Read The Guns of Tortuga Online
Authors: Brad Strickland,Thomas E. Fuller
Cayona was a strange mix of substantial stone and tabby buildings and haphazard wooden shacks and canvas tents. Everywhere I heard French being bellowed, being shrieked, being flung upon the sultry air in what might have been jokes or curses, for all I knew. We left the town behind and rumbled up a twisting road between trees whose roots spread out over what looked like solid rock.
Indeed, what it was that M. Gille grew on that stony ground I could not guess. The plantation house the carriage driver took us to was a stone affair, square and two-storied, with a red tile roof. To reach it, we had to pass through a barred iron gate in a tall stone wall. A silent servant opened it for us and closed it behind with a clang.
Uncle Patch muttered, “Saints, but that bears a frosty sound, like the clapping to of a cell door!” Ahead, down a long lane lined with palm trees, stood the house. It had been whitewashed recently, and it fairly shone in the light of the afternoon sun.
A purple-liveried servant met us at the door and
silently gestured for us to follow. The driver walked behind us with the surgical kit. Our footsteps echoed on the cool tiles until we reached a low, dark room. I thought we were alone until a man emerged from the shadows.
He was tall and slim and as pale a man as I had ever seen. The long white wig he wore made his face look even more bloodless. His suit was neat and well tailored but brown as cured tobacco and just as drab. His voice, however, was soft and smooth, like honey strained through silk, and it was an English voice, not a French one: “Good day to you, Dr. Shea. I am Robert Meade, Monsieur Gille's estate manager. My employer sends his regrets but he is unable to attend to you personally. He hopes you understand.”
“Perfectly,” snapped my uncle. “He's a grandee and doesn't want to spot his hands with the blood of this poor wretch I'm to treat.”
Mr. Meade smiled a wintry smile. “It is good that we understand each other. Cesar will remain here. Your boy may carry your instruments. This way, if you please.”
I didn't see him move, but suddenly a section of
wood paneling behind him slipped aside, revealing a dark room barely lit by candlelight. I took the case from the driver, and for the first time noticed that he wore a cutlass at his side. He stood with one hand on the hilt, as if he had changed from servant to guard.
The hidden room was lit only by a single candle and one high, very narrow slit of window. There was a table, two chairs, and a long bed with a straw mattress. A man lay on this, moaning softly.
Mr. Meade raised a hand to hold my uncle back. “A word first. You will speak to no one of your patient. You will treat him, doing whatever you feel necessary, and then you will report to me. Should you need any assistance, please inform Cesar.” He dropped his hand and walked out with a strange elegance that totally belied his dull attire.
Uncle Patch went straight to the feverishly thrashing figure on the bed. The man was muttering in a voice that seemed oddly familiar to me, though what he said had no sense in it: “Steady as she goes, Mr. Twinings â¦ bring her about, bring her about!”
Uncle Patch snatched the candlestick from its
table and held it up. “Saints in heaven!” he said, with a sharp intake of breath.
In the candlelight I recognized the drawn face, flushed with fever beneath a bloody bandage around the head. It was familiar, but horribly changed, all sharp cheekbones and sagging skin. Empty eyes stared up at nothing, blank and blue as a West Indies sky. Captain Brixton? Could this wasted wax figure actually be the robust captain of the
The last time I had seen him he had been yelling curses at us as the
had fled from Port Royal. Captain Brixton was the only man, other than Sir Henry Morgan and King James himself, who knew we weren't really pirates.
He groaned and flung a hand over his eyes, still muttering as if giving commands: “Solid shot, Mr. Bellows â¦ stand by, stand by â¦ she's firing on us!”
Uncle Patch was moving methodically down the wasted body, checking and probing. “Instruments, Davy, He's on fire with fever. I'll need cold water, clean rags. And light! Tell them I need lanterns, candles, whatever they have!”
I sprinted to the door and blurted out Uncle Patch's demands to Cesar. He nodded, went to the
outer door, and called in French. Before long, a silent servant brought in a bucket of cool well water and a bundle of clean rags. A second trip brought enough candles to light a cathedral.
For what seemed like forever, I sponged the captain's face and chest as we fought to bring his fever down. Uncle Patch poured various potions down his throat, shaking his head and muttering under his breath almost as loudly as the captain himself. His long fingers removed the bandage, and my uncle swore at what he saw. High on Captain Brixton's left forehead was a depressed place, purple and ugly. My uncle muttered, “Davy, we have to go into this man's skull. I hope you have the stomach for it.”
First, though, he ordered the strangest thing I had heard yet: for a silver piece to be hammered thin. When Cesar brought one in, he tested it, found it unsatisfactory, and had it rehammered until it was a slightly rounded little dome. He nodded at that.
And though I had seen terrible wounds, I was hardly prepared for this. Under the glare of candles, we lashed the captain to the bed. Then my uncle cut
skin and flesh away, folding it back as I held the captain's head steady with one arm wrapped around and my hand pressed beneath his chin. With my free hand, I swabbed blood. My uncle used a curious circular silver saw to cut away a disk of bone. I gasped as he lifted this away and a gush of fluid came forth, with a dark clot of blood at its center. Beneath that, pink and throbbing, lay Captain Brixton's brain.
Working quickly, my uncle fastened the silver dome to the skull with wonderfully tiny screws from his case, and then he stitched the scalp back. At last we untied our patient, and as soon as we were done, Uncle Patch patted my shoulder. “You'll be a fine surgeon one day,” he said gruffly. Weary and sick though I felt, I assure you that kind word made me stand a bit taller.
Captain Brixton lay easier, apparently deep asleep. My uncle was even more wrinkled than usual, his good black suit crusted with blood. His eyes were red-rimmed and swollen. He replaced his instruments in their case and strode to the open doorway, where Mr. Meade met us. “How is he?”
Uncle Patch walked right past him. “I need air.”
Mr. Meade made some signal to Cesar, and then he followed us to the front door. Night had fallen, and my uncle stood on the veranda of the house taking great breaths. At last he turned to Mr. Meade. “The man is to have rest and quiet. Turn him gently every three hours so he will not be eaten up with bedsores. Change the dressing on the wound twice a day, and make sure the new one is clean.”
Mr. Meade nodded. “It will be done.”
My uncle puffed out his cheeks. “The man may be paralyzed down his right side, and probably blind in that eye. If he recovers, 'tis the Lord's work, not mine.”
Mr. Meade summoned the carriage, and my uncle and I stepped into it for our trip back to the harbor. But not before Meade's long, slim fingers had slipped a small leather bag into my hand, with the weight and clink of gold.
In the cabin of the
Captain Hunter leaped from his seat when my uncle told him whom we had operated upon. “Brixton!” he thundered. “Is he in danger?”
“Mortal danger,” my uncle shot back. “And if he
does live, by some mercy, he's a mere wreck for the rest of his life, a hulk stove in and on the rocks.”
“What happened to him?” Hunter demanded.
“That I know not, for he's not in his right mind, at all,” Uncle Patch said.
“I believe I do.” We all spun round at the new voice. Mr. Adams stood in the doorway, his hat in hand. “Begging your pardon, Captain, but I've been going around town, listening, as you ordered. The
got herself blown to glory off Santiago last week.”
Hunter reached for his sword. “We have to rescue him.”
My uncle seized his arm. “Whisht, you hotheaded Englishman, stop and think! How can you rescue a man you can't move? His life is tied to his body by threads. If you move him, you'll kill him sure!”
Captain Hunter gave him the coldest stare I have ever seen. “Are we to do nothing?” He waved his sword.
My uncle said impatiently, “Put that thing away, for I could not sew my own nose back on! We'll do what we can. Listen, now: In three days' timeâfour
at mostâI'll know whether he is to be moved or be buried. Either way, Captain Alexander Brixton's sailing days are over.”
As I stood there, I wondered whether Captain Brixton would live. If he did, would he thank my uncle for saving him, or curse him?
For the choice between death and the kind of life he seemed doomed to have if he survived was a sorry choice indeed.
THE SIDES OF TORTUGA
Harbor were remarkably steep. The whole island rose from the sea like a tortoise's back, which, I learned, was how it got its name, for
means “sea turtle” in Spanish. However, in one spot there was a fairly level careening ground, and to this Captain Hunter sailed the
It was partly with the help of the harbor crew, but mostly by our own efforts, that we careened the frigate.
That meant we first roused out of her hold everything she carried. Over several weary days, barrels and bags and crates had to be hauled ashore, where they were locked inside a warehouse.
Into a different storage house went cannons, shot, and powder. Hunter set two sailors to guard each door day and night, the hands taking watches of four hours a turn on guard duty. There was some mild complaining about this, for the men who had sailed with Sir Henry Morgan knew Tortuga well. To them, guarding the doors seemed like a man sitting in his own bed with a loaded pistol on his lapâat least until they noticed how the port had changed since the old days. Then the complaining ceased, and the lookouts kept a good watch.
Once the ship was empty, we hauled her sideways up wooden ramps and tilted her over, so that she lay on her starboard side. It took the whole crew, pulling with a will as they chanted a sea song, to do this, even with the help of blocks and tackles. The
slid up on greased wooden skids, tilted over, and came to rest at last.
On the February day when we careened the ship, I remember how astonished I was at seeing the
s bottom. She wore a sheathing of copper sheets, but even so, the dripping, dark green weed grew thick and matted on her, like a long, shaggy beard. The hole showed up too, a punched-in
crater more than a foot across. Chips clucked his tongue when he saw it. “'Tis a mercy that evil-hearted Spaniard hit us only once in such a place. Twice would've been right awkward, and three times would've sunk us.”
That day the crew found quarters ashore, many of them in boardinghouses, but most in a kind of tent city thrown up in the spaces behind and between the warehouses, overlooking the careened ship. Abel Tate told me that it was needful to stay close to the frigate. “Lord a' mercy,” he muttered, “but who would trust the barky to be safe with these here French thieves so thick on the ground?”
“You think they'd bother the ship?” I asked the short, wiry sailor.
He gave me a quick nod. “Lord love ye, they'd take the blessed hatch gratings themselves, so they would. Aye, and strip the gold paint from the figurehead!”
At first it was interesting to watch the men scrape the weed from the ship, shaving it off so that the copper shone through. But the smell was terrible, and glad I was when my uncle found us lodging in a kind of hotel overlooking the bay. It was a curious
place, unlike The King's Mercy in Jamaica where we had lived. Its name was the Royale, but there was nothing royal about it.
The building was a stone pile of three stories, with a dark sort of public house on the ground floor and above that a warren of small rooms. Ours had a window with no glass in it, but shutters that we could close if so minded. My uncle took the bed, a wooden frame with a lumpy straw mattress, and I made do with the floor, which I think was probably the more comfortable of the two.
The owner was a sour, fat Frenchman with a protruding lower lip and a villainous squint. He spoke little, but was ever sharp to charge Uncle Patch for the least little thing: for his taking a glass of ale to the room, or for closing the shutters on a day of no rain.
Cayona reminded me of Port Royal, except that the town was louder and rougher. Stone buildings stood cheek by jowl next to ramshackle wooden ones that might have worn paint forty years earlier but that now stood bare to the sun and the weather. Everywhere was a gabble of French. The merchants and their customers seemed unable to conduct
business at all unless it was at the very top of their lungs, with much arm-waving and scolding.