Read The Guns of Tortuga Online
Authors: Brad Strickland,Thomas E. Fuller
“Captain Hunter has two requests, sir. One, that you convey my maid and me to the safety of Port Royal. Second, he asks that you consider a truce and an alliance.”
At last Don Esteban took the note from her. The Spanish captain carefully broke the wax and opened the folded paper. His eyes moved back and forth. Finally, he folded it again, and slowly the smile returned to his face. “The Spanish is passable. Surprising in an English. An interesting proposal, well thought out. But why should I believe such a man?”
“Captain Hunter is a man of his word!” I heard a voice ring out. To my horror, I recognized it as my own. Don Esteban did not even look at me. His eyes stayed locked on Miss Fairfax's.
“I do not take the word of a pirate, Miss Fairfax. Give me yours.”
She raised an eyebrow. I had never seen anyone act so cool in such a situation. “Sir?”
Captain Reyes spread his hands. “It is simple. Give me your word as an English lady that what the
captain writes here is true and I will believe it.” The smile stayed, but his voice dropped until only we could hear it. “But swear me false and I assure you the
will go straight to the bottom, and you shall see her sink.”
Miss Fairfax was as pale as an ivory statue, but her back was straight and her voice steady as she said, “I swear upon my honor that both Captain Hunter and his plan are true.”
He stared at her for a moment longer and then nodded. “Very well.”
Behind me Jessie gave a shuddering gasp of relief, and I remembered to breathe myself.
We had struck a deal with the devil we didn't know to fight the devil we did.
And only time would tell if he would play true with us.
MY UNCLE AND I
made the best of our way back to the
leaving Miss Fairfax behind on the
To tell the truth, I was more than a little afraid as we moved away from the big Spanish ship, for she had cannons enough to sink us without a second thought. I hoped that Miss Fairfax was right in her estimation of Don Esteban, and that he would be gallant enough to stand by our truce.
Three miles of open sea in a small boat is no easy trip on a day when the sea is choppy, and so right glad I was when we hauled up alongside of the
again. I was first from the boat, and sprang
up the side ladder like a good 'un. My uncle followed more clumsily, and we found the captain waiting for us. I could not help thinking just then how six months at sea had changed me. There had been a time when climbing easily up the side of even so moderate a ship as the
would have been beyond me, as it still was beyond my poor uncle. But now I went up with no more thought than I would have given to running upstairs at Mr. Horne's house in Bristol, where I had been brought up.
“What's the word?” Hunter asked anxiously as soon as my feet hit the deck.
“He says he is willing to hold his fire,” I reported. “He would commit to no more.”
Uncle Patch gazed with moody eyes across the three miles of sea at the big Spaniard. “Faith, I wish we had more to go on than the word of a Don. You know, William, the thought strikes me that Don Esteban would be mighty pleased to join us in sinking Jack Steele, and then turn his guns upon us.”
“You are not alone in your thought,” said Hunter cheerfully. “However, that must bide the touch. For
now our concern is to find some way of breaking up Steele's armada, before the
can come to lead them. I wish we knew what his target is. Tortuga itself? Not impossible, not with so many of the old Brethren of the Coast ready to throw in their lots with him. You might know that the British took the island from the Spanish in one day, fifty years ago or so. Or might Steele be thinking of Port Royal? Jamaica, now, would be a fat prize, and the key to it is Port Royal.”
“Or might he be thinking of sailing across the sea and up the Thames, to throw the king into the Tower and declare himself monarch of England?” my uncle said sarcastically. “What we do not know, we do not, and there's an end to it.”
Hunter put his hands behind him and stared out to sea. “Not quite, Doctor. For if Steele plans to make an assault on Tortuga, we must move quickly. Aye, it would be a master blow, at that. To put abroad the word that he is going after the English, or the Spanish, and to mass an armada in Tortuga Harbor, and then turn his guns on the Frenchâwhy, 'twould be a deed that people would remember for an age or more.”
“The way they remember how Morgan butchered the people at Port Principe, or at Portobello,” agreed Uncle Patch. “A rogue's fame, not an honest man's. Though why you even worry about what happens to the French is beyond me.”
“I worry,” returned the captain, “because if Steele once gets snug into Tortuga, it will be well-nigh impossible to pry him out again. You saw the harbor. With the fort properly manned, it's secure against a navy. It is an Acropolis, a Masada. Give Steele a base of his own, and he will make himself the king of the West Indes, if not the king of England.”
“Well, well,” muttered Uncle Patch, “you may be right. But I see no way at all of fighting off the ships anchored in Tortuga Harbor. We may have the big Spaniard to help us, and they may be mostly a collection of sloops and brigs, but, faith, they outnumber us dozens to one.”
“I am thinking of that too,” said Captain Hunter.
And so, I believe, was every man aboard the
Like a mouse trying to be friends with a cat, we came close enough to the
signals. Don Esteban agreed to meet us off the east coast of Tortuga in a week's time. We parted with that, he sailing to the southeast, we to the southwest. Seeing the Spanish ship drop below the horizon gave me a strange feeling. I did not know when or even whether I would see Jessie again. She had not exactly been my best friend back in Port Royal, but we had spent time talking, with me teaching her to read and all. I worried about what might happen to her, and I hoped that no ill would come to her. Though as to that, she was more the type of person who happened to others than the one who had things happen to her.
A night passed, and then early the next morning the lookout spied a sail north of us. “She's tearing along like smoke and oakum!” he called down to the deck.
Hunter climbed to the masthead and hung there in the shrouds with his best telescope clapped to his eye. “A brig,” he reported after studying the stranger. “And in a great hurry, with all sails spread alow and aloft. I wonder, now. Sailmaker!”
Mr. Grice, the old pirate who took care of the
s sails, came up, quick as a cricket. “Aye, sir?”
Hunter had swung down a backstay and lighted on the deck as nimbly as a cat. “D'you know Steele's flag?” he demanded.
Phineas Grice must have been nearly seventy, a short, bowed little man with a sharp chin and a deep, suspicious squint. His hair was long and white, and he never exactly had a beard and was never clean-shaven. Now he rubbed a hand over his bristles, making a sound like sandpaper. “Red flag, in course, with a skull and crossed swords. His sailing mates fly the same, but in black.”
“Could you run a black one up in, say, an hour?”
“Easy enough done,” said the sailmaker. He grinned a toothless grin. “False colors is it, Cap'n?”
“A ruse of war,” Hunter said with a wink. “Hop to it!”
Grice hurried away. Uncle Patch came up onto the deck, quite early, for him, for it was only four bells in the morning watch. “What's Grice so happy about?” he asked. “Faith, he looks like the shark that ate the admiral.”
“Good morning, Doctor,” Hunter said. “In rather more than three glasses, we are going to cross the bow of a brig. It has the look of the
and if it is that vessel, why, I want to have a word with her captain. Sam Dobbs has been an errand boy for Jack Steele many and many a time, and I just wonder if he's sailing for Tortuga with news for Steele, or to get orders from him.”
My uncle yawned and stretched. “And you think he'll tell you if you ask nicely? 'Tis a touching faith you have in human nature, to be sure, William.”
“We may have to ask less than nicely,” Hunter told him, and the devil another word would he say.
Three glasses is an hour and a half, the glasses being the sand glasses we used to keep time during the watches. When one ran out, someone would turn it and sing, “Ring the bell!” The first bell was a half hour into the watch, two bells one hour, three bells an hour and a half, and so on, all the way to eight bells, when the watch ended and the whole count started over again. I swear, though, that the sand never ran so slowly as it did that day.
Mr. Grice was back well before the brig had come close, and he displayed his handiwork proudly. He had whipped up a Jolly Roger much like ours, except that the skull had an evil leer. Its eye sockets were a brilliant redâsatin, carefully
sewn in. Beneath it, instead of crossed bones, were two crossed cutlasses, in white, with yellow hilts. And though rough stitching might have done for this job, Grice had been as careful as a tailor. Captain Hunter held up the flag and nodded his satisfaction. “A first-class job, Mr. Grice. Now let's see whether we can beguile a pirate.”
He had the flag run right up to the masthead, and then he ordered signals: “Message aboard from Steele.”
“There,” he said, when all flags were flying. “If the brig is what I think she is, that ought to fetch her. If she is honest, then she'll sheer off as soon as she can make out the Jolly Roger. We shall see shortly.”
The brig was four miles off, then three, then two. And then she altered her course. She was sailing for us. Our path was rapidly converging with hers. “Good,” Hunter pronounced. “Mr. Adams! I'll need thirty men. Pick some with level heads who know how to keep quiet. Here's what we shall doâ¦.”
My uncle came over to listen, and even he, the arch-plotter himself, seemed grudgingly impressed.
“I'll be at my post in the sick berth” he declared when Hunter finished, “just in case your plan miscarries and we have to pluck lead out of some of our men.”
I knew that meant he expected me to be there too. But Hunter laughed at his concerns. “If I handle this right, you needn't worry,” he assured my uncle. “Let us try diplomacy before we fly to the weapons.”
“Faith, you're like Saul on the road to Damascus,” growled my uncle. “A convert, so you are! But I'll at least lay out my instruments, just in case.”
When the brig was less than half a mile away, it fired a gun on the side opposite us. Hunter glanced at Mr. Warburton, the helmsman. “Is it the same as with honest ships?” he asked.
Warburton spat to leeward. “Give 'er a gun to windward,” he said shortly. “Then if she don't suspect aught, she'll dip her flag.”
Hunter gave the order, and Mr. Adams fired one of the forward cannons, not taking time to unload the ball. It skipped on the sea six times, then sank. Immediately the brig lowered its own flag, an
innocent-looking one that proclaimed her to be a Dutch merchant, and hove to.
“Mr. Adams, you know what to do,” said Mr. Hunter. “Cox'n, my barge.”
Abel Tate was the captain's coxswain. It was his job to take charge of the boat whenever the captain was leaving the ship. He and six crewmen lowered away the gig, and Captain Hunter stepped over the side and climbed down to it. Seeing that my uncle was not watching, I followed close behind and dropped into the stern of the boat an instant after Hunter.
“Davy!” the captain exclaimed in surprise. Then he grinned. “Well, well, the
won't expect any uproar from us if we even have the cabin boy aboard, will he?”
“No, sir,” I said, though that had not even occurred to me.
“Row us over, Mr. Tate,” Hunter said. He had the wolfish look that meant he anticipated action of some sort.
was a brig, a two-masted vessel with square sails on both masts. This one carried sixteen guns, and a crowd of sailors came to the rails to
stare at us as we pulled over. Tate brought the gig up to the side of the brig, and Hunter climbed up, with me at his heels. Behind us, the
with only her jib set, drifted closer.
“You come from the
The captain of the brig, for such I supposed him, stepped forward with a frown. He was an unshaven man of thirty or so, with greasy black hair and a scar right across his face, left cheek to right, slanting across a broken nose. “Who th' devil are ye?” he demanded.
“I come from Steele,” snapped Hunter. “Plans have changed.”
There were perhaps thirty men on the deck of the brig. They stared at us with muttering hostility. “Who are ye?” demanded the brig's captain again. “What d'ye mean, âchanged'?”