Sea robber hl 3, p.1
Sea Robber hl-3, page 1part #3 of Hector Lynch Series
( Hector Lynch - 3 )
In his latest adventure Hector Lynch follows his quest for the young Spanish woman, Maria, with whom he has fallen in love. His search takes him and his friends on a nightmare passage around Cape Horn where they come across a small warship entombed on an icefloe, her only crew two skeletons - the captain frozen to death in his cabin and a dog. The corpse is the long-missing brother of a local Spanish governor in Peru. In gratitude for learning his brother’s fate, the governor tells Hector that Maria has moved to the Ladrones, the Thief Islands, on the far side of the Pacific. On the way there, Hector’s ship picks up an emaciated native fisherman adrift on a sinking boat. He dupes his rescuers into thinking that his home is rich in gold. But his poverty-stricken island proves to be the jealousy guarded by a Japanese warlord who treats the visitors as trespassers. Only when Jezreel, the ex-prize fighter, defeats the Japanese swordsman in a duel can they escape. Reaching the Thief Islands, Hector allies with the native people, the Chamorro, to launch a night raid on the Spanish fort and is finally reunited with Maria. But will the young couple ever be able to settle down? As a known sea robber, Hector will only be safe where the law cannot touch him so their journey continues . . .
IT WAS NUMBINGLY HOT, even in the shadow of the fort. Hector Lynch felt his shirt sticking to his back despite the afternoon sea breeze, which stirred the shrivelled tips of the fronds of palm thatch over his head. From where he sat he had a fine view of the anchorage. The lean-to was built against the fort’s seaward wall, and the wind carried the sound of the surf. There was a constant rumble as waves crested and broke on the long expanse of dirty yellow beach. At a distance the regular lines of crashing foam were hypnotically beautiful. Their brilliant whiteness contrasted with the translucent jade-green of the sea behind them. But, up close, he knew from experience that the surf was a menace. The advancing walls of water churned and tumbled and threatened to overturn any small boat that risked a landing. That was why the five ships waiting to take on cargo stayed moored half a mile out to sea. They were secured safely in ten fathoms of water, anchors firmly lodged in good holding ground. Yesterday a longboat had attempted a landing through the surf and been thrown upside down. A man had drowned, his corpse eventually pulled from the water by one of the local fishermen whose canoes were better able to deal with the breakers.
Hector looked down at the ledger book open on the rough plank table before him. It was hard to concentrate in the stifling heat. ‘Cutlasses, carbines, musketoons, amber beads, crystal beads, rough coral, small shells called cowries,’ he read. These were what the slave dealers expected. This was the Guinea coast, and the Carlsborg, which had brought him and his three friends to West Africa, was waiting with the other ships to complete her human lading. Her supercargo, who normally kept the accounts, had died of breakbone fever the previous week, and Hector had been charged with drawing up an inventory of goods remaining for barter.
A movement out to sea caught his attention. A launch was putting out from one of the anchored ships and heading towards the beach. Either the oarsmen were very confident or the surf had abated a little. He watched the boat approach the area where the waves began to heap up, and there it paused. He could see the coxswain standing in the stern, scanning the backs of the waves, waiting for the right moment. Hector thought he heard a shouted command, almost lost beneath the roar of the surf. A moment later the rowers were digging their blades into the water, urging their boat forward to catch the sloping back of a wave. Then they rowed flat out, riding just behind the crest as it rolled towards the beach. The final twenty yards were covered in a frothing welter of foam. The launch, still on even keel, was cast surging up the beach. Two men leaped out and grabbed hold of the gunwale to prevent their boat being sucked away in the backwash. A small crowd of natives came running to help manhandle her farther up the beach.
The beaching had been neatly done. The half-dozen men who had landed began walking across the sand, heading towards the fort.
Hector turned back to his ledger. What on earth, he wondered, were the ‘perputtianes and sayes, and paintradoes’? Maybe these were Danish words. The supercargo had written his other entries in English, though both the Carlsborg and the fort belonged to Det Vestindisk-Guineiske Kompagni, the Danish West India-Guinea Company. Perhaps someone in the fort would be able to translate.
An eddy of the breeze along the foot of the fortress wall brought a whiff of some foul smell. It was the stench of stale sweat and human waste combined with the sickly-sweet odour of rotting fruit. It came from iron grilles set low in the wall, almost at the level of the sandy ground. Behind the metal bars lay the ‘storerooms’, as the dour Danish commandant called them. Hector tried not to think about the misery being suffered by the inmates crammed in the heat and semi-darkness, awaiting their fate. Hector, still barely into his twenties, had himself spent time as a slave in North Africa. Kidnapped from his Irish village by Barbary corsairs, he had been sold in the slave market of Algiers. But he’d never been exposed to such vile conditions. His owner, a Turkish sea captain, had valued his purchase and treated Hector generously. Hector shifted uncomfortably on his bench at the memory. To please his master, he’d agreed to convert to Islam and be circumcised. He had since abandoned all religious faith, but he still recalled the shocking pain of the circumcision.
The memory of Algiers made him look across at his friend, Dan. They’d first met in the slave barracks of Barbary and eventually gained their freedom. Dan was seated across the table, his mahogany-coloured face bent over a sheet of parchment as he concentrated on drawing a picture. He had tied his long black hair in a queue so it would not interfere with his pen and coloured inks. Dan did not appear much affected by the heat. He was a Miskito Indian from the Caribbean coast, where the summers could be almost as hot and humid.
‘What’s that you’re drawing?’ Hector asked.
‘A bug,’ answered Dan. He lifted an upturned wooden bowl on the table by his elbow, and Hector had a glimpse of a huge beetle. It was the size of his fist, its shell a vivid yellow-orange with black stripes. ‘I’ve never seen anything like it before,’ Dan said. ‘In the jungle back at home we have plenty of bright shiny beetles, but nothing nearly as big, or quite this colour.’ He clapped the cup back over his captive before the insect could escape.
‘I hope the captain is quick in filling his quota,’ observed Hector.
‘Let’s hope there’s a war upcountry. That’ll bring plenty of prisoners for sale,’ observed Dan bleakly. A week ago the Carlsborg’s commander had set off inland with a party of sailors. He intended to buy his human cargo directly from the local chiefs, because the stock of slaves held in the fort had already been promised to other ships.
Hector found Dan’s remark callous until he remembered that the Miskito themselves were notorious slavers. They raided the neighbouring tribes and took men, women and children.
He was about to change the subject when a mocking voice behind him drawled, ‘If it isn’t young Lynch, and poring over a book as usual.’
Hector turned in his seat and looked into the cynical gaze of a man of middle age who, despite the heat, was wearing a smart coat of bottle-green serge with a lace jabot tied at his neck. It took Hector a moment to recognize his former shipmate John Cook, whom he’d last seen off the coast of South America on the buccaneering raid that had nearly led to Hector’s execution. Judging by the motley collection of rough-looking seamen behind him, Cook still kept the same raffish company.
‘Still with your Indian friend, I see,’ drawled Cook
‘How did you manage to escape the thief-takers in London? I’d heard you were on the wanted list,’ said Cook. He treated Hector to a twisted smile.
Hector didn’t answer. Cook was referring to his arrest for piracy the previous year. He had escaped the noose, but had been advised to leave the country.
‘And that other friend of yours, the big man? I’d have expected him to be here.’
‘If you mean Jezreel,’ Hector replied warily, ‘he’s out on our ship. He’s watchkeeper for the day.’
‘Which ship is that?’ enquired Cook, squinting against the glare as he looked out to sea.
Belatedly Hector realized Cook and his companions were the same party of sailors he’d just seen come ashore in the launch. ‘The big merchantman, flying the Danish flag.’
‘A fine vessel. She looks well armed.’
‘Hmm . . .’ Cook looked impressed. He turned to face Hector. ‘But a ship is only as good as her crew. I didn’t know Jezreel was a sailor. He’s more at home in the ring, cutting capers with his backsword, isn’t he?’
‘The Carlsborg is short-handed. Her captain headed off with half the crew to find a source of prime slaves. There are few to be had here at the fort.’
‘I wouldn’t know about that,’ said Cook. ‘We haven’t yet had time to pay our respects to the Governor. Not that we’ll be staying very long.’
‘What brings you here?’ Hector asked cautiously. Something about Cook and his companions made him suspicious. They didn’t look like merchants interested in trade. ‘What happened after you and the others left us off Peru?’
Cook looked vague. ‘It’s a long story. Some of us found regular work back in the Caribbean. A few gave up the sea altogether. More recently my friends and I got an offer. A group of investors asked if we might try a roving commission . . .’ His voice trailed off. He chewed his lip as he gazed out at the anchored ships, a thoughtful look on his face, and glanced down again at Hector and said, ‘So you’ve become a mere bookkeeper.’
‘Our supercargo died of breakbone. I’ve been asked to take over temporarily.’
‘It’s good to meet a former shipmate. If you’ve got a spare moment, perhaps you can show me around.’
Grateful for an excuse to put aside the ledger, Hector got to his feet and led Cook around the side of the fort, heading towards the main gate. The rest of the shore party stayed behind in the shade of the lean-to. As Hector left, he heard one of them ask Dan if he knew where they could find some palm toddy as their throats were dry.
‘I’m elected captain for the venture,’ said Cook casually.
His remark confirmed what Hector had already begun to suspect. Only buccaneer crews chose their captains by popular vote. Merchant crews obeyed officers appointed by the owners. Cook was tactfully letting it be known that he and his men had returned to buccaneering. They’d gone back to a life of sea thievery.
‘You wouldn’t care to join us, would you?’ asked Cook softly. ‘I seem to remember you’ve some medical knowledge that could come in handy, and your friend is an excellent striker.’ The skill of the Miskito Indians at harpooning fish and turtles was greatly valued among buccaneers. It fed hungry crews.
Hector muttered something about having to consult his companions, but his reply seemed only to encourage Cook.
‘I’m sure that Jezreel would be more than welcome. And the Frenchman who was usually in your company – what’s his name?’
‘Yes, Jacques. I can still taste the pimento sauce he made for us when we were off Panama.’
Cook was pressing his point very strongly, Hector thought to himself. He decided to pry a little further. ‘You’re not planning to return to the South Sea, are you?’
‘We called in here to pick up wood and water. It’ll be a long voyage, south and west across the Atlantic, then through Magellan’s Strait and along the coast of Peru. But it’s the route that will bring us there undetected.’
Hector’s mind raced. He was desperate to reach Peru and track down a young Spanish woman, Maria. At his trial for piracy the prosecution had relied on her evidence for his conviction, and when Maria had retracted at the last moment, the case against Hector collapsed. She had returned to South America, and Hector had devoted himself to finding her again. He was deeply in love with her. He could picture her face and quiet smile, hear the sound of her voice, and – in scenario after scenario – rehearsed the moment when he might stand before her again and tell her of his feelings. At least half a dozen times each day he read the letter she had smuggled to him after the trial, though it was falling to pieces along the folds. He knew the words by heart. ‘I cherish every hour that we spent together,’ she had written. ‘You will always be in my thoughts.’ His burning dream was to hold Maria close, feel her respond and know that she wished to share his future, however uncertain that might be.
Here, unforeseen and very tempting, was the perfect chance for him to reach Peru directly and find her. If he stayed with the Carlsborg, the best he could hope for was to arrive in the West Indies. Then he would still have to make his way overland across Panama and onward. If the Spanish discovered his identity during this journey, nothing would save him a second time from being tried for piracy and found guilty. Then it was prison or the garrotte.
‘Which is your ship?’ he asked Cook cautiously.
They had passed along the length of the fort’s wall and were about to turn the corner below the eastern bastion, losing sight of the anchorage. Cook paused for a moment and pointed. ‘There, anchored just astern of your Danish ship. That’s our vessel. We’ve decided to call her the Revenge.’
He gave Hector a meaningful glance and it occurred to the young man that Cook and his colleagues were seeking retribution for the defeats inflicted on them during their raids into the Pacific. Hector’s initial excitement deflated abruptly. Maria was Spanish, and he had no desire to go fighting the Spaniards again.
Also, as he observed the Revenge, Cook’s ship looked ill suited for such an ambitious enterprise. She was shabby and sea-worn, and much smaller than the Carlsborg. He doubted that she carried more than eight cannon, and he wondered how successful the Revenge would be against colonial shipping in the South Sea. The Spanish vessels would be far better armed. On the whole, he’d be wiser to stay with the Carlsborg.
They resumed their walk along the foot of the fortress wall with its massive grey and white stones. Glancing up, Hector saw a Danish sentry watching them incuriously from the battlements. The man had draped a chequered cloth over his head to keep off the sun and was looking bored. Standing guard on a slaving fort was dull work. There was little risk of attack from the outside, so the task was more like being a prison warder. What mattered was to prevent a rebellion and escape by the slave inmates.
The main gate stood open, and they turned in. Ahead, the principal compound was an open expanse paved with brick that radiated the heat back so that the air danced. On their right were the slave holes, dreaded for good reason. Hector had been shown them briefly and the sight had left him sickened. The slave holes were the size and shape of large bread ovens and just large enough for one man to be thrust inside. Then the door was locked. Once incarcerated, the victim was left to broil until the captors decided that he risked dying of suffocation. Often they preferred to pull out a corpse. The slave holes were used for punishment to maintain discipline.
An African was standing beside the flight of steps leading up to the commandant’s office. His billowing robe of yellow striped with red served to emphasize his muscular bulk, and he must have stood at least six and a half feet tall. A three-cornered black cocked hat, edged with silver braid and decorated
‘Vicious-looking bastard,’ commented Cook under his breath.
‘He’s probably from the Akwamu tribe. One of their chiefs. They control the immediate area around the fort . . . and drive a very hard bargain when it comes to selling their neighbours,’ Hector explained.
‘That’s not all they have to sell. Look at those teeth.’ Cook had spotted a pile of elephant tusks piled in one corner. His covetous tone made Hector wonder for a moment if the buccaneer captain dared to think of plundering the fort. But he dismissed the idea immediately. Cook had far too few men to risk an attack.
They walked on across the compound. There were very few people to be seen, only the native chief and a trio of Danish soldiers. Tunics unbuttoned, they lounged in the shade of some arches that led to the dormitory for the garrison.
‘I’m curious to see where the slaves are kept,’ said Cook. The slave pens lay directly ahead, behind a row of stout iron-bound doors on the far side of the compound. Hector had never visited the holding pens before, but the Carlsborg’s quartermaster, a man experienced in the slave trade, had told him that the fort was designed for smooth handling of the human contents. A brick-lined passageway pierced the outer wall and led directly from the pens to a gate overlooking the beach. When the time came to load the Carlsborg, the slaves would be chained together in batches, led down the passageway, and marched straight to where boats were waiting to run a shuttle service out to the ship. Hector had asked whether the Carlsborg had enough boats for the task, and was told the local fishermen made a handsome living by hiring out themselves and their canoes as transport.
by Tim Severin have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes