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   Chapter 6 -Of the Finding of Pedro Alvarez, and of the Strange Tale that he Told

A Lad of Grit: A Story of Adventure on Land and Sea in Restoration Times By Percy F. Westerman Characters: 21942

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


On arriving at Port Royal Captain Poynings decided that the Gannet should be refitted. Accordingly preparations were made to overhaul the ship thoroughly ere she joined her consorts in a cruise amongst the Antilles for the purpose of destroying those hornets' nests of buccaneers that made the Caribbean Sea a terror to law-abiding seamen.

Our task was rendered doubly difficult, first by the oppressive heat, and secondly by the fact that, like the Mediterranean, these waters are practically tideless, so that the difference between the rise and fall can be measured by the span of a man's hand.

On this account it is impossible for a vessel to be left high and dry, so the operation of cleaning her hull below the waterline is performed by "careening", or allowing her to lie on one bilge, so that the other side is raised above the water.

All heavy gear, including the guns, was taken ashore, the manual work being performed by gangs of negro slaves, who toiled and groaned under the lash of their relentless taskmasters.

To me the sight was a terrible one, unaccustomed as I was to scenes of cruelty, and I unburdened myself to the master.

"Heart alive, lad!" he replied with a careless laugh, "they are but niggers, and know naught else of life but to toil. Treat them kindly, and they'll take care to work still less. And, mark my words, lad, if ever it comes to pass that these blackamoors are freed, as Master Penn would persuade us to do, then these islands are doomed. Never a stroke will they do save under compulsion---- There, look at that!"

A crash, a loud shriek, and a babel of shouts showed that a disaster had occurred. One of the largest guns was being hoisted over the side by a combination of tackle between the lower fore and main yards. Just as it swung outboard the sling on the chase parted, and the huge mass of metal fell into a barge alongside, crushing two negroes and tearing through the bottom of the shore-craft. Instantly all was confusion; the master gunner was cursing at the loss of his piece of ordnance, his voice raised high above the shouts of the terrified negroes, the bos'n receiving the brunt of his attack. "Dost want me to teach thee thy trade, landlubber? Is it not time that ye learned to tie aught but a slippery hitch?"

This aspersion on the boatswain's workmanship caused a fierce dispute, but this had not lasted long when it was suddenly stopped by another yell of terror.

There was another rush to the ship's side, and I saw a dozen dark forms struggling in a smother of foam-lashed water under our quarter, while the triangular fins of several sharks showed that the culminating tragedy had occurred.

Two negroes, in addition to those killed by the fall of the gun, were lost in the sudden and brief incident, yet the only remark the overseer deigned to make was: "And they cost a hundred pieces of eight but a month ago!"

In less than three days the work of dismantling the Gannet was complete, and only the hull and the lower masts remained. Floating some five feet above her usual loadline, the ship was towed into the mouth of a muddy creek, and there careened till the whole of the bottom on the larboard side, with the exception of the keel and a few of the lower planks, was clear of the water, disclosing a sloping wall of barnacle-covered timbers.

As the next few weeks would be spent in scraping, breaming, and pitching the hull, the officers were allowed to take up quarters ashore, and right glad was I to have the chance of having a spell on dry land after so long and arduous a time afloat.

Port Royal was at that time in a state of considerable excitement, for in the castle, heavily ironed, lay five notorious buccaneers, who a week before our arrival had been brought in by the Assurance, of thirty-eight guns, after a desperate resistance. They had been condemned to die; but, owing to a slight difference between the admiral and the governor of Jamaica, their fate was yet undecided, the former wishing to send them to England to grace Execution Dock, the latter desiring to gratify the inhabitants of Port Royal by stringing up the prisoners in front of the castle. So hot had waxed the dispute that the matter was referred home, and already a swift vessel had left for England to obtain His Majesty's decision on the matter.

On the third evening of our spell ashore we were walking across the plaza, or open square, fronting the quay. The sun had set, and, with tropical suddenness, daylight had given place to darkness.

"What is that--guns or thunder?" suddenly exclaimed Drake, pointing seaward. The horizon at one particular spot was illuminated by distant yet bright flashes of light, while a subdued rumbling smote our ears. Other passers-by were also attracted by the sound, and knots of people quickly began to collect on the side of the quay, gazing intently towards the south.

For over half an hour the flashes continued, and it was soon evident that an engagement was taking place, the noise of the firing gradually coming closer.

Several of the more timid inhabitants made for their homes, where, we afterwards learned, they began to hide their valuables. Others, arming themselves with a medley of weapons, hurried to the fortress, from which a gun was fired and then lanterns hoisted as a signal when a vessel was expected.

In response to the gun, three companies of musketeers, with drums beating and matches burning, marched from their quarters to the fort, followed ten minutes later by a large body of pikemen, their arms glittering in the light as they passed by the huge wood fires that had been hastily kindled on the battlements.

"Hasten, Aubrey! Our place is on board the Gannet," quoth Drake, and alternately running and walking we hurried out of the town, crossed the causeway over the marsh, and arrived at the mud dock, where the vessel lay.

Here, too, was activity and commotion. Captain Poynings was already on board, directing his officers, while gun after gun was dragged over greased planks to the ship's side, there to be "whipped" aboard by heavy tackle.

All night we worked like slaves, sending up topmasts, yards, and rigging, shipping stores and ammunition. In eleven hours of darkness the Gannet was almost her former self, for, being the only warship on the station (the rest being, as I have mentioned, away amongst the Antilles), the governor had sent orders that no exertion was to be spared in getting her ready for sea.

While we worked, all kinds of rumours and reports reached us. First one would come with a tale that war was declared with the Spaniards, or the French, or the Dutch, or else all three. Another would arrive breathless, saying that all the buccaneers of the Indies were off the port, and that our fleet had been worsted. Yet another came with the information that only one battered and shattered ship had arrived during the night, the sole remnant of an English squadron, and that a hostile force had landed at a spot a few miles to the east of the town.

To all these wild rumours Captain Poynings paid but slight heed. Work was to be done, and pressing work too; yet with such a spirit did the men take to the task, without need of threats of rope-ends, such as the masters of other king's ships are wont to use, that our record has never yet been equalled.

At break of day we could gather some true facts of the state of affairs. Under the guns of Port Royal lay a small armed merchant vessel, the Whitby, of ten guns, sadly shattered about the hull. In the offing were five ships that many recognized as belonging to one Lewis, a renegade king's officer, who, attracted by the glamour of easily acquired wealth, had seduced his crew from their allegiance and turned buccaneer. Joined by several others of like nature, Lewis had collected a squadron of seven swift vessels; but the Assurance had captured two of the ships, and Lewis, with four of his fellow rogues, formed the party of captives whose fate now hung in the balance as they lay in irons in the castle.

The Gazelle, a consort of the Whitby, had been captured and sunk by the buccaneers that night; but after a long running fight the latter ship had managed to make Port Royal in the darkness, this being the cause of the firing we had heard.

Captain Poynings lost no time in preparing to float the Gannet out of her mud dock, though it was evident from his puckered brows that he had doubts as to whether the increased weight on board would prevent the ship from coming off.

Nevertheless he could not have completed the task of fitting out so hurriedly if every piece of ordnance had to be brought off to the ship in barges or lighters after she was afloat, so he resorted to the hazardous expedient of careening her still more.

Our best bower anchor, with its great twenty-inch hempen cable, was carried out towards the centre of the harbour, the tail of the cable remaining on board. All the guns were run over to the larboard side, so that the Gannet's lower-deck ports were within a few inches of the surface of the water, her draught being thereby lessened. Two additional cables were carried from the quarters to opposite sides of the creek, where gangs of negroes were directed to pull their hardest.

It was an anxious time. The capstan clanked slowly round as the main cable tautened and came in foot by foot; the negroes, the sweat glistening on their ebony arms and backs, bent to their task, encouraged or goaded by the shouts of their overseers.

Slowly the Gannet moved towards the open water and freedom, her keel ploughing through the liquid mud and causing a regular turmoil of yellow foam within the little dock.

Gradually she gathered way till her bow projected beyond the entrance to the creek, then, as if gripped by a powerful hand, she brought up and stopped immovable.

The master, wild with rage, called upon the seaman to take soundings, and, this being done, it was found that the Gannet was held by the heel, the forepart being well afloat.

"Give the men breathing space, Master Widdicombe," said the captain, as he saw the panting forms of his men. "Another effort and we are free."

"Not I, by your leave, sir," retorted the master. "Let the vessel settle but a minute and this mud holds her. Pipe the men aft," he shouted, and in obedience to the shrill cry of the bosn's mate's whistle the whole ship's company, including the officers, assembled at the waist, save the men who manned the capstan bars.

"Now, ye blackamoors, haul away!" yelled the master to the crowd on the banks. "More beef into it, bullies," urged the bos'n to the capstan men, and, as the strain on the cables increased, the rest of the crew, in obedience to an order, doubled along the sloping decks, as well as they were able, towards the bows, the whole vessel trembling with the motion.

This manoeuvre was successful. Hardly had the body of men reached the fore

mast when the Gannet glided forward and entered the deep waters of the harbour, the two ropes on her quarter trailing astern, and the mob of excited negroes who had manned them were shouting and dancing on the banks of the creek.

The Gannet brought up on her shortened cable, sail was hastily made, and away we went southward in chase of the buccaneers.

As we cleared the mouth of the harbour we perceived their ships nearly hull down; but with every stitch of canvas set, and withal a newly cleaned hull, we rapidly lessened the distance between us.

That they suspected not the presence of a king's ship in Port Royal was evident in that they made no attempt to sheer off; instead, they beat up towards us till we could clearly make them out.

Then, as if aware of our formidable character, they turned, two making away to the north-west, two to the south-east, while the fifth, though she showed her heels for a time, backed her main-topsail and hove to.

She was a long, rakish, yellow-sided craft, evidently built for speed, and her audacity puzzled us mightily; but knowing the diabolical cunning of these freebooters, we were determined to take no chance of a surprise.

We were almost within range when her maintopsail filled and she was off, following the direction of her two consorts who had made towards Hispaniola.

As we watched her there were signs of a struggle taking place on board--pistol-shots rang out, and a heavy form plunged over her taffrail. Instantly several men rushed to the stern and opened fire on the object, which, so many of our crew declared, was a man swimming. This it turned out to be. Amid a hail of shots that churned up the placid water all around him a man's head appeared, and the swimmer, using powerful strokes, made directly towards us.

"It seemeth strange that he escapes their fire," remarked the bos'n, as the swimmer bobbed up and down amid the splash of the shot. "We may pick him up. Away there--prepare a bowline."

"I believe they do not try to hit him," replied the master; "or their gunnery is far worse than yesterday, when they hulled the Whitby. But he will never reach this ship alive. Look!"

Following the direction of his finger, we perceived the dorsal fins of two enormous sharks as they cleft their way towards the swimmer; but, frightened by the splash of the shots, they contented themselves by swimming in large semicircles between us and the fugitive.

Interest in the buccaneering vessel was for the time being entirely lost, all our crew watching the efforts of the swimmer, as with tireless stroke he quickly lessened his distance from the Gannet.

In obedience to an order from the captain our men cast loose a pair of swivel guns, for it was evident that the buccaneer was getting out of range, and her shots no longer disturbed the water. Far from destroying the man, the discharge of her ordnance had proved his salvation; so our captain resolved to act likewise and plant shot after shot close to him, so as to frighten off these tigers of the deep, while our men waved encouragingly to the swimmer.

Through the drifting smoke from our ordnance I caught momentary glimpses of the fugitive. He was swimming strongly, yet easily, and without any sign of either physical or mental discomfort. By this time he was so close that I could see the flash of his eyes between the matted clusters of dark hair that covered his brows.

The sharks still kept off; our gunners ceased to fire, and the running bowline was dropped from our catheads for the man to be hauled on board, when, within fifty yards from us, he suddenly disappeared, and over the spot darted yet another huge shark that, unobserved, had lurked under our bows.

We could see the monster turn on its back to seize its prey. There was a snapping of jaws, and the sea around it was discoloured with blood. An involuntary cry of horror broke from us; then, to our surprise, we saw the man reappear, brandishing a sheath-knife, while the shark, in its last throes, floated belly uppermost, a skilful thrust of the knife having practically disembowelled it.

In another minute the man had grasped the bowline, and with the knife between his teeth he was drawn up to the fo'c'sle.

He was a short, ungainly personage, probably a Dago, judging by his dark, olive skin and raven hair. Unconcernedly he drank a dram which was given him; then, with the moisture draining from his clothes as he hobbled across the deck, he was led off to be questioned by our captain.

During this episode the buccaneer had shown us a remarkably clean pair of heels, so that nothing short of an accident to the crowd of canvas she was carrying could ever make us hope to overhaul her.

But in spite of enquiries Captain Poynings gathered little from the rescued man.

"Me Portugee, me Portugee; me honest; me no rogue. Me see Senhor Capitan alone, den me tell him ebberything," he reiterated.

"I will not talk with you alone," replied Captain Poynings sternly. "You are a pirate or an accomplice of that rascally crew. Now, give an account of yourself, or a taste of the cat will make you speak."

At the mention of the "cat" the man's eyes glittered ominously, then, instantly relapsing into his subservient manner, he jabbered in broken English:

"Me no rogue. Me Pedro Alvarez of Habana. By de Virgin me speak truth!" And holding a small wooden crucifix that hung from his neck, the man kissed it with exaggerated fervour.

"Me speak only to Senhor Capitan. Tell him ebberything. Senhor Capitan much please wid my tale."

"No!" roared Captain Poynings, knitting his brows in that manner peculiar to him when aught vexes him.

"Vell, den, me speak to Senhor Capitan an' three odder. Pedro's tale too 'portant for odders to hear."

To this the captain assented, and the Portuguese, having been deprived of his knife, and searched for any concealed weapons he might have had, was taken below to the stateroom, whither repaired the captain, two lieutenants, and the master.

For over an hour they remained, and on coming on deck we noticed that Captain Poynings and his officers looked highly pleased, though the Portuguese still wore an impassive look.

"Send the ship's company aft," said the captain. "'Tis but right that they should know."

Eagerly the men clustered in the waist, while from the poop their gallant leader addressed them.

"Hearken, my men," quoth he. "It has come to our knowledge that a vast amount of treasure lieth hidden on a cay the bearing whereof is known only to this Portuguese. He is willing to guide us to the spot in consideration of a safe conduct to Europe and one-seventh of the spoil. By my commission His Majesty gives me power to engage in such enterprise, whereof one-tenth reverteth to our sovereign lord, the king. Be it understood that I will deal fairly with all men, dividing the residue into shares according to the regulations pertaining to treasure trove. For your part do your work with a will. Let no stranger learn and forestall our mission, and I warrant ye the purser shall pay in gold where heretofore ye had but silver."

Cheers greeted the announcement, and the men retired to discuss this matter amongst themselves. We, however, learned still more. Briefly, the Portuguese's tale was this:--

Less than ninety years ago a Spanish treasure-ship left Vera Cruz, richly laden with plate and specie. A few days after leaving port yellow fever decimated the crew, and the survivors, unable to handle the ship, ran her aground on a small cay in the Rosario Channel, between the Isla de Pinos and Cuba. The treasure was landed and hidden, but bickerings and disease still further reduced their number, till only one man remained. He was rescued by a galliot the owner of which was Pedro's grandfather. In gratitude, the Spaniard showed his rescuer a plan of where the specie lay, the men agreeing to share the spoil. Both men were lost in an attempt to reach the island in a small craft in which they had sailed alone, so as to keep their secret, and thus all trace of the spot vanished till five years ago, when Pedro came across the rough chart and an account of the matter, which had been hidden in the rafters of his hut. Pedro himself visited the cay, saw the treasure, but was unable to carry off the stuff single-handed. He returned to Habana, entrusted six others with the secret, and fitted out a small felucca to secure the spoil.

On the voyage the little craft was seized by the buccaneers, and all his companions were murdered. Pedro alone was kept a prisoner, the pirate intending that he should pilot them when occasion served.

Never a word concerning the treasure did he say to the buccaneers, but, taking a favourable opportunity, he had left the ship under the circumstances that we had observed.

Captain Poynings eagerly examined the chart. Already the lust for gold had entered into his soul, and he was ready to hazard everything for the sake of that which had cost the lives of hundreds of men in these seas--the quest of hidden treasure.

"Bring out a larger chart, Master Widdicombe," he exclaimed, "and let us see where this island should be."

The chart was produced, and the latitude and longitude carefully pricked off, whereat Captain Poynings turned purple with rage and swore horribly.

"The villain would send us on a fool's errand," he declared, bringing his fist down on the table with tremendous force. "The position he would have us believe to be an island is in the midst of the Yucatan Passage, with nothing less than eighty fathoms."

For the moment we were all dumbfounded Visions of untold wealth were rudely dispelled.

"Bring out that rascally Portuguese, trice him up, and give him five dozen!" cried the captain, a strain of his choleric ancestor betraying itself.

"Stay!" replied the master. "I have it! This position is shown by our longitude, whereas this rough chart is of Spanish draughtsmanship. Now, taking the longitude of Madrid as zero, we find that----"

"Good, Widdicombe, you have hit it! Yet, forsooth, 'twas but your duty. Prick out, then, a fresh position, and pray 'twill be better than the last!"

A few minutes' calculation enabled the master to announce that 22° 4' N., 82° 46' W. was the corrected position, and to the unbounded satisfaction of us all it was found that it marked a small island almost in the centre of the Rosario Channel, agreeing with the description which Pedro Alvarez had given.

As there was now no sign of the buccaneering craft, the Gannet put about and returned to Port Royal, there to wait until the return of the cruising squadron should set us free to pursue our adventure. For nearly two weeks we remained in suspense, Captain Poynings refusing leave for fear that a man's tongue might get the better of his discretion, till early one morning we perceived to our great joy the sails of our consorts approaching the port.

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