After four weeks into their voyage, a lookout hollered, “Land ho!” Nineteen pairs of eyes strained to see what he had spotted until finally it hove into sight: the island of Cuba. Another two days of sailing saw them positioned to enter the capital port of Santiago.
Juan’s jaw dropped, for in and around the harbor were anchored not just one or two galleons, but a fleet of some twenty treasure ships. He could now see why the convoy system was so powerful, for what privateer would dare to attack such a flotilla of firepower?
Although the San Ignacio had set out ahead of them, they were not yet docked in the harbor. Mighty as the galleon was, with her current cargo and great bulk she could not match the speed of the smaller and swifter Gabriel. The harbormaster guided their vessel to a mooring. Soon after, she was brought alongside the dock by tying off a sturdy line to the capstan and winding the rope, pulling her to the pier.
Anxiously, the men waited for word that they could go ashore. Diego stood at the helm and addressed the entire crew. “Go,” he shouted. “Collect your pay from the purser and spend it wisely. You have two days leave. Do all the drinking, gambling, and whoring you deem necessary, but be back here in two days at this hour, fit and ready to sail. And for God’s sake wash your clothes and have a bath.” The men cheered and wasted no time hurrying ashore.
Diego turned to Francisco. “You take the boy and keep him under your protection. Some good food, a bath, and no women,” he said with a wink. Francisco started to protest but then thought better of it. “Well, then let’s be off lad, my dear wife and civilization await.”
As they started to leave the captain stopped them and handed Juan a small bag of silver coins and the citation he had promised. “You’ve earned it, lad. You have proven yourself a good crewmember. Now please go and bathe,” he said while pinching his nose.
The two headed up a twisting laneway until reaching a shop with a sign that simply read “Bath House.” There was a crude picture positioned above the name, displaying a large copper tub with a man sitting in it. They stepped inside and were greeted by a booming voice from a buxom woman. “Two for a scrub?” she bellowed. “Yes, Susana, and long overdue,” Diego replied. “Hadn’t noticed,” she said, laughing while rolling her eyes.
She led them into a large room in back. Juan’s nostrils were immediately assailed by a stifling odor. The smell resulted from the sulfur-laden steam rising out of a large, sunken stone pool. The floor was constructed with thick stone slabs, wet from the humidity in the room. Down one wall was a wooden bench with pegs overhead on which to hang one’s clothes.
“And who is this handsome lad?” the woman bellowed while looking Juan up and down, making him feel quite uncomfortable. Unexpectedly she pinched his backside. “After months at sea I’m betting he could use more than a good scrub!” “Behave yourself, Susana. He is the simpleminded son of a Spanish fisherman, and I have been put in charge of his care, which includes his morals.” “Good luck with that,” she said, giving the boy a slap on the butt followed by yet another squeeze. “Okay gentlemen, strip off and soap up. I’ll send Juanita in to gather your clothes and bring you some towels.”
Juan, upon hearing the words “strip off,” froze and stared at Francisco, who already had his shirt off and was removing his leggings. “Come, lad, no room for modesty here and I have no intention of greeting my wife smelling like a rotting sea urchin.”
Just as Juan had removed the last of his clothes, a pretty young woman carrying two wooden buckets stepped into the room and walked over to the men. Blushing, he made a feeble attempt to cover himself, causing Francisco to laugh. Giggling she snapped up the dirty rags he had been wearing. “Modest are we, sweetie?” She deposited some clean towels on the bench.
Susana returned with two more buckets of warm water and sat them on the floor in front of the naked men. “Get rid of the dirt before you sit in the tub,” she said, handing Francisco a bar of soap as she turned on her heel and left them. Juan narrowly avoided another pinch as she walked by.
“Use half to wet down,” Francisco instructed his young companion. “Soap up and then use that bucket to rinse off, then it’s into the tub for a soak. Hurry up, lad! Susana has her rules.” Juan whispered, “One should be to keep her hands off the customers.” Francisco laughed. “Oh, she can be a lot more hands-on than that.”
The pretty girl suddenly reappeared. She strolled over to Francisco and, with a large sponge in hand, started scrubbing his back. He stood there unembarrassed, legs apart and arms outstretched, letting her do her work. The quartermaster smiled. “She gets at the parts you can’t reach,” he quipped. The young woman giggled. “And others if you wish,” she said. “Now, Juanita, behave yourself. You know I am a married man with a beautiful wife waiting.”
“What about him?” she said pointing at Juan, her gaze falling on his privates. Francisco commented. “Maybe in a year or two. He is a boy of only sixteen or so and simpleminded to boot. As I told your mistress, Captain Diego has put me in charge of protecting this lad’s virtue.” She smiled at Juan “Well, he is not much younger than me so his ‘virtue’ is very much at risk.”
Juan gingerly took the bucket and poured half of the warm water over himself, then started soaping up. Juanita had moved behind him and started her work, scrubbing weeks of shipboard grime from the young man. “You’d better start by fattening him up, Diego. He is all skin and bones.” She vigorously scrubbed at his back, lingering a little too long on his buttocks. While she did this, he kept his hands over his privates, thinking about what his mother would say if she could see him now. The pretty girl slapped one exposed cheek, ordering him to rinse off and get into the huge steaming pool as she left the room.
“What is wrong with these women?” he whispered to Diego as he prepared to enter the large cistern. The heat and sulfur smell rising from the huge cistern made him enter with some hesitation. He let out a yelp as he lowered himself. Francisco laughed. “Give it a minute, lad, and you will find it soothing. It is a hot bath that bubbles up from the bowels of the earth, heated by the devil’s own hand. They pipe it into this manmade pool so it constantly flows and provides an even temperature just this side of scalding.”
Susana stuck her head back into the room and asked, “Does the young whelp not have any clean clothing?” “None!” Francisco replied. “He came aboard with few provisions.” “Hmm, I’ll see what I can find. Can’t have you traipsing about in wet rags.” She disappeared and shortly reappeared with some clean clothes. “These were left for cleaning and the owner will no longer be needing them.”
“Why not?” Juan blurted out in English. Susana looked at him, startled that he responded in perfect English, she frowned. “Because, young man, his corpse is hanging in a gibbet in the town square.” “What did he do?” She crossed her arms, studying him. “Just before leaving for Spain, Cassius had him arrested, accused him of being an English spy. Last week the court sentenced him and he was executed, his body displayed in the town square as an example of what happens to English spies.”
Juan flinched at her words, his eyes falling on the garments in her grasp and too late he switched to speaking Spanish. “Wouldn’t it be bad luck to wear a dead man’s clothes, and a traitor at that?” Francisco leaned forward, frowning. “So much for you being a simpleminded Spaniard.” The woman agreed, “Yes, Francisco, he speaks good English for a simpleminded Spaniard.” She said it with a wink as she hung the clean clothes on a peg.
“Sorry,” Juan said to Francisco sinking back into the tub. Francisco exchanged a glance with the woman and spoke. “Worry not, for I trust Susana to keep our secret.” She winked and nodded yes while dragging her index finger across her mouth. He turned to Juan. “For heaven’s sake, boy, keep your mouth shut or you will end up like the former owner of those garments.” What neither realized was the spy in their midst, Juanita, the girl who had been attending to them, heard the entire conversation from around the corner.
2.1 Out of the Past
The thud of wood striking stone drew their gaze to a peg-legged man coming through the doorway. He acknowledged the two in the tub and immediately began undressing. His large frame was covered with coarse black hair, crowned by a large head that sported a full beard and a curly mane of graying locks.
Juan thought he looked like a bear. Despite this his clothing indicated a man of some importance. To the young Englishman he looked to be the perfect pirate with the weaponry to match, for he had hung a cutlass, dagger, and pistol on a peg and proceeded to remove the wooden leg that had made all the noise. Despite his massive girth, one could tell he was well muscled and the kind of man you would not want to anger.
In short order he followed the same routine as they had, sitting on a stool while Juanita scrubbed his back. He used the young woman as a crutch to make his way to the pool. Juan couldn’t help but notice that his right arm was draped over her shoulder and his hand had disappeared into her blouse, grasping an ample breast. Unembarrassed, she giggled as she helped lower him into the hot pool.
“Been dreaming about those tits my last two weeks at sea.” He smiled. “When did you arrive, Francisco?” “Just today, Captain Brusa,” “And who is your new mate?” “Sorry,” Francisco answered. “He is simpleminded.” He said this pointing to his own head and twirling his finger, with a look of disgust on his face. I am stuck with the little bastard while we take leave.” Juan smiled blankly at the big man.
The man raised the stump of his leg and gave it a rub. Juan stared at it. “Want to know how that happened?” Juan nodded yes. “Well, lad, it was a French sharpshooter. He was in the rigging of a ship we intercepted on our way to Gravelines. Our ship and an English vessel had hemmed in the Frenchman and were both boarding her. I saw the French captain wound one of the English borders, and he was set to finish off the poor bugger. My cutlass interfered with his plans, then some bastard of a marksman up in the rigging shattered my leg.” He pointed to the missing limb.
“The fellow I helped manage to get me onto his ship, and the last we saw of Frenchy, he was jumping into the ocean to escape the flames chewing up the sails to his perch. When I came to, my leg was gone and I was back on board my own ship. Hard to believe I owe my life to a damn Englishman.” Juan could not believe his ears and wanted to disclose the story his father had told him but kept silent.
“Good news is that it was my left leg,” he said, laughing. “Cause, you see, even without my wooden leg I can still kick way better with my right.” Francisco laughed while Juan looked puzzled. “It’s a joke, lad. Without his wooden leg how could he kick with his right? ”Brusa slapped him on the back. “Get it, lad?” Juan smiled and nodded yes.
Juanita had come in and set down two more buckets of water. They removed themselves from the hot pool and Francisco told him that the water in the bucket was for a final rinse to get rid of the sulfur smell. He offered to douse him with it. Juan agreed and closed his eyes. What Francisco had failed to tell him was that it was ice cold. He shrieked as the icey stream cascaded over his heated skin. The men laughed. “Oops,” Francisco said, smiling. “I forgot to add that little detail.”
“Keep your heads attached mates,” Brusa yelled after them as they left to work their way back to the main square. While walking, Juan asked Francisco. “Is that man’s first name Fernand?” “Why, yes, but how could you know that?” “Because the man he saved was my father,” Juan answered, smiling and wondering how he could get a message about this encounter to his dad. Francisco stopped short, staring after his young companion. “Now what are the odds of that?” he wondered aloud.
2.2 Lunch With a Snake
The new clothes had Juan feeling much better. Santiago was now coming alive, and he enjoyed the hustle and bustle of the Spanish town. He filled his senses with the scents, colors, and sounds, for the shops and vendors had for sale all manner of goods. He noticed the smells of food cooking, fresh island fruit in the stands, and inns already serving brew to a host of seafaring men off the newly arrived ships.
They had purchased some figs and were eating them when the pungent smell of death assailed Juan’s nostrils. He turned to see not twenty feet from where he stood the caged and suspended corpse of the man whose clothes he now wore.
“That!” said Francisco, leaning to Juan’s ear and pointing at the grotesque sight, “is why you must not speak English again while we are here.” He then pointed to the harbor entrance, where the galleon San Ignacio was just entering the port. “Ahh, they have arrived safely.” Juan could see Cassius standing on the bow and felt a shiver run up his spine, knowing that man was responsible for the condition of the poor Englishman hanging before him.
Brutal executions were not new to him; indeed, he had witnessed such things in Plymouth. However, wearing this dead man’s clothing and knowing the circumstances around his death changed the way he thought about such things. It made him wonder how many innocents had met a similar fate in Plymouth as a result of powerful men or women.
“Come lad,” Francisco urged. “I am hungry and know just the place to put some meat back on our skinny frames.” They walked to the edge of the settlement and approached a small building with several tables set out front. A sign proclaimed Mi Isla de Cocina, My Island Kitchen . The whole affair was located on a rise, which overlooked the town, and they chose a table with a view of the streets they had just walked.
A young woman came out to take their order, and upon seeing Francisco her jaw dropped. He put his finger to his lips and quickly motioned her over, whispering something in her ear. She giggled and disappeared back into the kitchen as Francisco turned his back to the doorway. Soon an attractive woman came storming across the patio and smacked him across the back of his head with a soup ladle. “What did you tell my girl? That my food is not fit for hogs? Turn your face to me, sir!” He turned with a smile and she dropped her weapon. “Francisco!” she yelled. “You, you—”
He stood and embraced her, stifling her words with a passionate kiss. She let it linger, then pushed him away. “When did you arrive?” “This morning, my love. I have had a bath so I am clean and starved for affection.” He made a grab for her and she slapped his hand away, but gave him another kiss and whispered, “Later.”
She noticed Juan. “And who is this young man?” “Sophia he is Juan Crispino, a new shipmate.” “Greetings, Juan,” she said, smiling. Juan stared blankly as he returned her smile. “Does he not speak Francisco?” “He is simple, he is also very hungry, as am I, my dear.” “Well, sit and I will prepare you a bite.” As she spun around he reached out and pinched her buttock. “More than a bite my love, for I will need my strength later.” “Yes, you will,” she replied, smiling. “So I best prepare you a feast.”
A feast it was, for soon before them sat a huge platter of fresh fruit, hearty stew made of slow-cooked pork, vegetables, and freshly baked bread and cheese. Juan began to gorge and Francisco cautioned him to not overdo it or he would become ill. “Your stomach has to adjust and we can eat more later at my home.” Soon after Juan felt the hair on his arms rise, for approaching them was a group of Spaniards led by none other than Cassius.
“Francisco!” he exclaimed. “I see you treat even your lowliest crewmember very well. Will he be staying with you and your family?” “Of course, Señor Cassius, I could not leave the boy on his own, for who knows what evil would befall him.” “Ah yes, but you had best watch him around that lovely daughter of yours. Simple as he is, he could still be very lecherous.”
The soldiers accompanying him all laughed. Juan blushed, which did not go unnoticed by Cassius. “See, the boy turns crimson at the thought.” He looked at Cassius and gave him one of his dimwitted smiles. “Maybe not as slow as you think, Francisco. You should treat him to a night at the brothel—it might be fun to watch an imbecile with those whores. As well as keep secure the virtue of your daughter”
The soldiers laughed again. Francisco bit his lip and responded, “Your advice is most appreciated, Señor Cassius, and I assure you if any man including Juan here so much as looks at my daughter in that manner he will end up in the same condition as your latest victim hanging in the square.”
At this comment the men stopped laughing, for they all knew Cassius had eyes for Francisco’s daughter and his words were obviously meant as a warning. Juan, realizing that things were escalating, broke the tension. He dug into his food like a ravenous dog, stuffing his mouth so full that when he gave Cassius a grand smile a large amount dropped back unto his plate. Cassius turned to his shipmates. “The boy truly is an idiot!” They all laughed at his remark.
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