Pacific Odyssey:

Book I

 

 

 

   

Chapter Seventeen

The Sword

 

After a midday meal of native foods, most of which Diego couldn’t even begin to pronounce the names of, he and Bowman wandered the harbor area, looking at the trade goods.  The smarter sailors, as a rule, were always on the look out for items that could be bought and then sold elsewhere for a profit.  Diego watched the supercargo carefully to see how he did it.  The caballero had never been in a position to have to barter or negotiate for anything except cattle or horses, but he had some thoughts on necessities for which he would have to have money or trade goods to purchase.  What Bowman was doing, though, seemed to be something that would take an abominably long time, and Diego realized he would have to exercise patience.  A few months in the space of two years were just a drop in the bucket, even though it didn’t seem that way right now.  

The supercargo had given him a guinea as an advance, or so he had told Diego, on the meager pay that indentured servants get.   With Bowman’s permission, Diego had wandered off to see the sights before he returned to his duties. He just began looking around, with nothing specific on his mind, hoping he could find something he could buy and turn a profit in later ports of call.  As he looked over the merchandise that was being sold, he wished he were more adept at this trading business.   

A commotion in front of one of the storage buildings piqued his interest.  He was tall enough to see over most of the crowd, and was astonished to see a swordsman in a contest with José.  While José seemed fair with a blade, he was no match for his opponent, and soon the contest was over in favor of the unknown swordsman.  José stalked off with the other Californianos, cursing softly. Diego chuckled softly.  Apparently José had won some money from gambling or had been loaned some money and had now lost it all. 

The swordsman stopped to rest for a moment, getting a drink from a mug and wiping the sweat from his face.  While he did this, he was also beckoning to the crowd for anyone else to take him on.  It had seemed obvious to Diego that others in the crowd were padding their pockets with wagers, too.   He gazed at the swordsman carefully.  The man was several inches shorter than he was, with curly light brown hair and gray eyes, which sparkled with self-assured confidence.  There seemed to be nothing arrogant or malicious about the man, and Diego determined that the swordsman was only trying to make money just as he was.

Diego pondered for a moment.  There was no danger of anyone connecting him with Zorro here, since no one had ever heard of Zorro.  This was an excellent opportunity to build a bit of a reserve that would be much faster than trading from port to port, even though the idea of fighting for money was normally repugnant to him.  He stepped forward, affecting an indolent demeanor.   Señor,” he said affably in Spanish.  “I had no idea there were any Spaniards on the island beside myself and the other indentured sailors from the China Star.

The swordsman flashed a sanguine smile. “So you are from the same ship as my last opponent, eh?”   The man gazed at him, taking in his height and build.

Sí, señor,” Diego responded.  He assumed that he was being catalogued in the same fencing class as José was.  All to the better, he thought, surprised at his sudden Machiavellian nature.

“I am Miguel de Cabazos, purser’s assistant on the San Francisco de Asis,” he said pointing to a three-masted barque resting in the harbor.

“Diego de la Vega at your service, señor,” he said by way of introduction.  “I am assuming this swordplay is all in sport,” he said innocently. 

“We all do what we can to make a little extra money, Señor de la Vega,” he explained.  “I have been receiving five pence from these good people for the opportunity to match swords with me.  Would you care to try?”           

Diego rubbed his chin as though pondering his chances, but in reality, he was elated.  Señor de Cabazos, I believe I will give it a try, but I propose that we make this interesting.  I really like the look of your weapons and would like to have one of my own,” he said jauntily.  “I’ll put up half a guinea against the sword of my choice if I win.”          

Miguel de Cabazos laughed.  “Done, señor!  A half a guinea is hard to resist.  Take your pick, it will probably be the shortest possession of your life.”          

Diego picked up the swords one at a time and carefully tested the feel of each.  He chose one that seemed to have the right balance for him.  “This one, Señor de Cabazos,” he stated.  “And I presume the scabbard is included?” Diego asked.  It was an immensely pleasurable feeling having a sword in his hand once more.  His eyes glittered as he limbered up.

Miguel nodded.   He was beginning to think this man was either touched in the head or better than his shipmate had been.  No matter, he thought confidently. I will still be able to beat him.   He had never been defeated in his travels to these far away places, and he didn’t think this naïve sailor would change that.          

“I have half a guinea to put down on wager, if anyone would care to take me up on it,” Diego said.  There were many that did.  They had seen Miguel at work, the man’s own shipmates in particular. 

 

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Bowman had noticed the prolonged absence of his assistant and wandered in the same general direction Diego had taken.   Attracted to a large crowd, he pushed his way toward the front, and was astonished to see Diego preparing for a competition with swords.  The supercargo sincerely hoped his assistant knew what he was doing.  He immediately surmised that Diego was trying to earn some extra money, and Bowman prayed he didn’t get hurt doing so.  From the amount of the wagers, most of the spectators thought Diego wouldn’t last long.  He trusted Diego, though and he put down his last few pounds on his assistant.            

When the wagers were set, both contestants got into their stances, and a bystander was asked to drop a scarf.  Diego suddenly became all business.  En garde,” he said.  The scarf dropped to the ground.  Diego began slowly, allowing his opponent to set the pace. Miguel advanced and the crowd backed away from behind Diego as he went on the defensive.  Each thrust was parried deftly and smoothly.  With each click of the swords, with each movement forward and back, Diego felt his muscles dance with joy, his body sing a song of freedom.  He remembered the smell of the dry California air, the vision of dusty hills, the feel of the cuartel wall under his gloved hands, the sound of hoof beats, the exhilaration of a contest honorably won.  His elation carried into his swordplay and even his defensive strokes were exuberant.   It seemed as though an eternity had passed since he had done something as familiar as holding a sword. 

The easy defensive moves continued for some time with Diego occasionally making small advances to test his opponent’s skill.  Miguel found himself working harder as he attempted to find an opening, but Diego seemed to be able to anticipate and deflect his every move with a minimum of effort.           

Bowman was amazed at the skill Diego exhibited.  He, himself, wasn’t a swordsman, but he could recognize expertise, and his assistant was a master.  Diego had begun the match with a smile, which only seemed to broaden as the contest progressed.  Bowman knew it wasn’t from conceit; it was from the sheer joy of having a blade in his hand.           

Miguel advanced again and their swords clashed together near the hilt.  Señor,” Miguel said softly.  “I do believe you are toying with me.  If you can best me, than do so, and do not waste my time.”          

Diego disengaged and raised his sword in salute, a great smile on his face.  He then began an advance in earnest.  The crowd gave way in back of Miguel.  Diego continued to parry each of his opponent’s thrusts, but added many of his own.  Miguel was now only able to make short advances, and on the whole Diego was controlling the contest.  After another few minutes, Miguel, too, realized that he was in the presence of a master swordsman, one who not only was very, very good, but also truly loved the sport.  Suddenly, his sword was been jerked from his hand and propelled through the air to land point down in the earth.           

Miguel stared at Diego in astonishment and conceded the contest to him with a bow.  Diego lifted his sword, for it was truly his now, in a salute to his opponent.  “You really were a most worthy opponent, señor,” he told Miguel.           

Bowman started clapping and the other spectators joined in.  This had been a spectacle that would be talked about for days.  Diego bowed and then promptly gathered his winnings.  The odds had been extremely high and he ended up with the equivalent of almost twenty pounds, a prodigious amount for a lowly sailor to have.  Bowman realized that the winnings from his wager had more than equaled what he had paid to send the packet.            

Diego got the scabbard and belt for the saber and walked over to the supercargo, who was still counting his winnings.  “Mister Bowman, could you take charge of this for me until we get back on the ship, if you please?  I am afraid that someone might question an indentured sailor owning such a fine weapon as this,” Diego explained. 

“Of course, Diego.”  Bowman looked it over, admiring the etchings on the bell and handle.  “That was a magnificent, by the way.  Where did you learn to use a sword that way?”  

“In Madrid, when I attended the university,” Diego answered.    “I had very good teachers.”  Glancing over his shoulder, he saw Miguel gathering up his remaining swords, gloves and his hat.  Turning back to his mentor, he asked, “Mister Bowman, may I take a few moments to talk to Señor de Cabazos?”  

“Yes, take all the time you want and when you are finished, find me and we will begin the purchase of provisions,” Bowman said amiably, happy to see his assistant in such a good mood. 

Señor,” Diego said, approaching his former opponent.  “Would it be possible to talk a bit over some drink?  I will be happy to buy,” Diego offered.  “I suppose it is the least I can do,” he added, with a grin. 

Miguel nodded and they went into a nearby eating establishment.  When they had sat down at a table, Miguel promptly queried Diego as to where he had learned such skills.  “My father taught the basics and the rest I learned when I went to school in Spain.  The instructors there are excellent.  I must admit it has been a long time since I have had a sword in my hand, but it felt good,” Diego mused.  “I really am sorry to have misled you.  You see I am in a position where I also have to ‘make money any way I can.’  If for no other reason than to buy back my own indenture,” Diego explained.           

“Don Diego, you are a caballero?” Miguel asked.            

,” Diego answered simply.  “I was kidnapped by enemies and indentured to the captain of the China Star.   Would you by chance be heading for California?            

Miguel knew immediately what the caballero wanted.  “No, my ship is sailing tomorrow for Manila on the evening tide.  If we were heading west, I would be most happy to give word to your family.”  He paused and drank a bit more of his wine. “Good luck, Don Diego,” Miguel told him.  “You’ll need it.  A lot of these captains are very tightfisted.”           

After talking for a while longer, Miguel and Diego parted company.  Diego now had some money in his pocket.  He thought about his quick words to Miguel and wondered if he truly had enough to pay off his indenture.  There is only one way to find out, he thought.  If he succeeded, he might be able to find a ship heading east and get home just after his packet.  

Asking among the sailors, Diego finally found the tavern where the captain was having his mid-day meal.  With him at a table in the back of the palm frond sided building was Mr. Cavanaugh, Mr. Van Riper, the carpenter, Mr. Hackley, the quartermaster, and Mr. Sharpe, the purser.  All were laughing as they consumed mugs of ale and plates of prawns and a variety of indigenous foods that lay in bowls in the middle of the table.  

Diego stood quietly by the table and cleared his throat.  When he was ignored, he finally said, “Captain Beatty, make I make a request?” 

The men at the table waited until Beatty had acknowledged Diego by finally looking up at him.  Beatty gazed at him, his face betraying no emotions whatsoever.  The smoke in this part of the room didn’t seem to be affected by the slight breeze that wafted through the tavern from the many large windows.  It gave the captain an evil cast, almost as though this part of the tavern was a corner of Hell.  Beatty dragged deeply on his cigar and puffed smoke in Diego’s direction. 

 “What do you want, sailor?” Beatty finally asked, his voice languid. 

Diego decided getting to the point was the best in this case.  He was tempted to just tell the captain how much he had and request a release from his indenture, but for some reason balked at letting these men know just how much he had.  Quickly pondering, he felt that most likely, if he approached the captain with his nineteen pounds, Beatty would only quote a higher price.  And he might find an excuse to take the money away from him. 

Discretion, he reminded himself, is the key here.   “I would like to know the cost of my indenture, sir,” he said, as deferentially as he could. 

“Oh?  You figuring to be able to pay it sometime soon?” Beatty asked with a laugh.

“Yessir,” Diego said simply.  

“Well, sailor, I paid that tight-fisted son of Satan in San Diego the equivalent of ten pounds,” Beatty growled. 

Elation filled Diego’s heart and he was ready to inform the captain of his good fortune, but was stopped by Beatty’s next words.  

“But I paid that ten pounds for two years work.  If someone repays their indenture fee within, say, a few weeks, then I am still out two years work.  That work is worth money.”  Beatty puffed on his cigar and blew more smoke in Diego’s direction.  “So in order to get my full compensation, I would have to have thirty pounds at least.”  He paused and puffed again.  “Do you have the indenture fee, sailor?” 

“No, Captain.  I do not.  I was simply enquiring,” Diego said woodenly.  Anger warred in his heart with despair.  “Your permission to leave, sir,” he finally said, executing a slight bow. 

Beatty simply waved his hand in dismissal and Diego turned on his heel and stalked out of the tavern.  The men’s laughter followed him all the way out, where even the bright sun was unable to lighten the dismal mood that settled over him.

   

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“Are you sure that was wise, Captain?  Ten pounds is still two more then you actually paid for his indenture and for some reason I suspect that he had that amount,” Hackley said.  “And you could pay the ten pounds to get another sailor to take his place.” 

Beatty wondered himself, just why he didn’t call de la Vega’s bluff.  But he thought about the look of disappointment on the Spaniard’s face and he had enjoyed that.  Put him in his place! he thought.  “Arrogant Spanish dog!” Beatty growled.  “How could he have ten pounds?  Bowman isn’t that rich and even if he was, he wouldn’t simply give de la Vega that kind of money.  And the Spaniard didn’t have any money on him when he was brought to the ship.”

“I don’t know, maybe he is a good gambler and found an easy game of chance.  But even you have said that he bears watching, and that he might try and pull something devious,” Hackley replied.  

“Maybe, but he is keeping the other Spaniards in line, so he does have his uses,” Beatty said.  

“He works hard,” Sharpe said, looking toward the doorway through which the young man had left. 

“Yes, he works and he keeps Bowman happy,” Beatty admitted.  

“But you don’t like him,” Hackley said with a laugh.  

“Yes, you are right, I don’t like the arrogant, high-born pup,” Beatty added.  

“He was not happy, that’s for sure,” Sharpe added.  

“No, he wasn’t.”  Beatty stubbed out the end of his cigar and then drank the rest of the ale in his mug.  After he had ordered more, he gazed at his companions.   “The idea that he could amass ten pounds already intrigues me, gentlemen.  Keep an eye on him.  I want to know the first time he does something out of line.” 

“And then you will take care of him?” Hackley asked, his smile broadening. 

“Yes, indeed I will take care of him,” Beatty said ominously.  

 

 

 

Chapter Eighteen
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