Pacific Odyssey:

Book I

 

 

 

 

Chapter Twelve  

First Days on Ship

 

 

The 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.   

“Time for breakfast,” Bowman told him.  “Make sure you report to me right after dinner.”  

With 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. 

The 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.  

“You were not with us last night,” José grumbled.  “Have they given you a cabin befitting your station?”

Diego 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 portholes.   

“It 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.

José noticed Immanuel’s look of distaste.  “How can one ruin porridge?  This is awful.  Not fit for even the pigs!”  

Diego 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.   

“Perhaps is does not taste good because it is not made with corn,” Juan suggested diplomatically.   

Diego 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 last night?”  

“One 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.”

Diego 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.”

José grunted and drained the last of his ale.  “Even the drink is only fit for swine.”

Diego 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.”  

José looked askance at him and then smiled.  The other Californianos laughed heartily.   

An older sailor approached the group.  He pointed to several men and said, “You four, come with me.  You will be mending sails today.”

Diego 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.   

Diego 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.

Soon 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.   

“We’re going to spend the morning securing barrels,” the sailor said.  

“Securing barrels?” Diego asked, not familiar with the term.

“Aye,” the sailor answered, handing Diego and José large wooden mallets and a bag of wooden wedges.  

Walking 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?”  

“Yes,” replied Diego, gazing over the row of barrels, which seemed endless.   

“The 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.  

“I am not sure,” Diego said, trying to puzzle out what the sailor had said.  The man looked sourly at him, impatient.  

“Ye’re going to work.  Ye’re not going to shirk!” he said, loudly.  His nose was only an inch from Diego’s.   

“Please, 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 yourself.”  

The sailor growled, “Speak the King’s English to me.”  

“I was only trying to explain something to José,” Diego explained.  

The sailor turned, looked at the other man’s still angry countenance and said a soft, “Oh.”  

“I 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?”  

“It means . . . it means to try to get out of work, or be lazy.”  

Diego 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.   

“Does he understand?” the sailor asked pointing to José.  

Diego translated the gist of the Englishman’s words to his companion.  José gazed into the dimness of the dank hold and cursed softly.   

Smiling, 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.   

At 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.   

When 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.   

“Thank 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 them.   

“What’s your name, lubber?” the sailor asked.  

“Diego de la Vega,” he answered. 

“Paul Egbert,” the sailor said, offering his hand.  Diego took it, smiling tiredly at the Englishman. 

“Ye’re 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.”  

Diego 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.”   

Egbert 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.”

Diego 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.  

The 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. 

Diego 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.   

The 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.   

By 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.   

Diego 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.”  

Bowman 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.”  

Diego 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.  

Wrinkling 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.   

Then 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 sailors.   

By 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.   

In 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.  

One 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.   

Bowman noticed his interest.  “Diego, it’s getting late and my eyes are tired.  Go join the others and let me rest.”  

Soon 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.  

As 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.

“Anyone care to sing us a few songs before curfew?” he asked. 

Diego 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 compatriots.  

“The Spaniard, here, has a good voice.  Let him sing us a few shanties,” someone near him cried out.   

In 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.   

“Do you also play?” Ables asked.  

Diego nodded.  “Yes,” he answered.  “But I only know one English song.”  

“Well, then, go ahead and sing it,” the sailor said, thrusting the guitar in his hands.   

For 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.  

“Aye, de la Vega, a lovely lullaby.  Will you sing something from your own land?” Ables asked, smiling broadly.  

Nodding, 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 sailors.   

Soon 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.

“Aye, I thank you, de la Vega, Diego isn’t it?”  

Diego nodded.   

Ables grinned.  “Next time, Diego, I want you to sing more of those songs.  You have a very pleasing voice.”  

“I thank you.  I would be happy to sing some more also.  And I would like to learn some English songs as well.”

“It’s a bargain, my friend,” Ables told him, clapping his hand on his shoulder.   

On 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.

 

 

 

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