The Sweet Trade

   “West of the Prime meridian and south of the Tropic of Cancer…  violence 

      by either party to the other side shall not be regarded as  in contravention of the treaties.”

                                                        ~ From the Treaty of Cateau-Cambrésis, 1559


SweetTrade_180Thus did France and Spain establish a line separating civilized Europe from the pirate-ridden Caribbean Sea.

European pirates had come early to that part of the world. Columbus, on his fourth voyage, changed his route home to avoid them. Thereafter, despite all measures Spain used to defend its empire, piracy flourished in their Spanish Lake.

The treaty of 1559 acknowledged France’s inability to control French pirates. It also eliminated any diplomatic need for France to try, for neither country wanted a war over the depredations occurring on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. Spain, then, was free to do whatever it saw fit to protect its New World colonies from pirates, as well as from settlers of all other nations.

Yet although the treaty assured peace in Europe, it also guaranteed there would be no peace beyond the line. In 1670, when Henry Morgan called for men to join his raid on Panamá, twenty-five hundred pirates, buccaneers, and adventurers responded.

The Sweet Trade is the story of one of them.

At age eleven Dirk van Cortlandt watched his family die at the hands of Spaniards raiding his Caribbean island home. He led four friends in a daring escape to the sea, only to be picked up by French pirates who sold them separately to cattle hunters. While struggling to survive a harsh life with a brutal master in the wilds on Hispaniola, Dirk plotted his future as a pirate. He learned the fighting skills and tactics he would need to wreak havoc on Spanish lives. When free, he reunited with his childhood friends and they joined a pirate crew. Dirk finally had the life he wanted.

Yet behind Dirk’s quest for treasure and vengeance lay a hunger for freedom and for the power to protect it. The ambitious violence he once needed to survive won him a captaincy, but with that power came duties of leadership that limited his freedom. When the first raid he led resulted in the fiery destruction of a village, he decided he would have to revise his definition of manhood. His size, strength, and skills with a blade were no longer enough to warrant the self-respect he so desired.

He grew into a gifted captain who led profitable raids, but piracy, once an exhilarating way of life, evolved into a business and a trap. Then, for the sake of a girl he hoped to marry, he joined Henry Morgan’s 1670 raid on Panamá. The voyage, meant to be Dirk’s last, endangered his ship, his friends and his beloved, and brought him face-to-face with the personal weakness that might prove fatal to them all.

Third Place finisher in the national Whidbey Writers Workshop MFA Alumni Association Emerging Writers Getaway Contest of 2012!

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Isle of Bentyn, Caribbean Sea, 1653

Dirk van Cortlandt heard another great boom, like thunder. He climbed faster up the hill from the cove. The grey, pre-dawn sky was clear and no wind had rustled the fronds on palm trees lining the beach. He was only eleven, but he knew the scent of rain in the air and there wasn’t any. Something was wrong.

He topped the volcanic ridge that divided the island and stopped, panting, to scan the shoreline below. Two ships crowded the entrance to the tiny harbor. Dirk’s stomach grew queasy. Trading vessels didn’t announce their arrivals with cannon blasts. He rubbed his belly. His fingers found the newest rip in his cotton tunic and picked at it.

Behind him, the four other boys scrambled up the trail, crackling through brush and knocking stones loose. And still bickering about bones they’d found amongst broken sea shells and coconut husks in a midden heap at the cove.

The twins’ voices, shrill, insistent, drifted up to him. “Were, too, people bones… cannibals…”

Then Mic, oldest of the group at twelve, who always knew the most, said, “Pig knuckles, you dunderheads.”

Dirk pushed a thick lock of wavy brown hair out of his eyes and stared at the ships below. He couldn’t see any men aboard, but sails were being furled. Then the ships’ cannon puffed smoke. A moment later he heard the shots and the waterfront warehouse exploded, lighting the sky. Mud bricks, shattered timbers, and chunks of red dyewood flew into the air amidst billowing smoke. The Dutch West India Company had stored powder and shot alongside their market goods, and now a series of explosions tore the building apart.

Little Baldric crested the hill and ran to Dirk’s side. Then the other three arrived.

“Oh, look!” Jan said, dimples pitting his fat cheeks. He jabbed an elbow at his twin brother. “The pirates came back.”

Joost returned the jab and added a light kick. “Papa said they landed at the cove to take on water, but they must’ve been spying, too, ‘cause here they are.” His grin showed white teeth still big for his ten year old face.

Dirk breathed faster now. “Pirates don’t blow up things they came to steal.”

Both ships in the harbor fired their cannon at once. A blade on the settlement’s windmill broke away, along with a chunk of the tower. The west corner of the Company’s office and that of the director’s residence above collapsed. The stink of burnt powder wafted up the hill. Dirk’s nostrils contracted. Baldric’s black eyes widened. He edged closer to Dirk. The little one’s body heat and fear were palpable.

Mic hunched narrow shoulders inside a worn shirt with sleeves that dangled below his fingers. He pushed the sleeves up his arms. “We’re still at war with the English.” His statement held a question; smoke hid the ships’ flags.

“Spanish.” Dirk’s voice rose. “Might be the Spanish.”

A boat edged around the stern of the closer ship, headed for shore.

“They’re landing!” Dirk whirled toward the sunrise, shoving the twins ahead of him. “Run home!”

Jan ducked aside and gazed at the flaming settlement and smoke-filled harbor. Mic and Baldric ran past. Dirk raced after them, looking back for the twins. He saw Joost tug at Jan’s arm, and finally they both ran, jostling each other in their hurry to catch up.

Dirk pounded along the rough surface of the ridge top, frantic that some of the raiders might already have landed somewhere. Bentyn’s Isle had no treasure, just stands of dyewood being felled and shipped east to Curaçao. And now even the tree stumps were disappearing into salt pans and cornfields.

No, there was nothing worth stealing on Bentyn’s Isle, but it was an island to conquer and cleanse of those who dared try to live here, who dared raise food to support the Dutch empire, or sell it to pirates who raided the Spanish Main.

Up ahead, Baldric left the trail. Dirk cut away to follow him. Baldric’s house stood closest to the harbor and his parents could sound an alarm across the island. If his father had already risen and found Baldric gone, however, the man would probably give him a strapping first and listen later. He might listen to Dirk right away, though.

The nine-year-old was hard to see in the murky light with his black hair, sun-darkened face, stained tunic and dark linen knee-breeches. But Dirk knew the way among stumps of dyewood trees. He leapt over some, swerved around others smoldering with an internal fire that would clear the land for crops.

He caught up with Baldric as the younger boy slipped into the cornfield behind his home. Then, as they neared the house, Baldric fell. Dirk reached down for him. Baldric ignored the proffered hand and stared between cornstalks. His black eyes were enormous. His mouth hung open. Dirk parted the green leaves blocking his view of the house.

The two-room, raised cabin was a smoking mass of charred timber, as were the tool shed, slave shack, and corn crib. Baldric’s parents, little sister, and the baby brother just learning to walk were sprawled, broken and still, in a heap by the coastal road. Slaughtered animals and slaves lay scattered in bloody lumps about the garden and barnyard. Dirk’s chest tightened.

Baldric crawled toward the road. “Mama!”

Dirk tugged him deeper into the field. “Maybe they’re still here. Can’t let’m get us, too.”

With one arm up to hold off the corn leaves, he dragged Baldric back to the ridge. Then Dirk fled east, a sobbing Baldric on his heels.

Where the ridge narrowed and the trail dipped off the top, the twins came stumbling out of the brush.

“Our house!” Jan cried. “We ran… Everybody’s dead!” Blond curls, come loose from a leather tie and wet with tears, stuck to his face. He gasped for breath, then gagged on hair as he wept.

Dirk grabbed Joost’s arm and shook him. “The raiders—English or Spanish? Did you see?”

“I saw Grandmother burning on the stoop!” Joost wailed. “She’s got no hair and her arm’s black and her nightshift was on fire! She just looked at us…”

Dirk pushed the twins onto the trail and ran. “Follow me!”

His father’s plantation was the farthest from the Company’s office. Maybe the raiders hadn’t reached it yet.

The trail rose again to the ridge top. Mic stood there, white-faced and stiff against a pale dawn, staring down the hill at his home. He worked his jaw from side to side, clicking his teeth. Dirk swallowed hard and turned to look.

Thick black smoke rolled out of Mic’s house. Flames spread into the field his father had planted with sugar cane, a new crop from Brazil. Over a salt breeze full of smoke came the squeal of hogs as their pen burned around them. Dirk thought of Mic’s beautiful sister, sixteen and engaged to a planter from Aruba. And the older brother, just returned from schooling in Holland.

“To my house!” Dirk cried, and led the way, his breath coming in short spurts. If they didn’t reach his home in time to give warning, he would be an orphan, too. The raiders would kill or enslave everyone on the island. The Spanish had done that on Hispaniola and St. Martin, and the English were just as cruel. Even now his home might be aflame, his family dead, he and his friends the only Dutch left on Bentyn’s Isle.

At the back of the van Cortlandt plantation, Dirk scrambled down a faint path and plunged into a cornfield, the other boys right behind. Leaves crackled and cut at Dirk’s arms and face. The smoke of burning timbers and the sound of foreign voices wafted up to him. Words like music, he thought. Spanish.

He stumbled to a halt just before breaking out of the field. The others huddled around him.

Screams, shouts, musket shots, and the clang of swords rent the air. Three musket-toting Spaniards herded Cook and the two field hands to the road. Abram, who tended the animals, ran toward the sea, but managed only a few yards before a soldier shot him.

Silver-crested helmets flashed in the yellow-orange light of flames from the slaves’ shanty. Men set the small barn afire. Inside, the only horse on the island shrieked. A bearded soldier, scabbard bouncing against his ankle, chased a squealing piglet across the kitchen garden.

Dirk lunged toward the house where his father was fighting on the rear stoop, but Mic dragged him back among the cornstalks. The younger boys crowded close, quivering. Dirk shook, too, as the all-powerful master of his world fought the raiders. But the big Dutchman was a farmer battling soldiers, and while he held off one, three crashed into the two-story house.

His mother’s voice rose in a scream that ended abruptly. Dirk forgot to breathe. When his father collapsed under slashing steel, Dirk grabbed at cornstalks to stay upright.

His sister Anneke slipped out the front door and ran screaming across the long porch. Her pale yellow nightshift billowed as she jumped off the end, plump little legs buckling at the two-foot drop. Hopping up, she raced straight toward the cornfield, as if she knew her big brother awaited her there.

A musket fired. Anneke’s narrow chest thrust forward and her head snapped back. She stumbled, then rolled almost to the edge of the field. Blood soaked the top of her gown.

Dirk blinked at her. “But you’re only five and too little.”

Men ran out of the house just ahead of smoke and threw torches into the cornfield. Dirk stared at Anneke’s body, the ruins of his home. It was all gone. And there was nothing he could do.

“We have to leave!” Mic said, his voice high and tight. He shook Dirk’s arm hard enough to pull him off balance.

Finally Dirk remembered to breathe. He choked on tears and smoke.

“To the ridge,” he said, coughing, then fled from it all.

Mic, long-legged and fine-boned, raced ahead through the corn rows. The twins crashed along beside him. Baldric—

Dirk tripped, caught himself, then bent over to gasp and hold his side. He peered back through the smoking cornfield. He couldn’t go back there. He had to.

Tears burned his eyes and cheeks as he ran toward smoke and the roar of burning corn. The stench of burning flesh nearly overpowered the smell of charred wood. He wanted to vomit and each breath he gulped smelled as if he just had.

He found Baldric still gaping at the flames. Dirk grabbed his arm and yanked him almost off his feet.

“Come on, dammit!”

Baldric ran a few yards, then fell. Whirling to retrieve him, Dirk swung into the edge of a corn leaf. It sliced his forehead, down across his left eye and into the middle of his cheek. With a howl, he jerked Baldric up and clouted him on the head. “Let’s go!”

Crying, Baldric ran on his own.

– – –

Minutes later, Dirk pounded up the side of the ridge, stumbling the last few feet to where Mic and the twins waited. Baldric collapsed to the ground, his silent tears puddling in the dust. The twins clawed at each other’s sleeves and wailed. Mic’s shoulders rose and fell with great, ragged breaths. Dirk looked around. Huge plumes of smoke rose from his home. Away to the southwest, smoke filled the air, and the faint boom of cannon fire resounded over the island.

Jan’s voice cracked into a sob. “What do we do now?”

Dirk turned to find his friends looking at him. Baldric stared up through tears. Mic’s teeth were clamped tight on his lips. The twins sniffed and licked snot off their upper lips. Do they expect me to know what to do? I’m only a boy, too. I just want to climb onto Mama’s lap and cry. Tears burned inside his nose and throat.

Finally Dirk wiped at the sticky blood on his face and swallowed hard. “Maybe that canoe we found tonight will float. We can go to Curaçao.”

Mic nodded. “It’s not so far. And I found a paddle in the mud. There might be more.”

“Let’s go.” Dirk spun on a heel and ran west, the panting sobs and thumping feet of the others right behind. He ran away from the loss of almost everything he knew, toward the devastation in the harbor. Surely now the Company’s office and the half-dozen workers’ houses were destroyed. Everyone he knew there must be dead, too.

He glanced toward the harbor once more. Sunlight gleamed on helmets and weapons moving through heavy vegetation toward the ridge.

“They’re coming up the hill,” Dirk said. “Run faster!”

He raced on, lungs burning as he gasped for air. Finally, there was the path down to the little cove where just hours before they’d been digging for pirates’ treasure. He tumbled down the hill, the others noisy behind him. He sped past the old midden heaps, splashed across a shallow creek, and tore brush off a dugout canoe. Mic scrabbled in the muck, pulling out paddles, most rotted or split, but half a dozen useable.

Remnants of a short mast wobbled and caught on bushes as the boys wrestled the dugout into the creek. The canoe had been burned out unevenly and the bottom not sanded at all, but it floated. Mic knelt straight-backed in the bow. The younger boys scrambled in behind the mast, and Dirk pushed the canoe into deeper water before he crawled aboard. They paddled thirty feet to the sea, helped by a slow current.

The murky, blue-green creek nudged them into the surf, then onto a clear blue sea with the morning’s out-going tide. Dirk heard shouts in Spanish, looked back to the shore. Metal flashed among the palm trees. “Paddle faster!” he cried.

They did. Dirk stabbed his paddle into the water, over and over, faster and faster, and thought he heard a musket firing. The Spaniards in Bentyn’s harbor couldn’t weigh anchor and sail a ship after them any time soon, but they might have a masted launch or a swift pinnace that could easily catch five boys in a canoe.

The Dutch island of Curaçao lay east, a day’s sail in a ship. He didn’t know whether they could paddle that far and he’d have to trust Mic to set their direction. To the south, Spanish Venezuela lay much closer, but they dared not land there. Dirk pushed the lump in his throat down to his chest where it grew and cut off his breath.

Was it only last night they had sneaked out of their beds and run to the cove to hunt pirates’ treasure? They’d been certain pirates had anchored a ship there the week before to bury their plunder, and the boys were going to find it.

That was so few hours ago, and now he was at sea with no home but this lumpy canoe, and with no family but these four friends. The twins bickered constantly and often were the dunderheads Mic called them. They, in turn, called Baldric “chicken liver” and “bangbroek,” and that was true, too. Baldric was a scaredy-pants. It made him good at sneaking around, a skill Dirk had found useful when his gang played pranks. Now, though, Baldric’s fears made him an extra burden. Mic was sensible and smart, but not even all his book learning could save them if they didn’t reach Curaçao soon.

– – –

By mid-morning Dirk’s arms were tired. The air was hot. There’d been no sign of Spanish ships in pursuit, but there was nothing else on the horizon, either.

The heat worsened by afternoon, despite a freshening breeze. The seas rose, splashing water into the canoe. The boys took turns bailing with their shoes. The slash on Dirk’s face dried and the skin grew taut, pulling the wound’s fragile edges farther apart. He patted water on it, despite the salt sting, and used the fat end of a paddle to keep the sun off.

In late afternoon, Jan said he was hungry.

“We don’t have any food,” Dirk said. “Nothing to drink either.”

“Where’s Curaçao?” Joost asked. “I’m thirsty.”

Dirk’s face felt hot and swollen. “It isn’t so far anymore. We’ll be there tomorrow.”

“I think so, too.” Baldric curled into Dirk’s shadow. “Tomorrow or the day after we’ll have lots to eat.”

Mic looked over his shoulder with cold, blue eyes.

Dirk shrugged.

Mic resumed paddling, his back rigid.

Sunset brought relief from the heat. The three younger boys lay tumbled together, whimpering in their sleep. Cool air on his sunburn made Dirk shiver as he stroked, determined to keep the canoe moving.

At moonrise, Mic stopped paddling and turned sideways in the bow. His head drooped, and his dark hair fell over his face.

“I can follow the stars east, Dirk, but I don’t know where we are anymore.” Mic took a deep breath, pushed his shirt sleeves back up his arms. “My brother told me about a sea current that flows northwest, then east. If we drift too far west, we might land in New Spain. If that current carries us far enough, we might land on Cuba or Jamaica.”

Dirk’s stomach felt heavy, as if he were swallowing stones. He’d always counted on Mic to know facts and details. A year older and much better schooled, Mic seemed to remember everything. But Dirk didn’t want to know all the dangers they faced.

“Those big islands are Spanish held,” he said. “We have to head east. If we miss Curaçao… Well, Bonaire and Aruba are Dutch, too.”

“And if we miss them all?”

“We’ll have to go farther east to the lesser isles.”

“Some of those are Spanish,” Mic said. “Or Caribe cannibals live on them.”

Dirk saw no help in the black starry sky, the nearly full moon, nor on the endless swells.

“We can’t go any other direction.”

“I know.” Mic spoke in a soft, quavering voice. “We must go east, and pray we don’t miss the islands and paddle out into the Atlantic Ocean.”

– – –

Before long, Mic, too, fell asleep, slumped against the stubby mast. Dirk paddled on, not knowing where he was, or even who he was anymore. He wasn’t a farmer’s heir, nor a dependent of the Dutch West India Company. He’d never again be a son, or a brother. He could never be an uncle, for Anneke would not grow up to bear children. She’d never be any older than she was last night, waiting for him on the front porch when he crept out of the house…

– – –

Her whisper had sounded as loud as the dinner bell. “Where you going?”

“To the necessary house.”

“Liar. It’s out back and you’re all dressed. You’re going out to play with the other boys in the dark.”

His own whisper grew hoarse and loud. “No, I’m not. Go back to bed.”

“I’m coming too.”

“Oh, no, you’re not. You’re only five. You’re too little.”

She stamped her foot. Brown curls, a shade lighter than Dirk’s own, tumbled out of her nightcap.

“You let me come or I’ll go wake Papa.”

Dirk smacked her cheek and she gasped. He clapped a hand over her mouth.

“I’ll do worse if you say a word to Papa. Promise not to wake him?”

Anneke, brown eyes wide and tearful, nodded. When Dirk released her, she opened her mouth as if to say something, but he raised a fist and she scampered inside the house. She must have gone straight to bed, for he’d seen no lamplight appear in the windows as he escaped across fields and pastures…

– – –

She’d gone back to her cot and now she was dead. If only he had let her come along to the cove.

The moon rose higher and lit the wave crests. The sea grew emptier; the canoe seemed to shrink. Once, Dirk thought he saw a ship’s lantern but didn’t know whether to be glad or afraid. A ship could mean rescue or death. He feared they would all die, and soon. Yet he thrust his paddle into the sea over and over, stroking the canoe a few more feet eastward.

– – –

The next morning was hotter. Baldric’s face darkened, but the others’ skin burned in sunshine reflected off water. Already the twins’ faces were bright red under their tangles of golden curls. Mic’s face was red, too, and Dirk’s felt puffy and stiff. The cut across his eye and cheek hurt. Pus oozed from the broken scab. Worse, his tongue was thickening. He was so thirsty.

He paddled on, slowly.

– – –

By afternoon, all but Dirk slumbered under the blazing sun. Then he dropped his paddle, saw it bob off on the waves just before he, too, fell asleep. In dreams he hid in the cornfield, saw his father fall, heard his mother scream, watched Anneke die.

Toward evening, a rippling sea rocked the canoe and sprayed water over the side. Dirk lay cramped and tangled with the other boys in the bottom. He shifted his head out of rising water, blinked salt-swollen eyelids against the constant spray, and then drifted away into his nightmares.

Over and over Anneke ran toward him, hair streaming out behind, face glowing with confidence in the safety of her big brother’s arms. He tried to run out to her, to shield her, to take the musket ball himself. Yet she died every time, blood spreading over her chest, just beyond his reach.