For many years Colombia endured the cold hand of violence and the brutality of war. The Eighties saw a massive increase in armed conflict, fuelled mainly by the cocaine trade, but government intervention and various unstable peace treaties have resulted in a relative status quo.
The warlords from organisations such as the UAC; Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia, and FARC; Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, may have ended the armed struggle, but many of them have since turned their eyes to drug trafficking.
One of these men was Francesco Bahia. After the war, he had found himself in possession of a sizeable area of forest, in the region of Guainía, just north of the Brazilian border, and with the help of his men, and many unwilling locals, he had deforested the area and turned it into a cocaine plantation.
He was immensely rich and considered himself fortunate. He had grown up in the slums, and had started the war as a mere gun-bum, but his unusually large size and his penchant for violence and cruelty had soon pushed him up the ranks, and now he was no longer a warlord, but a drug lord.
Francesco surveyed his little kingdom with satisfaction, but there was never enough, and now was no different. He sat back, his paunch protruding over his belt buckle and his black, bushy beard adding to his menace, regarding the old Indian with open suspicion.
‘So, Pedro, you say this old man claims that there are white people living in the jungle? So what if there are? Why should it concern me?’
‘Ah, El Torro, it is not the fact that there are white people in the jungle that is important. It is the fact that these white people are not Europeans.’
‘That is impossible. How in God’s name can a white man not be European?’ Francesco demanded.
Known by his cadres as El Torro, ‘The Bull’, Francesco was not the type to suffer fools lightly. He was as big as a bull, and just as aggressive. This story of white people in the jungle only interested him if they wore CIA badges and had automatic machine guns and helicopter support.
‘How, Pedro, is it possible to have a white man that is not a European?’ he asked again mockingly.
‘It seems, El Torro, that these white men are Indians and have been here since before the Spaniards arrived,’ he explained.
‘That is ridiculous! Where are they?’ he demanded. Pedro turned to the old Indian and rattled off a few quick, harsh sentences in the local Indian dialect, then turned back to Francesco.
‘They are on the other side of the border, in Brazil,’ he said.
‘Bah! Why should I worry about them then?’
‘El Torro, this old man claims that these people are the descendants of the gods, and that they guard ancient treasures. He says there are still pyramids that have yet to be discovered deep in those jungles,’ he said.
‘It seems to me there may be great reward in finding those lost pyramids and their treasures, as well as learning their ancient secrets. There are many ways to make money, my brother.’
Pedro Sanchez wasn’t stupid. The Bull eyed him suspiciously, taking in the feral look; the sly, calculating eyes. He wasn’t impressed with what he saw, and viewed this as an opportunity to cut him down a few notches.
‘So you think to make a name for yourself in the real world by discovering some new ruins? Perhaps you will sit in a kiosk and charge Americans five Dollars to come see your new pyramids? You will be a rich man, my friend!’ Francesco roared with laughter.
‘I think you have been sampling our crops and have cooked your brains, Pedro!’ he shouted in ridicule, followed by a bellow of laughter for the entire camp to hear. ‘I do not see any reason to hike over the border for days, just to find out that this old Indian is telling tall stories. And even if we find this place, it will most likely just be a mound of broken rock covered in vines! Listen to your friend, the Bull, for he knows a thing or two.’
Pedro kept his dark eyes locked on Francesco’s and said, ‘El Dorado.’
‘What did you say?’ Francesco asked with narrowed eyes.
‘You heard me my friend. El Dorado – The Golden Man! The city of gold.’
‘That is a myth,’ Francesco replied dismissively.
‘Yes, El Torro, a myth and a mystery; a mystery that has never been solved. As you know, my mother was a school teacher, and she taught me many things. Among her teachings, was the history of the Americas, and El Dorado was one legend that stuck clearly in my memory,’ said Pedro.
‘Many men have died in their search for it, and many locations have been suggested; including Ecuador, Colombia, Venezuela, and Guyana. You may notice that these countries, with the exception of Ecuador, all border on Brazil. It has occurred to me that there may be some possible truth in what this old man has to say,’ he finished.
‘So you are suggesting that we pursue this wild goose chase, Pedro? And to what end? We already have more money than we can spend. What more do we need?’ Francesco replied in a sarcastic tone. ‘El Dorado is a myth, and I do not intend becoming another statistic in its bloody history, no matter how valuable it may be.’
‘There is one thing, El Torro, that no amount of money can buy,’ said Pedro.
‘And what might that be?’ asked Francesco, still cynical.
‘Immortality,’ Pedro explained simply, ‘to have your name recorded in history as the man who discovered a new world. Marco Polo, Christopher Columbus, Neil Armstrong, and Francesco Bahia.’
The Bull was hooked; the mere thought of becoming a legend in his own lifetime was a concept that went far beyond his greatest dreams of avarice.
Francesco stood up and clapped his hands together. ‘We leave tomorrow!’ he shouted.
The next morning, just after dawn, eleven men set out on this new voyage of discovery. Among them were Francesco, Pedro, Qircamo – the old Indian guide, and eight of Francesco’s best men, handpicked for this assignment. They journeyed into the jungle and after about two hours of walking, they crossed the border into Brazil.
The Rio Guainía, a tributary of the Rio Negro, or Black River, which is itself a tributary of the Amazon River to the south, and links up with the Orinoco River to the north, delineates the Brazilian-Colombian border in this area. It is a wild and uncharted world.
Their plan was to follow the Rio Guainía south, hook up with the Rio Negro, and at a certain point they would leave the river and follow the guide inland to the east. They made good time on the first day, and the following morning, Qircamo indicated that it was time to leave the river and head inland.
The terrain was tough, but the old Indian seemed to know his way, and Francesco and his men pushed on eagerly. They used their machetes to hack their way through the under-growth, chopping at vines and low branches to clear a path.
They had hiked inland for a few miles when Qircamo held up his hand in warning. Francesco and his men, all seasoned soldiers, immediately took up defensive positions.
‘What is it?’ whispered Francesco. Pedro leant forward and whispered into the Indian’s ear.
‘He says there are Indians up ahead, El Torro.’
‘Are they the ones we are looking for?’ he asked.
‘I don’t think so, but I will ask him,’ Pedro replied, turning his attention back to Qircamo. Presently he signalled Francesco.
‘El Torro, Qircamo says that there are about twenty young warriors crossing the trail up ahead, and they are well armed. They are not from the tribe we are looking for, but he says that these men are fearsome enemies of his. He is afraid that they may notice our passing and follow our trail.’
‘Is he suggesting we fight these men?’ whispered Francesco incredulously. ‘They outnumber us, Pedro. Remember, we are here for treasure, not conquest, and there is a big difference. We are not prepared for a large battle.’
‘I understand El Torro. Perhaps we should wait them out,’ suggested Pedro. Francesco agreed wholeheartedly to this course of action, and quietly instructed his men to stand down, but to remain alert. Qircamo seemed agitated though, and kept peering ahead through the trees, examining something that neither Francesco nor Pedro could identify.
Eventually Francesco couldn’t take it any longer. ‘Tell him to relax, Pedro. He’s making me nervous.’
Pedro shifted over to where the old Indian squatted and started whispering to him. At last, he returned to Francesco and gave him the bad news.
‘We have a problem,’ he stated without preamble, ‘this band of fighting men has settled down and do not seem to be in any hurry to leave. Qircamo thinks they could be waiting for something or someone.’
‘Can’t we circle them?’ Francesco disliked seeking advice from anyone, especially from his lieutenants; in this case, however, the language barrier was insurmountable.
‘El Torro, these men have lived all their lives in this jungle. They hunt the jaguar and the anaconda for sport and prestige. We will not be able to bypass them without going many, many miles out of our way, and instead of losing one day by waiting them out, we will lose three or four – and break our backs doing it.’ Pedro gave Francesco a moment to digest the information before continuing.
‘Also, when the party that these men are waiting for arrives, we will have lost any advantage that we currently have. We have to make a decision right now.’
Francesco could not argue against this logic and summoned his men closer.
‘Okay – we are going to fight,’ he said. He motioned for them to huddle around him so that he could give his orders.
‘Pedro and Antonio will take two men each and flank their position. Pedro, you go right, and Antonio, you go left. I will take the remaining four and lead the frontal assault.
‘When you are in position, you will each give the signal. Pedro, you will give the call of the macaw, and Antonio, you will give us the laugh of the monkey.’ After many years of guerrilla warfare, Francesco and his men had their system of signals down to an art. He doubted the Indians could differentiate be-tween the signal and the real thing, but even if they did, there would not be enough time for them to react before the attack was upon them.
‘The moment you see us coming up the trail, you will open fire,’ Francesco continued. ‘Do not wait for us to engage. Surprise is our ally, and we will annihilate them before they even know we are here. Once the fighting is over, we will regroup on the far side of the trail and resume our journey. Is everything clear? Okay – move out.’
Pedro signalled the two men under his command and left the trail. Swiftly and silently, they skirted out to the right, keeping the landmarks in sight, and within ten minutes they had reached their position and dug themselves in. He allowed himself a moment to assess the situation. A large group of Indian warriors sat around a small fire in a natural clearing. They seemed to be alert, but relaxed, not expecting any trouble. This was obviously their territory, and they did not expect a challenge.
Pedro heard Antonio’s signal clearly, and he made his final preparations. He signalled the other two men to move into position, and then gave the signal. He waited in tense anticipation as adrenalin surged through his veins.
He waited only moments before he sensed a sudden change in the Indians’ demeanour. Without any warning, they all looked down the trail and within seconds, they had bows and spears at the ready, alerted by an almost super-natural sixth sense.
Pedro jumped to his feet and shouted, ‘Fire!’
He squeezed the trigger of his machine gun, mowing down the Indians closest to him. His men followed his example and started cutting men down left and right. Not anticipating an attack from two sides, Pedro and Antonio caught the Indians completely off their guard, and they stood no real chance of surviving the onslaught.
Francesco and his men burst out of the trees further down the trail, but they had very little left to do; Pedro and Antonio had done their work well. It was over in less than a minute, and as the three groups re-joined, there was laughter and backslapping all around.
The men loved a good fight, and Francesco was pleased for this unexpected diversion in their little adventure. His men would be in high spirits for the next day or two at least, which would make the journey far easier.
‘Alright! Stop acting like a bunch of virgins on their wedding night!’ he shouted. This was met by a fresh round of laughter, and he gave them a few more moments before calling them to attention.
‘Okay. I want all the bodies moved into the undergrowth, and all signs of our presence removed. We do not want anyone following our back-trail, do you hear me? Move!’ Francesco ordered. His men rushed to it and thoroughly cleaned the area.
He called them together again. ‘Anybody within a mile of this place will know we were here, and I don’t want to hang around and answer awkward questions. We move now. Miguel, take point!’ And so they moved out.
Qircamo emerged from the trees and Francesco saw that he had made himself scarce during the fighting.
‘Where the hell have you been? We kill your enemies for you, while you hide like a woman?’ he mocked. His men found this kind of ragging very funny, and there were chuckles and comments all the way down the line.
‘Should I translate, El Torro?’ Pedro asked.
‘Don’t bother Pedro, we only need him to guide us. Just make sure he understands that I don’t want to run into any more unexpected guests, okay?’
‘Yes, El Torro.’
‘Ask him how far it is.’
Pedro turned back to Francesco shortly. ‘He says tonight we sleep; tomorrow we fight.’
That night they kept the fires low and cleaned their weapons.
Published Titles in the Johnny Roberts Series:
Book Two: Johnny Roberts and the Gods of Eden
Andrew Noble © 2012
Cover artwork: Adam Van Der Riet © 2012
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© 2012 Andrew Noble All Rights Reserved