The Golden Conquest – Part 6

            The Gabriella surged through the waves of an open sea before a following wind. The captain had ordered every inch of canvas to be hoisted aloft and even had the spritsail raised into place on the bowsprit. Henrico stood easily on the forecastle, his body swaying gently to the pitch and roll of the ship. On his lips he could taste the salt spray that had been thrown into the air by the ship’s bow crashing through the breakers. He glanced back to the stern of the ship where Quintero stood beside the helmsman. The captain had clearly stated his intent to make up as much time as possible while this favorable weather would hold. Who could say how long that would be?  Till then, he would coax every bit of speed out of the ship. The young turned his gaze forward. The sun was warm on his face and he tilted his head upwards to catch its rays. He closed his eyes and smiled.

            “You are enjoying the voyage, Brother Henrico?”  The question broke his reverie and he looked about to see Senor d’Amarco approaching. The courtier carefully climbed the stairs to the forecastle, holding tightly to the rail to maintain his balance. The ship twisted on its keel suddenly and d’Amarco stumbled against the foremast. He took a quick breath and swallowed hard. Glancing at the Benedictine he asked, “How is it you are unaffected by this wallowing tub?  Are you an experienced sailor?”

            “Actually no, Senor. I have never been on a ship this size before. I believe that I have received a great blessing from Our Lord. I felt a bit ill for the first day but since then I have been fine. I really don’t know why.”

            “Well, you look more like a sailor now anyway,” d’Amarco chuckled, taking in the novice’s garb. Henrico was simply dressed in a thigh length black tunic and faded tan trousers. His long Benedictine’s cassock had been packed away to await the end of their voyage and he was enjoying being free of its heat and weight.

            “Father Garcilosa felt this would be more practical onboard ship than my monk’s habit,” he said. He stared down at his feet, reluctant to risk any rebuff at the change in his appearance.

            “A wise man is Father de la Vega,” the courtier said with a smile, “I see that he has adopted a similar style for himself.”  The priest had indeed replaced his clerical robes with simpler garb though his ecclesiastic calling remained apparent. The two young men watched from the forecastle as Father Garcilosa moved easily amongst the sailors on the main deck. Henrico observed how the crew treated him, respectful but without fear. They accepted him as one of their own.

            “Yes, he is indeed wise,” d’Amarco continued, “What has he told you about the lands to the west?  Has he spoken of Espanola?”

            “Oh yes, it sounds like a wonderful place, full of riches and wonders. Would you like to know what he said?”

            Across the ship, Father Garcilosa looked up at the two figures on the foredeck. The younger was speaking in an explosion of youthful vigor. The other responded with a friendly laugh and a clap on the shoulder. The priest was not completely certain about what to make of this young aristocrat, but he was glad to see Henrico with a companion closer to his own age. Father Garcilosa knew enough of the young Benedictine’s history to suspect that he had had few friendships. He hoped that the novice monk and the young nobleman would develop such a relationship. He smiled and turned to see Quintero stepping down from the aft castle.

             “Good day. Captain. The ship is fairly flying today.”

“Yes, she’s doing well. We’ve shifted the ballast and should be able to squeeze another knot or two out her.”  He paused and the two men observed the crew for a moment. “I hope that this wind holds. I plan to milk it for all that I can. You there, tighten that rope. And replace that block. It’s starting to crack.”  Quintero moved away, once more occupied with the thousand details required to maintain a ship at sea. Father Garcilosa watched his old friend go back to his duties and with a grin returned to his own.

“So, does the Father think the rumors are true?” d’Amarco was saying, “Is the New World really as overflowing with gold as they say?”

“I’m not sure about that, but he does think there are wealthy and powerful lands and peoples west of the islands. The natives of Espanola and the other isles spoke of them and had even traded with them.”

“Governor Velazquez certainly thinks that such is the case. His reports to the court of King Charles make it sound as if the shores of the western lands are lined with sand that is pure gold; that the rivers run with silver, and the trees bear diamonds for fruit.”

  Henrico laughed into the wind as the image d’Amarco described flashed through his mind. “That sounds a bit imaginative to me,” he said, “Father Garcilosa never mentioned anything that wild.”  The two young men laughed together and watched the waves being cast up from the prow of the ship.

  At the stern of the ship a black clad figure emerged from one of the rear cabins. Brother Sebastian stood clutching the door frame weakly. His eyes were glazed, and his usual pale complexion was tinted with green. The ship gave another slow roll and the Dominican rushed to the railing and began to retch violently. He almost fell to the deck, but strong hands suddenly lifted him up. The second mate had appeared and began to half carry the monk back toward his cabin.

“Thank you, my son,” the Inquisitor groaned, “God will reward your kindness.”

“I certainly hope He will, Brother,” Montoya said, “Perhaps we should talk about just how He might do that.”  The two men moved into the gloom and darkness of the ship’s cabin.

Henrico lay in the darkness of their tiny cabin, grateful once more that they had been granted the luxury of cots, no matter how small, instead of the hammocks the crew used. He could hear the wind humming in the ship’s rigging and imagined them silver in the moonlight. Captain Quintero had continued to press forward with all haste, spreading as much canvas as the ship could carry through day and night. The young novice wondered how the helmsman could keep his heading by starlight alone while the night watch scrambled over and above the deck, keeping the lines taut and the sails trimmed even as their comrades slept.

The squall hit suddenly and without warning. The force of the storm heeled the ship over sharply and sent Henrico rolling off the narrow cot. Desperate shouts for all hands could be heard from above as the novice staggered from his cabin. Captain Quintero was already on deck barking orders to send the crew aloft to haul in the sails. The young Benedictine steadied himself at the door of the cabin to observe the frantic actions of the crew. Father Garcilosa was soon beside him. They were both soaked by the slashing rain and drenched by waves breaking over the railing but could not bring themselves to retreat into the cabin.

With a crack like a musket shot, a line gave way amidships. More ropes separated and a heavy spar broke free from the mast to smash downward. A muffled scream reached the ears of the two clerics. Sliding on the slick decking, they scrambled out into the storm. Tangled rigging hung from the mainmast and hampered their progress. The broken remnants of the heavy oaken beam had struck Old Pedro, tearing into his thigh and twisting his lower leg at an angle. The old sailor was helpless as the raging storm tilted the deck sharply to send him spinning towards the railing. A great wave swept over them sending the spar crashing through the sideboard and threatening to carry the wounded seaman after it into the dark and angry sea.

Henrico lunged forward and grasped Pedro by the arm. His foot slipped on the slick decking and he started to fall when he felt Father Garcilosa grab hold of his belt. Together they struggled to pull the old sailor to safety. He cried out in pain as they yanked him away from the broken railing. Another wave struck from starboard and righted the ship suddenly, allowing the two clerics to move the injured man back toward the security of the stern cabins. Captain Quintero and another seaman appeared by their side.

“I saw what happened,” the captain shouted over the din of the storm, “And I thank you. Move him inside now. Hold him steady.”  The rain continued to drench them and the lightning crashed overhead as the sailor helped the priest and the novice carry Old Pedro inside. Quintero gave a fierce grin and shouted after them, “I’ve got to get back to the helm. This little blow may keep us busy for a time.”

Henrico pushed the door shut against the storm and stood dripping in the dimly lit cabin. He looked at his comrades in bewilderment and stammered, “A little blow?  He calls this gale a little blow?”

“Ah, lad,” the sailor smiled as they laid Old Pedro on the cot, “We’ve been through a lot worse than this. It’s naught but a squall and should blow itself out in a few hours.”  He headed for the door but turned back to say, “Twas brave of you, lad. I thank you for helping my shipmate.”  He gave a quick bow and darted back into the storm.

“Come, Henrico,” Father Garcilosa said, “We must do something for this poor fellow’s leg.”  The priest pulled a knife from a fold in his robe and slit the old sailor’s trouser leg to expose his wounds while Henrico steadied him against the continued pitch and roll of the ship. A deep gash crossed Old Pedro’s outer thigh while below his knee the calf was swollen and deformed. Father Garcilosa gently felt along the limb, taking care to avoid further injury. Even so the seaman groaned in pain and chewed on a knuckle.

“Is it bad?” Henrico asked anxiously.

“It’s a clean break,” the older cleric replied, “But we need to set it. Hand me the leather satchel from my bag. Yes, that’s the one.”  Father Garcilosa opened the case and removed a small pouch of a yellowy powder. Glancing up at the novice he continued, “Now pass me that wineskin and the pewter goblet.”  He carefully sprinkled a measure of the powder into the cup and added the wine. Carefully supporting the elderly sailor’s head, he tipped the mixture into his mouth. The injured man grimaced at the bitter liquid and sank back on the cot. Within moments the pain on his face began to ease.

The priest next reached into his satchel and pulled forth a thick piece of dark leather. As he placed it in the seaman’s mouth Henrico saw that it was scarred with teeth marks from prior use. He glanced in wonderment at the cleric. Soldier, priest, what other professions had he held?  A quick word from Father Garcilosa brought him back to the present and the novice moved to follow the priest’s directions.

Henrico knelt beside the cot and wrapped his arms tightly around Old Pedro’s thigh. Father Garcilosa gripped the injured man’s lower leg firmly and began to slowly pull on the limb. He steadily increased the force of his exertion, working to overcome the spasm of the bruised and torn muscles. Pedro groaned in pain and bit down harder on the strip of leather. Sweat began to trickle down the priest’s face as he redoubled his effort. The old sailor gave a sudden cry of anguish and the broken bones slipped back into place.

Father Garcilosa laid the damaged limb on the cot and sank back on his heels. He sighed heavily and wiping his brow with his sleeve, watched as the elderly seaman closed his eyes and began to breathe more quietly. Soon he would sleep, overcome by exhaustion and the potent drugged wine. Henrico stood slowly and rubbed the circulation back into his arms. Father Garcilosa smiled up at him, “Now my son, while you find us some wooden slats and strips of cloth for a splint, I will dress his other wounds.”

At that moment the door of the cabin flew open and the drenched figure of Captain Quintero strode in. He surveyed the scene and nodded, “Very good, my friends. I thank you again for your help and concern.”  Through the open doorway Henrico noted that while the rain still came down the wind had died significantly and the ship’s roll had become steadier and more even. He moved to close the door as the sea captain pulled off his soaking hat and cloak.

“The storm is passing,” Quintero continued, “It was only a squall, brief but still nasty.”

“How is the ship, Captain?” Father Garcilosa asked, looking up from his task.

“She’s taken some damage, I’m afraid. The mainmast lost a spar but we have spares. No, the worst is below. This blow has sprung her seams and we’re taking on water. Oh, don’t worry; it’s not so much that the pumps won’t handle it. The worst news is that the rudder was also damaged.”  The Captain frowned and shook his head, “I’m afraid my little Gabriella will need some repairs. We’ll have to head for the Azores.”

“I’m sorry, my friend,” the priest said. “Will it delay us much further?”

“It will. We’ll have to cut across the prevailing winds to get there and then claw our way back. So far, this voyage has been nothing but trouble. Any more problems and it may start to eat into my profits.”

 “If I know anything at all, my captain,” Father Garcilosa laughed, “It is that you will always know how to make a profit.”

The battered ship tacked its way slowly toward the archipelago of the Azores. The most obvious damage was repaired within days. The broken railing was replaced and painted to match the rest of the vessel. An extra spar was brought out of the hold and hoisted aloft while the torn rigging was knit back into shape. Even Old Pedro was put back to work. With his splinted leg propped up on a coil of rope, the sailor toiled with a heavy needle to patch the torn sails. The hardest labor however took place below decks.

Deep in the bowels of the ship the pumps were manned round the clock. Teams of four men each sweated in the damp darkness to pull the seeping seawater out of the bilge. Their efforts ensured that the water level never rose above their mid-calves but they could not gain on the steady influx. Even Henrico took a turn at the pump’s handles, working until his hands were blistered and his muscles ached. He was the only one of the passengers who did so. Captain Quintero had refused to allow Father Garcilosa to take part while Brother Sebastian was even more seasick after the storm than he had been before. Ponce d’Amarco had simply laughed at the suggestion.

The young novice trudged wearily back onto deck after completing yet another shift in the bilge. His tunic was stained with sweat and his trousers soaked with foul salty water. He blinked in the bright sunlight and wiped his brow with his sleeve. Stepping to the rail he stared down into the water churning swiftly down the side of the ship. So much had changed for him over the past few months. His face and arms had been burnt to a deep tan and the muscles in his back and shoulders, though sore and stiff, had been hardened by the steady work. He also realized that his old cassock would no longer reach his ankles but would leave a few inches of calf exposed.

The internal growth however had been even greater. Henrico felt a change in his attitude. He was more confident and more self-assured, but he still was not at peace. His talks with Father Garcilosa and his study of the scriptures had brought greater clarity on the nature of God to him, but he still had more questions than answers. There was so much about God and His creation that he still did not understand, and he still struggled to comprehend the depth of and more especially, the reason for God’s love. He sighed wearily and dropped his chin to his chest.

A sharp, sudden blow across his back snapped him from his thoughts and brought his head up with a jerk. A harsh voice snarled behind him, “Get back to work, you lazy cur.” Henrico turned to find himself face to face with the second mate. Montoya smirked at the novice and stood fingering a short length of rope.

“Oh, it’s you,” he sneered, “I didn’t recognize you. You don’t look much like a monk dressed like that and you certainly don’t smell like one.”  The young man stared back into the bully’s eyes. His breath came in short gasps as he felt his face flush red.

“What?  Are you going to cry?  Do you want me to call your priest to take care of you?”  Montoya spread his hands as if inviting the novice to strike him. Suddenly one of the sailors stepped forward as if to intervene.

“Why don’t you leave the lad alone, Diego?” the seaman said. “He’s not doing no harm.”  The second mate reacted swiftly, cuffing the interloper across the face and sending him sprawling backwards with a yelp of pain. Henrico clenched his fists and stepped forward. Montoya continued to glare at the youth and smacked his open palm with his whip.

“Are you going to do something, boy?  Or are you just going to stand there?”  The two antagonists stood tensely for a moment when another figure stepped between them. Tomas Olmedo, the first mate, was a slight sickly man more comfortable with his mariner’s quadrant and cross staves than with the crew. With Quintero below decks he was supposedly in command.

            “Diego, what’s the problem?” he asked. The bully scowled at his superior officer and moved to step around him.

            “It’s none of your business, Olmedo. I was talking to this little whelp.”

            “Brother Henrico,” the first mate said while moving to stay between the two figures, “Would you be so kind as to go aloft to the crow’s nest for me?  I need to know if there is any sign of a change in the weather.”  The young Benedictine swallowed hard before nodding. He walked quickly to the mainmast and began to climb the rigging. Glancing back, he saw Montoya clamp a hand on the first mate’s shoulder and whisper sharply in his ear. Olmedo paled suddenly and hurried to march back toward the stern. Henrico could feel angry eyes boring into his spine as he climbed but he was determined not to look back; not to give Montoya the satisfaction; not to let him see the anger, or the fear in his eyes

He continued to climb the rigging as he replayed the scene over in his mind. He could not understand why the second mate had chosen to hate him so and he was unsure how to deal with it. Should he turn the other cheek and endure his martyrdom?  Was his faith strong enough to do so?  Or should he fight back?  He had acquired enough skill with a staff from his lessons with Father Garcilosa that he believed he could hold his own. But was it right to do so?

He knew what he wanted to do. He wanted to strike back at Montoya. He desired to fight him and make him suffer for all his cruelties and all of his bullying. Henrico wanted to lash out for all of the times he had ever been harassed or tormented; for all of the times he had ever been afraid. He paused in his climb to stare out at the horizon as it rose and fell before him. He had always struggled with feelings of insecurity. Others around him always seemed so confident and strong. He did not know how to achieve such peace and self-assurance but he strongly desired to.

He had been climbing without thinking but now paused to glance down at the deck. He was shocked to see how high he had climbed and even more so to realize that the roll of the ship had him suspended not over the deck but the open sea. If his grip slipped now, he might not be killed by the fall, but he would surely drown. The young man pulled himself tightly to the rigging, his hands gripped fiercely to the hempen ropes. He screwed his eyes shut and fought to control his breathing. A cold sweat began to trickle down his forehead and he began to fear that he would not be able maintain his hold on the cables. Then a calm clear voice came from above him.

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