Saturday, July 18, 2009

Chapter 31 : Prizes

They paralleled the coast of Iberia at a distance of a hundred miles. Sometimes they saw fishboats, then finally crossed the latitude of Lisbon and saw sails heading for that great port. Here they picked up a fat little brig returning from the West Indies. She was loaded with cane sugar, rum, and molasses. It was a sticky sweet cargo, but she'd fetch a good price in the market.

"Take a crew and board her, Mr. Bellini. Send over a hundred weight each of sugar and molasses, and two barrels of rum."

Bellini's mouth hung open. "Me, sir?"

"Aye, you, mister. She's a choice brig and we're far off the Spanish coast. If you keep to sea until you reach the latitude of Tanguel, you should be fine. We'll rendezvous at Tanguel. You won't be able to get her over the sandbar at without lightering her load off, so don't go in. Wait for me. I want to investigate the town before I bring a prize in. If weather turns against you or you run into trouble, go on to Fezakh in Morocco. They've got a fine deep harbor. My cousin Wafiq bin Edip is a caulker there. Look him up, he'll be my agent. I'll give you a letter."

Bellini's' expression was growing alarmed as he heard his instructions. "But I've never had a command before, sir!"

"About time, isn't it? We'll run with you a little ways, but then our ways must part for we are a lateen rig and yon brig is a square-rigger. Send all the prisoners over, they're seasoned hands and I need the sailors."

Bellini gulped. "Aye aye, sir. Rendezvous at Tanguel?"

"Aye, Mr. Bellini. But mind you sound the approach well. They haven't dredged in thirty years."

Bellini took twenty men with him. They got into the rum and six of them got roaring drunk before he established order. He shipped the six back to the Terry and rather shamefacedly asked for sober hands. Tangle gave them to him without comment. Bellini fumbled his way into mastery of the vessel, put guards on the rum and stores, sent over the requested supplies, sent over the prisoners, and set everything in order.

Thorton asked, "Do you think it wise, sir?"

"I need competent officers, Mr. Thorton. They become competent through experience. It is an easy command, I wouldn't waste you or Foster on it. I need you on the poop deck and him on the guns."

Thorton cleared his throat self-consciously, keenly aware of his very limited experience of command. He'd been given a sloop to master once when he was a midshipman, but no other prize until Tangle had made him the master of the hospital ship. He sent a yearning glance after the brig. Such a command would have done a great deal to enhance his experience and bolster his confidence. 

"I don't think I have as much experience with prizes as you believe I do, sir." His cheeks were pink as he said it, but it had to be said. Tangle must have a realistic appraisal of his officers' capabilities.

Tangle studied him. "That may be so, Mr. Thorton. But you've got natural gifts that exceed those of other men. I'm confident you will handle whatever assignment I give you. Now let's examine the prisoners."

Tangle and Thorton went down to the waist to look at the captives. They were sixteen in number. The officers were Spanish for the most part, but the hands were colonials and some of them had the sallow look of mestizos. Tangle addressed them in Spanish. "I am Isam Rais Tangueli, Captain of the Corsairs of Zokhara. Which one of you is the captain?"

A man stepped forward. He was a thin man of average height with a thin mustache. He replied, "I am Captain Guillermo Garcia y Navarro, of the brig Dulcinea. What are our ransoms?"

Tangle smiled without warmth. "The usual. If you can't afford to pay it or your families and friends won't pay it, you shall be sold at auction in Sallee, to labor until such time as they do pay, or until you die, however it shall please Allah to arrange your fates." They all looked unhappy about that. "Or, you can swear your fealty to me and remain free men. I need serviceable men who know something about sailing. I also need a surgeon and a carpenter's mate. If you're inclined to join us you'll have a full and equal share of the prize money and all the privileges of free men, including your own religion. If you'd like to enlist, step forward now."

There was some looking back and forth, nervous shuffling and clearing of throats. Two men came forward pretty quick. "Very good. Mr. Thorton, read them in. Mr. Wafor, chain the rest of them to the benches." 

As Thorton and the black boatswain started forward, another man moved with alacrity to join the three renegades. One of the officers, a younger man with sandy brown hair, asked, "Please sir, can we get an officer's post if we join?"

"If you're willing to take the turban, yes. If you're not, you'll have to serve before the mast as an ordinary seaman."

The Spanish captain gave his junior officer a contemptuous glare. That made up his mind. He'd lost the respect of the men around him; it would be intolerable to stay with them. He swiftly joined the renegades.

"Carry on, Mr. Thorton, Mr. Wafor." 

Wafor gave them an evil yellow snaggle-toothed grin. He and they both knew the horrors of the sugar plantations. If there was a fate worse than being a galleyslave, it was being a sugar slave. In addition to being worked fourteen hours a day, beaten and starved, kept naked or nearly so in conditions of extreme squalor, they were often burned when boiling sugar in the refineries. While outright deaths were rare, it was not unusual for a slave to be burned so badly that he was willing to cut off his own limb, counting the amputation less excruciating than the burn. Even less severe burns were certain to become infected. Slaves died slow, agonizing deaths because of it. The survivors were often maimed and disfigured. Thorton knew none of this. Wafor took great pleasure in chaining the captives and gave them three lashes each to start them off right.

The daily routine of life went on. The Terry kept running south. That miffed the men a little. If they'd cut closer to the Spanish coast while rounding Cape Surprise, they could have picked up prizes in the Gulf of Cadiz as they entered or left the Guadalquivir. But they would have run into a Spanish fleet, too. Spain was calling out all her forces and sending them to the Mediterranean. 

The following day they spotted sails to the south, and the sails spotted them. As they closed to investigate, a Spanish frigate broke away from her convoy and menaced them. They fled and the frigate went back to shepherding her charges. The Terry hung back, but as soon as night fell, she ghosted up without lights. There were stragglers in the convoy in spite of their brush with the strange lateener. One of them was taken silently by boatloads of men who climbed up her ornate stern, in through the stern windows, and surprised the captain in his bed. They seized control without a sound. They extinguished her lights and left the convoy.

After twenty minutes or so, the lookout on the next vessel noticed that her lights were gone. That vessel flashed the message to the next with lantern lights, and so it was passed along the line. By the time the message reached the frigate and the frigate reached the rear of the convoy, the Terry had run to windward. It was an easy and bloodless prize. Foster was made prizemaster.

From her vantage point to windward the Terry swooped on the middle of the line and fired her bow guns into a fat snow. The merchants that had guns sent a few shots her way, then scattered, leaving the snow to her fate. The snow promptly struck. 

Tangle gave Maynard special orders. "Once the frigate is hull down, haul down your tophamper and change course to diverge from the other prize. Maintain absolute silence and darkness. I want you to disappear in the night. Once you are far enough away that your tops will not be seen, you may set them as you please. In fact, you may do almost anything you please, if only you make the rendezvous at Tanguel. Do you understand me?" 

An excited Lt. Maynard snapped a salute. "Aye aye, sir!" The young officer could do it; he had the nerve, even if he had to be carried on board in a boatswain's chair. The men would do it because they loved him. The little snow slipped away in the night.

Thorton was passed over in the matter of prizes. Although he thought Maynard and Foster suited to their charges, he was the senior lieutenant. One of the prizes should have been his. He stiffened as he generally did when distressed in his mind, but he did not question Tangle, not with the frigate clawing to windward in pursuit of them.

Tangle gave another order. "Pursue that Indiaman." 

The helm responded and the galley went skipping after the great merchant ship. She was fat, tall and heavy, laden with goods from the New World. She was worth more than five snows and brigs put together.

Tangle spoke quietly. "You have two good legs, Mr. Thorton. You will need them if the frigate overtakes us. You can work the bow battery even better than Mr. Maynard; you taught him. I know it is a glorious thing to be a prizemaster, but it is an even better thing to survive. We must play a game of iron nerves with that frigate as long as we can stand it so that our prizes escape. That is the duty I know you will perform better than Foster or Maynard." 

Thorton didn't answer. He watched the Indiaman running through the night like a leviathan, her stern windows and massive lanthorn lit up like a ballroom. Red flashes spoke from her sternchasers. The splash was well short of the galiot's bow. He glanced back at the frigate laboring to come up on them. Then he looked west to where the ghostly apparitions of the prizes were running away. The merchantmen of the convoy were breaking up, each running as best he could to try and escape the sea-wolf among them. The bold corsair had scattered the orderly convoy. They might be able to pick off several more prizes over the night and day. It would take at least twenty-four hours for the frigate to get them all rounded up and under its protection again.

Thorton nodded. He had no choice, but he trusted that the man was right even if he didn't like it. "Aye aye, sir." 

"If Allah should see fit to deliver us the Indiaman, you shall have her as your prize. Now work those bow guns. Topple their mainmast." 

"Aye aye, sir." Thorton ran to the foredeck.

The frigate was fast enough to run down the prizes, but the Terry was swooping down on the Indiaman on a good point of sail, her bowchasers blazing. Allowing Tangle to carry off a nice fat Indiaman right under their noses was a provocation not to be born. To lose the Indiaman while saving a snow was a bad bargain. The frigate came after them.

The galiot ran with all sail set and phosphorescent water foaming over the lee rail. Thorton had no time to admire the eerie luminosity; the Indiaman was turning onto her best point of sail and abandoning the convoy. She must be making seven knots—very nearly her best speed. To run before the wind on a broad reach was not the Terry's best point of sail, so she ran on beam reach and would tack over. If Tangle calculated right, they would hook over to grab the Indiaman before the frigate came up. If not . . . The frigate was overhauling the Indiaman, choosing a course that split the difference between the rover and the Indiaman. She was trying to put herself between the two.

The galiot could not fire on the Indiaman unless her bow was pointing at her, but the Indiaman could give them her broadside. It was long range and poorly pointed, but still, she outgunned the Terry. It was worth it to try. She had plenty of shot and powder in her capacious hull. Tangle let her waste her powder. Yet he dared not run too long on this tack; the frigate might decide the Indiaman could take care of herself and pursue the prizes. Tangle tacked sooner than he wished and charged the Indiaman, long guns blazing.

Thorton pointed the guns himself and they scored some hits. One square in the bow, and a short shot ricocheting across the water to smack into her side. Thorton yelled at his men and they sponged, loaded, and ran out the guns as fast as they could. He sent two more balls whizzing towards the Indiaman, but did not have a good enough range to do her mainmast any damage. The Indiaman answered with her broadside and something that sounded like a gigantic bee went whizzing over his head. The galiot took damage amidships and a hole appeared in her foresail. 

Tangle ran out to the extreme of her range. He consulted the hourglass and his pocketwatch, then turned back to charge the Indiaman again. He must attack aggressively enough for the Indiaman and the frigate to believe she carried a sufficient body of troops to take the prize by boarding. The frigate must defend her. The convoy was left behind as the three vessels raced each other. Every minute counted to buy time for the prizes to slip away.

Thorton searched the horizon. The prizes were hull down in the darkness. As he watched, the snow's topsails came down so that she was a mere smudge of white on the horizon instead of the usual pyramid. In a few minutes even that vanished below the horizon. Foster's ship was already out of sight. The Terry abandoned the Indiaman and ran back to windward. 

Tangle picked a new target: a trim little brig that would make a handsome corsair if he could get her into port. When the brig saw the Terry swooping for her, she struck immediately. That was unexpected. Did he have time? He glanced over the tafferel. He thought he did, even with the emboldened Indiaman in pursuit.

"Thorton, the brig is yours. Take a crew." So Thorton and his men went over the side in a boat. Tangle left them there. He must dodge the Indiaman and torment the frigate to cover the taking of the brig.

Thorton's men rowed hard towards the brig, but when the boat was nearly over, she took to her heels. She could outrun a jollyboat easily enough. Thorton swore mightily. He was now at sea with the Terry and the brig diverging on opposite courses and the Indiaman coming up. He had no way to catch the brig. He glanced over and saw the frigate beating hard to come up to meet the lateener. He swore again. He must think like Tangle and put his boat where he needed to be in order to get picked up. The brig is my prize, therefore I must cover it. The Indiaman isn't fast enough to close with me when I really run. Therefore, it is only the frigate I must worry about. My course is— 

Thorton pointed. "That way." The men rowed.

Tangle did not intend to get close to either the frigate or the Indiaman. He glanced over his shoulder at the brig. "Douse the lights, damn you, Thorton," he muttered. 

The fire from the Indiaman was growing hotter as she closed. No more time to play with her. Tangle swooped around to chase after the brig and cover her. Then he spotted a flash of lantern light where there was no ship: two long, two short: the private signal. Thorton's boat! He slowed to pick up his men. The Indiaman was wild with excitement. Not being able to see the boat in the galiot's lee, they thought she was stopping because she had suffered some hurt. More shots flew across th water and tore through her sails. Thorton and the men came scrambling on board like monkeys.

"Row! Full speed ahead! Dead into the wind!" Tangle roared. The men leapt for the sweeps and hauled them out and began to row like madmen. No ship can sail into the wind; that direction is the galley's prerogative. The Indiaman had to struggle through a tack, to cross their wake and rake them, but it took time. Precious time. The men rowed like the demons of Hell were after them. The Terry sprinted across the water at nine knots. Tangle watched the sea and ships behind him.

Thorton raced to the poop to report. "The brig ran away from us, sir! She never intended to surrender—she was playing with us!"

"Damn her black eyes. She was delaying us so the Indiaman and frigate could come up. I knew it was too easy. Why are you all wet?"

"Spray from the Indiaman, sir. Near miss." He was drenched.

"Move the big guns into my cabin and keep them hot, Mr. Thorton. I want to thump her nose and make her shy off."

"Aye aye, sir." Thorton stepped briskly down to the weather deck and ordered the bulkheads struck that separated the great cabin from the weather deck. The big guns rumbled as they were hauled aft. The thirty-two pounders boomed out with a deafening roar in the confined space under the deckhead. 

The men of the Terry bent their back to the sweeps until they were spent and gasping. Some of them vomited from the strain. From there she ran close-hauled on her best point of sail while the Indiaman and frigate wore after her on their worst point of sail. The Indiaman gave up the chase and turned back to find her consorts in the scattered convoy. The frigate followed her back. Thorton didn't get his prize after all, but the rovers got away with only minor damage.

No comments:

Post a Comment