Barbados and Jamaica 1648. The lush and deadly Caribbean paradise, domain of rebels and slaveholders, of bawds and buccaneers. Colonists fight a wishful war for freedom against England.
The men had six canoes in all, wide tree trunks hollowed out by burning away the heart, Indian style. They carried axes and long-barreled muskets, and all save one were bare to the waist, with breeches and boots patched together from uncured hides. By profession they were roving hunters, forest incarnations of an older world, and their backs and bearded faces, earth brown from the sun, were smeared with pig fat to repel the swarms of tropical insects.
After launching from their settlement at Tortuga, off northern Hispaniola, they headed toward a chain of tiny islands sprawling across the approach to the Windward Passage, route of the Spanish galeones inbound for Veracruz. Their destination was the easterly cape of the Grand Caicos, a known Spanish stopover, where the yearly fleet always put in to re-provision after its long Atlantic voyage.
Preparations began as soon as they waded ashore. First they beached the dugouts and camouflaged them with leafy brush. Next they axed down several trees in a grove back away from the water, chopped them into short green logs, and dragged these down to the shore to assemble a pyre. Finally, they patched together banana leaf ajoupa huts in the cleared area. Experienced woodsmen, they knew well how to live off the land while waiting.
The first day passed with nothing. Through a cloudless sky the sun scorched the empty sand for long hours, then dropped into the vacant sea. That night lightning played across thunderheads towering above the main island, and around mid-night their ajoupas were soaked by rain. Then, in the first light of the morning, while dense fog still mantled the shallow banks to the west, they spotted a ship. It was a single frigate, small enough that there would be only a handful of cannon on the upper deck.
Jacques le Basque, the dense-bearded bear of a man who was their leader, declared in his guttural French that this was a historic moment, one to be savored, and passed a dark onion-flask of brandy among the men. Now would begin their long-planned campaign of revenge against the Spaniards, whose infantry from Santo Domingo had once burned out their settlement, murdered innocents. It was, he said, the start of a new life for them all.
All that remained was to bait the trap. Two of the hunters retrieved a bucket of fat from the ajoupas and ladled it onto the green firewood. Another scattered the flask's remaining liquor over the top of the wood, then dashed it against a heavy log for luck. Finally, while the men carefully checked the prime on their broad-gauge hunting muskets, le Basque struck a flint to the pyre.
The green wood sputtered indecisively, then crackled alive, sending a gray plume skyward through the damp morning air. Jacques circled the fire triumphantly, his dark eyes reflecting back the blaze, before ordering the men to ready their dugouts in the brushy camouflage along the shore. As they moved to comply, he caught the sleeve of a young Englishman who was with them and beckoned him back.
"Anglais, attendez ici. I want you here beside me. The first shot must count."