June 17, 1624
The sea is a harsh and unforgiving mistress…
Bartolome Vargas, King Philip of Spain’s most trusted and decorated naval officer, knew this better than most.
Twas the sea that conjured up the early season hurricane that had overtaken the armada and his beloved ship. Twas the sea that forced him to scuttle the grandest galleon in the Spanish fleet on this speck of reef and sand. And twas the sea that was now making the salvage of the Santa Cristina’s cargo so difficult.
He scanned the horizon, where whitecaps danced and fizzed in that small, incandescent space between water and sky. For days now, strong winds had teased the ocean into a tizzy, stirring up silt and sediment, forcing his men to work blind.
Raising his spyglass, Bartolome watched as they toiled tirelessly under the relentless subtropical sun. Only thirty-six of the Santa Cristina’s original 224 crew members had survived her wreck. Thirty-six brave souls who, in the most unfavorable of conditions—running on what scarce food they managed to drag from the ocean and what little rainwater they could catch in the unbroken barrels that had washed ashore after the hurricane—continued to dive down on the sunken remains of the ship. Without complaint, and through sheer force of will, they were slowly hauling up the riches of the New World.
“Five, maybe six more days if the wind continues like this.” A familiar voice.
Bartolome glanced over his shoulder to find Rosario, his loyal midshipman, standing nearby. The man’s eyes were trained on the crew laboring just beyond the reef.
“Five or six more days,” Bartolome echoed.
But then what? He shuddered to consider it. Rescuing the treasure from the waterlogged remains of the Santa Cristina was damned difficult. What he planned to do with the riches next would be absolutely backbreaking.
“Have you chosen where to bury it, Capitán?” Rosario smiled at the growing piles of chests and leather satchels accumulating on the beach. The immense treasure King Philip needed to fund his fight against those who would see Spain’s might reduced to meekness was a sight to behold.
“We cannot bury the treasure on the island,” Bartolome told Rosario.
“No?” His midshipman’s deeply tanned forehead wrinkled.
“The ocean is crawling with our enemies. When the water clears, no doubt one of them will stumble across the Santa Cristina’s skeleton. First thing they will do after diving down to find we have liberated her cargo is scour this island for newly turned earth. No.” He shook his head. “We must—”
Movement out of the corner of his eye stopped him midsentence. He scanned the sea and… There!
Holy Madré Maria! Why had not Pablo whistled an alert?
Swinging his spyglass toward a palm at the edge of the beach, Bartolome answered his own question.
Pablo had suffered an injury to his flank during the wreck. Though Bartolome had assigned him the simplest of jobs on the island—lookout in a hastily constructed crow’s nest—exposure, hunger, and rot had finally gotten the better of poor Pablo. The man’s arms hung limply along the sides of the tree, his head rested back against his shoulders, and his mouth gaped, attracting a cloud of buzzing gnats.
Had Bartolome time to send up a prayer for the man’s soul, he would. As it was, he broke into a desperate run up the beach and through the trees, only slowing once he reached the edge of the mangrove forest.
“Capitán?” Rosario panted when he caught up. “What is it?”
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