Read The Guns of Tortuga Online

Authors: Brad Strickland,Thomas E. Fuller

The Guns of Tortuga (14 page)

Hunter pushed past him, toward the stern. He climbed the few steps to the low quarterdeck and walked past the helmsman at the tiller, who gawked at him. “I can't say much for your lookout,” Hunter thundered. “You didn't see what was following you?”

“Following us?”

Hunter pointed off to the north. “Hull-down, but you can catch the flash of those topsails! Steele won't be happy when he sees what you've dragged down with you!”

That was too much for the crew. Pretty nearly every one of them rushed back to the stern, and there were angry questions: “What is it?” “Where away?” “Not that cursed Spaniard, is it?”

“I see nothing,” declared the pirate captain.

Hunter made a deep growl of disgust. “North by northeast, and bear a point east!” he yelled. “Are you blind?”

By now they were all shading their eyes with their hands. I think I was the only one who saw Hunter gesture with his left hand for me to back away. I did, back to the ladder. The longboat from the
had just pulled up, and ten men were poised to spring up for the brig's rail.

“There!” Hunter said with a villainous curse. He drew his cutlass and pointed northward at the empty sea. “What are you using for eyes?” I see her plain!”

“What do you see?” demanded the pirate.

Hunter turned on him with a grin. “I see a captain
and crew who are about to lose their brig! Board 'em, men!”

With horrible cries, the
made their leap, ten, and ten more, and ten after that. The
were taken completely by surprise. One or two of them pulled their weapons, but Hunter had already placed his point against their captain's chest. “Do you surrender?”

With a terrible curse and a glare, the pirate captain snarled, “Aye! But Steele will cut out your living guts for this!”

“If he gets the chance,” Hunter agreed smoothly. “Mr. Adams, take possession!”

Within an hour, the
was ours, and her own crew were bobbing about in two overfull boats. Hunter left them with food and water, and the cheerful news that a hundred mile's row would bring them to safety, on a Spanish island. He, Tate, and I went back to the
along with most of the boarders, leaving behind just a skeleton crew of ten to sail her and to see what she had worth our attention. That turned out to be two things. The first
interested Morgan's men prodigiously, for the
carried six chests with sixty thousand pieces of eight in them, all told. “The wages of sin, I fancy,” Hunter said when Mr. Adams brought the news. “Let the men know.”

Indeed they knew, and everyone wore sharkish grins. Though we were a hired vessel, not truly a pirate ship, Hunter's letter of marque specified that he could reward the crew out of his prizes. We had not done so badly up until that time, but now the capture of the
meant that every man of the crew was at least a hundred pounds richer. I had the mere quarter of a share, and even so, my part would run to thirty pounds or more. It was more money than I had ever seen at one time in my life, and almost more than I could hope to spend in a year!

But the second prize, for Hunter, was the better one. In the captain's cabin of the
Mr. Adams found a few sheets of parchment, with signals and notes upon them. Hunter studied them with a satisfied gleam in his eyes. “Now we know their secret signals,” he said. “According to this, the
Red Queen
will stand off and on until she gets word from Steele to come to the harbor—her cruising area's
not named, though, worse luck. But the signal list gives us something to plan with!”

I did not know precisely what the plan was, for my uncle was not pleased with my slipping away with Hunter, and he banished me from the cabin for the next several days. We made our rendezvous with the
and Hunter exchanged a flurry of signals with Don Esteban. I could not read them, and no one would tell me what they said, though I complained bitterly to anyone who would stand still long enough to listen.

“The wind is just right,” pronounced Hunter when Don Esteban had evidently agreed to whatever it was we were about to do. “It will be tricky, but we should be able to get in, spin about, and get out again before they know what we're up to.”

Now the
had just six men aboard her, with Mr. Adams in command. At a signal from Hunter, both she and the Aurora hoisted sails and made for Tortuga Harbor, the Aurora in the lead, but both vessels close-hauled to the wind. We made splendid time. The white water flew from our bows in a rush. Before long, we entered the harbor, small
craft scattering from our headlong, mad dash. “Now!” Hunter shouted, and a flutter of signal flags went up.

“What's he saying?” I asked my uncle, without much hope.

“Faith, little do I know of the language of flags,” he returned sharply, “but as I understand it, William is telling all the pirate ships in the harbor that a Spanish ship of the line is chasing us and the

Then, from the channel far behind us, came a sound like distant thunder. It was the booming of the
s cannons.

Hunter was gazing astern, muttering, “Come on, Adams, come on … good man!”

had drawn abreast of us. I saw the six men dash along the rail, stooping at six of the guns. And the next instant, the side of the brig vanished as all six guns roared at once!

“They're firing on us!” I yelped.

“With powder, not with shot,” my uncle said coolly. “Watch now!”

“Hoist the second signal!” roared Hunter. “Man the guns!”

The six men aboard the
had dived into the
harbor, and Abel Tate was throwing a line over the rail. As soon as they were clear of the brig, Hunter ordered, “Fire! Aim true!”

Our cannon crews bent over their pieces, and we sent a broadside booming over the water—clean missing the
only yards from our side. But the evenly grouped balls flew past the brig and smashed into the Hornet, a light pirate frigate of twenty guns.

I turned to my uncle. With a frosty smile, he said, “With any luck, the
will think the
just fired on her. And Hunter is signaling
Treason! Tell Steele!
Let them think that the
s crew has sold them out.”

Gray, soaked, swung aboard, together with the rest of his prize crew. The
s gunners were scrambling to run out their cannons. Smoke was pouring from the
s stern.

“Is she well alight, Mr. Adams?” Hunter asked.

“Aye, sir!” returned our lieutenant. “Lord, I hate a fire ship!”

“So does every sailor, even pirates,” said Hunter. “Put her about! They're going to catch on in seconds, and then they're going to come chasing us!”

The unmanned
suddenly blossomed into flame and smoke. She sailed smack into a sloop, tangled with its rigging, and the two slewed around, fouling the rigging of a barque. By then we had put the

The harbor was behind us now, and the
almost leaped from the water with a shattering explosion. Flaming timbers flew tumbling through the air, and the sloop entangled with the wreck began to blaze. A second explosion burst out, sending billows of thick smoke curdling on the wind.

“That'll be the gunpowder,” Abel Tate observed mildly. “Hah! They're firin' at each other! A fine old dance the cap'n's going to lead them!”

Uncle Patch put his hand on my shoulder. “Let's go downstairs,” he said.

“Belowdecks,” Tate corrected him automatically.

“To our place,” my uncle said firmly. “To the sick berth.”

And faith, at that moment his face looked more dangerous than all the pirate ships in the harbor, and so I dared do nothing other than follow him down, meek as a lamb.

The Pirate Armada

orders, I kept darting up onto the deck to catch glimpses of what was going on. Tortuga Harbor was now a churning mass of ships and flame. When the
exploded, she had spread burning timbers and canvas over everything. Other ships had caught fire, and bits of the debris had landed on some of the ramshackle warehouses that lined the wharves. The first cherry-red flames were just now starting to lick up from their palmetto-thatched roofs.

“Run up more of the flags, Mr. Adams!” Captain Hunter roared, waving his cutlass in the air and looking every inch a pirate captain. Mr. Adams
nodded and rushed to send up more signal flags. I was to learn later that they repeated the same message in different words: Treason.
Treason. Beware. Beware. Trust no one.

Screams and cries of rage echoed around us, even louder than the crack and roar of the flames and the booms of cannons. Sloops and brigs were struggling to cast themselves off and set sail, to escape the harbor and the burning ships that multiplied even as we looked. The
let loose another broadside into the billowing clouds of smoke that just moments before had been the
Since that doughty little brig had all but disappeared beneath the water, the shot sailed right through the smoke and crashed into the already damaged
and the warehouses beyond. Timbers and roofing blew up into the air like ugly fireworks. The
her sails burning to floating black ash, began to sink by the stern, her crew finally giving up their useless guns and scrambling to reach the wharf. I would have expected them to throw themselves into the harbor and escape that way, but I had learned in my time at sea that most sailors—pirate or otherwise—cannot swim.

We were coming about now to begin our run out of the harbor, bringing the wind on our starboard quarter. We were ready to make the dash for safety when out of the smoke and flames came the
Captain John Barrel's sloop with whom we had entered Tortuga Harbor five weeks past. That worthy himself stood on her railing, balanced on his good leg, his left arm wrapped securely around a line. He raised a speaking trumpet to his lips and called out, “Ahoy, the
Ahoy, Captain Hunter! What in all the black blazes is going on?”

Mr. Adams handed Captain Hunter his own speaking trumpet, and he called back. “Treachery, Captain Barrel! Treachery most foul!”

“Why did you fire into one of Steele's vessels?” bawled Barrel.

The captain answered him in a voice that must have carried across the harbor:
was sailing under false colors, Captain Barrel! She was nothing but a Judas-goat for the bloody Dons! Did you not see how she opened up on us with no warning?”

“Aye, we saw that!” returned Barrel with an oath. “Sam Dobbs always was a hound!”

“Beware traitors among us, Captain Barrel!”
called Captain Hunter. “Who knows how many the Dons have bought! Follow us out and we may escape yet!”

“Lead on—we'll follow!” Barrel leaped from the railing and landed with a thud on the
s deck. “Stand fast, ye sea dogs, to yer stations, and follow the

We slipped past the heavily armed sloop, flags flying and guns blazing. I could almost hear the words racing from pirate ship to pirate ship. Treachery, treason, betrayal. In the confusion, ships were running foul of each other, some burning, some not. And ship after ship ran out her guns and opened fire on anything in her path. Captain Hunter had said that would happen. Let the suspicion loose and every man would remember the injuries he had suffered from every other man. They'd see it as a chance to settle old scores and destroy traitors at the same time.

The fires ashore were spreading. The warehouses we had hit while firing on the fire ship were filled with refitting supplies, cordage and timber and pitch and, heaven help us all, powder and shot. I could see scurrying figures raising up buckets of
water from the harbor and hurling them on the flames. One of the warehouses erupted in a huge gout of boiling orange flame and black smoke.

“It's working, Uncle Patch!” I cried, staring out at the wreckage and flames.

“'Tis working for the now, boy,” my uncle snarled, his head and shoulders sticking up through the hatch. “But
and Lucifer laughs at the hopeful! Come below, now, and help me prepare!”

So I ran down again to help him. Still, even in the sick berth I could glimpse the battle, through the wind-port that my uncle had caused to be cut in the side during the frigate's refitting. It was not much of a window, but it was enough to give me a prospect of what was happening outside. Suddenly a new booming thundered out over the lesser roars from the ships. Huge fountains of water leaped into the air. It took me a second to realize what had happened, and then I cried out, “Uncle! The great guns in the fort are firing!”

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