Pacific Odyssey:

Book II: China

 

 

 

 

Chapter Eight 

More Frustration Heaped on Frustration

 

 

 

“What?” she gasped.  She was too late.   “No!  Diego has been taken?” she finally said out loud, even though softly, almost to herself.  

“Ah, now I know you are exactly who you say you are.  And you know who the ‘Opium Bandit’ is as well,” Batisto said, with a smile.  “This trade war business tends to make one paranoid.” 

In shock, Victoria realized what she had said, but then realized that this man would already have known as well.  Diego, after all, had been at this residence for close to a day and a half, if the rumors she had heard were right.  Nodding she said, “Yes, Diego de la Vega, a young Spanish colonial who had been kidnapped from his home in California.”

“Does anyone else in the British Trade Commission know this?” the envoy asked, leaning forward slightly.  

Puzzled, she said, “They do now if they have captured him.” 

The envoy leaned back and stuck his hands in his vest pockets.  “Oh, no, he was not captured.  My son led him out of the city before the British soldiers came.  Señor de la Vega is hiding in the countryside until the furor has died down somewhat.  Then I was planning on smuggling him back into Canton and putting him on an east bound ship.” 

Victoria sighed in relief.  “Oh, you worried me for a moment.  That is good news . . . I suppose.  But how will you find him?  There is a lot of country out there.”  

“My son told Señor de la Vega to slip back into the city tonight.   If he cannot return tonight, he will probably be able to do so within another day or two.  He will not stray far.” 

“Please tell me if there is anything I can do.  Pay for his passage home, anything,” Victoria said imploringly.    

“Hmm, you can pray that your government does not make the next few days difficult for my plans,” Batisto said with a sigh.  “Or that our ‘Opium Bandit’ doesn’t do anything foolish and anger the Chinese government.  He is now in an area where Europeans are not usually allowed.  It will be dangerous for him out there, but not so dangerous as if he had stayed in the city.”

 

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As the sun set, Diego watched the hectic activity slow, but not totally abate.  He had observed traffic coming and going throughout the late afternoon, early evening hours from an abandoned hut on a hill overlooking the city.  Most of the people had been Chinese farmers and craftsmen leaving Canton after trading in one of the open marketplaces he and Enrique had passed on their flight from the city.  There were few people going into the city now that darkness was falling.  What was more ominous to Diego, though, was the fact that most of the Europeans he had seen were armed and had the look of soldiers.  Not being close enough to hear their conversations, Diego could only conclude that the British were going to great lengths to capture him.   

Grinding his teeth in frustration, he sat back in the shadows and waited for full darkness.  We would wait a few more hours before attempting to make his way to the Portuguese Trade Commission residence.  He slipped into the brush and checked on the horse he had borrowed.  Its hobbles were still secure and it was contentedly grazing.  That was good, as Diego knew that he would not be able to take the gelding with him.  He had just watched the Chinese soldiers closing the heavy wooden gate and he did not doubt that all other gates leading into the city would similarly be closed.  He would have to sneak back to the embassy on foot, assuming that someone would be able to come and get the horse first thing in the morning. 

Patting it on the neck, Diego turned back to the hut, where he changed into the dark clothes of his alter ego, El Zorro, the Opium Bandit.  In the night, the crisply white shirt Senhor Batisto had given him stood out like a beacon.  The mask, cape and bandanna stayed in the saddlebag he had brought along.   Diego belted on the sword, smiling.  Enrique had insisted that he would not be gone long enough to need other clothes, but the Californiano knew that anything could happen and he wanted to be prepared.  Ai, anything had happened on this adventure, he thought with a sigh.  Actually, everything had happened.  Realistically, Diego realized that his success in returning to the Portuguese residence would depend a great deal on stealth and camouflage, and he was very, very good at it.  

When the stars had traveled a goodly distance across the sky, and the city had quieted to only the sounds of a few barking dogs and even fewer people still moving around in what seemed to him to be flimsy houses, Diego ventured forth.  Not knowing what predators might be in this country that he knew so little about, he had released the horse from its hobbles, letting it graze in the meadow above the hut and hoping it would remain there until morning.  He then slipped down the narrow path that led to the main road.  

Throwing his saddlebag across his shoulder, Diego walked the perimeter of the city until he found a section of the wall that was not quite so high.  Feeling the protruding rocks and crevices for handholds, he began an arduous ascent that taxed the strength of his fingers.  After what seemed an interminable time, Diego pulled himself on top of the wall and listened.  Below him was a tiny courtyard with a small chicken coop on one side and a tiny pigpen next to it.  The lone pig grunted softly in its sleep and the chickens’ faint clucking was barely discernable.  There were no sounds from the equally tiny house.  Carefully, he began his descent, dropping lightly to the ground about halfway down.  Again, he waited and listened.  When he didn’t hear anything unusual, Diego slipped along the side of the house that almost touched the one next to it, and then into a very narrow street.  Staying in the deepest shadows, he walked in the direction he believed would take him to the road he and Enrique had used when he had fled from the British ambush. 

In the dark night, he finally found what he believed was the thoroughfare.  He recognized the gate through which they had traveled.  There were several lanterns hanging from hooks, casting weird shadows here and there, but for the most part, the road was dark and silent.  At night, it appeared much more narrow and Diego wondered how in the world all the traffic he had seen earlier had passed along it.  He did not see anyone, not even a night watch, for perhaps a quarter of a mile and then he saw two men, apparently in a drunken stupor, sprawled in front of what appeared to be a store.  Still cautious, Diego silently walked around them, having to step into a small pool of light from a hanging lantern to do so.  One of the men opened his eyes and gazed blearily at him.  “Opium Bandit,” the man whispered, fearful.  Then his gaze became more focused and calculating as the two men studied each other.  The Chinese man’s gaze was the same as some of those who had stared at him in California when he was dressed as Zorro.  Diego realized that there must be a reward on his head here, too. 

He didn’t pause any longer, but continued down the street quickly.  The man was so drunk that he probably wouldn’t even remember their meeting.  Looking back, though, he saw the man stagger to his feet and waver after him.  This will not do, Diego thought.  He spied a tiny alleyway to his left and ducked into it.  The Chinaman soon came into his view, peering his way.  Diego grabbed him, jerking the man toward him, knocking him unconscious with a single blow of his fist to the side of his head.  He held on to the inert body as it slowly slid to the ground.  

Diego started back down the street again, watching more carefully for any activity.  He had to take a bit more time avoiding a brothel, with the comings and goings of customers.   After that, he traveled quickly, the street quiet and empty.  It was another quarter of a mile before he saw anyone else.  This time it was two soldiers.  Diego ducked into a doorway, pressing his body as close to the door as he could.  

The men were talking softly in English.  “How long do you think Sir William will have us searching?”

“Knowing of Sir William’s reputation, I would say until we catch this ‘Opium Bandit’ or until Hell freezes over, whichever comes first,” the second one growled. 

The first man laughed.  “Well, you have to hand it to him, this lone bandit certainly did enough damage.”  He paused.  “Did you ever hear tell of a sailor destroying a ship single-handedly before?”

“No,” his companion said.  “But I feel sorry for him if Sir William….”  Diego was unable to hear more, but what he had heard was enough to discourage him.  The British weren’t going to make it easy for him to quietly sneak out of the country.  He waited a few more minutes and then he slipped out to the road again.  If the English had guards this close to the Portuguese Trade Commission building, then they had some inkling of his future plans.  Damn that do Santos! Diego fumed.  He squelched the anger that was rising in his heart.  All he wanted to do was go home.  No more than that.  Just go home and be out of the way of the British, do Santos and anyone else in China.  

His passage was almost silent, his movement practically undetectable.  He was one with the shadows, a wraith in the dark.  Diego came to a fork in the road and stopped to consider.  He remembered that he and Enrique had stopped here due to congestion.   Right hand fork, he decided.  He would have to cross the road.  There was a lantern hanging from a pole illuminating the conjunction of roads.  Diego looked around, and seeing no one, he stepped out into the pool of light.  He then ran lightly across the road, but just before he reached the far side, he heard the clattering of a horse’s hooves.  Quickly, he found the shadows on the far side of the road and pressed against the wall, willing himself invisible.  It seemed only seconds later that a horse clattered down the road heading toward the outskirts of the city.  His livery appeared British, but Diego couldn’t be sure in the darkness.  

Diego watched and listened and then continued his journey.  The closer he came to the Portuguese Trade Commission complex, the more he had to avoid soldiers and sentries, both Chinese and British.  He came to the outskirts of the plaza and found it to be ringed strategically with soldiers.  His frustration grew.  Enrique was naïve to think that he could so easily sneak back into the trade commissioner’s residence.  And so was I, Diego thought angrily. 

He pondered his options and realized that because the Commission complex was almost completely ringed by open space, getting into the residence tonight was beyond the realm of reason.  However, for that very reason, Diego was going to try it.  If he could successfully get inside without alerting any of these sentries, the British might think that he was still outside the city or wandering the streets.  He could wait a few days for the search to cool and then Batisto could smuggle him on an outbound ship.  Smiling, Diego thought of all the times when Zorro had been in similarly tight places.  He also thought of all the times he had gone out as Zorro on a ship only thirty-five feet by one hundred feet without being detected by more than a few people.   It was possible, he assured himself. 

Almost silently, Diego slipped around the perimeter of the plaza, avoiding patrols easily until he reached the more secluded area near the stables and the servant’s quarters.  There he found even more British, standing in small groups, watching the commission house.  Continuing to stay in the deepest shadows, Diego slipped closer.  He saw a few men from the China Star among the knots of men.  Sir William had prepared for every contingency, he thought, having men here who would be able to recognize someone from the China Star; someone who could be the Opium Bandit.  Regardless, he thought as he pulled on the mask, it would serve to darken his features and make him harder to see in the night.  Now if he could only get to the stable area before the moon came up. 

“Do you think he will try to come?”

“Aye, he’ll try,” a sailor said.  Marcus Lamb, Diego recalled his name.  “He came here wanting to be sent home.  Imagine he still wants to go home.” 

“Well, there is no possible way that he can slip by us and get inside,” a soldier growled softly. 

“You are talking about the man that destroyed a double shipment of opium under the noses of everyone on a cargo ship, mate,” Lamb answered.  “And the man who lived through a hell of a storm at sea.  I wouldn’t put anything past him.”

“Well, if he does, it might get very unpleasant for the Portuguese Trade Commissioner.  I heard that Sir William was all ready to accuse Batisto of acts warranting a declaration of war, and I’m sure he’d actually do it if he got wind that the Portuguese were harboring the ‘Opium Bandit’.” 

“Ah, ye have to be jesting,” Lamb said with a chuckle.  

“Well, I know Sir William more than you do and I don’t put anything that drastic past him, either,” replied the soldier.  “Sir William would send troops to Hell itself to get this bandit.  He was mad enough to chew nails when he saw the China Star. 

They all laughed softly as Zorro withdrew.  He hadn’t thought of that.  In his haste to leave the country, to go home, he had not thought of the consequences to those who helped him.  Staying in the shadows, he again pondered his options based on this latest information.  No matter how well Enrique and his father kept him hidden, someone else in the household would invariably see him and that could very well spell disaster for the Batisto if that person was as opportunistic as do Santos had been.  Remotely, he wondered about do Santos.  No, the assistant to the Trade Commissioner would have been released from his position by now.   But the Portuguese couldn’t have damaged the young caballero’s chances of getting home any more if the British had succeeded in capturing him earlier that day.  

Quickly, he listed all the facts.  First, the Portuguese Trade Commission was closed off to him, at least for some days to come.  Perhaps after a week or so had elapsed, he might be able to see if the British had slowed down their efforts.  Zorro sighed softly.  He thought about the harbor and wondered if he could sign on with an outbound ship, perhaps using a fictitious name.  No, if the British are astute enough to guard this avenue home, they will also be cognizant of the possibility of me trying to get to any ships in the harbor, he thought.  Stowing away?  No, that was far too risky.  Depending on the disposition of the captain, he could either be tossed overboard or imprisoned in the hold until the next port o’call, at which time he might very well be placed in the hands of the British anyway.  

No, he could see only one course of action.  That was to go into the countryside and try to outwait the British Trade Commissioner’s anger.  He clenched his teeth in frustration, knowing that such a solution would add as much as a month or more to his time away from home, depending on Sir William’s determination.  However, Zorro realized that there was nothing now that could be done about it.  Perhaps, in the meantime, he might be able to find someone on the coast with a sailing vessel who might be sympathetic enough to take him to a port o’call where he could catch an outgoing ship.   Even though the Chinese were extremely wary of all foreigners, he might still find someone like Wang Leiching, who would be sympathetic to his plight.  He certainly could not hide in the city, he couldn’t hide anywhere within the circle of the British influence. 

Marcus Lamb suddenly turned and gazed directly at him, his eyes widening.  For some reason the sailor had felt his presence.  “The Avenger,” Lamb whispered, then he said it louder.   All of the men turned toward him, but Zorro was not waiting for them to attack.  He pivoted and ran back up the road, slipping through the shadows when he could, sprinting when he couldn’t.  Shouts rang out behind him, echoing against the buildings ringing the plaza.  

Zorro heard the clattering of a horse’s hooves ahead of him and he pressed himself into a doorway to let the horseman pass.  Then a thought occurred to him, an idea that would make escape easier.  He jumped out into the middle of the road just as the horse appeared from the darkness.  Zorro shouted loudly, causing the animal to swerve, almost unseating the startled rider.  He then grabbed the pommel with one hand and swung up into the saddle, hitting the soldier across of the head with his saddlebag and shoving him off the horse.  Reaching for the reins with one hand, the masked man swung the horse around and galloped back in the direction from which the rider had come. 

Except for a few British soldiers, most of whom were too surprised to react before he had swept by, he met no one, and he was soon near the gate he had gone through with Enrique, seemingly so long ago.  He knew there were probably Chinese guards, so Zorro turned the horse’s head back up the narrower roadway he had come down when he snuck back into the city.  He soon reached the same house with the chickens and pigpen, and was tempted to add the horse to the menagerie, but he resisted the urge.  Dismounting, Zorro slapped the animal’s rump, sending it on up the narrow road, and then he slipped back between the houses into the tiny yard and stopped at the wall.  Again came the laborious finger-straining climb, but soon he was over and on the other side.  Despite the fact that there probably weren’t any soldiers outside the city walls, except at the city gate, Zorro ran along the base of the wall with deliberate stealth, crouched low, presenting only a shadow figure that would confuse any observers.  

When he saw the small rise and its dilapidated hut, Zorro listened, and hearing nothing, slipped up the overgrown path.  Soon he was standing beside the horse, which had whickered a soft greeting.  Zorro, too, felt that the gelding was a friend, the only ally he had in this strange land so far from home, and he was glad that the horse had remained.    

 

 

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