Monday, July 13, 2009

Chapter 12 : The Chase

"A sail, a sail!" the masthead lookout cried. Thorton ran for the ratlines only to discover that there weren't any. He wondered how the lookout had made the climb. The English lieutenant was sure he was not equal to the task of climbing a wet, vertical mast. He looked up and called, "What do you see?"

"Sail north by east, sir!" 

Thorton got his bearings. The frigate had disappeared to the north, could it be her? Or the galley's consorts? That sent a shiver along his spine. "Mr. Maynard! Inform Captain Tangle we've spotted a sail." Maynard ran off.

The lookout continued watching, but at that distance he could not make it out. The sail could not be seen from the deck.

Tangle came out in a minute. He wore a white linen shirt looted from a Spanish sea chest that was too small for him. He couldn't button the top several buttons and a slice of muscular brown chest showed. The cuffs stopped short of his wrists and the lace barely brushed the backs of his hands. He wore brown velvet breeches unbuttoned at the knees because they were too short, but the waist was gathered in and belted because it was too big. He had tied a white cloth over his shaved pate to save it from the sun. He was still barefoot. With the sun out the deck was steaming, but drops of water continued to drip from the sails in a constant shower on the decks below. The laundry added its own humidity. It dripped on Tangle and he slapped his shoulder reflexively as if a flea were crawling on him. Somehow he seemed more animalistically naked than he had before. Perhaps it was because nudity was a natural state, but to be half-dressed with his shirt undone drew attention to the fact that he was not properly attired. Thorton found himself staring at the man's chest and pulled his eyes up to the face.

Tangle gave him a stern eye that said he had been dilatory. Thorton snapped a salute. "One sail to the north northeast, sir."

"Bring me the tack, Mr. Thorton." He started along the bridge.

Thorton hesitated, then ran after. "I'm not sure what that means, sir."

"Lower the tack end of the main antenna. I'm going up." 

So the orders were given and the lateen yard was tilted so that the forward end came near the deck. Tangle grabbed the wooldings to pull himself up, wrapped his legs around the antenna, and started climbing. Seeing how it was done, Thorton thought he could do it, but ratlines would have been easier. Tangle climbed all the way to the peak of the sail about a hundred feet above the sea. He studied the stranger, then looked around. He came down again, moving slowly and carefully. At last his bare feet thudded on the deck.

"The frigate. Mr. Thorton, how are relations between England and Spain these days?"

"Amicable, sir."

"I've no wish to meet an English frigate with Spanish guests on board. I expect the Spanish will want their galley back and I don't intend to give it to them. How's the hull?"

"Mr. MacDonald has patched her, sir, and we've pumped out the forward hold. We've kept the bulkhead sealed as per your orders."

"How much drinking water do we have?"

"Four days, sir."

"Damn it. Make all sail. Run northeast." 

That course would bring the galley on a course to intercept or be intercepted by the frigate. It puzzled Thorton that Tangle should run towards the frigate when he wished to avoid capture, but he was pleased to be going towards the frigate rather than away from it. He turned and bawled his orders. The hands, now divided into proper fore and mainmast hands, went to their tasks. They swarmed up the antennas and let loose the reef knittles and the great sails flapped out. The deck below was drenched in cascades of water that had been caught in the furls. The Englishman was glad he was wearing his sou'wester and oilskin. Complaints went up from the affected crew but were ignored.

Tangle shivered and staggered as the water hit him like a blow. Sodden and cold, his teeth chattered and he clamped them together, but there was no concealing the shivering of his frame.

"Are you all right, sir?" Thorton asked.

Tangle squeezed words through clenched teeth. "A chill, Mr. Thorton. Nothing more." He forced himself to stand up straight and wring out his shirt. He turned to walk back towards the poop, swaying unevenly as the galley rolled beneath his feet. Although the wind had moderated, the sea was still quite active. Thorton saw bloodstains on the back of his white shirt. 

Thorton ran up beside him, "Sir—" 

Tangle suddenly grabbed his arm and Thorton had to brace himself to take part of the man's weight. Before he could speak, Tangle's eyes went glassy and rolled up in his head. He sprawled on the deck in a faint. Thorton knelt beside him and shook his shoulder.

"Captain Tangle!" The man's flesh was burning hot through the wet linen. Thorton laid his hand on his brow and felt the fever there. "Bring a bucket! Douse him!"

The joy of being an officer was to give orders and have them miraculously carried out. Thorton had been a foredeck hand; he knew the work involved. The petty officers would pass the order for a bucket and a line, somebody would have to fetch the requested items, then the bucket would be lowered over the side and hauled up full, which was a heavy load, then carried to the lieutenant to be thrown on the head and shoulders of the supine rover. 

Tangle spluttered and blinked. He looked up querulously at Thorton and said something in Turkish.

"You swooned, sir. You have a fever."

Tangle replied crossly, "I know I have a fever. Help me up."

So Thorton pulled him to his feet. Tangle stood shivering in his wet clothes. The pale linen was nearly transparent with water and clung to his chest and shoulders. His dark skin showed through it. It wasn't decent at all. 

The Turkish captain was a little disoriented, so he snapped, "Report, Mr. Thorton."

"All sails are set, heading northeast, sir."

"Very good. You may join me on the poop. I believe you will find the afternoon instructive. Have the hands dressed and dined?"

"We gave them clothes, but I had no orders about dinner, sir." The crew was wearing what was found in the Spanish sea chests. They were all provided with breeches and shirts but none of them were wearing shoes. Shoes hurt feet that had been naked for so very long.

"Give them rice and peas with a biscuit each and a little cheese. Give them wine watered four to one." Thorton passed the word and the mood on board the vessel perceptibly lightened.

Tangle climbed slowly to the poop. With a shock Thorton realized that the man was exhausted. Force of will had carried him through the crisis but his emaciated frame could bear only so much. He took up his usual stance on the windward side with his hands behind his back and his legs braced wide. He shivered uncontrollably. He alone among the crew was not warmed by the sun. He tended his duty and studied the galley, the sea and the English frigate, now visible from deck level.

Thorton dared to speak. "Sir, the English are not your enemy."

"Mr. Thorton. You are a seaman. You know as well as I do that any nations that do not have a treaty are not friends. Their vessels are lawful prizes."

"For a corsair, perhaps, but an English warship cannot make a prize of a ship of a neutral nation."

"We are not the ship of a neutral nation, Mr. Thorton. In the eyes of the Spanish, we are mutineers and pirates who have stolen their vessel. That they abandoned it in no way contravenes their title; ships lost at sea belong to their owners unless and until the rights of salvage are given elsewhere." He paused to give Thorton a wolfish grin. "By surrendering command to me, you are complicit in our crimes. There will be a court martial for you if we're caught, Mt. Thorton."

Thorton's eyes went wide with horror. "I did not! I acted for the safety of the ship! I never thought—"

Tangle shrugged. "I doubt a lack of foresight on your part will be an acceptable defense to the Admiralty."

It certainly wouldn't be to Bishop. Thorton's teeth ground together in fury. He should have stood his ground and not yielded command to Tangle. The man knew exactly what he was doing. He had thought out all the implications while Thorton the dunderheaded fool had not seen beyond his own nose. He cursed himself silently.

The wind was out of the north, fitful and gusty. The waves were running from the west to east; the Bart was on a close reach and sailing well in spite of the repaired bow. The frigate was running down out of the north with the wind behind her, just off her quarter, which was her best point of sail. The two vessels charged towards each other. At some point their courses would cross. The question was, would the galley pass ahead of the frigate and so escape, or would the frigate pass ahead of the galley and intercept her? That could not be discerned at this point.

"Mr. Thorton. What speed is the Ajax capable of making?"

"Eleven knots or better, I suppose. We've never had her full out, sir. She's new to us."

"Her crew is not seasoned?"

"No, sir. Captain Bishop and the officers came aboard just three weeks ago. She's got seamen in her; we had the pick of the press, but a lot of landsmen too."

"How does she tack and wear?"


Tangle nodded, absorbing that information. "Cast the log." 

Thorton translated the order from Spanish to English for Maynard's benefit. The blond boy was well familiar with the task from tending the log on the Ajax. He tossed the log over and the seconds were counted.

"Seven knots, sir," Thorton reported.

Tangle grunted. He estimated the distance between them, laid out their courses in his mind, and came to his conclusion. "It'll be close." Thorton, who had a head for figures, agreed. Tangle looked over the sea thoughtfully. He considered his options. "Make a point north," he told the helm.

That would bring them closer to the frigate. "I thought you wanted to avoid them, sir."

"And so I do." The corsair was sweating and shaking with fever but his eyes were preternaturally bright. "Tell me why this will work, Mr. Thorton."

Thorton looked over the rail but did not really see the other vessel. He was plotting the courses in his head. "If you can cross ahead of her, you can run on the galley's best point of sail, but the frigate will have to beat after you on her worst point of sail."

"Just so, Mr. Thorton."

"But sir, making a point north you will bring yourself closer to her and quicker."

"Very true, if we had a round hull. But we have a galley. We will make as much leeway as way. Thus I must aim high in order to pass low. If I made straight ahead, the leeway would blow me far south and I would wind up covering a long leg while letting the frigate run on her best course even longer."

"I see, sir." He was uneasy. He was an Englishman, his duty was to rejoin the frigate and he was disturbed by the possibility that he might be found at fault—fatal fault—for his part aboard the runaway galley. He turned to look at the crew below. None of them would submit meekly to having their chains replaced. "Perhaps you could negotiate, sir." 

Tangle shook his head. "Eel Buff is out there and I know where it is, Mr. Thorton. I'm going home. Sadly, I haven't enough water to make it. I'll make for the French coast to replenish my supplies, but then I'm going home."

It would have never occurred to an English naval officer to seek refuge in a nest of pirates and French corruption, but for a rover like Tangle it made perfect sense.

"I see, sir. But still, the Sallee envoy is on the Ajax. Surely some sort of amicable arrangement can be made to return you home, sir."

"Is he? And why is that?"

Thorton had already told him, but he could see that Tangle was not entirely in command of himself, even though he had perfect command of the galley. "Mr. Achmed was negotiating in England. Our job was to convey him to France. I'm sure he'll help your case, sir."

"I prefer to negotiate from a position of strength, Mr. Thorton. As you have pointed out, a galley is at a disadvantage with a frigate, and such a factor would weigh heavily in the negotiations. No, I will make for Eel Buff."

Thorton stared out across the sea towards the Ajax slowly growing larger. Perry was over there, and his old life, too. He touched the gold lace on his uniform. He had finally made lieutenant and could hope in time to rise higher. He would not be a lieutenant for life, not if there was any justice in the world.

Tangle had other things on his mind. "Go through the Spanish signals. Find the ones that the English will understand. I want to be able to give the proper signals to signal 'Enemy sail to south.'"

"Aye aye, sir." He saw the plan. English signals would lead the Ajax to believe the galley was under Thorton's command. A false signal would draw them off to meet the enemy, letting the galley escape. He felt disquiet about participating in such a subterfuge.

"Thorton?" Tangle had noticed his inaction.

"Aye aye, sir," he replied reluctantly. "Pass the word for a man who can sew." So the word was passed. Shortly thereafter a man was brought forward who looked quite timid.

"Your name, sailor?" Thorton queried him. 

"Pedro de Palma. I was a tailor in Barcelona before I was sentenced to the galleys, sir."

"Your crime?"

With a soft but dignified voice, Palma replied, "I am a Jew."

Thorton had never met a Jew and he did a double-take. The man was an inoffensive looking person with curly hair that had been badly cut to a short length. He wore a white shirt and tan breeches as did many of the crew. His clothes had formerly belonged to a Spanish sailor. Thorton explained what was wanted. Palma listened, then went to hunt for the sailmaker's kit and to loot sea chests for the colored cloths he would need.

Tangle spoke. "Have you made a quarter bill, lieutenant?"

"No, I don't even have a muster roll, sir. I've been busy."

"Make a muster roll, Mr. Thorton. Bring it to my cabin. We'll make the quarter bill together. And Mr. Thorton, along with the usual name, age, and occupation, please record nationality and religion."

"Aye aye, sir."

"I'm going below. Call me if anything changes."

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