Pirate privateer, p.1
PIRATE: Privateer, page 1
THEY BEGAN FISHING the wreck as soon as the sun’s rays penetrated to the sea floor. The weather was perfect for diving: a cloudless sky and no hint of breeze to disturb the flat calm. The water was so clear that Hector Lynch, leaning out over the pinnace’s rail, could make out the shape of his comrade and close friend Dan as a flickering shadow against the seabed five fathoms below. He was exploring the broken timbers of the sunken galleon. A slack tide meant there was almost no current and Dan was hauling himself from handhold to handhold, poking and prying in crevices. In another minute he would have to come back to the surface to fill his lungs with air.
Hector straightened up and took a quick glance around the horizon. The cargo of a lost galleon was still the property of the Spanish crown, and they were trespassing in an area the Spanish considered off-limits to foreign vessels. If the Spaniards got their hands on them, they would be treated as thieves and the penalty was a long prison sentence at hard labour. But there was nothing to be seen in any direction except for two insignificant islets half a mile to the east. He had already marked them on the chart he was compiling. It had taken many days to find the wreck, cautiously probing the vast underwater maze of coral, sand and rock. Now his notes on the distance and bearing to the two islets would help him return to the wreck if the pinnace was driven off her station by bad weather or the unwelcome appearance of a Spanish patrol ship. The islets themselves were unremarkable. Low humps of sand and rock, they were bald except for a few stunted bushes bleached whitish grey by the salt spray. They were all that could be seen of the dangerous zone of reefs that the Spaniards had nicknamed ‘the Vipers’ because their sharp fangs had ripped the bottoms out of dozens of ships. Most victims had been humble merchantmen. But a few, like the shattered galleon Dan was now searching, were the carcasses of rich vessels that had come to grief as they made their way to the annual rendezvous of the Spanish treasure fleet in Havana. In their strongrooms they had carried bags of silver coin from the mints in Peru, crates tightly packed with silver and gold ingots, sealed chests containing uncut gemstones, religious icons studded with brilliants, church plate and personal jewellery of every description. This was the glittering bait that had drawn him and his companions to take their chance in such dangerous waters.
Hector took another slow look right round the horizon. Still nothing. They were doubly lucky with the quiet weather. This was the tail end of the hurricane season. Few ships would normally dare venture out from port for another couple of weeks. That was the reason why he and Dan and the others aboard the Morvaut were fishing the wreck in early October. The field was clear for those willing to take the risk of a late tempest while they tried their luck, picking over what other salvors may have left behind.
There was a sudden stir in the water below him and a gasping intake of breath as Dan’s head broke the surface. He was stark naked except for a net hanging around his neck into which he stuffed any small objects he found. His long, straight, jet-black hair lay plastered down to his shoulders, and the water running off his face made his dark skin glisten like oiled mahogany. A Miskito Indian from the coast, Dan was an accomplished diver and could stay down for three minutes at a time. Hector wondered if there was truth in the widespread belief that the native Americans were gifted with unnaturally large lungs. The men from the island of Margarita successfully worked pearl beds at depths no one else could attain. They were particularly in demand when it came to going underwater to patch the hulls of ships or – as now – conduct salvage operations. Thinking about them Hector briefly pictured Dan coming to the surface holding up a string of Margarita pearls originally destined to grace the neck of some beauty in Havana or Madrid. It was a wild daydream, but that would solve all his money problems.
‘How does it look?’ he called down to Dan.
‘The Spaniards have used explosives. The deck of the galleon is blown apart. All the big cannon have been taken up.’
That was no surprise. The Spaniards kept professional salvage teams on standby at ports all around the Caribbean. Most wrecks occurred in shallow water, and whenever a valuable cargo was lost the salvage crews quickly arrived to recover what they could before the currents smothered the wrecks with sand and gravel. They concentrated on the heavier items. Cannon were valuable and accessible. The gold or silver shipments were more difficult to get at. They were stowed low down, usually beneath the commander’s quarters towards the stern in a galleon. To reach them, it was necessary to blow the ship apart. The explosions often scattered smaller items that then became half buried in silt or disguised by a coating of the pale green grassy weed that grew rapidly in these warm waters.
‘Any sign of the strongroom?’ Hector asked.
Dan shook his head. ‘They’ve left an anchor and chain in position so they’ll be coming back.’
‘Which means there’s still something left worth salvaging,’ interrupted a sour voice.
Hector swung round to confront a stocky, stubble-haired man who had walked up silently on bare feet. Yannick Kergonan stood with the easy balance of a man accustomed to small boats. As his name indicated, he was a Breton, and a surly expression on his weather-beaten face reinforced the suspicious look in his deep-set eyes. Hector neither liked nor trusted Yannick, and would never have sailed with him except that he was part-owner of the Morvaut, together with his brothers Roparzh and Yacut and their sister Anne-Marie.
‘Your man needs to get a move on. There’s less than an hour of slack water left,’ Yannick observed. His English was heavily accented but fluent.
‘Dan is not “my man”,’ Hector snapped. ‘He’ll go down again just as soon as he’s ready.’
Yannick smirked. ‘I thought he was your matelot. Isn’t that what you buccaneers prefer?’
Hector knew the Breton was taunting him. It was true that he and Dan had buccaneered together. Twice they had gone on raids into the Pacific with bands of pirates who had looted the Spanish coastal towns. Theirs was a powerful friendship based on mutual trust and respect that dated back to the days when they had met as prisoners of the Barbary corsairs and later found themselves chained side by side on the oar bench of a French war galley. But they were not the bosom companions that Yannick was implying. Among many buccaneers it was a custom for a man to pick a companion – their matelot – with whom they shared everything, almost like a marriage.
‘Dan’s already been down to the wreck a dozen times today. Perhaps you should take a turn yourself,’ Hector countered sharply. He knew that Yannick, like most sailors, could only flounder clumsily in the water.
The Breton sneered at him, then turned on his heel and stalked off.
‘I’m surprised no one’s stuck a knife into that crab,’ observed Jacques Bourdon, who had sauntered up in time to overhear the exchange. A convicted Paris pickpocket and petty thief, the letters GAL branded on his cheek and still faintly visible were a legacy of the days Jacques had sat beside Hector on the galley benches. He had shared many of Hector’s adventures and his skills as a cook made him welcome aboard any ship. Also he had a Parisian’s disdain for provincials.
‘Typical Breton numbskull. All that salt cod and cider addles their brains. You’d have thought he and his brothers would know something about provisioning an expedition. We’re already running low on fresh water.’
It was true, thought Hector. He could not help wondering if Yannic
He shied away from that thought. Anne-Marie was another of his problems.
Something landed on the deck with a soggy clunk, spraying a few droplets of water across his bare feet. While he had been talking to Jacques, Dan had tossed an object up on to the pinnace’s deck.
Jacques reached down and picked up what looked like a queerly shaped, greyish green lump of coral. At first sight Hector thought it was a fragment broken from a reef where the coral sprouted prongs like stags’ horns. Then, as the Frenchman turned it over in his hand, Hector recognized a three-branch candelabrum. It was discoloured with exposure to the salt water and covered with a light coating of weed. Jacques reached for the knife in his belt and scraped at the coating of the base. Underneath was the dull glint of silver.
‘At last!’ he exclaimed and stepped across to the edge of the ship and looked down at Dan, who was treading water. ‘Where did you find it?’ he called excitedly.
‘Over there, about thirty yards away,’ said Dan pointing to one side. ‘The gunpowder explosion split open the aft section of the galleon. The current has been scouring out the contents.’
‘Should we shift the pinnace over there?’ asked Hector.
Dan nodded. ‘Pass me a line and a piece of wood as a float. I’ll mark the spot.’
Jacques disappeared to find the materials for a makeshift buoy just as Hector became aware of a figure emerging from the tiny cabin in the stern of the Morvaut.
Anne-Marie Kergonan made a striking impression. In her late twenties, she had the same sturdy build as her three brothers. But what made them burly gave Anne-Marie an air of luscious sensuality. She was dressed in men’s seagoing clothes – a loose linen shirt, sash and wide canvas breeches that reached just below her knees. But there was no doubting that she was very much a woman. A few unruly curls of rich dark brown hair escaped from the bright red bandana tied around her head, and her full breasts pushed generously against the shirt where it was held in by the sash that accentuated the curve of her hips. Her broad face, with its soft contours and wide-set hazel eyes, was pretty rather than beautiful and as deeply tanned as her bare arms and feet. She looked earthy, confident and luscious, and since the start of the expedition Hector had become uncomfortably aware that he and his friends had only been able to charter the Morvaut against the wishes of her three brothers because Anne-Marie Kergonan had taken a fancy to him.
Now she advanced across the deck towards Hector with the same easy-going barefoot tread of her sailor brothers.
‘What’s all the excitement about?’ she asked. Her English was spoken with a husky, attractive accent. Jacques held up the candelabrum, and she took one glance at it before taking her place beside Hector at the rail, leaning forward and looking down at Dan in the water.
Hector was conscious that Anne-Marie had allowed the front of her shirt to fall open enough for him to appreciate the view.
‘Dan thinks there should be more salvage in that direction,’ he said.
‘Then we should lose no more time. We’ve waited long enough for something to happen,’ said Anne-Marie. She turned towards Hector and treated him to a lingering glance that left little doubt of its message.
‘Give a hand here, Lynch!’ her brother Yannick interrupted sharply. He would have to be blind not to notice his sister’s behaviour, and clearly he did not approve. ‘And get that big lubber on his feet! We’ll have to put out the kedge anchor and haul across.’
The Breton was already heaving in on the painter attached to the bow of the Morvaut’s tender at the stern of the pinnace.
‘Jezreel!’ called Hector. ‘We’re moving. Time to get up.’
What looked like a heap of old sails on the foredeck stirred. A large hand emerged and threw aside the makeshift bedding, and a man sat up and scratched his head. The span of arms as he stretched and yawned gave an idea of what a goliath he was. Jezreel was huge. A nose broken several times and patterns of scars on his scalp were clues to his former occupation as a prize-fighter using his fists or a backsword. Years ago he had accidentally killed a man in the ring and been forced to flee, taking his chances as a logwood cutter on the Campeche coast where Hector had first met him.
‘What needs doing?’ he mumbled. He had been on anchor watch the previous night and, to catch up on his sleep, had been napping on the open deck on one of the few places where there was enough space for him to lie down.
‘We have to move the Morvaut. Dan’s found some salvage,’ Hector explained. ‘There’s not enough wind to put up sail, so we’ll kedge across on the anchor.’
Jezreel got slowly to his feet and went to join the second of Anne-Marie’s brothers, Roparzh. He was struggling to hoist the pinnace’s spare anchor from its stowage in the shallow hold.
‘Here, let me take that,’ rumbled Jezreel. He took the anchor with one hand and carried it effortlessly to where Yannick had brought the tender alongside.
‘Watch what you’re doing!’ snapped the Breton. ‘If you drop that, it’ll smash straight through the bottom.’
Jezreel treated him to a scornful glance. He leaned out over the rail and laid the anchor gently in the bow of the tender. ‘Get me a pair of oars,’ he said, ‘Hector and I can do the rest.’
Grateful to escape from Anne-Marie, Hector made his way aft. Morvaut’s tender was unusually large for her mother ship. Too big to be carried on deck, the skiff was always towed astern on a harness. Hector suspected that the Kergonans normally used the skiff to ferry goods ashore on smuggling trips.
He stepped down into the tender, and Yannick passed him a coil of anchor line. Away to his left, Dan had already set the float that marked the spot where he had found the silver candelabrum. Jezreel settled himself on the central thwart, gave a couple of powerful strokes with the oars, and the tender began to move. From the stern Hector paid out the anchor line while, on the pinnace, Yannick secured the loose end of the heavy rope.
‘The Tigress, that’s what they call her,’ commented Jezreel cryptically as soon as they were out of earshot of Yannick and his brother. ‘She’s said to be a man-eater.’ Hector made no comment.
‘Takes after her mother, if the tales are true,’ Jezreel continued.
Hector was aware of the Kergonan family’s notorious history. Their mother was among the group of fifty harlots the French government had shipped out to Tortuga a generation ago. The theory was that their offspring would establish a more permanent population in the fledgling French colony. Naturally the arrival of a shipload of loose women had caused a sensation. They had been dumped on the beach, and the settlers – a lawless gang of half-wild hunters and part-time pirates – had been encouraged to take their pick.
‘I can take care of myself,’ said Hector.
Jezreel gave another grunt as he tugged again on the oars and sent the tender surging.
Hector knew what his friend was implying. ‘I talked it over with Maria. There was no other choice,’ he said and tried to keep himself from sounding apologetic. ‘You saw for yourself. It takes money, lots of money to survive in Tortuga. They grow nothing there. Everything must be imported.’
‘No place to leave a woman,’ muttered Jezreel darkly.
‘I promised Maria that I would never return to piracy. Fishing wrecks was the only alternative.’
‘Much the same result if you are caught at it,’ commented Jezreel pointedly.
Hector’s thoughts went back to happier times when he and his friends had sailed the Pacific so that he could reach Maria, the woman he loved, and ask her to share his life. To his delight she had agreed, even though he was at risk of being taken up for piracy. For Maria, who was Spanish-born, it had meant deserting her employer, an important colonial official who was likely to be vindict
Hector turned in his seat and looked back at the Morvaut. Little about the vessel gave him confidence. She was a small boat of thirty tons with a single mast, shabby, and with only one tiny cannon. That meant she was virtually unarmed. A hostile ship of force would overwhelm her in minutes.
Yet Maria had insisted that he use the last of the money they had brought back from the Pacific to charter the Morvaut to go fishing the wreck of a Spanish galleon that was rumoured to be lying on the Vipers.
‘We must try something,’ she had said. They had been standing at the door of the two-room shack that was all they had been able to afford to rent. ‘Otherwise we’ll be trapped in this wretched place, living miserably. Dan and the others will agree to go fishing the Vipers. They are getting bored.’
‘But you and I will be apart, maybe for months.’
‘I waited three years for you to come and find me. I can endure a few more weeks’ absence.’
‘What if we can’t find the wreck, or a gale catches us on the reef while we are searching? We ourselves could be cast away.’
She had laid a hand on his arm, looked into his eyes and said firmly, ‘Hector, I’ve seen your skill with charts. You can bring a vessel safely through those reefs. That’s what you excel at, just as Dan can dive, or Jacques can cook, and Jezreel can wield a backsword.’
He had still been doubtful. ‘The Kergonans own the only vessel available. And they are demanding advance payment of the charter, plus a half share in anything we recover. They’re a bunch of grasping crooks.’
by Tim Severin have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes