Book II: China
Sail Away Home
In chagrin, Diego realized that reloading would be extremely difficult, if not impossible. He heard several more shots and the hard ping of a ball as it smacked against his hiding place. Placing the powder container in his left hand, he pulled the stopper out with his right. Next, he picked up the pistol and carefully poured the powder into the chamber. His arm felt a bit weak, but the powder all got where he intended. Ai, so slow, he thought. Shot followed, but tamping was only partly successful. He hoped it was enough as another ball whizzed by his head. Another shot and then there was a scream. Diego took a chance and glanced over the top of the rock. He was surprised and delighted to see the captain and the guard waving at him.
“They have all been killed or captured, Diego,” the captain shouted.
Standing, Diego waved back. When he turned to signal the doctor, the caballero saw Zhaou Haifang riding slowly down the slope toward him.
“Are you all right?”
the doctor and the captain asked at the same time when all three had met
at the base of the gangplank.
“I am fine,” Diego
answered. “Just a bit sore. But
this man needs some attention. He
was shot,” he added, pointing to the wounded man.
While the physician was examining the injured guard, the captain met him at the gangplank. “That was very courageous. I thank you for helping us out of an extremely dangerous situation.” The warrior began laughing. “However, I think that His Highness would probably be very unhappy to know you were in such danger,” the captain said.
Diego just waved his hand.
“I have been in danger for months, my friend,” he said,
laughing along with the Chinese warrior.
Then he sobered quickly. He
asked the question that had been nagging at him since they had ridden
into this ambush. “Do you
think this was the doing of the British?”
“Yes, Diego, it was.
One of the ‘bandits’ told me that one of the hongs had
hired he and his men to ambush any party traveling from Prince Qing Kang
Zhu’s palace. He was also
told that if he did a good job and killed a foreign devil, the British
master’s would pay him very well.”
Diego just sighed.
“I assure you, my
friend, we will get you to that Portuguese ship,” the captain said
fervently. “All of the
bandits have been killed or captured.
There is no one to report back to the British. They will know nothing until you have left.”
“Xiexie,” Diego said. There was nothing else he could say. All he could do was pray that no one else got hurt protecting him.
The captain motioned for his two remaining men to gather up the baggage. The horses, including several found hobbled nearby, were loaded on board and the little ship made ready for sailing. Diego examined the sails while the guards pushed the junk away from the shore. Zhaou Haifang attended to the two other scouts, the ones who had been sent out ahead of the troupe that had been found beaten and bound in the cabin of the ship.
“The sails should be
fairly easy to loose, but I will need some help,” Diego said.
With the guards following his directions, the little craft was
soon under way, the wind pushing forcefully against the sails.
Their speed was leisurely, but by sunset the ship was halfway up
the river to Canton.
During the heat of the
late afternoon, the captain sat down near Diego’s place near the
rudder control. “Would
you like me to take over for a while? You must be tired.”
“It has not been too
difficult, but yes, I would appreciate the rest,” Diego responded.
“It will give me the opportunity to keep a better eye on the
sails. They are slightly
different then the ones I am used to.”
“Shortly after your capture, you asked me what my name was and I would not tell you,” the captain began.
Diego looked at him with
interest, wondering what was coming next.
He remembered the conversation well and could not conceive as to
the captain’s reasoning. Even
the prince had not called him by name.
“I have made serious enemies, Diego. That is why I have been so secretive.” He changed the position of the rudder pole and then continued. “I come from the north. There I was a student of kenpo and was considered very good. For a short while, I was the master teacher’s first assistant. However, it was at a time when a faction of the students was plotting against the Emperor and his family. My master joined them and wanted me to also lend my support. I could not go along with insurrection. I openly opposed them. Then I had to defend my position with force and killed several fellow students as well as the leader of the rebel faction. My own master fought against me and I injured him. I fled south, was given sanctuary by the Emperor and a position in his army. When the prince was kidnapped and then returned, I was sent to make sure that such a thing did not happen again.”
“So you are separated
from your family, too.”
“At least your father is still alive. They killed all my family in retaliation. I have no family except my prince,” the captain said.
“I am sorry,” Diego
murmured. “That must have been a hard loss to take.”
“Yes, it was, but the
ancestors are not necessarily bound by physical barriers.
I feel them with me at times,” the warrior said, as he adjusted
the rudder for a slight bend in the river.
Diego thought that was an interesting thought, in light of the visit of his mother the night before.
“Only the Emperor knows my family name. But he felt it wise that no one else know it. These rebels, or those that remain, are very determined to exact revenge. They would go to great lengths to kill even my distant relatives. You think that the British have long memories; there is no one whose memories are longer than those of my people. But I am known to a few by a name that His Imperial Highness gave me. It is a name that honors my loyalty.” He paused.
Diego, knowing what the man beside him had in mind, said, “If you are uncomfortable telling me your name, I truly understand.”
“But I am comfortable. You are honorable, you are courageous and you are loyal. I know that you will not give away my secret any more than I would give away yours,” the captain said, pausing for a moment. “The Emperor named me Da Shan.”
How appropriate for someone such as this man,
Diego thought. Aloud, he
said, “Thank you for your confidence.
And the Emperor named you wisely.”
They continued up the river with only the sounds of birds and the
whispering of the wind in the sails accompanying them for some time.
In near darkness, they
docked at a small inlet away from habitation, speaking in whispers when
there was a need to communicate. Diego
was still incredulous at the obsession the British seemed to have for
capturing him. With
each of the guards taking turns, they slept on the boat until just
before dawn. Sometime in
the early hours of the morning, the captain shook Diego awake. “Come,” he whispered.
“We are going overland the rest of the way.
Even the prince did not know of this change of plans, but I
believe this will be safer.”
Surprised, Diego nevertheless nodded and got up. He carried his saddlebag out to his horse. While the guards loaded the baggage on two of the horses, he tried to saddle his own. He was able to throw on the blanket and, with some effort, the saddle, but he was unable to tighten the cinch properly. It was while he was struggling with this that the captain walked up to him.
“Let me help you.” The
Captain kneed the animal in the stomach, and pulled up the cinch some
more when the horse exhaled. “He
would have dumped you like a sack of rice had I not done this.
He is a good mount, but this is his one bad habit,” he
“My thanks, getting dumped from a horse once is one time too many,” Diego said with a soft chuckle as he secured the harness straps of the Chinese saddle.
After a quick, cold breakfast, they mounted and proceeded towards the city. The pace was fast, the party only stopping to give the animals and themselves short rests and opportunities to eat and drink. There were no further problems and the group arrived at the outskirts of Canton just before the sun was setting. Several more hours of negotiating the narrow streets and making sure that they were not being followed, and they arrived at the Portuguese envoy’s residence, riding in at the back entrance. Servants took care of the horses and baggage, although Diego personally took the saddlebag containing his costume. The Captain and his guardsman oversaw the work of the servants, while Diego and Zhaou Haifang were led inside the residence.
“Ah, Senhor de la Vega! It is good to see you again,” the envoy greeted Diego warmly. He seemed genuinely glad to see him. “Enrique has been looking for your arrival since I sent word of the departing ship. He would have been with me to greet you tonight, but I sent him to bed.” Diego himself heartily wished he could emulate Enrique and do the same.
As though reading his thoughts, the envoy said, “Senhor, you also look very tired. Come let me accompany you to your room.” He gave instructions to the servants to take the physician to a guest room and then led Diego to the room he had slept in during his previous stay. Batisto stopped in front of a door. “Here is your room. Sleep while you can. You will have to arise very early in the morning in order to catch your ship.”
Wearily, Diego thanked him and went in. Later, he wasn’t able to remember much more than the walk to the bed. Before daylight, a tapping at his door awakened him. “Enter,” he said, sleepily, and sat up, stretching.
Enrique bounded in with almost puppy dog enthusiasm. “Diego, I am so glad you made it back...” the boy paused and stared at his left arm. “What happened to you?” he asked seriously.
He briefly told the boy of his mishap.
Getting up, he noticed there was water already poured in a
washstand and realized that he must have slept an unusually sound sleep.
After a quick wash-up, Enrique helped him get the shirt back on.
He slowly buttoned his shirt, and Enrique helped him tie the banda.
“We have to hurry. Father said there would be time for a quick breakfast and then we will have to go to the dock,” Enrique told him.
In one of the offices of the British Trade Commission, an assistant to the trade envoy was explaining a point of fact to a Portuguese sailor. “I guarantee you that if the nephew to the Emperor was lying to my men, then the man who came to be known as the ‘Opium Bandit’ will most likely be a passenger on your vessel. My spies said that a small troupe of Chinese officials was seen arriving at the Portuguese Trade Commission residence late last night. Your ship is the most likely vessel, since it is the only one that is heading east within the next several days,” the assistant explained.
The Portuguese nodded his understanding. “But I am most curious, senhor, why didn’t your spies ambush this troupe if you are so sure that the ‘Opium Bandit’ was among them.”
“They tried, but were not successful. No, it will be much easier to deal with this thorn in my government’s side when he is at sea and thinks he’s safe.”
“Yes, I understand. Do you have the names of those I need to be looking out for?”
“Yes. Here is a list of names of those who are suspected of being the ‘Opium Bandit,’ the top four being the most likely. These are all men who were listed as missing after the storm.” The Portuguese pointed out that the top four names were of Spanish origin. “Yes, I feel, somehow, that the bandit is one of the indentured Californianos picked up in San Diego.” The assistant paused for a moment. “If your passenger has the same name as one of those,” he pointed to the list, “then kill him,” he said with a cold smile. “And I suppose you are clever enough to be able to use his passage money for your own good purposes.”
“Of course, senhor.” Both men laughed.
After the morning meal and just before the group went down to the harbor where Diego’s ship was resting at its berth, the caballero discussed with the envoy something that had been bothering him. “Senhor Batisto, I hate to ask this favor of you, since I already owe you so much, but I worry about my fellow indentured Californianos,” he said. “Is there any way you could try to find where they are and perhaps use the ‘reward money’ that do Santos talked about to buy their indentures and send them home?” Diego asked.
“Diego, I would be happy
“Obrigado, senhor,” Diego said. “I know that most of them wanted to go home every bit as much as I do.” Batisto nodded.
Just as the sky in the
east was showing the rosy hint of dawn, a small group rode in two
carriages to the dock where a Portuguese East Indiaman was waiting at
anchor. An excited Diego
thanked Señor Batisto profusely for helping him, and then he
solemnly shook hands with Enrique.
“You are a true caballero, Enrique. I thank you again for saving my life.”
“Thank you, Don Diego. And
I will remember the fencing lessons.”
Diego turned and bowed to
Zhaou Haifang. “You were
the first to give me hope when I was hurt and lost.
I can never thank you enough,” he told the physician in
“And I thank you, Diego,
for showing me that not all Europeans are barbarians.
I am pleased to have served you,” the physician answered.
he bowed to the Captain of the Imperial Guard
“Thank you so much for helping me while I was a stranger here
and for protecting me and teaching me,” Diego told him. “Be sure to
tell His Highness again how grateful I am for making it possible for me
to return home to my family and my land,” he added.
The captain bowed in return. “Remember, Diego, all that I have taught you and be careful and watchful. And also remember that the wishes of those who care travel even across oceans.”
Then Diego spoke to the entire group. “I will always remember each of you.” And Diego de le Vega turned and boarded the ship that was preparing to sail east. The first rays of the sun shone in his face, comforting him greatly.
Diego leaned against the rail, waving goodbye to his friends, watching the city of Canton beginning to glow in the early morning sun. There was a duality of emotions stirring within him. On the one hand he felt a sense of elation that at last he was actually heading home, but on the other he felt a curious sense of loss. It was most peculiar how both could exist at the same time.