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     Pacific Odyssey:

      Book II

 

 

 

Diego's efforts to return home are thwarted and he is forced to flee into the Chinese countryside, a dangerous place where Europeans are not permitted.

 

 

   

Chapter One

Transitions

 

 

Flashes of lightning illuminated Diego when he leaped from the mainmast yardarm into the turbulent water.  As Bowman watched the Californiano’s flight, he couldn’t help but think of a hawk soaring to freedom, but what a price that freedom exacted!  He only hoped that Diego’s freedom wasn’t death in the ocean.  He tried desperately to see if his assistant had found the boat that he, Roberto and the others had managed to throw overboard, but it was too dark to tell.  Oh, Diego, now I have lost two sons, he thought in great anguish.  Tears slid down his cheeks and mixed with the rain that was now pouring down.  The new captain was screaming at the crew to furl the sails.  Those had been neglected during the fight and some of the panels were already beginning to rip apart in the strong and capricious winds.  He saw several men lose their grips and fall to their deaths as they tried to gather up the flapping sails.  Finally as the top of the main mast began to crack, Hackley ordered the sails cut from all the yards.

The storm continued to gather strength and Bowman slowly turned toward his cabin.  There was nothing else he could do except pray.  He stumbled and almost fell.  Pain clutched at his chest and the supercargo stood quietly for a moment, waiting for it to ease.  Roberto grabbed Bowman’s arm, steadying him.  The Californiano's face was filled with concern and when the supercargo finally nodded and trudged to his cabin, he followed him. 

Roberto wondered where Don Diego was, because the assistant had been like a shadow to the old man the entire day.  He asked as much of the supercargo.   

“I saw him swept overboard just a little while ago, heaven help him, but now we must pray for Zorro.  Perhaps he will have a chance to make it through this.”  Bowman didn’t know why he kept up this pretense about Diego’s dual identity, but he did anyway.  Waves crashed against the hull and water swept through the gallery window. The ship heeled to one side and Bowman almost fell on the wet floor.  “Close the window, please,” he said to the young Californiano as he clutched onto the side of his bed.  The ship finally righted itself and he lay down; he was so exhausted and cold, and his heart seemed to alternately race and then slow down to almost nothing.   And the pain had increased to incredible proportions.   He struggled to relax, to find a comfortable position, even to breathe. 

“Roberto, I will take care of Mr. Bowman,” Victoria said from the doorway. She had followed the two men below, concerned for Bowman and knowing that it would be safer here.  “I think that all hands are needed with the ship,” she added.  Martha Ann clung tightly to her damp skirts.  Roberto nodded and left, his countenance sad, his longing to stay intense.   

“Let me give you some of your medicine.  It will help ease the pain,” she said.  She had talked with Diego earlier in the day and knew of the supercargo’s condition.  The exertion of hauling the small boat overboard could not have helped Bowman any, either.   

“No, it will only make me sleep and, right now, sleep would be death,” Bowman answered.   

“Don’t be silly, you just need some rest, Mr. Bowman,” Victoria argued, but she believed that he was probably right.   She felt his forehead and found it to be clammy and cold.  Finding a dry blanket, she wrapped it around him.

“I would prefer to spend my last few minutes talking with you, remembering pleasant things, rather than sleeping.  I will have an eternity to sleep.” 

“Only until the pain gets too great,” she acquiesced, nodding. 

“Only then,” he said.  They were quiet for a few minutes. 

The ship’s movements were violent, the hull creaking ominously, the thunder brutally loud.  Waves splashed against the gallery window, making it shudder.  Martha Ann slipped on the damp floor and clung more tightly to her mother’s skirts, whimpering.  “God will watch over us, my darling,” Victoria soothed, pulling her close. 

“Stay close to me, Victoria,” Bowman said.  “It is further away from the window and it will comfort me.  If the storm breaks the gallery, I want you two to go to Mr. Hackley’s cabin.  No windows.  Safer,”

“What do you want to remember, Mr. Bowman?” Victoria finally asked, during a lull in the horrific sounds of the storm.  They almost had to shout to be heard.  “Or would you rather not talk right now?”

“I would very much like to talk,” he said, and proceeded to tell her about his wife and son and his time with them when he wasn’t at sea.

“So you have been at sea for many years?” she asked. 

“Yes, almost forty.  Most of it’s been rewarding, although sometimes it’s been almost more than I can bear.  Especially when my dear Lillian died,” he said.  Something crashed above them, and the ship shuddered.  “She died while I was at sea.”  He paused.  “Wished I could have been with her.”

“Mama, are we going to die?” Martha Ann asked, her voice filled with fear.

Before Victoria could answer, Bowman reassured her. “No, my child.  This is a sturdy ship. We can lose our masts, but still she should stay afloat.”  In the dimness, he saw Victoria looking gratefully at him.  He paused while he caught his breath.  His chest throbbed incessantly now, steady, but not so much that he couldn’t still talk away his last minutes.  The lightning lit the room momentarily and he saw Diego’s sea chest where it had slid across the room.  “Victoria, there is something in Diego’s sea chest that I know he would want you and your little one to have.  In fact, anything that is left in there I want you to have.”  He paused to catch his breath.  “He told me a few weeks ago that if anything happened to him, he wanted me to have what little he had accumulated during the voyage.  So I leave them to you.  I want you to have my chest as well.  I have no family.”   Victoria nodded, tears forming in her eyes.  She blinked several times to control them.  Now was not the time to break down and weep. 

“And there is something else,” he began then paused.  It was getting harder and harder to talk.  The pains shot down his arms and back up again.

“What?” Victoria prompted. 

“I will not be able to write to Diego’s father and let him know what happened,” Bowman said softly.  Victoria had to lean over to hear him, even though the storm seemed to be abating.  The ship was still wallowing heavily, but at least not so bad that they had to hang on to fixtures for dear life.  “His name is Alejandro de la Vega.  He has a large ranch . . . outside of Los Angeles.  Please write to him . . . if you hear nothing about Diego when we reach Canton.  Please.”

“Do you think there is any chance that Diego will live through this?” she asked.

“There is always a chance,” he said.  “Diego is . . . a survivor.”  He paused.  “He has to be.  Lived this long.”

“Why did Diego dress the way he did, destroy the opium and frighten the captain?” Victoria asked.  She felt that Bowman knew the answers and while she realized that it was painful for him to talk, she could not help her curiosity.

“Diego hid . . . that secret . . . even before,” he explained.  “He was . . . is El Zorro, the fox.”  Bowman took a shuddering breath and Victoria knew that he would die soon.  Remotely she noticed that the thunder and lightning were muted.  The storm was passing.  

“I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have asked.  You rest.  Let me give you some of the medicine,” she said.  

“No . . . no.  Let me finish,” he whispered.  “Ask Roberto who . . . Zorro is….   Diego wanted to . . . frighten Beatty to let him . . . and the others go back home.   Opium?  He detested the . . . very idea of . . . forcing it on Chinese….   His personal crusade.”

The room was quiet for a moment, except for the supercargo’s harsh breathing and his occasional moans of pain.  Suddenly he rose up, cried out several names and then lay back down. 

Victoria placed her hand near his face and felt for breath, but found none.  Neither did she feel a heart beat.  Gently, she pulled the blanket up over the supercargo’s body and sat down at his desk, taking Martha Ann into her arms, holding her close.  Now she let the tears flow and she continued to hold her child close to her breast, rocking slightly in the rigid chair.  So much pain; so much sorrow.  Will it ever end? she asked herself.   

“Is Mr. Bowman dead, Mama?” her little girl asked.

“Yes, darling, he has gone with the angels like your father did,” she answered. 

“Did Diego go to the angels, too?” Martha Ann questioned.  “He was nice to me. He sang a song to me once.”

Victoria paused.  “No, dear.  I don’t think he did.”  And she prayed that she was right.

Victoria lit the lantern and looked into the chest.  It was almost empty, containing only another set of clothing and a few trinkets that sat on the bottom.  She reached in and picked up one of the items.  When she unwrapped it, she found an exquisitely stunning shell.  It nestled beautifully in the palm of her hand, the fluted edges curling around the outside of her hand.

“Oh, Momma, it’s so pretty,” Martha Ann said, her eyes wide in wonder. 

“Yes, it is.  It is Diego’s,” Victoria murmured. 

“Can I have it?”  

“You may take care of it until we find Diego,” Victoria explained, handing the shell to her daughter.   She remembered now, that was the shell the natives on the Sandwich Isles had given him.  

“Do you think we’ll find him?” Martha Ann asked, gazing raptly at the pearly inside of the shell.

“I will certainly try my best,” Victoria said.  

Roberto slipped into the room.  “Mrs. Meachem, how is the supercargo?”  

“He died almost an hour ago, Roberto.  I suppose he will need to be buried at sea today,” she replied.  Roberto nodded and crossed himself.  “I need for you to do me a favor, though.”

“What is that, ma’am?” Roberto asked. 

“Find out how many of your fellow Californianos want to return home,” she said.  

“But why?”  

“Because when we get to Canton I am going to pay off the indenture of any of you who want to return home,” she said.  

“What?  Pay off…” Roberto stammered.  “Do you mean that, señora?”  

“Yes, I do.  And there is something else you can do,” she said with a slight smile.  

“Anything!” Roberto exclaimed.  

“When we were getting the boat for the man in the black costume, you called him something . . . El Zorro.  Was that it?” she asked.  

“Yes, El Zorro, a friend of the people.  The Virgin must have sent him to help us.”  He paused, turning to look out of the dark gallery window.  “I only hope that the Blessed Virgin was out there to help him in this storm.”

“I am sure she was, Roberto,” Victoria said, hoping that he was right.  She looked down at her daughter whose attention was still on Diego’s shell.  “Later, when you are free, I want you to tell me about this man,” she told him.  “Mr. Bowman told me that you knew about him.”

“Of course, Mrs. Meachem,” the young man said.  “I can tell you anything you want to know about El Zorro.” 

 

                                  ===============================

   

In the near blackness of late evening, Alejandro gazed uneasily at the approaching storm.   Flashes of lightning illuminated bulging thunderheads that billowed and plumed with ominous speed.  Most of the time storms, even a storm such as this one, didn’t bother him.  In fact, at times, Alejandro liked to watch this manifestation of the incredible majesty of nature, and gaze awestruck at the crackling power of the lightning bolts. 

He remembered the time Zorro had saved one of the de la Vega servants from the magistrado Galindo’s wrath, delivering the young man to the front gate of the hacienda, then riding off just as a storm, such as this one approached.   Just before the black-clad rider crested the nearby hill, a bolt of lightning shot from one cloud and crossed the sky to another, illuminating the man and horse.  Alejandro had stood transfixed on the walkway above the patio, gripping the balustrade, unable to move even to greet the returned servant.  The lightning had created a silver glow over Zorro that seemed almost ethereal. 

At the time, Alejandro didn’t know that this man was his own son; he only knew that the man in black was someone incredibly powerful and totally dedicated, a strategist as brilliant as the lightning that stood as Zorro’s backdrop.   Alejandro remembered his part in the affair of the vigilants, just a scant couple of weeks prior to this ‘vision’ and was ashamed of his role in it.  To have even considered Zorro a traitor seemed ludicrous now.     

And now he was substituting for Zorro, for his son.  Where was Diego?  Would he be in China by now?  Was he still alive?  Alejandro watched the storm approach and shuddered, feeling the fingers of dread creep up and down his spine.  Again, as he had done so many times before, he silently asked the Holy Virgin to watch over and protect his son.   And his dearly departed wife, an angel indeed.  He asked her to help, too. 

The storm reached the casa grande and released the rain that had formed in the bellies of the clouds.  Alejandro felt the blowing rain hit him in the face and he shivered. 

 

                                 ==========================

 

Diego didn’t remember seeing the sun coming up, but he woke to semi-consciousness, seeing the light of day reflected in the water.  He felt very fortunate that he had tied himself so securely to the boat, or he would have long since been dead in the depths of the sea.  But the water seemed higher somehow.  It was hitting his chest, sometimes lapping at his chin.  Then it dawned on him, the boat was sitting lower in the water.  It was becoming waterlogged.  I need to turn the boat over now.  Somehow, I have to.  Can’t stay here.  Slowly, with fingers that seemed made of wood, he undid the rope, clinging to the seat with one hand.  He coughed and spat up more brine.  Then he took as deep a breath as he could and slipped from under the boat.  He blinked in the sudden, bright sunlight that hit him squarely in the eyes as he came up on the outside.  Everything was a blur, but he didn’t take the time to wipe his eyes.  He either had to turn the boat or get on top of it.  Think!  But he couldn’t think.   His brain felt as numb as his fingers.   

Diego reached for the keel of the boat and was finally able to grip it by putting one foot into the oarlock.  As he tried to push his body on top, the boat flipped, turning almost majestically over on him.  Letting go, Diego floundered and then caught hold of the dangling rope.  Then he grabbed the edge of the boat, wondering what to do next.  How do I get in now? he thought languidly.  He tried to pull himself over the edge, but the boat rocked dangerously, threatening to overturn again.  The stern? Carefully, hand over hand, holding on with fingers that seemed as inflexible as sticks, Diego made his way to the stern of the small craft.   Then, before his minute amount of energy was gone, he pulled himself up out of the water and slid partway into the boat.  His legs were still dangling and the boat was rocking in a motion that made his stomach churn and his head ache.  Diego grabbed the ‘life-saving’ seat, the one he had tied himself to, and pulled himself all the way in.  For several minutes he lay quietly in the bottom of the vessel, exhausted, water sloshing around his body and into his face.  Need to bail it out.  With what?  He smiled mentally.  At least his legs still worked, even though he couldn’t feel them.   More water hit him in the face, causing him to choke.   His throat burned, his head pounded, his eyes were blurred and painful from the salt water.  Diego wiped his eyes, but it didn’t help.  Coughing some more, Diego was finally able to clear a bit more water out of his chest.  The waves were gentle now, rocking the boat like a cradle, but still causing the water to splash in his face.  Slowly, he moved his body until his head lay up on the bow of the little craft.     

Diego felt cold, an interminable, biting cold, as though he was covered in a blanket of ice.  He remembered how only the day before-- Was it a day or was it a month ago he asked himself—he remembered how very warm it was, how most of the sailors had worked shirtless.  Torpidly, he wondered how a place that was so warm could have water that was so cold.  He reached toward the gunwale and found his cape, pulling it over his body as best as he could.  It was wet, but it kept a bit of the breeze off of him.  Thankfully, the intense shivering that had racked him the night before had stopped some time ago.  Looking about him, he saw only ocean, and deep blue sky.  There were no clouds to break the two shades of blue.  Will I die out here? After last night, will I die on a calm ocean?  Mercifully, before he could become even slightly concerned about that problem, Diego lost consciousness again.  The sun continued to rise over the still form bobbing with the gentle waves.

 

 

 

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