The Viceroyalty of New Grenada, 1765
Sergeant Ricardo Morales stood listening intently to nothing. Apart from one sad, distant, bird call, the surrounding jungle seemed to have been consumed by an immense silence. Two other Spanish soldiers waited with him, hidden in some bushes either side of an overgrown trail deep in the Panamanian jungle.
Then they heard it. The sounds of someone, or something, coming fast down the trail towards them.
“Fire on my command,” said the Sergeant quietly to the other two, pressing his musket butt against his bearded cheek and lining up his aim on the empty trail ahead.
Like escaping lunatics, crashing madly through the overgrowth, two Cimarrons appeared running desperately down the trail towards them. The sergeant waited until they were almost upon them before he ordered, “fire!”
A fusillade of noise and smoke exploded from the bushes. The front Cimarron was hit and fell backwards. The second Cimarron stopped, utterly startled, looked around him like a hunted animal, and took off at right angles into the cover of some thicker bushes off the trail.
“Both of you, after him!” ordered the sergeant. The two soldiers with him got up and went crashing through the undergrowth in pursuit.
The sergeant hurriedly reloaded his musket and waited again, listening. The sulphurous smoke from the musket shots slowly dispersed in the still air and the jungle fell silent once more.
When he felt confident no one else was coming, Sergeant Morales emerged from the bushes. He was a big man with a severe face, a big black beard and heavy eyebrows. He approached the wounded Cimarron who lay on his back looking up, his shirtfront a swamp of blood.
Cimarrons were half-caste negroes mixed with the local Indians, the offspring of escaped slaves who fled into the Panamanian jungle to live as outlaws with the Indians or in bands scratching a living from agriculture, hunting and banditry.
Morales stood over the wounded man, pointed his bayonet down at him and kicked his thigh. The Cimarron grimaced. There was blood in his mouth, covering his yellow teeth.
“Hey, bandito, can you talk?”
The pitiful man looked up at him, his eyes fearfully betraying some inexplicable horror. Morales tried to ask him some questions and kicked him two more times, but the hapless fellow seemed too close to death to talk.
“Oye’ bandito”, said the sergeant sternly, leaning forward and lowering the point of his long, thin, sharp bayonet directly in front of the dying man’s face,“I will stick this bayonet into your damned eye if you don’t speak to me. You hear?”
The dying man looked at him dreadfully. He attempted, falteringly, to say something through the blood now clogging his throat and mouth, a forlorn, incoherent burble. He made no sense. He was beyond help, too overwhelmed fighting for his pathetic life.
Morales waited a bit, savouring his power over him, this half-caste, before leaning forward and pushing his sharp-pointed bayonet through the dying Cimarrons’s left eye and deep into his brain. The Cimarron let out a tortured gnarl, arched his back and kicked his right leg out before expiring.
The sergeant ground his bayonet tip around a bit inside his brain, withdrew it and wiped it off on his dirty trousers. Then he knelt down and searched through his pockets. He found two silver coins, a rosary, and a small wooden cross.
“These didn’t help you much, did they bandito?” he told the bloody corpse solemnly as he threw the rosary and cross away into the bushes. He pocketed the two silver coins and stood up. He looked vigilantly at the jungle around him, listening, before setting off in a cautious, crouching walk back up the trail towards the bandits camp.
Morales’s mother was a whore and he had no idea who his father was. He could have been any of the men his mother used to bring back to their dank room in the squalid backstreets of Badajoz, usually kicking young Ricardo out into the street while she worked.
His mother had died from syphilis when he was still young. Dementia brought on by the syphilis meant she stopped recognising him long before she died, which was the most heartbreaking and incomprehensible thing for the young lad. After her death, he survived on his own as a street thief and delinquent until a local magistrate sentenced him to be sent off to the infantry. There he killed his first man with a bayonet in a muddy trench in the rain before he was fifteen.
That night after the battle his commanding officer and fellow soldiers praised him for his bravery. It was the first time young Rico had ever been praised, he felt proud. He had enjoyed killing that man, his feeling of power and victory over his victim as he had dispatched him and he had killed many people since.
As the sergeant approached the bandits’ camp, he peered cautiously through the foliage to confirm that his men had captured it. They had. He shouted out the password and entered the camp in its gloomy forest clearing. There were two low thatched huts and a skinned and gutted howler monkey stretched out on a makeshift wooden rack still being smoked over a smouldering fire.
Corporal Ruiz was standing over a negro seated on the ground with his hands tied behind his back. Three or four other dead bandits lay sprawled abjectly around.
“Sergeant! Over here!” a voice shouted out.
A huddle of soldiers crouched together off to his right. He went over. Lying on his back amongst them was Lieutenant de Pedraza, their commanding officer; his shirt was open exposing a large, bloody, sucking chest wound.
“That one over there stuck him through with that pike sir,” explained a soldier nodding towards a nearby dead bandit and a rough-hewn, but sharp, wooden spear.
Morales got down on one knee to examine the young lieutenant who looked up and tried falteringly to speak amongst the blood and his gasps for air.“In God’s name be still sir, you’ve got a punctured lung,” said Morales in his brusque Badajoz accent. He brushed away the buzzing flies, which had begun to migrate over from the half-cooked howler monkey to the more bounteous smell of the lieutenant’s fresh, juicy blood.
“Try to move his face down to clear his mouth so he can breath better,” he ordered the other crouching soldiers. But as they tried to gently turn him on to his side, he coughed up a thick discharge of deep red blood and died. They tried to resuscitate him but he was gone.
“May his soul rest with the lord,” said Morales, still kneeling, crossing himself and looking grave. But actually, he was thrilled.The army had felt that despite Morales’s obvious tracking and fighting ability, his brutish nature made him unsuitable for leadership. So he had languished as a corporal in the years since his regiment was sent to America.
Just a few weeks ago, however, like a sinister wind blowing through the corridors and barrack-rooms from the surrounding mangroves, a cholera epidemic had swept through Fort San Lorenzo and had carried off several men, including the two sergeants in the fort. With few others to choose from in that remote Caribbean bastion, it was reluctantly decided to promote Corporal Morales. And only a month later, now as Sergeant Morales, with his lieutenant dead, he was in command of his own patrol. Now he would show them.
He called the men together and announced, “Men, Lieutenant Pedraza has just died, I am now in charge. Is anyone else wounded?”
“Is this all there were?” he asked, pointing at the four dead bandit corpses.“We think there were eight sir, four dead, one alive and two or three ran off your way.”“We saw only two, we killed one and Luis and Enrique went after the other. Have you found anything to link them to the Camino raid?”
“Yes, sir, this bag of Peruvian silver coins was in that hut there and they had four Spanish military muskets.”Morales checked the booty. They had been sent out to track down the bandits who had raided an armed silver convoy on the Camino de Cruces, the thin, cobbled Spanish-built road, which threaded through the Isthmus of Panama from the Pacific to the Caribbean. The road was called the “Camino de Cruces”, “Road of Crosses” due to the many Spanish who had died building, traversing and protecting it over the years.
Morales ordered all his men to gather around the last surviving Negro prisoner who was bound and seated on the ground. He took out his large hunting knife and knelt behind him. The negro, now with terror in his eyes, started desperately protesting his innocence. Morales grabbed his long frizzy hair, pulled his head back violently and put his knife blade hard into his exposed throat.
“Please have mercy señor” the Negro pleaded in utter desperation, “I am not a bandit. I was their prisoner señor; they forced me to come with them here. I am a farmer from the Augustinian settlement at Ramlos, a man of god. I swear it on God’s name, señor.”
“Our lieutenant over there is dead,” said Morales. “He was a good man and we are angry. You have one chance to survive amigo and that’s if you tell me the truth. If not, hear me well, I’ll cut out your eyes, cut off your hands and feet and leave you here as a feast for the ants and wild pigs, you understand?” He pulled the knife more sharply into the Negro’s throat, breaking the skin and drawing some blood.
“Please señor, have mercy.” Croaked the Negro in desperation, “This is the truth señor. The bandits came to our village at Ramlos. They said they would kill my wife and children if I did not come with them. I am only a farmer with a family I love señor. I was their prisoner I had to carry things for them, they forced me, please believe me señor,”“Did they raid the silver train last month?”
“Si… they had silver coins, but I only carried for them from Ramlos to here senor… they made me. I killed no one, I am an Augustinian farmer, a man of God, I was just their prisoner. Lord God, please believe me.”
“So where are the coins?”
“I don’t know, I think maybe some are still in Ramlos sir, some other prisoners with us carried off most of it by mule three days ago. I think they were going to near Nombre de Dios where they have a camp.”“Does the friar at Ramlos know of this? Does he work with them?”
“Maybe señor, I don’t know, I am just a farmer there. I was forced. I just want to go home to my family señor.”Morales took his sharp knife from the man’s throat, forced it inside his mouth, then jerked the sharp blade out sideways slicing clean open the prisoner’s cheek from the inside out.
“You are in luck, my friend. I believe you. So for now, you live. But you will come with us to Ramlos to check your story - and may God help you if you are lying.” He pushed the disfigured, bleeding negro back onto the ground and stood up.Privates Luis and Enrique, the two soldiers who had ambushed the Cimarrons on the path with Morales, shouted the password and reappeared in the clearing.
“Did you get him?” asked Morales.
“No, sir, he was fast like a monkey, we lost him, sorry sir.”
Morales thought for a while then turned to the men.“We will go to visit this new Augustinian settlement at Ramlos. But we shall take them a present.”He ordered four soldiers forward, and one by one, handed them his hunting knife and made them cut off the heads of the bandit corpses lying around the clearing. Their four severed heads were put in an old hessian sack and Morales ordered private Lorenzo, a man he felt was too soft, to carry them in a hessian sack to Ramlos.The others cut branches to construct a stretcher to transport the lieutenant’s corpse back to the Camino Real where he would be buried, and become just another cross on the Camino de Cruces.They finished roasting and ate the meat of the howler monkey on the rack. It was rich but stringy. After gathering up all the booty and their kit, they set fire to the two thatched huts and left the four headless corpses unburied.
It was late in the afternoon when they set off, just as the massed howler monkeys high in the forest canopy began their early evening whooping, creating an eerie universal chorus, which seemed to resonate forever throughout that boundless tropical jungle.
The young soldier strode purposefully along the polished Zapatero wood floor in front of the Magistrate. His heels resonated firmly in the dim light of the long empty corridor until he stopped and knocked on a large polished wooden door with an ornate stucco Mantelpiece. A distant call of “Entra!” was barked out from behind it.
The soldier turned the large black iron handle and opened the heavy door. He then stood back formally and announced:“Magistrate Don Almendra is here to see you General sir.”
“Show him in.”The magistrate thanked the soldier and walked past him into the room. The soldier closed the door behind him and one could hear his purposeful steps fading as he returned down the corridor.At the far end of the big room, near a bay window with a panoramic view over the harbour of Panama Town, the general was sitting behind a large, solid desk in his shirtsleeves. He was a fit-looking man for his age with a composed face. He pushed his chair back, stood up, and walked round to greet the magistrate.
“Don Gilberto” he said, “good to see you again, please have a seat.”
The magistrate, a plump, melancholy man, was dressed in expensive clothes and had broken into a sweat on the walk to the office.“If you don’t mind may I take my jacket off?”
“By all means” replied the general who then went over to one side of the big bay window and opened it, which allowed a warm afternoon sea breeze to gently enter the room. The magistrate hung his blue jacket and cream silk waistcoat on the back of his chair, pulled his damp white cotton shirt out away from his body and began fanning it in and out, then he took his seat, took out his handkerchief and wiped his brow.
The general moved over to an ornate sideboard against a wall, picked up a decorated mother of pearl box and opened it to reveal several brown cigarillos. He offered the box to the magistrate. “Cigarillo?”
“I will, thank you,” said the magistrate, reaching forward and plucking one from the box. The general handed him some matches.
“A glass of water… or,” he paused, “maybe some wine?” asked the general, raising his eyebrows naughtily. “It’s already the afternoon,”The magistrate smiled, “No thank you, I just finished a fine lunch at the club” and set about lighting his cigarillo. After several puffs and exhales, he got it going and put the matches back on the desk and leant back on his chair.“So what can I do for you Don Gilberto?” asked the general as he reached for the same matches to light his own cigarillo.
“It’s about the events at the Augustinian mission at Ramlos last month. The Augustinians, the bishop and his crowd are baying for blood and threatening all manner of repercussions so I need to work something out to keep the peace.”
“And what exactly do they want?”“They are demanding that the officer in charge be hanged and the soldiers involved are sent to labour in one of their new missions in the south.”The general looked at the magistrate a while, then he drew on his cigarillo,“As you have probably heard” he started, “Lieutenant De Pedraza was in charge of that operation, but was killed the day before. You know the fellow? He was that handsome young, blond Castilian officer who so impressed the women at Dona Alvarez’s dinner before the concert last month.”
“Yes, I heard about his death, he was indeed a capital young man, you have my condolences general.”
The general acknowledged his condolences with a silent nod then continued, “He was killed by the bandits they were sent to hunt, the ones who raided the silver shipment on the Camino near Santa Esmeralda. As you may imagine sir, his men were in a most disquiet state of mind over the affair. It fell to a newly promoted sergeant called Morales to take command. I am told this Sergeant Morales is a rather bitter and rancorous fellow, but due to many recent deaths from cholera at Fort San Lorenzo, Colonel Vasquez had to promote him as the best of a bad lot. This sergeant, like his men, was also angry. They had found some bandits with coins from the silver shipment who confirmed they had just come from the new Augustinian mission at Ramlos and swore that the friar there was involved.”
“Well maybe,” interjected the magistrate, “but how will we ever know what those bandits really said as your men cut off all their heads before there was any proper testimony. And general, both the friar and the Augustinians deny any involvement. They are most upset at the allegation and say there is no evidence.”
“My men were looking for such evidence,” said the General “and frankly that’s their job Don Gilberto, however, lamentably, it does seem this time they were rather heavy-handed.”
“Heavy-handed!” the magistrate snorted indignantly. “From what I hear they threw severed heads around the place like confetti at a lord’s wedding. They cut off one of the friars fingers, blasphemed, ransacked their buildings and stole all their silver.”
“They did not steal all their silver, Gilberto. The coins have been returned. They were merely taken as evidence to check them against the other Peruvian coins from the shipment.”
There was a pause. Then the magistrate exhaled disconsolately, “Look general, I did not come here to argue with you. Indeed to be very frank, I don’t really care a fig what they did out there in the jungle, but now I’ve got the damned bishop threatening to get the cardinal in Cartagena involved and other shit I can live without. You know the infernal Augustinians these days? They are getting almost as powerful as the Jesuits were. So in the name of God I just need to know what we can do so I can get some damned peace.”
The general walked over to the large bay window and drew again on his cigarillo, then slowly exhaled. He gave the magistrate a taciturn look.
“Gilberto, you know that if it was not for my soldiers, in less than a year we’d all be overrun by our slaves, the Protestants, English, French, Dutch or any number of godforsaken pirates. Whilst this Sergeant Morales does indeed seem to be a rather brutish fellow, I’m also informed he is a brave and skilled soldier. Those Augustinians may criticise him, but if men like him were not out there in the front lines defending them, those friars and bishops would not have their fancy houses, their fat tithes and their immoral servants.”
The general stopped again and thought for a while, then took another drag on his cigar.
“You see the galleon out there?” he asked pointing with the but-end of his cigarillo. The magistrate got up from his chair and walked to the window fanning his shirt a bit more.
“The one heading to Acapulco and Manila?”
“Yes. From what I hear our East Indies colony is a tropical hell-hole lost to the world.”
“Rather like our colony here then?” interjected the magistrate.
“Quite,” agreed the general, showing a curt smile, “but we are not nearly as isolated. There are over a thousand islands in that colony and less than a thousand Spanish soldiers in the whole damned place. That’s half of the troops we have here. They have many more people to control and are surrounded by barbarous Muslims, chomping at the bit to cut all their throats. The British captured Manila in just a few days last war and quite frankly I think they only gave us the bloody place back as they felt it was ungovernable.”
“And your point is?” interrupted the magistrate.
“Soldiers like Sergeant Morales are desperately needed over there, Gilberto. Why on earth would we hang someone like him here when our East Indies colony is crying out for men like him?”
The general took another drag on his cigarillo and paused awhile.
“Here’s my suggestion,” he said, turning to the magistrate directly. “I refuse to punish my men because they were trying to do their jobs even if they overstepped the mark. Only God knows if that friar or those at that mission are innocent or not, and, if they were guilty, the Sergeant’s actions may have put a stop to any further such nefarious goings-on. A heavy hand can sometimes work wonders, as you yourself know. However, here’s what I’ll offer to try to give you your peace. I’ll have this Morales put aboard that galleon tomorrow and sent off to Manila and I give you my word he’ll never be seen in the Viceroyalty of Grenada again. I’ll also write a letter of regret, not apology hear, but regret, to the bishop. But please be clear, the army will not lose face to those Augustinians simply because my men were trying to catch some bandits. Which is exactly what they are bloody paid and trained to do. So please go back to the Augustinians and tell them whatever you need to tell them to get satisfaction. But I will concede no more than that. And hear me, from my mouth to God’s ears, if they do not accept my offer, I can also make plenty of trouble for them, if push wants to come to shove.”
The magistrate stood silent and pensive, looking at the general’s formidable eyes. He turned to look at the bright harbour outside for a while then sighed and looked mournfully back at the general.
“Very well. I should be able to make a settlement with them on those terms. But general, please get that sergeant onto that galleon tomorrow and make sure he leaves with it and never comes back.”