1636: Commander Cantrell in the West Indies – Snippet 36

Chapter 18

San Juan, Puerto Rico

Barto — the only name he ever gave out because it was the only one he had ever had — ate the third slice of papaya greedily, washed it down with a mix of rum and soursop. The musky taste of the latter mixed well with the local spirit’s strong cane flavor. Speaking around the mixture in his mouth, he addressed his host. “So you’ve business with me, eh? Can’t remember when a man in silk trousers had business with me. Now, silk-trousered ladies, on the other hand –” Had Barto’s senior “officers” been present, they would have no doubt laughed on cue.

But tonight, Barto had no audience. He was alone with his host, Don Eugenio de Covilla, who now seemed to be attempting to suppress a disgusted sneer, as he had throughout much of the meal. But Barto suspected that his host’s duty to Spain and Philip came before indulging in displays of repugnance. “Señor Barto, I most certainly do have business to conduct with a man of your — experience.”

Barto leaned back, belched, and studied the Spaniard. A minor functionary recently dispatched from Santo Domingo. A dandy who had probably been in fewer fights than Barto had warts (well, a lot fewer fights, by that count). But the Spaniard reeked of oils and silver, and while Barto had no need of the former, he had both a powerful need and lust for the latter.

Ironically, Barto’s increased need of silver was a direct consequence of his corresponding increase in good fortune. His “free company” had grown prodigiously in just the past month. Three weeks ago, while drawing near shore at Neckere Island to take on water and any fruits they could find (scurvy having made yet another general appearance), Barto had come upon a sloop-rigged English packet in the throes of repressing a mutiny. Drawn by gunfire as a shark is drawn by blood, Barto quieted his men and commenced to run close against the far side of the headland at which the packet was moored. After putting his best boarders into his smaller boat — a shallow-hulled pinnace — he swept around the headland, the wind full at his back. He was on them in three minutes; the fight lasted less than half that time. He put the lawful owner, stalwart captain, and loyal crew to the sword — the whole lot weren’t worth twenty reales in ransom — and put the mutineers to work cleaning the deck and transferring stores and cargoes between this new hull and Barto’s two others. With the mutineers added to his ranks, he finally had enough men to consider plundering a larger town, maybe one of the small English settlements just recently established in the Bahamas, or the Dutch enclave that was rumored to have returned to Saba. Such a raid would only swell his coffers slightly, but would at least quiet his crews. They were already restless and would soon make their displeasure known to him — in a most pointed fashion, if need be. So, since a full-scale raid would take more time to plan, a smaller intermediary action was required to tide them over and sate their appetites for both rum and blood. A nuisance, reflected Barto, but it was all part of a freebooter’s life.

He belched again. “You invited me to dinner that we might talk. So now I’ve eaten your dinner. What have we to talk about?”

De Covilla smoothed his moustache. “The matter is somewhat delicate, Señor Barto. Do I have your word . . . hmmm, allow me to rephrase: is it understood between us that sharing this information would attract the special disfavor of His Imperial Majesty Philip of Spain?”

Barto smiled. He had thought that, having seized four of Philip’s ships, he had already attracted quite as much of that imperial displeasure as anyone could hope for. But apparently he had been mistaken. “I understand. And I hope that His Majesty’s representatives will realize that any past, er, indiscretions on my part regarding his shipping were matters of mistaken identity. Night actions, you see.”

“Of course.” De Covilla’s smug smile indicated that he knew Barto never attacked ships after sundown. “Indeed, the representatives of my liege are not only willing to pay handsomely in silver, but to provide you with something else you might find of even more durable value.”

“Which is?”

“Which is a letter of marque.”

Despite his attempt at bored nonchalance, this so took Barto by surprise that he sat up. “A letter of marque, signed by –?”

“No less a personage than the Captain-General of Santo Domingo, Don Bitrian de Viamonte.”

Barto sneered. “Viamonte the Invalid? Really? He spent his years as Governor of Cuba limping through the underbrush, building towers and forts to fend off, er, ‘fortune-seekers’ like myself. And now he is interested in hiring the very same free-spirited adventurers whom he meant to kill?” Barto snorted as he laughed into the dregs of his drink. “Perhaps de Viamonte’s disabilities are not merely physical, hey?”

He had meant that insult to test De Covilla’s mettle, to see if the young Spaniard had enough temper in him to burst through his almost effete courtly exterior. Barto was not disappointed. The well-groomed hidalgo rose slowly, hand on his rapier. “You will mind your tongue, Señor. The Captain-General may suffer from infirmities that the Lord Himself saw fit to inflict upon his body, but perhaps that was to better stimulate the growth of his keen mind and indomitable will. He determined to reduce Cuba’s vulnerability to pirates. He achieved that, and evidently you are not so bold as to have personally tested the walls and militias he raised for that purpose. Now he is set upon hiring men for a special mission. He directed me to seek appropriate persons among the self-styled ‘brethren of the coast.’ I started with you. However, I am under no compulsion to confer the contract upon you, specifically, and so, if you continue your insolence, I will take my reales elsewhere. And depending upon the severity of your further slurs, I may ask for the satisfaction of honor that must be demanded in response to your impugning the character and person of the Captain-Governor. Am I clear?”

Barto smiled and lifted his cup. “Bravo. And I actually think you’d be foolish enough to play at swords with me, which you must know to be unwise. So you’ve a ready heart under that fine silken vest, I’ll give you that. And so, to business.”

Whatever De Covilla had been expecting, it hadn’t been that. “Do you — do you mock me, Señor?” His hand turned slowly on the pommel of his rapier.

Barto made his best sour face. “Mock you? I am simply speaking to you plainly and man-to-man, not like some lace-loaded grandee at court. Let me make my words plainer. You’d be a fool to fight me, but you know it, and are still quite ready to cross swords on a matter of honor. You’ve got cojones, and that’s what counts. Experience and age will furnish all the other necessary skills in good time. If you live that long. But that’s not what we’re here to talk about. So, I say again, to business.”

De Covilla frowned, fiddled with his sword’s hilt uncertainly, and then sat. “Very well, to business. I have offered silver and a letter of marque. Co-signed by the new governor of Cuba, no less: the Field-marshal Don Francisco Riano y Gamboa de Burgos. Whose name and martial reputation is known to you, I imagine.”

In fact, Riano y Gamboa’s name was barely known to Barto, who had no idea what military glories might lurk hidden behind it. But De Covilla uttered it with the utterly reliable conviction of youthful loyalty, and so there might be enough truth in it to warrant credence.

But it wasn’t the reputation of the governor or the money or the marque which commanded Barto’s attention. Rather, it was the attractiveness of the offer. Or rather, the excessive attractiveness of the offer, and the fact that the particulars were not presented up front.

Accordingly, the primary instinct of all successful pirates — wariness — arose in Barto, who frowned his mightiest frown. “Well, this is certainly a most intriguing offer. So far. But I have yet to learn what it is I must do for this handsome — eh, ‘reward.’ “

De Covilla sipped daintily at his glass of rioja. “It has come to our attention that a ship just recently arrived in the Caribbean will soon make landfall at Trinidad with the intent of taking, and holding, the land around Pitch Lake.”

“What the hell for?”

“Does it matter? This banditry is an affront to Philip of Spain’s exclusive dominion over the New World as per the Church’s own inter caetera, and so, it must be prevented.”

Barto rubbed his chin. “Very well, but if you know where this ship is bound, and you have Philip’s express orders to destroy it, then why not deal with it yourself?”

De Covilla pushed at his goat stew with his fork. “I did not say the orders came from Philip himself, nor that the intelligence came from Europe. Not directly.”

Barto leaned his large, hirsute forearms on the table. “Let us speak frankly. I stay alive in this business because I avoid jobs that stink like old fish, and this is starting to smell that way. Make clear the job, the information, and the sources, or I must decline.”

De Covilla seemed surprised, but also pleased. “Very well. Last year, a Dutch captain who has apparently started a colony in Suriname — Jakob Schooneman, by name — brought a young American to conduct a brief reconnaissance of the area around Trinidad’s Pitch Lake. After a variety of further trespassings and pillagings in His Imperial Majesty Philip’s colonies, they both returned to Europe. Some time ago, that same ship, the Koninck David, returned and touched on the coast nearby San Juan, probably smuggling. That didn’t stop some of her crew from wandering into town for a brief carouse, of course.

“When the Koninck David’ assistant purser was in his cups, he told one of our informants that he had overhead this same young American being closely interviewed in Bremen last winter by a good number of his countrymen and unprincipled adventurers. Whereupon a number of this group determined to send a warship to Trinidad to usurp the region around Pitch Lake in order to sell its petroleum riches to the USE. We learned roughly when the ship was due and also that it would not head directly to Trinidad, in order to avoid the heavily trafficked transatlantic route that leads directly into the Grenada Passage, just off Trinidad itself. But more than this we could not learn.”

Barto leaned back, folded his arms. So, he was already entering into an ongoing plot rife with treachery, secrets, and informers. However, those were supposed to be his area of special expertise. Accordingly, it made him nervous when the Spanish — or anyone — displayed equal facility with them. Largely because it meant that he might be the one surprised, rather than the one springing the surprise. But balanced against those risks were the incredible benefits to be derived from taking this job, and succeeding. He pushed down his misgivings, and breathed out slowly as he made his response. “So have any of your informers told you how this expedition intends to take, and hold, a position on Trinidad? A single ship, even the largest, could not carry enough soldiers and supplies for a quick and lasting conquest.”

“We have wondered this, also. But inasmuch as our forces are spread too thin to respond in a timely fashion, this may be precisely what these bandits are counting upon. They hope to have the time to fortify, consolidate, perhaps rally others to their banner while we collect the necessary forces, and authority, from Venezuela, Isla de Margarita and even our more distant colonial audiencias.”

Barto rubbed his chin. “I have sailed near Trinidad in the past, but not recently. What are the conditions there?”

“They are most unfortunate, since our investiture of that island is indifferent at best. The governor is Cristoval de Aranda, who has held that post without any noteworthy distinction for four years. Indeed, his tenure is somewhat of an embarrassment to the Crown. He has been unable to substantively increase the size of his small colony, which is primarily engaged in the growing of tobacco. Which, it is reported, he then sells illegally to English and Dutch ships, rather than reserving it for the merchants of Spain.”

Barto did not point out that it was well known throughout the Caribbean that Spanish ships almost never went to this all-but-forsaken possession of their empire, and that if Aranda didn’t sell the tobacco to someone, he would soon be the governor of a ghost-town. Or maybe a graveyard, given the testy native populations on the island. Most of whom preferred any other European settlers over the Spanish. But Barto only nodded sympathetically.

“I suppose Aranda should not be made to bear all the blame himself,” De Covilla temporized. “His fortifications are small, guns are few, and the size of his militia laughable. It may not total twenty men, all mustered. Indeed, when he was finally compelled to evict a pack of British interlopers from Punta de Galera on the northeast point of the island a few years ago, he had to appeal to the colony on Margarita Island to raise a sufficient force for the job. Pitiable. However,” — and here the young hidalgo fixed a surprisingly direct and forceful gaze upon his dinner guest — “I am told that you, Señor Barto, have a significant force at your disposal, that you are immediately available, and that you specialize in swift, direct, and — above all — final, action.”

“That I do, Don de Covilla, that I do.”

“Excellent, because that is precisely what will thwart the plans of this new group of interlopers. So, to the details: how many men can you bring with you to Trinidad?”

“It depends.”

“‘It depends?’  Upon what?”

Barto leaned far back in his chair. “It depends upon how many reales you have to spend.”

“I see. Well, how much would it cost to hire all of your men?”

Barto smiled. “All of your reales.”