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in yet?” The hackles rose on Ramon Ortiz’ neck. Did someone know about the ship? He turned startled eyes in the direction of the caller. A group of older men stood under the awning outside Ferrier’s Tapas Bar, sheltering themselves from the pelting rain. He recognized several of his grandfather’s colleagues from the Generalitat, the outlawed governing body of Catalonia that continued to meet in secret. Most were men who had lived their entire lives chafing under the domination of the Castillian Spanish Empire. He picked out Joao Miro, the gray-bearded former butcher who was grinning maliciously at him. “No pot of gold yet?” he called at Ortiz again. “Maybe you can just wait for a rich widow!” Several of the other men laughed, somewhat uncomfortably. Ramon knew that Miro competed with his grandfather for the leadership of the Generalitat, and they all held Ramon’s father in disdain, giving Miro two excuses to persecute him. But at least they were only mocking him, not intentionally revealing his plans for the Spanish ship. Still, the reference to a widow could only be an insult to his father, something Ramon would not tolerate.
Ramon pulled his large hat lower on his head as he crossed the cobbled street toward the gathered men. The storm, unusual for springtime Barcelona and the Mediterranean coast, had been robust, starting early this morning with lightning and thunder. He avoided several puddles that had accumulated during the storm even while keeping his eyes sternly focused on Miro. As he reached the other side of the street most of the men backed away, intimidated somewhat by Ramon’s tall, lean body. Although only 17, he was nearly two meters tall, at least a head taller than any of the older men, and he walked with an easy athletic grace. Only Miro stood his ground. “You know, Miro, it’s true, my mother was a widow when my father married her, but since my grandfather disinherited her, she was hardly rich. But now I understand your choice of career. You butcher everything, even your insults.” This time the laughter was genuine. “He’s got you there, Joao,” one of the other men joshed. Miro’s grin had turned sour but the other men’s general levity broke the tension, a couple of them clapping Ramon on the back. “Good one, Ramon, you’ve inherited Gabriel’s sharp tongue, that’s certain.” Ramon ignored them and ducked into Ferrier’s entrance, removing his hat and shaking off the rainwater. As his eyes grew accustomed to the gloomy interior of the bar, he noted the group of young men he’d come to meet talking conspiratorially at a table in the far corner. At the only other occupied table, against the wall to his right, a large, round man slept, his head on his arms, slumped over the table. A glass, half full, sat next to another empty glass on the table. Some people start the day early, he thought. Cosette, Ferrier’s daughter and the bar’s serving girl, bent over the sleeping man. Ramon’s pulse quickened when he saw her. She was not quite his age but she had had the responsibility of helping her father ever since her mother had died when she was 8 years old. As a result, she was far more serious than other girls Ramon knew from the streets, and, he thought, far more beautiful. With a shake of her head, she picked up the empty glass and headed his way with a disapproving look on her face.
“I thought you were going to hit that old man.” Ramon grinned. “I wanted to. He deserved it, but his age saved him.” “Well, at least for once you used your brain instead of your fists. Your father would be proud, even if your Grandfather wouldn’t.” “Cosette, my Grandfather never uses his fists. You might like him if you gave him a chance.” “I might like him if he gave me a chance,” she retorted. “He hates me just like he hates your father, and for the same reasons. I’m not Catalan, and I’m not stupid. And if he weren’t crippled, he would use his fists. As it is, he uses his tongue as a weapon!” Ramon laughed. He couldn’t argue with the truth. “Hey Ramon,” one of the young men in the corner called out. “We’re over here.” At his shout, the sleeping man jerked, and then resumed his resting position. Ramon waved and looked back at Cosette. “I’ve got to go. Can I see you later?” Cosette looked unhappily at the group of young men in the corner. “I don’t like this, Ramon. You’re going to get into trouble. Why do you have to spend all your time with them? They’re trouble, with all their plotting and protesting.” “They’re my friends, Cosette. And they’re good people. They’re just unhappy with their lives. And can you blame them? There aren’t any jobs, there’s no money, there are Spanish soldiers on every corner, and we can’t even work our land, because they’ve taken it from us. You’ve got to understand that.”
“You sound like your grandfather. And what if there aren’t any jobs? You could be in school; your father could get you a place in the University. You don’t need to be on the streets.” “And what would I do in University? We can’t even go to our own University because the Spanish closed it and sent the faculty all the way to Cervera. Sure I could go to a Jesuit school. But even my father says that all you learn there is “Latin and the Stupidities.” Again the call came from the corner, “Ramon, we really need to talk!” “I’ll be right there,” Ramon called. “I’ve got to go, Cosette. I’m sorry. I don’t want to argue with you.” “I know, Ramon. I’m just worried about you.” “Don’t be,” he smiled. “I’m fine. Will you see me later?” She smiled shyly. “After I help my father close.” Cosette surreptitiously squeezed his hand as she passed him and headed toward the kitchen. Ramon watched her go, and then headed to join his friends. The group included five young men. None of them had work, a mark of shame among the industrious Catalan community. But whereas Barcelona had once been the center of the Mediterranean universe, its massive natural harbor the locus of trade connecting all of Western Europe to Italy and western Asia, and where jobs abounded on the docks and in the warehouses adjoining the harbor, now the warehouses stood empty, save for the rats earning a living off human waste. Other than Ramon, the entire group lived in the Barceloneta, the rundown housing barracks abutting the harbor, built years before to house the dockworkers imported from around the Mediterranean. In the
Barceloneta crime had replace the once teeming commercial activity. A day survived in the Barceloneta was a successful day. Ramon slid into the chair saved for him between his best friend, Xavier Alos, and Jordi Balenguer. Alos and Balenguer formed a marked contrast, Alos a short, slight young man with a quick wit and biting tongue, and Balenguer a huge, ursine peasant who spoke seldom. When Balenguer did talk, the words came slowly as if his mind had to formulate them one at a time. What Balenguer lacked in intelligence, he made up with brute strength and single-minded persistence, a trait only Ramon seemed to value. If not for his friendship with Ramon, Balenguer would never have been included in the group. The remaining chairs belonged to Albert and Jose Luis Crespan, and Enrique Cuxart. The Crespan brothers were smart enough and willing enough, but neither of them believed they would ever follow in their father’ footsteps, working on the docks. Their father had lost his job several years before and seemed reconciled that he would never work again, spending his days drinking in the entranceway to their flat and yelling at their mother to bring him more beer. Cuxart, the Crespans’ older cousin, had only recently wandered into the Barceloneta from the farmlands west of the city and had quickly entranced them with his tales of sexual conquest. Ramon had not warmed to Cuxart, a fact Cuxart noticed and seemed to enjoy. “Hey Ramon,” Alos grinned. “Glad you could pull yourself away to meet with us.” Balenguer silently patted Ramon on the shoulder in greeting, his puppy-dog eyes smiling his pleasure. “Hey, Ortiz,” Cuxart smiled. “When you’re through with that girl, you should give her to Jordi so he won’t be in the dark the rest of his life.” The Crespans laughed but Alos and Ramon remained silent, Ramon’s eyes narrowing as he scrutinized Cuxart. Balenguer had resumed his dull-eyed, out-of-focus stare. If he understood Cuxart, he gave no sign of it. But Ramon did.
“Jordi can take care of himself, Rique. But just so we’re clear, I don’t like your jokes. I’ll accept an apology this time. Next time I’ll beat the shit out of you.” Cuxart held his hands up in mock defense. “Whoa, a threat. I’m scared. You know, we’re just having a little fun.” Ramon nodded. “Just so you understand, I don’t think it’s funny.” “Hey Ramon,” Jose Luis said. “Lighten up, we’re all friends here.” “Maybe. But my friends don’t insult Jordi or Cosette, or me. Cuxart here just did all three.” “OK, I said I’m sorry, Ramon. I won’t tease Jordi again. I won’t even mention the girl. Jesus!” “You know,” Alos interjected, “we’re supposed to be discussing business. The San Blas is arriving tomorrow. The Spanish galleon San Blas, out of Cadiz, was scheduled to arrive in the port of Barcelona the next day. Its cargo was rumored to contain armaments for the Spanish garrison stationed at the Ciudad. Alos looked furtively around them. The bar remained empty except for the drunk sleeping across the room. He leaned into the table and whispered, “My friend who works for the harbormaster says it’s expected late in the afternoon. The crew usually gets shore leave the first night after it arrives and then the unloading begins the following day. That first night there will only be a skeleton crew on board protecting the cargo.” Cuxart snorted. “A skeleton crew with weapons. Are we supposed to swim out and overpower them with our good looks?”
Again Alos leaned into the table. “Ramon has a plan. We can take a dory out to the ship and board it from the side away from the docks. We need a diversion on shore to keep the crew occupied.” “What kind of diversion,” Jose Luis asked. The group looked to Ramon for an answer, but before he could speak Cuxart blurted, “How about a fire? We could burn one of those old warehouses by the wharf. That would create a commotion and get the crew looking.” “How would you keep the fire from spreading,” Ramon asked. You could burn down the whole city!” A sudden burst of wind slammed open the door to the bar, followed immediately by a sharp burst of lightning and booming thunder. Startled, they stared at the open door just as a large Spanish soldier, carrying a sword at his side and holding a long flintlock across his chest, entered the bar eyeing them suspiciously. *****
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