Pacific Odyssey

 

Book II: China

 

 

 

  Chapter Seventeen

 

Beginnings of the Long Journey Home

              

 

 

“Mama, what does executed mean?” Martha Ann asked. 

“Why on earth are you asking that, darling?” Victoria asked in return.

“That is a word I heard Sir William use.” 

“Oh?  It means that someone was killed.  Usually it is for something wicked that they did,” Victoria explained.   She wasn’t sure she liked this conversation.

“But you said the ‘Opium Bandit’ wasn’t wicked,” Martha Ann said.  There were tears in her eyes.  “Why would someone kill the ‘Opium Bandit’ if he wasn’t wicked?”

Victoria’s breath caught in her throat.  No!  Diego can’t have been caught!  Not after all this!  “What do you mean?   Just what did Sir William say?”  

“A man said that some prince executed the ‘Opium Bandit.’”

“Did he say anything else, sweetheart?” Victoria asked.   

“No, Mama.  Sir William told me to leave.  And he didn’t say it very nice either.”  

I can imagine, Victoria thought.  Oh, Diego, I had so hoped that you would be able to make it home, she lamented.  Well, there is only one thing to do then.  She squared her shoulders and raised her chin.

“Mama, what’s wrong?”

“What?  Wrong?”   Victoria looked at her daughter.  “Oh, nothing, darling.  It is just that we are going to have to take a little voyage to keep a promise.”  She paused for a brief moment.  “I can understand your sadness, I am sad, too.   Sometimes even good people do things that other people think is wrong.  That is probably why the prince killed the ‘Opium Bandit.’ ”

Martha Ann sniffed and wiped her hand across her nose.  Even while she felt sadness at the death of the dark stranger, she thought about Mama’s words.  They were going to take another voyage.  She liked that.  “What promise?”

“The one that I made to Mr. Bowman before he died,” Victoria answered, taking Martha Ann’s hand and squeezing it gently.  Her little girl had a puzzled look.  “You remember that shell that I let you look at?”  Martha Ann nodded.  “It belonged to Diego and we are going to make sure that it and the rest of Diego’s things get back to his father.”

“Oh.  That’s a long way away, isn’t it?”

“Yes, it is.”  Victoria motioned to the servant who had been cleaning up after tea.  “You stay here and play with Ling Yu, my darling.”  Turning she left the room and went to the smoking room where Sir William was conversing with several merchants.  The smoke from their pipes and cigars hung heavy in the room and made Victoria’s eyes burn slightly.    

Sir William looked at her in surprise and then stood up.  “Ah, Mrs. Meachem, to what do I owe this visit?” 

“I want to book passage on a ship that will take me to California.”

His eyes widened in surprise and he took the cigar out of his mouth before it dropped out.  “What . . . whatever for?” he finally stammered.  Then he cleared his throat, taking total control again.  “Why do you wish to go to a territory of our country’s enemy?”

“I made a promise to the supercargo of the China Star and I intend on keeping my word,” she answered. 

“And that was?”  

“That I would make sure that his assistant’s father got word of his death.  I also gave my word that I would get the young man’s effects back to his family as well,” Victoria stated with much more bravado then she felt.  

“Good heavens, Madam, surely you cannot be serious!”

“Of course I am serious.  I have the means to keep the promise that I made and I do keep my promises.”

“Mrs. Meachem, the best thing for you to do is to go back to England where you can live comfortably on your inheritance,” Sir William stated, drawing on his cigar.

“And live uncomfortably with my conscience,” Victoria retorted.   

“He was only an indentured, conscripted sailor.  You can send the effects on a ship heading that way.”  

“The dead man was, but Mr. Bowman wasn’t and I made my promise to him.  Sending the effects on a ship going toward California is not going to fulfill that promise.  Diego’s things will never reach there unless I make sure they do.  And Diego’s father will never know what happened to his son,” Victoria stated.  “Do you have children?”  

“No.”  

“Then you could never understand.”

“But what about the family of your late husband, God rest his soul?” Sir William countered.  “If you go gallivanting off to the Americas, how will they know of his death?”  

“I do know and trust some of those going back to England on the next ship and I am assured that they will get the word to Thomas’ parents.  As soon as I have finished this task, I will return home,” she explained.

He sighed.  “When do you wish to go?  It might be difficult getting passage on a ship that will go to the Spanish territories.” 

“As soon as something is available,” she said.  “And it doesn’t have to be British.”

“I think you are very foolish, but it is your money.  I assume that you are taking your daughter with you?” he asked.

“Yes, I am.”

He sighed lustily, exhaling a plume of cigar smoke.  “Taking the effects of an indentured sailor to his family half way around the world.”  He shook his head in exasperation.  “Forgive me, Mrs. Meachem, but you have more money then good sense.”

“Perhaps, Sir William, but I also have a conscience devoid of guilt, too,” she said.  “Thank you and good day, gentlemen.”  Victoria turned and left the room.  She was pleased at how well that went, but at the same time afraid.  Afraid of the future, afraid of the decision she had made.  Was she being foolish, she asked herself?

 

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A brief halt a short distance from the main road was called shortly after the sun rose.  One of the guards walked the perimeter of the camp while the rest ate a cold breakfast. 

“About how long will it take us to get to the inlet?” Diego asked.

“Another day and a half,” the captain answered.  “We should be there some time tomorrow afternoon or evening.  Shortly we will leave the main road and then we should not have to worry as much about an ambush.”

The captain was as good as his word.  They rode through fields where workers bent over bushes harvesting tea leaves, through narrow passes between rocky pinnacles and through more rolling hills and valley, cultivated with numerous farms.  Naked children played in front of farm houses cared for by their aged grandmothers, while chickens and ducks roamed, eating grass, the winnowings of rice, and any insect that moved within their range of sight.

Even though Diego was dressed the same as the captain and the guards, it was still obvious by his height and features that he was European.  He drew curious stares but no comments.  Most of the people they passed were too busy trying to raise enough to feed their families. 

That evening, they shared a farmer’s house with a family of eight.  Diego fell asleep to the soft notes of a Chinese lullaby as the mother sang to her baby.  In his dreams he heard his own mother’s voice singing softly in his ear.  Then distinctly, he heard, “Do you remember what I told you before I left?”   He heard himself answer, “yes.”  Her soft voice sounded very close.  “Then do not forget.  I am proud of you, Diego, more than I ever was when I died.  And I will always be near you.  Do not forget….”

“Will not forget,” Diego murmured as he rolled over on his good side.

What seemed like a moment later, the caballero felt a hand on his shoulder, shaking him awake.    “It is time for us to go,” Zhaou Haifang said softly. 

Diego blinked in the dimness, trying hard to remember the wispy tendrils of the fog-like appearance of his mother in his dreams.  He paused in wonder, recalling her visit to him on the China Star.  He pondered the reason for this visitation, but felt comfort in the dream.

The journey was uneventful as they continued toward the coastal inlet.  Hills turned to level pains where rice fields sparkled in the sunlight.  Diego smelled the tang of the ocean and felt his heart beating harder in anticipation.  Forcing himself to calm down, he watched ahead for the first signs of the end of this part of his trek. 

It came just after noontime.  The small troupe rode over the last hill and was met by the almost blinding reflection from the vast expanse of the confluence of the ocean and the river that led to Canton. 

Soon they were at the shore, where the captain of a medium-sized junk awaited them.  Dismounting, they approached the ship.  The guards began unloading the chests.  

“Your ship is ready?” the captain asked, wondering remotely where his scouts were.  “We are a bit earlier than we expected to be.”  

“Yes, come aboard, come aboard,” the man said, smiling and bowing.

Something nudged Diego’s alarm centers.  “Captain,” he began. 

“There is something wrong,” the warrior leader murmured.  Pivoting, he ordered, “Mount quickly, it is an ambush!”

Diego jerked his horse around and mounted from the right side, urging the animal into a gallop even before he was fully in the saddle.  Musket balls whizzed past his ear.  He and the doctor reached a small stand of trees near the crest of the small hill at the same time.  Turning, Diego saw, to his dismay, the captain and the two guardsmen near the shore exchanging fire with the men on the junk.  The body of one of their attackers lay floating in the river, but two of their horses lay on the ground, one writhing and screaming in agony. 

Diego turned to the doctor.  “Do you have a pistol?” he asked, pulling his own out of the holster on the saddle.

“Yes, but I am not good at using it,”

“Give it to me then and stay here with the horses,” Diego ordered. 

“No, your injury….” the physician began. 

“I will not sit back here while those men are taking balls meant for me,” Diego said tersely.  He took the pistol from the doctor’s saddle and checked it. He noticed in satisfaction that it was already loaded.  Surveying the terrain, he saw that there was no chance of being able to sneak up on foot. 

Suddenly another horse rode into the stand of trees and stopped short.  Diego’s pistol was cocked, but he didn’t fire.  It was the other scout.  “Ambush,” Diego said.  “How many pistols do you have?”

“Two.  Give me yours,” he said.

“No!  We will each have two weapons.  And the two of us will have a better chance against those men,” Diego countered.

“No, Spanish Prince. You stay here,” the Chinese warrior said, calling him by the title that had embarrassed him greatly the past few days.

“Are you coming with me or staying here and arguing with the wind?” Diego asked, mounting.

The soldier stared slack jawed while Diego surveyed the road behind them and the road to the ship.  The assassins wouldn’t have seen the scout’s arrival.  Musket fire periodically sounded.   

“What do you plan on doing?” the scout asked. 

“Charging.  They aren’t expecting you and I don’t think they expect me to do anything either.  They saw my injury,” Diego answered.  “As soon as most of them have fired and are reloading, we will rush down, you on the right flank and me on the left.  Hopefully we can disable several before they have a chance to reload.”

The man looked only slight dubious before he nodded.  

Adjusting his sling slightly, Diego was able to hold his reins in his left hand.  This was a well-trained horse, responding to voice and leg commands as well as the reins.  He hoped that under duress, the horse would continue to do so.  He cocked one pistol and listened to the musket fire, also watching from the comparative safety of the stand of trees.  “Now!” he called out as he kicked his horse into a run.  Diego heard the guard doing the same.  As a marauder rose up in surprise, Diego aimed and fired.  The man rose up clutching his chest and then fell to the deck of the ship.  Another attacker screamed in pain. 

Diego tossed the spent pistol aside and pulled the other from his belt.  The horse continued unerringly toward the shore.  The captain and one guard stormed up the gangplank, hurling epitaphs toward the ancestors of those on board.  Diego fired again and heard a cry of pain.  Jerking the horse to a stop near the outcropping of rocks that the captain and his guards had just vacated, Diego leaped off.  A ball whizzed just over his head.  Too close for comfort! He thought as he ducked lower behind the rock that suddenly seemed much too small to hide him.  On the ground next to him was the second guard, his hand clutched to one leg, where blood was seeping between his fingers and onto the ground. 

 

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

 

The midday sun gazed down hotly over the men as Alejandro outlined his idea.  “But Alejandro,” Don Alfredo complained, “What is going to make this plan work where the others failed?  There are just too many of these men.”  

“No, there are not, Alfredo.   At least I do not think so.  I have talked to some of those who witnessed the raids, the burnings, the robberies,” Alejandro began.  

“But that is the point, my friend, there were no witnesses.  There never are.”

“There are hardly any, but there have been some, Alfredo, and always, the witness has said that there are just a few, no more than six men,” Alejandro insisted.  “And these raids are never carried out at the same time.”  There were only a dozen men sitting on their horses in the middle of a large pasture.   “But if we work in groups, with only the twelve of us knowing the plans of the others, there is less chance of these thrice accursed revolutionaries knowing them.”  

The men looked at one another and nodded.  “And we will only use trusted men, vaqueros who have been with our ranchos for a long time,” Don Ramon stated.   

Sí, Ramon.  If we can thwart them now, they will have to come up with something different, and if our men, our trusted vaqueros and servants are able to work together in this way, just think how well they will work, if a call ever comes out to band together against a really large force.”  Alejandro smiled his assurances to each of his friends.  “We will be more ready for whatever these men think of next.”  

“What about the small rancheros?” Don Alfredo asked. 

“Let them fend for themselves, just as we are going to do,” Don Carlos snapped. 

“No, if we are able to defend ourselves with our own men, the bandits will probably begin to strike against those less capable of defending themselves,” Don Alfredo said. 

 

“You are right, Alfredo,” Alejandro mused.  “We cannot protect ourselves and let our weaker neighbors suffer.”  He rubbed his chin in thought. 

“What if we have our men periodically patrol these smaller ranchos?” Ramon Santillo suggested.  “We can draw lots amongst ourselves and then inform our men on the day that they are to ride in these areas.”

“But surely we cannot keep all of these activities secret.  And what about the pueblo?” another asked. 

Alejandro rubbed his chin again.  “No, you are right.  Occasionally someone is going to say something and the wrong person will hear it.  But I think if we are careful, we can succeed in frustrating the efforts of these evil men for the most part.”  He paused.  “As to the pueblo, let us see how our plan works.  If it is successful, then we can inform the acting comandante that he can concentrate more of his patrols near the pueblo.  And I would assume that Zorro would figure out what we are doing and work accordingly.”  

“Zorro is doing nothing,” Don Carlos spat out.  “He is ineffectual and less than useless.”

Anger welled up in his chest and Alejandro opened his mouth for a quick retort. 

“Don Carlos,” Don Ramon said. “It was Zorro who killed the bandit that broke into my rancho grande last month.  My new bride said that he saved her from death . . . or worse.”

Remembering that night well, Alejandro said nothing for a moment.  The men remembered similar incidences of the past months.   And then, when the rancheros had quieted down, he said, “Zorro is only a man, one man.  We must do our part.  Just as we have done for years during times of hardship, we have worked harder than ever to overcome.  We did not wait for someone to come along and succor us then, and we cannot do so now.  Zorro is a great man, but we have to be equally great.”    To his relief, the other men agreed, and even the taciturn Don Carlos finally nodded.   “Very well, we will try this plan.  And later we can meet again to plan further strategy,” Alejandro said.  He felt deep satisfaction as the men made specific plans. 

 

 

Chapter Eighteen
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