coastal dialect. Henrico and Father Garcilosa had been working with him to learn the language and they listened now as he interpreted for the two leaders. The chief spoke slowly, often glancing over his shoulder as he did. No, they had not met white men before. Yes, the visitors were welcome. They were a poor tribe but peaceful.  No, the white men would not be wise to stay here. It was too hard to get enough food and there was no wealth here.

The man seemed to become more evasive when Cortes pressed him about his head band. It had come from the west, a gift the chief said but he did not say from whom. The west was a mystery to him. His clan did not go there. There might be richer tribes there but he did not know.  Perhaps the white men should go there. Perhaps they should go soon. The chief accepted the gifts Cortes had lain out on the blanket and returned a gift of his own. A string of about twenty slaves were led from the jungle and presented to the Spaniards. The slaves would help speed them on their journey.

One of them would prove invaluable. She was a young native woman who spoke not only the language of the coastal tribes but also that on the interior. Cortes’s sailor and the native woman were able to speak together and interpret the rumors and legends that came to them. These legends were what drove Cortes and his men on—tales of a great and powerful empire further to the west. A land of staggering wealth and power—a land that Cortes now vowed to conquer.

Onward the little flotilla sailed, hopping from harbor to harbor along the jungle encrusted coast. The coastline curved to the southwest and then back to the north. The forests remained thick and lush, filled with strange sights and eerie sounds. The specter of the unknown began to eat at their confidence as the sailors began to grumble and complain. They were fearful of anything mysterious and the doubts and questions raised by the land off their bows played upon their superstitions. The familiarity of Spain or even Cuba began to call to them. At last Cortes announced that they had sailed far enough. The fleet would disembark.

Father Garcilosa and Henrico did not accompany the first group to go ashore but they learned the details later. Cortes had led a force of fifty men up through the surf onto a broad sandy beach.  They were confronted by a mass of fierce natives elaborately garbed in feathers and animal skins. Brandishing spears and clubs, the aboriginal warriors advanced on the small band of Spaniards, shouting and chanting in a strange tongue. They were silenced when Cortes stepped forward with his musket men and fired a devastating volley into their midst. A second volley put the entire force to flight, leaving the sandy beach stained with blood.

By the time Cortes had brought up the remainder of his men the natives had returned. But this time they advanced unarmed, their empty hands above their heads as they hesitantly stepped from the jungle. Their chief approached Cortes and threw himself down on the sand before him. It took some time for his words to be translated but soon the Spaniards were able to understand his intent. These were the Cempoalans and they were appalled that they had offended the newcomers. Their old masters would have required it. But now that Cortes was here, they had a new master and a new protector.  The chief would provide all that Cortes would need—food, water, slaves. Henrico had been told that at this, the Spanish commander had lifted the chief up and embraced him as a brother and an ally.

“Well, this will be sure to get old Velazquez stirred up,” Quintero was saying as he entered the tent.  Father Garcilosa and Henrico had been storing the last of their belongings in the temporary shelter when the sea captain had burst in.

“And what is it that you think will so distress the Governor?” the priest asked with a smile.

“Hernan has put the men and our new found allies to work building a city.  He has named it Villa Rica de la Vera Cruz.”

“But how should that be of concern, my friend?”

“It’s of concern because he’s doing just what Velazquez suspected he would. He has repudiated the Governor’s authority over us and declared himself chief officer of the settlement, second only to the King! Oh, he’s a bold one alright,” Quintero said with a wide grin, “He’ll not be content to explore this new land, he means to conquer all of it.”

“You seem almost proud of him.”

“Huh, well I suppose I am a bit. There’ll be a fortune to be made that’s for sure. But sadly, I won’t be here to share it.”

“I thought that you’d be waiting for a cargo before you return to Spain.”

“Oh, I had hoped to. But my dear Cortes is being a bit too sly even for me.” The sailor leaned forward to speak in a hoarse whisper. “I’ve learned by pure chance that he’s determined a way to ensure the continued loyalty of his men. He’s going to burn the ships so they have no choice but to follow him.” Henrico had been standing back, listening with feigned disinterest but now stepped forward.

“What?” he said, “Why would he do—”

“Hush, lad,” Quintero said, “We’ve got to keep this quiet or there could be a riot. I understand why Cortes is doing this. He’s only got five hundred men and if many desert his plans are ruined. Still, I’ll not let him burn my sweet Gabriella. As soon as its dusk, I sail back for Cuba.”

Father Garcilosa leaned forward to place a hand on Quintero’s shoulder. “We understand, my friend. We will stay with the expedition.” Henrico turned away and shuffled back into the shadowed corner of the tent.

“I expected so, Father. But listen, I’ll not forget you. I think Velazquez will have need of ships for a while and that he’ll pay good coin for the work . . . and for the information I can offer.” Quintero stood and grasped the priest with both arms. Glancing over at Henrico, he continued, “I promise you this.  In five months, I will bring the Gabriella back to this spot. I’ll wait for you for a fortnight. If you’re here and want to go, I’ll get you both back to Spain.” The two men embraced. Henrico only stared down at the ground without speaking.

The coming of the dawn confirmed Quintero’s prophesy.  Amid anxious shouts and angry words, the two clerics stepped from their quarters to see the sea ablaze. The entire flotilla was on fire. Some of the sailors attempted to row out to combat the inferno but quickly had to abandon the attempt. A group of irate men turned and marched toward their commander. Cortes had climbed onto one of the horses and raised his hands to quiet the mob. His request was reinforced by the presence of a squad of musket men, their weapons at the ready. The heated shouts and cries were reduced to angry murmurs.

Cortes smiled broadly as he spoke. “Friends, comrades, let us not be disheartened by this terrible event. Yes, you are correct. We have lost our way back to Cuba. But before us lies a great adventure. To the west is an empire of vast wealth ready to be seized.” He spun his horse about and as it reared up drew his sword with a flourish. “We are few in number that is true but as we have already seen the natives of this land are simple and primitive. It will be a simple matter of marching and do you know what will happen? We shall all be rich and powerful men!” 

The fury had gone out of the men. Their rage gave way to excitement and their shouts changed to cheers.

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