Read The Guns of Tortuga Online

Authors: Brad Strickland,Thomas E. Fuller

The Guns of Tortuga (3 page)

We were going to get away. We had met a much superior foe, bloodied his nose, stolen his prize, and stolen ourselves from his angry jaws. I felt like shouting myself, but then I looked around.

The deck of the
Aurora
was littered with debris: splintered wood, bits of rope and rigging, and men—some bleeding and screaming, a few utterly still.

As we sailed away from the dawn and the crippled Spaniard raging behind us, I pulled myself together and ran to where I was needed. Uncle Patch was in the sick berth, stitching up a six-inch gash in old Ben Pond's arm. Ben, a gray-haired veteran with no teeth, watched the needle with interest and did not even flinch as it passed through his flesh. He gave me a friendly nod. “More comin'?” he asked.

“Aye,” I said. “Half a dozen wounded above.”

“Then I will need your help,” my uncle said in an even tone of voice that told me I would be in trouble later for not being at his side earlier.

“Well,” Ben said as Uncle Patch tied off and
snipped the catgut, “any gate, we touched up the big Spaniard and got away again.”

As I helped him down and gave him the tot of rum that all the wounded could claim, I knew he was right. We had survived our first real battle. But the enemy had not let us get away unscathed.

Nor did I think he would forget us.

Captain Barrel

ALL THE REST OF
that day we flew to the south and the west. When my uncle had finished his work, we found the butcher's bill, as Captain Hunter called it, was tolerable: seven wounds in all, none of them fatal, and only two dangerous. A foretopman named Leach had been hit by a musket ball that had lodged deep in his chest, pressing on the lung. My uncle took it out, bandaged him, and put him in the sick berth, where he lay gasping for breath. The other was a bad splinter wound, suffered by a swabber named Wilson on the forecastle. It called for a world of stitching, and still, the unfortunate man might lose the use
of his right eye and perhaps of his arm.

When we were able to come on deck again, it was early afternoon, with a high tropical sun beating down. The ocean was as blue as ever I had seen it. Behind us the
Concepción
was nowhere to be seen, just the triangular sail of a very small vessel. Men were laboring at the pumps, sending jets of dirty gray water overboard, and forward, Captain Hunter was deep in consultation with the lean, scarred ship's carpenter, whom everyone called “Chips.”

“I can't get at 'un,” Chips was telling the captain earnestly. “We can fother 'un, but to plug 'un proper-like, we shall have to careen the barky, and where are we to do that?”

“A hole?” asked my uncle.

Hunter turned and stared at him, head to toe and up again. “You're all over blood, Patch.”

“'Twas not I that spilled it,” returned my uncle with a touch of impatience. “Come, tell me, are we sinking? For I have two sick men to think about.”

“We be not sinkin', your honor,” Chips protested in a hurt voice. “But we be hulled beneath the water-line for certain, an' takin' on more water than I like.”

“Fother the hole,” Hunter ordered. “We'll stand
in for Tortuga. Mr. Adams, we'll fly no colors. And while we're making our preparations, we'll let that pinnace come up. I have no doubt it holds the survivors from at least one of the sloops.”

“And where's the other?” I asked. “The one that got away with us?”

“Two miles to larboard, off the bow,” replied Hunter, and when I looked forward, I saw her there, a trim, single-masted sloop keeping easy pace with us.

“How about the men?” Hunter asked.“Any dead?”

“None, and sure, that's a wonder in itself,” my uncle snapped. “Are we to do this always, I wonder? Go charging in where a well-placed broadside could send us to the bottom? Would it not be better to scuttle the ship at once, if that's your mind?”

Hunter shook his head, smiling. He cocked an eye at me. “You look downhearted, Davy. What's troubling you?”

I hardly wanted to say, because it would just make my uncle that much more angry, but at last I blurted out, “Why did we have to run from the Spaniard? We did more damage to her than she did to us!”

“A fire-eater!” Mr. Hunter said. Then, in a more serious tone, he added, “There's some truth in what your uncle says, Davy. The
Concepción
has twice our crew, maybe five hundred men all told. She mounts forty-eight cannons, all of them twenty-four-pounders, besides her swivel guns and chasers. And her scantlings are twice or three times as thick as ours. She could punch a hole in the
Aurora
as easy as I could kiss my hand, but our cannonballs would bounce right off her sides. Our only chance was to disable her and run, if we were to fight at all. Our men have big hearts, but they couldn't take a ship whose crew outnumbers us two or three to one.”

“Still, we gave them a good fight,” I said.

Hunter nodded. “That we did. And with any luck, word of that fight will get abroad. I hope that Jack Steele will hear it. He's up to some devilry, you may be sure, for he's been lying unnaturally low these last months. Whatever he's planning, I hope we can come to grips with him before his plot has hatched.”

I watched as the men prepared to fother the hole. That meant, as I saw, that they used an old sail. They lowered it from the bows with ropes and
worked it back along the hull until they had it over the unseen hole, then made it fast. Soon Chips reported that we were taking on water at a slower rate. We'd still have to pump our way into port, but at least we would not sink.

The time that the temporary repair took gave the little craft behind us the chance to catch up. Nineteen men crowded it, and our crew helped them aboard. Most of the newcomers were wounded, and my uncle met them as they came one by one to our deck. “You'll wait,” he said to one. “I know a broken arm hurts like the very devil, but your shipmates are bleeding. This man's dead. I'll take you first,” he said to a pale man whose shipmates had lashed his chest with sailcloth through which blood seeped.

Back we went to the sick berth, where the unlucky devil died before my uncle could do anything more than examine his chest wound. “Next,” he said, turning from the corpse. Of the nineteen men in the little craft, two were dead, including the chest wound, and eleven more were injured. We took off one unfortunate man's leg at the knee, he screaming through the operation and passing out
at last. Our final patient had merely a burn along his arm and a few deep cuts that took some stitches. “And what vessel were you from, lad?” my uncle asked as he plied his needle.

The young sailor, not more than four years older than I was—say sixteen or so—was weeping from pain. “We were o' the
Vengeance,
” he said in a weak voice. “Though we picked up three men from the
Tally,
what sunk before we did.”

“Gentlemen of fortune, I take it?” observed my uncle, tying off his catgut. “Come, lad, you can tell me, for we sail on account ourselves.”

“Aye,” groaned the young man. “Cap'n Pearse was the master, an' we'd joined with the
Tally
an' the
Fury
to stand against that Spanish devil.”

“The
Concepción.
A Spanish naval vessel, is she?”

The injured man shook his head. “No, not at all. They say her captain is Don Esteban de Reyes. She's a pirate hunter, she is, and a private ship.”

“Oh, so?” my uncle asked in evident surprise. “A dear expense she must be! I make no doubt that this Don Esteban is a rich man. Davy, a tot for our patient.”

When we had finished our second round of
operating, we went back onto the deck. The two dead sailors had been sewn up into hammocks, with a round shot sewn in at their feet. Captain Hunter read the burial service over them, and our men tipped them over the side, to sink into the ocean. One of the few uninjured sailors from the
Vengeance
muttered a gruff thanks. “Not many of us gets a real funeral,” he said. “'Tis a mort o' comfort to see our shipmates bein' given a proper send-off.”

It was nearly sunset, and the remaining sloop, the
Fury,
had hauled much closer in. She was now only a few hundred yards away, and as he turned from the burial service, Captain Hunter shook his head once more at my uncle's appearance. “You'll have to wash and change clothes,” he said. “For the captain of that sloop is coming aboard to dine with us, and you're far too bloody for company.”

Uncle Patch waved his fingers irritably. “Tiddle-diddle! You're far too delicate in your tastes for a pirate. But as my sleeves are somewhat stiff, I shall do as you say. However, I'm here to tell you that all the wounded we took aboard will live to be hanged yet. Now, what you are going to do with them—”

“I propose to let the captain of the sloop take them,” Hunter replied. “But do make ready. I hope you are hungry.”

“Faith, my innards are wolves,” my uncle told him. “For I've had neither bite nor sup this day, so busy have you kept me.”

We went below, and soon enough we had washed up and changed clothing. My uncle even shaved, something he sometimes neglected to do for days on end, so that normally his cheeks bristled with copper-red whiskers. When we were clean and decent, we joined Captain Hunter in his cabin at the stern of the ship. A huge man sat in an armchair, a man with a wooden leg thrust straight out before him. His hair was dark, long, and tangled, and his beard fell to his waist. He wore a single silver-buckled shoe, ragged canvas trousers, no shirt, and a stained blue jacket. Around his neck was a necklace of shark's teeth.

“My surgeon, Dr. Patch,” Mr. Hunter said as we came in. “And his loblolly boy and nephew, Davy Shea. Gentlemen, this is Captain John Barrel, of the sloop
Fury.

Captain Barrel nodded in a companionable way.
“Aye, and a grateful man this day,” he rumbled with a flashing white grin. “But for your gunners, me an' my crew would be feedin' the fishes now, so we would. Curse that Spaniard! He come at us from the dark, and before we knew it, we were fightin' for our lives. Cap'n Tucker o' the
Tally
struck his colors, so he did, an' that Spanish devil fired into his sinking craft nonetheless. No quarter give, none asked.”

The cook knocked respectfully and said, “Vittles is up.”

“Draw your chair to the table, Captain Barrel,” Hunter said. “Our fare is rough, but there's plenty.”

“Thunder, but you do yourselves right,” Barrel observed as the cook's men brought in hot soup, ship's bread, and wine. “Aboard o' my craft, the sailors wouldn't put up with this. We eats together, we does.”

“Your host was once an officer in the Royal Navy,” Uncle Patch said, pouring wine for Barrel. “And the men like to keep up navy ways.”

“Some of 'em ain't so bad,” replied Barrel. He took a deep drink of wine. “Ahhhh! Now, that's seen the right bottle, that has.”

As we ate, Barrel told us about his own crew.
They had elected him captain, in the way of pirates, and they were a stouthearted bunch. He was shorthanded, though, and he readily agreed to take on the remaining crew of the sunken
Tally
and
Vengeance,
saying that the wounds made no matter. “I can use any man what can stand and haul on a line,” he declared. “Though I ain't seein' any fightin' for the next few days. We're precious short o' provisions, an' I mean to put into Tortuga.”

“That's where we're bound,” Captain Hunter said. “We need careening. Tell me, is it still wide open?”

Sorrowfully, Barrel shook his head. “Not as it was when I was a younker. The French signed a blasted treaty with the Spaniards three or four years agone, so a man can't just haul in with the Jolly Roger a-flyin'. Still, nobody there bothers ye much if ye don't go roarin' up the middle o' the street. 'Tis safe enough, I reckon. They still don't love the Spanish, an' the port admiral, a man named du Pont, will do right by ye, so long as ye grease him with a little gold.”

By the end of the meal, Barrel had agreed to sail in consort with us, at least as far as Tortuga, three days' sail away, if the wind held true. It was evening
by the time he stumped back onto deck. He caught me looking at his wooden leg and clapped me on the shoulder. “That there timber toe o' mine,” he said, “I got when the
Thunderer
went down off the coast o' Madagascar. I was goin' ashore clingin' to a grate, for I can't swim a lick, when a almighty big shark took a bite o' me. I had my knife, so I fought back, in course, but he got the best o' the bargain, for he took my leg.” He rattled the necklace he wore. “All I got was his teeth!”

Some of our men had agreed to row Barrel over to his sloop, and I went along. As we rowed, Barrel lowered his voice and asked, “Now, lad, tell me: Is what they say about Hunter true? Did he blow up half o' Fort Morgan an' kill a dozen British soldiers when he got away from Port Royal?”

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