Chapter One: La Playa
Bill awoke to a still and silent ship, not even a sail flapping. The sky was slate gray, solid overcast from horizon to horizon with no breath of wind. The sea was flat as the whole earth used to be, and black as night. Here and there, silver streaks of jumping fish cut through the endless glassy surface, trailing foam like shooting stars, to be swallowed by watery darkness.
As the sun rose, the sea stayed black. The Hopewell was surrounded by a thirty-mile-wide shoal of sardines, tightly packed. Swordfish, tuna, mackerel, barracuda and sharks carved joyfully through this endless meal. Bill lowered a small net and the men breakfasted on the bounty. The crisp fish, rolled in flour and fried in fresh whale oil, were devoured whole, head to tail. The gut of the sardine contains vegetable food, sorely craved by the sailor's body.
The day before, the Hopewell had been making good time in the breezy Santa Barbara Channel, where half a dozen blue-green chunks of the tumbling California coastal range jutted majestically from a frothy sea. The crew had harpooned a breaching gray whale and spent the day stripping it of blubber and cooking it down to oil. At sunset they had roasted the tender bits of heart and liver -- then fallen asleep full and tired, after toasting a toddy of rum to 1845, the new year.
Pablo had slept late and disdained to partake in another fishy meal. With their goal in sight, he spoke longingly of a real Californio breakfast: "Steak and eggs and chorizo and tortillas with spicy salsa and a big cup of lemonade."
He paced the motionless deck, scuffing the oak planks, praying to the dormant sky. "Arise," he shouted. "Awake, four winds. How dare you sleep when I am so near my home -- now our sails need your cool breath for just another push. Do not forsake me. I am High Cloud Comes, your friend. I ask but for one final ride, then I will trouble you no more."
His impatient plea met only sulky silence, without a ruffle of the silken sea.
Coming on the Hopewell had been Bill's idea.
He had first shipped on a whaler at age fourteen, as a cabin boy. This apprenticeship at sea had begun as a banishment of sorts. He had offended his parents' notion of onshore behavior -- for a Puritan farm boy -- for a Marshall. To everyone's surprise, Bill had enjoyed living on the ocean. He loved the boundless freedom of an endless horizon, and the cramped, self-contained, disciplined hive of activity -- the whale-hunting ship -- from which they pursued that horizon.
He was not to be a cabin boy for long. His restless hands and tactile feet were perfectly suited for the endless tasks of a sailor. Bill effortlessly became a seasoned deckhand and expert whaleboat crewman. For four years the ship had been his only home. That was how he wished to go to California: aboard this floating, rocking cradle. To walk would have been too much work, with dangerous distractions along the way. On a ship, you were safe in your own bunk until you disembarked.
Pablo had agreed to journey with Bill by sail. He was greatly curious about the world and wished to see as much of it as possible. They would meet up with John Warner at the end of his long walk.
Mid-morning, the breeze finally snapped the limp sails to attention and the Hopewell ran on the backs of sardines all the way to Point Loma, the headland at the entrance to San Diego Harbor. The sky never gave one glimpse of blue, but Pablo and Bill were undaunted, joyful at the prospect of landing, bursting with restrained anticipation, for Bill too planned to leave the ship.
This was a serious offense. He had signed on for a two-year whaling voyage, they were thirteen months into the trip. The ship was just entering the most lucrative phase of the hunt, the slaughter of calving gray whales in the lagoons of the lower California coast. Every hand was needed to process the whale blubber and help sail the Hopewell back to Rhode Island before the Straits of Magellan closed for the southern winter in June.
Desertion was punishable by the absolute authority of the captain. Even if he managed to escape, foreigners like Bill were not allowed to stay in California. They were allowed to stop for supplies, and rest, but the sailors could not venture from port. And all hands were required to leave with the ship. This was the official position. Unofficially, what harm could one young American do in this endless land?
The Hopewell rounded Point Loma, skirting the huge kelp bed that streamed to the south, tacked into a lighter breeze that wrapped inland around the point where it flattened into the San Diego River's estuary, found the channel and headed for La Playa -- a collection of hide huts and warehouses that comprised the barren port, tucked in the shelter of the great headland. There were no trees at San Diego's bayside. The ground was sandy tidal scrubland. The looming bulk of Point Loma held only a light cover of brush and sage; a gray-green background for the handful of hide huts, which displayed the varying deep browns of their weathered wood and cattle skin covers. It was a desolate sight -- to anyone but a land-starved sailor.
As the Hopewell skimmed up the channel, the shore sprang to life. People ran out of La Playa's low huts like castaways, waving and yelling to stop the boat. Three miles inland, at the pueblo of San Diego, a dust cloud pointed its finger at the bay -- the townsfolk racing on horse and wagon to greet the ship. A couple of guns discharged.
La Playa was San Diego's official holding camp for unauthorized non-Mexicans who happened to somehow end up upon these shores. The society was unruly, with Kanakas, as the Hawaiians were called, English, French and Russian sailors, Indian women from various tribes, as well as kids, pigs, chickens and dogs. All the men had arrived by sea -- marooned for bad behavior, missing at sailing time or deserting a cruel captain or leaky hull. They were not allowed to leave the immediate area. They worked at the hide-curing vats and acted as a labor pool for undermanned ships. The captain could easily replace Pablo and Bill.
The La Playa residents plunged into the winter-cold sea, swam out to the ship and scrambled up lines to board. Pandemonium reigned on deck. Anchor dropped and the Hopewell swung to, a few yards from shore. Then everyone began leaping into the water. Bill jumped in, breaststroked to the beach and ripped off his foul clothes. A native woman threw him a big bar of tallow soap. He rolled in the shallows and scrubbed himself with his soapy shirt, releasing a dark cloud of grime.
Naked, rubbed pink, Bill scrambled back on board to dry and put on the clean clothes he had carefully kept wrapped in oilcloth at the bottom of his footlocker. They seemed to have escaped the rank smell of the ship and himself. He splashed cologne everywhere to be sure.
A whaler has a stench that precedes and follows it for miles. It is as foul as a full latrine, or a four-day-dead cow, and almost impossible to erase. The combination of sea water, cooked whale blubber, rancid whale oil in the hold, whale blood and guts, rotting meat, slime, mashed barnacles, bile, seagull and pelican droppings and unwashed sick men permeates the air, wood, clothing, sails, ropes, even brass and iron on a whaler. It will not wash off and you never get used to it. When you leave a whaling ship you have to burn your clothes, shave your hair and scrape off a layer of skin to escape the smell.
Pablo was the cleanest, best-groomed sailor on the Hopewell, including the captain. At sea, he bathed at least twice a day, no matter how cold, by dragging a bucket over the side and dousing himself over and over until he was satisfied. Indians must bathe every day, he informed his rank shipmates. At La Playa, he scoured himself with soap and sand until his skin was bright red. But even he couldn't keep the stink off his clothes. As clean as he could get, he still wore the stench of dead whale.
The people of La Playa didn't mind. They lived in their own stink, not as varied or disgusting as a whaler's, but equally strong. Their bayside village was the storage and loading facility for San Diego's only export commodities: tanned cattle hides and tallow. Hides were first field-stripped at the ranches from throat-cut beasts, crudely scraped and dried, then trundled by oxcart to La Playa, where they were tanned and finished, sorted, stacked and stored by the motley residents, to await the next clipper ship, bound for the Boston shoe trade.
The smell of the port was the smell of rotting cattle, wet hides, curing hides, molding hides and animal fat boiling to rancid tallow -- further spiced by the usual odors of a fishing village with no sanitary facility save the open ground and hide-flapped privies. It was a unique perfume, intensified by the stillness of the sheltered bay.
Bill had rushed to get clean for the official greeting by the respectable townsfolk of San Diego, who now raced to meet the ship. He was one of the first crewmen ready. Back on deck, sandy hair pulled into a dripping ponytail, he took a deep breath. He looked the Hopewell over carefully, silently saying goodbye to each of his favorite places. He blessed the sturdy timbers that had served so faithfully. He prayed for her safe journey home.
Aboard ship, on the limitless, ever changing expanse of ocean, Bill had found an outlet for all of his physical talent and youthful energy. There was only one great flaw to life at sea: women were not allowed on board. For Bill, life without women was achingly incomplete. He had grown up with three older and two younger sisters. He enjoyed their homey company, their fairness -- their gentleness. Womanly sweetness, romance and cheerful work habits made life lighter, less serious and dreadful. He had learned to sleep in the arms of a girl -- and that was how he liked to sleep. Bill missed women too much to live at sea forever.
The men assembled, the mate called for order and gave the rules.
"We'll be here a few days to take on water and stores for our trip south. This is our last taste of civilization for a couple of months, so make the most of it. We'll have eight-hour anchor watches. Those of you not on duty may have shore leave. No one but the crew comes aboard. No drinking, fighting or stealing and don't go any further than the town. Come now, man the boats...let's take our captain in to greet the mayor."
They rowed to shore and filed past the now silent La Playans, who were dressed in every sort of rag and skin and old uniform, with hats of stiff cowhide or palm leaf. The Indian women wore long loose smocks, or grass skirts with fur capes wrapped around their shoulders.
The crew marched to the capitanÍa, or customs house, seventy yards east of the hide storage sheds and residents' shanties. It was more substantial, with thick adobe walls and a thatched roof shading a short porch. The floor was dirt. There were no windows, just a door of heavy oak planks, sagging open on leather hinges. The one room was empty.
In front of the customs house, a growing crowd awaited, horses blowing hard. Some men sat their saddles; others had dismounted. Women and children in rustic carts craned for a look at the newcomers -- who drew themselves into a ragged line, the captain in front. A small man, well dressed with a bright-buttoned fitted suit like Pablo's holding a wooden staff topped by a silver ball, rode forward, dismounting gracefully.
"Buenas tardes, señores, soy Juan MarÍa Osuna, el alcade de San Diego. Welcome. I am mayor." He smiled at the captain and bowed low.
"Buenas tardes. Captain Ian Saxon, at your service, sir."
He bowed too, but not as low.
"Your papers, please, Capitán."
The captain handed Señor Osuna his protocol from Governor Micheltorena, which he had received at Monterey, the capital of California, always the first legal port of entry.
Osuna opened the packet, closed it as quickly and handed it back.
"He can't read," whispered Pablo.
"Do you have some news or a declaration from el gobernador?" the alcalde asked with a weak smile.
There were titters from the crowd. The southern half of California was in revolt against the appointed Mexican governor. They had established their own governor, PÍo Pico, at Los Angeles.
"The governor sends his regards to all of you. And I have a letter for Anita Gale de Warner."
Osuna seemed disappointed.
The captain said, "With your permission, Señor Alcalde, we'd like to stay a few days, to take on food and water, and make some repairs to the ship."
"You are very welcome. And we will be pleased to entertain you by our fiesta. Señor Juan Bandini opens his casa. All are welcome. In good time, we shall take you to the pueblo in las carretas." He opened his hand toward a half-dozen large, two-wheeled, ox-drawn carts that were just pulling up.
Osuna shook the captain's meaty paw, then gave him an abrazo, a hug with two pats on the back. He never let go of his polished staff of office, which had a black ribbon laced through a hole just under the silver globe.
As if by signal, the townsmen descended. Introductions were made in Spanish and English. Then the trading began. Every man, woman and child wanted clothes, cloth and thread. They were well dressed in an old-fashioned way, with nary a fur or skin. The men sported either colonial Spanish waistcoats, breeches and shirts, with tricorn hats, or Mexican cowboy attire: tight flaring trousers with silver buttons, boots with large silver spurs, white shirts, colored scarves, short fitted embroidered jackets and large hats with stiff, flat brims. The women wore long dresses with full skirts, and lace shawls around their shoulders.
The Californios had few means of showing their wealth. Clothing and fine horses were at the top of their list. It was not unusual to see a mounted man and horse wearing two thousand dollars' worth of fine clothing, tack and ornamentation -- with silver and gold braid, buttons, buckles, spurs, bits, bridles and saddle tricking. The Californios tried to lead a European life amidst their untamed colony. A Spanish newspaper, a French fashion magazine, a book in any language, and clothing on their backs -- instead of skins and furs (the vestments of beasts) -- served to keep the wilderness at bay, and to soothe any savagery that may have lurked in their own breasts.
Their small European population, scattered over huge distances, supported no factories or grain mills, no cotton gins or cloth manufacture, no clothing stores, no shopping, no newpapers. Everything was imported at great expense, or homemade -- thus the fervent desire for ordinary clothes, and the great value of fine cloth, lace or anything remotely fashionable.
Bill spotted one man dressed like an English country squire, with dark green velvet breeches split at the outsides over long white socks and black boots, a green velvet waistcoat over a white shirt. His green felt hunting hat only partly shaded a mat of gray curls, a pink face and a very red nose.
Captain Edward Stokes was a Yorkshire gentleman and ex-ship captain. He had married Refugio Ortega, daughter of one of San Diego's leading Californio families, and received Rancho Santa Ysabel as a dowry -- thirty-four thousand acres of well-watered grazing land and forest, fifty miles northeast of town. He was John Warner's closest neighbor. At Pablo's suggestion, Bill aproached the captain and introduced himself.
Captain Stokes wanted to hear every detail of their voyage and anything Bill might know about events in England -- which was very little.
"We San Diegans are desperate for the news," Stokes said. "You have no idea how isolated we feel. It is as though we too have been half a year at sea. We are lucky to see one sail a month. Even then, both news and supplies are usually stale."
"Captain Saxon knows a lot more than I do," Bill assured him.
The physical and geographical remoteness of California was daunting: To the east and north were towering snow-capped mountains, scorching sands and hostile Indian tribes. Mexico City was two thousand miles by land, across inhospitable deserts. The journey by sea from the port of Acapulco required a few months of hard sailing into the prevailing wind, tacking halfway to Hawaii and back, finally reaching the coast near San Francisco, then sliding downwind to San Diego, the last outpost before the thousand brutal miles of Baja California. The voyage was dangerous and unhealthy, with no food and only one stop for water between Acapulco and California. Many died of scurvy on this arduous route, or arrived so weak as to need months to recuperate.
Bill appeased Stokes with the details of their sail to the Marquesas Islands, to Hawaii, then north till they found the west wind and ran quickly to California, sighting land at Fort Ross, north of San Francisco Bay. They'd taken fresh fruit and vegetables at every port on the coast, Buena Ventura, Monterey and Santa Barbara, arriving in San Diego healthy and strong, ready for the lucrative Baja California whale kill, just days ahead.
"Sounds like you're pretty cozy with Cap'n Saxon, for a deckhand," Stokes said, eyeing Bill up and down.
Bill shrugged. "I was his cabin boy when I started. I've been with him for nearly five years."
"So he looks after you?" Captain Stokes's voice was gruff.
"Yes, sir, he does."
"It's prudent seamanship and care for his crew make a good captain." Stokes nodded. "Ian Saxon's one of the best. But 'tis good to hear it from the men."
Bill excused himself. A striking woman had caught his attention, a girl to whom his eyes kept returning.
"Lugarda Osuna," said Stokes, following Bill's wandering gaze. "She's easy to look at. All do. Look but don't touch." He laughed, "Go on, boy. She won't bite...just a little sting maybe. I'll see you at the ball."
Lugarda Osuna was wearing a birdshell blue dress with lace trim, a Spanish comb in her long dark hair -- accompanied by a woman dressed in pea green, who looked to be her mother, and an Indian girl in a darker blue dress. Warm shawls covered their shoulders.
Pablo had disappeared to carry out his plan of trading clothes for good horses. Bill made his way toward the Osunas alone, introducing himself to everyone, keeping one eye on Lugarda.
He shook the hand of Don Juan Bandini, an Italian-Peruvian and San Diego's most widely respected and hospitable citizen. Bandini was thin as a stick, with a knuckle-crushing grip. He loved music and he loved to dance. His fiestas were legendary among sea captains, reason enough to pull into the harbor for a few days rest. Bandini hosted a ball for every arriving ship, preceded by a feast and some sporting entertainment: cockfights, bronco riding, or a bull and bear battle.
"Today will be the bull and the bear," he confided. "You are lucky. This is a very rare thing, special to California."
Bill felt he already knew Bandini. When Pablo had related stories of his homeland to Bill, Bandini's name constantly popped up. Bandini was wealthy. He owned two large ranches to the south, Tecate and Ti Juan. His home was the social center of the pueblo, and he had four talented daughters near marrying age.
But San Diego was such a small town it was easy to know everyone. The twenty houses of the pueblo were owned by the same families who owned the twenty large land-grant ranches of the San Diego District. All had been carved from the two local missions' estates, since the Mexican Revolution of 1822, when the Catholic Church was accused of being a Spanish puppet, an enemy of republican Mexico, and her missionary assets seized.
The land of Missions San Diego and San Luis Rey had been huge, rich, without boundaries, encompassing all of San Diego. The Franciscan missionaries were finally expelled from California in 1834, freeing their property for distribution. In just ten years, the few impoverished soldiers and colonists of the town, who for decades had looked so enviously at the missions, became wealthy and powerful from the bounty of those lands. These privilaged families now made up the tiny society of San Diego. Their year was measured more by Bandini's parties than by months or seasons. Whenever a ship dropped anchor in the big bay, they all fled their ranchos to converge on the pueblo for the expected fiesta.
Bandini eyed Bill's clean layers of white ruffled shirt, ivory-buttoned navy woolen jacket and blue sailor's ducks. They were about the same size.
"Do you have any clothing to sell?"
"No, sir. I need what little I have." Bill had promised to leave the trading to Pablo.
"Then I beg your pardon. I'll see you at the fiesta." Bandini touched his hat and turned away.
Pablo, whose full Indian name was High Cloud Comes, was partial to the European refinement he had enjoyed as the priests' favorite at Mission San Luis Rey. Educated and intelligent, he cherished his books and clothes. But he also loved to run half naked and roll in warm dust like a puppy. Skins were good enough for High Cloud if he had a fine steed, a knife, a bow, arrows and a lance. He and Bill each wore three layers of shirts and trousers, ready to peel off for sale or trade. Horses, saddles, bridles, food and weapons, they would acquire. But Bill had noticed that Pablo's most finely tailored clothes were carefully folded, packed away and not for sale.
Bill approached the mayor's party. His captain was still there, chatting with Señora MarÍa Juliana Josefa López de Osuna, who was fair with scattered freckles and lively light brown eyes. Her face was the only part of her not completely covered in material. When Captain Saxon introduced Bill to her, she curtsied, carefully staying in the shadow of her parasol. She waved toward two of her boys, who wore caballero finery and sat on beautiful black horses. "My sons, Ramón Prudencio and Leandro Inocencio Osuna." They tipped their hats. "My husband, Juan MarÍa Osuna, the mayor of our pueblo." She gestured at his back. "And this is my daughter, Señorita Lugarda Dionicia Osuna."
Lugarda was sitting in a parked cart with the Indian maiden, facing the rear. Señora Osuna had neglected to introduce Natalia Pájaro-Azul (Bluebird) Cota, Lugarda's handmaid and lifelong companion. 'Zul, as she was known, wouldn't meet Bill's gaze. Thick black bangs dropped to shadow all but her dark sculpted lips. Lugarda's wide smoky eyes, lit with tiny green flecks, looked into Bill's own for so long that he was forced to break the spell. He lowered his lashes and followed them with a polite bow.
"Mucho gusto," he said.
She replied in halting English, "Pleased to meet you, I hope you enjoy your visit."
Her face was the best possible combination of European and Indian, multicolored eyes, dark brown hair, a long nose, a blood-red mouth parted to reveal small even teeth, and skin the color of ripe wheat. She smiled. Bill stared.
Señora Osuna coughed. "At first sight, every man in California falls in love with my youngest daughter. She is beautiful, no? Don't take it personally, you may be sure that she doesn't. Come, you must greet the mayor." She turned toward her husband.
Lugarda blushed. "Vamos, Santiago," she said, over her shoulder to the driver, without taking her eyes off Bill. The wagoneer took up the reins but did not ask his mules to move. Lugarda crossed her legs. There was a flash of ankle, slim and white-stockinged. She turned to speak with 'Zul, who laughed. Lugarda smiled again.
Bill felt a gloved hand on his elbow. Señora Osuna said to her husband, "Señor Alcalde, may I present Señor Guillermo Marshall." She curtsied.
Bill shook the alcalde's limp hand. "Bill," he said. "Bill will do."
"Mucho gusto," Osuna replied, without enthusiasm. He examined Bill's eager, sunburned face, nodded and turned back to the captain.
Señora Osuna said, "Our mayor is a very important man...here." She indicated the wasteland of the sandy plain with a smirk. She shrugged. "We'll see you at the Bandinis', I hope."
"Si, señora, thank you."
"De nada, à bientôt, goodbye for now."
Spanish, French and English: Señora Osuna tossed off the words like an aristocrat, bred for the courts of New Spain. She mounted the wagon gracefully to sit by Lugarda. "Santiago," she said to her youngest son. He clicked the alert team to motion, and they were gone.
"Señorita MarÍa Juliana Josefa López was a blushing fourteen-year-old bride," Pablo had explained, as they lay bundled up on the Hopewell's deck, looking up into a brilliant star-packed winter sky.
"Before the revolution, Juan MarÍa Osuna was a Spanish army corporal, the son of a mission guard at Loreto. At least one of his grandmothers was an Indian neophyte, a newly converted Christian at the mission. He had inherited her native good looks. Corporal Osuna had followed in his father's footsteps, and prospered by his own appointment to guard the mission at San Diego. When he was ready to marry, Osuna made a heartfelt offer for Señorita López, a Spanish-Creole from a well-bred but unfortunate San Diego family, very poor and sufficiently fair.
"His offer was accepted and Señora López de Osuna has survived her marriage to bear eleven children. To her intense disappointment, Ramón and Leandro look exactly like their father. Only Santiago and Lugarda could possibly pass for Spanish.
"Señora Osuna has pushed her husband to success, and she never lets Juan MarÍa forget it. He's resentful, pompous and greedy. His son Ramón Prudencio lives up to his name, but Leandro Inocencio is anything but. He's mean as a stepped-on snake. Be careful of him," Pablo had warned.
Bill could see the Osuna boys now, galloping up the road to town. He searched in vain for Pablo among the stragglers at La Playa, before climbing onto the waiting carreta, a crude, hand-hewn wooden freight wagon, with each large wheel a single thick slab of solid oak. He was joined by some of his shipmates and the cart rumbled along the bayside toward the Pueblo of San Diego. With the northwest breeze blowing their dust across ruffled gray water toward the sandy line of the Coronado Islands, they crossed the scruffy lowlands of the San Diego River delta, and headed toward the houses nestled at the base of the first inland hills. It took half an hour to get there.
Bill was pleased. His basic Spanish, taught by Pablo, had held up. He had succeeded in meeting the people Pablo said he should meet -- though San Diego was more confusing than expected. There might only be twenty families but there were dozens of aunts and uncles, cousins, children and grandchildren -- Bill had forgotten names as soon as he'd heard them -- and there were the fascinating people of La Playa, standing at the edge of the crowd, half naked, waving and calling out. But all in all, their plan was unfolding nicely.
Bill had taken the midnight watch on the Hopewell, giving them plenty of time to prepare their escape. He wouldn't wait until the ship departed to desert. One more night on that stinkpot was intolerable. At midnight they would be on the way north to Pablo's rancho, Las Flores.
This was their simple scheme: Bill was eligible, by nature of his handsome form, creamy skin and greenish eyes, and his good disposition, to marry a daughter of the Mexican republic; to become a citizen and to receive a land grant. Pablo would introduce him to society; he would fall in love with the right girl and marry. They would have neighboring haciendas and get rich selling cowhides to the Boston traders.
Bill had acquired a beautiful French wedding gown, complete with veil and honeymoon nightdress, from a Boston family -- after their daughter was refused marriage at the last minute by her husband-to-be's parents, who learned that she was five months pregnant, and possibly not by their son. The poor girl had poisoned herself. Her abandoned trousseau was now hidden at La Playa, ready to be presented to the prospective bride. And Bill already knew who he wished to see wearing it. He would marry Lugarda Dionicia Osuna, if she would have him.
As the carreta lumbered into town, Bill kept a lookout for Pablo. High Cloud Comes was guide, confidant and protector in this strange new world. Bill couldn't wait to tell him about Lugarda. But where was he? Bill looked to the sky for a sign, but the damp gray ceiling hung low, dark and mute. The carreta pulled up at Juan Bandini's and the men got down to his hearty welcome.
Copyright © 2002 by Garth Murphy