Sent on a doomed covert mission, Captain Alvaro Tillford is betrayed and painted a traitor. Can he outwit the treasonous smugglers responsible and clear his name, or will he be remembered only as an incompetent colonial captain?
The HMS Styx, a fairly new 32-gun frigate, was sailing under topsails and jib alone along the southwestern coast of the Florida Peninsula, beginning what was supposed to be the last leg of her patrol. They had left Hillsborough Bay behind two days earlier without having sighted a single sail, either friend or foe, and were lazily approaching the Keys extending east to west from the southernmost point of the peninsula. Their patrolling orders were to investigate all enemy held ports that could be used as supply sources for the Continental Army and their Spanish or French allies and bring the intelligence gathered to admiral Sir Peter Parker, Commander-in-Chief of the Jamaica station, as soon as safety would allow.
Unfortunately, Pensacola had been stormed by General Gálvez’s army less than a month before, and, in a similar fashion, all of the settlements on the west side of the peninsula would soon fall to the enemy, as they were getting little or no support.
Close to sunset the mainmast lookout had sighted a strange sail, but it had been impossible to determine its most probable course, it being almost lost against the blur of the land at the eastern horizon. The Styx captain, Mr. Alvaro Tillford, a man native of the Georgia Colony, knew these waters very well, and after discussing the matter with Mr. McConaghy, the master, had elected not to give chase, considering the poor visibility and the closeness to a lee shore; he had decided, instead, to keep the same course, doubling the lookout posts in the night watches.
It had been the soundest choice since, as predicted by Mr. McConaghy, the wind had changed, a dense mist had come down after sunset and the visibility had gone down to no more than fifty or sixty yards.
A taut silence enveloped the ship, broken only by the creaks of the spars or the flapping of the jib at each small change in wind direction. The whispers of the men around the great guns did not go farther than the comrade they were addressed to.
A slight current had helped them to draw ahead all night long, forcing small ripples to form at the frigate’s bow.
Sunrise had brought about a faint breeze that was helping to disperse the mist, and, at the same time, giving way to the ship. The combination of sunlight and soft breeze had improved the visibility, which now was little more than a cable around the frigate.
The crew had been kept at their battle stations since dawn, and in the quarterdeck the officer on watch, third lieutenant Andrew Cullen, was worried. Almost three hours ago he had been fairly sure that the rustling sounds he had heard where like those of guns being run out; two of the larboard lookouts had confirmed his hearings and the alarm had been raised.
After he had roused the Captain the men had been called to their fighting stations with minimal noise, and the ship had moved into a state of watchful expectancy; but time had gone by and now Lieutenant Cullen’s nerves were taut to the point of snapping. It would be light enough to see who was there, but for the mist.
He turned and strained his senses as much as he could, walked, again, to the larboard side and for the umpteenth time asked the lookout, in a murmur, “Did you hear something more Warren? Has there been any change in intensity since last you heard them?”
The lookout kept silent, but nodded his answer.
At the opposite side of the quarterdeck, Captain Alvaro Tillford, his hands crossed behind his back, was pacing slowly past the mizzen shrouds. He drew level to the mast and turned.
Ferrer, his huge coxswain, was at the wheel whispering to Mr. McConaghy, the old Master, and pointing to somewhere ahead in the larboard side. Alvaro moved silently and joined them behind the binnacle. At the same time Lieutenant Cullen turned and came over, whispering excitedly, “They are there Sir; Warren and I have heard the rustling sound again and again. It looks like there’s somebody out there and they are making a lot of rustling noise, like moving the guns or turning the capstan. And they sound mighty close.”
Alvaro’s lips turned down slightly at their corners. His face did not show any emotion at all; he had stopped his pacing, and his voice sounded confident. “The mist is thinning, Mr. Cullen, so we will be seeing whoever they are soon enough. Mr. McConaghy shall relieve you of the watch. Please take command of your station! Pass the word to Mr. Smalley, the larboard side should open the gun ports and run out at their leisure, but with the minimum possible noise. Then send Mr. Stokes to me. Ah! And make sure all men understand the need to keep silent and ready to shoot on sight.”
No more than five minutes afterwards, Mr. Peter Stokes, the first lieutenant, came silently to join the group by the binnacle.
He had been up in the foremast shrouds during the last half hour, and was positive that a two- or three-mast schooner was somewhere ahead of them in the larboard side; he had seen some sun reflections on what could only be triangular sails, so he gave his report in the more convincing way he could manage: “Captain, sir, there is a ship in our larboard side. She is somewhat ahead of us. I would stake a month’s pay they are unawares of our position. We are lucky Mr. Cullen heard them so soon, before dawn. It seems that the same wind that brought their noises to us is carrying ours away from them. According to the orders there are no other British ships in these waters… They should be Spanish or French… They are going to be in for a nasty surprise. I have been able to see some flashes of their mizzen sail in the sun during the last ten or twenty minutes. Looks like a “fore and aft” rigged vessel. My guess is that it has to be a schooner.”
Alvaro looked up at the wind vane. The little wind there was came straight from their quarter in the larboard side, and visibility was increasing very slowly from their stern up. If their quarry kept ahead of them, they would remain covered by the mist longer than Styx.
It was time to make a small alteration of course and gain a little bit of sea room. He turned to look at his officers and started to whisper his orders.
“Ferrer, let her fall a couple of points to starboard! Mr. Stokes, with as much stealth as you can muster from your men, man the braces and raise the mizzen sail and the fore-course, and trim the others to get as much as you could from the wind; let’s get ahead of them. It seems that in another hour we shall be either stopping or fighting them.”
The frigate showed a notable increase in speed, responding well to the changes made in the sailing arrangement, but the mist around still allowed poor visibility.
Alvaro’s mind wandered a little bit, and he felt the weight of command closing on him, like all other times when he had been preparing to go to battle. His mind was full of all the myriad things that could go wrong at the last minute.
This was going to be his first action commanding a fifth-rate frigate… Styx carried 237 officers and men! And like the first time he went into action in command of his own ship, more than six years ago, it was going to be close to the southern tip of the Florida peninsula.
It seemed that history was repeating itself.
Time went by slowly; about an hour had gone by since he gave the orders to increase the frigate speed, but as the sun was climbing the mist shifted and thinned, moving in ragged masses, helping to increase visibility. It was almost three cables all around the ship and increasing quickly when the hail from the main masthead came down loud and clear: “Deck there! Strange sail in the larboard quarter! About three cables away! A Spanish schooner by the look of it!”
The hail did not sound any less ominous for being expected.
Captain Tillford’s reaction was almost instantaneous; he grabbed the speaking trumpet and the orders came in a swift and continuous stream.
“Wheel hard to larboard!”
“Take out the mizzen sail, Mr. Stokes! Mr. McConaghy keep us as close to the wind as you dare!”
“Mr. Stokes, change tack when convenient! We are going to cross their bows!”
“Larboard guns! Fire as you bear, Mr. Smalley. Make sure each shot counts. Try to take down their fore if you can!”
“Lieutenant Mallory, distribute your marines at the best shooting points, but stand ready for boarding if necessary!”
The mist was dissipating more quickly now, and the stem of the Spanish ship, followed by a sleek hull, appeared in the larboard quarter about two and a half cables away, while Styx was turning.
As soon as the target took form, the forward guns started their fire in a ragged but continuous roar.
The main deck twelve pounder’s strong bark was deafening, while the wind kept the acrid powder smoke blowing back into the ship, making it increasingly difficult to fire the rearmost guns.
At the end of the broadside, even with the poor visibility, it was clear that many shots had hit their mark; the bowsprit and the top half of the schooner foremast were already down by the sea.
It had taken the gun crews longer than usual to reload and be ready to fire again, but the Spaniards were in a rush, lowering their colours and stopping their ship, the tangle of cordage sails and spars in the water acting as a very effective brake.
The whole action had taken less that twenty minutes since the first hail from the topmast had reached the deck.
Another stream of orders was issued while Alvaro appraised the schooner surrendering to them. The manoeuvre performed by Styx had been executed masterfully, and now they were turning around the schooner and able to rake their poorly defended stern, were it necessary.
The Maria Galante was a nice three-masted ship, with a sleek hull of good proportions, almost as long as Styx, and giving a hint at being built for speed; it was pierced for twelve guns in each side of her main deck, nine pounders by the look of them, with two additional bow chasers in the prow and another two in her quarterdeck, fore and aft rigged in the typical schooner fashion.
It seemed to be low in the water with a small list to starboard, although no apparent damage was visible from Styx deck, other than the caused by the previous broadside.
“Heave-to within hailing distance when you are ready, Mr. Stokes! And keep the guns trained on them all the time. Ferrer, let the wheel to the quartermaster mate and get the barge ready at the double, a boatswain mate and a carpenter mate shall go with the boarding party to assess damage; and make sure every man carries a pistol and a cutlass.
“Lieutenant Mallory, your sergeant and ten marines to go with Mr. Smalley on board the Spaniard. The rest of your company spread about and get the better shooting points so you can keep a hard watch on the Spaniard crew. A brace of swivels loaded with grape and trained on their decks wouldn’t go amiss.”
John Smalley, the second lieutenant, was the third son of a very successful innkeeper in Falmouth. His father had enrolled him as midshipman over six years ago, at the age of fourteen. It had been hard for him, but the lad was clever and the difficulties in his career had shaped his character; he was quick- witted and steady, ready to pick up on any opportunity…
Captain Tillford’s warning came quick and was delivered in a formal tone. “Mr. Smalley, the Maria Galante has all the looks of a privateer; please board her, but do not go below decks. Keep in mind that they carry usually a large crew. Maintain their officers close guarded at all times. No heroics. Check their papers and bring with you the officers, or the captain at least. Mr. Ferrer, my coxswain would help with translation if you have any problem.”
Once the main points were made, Alvaro added in more guarded tones, “It looks like they are low in the water; if you care to notice they show a small list to starboard. The noise that gave us their position tonight, and that we keep hearing now, may be their chain and head pumps going, although there is not that much water coming down their scuppers. If you find it necessary, use the boatswain mate and the carpenter mate to check whatever problem there is.”
By the time Alvaro had given his orders to his lieutenant, the barge was ready, with all the appointed hands on board.
On the stopped ship, there were not many hands on sight. Only a small cluster of what seemed to be the officers were watching from their quarterdeck.
The rowing took less than ten minutes, and the Spaniards were quick in lowering a scale with manropes, while what had seemed to be the cluster of officers moved close to the entry port.
About an hour later Mr. Smalley and his party were back, bar the carpenter mate and the marines. Only one Spaniard, looking like the commanding officer of the schooner, came with him.
“Captain, sir, the Maria Galante has hidden damage, a plank half sprung! They have been taking turns at the pumps the last three days and were trying to reach Cuba; we did not see the water being pumped because of the list. Let me introduce her captain: Don Vicente Garcés y Diaz de Barbona has come to make the surrender official, although their main worry is about the ship being kept afloat. All the officers have given their word about the surrender and are asking for our help.”
The young lieutenant stopped, took a deep breath and followed with a steadier voice.
“Mr. Wooden, the carpenter mate, says that the extent of the damage is not too great, if only it were not below the waterline, that if we send the tools and materials he has written in this list, he shall be able to lessen enough the intake of water so we could safely reach Kingston, with the Galante sailing in their own, no need for towing! He has remained in the prize and is keeping control of the situation. It seems that their carpenter had a seizure and is incapacitated.”
At this point Mr. Smalley was becoming more confident, and it showed in his face and his demeanour, as well as in his speech, which became much steadier.
“They have had half the crew, watch in watch out, going at the chain and main pumps and the fire engine continuously for the last three days. But even going at that rate they have seven feet of water in the well. Mr. Wooden believes that even if the repairs he has in mind work, the water in the well would be reduced, but not to less than five feet in the well by early evening, and that is assuming the crew of the schooner keep all the pumps going at the rate they go now. In any event the ship would need caulking and a full refit when we reach port!
Lieutenant Smalley turned his gaze to the Spanish schooner, saw the signal the sergeant of marines was making, took a deep breath and continued with his report.
“We took them completely by surprise. The noise of the pumps and the mist masked our approach; and by the time they realized what was happening we were firing at them! Now they shall have to replace their bowsprit and rig all their fore sails again. But if the intake of water is reduced, as Mr. Wooden predicts, they ought to be able to complete the sailing and rigging repairs in a couple of days.”
While Lieutenant Smalley had been droning out his report, Alvaro Tillford’s mind had been working at top gear. A number of questions had been forming in his head, and he needed better answers that those provided by his second lieutenant’s report.
First: it was clear that the damage in the Maria Galante would need a better evaluation by Mr. Woodright, Styx’s carpenter, a more experienced and skilled man than his mate working now at the prize.
Second: while the evaluation of the schooner damage was done, keeping her large crew under control added a very difficult task to the equation. He had only twenty-five marines on board, along with four corporals, one sergeant, and the gallant lieutenant. The number was clearly too small for an effective control of a crew as large as the one the prize was carrying.
Even if they were too tired by their long spells at the pumps, once the water intake was reduced, they could spare a big group and swarm Styx at night, which could represent a big heap of trouble indeed. So, it was imperative that a considerable part of that crew should be let go on a suitable small island.
But if a place suitable enough could be found to beach the Maria Galante and make a better repair of the leak…
With his mind still churning about the possibilities, Captain Tillford turned to face the Spanish captain, who was standing to attention with two marines at his back.
The Spaniard was willowy and tallish, but shorter and narrower at the shoulders than Alvaro; a regular face with the only notable feature sparkling hazel eyes that showed curiosity and perhaps an understanding of the problems being faced by his captor.
Alvaro’s gaze assessed his foe, going leisurely from head to toes, noticing the well-cut maroon coat, the neat buff breeches, and the gleaming cordovan knee high boots. A yellow silk sash belted around his midriff and an empty scabbard kept at his right side completed the picture.
A thin smile turned up the corners of Alvaro’s mouth; the name Diaz de Barbona had sounded familial – it was the name of one of his grandfather’s school friends, one that had stood out by his staunch support of the Bourbon cause and by being the most tight-fisted of them all, and therefore the recipient of plenty of pranks!
So, he began to address his prisoner, speaking quickly in Spanish and employing the most formal tones he could remember being used by his mother and grandfather.
“My dear Don Vicente, let me introduce myself, Captain Alvaro Tillford of the Royal Navy at your service. Let’s get down to my cabin, so we may talk in a more comfortable surrounding. Mr. Stokes, carry over if you please! Call me if any trouble should arise.”
Entering his cabin, Alvaro went directly to the wine cooler behind his desk, signalling his guest to an armchair located slightly to his front and left.
“May I offer you some refreshment?”
The Spaniard’s countenance showed bewilderment and some anxiety, as he was completely unable to fathom his opponent. Summoning his last reserve of wit, he answered in a subdued tone, “A sherry, perhaps?”
Alvaro continued in his mission to awe his guest with his show of politeness and mastery of the language.
“And if I may be so bold as to ask, since your name sounds quite familial, would you be perchance related to Don Antonio Diaz de Barbona y Vila de la Parraguera, “Conde de Garvela”? I ought to make known to you that my late grandfather, Don Andrés de Ballverías y Zúñiga, the son of the twelfth Marqués de Bassesaltes, was a very good friend of Don Antonio, the friendship forged at the time they were together at Salamanca’s University.”
The perfect display of courtesy, mastery of his language and knowledge of his family, deployed by a man that looked like a Colonial American, although presenting a very Spanish background, took Don Vicente aback.
So, the schooner captain took a deep breath and, trying to hide his bewilderment, began to answer with as much sense as he could muster.
“Thank you, Captain. It is a pleasure to converse with somebody as versed in the use of my tongue as you appear to be. In answer to your interest in my family, yes, my mother, Doña Elvira, was Don Antonio’s youngest sister, fourteen years his junior. The family connections allowed me to get a berth on the Nuestra Señora de Arlanda, a frigate making the rounds from Cádiz to Cartagena de Indias. Nevertheless, four years ago my family lost our political clout when my uncle died, because my cousin was more interested in management of his estates than continuing my uncle’s political career. So, after spending three years as Teniente de Navío in the San Juan de Barlovento, a 74-gun ship of the line based at Cartagena, and being bypassed twice for promotion, I resigned my commission in the Navy and bought an interest as Captain and Master in the Maria Galante two years ago. We have been quite successful supplying goods to the de Gálvez Army, and my syndicate owns, now, two other schooners, bigger and better armed than this one.
As his story progressed Captain Garcés was regaining his composure and the control of his nerves, his voice being steadier but showing a strong Andalusian accent.