Flushed and spirits high off their success of the plantation raid, everyone was filled with hope and a belief that they could do this. They could steal the ship and escape prison. There was much back-slapping and silly grins, and light steps carried them away to the next phase of the mission.
Mei wore the clothes she’d taken from a captain, and Lia had her native attire. The rest had changed out of their prisoner uniforms and donned English soldier ones instead: red coats and navy-blue pants. Juan felt odd wearing boots for the first time in years as prisoners normally went without. The men all had one musket in hand, bayonet fixed already, and a spare musket over their shoulders.
Jie the jaguar obediently strode at Mei’s side, thankfully looking sated after gorging at the plantation.
Armand had also taken a bandolier of the heavy grenades, along with flint and steel to light them. Unfortunately, matches wouldn’t be invented for another two hundred years.
They made their way along the narrow, dirt road from the plantation en route to the nearest large settlement: Speightstown. The road was only wide enough for a single wagon. One would have to pull off to the side to allow another to pass. On the right was the ocean, deep and mysterious in the night, waves lapping at the rocks only a few meters away. On the left grew wild brush and patches of jungle. But there were also many fields of sugarcane and cotton, vegetables and indigo. The other plantations were all thankfully quiet at this time of night.
“A fort!” Armand whispered, pointing ahead.
Everyone immediately went on alert and squatted low. In front of them, a stone bastion with cannons poking out of the ramparts faced the dark sea. There was only a faint strip of rocky beach on the westward side, and the road they were on would carry them past the fort’s back door.
Lance waved them to be calm. “There are several along the coast here. Bridgetown might be the political and military capital and the governor’s home, but Speightstown is the busiest commercial port in Barbados. This is where most of the sugar trade is done, which is why many of the richest merchants live here. The forts along the coast protect the town from attacks from the sea and the main road north and south. They’ve held off the French and Spanish more than once.”
“Isn’t that kind of bad for us?” Juan worried.
Lance half shrugged and shook his head. “Most of their attention is on the ocean. We should keep an eye out for patrols on the road, but if we’re quiet and go cross country instead, we should be ok.”
Juan caught Cheeto’s nervous frown and the way he was restless on his feet. A familiar urge to comfort the young man came over him. Ever since they’d first met, Cheeto had been looking up to Juan as if the latter were an older brother. At first, Juan had kept his distance, determined to live in isolation and self-recrimination. But the kid had been so earnest that he’d broken through Juan’s shell, and the two had become friends.
Juan put a big hand on the bony shoulder next to him. “Hey. Relax. We’ll be ok.”
Cheeto scoffed, pretending he was less bothered than he was. “Yeah, I know. I’m not worried. Just thinkin’ about the plan.”
Juan let the lie slide and asked Lance for clarification. “All those forts mean the soldiers will be there and not in town, right?”
Lance’s nod was curt. “Most. Though there is a guard station in town too.”
They got off the road and arced around the forts, going through wildlands and cutting through fields. When a patrol was sighted on the road, coming towards them, everyone threw themselves face down in the grass and lay in utter silence until it had passed.
Two men on horses led four more who were on foot. Those on foot all looked bored and chatted amongst each other. One of the riders snuck a flat bottle out from under his jacket and took a swig, while the other was the only one actually taking the job seriously, head pivoting back and forth from the road to the sea. Unfortunately for him, he paid no attention to the landward side of the road, or he might have spotted the group of prisoners from his higher vantage.
After the guards had passed, they picked up the pace. After all, they had to carry out the plan and escape all before dawn.
When Speightstown came into sight, Mei pulled the group aside into deeper shadows provided by a pair of bearded fig trees. “Everyone clear on their role?” she asked them all, mainly looking at Juan and Cheeto. They’d come up with the plan before leaving the plantation.
“The risky plan,” Lance noted.
“But also the daring plan,” Armand added, waggling his brows. “As if you’re not going to enjoy a little payback, no?”
Lance chuckled. “Maybe a little.”
The woman laughed in honest amusement and seemed pumped up. “I think if we can pull it off, we’ve got a shot. With only one ship, it’ll likely be under guard. And according to Lance, they’ve got a sizable barracks close by. Even if we snuck aboard and tried to sail away, they’d cut us down with the cannon protecting the harbour. We just have to draw as many soldiers out of Bridgetown as we can by sowing a little chaos and destruction, so they don’t notice us stealing the ship under their noses.” When she looked at Juan and Cheeto again, she had faith in her eyes. “And you two are perfect for that!”
Juan felt a bit uncomfortable under that gaze, but it also made him feel a bit stronger as well.
The little Mexican’s nerves had gotten worse, and he was giving the town an anxious look. “We’re gonna die. You know that, right? We’re both gonna die horrible deaths.”
Juan snorted and backhanded Cheeto on the shoulder. “We’re not going to die.”
But the young man was freaking out. “We’re just going to walk up to an entire fort full of soldiers—voluntarily? We’re fucked. Totally fucked.” He threw his arms in the air.
“Think positive, amigo!” Juan told him. “We’re just going over there to have a little bit of fun.”
“With the very people we’re trying to escape from!”
“Doesn’t that make it more exciting?” Mei teased.
He pointed at her. “You’re loca. We all get that. Me? No estoy loco, senorita. I don’t wanna die.”
Her eyes twinkled. “Just be awesome.”
He rolled his own eyes and sighed. “Just be…” Turning away in disgust, he shook his head.
Putting his hand on the young man’s shoulder, Juan vowed to protect him, just like he would a little brother. He gave an encouraging smile. “We’ve got this.”
Cheeto’s bravado seemed to have deserted him, but he pulled himself straighter.
Mei reminded them, “We’ll meet five hundred paces past the outskirts of Speightstown, on the road south.”
“Or the best place to hide past that,” Armand added.
The Spanish speakers nodded and waved as the others headed towards the town, then moved towards the nearest fort. A fort full of cannons and soldiers just itching to shoot somebody.
Juan gulped, his nerves growing tense despite his attempt to impart Cheeto with courage. It was a crazy plan. Why had he agreed to it? He was an actor, not a fighter. Then again, this would make use of a skill set that would otherwise be useless in prison.
Bigsby and Ralph were two guards that valued each other’s company because they didn’t always fit in with the type of man who typically worked in a security job like this. The average guard was more simple-minded, highly physical, and enjoyed drinking and debauching. Bigsby and Ralph were quieter sorts of chaps, the kind that generally kept to themselves.
They’d gladly volunteered for night duty. Most guards grumbled at working the night shift, which was prime gambling and whoring and drinking time. They’d rather be having fun than be on this boring detail, sitting atop Fort One, one man facing out to sea, the other towards the road below.
But these two were different. Each had brought a foldable camp chair and plunked that under a fire brazier tall enough to read under. They passed one night after another with a good book in hand, with only half their attention on their surroundings, which was more than adequate given the lack of activity ninety-nine percent of the time.
Bigsby was halfway through Alexandre Dumas’s The Count of Monte Cristo, his fourth reading, because he loved the tragic yet brilliant story. Ralph had just started Wilbur Smith’s Birds of Prey, a naval adventure by one of Africa’s greatest-ever writers. Both men enjoyed historical fiction. It was one of the reasons they’d applied to work here, transported into the past, a place simpler and far more romantic than the modern urban reality outside this place.
Bigsby had his feet kicked up on the crenellations of the roof and was just getting into the fantastic escape from prison in the story. That’s when he registered faint voices. Raising his head, he looked around before realizing that they were coming from somewhere outside the fort on the ground, about two stories down.
Closing his book, he quietly pulled his feet down and leaned through the crenellations to listen. It took a minute before he understood that he wasn’t listening to English but Spanish instead!
“¡Idiota! ¿Cómo pudiste olvidar los explosivos? ¡Ésa es la razón por la que estamos aquí!” You idiot! How could you forget the explosives? It’s the whole reason we’re here!
“¡Mantenerla baja! Y no me llames idiota, idiota. Pensé que llevabas los explosivos.” Keep it down! And don’t call me an idiot, you idiot. I thought you were carrying the explosives.
“¿Por qué los llevaría? ¡Ese era tu trabajo!” Why would I carry them? That was your job!
“Pensé que el teniente decía que ese era tu trabajo. Eres tres veces mi tamaño, músculo por cerebro. Deberías llevarlos. Por eso te dio la orden.” I thought the lieutenant said that was your job. You’re three times my size, muscle for brains. You should be carrying them. That’s why he gave you the order.
“Al menos tengo músculos, pequeño.” Least I’ve got muscles, little boy.
“Simplemente sin cerebro. Bien por usted. Bueno, ¿qué diablos se supone que debemos hacer ahora?” Just no brains. Good for you. Well, what the hell are we supposed to do now?
Bigsby pulled back, unable to understand the heated exchange but surprised and alarmed by the Spanish words, some of which were obvious, even to him. Like explosivos. That word triggered a red flag in his mind. He rushed over to Ralph’s side and hissed much more quietly than the two down below had. “Hey! Two guys on the roadside. Speaking Spanish. Mentioned explosives.”
Ralph looked up from his book in shock. “What?” He glanced over his shoulder at the landward side of the fort, then back at Bigsby. “Don’t joke like that.”
“I’m serious,” Bigsby reiterated, voice tense. “They’re arguing down below.” He beckoned and moved back to his spot.
Ralph put Birds of Prey down and hustled over to join him. They leaned over through gaps in the crenelations and listened to the two arguing below. The Spaniards were heating up even more and getting louder as they did, gesticulating wildly.
The little one waved dismissively. “El burro sabe mas que tu.” Donkeys know more than you.
The big one pointed his finger into the other’s chest and sneered. “Eres tan feo hiciste llorar a una cebolla.” You’re so ugly you made an onion cry.
The little one snarled. “Me cago en tu madre.” I shit on your mother.
The big one leaned over in intimidation. “Que te la pique un pollo!” May a chicken peck at your dick!
“Hijo de las mil putas!” Son of a thousand whores!
“Vete a freír espárragos.” Go fry asparagus.
“¡Métetelo por el culo!” Stick it up your ass!
“Que te folle un pez!” Get fucked by a fish!
It was at this point that both Spanish speakers seemed to realize that they were actually shouting at each other. They paused and slowly looked up.
Bigsby shouted down at them. “You there! Identify yourselves!”
The pair straightened.
The big one cleared his throat and replied, waving to calm Bigsby down. “Is ok, is ok. We English soldiers.”
“We am English soldiers!” the little one growled, slapping the other on the arm and getting slapped back.
Bigsby pulled back a little and looked at Ralph. He spoke just loudly enough for his partner to hear. “My grandmother’s best bacon casserole to a bent hat pin they’re no English soldiers. They’re Spanish agents!”
Ralph nodded rapidly in agreement. “Must have stolen those uniforms. I’ll sound the alarm.”
“Quietly!” he urged. “There might be others about.”
Ralph ran towards the stairs leading down into the fort, where he’d find everyone else in bed but ready for action the moment they were woken.
Determined to distract the pair below and keep them around, he leaned back over. He opened his mouth to say something but the two suspicious characters were gone. He looked around and saw them scampering across the road. The smaller one was pumping his arms for all he was worth. “Stop!” he shouted. Grabbing his musket, he took aim and fired.
Both men halted and spun.
“Por la gloria de espana!” For the glory of Spain! the big one brazenly shouted.
Bringing their muskets to bear, they returned fire and hit nothing before racing off again, into the darkness and disappearing into the brush beyond the road.
Bigsby cursed. He spun at the sound of footsteps and saw Ralph charging up the steps with Leftenant Applebottom on his heels. “Sir!” He saluted.
“Spanish agents?” the leftenant asked, going to the wall and looking out. “Disguised as our men?”
“Yessir! Two of them. Took off that way. I fired, and they fired back.”
The officer grimaced. “Dammit. We might have deterred that ship the other day, but it looks like they really did report back, and now they’re taking advantage of the fact that we don’t have a ship in the water to harry them with.”
“Should we send a hunting party out?” Ralph asked.
“I’ll send eight men, just in case more agents are out there.”
“I heard the word explosivos, leftenant,” Bigsby urgently confided. “Might be they were targeting the fort. Could be doing the same to the others.”
Applebottom cursed and scowled. “Right. I’ll warn the forts and send a messenger to Bridgetown. You two stay alert in case they come back.” His face became even sterner. “Or in case there’s an attack coming.”
“Yessir!” Both saluted before giving each other a worried look.
Juan and Cheeto watched the top of the fort from their bellies, where they lay under a flowering bush.
“¿Crees que funciono?” Think it worked? Cheeto wondered aloud. His courage and youthful excitement appeared to have returned, judging from the silly smile on his ugly face.
Juan laughed, filled with a relieved thrill at having, so far, carried things off without getting shot. “Si. Llamamos su atención. Hora de irse.” Yes. We got their attention. Time to go.
Sharing grins, they scuttled backwards before rising and running off. They had a long journey if they were going to circle all the way around Speightstown and meet the others on the other side.
And the English would be chasing them.