I have the misfortune to be named Alejandro del la Mancha. The other children in school used to tease me unmercifully, asking where my donkey was and was Pancho coming to kiss my wounds better. I learned to fight well and willingly those early years in Valencia. I had thirteen summers when these events began.
I was a fair-skinned, blue-eyed, blonde Spaniard, very rare and often cursed. My uncle was a swarthy skinned, curly haired flamboyant drunkard of a man who made his living renting out carts, wagons and mules to visitors who came by ship and wished to buy goods. Unlike some in those years just after the war I never starved and I had a warm, dry place to sleep. However whenever he was in his cups uncle Thomas would take his belt to me, calling me the son of an ungrateful wretch. As if I had anything to do about it! I learned to spend much of my time in the attic as the stairs were too much for him when he was in his cups. One good fall and a broken arm taught him a lesson. I kept that brown-stained cord ready in case he tried to climb his mountain of vengeance once again.
A lawyer dressed all in black robes of the court came one day to deliver a sealed packet to him, all done up in ribbons and wax seals. It was a legacy from some forgotten cousin that had left for South America to out-run the war and to try his luck.
He had died along with his family after a wandering trader left them with black boils and a fever that killed. He wrote of a well-watered valley deep within the mountains where the grapes and vegetables grew well. A large hacienda, made of heavy stone and built long ago, waited for him. A covering letter from a priest described finding the man's body on his deathbed with the letter on a side table, along with the deed to the property.
My uncle was nearly giddy with delight at the thought of being a landed gentleman, despite the holding being so far away. Nevertheless he, his wife and I quickly packed our things and as soon as he sold his business we took ship for Ecuador.
It was a half-sail, half-coal burner packet steamer. The "El Greco" made it across the Atlantic in three weeks, then through the canal and up the coast. Then we traveled up a huge estuary. We came to a large city, Guyaquil. After that I remember seeing jungles for days on end. The easy travel ended at Samborodon, where we changed ship for a little flat-bottomed craft that was built for the local rivers. We proceeded another perhaps ten kilometers upriver until we came to a stone dock near a small town. There we were unceremoniously dumped on the dock to make our own way Most of the houses were up on wood poles.
Uncle Thomas made some inquiries about the plantation and was told that there was a dedicated narrow-gauge railway that was the only way to or from the property. The engine and cars had been sold off years ago, but there was a large track inspection cart available. We found it. It had a hand-pump apparatus. I wasn't going near the damned thing because I knew that my blessed uncle would make me his mule. He wasn't stupid enough to want to pump the thing either, so a mechanic was hired to install a diesel engine, fifty gallon fuel tank and a chain drive onto our transport.
One fine morning we loaded up all of our possessions that had made it across the ocean, filled the diesel fuel tank and secured two five-gallon jerry-cans of diesel to take with us. Then Uncle fired up the engine and we were off on our second great adventure. The jungle was noisy, dense and colorful. Hot too.
It seemed quite perilous in places, as the sleepers that separated the old stone piers from the iron rails had decayed away in places. Still, the comparatively light weight of the load was to our benefit and we proceeded up the grade, deep into the mountains. We had to break out one of our spare containers of fuel before we reached the mountain valley where the tracks ended. I did not consider us marooned without enough fuel to return to the docks as the trip was uphill the entire way. We could get back simply by retarding the wheels with the engine.
We were not deceived in the description of the valley. It was broad, long, fertile and had natural water. The hacienda, though--that was victim to a broad interpretation. A huge black basalt and granite castle with six towers was carved out of the roots of the mountain. It sat high up at the other end of the valley, perhaps fifteen kilometers away. It was backed by a looming mountain. The mists and low clouds which obscured both the castle and the mountain made them seem ominous, a feeling which was not dispelled as we approached.
We had taken a pair of iron-shod barrows from the rail depot to move our possessions. The long, narrow stone-covered roadway was lined with warehouses and little hovels. The local Indians came out en mass to see what all the confusion was about. There was dead silence except for the crashing of the iron wheels of our carts against the stones as we trudged our way up to the castle door.
A once-working drawbridge sat permanently bridging a deep crevasse. Beyond that the main gate sat partially open on one side. I had hopes that wild animals had not moved in.
The inner doorway was shut but answered to a good push. A short gallery left us in the courtyard. It was so wide that I could scarcely throw a stone across it. I could see where an herb garden had grown wild, and some roses. I saw what perhaps was a wild vegetable garden but only closer examination would tell the truth. Thomas set down his barrow, then strode to the next doorway onto the courtyard on the right. Theresa, his wife and my aunt, followed close behind, as did I. Within was a gallery going both left and right as well as a huge circular stairway with a thick central pillar that travelled both up and down into the darkness. The air coming up from below felt damp to my face. I presumed that meant a supply of water lay below. Thomas chose to climb.
The next level resembled the first, but window penetrations brought in sunlight from the courtyard. Both the third and fourth levels were the same. The place was huge. I was pleased to find bedrooms and bunk rooms on the top floor. I would have a place to lay my head that night. The top floor seemed to be split between troop quarters and servants quarters with a few separate rooms for cadre and commissioned officers.
The level below that held larger rooms--bedrooms, retiring rooms, a small library and more. One entire half of the floor was set aside as apartments. A defaced chapel sat sad and alone. One of the towers held a ramp rather than stairs within it which cheered me immensely as I had visions of thumping those barrows up the stairs until my eyes crossed with me wheezing like a ruptured steam chest.
As it was, I was quite happy to find a four-wheeled wagon larger than the barrows yet small enough for me to pull so that I could get our goods under cover for the night. It took me several trips and it was quite dark out before I finished. Aunt Theresa held a lantern for me so that I did not slip and fall as the moon provided little light that night. There were two chests full of clothing, one full of bedding, various kitchen hardware, much grain and other food prepared for travel and a generous assortment of brooms, mops, soap and garden tools. We had forgotten about lanterns and oil but found a supply already at the castle within a store room that also held china, glassware and flatware. Aunt Theresa called it a butler's pantry. It was on the second floor, just off of a large room that held a table for twelve or more. Chairs hung up against the walls. Sideboards for serving dishes, wine bottles, china, glasses and stemware also sat back against the walls, out of the way. Next to it was a small room with a hip-high stone shelf lined with smooth depressions. Aunt Theresa called it a buttery and told me that it was where the beer had been served from.
I claimed a top floor bedroom for my own that must have been a captain's quarters. It had shutters covering windows on opposing sides of the room. When opened, they gave a cool cross-breeze in the night. It held a desk and chair besides a long bed. It was positioned close to a garderobe and a shower room.
I wasn't about to sleep in the filth that had drifted down over the mattress. I heaved it up and into the corridor where I beat the devil out of it, raising a thick choking cloud of dust. Then, after it was covered with a fresh sheet and a light blanket I had a relatively clean place to rest my head. I quickly fell asleep.
My dreams were especially vivid. In them I heard whispering and saw much of the castle as if I were six inches tall or less. My view kept shifting madly and charging from room to room, level to level as if searching for something that either wasn't there or was hidden beyond my senses to discover. I woke tired.
Since we had not found a kitchen yet, Theresa made do and cooked over a corner of the fire place in the big dining room. She prepared bacon sandwiches with flat cakes that she 'baked' in a cast iron fry pan. I did not know that she was so prepared for rough living nor so inventive and complimented her on it. She smiled and explained that as a girl no older than I she had cooked for her brothers daily on a rude clay hearth much worse than the raised, nicely rocked in fireplace that she was currently using. I gained much respect for her that day.
.... There is more of this story ...