“I am probably the finest pistol shot in the world,” said the girl modestly, “but the blade is my darling.”
She drew her rapier and slashed and thrust the empty air.
“You sailors seldom appreciate the true value of the straight steel,” said she. “Look at you with that clumsy cutlass. I could run you through while you were heaving it up for a slash. So!”
Her point suddenly leaped out and a lock of my hair floated to the earth.
– Robert E. Howard, “The Isle of Pirates’ Doom”
Roger O’Farrel’s foster daughter had just completed her first real voyage on the Caribbean, disguised aboard one of the two vessels O’Farrel took in pursuit of the savage l’Ollonais. It had lasted a year, and Helen was now sixteen. She had learned a certain amount of seamanship, many pirate tricks, the trade of a powder monkey, and seen some action, as when O’Farrel’s two ships went inshore against the anchored fleet of l’Ollonais and crippled the masts and rigging. In the end O’Farrel had brought l’Ollonais to his end at the hands of savage Indians on the Honduras coast – though not a whit more savage than l’Ollonais himself.
As they returned to Havana in Cuba, they encountered an English ship of the Jamaica squadron, mounting forty guns – more than O’Farrel’s two Cuban fragatas, the San Patricio and Pilar, had between them. But they were two vessels, each more maneuverable than the English ship, and they danced around her, blasting shot into her stern and quarters, until she had to abandon the fight and make for Kingston – with a new tale to tell Jamaica’s governor of the damned O’Farrel. Helen was again an enthusiastic participant in the action, as a powder monkey carrying charges and shot to the gun crews of the Pilar.
On returning to Havana, Helen faced fresh danger from someone she had quite forgotten – and for that matter did not think worth remembering. The degenerate weasel who waylaid her and her friend Renata in a plaza, when Helen had been disguised as a boy, and had his face slashed by Helen’s rapier, carried a grudge. Now he heard, as most of the city did, about Helen’s voyage aboard the Pilar in pursuit of l’Ollonais – again, disguised as a boy. He had enough intelligence to make the connection. While her foster-father O’Farrel was a valued servant of the city’s captain-general, this young aristocratic debauchee would not have dared knowingly touch her. But the situation changed at the end of their successful voyage to destroy l’Ollonais. The captain-general, Francisco de Avila, reneged on the promised payment to O’Farrel for that immensely dangerous task, trying to fob him off with one-fifth the sum, which O’Farrel rejected in anger. The result was a blistering quarrel and complete break between the two men.
Helen was now safe game in the weasel’s eyes.
He had never been more mistaken – and never would be again.
He caught her alone on Havana’s streets, and brought two friends with him to share the sport of brutalizing her. Helen Tavrel had a pistol at the time, which she did not trouble to draw. She used her blade. This time she did not compromise by piercing anybody’s shoulder. She ran the ringleader and one of his companions straight through the body – fatally in both cases. The last one ran. They were the first men she had killed. She had not long turned sixteen.
For that reason, and because of his quarrel with de Avila, O’Farrel left Havana swiftly, taking Helen with him. His servants Ramon and Eulalia and their daughter Renata, Helen’s girlhood friend, went with them, lest the families of the youths Helen had killed take revenge on them. They travelled to Santiago, on the southern shore of Cuba. That city too had its captain general, a bitter (and no less crooked) rival of Francisco de Avila.
O’Farrel arrived in Santiago in the San Patricio and with no other ship. De Avila had impounded the Pilar and the galleon Santa Barbara, which O’Farrel used occasionally. (He had expropriated the San Patricio, too, but that had not halted O’Farrel. He simply took the fragata and left. He had lifted ships from guarded harbors before.)
His foster daughter had reached a restless age, even if she had not been wild and ready for any adventure as a child – which she had. She yearned for the sort of roving, fighting life O’Farrel had lived, and in Santiago she made it plain to him, blending the artful persuasiveness of an adored daughter with the fierce determination of a born pirate. O’Farrel was saddened by this development. Still, he knew himself, and the sort of example he had set her, and the blood of the Tavrels that she carried. If he did not let her go, she would go regardless. She already had, on the chase after l’Ollonais.
Finlo Hilton, the Manxman called Bloody Hilton, had been one of l’Ollonais’s captains on the savage pirate’s ill-fated last voyage, and one of those who survived because he deserted the main fleet before the end. Helen cared nothing for any grudge Hilton might hold against her foster-father; she sought him out with a request that was more of a demand, to sail with the crew of his eleven-gun sloop (eight small cannon and three swivel guns) the Wyvern. Hilton was vain, and preferred to captain a larger ship with more weight of guns, not only for the intimidating effect on potential victims but for the prestige of it, even though a lighter vessel which drew less water was superior for fast, close inshore work, and having a smaller crew meant fewer men to divide the plunder. Helen, with a different attitude, felt better pleased to be sailing in a sloop.
Hilton laughed at her and called her a slip of a girl, but beneath his derision, different motives and considerations warred in him. He refused to admit even to himself that he feared O’Farrel and the consequences if Helen should come to harm aboard Hilton’s ship. Still, it would be a great revenge if exactly that befell. Within his black heart he reached a compromise; let the girl board the Wyvern and take her chances. She was unlikely to last one voyage in this kind of company. And Hilton could make sure he had a more formidable ship under him by the time Roger O’Farrel sailed in pursuit of the Manxman.
“I’m captain, no other,” he growled, “and you tread my deck at your own risk, malapert.”
“That is fine,” she retorted, “and I accept it. So long as it’s plain that any man of yours offers me insult or outrage at his risk.”
Bloody Hilton laughed again. He had earned his by-name. A long-armed swarthy man with a pox-pitted face, protuberant eyes and a bulging forehead, his ugliness was not helped by a loose-lipped fleshy mouth. But he led every boarding party and could split a man from crown to breast-bone with a cutlass, which counted for more than being pretty in his trade. He was even a fair seaman, and had been from his boyhood on the Isle of Man, though his sailing master Shannet was his superior there, besides being more clever and inventive.
Hilton’s cruise to the Mosquito Coast and Honduras with l’Ollonais had gone badly indeed, so he had resolved to avoid those parts this time, though still faring west. His objectives were Campeche and Veracruz in New Spain. With a single sloop there was no chance of sacking either city as O’Farrel’s enemy Myngs had done in 1663 – that had taken a buccaneer fleet – but ships set forth from Campeche in the winter, and often they were smugglers with illegal cargoes, dodging the draconian Spanish trade regulations, headed for Trinidad.
Hilton lurked in hope of ambushing such vessels. This time he enjoyed an immediate stroke of luck. A Dutch fluyt came out of the harbor and crossed his path. These exclusively merchant ships had been designed with cargo space and handling by small crews in mind. Because they often traded in the Baltic, they had a rather pear-shaped cross section, as Baltic dues and tariffs were based on a ship’s decking area. Thus a narrow deck but a bulbous hold saved money. Their shallow draught allowed them, like a pirate sloop, to negotiate shallow harbors and enter river anchorages. Their disadvantage was that they rarely carried large enough crews, or guns, to repulse pirates. Hilton was delighted.
The merchantman showed her heels, and cleared her deck for fighting if she failed to outrun Hilton’s Wyvern. The sloop soon ran her down, the fluyt being “in poor trim” – her cargo unbalanced in the hold. Helen felt as eager as any of Hilton’s ruthless sea-dogs, waiting by the rail with rapier in hand and a brace of pistols slung across her chest.
Bloody Hilton laid his sloop athwart the Dutchman’s stern, to clear her deck with cannon fire. The four cannon along one side of the Wyvern fired, raking the merchantman from stern to bow, leaving blood and mangled men on the deck. Then they boarded. This was awkward with the Wyvern athwart the Dutchman’s stern, though good for a cannonade, but Helen was among the first over the side, bounding and thrusting among the surviving sailors on the fluyt’s deck. One man fell, gurgling, pierced through the neck, and drawing her pistol she shot a second. A third sailor, armed with a boarding axe, she distracted with a feint of her rapier, then rammed her empty pistol into his eye, and used her rapier in earnest to run him through the guts. The other pirates overran the decks and killed every man aboard, after Hilton’s custom.
The cargo proved to be a worthwhile one – salt, wax, cotton, and Mexican logwood which yielded a valuable dye. Hilton proposed they now cruise around Yucatan and south towards Porto Bello and Cartagena. If they encountered no worthwhile prey in those waters, they might sail along the Main towards Trinidad, where smugglers and merchants of all nations constantly traded, even though the island was under Spanish rule. The governor, handicapped by weak harbor fortifications and a garrison so small that the average buccaneer crew – much less a fleet – would bellow with laughter at being opposed by it – could do nothing but take bribes and look the other way. Hilton’s crew applauded the idea, Helen Tavrel among them.
Her foster-father being who he was, Helen knew a number of buccaneer tricks. She suggested the common one of using a captured ship as a lure; hoisting the Dutch tricolor over the fluyt and sailing it along in a peaceful fashion, in the hope that some other merchantman would come close seeking safety in numbers, or merely news. Hilton agreed, and put thirty of his seventy pirates aboard the fluyt, one of them, a Dutchman named Venneker, posing as its captain.
The ploy had no results during the next part of the cruise, and no likely prey was sighted between Porto Bello and Cartagena. As for Maracaibo, Hilton did not even consider a raid there. The entrance was too narrow, the harbor too well defended, and he had not the strength for a successful land attack. Seasoned buccaneers that they were – and men of spirit, at least, if also bloody scoundrels – Hilton’s crew accepted this as a frequent circumstance and did not complain. Green pups in the trade, expecting glorious success and wealth three days into a voyage, might have done.
Between Maracaibo and Curacao, boredom set in with the crew, if not complaint, and the inevitable man tried his lecherous luck with Helen Tavrel. Her fierce fighting when they took their first prize had been observed by some, and they accepted her, but this pirate had not seen, and he doubted it. He also doubted she could possibly be a virgin if she willingly sailed on a ship like the Wyvern. She rebuffed his anthropoid advances, and tried to knee him in the crotch, but he was a seasoned brawler and blocked that move as naturally as he drank rum. Then he began choking her into submission. Helen remembered a waterfront girl’s advice and pretended to submit, then to respond, after which she slashed her stiffened fingers across his eyes. That succeeded, long enough for her to pull away and draw her rapier. Calling the crew, she accused the buccaneer and challenged him to a duel. It was done the usual way; the two combatants went ashore on a sandbar with a pistol each, and one returned. Helen’s would-be rapist stayed behind with a fatal ball in his lung. She had learned to kill in Havana; now she was learning to kill readily.
The dead man had no matelot who wanted to avenge him. The Wyvern went on to Curacao, but Hilton did not harbor there, after some cogitation. His captured fluyt had a Dutchman who could pass for its captain, but every other man aboard was English, Scots, or black, and most were too plainly brothers of the buccaneer trade. He bypassed the island and lurked offshore. Curacao was a noted port and market for the slave trade. Slavers from West Africa arrived with their cargoes all the time, sold their human goods and – often enough – loaded again with molasses which they took to New England.
Before long, a Dutch blackbirder did appear. The innocent-looking fluyt, under the lowlands flag, hove in sight of the slaver, who naturally asked how the market was in Curacao, hungry or glutted. Most slavers were fluyts like Hilton’s captured craft; their big holds made them suitable for stowing large numbers of slaves, and Netherlanders had mastered the craft of building them cheaply en masse. This one, though, was something of an exception, with sharper, more rakish lines and a number of guns. Seeing her, Bloody Hilton was ready to bet at a first glance that she practiced piracy as well as slaving. He also coveted her at first glance. She was bigger and swifter than the Wyvern.
Her very swiftness gave a better chance of escape if Venneker showed his true colors too soon, but the proximity to Curacao’s shore made the slaving skipper feel safe. He allowed the fluyt a near approach. Venneker laid alongside, boarded her amidships, and his thirty devils killed recklessly until Hilton in the sloop arrived to aid them; barely in time. Helen Tavrel, cursing and laughing alternately, emptied her pistols and then moved through the smoke and blood of the thickest fighting until the slaver was theirs.
Hilton and his council decided they would take it to Barbados, where slaves were always needed for the sugar plantations, and sell the human cargo. This disturbed Helen more than the blood and slaughter, for Roger O’Farrel was her foster father and he hated slaving; Cromwell had sent thousands of Irish to slavery or the indentured servitude that was little better, here in the Indies. Barbados had been the destination of many, Virginia, of others.
Wild and fearless in a fight, wholly a woman in years by the standards of the time, Helen was still a teenaged girl who could feel abashed and shy at the prospect of looking foolish. If she spoke for freeing the slaves she would only get a vast guffaw, as she knew. She summoned all her nerve and pointed out that the ship itself was a fine prize, while a living African cargo held danger of revolt and they could not put a full crew aboard to prevent it. The best course might be to let them go.
Hilton sneered at the notion. “If I decide the bumboes are a danger, I’ll put them in the sea, not cosset them to some comfortable shore,” he said. The buccaneers voted on the matter, while Helen sweated at understanding that her words might have condemned all the Africans to death. In the end the decision to sell them in Barbados was the one that prevailed, and Helen fastened her lip in relief.
Hilton sold the Dutch fluyt and its contents as well, so the cruise proved a good one. He attempted to cheat Helen of her share by saying that since she had been against selling the Africans, she need not expect the profit. She gave that an abrupt dismissal. A buccaneer captain could expect only trouble if he broke the article that concerned sharing plunder, and Helen had fought well. She knew the rest of the company would back her on this matter, and they did.
Hilton finished the voyage in Jamaica, for a Port Royal carouse. For the Manxman it was safe, but for Roger O’Farrel’s daughter it was otherwise, and someone had tried to sell her to the English ten years before. She mistrusted Hilton. Slipping out of Port Royal with her gains tied in a cotton sash, she rubbed soot into her blonde hair, stole dirty clothes and a small boat, and made her own way back to southern Cuba. She had practiced that ploy by now, and knew it backwards.
Helen Tavrel had begun to make her name among the buccaneers.