Excerpt from Fortune’s Foe

Fortune’s Foe
Michele Stegman
St. Augustine, Florida, 1740

Mariette grasped the seat of the skiff and looked across the choppy water of Matanzas Bay. Ships sailed into and out of St. Augustine, and the gray stone walls of the Spanish fort, El Castillo, loomed over it all. “Matt is in there,” she said, “and he’ll die if we don’t get him out.”

“And we might die trying.”

Mariette turned to her younger brother, Nate, in disguise as she was, in old, faded clothing, a droopy brown felt tricorn on his head. He, too, was looking grimly up at the enemy fort, his hands white knuckled on the tiller of the battered little skiff as they sailed by.

Up close, the fort was more forbidding than Mariette had imagined. There was no way to approach it undetected. Nothing grew near its walls and a moat surrounded the part of it not touched by the waters of the bay. Guards patrolled the top and the black snouts of cannon protruded from its sides.

“You’re the one who sulked for three days because Mama and Papa wouldn’t let you join Oglethorpe’s expedition,” she said. “Well, Little Brother, you’re in this war now.” And so am I, she thought, folding her hands in her lap and drawing her feet close under her, as if she could make herself invisible to the danger she was about to face.

“Yeah,” Nate grumbled, “I get to sail in and out while you go into St. Augustine and face all the danger.” He smiled at her, but his eyes held concern and worry.

She could not help but let a fond smile play over her own face. “That’s because your sailing is a lot better than your Spanish.”

Nate’s chin came up. “I can speak Spanish.”

Mariette turned to the third passenger in the skiff. “Not well enough to pass for a Mestizo though, does he, Soledad?”

Soledad looked Nate up and down in her somewhat cynical fashion, her smooth red scarf a bright contrast to a face more black and wrinkled than a raisin. “Besides which, dem blue eyes of yours give you away pretty damn quick,” the skinny black woman said to Nate, harumphing for emphasis. “Leastways, your sister, she look the part of a half-Spanish, half-Indian with dat black hair and eyes. Long as dat pretty face don’t get too much attention, we be all right.”

Mariette laid a hand on Soledad’s arm, feeling the hard strength in that lean limb. “I want to thank you again for helping us, Soledad.”

Soledad harrumphed again and spat over the side, wiping her toothless mouth with the back of a hand that looked too large and work-roughened for the rest of her skinny frame. “Damn fool notion thinkin’ we’s gonna get them two away from the Spanish dons.”

Mariette looked blank and Soledad continued. “You tol’ me your fiancé is in there with your twin. I’m guessin’ we got to get him out, too.”

“Oh. Yes. Of course!” Mariette sat up straighter, determined to show a confidence that had slipped somewhat at the sight of the impregnable fort. “Somehow we’ll manage to rescue them both.”

“Damn fool notion if you ask me,” Soledad muttered, shaking her head. “Damn fool. Don’t even have no plan. Don’t know nothin’ ’bout that fort.”

“That’s why I have to talk to some soldiers, find out where the prisoners are being held, what the routine is.” Mariette glanced up at the worn sail as Nate smoothly adjusted it, turning them toward the dock.

“Well,” Soledad hedged, “most of dem soldiers ain’t too bad. Just local folk like me. But them officers is all from Spain and they’s sharp. Don’t go talkin’ to none of them.”

“I won’t, Soledad.” She placed her hands demurely in her lap, fingering the well worn butternut brown skirt she had chosen for her disguise. “Not if I can find out what I need to know from the others.”

Soledad sat forward, glaring into Mariette’s eyes. “Not for no reason. You get caught, your daddy’ll come down here and have my hide. And he knows just where to find me since him and this young’un be the ones who brung me down here.”

Mariette gave a noncommittal nod and looked up again at the gray coquina walls of the fort, weather hardened enough that Oglethorpe’s cannon balls had just bounced off.

“So you think a woman and a boy gonna do what all of James Oglethorpe’s fleet and army couldn’t do? You gonna invade dat Spanish stronghold and get them two men out and get all of you home safe?” Soledad sucked her toothless gums and shook her head. “Unh, unh, unh. And here I thought I done something by joining my Cato after he run away to come down here.”

Maybe Soledad was right, Mariette thought. Maybe it was a “damn fool notion”. She had even had a hard time talking adventure hungry Nate into risking his precious sloop to bring her down here. But then she thought of Matt languishing in there, perhaps being tortured, and her resolve hardened.

“We’ll do it, Soledad,” Mariette said. “We have to.”

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