Simon and the carpenter staggered off toward the fore-peak to get brushes and red-lead. Rafa started lowering the tools as the Mexicans and I climbed down into No. 4. I followed Lupe into the man-hole. Coño and the other youngster named Enrique came next. I felt like a prisoner scourged into a dungeon. The damp dusty vapors in the cool chamber filled my lungs. The darkness was ominous with the hatch covers half closed. The cavern echoed a loud thud each time one of us jumped off the ladder. It carried like a bass drum in an army band.
Rafa lowered the bucket of tools. It swung like a pendulum as the ship heaved, then crashed and spilled chipping hammers, scraping bars, and wire brushes on the deck. A second line with brooms and shovels swayed down. He positioned a spotlight at one corner of the hatch cover, tied it off, and plugged it in. He angled it toward one side. “Start there.” Rafa yelled from above. “When the sun comes up, maybe we won’t need the lamp.” The light revealed the cave’s corners like headlights through an alley.
Coño stood in the shadow of the hatch beam. He waited until Rafa left. Enrique stood to his right and let Coño talk. “I told you we‘d talk again, Amigo.”
Lupe flanked my left side and inched around. I shuffled back to keep my left eye on Lupe. “Kinda lonely down here—right?” Coño lurched a half a step forward. I took a basic stance and pointed my left toe at his front foot. My knees bent, right foot up on my right toe, arms up, elbows in, head turtled in between both fists. I swayed as the ship pitched.
“So you think you some kinda fighter?” His tone was low, from the throat. He flicked his right hand as he spoke. His neck muscles flexed as he stuck out his lower jaw. He talked through clenched teeth, cocked his head, and stared into my eyes. He moved closer. From my left, Lupe crept in. The range shrank. The ship rocked. The light tilted. The moment flashed like a Saturday night brawl in a disco club. The Mexicans surrounded me like wolves.
Suddenly, Lupe dove at the back of my legs. The moment I glanced down, Coño hurled a wild overhand right. I stepped back, ducked in the shell of my arms, and blocked the punch with my left forearm, but fell over the runt and landed on my ass. As Lupe tried to get up, I kicked him flush in the nose. Coño shoved him out of the way and jumped on top of me. His first punch hit my ribs. I cringed from the impact. I blocked his second and third wild hooks, sat up, and head-butted him on the forehead as his gut landed against my knees. My teeth ground with the jolt. The collision stunned him. I was dazed, too.
Enrique ran full stride from behind Coño with a chipping hammer in his right hand. I curled up like a shrimp on a hook. The blow struck my thigh. I yelled, rolled over and away. His second swing missed and glanced off the bare steel deck with a reddish spark in the gloomy darkness. I rolled again. As he reared back for a third strike, I jumped up on one leg. He flung the hammer at my face. I stuck my left hand out and the heavy tool smashed into my knuckles and caromed over my arm. The handle struck my mouth and split my lip. I staggered back against the bulkhead and hunched over. My lip swelled and bled. I stood bewildered.
Coño raged by Enrique and with two long strides was on me again. I hopped back and hunched down in my shell-like stance and stopped a wild hook with my forearm. He followed it with a right to my solar plexus. My lungs collapsed and I crumbled to the deck. I couldn’t breathe. I lay on my left side with my back against the bulkhead. He took a few steps back waited for the ship to roll, and came at me again. I peered at him with one eye, face pressed against the rough rusty deck. He shifted his weight to his right foot, then his left and balanced himself to kick me in the face. As he reared back his boot, I kicked back the knee of the leg he stood on. It snapped, so loud it echoed. He fell backward, clutched the knee with both hands, and let out a bloodcurdling scream. He rolled over in pain. “Cabron! Te voy a matar! Te voy a matar!” I still couldn’t get up; my lungs were pancaked, airless. Enrique took one knee next to Coño waiting for orders. Lupe winced on the deck holding his bloody nose.
“What the hell is going on down there?” Rafa’s holler echoed down into the dungeon. “Cesar, get your ass up here and go brush lead up front. Send Simon back here to No. 4. Hurry up!”
I sprang to my feet. Lupe held his bloody nose. Coño held his knee with both hands; his face red in anguish. His veins bulged. I limped past him toward the ladder. My ribs ached; my lip was swollen and my left thigh throbbed.
Mounting the ladder was a slow process. One rung at a time, I gripped the rusted steel with scraped and swollen knuckles. My left thigh twitched as I shifted my weight onto that leg. My ribs twinged when I reached for each rung and pulled. I snailed upward.
Topside, a red dawn. The fresh breeze left me faint from the climb. I leaned against the hatch’s coaming. Trader plunged through a wave; I relaxed in safety.
The rest of the morning trickled by without further incident. The carpenter and I brushed red-lead over chipped-out cavities. The work soothed my spirit and numbed the pain. The sun came up just before breakfast and the wind died back considerably. The ship still keeled and lurched through the ocean, but the squall passed, and the rollers decreased to about five to six feet.
Breakfast turned into a stare-down contest. Coño sat on the bench with his knee wrapped and glared at me. The kids gawked. I studied their faces. Lupe kept blotting his nose with a paper napkin. I had a knot on my forehead and a swollen hand. My thigh and ribs throbbed. Coño also sported a red lump on his forehead. He’d probably cool it for today.
And, he did. They smoked their ritual joint after breakfast. Apparently, Coño’s leg wasn’t broken, but he limped. He leaned against the bulwark keeping weight off it. I avoided eye contact and went up to the bow with the carpenter. We finished No. 3 by lunchtime. The Mexicans and Simon had No. 4 done and most of No. 5 chipped out. The sun shone bright and hot.
For chow, Gordo cooked pork chops, mashed potatoes, plantains and the usual white rice. I ate like an escaped prisoner. Afterwards, the Mexican gang huddled aft by the bulwark once more. I started to wonder how much weed they had.
On the way back from lunch, I stopped and leaned on the gunwale to feel the breeze. White-caps were everywhere. Clouds sprinkled across a gray-blue sky. Directly in front of me, thirty or forty yards from the ship, two, three…five shiny gray silhouettes streaked by towards the bow, dolphins. I wobbled to the fo’c’sle and stuck my head into the thru-hull for the bow line. Tail-fins beat the surface as they submarined from side to side over the top edge of the ram-bow. They propelled along lunging and diving. Every so often one would break the surface and out popped a foamy vapor as the blow-hole opened with an audible puff. The sideshow lasted for a time and then, as though a whistle had blown, they disappeared.
The day dragged. The afternoon sun beat down. The work paced on. The ship swayed and pitched. Waves beat the ram-bow. The wind brought salty spray. Seagulls came and went. A pair of frigate birds followed for a time framed high above the masts by the cargo hold. Tomas joined the chipping gang around 1300. Simon left for the wheelhouse at 1600. The carpenter and I finished brushing No. 5 with red-lead before 1800 leaving No. 6 chipped out, but without lead.
At dinner Tomas sat beside me. “Heard you fought Coño and his brothers.” He studied the lump on my head and swollen lip.
“Yeah, but Rafa stopped it before things got out of hand.”
“Tienes huevos.” He raised his thumb. For someone to stand up to Coño apparently required balls. Tomas stared into my eyes for a moment, then nodded. “We’ll get to Houston by 0500, you know.”