THE INSURGENCE of CHAN SANTA CRUZ
BOOK THREE: BOOK of the PACIFICATION
CHAPTER THIRTY TWO
When Captain Macias reported to Bravo's office on a Thursday morning, he started at the sight of a being so corrupt, so imbued with the malice of spirit Poe's darkest writings barely hinted at, that he had to turn his head, gain his breath and strengthen his resolve before meeting this malignancy on its own terms. It was a man... short, round, attired in sweaty khaki with thin, black hair bound to his scalp by means of some greasy pomade, and by perspiration that slobbered from his brow even in the cool, dark office, giving off an order of the grave... a man, yes, but a spirit, also, to whom the General paid his obeisance, as if to a squat, Chaldean idol.
"Here is Pieter Wallen, Pieter with an 'i'," Bravo introduced, "so he is not an Englishman, God be praised! You are from Amsterdam... it is?"
"From Brussels," the man corrected in a coarse, heavily accented Spanish. He offered a hand to José, a hand that had the feel of wet and spoiled cheese. "But I work for the Americans now, exporting chicle gum there, and to many European nations also."
"Good, good! We should all be so fortunate. This is Captain José Macias, Mr. Wallen, one of my finest young officers; a man who has lived all his life not far from here, and knows many things about this territory."
"Pleased much," the trader said, bobbing his head and shaking greasy blobs of stinking perspiration from his brow like comets expelled from a black sun. José kept his distance, wearing what he hoped would be taken for a face of respect.
"Captain Macias will be among those attending to the details of our arrangement," the General said, rubbing his hands together like an old woman before a fire. "José," he added, "what do you really know about the chicle business?"
"Not too much," he allowed, hoping that an honest admitting of his ignorance might inspire Bravo to set his sights upon another. "We encounter it, at times," he said, "and when we do, we seize it."
"Very good," praised Bravo. "What he means is that the sublevados have it and, when Captain Macias encounters them, he takes possession of it." The trader smiled and continued his enthusiastic perspirations.
"Now, however, we are going to go into the competition, as the businessmen and Yankees of Mr. Wallen's acquaintance might say. There is a good deal of chicle here, more of it in the jungle upon the route that my railroad will follow to Ascencion Bay. Since we will be working in that area, at any rate, it's only proper that we show a profit for our labors - that's the European and American way, as you put it, correct Mr. Wallen?"
"That it is," the chicle buyer said.
"We've formed a company," Bravo announced, "the Company of Industries. It's a fine name, isn't it, I chose it on my own!" José nodded, wondering what the General was up to as Bravo pressed a sheaf of papers into his hand. "These are the labor contracts, all of them legitimate.
"As you know," he emphasized to Wallen, "there is no slavery in Mexico, it is all fiction invented by disreputable journalists. Everyone who works here does so of their own free will, and they sign documents to prove it. Captain Macias here will obtain the signature of every man on the Vigia Chico project, attesting to their willingness to gather chicle on behalf of the Company of Industries. A mark will do for those who cannot provide their signature and you can fill the name in of the laborer later. You see, Mr. Wallen, there is no shortage of willing arms in Santa Cruz. At any given time, it is possible to have one thousand men in our employ."
José measured the contracts with his finger. "I will need more of these," he said.
Bravo waved off the request. "They can sign on the back. Printing is expensive, keeping costs down is the hallmark of good business, no?"
"Indeed," the trader said. "You are very wise, General. You will be making the chicle available at this port which you have mentioned?"
"That is our intention," Bravo answered.
"Good. The indians brought their chicle to the coast, then it was either transported north to a small port across from Cozumel or south to Belize. I never went to Ascension myself. It's a lonely spot, and you can never be quite sure that they won't just take your money and kill you for your trouble."
"You'll be a partner with all of Mexico now," Bravo answered proudly, “and so have no fear of piracy.”
"Miles and miles of its worst swamps, so I hear." The sweat flowed like blood, as if the mere mention of the swamp raised its waters in the form of vapor from beneath the trader's scalp. "There was an Englishman who went there, and he claims to have seen a quetzal, a flying serpent."
"Ridiculous," Bravo scoffed. "There are a few colorful birds of that name about, but flying serpents are a myth, a Maya superstition."
"If you so say so. This Englishman, however, described it as having the body of a turkey... but covered with brilliant green feathers… and the head of a snake, bare and smooth with a darting, forked tongue and fangs more lethal than even the Asian cobra. It is said to be the most poisonous of the creatures of the world."
"And who is this authority on birds? An expert?"
"It is impossible to ask, General. The fever took him, several years ago in Kingston. He was a good judge of chicle, but incautious in other respects. Still, such a creature might be valuable," Wallen suggested, "one of the major European zoos would certainly pay a fortune for it."
"José, have a turkey shaved from the neck and dye it green," the General suggested. "If a zookeeper will pay for it, why not? It's safer than going into the swamp, where fever is, and there are dangers enough without the complication of venomous birds. Would you say that the indians have given up?" he asked the Belgian searchingly. "I would think not. They are still out there... here..." and Bravo made a circle of his right hand. "Hardly a week goes by without some incident, on the railroad or an interruption of the telegraph. The sublevados have a superstitious horror of the telegraph; perhaps they are correct. Communication is the nervous system of civilized societies. So they cut my wires, chop them up and fill their shotguns with the fragments. But we are persistent. The line has been rebuilt a dozen times and our lifeline to civilization is restored. Captain Macias knows these things as well or even better than I do. For instance, there is the matter of that tree."
"El Indio Triste," José recalled.
Bravo clapped his hands for the housekeeper Consuela. "Bring us more coffee," he said. "We are in no hurry here, Captain, I think our guest would appreciate your story. Why don't you tell him?"
"If it is your wish." José was careful not to show the displeasure that he felt; he wanted nothing so much as to be out of the presence (and aroma!) of the loathsome Pieter Wallen. But the General had made, of his request, an order. Very well, the Captain thought, perhaps the story would give this Belgian chicle trader second thoughts about Quintana Roo and he would go to Belize or Payo Obispo; some other location in which he would have the pleasure of the company of men of his aspect.
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