Read The Guns of Tortuga Online

Authors: Brad Strickland,Thomas E. Fuller

The Guns of Tortuga (7 page)

I SIGHED AND SHOOK A SPLASH
of fine sand from the sand shaker over the words I had just written. Then I shook the sand off and added the page to the pile by my side. By my count I had done two round dozen of the blessed things.

For three days, my uncle, Captain Hunter, and all the crew who weren't patching the Aurora had been scouring Cayona Town, hoping for news of M. du Pont's mysterious other British officer. My part, much to my annoyance, was to copy the letter they
were to slip to the captive if and when they found him. Captain Hunter informed me it was a very important duty since, while his men were all brave and true, most of them thought their names were spelled with an X. In his usual charming way, Uncle Patch warned me that I was to plant my breeches in the room and under no circumstances was I to move.

So I scraped and copied and sprinkled and stacked. It was deadly dull because the captain insisted they all be neat and legible and exactly the same. When my fingers cramped, I would brush and clean my clothing and shoes, just to have something to do. In the heat of the day I dozed, taking what the Spanish called a
siesta.

The rest of the time I was bored. I even started to read some of Uncle Patch's precious medical books he had brought ashore with him.
Wiseman on Surgery
was one, I recall, and in it was an account of the very operation my uncle had done upon poor Captain Brixton. It was almost interesting until I realized that reading the books was precisely what my uncle hoped I would do. As much as I hate to admit it, I spent a great deal of my time sulking and feeling quite sorry for myself.

From talking to the crew every night after they returned from the ship, I knew that the search was not going well. The town, the port, the ships in the harbor—none of them yielded any news. Mr. Adams said that everything was just sealing up, like a great oyster protecting a pearl. “Something's going on, though,” he concluded. “The people of Tortuga are afraid of something.”

“Of what?” I asked him.

“Aye, that's the nub of it. What? I have the feeling that the people of town are so on edge, they barely are talking to one another, let alone to strangers.”

The night that Mr. Adams said these words, I came to a conclusion of my own. The problem was they were sending men to do a boy's job. So the people of Cayona were suspicious of English sailors, were they? I had an answer to that.

I went through my uncle's chest until I found a fine piece of parchment he had saved just because he truly hated to throw anything away. In his portable writing-desk I found a stick of red sealing wax. I carefully wrote out my message one more time, then neatly folded the parchment into three sections and closed it with a large dollop of the hot
red wax. Before it could cool, I pressed into it the Spanish coin that Sir Henry Morgan had given me as a good-luck piece. When I took the coin away, the parchment looked like a sealed, official document.

I calculated that the French of this island might not want to talk to a pirate, especially an English pirate. But a not-too-bright ship's boy, afraid he'd be beaten if he failed to deliver his scrap of fine parchment with its fine seal, well, him they might talk to.

My plan was simple. I would dress myself in my most ragged clothes, clutch my letter in my grubby hand, pull my hat down over my eyes, and just tell everyone I saw that I had a message for a British officer and did anyone know where one was?

So the next day, I waited for my uncle Patch to go stamping out, had two hard-boiled eggs and a chunk of almost fresh bread for breakfast, and then boldly marched out the door and into the teeming life of Tortuga.

For hours, it appeared that I would have no luck at all. Up to a likely-looking man I would go, tugging at my hat. “Beg pardon,
monsieur,
I am looking for an
English prisoner. I have an important letter for—”

A rattle of French, which most probably was, “Away with you, brat!” And sometimes I would have to duck a cuff aimed at my ear as I immediately vanished back into the crowd. I had not expected to succeed right away, but neither had I expected every third person I asked to try to thump me.

A fat, sweating merchant, beaming after successfully haggling over some bargain, was my next target. I sidled up to him and said in an imploring voice, “Please, sir, an English officer? I have a letter to deliver, but I can't remember the address. My master will beat me if—”

This one spoke English. “Out of my way!” And he had a better aim than the others. He swatted me a good one as I turned away.


Monsieur!
” I said, trying to sound as if he had nearly killed me. Truth to say, the kick hurt my pride more than anything else. I looked about for someone else to ask.

The marketplace of Cayona Town was a sprawling, open square, with everything in the world for sale. Booths, wagons, and stalls served for shops, and some merchants did with even less, with a tray
hung round their necks or with a blanket spread on the ground. Behind them every other building seemed to be a tavern.

I stumbled over the rough cobblestones. A barrelchested horse snorted at me. He was hauling a cart loaded with kegs that smelled of rum. My idea had seemed so simple back at the Royale, but out in the chaos of Cayona, I began to feel discouraged. Still, when I thought of Captain Brixton and reflected that some other officer might be in the same condition, I did not want to give up. I would keep looking.

Three more attempts, and no luck. Four. Five. Sure, and I was beginning to despair. At last I fetched up near a particularly villianous-looking tavern with a sheep's skull nailed to a board. I had heard some of the sailors talking of the Ram's Head, and that, I supposed, was where I was. By that time, it was afternoon, with the sun beating down and the people of the town going inside to escape the worst of the heat. Perhaps, I thought, I might have better luck if I went in as well, and so I crept into the tavern.

The room was dark and hot and smoky. Coming
from the blaze of day outside, I was nearly blind. I heartily wished I had lost my sense of smell as well. The place reeked of too many unwashed bodies and of much spilled rum and beer.

I stood blinking until the room became visible. The ceiling, like the door, was low and supported by long, heavy beams salvaged from some wreck. The smoke came from a dozen or so crude candles stuck on various surfaces. Men slumped around rough tables, playing cards or drinking. At the far end, almost lost in the gloom, was a long bar composed of boards laid across four barrels. One of the largest men I've ever seen was behind it, wiping tankards with a grubby towel. I squared my shoulders, put on my simplest look, and marched up to him. If I kept my distance, he couldn't hit me from across the bar.

“Ex … excuse me, sir,” I began.

“Get out of my tavern,” the man said, his voice revealing him to be Irish, though he had picked up an outlandish French accent that made his words strange. “Shame on you, coming in a place like this!”

“Ah, I swear by the saints that it's not for drink that I've come in,” I said, putting as much of
Ireland in my own voice as I could. “Saints help me, but 'tis lost entirely I am.”

“Aye, so are we all. We're but lambs in the wilderness, so Father Finnegan used to tell us.”

Was he making fun of me? I could not tell. Still, he had made no motion to hit me. “'Tis a letter I'm to deliver, to an Englishman, a naval officer he is. Needing help from his friends, so he is, and him a prisoner among these French and all. My master gave me a silver penny to put this letter from his friends into his own hands, but his name I've forgot, and the place I've forgot. The parchment doesn't have the blessed address written on it, nor the name. I dare not open it, for 'tis sealed. So if it pleases your lordship, p'rhaps ye could help a poor Irish lad, so his English captain may not beat him cruelly?”

Small, sleepy eyes regarded me out of that vast face. On the
Louisa
on the trip over from England, a great whale had surfaced near us and I had seen those same eyes. They had a deep-buried intelligence that told you to mind your manners or something would get stove in. I gulped and babbled to a stop.

“Where was the place of your birth, lad?” the tavern keeper asked me.

“Brighton, in England,” I said, knowing somehow that it was not worth lying. “But my father and my mother were both from County Clare, him a Shea and my mother a Sullivan, and they grew up within a good day's walk of the Ciffs of Moher.”

“County Clare, is it?” he said. “Hm. I'm a Doolan, myself, and I do remember some Sheas and Sullivans.” He leaned across the bar. “A Royal Navy officer, say ye? And your master's an Englishman, is he? Beat ye if ye fail in your errand?”

“I fear so,” I said.

He sighed again. “Well, I'm probably a
gran' fou.
But if you're a Shea from County Clare—well, ye heard it not here lad, but if I was lookin' for an English prisoner hereabout, I'd go to the Commodore's.”

“That was the place,” I said, letting relief flood into my face. “Now, where would I find it?”

Something like a smile flashed across that wide face. “Oh, a clever lad like yourself will have little trouble finding it. Anyone can tell ye that.”

I thanked him and bolted from that vile place,
but I felt his deep, heavy eyes on me the whole way out—and halfway down the street, truth be told.

The tavern keeper was right: It was easier to get directions than answers. In short order, I was standing outside of the Commodore's. It was a grim, forbidding fortress of a house, dating from the brief English occupation of Tortuga. There were no windows on the ground floor, and the ones on top were more like gun slits than true windows. A wall made of the cement-and-shell mixture called tabby surrounded it, pierced by an arched gateway in which two swinging iron-barred gates were set. Two men in sailor garb lounged up against the rough tabby wall with the studied slouch of guards everywhere.

I was trying to figure out what I should do next when a loud banging came from inside the house. One of the guards shrugged, produced an iron key on a chain, and laboriously unlocked first the gate, then the door. It was pushed open, and a scarecrow stumbled out.

At least it looked like a scarecrow. The boy who stood between the two guards was short and almost painfully slim. He was dressed in midshipman's
togs about two sizes too large for him. His outfit was topped by a straw hat, like the ones the canecutters wove to keep the sun from their heads in the field. That covered most of his face. On his shoulders was a yoke from which dangled two wooden buckets.

The guard who'd opened the door snorted with derision. His English was so bad, I could hardly understand what he said, but I caught the words “another bath,” and the whole sentence sounded like a question.

“Aye,” the boy answered in a high, rough voice. “The lieutenant said—”

The other one shook his head and grumbled in French. Then he said, “Too much bathing, it makes the head soft!”

The other guard laughed. “Then yours must be like a rock!”

His friend made a rude gesture, then swept a hand at the boy. “
Allez, allez!

The boy lowered his head and scuttled through the gateway. I moved to follow. Lieutenant! Not a pirate rank at all. I had found the mysterious prisoner. Now to make contact.

I followed the boy up the street to a public fountain, where he set to work filling his buckets. No one seemed to pay him the least attention, so I came up beside him and whispered, “Are you English?”

He froze as if turned to stone. Slowly, he nodded his head, staring resolutely into the fountain.

“I come from an English ship,” I told him. “Tell me true—is there an English prisoner in that place you came from?”

Still not turning around, he nodded again. For a second, I did not think he was going to speak, but then in a strange, rusty voice, he said, “My master is Lieutenant Fairfax. They keep him on the second floor.”

I slipped my note into his hand. “Here. Hide this and give it to your master as soon as you get back. We will need to make plans—do they let you out other than to fetch water?”

The boy gave a stiff nod. “Market,” he grunted. “Every midmorning.”

“Then I shall met you at the market tomorrow. Have you a name? Mine's Davy Shea.”

He made a sound like a gulp. Then he blurted, “Michael. My name is Michael.”

“I'll see you in the market square tomorrow, then, Michael. Tell the lieutenant that friends are near.”

I turned and hurried away toward the harbor. Behind me I could hear Michael filling his other bucket at the fountain. He was a strange one, for a fact. But being penned up in a prison with a fastidious lieutenant and surrounded by pirates might have had something to do with that. I doubted that I was still the same as I had been back in June, when I showed up at my uncle's with only the clothes on my back.

“Davy! Lord bless, me, but you're in a power o' trouble!” I spun around at the words, and there behind me stood Abel Tate. He was trying to scowl at me, but he could not keep a grin from twitching through. “Your uncle is that put out with ye, lad. He's got half the crew searchin' for his missin' nevvy.”

“Missing!” I said. “Sure, and I'm not missing at all, for here I stand.”

Tate clapped a hand on my shoulder. “Try that on your uncle, an' see what he says. Stand by for heavy weather, Davy. I've been dead and come back to life, and I'd not face him, he's that wrathful.”

As Abel Tate led me back to harbor, he told me of his and the other sailors' adventures in the town. They hadn't found the missing officer—in truth, I was not surprised at that—but they had learned a few things.

Every ship in the harbor was victualing and loading powder and shot as fast as she could. It was as if an organized fleet was preparing to sail. Word was running through town that the
Concepción,
the great Spaniard we'd fought weeks ago, was patrolling the west end of the Windward Passage and had taken her fourth prize, an unlucky French privateer brig called the
Chanticleer.
She was effectively blocking the channel between the western tip of Hispaniola and the eastern shore of Cuba.

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