Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Chapter 17 : Beat to Quarters

Tangle stared through the spyglass at the two lateen sails. He glanced up at the sky. The weather was clearing nicely and the breeze had backed around to the northwest. The morning was cool, but the sun was warm. The gentle breeze felt good. 

He sighed. "I wish it would keep raining, or perhaps a lovely fog. A magic spell to render us invisible would come in handy as long as I'm yearning for the impossible. How I wish I was the sorcerer they claim I am!" He lowered the glass. "Bring us closer to shore, right to where you can see the waves breaking but not in the breakers. Out all sail. Do you think we are north or south of Correaux, Mr. Thorton?"

"North," Thorton replied promptly. "We had cleared Finistère and were well into the Bay of Biscay when we made our run. That line of shore runs northwest to southeast by east, more or less. See that headland, and that one?" He pointed to distant landmarks. The northwestern one was hazy with distance but the other was plain enough. "The shore will turn south and run that way about eighty miles, and there in the estuary of the Caronne River we will find Correaux."

"How long?" 

"Two days. Maybe more. It depends how far south we are. I'll know for sure when I take the noon sighting."

"And they're south of us, in place to intercept us before Correaux. They're faster too. They don't have a hole in their bows. Has the French fleet come out yet?"

"I don't know about Correaux, but in Brest they were not anywhere near to coming out."

"Here's hoping they're cruising for the Spaniards on their door step, but I doubt it. The English War cost them dearly and the Spaniards have wrought havoc in the Bay of Biscay. The Atlantic coast of France is effectively closed to French shipping. How far are we from Brest?"

Thorton consulted the map in his head. "With this wind, at least four days. You'd have to beat hard to make up back up the coast."

Tangle eyed the shore and the lateen sails. "By Allah, if we didn't have company, I'd run on the nearest beach and take on take on three or four tons of water. That would give us three more days. But it would be a disaster if they caught us with our bow on the beach and our stern exposed. Which is why galleys work in packs, Mr. Thorton. One is vulnerable, but five together is a hedgehog bristling with spines in every direction."

"If you say so, sir." 

Tangle stood meditating. This morning he was well-dressed; Palma the tailor had sacrificed a pair of good white damask tablecloths so that the captain could have proper clothes. Tangle wore pantaloons of the Turkish sort: loose around the thighs and tapering close to the lower leg. A tunic was worn over them, square cut at the bottom and short-sleeved, with no collar and a slit down the front tied with a leather thong. With a blue-checked kerchief over his head and earrings in his ears he looked the very picture of a pirate. Although most likely no pirate before or since had ever gone to sea dressed in a pair of Spanish tablecloths. 

"A sail!" cried the lookout.

"Damn it, this sea is beginning to feel as trafficked as the path between a French whore's legs!" Tangle swore.

Thorton ignored his comment and shouted back, "What sail?"

"Lateen, sir!"

"I conclude we have found the rest of the Spanish squadron, Mr. Thorton. Do you know anything that would indicate otherwise?"

Thorton shook his head.

"What about the Ajax?"

The Ajax would run very well on this course and was probably heading to Correaux as well, but she was overloaded with her Spanish castaways on board. Although her capacious hold could supply water and food for months, even with the additional mouths on board, she would be packed to the beams. Tempers would be short. Bishop was not the kind of man that would willingly withstand such things. With her studding sails out the Ajax could fly before the wind while the galleys were following courses that were not to their advantage. Sooner or later she would overtake them. But would that be before or after the rest of the Spanish squadron caught up to the runaway galley? Or the injured galley limped into a (hopefully) friendly French port?

"I don't expect to see her for a while."

"We are going up, Mr. Thorton. Bring me the tack!" 

Tangle went up like a monkey. Thorton followed more slowly. He wrapped his legs around the antenna and grabbed the wooldings to pull himself up. He felt very insecure about making his first climb up a lateen yard. The antenna was made of two great spars overlapping one another and the whole lashed together with wooldings. It was these lashings of thick hempen cords that they grabbed to pull themselves up. Thorton mused to himself that it was a clever solution to the problem of finding timbers large enough to do the job. The British navy had laid claim to the best timber in all of England, but still had to import masts from the Baltic countries and even as far away as the American colonies. More than one English vessel had gone to sea with a mast or other spar fished together for want of sound timber during the last war.

The breeze was stronger up here. The antenna creaked and swayed. The pair of lines at each corner of the triangular sail drew it taught, but the long antenna flexed more than a square yard would. Thorton made the mistake of looking down. The galley's deck seemed very far below. His stomach felt a little uneasy. The rocking of the galley as she climbed and slid down the swells was amplified; the men at the peak were swaying through great spiraling circles that were only mildly felt down below.

Tangle looked down and grinned at him. "You'll have to go faster than that, Mr. Thorton! I want you to climb the mast every day until you can mount it like a monkey."

"Aye aye, sir," Thorton replied as he schooled his face to remain expressionless. He'd served under English captains that had done the same thing. In fact, they'd made their landlubbers do it on the Ajax. God pity the weary or frightened man who lost his grip. Still, it had to be done. An officer needed to be able to go anywhere on his vessel without the slightest hesitation or fear.

Tangle wrapped his legs tightly around the antenna and pulled his glass out of the pocket in the seam of his pantaloons. "Damn me if I don't think there's another lateen sail out there. See? On the other side of the second one. She masks it, but there seems to be an extra peak where there ought not be one. They aren't spaced properly to be a three-masted vessel, so it isn't a xebec. I don't know whether to be happy or disappointed. I'd love to take a xebec. I could give your frigate as good as I got if I had one." He continued watching through the glass.

"They must be desperate for water if they are the Spanish squadron. We have half the men that they do, and we're thirsty. They must be parched."

Tangle made no answer. His mind was busy working out a plan. Presently he remembered that he had not answered Thorton. "I think you're right, Mr. Thorton. If we are lucky they have not spoke the English frigate and don't know we are their enemy."

Thorton calculated the frigate's last known course and speed, the speed and courses of the galleys, and ventured, "I doubt they've met, sir. I bet they ran for land once they lost contact with the Bart." 

They clambered down and orders were given. The foresail was furled and the fore antenna used to sway a pair of small guns out of the hold. Her nose sank a little. All water casks, provisions, cable, sail—anything the vessel had—was shifted to the aft portion of the hold. The galley adjusted her trim and rode well enough with the small guns in place. Next they raised the big guns and placed them upon her foredeck. Her head sank.

"What else can we move?" Tangle racked his brain. With very little provision in her, there wasn't much weight that could be moved. He kept his hands clasped behind his back as he stood at the rail of the poop deck and studied the galley's waist. "Everything is aft, even the crew who are not working!" 

The bad trim was causing them not only to lose a knot or two of speed, it made them less handy and reduced the range of the guns—they would have to be elevated to compensate, but they could only be elevated so far.

Suddenly Thorton said, "Water, sir."

"We've moved all the water casks, empty and full."

"Aye, sir. But what if we filled the empty ones with sea water?"

Tangle's eyes widened. "By Allah, you are a thinking man! Make it so! After that we will drill the gun crews with empty guns. If we are to take them by assault, it would be well to have a chance of hitting what we shoot at."

Thorton replied, "Aye aye, sir." 

"Tell Hizir to drill his marines as well. We'll need to keep their heads down."

"Aye aye."
They pumped casks full of sea water. Thorton used a piece of charcoal to mark a large X on their lids to keep them from getting mixed up with the potable water. Another gang rigged a hoist from a pair of sweeps and the aft antenna davit. They rolled water casks aft from the pump then lowered them into the hold below. It was slow work, but they had time. Little by little the heel of the galley sank until she had a decent trim. Meanwhile, Maynard and Foster went to the foredeck and drilled the gun crews.

Thorton went to the poop. "Salt water stowed, sir. Mr. Maynard sends word he thinks they might be able to fire the guns without killing themselves, but he has no confidence in being able to hit their marks." 

Tangle made a moue of displeasure. "Bad gunnery loses battles. Tell him that, Mr. Thorton."

"We have already talked, sir. His crews need live fire practice."

Tangle grunted because it was true, but he didn't want to alarm his quarry by firing the guns, nor waste his powder and shot. A galley carried a limited amount of everything, including munitions. 

"We have done as much as we can." If he had doubts about going into battle with a gun crew that couldn't shoot their way out of a barn, he did not voice them. "Break out the Spanish colors. If we see anything that looks French and threatening we will strike them immediately."

"Your plan, sir?"

"To take the first galley while she is helpless on the beach, after she has loaded several casks of water, before the others come up, then run for our lives."

It was a daring plan. It would net him another prize, and more importantly, several days of water without him having to run the risk of getting it on his own. Done deftly, he could sail away with his prize before the other galleys came up. If arriving at Correaux with one captured Spanish galley would be good, arriving with two would be very grand indeed. Success was its own justification. 

Thorton would have to sit out the action and accept no prize money. He was an officer of a neutral nation. Yet even as he thought it, his palms itched, and he knew he would not be able to resist the temptation to take part in the battle. His conscience twinged: he must not turn pirate. He must return to the Ajax with a clean record. The life of a pirate was not for him—look how they ran and worried with no trust in any port and very short provisions! Yet how very tempting to throw off the English uniform and sail under the redoubtable Captain Tangle, serving as a lieutenant to one of the ablest and most notorious captains of the age! Thus his desires warred with his sense of duty. Duty won.

"Sir. I will go below during the action. I cannot take part in a battle against a vessel belonging to a neutral nation."

Tangle folded his arms over his chest and stared at Thorton. Thorton stood straight and tense, but he knew his action was the right one. "I am a British officer, sir. My position upon your vessel has not changed that. I will not compromise mine honor."

"I had counted upon you to captain the prize, Mr. Thorton."

"Mr. Hizir will serve very well, sir."

"And what of Mr. Maynard? Will he work the guns for me?"

"I don't know, sir. I have not mentioned the matter to him. He is very young and I do not think he has thought of the Articles of War at all. I will address the matter with him."

"No, I will. And MacDonald, too. And Foster, he's an Englishman as well."

So the English were gathered on the poop deck and Tangle addressed them in slightly stilted English. "Gentlemen of England. Until now you are saving a ship that was sinking and thirsty. Your King may forgive you. But I am going to take that Spanish galley. She is mine enemy, not yours. If you help me your King will hang you for pirates. If you don't help me you will be my prisoners. You must choose."

Foster spoke instantly, "I am with you, sir. I've no wish to go home to England."

Maynard and MacDonald looked at Thorton. He answered, "I have already informed Captain Tangle that I will not participate in an attack upon a neutral nation." 

MacDonald looked at his feet. Then he said, "Nor will I. I'll keep this boat afloat as well as I can, but that's only because I don't fancy sinkin'."

Maynard fidgeted. He wouldn't look at Thorton and gave a sidelong peek at Tangle. He stewed a while longer, then said, "Will I be a lieutenant if I fight, sir?"

Tangle nearly smiled. "If you hit what you aim for, I'll make you a lieutenant afterwards."

Maynard nearly bounced with excitement. "I'll stick with you, sir!"

MacDonald growled, "That's desertion, boy."

Maynard smiled broadly. "Only if they catch me, MacDonald. I don't think they will. Not with Tangle as our captain. Bishop is too slow and stupid."

"The Spaniards will hang you if they catch you, too," Thorton warned him.

Maynard grinned. "They won't catch me. Will they, sir?" He looked to Tangle for confirmation.

"No boy, they will not catch us. I will sink before I surrender," Tangle replied. The corsair looked over the rail toward the headland where the first of the Spanish vessels would soon disappear. 

"Pass the word to clear for action quietly, Mr. Maynard. Rowers into the benches without shirts or kerchiefs. Officers and marines into Spanish uniforms. We do not want to alarm the enemy; we want them to think we are their lost consort. Rig the preventers. Mr. MacDonald, Mr. Thorton, you are hereby relieved of duty. You may go below."

Thorton and MacDonald replied, "Aye aye, sir," and made their way down the ladder. Thorton went to his cabin. He had very little in it, but he made it up as neatly as he could. He sat down cross-legged on his bunk and waited. There was nothing else to do but wait and hope for the best. He thought this a good time to renew the prayers he had neglected for a very long time.

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