Ride the Tide by Julie Ann Walker

Prologue

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 theSanta 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.

His men…

Raising his spyglass, Bartolome watched as they toiled tirelessly under the relentless subtropical sun. Only thirty-six of theSanta 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 theSanta 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?”

“Perhaps ’tis our deliverance.” Bartolome wheezed painfully, grabbing his side where his broken ribs had only recently begun to reknit themselves. Gingerly, he lowered himself until he lay flat in the sand. Then motioned for Rosario to join him and added solemnly, “Or perhaps ’tis something to be dealt with quickly and violently.”

Hitching his chin toward the vast, endless blue, he did not need to say more. The brown hull of the approaching vessel was easily visible. So was the faded yellow of the mainsail as it flapped drunkenly in the breeze.

His midshipman frowned, licking cracked lips as he glanced over his shoulder at the crow’s nest. Upon spotting Pablo, he winced and whispered, “Poor bastard.” Then, he turned back and asked, “Could she be Spanish, Capitán? Can you see what flags she flies?”

Bartolome peered through the spyglass. “No flags. She looks to be a fishing vessel.”

“All the way out here?” Rosario’s tone was skeptical.

“’Tis rough shape she is in.” Through the magnified lens, Bartolome watched the lone figure on board frantically toss a bucket of seawater over the side. “Taking on water,” he added.

“Likely the sorry sod was caught in the storm,” Rosario surmised. “Could have been drifting for weeks. Lucky for him, he happened this way.”

How lucky or unlucky the man is remains to be seen, Bartolome thought coldly.

This side of the island was unprotected by the reef. At high tide, the surf reached all the way to the leggy roots of the trees. But now, at low tide, a narrow ribbon of sand was revealed. On it lived sand fleas. The tiny bugs skittered away from their exhaled breaths only to come crawling back once they inhaled.

In and out. Back and forth. Like the sea herself.

Bartolome paid the creatures little heed. His entire focus was fixed on the boat’s prow as it plowed onto the thin stretch of beach, hissing its arrival as it made contact with the sand.

The lone crewman jumped onto dry land, immediately falling to his knees and kissing the ground beneath him. When he straightened, he raised his arms toward the cloudless sky and yelled, “Praise you, oh Lord!”

Rosario sucked in a ragged breath. With a curl of his lip, he spat one word. “Englishman.”

“Stay here,” Bartolome commanded after curling his fingers around the conch shell half-buried in the sand beside him and jumping to his feet. He headed in the direction of the island’s newest arrival.

Bedraggled and sporting many days’ growth of beard, the fisherman blinked and rubbed his eyes when he saw Bartolome striding his way. After he convinced himself he was not seeing things, he pushed to a stand. A huge smile spread across his face.

A softer man might have been swayed by that smile. But years in the armada had successfully killed any softness that might have once resided inside Bartolome.

“Hello!” The fisherman lifted a grubby hand in greeting. “I thought for certain this island was uninhabited. But I am so pleased to discover it—”

Bartolome saw the instant the man realized his intent. It was the instant before he brought the conch shell down on the fisherman’s temple.

Whack! The sound was both solid and oddly wet-sounding.

Bartolome half expected the shell to shatter in his fist and did not relish the thought of finishing the task with his bare hands. But, thankfully, the conch remained intact.

Despite his wounds and weeks of starvation, he still had the strength to drive the man to his knees with his first strike.Whack! His second split the fisherman’s skull clean open.

With a startled gasp, the newcomer tipped sideways, spilling a portion of his head’s contents onto the sand, twitching once, twice, three times, and then falling still. Bartolome waited until the last light drained from the man’s eyes before hoisting the corpse over his shoulder and closing his nose to the smell of damp flesh and urine. The instant the fisherman’s soul had left his body, his bladder had released.

Death is such an indignity, Bartolome thought as he hastily tossed the body into the boat.

A cursory inspection showed that, indeed, there was a small hole in the hull. There was also fishing gear and a few other odds and ends that could be quite useful. But he resisted the temptation to seize them.

The presence of new supplies would raise too many questions among the crew.

Instead, he used the last of his strength to push the little vessel back into the surf. The waves tugged at his ankles, then his knees, then his waist. The salty water angered the still-healing wound on his thigh.

When he was chest deep, he sent the boat into the currents, grateful the tide was still going out. It caught the craft and tugged it back in the direction from which it had come. Bartolome knew it would stay afloat long enough for the sea to carry it to deep water. There, it would breathe its last of clear, bright air before slowly sinking into the cold, dark heart of the ocean.

“No!” Rosario splashed into the surf beside him. “Capitán! I know he had to die. We do not have enough food to feed ourselves, much less an English dog. But we could have used his boat. We could have repaired it. We could have sailed it to Havana and—”

“No.” Bartolome shook his head. “We would never make it with so many pirates and privateers looking for us. We would surely be discovered. And how long do you think any of us would last if our enemies keelhauled information from us?”

“The men will not be happy.” Rosario’s expression was mournful. “What if that was our only chance to make it off this godforsaken island?”

Exactly why Bartolome had not kept the little boat for future use. His men were loyal and true, but desperation could make even the best of them lose sight of their ultimate purpose. No doubt, at some point, the boat would have proved too great a temptation.

“The men will not know of this.” Bartolome’s tone brooked no argument. When he lowered his chin to stare meaningfully at his midshipman, he saw the light dawn in Rosario’s eyes.

Yes, Bartolome Vargas would do anything to ensure theSanta Cristina’s treasure remained hidden from their enemies. Even if it meant his death.

Even if it meantall their deaths…