Read The Guns of Tortuga Online

Authors: Brad Strickland,Thomas E. Fuller

The Guns of Tortuga (8 page)

And there were rumors of another warship lurking somewhere to the north of the island, a great shadowy shape seen running across the horizon. All those who had seen her could say for certain was that she was big.

Anyone who had gone closer, Tate told me, had not returned to say anything at all.

A Surprise Ashore

refloated the
Into the harbor she slipped, and there she rocked, strangely high in the water with all her cargo and guns still ashore. The first things back aboard were Captain Hunter's table and chairs in the stern cabin, and there it was that my uncle, the captain, and I met to discuss my news.

“We know two things,” Hunter said. “The first is that something is up in Tortuga. It's plain that there are more pirates here and, more openly, than there should be. And the second is that we have two Englishmen to save.” He nodded at me. “And that's entirely thanks to Davy, here.”

My uncle gave me a fiery stare of displeasure. “Thanks to Davy, indeed! 'Tis a good thing you took the trouble not to tell me what ye were about,” he declared. “For, sure, I would have warmed your breech for you!”

“He's a brave lad, Patch,” Hunter put in with a smile. “While I was still planning and plotting, he took matters into his own hands, and did handsomely, I believe.”

My uncle's face flamed red. He turned on Hunter and loosed words at him like a broadside: “Aye, ye may grin and grin, and think 'tis fine sport to send Davy into danger, but mark me, Hunter, one of these days you'll sail too close to the wind for your own good. 'Tis well enough to be careless of your own life—don't throw Davy's away as well.”

“Now, now,” Hunter said calmly. His voice took on a note of authority that I had not heard there before. “Davy's a part of the crew as much as I am—or you, for that matter. And crewmates stick together and act for the good of the ship, or else they all go to the bottom. Davy's done no harm, and he's done us a power of good. Now we have a name and a place for our mysterious captive.”

“And what is the next step, sir?” I asked.

Hunter was sitting at his table, back again in the
s cabin. Behind him, through the stern windows, I could see Tortuga Harbor, where dozens of sloops, brigs, and barks bobbed at anchor. If half of them were pirate vessels, I thought then, there must be thousands of pirates assembled here. Captain Hunter reached for pen, ink, and paper. “Now, Davy, you will take another note—”

“That he shall not!” bellowed my uncle. “If it comes to that, I shall bear the note myself. Or send Adams, or one of the men—”

Hunter shook his head. “But they wouldn't get away with it, for we are watched, aye, and closely watched at that. Have you not noticed that the servant Cesar is always within sight when you are on land?”

My uncle looked stunned. “He has been following me?”

“Aye,” said the captain. “And I have my shadow, and Mr. Adams has his, and so on. When one of us sets a foot in Cayona, Monsieur Gille soon hears of it.”

“But if we are all watched—”

Captain Hunter shook his head. “Not all. Alone of us all, so far as I know, the boy is not.”

Uncle Patch simply glared at him, his chest rising and falling. “And how do you know that?”

Hunter began to scribble away. “I know it because as the French watch us, we are watching them, of course. Give me credit for some sense, Patch. Besides, what is one boy in a busy place like Cayona? I'd wager sovereigns to sand dollars that not one Frenchman ashore would even remember Davy's face half a minute after passing him by. To Gille, he is a servant, nothing more. You have never mentioned that Davy is your nephew, not in his hearing.”

“He could learn that from any member of the crew,” insisted my uncle with a sullen, dogged air.

“Aye, if he were interested in servants. But he is not, and my men would not tell. Nor will Morgan's, I think, for Sir Henry chose the smartest heads among his old crews to fill our crew.”

It took some wrangling, but when I pointed out that I was going only to the market square, not to the house itself, at last my uncle began to give in a bit. And finally I found just the way to cap off my
argument: “Uncle,” said I, “you thought me man enough when I held Captain Brixton's head still as you peeled back his scalp and sawed into his living skull. Am I not man enough then to run an errand?”

Hunter had just finished his note. As he sprinkled sand on the page to dry the ink, he glanced shrewdly up at my uncle, who stood with arms crossed, leaning against a locker. “That was well said, Patch. And how do you answer?”

Through clenched teeth, my uncle said, “To the devil with it! Have your way, then, for between the two of ye, you have not sense enough to have a care for your own skins. But no tricks, mind, Davy! It's straight to the market you go, and put the blasted note into the hands of this Michael, and then whip back to the ship again!”

“Yes, sir,” I said, but taking care not to make it a promise of any kind.

Captain Hunter folded the message and reached for a stick of sealing wax. He melted this in the candle flame and sealed his paper. He held it up, waving it in the air. “Now, the first note I sent said nothing but that we were friends to this captive. This one makes a more open offer of aid. But look
you, Davy, don't say a word of our being anything, not pirate ship, not a letter of marque, nothing. We know nothing of this Lieutenant Fairfax, and the less he knows of us, the better it will be for all.” He handed over the letter.

“Aye, sir,” I said and, tucking the paper inside my shirt, I left them there.

What the two had said about our crew's being watched had put me on edge. That trip was a jumpy one, for, sure, I imagined prying eyes everywhere and saw danger on all sides—in the annoyed glance of a mule driver passing by; the raised eyebrows of a woman gazing out of a window; the way people behind me spoke, it seemed to me, in whispers. I imagined that Monsieur Gille or even the governor of Tortuga had set spies everywhere, and that I was the center of their interest.

But that notion jostled clean out of my head in the market, where all was noise and bustle and haggling. Through the crowds I moved, darting like a minnow through seaweed, and staring about all the time for Michael. What I saw mostly was French waistcoats and shirts, and barrows of mangoes, of bread, of dried fish, of bright knives
gleaming in the sun, of deadly little pistols. There were people selling living meat: pigeons in cages (for they came in great numbers to Tortuga in the wintertime, and they ate well, plump and tender), pigs miserable in the heat, even goats bleating their displeasure. Before long, it was plain even to me that no spy could keep track of one boy in all that throng, and then I breathed a little easier.

At last I caught sight of a familiar skinny figure and, dodging through the crowd, I came alongside him. “I have something for you,” I said in a whisper that probably was drowned out even from his ears in the rattle and roar of the marketplace.

Without a word, he ducked through the crowd and into a narrow side street, hardly more than an alley. For the moment, I did not know what to make of this at all. Was he afraid we'd be caught? Was perhaps
being watched? Despite the heat, I almost shivered, and I felt the hair rising on the back of my neck. But then I saw Michael twitch his shoulder in a way that said “follow me” as plain as words, and I sidled around, looking at a cart of swords. Glancing to the left and right, I tried to seem as though I were thinking of buying a blade,
but really I was checking to see whether anyone was noticing me. No one was, so I trailed down the alley after him. He stood at the far end, and he jerked his head toward yet another narrow, dark passage. He came to light in a deep, arched doorway, and I slipped in beside him. “Someone watching?” I asked.

“Never know,” he growled in his strange, hoarse voice.

I reached into my shirt. “This is for the lieutenant. My captain says he's willing to help.”

The folded paper passed from me to him, and then vanished somewhere inside his rags. He was wearing his outlandish great straw hat with a wide brim, and this hid most of his face from me. Indeed, since he seemed interested only in his toes and looked down at them the whole time, all I could see of him was the tip of his chin. He carried a straw basket, too, and this he raised as he said, “I'm to buy fruit.”

Thinking that if one boy would pass unnoticed, two could scarcely be more obvious, I tagged along back to the market. Michael had a few words of French—mainly “
” whenever a cart owner
named a price—and they served well enough for him to collect so many papayas, melons, and mangoes that the basket drooped with the weight of them. He had a few silver pieces, and these diminished as the basket grew heavier. At last he said, “This is enough.” We left the market square behind, and he growled, “Where are you going?”

“I'll help you carry it,” said I, “for it's a heavy burden.”

Taking turns about lugging the basket, we walked through twisting, rutted streets until we came to the cleared ground around the Commodore's. The two guards standing beside the door were not the same men I had seen earlier, but they looked no less bored and no less cruel.

One of them said something sour and angry in a rush of French. Michael shook his head. The other gave him a rough swat. In heavily accented English, the second guard snarled, “He says what does the English do with so much fruit, eh?”

“Eats it,” said Michael, staring sullenly at the ground.

The other man took the basket from me and went through it, making sure we were smuggling in
no twenty-four-pound cannon, I suppose. He said something else.

The other guard translated: “Who is this boy?”

“The basket's heavy. I asked him to help. My master will give him a penny.”

The first guard plucked a mango from the basket, smashed it against the wall, and bit into the flesh, juice trickling down over his chin. He thrust the basket back at me, and I took it. “Be quick,” the English-speaking guard snarled, helping Michael and me through the gate with a kick apiece.

Inside the gate, Michael rasped, “Did you
to come?”

“Sure, and I'd like the penny,” I replied, maybe a bit too smartly.

Approaching the Commodore's, I thought how fortlike it looked, with its heavy walls and musket-slit windows. The front door was a tight squeeze, as if made for easy defense from within. Just inside the doorway was a narrow winding stair, and up this we went, emerging into the one big room that made up the entire top floor of the house.

It was as dark as could well be in the noontime,
for the narrow windows let but little light in, but it was cooler than I had expected. The shadowy room looked shabby enough. In a corner was a homely China chamber pot, and together with a drunkenly leaning table, a narrow straight chair, and a broken-down sofa, this was the whole of the furniture. Two tattered and worn hammocks were slung in the corners opposite the door, but these were empty.

Lying stretched out on the sofa, dressed in black slippers, loose white trousers, and a loose gray shirt, lay a figure fanning himself with a palm frond. To my eye he looked oddly lazy. He raised himself on one elbow, staring at us. I had no doubt he could see the two of us better than we could him, because our eyes were still dazzled by the bright sunlight outside. “Who is this?” asked the stranger in a surprisingly soft English voice.

To my surprise, Michael dashed his straw hat to the floor, snatched up the chamber pot—fortunately empty—and hurled it straight at my head. I dodged, and it smashed against the wall behind me. “Who is it?” raged Michael in a voice I knew, all hoarseness and whispering gone. “Who is it? It's a
pirate, that's who it is! It's a renegade, a jailbreaker, a … a … a great


Only one person had ever called me that.

Staring at the boy, I felt as if the scales had fallen from my eyes, like the blind man in the Bible. And then I knew, and I could not help crying aloud the true name of “Michael.”

“Saints in heaven! Jessie Cochran!” I said.

Lieutenant Fairfax stood up and ordered us to speak more quietly, and then the story tumbled out. “How come you to be here?” I asked in a whisper.

Jessie sank the floor, glaring at me. Now that I knew her, I wondered how she had ever fooled me, for there were her freckles, and her brown hair, and all that I remembered so well. “I come to be here,” she said bitterly, “because my mother thought Port Royal wasn't safe enough for me!”

“Quietly,” warned the lieutenant.

Jessie pointed to the china fragments in the corner. “If they didn't hear that, they won't hear us talking.”

It was a good point, I thought. Jessie looked almost as if she was about to cry when she mentioned her mother. Moll Cochran was a widow and the owner of The King's Mercy Inn in Port Royal. 'Twas there I had lived with my uncle during the previous summer, up until we joined Captain Hunter and sailed away pretending to be pirates. “I don't understand,” I said.

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