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By Lenny Bartulin
Allen & UnwinCopyright © 2013 Lenny Bartulin
All rights reserved.
They'd been on the trail of Ernesto de las Casas and his crew, three days upriver out of Dangriga and thinking about pausing in the shade, when an arrow struck William Burr in the shoulder and nearly knocked him out of the canoe. Natives. He recovered and pulled his two pistols, fired loose at a stand of logwood and fern, what the hell, some kind of courage: but four shots down from the Werner double-barrels and nothing but big holes in the air. The Creoles in the three canoes started paddling for their lives as small yellow arrows burst out of the riverbank, thwacking into the canoe and catching arms and legs, men crying out. Burr spilled his caps, unable to reload. He reached for a musket, but saw it was lying in a puddle of water in the bottom of the damn canoe. Another arrow smacked him in the hip and he howled, grabbing at his side. More continued to fly, zipping like mad insects through the air. Then, just as they were pulling clear of the range, the Creole behind him swung his paddle up out of the water as a shield; it caught Burr real good, right at the base of his skull. He managed to stay in the canoe, but didn't get to see how the whole thing turned out.
* * *
When he opened his eyes next, it was the craggy face of Ethan Hall above him, former surgeon on the Surprise. He now operated a string of river catchments for the loggers, up and down the coast of British Honduras. He was sixty-five years old and had a twenty-two-year-old Honduran wife.
The old man said, 'Might be it now, son, far as luck.' He held up a bottle of aguardiente, the rough Brazilian brandy, said, 'Best if you drink this.'
Burr drank half the bottle, then bit the leather strap of a musket while Ethan Hall tore the arrows from his shoulder and hip. For a week he recovered in the wooden hut at the rear of Hall's property, where the mother-in-law used to live until Hall couldn't stand it any longer. Burr dozed and sweated, burning sun slicing through gaps in the boards and throwing lines over the dirt floor, tired as a hundred men and melancholy, too. He contemplated his future without conclusion. Then the letter from McQuillan arrived, forwarded on from Belize Town.
One thousand acres of prime grazing pasture on the Coal River, Van Diemen's Land, if you want it. Reward from our old friend Lieutenant Governor Arthur (Colonel Holier Than Thou), who appears thwarted in his ability to capture an escaped felon and requires your able assistance. Has a notion in his head that you might know what you're doing.
I pray, laddie, this letter finds you among the living.
John McQuillan, Esq.
Hobart Town, Van Diemen's Land
He hadn't heard from John McQuillan in at least a year or more.
'Timing might be right, son,' the surgeon said, reading over Burr's bandaged shoulder. He'd noticed other scars on the boy's body, too: one a musket ball that had entered above his other hip and straight out behind. 'Maybe resuscitate your luck.'
Burr stared at the letter, said, 'Think they got hostile natives in Van Diemen's Land?'
'No idea,' Ethan Hall said. 'But I'll hope not for ye.'
* * *
Major John McQuillan was ex-cavalry, had ridden with the Scots Greys at Waterloo. When Burr met him in 1823 he was a mahogany trader down in Belize Town, also an adviser on military matters for the British Honduran administration, and a local magistrate, too. Burr was on trial for threatening an officer of the Crown in public. The man was drunk and had stepped into the path of Burr's palomino, which he proceeded to strike with an open hand. Burr had dismounted and handled the situation with the blade of his Spanish sabre, placing the point on the officer's neck, and asking the officer if he wished to take the matter further. The cut was small, barely worth the dab of a handkerchief, though it did bleed a little into the man's stiff military collar. McQuillan disliked the officer — arrogant and assuming a class solidarity — and he dismissed the charges. He offered Burr employment with his timber concern.
Burr said, 'I'm no slave driver.'
McQuillan removed his robes in a small alcove off the courtroom. 'Neither am I.'
'You pull the logs yourself?'
'My workers wear no chains, laddie. They're fed and clothed and dry. Emancipation is only a matter of time.'
'So why do you need me?'
McQuillan smiled, poured good Jamaican rum into two glasses and held one up for Burr. He said, 'For the pirates.'
* * *
There was cedar and redwood, the odd haul of logwood, used for dye in the wool factories of England and on the Continent, but it was the mahogany everybody wanted. Swietenia mahagoni. Rich, reddish-brown and beautiful to work, curls creaming easy off the plane. Mature trees could reach more than one hundred and fifty feet and were at least a century old. The hauling gangs worked the dry season starting January, hunting the stand-alone mahogany through dense forest, then cutting and dragging it back to the riverbanks, where they dressed it and waited for the rains to flood and float the giants away. Back-breaking work. The pirates liked to sail casually in from the Caribbean Sea, slip into the mouth of the Rio Sibun, or down south at Punta Gorda and the Rio Moho, send their longboat crews up to help themselves while nobody was looking. McQuillan gave Burr his dragoon pistols from Waterloo, .62 calibre and take most of a man's arm off at close range, and half-a-dozen free Creoles armed with old Spanish muskets that were reliable if they didn't get wet: true for man and weapon both.
They mainly worked off the coast, moving inland on the rivers south of Belize Town, all the way down to Dangriga, sometimes staying out for weeks at a time. The pirates would anchor in the nooks and bays of the Turneffe Islands, row out from there and into the forests of the mainland. One year, Burr went miles up the Rio Sibun following the pirate crews, then worked the interior from Belmopan, as far as San Ignacio, too, skirting the central mountains. The poaching was organised and corrupt, local officials in on the plundering. The whole enterprise kept Burr busy for a while: McQuillan paid him better than fair, there was plenty to eat and drink, a nice place to live in and Belize Town to entertain. Just had to risk his neck every now and then, but Burr made sure he took good care of that.
Sometimes it was easy, the pirate gangs made up mostly of African slaves, not interested in dragging trees or dying for them. It was like that, often enough: an ambush, with just a couple of the Creoles getting a little too excited and blasting a musket uselessly into the foliage; the pirates looking up, surprised, then frowning, Burr with the dragoons out and heavy in his hands. Always easy to pick out the head hombre, because he was usually sitting on his arse, chewing coca leaves. Most times the slaves just took off into the jungle, and that was fine by Burr. On one occasion though, they had turned on their pirate masters with machetes, hacking at limbs and heads and shoulders, blood splattering leaves, soaking into the damp ground. Burr watched, stunned, having seen some things in his twenty-seven years on this earth, but not quite that. It all happened fast, like everybody suddenly crazy with sunstroke. Even the Creoles started firing, pointing their muskets at random. When it all ended, the forest seemed to pause in the silence, only gradually coming back to life, the sounds of birds and water trickling, monkeys screeching again and splashing through the high canopy of green, like nothing had happened. Burr helped the Creoles bury the dead pirates and three of the slaves, trying not to think too much. He understood how a chained man might feel about his servitude, and was no judge like McQuillan to conclude upon what he saw — which eased his mind some, though he'd never forget the day.
Made him wonder sometimes, soaking in a bath after weeks in the jungle: all that timber turned into chests and chairs and commodes, wealthy young ladies folding their scented undergarments away in drawers, no idea where the mahogany had come from, or what it had witnessed.
* * *
'Men dying for trees,' Burr said.
'I've seen them die for less,' McQuillan said. They were drinking rum with a squeeze of lime, sitting on McQuillan's wide verandah with the warm smell of cedar planks, watching the sun melt away and spread an agave light over the lushness of palms and avocado and banana, sweeping down the slope to Belize Town and the sea beyond.
'I dropped one of your pistols in the river,' Burr said, looking straight ahead. He'd been waiting for the right moment and none had come, so he just said it.
McQuillan paused the glass before his lips, gave Burr a look.
'It was an accident,' Burr said. 'Heat of battle.'
'You heard of Waterloo? You know I fired that thing at Colonel Louis Guillaume Joseph Chapuzet himself? Quite possibly changed the course of the battle?'
'You told me you winged his adjutant.'
'And? We destroyed Nogue's Brigade and captured the eagle of the 45th Ligne that day. We're talking history, laddie.' McQuillan sighed. 'And now, a piece of Waterloo, sunk forever.'
Burr gave McQuillan his own look. 'Might not be that one I lost,' he said. 'Might be the one I've got left.'
McQuillan shook his head. 'I'd even been thinking about giving you my spurs.'
'Those little English ones?'
'Tickled the bellies of some of the finest horses in the world, my boy.'
'I like my Spanish rowels,' Burr said. 'Big and blunt. Gives you more control of the horse. The English spurs are too sharp, draw blood too easy, then all you've got is an angry animal, wants to kick you off.'
'We weren't gauchos cutting cattle,' McQuillan said. 'We were charging.' He turned to Burr. 'Thundering.'
Burr had nothing to say to that, but he'd keep his Spaniards.
They drank more rum, and the housemaid, Magdalena, brought out some sweet milk breads on a wooden board, and coffee, rich and steaming. The old cavalryman thanked her and looked at her tenderly, then reclined and ate, crumbs falling onto his chest as he gazed out over his boots resting on the rail. His bean-black eyes were narrowed and glossed, focused on the middle distance. He combed down his thick grey whiskers with his fingers, and sucked through his teeth.
After a time, he said, 'I'm restless, laddie.'
'You're old,' Burr said.
'Really? Maybe you should ask Magdalena what she thinks.'
Burr grinned and reached for the sweet bread.
'I've received a letter from Arthur,' McQuillan said. 'He's Lieutenant Governor in Van Diemen's Land now. Says there's not a morsel of talent in the whole colony.'
'Then you'd fit right in.'
'Corruption like a pox was the gist of it. Needs capable men to help sort out the colonials.'
'I thought you couldn't stand Arthur?'
'Aye, it's true. He's a horse's arse with a prayer book. But I'm restless ...' He stood up and poured more rum, then stamped a boot on the verandah boards because his foot had gone to sleep. 'The price of timber has fallen,' McQuillan said. 'They're pulling more mahogany next door, out of Guatemala, far down as Nicaragua and Costa Rica. And you know the pirates just keep coming.'
'So are you restless or tired?'
McQuillan held Burr's eyes, who caught a glimpse of what a Frenchman might have seen, bearing down on him with pistol and sword from the saddle, on the fields of Waterloo.
McQuillan said, 'Do I need to explain myself to you?'
Burr shook his head. They drank and sat out the evening until the rain began to stream down, and the rum laid thick golden sediment in their limbs. It was good to pause, thought Burr, feeling heavy in the reclined chair; and on the other side, it was good to move, too, an urge that had taken him all over the South Americas. And just then Isabel Manning swished into his mind, her soft white neck and bare shoulders in that dress he liked, the half-grin tucked into her cheek because she always knew what he was thinking. Oh yes, it was good and fine for a man to pause sometimes.
'You could stay on here,' McQuillan said. 'I'd work it into the sale.'
'When would you go?'
'Soon as Magdalena and I are married.'
Burr looked at his friend and smiled. 'Congratulations. She's a fine woman.'
'Thank you, laddie, and she is that. And so I hope you've no plans for the fourth, next month. Or young Miss Manning?'
'We'll cancel all appointments.'
Burr held up his glass and toasted McQuillan. The rain drenched the land and the forests drank deeply. The mahogany grew, unconcerned. They sat and watched like that, silent and thoughtful, until late.
* * *
Isabel Manning never made it to the wedding. Her father Lord Alfred had other plans for his daughter and most of them were back in London. Exactly where Burr was not. His Lordship even sent a couple of sailor boys around to express his views personally, and though Burr managed to land a few at the outset, most of the expressing was one way and mainly worn by him. After she sailed, Burr was distracted by the pirates for a time, working for the new owner trading McQuillan's timber, but after that last run in the jungle was now thinking Ethan Hall might be right about his luck stretching thin. Maybe a change was called for.
He stayed another month in Belize Town, healing from the arrow wounds and Hall's surgery, then squaring off his affairs and preparing for the voyage. He strolled through the narrow streets of town, the grand old Spanish buildings slowly crumbling and fading, the Garifuna women selling fruit and vegetables at the market stalls, the bleary whore-and-rum houses baking in the sun, the blue Caribbean swelling in the bay. He didn't know if he'd miss Belize or not, it was probably too early to tell, but Burr had a sense that he was maybe coming back sometime.
He booked passage on the Kinnear and sailed for Van Diemen's Land on June twenty-second, 1829. The ship's route was via Trinidad, Cape Town and Sydney. They said if the weather held good, he might even get there by the New Year.CHAPTER 2
It was the third time they'd walked past the house and young Jim Jacobsen was getting nervous. He said, 'Somebody's going to notice.'
'Shut your hole.' Tom Rouget's head remained straight, but his eyes flicked towards the house on the opposite side of the street. District Police Magistrate Vaughan was still in there. As soon as the man left, they could get on with it, but Jacobsen was right. The timing of the whole thing was starting to get skewed. Rouget had thought the idea lunacy to begin with, and had said so at the time, but they were there now and he wasn't planning on coming back to try again later.
'What if he ain't leavin'?' Jacobsen said.
'He'll leave,' Rouget said. He walked, stretched himself tall and confident, willing the plan into action. Jacobsen was at his elbow, hunched as though against rain, and twitchy in the shoulders like his shirt was bothering him. Rouget turned and grinned and put his arm around the boy's neck, pulling him in hard and close. Roughed his hair, then started to sing.
'Oh, 'tis a fine mess, you've got us in, Jim Jacobsen! 'Tis a fine mess!'
'Jesus!' Jacobsen said, breaking free of Rouget's arm. The man was mad, their names nailed to notices all over Hobart Town.
'A fine mess, oh, Jim Jacobsen!'
'You want the gibbet, man? For Christ's sake!' But still, a thrill ran through young Jim Jacobsen too, the way Rouget flirted with the world around them, daring it like that. He just wished the man would use his own name instead.
Tom Rouget's eyes were bright and rum-shot. His hair was shiny black and long and he tossed his head to get it out of his eyes. The fraying coat he wore hid a cutlass hanging up high under his arm, and there was a pistol in the pocket, too. 'That's your problem, Jimmy,' Rouget said, looking around, serious again. 'No sense of humour. It's the light soul gets away quickest.'
Jacobsen followed, didn't reply. Tom Rouget was a different man on the rum, and best not provoked. Jumped from friendly to riled in a heartbeat.
'The light soul ... gets away ...'
And Christ, thought Jacobsen, now he's mumbling to himself, too.
A cart came towards them, Aaron Lennox at the reins. No eyes met between the men, but the two horses pulling slowed to a walk.
Rouget said, 'Go round once more.'
Lennox shifted a bucket with his foot, glanced down at the loaded pistol inside. 'I don't like it.'
'Not what I asked you.'
Excerpted from Infamy by Lenny Bartulin. Copyright © 2013 Lenny Bartulin. Excerpted by permission of Allen & Unwin.
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