Pacific Odyssey:

Book I

 

 

 

Chapter Twenty-three

A Battle Won

 

 

Alejandro tried to get into the pouch and found it sealed with a thick wax.  Turning it over several times, he found in his extreme anxiety that he could not make his fingers work.  He fumbled with hands that were trembling and suddenly weak.   The visitor, seeing his difficulty, gently took the pouch from the old man’s grasp in order to slit the top of it for him.  Bernardo had pulled a chair over to Alejandro and motioned for him to sit down.            

Alejandro gently, almost reverently, pulled out several sheets of paper from the now open pouch and began to read.  The flowing script was his son’s, the words were his son’s and suddenly all of the pent up anxiety, fear and loneliness were released in a great cry of relief.  “Diego is alive!  I told you he was not dead!  I knew he was not dead.  My son is alive!!”  Fiercely, he gripped Bernardo’s arm and leaned his head on the manservant’s shoulder to give him time to gain control of himself.  The other rancheros murmured in wonder at the unexpected news and tried to guess where the only son of Alejandro de la Vega could be. 

The first mate shifted uncomfortably from one foot to the other, a look of compassion on his face.   Captain Fox had told him the story that Diego de la Vega had related to him in the Sandwich Islands, and his heart went out to the old man who had spent many weeks not knowing the fate of his son.

Alejandro finally gathered a measure of self-control, and in order to satisfy the other hacendados’ curiosity, agreed to read a few parts of the letter that were not personal.  He read the sections about his son’s abduction and placement aboard the China Star, and a little about life on board a British merchant ship.  Then he read about the revolutionaries and their agenda, although Diego had cryptically written that part, in case, Alejandro supposed, the letter ended up in somebody else’s hands.  The dons were flabbergasted at the revelation, but now there was an entity to go with the terror these banditos had been inflicting on the area for what seemed a very long time.  A note fell out from among the pages of Diego’s letter and Bernardo picked it up and glanced at it.  It was in a different script than the main letter. 

“The rest is personal, my friends,” Alejandro told the caballeros.  “Please excuse me for a moment.  In order to get this letter to me, Diego had to promise that I would pay this man’s captain upon delivery.  It is worth every peso.”  He motioned to the officer that he would be right back.  When he returned, he had a pouch with the specified amount of pesos and more.  They were gold and therefore easy for the Americano to exchange.  Gracias, Señor Harmon,” Alejandro said.

Harmon nodded.  Vaya con Dios,” he said as he and the lancer took their leave.  Alejandro put the letter back into its pouch and signed for Bernardo to keep it for him momentarily, until he could read it again a little later.  Then he turned back to the visiting landowners.  “My friends.  I suggest that we adjourn this meeting for now.  I have to have time to enjoy my son’s letter and to think about what he has said.  Perhaps we can meet again later tonight, or tomorrow, with Sergeant Garcia in attendance.  This also concerns him.”  

The hacendados agreed, if for no other reason than to give Alejandro more time to absorb these happy tidings.  As they left, the caballeros congratulated Alejandro on his welcome news.

Alejandro sat in the sala with Bernardo and read the parts of the letter that he had not read aloud before. “ ‘You cannot imagine the anguish I felt when I knew you would have no idea what happened to me.  Please, Father, do not let up your activities with the other patróns.  It is more important now than ever.  Tell Bernardo to ride into the hills for me, only be careful.  There are many snakes we cannot see.’ ”  The letter ended with the hope that somehow, he could convince the captain of the vessel to let him come home when they reached Singapore.   There was also a note for him to send word to the family of a dead sailor.  That he would do this very day. 

Alejandro could figure out what Diego hadn’t said.  He assumed that in order for him to be on the merchant ship, he had to have been indentured.  His son was less free than Bernardo was.  Bernardo could leave the employ of the de la Vegas at any time; Diego didn’t have that option.  He knew his son had not wanted to worry him and therefore hadn’t mentioned it.  Most indentures, Alejandro knew, were for at least two to seven years, but he knew how resourceful Diego was, and somehow had the feeling that if anyone could get out of such an indenture, his son could.  Perhaps in the near future he would receive a letter requesting funds to pay off the indenture.  Alejandro would gladly pay it.

Bernardo, from his viewpoint as a servant, knew how terribly hard the change from a patrón to a peon must have been for Don Diego.  The life of a wealthy caballero was all he had ever known.

Alejandro looked at Bernardo with glistening eyes.  “We knew, Bernardo. Despite what everyone said, we knew,” he said in a husky voice. 

Bernardo smiled and nodded, then remembered the little note and handed it to Don Alejandro.  

Looking at it curiously, the old man realized that it had been laboriously produced, as though by one who’s native language was not Spanish.  “ ‘Dear Señor de la Vega,” he began reading.  “ ‘My name is George Bowman.  I am the supercargo of the China Star, and as such am considered your son’s master.  But I want you to know that he is not my servant, he is more like a son to me. I realize what pain this whole episode has caused you, but I want to thank you for blessing the sunset of my life with the association of such a fine young man as Diego.  I will do all in my power to help him return home as soon as possible.’ ”   Alejandro looked at the note in his hand through misty eyes.

 

 

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Two weeks after his last visit to the captain as Zorro, Diego awoke one warm and humid night to hear the sounds of scuffling and moaning.  It was from the poop deck just above him, and although it was softer than the noises of the ship and the ocean, the strange, out-of-place sounds awoke him immediately.  Quickly, he glanced over and saw that Mr. Bowman was still asleep.  Something inside told him to disguise himself, so he pulled out his costume and slipped it on.  Soon he was scrambling up the outer edge of the gallery window and peering onto the upper deck.  Victoria Meachem was struggling with someone.  In the dimness of setting first quarter moon, Zorro could not tell whom the other person was, but he could make a very educated guess.  Cavanaugh!

Immediately, Zorro pulled himself up and leaped over the rail of the deck.  In only a few seconds he was behind the struggling pair and this time he did not hesitate to grab the Englishman, jerking him away from the woman and throwing him to the ground.  Cavanaugh’s eyes grew wide with fear and he pulled a knife from his belt.  His sword was at his side, but Zorro chose not to draw it, feeling it an unfair advantage, since it was obvious that Cavanaugh was drunk. 

“You dishonorable dog, you will regret not taking heed of the warnings the last time you tried to accost this lady,” Zorro growled.  Remotely, he wondered where the other watch was and glanced around.  It would be hard enough to hide what he was doing with Cavanaugh having seen him, but if there were other witnesses, that would be devastating.   But there is nothing to be done about it now, Zorro thought.  The Englishman slashed at him and Zorro jumped back.  Leaping toward Cavanaugh, who was staggering from the missed attempt to gut him, Zorro hit the mate with his fist and then hit him again.  Cavanaugh staggered even more, but did not fall.  Zorro wondered at the mate’s ability to still be standing.  The masked man parried each erratic blow with almost nonchalant ease, further enraging his opponent.  

“I will spit you and then you’ll be hung from the top main gallant yard, whoever you are,” Cavanaugh spat out, slashing again.   

Zorro laughed.  “You could not spit the pig in its pen, even if it was held down.”  Reaching in underneath his flailing arm, the black clad avenger knocked the knife away from Cavanaugh.  With an oath, the first mate leaped at him and bore Zorro to the deck.  They grappled, occasionally throwing punches, but finally the Californiano was able to draw one leg underneath his opponent and kick him away.  Immediately, Zorro jumped up and leapt for the first mate, who was groping for his fallen knife.  Again they grappled, this time Zorro held tightly to the man’s arms, keeping Cavanaugh’s fists from connecting with his body.   

Then the Englishman broke away and, turning, ran blindly across the darkened deck.  Zorro rushed after him, knowing the railing loomed ahead, but he was not fast enough.  Cavanaugh looked back to see where he was and ran into the railing, plunging over the side and into the black waters below.  Zorro was instantly at the rail, but could see no evidence of the first mate.  

“No!  Oh, no!” Victoria breathed, leaning over the rail at Zorro’s side.   

“He is gone and there is nothing that can be done to help him now,” he said.  Then a soft moaning nearby made them both jump.  In the shadows near the aft, or rear of the poop deck lay a figure, slowly stirring.  “The other watch.  I was wondering where he could be….”  

“By George, that was a tankard from Hell,” the figure muttered, slowly sitting up, and rubbing his head.   Zorro surmised that Cavanaugh and the other watch had been drinking on duty and that the first mate had knocked out his companion when he saw Victoria come on deck.  

Zorro realized there was no time to rush to the port side of the ship before being seen, and he wasn’t sure that it would be a good idea to let Victoria have to explain what happened to Cavanaugh.  “Get on my back and put your arms around my neck,” he whispered.  “Quickly, and don’t ask questions.”   

She did and Zorro climbed over the railing.   With fingers used to the exercise, he speedily made his way down to the ledge of Victoria’s cabin.  Thankfully the window was open and they were soon inside, where she slid from his back and straightened her clothing.   Victoria then walked quickly to the small bed where her daughter was still sound asleep, totally oblivious to all that was happening around her.  

With a sigh of deepest relief, she sat down on a chair and faced him.  “Sir, I don’t know if you realize this or not, but you saved me from a most compromising situation.  As I usually do, I woke and took a walk on the deck.  I was wondering why there was no one else around when Mr. Cavanaugh came up behind me.  It was apparent right away that he had been drinking, but I kept thinking that the other watch would put a stop to his boorish actions.  However, it seems that the other watch was drunk, too.”  She stopped and peered at him a bit more closely.  It was virtually impossible to see her dark clad knight.  During their flight from the poop deck, she had felt the solid strength of his muscles underneath the dark silk fabric of his clothing.  Victoria had felt no fear as they hung over the dark and deadly waves.  Indeed, she had felt a certain exhilaration.  There was no light in her room other than tiny dancing glimmers reflected from the ocean against the glass of the gallery window.  “Who are you?”   

“I am called by many names,” Zorro said noncommittally.  Then he smiled.  “But friend is sufficient.”   It felt good to have been able to help someone else.  In so doing, Zorro felt he had taken a step in helping himself, even while still confined on board the ship.

“No, not for what you have done for me,” she said.  “Where did you come from?”  

Zorro laughed softly.  “Mrs.Meachem, that is hardly a fair question.  On a ship this size, there are few secrets and I would prefer to keep mine.  In return, I will not ask you why you went up to the poop deck this time of night for a stroll.  You left yourself very vulnerable.”   

“It is close to my cabin, in case Martha Ann awakens, I like the feel of the wind rushing in my face from there, and the smell from the livestock below is not quite so bad as it is on the quarterdeck.  And I could not sleep,” she explained, then she, too, laughed.  “Then you will not tell me your name?   It is only ‘a friend’ who has saved not only my honor, but also my reputation and, possibly my life?” she asked.

Zorro shrugged.  “Yes.  Now my immediate problem is to leave your room before the captain is awakened.  I will have to go now.  You stay here.  Please, do not follow me.”

“As much as I want to ask you more and take the time to properly thank you, I will honor your request,” she said, her voice filled with deepest gratitude.  “Thank you, my friend.”

“You are very welcome,” he whispered as he opened her cabin door and slipped out.  Zorro hoped that the watch would be too embarrassed by his own state of drunkenness to immediately report Mr. Cavanaugh’s disappearance.   Slowly he crept along the narrow corridor and to the doorway that led to the quarterdeck.  Glancing around, he saw no one and quietly stepped down the stairs to the great cabins below.  There he heard the sonorous snores of most of the ship’s officers.  He made it to Mr. Bowman’s cabin and slipped inside without incident, where he quickly removed the costume, stored it and slid into his hammock.  Diego had almost fallen asleep when a cry of “Man Overboard” rang throughout the ship.   

Feigning fatigue, Diego went out to the quarterdeck with the other officers and sailors to find out what happened.  Mr. Cavanaugh’s disappearance was declared an accident at sea, his name besmirched by the fact that he had been drinking on watch, thus contributing to his own demise.  Hardly anyone seriously mourned his passing, even though the captain had a short memorial service after breakfast the next day.

 

 

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Diego was looking forward to the ship’s arrival at Singapore.  The captain had said nothing to the Californianos, but then the captain never said more to them than was absolutely necessary.  Diego just had to be patient.  He had spent some of his free time in the evenings playing a guitar loaned to him by Tom Markley, assistant purser.   Sometimes he would play English songs that he had learned during the voyage, but at times Diego would play songs from his homeland.  Occasionally a few of the Californianos would join in, but most of the time they would simply listen.   While they made him feel a bit melancholy, Diego found the ditties helped him focus on what would be waiting for him when he returned home.  He longed to tell the others of their good fortune, but he felt that they would know soon enough.  

A few days before their scheduled arrival into Singapore, the China Star was met by another cargo ship early one evening, one that, although built on the same order as an East Indiamen, was smaller, and constructed mainly of bamboo.  It had only two sails, but seemed very efficient for its size.  After displaying flags that were a code of some sort, the smaller ship was allowed to come close enough for the two vessel’s captains to shout to each other.   

“Do you have cargo for China?” Beatty shouted.   

“Yes, we have cargo.  You have pay?” the captain of the smaller vessel cried out.  Diego noted that he was obviously Asian, but what nationality, he was not able to determine in the evening dimness.  Beatty had several sailors load chests onto rowboat and then he and Mr. Bowman and Mr. Sharpe rowed over to the other ship where they negotiated for some time before coming back.  The China Star’s chests were gone, replaced by other chests, these a bit larger.  Another boat followed, it too, loaded with chests.   

Upon the captain’s return, orders were barked out.  Bowman and Diego supervised the loading of the chests into the former first mate’s cabin and then Beatty himself put a large padlock on the door, locking it with a loud click that seemed to warn anyone with any kind of curiosity to stay away.   

Their boat was stored back on its perch on top of the spare spars, or masts, and the China Star was ordered north, back on course to Singapore.  When Diego asked about the new cargo later, in the privacy of their own cabin, Bowman simply answered, “Opium, Diego.  Those twenty chests contain opium.”

 

 

 

Chapter Twenty-four
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