Pacific Odyssey:

Book I

 

 

 

 

Chapter Thirteen 

Letters Home

 

 

After two weeks had passed, Diego found that he was thinking in English as much as he was in Spanish.  Bowman had only occasionally needed to speak to his student in Spanish since the first day and from the beginning, Diego asked the supercargo to remind him of his pronunciation of the words that he learned.  He had always been a good imitator of voice, it had come in handy in his tenure as Zorro, and it was handy now.  As his accent disappeared and he picked up idioms and slang, he noticed that the sailors were much quicker to include him in their conversations and other activities.  In his bewilderment at the phenomena, Diego asked his mentor if he could explain it to him.  

Bowman just laughed.  “You aren’t that different from them anymore, and it’s not just the language.  You are more sailor than lubber now.  You have eaten with the sailors and you’ve worked with them.  You’ve also worked the sails, which is one of the most dangerous parts of sailing, and you’ve cleaned the holds, which is the dirtiest.  You’ve joked with the men and I daresay you have been privy to a few shipboard secrets.  I’m not saying that you are as crass as some of these sea dogs; you have a natural refinement that can’t be hidden, but you’re not arrogant about it.  You’ve been willing to adapt and I think that the other sailors trust you,” Bowman explained and then paused.  “You have really learned a great deal in the past two weeks, Diego, and I’m grateful to have you as my assistant.” 

Diego murmured his thanks.  During the past two weeks, he had found the supercargo to be more of a mentor and a friend than a master and he, too, was grateful.           

The next day, Willie, one of the carpenter’s assistants, came in while Diego was making a copy of the manifests of goods traded in South America, and ordered his and Mr. Bowman’s presence.  They followed the sailor to the forecastle where two combatants had just been separated from each other.  One of them was José, who was cursing and shouting in Spanish and brandishing a knife.  Captain Beatty and first mate Cavanaugh had restored order among the British sailors, but the Californiano was hysterical and couldn’t be silenced.  The sailors stood around him in a wide circle, staying well out of range of the razor sharp knife José was brandishing at them.          

The two men approached the captain.  “With your permission, may I try to settle him down, sir?” Diego asked, cringing slightly at the torrid curses that José was shouting in Spanish.          

“That’s why I sent for you,” Beatty said.  “Go ahead, because, by all of the angels in heaven, I’ll throw him overboard, if he doesn’t stop that caterwauling soon,” he declared, “despite the fact that I’d be out the price of his indenture.”          

“Thank you, sir,” Diego said, pushing through the circle.  José watched him carefully, but did not lower his knife.  Diego stopped at the knife’s point and looked into José’s eyes.  “What do you think to accomplish with this tirade?” Diego asked in Spanish, when José paused in his cursing long enough to take in a breath. 

“I have been whipped, I have been slapped, I have been tripped.  The pigs laugh at me, call me names….” José began a string of complaints that went on and on.  To everyone’s surprise, Diego suddenly knocked him to the deck with a backhanded slap.  

José lay stunned for several seconds and then he jumped up and charged Diego.  The caballero simply sidestepped, grabbing José’s arm and jerking the knife out of his hand, throwing it across the deck.   The sailor flailed out with his hands, but was effectively stopped by Diego’s fist in his stomach.  José lay wheezing on the deck for a few minutes.  “By the Saints,” he finally gasped.  “Why did you do that?  Have you become so English that you even act against your own countrymen?”  José sat up and spat at Diego’s feet.          

Diego didn’t move, he only crossed his arms over his chest and gazed at his fellow Californiano.  “You needed to calm down,” he explained in Spanish and then paused.  He noticed that Bowman was murmuring something to the captain and realized that the supercargo’s presence was to allow Beatty to understand what he was saying.  Apparently, Beatty had discovered the supercargo’s language ability and was using it to assuage his paranoia.  With that in mind, Diego chose his words carefully.  “Are you willing to listen to me for a minute and let me explain why you need to learn to get along with your shipmates?” he asked.  José just glowered, but finally he relented and nodded his assent. 

“We are on a ship, an English ship, and we are indentured, whether we like it or not.   The only way to stay alive on this ship and maybe get home to our families someday is to conform as best we can and do our jobs well.”  Diego explained, his voice deadly serious.  “If you continue this way, you will never see California again, because you will feed the sharks in the ocean.  I know that as a fact, because I just heard the captain say so.  Perhaps if you had chosen to learn English, you would have known that, too, José.” 

Diego paused to see if his little speech was sinking in.  He could see that José was pondering what had been said.  “If Mister Bowman and the captain have no objections, I would not mind teaching you a little English to get you by.”   Diego felt a bit guilty for his inattentiveness to his fellow Californianos.  He had been so busy with Mr. Bowman, learning his job, as well as ‘the King’s English,’ that he hadn’t even thought of José, Roberto or the others that much lately.  Remotely, he remembered the captain’s charge that he was responsible for his fellow countrymen. 

José sighed and nodded his head.  “But they keep calling me Joe,” he said in exasperation.  “My name is José Ferdinand Batista.  It is not Joe.  I notice that they have not changed your name into English,” he said sourly.

“I am fortunate,” Diego laughed good-naturedly.  “How many of them would realize that the English equivalent of my name is James?” He reached down and helped José to his feet.  “Apologize to the captain,” he ordered.  “The correct words in English are ‘I’m sorry.’ Do not be too proud to use them.” 

José did as he was ordered, lowering his eyes to the deck as soon as he had done so.  He had seen the look of intense anger on the captain’s face and understood that Diego was speaking the truth.  

Beatty glared at him for a moment.  “Very well,” the captain finally said.  “But this behavior will not go unpunished.”  He turned toward Diego.  “Tell him that his punishment is to forego dinner and supper.  He will only have water and a biscuit.  And if he starts another fight, he will be flogged and then thrown overboard.”   The captain glowered at Diego, looking at him as though remembering something.  Diego gave his fellow Californiano the instructions and José was ordered to his duty station.  Bowman also took his leave, his need to translate over. 

“Captain Beatty, I would be willing to teach English to the California sailors during our off duty time, if that is suitable with you,” Diego offered.  “It might curtail these kinds of misunderstandings and disputes.”   

Beatty stroked his chin.  “Yes, do that.  But do not let it interfere with any other duties.” He paused and continued stroking his chin.  “I think that will be suitable, since I had made you responsible for the other Spaniards and you seem to have shirked your duty,” he added.  

Diego paused for only a couple of seconds and then he nodded.  “Yes, Captain,” was all he said. 

“If it weren’t for the avenging angel, I’d have tossed this dog overboard a long time ago,” Beatty muttered as Diego turned away.     

Avenging angel? Diego thought, his curiosity piqued.  He was determined to find out what the captain meant.  During dinner in the sailor’s mess that day, Diego got his opportunity.  

“Aye, I’ll tell you, lads, there’s been times that only the watch of Providence has kept this old body alive,” John, the sail maker’s mate declared.  Around his forearm was a large bandage, evidence of his close call that morning when his knife slipped.  

Diego gazed surreptitiously at the other sailors, who were nodding solemnly.  “I am curious about something,” he ventured in a quiet voice, one that allowed only those at the table with him to hear.  Even those close by had to lean toward him to fully understand. “And I am only asking because I do not wish to say or do anything that would bring bad luck or get me in trouble.”  He paused, gauging the other’s interest.  “What is this avenging angel that the captain mentioned this morning?” 

Everyone looked at him without saying anything for a moment and Diego began to wonder if he had ventured into a forbidden topic.  He was about to apologize when John leaned even closer to him.  “Diego, my boy, you haven’t sailed long enough to know that each ship’s master has certain . . . little quirks.”  John paused and looked around.  Then he spooned up a great quantity of greasy beans and stuffed them in his mouth, chewing noisily.  Finally, he continued, “Our captain is a good ‘un, now, don’t get me wrong.”  He swallowed his food.  “But he claims to have seen an angel.” 

“Avenging angel,” Willie added, correcting his companion.  

“Yes, I was coming to that,” John replied.  He gulped down some beer, took another bite of beans, this time with a large piece of salt pork and chewed some more.  

Diego became impatient.  “What does this avenging angel look like, and has anyone else seen him?” 

“Not so loud.  Captain’s sensitive about this.  Swears he’s seen it and it’s talked to him occasionally, warning him,” Willie said in a soft voice.  “All I know is what Mister Rowland said one day.  He’d been repairing the captain’s wardrobe and all the while he was doing it, the captain was all in a lather about this angel, pacing back and forth in his cabin, talking to himself and cursing.  Said it was huge with large flapping wings, and it was all black with piercing eyes and thunderous voice.  It had a flashing sword in one hand and fire in the other.” 

“What did it say?” Diego asked.  He could not help but wonder what the captain would think of Zorro.  The similarities were striking.  

“Can’t recall, but it seems that Mister Rowland said it was mostly weather warnings and council about keepin’ on the straight and narrow,” John answered.  

“Has anyone else seen this angel?” Diego asked.  Both men shook their heads ‘no’.  

 

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If anyone on board the China Star had known Diego de la Vega intimately before his kidnapping, they would have declared that for the most part, he hadn’t changed.  He still had the quick smile and easy-going demeanor he had always had, and was a pleasant individual to be around.  There had been times of late, however, when a dark moodiness settled over him.  This was one of them.  He caught himself reprimanding José several times during an English lesson over something very trivial.  Bowman gazed at him curiously.  

Looking at his puzzled and slightly irritated student, Diego sighed.  “José, it is not your fault.  I am just not in the mood to do lessons right now.  It would probably be better to forgo the lesson today,” he said, and dismissed the Californiano with a wave of his hand.  When José left, Diego stood in front of the open lower gallery window in their quarters and stared out, seeing much, but not the moon-lit ocean that was actually before his eyes.           

After five minutes of silence, broken only by the creaking of the ship, the snapping of the sails and the waves breaking against the hull, the supercargo ventured into the realm of conversation.  “Diego, my boy, it’s obvious you are not your usual pleasant self,” he said affably, trying to lighten his assistant’s mood.  That only got him more silence as Diego continued to stare out at the dark swells.  The old man was sure he understood the source of his assistant’s moodiness, and his heart was heavy over the young man’s plight.  He had come to have a great liking and respect for the Californiano in the past three plus weeks.  “Let’s swing this conversation on a different tack,” Bowman remarked.  “Diego, what are you really seeing out there?” he asked.           

There was another silence, shorter this time.  “I see an old man looking for his only child, but he has no idea where to start.  And he has no idea if the son is dead or not,” Diego said bitterly.  “No idea at all!”           

“Then, perhaps you need to send him a letter,” the supercargo said simply.           

Diego’s dark musings almost caused him to miss his mentor’s words, but the implication of what Bowman had said finally sank in.  He pivoted on his heel and stared at the supercargo.  “What did you say?” he hissed.  It seemed to Diego that everything stopped for several seconds; nothing moved, there were no sounds except the increased beating of his heart and the deep heaviness of the air going in and out of his lungs.  Diego felt his pulse quickening as he waited for the older man to explain himself.   “What are you talking about?” he asked, impatiently          

Bowman laughed shortly, but stopped when he saw the intensity of Diego’s passion.  “I said, you should send him a packet letting him know you are alive,” he repeated.  

Hope flared in the young man’s eyes, but was quickly extinguished.

“Who will take it, the albatross or the dolphin?” Diego asked morosely.          

“Neither, you young idiot,” Bowman said brightly.  “You aren’t familiar with the sea lanes, or you would know that our next port o’ call is the Sandwich Islands.  If our esteemed quartermaster is still accurate, and he usually is, that should happen late tomorrow or early the next day.  If the prevailing winds hold out, that is.”           

“And there would be someone who could send a letter home to my father?” he asked, in a voice filled with renewed hope.           

“Well, Diego, there are missionaries on the islands, maybe there is a Catholic mission.  I can’t imagine a priest not wanting to help you in your situation,” the old man said brightly.  “Obviously, your father would still not be able to do anything for you, but he would at least know what happened and that you are still alive and well,” he continued softly.  “I can only imagine how much that would put his mind at ease.”           

Diego’s eyes shone with gratitude.  “Thank you,” he breathed.  “Thank you, Mister Bowman.”  Excitement was tangible in every part of the young Californiano’s body.           

“You have to realize, Diego, it isn’t the British who put you in your present predicament, it was your fellow countrymen, or rather the Mexicans,” he pointed out.  “We aren’t total ogres, even though I suspect Ferdinand might want you to think so.”  He yawned.  “I’m very tired today and the books are up to date.  Go forward and see if the captain or the purser need any help.”  Diego smiled graciously and took his leave.  Only when the Californiano had left, did the old man let his emotions show.  A tear slid down the leathered cheek.  During the past few weeks of the voyage, he had come to know the young Spaniard intimately. Diego had told him so much about his father and life in Los Angeles that he felt he was part of the young man’s family.  If Michael were still alive, Bowman thought sadly, he would be just a few years older than Diego de la Vega.  I could only wish that he might have been the type of individual that Alejandro de la Vega raised.  No father should have to bear the burden that Diego’s father is bearing at the moment.  He sighed, wishing that his son, Michael were here with him.            

That night, Diego put together a well worded, but loving letter.  It was carefully crafted because he needed to give his father information about the Mexican revolutionaries without being blunt about it.  Realistically, he had no idea who might also get hold of this packet.  Several times, he had to stop and meditate over what he wanted to say before he was satisfied with the final result. Included was a greeting to Bernardo, along with a few cryptic suggestions relating to Zorro.  

Diego knew his father well enough to realize that the time since his kidnapping had probably been consumed trying to find him.  He hoped the letter would not only be of comfort to his father, but persuade him continue his activities as a leader among the hacendados.   Don Alejandro de la Vega was a strong willed man, Diego thought proudly, one who had always held the concerns of the land and its people in much higher esteem than his own interests.   Diego felt that men like him were needed even more than Zorro was.   The thought that his father might be wasting so much of his energy looking for him filled him with guilt. 

‘Father,’ Diego finished, ‘I will be home as soon as possible.  Please do not worry about me.’  He thought it wise to not tell him about the two-year indenture.  When the letter was securely in the leather pouch, Diego felt better than he had for some time.           

Later that night, after Diego had fallen asleep, George Bowman added a small piece of paper to the pouch.  There was little written on it, partly because his written Spanish was so limited, partly because he needed so few words to express the way he felt.  He folded it carefully and added it between the sheets of Diego’s letter before closing the pouch and blowing out the candle. 

 

 

 

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