Read The Guns of Tortuga Online

Authors: Brad Strickland,Thomas E. Fuller

The Guns of Tortuga (6 page)

More men were in the streets than women, a good deal more. As Uncle Patch had said, in lots of ways Tortuga was still the pirates' nest it had been forty years before. 'Twas true the buccaneers no longer flew their Jolly Rogers, but tried to do business as if they were respectable sailors. Still, many and many a piratical-looking wretch did I see skulking though the busy streets.

M. du Pont proved quite congenial. Evidently M. Gille gave him a good account of my uncle's visit, and it took only a thumping great bribe from Mr. Hunter to make du Pont happy to help us. The toadlike port admiral often stopped to see how work on the frigate was coming. He thanked my uncle three or four times for his excellent treatment of the English prisoner. Uncle Patch accepted the thanks with what was, for him, a gracious air, though he had told no one except Mr. Hunter that the patient was Captain Brixton. Twice every week Uncle Patch went to check on Brixton's progress and to take him medicines, but never did he allow me to go with him.

Toward the end of the first week in February, M. du Pont waddled by just as Chips had chopped out the damaged planking and had begun to measure the wood he needed to replace it. Hunter stood in his working clothes, breeches and a plain gray shirt, watching as Chips crept over the hull. I was next to the captain when du Pont came to stand beside us, leaning on his cane. “A grievous great hole,” he murmured in his accented English. “
Mon Dieu,
it is lucky that you did not strike twice upon such a reef.”

“It is, at that,” agreed Captain Hunter, though I thought that du Pont knew as well as we did that the “reef” that made the hole was a twenty-four-pound cannon. “However, the ship is sound. We hope to have her afloat in another week.”


Bien,
” du Pont said, his lipless smile splitting his face. He prodded at the gravel with his cane. “I have in fact come to extend to you an invitation, Captain. My good friend Monsieur Etienne Gille would be grateful if you would favor him with your presence at dinner tonight.”

“I am very busy here,” Hunter pointed out.


Oui,
the repair of the ship, it calls for attention,
certainly,” agreed du Pont. He waved his fat right hand in the air delicately. “But my friend Monsieur Gille is, how do you say, an important man, a grandee, as the Spanish call them. Very wealthy, and he has a voice in the government of the island, too. He could be someone you … need to know.”

“So?” asked Captain Hunter, with a quizzical tilt of his head. He appeared to think the matter over for a moment, and then nodded. “Very well. What time?”

“At seven in the evening. The plantation is not far from town. I will give you directions there—or your surgeon may accompany you. Monsieur Shea knows the way by now.” M. du Pont smiled again, though the expression did not light his dark, bulging eyes at all. “Tortuga can still be a friendly place for a gentleman who knows his allies. I hope we both may benefit from your acquaintance with Monsieur Gille.”

“Thank you,” Captain Hunter said in a wry voice. “Now if you could find me a few square yards of copper sheeting, how happy I would be.”

M. du Pont's smile widened, making him even more froglike. “Monsiuer, I am at your service. If
you have the gold, voilà! Like an alchemist, I can change it to copper.”

The port admiral had begun to stroll away, when Captain Hunter called after him: “I say! One question. Will it truly be acceptable for Doctor Shea to come along? I'm sure he would like to see his patient again. He tells me the poor devil was badly hurt.”

M. du Pont spread his hands, grasping his walking stick as if he were a conjurer and it was his wand. “But of course! I may speak for Monsieur Gille when I say he would be delighted of Doctor Shea's presence.
Au revoir.”

That evening all three of us set out, for I had talked my way into the party as a servant. It was a hot journey, even in early February, and as we toiled up the winding streets in our finery, my uncle constantly grumbled about his discomfort. “We might have taken a chaise,” he pointed out. “Five miles of walking is no joke, not when the ground underfoot is this unyielding rock. It was rough enough in that blasted carriage.”

“I think it's as well to get the lay of the land,” Captain Hunter coolly replied. “Especially since we
may need to bring Captain Brixton away suddenly.”

My uncle shot him a dark look. “Faith, and if ye bring him away suddenly tonight, 'tis a corpse you'll bear. I tell you, 'tis still a toss-up whether he lives or dies. We'll be in port for another week or ten days, Mr. Adams says. Give Captain Brixton at least that long to mend before you play some harebrained trick.”

Hunter smiled sweetly, but he would not swear that he would abide by my uncle's advice, so Uncle Patch was in a foul mood by the time we had left the town behind and sighted once again the grim iron gates of the Gille plantation.

A servant wearing splendid purple satin livery showed us into a grandly furnished room where M. du Pont rose from a chair to make the introductions. M. Etienne Gille was a sleek and elegant man, who wore an elaborate curled black wig that fell to his shoulders, and a rich brocaded suit in maroons and purples. His face was round, smooth, and pale as an egg. He led us to the dining room, and as my uncle's servant, I took my place behind his chair when Gille urged his guests to be seated.
He whispered something to a servant, and the man scurried out. A few moments later, another man, taller than Gille and slim as a Spanish blade, joined us. He wore a luxuriant silvery white wig and modest snuff-colored clothing, but even had he changed, I would have recognized the mysterious Mr. Meade.

“Captain Hunter,” said M. Gille in his smooth way, “permit me to introduce Monsieur Robert Meade, my business adviser. I believe he has always ready made the acquaintance of Doctor Shea?”

“Mr. Meade has been most helpful,” my uncle said without much expression in his voice. The tall man smiled softly and bowed in acknowledgment.

Gille nodded amiably. “As you can see, Monsieur Meade is English, like yourselves, though his French is impeccable. I asked him to join us in case there are any little difficulties of language.”

Meade again politely inclined his head but did not speak, and indeed from that moment he might almost have faded into the woodwork, so quiet did he remain. The meal was a rich one, with many courses, and it went on for more than two hours. My uncle asked if he might have a quick look at his
patient, and M. Gille agreed, though he said, “Later, if you please, after our dinner.”

For most of the time, the men's talk was of trivial matters—the weather, the state of shipping, the tension between Spain and England. Finally, though, M. Gille put both of his hands flat upon the table, cleared his throat, and said, “My good friend Monsieur du Pont thought it would be well for us to meet, my dear Captain, and I see that he was correct. Now what I have to say to you must remain confidential. We are men of the world. I am sure you understand.”

“Men of the world, are we?” asked my uncle in so agreeable a voice that I knew he was ready to explode.

M. Gille apparently did not hear him. He rested his elbows on the arms of his chair and made a tent of his fingers. He tapped them together a few times and then said, “How to explain. My friend, as a merchant and as the adviser of the governor of Tortuga, I have many interests. Shipping is one of them. I do not actually own many vessels, but I concern myself with the welfare of many captains—many captains.” He took a sip of wine. “How shall I
put this? I am the—call it the friend, no, better, the sponsor—of many an enterprising captain, of many a willing crew.”

M. du Pont had been drinking more wine than the others. He leaned forward with a foolish smile on his fat face. “My friend means that an, uh, independent captain needs protection. Needs a port open and amicable to him. Needs a, how do you say, a refuge at times.”

“A place of safety,” Hunter said with a smile. “A haven to fly to when the—weather turns bad.”

M. du Pont laughed coarsely. “The weather!
Oui!
When the weather is, let us say, stormy! That is good.”

Gille did not look at du Pont, but his right eye began to twitch. “Weather is one concern,” he said in a dry voice.

M. du Pont cut him short: “Listen, my friends! With Monsieur Gille's help, you can make your fortunes! Tortuga will be always open to you, and you may sell your cargo,
any cargo,
at a handsome profit. He will arrange to have any vessels you do not need sold, for ready money, and for this he takes only a small percentage. There are heaps of
gold to be made from goods taken from merchant ships—salvaged, we could say. Or ransom! Many unfortunate captains who have met with disaster will pay handsomely to be sent home again, or their masters will. Why, even now one such is here in this house, being treated by the doctor there—a glass of wine with you, Doctor! And I could tell you of others, even another navy officer—”

There was a quiet cough and Mr. Meade pushed his chair back. “I must beg to be excused,” he whispered. “An indisposition.”

Gille instantly turned to du Pont. “My friend, you have taken a little more wine than you should,” he said coldly.

Color drained from du Pont's face, and his bulging eyes threatened to pop out of his face. He mumbled something I could not understand and fell silent, pale and staring at the table.

Meade rose and left us. Gille sighed. “I think you understand the nature of my offer,” he said. “I would not have put it so crudely, perhaps.”

Hunter raised his glass and took a sip of wine—a very small sip, I noticed. “Sometimes we sailors have slow wits,” he said. “I cannot blame Monsieur
du Pont for wanting to make it all clear.” M. du Pont shot him a pathetically grateful glance as the captain continued, “It is a tempting offer, Monsieur Gille, aye, and a handsome one. But you know how it is with we who sail on account. Our crews must agree to every important decision. Therefore, if I may have, say, a week to discuss this matter with them—”

Gille spread his hands. “Take as much time as you need,” he said. “And at the end of it, I hope your decision is one that will take you safely out of the harbor and back to sea.”

I saw my uncle's jaw tighten, for he was quick to spot a threat, no matter how delicately uttered. When we left the table, he went to consult with his patient, though he did not take me along. When my uncle returned, M. Gille summoned a carriage to take us back to town. By that time it was quite dark, still oppressively hot, and silent except for the rioting sounds of tropical insects.

Not a word did any of us speak until the carriage set us down, at Mr. Hunter's direction, on the waterfront. Hunter had set up living quarters in a palmetto-thatched hut near one of the warehouses.
Into this we went, a mean little one-room dwelling. Hunter had slung a hammock in one corner and had set his table in the center, and around this we sat as he lit a lantern and hung it from a hook in the low ceiling.

“By heaven,” Hunter growled as he sat down, “this is unendurable! Captain Brixton, not in his right mind and a prisoner! And that fool du Pont babbling, bragging of another Royal Navy officer in custody somewhere in this den of thieves! They must be rescued, I tell you.”

In a quiet, urgent voice, my uncle said, “Aye, and may they be! But I tell you plain, Brixton's life is balanced on the edge of a razor. I let daylight into his brain, man! He has fever, and he is pitiably weak down his right side—'tis a mercy he's not entirely paralyzed. To move him now would be to kill him, as surely as putting a bullet into his head. And this other officer, now, where is he? Who is he? We must know before we act.”

Hunter gave him an angry look. “But to do nothing—”

“And who says we do nothing?” My uncle leaned back, looking weary in the ruddy glow of the
hanging lantern. Moths, which seemed always present in the islands, had found it and were whirling about the light. For a moment, Uncle Patch leaned his head back and stared at them. Then he spoke again: “Listen to me, William. We have spent five whole months in building a reputation as pirates. It would be the pity of the world to shatter that illusion now, out of sheer impatience. We may yet save Brixton and the other prisoner, but for the love of heaven, let us do it wisely and cautiously, with none of this mad rush to the guns. There are ways and there are ways, my friend.”

Hunter took a deep breath, but he glared at both of us. “Very well. I am listening.”

My uncle leaned forward, his voice soft and earnest. “Then listen well. Now, it seems to me that the first step, the very first one, is to learn who this other officer is and where he is held—”

And with Hunter nodding agreement and me fighting exhaustion and the call of sleep, Uncle Patch talked on, far into the night.

My Discovery
Do not lose hope. Rescue is near. Be prepared.

—A Friend

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