Pacific Odyssey:

Book I





Chapter Twenty-six

Man Overboard



Capt. Beatty was uneasy.  The avenger hadn’t visited him for well over a week, exactly as the dark figure had promised, but the vengeance had not yet been meted out either, or so he thought.   Since the last visit, the Englishman had been desperately trying to figure out to what the dark-cloaked angel, or demon had been referring.  What could possibly hurt him more than a quick death?  He pondered that question carefully as he had every day since that last visit.  This time the only thing he could think of that might be worse than death would be poverty. 

For some years he had been taking the excess profits of his voyages and hiding them in a chest.  My work, my sweat has given me what is in this chest.  And now the opium will finish filling that chest.   Years I have given to the company, now it is giving something back to me.  No one will be able to take this away from me.  No one! he thought.  As a child, he had been poor and had vowed that he would never be poor when he was an adult.  The fruits of his own enterprise from the last fifteen years would be enough to keep him living very well in England.  This last transaction with the opium would give him enough to live like a duke. 

Then that spawn of his nightmares began tormenting him.  The Spaniards had cursed him; that was the only explanation.  Only in his dreams had he seen avenging angels and demons before.

Beatty was still puzzled, and lay quietly in his bed pondering, when he suddenly thought of the only thing that might bring him poverty at this time, and that was a loss of cargo.   Bolting upright in his bed, he almost screamed in fury.  That was what that Hell-spawned demon was talking about.  And it had been twelve days since his last visit, well over half of the way toward Canton.  Plenty of time to destroy a cargo, a cargo more precious than gold.          

Beatty pulled out the key from around his neck and examined it.  I have the key.  How could the avenger get into the cabin?  But then how could he get into my cabin and torment me?  Throwing on his trousers almost as he jumped out of bed, he also grabbed his shirt as he rushed to the door.  Then he raced out of his cabin and down the stairs to the cabin where the opium was stored.  Everything seemed to be as it should be, but that didn’t mean that it was.  Anxiously, the captain called to the sailor on watch, and then to the helmsman, and with them backing him up, Beatty unlocked the door to the cabin.  Sending the sailor in to check on damage, Beatty waited anxiously.  “Do you see anyone?”

“No, Captain, but it’s completely dark in here.  Like the very depths of Hell.”  

“Check the chests and see if the opium is still there,” he called out.  The sailor began to examine the chests and then saw the open gun port.  Rushing toward it, he saw what appeared to be a huge black bat gliding in through Mr. Bowman’s gallery window.

Zorro had almost finished emptying the last of the chests when he heard noises outside the cabin door.  Rushing to the gun port, he squeezed through the small opening just as the door opened.  The ship was bucking in the heavy seas and it was difficult to keep his balance, but he made it to his cabin and was slipping in just as someone’s head popped out of the small portal. 

“In Mr. Bowman’s cabin.  It went into Mr. Bowman’s cabin,” the sailor called out. 

Cursing softly under his breath, all Zorro could think of was to get his sword and to keep Mr. Bowman from coming under suspicion.  There was no time to change out of the costume and pretend that the avenger had come and gone.  The saber was buckled on in an instant, but even in that instant he heard steps coming toward the cabin.  Zorro rushed toward the window. 

“What . . .  what is going on?” Bowman asked groggily.    

“Just stay put and pretend that I broke into your room,” Zorro said tersely, a mirthless grin on his face.   Going back out of the window, Zorro climbed up to the captain’s cabin.  No alarm!  Perhaps now he could change, claim to have chased the avenger and let everything die down.  

As he reached to remove the cape, the door flew open and Beatty rushed into the room.  Even in the dimness of the room, the captain saw him immediately and drew his sword from its scabbard on the wall.  “You damned fiend!  Now I’ll kill you!  I will spit you and then throw you overboard!”  

Beatty lunged.  Zorro easily parried the blow.   The captain’s companions followed the sound of his voice and soon stood looking through the cabin doorway in shock. 

“The devil himself!” the sailor cried, pointing.  The helmsman drew in his breath in a hiss of surprise.  Beatty cursed again.  “I’ll kill you for ruining my cargo, you fiend from the depths of hell,” he threatened.  “You will pay dearly.”  Zorro just laughed.  There was no need for words; everything had been said and done.  All for forty chests of opium, he thought.  But he still had hope.  With only three witnesses, he might still be able to get away and change.  Maybe…. 

The helmsman tried to sneak behind Zorro with a belaying pin, but the outlaw pivoted around with a speed that astonished the British seamen, and slashed his opponent’s hand causing him to drop his weapon.  

Beatty screamed, “This one is mine.  I will split him open like a fish.”  The helmsman backed away into the corridor. 

Zorro had to concede that Captain Beatty was pretty good with a blade, but he tended to be as erratic in his swordplay as he was in his personality.   He advanced several times on the outlaw, but Zorro always was able to very easily defend against him.  This enraged the captain.  At one point when they were close together with swords locked, Beatty asked, “What is your name, you fiend?”          

“If you had been in California long enough, you might have heard of me.  I am Zorro,” he answered softly so that the captain was the only one who heard his answer.  “And you might have heard that I work for justice.   It is justice that I take away your precious cargo, after you took away the freedom of twelve men and cruelly caused the death of one of them.  It is also justice that I destroy that which destroys men.”  Zorro pushed the captain away from him and continued to advance on Beatty.  The captain kept screaming that no one was to touch the outlaw until he had dispatched him.  Morbidly, Zorro thought that was the only thing keeping him alive right now.   He now saw the glint of a pistol in the helmsman’s hand and heard the sound of footsteps in the corridor beyond.           

With the darkness of the night, he had to keep a very close eye on the captain to be able to anticipate his erratic movements.  In his anger he was dangerous.  Beatty lunged and Zorro slashed a large hole on the right breast of his shirt.  This infuriated the Englishman who came after him again.  Zorro slashed a hole on the other side of the shirt.  If he was going to get away and get out of the costume, he would have to end this conflict now.  When Beatty saw the masked man glance away, the captain lunged at the avenger and died with the Zorro’s blade between his ribs.  

Zorro immediately dashed toward the window, shoving his blade into its scabbard as he did.  His grip was sure and soon he was on the poop deck.  If he could get to a cabin on the starboard side, perhaps there would be hope.  But hope was quickly dashed.  Men were pouring onto the quarterdeck, shouting and pointing in the distant lightning flashes of the rapidly approaching storm. 

The Californianos were flabbergasted.  “It is El Zorro,” Roberto said in an awed whisper.  Bowman came out of his cabin and paled when he saw Zorro on the poop deck with nowhere to go.  “Diego,” he whispered inaudibly.    In his fear, he experienced a clutch of pain in his chest.  He felt Victoria Meachem’s presence at his side and glanced at her.  Her face was filled with fear as well. 

“Roberto,” he called out to the Californiano.  The man came over to him, reluctantly, as though he could not tear his eyes away from the legendary outlaw.  “We need to be ready to help Zorro and we need to do it soon.  I’m afraid the odds are greatly against him.”            

Even as great a swordsman as the stories made him out to be, Roberto had to agree that this fight was overwhelming even for El Zorro.  And there was no great black horse to ride off on, either.  “What do you want me to do, Mr. Bowman?”  The supercargo pointed toward the fore end of the quarterdeck and the two men rushed forward.  Victoria was right behind them.   Soon they were unlashing the smaller of two boats that was tied atop the extra spars.  It was heavy and Roberto called to Immanuel and Escobar to help.  

Zorro made a leaping run and caught the aft ratlines, scrambling quickly to the first yard of the mizzenmast.  Then he swung to the mainsail yard on a loose rope.  He perched himself near the mainmast and addressed the crew.  “In his cabin lies a man who was so consumed with greed that he forgot the rights of others.  Whoever becomes your captain next, will hopefully remember that there is a moral justice before anything else is considered.”  Why am I doing this?  There is no escape this time, no honorable end.  Only death.  Why don’t I just give up and at least someone will send word home to Father, Zorro thought.   But he could not bring himself to do such a thing.  There was life and he would fight as long as there was life.  That was the honorable thing to do.          

Stephen Hackley roared up at him, trying to make himself heard above the wind, which was beginning to howl violently through the lines and in the sails.   There was distant thunder in the sky.  “You scum, I am the next captain, and we will either pluck you off the yard or shoot you down from it!  And then we will find out just who you really are!” the quartermaster stormed. 

He sent a couple of sailors to get pistols.  Then he sent several others up the ratlines to get Zorro.  They were very careful as they climbed; not only had the winds picked up considerably, and the ship was beginning to wallow heavily, but the sailors also had a very healthy respect for what the outlaw’s sword could do.  Word had circulated quickly that the captain was dead and the helmsman wounded.            

Zorro climbed up to the next yard.  By now the sails were bellied out dangerously, caught in the wind that had to have climbed twenty knots in just the past few minutes.   He drew a knife from his sash.   He felt the wind jerking his cape capriciously, and he had to hang on to the ropes tightly to keep his balance.  The lightning was getting quite close and as it flashed near the ship, the men gasped in astonishment.  Zorro had the appearance of a great bird of prey, with his cape flowing behind him.   As the braver men approached him, he gave them warning.  “Gentlemen, if you attack me, I will have to defend myself.  My fight is not with you; it was with the captain.  I have no desire to kill you, but I am not going to let you lay your hands on me.”   The men hesitated a moment, but at the screaming orders of the new captain, one began climbing again.   As he approached, Zorro had no choice but to kick him away and the man fell screaming to the deck.  The others decided it was safer to go back down the ratlines and let the pistol balls do their work for them.

Then, above the noise of the approaching storm and the crowd below he heard a voice, a voice that sounded familiar to him.  He looked down and barely saw Mr. Bowman and several of his countrymen in the darkness.  Victoria Meachem was with them.  They had one of the small boats, and were getting ready to tip it over the rail.  Bowman was shouting at him in Spanish.  

“Jump, Zorro, you have to jump overboard!”  By now there were several sailors coming from the captain’s quarters with pistols.  One fired his weapon and the ball crashed into the mast just above Zorro’s head, another shot zinged just below his feet. 

Roberto was now screaming with Bowman.  “You have to jump, Señor Zorro!  Then find what is in the water.  Jump, Señor Zorro, you have no choice but to jump!!”  Another ball whizzed by his ear.  Roberto pushed the object over the rail.  Zorro realized that Roberto was right; he didn’t have any choice at all.  

But when he looked at the roiling waters barely visible below him, he wondered if that was a choice.  Then he saw several sailors with pistols, all of them aimed at him, he realized that a miniscule chance was better than the non-existent chance he had if he stayed on board.  Even in the encroaching storm and heaving seas, he ran nimbly across the yard to the yardarm, and amidst the ear-numbing, crashing thunder and eye-searing lightning, leaped into the churning waves. 

As he hit the black waters feet first and felt the cold ocean envelope him, Zorro wondered how he was going to find the boat in the dark.  Thrashing clumsily in the violent waves, he tried to make his way to where he thought an object thrown from the side of the ship might be.  In the rough water, Zorro was tiring very quickly, and he wasn’t an expert swimmer to begin with.  The cape was waterlogged and beginning to drag him down, but he couldn’t use his hands to untie it.  It became a battle just to keep his head above water. 

Suddenly something banged against his chest, causing him to cry out in pain.  It felt like the smaller of the two boats that were kept secure on the quarterdeck.  It was upside down, but he could not turn it over; the seas were too rough.  Zorro knew that he could not cling to the outside hull for long.  There must be some way he could use this boat.  Rope!  Had to be rope inside.  Taking a quick breath, the avenger ducked under and into the relative calm and protection of the small craft.  Dangling from one of the seats above him, Zorro saw a heavy rope.  He grabbed onto it and found one end to be securely fastened to the bottom, now ceiling of the boat.    

Using one hand, he took off the mask and bandanna and stuffed them inside his shirt.  The weight of the cape continued to pull at him, trying to drag him under the hungry waves.   Diego jerked at the water-tightened cords until the cape finally came off, then he felt for a place to stow it.  He paused.  Why? he thought.  Is there a purpose?  It might come in handy to wrap around him when the storm passed.  Diego quickly stuffed it into the small gunwale at the bow, formed by the bow seat.  

The waves became giant fingers, grabbing at him, trying to pull him into their dark home. His hands slipped on the seat and he almost lost his grip.  A huge swell crashed against the aft of the boat and slammed it sideways, throwing him against one side.  Fear welled in his chest and he scrambled for a better grip on the slippery wood.  The waves were relentless and he felt himself being jerked and pulled, battered and pummeled.  The ocean became a giant rack, a device of cruelest torture.   His fear became panic.  Santa Maria! he prayed.   The surging ocean continued beating against him and the roaring thunder reached his ears even through his upside-down refuge.  Despite his best efforts, he swallowed some seawater.  Finally, he realized that he had to confront the fear and shove it aside.  Calmar tú mismo, he told himself taking a deep breath during a minute lull in the crashing waves.  Calm yourself.  His fingers curled around the edge of the wooden seat and he gripped it tightly, feeling the anger of the next wave as it was thwarted in its purpose to carry him away from his place of comparative safety. 

As the boat swept downward into a trough between the swells, Diego pulled his upper body between the seat and the bottom of the boat and drew the end of the rope around his chest.   He tied it to the seat, making it as snug as he could with the continuous beating of the waves against the tiny craft.   Finally, he could relax a little, although his grip on the seat remained almost rock-hard.  Most of the time his head remained out of the water and protected inside the overturned boat, but at times he was tossed first on top of the gigantic waves and then slammed into the troughs below them.            

And the storm seemed to be intensifying.  The roaring sound of thunder assaulted his ears and competed with the crashing of the waves.  The booming, crashing, and pummeling were incessant.  In the stygian darkness of the stormy night Diego lost all sense of direction, all sense of time.  His body was being crushed by the clashing rocks of Symplagades; left behind by Argonauts who taunted his ineffectualness and helplessness.  Diego felt beaten in a gauntlet conjured up by Satan himself. 

At first his legs felt broken, they were so painful, then they became numb.  As hard as he tried to avoid it, and despite the protection of the boat, Diego swallowed seawater as the waves found their way into his little refuge and splashed him in the face.   Occasionally his stomach rebelled and he brought it back up, but at the height of the storm it seemed to him that for every breath that he took, he swallowed a gallon of brine.  At times he was slammed against the top . . . the bottom?. . . of the boat and his head throbbed in cadence with the beating of his heart.

After what seemed to him to be an eternity of hell-inspired torment, he felt the storm calm gradually, but by this time total exhaustion had set in.  Occasionally when a swell hit the little vessel, he swallowed more seawater, but by now he was powerless to prevent it from happening.  It doesn’t hurt, Diego thought distantly.  It doesn’t hurt to die this way….   Before the next wave rolled under the gunwales, he managed to cough up some water.           

Diego’s biggest regret was that he had to leave George Bowman so suddenly, especially when his mentor had been ill.  He had heard, even above the raging of the storm, the anguish in Bowman’s voice when the older man had ordered him to leap into the ocean.  Diego deeply regretted that.  At least, he thought gratefully, George Bowman would make sure his father got word of his death….


End of Book One.




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