21 February 2012

The Memoirs of Finn O'Brien Villens: Part 8

Between Families

From 1802 - September 1808, I lived with the Villens family and spent my time in classes and military training. After a time, I was appointed to the Army and served in the Household Guard as an aide de camp to Martin or Theodore, as needed. I spent a great deal of time with the General as well. I grew comfortable at the Chateau, but I missed my family and longed for the day I could return to them.

Theodore didn’t tell me much about the constant negotiations that he was party to. Lucien and Martin kept me informed in general terms. It seems that Rodrigo Arguello had returned to his home and immediately began turning his family toward the Morales government. Theodore soon discovered that Rodrigo was working with Eduardo O’Brien to convince the Morales government to gather its allies, thus splitting the Army led by Theodore Villens. According to Martin, all Eduardo wanted was an incident that proved to the neutral families that the Villens felt that were above the law, and then he, Eduardo, could unite the other families under the flag of the pliant Morales family and the combined forces could march on the Villens forces. 

Theodore was confident they could hold off any attack. His intention was to anticipate and blunt any attack through a careful placement of his troops. The General welcomed the attack. he could scarcely contain his excitement. Martin was busy fortifying Puerto Seguro and the roads and bridges that led to Villens territory. I was carrying messages back and forth and wondering if I would have a more active role than messanger boy in the coming fighting. It turns out my role would be be quite different than I imagined.

Early one morning, in September 1807, Martin slipped into my room and woke me. He cautioned me to be silent and signaled that I should get dressed. While I dressed, he gathered my personal items into a sack. He tossed my weapons onto the bed, and I strapped them on. Martin showed me the items he’d collected in the sack. He asked if wanted to take them now, or would I trust him with them. I asked if we were traveling quickly. He said that I would be, so I left the sack with him. 

We made our way silently down the servants’ stairs to the kitchen. A large leather pack sat by the door to the kitchen. I could smell bread and sausages.Shouldering the pack, I slipped through the outside door. The morning air was brisk, the sun not yet risen. Ayala was standing outside the door, his huge hands gripping the reins of three horses. I said I thought I was going alone. Ayala said they would accompany me to the edge of the woods.

We mounted and galloped off to the east riding across open country, avoiding paths and roads. When we reached the edge of the woods, the sun was beginning to rise. Martin dismounted and signaled for us to do the same. Ayala lead the horses to water at a nearby stream, while Martin and I walked a short way into the woods and then sat on a large, flat rock to rest. Martin told me to eat breakfast from the sack, but he refused to join me. Ayala rejoined us, and he also refused to eat from my small supply of food. So I alone drank strong coffee from a flask and ate rolls and sausage, while waiting for Martin to tell me what the hell was going on.

Martin finally broke the silence. He told me what Eduardo and Rodrigo Arguello were up to. Eduardo had convinced several other families that he, Martin, had been a spy living with the O’Briens. Martin was there to foment a revolution against the rightful and heroic Morales government. I was cast as a collaborator who had killed the police coming to rightfully arrest Martin. I was a wanted man and a warrant had been issued for my arrest. Eduardo could not reach Martin, but I was an easy target.

It was well known that I was living with the Villens family. Rogrigo Arguello had seen to that. Theodore had received notice from sympathizers in the Morales government that troops were on their way to arrest me. It was necessary that I not be there when these troops arrive. Matin and Ayala assured me that these troops would be met by a larger and better force, but Theodore wanted to avoid a clash, if possible. Some thought that Theodore was afraid, but he was determined to avoid being dragged into a war. He would fight on his terms and in his time. I was being sent to live the woods until the politicians could work things out. If it came to war, my Riflemen would find me and we would join the action. Ayala and Martin hugged me. They promised to find a way to get supplies to me, then they mounted their horses and rode off. In the meantime, I would live in the woods and fend for myself. They knew that I could live in the forest and defend myself if necessary.

My horse was tied to Ayala’s saddle. A horse would be useless in the woods. I was alone, an outlaw, and an unknown number of troops and Eduardo’s Secret Police were searching for me. I sat on the rock and watched the rising sun climb over the trees. It seemed like to a good time to remember the General’s lessons. According to him, these odds would be just about right for a legend.

For the next few weeks, I wandered aimlessly through the woods avoiding the people I came across. Several times I spotted troops from the capitol or the Arguello family. I followed them, but never heard anything that helped me, so I would quietly slip away. They never realized I was nearby, so they never came after me, and I had no need to defend myself. Once three Secret Police stumbled on my resting place while I was sleeping, but they made so much noise, I was able to scramble into the brush. As they nosed around my campsite, I loaded my rifle and pistols. One of them decided that I must have fled north and they hurried off in that direction. I waited a bit and then went south. I never saw them again.

I was getting tired of this hide-and-seek and decided that I needed to do something. I was tired of the Villens protecting me. They could negotiate and raise an army, but I’d grown up with Eduardo. I knew him. I’d been giving it a great deal of thought and it seemed to me that he was after me because I had beaten him. His men would likely have captured Maria and Martin if I hadn’t interfered. My father had returned home unseen, so Eduardo probably though I’d killed all five of his Secret Police. If not for me, he would have had Martin in his power and would have had a hold on the Villens family. I once thought this was all about Maria, but now I was sure that Martin was the target. He was always more interested in power than love. I was just an irritating pebble in his shoe that Eduardo wanted to remove. For two years I’d been living in luxury and spending my days learning and playing. My nights were full of games and adventures. I grown stronger and smarter, my mind and weapons sharpened. Then why was I hiding and letting others protect me? It was time that I found a way to stop Eduardo.

I was sitting in the deep shadow of a beech tree, staring out at the stars that filled the skies. Finishing a handful of nuts I’d gathered earlier in the week, I washed them down with gulps of cold water from my flask. I sat there most of the night thinking. I decided that since this was an O’Brien matter, it was time to go home. In the morning, I’d gather my few things and head east until I reached the grassland, then I’d skirt south until I reached the O’Bryant lands. My cousins would give me shelter and help me reach home. If anyone tried to stop me, I’d avoid them as I have been, but if they were blocking my way it was time to go through them. The Villens had taught me to use weapons, but O’Brien blood taught me to fight. It was time to put both to use.

I caught a few hours sleep and woke at dawn. A noise woke me and, at first, I couldn’t determine its source. I thought it was a woodpecker, but as my head cleared I realized that wasn’t right. Something or someone was chopping wood, but very slowly and gently. The axe was hitting the wood intermittently and without much force. I followed the sound and came upon a charcoal burner’s camp. An old woman dressed in black rags so ancient they were closer to powdered gray was trying to cut wood for the fires. She could barely swing the axe and when she did, the axe hardly bit into the wood. I looked around and determined that she was alone before I stepped out of the woods to address her.

She did not hear me approach and flinched when I called, “Good morning, Mother.” She turned to face me and rested the axe on her shoulder. I expect she wanted to hold it up and menace me with the axe, but she was too weak. “Go away,” she said bitterly. “There is nothing left. Your friends took everything.”

It took me a while to convince her that I meant her no harm. Giving her some of my remaining smoked sausage did the trick. She told me that three men had robbed her and her husband. They had beaten him badly and he was resting in the lean-to. I asked her why she stayed here. She laughed and asked where she could go. She could not move her husband for he could not walk. The few coins they’d earned were gone. The little food they had was taken. If she could not make and sell more charcoal, both she and her husband would die.

I went over to check on her husband. He was unconscious. His face was swollen and bruised. Someone had beaten him badly. I wasn’t sure he would survive without care and food. His wife would soon be as bad off as him if she tried to do all the work. They needed more help than I could give, but I had to do something. I knew that the Turbio River was a day’s hike to the west. It ran north under bridges that Villens forces were defending. If I could get the couple onto a boat, they could sail north and get help.

I told the old woman of my plan. She kept saying that her husband could not walk. I assured her that I could cary him. She looked me over and must have decided that I could do what I said for she mentioned it no more. She was also worried that she had no money. No ship would carry them for free and no one would would help them if they made it north peniless. I convinced her to worry about one thing at a time. 

I had to lighten my load to carry the old man. I carefully wrapped my sword, rifle, and cartridges and buried them along with my pack at the base of a tree with a twisted trunk. I transferred my remaining food to the old woman’s basket. Carefully lifting the old man over my shoulder, she and I started toward the river. The old man was lighter than I expected. He must have been skin and bones. He never said a word or opened his eyes the entire trip. Only an occasional groan proved that he was alive. As I had to lay him down to rest periodically, it took us two days to get to the river.

On the way, the old woman told me about the attackers who robbed them. She had lived in the woods her entire life and she was certain that they were not forest people. They were too loud and wasteful. They went through her food and threw things they didn’t like in the fire. Bandits would never do that. Food is food, she said. Only the rich have a choice of foods, not forest people. 

I didn’t say much, but I listened carefully when she described the thieves. They were dressed alike in a type of uniform that I’d never heard of in all the lessons I’d taken. The uniform consisted of dark green pants, a black shirt and tunic. They wore no badges, shiny buttons, ribbons, or any other mark  or label. Two of them wore black canvas hats. The other was bare-headed. I decided they must Secret Police. The uniforms were just the thing for nighttime raids and attacks in alleys and on dark city streets.

We waited for another day on the bank of the river until a boat passed and I was able to flag it down. I asked for the captain and after a while he appeared at the rail. I explained what I wanted and he refused. I told him that I would pay and he said he couldn’t be bothered with old forest people. He had quality people on board and they would be offended by the old couple. 

I had had enough. I gave the captain a last chance to take the couple on board, or I would climb onto the ship and throw him overboard. One of his officers stepped up next to the captain and pulled a pistol which he aimed at me. Several other officers and seamen stood where they were. The captain laughed and ordered the ship to pull way from the bank.

I grabbed a line that hung from the ship and prepared to climb on board. The officer called to me to stop or he’d shoot me. “Look around,” I said. “You’re the only one defending your bastard of a captain.” The captain and the officer looked at the sullen faces of the crew and other officers. 

“They’re old people and they’re in a bad way,” said one of the crew. An officer asked if the captain if he would reconsider his decision. There was a tense moment when the officer with the drawn gun couldn’t decide whether to aim at me or the other officer. The crew of about a dozen men was grumbling angrily. The captain signaled to the officer to lower his gun. “Get them on board and out of the way,” said the captain as he stomped away to his quarters. “And do it fast. We leave it five minutes.”

The crew sprang into action and the old couple was swiftly brought on board. I scribbled a note and handed it to a crewman. It was addressed to Ayala asking him to help the old couple in any way he could. I told the bosun to give the note to the company guarding the first bridge that they came to. They could unload the old people there. I gave him a coin and several for the captain, then jumped from the ship. One day later I was at the twisted tree and digging up my supplies. After a night’s sleep, I started east.

I wasn’t hunting the men who had robbed the old people and beaten the old man so severely, but I wasn’t avoiding them either. I was aware that they might still be in the woods searching for me. If I found them, I wasn’t going to hide. Eduardo sent the bastards and I would take care of them. I had decided to end this thing and these guys would be as good a first step as any.

I found them two days later. I risen just before dawn, eaten, and started east. I was walking along a trail that climbed through rocks. I was about twenty feet or so above the forest floor. As the sun came up, I saw three men sleeping around a burned out fire. I loaded my rifle and sat against a tree trunk to wait for them to wake up. After a short wait, one of them stirred and then rose. He wore the green and black uniform. 

I carefully worked my way down the hillside toward the camp. I saw the others wake and the three wandered around pulling on boots and tunics. They complained about having nothing for breakfast. One said he was sure those old charcoal burners had hidden food. They should go back and beat the woman until she told them where it was hidden.

That was the last thing he ever said. My bullet smacked into his forehead and he was dead before his body hit the ground. The others stared at him in stupified amazement, then they died. The first one from a pistol shot though the head, the other from a sword thrust through his chest. I doubt the whole thing took two minutes.

 After I’d searched the men and removed several papers, I cleaned my weapons and continued east. This was the first time I’d killed men when I’d planned an attack. I could have let them go, but I choose to kill them. It was a war, I thought. A war that I didn’t want, that was forced on me. So be it. I was at war. Eduardo’s men were dead and I was alive. There were three less men between me and him. Good.

I walked deep into the night, eating occasionally as I went. I wanted to sleep as far away from the three bodies as I could get. A ridge sloped off toward the east, a path wound its way along the face of rocks. I followed the trail in the darkness, invisible from above or below. After a while I found a thick place were the undergrowth thickened. From this protected place, I could rest and spy on the forest below. 

It was nearly noon when noises woke me. A Secret Police officer was walking along the trail and had just passed my hiding place. He stopped and was waving to the forest floor. I shifted slightly and peered through the shrubs. I saw a uniformed men looking up at the trail. One man was signaling to the officer who was about twenty feet down the trail from me. I carefully loaded my rifle. I’d loaded my pistols before I’d slept. All I could do was settle in and wait. In full sunlight and at close range, my only chance was that they would not find me. 

The officer stood on the trail and looked back the way he came and then looked ahead. He searched for a path to the top of the ridge, but there was none. A voice called out, but I could not understand what was said. The man must not have been able to hear the words either as he bent over and held a hand to his ear. The shout was louder the second time, but still unintelligible. The officer sighed and began to carefully climb down the ridge face. We were about hundred feet above the forest floor, and the climb was steep. I wouldn’t have tried it with my pack, but the man was only carrying a musket. Even so, he struggled, and it took him a good while to reach the bottom. I ate while I watched him climb. His men took advantage of the break to rest. I counted them carefully and there were still six men, including the officer. Perhaps there were others nearby, perhaps not. this was the largest group of Eduardo’s men I ever heard of. Perhaps he was changing his tactics. Perhaps something more serious was underway.

Once the man reached his troops, a discussion took place, then lunch was eaten. I didn’t care. As long as they stayed in my sight and I stayed out of theirs until dark, I didn’t care if the rested all day. I just wanted them within reach by night. My knowledge of the woods, my rifle, and my anger would give me the edge in the dark.

After about an hour they began to stir. I waited until they headed into the woods before leaving. I stashed my supplies deep in the shrubs and trotted down the trail in the direction they were heading. I knew a easy path down about a mile ahead. If I could reach the place before they did, I could get to the forest floor and find a hiding place. Then I’d wait for them to pass and follow until they stopped for the night.

I knew I was taking a chance. I was visible on the ridge in the daylight. I was counting on the men keeping to the woods and, I suppose, I was counting on dumb luck. I found myself wondering if my action would fit the General’s definition of reasonable recklessness. I decided that it did, but I was probably fooling myself. I was angry that Eduardo was keeping me away from both my families. I was young and I didn’t want to reasonable. When it grew dark, I would search for the men and I would hunt them down. 

I found the path down the ridge face and swiftly reached the forest floor. I stepped into a stand of birch and stood still listening. I knew that Eduardo depended on city men to fill his ranks, and they were uncomfortable in the country and woods. They were also noisy. I heard them approaching and slipped beneath the branches of a fallen oak. A few minutes later, a rare quiet Secret Police trooper walked right past me. Voices called out and he turned around to rejoin the group. The six men thundered past my hiding place. They were laughing and telling stories. Several were passing a flask around and there was a general sense of merriment. Just a nice day for a walk in the woods, I guess. 

The quiet one stayed a little ahead of the group. He looked angry and was the only one who held his musket in readiness. He was taller than the others and thin. He walked quietly and his eyes searched the woods around him as he walked. I decided that I would have to kill him first. The others would be lost without him.

I let them pass and then followed the noise they made. I stayed off the trail, picking my way through the trees. They stopped late in the day, a little before dusk. Working my way in a circle around the men, I found a place where I could spy on their camp without being seen. I settled in to make a plan.

The quiet man drank water with the stew. The others were clearly drinking wine or something harder. He tried to quiet them several times, then gave up. There was a large, flat rock near the campsite and he walked over and sat down. He kept his musket by his side. I had no doubt that he carried pistols and a sword as well. 

I was hiding on the other side of the campsite from the flat rock. I turned my attention to other men and when I looked back, the quiet man was gone. He had silently slipped into the woods. I didn’t even know which way he’d gone. At first I thought he’d gone to relieve himself. The others were stumbling into the woods, loudly announcing their intentions to do so. But I wasn’t willing to bet on this. I had the definite feeling that he might just be hunting me. 

I lay still in my hiding place deciding whether to run, stay put, or search for the quiet man. The other men were getting louder as darkness settled in. I decided to back away from the campsite so I might hear anyone stalking me. I’d taken two steps when a musket ball crashed though the brambles  a few inches from my head. 

I dove to the ground and rolled about ten feet to the base of a tree. I crawled around the tree so it was between me and the directed of the shot. My rifle’s advantages over muskets were diminished in heavily wooded areas like this one, but I still was a good shot and was ready to give it a try. 

The shot silenced the men for a moment and then they started yelling. I heard them thundering through the woods toward the shot. It was time to get out of there. I knew I could get away from the drunks. It was the quiet man that worried me. I got to my feet and struck out from my hiding place, moving in a ninety degree to the direction of the shot. I wanted to outflank the quiet man as he searched for me.

I found a deeper shadow among the trees and stopped to listen. The crowd of men were on my right, towards the campsite, and a little behind me. I guessed that the quiet man was somewhere in front of me. I swung my rifle onto my back, primed my pistols, and made sure that my knives were secure in their sheaths, then I followed the shadows in a looping path around the campsite. I wanted to reach the other side of the camp so I could set up a long rifle shot into the lit up camp. I had a pistol in my right hand and a knife in my left. I’d switched my other pistol to my right side. If needed, I’d fire the first pistol, drop it, and pull the other pistol for a quick second shot. Ayala had taught this trick to me.

I had made it about a quarter way around the campsite. The mens’ voices were difficult to hear. I froze and then realized that I’d heard a noise much closer. It might have been an animal, a branch creaking in the breeze, or some other forest sound, but I stood stock still, straining to hear another sound. Nothing. I softly stepped over to a tree and pressed myself against the trunk. 

I waited for several minutes without hearing anything unusual. I stepped away from the tree and directly into the path of the quiet man. He was no more than twenty feet away and he flinched when he saw me. We’d surprised each other.  I suspect I flinched also. We fired and it sounded like one shot. A bullet tore into the bushes, just missing my right arm. I heard a grunt and a body fell into the undergrowth. I had dropped my pistol and ran toward the man, my second pistol in my right hand, my knife in my left. 

I found him struggling to crawl into the undergrowth. He was clutching his throat and making gurgling noises. As I drew near, he rolled onto his back and I saw he had a pistol pointing at me. I dove to my left and heard his shot rip past my ear. I hit the ground, aimed carefully, and put a bullet in his head. Then I scrambled to my feet and ran to retrieve my dropped pistol. 

Our shots had drawn the others, so I ran down the trail to get some distance from the pursuers. I could hear one of them yelling that he’d found the quiet man’s body, he was their Lieutenant apparently, and the others must have been gathering around his corpse. I took advantage of their distraction to leave the trail and cut through the woods. I kept going until I found a protected spot with a clear line of fire on the campsite and waited. I needed to calm myself after the shock of the fight with the quiet man. Ayala once told me that it all comes down to reflexes in a close fight. He forgot to mention luck.

In about a half-an-hour the men returned to camp carrying their dead officer. They all had their muskets ready now. A few took up the flasks and began to drink again, but an argument broke out and a man with sergeant’s  stripes slapped the flask out of a man’s hand and yelled at him. Shoot the officers, Ayala had said. So I did. The Sergeant dropped and the other fired a ragged volley in my general direction, but I was already gone. I’d faded into the woods and retreated to high ground. I knew that in the morning, the men would need water, so I found a spot on the ridge that provided cover and overlooked a stream. I slept, assured that the rising sun or the noise of the city men would wake me.

Sure enough, I was awakened by the noise the men made as they came to the river in the early morning light. The sound carried well over the meadow   and across the river. I heard them say that they’d had enough and were going home. They were rattled and were seeing enemies everywhere. One man stood guard while the others drank, and filled water bags, all the while looking about them nervously. “Should have lapped the water like dogs,” I thought, remembering my Bible lessons, and then I shot the guard.

I waited in my protected spot while the three remaining men fired musket balls wildly. They were shooting blindly uphill, but I did want to walk into a shot, so I waited them out. Besides I knew where they going and would get there faster. When the shooting stopped, I had time to go back and move my supplies forward, then I set out for the nearest bridge that led back to the capitol. I hoped that it was too small and inconsequential for any troops to guard.

I reached the bridge in the late afternoon and was pleased to see it unguarded. I’d passed the three men and fired a shot to slow them down. I needed a little time to prepare for them. I crossed the bridge and carefully climbed down the far bank. Gathering about a dozen rocks from the base of bridge, I built a carefully balanced pile under it. I’d taken the cord I carried to snare birds and small animals and tied it around the bottom rocks and also around a stick that I’d shoved into the mud to help hold the rocks in place. The pile was about two feet high, and, if all went well, I would pull the string and the stick would fall away while the bottom of the pile was pulled forward, then the rocks would tumble down the bank and splash noisily into the water. 

That’s what I hoped would happen, at least. I would be hidden on the bridge behind a support. The noise under the bridge would cause the nervous men to fire their weapons over the side and then I’d be on them. If my deception failed, I’d be on the bridge facing three armed men and frightened men. It had to work, I assured myself.

It was nearly dark when the men came into sight. They were being uncharacteristically quiet and I realized that their swagger was gone. They were scared and fear had silenced them. They didn’t want to spend another night in the woods and they picked up speed as the neared the bridge. Once across the bridge, the well-travelled road to the capitol was no more than an hour away.

I waited until they stepped onto the bridge until picking up the cord. The bridge was about fifty feet long and I wanted to start my attack when they were in the middle. They reached the mark and I yanked the cord. Nothing happened. The men were now about fifteen feet away. I yanked the cord fiercely and felt it give. For a second I feared that it had snapped, then I heard the rocks tumbling over each other and into the water.

The men yelled and pointed over the side of the bridge. The fired the muskets and began to reload. As soon as I heard the shots, I sprang up and raced toward the men screaming. They leapt back as if a demon from Hell had appeared. I shot the first one, holstered the weapon, and drew my sword. I slashed the nearest man across the midsection and, leaping past him, closed on the last man. He had loaded his musket and was raising it to shoot. I batted the musket away with my sword and slammed the basket into his face. He fell back and I drove my sword through his chest. The second man was groaning and clutching his guts. I shot him in the head. I checked and they all were dead. 

Before I left I cut off their leather vests, I needed leather patches to prepare more bullets. I also searched their packs for food. As the sun set, I went back to the spot where I’d hidden my supplies. It took most of the night to reach the hiding place and I spent the next day resting and thinking about what to do. I didn’t see anyone that day or the following one. Either Eduardo’s men had moved on, or I killed the small unit he’d sent on this particular mission. 

It was time to move on. While I’d been resting, I realized that I was taking too many chances. It was time to get help if I wanted to end this thing. Eduardo could keep sending men and I wouldn’t kill them all. I thought about going upriver and finding Ayala and the riflemen, but no. Eduardo was my cousin. This was a family matter. It was time to go and gather the O’Briens and the Bryants. Time to call out the clan. I wondered if any of the Bryants had pipes.