Pacific Odyssey:

Book I

 

 

 

   

Chapter Seven 

Change of Scenery

 

 

As Jorge walked toward the comandante’s office, the prisoner was untied from his horse and jerked out of the saddle.  Carried to the large cell where eleven other prisoners were being held, Diego was unceremoniously shoved in where he fell across his fellow captives. They shoved him off in turn, scowling and cursing.  He was pushed aside to a corner where he lay oblivious to the mechanisms of his fate.  As the sky darkened into the velvety black of the night, the prisoner stirred, slowly coming to painful awareness.  With a muffled groan, Diego woke further, feeling the rough hemp that constricted his wrists, the cloying presence of the noxious gag.   One of his fellow prisoners crawled over to him and removed the gag.  Then the younger man pulled and worked the knots loose on the ropes binding his hands.  Gracias, señor,” Diego murmured, as he rubbed his swollen wrists.  His throat felt dry and scratchy, and he tried to bring up enough saliva to swallow and relieve the roughness, but was unsuccessful.  He looked around in the dim interior of the cell for something to drink, but he could only see his friend and the scowling countenances of those prisoners closest to him.              

“I am Roberto,” the young man said.  “I do not have any water or I would give you some.”  He pointed to the scowling man next to him.  “That is José,” Roberto added.  And then he proceeded to introduce the remaining men in the cell with him.   They were twelve altogether.            

“I am Diego de la Vega, son of Alejandro de la Vega, a ranchero from Los Angeles.  I have been abducted by the men who brought me here.” Roberto just stared at him.  José laughed, along with several other prisoners, which confirmed Diego’s fears that by this time, there would be no one left who would believe him.  Those of any importance who might take note of his story would be kept away from him and anyone else would either be a conspirator or think that he was just trying a ploy to get out of his sentence.  Diego sighed and leaned against the rough adobe of the cell wall.

 

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

 

Captain John Beatty finished the last of the sweet California wine in his glass and leaned back in his chair.  “I want to thank you, Capitán Diaz, for the refreshments, your hospitality while we have been in your harbor, and the arrangements for the men.  That accursed storm was devil sent.” 

“The seas can become very dangerous this time of year.  Storms blow in quickly and cause much damage.  It is very fortunate that you were near a port as large as ours,” the comandante said.  “I am most curious, though, and would like to ask you a question.”

“Yes?”  Both men had been speaking English, although the comandante’s was a bit halting at times. 

“I am wondering why you came around Tierra del Fuego instead of the normal London to China route around the Cape of Good Hope,” the garrison commander inquired.

“You are aware that Mexico has been working toward independence, are you not?” Beatty asked. 

“Yes, for over ten years.  I hear rumors that they are close to getting it.”  Diaz gazed meaningfully at the British captain. 

“Yes, that is my understanding as well,” Beatty replied.  “My backers in the British East India Company were desirous to see if there was any profit in trade with the various former colonies of Spain.  A westerly route to China, so to speak,” the captain explained.  “Instead of an easterly one.”

The comandante nodded.  “And have you found any of that profit?” 

“I wasn’t doing too badly until I ran into those storms after our port o’ call in Mexico,” Beatty admitted.  He paused and looked around the candlelit room.   His eyes took in the leather backed chairs and the silver swords hanging on the wall.  If the commander of a garrison was able to afford such amenities, then perhaps California might also be of use to his company . . . and to himself, he thought hopefully.  “I have found your supplies of wonderful wines and liqueurs to be most pleasing.  The beef has been very adequate as well.  Perhaps California would wish to become trade partners with my company?” Beatty asked hopefully.   “There could be much profit.”

“Under normal circumstances, your ship, along with you and your crew could have been seized and held as spoils of war,” Diaz explained. 

“But we are not at war,” Beatty said quickly.  He was a bit nervous at the pronouncement, but not overly so.  Diaz had profited by the China Star’s presence in San Diego, just as some of her other citizens did.   Under strict regulation, the crew and passengers had been into port and bought many goods, the ship had been stocked well from locally grown foodstuffs, such as oranges, lemons, corn and other fruits and vegetables, and he had filled the aft hold with a great variety of wines.  They would sell well in Singapore, after which he would take on the real cash cargo of his trip. 

“That makes no difference to Spain, who considers England an enemy.  But your ship was in need, we are a friendly people and all has gone smoothly in our relations,” the comandante said, smiling. 

Beatty nodded, relieved.  “And I thank you for your gracious hospitality while we were here.”

“Despite the differences between our countries, I would not want it said that we are not congenial hosts here in San Diego.”   Diaz smiled benignly. 

Beatty stood up.  “Again I thank you, comandante, but I must return to my ship now.  We sail on the morning tide and there is still much to do.  With your permission?” 

“Of course.  We will send the prisoners out to your ship within two hours,” the comandante said, also standing up.  “Have a safe voyage to the Orient.” 

Beatty nodded and left.  Yes, he thought, I certainly hope it will be a safe voyage.  And profitable.

 

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

 

Jorge walked toward the holding cell and stopped to talk to the guard whom he had bribed earlier.  Leaning toward the soldier, he murmured, “It is not necessary to smuggle my prisoner in with the indentured men.  The British captain snatched him up quickly.  He will go with them, making an even dozen.  But your money is still yours and your willingness to assist in the cause well noted.”  Jorge then laughed quietly and the guard laughed with him.  They walked to the cell and Jorge noticed that de la Vega had been untied and the gag removed.   He stared at all of the prisoners and then laughed again.   They were a pathetic bunch, a few a bit older, but most young, one or two probably still teenagers.  The British captain had managed to get a fairly healthy lot, but from what he heard, Jorge didn’t give great odds on but a few of them making it to the end of their indentures.   Conscripted men lived very short lives on most ships that sailed across the great oceans.  The British took only slightly better care of their sailors than the Dutch, or even the Spanish did.  He noticed de la Vega gazing at him.  “Just think what all of that sea air is going to do to your constitutions, men,” Jorge said.  Then he stared hard at Diego.  “And I will knock you over the head, just as Pasqual did, and you will have to be carried on board if you make any kind of a scene tonight,” he warned.  Diego fully believed him, but could not resist one final act of defiance.            

Señor, if you believe that this is going to keep my father from working with the other rancheros to strengthen California, then you have sadly misjudged the de la Vegas, as well as the other caballeros in the Los Angeles area,” Diego told Jorge heatedly.  “You should pick another way to gain the support of California to your cause, because without the hacendados you will never succeed.  It takes everybody,” Diego added, “not just disgruntled peons and revolutionary zealots.”            

“Shut up, pampered dog,” Jorge replied angrily, coming closer and gripping the bars.  “You will be singing another tune to the British tomorrow, my dear caballero.  But remember what I said and say no more, or I will come in and beat you senseless.            

Roberto, for his part, stared open-mouthed at Diego, realizing that his fellow prisoner was exactly who he said he was.

  

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

 

Chained together by manacles that had been clamped around their ankles, Diego and the other prisoners were brought to a large rowboat at the dock.   It was very late, probably past midnight.  The chains were taken off, to prevent the drowning of all if one of them should fall into the water.  Diego suspected that besides the flowing of the tide very early in the morning, taking them to the ship this time of night would keep contact between the prisoners and anyone from the area to a minimum.  Diego was silent.  Jorge had been as good as his word, staying with the group and watching him carefully until he and his fellow prisoners had been loaded into the large rowboat and rowed into the bay.  He felt an almost debilitating sense of loss as each stroke of the oars took him further from the shore of his beloved homeland.

Señor, there would be a healthy reward for returning me to my home, since I have been kidnapped,” Diego said to the sailor in charge of the boat.  

“Quiet, you,” the Englishman growled in his native tongue. 

“I am not a….” Diego began in halting English, but another warning look from the sailor, coupled by the man’s fist being shook in his face made the Californiano realize the futility of his attempts.  He sat back and watched the dark waters flow by the little craft.

At the side of the British ship, sleepy sailors, cursing their lot at this midnight duty helped them climb rope ladders onto the deck.  It had to be a coordinated effort, owing to the heavy manacles the prisoners still wore, but they finally all made it onto the ship.  The chains were immediately drawn back through the rings of the manacles and the prisoners were escorted to a clear space near the railing.  The shackles dragged sonorously against the planking and Diego felt as though he was walking down a corridor to Hell.  With gestures and muttered commands he and his companions were ordered to lie down on the deck.         

After they had each found some semblance of comfort on the hard wooden surface, José began to curse and berate everybody in general.  “Well, Don Diego, it seems that you are no better than we are, now, are you?” he sneered.  “We are all slaves to the British.  I have heard they hate the Spanish as much as we hate them,” he added, a slight touch of fear creeping into the voice of bravado.

Hungry, cold and depressed, Diego wasn’t in the mood to listen to any more of José’s incessant sarcastic remarks and endless complaining.  “Keep quiet,” he growled ominously.  “Or chains or no chains, I will come over and throttle you. You have been complaining since I woke up.  Just be quiet and go to sleep. I am tired of listening to you whine.  We had better get what sleep we can,” he admonished the others.  “I have a very strong feeling that tomorrow is not going to be a pleasant day.” 

“Why not, Don Diego?” Roberto asked, his voice containing a note of anxiety.  He was sitting next to the hacendado.  “Other than the obvious reason,” he said, holding up a length of chain in his hands. 

“Because from what little that I know of sailing ships, the old sailors like to haze the new ones,” he explained. “We have the double disadvantage of being in the hands of the British, many of whom hate Spaniards, as José said, and whose language we know little of.  Go to sleep now, there is no need to worry about that which cannot be changed.”  With that Diego arranged the chains and rolling over on his side, attempted to go to asleep.  After what seemed to be an eternity, he finally fell into a restless sleep. 

   

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

 

Victoria Meacham awoke to the darkness of her small cabin, the tracks of recently shed tears still evident on her cheeks.  She had been dreaming about Thomas, wondering where he was as she began the journey from deep sleep to wakefulness.  It was something that happened almost every night, something that she dreaded.  Will I ever get used to not having him near me? Victoria asked herself, remembering the horrible time of his sickness as they journeyed around South America.  She sighed, knowing that sleep would escape her for at least a little while.  Little Martha Ann slept on peacefully, her soft wheezes and snores calming Victoria.  Her child was her main solace on the interminable trip to the Orient, one that had begun as a simple business trip to Canton and ended as a time of mourning. 

For a moment, Victoria thought she would light the lantern near her bed and read for a short while, but that didn’t appeal to her and she didn’t want to take the chance of waking Martha Ann.  She knew that this would be her last night in the warm, dry climate of California.  She also had been told that the moon would be full tonight.  It would be the perfect opportunity to gaze upon this land from a totally different perspective.  Slipping out of bed, Victoria drew on her ankle length robe, pulling the heavy tie cord snugly around her waist.  Sliding her feet into her dainty soft-soled slippers, she silently made her way out to the quarterdeck and then climbed the short stairs to the poop deck.  She made no sound as she walked to the rail.  To anyone watching, she could have almost been mistaken for a ghost.  She waited for the watch to say something, but the expected greeting never came.  In fact, he was not even there.  Instead she heard the swish, swish of oars slapping against the water, along with the creaking of oarlocks.  

The full moon slipped, yellow-white and bloated, out from behind a cloud and bathed the entire bay in its light.   Coming toward her in a large long boat was a group of men.  Two sailors rowed, and one seemed to be keeping watch from the bow of the little ship.  As the boat came closer, Victoria could see that the ten or so men sitting in the middle were not part of the crew of the China Star.   Hmm, Captain Beatty had mentioned how desperately short handed he was.  Could this be a group of conscriptees? she asked herself. Men to take the place of the two-dozen who had died on the long voyage around South America?  Victoria leaned forward, trying by that advantage, to see how many unfortunate wretches the good captain had paid for, how many poor men would never see their homes again.  She had seen the same thing happen just before they had left London and she wondered if these men really knew the full implications of their service on the cargo ship.  She continued to watch as the oarsmen maneuvered the craft alongside.  Two sailors at the rail guided the men up the rope ladders as the ship rocked up and down. 

In horror, Victoria noticed that they had on manacles.  One tried to pull back, crying out in Spanish, pleading with one of the oarsmen.  He was cuffed into submission by the ship’s mate that had accompanied them from shore and then pulled onto the ship.  Finally, they were all on board, chained back together and led to a corner of the quarterdeck where they were ordered to lay down.  The boat was hauled on board and lashed once more to the extra spars that lay along the length of the space between the quarterdeck and forecastle deck.  One of the sailors stood nearby the conscriptees while the other retired to the poop deck to begin his watch.  The rest of the sailors went below to their hammocks.

A few of the Spaniards muttered and complained, but were soon silenced by one of their companions. 

Victoria pondered.  Are these men convicts? Quietly, she made her way to the watch.  “Mister Morehouse?” she asked softly. 

The sailor jumped slightly.  “You startled me, Mrs. Meacham.  You walk like a veritable cat, mum.” 

“I’m sorry.  As usual I had trouble sleeping and stepped out of my cabin for a bit of air.”  She paused.  “Are those men prisoners?” 

“They were, mum.  Now they’re sailors, or will be soon enough,” Morehouse replied.  “Couldn’t get any volunteers amongst these people.  Had to buy off convicts,” he explained.  “Most of ‘em are just poor wretches what couldn’t pay their taxes, except for the tall one.” 

“And what did the tall one do,” she asked, curious.  

“Hear tell that he almost killed a man in the town he came from,” Morehouse replied.  “But the captain will work any fire out of that one.  And quickly, too.” 

Victoria felt her heart wrench in sympathy.  At least she and her husband had the privilege of choosing whether they would make this long voyage or not.  Although now Thomas was consigned to a watery grave and she was a widow heading for an uncertain future in Canton.  

 

 

 

 

Chapter Eight
Prologue
Pacific Odyssey Main Page
Zorro Contents
Main Page