Pacific Odyssey:

Book I

 

 

 

Chapter Eight

 

The Californianos Leave Home

 

 

           

The clanking of chains and the chanting of many sailors singing in unison awakened Diego and the others just before dawn.  He sat up and gazed around him, what memories he had of the past few days returning quickly.  The shadowy outline of the docks of San Diego beckoned to him.  Surely I can swim that distance, he thought.  His hand gripped the rail and he began to stand, but the weight around his ankle brought Diego back to stark and sudden reality.  He turned in the pre-dawn dimness and saw that his fellow prisoners were also awake and gazing at the shore.  The same look was in their eyes, that of despair.  Turning again, the caballero gazed longingly at the distant hills, seeing the barest hint of rosy color on their crests.  He smelled the juniper and sage; even the distant stench of the tannery held an attraction for him.  Squeezing his eyes tightly shut, Diego saw vaqueros setting out from their camps to gather the steers in for the slaughter, the cook scraping off chunks of dried beef for the midday stew, his father looking over the ledgers, the small, steel-rimmed reading glasses perched on the end of his nose, Bernardo straightening his bed and polishing his boots.  

With a sigh, Diego turned away from the shore once again and gazed at the hands that had so recently held a guitar, a sword, the reins of a large, black stallion.  When would he have that opportunity again, if ever?  The ship rocked gently, but that, too, seemed to pound futility and hopelessness into his heart.  Ai, Santa Maria, only you could provide a miracle.  Only you can help us, Holy Mother.  We are the same here, my fellow Californianos and I.  There is no rich and poor.  We are all wretches ripped from everything that we know.     

Diego felt the same hopelessness that he had experienced when his mother had died and felt the same knot in his stomach, making it want to rebel.  Again he sighed and realizing that a miracle was not to be had this morning, he simply asked that he be allowed to return home someday.  He sat quietly for a few more minutes, head bowed, listening to the sounds of the ship coming to life around him.  My new home, he thought, utterly dejected.   

Finally, as he continued to sit quietly, head down, Diego felt a kind of resolute determination settle into his mind and heart.  There was nothing he could do now, but there was also nothing that would keep him from someday getting back here to his home.  He opened his eyes, and gazed back at his homeland.  The barely visible sun now painted the far hills in a kind of burnished golden red, making them seem aflame.  It was a sight that he had seen many times; it was a sight that he now ingrained in his mind, because it would be awhile before he saw it again.      

Diego felt the ship getting underway.  The anchor was housed and the huge sails on the three masts were unfurled, billowing like giant birds, snapping as they caught the cool, early morning breezes that would take them all into the unknown.  The men above worked in unison, as had the men at the anchor chain.  Birds flew around the ship, squawking stridently.  Turning his gaze back to the shore, Diego felt a compulsion to continue watching his homeland as it receded from his view.  He began to stand up to see more.   

“No, ye don’t, lubber,” a gravelly voice told him in English.  The sailor put a large calloused hand on his shoulder.  

Diego caught the word ‘no’ and understood what the Englishman thought he might be doing.  Shaking his head, he made signs that conveyed his wishes.  Even the hand signals struck him as cruel irony, as fate took him farther and farther away from the one who had perfected and then taught him the signs.   

The sailor gazed down at him for a moment, the intense blue eyes seemingly trying to decipher his thoughts.   “Aye, look upon your homeland, lad.  It’ll most likely be the last time ye’ll be seeing it.”   

Diego looked at him, puzzled, but seeing the look of sympathy in the Englishman’s eyes, he understood.  Standing up, clutching the rail as the ship began bucking slightly in the swells, he watched the shore grow farther and farther away.  Behind him, he heard his eleven companions doing the same thing.  They continued to watch until a small contingent of sailors, along with several men, whom Diego assumed were ship’s officers, walked up to them and barked an order. 

Reluctantly, Diego turned and gazed at the men.  Hand signs followed another verbal command and the prisoners moved in the direction indicated.  As the prisoners shuffle-stepped across the deck, Diego noticed a sailor pulling a belaying pin from its holder at the rail.  The caballero recognized the instrument from his days sailing to and from Spain.  Under normal circumstances belaying pins were used only to tie off the ropes from the sails, but Diego had seen sailors use them in fights as well as instruments of practical jokes.  The English sailor reached down with the slightly more than foot long wooden tool and tripped Immanuel with it.  Incensed, the young man jumped up and tried to leap toward the sailor with a loud cry of frustration and rage, but was restrained by Diego.  “Easy, my friend, easy.  Now is not the time to fight,” the caballero said quietly to his fellow prisoner. 

Several sailors stood grinning nearby, waiting to jump into the fray should the need arise. Quickly calming, Immanuel shot a look of hatred at the sailor, but nodded to Diego as he pulled himself free from his fellow prisoner’s grasp.   With a grin of triumph, the sailor smacked the end of the belaying pin on the palm of his hand and finally put it back in its holder.  

One of the other prisoners, Juan, who was no more than a teen-ager, became sick with the swaying of the ship and proceeded to throw up on the deck.  Diego watched in disgust as several sailors cuffed and slapped the seasick prisoner.  Finally, a straw broom and a bucket of seawater were thrust into Juan’s hands.  In English, he was directed to clean up the mess he had made.  Still heaving, the prisoner looked about him in bewilderment.  When a sailor began beating Juan again Diego intervened.  “There is no need to beat him, he cannot help it if he is sick,” Diego said in Spanish, before he could make an attempt at translation.  

A blow against his back brought the caballero to his knees.  Turning his head, Diego looked up into the face of a middle-aged man of medium height, with intense brown eyes, small sharp nose, thin lips and sandy-blond hair.  The chin was clean-shaven with a very prominent cleft.   He shouted again.  The men around the officer were laughing, so Diego felt it must not be flattering.  He slowly stood up and tried to concentrate on understanding what the man was saying.  

“You will speak English or you won’t speak at all, you son of a Spanish dog,” the man bellowed.   From the demeanor of the sailors, he was apparently the captain or close in rank to him.  It took Diego a moment or two to figure out the entire sentence, but when he did, he blanched at the insult.  Despair and frustration almost caused him to lose what little equanimity he had left. The caballero chose carefully from what he felt was a meager store of English to convey his thoughts to the captain.  “Captain,” he began.  “I am a Californio. My father is not a Spanish dog.  He is a California hacendado, a man of the land.  You may call me what you want.  Do not...talk so of my father or I may...forget who you are.” 

The captain came closer to him until he was only a few inches from Diego’s face. “You are either a brave man or a stupid one to even think about attacking the captain of a ship,” he told Diego in English.  “I have no love for Spaniards, but I needed more sailors, so you are here and you will work.  If you understand what I’m saying, then you had better tell the rest of this sorry lot of Spaniards what I just told you.”   

Diego, who had calmed down considerably, nodded.  He thought about what the captain had said, trying desperately to remember the English he had learned from the British passenger he had roomed with part of the way to Spain from California.   Finally he thought he understood what had been said and he proceeded to tell his fellow prisoners what the captain had conveyed to him.  In the meantime, the sailors were ordered to take the chains off of the prisoners.  They were far enough from land to make such restraints unnecessary.   While his chains were being unlocked from his ankles, Diego again watched the distant shore recede until it was only a point in his imagination.  The pit of darkness that he had kept under control during the past day and night, and that he had felt he had pushed to the deepest chamber of his soul only a short while earlier, threatened to explode and engulf him with dismal blackness.  His misery-laden reverie was broken when he heard the captain addressing him.            

“You, what is your name?” the captain asked him, poking him in the chest with one finger.             

“My name is Diego de la Vega, the son of Alejandro de la Vega of the Pueblo de Los Angeles,” he answered proudly.  “I was ... I cannot think of the word... taken by... enemies.”  He tried to use his hands to sign what he couldn’t say, but the captain wasn’t paying attention to that.           

“Shanghaied?” the captain said and then he laughed.  “You must have very powerful enemies, Spaniard.   Diego, you said?”  Diego nodded his assent.  “No wonder they said that you were too dangerous to keep in that other village.”  The captain gazed at him for the briefest of moments before saying anything.  “That’s too bad, but I bought the indenture of twelve men and not one less.  It doesn’t matter if you are the Prince of Wales, you are mine for two years.”  He looked sternly at Diego, who frowned in concentration.            

Diego thought he understood and his eyes widened in shock.  Two years! he thought in dismay.   His stomach jerked and he swallowed a few times, putting it back into submission.  I should have realized, Diego thought.  The only way I would be onboard this ship is if the captain had bought me.  It is no different than the prisoners being sold to work in the mines.  Wisely, Diego kept still; arguing would solve nothing.  Again resolve took hold and he determined that he would figure out some way to decrease the length of his indenture.           

“You are a smart man, Diego de la Vega,” the captain laughed again.  “Because I think you understood me well enough and know better than to try to plead with me.   But since you seem to be something of a leader of these men, I think the Spanish word is patrón, I am holding you at least partially responsible for their behavior until they get used to life on board this ship.  Be sure that you keep them in line.”            

“You want me to lead these men?”  Diego had understood most of what was just said and was incredulous at the request.  “What do you want them to do?”           

“Obey me!  I am Captain John Beatty, and I am to be strictly obeyed,” the captain said.  “Tell them that now.”  Diego complied.  Pausing to gaze around the ship, which appeared somewhat ethereal in the dawn sky, the captain looked up at the rigging of the mainsails and then back at the Californianos.  Diego had finished explaining the instructions to the other men.   

This one will bear watching, the captain thought, if he was telling the truth.   Beatty was used to getting criminals as sailors, and had heard of people being kidnapped as this man apparently was, but he had never been sold the indenture of a man of Diego’s station before.  He knew the colonials didn’t pay attention to ranks of nobility as Europeans did, but if he understood the social structure of colonial Spanish America at all, then Diego de la Vega must be as close to nobility as was possible in this part of the world.  Captain Beatty didn’t like nobility, resenting the privilege that those of higher social stature seemed to enjoy and flaunt.   He would have to keep very close reins on this one to make sure this Spaniard remembered his place.   Very close reins.            

He turned back to Diego.  For the present, he would rely on him for translation purposes until these Spaniards knew the King’s English.  Beatty frowned.   De la Vega seemed to know English poorly at best.  They would learn quickly enough, though, especially if they wanted to survive. “I want to test the courage of all of you Spanish dogs.  Tell that one to get aloft in the rigging,” he pointed to Roberto.  Diego looked blankly at him.             

The caballero had very little idea what the captain had said to him, except that he had some kind of a test in mind for Roberto to do.  “Captain Beatty,” he explained.  “I do not understand your wish, I am sorry.”  The captain frowned and pointed to the rigging of the mainsails and then pointed to Roberto and said, “Go aloft.”  Even Roberto understood now.  He cringed and pulled on Diego’s sleeve imploringly.            

“Please, patrón, please tell him that I cannot stand high places. I was unable to get on a ladder to fix the tiles on the roof of my house,” he pleaded.  Diego tried to explain, but the captain motioned him to be still.            

“Get up there!” he screamed at the peon.  For his part, Roberto tried.  He got perhaps ten feet off the deck, before he became paralyzed with fear and clung to the ropes, crying for the Holy Mother to help him.  Diego was disgusted, not at Roberto, but at the captain for inflicting such cruelty on the man.  José brushed past Diego and started climbing up the ropes.  He got to the top of the lower sail, the mainsail, before he experienced any problems.  Then the pitching of the ship and the flapping of the rigging and sails became too much for the Californiano to handle.  José continued, but slowly, until he was halfway up the main topsail.  Then disaster struck.  The ship surged in the swells, and he lost his balance.  The only thing that kept José from falling all of the way to the deck and his death was his foot catching in the ropes.         

Diego didn’t hesitate.  He made a running leap, and springing upward, caught the rope ladder, or ratline about ten feet above the deck.  One more foot and he was past Roberto, whom he ordered to jump down.  Then he proceeded to steadily climb up the rigging.  The movement of the ship was a definite disadvantage, but he was no stranger to climbing and using ropes.  With grim determination, he cautiously made sure of handholds and footholds with each step he took, but nevertheless quickly reached José, positioning himself just above the beleaguered man.  He took a deep breath, trying to calm the rapid beating of his heart.  Looking up briefly, he thought that surely this was high enough to be in the clouds.  Then he brought his attention back to the rescue of his fellow prisoner. 

“José,” he admonished the peon. “Stop struggling if you want to live.”  José complied.  “Reach up with your hand.”  José did so, tentatively, and Diego grasped it.  Pulling the peon up to his level, Diego helped José extricate his foot and they both paused to catch their breath.   “José, you have a great deal of courage, but you need to learn to start using your brains if we are going to live through this.”            

, patrón,” he said meekly.  “But right now I do not think I can climb down.  What do we do now?”            

Diego looked around at the rigging and saw loose ropes attached to the masts and crosspieces, which he later learned were called yards.  He saw one that dangled nearly down to the deck.  “Hang on, José,” he told his companion and then he carefully slid himself over to the rope.  It was thicker than he was used to, but that also meant that it would support both of them quite easily.  Pulling it over to José, he gave instructions for the peon to get on his back.  “You had better not let go, because I will be unable to hold you if you slip.  And, by the Saints, do not put your arms that tightly around my neck!”  José almost had a choke hold on Diego.           

“Hang on!” he warned the peon, as he launched himself out from the yard.  Even as Zorro, he had never leaped from this height.  His hands slipped a bit as the rope went taut with their combined weight, but he gained control and carefully went hand over hand down the line, using his feet to slow their descent.  A bucking of the ship caused him to slip, but by this time, he was within jumping distance of the deck.  He let go of the rope, and even with José on his back, landed lightly on the deck.  Then he felt his knees begin to give way, but José let go of him and Diego recovered before he fell.  He felt strangely weak and dizzy, but attributed it to the close brush with death that he had just experienced.  This was not like the trip from Spain when he wanted nothing more than to climb into the ropes and feel the wind from the dizzy heights.    

Gracias, Don Diego,” José said, gazing at the caballero in gratitude.  The captain approached the pair.  He looked steadily into Diego’s eyes for a moment without saying anything.             

Diego looked at his hands, which were slightly rope-burned and then he raised his head and addressed Beatty.  “Captain.”  He paused, trying to find the right words; he wanted the captain to understand him.  Having been known as a very eloquent speaker back in Los Angeles, he was now frustrated that he couldn’t convey all of his thoughts.  “I think that you are wanting to know if we have...” he wasn’t able to think of the English word for courage, he pointed to his heart instead.  “We do.  All I ask for us is time to...” he struggled to remember the word. “...learn.”  Diego looked at the captain to see if he understood what he was saying.            

Capt. Beatty was frowning, one of his men whispered something to him. “Tell these men that I will give them time to learn to be sailors, while they work at their jobs,” he finally said.    “Tell them to also work hard to learn English.  I still want to know if they have…” he pointed to his heart, “…courage.  Apparently, you do.”         

“Learn as they work,” Diego repeated to make sure he had the message right and then conveyed it to the others.  The captain was saying something else, but it was as though his brain had shut down; he understood nothing.  He shook his head and shrugged his shoulders. Right now, he could care less if the captain was irritated at him.   The weakness had returned in full force and it was all Diego could do to even stand upright.  He looked at his hands again and saw that they were shaking.  What is wrong with me? he asked himself.  Something strange was happening inside his body.  The sensations that he had earlier suppressed came back with full vengeance.  Diego felt dizzy, his head had begun pounding and his stomach acted as though there was something in it that didn’t belong.  The pitching of the ship was beginning to affect him, which surprised him, as he had never been seasick but once on his voyages to and from Spain, and that was only during a violent storm.   He gulped several times, drawing in deep breaths of the salty air, trying to tame his seditious stomach.            

He felt one of the sailors take him by the arm and lead him to a door and then a short staircase that led down into the ship.  They were going toward cabins, he noticed remotely.  They stopped in front of a small one where he was presented to an older man sitting at a small desk.  So this is where I spend the next two years of my life, he thought darkly.  But at this point he didn’t care if he worked here or down in the bowels of the ship.  He grabbed the doorframe to keep from stumbling and leaned against it, trying to take comfort in its cool smoothness.   There was no comfort….

           

 

 

 

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