Father Bax's Vacation

  by Isak Romun

 

The ship was not a yacht, but it was quite comfortable. There were four air-conditioned, double-bunked cabins, each nicely appointed and opening onto a canopied deck. There was a galley which accommodated the preparation of anything we desired, provided, of course, we had the foresight to bring it on board when we were provisioning the vessel. A massive refrigerator-freezer held our perishable food. It was quite full except for the freezer compartment, which had one of its commodious shelves free of any items at all (reserved for the fish we would catch my host informed me). Numerous cherry-wood cabinets held the nonperishable stores and here, too, plentitude was the norm. There were two rooms beyond the galley, one used as a dining area, the other a lounge that wasn't sumptuous but was, like everything else on board, more than adequate.

Three of us started the trip from Pardrilone's estancia . Ultimately, seven of us were on board the Santa Maria: Pardrilone, his strapping stepson, Diego, four other acquaintances, and I. The four "others" joined us some days later at an upriver spot.

Pardrilone was an old revolutionary who had garnered a fortune in a republic to the north, which fortune allowed him to court and marry a well-to-do widow and to become an instant father and industrious farmer-rancher, his revolutionary ways well behind him.

I first met  Pardrilone in that republic to the north when I was temporarily heading up a mission for a priest who was back in the States ministering to his mother in her last days. I spent almost a year in the mission and came to know a number of the "soldiers" in the band, of which Pardrilone was a senior member. One of his jobs was to come and get me when a member of the band was to be executed for a real or imagined offense. It was nasty work and I didn't like it but if I didn't do it those wretched men would move on to eternity without a sympathetic hand in theirs.

Anyway, I saw Pardrilone the day he called it quits. He told me his plans for the future and I thought that was that and I would hear no more from him. But a year after I came back from that mission, I found a letter from Pardrilone on my desk. He had achieved all his aims and invited me to travel south for a little vacation. He was organizing a cruise on his newly built river vessel and wanted me along for the excursion. After I had met and visited with his family and viewed his extensive holdings, we were ready to push off. Tempranica, his wife, came down to the boat landing to see us off. She spoke to her husband in Spaniish. I had some difficulty in following because of the rapidity of her speech.

At one point, she said, "I think this is a bad idea. Don't go."

Pardrilone comforted her, told her not to worry, and kissed her a final time. Her arms and hands clutched at him for seconds more than what might be considered typical for a wife seeing her husband off on a fishing trip. She looked at me over his shoulder and in her eyes I thought I saw a certain trust, and wondered at this. We pushed off, heading for the middle course of the great river that bisected the nation. We were moving upriver into a swath of jungle area and away from the civilized cities and townships of the southeast. Considering the bearing we set, we should have expected the waterway to narrow, but if it did, it was very little. The river was still wide, still deep, and still long. It was evident why everyone called it the "great river."

After we were underway, with his stepson at the wheel, Pardrilone joined me in a sitting area on deck. "You like the ship?" he asked. I said I did. and made some other appreciative remarks about the vessel.

Without warning, Pardrilone changed the subject. "She worries when I go away this way. Particularly when I head into the interior. There's an element of danger involved. The animals are wilder and saucier, you will see crocs swimming past the boat and perhaps around it looking for an opening to mischief, and, then, there are some pretty wild Indians that I hope we'll pass by without incident."

"I hope Tempranica is not putting much trust in me to ward off Indians."
     "She has you in mind, Father Bax, for taking care of a foe more formidable than any half-naked savage."

"I see," I said quietly. "Then you haven't —"

"I'm getting there, I'm getting there!" Pardrilone said roughly, tightening his grip upon the beer bottle he held. "I take my family to church every Sunday and holy day. I give to charity, both local and beyond our area. I help in endowing the local school run by the sisters. It's that last hurdle that's so hard to get over. I've done too much."

"Can I help?"

"Of course not. We know each other too well."

"That doesn't matter."

"Oh, it does, it does," he insisted.

"Then why am I here?  Why did Tempranica give me that long look on the landing?"

"If I am in any danger of, well, you know, death, then —"

"Then all inhibitions go by the board. Any port in a storm."

"Let's hope it doesn't come to that," he said.

"Nonetheless, I'll hold myself in a state of readiness," I said cheerily.

We both laughed at that, though we shouldn't have treated the matter with anything less than seriousness. Pardrilone rose, said he would prepare our supper meal, and then we had best get some sleep.

He was almost to the lounge when he turned and remarked, "You speak Spanish quite well, Father Bax. Can you hear Spanish as well as you can speak it?  We will be picking up the four others at a small upriver village. I would appreciate it if you wouldn't speak Spanish while they are on board. If they try to draw you out, act dumb. Listen to what they say, but don't show any hint of understanding, either in your voice or on your face."  We had been speaking in Spanish. Abruptly, he switched to English and went on talking to me as if no change had occurred. "It might be a good idea if we talk English from now on. Distance ourselves from the Spanish. All right?"

I nodded slightly.



     As I lay in the bottom bunk in my cabin, I thought, Some vacation. I'm on call to administer last rites. Well, I am prepared for them. I just hope they won't be called into use.

I fell asleep but was wakened at an early morning hour by footsteps, the footsteps of many, on the deck. I imagined the other passengers, to whom I must not speak Spanish, were embarking, and without too much trouble fell back to sleep.

 


 

     The next day I met the new passengers. They were rugged, muscled men. They spoke to me in Spanish in a familiar accent, which was not the accent of the area in which we found ourselves. I thought of this for a while, and then it came to me: the accent was of that area in a republic to the north, the very same republic in which I had temporarily headed up that mission. I wondered, What are they doing so far from home?  And I wondered, too, if any of them had seen me while I was at the mission up there.

They spoke to me in Spanish and watched for my reaction. I smiled weakly and put on a dumb face while making gestures intended to communicate that I didn't speak the language of the land. When they understood what I was telling them, their faces hardened into easy sneers, the trademark of the practiced anticlerical.

I won't identify these men by their real names in this account because even at this late date there are forces intent on hunting them down. For the sake of this little piece, I shall call them Quentin, Alan, Bob, and Charlie. Actually, I applied these names to them at the very outset. Giving them Anglo names objectified them for me. Even then, I knew this was the way I would want to remember them.

Clearly, Quentin was the dominant one among them. He peremptorily ordered the others about, complained to Alan that the luggage was not arranged to his liking in their room. He got on Diego, who was cooking that day, because the eggs were too runny. He chastised Bob because a compass that was to be taken on board was nowhere to be  found and he enjoined Bob to wolf down his breakfast and get going on finding the instrument. At least Bob got to eat his breakfast. Charlie wasn't so lucky. Before he touched his food, he was ordered to get "the papers" together for a mid-morning meeting. Quentin even leveled a blast at his host asking why he had to share his cabin with Alan while "the priest" got a cabin all to himself. Quentin suggested a switch. But Pardrilone was firm, explaining that Father Bax needed space to say daily Mass and perform other religious duties and so the room assignments would remain the way they were. Pardrilone explained that even he deferred to my needs and shared a cabin with Diego Quentin and Pardrilone stared at each other for some tense seconds. You could feel the heat rising at the breakfast table. Then Quentin said, "You haven't always been so accommodating of priests."

Pardrilone answered amusedly while bringing his hands together as if he were praying. He said, "I have become very religious, you know."

Quentin laughed uproariously and the others joined in, obviously relieved to have the opportunity to laugh. The moment of acrid suspense  was over. While it lasted, I looked from Alan to Bob to Charlie and saw in their faces genuine fear. Then, as if he had taken it all back, Quentin asked, "Why do you have a priest on board at all?"

Pardrilone explained that I wanted to visit the Oxaxica tribe and see what the possibility for implanting a mission might be. (This was news to me.)

"A mission," Quentin roared. "Oh, yes, the Oxaxica will welcome your plump little parson with open arms. Or mouths.. Think of it, he can do his converting from the inside out."

More laughter. Pardrilone explained to me in English what Quentin had said. I laughed too. (But my heart wasn't in it.)

 


 

The days went by slowly matched by the slowness of our progress. It soon became apparent that we were not on a cruise or a fishing vessel but rather on a kind of meeting place on water. It seemed that the four passengers were moving toward a landfall some miles above the Oxaxica settlement. There they would debark and go about some business with like-minded fellows.

And that business was revolution.

That's what all the meetings with Pardrilone were about. Revolution. Within a week of picking up Quentin and his henchmen, a plan of action was put together that involved Pardrilone's active participation, both physically and monetarily. Quentin's plans for my host's wealth were to drain it dry. "We all have to make sacrifices," I heard him advising Pardrilone one day. Pardrilone nodded his head, but there was a grim, tight cast to his features.

Day by day, the plans for the revolution were laid out in the meetings. Quentin would be the linchpin, the praefectus, the leader of all, the supreme commandant. On him would hang every decision, every aspect of the nation-wide uprising. It would start in the deep interior, exploit the disaffected, recruit the Spanish-speaking populace of the villages, promise them anything, get them moving and keep them moving until the government was toppled.

I tried to make myself as inconspicuous as possible. I even tried fishing to kind of assure everyone that my ears were closed to what was said around me. I soon stopped that, though, because the passing crocs were constantly snapping at my line.

If the meetings were dominated by Quentin, they were not held without some dissenting voices, the strongest of these being Pardrilone's who exhibited real reluctance at giving up a way of life that offered contentment without the continual incursions of government troops. The others, too, complained of difficulties they foresaw. For example, Charlie one day pointed out that the logistics of supply and transport would be difficult. He was answered by Quentin who said, "We'll take what we need. We'll bleed them dry. And if they put up any resistance, we'll cut them down."

At times, Quentin would enliven the discussion by threatening his co-revolutionaries with being cut down if they didn't accede to his demands. That sort of pronouncement was usually a discussion-ender.

One day. I sat outside the lounge while they met indoors. I was off to the side. They couldn't see me, but I could hear them. They talked of usual things, then before they broke up, Quentin asked, "How far are we from the Oxaxica?"

Pardrilone answered, "About a day or so, at our present speed."

"Have you made arrangements for tribute?"

"I have blankets on board. Other things that will appeal to them. We had thought to store up a quantity of fish, but these twice-a-day meetings have given us scant chance to drop a line. And Father Bax has had no luck. We can always give them some of our provisions."

"Don't give the dirty savages any of my favorites!" Quentin bawled. Then he added, as casually as if he were ordering another slice of bacon at breakfast, "Oh , the priest. You know we will have to kill him, don't you?"

Then a real ruckus ensued. I couldn't catch much of what was said in spite of the volume. Pardrilone was objecting, citing his duties as a host, that his wife would kill him if he returned  without the priest, and so on. What was particularly gratifying was that Alan, Bob, and Charlie joined with Pardrilone in his objections. Perhaps, I thought, I would walk off this vessel alive when we got back to the estancia . I might have had reason for fresh worry, though, when Quentin exited the lounge and saw me sitting there, ostensibly reading my breviary.

"So, priest," (he pronounced the word as if it formed a bitterness in his mouth), "how much have you heard?  Or more to the point, how much did you understand?  I hope little, for I want to see the look on that suet face of yours when you get it."

He walked away, then came back. He had one last word for me. "You know, I find it strange that you are always around while we are talking. You show a great interest in things that are expressed in a language you don't understand."  Then, he said in English, "How is the fishing going?"

"Very badly," I answered. "The crocs keep stealing my bait."

"Perhaps we must give them something a little more substantial, more satisfying."


 

Surprisingly, I slept well that night. I have often thought about that night and how well I slept. I suppose I must give Pardrilone the credit for this. I felt my trust was well placed.

 The next morning everyone seemed unduly and heedlessly happy. Alan, Bob, and Charlie actually smiled at me and offered me a place at table. Diego said I could have anything I wanted including those pancakes I was hopelessly addicted to. I said fine and ate my fill all the while contemplating when the legitimate limits of appetite might impinge on gluttony. Pardrilone was expansive, treating all to stories of married life and its rewards until he was hooted down by the three revolutionaries.

Three?  But where's the fourth? I thought. I asked after Quentin. "Sleeping in, is he?"

The dining room fell silent. Without thinking, I had asked my question in Spanish. Then Pardrilone replied matter-of-factly as if it were the most natural thing in the world that I should switch to Spanish at this particular time. "No, Commandant Quentin had business on shore. He debarked last night."

"Not at the Oxaxica settlement, surely."

"No, that's a day's journey upriver."

"But that's where we were yesterday. A day's travel from the Indians."  That's when I noticed that the ship wasn't under power. We were just floating with the current.

Pardrilone explained. "We don't want to pass the Oxaxica during daylight. We have a better chance of avoiding them at night."

Satisfied with this, I left the dining table, reluctantly abandoning half a pancake still on my plate, and went to my cabin   There, I began a letter to Father Murphy, my assistant pastor back at Francis Xavier, to tell him of my on-water experiences and when I estimated I would be returning. The strain of yesterday's events, including Quentin's threats, must have  had an effect on me, for I fell asleep halfway through my letter. I woke to a soft knocking on my door. It was Diego, announcing lunch.

I didn't have much appetite, but went to the dining room anyway. I told Diego I wasn't up to a full meal, but perhaps could do with a small plate of ice cream. Diego went into the galley to get it for me. I watched with anticipation as he unlocked the freezer, took out the ice cream, prepared a portion for me, and put the remainder back. Then he closed and locked the door, picked up the bowl of ice cream, and served me. As he put down the ice cream, Diego said to his stepfather, "We have to fix that freezer latch. It's extra work unlocking and locking it."

Pardrilone replied, "It'll be fixed tonight, I promise you."

I picked up the plate of ice cream and gave it back to Diego. "You know," I said, "I don't really feel, after all, that I want any ice cream, I'm sorry Diego. Do you think the ship's movement has unsettled my stomach?"

It might have been then that I noticed we were under power. The engines created barely a tremor, but it was power, nevertheless. "Yes," Pardrilone said. We are proceeding slowly so that we will pass the Oxaxicas about an hour after sunset. Father, I think you should be in your cabin as we pass the Indian settlement. We may be stopped by their war canoes with a demand for tribute. We could probably scatter them with our rifles, but I don't want it to get to that. I imagine there are many things on board that will be attractive to them. I'll  have to scrape, but I will come up with something."


 

Despite what Pardrilone told me, I went out on the deck that night. From the ship rail I could view numerous lights on shore indicating habitation. The ship was not under power, we were becalmed, not moving, probably anchored. I heard someone come up on my left. I turned and in the deck light saw it was Diego.

"Father, Father," he said, "you should be in your cabin."

I pointed to the shore. "Is that the Oxaxica settlement?"

"Yes, yes, but you must go inside. They have these blow darts."

I returned to my cabin.


 

Later that morning, I witnessed the effect Quentin had on everyone through the simple fact of his absence. Alan, Bob, and Charlie talked easily of their homes, their children, their futures. One competed with the others to show me wallet-worn photos of their wives and children, their houses and gardens. There was no talk of revolution and I wondered if Pardrilone and the others had had a serious falling out with Quentin. I dared ask, "Well, then, how goes the revolution?"

This cast a pall over everything, in the middle of which Pardrilone said, "There has been a diminution of interest in it since our last strategy meeting. At least among those who would have to support it with their energy and property, perhaps with their lives. We are beyond those youthful excesses. They are a thing of the past. They will not adorn our futures. Wouldn't you say so, comrades?"

The last word was endowed with an edge of sarcasm and Alan, Bob, and Charlie fell all over each other in assuring "Comrade" Pardrilone that they were with him, that they desired nothing more than to get back to their farms and ranches. Revolution, hah!

I think it must have been around ten o'clock in the morning when I noticed the shadows on the deck, particularly one formed by light hitting the ship's radio antenna. If we were continuing in the same direction as yesterday, which was generally north, they should have been pointing toward the port side of the boat. Instead they were pointing toward the starboard side. Pardrilone, who was standing nearby, guessed what was going through my mind and smiled.

"Yes, Father, we changed direction last night. There is no need to go north now. We are going south. We will drop Alan, Bob, and Charlie off at where we picked them up. And then, Diego and I will enjoy with you the resumption of your vacation without that madman Quentin draining us of our spirit and substance."

And he went on at some length excoriating Quentin, using words that were sanitized for my consumption, though some of them escaped the process and excited my curiosity, if not my sensibilities.

After he stopped for breath, I spoke. "Have you never heard that old saying: one should not speak ill of the dead?"

"What did you say?"

I repeated what I said.

"What makes you think that?" he asked. "There are no dead around here."

"Not now there isn't. It was evident from the so-called strategy meetings that you and the others were not enthusiastic about Quentin's vision. None of you wanted to go back to the roughness of living in the field. The raids, the firefights, the wounds, the abounding dirt, the terrible food weakening your insides. You may have been willing to give Quentin some money. But, no, he wanted it all. What could you do, he was relentless?  If you gave him less than he wanted,  he would send people after you later on after he had recruited a group made up of characters as crazy as he. I would imagine, considering how casually Quentin talked of death (including mine!), he would go after not just you, but your families as well.

 "So you had to buy him off, if possible. You had to gauge just what he would do if he got less than what he wanted."

"We knew what he would do. He wanted this ship and when I said No, he instructed the other three to kill Diego and me. Instead, they came to me and the four of us decided to face him down. The thing with Quentin was this: he thought he was invincible. He drew a gun on us. Someone knocked it out of his hand and then someone else (I won't tell you who) finished him off with a knife in his vitals. We threw him into the river for the crocs."

"No, you didn't," I said. "And I wonder if Quentin's dispatch was the improvisatory affair you make it out to be."

"What makes you say that?"

"That freezer compartment. From the very outset, you had that great big empty shelf that would accommodate a man's body. If you had need of storing a man's body for any length of time, that is. That lock on the door told me that something was in that freezer that you didn't want me to stumble upon. But I guessed what was in there. That's why I didn't eat the ice cream. Perhaps I'm squeamish, but I didn't want to eat anything that shared quarters with Senor Quentin."

"Okay, after we stored it awhile, we threw it to the crocs."

"Why didn't you turn south then and there?  Instead, you sail up into a danger zone with all lights blazing, deal with the Indians, then turn around and head south. What was the matter, crocs off their feed?  What if the body surfaced near some settlement downriver, probably one that had a police outpost, what then?  I'm sure you thought of that. It all comes down to the tribute and how you and your associates, with great effectiveness, fixed it so Quentin would disappear from the face of the earth."

"What makes you so certain?"

"I don't see a lock on the freezer now."

"I'll do whatever you tell me to do," Pardrilone said, resignedly.

"Oh, dear, what must I do?  I shall have to think a long time about this. :Perhaps for the rest of my life. Just-war considerations may apply here. There is the matter of self-defense. Then I would have to have a session, perhaps several sessions, with my spiritual counselor. It will be a complicated and prolonged process."

Pardrilone interrupted my floundering speech. "Father, I would like to take that last hurdle."

I looked at him closely, and concluded that he was ready. "Yes, yes, of course. Why don't we go to my cabin."

On our way to the cabin, I searched my pockets for my stole. I found it, put it around my neck, then opened the door to the cabin.

And here's where this story ends.

 

The End

 

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