Trinidad, April, 1634
It was a lake, but one unlike any other they had seen. This was the famous Pitch Lake of Trinidad. A hundred acres of tar.
David Pieterszoon de Vries, captain of the fluyt Walvis, studied it for a few moments. The lake was nearly circular, perhaps two thousand feet across, nestled in a shallow bowl at the top of a hill. The surface wasn't flat and still, like a mountain lake protected by hills from the wind. Instead, there were broad, dark folds, with clear rainwater lying in the hollows between them. David, in his youth, had worked for a bookseller, to learn English, and their haphazard arrangement reminded him of marbled paper. Here and there, the folds were festooned with a patch of grass, a few yards in width, with a shrub or small tree rising above it like the mast of a ship.
For Philip Jenkins, born in twentieth century West Virginia, it awoke other memories. "This is a humongous parking lot."
"Sir Walter was right," said David. "Enough pitch here for all the ships of the world." Sir Walter Raleigh had come here in 1595; his sailors used its tar to protect their ships' hulls from the teredos, the wood borers of the tropical waters.
"We have a lot more uses for it than for caulking ships," Philip replied.
"Wait here." Using a boarding pike as a probe, David tested the surface. It seemed firm enough. He took a step forward. The tar sank slightly, but held his weight. He took a second step. No problem.
David turned his head. "Follow me. Test the ground before you trust yourself to it, there may be softer areas at the center of the lake." After a moment's hesitation, the landing party followed him.
Philip was surprised to discover that the tar didn't seem to stick to his shoes or clothing, as he would have expected. Inspected closely, the tar was finely wrinkled, like the skin of an elephant.
David and his landing party walked around a bit, then he called them to a halt. "One spot seems as good as another, so let's start here." The sailors broke up the tar with picks, then drove their shovels into the bitumen, lifting out masses of dark goo. They dumped them into the waiting wheelbarrows. Philip wrinkled his nose; the disturbance of the lake surface, had brought forth a sulphurous smell. Nor was the lake quiet; it made burping sounds, now and then.
"The lake is farting," one of the sailors joked.
Philip saw a tree limb sticking out of the tar, and tried pulling it out. It resisted at first, then emerged, a ribbon of black taffy connecting it to the lake, like a baby's umbilical cord. Philip studied it for a moment, then threw down the stick. He walked over to David.
"You know what this place reminds me of?" asked Philip. "The Welt-Tier."
David puzzled over the word for a moment. "German? World-animal?"
"Yes, that's right. It was in a science fiction story by Philip Jose Farmer. The ground was springy, like this lake. When someone walked across it, it rose up, like a wave, and tried to swallow him. The land was really the skin of the Beast."
The sailors within hearing stirred uneasily. "Philip," commanded David, "you should be shoveling." Philip nodded, and took the shovel that was handed to him.
By the day's end, they had excavated a rectangular pit, some tens of feet long, and several feet deep. David decided against camping on land, it being Spanish territory, and everyone returned to the ship.
When they came back to the lake to continue their labors, they discovered that the pit had partially filled in. Moreover, some of the nearby "islands" of vegetation had moved during the night.
"The lake does act like a living thing," David whispered to Philip, "but an exceedingly sluggish one. Not like your Welt-Tier."
Philip didn't respond at first. "According to Maria's research notes, tar is usually what's left behind when oil escapes to the surface, and dries out." But for those islands to move, there must be some liquid circulating beneath the surface. Perhaps it's just water, but I think it might well be oil."
"We might want to drill for oil nearby. Tar is fine for waterproofing, and roadbuilding, and making organic chemicals, but oil—the liquid form—contains the fuel we need for our APVs. Or for power plants."
"I think my patrons are planning an expedition for that purpose. But it would have to be much larger and better-armed than this one."
"Why is that?"
"We can spend a few days mining tar. Even if the garrison here on Trinidad finds out about us before we leave, their numbers are comparable to ours. We would be gone well before the Spanish can call in reinforcements from the mainland. Or rouse their Indian allies. But drilling for oil might take months, and then, as I understand it, you have to pump the oil into storage tanks. That calls for a permanent settlement. I don't see the Spanish letting any foreigners, least of all a pack of Protestants, live here without a fight."
As if David's words were a signal, they heard a whistling sound, and a moment later, an arrow seemed to sprout out of the tar some distance in front of them. The sailors dropped into their trench, which was the only nearby cover.
"Keep your heads low, see if you can spot them." As he spoke, a second arrow plunged into the lake to their left, and was quickly swallowed up. Some seconds later, it was followed by a third arrow, better aimed, which nonetheless fell short of their position.
David mentally retraced their trajectories. He realized that they had most likely come from the vicinity of one of the grassy patches he had noticed earlier. He looked for one, along the estimated path, with bushes or trees for cover. Yes, that one, he was sure of it. It was much too far away for the attacker to have expected to hit anything. They were being warned off, he concluded. Probably, given the rate and direction of fire, by a single Indian. But it was possible that a second Indian was already running for help.
"Joris," he said, "I want only you to fire." Joris nodded, he was the best shot in the party. David pointed out the shooter's putative refuge. "Our target is there, I believe. Give him something to think about.
"The rest of you, let's gather up our tar and head for the ship. Where there's one Indian, there are probably more close by, and they probably have sent a messenger to the garrison at Puerto de los Hispanioles by now."
The men collected their tools and put them in the empty wheelbarrows. They headed slowly back to the ship, with the rear guard, led by Joris, making sure that the Indian, or Indians, didn't get close enough to be a real threat.
"Arwaca Indians," he told Philip. "When I was in the Caribbean last year, I was told that the Trinidados brought them in some years ago. The native Indians had allied themselves with Sir Walter Raleigh, so, after he left . . . ." David drew his finger across his throat. "Snick."
David, an experienced explorer, had come to Grantville to raise money and to recruit followers for a colony in Suriname. He had started up the United Equatorial Company, and found investors to put money into the venture. They had insisted that he take along a Dutch down-timer, Maria Vorst, as the expedition's science officer. Maria, whose family ran the Leiden Botanical Garden, had received training in Grantville in botany and geology.
Philip's presence had not been planned. He knew Maria through their common interest in plants. Infatuated, and beset by family problems, he had refused to be left behind and had stowed away on the Walvis. Much to Maria's surprise, because she had not realized that he considered himself more than a good friend.
While they had reached a modus vivendi after a few months together on the Walvis and in Suriname, it was just as well for her peace of mind that David had asked Philip to come with him on the second phase of his venture. Which was to collect tar in Trinidad, and rubber in Nicaragua, and, if the occasion presented itself, prey on Spanish shipping. The Walvis, with eighteen guns, was accompanied by another fluyt, the fourteen gun Koninck David, and a yacht, the Hoop.
They passed through the sometimes treacherous Dragon's Mouth, between Trinidad and the peninsula of Paria, without incident. Another days' sailing brought them amidst the islands which the up-time maps called "Los Testigos." Dunes several hundred feet high towered over aquamarine waters, and marine iguanas left footprints and tail tracks as they scurried to and fro.
Some didn't scurry quickly enough.
"Tastes like chicken," David pronounced, and his fellow captains, who had joined him for dinner, agreed.
"Anything to report?" he asked.
"My crew is grumbling," said Jakob Schooneman, the skipper of the Koninck David . "It's been more than six months since the Battle of Dunkirk, and we've done nothing to hurt the Spanish. Or to punish the English and French for their treachery."
"It's not as though we haven't been looking for prizes."
"I know, Captain De Vries. But the mood is turning fouler and fouler. We should have sacked Puerto de los Hispanioles, or San Jose de Orunã, back on Trinidad."
"And where would the profit have been in that? All they have is tobacco, and we had plenty of that from Marshall." Marshall was the leader of a small English Puritan colony on the Suriname River, some miles upstream of David's new colony.
David continued. "So why take the risk? Especially since it would spoil the Company's long term plans to take Trinidad for keeps, by putting the Spanish on notice that they need to strengthen its defenses."
Captain Marinus Vijch of the yacht Hoop, cleared his throat. "The men weren't that keen on your letting the English stay upriver, either."
"I know. But we're weakened by Dunkirk and we can't afford to fight everyone. The Spanish are the real enemy and we have to focus on them."
"So let's find a Spanish town to raid," said Jakob.
Marinus nodded. "Portobello," he suggested.
Schooneman protested. "Too tough a nut to crack, for a force our size."
"We could probably find some more Dutch ships by one of the salt flats along the way, recruit them."
"Rely, for an operation like that, on captains and crews you don't know?"
"Perhaps, Trujillo," mused David. "We have to go to Nicaragua for rubber, and then from there, the currents carry us up the coast anyway."
Schooneman smiled. "The gold and silver of Tegucigalpa is shipped down to Trujillo." He turned his head to look at Marinus. "Might that satisfy you, Captain Vijch?
David brought up the sextant, bringing the skyline into view on the clear side of the horizon glass. Smoothly, he edged up the index arm until the early morning sun's reflection could be seen on the half-silvered side. He gently rocked the sextant, causing the sun's image to swing to and fro above the horizon. He delicately twisted the fine adjustment until the yellow-white disk, bright even through smoked glass, seemed to just barely graze the edge of the sea. "Mark!'
Philip had been staring at his wristwatch. He announced the time—his watch was set to Grantville Standard Time, which took into account the relocation of the town by the Ring of Fire—to the nearest minute. In return for not being unceremoniously off-loaded shortly after being discovered, Philip had offered the use of his timepiece for determining longitude.
"Write it in the logbook. Solar altitude is—" David squinted at the vernier, and read off the altitude. "Record that, too. Take that and the star shot we did half an hour ago, and calculate our position."
Philip stifled a groan. He had made the mistake of admitting that he had taken half a year of trigonometry before embarking on his present escapade. The captain had happily decided that Philip could help with the navigational mathematics.
"Boat, ho!" cried the lookout.
David grabbed his spyglass and took a look. Sure enough, a longboat with a makeshift sail bobbed in the waves, several miles ahead of them.
"That's odd," he muttered.
"What's odd?" asked Philip. Since David's cousin, Heyndrick, had been left behind at the new colony in Suriname, Philip had gradually become David's confidante on the ship. In retrospect, it wasn't surprising; since Philip wasn't a sailor, talking to him didn't create discipline problems. The fact that Philip was one of the mysterious up-timers also gave him a cachet.
"No one would willingly cross the open sea in a longboat. They are used for in-shore work by ship's crews.
"Still . . . we mustn't get careless. Many a pirate has gotten his first ship by stealing a fishing boat and then coming alongside an imprudent merchant vessel." David gave orders; the crew prepared to repel boarders. The flotilla altered course to bring itself closer to the mysterious small craft.
David hailed them. In English, since it wasn't prudent to do so in Dutch.
They responded in kind. "Help us, please, we're the last of the White Swan." David sent his own longboat over to inspect, and his crew reported back that they did indeed seem to be mariners in distress. Not just English, but Dutch as well. David allowed most of his crew to stand down, and the strangers were taken aboard. If David had a few men, still armed and ready, well, that was only prudent in Caribbean waters.
The longboat's crew were brought some food and liquor, and encouraged to tell their tale. Not that they needed much encouragement.
The first spokesman was the carpenter of the White Swan. "There were three of us, ships that is, peacefully gathering salt from the Araya flats." This was the Punta de Araya, the end of the long peninsula pointing west, away from Trinidad. "We were sent in the longboat to a little cove near Cumana, where in the past we had traded with the Indians. And sometimes with the Spanish.
"We were making our way back when we saw the attack. A squadron of six Spanish warships came through, and immediately attacked the two Hollanders.
"The White Swan kept its distance. I suppose the Captain, God rest his soul, must have figured the Spanish were just after the Dutch. We should've known better. Once both Dutch ships were safely in Duppy Jonah's Locker, the Spaniards came after the White Swan. And sent her down as well."
"So much for peace," said another English sailor.
"'No peace beyond the line,'" David quoted. "And the Spanish think they and the Portuguese own all of the New World."
The carpenter nodded. "We stayed hidden among the mangroves—what else could we do?—until the Spanish moved west, and the sun went down. There was a moon, so we went looking for survivors, and hauled in these Dutchmen, poor wretches. They had found something to cling to, but they were still pretty waterlogged when we took them on." The Dutch survivors were still too weak to make conversation, but they nodded weakly.
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- The Grantville Gazette Staff