Pacific Odyssey

Book III: The Journey Home

 

 

 

 

Chapter Two

Old Friends, Old Jobs

 

   

Victoria and Martha Ann approached him as he walked out onto the quarterdeck.  “Diego, would it be possible to talk privately in my cabin?” Victoria asked.   

He nodded and followed her to a room near the cuddy saloon.  Despite the obvious impropriety of them being together unchaperoned, Diego realized that it could not be helped and he certainly did not want to take the chance of anyone knowing English and hearing what she would say.  That Victoria knew of his role as the ‘Opium Bandit’ seemed very obvious.    

In her cabin, Victoria pushed the door to but didn’t quite shut it.  She walked to the gallery window and opened it.  The splashing of the waves against the hull drowned out any sounds coming from the deck.  “Go lay down for your nap, my dear,” Victoria told her daughter. 

Martha Ann gazed at Diego for a brief moment.  “I’m glad you didn’t go to the angels with my daddy,” she said and then turned and lay down on her cot, hugging a doll close to her chest.   Smiling, he walked to the window and stood beside Victoria. 

“I am so glad to find you alive,” she said, turning toward the window.  “I heard of your exploits and was happy you had survived the storm, then . . . then I heard you had been killed.”  

“So you do know.”

“About Zorro?  Oh, yes, I knew before that last night, the night of the storm.  I knew not too long after you had saved me from Cavanaugh.”  

Diego was startled.  He realized that she was aware of his being the Opium Bandit, but that also she knew him as Zorro?   Mr. Bowman must have told her before he died.  

“The execution rumor was something the Prince Qing Kang Zhu sent out to dissuade the British and to protect me,” Diego explained.  “Apparently they weren’t very dissuaded.  We were ambushed on our way to Canton.”  He paused.  “But now I am on my way home.”   

“How did you get in the good graces of an imperial relative?  The Chinese seem to be very leery of foreigners,” Victoria asked, her voice filled with curiosity.   

Diego explained briefly his first meeting with the prince, and then asked a question of his own.  “Why are you on this ship sailing to Manila?”  

“I was traveling to California to let your father know what happened to you,” she replied.  “Or what I thought had happened to you.”  

Diego gazed at her, incredulous.   “What?  You could have sent him a letter.”

“I was also going to take your personal effects to him,” she said, pointing to his sea chest in the corner near Martha Ann’s cot.  “I made a promise to Mr. Bowman.  I assured him that I would make sure that your father knew what happened to you . . . if you died, and I intended on keeping that promise.  A letter could get lost very easily on such a long journey.”  

Diego said nothing.  He felt overwhelmed at the compassion that this woman had shown for him, he, as far as she knew, a simple conscripted sailor, and supposedly a dangerous criminal.  He remembered how quickly she had helped him his first day on the China Star.  “Thank you,” was all he could finally choke out.  

“You are welcome.  It really was the least I could do for one who had saved me, not once, but twice,” she replied with a smile.  They stood and watched the ocean and sky.  Several birds flew in the distance.  

“Mr. Bowman.  You were with him when he died?” Diego finally broke their reflections.   

“Yes, I was,” she said softly.  “And he didn’t suffer long.”

“I wish I had been there with him.”  

“He wished you had been there, too.  He thought a great deal of you.  He talked about his family and he talked about you as though you were a member of his family,” she said and then described George Bowman’s last hour.  “At Mr. Bowman’s suggestion, I asked Roberto about El Zorro.”  

Diego gazed at her in curiosity.  He saw great intensity and compassion in her gray eyes.  He noticed the high set of her cheeks and the rosy fullness of her lips, and he was disturbed at the feelings beginning to stir within him.   

“Your fellow countryman fully believed that the Virgin brought Zorro to him and his companions to exact justice,” she said.  “But despite that miracle, he worked very hard to provide the means for Zorro to weather the storm.”  She paused and gazed into his eyes.  “You are a survivor, Diego.  And you are quite a man, even if a fraction of what Roberto told me was true.”

Diego blushed and looked toward the floor, his eyes seeing the curves of her body as he did so.  He tried to keep himself from thinking of Victoria Meachem as anything other than a friend, someone who had helped to save him on that dark, evil night, but he was finding it increasingly hard.   “Probably only a fraction of the fraction is true.  You give me too much credit, señora.”

“Victoria, please.”  

Even that seemed a bit uncomfortable to him.  “Victoria, then.”

She turned again and watched the waves.  As though reading his mind, she said, “If we did not come from such disparate worlds, if I had not so recently lost my Thomas, I think I would court you, Diego de la Vega.”  

Surprised, Diego could say nothing for a moment; he just gazed at her in amazement.  “I think you would fit in well anywhere you chose to live,” he finally said.  

“Is that a proposition?” she asked, her sudden smile becoming soft laughter. 

Diego stammered.  “No . . . no.  That was a compliment.  But somehow, I see you more comfortable in London then living in a frontier town in a half wild country.”  

She laughed again.  It was a very musical sound.  “Yes, your assessment is correct, Diego.  I do long for London now that Thomas is dead.  And I have obligations to both families, his and mine.  Since Thomas was the heir of his father’s company, I have every intention of running it, despite what his cousins might think.  And just before I boarded this ship, I learned that my only brother is sickly.  I may be the owner of his company soon, too.”  Turning to the doorway, she added, “I think that we have fed the rumor mongers enough for the entire voyage.  Shall we continue on deck?”

Diego laughed and pulled the gallery window shut and latched it.  “Yes, I believe that we have.”  As they walked to the cabin door, he added quietly, “And I would ask no woman to marry what I have become.”

Victoria checked on her now sleeping child and then turned back toward him.  “Diego, you do women a great disservice.  While what you do would be very hard for most women to bear, there are some who would not only be able to understand all of your activities, but support you in them.”   

They talked for a while longer on the poop deck while the wind caressed them softly.  Then Victoria excused herself and returned to her cabin to check on her daughter.  Diego watched her go, thinking that someone like her would be one of those exceptional women she was talking about if circumstances were different.

   

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A short while later, when Amaro was free to help him, Diego directed him to help him move things in the small cabin.  “The last thing I need to do is stumble over anything in the night,” he said.  The hammock was soon removed and stored in a cupboard in the wall and he and the boy were able to store what few extra items of clothing he had in a tiny wardrobe.  When the boy reached for the small saddlebag that contained his costume, Diego stopped him and stored it himself in the cupboard with the hammock.  “This is not important to me right now,” was his only explanation.            

One chest was pulled away from the wall, as it was the right size to use as a chair or bench.  The cabin was very Spartan and had little in the way of furniture, but by the time Amaro had to report to the galley, Diego was satisfied that the room would serve his needs admirably.  Obrigado, Amaro,” he said as the boy left for the galley. 

Senhor, I will go and get a pallet and another blanket for you,” Amaro told him.  “Unless you want a hanging cot.”

Diego knew where the hanging cot would come from, probably from some officer’s assistant.  “No, my friend, a pallet will be fine.”

Diego spent the remainder of the time before supper practicing the wushu exercises the Captain of the Guard had taught him, much to the amusement of the few sailors who passed by and saw him through the open door.  The caballero chose to ignore them, concentrating on the stances, the breathing and the movements of the martial arts that he had learned. 

The purser was absent during the next meal.  Diego wasn’t surprised, but thought the man was being given too much time to doctor the books and manifests before tomorrow.  However, it wasn’t his ship and he wasn’t a member of this crew, so he felt that it was none of his business to make mention of the matter, just as long as his passage money was left intact.

   

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Martinez was, indeed, trying to doctor the books, but while he was doing so, he was seething with anger at the passenger who had seen through his deviousness. Looking at the list that had been given to him before leaving Canton, he noticed that de la Vega’s name was the second one amongst the names written on it.    Apparently, this man was the ‘Opium Bandit’ whom the British trade envoy wanted dead so badly, he thought as he circled the name.  How hard could it be to kill a man with the use of only one arm?  And when de la Vega was dead, Martinez would still be able to take a little of the money from the passage packet and hold a death certificate in his possession until he could report to Sir William.  That was the report that really counted.  That was what would make him rich.  

He reached into the drawer of his little desk and pulled out a twelve-inch knife.  Feeling the edge, Martinez determined that it was more than sharp enough to slit the throat of the ‘Opium Bandit.’  His thoughts turned to the crew, deciding which sailor would be the easiest to blame the murder on.  Lago was on watch.  It would be easy to put the knife in his sea chest.  Those locks were relatively simple to open and during the two or three hours before sunrise, his cabin mates would be sleeping too hard to hear him.  With a feral grin, Martinez replaced the knife and then turned again to the books.  Under his breath, he cursed the Spaniard and then stopped himself.  No, he thought with a soft laugh, I have to be thankful to the man who is going to make me rich. 

 

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That night, Diego slept soundly on the pallet.  However, an hour or two past midnight, a click and tell tale creaking noise unrelated to the normal motions and sounds of the ship, suddenly woke him up.  Peering into the near darkness, Diego felt the presence of another in his room.   As a shadow furtively moved toward him, he threw off his blanket, and jumped to his feet.  Realizing that his sword was too far away to reach before this unknown assailant would be on him, the Californiano immediately assumed the horse stance and watched the other man’s approach, assessing and preparing.  The attacker had something in his hand; Diego couldn’t tell whether it was a knife or belaying pin.  While he had been taught various moves to protect himself in hand-to-hand combat, the captain had not had time to teach him how to defend against weaponry. 

With a feral growl, the man suddenly lunged at him swinging his weapon.  Diego blocked the swing, and then ducked and at the same time drew back his arm and hit the man solidly in the ribcage with the knuckles of his half-closed fist.  With a bit off cry of pain, the man stumbled back against the wall where his sword was hanging.  Seeing the telltale gleam of the weapon, the attacker grabbed it.            

Even though his assailant seemed to have no knowledge of the use of his saber, still Diego knew how formidable he could be, especially since he had what appeared to be a knife.  The man slashed at him furiously with both.  As he danced out of the assassin’s way, Diego considered his best defense against something that extended the man’s reach by three feet.  With the laughter of triumph, the unknown assailant jumped forward still swinging both weapons.  Diego’s back suddenly hit the wall of his cabin and he felt the material in his shirt and in the sling part.  A burning line of pain appeared along his left arm, which he held close to his body.    

The room was tiny and dark and unless he did something, the assassin would part more than his skin.  The man could see him fairly easily since he was still wearing the white shirt he had put on that morning.  Diego knew that he had to get out of the reach of the deadly sword and go on the offensive. 

The attacker slashed again, but this time Diego was ready for him.  Ducking, he reached his foot behind one of the assassin’s feet and jerked the man’s leg out from under him.  The sword clattered to the deck and slid across the room.           

“I will kill you with my bare hands, de la Vega,” his opponent hissed as he scrambled to his feet.

Diego now recognized the man as Martinez, and knew desperation would make him doubly dangerous.  Senhor,” he laughed tauntingly, “There is no need to count me as one dead yet.”  Now they were more evenly matched.

Martinez cursed and charged him.  Diego easily sidestepped and, using the side of his hand against the sailor’s neck, brought Martinez to his knees.  Gasping, the purser dropped his knife and Diego kicked it out of the way.  Martinez scrambled on the floor and grabbed his ankle.  Now Diego found himself having to concentrate on falling so as not to reinjure his shoulder.  In this, his training with the captain came in useful.  At the time the caballero wasn’t totally sure of the reasoning behind the practice of falling, especially with his injury, but now he did. 

In the brief moment of Diego’s distraction, the purser took the opportunity to find the weapon he had brought with him.  He charged the Californiano again.  Rolling on his right side, Diego laid a powerful side kick against the purser’s knee, using the man’s own momentum against him.  The caballero heard a snapping noise as his foot connected with Martinez’s leg.  Screaming, Martinez fell heavily to the cabin floor, dropping his weapon and clutching his leg.  As Diego slowly got to his feet, someone began pounding on the cabin door.            

Running his hand through his hair, Diego calmly walked to the door and, opened it, finding himself looking into the anxious face of Captain Fortuna.  

Senhor, the watch heard screams and banging noises coming from your cabin.  Are you all right?” he asked, breathlessly.  Martinez moaned and cried out from where he lay on the floor.  Fortuna glanced around Diego and saw in the dimness, the writhing form of his purser.  “By the Saints, senhor,” he exclaimed.  “I had no idea Martinez was that desperate.  Are you sure you are all right?”

Sim, Captain.  I am sure.”

“And may I presume that you defeated him with your Chinese fighting that you were practicing this afternoon?”              

“Yes, Capitán, and a great deal of luck,” Diego continued to be amazed at this powerful new weapon he had learned to use in China, and more fully understood the warning that the Captain of the Imperial Guard had given him.  He could have incapacitated the purser with a much less damaging blow.  “And it helped that your purser underestimated me,” Diego added grimly.  “It would seem, Captain, that he had more in mind than just swindling me.”            

“Get him out of here,” Fortuna ordered a sailor standing nearby.  “Put him in the empty aft storage room and get Marco to set his leg.”  He strode across the room and lit a small lantern.  When he turned toward Diego, he gasped.  Senhor, you are bleeding.”   His loud summons brought another sailor to the door.  “Tell Marco to come here first.”  

“It is only a shallow cut, Capitán,” Diego protested. 

“Regardless, senhor, Marco is going to take care of it now.”  

The doctor soon arrived and quickly checked Diego’s arm, cleaned and bound the cut, which was indeed shallow, and tied a new sling around his arm.  “I would say, Senhor de la Vega, that the sailors will more carefully watch your pursuit of these Chinese exercises,” Marco said in bemusement as he gathered up his doctor’s kit.  “From what I saw as they were carrying Martinez to his new quarters, you are quite dangerous with only one arm.”  

The captain, sitting on the chest, just laughed.  “And I suppose they will refrain from laughing this time, too,” he added as the doctor left.  He looked askance at Diego, who returned his sword to its place on the wall. “You know, I now have a very interesting dilemma.  Before I had a dishonest purser and supercargo, and now I have none at all.  I suppose that I am going to have to go over those books myself.”  Fortuna paused and gazed at Diego thoughtfully.  “I hate to even ask….”            

Diego knew where the conversation was going.  Senhor, I was assistant to the supercargo on the China Star.  I would be most happy to help you with the books, if you want to entrust them to me.  I feel I have too much time on my hands anyway.”  

“Ah, my patron saint is indeed smiling on me,” Fortuna exclaimed.  “I was not sure if you had meant the British supercargo was just a tutor of language or if you had learned a bit of his trade.”  

Thus it was that Diego filled the job he had learned from George Bowman once again.   He found Martinez’ list with his name circled, but threw it away without showing it to the captain.  What was done was done, he thought, but he was still amazed at the determination of the representatives of the British government.  The books were a mess, but Mister Bowman had taught his assistant well.  Diego worked on them continuously, only stopping to eat a bite and to sleep.   By the time they sailed around Luzon, he was able to show the captain the manifests and explain all of the changes so the new cargo master would understand everything.  Diego, for his part, was glad of a diversion that made the time pass faster. 

 

 

 

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