HIDE AND SEEK
DEL GADO HAD INDEED been aware of Pedro crouched behind the boat. Was his aim in leading the bravos below, to give the boy time to improve his situation? Not that. Remember when Sly had found his bedding disarranged? It hadn’t been Feo behind it. Del Gado, idling in the galley, had wandered into a storage area and observed a notebook in the cat’s crate, next to his bowl of water. It was a book of poetry, the comical musings of a child. He realized that Pedro had stashed belongings away from his assigned situation. Why? He had something to conceal, of course.
He’d bent down to examine the area more thoroughly, in the process backing into sharp edges in a sack of grain. Those edges had belonged to an unusual belt, In various sacks he’d found tightly rolled paper, a seal, coins, and – Holy Mother! Jewels! Diamonds! Rubies! A haul! He’d seized two smaller gems. Two would not be missed, if the boy did no more than to poke the pouch from time to time to reassure himself that they were safe. He’d slipped them into his heel with a snort of satisfaction.
To take more, especially any of the large stones, might give the grab away, resulting in a complaint to the captain, a search of all personnel, and, worse, a whisk of the remainder to another locale. Two small diamonds would have to do him until, in sight of land, he could snatch the whole caboodle and swim for it. He’d strided the deck merrily, enjoying the rattle in his heel. He’d worn his boots to bed, unwilling to remove them. Amidst the chaos of a search was his best chance, probably his only chance, to acquire the balance of the trinkets.
He led a loud, destructive search in the bowels of the ship. His plan was to exhibit such commitment to the frisk that, when they got to the main deck, he might allowed to linger more casually supervised in an area off the galley. The hold, the orlop, the _____, nothing was spared a furious going-over. He frequently admonished the renegade, “Turn yourself in, Pedro. If you don’t, we all dine with Davy Jones tonight. No one lives to tell the tale.”
They reached the galley. The blackguards immediately fell upon a roast chicken prepared for the captain’s table. While they were engrossed in dismembering the carcass, Gato made a loudly advertised inspection of an overflow of boxes and barrels nearby. The boy might be in hidden under sacks of wheat. Children were ingenious in that regard.
The halter was not where it had been. Most likely it had been hustled to the boy’s cubicle, where he could keep a better eye on it. A search in that spot would be more difficult. The rogues would be milling there. He would try to create a feeding frenzy, to escape scrutiny while he slipped into a pantry to search Pedro’s stronghold. It wouldn’t take long. There was next to nothing to search.
Moreno’s footlocker would interest them at once. A mysterious hidden folio would guarantee it. His best guess was, it was in the chest. He’d had one peek into it. It contained a jumble of numbers and letters. There’d been a map. Some sort of perimeter. A fortification? Crosses. Notations. Distances, perhaps?
He hoped to reach the cabin before the captain came on. Apparently no one wished to intrude there beforehand. He needed an English accomplice, but it would take more than a sweet story to prime a turn-coat. He had two stones to wager. He caught the eye of his supervisor and motioned for him to step into a corridor. “I’ve got a problem,” he said quietly. “You can help me, and also advantage yourself. Look.” He held out a diamond. John Cole’s long face gave nothing away, but he was thinking: God’s toenails! What do we have here?
“You mistrust me, sir.” Gato sighed. “It’s real, all right. Here.” He shoved it into Cole’s palm. The Spaniard worked to enlarge his small success. “There’s more, a dozen more. I’ve seen ‘em, held ‘em. They were here, right here, in that sack, day before yesterday. They’re moved. They weren’t gobbled up by rats, I don’t suppose. Who moved ‘em? Wasn’t me. Just one other person, as I see it, knows the secret. A duke, you call him. Makes sense. A duke would be carrying, wouldn’t he? The captain knows nothing of it, or the gimcracks would have been under lock and key.” John Cole frowned.
“What hoodwink might this be? – you ask yourself. No hoodwink, sir. I clean the captain’s rooms. I know the territory like you know Falmouth harbor. The gems are there, somewhere. We’ll grab ‘em, none the wiser, if we’re quick about it. In or out, sir? Think fast. Your captain gets his duke, he’s got his jackpot, he’s happy. What’s your share, eh? A pair of silver buckles, if you’re lucky. My gag, you’re in for half. You live like a blessed king here on out. No more heave-ho for you, amigo. Get me a half hour in Moreno’s perch, you’re fixed for life.”
“Half an hour? That’s asking an awful lot,” muttered Cole. He shoved the stone into his pocket.
“There was a huge ruby in the lot,” Gato purred. “Best I ever seen. It’s yours. If you don’t prefer the mighty handsome emerald. Hell, have ‘em both. I’ll settle for the small stuff.”
“Trouble is,” said Cole, “there’s a guard on the door, solid as Gibralter, I promise you.”
“Is he so up-and-up he’d refuse a chance as comes along never in a thousand years? The guy’s a moron, perhaps?”
“Next thing to it,” conceded Cole.
“Try him!” urged Gato. “Don’t mention gems. Here’s your story: Me, the custodian of a real piece of work, a little swaggart who couldn’t resist boasting about a grandfather, a veteran of the Indies, buried gold, rot, I believed, pure twaddle, ’till he pulled out that there chunk o’ glass. Mighty interesting, you say to your comrade. You’re dying to have a whack at it before Meredith lays on. There’s a map, to something good. If we find it, you, me, him, we go thirds. If he balks, offer him that diamond I gave you. Wave that in his face, he’ll be looking the other way. Then, guess what? We come out empty handed, our tough luck. We tried. If we find the gauds, they’re all ours.”
“Hey, I know the jerk. He’s my brother-in-law. You’ll have ten minutes, tops, before he frights and drives you off. What if we’re caught? I’m no go-for-broke devil-may-care. I’m keeping what I got, thanks much, and sitting pat.”
Gato leaned against a wall, lifted a leg, reached down and jerked at his heel. The other diamond danced out onto the floor. “Give him this then,” he hissed. “Yeah, I had two. That’s it, I didn’t dare grab more. I figured, the snigger won’t miss two out of a whole handful. I’m ready to sacrifice two nice diamonds for a chance at many more. I’ll run the risk. Want to walk away with your sparkler? Fine. I’ll take my proposal to the rock-head of Gibralter himself. You won’t squeal on your relation, I guess.
“Look, boy, it ain’t the long shot you judge it. The stuff’s hid by a nine year old, that is, maybe not so good, in his roost, count on it. Picture this: He likes to handle his pretties. Admires ‘em. Counts ‘em out, the snot does! Uh oh! Two short! Well, they ain’t grown feet and toddled off. Someone’s onto him. He whisks ‘em to his lair and sits on ‘em. Two days now, the mole’s in a sulk, ain’t left his hole. Now he’s on the bolt. He ain’t concerned with jewels just now. It’s his hide he hopes to hang on to. He ain’t thinking about diamonds, trust me.”
John Cole considered the consequences of an abundance of prudence: Jackie Daw, the dunce, returned from the sea, an astonishing amount of money at his disposal, the county agog at his good fortune. A grand house, a manor almost. Jogs up to London, rich gowns for the wife. Fancy schools for the sons, little gentlemen, whether they like it or not. A low-life’s on the look-out for heiresses for his brats. Heiresses, by God! Himself, the ‘poor relation’, accorded an annual invitation to a grand ball. He’ll never hear the end of it.
Your brother had the push to distinguish himself, while you, my love, stood by? his Molly would scold. How so, sir? He’s not half the man you are. He’s got his. Where’s yours? Little by little, she’d drag it out of him. Or her insufferable sister would flap her lips, in sympathy, to be sure: A shame it is, a contemptible, crying shame. Her man come home prosperous, she’ll never know want again, etc., etc., while poor John, he wouldn’t help himself to a cut, though it was offered. He’s got a pimple of a diamond. La-dee-da! Jackie keeps back an emerald. Has it made up into a ring, so’s the wife can lord it good and proper. She wiggles it under her sister’s nose every opportunity. He’s treated to a grand sulk, every time. “I’m in!” he croaked.
“Thought so,” said Del Gado.
Cole retreated into the galley. His eye lighted upon an enticing item set out on the counter. “That’s a bonnie cheese there, Tom Dunn,” he cooed.
“Tis,” acknowledged the cheese’s protector, mouth full, his arm circled round the wheel, which he endeavored to shield from amorous glances. “A noble cheese, sir!”
“Captain’s best!” assured one who seemed to be galley staff. “The famous Haute-Navarre ewe cheese. Bought in Bilbao with his own funds. Meant for his use alone,” he added sourly. “And guests, to be sure. Special guests, most certainly, such as yourselves.” He snickered.
“Knows his cheese, he does,” approved Jack Cole, sampling. “My boy Jack Daw’s awful fond of cheese.” He sighed. “He’d be positively lustful for a lovely treat we don’t get back home. It’ll just break his heart to hear he’d missed out. Let me help him to a nibble, eh, Tommy? He’ll be tickled pink. I’d be most obliged if you’d sit on my eggs,” he motioned to his work gang, nearby, ”while I run it up to him. I’ll be there and back in no time.”
“Pocket it for later!” replied Alistair Flyte. “Don’t get me in dutch for you ducking your duty.”
“I don’t have the willpower to do!” insisted Cole. “I’ll be nibbling at it myself. Before you know, it’ll be gnawed down to a smidge, then I’ll be forced to finish it off. Better none at all than the ghost of a gobble. Be a sport! I’ll stand you a bottle next liberty, your choice.”
“Done!” cried Dunn, who esteemed a good rye whiskey above any foodstuff on earth.
The stateroom was untouched. No one expected the boy to be cowering in his bed. One man barred the door. An inspection would await the onslaught of the English commander. Cole siddled up to his relative and negotiated a trespass. “Got a little surprise for you,” he murmured. He held out a chunk of cheese with a diamond set in. “See that there tasty morsel? Don’t chomp down on it and break a tooth. Jackie! I got a coot claims to be onto something. Says there’s a book inside with code, maps – property belonging to the boy-o, of buried loot, says he. Must be something to it, to pass out diamonds like they were tobacco, as a courtesy. I got one too.
“This fellow’s dying for a look-see before Meredith turns the space inside-out. Here’s our go, we don’t get another. What’s to risk? We’re rich, or we’re richer, next to no effort. Till we’re forced to dig up a chest of gold and silver and coins and jewels and pearls and God-knows-what-else, and I guess you won’t mind that back-break labor. I’ll shoulder the blame, if it comes to that. You stepped away to take a leak. You know nothing of behind-your-back shenanigans. I come up to talk you into it, sure, but I seen you wander off and I took advantage, skunk as I am. I put you in harm’s way without your affirmative, I’ll take a double lashing, yours and mine.”
Gato darted through the door, Cole and Daw providing a shield. Then Daw lost heart. Had they been observed? He held his breath, expecting a cry, “Damn you, Daw! Someone’s got by you! Wake up, you turd!” Rigid with fear, he would not let Cole in.
Look here, don’t you, as soon as you’ve done something you oughtn’t, immediately suspect that you’ve been seen, or will shortly be found out, and wish you hadn’t dared it? So it was with this big baby. Jack Cole begged to get past, cursing and threatening. He argued, with substantial logic: “Dope! Don’t you think it’s worse for me to be here chattering, when I’m supposed to be below? Let me in! Who knows what mischief that one may not be into, there alone.”
Daw stood hands on hips, legs spread, to make as large an obstacle as possible to a clear view. He was abetted by hanging shrouds clinging to what remained of the _____ mast. From where the officers were gathered, not so far off, nothing would be seen amiss. The naked line of sight was from the waist, but down they there were too busy to notice. Jack pulled the door ajar. Cole slid in. Daw kicked the door shut, and leaned against it carelessly. He looked at ease, but his heart was beating wildly.
Gato’s had twenty minutes in an antechamber furnished with a pallet, a blanket, and a sea bag. He started with the bag, dumping the contents onto the floor. The jacket hit the planking with a thud. One sleeve, pinned at the cuff, had an odd bulk. He reached into the armhole and drew forth – ah! the belt. But, uh-oh, the gems were absent.
Those papers, why hadn’t he examined them when he had the chance? Anything incendiary was now destroyed. He stuffed the item down the sleeve of his own coat. It might still hold a tipoff of a duke which must be suppressed if he was to collect on a reward himself, which he intended to do, if at all possible.
The door opened. Jack Cole was in. Del Gado scowled at him. “Here’s what I was after,” he said, holding forth the pinned sleeve. Here’s where it was socked, in here. The stones are gone. He’s moved them anew.” He pounded the pallet, inch by inch. The spilled clothes were examined, seams and hems fingered with calm concentration. “No good,” he muttered. “If they’re in the big room, that’s a job. Could take all day. You got your diamond, don’t squawk. I’m the big loser here.” John Cole’s suspicion had proven correct. The Spaniard had grabbed the rocks for himself.
Gibralter cracked the door. “Out!” he spat. “They’re headed this way!” As they slithered past him, he poked his relative’s arm and mouthed, “How’d it go?”
“We been crossed!” hissed Cole.