Saturday, July 18, 2009
Chapter 27 : The Low Black Schooner
Thorton woke to find himself on the very edge of his bunk and in danger of falling out through the gap in the guard rail as the ship rolled. Sleepily he thought the pillow must have gotten between himself and the wall and he gave it a hard shove to make room for himself.
Tangle grunted and said, "What?" a little crossly at being squashed in the stomach.
Thorton jerked to full wakefulness and the horror of his situation. "Sir!" he exclaimed. He sat bolt upright in bed, but the rolling of the Terry as she slid down the wave toppled him toward the wall. He put a hand out to brace himself before he fell onto the naked corsair. His brain was reeling. "Oh god, what have I done?"
Tangle scowled. "That's not a very nice thing to say to your lover," he replied in exasperation.
Thorton panicked. "But—I didn't mean—I'm sorry—oh my God!" He was as naked as the captain and the sheets were stained with something more than sweat.
"Avast that prattling, Mr. Thorton, and come down here and kiss me." A strong dark arm wrapped around Thorton and pulled him down.
Thorton was drawn in diametrically opposed directions. His body was very happy to provide a harbor for the amorous corsair, but his conscience was fluttering like a mainsail that has come unsheeted and blows and flaps while the hands leap for it. Deep inside he was lonely and desperate and clung to the only comfort to be had: Tangle. He was lost to the old world, lost and utterly dependent upon the foreign captain. He quieted and settled against him. His course was set; there was no changing his mind and going back now. The inevitability of it settled him. They were getting on tolerably well when there was a knock on the captain's door. The captain wasn't in his cabin but the sound came faintly through to them. They ignored it.
The thumping sounded louder and a voice called out, "Captain Tangle, a sail!"
So. He must get up. Tangle sighed, climbed over Thorton, found his pantaloons and pulled them on. He was still buttoning them up when he opened the door and asked, "What is it?"
The messenger, Midshipman Bellini, a curly-haired Italian of thirty years, turned around in surprise. The sight of the captain doing up his buttons in the chartroom nonplussed him, but he made an intelligible answer. "A low black schooner out of the sou-sou'west. She was right there when the sun came up, sir."
"I'll come." He stuck his head back into the cabin. "Peter! Schooner on the horizon."
"Oh no, sir. She's not on the horizon; she's about two miles off and closing," Bellini replied. "She made no lights last night, that's why we didn't see her until the sun came up."
That galvanized Tangle. "Spanish uniforms and every hand to quarters, quietly! Run up the Spanish flag. We don't want them to think they've spooked us. Rowers to the benches with their shirts and kerchiefs off. We must look like a Spanish galley."
Moments later all the officers were on deck—even the dreadfully hung over ones—with the sole exception of Maynard. He was still passed out in his bunk. With his amputated leg he was not expected to take a battle station anyhow. Tangle had crammed himself into a too small Spanish uniform again and could hardly move his arms. Thorton came up wearing a brown coat, there not being any uniform among the sailing master's effects. Hizir, the quartermaster, and midshipmen were in blue coats with red reverses.
"By Allah, how she flies! I want that vessel!" Tangle announced. He was staring through the glass. All the hands were at their stations and craned to see across the sea. The schooner was much smaller than their galley, but she had topsails and topgallants set over her gaff-rigged lugs and three headsails. No guns poked out from her sides and a modest number of men were visible on deck. "Make the Spanish signal private signal. Let's see what she answers."
So the signal flags were run up. A moment later there was an answer, "Need doctor."
"That is not a proper answer," Thorton replied. He had the Spanish signal book in his hands.
Tangle nodded. "So it isn't. But it suits me to pretend that we believe her. I want to get close enough to run the prow over their decks and deliver a boarding party. We will take her by storm because it would pain me greatly to put holes in my new vessel. Make whatever answer you please, Mr. Thorton, as long as it leads them to believe we want to close with them on friendly terms."
So Thorton replied, "Send boat."
The schooner had her own ploy to play and was slow to answer. When the signals went up, Thorton thumbed through the signal book. "Apparently, the bubonic plague is hull down to our north, sir," he replied with a certain amount of amusement.
Laughter went around the poop deck and was just as abruptly cut off. The vermilion and azure figure of Maynard thumped along on his crutches to take up his post on the foredeck. His men hastened to overturn a tub for him to sit on while he leaned his back against the bulwark. They fussed over him and took every care of their darling lieutenant.
"Pass the word to Mr. Hizir to have a party ready to board over the prow as soon as possible. Grenadiers and musketeers to the tops. Tell Mr. Maynard to keep his guns and swivels in readiness. Grape, if you please. When they fire on us he is not to return fire. He is to save his shot to clear a path for the boarding party. We will take them abaft the mainmast."
That would place the boarding party as close as possible to the quarterdeck. If they carried it they could use the schooner's own swivels against the waist and strike her colors.
"Gun ports still closed, sir," Thorton reported.
"Good. They think they have us fooled. They'll wait until they are alongside before letting us have it."
Thorton grimaced. To take a broadside at point blank would wreak havoc upon the galiot. The officers of the poop deck would be prime targets. Men would die this day. He was still peering at the schooner through his glass. "She looks American, sir. Some of their smugglers like a raked rig like that."
Tangle chewed his lip. The American colonies were protected by the treaties of Mother England. A treaty did not yet exist between the Sallee Republic and England, but Achmed was carrying those dispatches across France to a port on the Mediterranean, and from there to home. He was also carrying Tangle's letter to his wife.
"I think she is a pirate. Anyhow, as long as she's flying Spanish colors we are right to treat her as if she is Spanish. Make ready the Sallee colors. Keep those men well down. She can't be carrying too much weight of metal. What sort of guns do your colonists use, Mr. Thorton?"
"Four pounders, sixes, and eights, maybe nines. I doubt they have twelve-pounders on a little schooner like that."
"She's got room on her deck for no more than eight in her broadside. So, no more than ninety-six pounds a shot. Probably not more than sixty-four. We overmatch her in gun strength. That would explain why they're trying to sneak up on us. They're afraid of our long guns."
That cheered Thorton up immensely. The Santa Teresa had two thirty-two pounders on her center line, flanked by a pair of eighteens and eights, for a total weight of a hundred and sixteen pounds. The real difference was the caliber of her guns: a thirty-two pound ball could punch a hole where an eight pound ball would bounce off. Provided the gunners could hit the target. With a large broadside luck was on the gunner's side; with so many guns firing somebody would be certain to hit something. The fewer number of guns on a galley required precision; not for nothing were the Spanish galleys famous for their marksmanship. Or had been, in an earlier age.
Closer and closer they came. The sight was a glorious one: two vessels racing towards each other as the sun lifted above the rim of the world. Brilliant streaks of color illuminated the sky and the schooner's upper sails shone a golden pink. It only took ten minutes for the two vessels to close. The schooner backed sails and presented her broadside as if to invite a grapple. Her gun ports were still closed. How many did she have? With her faded black paint it was impossible to know. Fifty yards apart. Thorton trembled with anticipation. Still she did not fire.
"Hoist the Sallee flag. Out oars. Charge!"
The rowers ran out their oars. Suddenly she was racing to crash against the schooner's side at an oblique angle. Shouts were heard on the schooner and her crew of cutthroats appeared above the gunwale. The ports flew open: one, two, three, four, five, six. Maynard screamed, "Fire!"' The Terry's guns crashed out and grapeshot swept across the schooner's deck. The schooner gave them her broadside as a yellow flag with a snake on it shook out.
The Terry took a shot in the bow and it bounced off—galleys had very strong prows. Another shot passed over her deck at head level, harming nothing. A shattering crash told them that a ball had passed through the captain's cabin sidelight. Where the other balls went Thorton didn't know. The galley shuddered as they rammed the schooner. Her long prow shot over the schooner's deck and the swivels barked and wrought havoc among the pirates (for that is what they were) as they tried to fend off. Hizir and his marines leaped up from behind the rembate that protected the foredeck guns and ran along the prow to leap onto the schooner. The smaller vessel's bowsprit was at an angle to the galley's poop; they could read her name clearly: the Carolina Belle.
Tangle gave up his pretense of being a mere tillerman and jumped forward to bark, "Damage report!"
They were receiving small arms fire from the schooner and Thorton lost his hat to it. He felt a trickle of sweat run down his neck and put up his hand to rub it away. His hand came away red. The swivels on the Terry's poop were busy firing upon the pesky Americans. The first wave of marines took casualties, but a second wave was running after them. The schooner threw grappling hooks and attempted to pull the galiot alongside. They were reloading their cannons.
Tangle roared, "Port side, back oars! Starboard side, forward oars!" Thus the galley resisted, slowly rotating to become more perpendicular to the schooner. She received several ragged shots, holing her above the waterline yet again, but she was nearly perpendicular to the trajectory of the guns, so two shots struck her but caromed off, much like a billiard ball striking a bank and bouncing. The tillerman dropped on the Terry's deck and the quartermaster howled for a replacement while he held the tiller himself.
The schooner was not as well manned as the galiot. The marines fought their way to the quarterdeck and took it in a shower of blood. The desperate men there would not surrender; being pirates they knew they would be hanged if taken. (It was well for Tangle that he had been recognized by his captors a privateer. His letter of marque had kept him from the hangman's noose.) Thorton looked up. Somewhere in all the excitement, Midshipman Bellini had done his job and raised the purple and argent ensign of the Sallee Republic. The star and scimitar flew over the scene and his heart leaped. Pirates were a legitimate target for a vessel of any nation. He could fight this fight with honor.
The Sallee marines seized the schooner's quarterdeck swivels and turned upon her waist. The pirates rushed the quarterdeck and were beaten back by the bloody crossfire from quarterdeck and the Terry's guns; Maynard was firing onto the schooner's deck in support. The fighting broke off and men raised their hands or fell to their knees. Hizir fired again.
Tangle bellowed, "Avast firing!"
But Hizir was taken with battle lust and his men fired again and again into the desperate prisoners. The Americans fled below decks and into the cabins to escape the killing and some tried to leap to the Santa Teresa, but were beaten back as the rowers rose from their benches and struck them with oars.
"Thorton! Get over there! Take command!" Tangle bellowed.
Thorton flew down the steps and ran the length of the bridge. He ran along the head until he could leap to the deck of the schooner. He nearly got his head blown off by trigger happy marines. By the time he got to the quarterdeck the massacre was over. Nobody was left upright on the schooner's deck.
"You are relieved of duty!" Thorton shouted into Hizir's red face.
Hizir glared back at him like a wild beast, then he struck Thorton full in the face with his closed fist. Thorton sprawled on the deck. Tangle saw it and cursed. He looked around the shambles of his own quarterdeck. Midshipman Bellini was wounded and sitting on the deck. The timoneer was dead and the quartermaster was bleeding from both arms. By a miracle Tangle and Midshipman Kaashifa had no wounds. "Mr. Kaashifa, you have the conn!"
"Aye aye, sir. I have the conn," the young man replied. The color drained from his face as the weight of command fell on his shoulders.
On the quarterdeck of the Carolina Belle Thorton swept his legs around and toppled Hizir. He sprang on the big Swede's back swiftly, seized his throat in a choke hold and held it. Hizir flailed about and tried to break his grip; he elbowed Thorton in the stomach and made him grunt. He attempted to throw himself over on his back, but Thorton kept his grip and did not allow it. He had learned to wrestle from his cousins, the Shawnah Indians, when he was a boy in Maryland. He choked Hizir until renegade's vision blurred and his struggles grew faint. The rest of the men, bloody and full of battle lust, formed a circle. Thorton looked up.
"You!" Thorton was still busy choking Hizir, so he had to use his chin to point at the man, "Take a crew and go below. Find the survivors. Assure them that they are safe. There will be no more shooting."
Startled, the man looked at Thorton like he was insane, but saluted and replied, "Aye aye, sir." He took several of his blood-splattered cohorts and went below.
By the time Tangle got to the schooner's quarterdeck, Hizir was unconscious and Thorton had command. Thorton saluted crisply. "Quarterdeck secure. A party is searching for survivors now, sir."
Tangle returned the salute. "Bring me the schooner's papers and the surviving officers."
The surviving officers proved to be a master's mate, purser, and midshipman. The midshipman was a boy only a little older than Maynard but considerably less experienced. Tangle addressed him in English.
"J-oshua H-hamilton, sir." He was terrified. He was a redhead and freckles blotched his sunburned complexion.
"You are now the commanding officer of the Carolina Belle, Mr. Hamilton. I am Isam Rais Tangueli, known as 'Captain Tangle' to the English. I am a Sallee rover, master of the Santa Teresa." His English was tolerably good on nautical subjects. "You have my deep and sincere apologies. Mr. Hizir behaved contrary to the rules of conduct expected of a corsair. We will render any aid you require, but we will not take you as a prize. I will not profit from such a slaughter."
Midshipman-acting-captain Hamilton blinked blankly at him. "Yessir," he replied, having no idea what he agreed to.
Thorton touched Tangle's elbow. "If you please sir, I have had experience with hospital ships."
Tangle indicated Thorton with a gesture of his chin. "This is Lt. Peter Thorton, a fine and honorable gentleman. I will leave him here to assist you."
Tangle returned to the Terry with Hizir under arrest. Right then and there he held a drumhead trial on the aft deck. The men who had obeyed Hizir he did not charge, even though they were as guilty as he. It was too difficult to sort out which of them had done what and when, who had fired the fatal shots, whether they had heard the order to desist, and all the other details. The thing that was absolutely clear was that Hizir was in charge, and he had not only failed to stop the slaughter but actively participated in gunning down men who had surrendered.
The noose was made and put around his neck, and with the roll of a drum, the men hauled the lines and the peak of the fore antenna rose high. Hizir dangled above their heads. His legs kicked and danced for several minutes before he finally went limp. The survivors aboard the Carolina Belle cheered to see their murderer dead before their decks were even cleared. The grisly thing was left there for the rest of the day and night.