Read The Guns of Tortuga Online

Authors: Brad Strickland,Thomas E. Fuller

The Guns of Tortuga (2 page)

“What is it, then? A navy ship? Or is it—” I babbled, tugging on my clothes.

“The Irish have a better command of language than that. Up and out with you! We'll have our work cut out for us when they start firing.” My uncle had unlocked the cabinet that held his operating instruments and had begun to pull out trays with scalpels, pledgets, catgut, bone saws, and other equipment.

“'Tis unfair you are, Uncle! What is going on?” I have been told that I sound more Irish when I get excited, and perhaps it is true. Though I was raised in England, my late mother was Irish, and it was from her that I learned to speak.

My uncle set the trays side by side on a shelf he had caused to be mounted on the sick berth bulkhead. It was a tidy arrangement with a lip to keep the trays from sliding off when the ship rolled, and compartments that just fit the trays to keep them from moving back and forth when he was operating.

He turned to me, dusting his hands. “On deck! Do you not hear that bloody drum? On deck and all will become clear!”

Quick as thought, I was scrambling up the ladder to the deck. Everything looked just the way it had sounded belowdecks. Sailors were running back and forth, hanging from the rigging, shouting and waving their cutlasses. The ones not engaged in this manner were running out the guns on the
Aurora'
s starboard side, clearing the decks for action.

“Make ready, my lads, make ready!” rang out a laughing voice. Captain William Hunter stood next to the helmsman and the whipstaff, legs spread, hands on hips, head thrown back. We had been operating as pirates for nearly five months, but his appearance still seemed most strange to me. Gone was the elegant officer of His Majesty's Royal Navy that Sir Henry Morgan had recruited. In his place was the most piratical-looking fellow north of the Spanish Main.

William Hunter was resplendent in a long emerald green coat with red frogs and piping. His blouse and pants gleamed white, separated by the
yellowest silk sash its owner could find. And where he had found his hat with the ostrich plumes was still a mystery. Mr. Adams, the second officer, had speculated that the captain had a natural flair for the theatrical. What Uncle Patch had said barely bore repeating.

“That's it, lads,” he sang out again, grandly pointing to starboard with his cutlass. “Run them out, run them out! Let's show them what we're made of!”

“We won't have to show them,” Uncle Patch snarled as he clambered up next to him. My uncle looked more the pirate type than Captain Hunter, for he was a tall, broad-shouldered man who would have looked more at home in a boxing ring than standing over a patient. Looks can deceive, for he had a delicate touch and was well known as one of the finest surgeons afloat. He clung to the rail and stared into the distance, shouting, “What we're made of will be apparent to all, for it presently shall be spread all over the decks! Tell me now, are we really to attack that brute?”

Hunter threw back his head and laughed long and loud, an act that never failed to annoy my
uncle. Indeed, I believe that is just why Hunter did it. I ran to the starboard railing and pushed my way between sweating and swearing pirates old enough to be my grandfather. Then I just stood there with my mouth open.

The thunder I had heard hadn't been thunder.

The sun was rising up out of the east like a burning orange, the sky deep royal blue, the sea almost black. And where the sky met the water, ships were fighting with flashes of fire, billows of smoke and, seconds later, the crash of cannon fire.

I strained with the rest of the crew to see what was happening. Three of the four vessels were sloops, or at least the one still firing and the one burning were. The only mark of the third was a sinking mast and men clinging to floating debris. And in the middle …

Hunter bellowed, “She's flying colors, Mr. Adams. See if you can make them out!”

“Aye, aye, sir!” Mr. Adams, who in his former days had been one of the oldest midshipmen in the Royal Navy, climbed the rigging to the maintop, whipped out his telescope, and scanned the battle. So did I, but from the deck.

The great three-masted ship unleashed another broadside into the burning sloop, sending sparks and burning wood exploding into the air. Whoever the men were on it, they were no cowards. With the ship burning and sinking from under them, they managed to get off one last broadside. I rubbed my eyes. Surely the shot hadn't actually bounced off those towering black sides?

With hand to mouth, Mr. Hunter called up, “Are her colors red, Mr. Adams? Does she fly the red flag! Is it the
Red Queen?

The
Red Queen
was Jack Steele's huge warship. Was the monster firing its cannons before us the flagship of that pirate king? Were we going to meet face to face with him at last? The great guns boomed again, and the burning sloop began to go down.

“Use your eyes!” Uncle Patch snapped. “The
Queen'
s the color of fresh blood, but that thing's the color of old pitch!” The strange ship fired again, a shattering broadside that sent up a storm of smoke. “Devil's heart, how many guns does the beast bear?”

Then the dawning light hit the great ship's flag. It was indeed red. And gold.

“She's a Spaniard, Captain!” sang out Mr. Adams. “Spanish flag as big as Castille and gaudy as a Mexican sunset!”

Hunter had seen as well, and his shoulders sagged. I knew he had been hoping for the
Red Queen
and for Jack Steele, for he bore the man an ancient grudge. But none of his disappointment showed in his voice as he called up, “And her adversaries, Mr. Adams?”

In the maintop, Mr. Adams clapped his telescope to his eye. “Can't tell anything of the sinking ones, sir, but the one that's left flies the Jolly Roger.”

“Good,” Uncle Patch said with a grim nod. “So the Dons are doing our job for us. More power to them, say I. Let's be off, now, and out of danger.”

I stared at the massive ship as it loosed another broadside. I had never seen a Spanish warship before. She was long, broad, and tall, and gunfire erupted from at least three different decks. And she seemed strangely steady, barely rocking as the cannons fired.

“A real Spanish beauty, that one,” said Mr. Jeffers, the one-eyed gunner next to me as he prepared his gun. He turned his head and gave me a grim smile.
“Slow as Christmas in stays, but she sails as steady as a castle on a rock. The Dons build them wide and heavy, they do. Not all slim and frenchified like this here skiff.” Like most gunners, Mr. Jeffers felt that the whole aim of shipbuilding was to keep the guns steady.

“We have the wind gage. Bring her about, Mr. Warburton,” Captain Hunter shouted to our hulking helmsman. “Stand ready for battle, men!”

“Ready for—have you lost your senses, man?” sputtered Uncle Patch, waving his arms. “She's a hundred forty feet stem to stern if an inch, she's probably got twice as many guns as we have, and she's so broad, you could berth the
Aurora
on her decks and not touch the rails! And she's sinking pirates! Pirates, for all love, and doing our very job for us! Leave the brute alone, William!”

Hunter grinned at him. “What, and miss this golden opportunity?”

My uncle glared at him. “You consider being blasted into waterlogged kindling a golden opportunity?”

Hunter stared across the sea at the ships. We were coming down with the wind, skimming fast
toward them, and they grew moment by moment. Shaking his head, he said, “Why, you Irish leech, what better way to spread the legend of the daring pirate ship
Aurora
amongst the Brotherhood of the Coast than to save a shipload of buccaneers from the king of Spain?”

My uncle spluttered speechlessly.

“The captain's clapped a stopper on Patch,” Mr. Jeffers guffawed, digging his horny elbow into my side. “He's got brains, he has. Ain't seen thinkin' that twisted since ol' Cap'n Morgan's day. 'Course, Cap'n Morgan couldn't sail worth a tinker's—”

I was no longer listening to Mr. Jeffers. I was trying to make myself as small as possible next to the railing. We were going into battle and I wanted to see it. As I wrote, we had taken our share of prizes in the previous months. But they had surrendered after a shot across their bows. None of them had carried anything like treasure, but Hunter had taken from them what booty they offered. After he had stripped the ships of powder and shot, he let them go, knowing they'd tell others that the
Aurora
was seeking prey.

This fight was going to be the real thing, and if
my uncle remembered he'd sent me onto the deck, I'd be back in the relative security of the surgery when the battle started, safe and blind as a doorknob. I fleetingly wondered where we were exactly. Two days before we had passed Puerto Rico on our larboard, and we had sailed mostly north and west since then, but I was no navigator. We were at sea, and that was all I knew.

Despite my uncle's logical ravings, the
Aurora,
once she had changed her tack, came down at a fine pace toward the battle. Mr. Adams, at a nod from Captain Hunter, ran up our own colors, a jet-black silk flag with a stark white skull and crossbones in the center. The crew had stopped laughing and shouting and instead stood crouched over their weapons and guns. Their faces were split into tight grins that reminded me of wolves. Or sharks.

In less time than it takes to tell, we were bearing down on the conflict. The Spaniard was between the burning sloop and her final enemy, off her starboard bow and maneuvering desperately to avoid the big ship's deadly broadside fire. We were coming up on the Spaniard's larboard stern, and so far she gave no sign of having spotted us.

“Aim for her masts and sheets, lads,” Hunter shouted. “We don't have time to hammer her hull, and if we did, it would make no odds. I think she might just slap our faces for us. Cut her masts down! Once we're past her, we don't want her catching us! Hit her fast, hit her hard, and then run like the devil!”

We bore down on them, and the stern of the Spaniard loomed up. I saw running men at the rail. The Dons had spotted us, and they were fast to catch on that we weren't friends. Her two stern chasers opened up on us, but their shot went a hundred yards wide. Her best gunners must have been concentrating on her victims.

“A shame, I calls it,” muttered Mr. Jeffers. “Best guns in the world and couldn't hit the broad side of Jamaica if they was anchored in Port Royal Harbor.”

Then we were slipping by her and I could make out her name in huge gold letters across her stern:
CONCEPCIÓN.
I stared up great black wooden walls, my eyes wide. The
Concepción
towered at least ten to fifteen feet above us, like a castle on a rock.

“Fire as they bear!” ordered Mr. Hunter.

“Now's butcher's work, lad,” Mr. Jeffers said with a grin, his slow-burning match steady over his gun's touchhole. “Up a mite. A mite more. Hold!” The gun crew had raised the barrel by wedging in quoins. They leaped away. I hunched behind the railing and stuffed my fingers in my ears. Then everything happened at once.

Mr. Jeffers whipped down his match and arched his body. His gun roared, recoiling with a devil's hammer blow that would have crushed any sailor behind it. As the smoke cleared, I saw the
Concepción'
s gunports fly open, exposing row upon row of gigantic twenty-four-pounders. The world erupted into ear-shattering sound and disappeared into a sulfuric cloud of gun smoke. The
Aurora
shuddered as the twenty-four-pound cannonballs screamed overhead and some slammed into us. I heard men screaming and cursing and stared in horror at the six-inch wooden splinter that quivered in the railing next to my head.

“Again, lads, again!” Hunter's bellow sounded far off and tiny after the gunfire. “Hit her again, before she can recover and hole us like cheese!”

Jeffers's crew had wormed and sponged the
cannon. Now they shoved in a cartridge of powder and a ball. Jeffers was already sighting. In shock I noticed that one of his ears was torn to a rag, blood streaming down his neck. I don't think he was even aware of it. “Steady! Steady!” he bawled, then with clenched teeth he rammed the slow-burning match fuse to the touchhole.

Then the
Aurora'
s cannons boomed again, and half-deafened though I was, I heard a crack like the gates of heaven falling. Through the billowing smoke I saw the Spaniard's mizzenmast go crashing down off to starboard. A wild cheer erupted from our crew, and Mr. Jeffers grinned through the blood on his face. “They're better armed, but we're better aimed, eh, lad?”

“Aye,” I said, having read his lips to get his meaning. My head still rang with the crash of cannons. Now smoke was coming from the big Spaniard's deck, where the fallen sails had taken fire from their own cannon. I had a glimpse of the Spanish crew feverishly trying to prepare their guns for another round, but it was clear they were much slower than our own crews. They would not have time.

Then we cut right in front of the
Concepción'
s towering bluff bow, decorated with the figurehead of a woman with flowing blue robes. Spanish marines were firing their muskets at us and screaming what I could only assume were curses. I hazarded a quick look forward. The ship's forecastle had been hammered, its decking a shambles of twisted, splintered boards. One cannon had overturned, and the crew had wedged it, preventing it from sliding across the deck, through a hatch, and so through the bottom of the ship.

But the towering foremast was whole, its sails drawing. We pulled away from the crippled monster. Behind us, the
Concepción
struggled to turn, but it was clear that she could not do so in time to fire effectively. “Got her rudder, we did,” yelled Abel Tate, one of our navy gunners, from astern. “Knocked it clean from its pintles!”

Another shout rang out, this time off to our starboard side. The remaining pirate sloop was desperately trying to put us between her and the
Concepción.
Captain Hunter was yelling orders that I, with my ringing ears, could scarcely follow, but the
Aurora
heeled as we adjusted our tack, sailing
almost with the wind away from the Spaniard. She tried another broadside, but the shot merely ripped up the water astern of us.

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