Authors: Laurie McBain
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Copyright Â© 1980 by Laurie McBain
Cover and internal design Â© 2015 by Sourcebooks, Inc.
Cover art by Alan Ayers
Cover image Â© Nejron Photo/Shutterstock
Sourcebooks and the colophon are registered trademarks of Sourcebooks, Inc.
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means including information storage and retrieval systemsâexcept in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviewsâwithout permission in writing from its publisher, Sourcebooks, Inc.
The characters and events portrayed in this book are fictitious or are used fictitiously. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental and not intended by the author.
Published by Sourcebooks Casablanca, an imprint of Sourcebooks, Inc.
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Fax: (630) 961-2168
Originally published in 1980 in the United States of America by Avon Books, New York.
For my brother Gordon “Mac” McBain, remembered with love and laughter
So my conscience chide me not, I am ready for Fortune as she wills.
West IndiesâSpring 1769
Sailing out of the Serpent's Mouth, the narrow strait of water between the South American continent and Trinidad, the trade winds filled the square-rigged sails of the
. She was a Boston-built brigantine out of Charles Town,
in the Carolinas, and had seen action as an English privateer during the Seven Years' War. Many French merchantmen knew, to their misfortune, the figurehead of the grinning red dragon with the gilded tail and fins, whose lolling tongue seemed to mock their frantic efforts as the swiftly maneuvering brig bore down on their slower-moving cargo ships. Her intentions were never misunderstood as the first broadside fired from her guns ripped through rigging and sails, wreaking havoc and destruction in its wake. The
's formidable reputation of seldom having failed to claim a captured ship or cargo as her prize had often preceded her, and many a merchantman had struck her colors and surrendered without ever firing a return shot.
When the Treaty of Paris was signed by the major European powers in 1763, the
had been left to pursue a more private course of action, and, returning to the warm waters of the Caribbean, she soon became an enemy of her old ally. Now it was the British frigates and sloops who faced the grinning dragon or, as happened far too often for their peace of mind, watched her sails disappear into some seemingly impenetrable mangrove swamp, only to reappear weeks later docked innocently in Charles Town. The
was a smuggler trading in contraband; she slipped into secret coves along the wild coasts of the Carolinas and unloaded her valuable West Indian cargo of sugar and molasses there.
had sailed close to the wind many times, but so far good fortune had steered her on a smooth course away from what had always seemed, to some of the more timorous hands on board, certain destruction. She was sailing now, with the wind abeam, through the murky waters of the Gulf of Paria, her sails bellying out as they caught the easterly winds. She was riding light, her hold half-full as she began her return voyage from her latest endeavorâa quest for sunken treasure.
Standing on the quarterdeck, Dante Leighton, captain and owner of the
, looked to starboard where lay the Spanish island of Trinidad. Sparsely populated since its cocoa plantations were abandoned years earlier, thick evergreen forests now grew unrestrained up the slopes of mountain ranges wreathed in wisps of cloud. On this side of the island the low-lying coastline was clogged with swampland and presented an inhospitable countenance to the sea-weary voyager. But on the windward side there were stretches of narrow beach lined with palms, where tropical rain forests crowded the slopes above. It was there that the
had dropped anchor, and her captain had gone ashore to search the remains of an abandoned plantation house. In the overgrown ruins, which the jungle had reclaimed as her own, Dante Leighton had cut a path into the inner structure where once a courtyard had stood. With his dagger he'd pried loose a flat tile from the rough flooring and removed a rusty-hinged strongbox, its lock still intact. Back on board the
, he'd knocked the padlock free and, with most of the crew crowding around, had opened it to disclose a small, neat pile of documents. Because his knowledge of Spanish was limited, Dante had inspected each document with careful thoroughness, without hurrying, despite the growing impatience of his men. But finally a loud cheer had gone up from the crew as he'd held up what was obviously a map, with the
clearly discernible to the treasure-hungry fortune hunters.
marked the spot of a sunken Spanish galleon, lost off the Florida Straits early in the eighteenth century. A convoy of heavily guarded merchant ships, loaded down with treasure chests full of gold and silver coins newly minted in Mexico City, had been bound for Madrid out of Havana when it had been hit by a hurricane and sunk. Any sailor who'd sailed for long in the West Indies had heard not only this particular tale of sunken Spanish treasure ships, but countless others as well. However, few, if indeed any, of these tall stories had ever resulted in the jingle of coins in anyone's pockets.
Dante Leighton had heard most of them, and had even given chase to a few of the myths floating around the Caribbean seas. Until now, though, he'd never really believed in them; never before had he felt a tingling of anticipation as he did now. Staring down at the treasure map held firmly in his grasp, he experienced the familiar stirrings of an old, but never forgotten dream.
Glancing to larboard, Dante watched the mountainous coastline of Venezuela slip by as the
continued its starboard tack. Dante's gaze swung to the intricate rigging and towering masts above his head, where all hands aloft were busy trimming the sails as she came into the wind. The mainsails were drawing well as the
heeled slightly as she increased her speed.
“Come up a little, helmsman!” Dante ordered, his voice blending with the winds and flapping of canvas. “No nearer,” Dante warned as he eyed the close-hauled sails. “Keep her so, Mr. Clarke.”
“Captain, sir!” squeaked a high-pitched voice against the wind. “Here's your coffee, sir. Mister Kirby sent me up with it, sir,” reported Conny Brady, the young cabin boy of not more than eleven years, as he tried to brace his legs and come to attention without spilling the captain's coffee.
“Thank you, Conny,” Dante replied absentmindedly, his attention fixed between the
's raking bowsprit, her stand of sail, and the far distant promontory of land jutting out into their course. He took a swallow of the steaming coffee and smiled inwardly, for it was smooth and blacker than hell, the way no one but Houston Kirby, ship's steward and jack-of-all-trades, could brew it. Dante breathed deeply and tasted the salt spray thrown back at him by the wind. He felt at peace as the
rode the sea, her masts and yardarms creaking gently as the sails rapped fully and the deck canted alee.
“Captain, sir.” It was Conny interrupting Dante's musings, daring to tug on the captain's sleeve as he tried impatiently to capture Captain Leighton's full attention. “Cap'n, sir, do you think we're really going to find sunken Spanish treasure? Longacres says each of our shares could be thousands of pieces of eight. We'll be richer'n King George himself. 'Tis true, isn't it, Cap'n, sir?” Conny pleaded hopefully, his large blue eyes beneath a recalcitrant curl of coal-black hair appearing far too innocent for the life he'd experienced at sea since signing aboard a slaver at the age of seven. He'd been a member of the
's crew for three years now, and Dante had never failed to be amazed at the boy's understanding of the many moods of the sea. Nor had he kept himself from disapproving of Conny's knowledge of the sailor's way of lifeâespecially while in port.
“I wish you would answer the boy, Captain. I'd be quite relieved myself to know that my pockets are going to be bulging with Spanish doubloons. 'Twould set my mind at rest, not to mention my creditors',” Alastair Marlowe, the supercargo aboard the
, commented dryly. Although he could have addressed the captain by his given name, he always chose to show him the respect he deserved as the master of a ship.
Dante glanced first at his round-eyed cabin boy and then at the supercargo, speculating with amusement about what other tall tales that old pirate Longacres, the ship's coxswain, had been spinning since they'd set sail with the treasure map.
“He is rather infamous for some of his more bloodthirsty yarns of piracy on the high seas,” Alastair added with a slight grin as he correctly interpreted his captain's thoughts and look of irritation. “Sometimes I think even I believe him,” he admitted, causing Dante to raise a disbelieving eyebrow.
“You are one of the most levelheaded men I know. That is why you happen to be the
's supercargo,” Dante told him bluntly, eyeing the younger man who had, amongst the crew, a reputation for being far too serious and honest for his own good. Dante knew he hadn't even seen twenty and ten years yet, but at times he seemed a far wiser and older man. He was a quiet man, seldom sharing his innermost thoughts with others, but Dante knew that when the mood took him he could mimic any seaman on board with devastating skill, not to mention dignitaries and members of royalty, none of whom could stand up well to his brand of lampooning.
“I doubt whether you have ever been in debt, Alastair,” Dante commented now as he sized up his supercargo, whose circumspect behavior gave him the benefit of any doubt.
Alastair smiled a trifle crookedly, looking slightly ashamed of what he was about to admit. “Well, I did, at one time, rather fancy myself a town toff. I associated with a disreputable bunch of young gentlemen in London, and I'm sure my family despaired of me ever turning respectable,” he said. “I suppose they weren't at all grieved to have me sign on with you. Of course, if they could see me now,” he added with a chuckle, shaking his head, “they would disown me completely, for they are quite proper folk.”
Dante stared hard at his supercargo, thinking him, as always, uncommonly modest. If he did indeed have a vice, it was selling himself short, for he was not a man caught boasting of his own merit. And, if there were ever a man who Dante knew he could trust with his life, it was Alastair Marlowe.
Under this close scrutiny Alastair began to feel uncomfortable. He wondered what Dante was thinking. Alastair ran an impatient hand through his sun-streaked, light brown curls, for although he'd known Dante Leighton for close to nine years, he was no nearer today to understanding the man than he had been that first day when Dante had rescued him from a very determined press-gang. Even an English gentleman, which was what he'd thought himself to be long ago in 1761, had not been exempt from the long reach of the Royal Navy when it had been ordered to fill its ships with able-bodied menâwhether willing or not. And
certainly had not been willing. Alastair could still feel the bos'n's cudgel catching him on his head, sending him crashing to his knees in the gutter, his fine silk stockings torn and his satin breeches stained with stinking mud. He could still remember his surprised panic as he'd struggled to his feet, weaving like a drunken sailor and clutching his aching head, only to find himself jerked back by a powerfully muscled forearm. He heard the cruel laughter of the press-gang spinning around him as he'd been herded down the narrow, cobbled back streets of Portsmouth like a lamb being led to slaughter.
He wondered if he would be alive today if the
hadn't happened to dock in Portsmouth that very day, and if Dante Leighton hadn't loomed up before the startled press-gang like the devil himself. Already blurred of vision from the blow he'd sustained, Alastair could remember blinking his eyes rapidly as he'd tried to focus on the tall figure barring their path. Under a flickering torch, held by one of the sailors, Dante's dark, caped figure had seemed almost supernatural, especially when a light drizzle began to fall and the torch started to sputter and the smoke swirled eerily around them. In Alastair's confused mind the ensuing events seemed like a scene out of Hades, with the flashing of swords and the loud explosion of a pistol shot, the smell of sulfur lingering even after the smoke had cleared. Out of Dante's wavering shadow a slight figure had emerged with a pistol primed and ready in his left hand. This apparition had been Houston Kirby, a strange little man Alastair would soon come to know.
“Well, gents?” Dante's deep, amused voice had questioned the press-gang, who were now grumbling more to themselves than to the menacing, caped figure confronting them. “What's it to be? Is your captain to be one man short?” he'd asked, first indicating a wide-eyed Alastair, then continuing with a nasty-looking smile, “Or is he never to see his bos'n's mate and swabbers again?”
Alastair, to this day, had never forgotten the ugly glint in the eyes of the press-gang's leader as he'd swung his cudgel in a harmless arc before him. “Juz doin' our duty, sir. Reckon this time ye've scuppered us but good,
.” His manner of addressing Dante Leighton was contemptuous, but he little knew how accurate his description had been.
Then, mockingly doffing his cap, he'd signaled for the release of the prisoner. Now Alastair could smile at the haste with which his order was carried out, and how he had been thus deprived of the privilege of venting his anger and outrage at His Majesty's Navy. As he'd stood there swaying, the rain dripping down his face, he'd finally met the pale gray eyes of his rescuer, but instead of feeling reassured, the expression in their luminous depths had sent an uncontrollable shiver of premonition through him. There was a wildness in the dark-lashed eyes, a lawless quality that had made him wish to be back on his family's estate outside of Portsmouth. There, as an untitled, younger son, unlikely to inherit either estate or title, all he'd had to worry about was whether or not he should buy a commission in the cavalry or join the ministry. Either choice would have been acceptable to his family. He knew that as long as they no longer had to foot the bills, they cared naught what happened to him.
That was all he remembered of his first meeting with Dante Leighton, for the next moment he'd fainted, something he'd never done since. Then he'd awakened on board the
, the gentle rocking lulling him into a false sense of security until he'd realized where he was. But his fears had been groundless, for a gruff but solicitous Houston Kirby had dressed his head, fed him full of steaming broth, helped him dress in clean breeches and coat, and then admonished him against trying to move around until he'd found his sea legs. The steward's bossy familiarity had reminded Alastair of the older, much trusted servants who'd been with his family since before he'd been born.