The Golden Conquest – Part 9

The Gabriella slipped from the bay at Angra and turned its bow back towards the west.  The repairs had finally been completed and they were at last back on their journey to the New World. Henrico stood on the fore castle as the ship flew over the water. He shivered as his mind drifted back to the events in the de Silves’s garden. The time he had spent in the presence of Father Garcilosa had helped but he was glad to be safely back aboard ship.  He glanced aft and smiled. The crew was in high spirits, refreshed from their sojourn at the Azores and excited to be underway. The murmurs and grumbles that this was an unlucky voyage subsided at last. Even the second mate Montoya seemed less tyrannical than usual.

The novice grimaced as he recalled that not all had changed. Brother Sebastian had stood stern and determined by the mainmast as the ship had sailed from Angra. But within minutes of reaching the open ocean he was once more leaning over the rail in wretched misery. He had to be carried to his cabin and laid on his bed. The sailors were careful not to laugh at the Dominican within earshot of their superiors but his ailment made for lively conversation below decks. The crew had a running wager on if and when he would recover or better yet succumb to his sickness. Henrico had declined to take part.

The fine weather and fair winds continued to hold and the Gabriella made rapid progress westward. Henrico had finished his duties and was heading back toward the stern cabins. The Benedictine moved to step around a sailor who was scrubbing the deck when a foot shot out to kick over the man’s bucket of sea water. As the brine splashed over Henrico’s feet and legs, a harsh voice sneered, “Are you still getting in the way, monk?” and Montoya stepped forward into his path.

Henrico attempted to turn aside but found his way blocked by one of Montoya’s cohorts. He quickly glanced about the ship but Captain Quintero was naught to be seen. Father Garcilosa, he knew, was resting in their cabin. Olmedo the first mate was at the helm but when Henrico looked his way he quickly glanced aside. The young man realized there would be no help for him this day and he turned back toward Montoya.

“I have no wish to quarrel,” he said.

“Oh, I knew that. You’re the kind that likes to hide behind someone else’s cloak. Well, there’s no one to hide behind now.” The sailor stepped forward as he spoke and Henrico smelt liquor on his breath. The novice eased back but came up against another of Montoya’s men. The seaman shoved him hard toward the second mate who sidestepped and tripped the young man as he went past. Henrico sprawled onto the deck only to be hauled to his feet by the bullies. He shook them off and turned to face his tormentor.

“I will not fight you,” he said through clenched teeth.

“So, the priest’s little whelp is a coward too. I’m not surprised. Come on, boy. Show us what you’re worth.” Montoya’s face reddened and spittle flew from his lips. His eyes blazed and his visage contorted into a mask of hatred and malice. 

“No,” Henrico said, “I don’t have to prove anything to you. I don’t fear you. You have no power over me.”  Montoya’s jaw went slack for a moment, startled by the Benedictine’s words, but only for a moment.

“I’ll show you my power, boy; I’ll make you suffer for your insolence.” The second mate swung his club at Henrico’s head forcing him to duck away. He felt someone thrust a belaying pin into his hand and he instinctively raised it to parry the next blow.

“So, you’ve got some spine after all, monk. Come on then.” Without warning he swung the club again. Henrico ducked and stepped forward to thrust his shoulder into Montoya’s midsection. The mate gave a sharp grunt and stumbled backwards. Quickly returning to the attack, he feinted to his left and brought the belaying pin down sharply. Henrico dodged but took a glancing blow off his left shoulder.  A burning jolt of pain shot through his arm and he felt his hand go numb. Staggered by the pain, he fell back into the growing crowd of onlookers. Rough hands pushed him upright back toward Montoya.

Henrico regained his balance in time to block the next strike. The two men circled each other warily. Montoya looked surprised at the Benedictine’s skill and resolve and pressed in harder. He lashed out again only to find Henrico twist away. The novice spun around, allowing the sailor to step past him and struck him across the back. Montoya sprawled out on the deck but regained his footing in an instant. He snarled in rage as he threw himself at the monk. Catching Henrico around the midsection he drove him down to the deck. The two combatants rolled over and the first mate ended up astride the monk. Squeezing the young man’s throat with one hand, he struck downward with his club. Henrico tried to shield himself with his arm and cried out as the blow landed.  Montoya raised his weapon once more.

A large hand shot out to grip the sailor’s wrist. He turned to curse the intruder and found himself looking into the scowling face of Captain Quintero. Startled, he did not move as the captain placed his other hand on his chest and shoved him forcibly to the deck. When the second mate attempted to rise Quintero stepped over him and held him down with his foot.

“Don’t move, you bastard. This time you’ve gone too far, way too far.”  Stooping, Quintero grabbed a handful of cloth and hauled the seaman to his feet. “I’ve put up with your bullying and rough ways for too long.  You kept the crew in line and so I let it go but not this time.  This time you’ve done it.” He pushed him against the rail and slapped him hard across the face.  “Attacking a passenger? You’ve gone mad and I won’t have a mad man as my second mate.  From now on I don’t want to see you on the quarterdeck. You’ll stay below decks and out of my sight.”

Quintero threw Montoya aside as if he were throwing away a piece of refuse. As the former second mate stumbled away the other sailors moved aside, avoiding his shame. He slunk away quickly, his face flushed with anger. His fellow bullies hesitantly fell in beside him. A low growl swept through the crew as the trio slipped into the darkness below decks. The sound changed to a cheer as Henrico was helped to his feet. He cradled his injured arm while the crew patted him on the back and brushed off his clothing, murmuring quiet words of encouragement.  he Benedictine felt a firm hand on his shoulder and turned to see Father Garcilosa. He looked away in a mixture of guilt and shame.

“I – I’m sorry, Father,” the youth stammered.

“You should be,” the priest said with a smile, “I taught you better than that. You should have been able to beat that fool easily.” Henrico looked up, his eyes wide with surprise. The older cleric’s voice was soft and gentle. “I saw the whole thing, my son. You had no choice. I probably shouldn’t be, but I am proud of you.” He paused and smiled again. “But I do think you need some more practice before you decide to engage in combat again. First though we need to bind up your arm.”

            Seated on an empty water cask, Montoya rubbed his bruised knuckles. He grimaced as he thought about the past few days. It was different now. Men who had previously accepted his commands without comment now defied him. He had to fight to regain power and he had done so viciously. Montoya knew he had to stay away from Quintero but through a series of threats, accidents and ambushes had succeeded in cowing most of the crew. Some still challenged him. He knew that he would never again wield the power he had once had aboard the Gabriella. The dream of becoming her captain was gone forever. He knew who was to blame. 

            He looked up at the sailor approaching him and grinned. Cordoba nodded in reply; passing on the message Montoya had anticipated. He had been expecting Dominican to call for him. There was dirty work to be done and Diego Montoya was just the man for it. Still, he would have to be careful with how close he got to the Inquisitor. Occasionally even a cobra or a scorpion had its uses but no one would presume to take one as a pet. No, he would be careful.  He didn’t mind sharing a cold dish of vengeance with Brother Sebastian but the largest portion would be his. He arose and followed the sailor aft. The Dominican was waiting.

The sun had just past its zenith when a shout sounded from the lookout.  Land on the horizon. By mid-afternoon the ship entered the harbor that marked Imperial Spain’s foothold in the New World. As soon as the Gabriella slid into the port, small boats and skiffs were rushed out to meet them. The water borne merchants held aloft fruits, flowers, carvings and other small items to sell to the crew. Larger boats, filled with half naked native girls, had other less substantial wares for sale. The sailors crowded against the railing shouting and laughing at the display. The merchants swiftly parted at the approach of a large barge bearing the harbor master and officials from the Governor’s office.

            Father Garcilosa had changed back into his priestly garb and stood with Captain Quintero to greet the bureaucrats and soldiers as they came onboard. After delivering his papers of commission from the Court of King Charles, the captain began to introduce his passengers. He had just started to present Father Garcilosa when Brother Sebastian interrupted. 

“Are you the Master of the Guard?”

The official sniffed and narrowed his eyes. “Yes. And who are you?”

The Dominican puffed up his chest before declaring, “I am Brother Sebastian of the Holy Inquisition. And I demand that you arrest that man!” He spun to thrust a boney finger at Father Garcilosa.

“What? The priest? On what charge?”

“He is a heretic and a Jew lover. He has desecrated the Eucharist vessels with Jewish writings and spells. Look in that chest.” The priest’s baggage had been brought on deck in preparation for departure and all turned to stare at the small pile. The wooden strongbox containing the gifts from the Bishop of Cadiz set on the top. Reluctantly, the port official moved to lift it up.

“With your permission, Father?”

“Certainly,” the priest said. Henrico stood beside him, clutching his hands together and glanced at Father Garcilosa’s face. His smile was calm. The Master of the Guard opened the box and peered at its contents. A perplexed look crossed his visage and he shook his head.

“Everything looks fine to me.”

“What?” Brother Sebastian voice was high and shrill. “There are Jewish symbols painted on the vessels. I know it.” He seized the chest and stared. The chalice and bowl were clean and polished. No markings of any sort marred their surfaces. He sputtered and then thrust the chest back at the official and stalked away.

Henrico leaned and whispered to the priest. “What is happening here?”

“I’m afraid Brother Sebastian was planning mischief. His allies stole the vessels and returned them painted with what they thought were Jewish letters. Fortunately, we have our own friends aboard and Alonzo was informed. I was up most of the night cleaning and polishing, but it was worth it to see the look on the Brother’s face.”

Henrico stood in silence. They had escaped from danger once again but it was not over.  Both of them had enemies now. 

The Havana officials were soon departed and the Gabriella was safely anchored in the harbor. Brother Sebastian threw his belongings into a bag and screamed shrill demands that he and d’Amarco be taken ashore.  Captain Quintero was only too happy to oblige. He looked around the deck and nodded. It was time to clear out the rest of his problems. Striding forward he approached a group of sailors working amidships and clamped a strong hand on the shoulder of his former second mate.

“Montoya.” He grinned wickedly, “I think it’s time for a few rats to leave this ship.” He grabbed the man’s belt with his other hand and with a mighty heave pitched him over the side.  His laughter was harsh and fierce as he waved forward the rest of the crew to take care of the other bullies. Cordoba and his comrade followed their master over the side. The three men cursed and pleaded but to no avail. Quintero leaned over the rail, his smile now calm and benign.

“You three fellows had best start for shore. I’ve heard there are sharks in these waters.” The trio splashed and struggled in desperation. Like most sailors, they did not know how to swim. Their efforts seemed to be faltering when a small skiff swung around the bow of the ship and pulled toward them. The trio sputtered as they grasped the gunwales of the craft. As the vessel pulled toward land, Quintero shouted after them, “I don’t ever want to see you bastards on my ship again. If I ever catch you on her I’ll hoist you up by your bowels!”

As the captain turned away, Father Garcilosa approached with a frown. “While I cannot object to decision to—uh, change the composition of your crew, I am concerned that they might have drowned when you sent them over the side.”

“Ah, not to worry, my friend. I had already arranged for that little fishing boat to be there. I cost me a few coins, but I would have paid three times as much to get rid of those scum.” He laughed again and clapped the priest on the back. “Come, I have some fine wine in my cabin. Let us celebrate.”

            Henrico smiled as he lounged on the foredeck. Life aboard the Gabriella had become so much more peaceful since the departures, forced and otherwise, of those less welcome onboard.  He knew that the ship’s crew had squandered most of their pay in the ramshackle taverns lining the harbor, but noted how efficiently they had unloaded the ship’s cargo. Olmedo, more confident and at ease with Montoya gone, had overseen the duties capably and without violence.  Quintero was busy selling the goods and supplies he had brought from Spain and seeking others to carry back to the homeland. 

            Father Garcilosa waited beside the novice with growing impatience for any official response to their arrival. Despite their mission being made known, days passed before they were finally summoned to the Governor’s residence. Changing into their finest vestments, the two clerics hurried to the building only to be forced to wait further. When they were at last escorted in, they were greeted not by Governor Velasquez but by his lieutenant, Narvaez. The man apologized for keeping them waiting but explained that the Governor had been called away suddenly for an important matter.

            “May we present you with the letters of commission from His Majesty?” Father Garcilosa asked, “We have been entrusted with documents authorizing the expedition to the unknown lands to the west.”

            “Ah, the commission.” Narvaez smile held a hint of distain. “I am afraid, Father, that that will not be necessary. Another ship, the Santa Elena, sailed from Spain shortly after you left.  She carried a duplicate of your letters and as it would appear her captain met with more—ah—favorable winds, she arrived weeks ago. The Governor has already received the confirmation for the mission and preparations are underway. But still, I understand your voyage will not have been in vain. You are, I believe, to accompany Senor Cortes to the new lands?”

            “Yes, Senor Narvaez, that is so.”

            “Excellent. Then you must come back tonight. The Governor will be hosting a gathering upon his return. Cortes and his captains are also invited and you may make their acquaintances.”

            Captain Quintero was miffed to hear that another vessel had bested him in the voyage across the Atlantic and a caravel at that.  At first, he refused to consider attending the festivities but when he heard that Cortes would be there, he changed his mind. As evening fell, he led the three companions through the streets of Havana to the Governor’s Residence.

            The low stuccoed building lacked the grandeur of the palaces of Spain or even of the Azores. Ongoing construction could still be seen and there was an overall feeling of reckless haste to the structure. However, the flickering torchlight, garlands of bright flowers and animated babble of voices covered whatever shortcomings there were with an atmosphere of excited revelry. The number of partygoers precluded any attempt at a formal dinner and instead the wine and laughter flowed freely. 

As the group began to move through the ebb and flow of the gathering, Narvaez intercepted them and led them forward to be introduced to the Governor. Diego Velasquez greeted them solemnly. He wore a stern serious expression yet constantly fussed over his own appearance. A peacock trying to be an eagle, Henrico wondered. The Governor briefly acknowledged Father Garcilosa and did not even deign to glance at Henrico. The Benedictine noticed a flicker of resentment pass over his eyes when Quintero asked about Cortes. He frowned and looked away while Narvaez deftly redirected the conversation and led them aside.

Henrico followed as they pushed through the throng surrounding the adventurer. Cortes was not overly tall or handsome but he seemed to dominate the room. He was finely dressed with beard and mustache trimmed to perfection but it was his eyes that were most striking. They flashed with intelligence and confidence when he spoke. His voice was even and clear and carried easily through the room. He greeted his old comrade Quintero warmly and bowed graciously to the priest as introductions were made. Glancing at the novice, he smiled, “De Medellin, eh?  You shall accompany us on our conquest, I am told.  That is well, I like having even more of my townsmen with me.”

When Cortes spoke to him, Henrico was made to feel as if he were the only other person in the room. The man’s confidence and charisma were powerful and inspiring. Before the Benedictine could consider or comment on the commander’s cryptic remark, he was swept aside by others coming forth to meet the man. Henrico was soon separated from Father Garcilosa and the sea captain and began to wander through the crowded room. He found himself beside a table heavily laden with foodstuffs and delicacies. He was debating on what to sample first when he was startled by a familiar sounding laugh.

Stretching up on his toes, he surveyed the crowd and caught sight of a head topped with thick dark curls. The man turned slightly and Henrico was able to glimpse his face. With mounting excitement, the young man pushed his way through the gathering to grasp the man’s shoulder. The soldier spun about and a look of amazement came over his visage.

“You!  What on earth are you doing here?”

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