North Atlantic Ocean off the Azores, Fall, 1544
Fog shrouded the Spanish flagship as she sliced through the sea, her heavy cargo settling her low in the water. Capitán Juan Salvaro stood ill-at-ease at the helm, staring intently at the vast sheet of white before him, as if he could part the veil with the intensity of his eyes alone. The air was as heavy with tension and portent as it was with moisture.
These were bad waters to be sailing. Pirates scoured these waters, knowing the Azores were the common stopping place for vessels returning home with full cargos of riches from the New World. The rocky shores of the Azores could be treacherous to those not accustomed to them, and fog covered the tell-tale breakers from sight. The best plan of action, Salvaro knew, was inaction; trim the sails and lower the anchor until the fog cleared. But that wasn’t an option. Too many men were ill from scurvy, and all were malnourished, having been placed on half-rations a long way back.
This was due to improper storage; most usable spaces below decks had been relegated to the valuable cargo, and much of the foodstuffs had been brought above to make room, leaving them vulnerable to the wiles of wind and tide. A storm had come upon the fleet suddenly, washing away some and spoiling much of the remnant. They needed badly to make port at Angra in Terceira, and obtain from the settlement much-needed provisions.
Salvaro had decided to transfer the most ill men to the flagship, it being the fastest and most heavily armed ship in the fleet, and sail full-speed ahead. By now the fleet was days behind them. This left him vulnerable, and he knew it, but he’d seen no other choice.
Through his greed, he had ordered the provisions to be moved. As a result, his men were now ill. But they were so close to the relative safety of port…
Suddenly, a looming shape materialized from the fog, coming towards the Spanish galleon, and the lookout shouted the alarm: "Ship off the portside!"
The deck was instantly a flurry of activity, the crew preparing for a worst-case scenario. The odds of the ship being friendly in this area, under these conditions, were slim-to-none. Salvaro, spyglass to eye, sought to identify the foreign vessel. Its flag hung limp from moisture and lack of breeze. Downing the spyglass to the deck made further identification unnecessary; armed to the teeth, the unruly crew was set on the task of preparing the cannon. Their worn French garb coupled with their obvious intent told Salvaro all he needed to know. The captain bellowed the words that no Spanish seaman wanted to hear: "French pirates off the portside!"
An eardrum-bursting explosion followed his sentence like a punctuation mark. A heavy lead period punched a hole in the water mere yards from the galleon, the water healing the wound quick as it appeared. It was a warning; they wanted to board, and would not fire a killing volley if they were allowed to do so.
"To arms!" Salvaro commanded, drawing his sword and pointing it at the hostile ship. "Kill the French pirate perros!"
Before Salvaro’s men could fully prepare the cañón, a second blast sounded. The cannonball pounded through the forward mast, splintering wood as the mast folded and crashed to the deck.
The captain realized grimly that the attackers were much more efficient than his own weakened men; raving like a demon, he goaded them to hurry, or die. Salvaro’s cannon were prepared and aimed through the gunports at the ship closing the distance. He gave the order to fire. The deafening salvos in reply to his command were like music to his ears as the six portside cannon exploded. Four shots missed; two struck, one amidships just above the waterline, and one through the mainsail, causing the slightest decrease in speed.
"Reload!" he ordered. Clean. Prime. Gunpowder, push. Cotton wadding, push. Cannon ball. Run out the gunport. Aim. A blast across the water, followed quickly by a second, meant that they were returning fire, but Salvaro didn’t wait for the impact. "Fire!"
The two shots struck Salvaro’s ship with devastation, one brutally killing two crewmen, injuring several others with flying splinters and debris; the howls of the wounded filled the air. The other shot, Salvaro realized with a shudder, struck below the waterline. They weren’t firing at the rigging any more.
"Reload!" he shouted. The sick men knew their lives depended on it, and they joined the rest in hauling gunpowder and shot up from the magazine.
The first mate, Domingo, rushed up to him. "Captain, we’re taking on water fast. The force is making it impossible to stop the hole. Requesting your orders," he shouted over the din.
"Set all the men we can spare to bailing, while you and some stronger men try to hinder the flow," he shouted back. The ship was already low with weight; they couldn’t afford to take on water.
Domingo hesitated. "With all due respect, Captain, the gold is weighing us down. If we throw what we can overboard, then we have a chance of making it to the islands. If we don’t…"
"You have your orders. Go!"
Domingo started to protest, but Salvaro turned away.
"Fire!" he bellowed, and the fuses were lit. Sssss… BOOM! The cannon were pushed backwards by the impetus, the gunmen standing to the side.
One shot struck the masthead of the pirate vessel, one struck a sail, and a third wreaked havoc on the deck and crew. Three others fell uselessly into the water.
"Reload! Chain shot!"
Chain shot was, in effect, two smaller cannon balls linked by a short chain. While not as effective for sinking a ship, it could completely obliterate any rigging or crew in its path.
Salvaro gave the order, watching with anticipation through his spyglass.
Two shots took down important parts of the rigging. One shot smashed through the gunports and into the crew beyond, taking out multiple gunners. A fourth shot crashed through the side of the ship just below the waterline; not irreparable, but it would be a setback.
A smile flashed across Salvaro’s face, then vanished. He saw the remaining pirate gun crew preparing to return fire.
He watched in frustration as the fuses were lit and looked into the mouths of the cannon as they belched smoke.
One shot missed. The other didn’t. It struck below the waterline. They might have made port with one hole taking water, but with two, coupled with the cargo’s weight, they had little chance.
"Fire!" he shouted. They would never take this treasure. It would be better on the bottom of the sea than in the hands of pirates, Salvaro thought grimly.
He peered out to see the carnage he inflicted. What he saw made him stab the sky with glee. The pirates lost too many men, and feared losing their ship. They were turning about.
"We beat them!" he shouted. "We beat those French puercos!"
His joy was short-lived. A haggard-looking Domingo approached at a stumbling run, his clothing wet to the waist. "Captain, we’re sinking."
"Prepare to abandon ship! The two strongest men, follow me," Salvaro commanded, hurrying to his cabin. In his cabin he grabbed his valuable charts and the ship’s log, and kneeling down, opened an ornate sea chest. Inside were the choicest treasures; the finest gold, the largest emeralds, the most striking jewelry. He shoved the charts inside, slammed it shut, and locked it.
"Place this in the boat. It comes with us," he barked to the men as he went back on deck. Looking over the side, he saw that the sea was decidedly closer than it was just seconds ago.
"The first mate and four of the sickest men will come with me. The rest swim for it."
Taking the sickest men with him was not a charitable act; he coolly calculated that they would be the first to die, and therefore he would have to share the small amount of food he brought with him with fewer and fewer people if they didn’t find land soon.
"Captain!" a crewman exclaimed, running up to him. "The boat was damaged when the mast fell. We won’t make it to the Açores."
Salvaro’s throat tightened. "How badly? Will she float?"
"She might for a while if we patch her up, but not for long. We haven’t time for repairs."
"Do the best you can, blast it!" he ordered, scowling viciously. In the heat of action and the pounding of adrenaline he’d no time for fear; now his body quivered with it. He would lose his ship. He would lose his treasure. He might even lose his life. Fear was not something he was used to, or something he coped well with. It made him want to wring somebody’s neck.
The ship moaned softly as something shifted in the cargo hold. The sudden shifting of weight caused the ship to tilt slightly to the stern. The tilt caused more items to shift, creating a chain reaction as the fore lifted slowly into the air.
"Lower the boat!" the captain ordered.
"What about those who can’t swim and can’t fit in the boat?" one sailor asked, panicking. Others with the same thought flocked around him.
Salvaro ignored them, stepping into the boat as they began lowering it. The sailor grabbed his shoulder and tried to pull him out violently, but coolly and without hesitation, Salvaro drew his sword and ran it through the man’s midsection. The sailor coughed, blood seeping from the corners of his mouth, and fell forward into the boat. His chest heaved with pain as he contorted into a ball on the bottom. Salvaro calmly kicked him overboard, and watched with cold disinterest as he hit the water with a splash.
"Anybody else?" he queried without emotion, grasping the weapon tighter. "I thought not."
As the boat hit the water, many leapt into the sea. Those who could swim did so, but many could not. Some swimmers tried to help those less fortunate. Salvaro scoffed; the flailing and thrashing of those they were foolishly trying to help would only serve to drown them both. A struggling man nearby tried to clamber over the side of the boat, reaching up and clamping his boney fingers over the edge in order to pull himself in. In annoyance, Salvaro slashed downward with his sword, and the man howled in pain as he fell back into the water, leaving behind four bloody fingers to roll around unnoticed on the bottom.
Glancing downward, Salvaro saw Domingo staring at him. "Row!" the captain ordered, and taking the oars in hand, Domingo obeyed.
Domingo was exhausted, the lack of adequate nourishment making him tire easily. After strenuously bailing and fighting a losing battle with the water gushing into the ship, he didn’t think he’d have strength to row, but once he had the oars in hand he found that he could. To hasten his strokes further was his meager understanding of physics. When the ship went under, it would create suction, pulling anybody in the vicinity under with it.
"Get away from the ship!" Domingo shouted, striving to be heard.
"I give the orders here, blast it," the captain barked, his eyes flashing. "You just row."
The ship was quickly out of sight through the mist, although the eerie moanings it gave as the sea swallowed it confirmed it was still there. Several men attempted to follow Salvaro, but one by one they fell behind.
"We need to help them," Domingo protested.
"The boat’s heavy as it is; we can’t take on more weight. There’s nothing we can do. Keep rowing!"
So he rowed, and rowed. He rowed in the direction he thought the Azores were, although he had no way of knowing for sure, fog blocking the sun and no other marker to sail by. His arms became sore, and sweat stung his eyes.
The only people still in sight were the carpenter, a strong man, and the young cabin boy, clinging to his back like a monkey.
"Can we help the boy?" he pleaded.
Agitated, the captain sprang forward, almost upsetting the boat, and sliced the throat of one of the sick men. He kicked the lifeless body overboard. "Now you may bring him in," he sneered. "Ask one more time, and the next throat I slit is yours."
Domingo rowed towards them. "There’s only room for one, so get in. But hurry."
"Take the boy. I can swim," the carpenter said, lifting him and swinging him gently aboard.
"Stay out of the captain’s way," Domingo warned the shivering boy in a low tone as he rowed.
The carpenter stayed with them awhile, holding onto the side of the boat now and then, letting it drag him through the water to rest before continuing on. Finally, the cold reached his bones, and he could no longer swim. He held onto the boat as long as he could, until his fingers were too numb, and he fell back and was left behind.
Feeling wetness on his feet, Domingo looked down. There was water in the bottom of the boat.
"Captain!" he exclaimed, drawing attention to the water seeping through the hastily-repaired gash in the side.
"Boy, make yourself useful. Stop up the hole and bail," Salvaro snapped. The lad jumped to obey, managing to stop it up temporarily, but soon it was leaking again, this time even worse.
"Put your hand over it, imbecile!" Salvaro commanded, bothered the boy couldn’t get it right the first time.
Domingo paid close attention to the leak as he rowed; he saw that no matter what the boy did, water was going to come through, and the boy couldn’t possibly stop all of it. He told the captain. Salvaro was silent for a time, as if he hadn’t heard him, but then he turned around and looked for himself.
"I told you, stop it up," he shouted at the boy, who seemed to shrink to half his size. The captain turned his gaze back to the horizon, raising the spyglass to his eye, as though seeing something nobody else could.
"Ten degrees starboard," he ordered.
"Do you see something, Captain?"
"It’s a hunch."
Domingo didn’t like risking their lives on an obviously deranged captain’s hunch, but seeing no better alternative, he rowed in the direction indicated.
There was now a goodly amount of water slogging around his ankles as he rowed. Two of the sick men were attempting to bail with their hands, but were making little headway. The third man lay in the growing puddle, barely breathing.
It was nearing nightfall when they stopped. Domingo’s arms quivered uncontrollably as he lay down the oars, the muscles spasming from overexertion. The leakage had grown worse, and even Salvaro himself was now using one of his expensive high boots to bail with. But even so, the captain refused to throw the sea chest over, saying that he would rather throw everybody else overboard than part with it.
The cabin boy looked into the darkening distance, and his young eyes saw what the others hadn’t. "Land!" he shouted, bailing madly. "Captain, land!"
Incredulously peering after him, they soon discerned a faint outline. Everybody resumed bailing as Domingo rowed closer, their strength as renewed as their hope. They were saved! When the boat finally sank, they were within wading distance of the shore.
"Grab the other side of the chest," Salvaro commanded Domingo. As each person reached shore, they collapsed gratefully to the ground, basking in the relative warmth of the sand and letting the gentle surf kiss their feet.
Salvaro was the only one who stood upright, staring blankly around him. Something was wrong. Very wrong.
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Domingo pick up a handful of sand and let it trickle through his fingers. "Sand," the man murmured. "I didn’t think I’d see it again."
Salvaro vacantly repeated the word, "Sand." Something clicked in his head. His eyes lost their vacant look, gazing at the ground beneath him as if just noticing it. In a fit of fury, he fell to his knees, grabbing fistfuls of sand and throwing it wildly into the air. With vehemence, he shouted the word, "Sand!"
Salvaro turned to Domingo, seeing his open-mouthed incomprehension. "It’s sand, don’t you see?" he screamed, as if that explained everything.
Madness morphed into sadness. He sat down on the sea chest, burying his head in his hands. The captain’s shoulders shook, and although no sound escaped his lips, his tears were obvious.
Half an hour passed before Salvaro removed his hands and looked up, a crushed man. Salvaro stared mournfully at the sea a long time before speaking.
"The Açores are formed from lava," he finally said. "There are no sandy beaches." He paused, letting that sink in. "We’re lost."
As the once-mighty commander of a great fleet lay on the island dying of starvation, he tore the heavy gold crucifix from around his neck and stared at it accusingly. He’d prayed for the fleet to come through and spot them, and now there the fleet went, sailing over the horizon, tiny specks in an expanse of blue, with no way to signal them.
His few remaining men danced crazily in the shallow surf, using up the last of their strength in one final effort, but Salvaro knew it was useless. They were too far away.
"God has forsaken me," he whispered hoarsely, letting the pendant fall to the ground through feeble fingers.
The thought never dawned on him that this was his punishment for a life of greed that involved stealing gold, silver, jewels, and even men from the natives of that far-away land that would some day be known as South America.
He’d made money his god. Let money help him now.