“HOW LONG BEFORE we set forth? By Jupiter! I can’t believe we’re stuck here like imbeciles!”
“I’m afraid there’s nothing we can do, Señor Yanez.”
“A sandbank! How could we have grounded on a sandbank? By Jupiter! Was the pilot drunk? So much for Malay seamanship! And to think that up until this morning I’d thought them the best in the Seven Seas! Sambigliong, have them hoist another sail. The wind is still favourable; we may be able to wrench free.”
“Unlikely, Señor Yanez, the tide is dropping too quickly.”
“The devil take that idiotic pilot!”
The man who had uttered those words had abruptly turned toward the stern, his face dark with anger. Though in his late forties, he was still strong and vigorous. His moustache, now grey, had been carefully curled; his face, bronzed and handsome, was framed by long hair that fell from beneath a large hat of Manila hemp adorned with small red silk tassels.
His clothes were simple yet elegant, a white jacket with gold buttons, white trousers and brown leather long boots. A pair of long-barrelled Indian pistols inlayed with silver and mother-of-pearl protruded from a thick red velvet sash about his waist.
“Pilot!” he shouted.
At that command, a Malay with dark soot-coloured skin and almond-shaped eyes yellowed from long years at sea, gave the wheel to a crewmate and walked nervously towards Yanez.
“Padada,” the European said dryly, his right hand resting on the butt of one of his pistols. “How do you explain our present situation? I seem to recall you telling me that you knew every inch of the Bornean coast; that’s the only reason I took you on.”
“But, sir,” the Malay stammered embarrassedly.
“Do you have an explanation?” asked Yanez who appeared, perhaps for the first time in his life, to have lost his usual calm demeanour.
“This sandbank wasn’t here before, sir.”
“So it just formed this morning, did it? Do you take me for a fool? You intentionally ran the Marianna aground.”
“Why would I do that, sir?”
“How should I know? Perhaps you’re in league with those scoundrels who have stirred up the Dyaks.”
“I only associate with other Malays, sir.”
“How long before we can set off?”
“We’ll be on our way come high tide, sir.”
“Well that’s something at least; tell me, are there many Dyaks along the river?”
“A few small tribes, sir, I doubt they’ll be any trouble.”
“Are they well armed?”
“Parangs and sumpitans mostly, perhaps a few rifles.”
“Who could have stirred them up?” murmured Yanez. “There’s more to this than a simple uprising... The Tiger of Malaysia insists the British are behind it, but why this sudden hostility? There’s a mystery here; let’s hope we can get Tremal-Naik and Darma back to Mompracem before the scoundrels attack their plantation. Now, let’s see what we can do to get off this sandbank before high tide.”
He turned his back to the Malay, walked toward the bow, and leaned over the bulwark.
The ship that had run aground, perhaps due to the carelessness of her pilot, was a magnificent two-masted vessel of recent construction with two enormous triangular sails similar to those used by large Malay prahus. She weighed no less than two hundred tons and carried enough arms to strike fear into even the mightiest cruiser.
Two heavy-calibre chasers stood on the quarterdeck, protected by a mobile barricade comprised of thick steel plates; four large swivel guns peered from the forecastle, which though of short range, could do considerable damage to any ship caught within their sights.
She was manned by a crew of forty men, Malays and Dyaks, who, though past their prime, were all strong and muscular, their proud faces and numerous scars indicating they were veterans of many a battle.
The ship had come to an unexpected halt before a vast bay several dozen metres from the mouth of a large river. Numerous islands dotted the waters, each one covered in thick vegetation and defended by a maze of sandbanks and coral reefs.
The Marianna had grounded upon a sandbank, hidden just below the waterline, which was slowly growing larger as the tide receded.
“Wretched pilot!” exclaimed Yanez, after having studied their predicament at length. “She’s in too deep to kedge her out. We’ll be stuck here until midnight. What do you think, Sambigliong?”
A rugged-looking Malay with whitish hair and a muscular build had just come to the European’s side.
“It’s as you say, Señor Yanez, there’s nothing we can do; we’re stuck here ‘til high tide.”
“Do you trust that pilot?”
“I’m not sure, Captain,” replied the Malay. “He seems honest enough. However…”
“Continue,” said Yanez.
“Well, looking back, it all seems rather suspicious. We found him alone, miles from Gaya, in a rowboat that could barely withstand the waves. When he learned where we were headed, he immediately offered to guide us through these waters.”
“Was I rash to give him the wheel?” Yanez wondered aloud. Then, shaking his head as if to dispel an unwelcome thought added, “Why would that man, one of your countrymen, have tried to strand the Tiger of Malaysia’s mightiest prahu? Haven’t we always protected the natives from British oppression? Have our battles against James Brooke been forgotten? Had it not been for us, the Dyaks of Sarawak would never have regained their freedom.”
“Why would the Sea Dyaks suddenly take up arms against our friends, Señor Yanez?” asked Sambigliong. “These shores were almost deserted before Tremal-Naik built his farms here. Most of the Dyaks in these parts were pirates until he showed them a better way to earn a living. Who knows how many of their lives he’s saved by giving them the option of hanging up their parangs.”
“It’s a mystery, my dear Sambigliong, that neither I nor Sandokan can fathom. Something must have happened to spark this sudden anger towards Tremal-Naik, but for the moment we’re at a loss to explain it.”
“Do you think Tremal-Naik and his daughter are in danger?”
“The messenger he sent to Mompracem said the Dyaks were up in arms as if taken by sudden madness, three of his farms had been burned and pillaged and it was rumoured they were planning an attack on his life.”
“And yet there isn’t a better man on the island,” said Sambigliong. “It makes no sense. Why would those scoundrels turn on him?”
“We’ll find out when we reach Pangutaran’s kampong. The Marianna’s sudden appearance on the river should calm the Dyaks’ tempers a bit, but if they refuse to lay down their arms, we’ll gladly give them battle.”
“Let’s hope we learn the reason behind their uprising.”
“Look over there!” exclaimed Yanez, casting his eyes toward the mouth of the river. “There seems to be someone heading towards us.”
A small rowboat fitted with a single sail had emerged from behind the small islands clustered about the mouth of the river and had pointed her bow toward the Marianna. One man sat at the tiller, but from that distance the Portuguese could not tell if he was a Malay or a Dyak.
“Now who could that be?” asked Yanez, keeping his eyes fixed on the approaching vessel. “Look at him, Sambigliong. He’s trying to decide where to go. First he heads toward that small island then he tacks and sails off towards the reef.”
“Someone may be spying on him, Señor Yanez,” replied Sambigliong. “He may be trying to hide his true course.”
“Yes, you may be right,” said the European. “Load one of the swivel guns and have someone bring me a pair of binoculars. I’d wager he’s trying to reach us; if anyone attempts to stop him, we’ll open fire.”
A moment later he pointed the binoculars at the rowboat. She had finally set off from the small island and was now less than two miles from them, heading determinedly towards the Marianna.
At one point the Portuguese cried out:
“Tangusa? Are you sure? It’s been six years since that old pirate set off with Tremal-Naik.”
“It’s him, Sambigliong; I can make out his face quite clearly.”
“Then, we’ll finally get some answers about this uprising,” said the Dyak.
“Yes and... Oh!”
“What is it, sir?”
“A launch manned by a dozen Dyaks; looks like they’re giving chase. See, there, just off the furthest island?”
Sambigliong sharpened his gaze and spotted a long narrow boat by the mouth of the river quickly heading toward the open sea, driven forward by eight well-built oarsmen.
“Yes, Señor Yanez, they’re giving chase,” he said.
“Is the swivel gun ready?”
“Yes, sir. We loaded all four of them, take your pick.”
“Excellent, stand ready for my command.”
Aided by the wind, the small rowboat was flying toward the Marianna with great speed; however, she was no match for the launch. Realizing he was being followed, Tangusa quickly tied the tiller in place, took up the oars and started rowing furiously.
A small cloud of smoke suddenly rose from the launch’s bow, then the sound of a discharge reached the ears of the Marianna’ s crew.
“They’re firing on Tangusa, Señor Yanez,” said Sambigliong.
“Well, my friend, time to announce our presence,” the European replied.
He tossed away his cigarette, walked calmly through the throng of men that had been drawn to the forecastle by the sound of the blast, took position behind one of the swivel guns and aimed it at the launch.
The chase was intensifying and though Tangusa was rowing desperately, his tiny vessel was slowly losing ground.
The pursuers fired another rifle blast, but the bullet went wide, Dyaks generally being more skilled with sumpitans than firearms.
Yanez calmly continued to take aim.
“They’re within range,” he murmured after a minute.
He fired. The long barrel thundered darkly, the shot echoing beneath the trees lining the shores of the bay.
A jet of water shot into the air off the launch’s starboard side followed immediately by cries of rage.
“A direct hit, Señor Yanez!” shouted Sambigliong.
“It should sink in a minute,” the Portuguese replied.
The tiny boat was rapidly filling with water, the one-and-a-half pound shell fired from the swivel gun having blasted a large hole in its side.
The Dyaks immediately turned about and began rowing desperately towards the small islands at the mouth of the river, hoping to reach one while the launch remained afloat. But when they were about three hundred paces from the nearest shore, the launch suddenly disappeared beneath the waves.
Skilled swimmers, they had little need to worry, for Sea Dyaks, like Malays and Polynesians, spend most of their lives on the water.
“Yes, save yourselves,” murmured Yanez. “Try to follow us again and we’ll fill your hides with grapeshot.”
The small rowboat, freed of her pursuers, thanks to that well-aimed shot, had resumed her course towards the Marianna. The breeze had picked up slightly with the setting sun and soon the tiny vessel was only a few cable lengths from the prahu.
Her sole occupant was a man in his early thirties with sallow skin and almost European features. Though short in stature he was of muscular build; portions of his arms, chest, and legs were bound with cloth, which appeared to be stained with blood.
“He looks like he’s in pain,” said Yanez. “He may have been wounded! Throw down the ladder and have Kikatany stand by.”
While his men rushed to carry out his orders, the small rowboat tacked once more and arrived beneath the Marianna’s starboard side.
“Quickly, climb aboard!” shouted Yanez.
Tangusa tethered his boat to the ship, took down the sail, then with a bit of effort, scrambled up the ladder to the deck.
A cry of surprise and horror escaped the Portuguese.
The poor man’s body was riddled with cuts and gashes as if he had been sprayed with several volleys of tiny grapeshot. Small threads of blood streamed from each of those countless wounds.
“By Jupiter!” Yanez exclaimed in horror. “Who did this to you, Tangusa?”
“White ants, Señor Yanez,” the Malay replied hoarsely, grimacing in pain.
“White ants!” the Portuguese exclaimed. “You were tortured? The Dyaks?”
“Ah! Wretches! Get yourself to the infirmary and have Kikatany tend to your wounds; we’ll resume our conversation later. Just tell me if Tremal-Naik and Darma are in danger.”
“The master has gathered a small band of Malays and is trying to hold off the Dyaks.”
“Fine, that’s all I need to know. Now have Kickatany take a look at you; send for me once you’re better, my good Tangusa. I have a few things to tend to.”
While the Malay, assisted by two sailors, was led below, Yanez turned his attention back to the bay. Three large canoes had emerged from the mouth of the river, heavy with warriors. A double canoe fitted with a platform followed close behind them, a small brass cannon peering menacingly from her deck.
“What the devil!” murmured the Portuguese. “Do those Dyaks intend to measure themselves against us? Ah, my friends, you’ll need more than a lela and a handful of muskets to defeat the Tigers of Mompracem. Our guns will make short work of you.”
“Provided there aren’t any other launches hiding behind those islands, Señor Yanez,” said Sambigliong.
“Those pirates and headhunters may be as daring as they come, but we’re much too well armed to be afraid of them. Besides, in the unlikely event they should manage to board us, a few well-placed caltrops should stop them in their tracks. We do have enough to cover the deck?”
“Yes, sir, two crates full, Captain Yanez.”
“Excellent. Have them brought up and tell our men to put on their boots. How are we stocked for thorns?”
“We have several dozen bundles stored below.”
“Have them spread about the bulwarks. If the Dyaks try to attack, they’ll howl like beasts. Pilot!”
Padada, who had climbed up to the crow’s nest to get a better look at the four launches, quickly scrambled back down to the Portuguese.
“How many ships do those Dyaks have?”
“I’ve only seen a few on the river,” the Malay replied.
“Then we have no reason to fear an attack?”
“I can’t imagine they’d try, sir.”
“I see. Padada, I’m beginning to have my doubts about you; I’d almost wager you ran my ship aground intentionally.”
The Malay grimaced as if to hide a smile.
“I’ve never given you any reason to doubt my loyalty, sir,” he replied, a note of resentment in his voice.
“We’ll see soon enough,” replied Yanez. “Now while Sambigliong prepares our defences, I’ll pay poor Tangusa a visit.”