Days on Ship
first few days of Diego’s new life, his captivity as he thought of it,
were a blur of often confusing commands and mindless work only made
bearable by Mr. Bowman’s patient tutelage.
Early the second day at sea, he was roused before daylight. Diego had spent a restless night filled with nightmares made
worse by the fact that he was unused to sleeping in a hammock.
for breakfast,” Bowman told him.
“Make sure you report to me right after dinner.”
a nod, Diego made his way below decks where the cook’s mate was
serving up breakfast. He
was handed a mug of ale and a bowl of porridge.
He saw his fellow Californianos gathered in one corner of
the room and joined them, sitting next to Roberto on the floor with a
cannon as a back rest. The
eyes of many of the English sailors had followed him as he made his way
to the little group and it disconcerted him somewhat.
Not that Diego was bothered for himself, he was used to the
disdainful looks of others since he had returned home from Spain, but he
worried about relations between the much more numerous English sailors
and the little group of Spanish colonials.
However, there was nothing he could do about it, except to be
careful of what he said and did. Diego
could only hope that the animosities of the two nationalities could be
forgotten in the situation that made them all equal.
porridge was more bland than that which he was used to at home, but he
ate it anyway, knowing that he would need the sustenance for whatever
the senior sailors and officers had in mind for him this morning.
were not with us last night,” José grumbled.
“Have they given you a cabin befitting your station?”
shot an irritated glance at his bad-tempered countryman.
Blessed Virgin! he thought, this man is impossible to
like. “I was not
sleeping with you because my master, Mr. Bowman, offered me a corner of
his cabin.” Diego gave no
other explanation, not feeling that he had to.
And after seeing the crowded conditions below decks, he was even
more grateful that Mr. Bowman had offered him a place in his cabin.
Space was at a premium, even though all the hammocks had been
stowed away for the day. As
they ate, a slightly fetid odor came from the hold and bilges below,
only somewhat relieved by the breeze blowing in through the open
was hard to find a place to hang a hammock that was not already
taken,” Immanuel said, grimacing at the spoonful of grayish porridge
he was about to eat.
noticed Immanuel’s look of distaste.
“How can one ruin porridge?
This is awful. Not
fit for even the pigs!”
agreed with José’s assessment of breakfast, but he was not about to
say so. “It is food.
And I have been told that it’s a serious offense to throw away
food,” Diego replied.
is does not taste good because it is not made with corn,” Juan
nodded. He saw the
surreptitious glances of several of the English sailors while they
talked and ate. Diego drank
his ale and asked, “Did any of you have any problems with the sailors
of the dogs thought to fight Escobar,” José laughed. “But Escobar’s fist in that one’s face made the
Englishman change his mind quickly.
They did not bother us after that.”
sighed. “Be careful,”
he admonished. “While we
must learn to work with these men, we also cannot allow ourselves to be
overly harassed. We are
walking a fine line.”
grunted and drained the last of his ale.
“Even the drink is only fit for swine.”
chuckled, seeing an irony in what José just said. “You speak truly, José.
While in Spain, I saw pigs that were reserved for the royal
banquet hall being given Barcelona wine to drink.
It was believed to make the flesh sweeter.”
looked askance at him and then smiled.
The other Californianos laughed heartily.
older sailor approached the group.
He pointed to several men and said, “You four, come with me.
You will be mending sails today.”
translated as best he could and then watched as Juan, Roberto, Immanuel
and Escobar followed the sailor. Most
of the other sailors were already stowing their wooden bowls, mugs and
utensils and heading to various parts of the ship; presumably to their
duty stations or assignments for the day.
Several other sailors approached and ordered more of the Californianos
to various duties.
and José were left sitting alone, wondering what their tasks were going
to be. The young Californiano
remembered his trip to and from Spain, but nothing he had done then,
from sneaking up the ratlines one night, to singing with the sailors, to
helping the crewmen fish from the side, even began to prepare him for
what he was experiencing right now.
another sailor approached and they quickly learned. “You are working with me this morning, lubbers,” the
Englishman said with a knowing grin.
Somehow, Diego didn’t think it entailed anything pleasant. The three men began descending steep, narrow stairs to the
deepest part of the ship.
going to spend the morning securing barrels,” the sailor said.
barrels?” Diego asked, not familiar with the term.
the sailor answered, handing Diego and José large wooden mallets and a
bag of wooden wedges.
nimbly along the top layer of barrels, the Englishman bent down and
shoved a wedge underneath one of the barrels.
With his mallet, he pounded the wedge in, securing the barrel and
preventing it from rolling around in the heavy seas. “You understand?”
replied Diego, gazing over the row of barrels, which seemed endless.
row below has already been secured, but this row has to be done before
any more can be brought down. This
has to be done by this afternoon. Barrels
left on deck are dangerous. So
you two can’t shirk. Work
hard and we should be finished by dinner.
Understand?” he asked, looking intently at Diego.
am not sure,” Diego said, trying to puzzle out what the sailor had
said. The man looked sourly
at him, impatient.
going to work. Ye’re not
going to shirk!” he said, loudly.
His nose was only an inch from Diego’s.
you need not shout. I
understand that we will work. I
do not understand all of your words,” Diego said softly, trying to
placate the man. Over the
Englishman’s shoulder, he saw José’s face.
His countryman was scowling, his fists clenched.
To him, Diego said quickly in Spanish, “José, calm
sailor growled, “Speak the King’s English to me.”
was only trying to explain something to José,” Diego explained.
sailor turned, looked at the other man’s still angry countenance and
said a soft, “Oh.”
am sorry that I do not understand all of your words, but please know
that we will work,” Diego said. He
looked directly into the Englishman’s eyes and hoped that the sailor
could see his own sincerity in them.
Then his curiosity got the better of him.
“What does ‘shirk’ mean?”
means . . . it means to try to get out of work, or be lazy.”
understood and felt himself bristle at the accusation, but then realized
the irony of the situation. Here
he was trying to conform and coexist with these Englishmen whereas at
home many of the townspeople felt he was indolent and pampered.
Perhaps, he thought, the English word would have been
‘shirk.’ “We will not
shirk,” he adamantly declared.
he understand?” the sailor asked pointing to José.
translated the gist of the Englishman’s words to his companion.
José gazed into the dimness of the dank hold and cursed softly.
Diego said, “Yes, he understands.”
The smell of the bilge almost had Diego wanting to curse as well,
but instead, he slung the bag over his shoulder, and almost as nimbly as
the Englishman, made his way as far back in the hold as the dim light
allowed to see. The sailor
followed him and hung the lantern in the middle of the far compartment,
but it threw out scant light. Still,
Diego was used to working in the half-light and his eyes soon grew used
to the dimness of the hold. He
watched the Englishman as he pounded another wedge and then began
hammering wedges himself. José
did the same on the other side of the compartment.
As they ran out of wedges, a young sailor brought them more,
exchanging bags whenever they ran out.
first the work went easy; Diego was able to balance on the barrels and
pound the wedges in, and then step onto another barrel and repeat the
process. After awhile,
though, Diego began to feel an ache in his shoulders and back, an
indictment of his unfamiliarity with this kind of physical labor.
He pushed himself, however, knowing that slacking would only make
his servitude harder. He
ignored the burning of his muscles and joints, and kept on securing the
barrels, first in the forward compartments and then in the middle
compartments and then in the aft.
Looking over to his right, he saw José working steadily,
apparently without the side effects that he was feeling, but still Diego
could see fatigue etched in his fellow Californiano’s face.
Diego felt he could not swing the mallet even one more time, the English
sailor suddenly tapped him on the shoulder.
“Hold mate. Take a
moment to get your breath and have a drink,” he said, handing him a
small mug of water.
you,” Diego said, chagrined that he was almost gasping.
He laid the mallet and bag of wedges on the next barrel, and,
taking the proffered water, drained it in a few gulps.
Diego handed it back and wiped the sweat from his face with his
sleeve. José was sitting
quietly on a barrel nearby, drinking his water, watching the two of
your name, lubber?” the sailor asked.
de la Vega,” he answered.
Egbert,” the sailor said, offering his hand.
Diego took it, smiling tiredly at the Englishman.
a hard worker, mate. And I
didn’t hear one bit of grumbling out of you,” Egbert said.
“I was told you were a soft one, but I saw you on the ratlines,
so I didn’t quite believe it.”
thought about the sailor’s words a moment before answering.
“Soft?” Diego finally asked.
“Grumbling?” Then the meanings dawned on him.
“I am ‘soft’. I
have never done work like this. And
to grumble, that is to . . . complain?”
He paused, but with a grin, continued before Egbert was able to
say anything. “It takes
too much . . . work to grumble.”
gazed at him a moment and then chuckled.
“Soon you will be able to work and curse at the same time, and
still have breath to spare. We’ll
make a sailor out o’ ye, yet, lubber.”
laughed with his companion, not totally sure what he had said.
Soon they were back at work and Diego concentrated on his job.
By the time he had reported to Mr. Bowman, just after dinner, he
was almost too tired to read the writing in the ledgers.
By supper, he was definitely too tired to move, and he simply
crawled into his hammock and fell asleep without eating anything.
next day, he was back in the hold, but it was with a club and traps,
helping a different sailor catch and kill rats.
Diego had noticed evidence of the vermin the day before, but now
that they were chasing them, he was appalled at the numbers of the
creatures. Knowing that it
was his and his compadres’ food the rats were eating, he worked
along side the Englishman with a vengeance.
The fetid odor of the bilge and lack of fresh air made him light
headed at first, but as in the day before, Diego worked steadily.
In the two hours they hunted, the two men managed to kill a dozen
rats, and the sailor declared it a banner day.
As the man handed him the bag of dead vermin to toss overboard,
Diego couldn’t help but think of the difference a week had made in his
life. Work before would be
no more strenuous than riding out to check on the new foals or riding
during the night as Zorro.
thought about Zorro and decided that as hard as the dual role sometimes
became, he wished he were out in the hills now, feeling the wind belling
out the cape behind him, feeling the thunder of Tornado’s hooves, and
smelling the headiness of the juniper and pine.
Later that morning he was on his hands and knees, scrubbing the
decks with a large holystone and salt water, and he passed the two hours
pulling up visions of California.
following day was a bit easier, at least at first. He and Immanuel were assigned to repair broken ropes,
knotting the tattered ends of one piece to the tattered ends of the
other, to make them not only usable again, but strong enough to hold
even the cannons to the deck. Diego
had to unknot each strand that was not tied to their instructor’s
liking and re-knot it again.
the time dinner arrived, he was not as fatigued as the two previous
days, but his hands ached. Bowman
grumbled when Diego had trouble copying manifests due to stiff fingers,
but didn’t comment aloud until the following day when Diego dropped
his quill after spending the morning mending damaged sails spread out on
the quarterdeck. Diego had,
of necessity, learned some sewing skills in order to help Bernardo with
his costume, but this duty was well and beyond his meager abilities with
a needle and thread.
rubbed his aching fingers and cramped wrist.
“I am sorry, Mr. Bowman,” he said, smiling sheepishly.
“I am not used to this kind of work.”
glared at the offending pen, then gazed back up at Diego.
“By all that’s holy, they give me someone literate and then
try to cripple him before he can be of use to me,” he fumed as he
slowly got up from his little desk.
“I will be right back.”
massaged his fingers for a few more minutes and then picked up the pen.
Soon Bowman returned, a pot of pungent cream in his hands.
“Try this, Diego,” he said.
his nose at the smell of the unguent, Diego did as he was told.
To his surprise, it seemed to help.
Soon he was able to work on the manifests.
And all during this time, Diego learned English.
came the day when he was taken aloft to learn to furl and loose the
sails. The climb to the
very top of the mainmast, the topgallant yard, was made deliberately and
slowly, much to the derision of some of the sailors, but soon Diego
became proficient in the ratlines and on the yards.
He attributed this to his past clandestine activities on rooftops
and balconies. Within a
short time, Diego was able to keep up with even the most seasoned
the end of a week, the caballero felt the muscles in his arms and
chest strengthen, making the jobs to which he was assigned, seem easier.
He was still called ‘lubber’ but not in derision.
The Californianos still ate together most of the time, but
sometimes they were invited to eat or join in conversation with the
English sailors. Only José
refused the invitations.
short, Diego’s life was falling into a routine, one that was not to
his liking, but one that was bearable with interludes of some pleasure.
Always on his mind, though, were thoughts of home.
evening after supper, when the moon was full, Diego heard the strains of
a guitar coming from the quarterdeck and he looked up from the manifests
he was studying.
noticed his interest. “Diego,
it’s getting late and my eyes are tired.
Go join the others and let me rest.”
the young man was up on the quarterdeck watching a group as they sang
with the guitarist, who alternated between bawdy ditties and romantic
ballads. Diego recognized
none of them, but became caught up in the melodies of the ballads,
finding himself harmonizing softly with the singer.
Suddenly he became aware of the scrutiny of the sailors near him
and he stopped, afraid he had committed some kind of faux pax.
the moon rose over the water, the sailor continued, Diego leaned against
the rail and listened. All
too soon the Englishman stopped and someone handed him a mug of ale,
apparently his reward for the night’s entertainment.
care to sing us a few songs before curfew?” he asked.
longed to take the guitar and sing a few songs of home, but he was still
wary of the feelings of the English sailors toward himself or his
Spaniard, here, has a good voice. Let
him sing us a few shanties,” someone near him cried out.
consternation, Diego realized that he was the Spaniard in question.
Several other voices agreed and Diego acquiesced and was soon
standing next to the Englishman, whom he recognized as the cook’s
mate, Marcus Ables.
you also play?” Ables asked.
nodded. “Yes,” he
answered. “But I only
know one English song.”
then, go ahead and sing it,” the sailor said, thrusting the guitar in
the first time since his early university days, Diego felt
self-conscious. He plucked
the strings and then began playing, his rich baritone singing the words
he had not heard since his trip to Spain when his English shipmate had
taught him the little ditty. Several
men laughed, but others joined in.
It was short and he was soon finished.
de la Vega, a lovely lullaby. Will
you sing something from your own land?” Ables asked, smiling broadly.
Diego began with a vigorous but haunting melody he had learned in Spain,
a ballad of El Cid, the liberator.
His voice rose and fell as the story highlighted battles won and
battles lost. It became
softer at the end as he sang of the death and triumph of the hero of
Spain. When finished,
there was silence and then clapping and soft cheers of the listening
after, curfew was called and the men began drifting to their hammocks.
Diego handed the guitar back to Ables.
“Thank you,” he said, grateful to have been able to enjoy one
pleasure from home, one link to his former life.
I thank you, de la Vega, Diego isn’t it?”
grinned. “Next time,
Diego, I want you to sing more of those songs.
You have a very pleasing voice.”
thank you. I would be happy
to sing some more also. And
I would like to learn some English songs as well.”
a bargain, my friend,” Ables told him, clapping his hand on his
his way to Mr. Bowman’s cabin, Diego became aware of the captain’s
scrutiny, but the man said nothing to him, so he only nodded in
deference and continued. As
he lay in his hammock, another song came to him, one that extolled the
virtues of his homeland. As
the words and the music flowed through his mind, he felt a keenly
burning sense of loss and he knew he would never be able to sing that
one, not until he returned home.