Pacific Odyssey:

Book I

 

 

 

Chapter Fourteen

Land Ho!

 

 

When the noise of a commotion woke him, Diego jumped out of his hammock and threw on his trousers before he even thought of what he was doing.  He was ready to go to his duty station when he realized that the uproar was coming from the galley.  He also heard Spanish intermixed with English curses, and dread washed over him.  

There had been theft of food from the galley for several nights, and Diego knew that Billy had been determined to catch the thief.  Theft of food was an offense that ranked almost as high as murder.  But one of my compadres? he asked himself.  He knew that several had been complaining about the food, surreptitiously throwing some of the worst of it overboard.  Diego had counseled them against doing such a thing as that was another action considered serious on board a ship such as this one.

The commotion grew louder.  The voices sounded familiar and Diego strained to recognize them even as he was pulling on his shirt.  Juan!  The other was Billy, the cook, screaming and cursing.  Without getting permission from Bowman, Diego rushed toward the galley.  He almost collided with Juan, who was running away from another sailor, a smoked joint of beef clutched under one arm.  His shirt had been torn off and the caballero was shocked to see that he could count nearly every one of the boy’s ribs.  No wonder he has been stealing food, Diego thought. 

As the young man rushed by him, Diego grabbed him.  “Juan, stop.  Do not do this,” he told Juan.  

“Please, Don Diego, please, let me go!” Juan cried out in Spanish, dropping the meat.  His voice high-pitched with fear, he shoved Diego aside with strength borne of desperation.   Juan reached the stairs and climbed them, almost tripping in his haste.  When he reached the quarterdeck, however, there was shouting from Cavanaugh and the captain, the sounds of struggling, and then the boy fell back down headfirst to lie in a heap on the floor. 

Diego rushed over and carefully examined Juan.  The boy’s eyes opened and gazed into his own.  There was blood trickling from the young man’s nose and from his ears.  “Don Diego,” he whispered, “let my family know.  Please.” 

Diego nodded.  It was obvious that the boy was dying.  The fall had cracked his skull and, even if it hadn’t, he was probably so weakened that he could not have survived the punishment that he would have received.   “By the Saints, I promise, Juan Manuel Rodriguez y Cortez, to somehow get word to your parents.” 

The boy smiled, closed his eyes and relaxed.  Diego held him close, murmuring words of comfort that he supposed a dying boy might want to hear.  Within a few minutes, the young man’s heart ceased beating.  

“Get rid of him.  Throw the thieving dog overboard,” the captain shouted.  

Diego looked up, not having realized that the captain had come down from the quarterdeck.  “He requires the Extreme Unction,” Diego said softly.

“He requires to be thrown overboard!  There will be no Papist ceremonies on my ship.  Do you understand me?” Beatty’s voice rose to a higher pitch as his anger grew.   “Are you going to do it, or do I have to get one of the other sailors to do it?”   He turned to speak to Cavanaugh, who stood next to the captain, a cold smile on his face. 

Diego gathered the young man more comfortably in his arms.  “I will do it, Captain,” he said, his voice calm, belying what he felt inside.  His heart wrenched with anguish and then filled with anger at the callousness of the murder he had just witnessed.  With a sigh, Diego calmed himself, realizing that anger would get him nowhere.  It also was not a proper way to show respect for a young innocent cut down much too young in life. 

“The two other men who threw food overboard will be publicly whipped after breakfast, which they will not receive, by the way,” Beatty shouted to those assembled in the corridor of the great cabin level as well as to those listening above decks.  He turned to Diego and glared at him.  “And I will consider your punishment.  You were responsible for their behavior,” Beatty spat out.  “Now get him out of here.”  

When he had carefully climbed the narrow stairs to the quarterdeck, Diego found most of the rest of the Californianos waiting on the deck, watching silently.  As he carried the boy to the rail, he murmured the words of the Extreme Unction, hoping he remembered them correctly.   This was normally the task of a priest, but it was not unknown for someone else to do it if a priest was unavailable.  

He stood for a moment at the rail, saying his own prayer for Juan, asking his patron saint to take care of the boy.   Then he slowly opened his arms and let Juan slide into the dark ocean.  Even though it was near dawn, heavy clouds kept the sky gloomy.  It matched his mood. 

He turned back to see the captain and the first mate standing by the mizzenmast watching him intently.  “It has been done, Captain,” was all Diego said as he walked back to his cabin.  He felt the captain’s eyes on him all the way across the deck.  Later he stoically watched the punishment of two of his countrymen, feeling that somehow he had let them down.

He wrote another, shorter note to his father, requesting that he find Juan’s family and let them know that he had died at sea.  Slipping the note in with the rest, he closed and resealed the pouch.

 

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Through her half open door, Victoria saw the altercation between the captain and the young Californiano, and groaned when he fell backward down the steps.  She walked out into the corridor, and hearing Beatty’s orders from down below, hurried to the rail of the quarterdeck.  She had paid last respects to all who had died on the voyage thus far and was determined to continue that practice.  Some of the sailors had no other mourners besides her and a few fellow sailors.  

As the supercargo’s assistant carefully climbed the stairs with the dead man, she saw the other Californianos appear from various parts of the ship and gather on the quarterdeck.  The Spaniard, Diego, she had been told his name was, walked to the opposite rail, his lips moving, but no sound coming from them.  He paused briefly and then let the young man slip from his arms.  As he slowly made his way to his cabin, he glanced into her eyes and then looked away.   When she walked back to her cabin, Victoria felt the tears sliding down her cheeks.

 

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The day after Juan’s death, a lookout shouted a hearty ‘Land Ho!’ and any sailor who wasn’t on duty turned out at the rail to see a glimpse of the Sandwich Islands, the first thing besides sea and sky that had been sighted in several weeks.  Bowman dismissed Diego, so the Californiano was among the curious onlookers at the rail. Victoria Meachem and her daughter stood on one side of him, watching the scene below them raptly.   Diego had never thanked her for helping him that first day.  He did so and was rewarded with a bright smile. 

“You were in need of help….”she began, “Diego, is it not?” 

“Yes, ma’am.  Diego de la Vega of Los Angeles,” he responded.  “And I want to thank you for coming to show your respect to Juan yesterday.”  

“We are all God’s children and deserve respect in life and in death,” she said quietly.  Diego nodded and soon they all turned back to look at the small vessels approaching from the shore.  A breeze from the shore wafted in his face, teasing him with the tantalizing scents of plants and soil, something that he had found himself missing terribly in recent days.  It pulled at hair that had grown somewhat longer and more unkempt in the interval since his kidnapping and Diego unconsciously reached up and pushed a strand out of his eyes.   As though laughing at him, the breeze pushed the offending lock back across his forehead, but this time the young caballero ignored it.

Bowman joined him after a few minutes.   The caballero noticed some curiously shaped boats with sails.  They were long and narrow, as though they had been hewn out of tree trunks.  Their small, three-cornered sails caught the wind and propelled the small craft along at phenomenal speeds, making them dance across the tops of the waves like dolphins.  It looked almost like they had smaller boats attached to the side.  Diego turned to Bowman.  “What are those strange looking vessels?” he asked.            

“Those are outrigger canoes, Diego,” the supercargo explained.  “They are the boats the natives use.  The smaller section provides balance on the rough water, especially when they are fishing.”  They watched the approach of the islanders in silence, while around them the other sailors cheered and encouraged the visitors.  “I might add the native women are not as straight laced and led by convention as your proper Spanish ladies are.  These people are very friendly as long as they are treated with respect.  And because of the climate here, as well as their customs, they wear less clothing,” he added with a chuckle, trying to give the assistant cargo master fair warning.           

Diego, for his part, was fascinated by the ease with which the men sailed their canoes.  They do not fear the ocean like some of the sailors, he thought.  It is like the ocean is part of them, as Tornado is a part of me when I ride him.  Remembering California caused a slight twinge of depression, but Diego pushed it aside as the natives reached the side of the ship.  They started clambering aboard, most carrying fruits and other foodstuffs, smiling and laughing.  Their good humor was infectious.  Victoria Meachem’s little girl clapped her hands and laughed.  One of the native men handed her a small fruit and patted her on the head.  Sailors began offering items in trade for some of the fruit.

Remembering what he had been eating lately, Diego understood the shrewdness of the traders.  He himself wished he had something to barter for a few pieces of the fruit.  It looked totally unfamiliar to him, but anything was better than the biscuits, salt pork, peas and sour beer he had been consuming of late.  Ever since one of the sailors had told him how much protein was in the biscuits because of insects that grew in them, he had begun to break his apart to make sure he didn’t accidentally eat any.  That caused a great deal of amusement among his less fastidious shipmates.          

As though his mentor could read his mind, Bowman palavered with one of the traders, and when he was done, threw a couple of pieces of fruit to Diego.  “I really can’t remember what they call these, but they are delicious,” he said.  Diego took his word for it and bit into one of the fruits before Bowman could tell him that he needed to peel the hard skin off.  He saw one of the native traders smiling in amusement at his mistake. 

He spat out the skin.  “Ai, like an orange,” Diego declared with a laugh.  After eating the peeled fruit, he had to agree with Bowman.  It was good.  “I should have known that the fruit that has the hardest or most bitter skin has the sweetest meat,” he added.           

The ship soon reached the harbor and weighed anchor a short distance from shore. Diego was able to see a reef not too far away, around which natives were fishing and swimming.  While he was not an avid swimmer, the thought of jumping into the ocean to get rid of some of the grime of the voyage was a temptation almost beyond resistance.  Many of the traders, having concluded their bargaining, were diving into the water and swimming back to their canoes, most of which had been tied along side or tended by children or women.  Diego had never seen anyone dive like that before, but then people didn’t swim like that in California, either.            

The caballero was curious as to how the man did this feat.  Gesturing to one of the natives, an older man, Diego inquired as to how he dived from the precarious railing of a ship.  Instead of just showing him how it was done, the islander smiled and pulled him up onto the rail show him the correct form.  At first Diego resisted, but the friendliness of the native, and the good-natured cheers of his shipmates overcame his reticence.  Unfortunately, while Diego had extraordinary balance on land, he still missed some of the lesson while trying to stay upright on the narrow railing.  Consequently, when he lost his footing, he dived much less gracefully than his teacher, who entered the water with barely a splash.  

As he surfaced the other sailors and the traders were hooting and clapping.  The Californiano was embarrassed by his display, but with good-natured humor, saluted them.  The native gestured to his boat, and he and a young woman helped Diego into it.  As the scantily clad woman helped him clamber aboard, the Californiano blushed deeply at the proximity of so much bare skin.  Her skirt, which appeared to be made of some kind of plant material, came nearly to her knees, but the small top barely covered her breasts.  She smiled brightly and laughed at his discomfiture, seemingly familiar with the reactions of sailors from distant lands.  

The man tapped Diego on the shoulder and proceeded to show the drenched sailor how a proper entrance into the water should be made.  Gratefully, Diego turned his attention to his diving instructor and was soon diving into the water with a semblance of his usual grace.  His shipmates cheered him on.  After he had dived several times and was sitting once more in the outrigger canoe, the woman touched him on the arm and handed him something.  It was an exquisitely shaped shell.  Round and shiny-smooth on one side, with dark spots on whitish tan, the other side was pink around the opening where an animal once lived.  He tried to hand it back, but the woman just pushed his hand back and pointed to the shell and then to him, saying something he couldn’t understand.  Diego stared at the beautiful work of nature in his hand and then looked to the woman.  Gracias, seńorita,” he said softly.  “Thank you,” he added in English.

Her look told him she understood neither language, so he took her hand and lifted it to his lips, hoping she would understand his meaning, his gratitude.  Her eyes were wide as she pulled away gently and looked down at the place on her hand where his lips had touched it.  The man looked at him quizzically, not entirely sure what had happened.  From the railing, Bowman called out something in a lyrical language that Diego couldn’t understand.  Both islanders looked at him and smiled, nodding their heads, and then touching him on the arm. 

The Californiano looked again at the shell in his hand and was struck with the hospitality of the people indigenous to this island.  It was catching and he was thoroughly enjoying himself.  The woman leaned over and placed something in his hair behind his ear.  Reaching up, he gently felt the object and realized it was a huge flower, the petals large and soft, the fragrance delicately aromatic.   Aloha,” the woman told him with another smile.  

Aloha,” Diego repeated.   The woman nodded.  Struck by her dark skinned beauty, Diego was unable to take his eyes away from hers.  They were like deep, dark pools full of bright, happy laughter.  It had been a long time since he had been around someone so full of innocent, vibrant joy.  His life had been so serious, at times so somber since he had returned home from Spain.  He finally pulled his gaze from hers, knowing this was neither the time nor the place for a romantic interlude.  An indentured servant had no freedom for such things, especially one whose home was so far away.  The man was rowing back toward the ship. 

Bowman was pleased for Diego, realizing this was the first time since the beginning of the voyage that the young man’s smile held genuine pleasure, but the supercargo also noticed the captain walking up beside him, Cavanaugh at his heels, and was instantly aware of Beatty’s displeasure with the entertainment provided by his assistant.  Cavanaugh had a sly grin on his face and Bowman could only imagine how quickly the first mate had reported this indiscretion.  “Begging your pardon, Captain.  I apologize for my assistant’s impulsiveness, but could you please be lenient with the young man.  He has, after all, worked hard and has caused no trouble at all.  He has also done his best to keep the Spaniards in line and has taught them English.” 

The captain frowned.  “Get him back on board.  He is making a spectacle of himself.” 

“Aye, aye, sir.”  Bowman leaned over the side.  “Diego, get back on board.  No one was given permission to leave ship, not even idiots with a penchant to try something new.”  

Taking the young woman’s hand once more, Diego thanked her for her gift; then he thanked the man for his hospitality and clambered up the side rigging onto the deck.  The man followed him aboard and began talking with Mister Bowman.  

“Your pardon, sir,” Diego immediately apologized to the captain.  “I forgot myself.” 

Beatty gazed at him coldly.  “Come see me in my quarters when you have put on dry clothes.”

Diego wasn’t sure what the captain had in mind, but there was nothing to be done about it now.  Diego waited quietly while the supercargo concluded his transaction with the native man.  

Finally they made their way back to Bowman’s cabin.   “That was quite a sight back there, Diego,” The older man said, chuckling.   

“At least I got a good bath out of it,” the caballero quipped.

Bowman remembered how the Spaniard had stood outside the cabin during a rain shower one night, just so he could get his clothes and himself clean.  He had even taken his other set of clothes and hung them on the ratlines to get them clean in the rain, and later to dry.  For those who were particular in their health habits, as Diego seemed to be, life aboard a ship could be frustrating.  

“Ah, Diego, I do believe you charmed that young lady.  I feel sorry for the women of your pueblo,” Bowman quipped. 

Gazing at him, Diego smiled briefly.  “I have found none suitable yet.” 

“And I would venture to say that she captivated you, as well,” Bowman continued teasing.  

“I would have to be blind not to appreciate of all of her charms, physical and otherwise,” Diego responded, still feeling the warmth of her proximity.  Bowman laughed heartily.  “What did you say to them, by the way?” Diego asked. 

“They were not sure what your intents were when you kissed Makealeanu’s daughter’s hand.  He wasn’t sure whether to prepare a wedding feast or throw you overboard.  I just explained to him with my limited language skills, that you were expressing your gratitude and respect to her,” Bowman explained and then paused a moment.  “They honored you with their gift, Diego.  They felt the sincerity of your request and your respect for them as you learned to dive.  I told you they were a gracious people as long as they were treated fairly.”

“When will we be able to go ashore, Mister Bowman?” Diego asked, pushing the overpowering charm and beauty of the young island girl to the back of his mind and the letter to his father to the forefront.  

“As soon as the shipment of sandalwood I bought from Makealeanu is loaded in the lower hold, Diego.  It is our duty to make sure that the cargo is not only listed properly on the manifests, but also stored properly as well.  We will have to return from our leave a bit earlier than the rest of the sailors as well to oversee the loading of supplies.  I am in charge of making sure we have enough kegs of fresh water and food for our voyage to Singapore, which will be longer than the voyage to the Sandwich Islands.  Now that you are cleaned up, we’d better go see what the captain wants.”  

“We?” Diego asked.  “Captain Beatty only wanted to see me, didn’t he?” 

“Yes, but I have dealt with captains for a much longer time than you have, my fine young caballero, and I am a bit worried that his punishment for you will interfere with your duties to me.  And I fear that he has forgotten the exuberance of youth too long taken away from simple pleasures like shore leave,” Beatty explained.  What he didn’t say was that he felt the captain’s animosity against his young assistant and he hoped that his presence would temper any undeserved punishments.  He also hoped that his presence would help Diego keep a tighter hold on his own temper.  

   

 

 

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