Read The Guns of Tortuga Online

Authors: Brad Strickland,Thomas E. Fuller

The Guns of Tortuga (4 page)

“At least a dozen,” I said, lying my head off, for we had killed no one in that farce. “Hunter was a mutineer, you know. He has the death sentence on him, and so does my uncle.”

“Aye, so I heard,” said Barrel thoughtfully. “So has he taken any prizes?”

“Many of them,” I said. “British and Spanish, but no French so far.”

“Good, for though Tortuga ain't what it was, no, not by a long chalk, the French ain't bad if you don't bother them. Thank ye, matey. Ye ease my mind, that ye do.”

When we had delivered the one-legged captain and I was alone with my uncle again, I told him of Barrel's questions and about the lies I had told.

“I feel bad about it,” I finished. “He's a rough man, but he seemed so grateful.”

Uncle Patch was in his hammock, his spectacles on his nose, reading a book on medicine. He closed it and nodded. “He's a brave man, no doubt of it, and with some conscience for his sailors, which is not always the case. But a man can be likable and still be a scoundrel, Davy. It doesn't seem fair, but there it is. Now get to your berth, for we have lessons tomorrow.”

I groaned. We always had lessons.

But the next morning, as we sat down in the cabin with my books, I had a surprise. Mr. Adams was there. He explained in a shy, halting voice, that Captain Hunter thought him capable of learning mathematics and passing his examination for lieutenant, his life's desire. “It's true I have a thick head
when it comes to figures,” he said. “I'm willing to try, though, if you will have me.”

My uncle raised no objection, and I was glad to have company in my misery. That morning we were beginning the rudiments of trigonometry. Surely there never was a more unfitted teacher for this than my uncle, whose grasp of mathematics ended at the five times table. But he was never less than willing.

He opened a book and cleared his throat. “Now, then. Pythagoras. Pythagoras was an ancient Greek, and as everyone knows, he was the learned man of the world when it came to triangles. So, so. Pythagoras tells us of a wonderful feature of a right triangle—right meaning your true, your correct triangle, I take it. A triangle has, let us see, three angles, which the name tells us plainly enough, and each angle is made up of two sides, and therefore a triangle has six sides—no, no, I'm out, for the sides do double duty, to be sure—”

After a bit, Mr. Adams, with a deep frown of concentration, suggested that perhaps a right triangle contained one right angle, one angle of ninety degrees, a fact that he knew from the way noon
sights were taken. My uncle agreed. We worked our way around to the hypotenuse, not the river creature of Africa, as Uncle Patch explained, but rather the side that sat across the room from that right angle.

It took much explaining and not a little backtracking and consulting the book, but finally Mr. Adams nodded, surprise on every feature. “So,” he said, “if we multiply the length of the hypotenuse by itself, that number then is equal to the sums of the squares of the other two sides of the triangle! And is this true for all right triangles, no matter how big?”

“It is,” my uncle said, closing the book. “And that is why Pythagoras was such a deep old file, may God set a flower on his head. And so we turn to Latin—”

Mr. Adams left us then, for he was only in it for the mathematics. But I shall never forget the light in his face. He had made his first step toward being a lieutenant, and somehow I felt then that he would not stop until he had reached his goal.

Pirates' Den

toward the island of Tortuga, just north of the bigger island called Hispaniola. Even with the leak plugged, the men pumped for hours every day. In the cabin one morning, as Captain Hunter was writing up the ship's log from hasty scribbled notes, I asked him and my uncle what the islands were like.

In answer, Captain Hunter crumpled a piece of paper into a wad and tossed it onto the table. “Like that,” he said. “Rugged and broken and mountainous.”

“And of old a haunt of pirates,” added my uncle.

So on the morning that the lookout in the
maintop called down, “Land ho!” I was prepared for what I saw: a dark, humped island on the horizon, looking very much like that wad of crumpled paper.

“Trim the sails, lads,” Captain Hunter called out. “Make her look sweet and innocent.”

“As innocent as a battered Frenchman with twenty-eight guns can look,” Uncle Patch muttered under his breath.

Hunter turned to him with a grin. “It's all in the attitude, Patch! Where's your sense of adventure, man?”

“I left it behind in Dublin, where I should be as well!” snapped my uncle with a glower.

was far ahead as we sailed eastward along the rugged northern coast of Hispaniola. Finally, the morning after our landfall, we sailed straight into the open arms of Tortuga Harbor, bold as brass and twice as bright.

We followed a pilot boat through one of the two channels that led into the harbor. I could see batteries of cannons on either side of the headlands and the great fort on its hill over the town, in turn dwarfed by a more distant mountain that towered
above it. The fort looked sullen and old and humorless. The sunlight barely illuminated its guns, black and hidden within the shadows of the fort's walls. I felt they were staring at me. The town itself, called Cayona, was a ramshackle collection of stone houses and driftwood huts, the waterfront thronging with jostling crowds.

“Looking for real pirates, Davy?” Uncle Patch rumbled with disapproval behind me. “Just keep an eye peeled, and you'll see 'em all around you.”

The harbor was thick with ships and boats of all shapes and sizes. Many were small sloops and brigs, clustered around the wharves and piers, but some were larger, including two merchantmen whose shabby sides were rough with peeling paint. One, at least, was well armed, for she had new gun-ports cut into her old sides.

“Pirate ships?” I asked, and my uncle nodded. “How can you tell?”

Shaking his head so that his red ponytail swayed, Uncle Patch replied, “Saints, it would be easier to tell which ones aren't, for there are not so many of them. Not so many years ago, Tortuga was wide open. The place made Port Royal look like a
monastery. Then the French and the Dons signed a treaty saying piracy was a bad thing. And all the blessed piece of paper did was make the pirates less obvious. You can still buy anything and sell anything, no matter how crookedly come by, so long as you don't ask or answer questions about the goods.”

By noon, the
was tied fast to one of the wharves, the
penned in front of us. Captain Barrel stamped around her deck, lashing out with his fist and delivering kicks with his wooden leg to encourage his crew. Then he stood on the
s stern and grinned up at us.

“Ahoy, Cap'n Hunter!”

“Ahoy yourself, Captain Barrel!” Captain Hunter called back. “Here we all are, living proof that the good Lord has a love for scoundrels.”

Barrel roared with laughter. “Aye! And at least we're honest enough as scoundrels go. If ye wants to see a son o' Satan, though, just cast an eye to larboard!”

Our eyes followed his pointing hand. A galley, a vessel about the size of a sloop and equipped with long oars, was making its way across the harbor
toward us. She was crusted with gilt, and I saw a huge French flag snapping from her single mast.

Barrel called out, “I've sent a man in to say a good word for you, so p'rhaps Monsieur du Pont will leave you your small clothes!” He gurgled with laughter, then wiped his eyes and looked more serious. “Aye, for piracy you need nerve, but for real thieving you need a port official!”

“Wonderful,” muttered Hunter, staring as the oarsmen moved the galley toward us. “Whoever Monsieur du Pont may be, Captain Barrel's description doesn't bode well.”

My uncle shook his head. “William, no port official bodes well. That must be the man himself standing in the prow. Smile for the greedy son of a rum-puncheon!” And so we did, myself included, as the galley came alongside and the port admiral of Tortuga hauled himself onboard.

“Captain Hunter,” the man said, spreading his mouth in a smile and looking around. “Permit me to introduce myself. I am Charles du Pont, at your service.” From where I stood behind my uncle, I thought that M. Charles du Pont had an uncanny resemblance to a toad. He was short, with a flabby,
round body, and had a wide, lipless mouth and bulging eyes. There was an oily slickness to him that all the embroidery and lace in the world could not hide.

With him was a harassed-looking little man armed with a heavy ledger and a bedraggled quill pen. His murmuring voice droned behind the port admiral like a mayfly's buzz: “Harbor fee … wharf fee … cordage tax … water shipage … careenage … victualing fee …”

Ignoring him, Captain Hunter bowed politely, a fixed grin on his face. “Monsieur du Pont, we are in your hands. I'm Captain William Hunter. Welcome aboard the

The bulging eyes swiveled in the fat, round face. The man seemed incapable of blinking. He inclined his head a bit on his heavy neck and said, “Alas, you arrive at a most inopportune time, Captain Hunter. Tortuga is very crowded.” He waved a hand at the harbor, his thick fingers wiggling like sausages on a toasting fork. “You see the way the ships are packed in. Repairs may be”—he waggled those fingers—“unfortunately slow.”

Captain Hunter's smile had become so fixed, it
looked nailed on. “Well, that's bad for us. We hit a … reef and stove in our bow below the waterline. We badly need to careen the ship to get at the leak.”

“A reef?” M. du Pont's blank gaze swiveled to our forecastle. Despite everything Chips had been able to do, it still showed damage from cannon fire. “Yes. Reefs can be most treacherous.”

“We'll need new planking,” Captain Hunter said. “And I'm sure we'll have to recopper some of the hull.”

My uncle added, “And I need to buy medicines. To my shame, my medical chest is almost empty.”

The bulging toad eyes swung back at us. I felt like a bug. Slowly, the port admiral's pudgy right hand came up, and his clerk's buzzing drone—“lumber … new copper …”—trailed off into silence.

Looking my uncle up and down, but speaking to Hunter, du Pont said, “I take it this is your ship's doctor?”

“Alas, for my poor manners!” Hunter bowed again, as elegantly as he might have done before King James himself. “Monsieur du Pont, I beg to present to you Dr. Patrick Shea, ship's surgeon of the

The lipless mouth smiled, which made Uncle Patch scowl even more. “So many ships that put in here have no surgeon at all. And are you well schooled as a surgeon, Monsieur Shea?”

“Tolerably well,” said my uncle. “I took my training at Trinity College in Dublin.”

“Impressive. It is not often that a real doctor visits our outpost.” The port admiral's smile grew wider, until it looked as if it were going to touch his ears. “Let us have a talk, Captain. I think I see in your physician here a solution to problems, both mine and yours.”

The two men walked away, almost arm in arm, followed by the now silent clerk and his ledger, leaving Uncle Patch and me standing alone on the deck.

“There he goes,” muttered my uncle sourly. “And, by all that's holy, 'twill be lucky for us if the smooth-talking Monsieur du Pont leaves us with a plank for our ship and a rag for a sail!”

Three hours after the captain and du Pont had their talk, my uncle and I were in a carriage rolling through the rutted streets of Cayona, my uncle
cursing at each jolt of the wheels. “That misbegotten—never trust an Englishman, Davy!” he snarled.

“'Twas a fair bargain, you know,” I told him.

“I know nothing of the sort!” he returned.

I sighed heavily and leaned back into the cracked leather. Uncle Patch would rail against Captain Hunter until his voice gave out.

But I was remembering what M. du Pont had said to Mr. Hunter: “The expenses could be lower, Captain Hunter. Call it a favor for a favor. A rich man here in town, Monsieur Gille, a good friend of the governor, has a … special guest. Like your vessel, this guest has suffered an accident, has run upon a reef, so to speak. His life is despaired of, but if your ship's surgeon can save him, then I believe I can guarantee speedy repairs and fair prices.”

So Captain Hunter had made his bargain: Uncle Patch would treat this mysterious guest, and we wouldn't have to sell the
to pay her port fees. My uncle's surgical kit was wedged between us and bounced back and forth, slamming our shins as we jounced from rut to rut. The streets were terrible, but the French only shrugged their shoulders.
Le bon Dieu,
they said, had ruined the streets with bad weather, and
le bon Dieu
could repair them, for no one else would.

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