Saturday, July 18, 2009

Chapter 29 : Eel Buff

The Santa Teresa de Ávila was on the latitude of Eel Buff. All they had to do was sail due west and hope they wouldn't meet any Spanish patrols. The wind grew faint and fitful. They ran out the oars and swept; when the wind improved they sailed. But it did not stay, so they swept again. So it went. Sweeping and sailing, sailing and sweeping. They crawled along the line of latitude making very slow progress. When not rowing they made and mended, scrubbed and drilled. The mood was somber after the massacre and the men were given to quarrels among themselves. The morning prayers helped, and the novelty of the Englishmen in their inexpert turbans was a source of amusement, but the mood was cross and changeable.

They were keyed up in expectation of meeting Spanish patrols or even an invasion force sent to retake the island, but they met no Spanish vessels at all. Once a three-masted ship sailed past them to the north, but she was hull down and they could not make her out. She did not alter course to either meet or avoid them. On the fifth day out of Correaux the wind switched around to the south and they made four knots. They had plenty of water and food but very little meat. 

On the sixth day the wind strengthened and became gusty. The Terry behaved well. The waves got rowdy and she shipped water over the bows, but she did not drench herself the way a true galley would in such seas. It rained and there was a thunder and lightning and even a bit of hail. They gathered rain water to replenish their casks.

In the middle of the rain they spotted a strange sail. It broke out the black hourglass: a pirate flag. Tangle broke out the purple ensign. After a brief pause the other vessel ran down the black flag and ran up the French flag. The two vessels approached one another warily. All hands were at battle stations, but the other vessel, a quick little brig, shouted to them through a speaking trumpet. 

"Quoi vaisseau?" The strangers hailed in French.

Tangle grinned. "I wonder if they've heard? Make them a proper answer, Mr. Thorton."

Thorton shouted through his own trumpet. "Santa Teresa de Ávila, Capitaine Isam Tangueli du République Salé. Quoi vaisseau?" His French was passable, but he spoke it with a Spanish accent.

The Frenchman replied, "La Belle Fille, Capitaine Maurice Thibault. Où saut?"

"Eel Buff," Thorton replied. "What news?"

"Barcelona has fallen to the French! Catalonia is ours!" Pirate that he was, he still had some national feeling. 

They were cold and damp in their oilskins, but the news made them warm indeed. The French on the Atlantic coast might be laggardly, but their colleagues on the Mediterranean shore had been busy. 

Tangle elevated his opinion of the French. "Damn me. This is the year to sweep the Spaniards from African shores! If the French can take an entire province, surely we can take a few cities!"

"What news?" The pirate asked them in reply. 

"English cruising the Bay of Biscay."

"Have they declared?"

"Not yet! How far to Eel Buff?"

"Twenty-five miles. Just over the horizon."

Arriving in Eel Buff was something of an anti-climax. The French forts commanded the bluffs over the entrance and a ragged mud brick town ringed the harbor. The galiot glided into it easily and never mind the shoals. The purple flag of Sallee excited a certain amount of interest as they came in, but not many people wanted to brave the drizzle to take a closer look. A half a dozen vessels of ill repute occupied the harbor along with several honest ones that wanted water badly enough to risk their company. 

A Moorish galley was pulled up on the beach not far away, and there were a couple of schooners, a brig, a saettia, a galley, and a lugger under pirate, privateer, or corsair command careening or taking on water. A pair of French guard galleys were present, and they learned that four were stationed here to run patrols, backed up by a resident frigate. The frigate could only get in and out at high tide. It had the unkempt look of a vessel that never went anywhere. 

The Terry needed powder and shot, and the corrupt French officials were pleased to sell them a ton of powder out of the fort. Sadly, the balls were not the right size to fit the larger guns, being French measure not Spanish. They spent part of their time making up cartridges for the big guns under Foster's supervision. Other gangs went ashore to cut firewood. Menéndez was put ashore with some cash and the appropriate bribes to let him remain unmolested in spite of the war. He hoped to find a ship for Madeira, and from there, passage home. 

Next they passed a couple days careening the hull. Although she had not been at sea long, green growth was starting to attach itself to the bottom. Tangle wanted a clean and greased hull when he made the run past Spain. He was parsimonious with the prize money in order to keep the men working on the vessel, but they had a habit of sneaking off anyhow. By the time they were done the townsfolk were going to be increasing in number and diversity of bloodlines. 

As long as they were making and mending and resupplying, Tangle had the carpenter build him a bigger bed. He was tired of curling up in a six foot long bed; he wanted to stretch out. The carpenter made him a solid wood bed — no rope netting to sag. It was seven feet long and four feet wide and hung from chains so that it would sway as the ship rolled and not dump him out of bed in a squall. Tangle bought a mattress three inches thick stuffed with horsehair. He would have liked to have had a down bed but that was a luxury beyond his means. As it was, the bed held two men quite comfortably. Thorton spent every night there.

And that's where he was when Tangle's steward, Udaadah, burst in one morning before dawn. "Captain, the Ajax is here!" He screeched to a dead halt as he stared at the two sleeping men. 

Thorton sat bolt upright in bed before he was even awake, but Tangle groaned, cracked one eye open and said, "What?"

Thorton turned and shook his shoulder. "The Ajax! And . . . your steward." His face was quite red to have been caught like that. He wasn't even wearing a nightshirt. He whispered, "We are ruined." 

"Never mind that. We already have reputations. What are the English up to? That's what I want to know." Tangle yawned and climbed out of bed. He walked stark naked to the roundhouse. "Get our wash water and quit ogling us like you've never seen a naked man before," he told the steward as he passed.

Udaadah fled.

Thorton climbed gingerly out of bed. "What do you mean, we already have reputations?"

"You did blurt out that unfortunate declaration to Perry in front of the men. I am not the only one aboard who speaks English. Perhaps they have taken it as meaning brotherly love, but I doubt it." His voice came from the roundhouse.

Thorton donned his shirt and pants before Udaadah returned with a bucket of fresh water for washing. Being in port, they could afford to use fresh water.
Tangle yawned and scratched. "Bishop must be out of jail if the Ajax is here."

"But why is she here?" Thorton wanted to know.

"We'll have to ask, won't we? He must not have any dastardly plans or something would have happened while we slept. Besides, we're in a French port and he's a neutral. There's only so much he can do. Now get washed and dressed. I have to call prayers shortly."

They washed and shaved. This daily bathing struck Thorton as excessive, but Tangle insisted that as long as they were washing the prescribed parts for prayer, they might as well wash all the parts. Especially since they'd rendered themselves impure the night before. Tangle also insisted on shaving. Since they were run up on the beach with no motion in the ship there was no better time to shave the sensitive male anatomy. 

"But why shave there?" Thorton asked.

"Because cleanliness is purity and Allah loves purity. Besides, you'll smell better if you shave your crotch and armpits. You barbarians may love the smell of stinky men, but I don't." 

Thorton spluttered. "I am not a barbarian!"

"Then shave."

Thorton shaved himself very gingerly indeed. "I don't have to wear that jewelry, do I?" he asked, indicating Tangle's hafada.

Tangle smiled at him. "Not unless you want to. But you will have to undergo circumcision."

Thorton jumped and nearly cut himself in a painful location. "Circumcision!" He gave Tangle an alarmed look.

Tangle was highly amused. "All Muslim men undergo circumcision when they're old enough, about ten or twelve years old. At that age they're old enough to profess Islam and know what they do. No one will believe you're a Muslim if you aren't circumcised. If you are ever captured by the Spaniards, it is proof positive that you are not a Christian. It is more than a commitment, Peter. It may even be a matter of life or death." He became serious as he spoke.

Thorton swallowed hard. "If you think it is absolutely necessary."

Tangle swatted his shoulder. "Don't worry, we won't do it until we get to Sallee and can have it done properly. Now get dressed."

With the Terry drawn up on the beach, her prow pointed to the southeast towards Mecca. Tangle went to the foredeck to call the congregation to prayer. "Prayer is better than sleep! Come to Allah! Come to success!"

Other men were already washing and dressing in the faint light of dawn. They heard his call and hurried to finish and present themselves. Maynard hobbled up from the wardroom and took his place next to Thorton, and the other men filled in behind them in neat rows. Not all of the men were observant and Tangle did not make anyone attend. He simply called the prayer and those who came, came. The Christians and Jews were in the minority and they stayed well away. The prayers had at first excited their attention, but the novelty had since worn off.

Next to them the Great Moor lay sleeping. Gabir Rais was an impious rogue who never called prayers, not even before battle, but some of his men came on deck when they heard Tangle's baritone floating pure and piercing through the mist. Gabir groaned and rolled over and buried his head in his pillows. Muslims were like any men: they varied in their qualities. Beyond them the Ajax lay at anchor. Being a converted French corvette with a shallow draft, she had skimmed over the shoals. Perry finished dressing and came on deck to watch the scene through his spyglass.

"Zounds! That one in the short jacket is Thorton!"

MacDonald stood next to him. "So he's turned Turk, has he? A pity. He was a good officer."

"We have to give him the news. Order out my gig."

"Aye aye, sir."

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