Read The Guns of Tortuga Online
Authors: Brad Strickland,Thomas E. Fuller
Silence fell in the cabin. Naturally, it was my uncle Patch who found his tongue first. “The
” he asked sarcastically. “D'ye mean a big black Spanish brute of a war galleon with more guns than most ships have men? Commanded by a Don who hates pirates? Like us? That
is it, now?”
Hunter nodded, and Uncle Patch exploded. “Oh, for the love of heaven, William, have you taken leave of your wee mind? He'll blow us out of the water as soon as he sees us! And he has reason, for the last time we met you took down his mizzenmast and cost him a prize! We won't be that lucky twice. And even if he does treat with us, you can no more trust a Spaniard to honor a flag of truce than you can anâ”
“Englishman?” flared Hunter. I had never seen him so angry.
With a rueful grin, my uncle said softly, “Aye. Or an Irishman who lets his tongue run away now and again.”
“Dr. Shea is correct,” said Lieutenant Fairfax slowly. “I have heard much about Don Esteban. There is no way Don Esteban will allow the
close enough to treat. However, if you come close enough where he can see a flag of truce, you can send me over in a boat and I can appeal to him.”
Uncle Patch turned absolutely purple, and I feared for his heart. Why was he getting furious every time the lieutenant made a suggestion? He spluttered, “Of all the harebrainedâI forbid it!”
The lieutenant stared at him coldly. “For what reason?”
“Ye know full well!” My uncle swallowed his rage and dropped his voice into a harsh whisper you could still have heard in Port Royal. “Don't push this matter, I warn you. Luck and pluck will take ye only so far.”
“What is the matter with you two?” the captain snapped. “This is a brave offer, Patch, bravely made!”
Lieutenant Fairfax smiled, and Uncle Patch
snarled. Jessie murmured, “He's going to tell!”
“Tell what?” I asked, as ignorant as an egg.
“Then it's settled,” Fairfax said.
But Hunter shook his head. “No, sir, it is not. If Don Esteban would not listen to a pirate, he surely would not listen to an officer of His Majesty's Royal Navy.”
My uncle crossed his arms. “Well?” he asked. “Are you going to answer that?”
For a moment, Fairfax sat silent. Then, with a curious smile at my uncle, he said, “I have heard of Don Esteban, the gallant privateer.” His hands worked away at the black ribbon that tied his hair back behind his head. “And while it is true he hates the English as much as he hates pirates, he is said to be most civilized where women are concerned.” And he shook his head, and rich chestnut hair flew in all directions.
“Ah, such a gorgeous head and not a brain in it,” Jessie muttered behind me. “Now we're in for it.”
I didn't say a word because, like Captain Hunter, I was sitting there with my mouth open. The soft lieutenant had disappeared, and in his placeâand in his clothes, which were what had so scandalized
Uncle Patchâstood a striking young woman with a very smug smile on her beautiful face. For a change, the first person to speak was the captain.
“You,” he said in an accusing voice, “are a woman!”
Uncle Patch creaked with laughter. “Faith, I wondered how long it would be! If you'd stop playacting yourself long enough to take notice of those around youâ”
The woman combed her thick hair back from her face with her fingers. “I am afraid that Jessie wasn't the only one who felt it necessary to alter her appearance when the
was taken. I can't tell you how hard it was to keep up the charade, but the two of us managed.”
Hunter turned a beady eye on my uncle. “How long have you known about this, Doctor?”
Uncle Patch sniffed. “I would be no doctor at all, now, if I could not diagnose a patient's gender. How long have I known? Since the first time I clapped eyes on the lieutenant, though she begged me not to break the news to you until she told you first.”
The captain took a deep breath and held it for a long time before he let it out. “Madam,” he said
formally, “I fear you have the advantage of me.”
“Forgive my rudeness, sir,” she said, bowing prettily from the waist. “I am Miss Helena Fairfax, and I am entirely in your debt.”
Uncle Patch, still making the odd creaking sound that was his way of laughing, said, “Now is that your true last name, or is it negotiable?”
“It is Fairfax, Doctor. I am the only daughter of the late Francis Fairfax, Viscount Almsby, and Lady Helena Trevor Fairfax. My brother, Richard, is the present Viscount Almsby. You'd like him. He is an officer, too, but in the army. He falls off his horse now and then, but I imagine you sailors must have occasional seasickness.”
“Well,” said Hunter. “Of course it's clean out of the question now. You could not possibly negotiate with Don Esteban.”
Miss Fairfax drew herself up to her full height, which put the top of her head right under the captain's chin. “Neither you nor I have any choice, Captain Hunter. I know ships, sir. My uncle Vere is a vice-admiral. I know of the pirate armada waiting in Tortuga Harbor. And I know who will command them and what he waits for!”
“What he waits for?” snapped Hunter. “What's that?”
“I know you are brave, sir. Your surgeon has spoken to me of your deeds, and I have seen you in action. But I have seen something you have not and it frightens me more than anything I might have suffered at the Commodore's.”
And now I could see the fear in her eyes and even as she set her jaw, her face became pale. “Tell us,” my uncle said, quite gently.
With her eyes flashing, Miss Fairfax said, “I have seen the
Captain Hunter, towering over Shark's
like a castle over a cabin, all over blood and gold. She is what Steele waits for, queen to his king.”
may well be delayed,” said Hunter. “Somehow Steele will have to get a message to her. If the messenger was stopped, then perhaps she would not come at all.”
will come, sir,” said Miss Fairfax definitely. “I have heard the talk, and you may depend upon it. The
In the deepening silence we all took in what Miss Fairfax had said. The
most fearsome ship of war in these seas. If Steele was indeed only waiting for her to sail into Tortuga Harborâ
Well, we were going to need all the help we could get. Even from the
For the next two days, we prowled the seas to the west of Tortuga, men constantly scanning the horizon for sight of a great black warship with a red and gold flag. Miss Fairfax and Jessie were in residence in Captain Hunter's cabin. Old Phineas Grice, the sailmaker, hauled in bolts of captured silk and satin. He had turned tailor for the time, and was helping Miss Fairfax stitch together a gown or two, for if she was to appeal to Don Esteban, she could hardly do so dressed as a man. I wondered what sort of scarecrow costume Mr. Grice would work up, for he was one of Morgan's crew, a rough old pirate.
Meanwhile, Jessie sat cross-legged on the deck, her sharp tongue tight in the corner of her mouth, sewing scraps of cloth together with tiny, tiny stitches. I had no idea that women's clothing was so complicated.
Late on the second day, the lookout cried out, “A sail!” and pointed to the west at the same time. We crowded to the rail and there she was, at first just the faint flash of white as the lowering sun struck her sails. We altered course, and before long, we saw her hull-up, riding the horizon like a great black crow hovering over the water.
She saw us and changed her own course, coming up fast. When she was close enough, the captain ordered one of the windward guns fired to show that he wanted a peaceful encounter, and had the men haul up the white flag of truce. We all held our breaths until the
fired her own gun and hoisted her own white flag.
“Well,” muttered Hunter, “at least he won't blow us out of the water without saying a polite hello first.”
In the face of my uncle's strong objections, I had been chosen to row Miss Fairfax and Jessie over. Nothing looks less like a boarding party than a twelve-year-old boy, the captain said. Then the doors to the grand cabin opened, and our negotiators stepped out on deck, followed by a beaming sailmaster.
I was impressed. Phineas did good work. Miss Fairfax wore a pale dress of cream-colored silk with all those strange ruffles and tucks quality women seem so fond of. And behind her came Jessie, her head demurely down, and clad in a maid dress that made me almost forget she was, well, Jessie. The men stood around, and a number of them even removed their hats. Captain Hunter came up and bowed to them. Miss Fairfax curtsied, and Jessie bobbed.
“You have the letter I wrote, ma'am?” he asked, sounding as if he had to struggle to speak.
“It is safe, Captain,” Miss Fairfax said.
“We had better go, then,” said a dry voice. My uncle had come up on deck and stood there with his red hair blowing in the wind.
“Doctor you can't go,” said Hunter.
With a face of thunder, Uncle Patch said, “I shall go indeed, sir! You will not dispatch my nephew alone on this errand. I shall remain in the boat while he helps the women onboard, but, by heaven, I shall go.”
I watched the captain's face. It was like some actor's in a playâanger, frustration, and then a
kind of amusement flitted across it. “Go, then,” he finally said, mildly enough.
As we all stood aside so that the ladies could descend into the boat, Jessie swept by me and whispered out of the corner of her mouth, “If you say one word about the way I look, Davy Shea, I shall thump you, I swear I will!” Some things never change.
The sailors helped my uncle clamber down. It was a wonder to me that someone so sure in operating on the human body should be so clumsy in a boat, but there it was. He could not row at all, could not even manage a canoe, and so he sat at the tiller, and I rowed for all I was worth across the space between the ships. Every time I looked over my shoulder, the
loomed even larger, towering up out of the sea like a wooden fortress. I tried to count her gun ports and kept getting lost somewhere around forty.
“It's quite large, isn't it?” Jessie asked, her voice shaking.
“Ha!” said my uncle. “You should see her when she is unloading a broadside at you! Easy, Davy, here we are.”
There we were indeed, right up against her black
sides, with the Spanish crew staring down at us. They tossed a line, which I made fast to the bow of the little skiff. They had lowered man-ropes to make our climb easier. I gulped and moved aside as Miss Fairfax and Jessie made their way up the ladder to the deck where they were helped onboard. I scurried up after them. No one helped me. I found myself on the deck of the ship that Mr. Jeffers, our chief gunner, had referred to as a Spanish beauty. He wasn't half wrong.
was much broader than the
and her sides twice as thick. The deck swarmed with Spanish sailors. A file of marines stood on the quarterdeck, their long, heavy muskets at the ready. They stared at us as if we were some flight of exotic birds that had landed among them. Everything aboard gleamed with a well-scrubbed look and I realized that, contrary to Mr. Jeffers's opinions on Spanish seamanship, this ship at least was disciplined and ready for anything.
Miss Fairfax swept grandly toward the stern, where a covey of elegantly dressed officers stood, staring down at her from the quarterdeck. One of them stepped forward, and I knew I was looking at
Don Esteban de Reyes, captain of the
Miss Fairfax smiled up at him, all white teeth and wide, wide eyes. She said, “I am Miss Helena Fairfax. Have I the pleasure of addressing Don Esteban de Reyes, captain of this formidable vessel?”
The Spanish captain made a sweeping, deep bow. “I am Don Esteban de Reyes, my lady.” He spoke English with a slightly musical, almost lisping accent. I would learn later that his native Spanish was pure Castilian. “You were not what I had expected at all.”
He was a short, stocky man, broad in the shoulders and round in the face. Compared with his officers, he was plainly dressed in a black uniform with little decoration. The sword at his side was also plain and undecorated, the leather bindings on the hilt worn smooth from use. Don Esteban was like his ship: broad, probably a bit slow, and very powerful. I remembered what Captain Hunter had once said about the only way to fight the
hit her fast, hit her hard, and then run like the devil. I thought the same could be said for her captain. He was smiling, but the smile left his eyes cold and calculating.
Miss Fairfax produced a folded white paper. “I come bearing a message from Captain William Hunter, master of the
with whom I believe you are familiar?”
Gravely, Don Esteban nodded. “Yes, I am most familiar with the
Thank you for informing me of her captain's name.” He spoke over his shoulder to his officers in Spanish, and I could understand only the strangely pronounced “Huntair.” Don Esteban turned back, the smile still on his face. “And how did so obviously a lady as yourself come to be on the ship of such a man?”
Miss Fairfax held her chin up. “Captain Hunter did me the favor of rescuing my maid and me from the notorious pirate king, Jack Steele!”
The smile vanished from the Spaniard's face, leaving it as blank as a slate wiped clean. He swept over us with a black gaze that made me flinch. “So?” he asked in a voice of soft menace. “Steele, is it?”
Miss Fairfax held out the note. “Though he may be a pirate, Captain Hunter has no love for Jack Steele. His plans are a threat to anyone who sails the seas.”
Don Esteban stared at the paper but did not
move to take it. “And what, dear lady, has this to do with me?”