The Last Buccaneer by Lynn Erickson released on May 23, 2003 is available now for purchase.
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The Last Buccaneer
By Lynn Erickson
Harlequin Enterprises Ltd.Copyright © 2003 Harlequin Enterprises Ltd.
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe Florida Straits Dawn: Tuesday, September 6, 1622
The Spanish galleon Isabela had struggled against the hurricane for a full twenty-four hours. The chief pilot on board this, the largest treasure ship in the convoy, had not slept for a day, shouting orders to the crew, seeking sea room to maneuver the unwieldy vessel through the narrow straits.
It was hurricane season, as everyone knew, but when the convoy had left Havana harbor two days ago, the sea had been serene, and the vice admiral of the fleet had thought to make it through these treacherous waters without trouble. He could not have waited any longer despite the unusual lateness of this return trip to Cadiz, because word had come directly from young King Philip's ministers - the treasury was empty. The New World wealth must be delivered this season.
From the aft cabin high over the galleon's ornate transom, the vice admiral tried to calm his nervous but very important passenger, the governor of the colony of Cuba. He was only too aware of the danger they were in, although he did not let on to the governor, and he kept checking the storm's progress through the whorled glass of the small-paned window. The storm topsails bellied out tautly from the wind, gamely carrying the weight of the heavily laden ship. The ropes took the strain, groaning. The sea swelled above them, crashed down on the deck and ran out, frothing and hissing through the scuppers.
"Let this accursed wind get no worse," muttered the admiral, "and we'll make deeper waters."
He had to succeed. His fleet consisted of thirty vessels, two towering, fat-sided galleons, the Isabela and the Madonna, many smaller ships and a number of well-armed warships for protection from the English and French and Dutch pirates. May the devil torture the thieves without mercy, the vice admiral added silently, as always.
His fleet was now scattered for fifty miles along the treacherous Florida coast and its dangerous cayos or keys, those small islands dotting the straits like teeth that could impale and savage a ship, and where there was not a visible key, the captain knew only too well that there were shallows upon which to run aground.
But the pilot was experienced. He'd sailed these waters before and knew every current, every shoal, every reef. Sí, but not in a foul storm such as this one. The admiral saw the pilot shouting at the crewmen to tighten the rigging, to swing a yardarm. Then the pilot turned back to the exhausted, sodden sailor who was fighting the wheel and helped him hold it steady. Spray frothed over the deck and soaked everyone again - and again.
The vice admiral automatically steadied himself with a hand on the bolted-down table and turned away from the mayhem on the deck. He had to get the Isabela safely back to Spain. His career, his future, his very life depended on it. The Isabela carried the wealth of the New World crammed into her four decks, into her holds and storerooms, lashed onto every square inch of free deck space, jammed into chests and crates, filling the holds so that she wallowed in the water like a pregnant sow. Silver coins minted in Peru and Mexico, gold ingots, coins, reals and doubloons and ducats, a fortune from the black slave trade, pesos, bars of copper, bales of indigo, tobacco and hundreds upon hundreds of silver ingots, each one stamped with a serial number, a code noting its refinery and its exact weight. Each ingot was stamped and tested and carefully listed on the ship's manifest. Precious cargo, an untold fortune traded and stolen and scraped from the rich, hot earth of Spain's New World colonies, bound for the empty coffers of young King Philip the Fourth.
Throughout the Isabela, in passengers' staterooms and mess halls, in the crew's quarters, men were kneeling and praying, pulling out their jeweled crucifixes, praying to their most holy Catholic God or to his mother Mary for deliverance from this satan-whelped storm. Crewmen fought doggedly, climbing the rigging to untangle lines, hanging out over the roiling sea, bare feet clinging to slippery perches. If the Isabela could make open water where there was room to maneuver, they'd survive, but this deadly, narrow passage had to be negotiated first.
"¡Dios!" cried the governor as the vessel heeled violently. "Can we continue to take this beating?"
"Of course," the admiral replied soothingly. "This ship is built to withstand anything the ocean sends us. Do not worry. My men are experienced." It wasn't the high seas he was afraid of; it was the damned hidden shallows and the wind, the endless, howling wind.
Through the window of the cabin, the vice admiral saw the men on deck suddenly turn their attention to the port side. My God, he thought, not a reef, por favor, not a reef. He strained his eyes to see through the quickening light and spray and slanting rain. What were they all looking at? Faintly, over the noise of the tempest, he heard the bow lookout shouting, waving, pointing.
A ship. Yes, out there in the wild waters, bearing down on them, a three-masted frigate, not one of their own, her hull painted black, her sails black, a demon ship. She was much too close in this wind, in these seas. A madman was sailing her, using the wind to race, plunging, right toward them.
"¡Madre de Dios!" the admiral gasped.
The governor came to stand beside him, straining to see through the window. "What? What is it? Are we ...?" He fell silent, seeing the black ship flying toward them.
The admiral cursed harshly. He now recognized that ship. Oh, sí, there was no mistaking it. Only one like it existed on the whole of the Spanish Main. It was a private ship, and its captain was the infamous Richard Neville, bastard of an Englishman but man of no country now, as black a devil as these waters had ever spawned. He'd killed and plundered and stolen from the Spanish until mothers frightened their children with his name and the name of his ship, Marauder.
Now. Here. An ungodly vessel in an ungodly storm. Was Black Richard as insane as he was evil?
"It is him, is it not?" the governor was asking. "Neville, the pirate."
"Sí, it is him," the admiral said tightly.
The Marauder wallowed in the seas, hidden for a moment by a monstrous wave, then appeared closer. The two Spaniards could see the pirate crew now, clustered on the rails, waiting to close with the Isabela. They were grinning ferociously, long hair streaming wetly, bare feet splayed on the plunging deck, cutlasses thrust in gaudy sashes.
"They'll never be able to catch us in this," the admiral said.
"The man is absolutamente loco," the governor said, paling even more. "It is as his brother said. Evil and demented."
The admiral sent a cabin boy out with orders, but there was little that could be done. The ship was pitching and rolling too much to aim the cannons; the powder was too wet for the soldiers' muskets to fire. The Spanish pilot could not even turn his ship broadside or run before the wind. The Isabela could only go where the wind took her and hope that the pirate ship was in as much trouble as was the galleon.
"There," the governor said in a hushed voice, "there he is. I see him!"
The man called Black Richard, Ricardo Negro, by every Spaniard in the West Indies, was standing on the quarter-deck, directing his crew. His hair was whipping in his face, his white shirt clung wetly to him, a sword was in his hand. Yes, it was he. One could not mistake the black patch over his eye.
"Damn his soul to perdition," the admiral muttered.
The Marauder loomed closer, her sleek black hull glistening, her pointed bow diving down, down into the sea, then slicing up, the entire ship shaking off the water as if she were a dog, racing on, closing with the Isabela. And then she was nearly upon them - her black bowsprit seeming to transfix the Isabela. The governor recoiled inadvertently, imagining that Black Richard searched him out, saw him, grinned evilly at him for the bargain the governor had struck with Neville's brother. God, would that the bargain had been kept!
But the Marauder was fighting the accursed storm, too, and with the next battering wave, she was pushed away from the galleon. Broadside momentarily, she was assaulted by a wall of water, and then the governor could see it happen - two of the pirate crew were washed overboard by a wave, two tiny, helpless figures in the immensity of green-gray frothing ocean.
Excerpted from The Last Buccaneer by Lynn Erickson Copyright © 2003 by Harlequin Enterprises Ltd.
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.