Haro Blaser started up the ladder and reached overhead to slide the hatch back. From long habit his gaze swept the deck and then the horizon the instant he could see over the cabin skylight. There was already a faint glow in the sky to starboard, just forward of the beam. This time of year, that would be east-southeast. Good, they were on course. Nobody was by the wheel, though; where had Berry gone? In a moment the sound of a line running through a block up forward answered that question.
“I’m easing the sheets a bit, sir. The wind’s shifted a little.”
“Very well.” It was, literally. The young petty officer wasn’t leaning on him for advice or permission any more, he was taking responsibility for what happened on his watch. Good.
Berry belayed the foresheet and came back to unlock the wheel. “What do you think, Skipper? Are we gonna find a good station site on the island?”
“Well, that’s what we’re here to find out, isn’t it? We should know in a day or two. But let me remind you not to talk about radio in front of the Irish, so we don’t start any rumors. Officially, we’re here to see if there’s any possibility of making a deal for provisions and repairs when our ships start passing this way regularly. Which happens to be the truth. Just not all of it.”
“Sure. Let the French and the Spanish find out about the Atlantic net when they see the towers from forty miles out to sea, huh?”
“There’s that. More to the point, the government doesn’t want Boyle getting a hint of our interest before they do their diplomatic dance. Convincing him and Charles that leaving us alone off the Irish coast is better than the alternatives will be a delicate enough business, even without them knowing all of our reasons. So we visit, we write our report, and we don’t do anything to make people notice us. You want to be a naval officer? Learn the meaning of Top Secret.”
Blaser swung onto the weather ratlines and started up. It was time for a look around. They weren’t all that far from land, now, and anything could be out there. Too bad these courier schooners didn’t carry crow’s nests like the old fluyt did—hard to see where you could put one, though, without fouling the sails—but nearly everything could be done from the deck. It pretty well had to be, in a vessel so small there was room for only one man to a watch. He hooked one elbow around the shrouds and raised the binoculars to his eyes. Nothing out there. Wait a minute. There was a speck four or five miles off, almost dead ahead. Couldn’t tell what it was, but it would soon be lighter. He climbed higher and continued scanning. Further off the starboard bow, silhouetted on the horizon . . . sails. Lateen, looked like. Two masts. That’s a Mediterranean rig. What’s it doing in Irish waters? He finished looking the rest of the way around. Nothing else in sight. He went back to the first sighting—still couldn’t make out what it was.
“Berry, will you come up here and take a look at this? You’ve got sharp eyes.”
Haro grinned at the way Berry came swarming aloft for a look. He stepped around to the lee shrouds, passed over the binoculars, and pointed at the nearer sighting.
Berry steadied his wrist against the mast and fiddled with the focus. He stared for a good half-minute. “I can make out a little movement, lieutenant. Looks like . . . two men. I think. Can’t see anything of their boat—has to be pretty small. I think they’re hauling a net. Local fishermen, maybe. Pretty far out to sea, though.” He shifted position, to point the binoculars at the sails silhouetted against the brightening dawn. “Now, the other one, that’s plain weird. I think they call that rig a xebec. I don’t see what it could be but a North African pirate. But even they sail regular ships, this far north.”
“So they do. Somebody new at it, then. A young Turk who hasn’t captured anything more suitable for these waters.”
“Could be, sir. Oh-oh. Sails are shifting. Spotted the fishermen, I’ll bet. Doesn’t look like the locals have seen the lateener so far, though.”
Blaser made up his mind. “Well, we’ve got the wind to get to them fast on this tack. Let’s snatch them out of the claws of those devils. Those two can tell us a lot about what’s ahead of us.”
Berry looked once more, estimating angles and distances, then scrambled down the ratlines. “Aye, aye, sir, I’ll get the topsails up. The sooner we get there, the sooner we’re out of there.” He slid the hatch open and hissed to Edelstein to come on deck.
Blaser was happy to have Lothar Edelstein along on the mission. The warrant officer was smart and curious. His profession was charting and mapping, but just the same, if you weren’t a sailor when you went to sea with Blaser, you were when you came home.
As soon as Berry and Edelstein got the maintopsail clear of the locker, Blaser grabbed for the foretopsail. They must have made more noise than he’d thought, because another head popped out of the hatch. “Ah, Corporal Ó Houlihan, you’re just in time to give me a hand. Tend the topsail halyard and sheet for me.” Haro didn’t need to point out the proper lines or even look up as the army translator stepped to the pinrail. Not after three weeks at sea. He started sliding the clips into the track. Now there was something SSIM Bjorn Svedberg’s legendary Canadian ancestor never had—pole masts with topsail tracks running all the way down to shoulder height.
Presently she heeled over a little further and the hiss of the bow wave rose and steadied. What a sweet sailer! What a swift little jewel!
Haro hoisted the ensign himself. Maybe it would warn off the Moors or whoever they were. No. They were still coming. Either they didn’t know enough to steer clear of the USE’s navy, or they were just bull-headed. Or desperate for some reason. The fishermen were rowing hard now, in the general direction of the distant land. Looks like those two aren’t the kind to give up easily. Must be hoping for a sail to blow out, or something. Haro was on the point of warning Berry against running over that bundle of sticks and hides ahead of them, when the petty officer twitched the wheel a hair. Good, they’d pass safely to leeward. “Sergeant Ó Carroll, you know what to say?”
“That I do, Captain, all set.”
Edelstein was back on deck too. He and Ó Houlihan didn’t need to be told what orders were coming. They took station by the jib and staysail sheets. For the present, Haro left Dirck Goosens to his cooking; this really wasn’t an all-hands maneuver.
At the last moment Berry called, “Un-belay headsail sheets and hold . . . off headsails!”
He whipped the wheel hard over to port, then back the other way to stop the swing. The schooner spun in her own length, came up into the wind, and lay bobbing in the swell.
Ó Carroll leaned over the port rail and shouted in Irish, “Do you need help? Do you want us to tow you out of here?”
One of the men shouted back, “Tow? To where? Where are you going?”
“Clear Island. If we leave you there, can you get home all right?”
A look of astonishment came over the fisherman’s face. “That we can, for Cape Clear is our home.”
Ó Carroll gestured thumbs-up. Haro tossed the heaving line. While the fisherman was still making it fast, Berry called, “Back the outer jib.” The schooner started turning away from the oncoming lateener, now only a couple of miles away. The booms swung over to port and the sails filled with a thump. “Sheet home!”
Blaser watched the fishermen’s boat as it fell in behind at the end of the towline. The Irish currach was just a light frame of tough, springy wood, covered with hides and waterproofed. Hard to believe anyone had ever crossed the ocean in one of those and survived, even if St. Brendan was supposed to have done it. But it was starting to whip around in the wake. It got worse as the fast courier hit its stride in the stiff wind. Clearly, as seaworthy as the little boat undoubtedly was, it had never been designed for the speed Bjorn Svedberg was making. The fishermen recognized the problem, and got down as low as they could. It helped, but not enough.
“Berry, this isn’t working. Heave to. Sergeant, translate for me again.
“We’re going to stop so you can come aboard. Otherwise you’d be thrown into the sea.”
“Leave the boat and the catch to those heathen? Well, better than leaving ourselves.”
“No, there’s just room enough to stow it on the foredeck. We’ll help you get it aboard. But be quick. Haul yourselves up to us as soon the line goes slack.”
Berry was already turning into the wind. In seconds the currach was alongside and the men were passing a couple of baskets of fish over the rail while Edelstein led the towline forward of the shrouds.
Haro ran forward to lend a hand himself while Ó Carroll translated. “It should fit right there, keel-up over the dories.” With Haro, both soldiers, and the two fishermen hauling, the boat came up over the rail with a rush.
Before they could even start to secure the boat, the booms swung around and the sails caught the wind, close-hauled on the starboard tack and driving hard. Berry needed no prompting on the quickest way to leave their pursuer behind. Nothing with sails could keep up with a schooner beating to windward. Especially this kind of schooner.
“Welcome aboard. I am Lieutenant Haro Blaser, of the United States Navy.”
“I thank you, indeed. I am Dermot Cadogan, and this is my cousin Conor. A fine big ship you have here, Captain.”
Ó Houlihan grinned. “A big ship, is it? According to Petty Officer Berry—him with the black boots, there—fifty-three feet is about the smallest anybody’s ever built a schooner. And he’s fussy about what you call it. He says it’s only a ship if the sails go crossways.”
Ian Berry had his hands full. The wind had dropped off to a light breeze and wandered around as the sun came up. Even with every scrap of canvas set and drawing, the speed was sedate and the steering was mushy. A wave rolled across the bow, a little bigger one than usual, and nudged it a trifle to one side. It took him a couple of seconds to overcome the sudden yaw and get straightened out again.
“Quit dreaming about your girl friend, Berry, and watch your course!”
A round blue cap with a fouled-anchor badge above the bill rose out of the hatch, followed by the rest of Chief Petty Officer Hugo Gellert.
“Huh? You mean Else? She’s not my girl friend. She isn’t anybody’s girl friend.”
The old walrus grinned at him underneath his gray mustache. “Well, she kissed you, didn’t she? That’s what you said.”
“Oh, yeah. Last time I was in town on leave she let me walk her home from the radio club picnic. She kissed me, all right, with one hand on the doorknob while she was doing it. Before I even got to the sidewalk, she was upstairs with her desk light on, writing something in one of her engineering notebooks.”
“Ja? You sure it wasn’t her diary?”
“Else Berding? Are you kidding? That’s the last thing in the world she’d ever spend time on. She’s so scared of what could happen if we can’t build radio gear fast enough, I don’t think she’ll slow down and have a normal life until we get radar. I think she was just trying to get me to come to work at GE.”
The chief left off the joking. “It surprises me that you didn’t join your family’s business.”
“RCE? You’ve never spent all day around Pop. Besides, I’m not that deep into electronics; we weren’t an all-ham family until after the Ring of Fire. Engines are more my speed.”
“And here you are standing watch in a windjammer! Heh, heh. That’s the navy for you. Well, would you hold onto my coffee for a minute? I just want to go aloft and get a look at that thing following us, then I’ll relieve you.” He stepped up on the rail and swung onto the ratlines. “You’re going to enjoy breakfast this morning. It’s the best one since we sailed out of Bergen.”
“I smell something good, all right. What have we got?”
“Well, those Irishmen have the charming custom of repaying a favor with a big helping of fresh fish. I think Goosens is showing off in the galley. He and the corporal fried them up with a little butter. Lemon juice and hash brown potatoes to go with them. And those two always make good coffee.”
Gellert steadied himself and focused the binoculars. “Plague and damnation! Do you know what that thing is? It’s a sailing galley. The whole deck is covered with benches. There must be thirty or forty men aboard.”
“Yeah. The skipper got a better look, after it got light, and told me.”
“Not good, not good at all, if they ever get close. They must outnumber us five to one. Not to mention that damn bow gun.”
“We’ve been drawing away pretty steadily, though.”
“Yes, well and good, if nothing goes wrong. I’ve got to think about this.” He stepped down and took back his coffee cup. “All right, I’ve got the deck.”
Their guests had shown themselves to be true sailors. Conor had come on deck without being asked, to give Dattler a hand with the morning chores. Like the two soldiers, Eugen Dattler wasn’t in the navy—the medical service had detailed him for the mission. Dermot was still below, talking with Ó Carroll and the lieutenant. Speaking of fishermen and fish, though . . .
“Eugen, before you swab down, better stow that catch. I think the cook has just finished off a cask of something or other. You can lash it to the foremast and fill it with sea water to keep them cool.”
“Okay, Chief, but wouldn’t it be easier to just take them below?”
Gellert snorted. “Certainly, if you don’t mind a couple of basketfuls draining on the deck, down where we sleep. And if you don’t mind stripping out everything down to the bilge to get it cleaned up again.”
“Ja, oh.” He indulged in a chuckle.
He looked alee at the other vessel. If they didn’t get a decent wind soon it could take all day to get out of sight and lose them. Until then, they were headed a little west of north. Haro was right, there was no sense revealing their true destination. Let them think we’re going to Bantry, or Galway, or someplace obvious.
All in all, this would have been a perfect morning for easy sailing, if it weren’t for that pack of barbarians dogging their heels. Still, the distance kept growing.
“All right, Hugo, I have the deck.”
“All yours, Captain.” Gellert stepped away from the wheel.
Blaser lowered his voice a little. “What do you think of the way Ian’s shaping up?”
“He learns, and willingly. Something seems to have shaken into place, this trip.” Gellert paused. “You know who he reminds me of? You, about ten years ago.”
“Oh? That’s an interesting observation. Well, I got through it all without sinking the ship.”
“So you did. I think we even kept her going a couple of years past her time. Well, I’m going to take a good hard look at the sails and rigging. A paranoid look, as Ian would say. This would be a bad time for something to come apart.” He went forward and set to inspecting the gear, inch by inch.
In any normal vessel, the commanding officer wouldn’t have needed to take a watch. But the Svedberg was not only small, she was fine-lined. She was as close as you could get to a racing yacht and still stand up to the worst weather the Grand Banks could dish out. With so little space for people and stores, everybody had to wear more than one hat. Blaser was profoundly grateful that none of the specialists this trip were acting like prima donnas—he’d had to clamp down on that kind of behavior on a few occasions.
A gray curtain appeared to windward. About time, for a season of supposedly changeable weather. Haro called Edelstein and Ó Houlihan to come on deck, and bring foul weather gear for the three of them. In a couple of minutes a blast of rain hit, and the wind started coming in bursts, blowing hard and shifting around. Blaser went off the wind a little so the headsails wouldn’t bring them about spontaneously, and kept working the wheel to hold course while shouting sail trimming orders. He had them haul down the topsails first thing. Start reefing? No, not yet. Keep up as much speed to windward as possible. Keep writing down course changes and times for the dead-reckoning fix later on. Up-time weekend sailors were supposed to have done this for sport. He shook his head.
The squall passed. The wind dropped. It kept on dropping. Up to windward the whitecaps were falling away, and the sea was settling down to a smooth swell. The last of the wind blew alee, and the sails went slack.
Gellert was on deck in seconds, with the binoculars slung around his neck. Berry was right behind him. Gellert looked over the port quarter, then went part way up the main shrouds for a better view. He growled something under his breath.
“What are they doing, Chief? Do they still have wind?”
“No, Captain. Their sails are flapping . . . Scheist! A whole lot of men are running out on deck. They’re picking up oars!”
If anything can go wrong . . . Haro spun to the hatch. “Ó Carroll, ask Dermot if this calm is likely to last long.”
“Oh, no, Captain, not this time of year. A quarter of an hour, maybe. Half an hour at the most.”
“I see. Thank you.” Haro’s stomach turned to ice. Half an hour. Three, three and a half miles distance. Galleys are built for speed. How fast with forty men rowing that thing, six knots? More? Less, with this leftover swell? If the corsairs weren’t actually upon them in that time, it was an even bet they’d be in gun range. No good. All right, what do I do? Think . . .
“Berry! You’re our best engine hand. Get the tender running, quick as you can. Take whoever you want to help.”
“Aye, aye, Captain. Mister Edelstein! With me!”
Over the stern rail and into the boat hanging in the davits. Drive in the drain plug. Edelstein put his foot wrong getting aboard and jostled him. Ian ignored it.
“Intake and exhaust covers.”
“Oil, coolant, and fuel levels.”
“Checking . . . All okay.”
Magneto on. Two strokes of the throttle to prime it, and leave it wide open. Choke? Try half, in this weather. Somebody was lowering them away, he didn’t look to see who.
Lothar reached down and spun the crank. Nothing. Ian pulled the throttle closed, then gave it another stroke while Edelstein kept cranking. Nothing. He flicked his eyes toward the pursuing galley. The oars rose and fell. Just wonderful.
“Leave off. Break out the pusher rig and hook us up. I’ll keep at this.”
In harbor the tender would have just pushed the schooner’s stern directly. At sea, they needed a connection that would let the schooner’s stern dip in the swells without driving the boat’s bow under. The Lawrence Wild’s boatswain had come up with a solution, a simple arrangement of poles and quick-release swivel joints. Edelstein swung the tender into position with a boathook, then started methodically connecting the fittings.
Full choke. Crank with one hand, work the throttle with the other. Pop. Keep going. A couple of strangled-sounding pops. Flooded? Close the throttle, open the choke, crank it a couple of times. He glanced toward the schooner. The chief was at the stern rail, tense as hell, obviously resisting the urge to shout at him to hurry up.
Okay, full throttle, start cranking, slowly close the choke. Fired a couple times. All the way closed. Bupbupbupbup . . . Running on its own, but short of breath. Open the choke a little. RPMs coming up. Play the throttle to control the speed. Starting to stall. Pump the throttle a little. Running a little better, keep babying it. He flicked his eyes at the galley again—closer, and the stroke was fast.
Lothar finished the hookup and secured the boat’s rudder amidships, then hoisted himself back over the rail.
“Full power, as quick as you can.”
“She’ll be warm enough to push in another minute, sir.”
Okay. Put it in gear. Let the clutch out ’til it starts to take hold. Engine bogging down, pump the throttle, just a little, just enough. Keep easing the clutch out. Temp gauge coming off the pin, running smoother now. Move the throttle smoothly to full and open the choke all the way, and here we go. Scramble back on board.
“How’d we do, sir?”
“They gained a mile on us.”
The chief was on the wheel, bringing them around to head directly away from the pirate. As the saying went, a stern chase is a long chase.
Lieutenant Blaser was looking at the pirate vessel. “Can you get any more power out of that engine?”
“No, sir, and I don’t think it would help if I could. The problem is the tender’s hull speed. One thing we could do is lower the sails to cut drag.”
“You all heard. Do it. Don’t bother furling, we’ll want those sails again. Soon, I hope.”
The pirates had lowered sail too. They were edging closer, maybe a couple of knots difference. Edelstein was steering at the moment. Chief Gellert was looking over the rail, tension plain in his grip and the set of his jaw.
“A pfennig for your thoughts, Hugo.”
“The decision to engage is properly the captain’s, sir.”
“So formal. You fear we might have to.”
“I fear the same. And not being a combat ship, our weapons are somewhat limited. Well.” He raised his voice. “Dirck! Serve out whatever you have ready and secure the galley. Issue rifles and ammunition to all hands. Berry and I will use our hunting rifles. You may as well take the elephant gun. And keep them out of sight below the bulwarks, everyone. No sense starting lead flying ourselves if we can avoid it.”
“It might be smart to hang onto the.30-30 ammunition until they’re close enough for me to get mostly hits. That’s when the rate of fire would pay off.”
“Sensible. All right, if we have to open fire, you can begin with an SRG.”
Goosens portioned out a couple of loaves of bread with an apple apiece. And that was going to be all, for a while. The soldiers loaded the rifles down below, where they could stand up to deal with the muzzle-loaders without being seen. Berry secured a boom awning across the scuppers to keep the brass cartridge cases from going over the side; that was the least important piece of canvas on board. Then they waited. The galley crept slowly closer.
Haro watched, and frowned. This is a lot more than any half hour. The pirate was only a few hundred yards astern now. Some of the rowers had tired, but others had taken their place. They weren’t going to get away by wearing out their pursuers.
Gellert was watching too. “Well, at least they’re not shooting at us yet.”
“No. They don’t want to damage the merchandise.” But Haro was going to have to make a decision very soon.
A puff of wind came, just for a second. He looked around. It came again. The yarn telltale on the port main shroud stirred a little. Half a mile off the beam there was a brighter patch in the clouds. A convection current, maybe?
Whatever, here it came. The masthead generator pivoted; the relative wind was no longer from dead ahead. “All hands, make sail!” With two men to a halyard, the fore and main were up in seconds, the staysail nearly as quick. Berry and Goosens climbed out on the bowsprit netting, shaking out the jibs. Suddenly Dermot called out something over the clatter of lines and spars. Liam Ó Houlihan turned to look, from where he was belaying the mainsheet, and shouted, “Captain! They’re manning the bow chaser!”
Haro swung around and mentally kicked himself. Of course. What other choice would they have, with a good breeze blowing? The only way to catch us now is to wreck our rigging.
“Commence firing at that gun crew. Take your time and get hits. Chief, you’ve got the deck. Get the boat shut down and hoisted in as soon as you can, it’s a drag on us now, and we can’t afford to leave it.” He settled into a sitting position on the deck and picked up his caplock-converted hunting SRG. Rifles started going off around him as he squeezed off his first shot. So much for holding back with their one up-time repeating weapon. There was a metallic slam, then a streak of light flew at the enemy vessel. Somebody had dropped the so-called elephant gun—it fired a mitrailleuse cartridge—onto one of the swivel stanchions, and shot off a tracer round to get the range and windage. The smoke blew away. Over his sights he saw the enemy gunners pick up a ball. As he came up to a kneeling position and started to re-load, Ó Carroll passed his rifle down the hatch and took another that was handed up to him.
“What are you doing, Sergeant?”
The soldier grinned. “I showed Dermot and Conor how to load an SRG. Just had time enough to do that. They can stand up with some protection, down where they are.”
Haro nodded and rammed home a round.
An iron ball went howling past. It splashed off the port bow. The bad news was, they were well within cannon range. The good news seemed to be that they weren’t within accurate range, for a smoothbore. That only meant it would take more shots, before the pirates hit something vital.
Dirck Goosens was running one of the hoisting tackles out to the boat’s bow, so they could haul it in without stopping. Haro was about to call for zigzags, when Gellert did something else entirely. He locked the wheel and ran forward to help Dattler and Edelstein haul the sails in tight, as close to the wind as she would lie. A simple tactic. Now if the pirates turned to point the bow chaser straight at them, their lateen sails wouldn’t draw. They’d have oar power only, and the schooner would open the range in a hurry. The bow chaser crew was moving frantically. Their bow swung, and as the gun bore, they fired again.
Wham! Haro didn’t see it happen, but he felt the lurch. When he snapped his head around to look, the mainboom block was gone. There were just a few bits of wood and iron hanging where it had been, and the mainsheet was a snarl of torn pieces of rope. The boom swung free and the bow fell off the wind. Gellert was lying on the deck, with a ragged chunk of wood sticking out of his thigh, blood spreading down his dungarees.
“Medic! Take care of the chief!” Haro dove for the wheel, to get the schooner back under control. “Lothar, cast off the outer jib.” He needed to balance the sails first thing.
Gellert was struggling to his knees, reaching to uncleat the mainsheet and make some kind of repair. “I can secure the boom, if you can get us up into the wind for a minute, Haro.”
“For Christ’s sake, what are you trying to do, get a courier boat named after you? We’ll take care of the sail. You let Dattler take care of that wound.” He practically screamed, “Go!“
Dermot said something as he stuck his head out of the hatch to swap rifles with Ó Houlihan again. “Captain, he says he can jury-rig that mainsheet.”
“How? He’s never seen this kind of rig before, and there’s nothing left of the block.”
Another quick exchange in Irish. “He says he’s sailed in a Dutchie merchant. He doesn’t know this rig, but he can see what the sheet does. He has an idea how to cobble it together, enough so we can sail.”
Blaser thought about it for all of a second. Everybody else was busy, trying to manage the vessel, keep that gun crew from getting a disastrous hit on them, or get the tender hoisted in again. All the options were bad. “All right, let him. If it doesn’t work, we’ll try something else.”
Kneeling to stay low, Dermot slacked off three of the lace lines, opening a slight gap between the sail and the boom where the block had been. He grabbed one of the shot-off pieces of line, threw a rolling hitch around the boom, then passed the free end three times around loosely, and tied it off. Finally, he threaded what was left of the mainsheet back and forth through the traveler block and the bridle he’d just made. It wouldn’t run freely, but . . .
Both jibs were free now. Haro could get the bow up into the wind. “Now. Have him take up the slack in the mainsheet and belay it.” It took an eternal ten seconds. Haro fell off until the fore and main filled. “Sheet home all.” Edelstein took the wheel, prone on the deck and steering by the luff of the sails.
A couple of shoulder rifles and the elephant gun went off practically together. Haro looked back at the pirate vessel again. One of the gun crew was down. Not dead; he was moving, and somebody was going to help him. No, to take his place. Haro sat and took aim again. Instead of one of the gunners, he hit a man stowing an oar. A fat lot of good that would do. They looked ready again. The galley was swinging to point the cannon at them.
“Fall off the wind a couple points for half a minute. Then come back to course.” The schooner dodged, but this time luck went against them. There was a crash somewhere below. “Dattler, report!”
The medic shouted up the hatch, “It came through a plank someplace in the stern and went into the groceries. There’s smashed potatoes all over the place.”
Smashed? Scheist! Most of the food supplies were stowed low. He took a fast look over the side. There was a splintered hole the size of his fist barely above the waterline, and the wavetops were lapping at it. He weighed alternatives—the gun was still the immediate threat. Couldn’t afford many more hits like that one. He finished loading again, braced, and sighted. What’s going on over there? The gun crew wasn’t doing anything. One of them moved aside, and he got a look. The cannon was lying askew. A couple of their shots must have torn into the mounting and weakened it, so it broke when the gun fired. They won’t get that fixed today. Okay, what’s next? The leak? He was about to start giving orders, when a few of the corsairs who’d just left the deck came running back with muskets in their hands. “Sergeant . . . “
“I see them.” Ó Carroll fired and exchanged his rifle again.
Something whined by, right over the rail. “Damn, skipper, I think that was a minié ball.”
“What else could possibly go wrong today? Shoot at whoever you think has a rifle. Lothar, keep weaving, try to spoil their aim.”
Ó Houlihan fired and reached toward the hatch. Conor started to hand him a loaded rifle. Something hit the hatch coaming, just where he was holding on. His head dropped out of sight, and there was a crash and a shout below. “What happened?”
Dattler answered. “Conor fell on the mess table and broke his arm. Looks like a finger is shot off. I gave him a compress to hold against it. I’ll get to him as soon as I finish stitching up the chief.”
“Understood.” Get out of range, fast. Then the leak. “Sergeant, you and Ó Houlihan and Dermot give Goosens a hand for a minute, hoisting that boat clear of the water.” He sighted again, trying to see which of the pirates was the real threat now. Zum Teufel! Is that an SRG over there? Whatever the thing was, the man wasn’t pounding away with a ramrod to get the bullet seated. Minié ball, all right. He took a breath and held it, sighted, squeezed the trigger. The rifleman flinched, but that was all. The crack of the.30-30 sounded again. One of the pirates clutched his arm and dropped his weapon. No more of his men had been hit, thankfully, and the range was opening.
Everybody who could shoot was firing now, the cook included. But at this distance, if they were getting any hits at all, it was probably just the sails.
There’d been quite a few rounds fired on both sides, with most hitting only timber or canvas, if that. Well, Haro’s adversaries probably didn’t do a lot of marksmanship training, but his men had had all the regulation range time and more, and the best iron sights you could get. But the realization came to him that the one thing they hadn’t practiced was marksmanship from a moving deck. That, I will remedy. And whenever they finally get that inch-and-a-quarter shell’s miserable impact fuze to work right, it won’t be a minute too soon for the couriers.
Ian finished shoving sacks and crates aside, and got his first clear look at the damage. He went back up the ladder scowling. That cannon ball had done more than just punch through the hull, the shock had cracked the caulking between two of the planks. There was a line of dribbles coming in the port quarter, just above the floorboards. It was obvious enough what the skipper was going to do about it—lay the hull over on a beach someplace so they could get at the spot, and re-caulk it. And check the planks, too. It wouldn’t be any surprise if one or two were split or loose on the frames. Dermot assured them they could do it at Trá Ciaran, St. Kieran’s Strand, the gently sloping west shore of North Harbor. They were going there anyway. If they didn’t sink first. As it was, Edelstein and Ó Houlihan were taking their turn on the pump, puffing like a steam engine, and just about keeping up. At least the hole was above the waves, heeled over on the port tack the way they were, but they weren’t going to make their landfall on this course. And once they tacked again, that hole was going to be under water. The skipper was hanging over the rail by a hand and a knee with a life line around his waist, looking at it.
“How bad is it, sir?”
“We have a problem, Ian. The way it’s splintered, a plug wouldn’t hold without a lot of trimming. Meanwhile we’re getting further and further east.”
“Well, we could try fothering. That’s supposed to be quick.”
“What’s that, some kind of magic up-time caulk?”
“No, it’s an old-time British trick I read about. They’d stretch a sail over a bad leak, and run lines around the hull to hold it in place. We’ve only got the one hole and a busted seam. Heck, a hammock would probably be big enough to cover everything.”
The lieutenant shook his head. “Look where it is. The hull curves inward under the stern. The lines would pull it away.”
“Mmm. Yeah. Okay, could we nail it on?”
Me and my big mouth. There was no way to do this single-handed. Ian and Liam were crouched shoulder-to-shoulder in the stern of the currach, with Dermot playing a couple of lines running over their heads to the schooner’s rail, trying to hold them in place. Liam was struggling to hold onto the square of canvas they’d smeared with grease from the galley to waterproof it and help it seal, and the strip of salvaged barrel hoop to use for a batten, while Ian tried again to get the first couple of nails in. A wave bounced them around, and knocked the hammer out of his hand for the second time. For the second time he hauled it up by the lanyard the skipper had made him tie around his wrist. Once more. This time he got a nail started, and tacked down an upper corner. Then the other. That was the easy part.
“Dermot wants to know what all the splashing is.”
“You try driving a row of nails under water some time! Crap, I banged myself!”
He kept pounding away. Finally it was as good as it was going to get. He straightened up and nodded at Dermot. Two minutes later they were back on board and running around to get under way on the starboard tack.
“Berry! Your hand is bleeding!”
“Just a nick from a miss with the hammer, Skipper. I’ll be all right.”
“Never mind all right. Who needs more blood on the deck? Go see Dattler.”
Ó Carroll hauled the piece of rope taut and tied it off on the davits. “Ian, what are we doing, exactly?”
“We’re cannibalizing the boat tackle to use for a temporary mainboom block. We’ll need it to maneuver, when we get close to shore.”
“Ah. Does Himself know what we’re doing, here?”
“Nope. He told me to make the best repairs I could up here, and went below to try to do something with that cracked seam. I’m not going to bother him unless I have to. He’s got enough to think about.”
“It seems so. He looked like he lost his best friend.”
“He damn near did. The chief could have bled to death right in front of us, if Eugen hadn’t moved so fast.”
“They’re that close?”
“Oh, yeah. Blaser and Gellert go back a long way. Once in a while they talk about it. Blaser first went to sea in his uncle’s fluyt, must be fifteen years ago. Gellert was the boatswain then, and Blaser learned his seamanship from the two of them.”
“What brought them here, then?”
“Well, Blaser inherited the ship. It just about made a living, but there wasn’t much left over. Finally there wasn’t any way to keep it afloat any longer, and there wasn’t enough money to replace it. So Blaser sold it to a ship breaker, and then they worked their passage up to Magdeburg on a river barge, and walked into the navy yard. But I’m pretty sure that’s not the only thing bothering him.”
“Oh, and isn’t that enough for one man?”
“I guess it is, so you could say he’s got more than enough. He’s probably thinking about what he’s going to say to the admiral when we get back, and what Simpson’s likely to say to him. We screwed up this morning. Neither of us really thought through what the risks were when we charged in to pick up Dermot and Conor, or looked hard at the payoff against what we stood to lose. We sure didn’t consider Murphy’s Law. We risked the ship, the mission, and all of us.”
“So, but you had to follow the captain’s orders.”
“Sure, but it was my watch. I was just as responsible as him. It was my job to make the captain’s orders work. If I’d really been thinking about everything that could go wrong, I could have said, ‘I’ll go check out the engine and warm it up. Just in case.’ That old carburetor’s always finicky when it’s cold. With a hot start, it would have fired up on the first pull, and those guys never would have gotten a shot at us. And it probably would have gotten the skipper thinking over the whole situation, too.”
“That might be so. But suppose Conor and Dermot just disappeared, and then we turned up? What do you think his folk would have thought? And you did get the boat going, and kept us away from them.”
“Fine, Sean. So maybe it was the right decision after all, in cold-blooded military terms. We still didn’t think it over at the time. And using the tender wasn’t a plan. We were improvising, and we ended up with two wounded men. I don’t care how many pirates we shot, that wasn’t the mission.”
Denis Ó Driscoll had never seen such a sight in his life. There was Dermot Cadogan, just rowing in past the point, with some oddly dressed foreigner in his bow sounding the bottom with a lead line as they went. A hundred yards behind, an outlandish-looking gray ship of some kind was following in his wake, with only a few men on deck and all its sails down. The low-lying deck swept unbroken from end to end, with no stern castle at all. No yards crossed the two masts—had some terrible storm torn them away, or had the crew stripped them for some reason? Two of the men were rhythmically bending up and down, and there was water running over the side near where they were standing. They must be bailing. As strange as the ship was, it was trailed by a boat with no sails or oars showing, a few puffs of thin black smoke coming from it. There was a man in the boat—what was he doing? Putting out a fire? Cooking? That seemed to be where the rumbling noise was coming from.
He cupped his hands around his mouth. “Dermot! Will you tell me what this is you’re bringing us?”
Dermot shouted back, “I will, when I can. Quick, gather all the help you can get. They need to drag that schooner there up on the beach before they sink.”
But word had already spread. The commotion was drawing folk from half a mile around. Most of the men were coming armed—that was only sensible.
Meanwhile Dermot stopped rowing and pointed toward the strand, covered with fist-size rounded rocks. One of the strangers responded with a wave. The boat came around under the bow, and the crew gingerly lowered a big iron anchor into it. Denis didn’t need anyone to tell him what they intended. Sure enough, the boat headed toward the shore.
Denis shouted to one of the boys peering from the clifftop on the east side of the little harbor, “Rory! Run tell your da we need shovels. Four or five, if he can find them.”
It took a dozen men to drag that anchor up above the high water mark, but now it was dug into the ground, with big rocks piled over it for good measure. The boatman had gone back and forth twice more, bringing first the anchor chain and then a tackle from halfway up the mainmast. Now he stood up from where he’d been joining lines together and waved his arm in a circle over his head. The chain rose off the ground and the ship crept further onto the shore, grounded, and slowly tilted over. Two of the men on deck went back to their bailing.
Dermot pointed at the man just climbing down over the rail. “That’s the captain, Denis. Here he comes. Ó Carroll, will you do the introduction? I’m not sure I have his name altogether right.”
“My thanks to you all. This would have been much harder to do without your help.”
“There was no time for talk, and I saw Dermot treating you as a friend. Now will you tell us how Dermot knows you and what brought you here this way?”
“We came here to talk about some commercial arrangements, but what brought us here in this condition was a sailing galley full of Moorish pirates that we had to fight off today. It’s a good thing you have your weapons. I’m worried they might be coming here.”
Denis’s face froze. “A raid coming? Are you sure of that?”
“No, but there’s hardly a worse thing they could do, for you and us. So by the lesson of Captain Murphy’s famous law, that’s the thing to prepare for.”
“Captain Murphy? One of The Ó Neill’s men?”
“No, he was a test pilot in the world my second officer came from. It’s a long story.”
“A long story, so? Would he tell the tale tonight, do you think? Never mind. Best we set a watch.” He half-turned and pointed toward a low ridge to the south. “Rory, go on up there and look sharp for any strange sails. Somebody will come spell you in a while.”
There was a stir and the crowd parted. A broad-shouldered man of middle years came to stand next to Denis, and studied the scene for a few seconds. He looked at Dermot and cocked his head, as if to ask, “Will someone tell me who these strangers are, and what is that thing cluttering the beach where we land our fish?”
Dermot looked down for a moment and shifted his feet. “It’s complicated.”
“I have time to listen. I don’t see anyone waving weapons in the air.”
“This is . . . ” He gestured to Ó Carroll.
“Our captain, Lieutenant Haro Blaser of the United States Navy. The United States of Europe, I mean. I am Sergeant Seán Ó Carroll, here to translate.”
Dermot put in, “And this is our king, Cornelius Ó Driscoll, I told you of.”
Haro caught the name, and inclined his head politely.
“Here to translate, so. Then it’s not by accident that you came to us.”
Dermot gave an amused snort. “They came to see you, Cornelius.”
Cornelius cocked his head again.
“We were sent to arrange for a visit by a senior official of our government, if you’re willing, to discuss commercial arrangements. Our ships will soon start to pass this way, and we would like to have a regular place to buy provisions and make repairs. I didn’t expect we’d be making repairs ourselves, though.”
“A fine enough thing to talk about, but why didn’t he just come himself?”
“There have been some unfortunate experiences in other places. Some people who were greatly needed were kept waiting uselessly for months.”
Dermot grinned. “You’re a diplomat, Captain. The way I heard it, they blew a hole in the Tower of London and sank an English warship getting one bunch back.”
Cornelius raised an eyebrow. “Oh, that must be a tale to hear. But what happened to you?”
“Conor and I were off to the southwest fishing at dawn this morning. Some damned paynims caught sight of us and made a fine try at carrying us off, like all those poor souls they snatched away from Baltimore the other year. If Captain Blaser and this schooner here hadn’t changed course and come streaking in like the wind to pick us up, we’d be on our way to Barbary by now. It looked like we were sailing away from them clean, until the wind dropped and they came rowing up after us. That was when all the shooting started, and Conor got hit, and they blew a hole in the hull. One of their men got hurt bad, too.”
“Speaking of Conor, I don’t see him here. Did he take your fish up the hill to the women?”
“Their doctor wants to keep him for a couple of days, to make sure he heals all right.”
“Make sure? Did you say make sure he heals? He can do that?”
“I did. He said, short of really terrible luck, Conor will row again in a couple of months. If he takes care of his arm the way he was told.”
Cornelius stood for a few moments, thinking.
“I’d never have looked for such deeds from strangers. It’s more than Christian charity, for certain. The clan is in your debt, so.” He reached out his hand to clasp Haro by the forearm. Haro returned the gesture, and so they stood facing each other for a few seconds. “Your repairs, then. What do you need from us?”
“A new two-sheave block. That’s the hardest thing. We have a few spare planks to repair the hole in the hull, and when that’s done I would be happy to have any help you could give us caulking and painting, and patching the sails. The sooner she’s afloat again, the better. And we’ll probably need some help hauling her back off the shore.”
Cornelius cupped his chin in his hand. “A block. Mmph. Well, maybe we can manage that here and maybe we can’t, but there’s a man in Crookhaven who makes them. We’ll get it, one way or another.”
Denis was looking off at the ridge top. “Cornelius? Rory’s waving madly.”
The drifting clouds threw another patch of moonlight on the sails, away off to the south. The galley had been lurking hull-down for hours out there, not coming any closer.
Ó Carroll straightened up and stared for a minute. ” Ó Driscoll? See that?”
“Rrmm. That’s a new course. And here they come. They figure we’ve had time enough to turn in and go to sleep, here.”
“A simple enough plan. Another hour and they’ll be landing. Well, we’re as ready as we’re going to be.”
Haro saw it too. He looked over their position again. They were behind one of the island’s myriad stone walls, on a bluff at the top of South Harbor. They were between the only two reasonable landing beaches. The islanders with their muskets held the right end of the line, putting them closest to the longer beach. Blaser and his people held the left, with five rifles. It would have to do; the Irish expected Blaser to be here leading his men, and that meant his one remaining petty officer had to stay in charge of the schooner, along with the field medic.
The far end of the right-hand beach was fairly distant for accurate rifle fire, even with the advantage of shooting from a firm rest. But to get from there to anything worth stealing, the pirates would have to cross the middle of the island. The defenders could easily occupy that narrow neck first, even running with their extra weapons. They’d rehearsed the move twice.
Edelstein had gone a little higher up the slope and looked around. Now he came down to where Blaser sheltered in a corner of the walls. “Captain? Do you have a couple of minutes?”
“Of course.” Haro got up and followed him a hundred yards or so uphill.
Without raising his arm to point, Edelstein looked to the southwest. “You see, sir?”
Blaser did see. Spread out in front of them was the western third of the island. It was mostly gently rolling land, at least a square mile of it. On the left was a broad, low hill. Either place had room enough to hold the array of soaring steel towers and their radial ground wire system. From here, there would be straight salt-water ground wave paths to a huge swath of the Atlantic’s far shores, and most of the way back home as well, with only a short land hop over southern England to weaken the signal. And according to what Dermot had said, the soil on that end of the island was so poor and thin, it was nearly useless even for grazing. Which meant they wouldn’t inconvenience their prospective neighbors, besides being able to build on bedrock. Haro had already examined the five hundred foot hill behind them; anything the navy built here would have to be defended, and that’s where the artillery would go. There was even room for an airstrip. Just like that, the core of the mission was accomplished. There was a lot of surveying and mapping yet to do, but they had their answer.
“Yes. It’s just too bad the harbors are so exposed.”
“North Harbor could work year-round, if we built a breakwater.”
“Expensive, but it would certainly make the islanders happy. They wouldn’t have to leave for the winter any more. Well, we’ll put it all in the report. Let’s go back down and try to get a little rest before things start to happen.”
Here they came. Two boats with muffled oars, the galley idling well out in the harbor. There was light enough through the thin clouds to tell where they were. Coming closer . . .
The boats turned toward the western beach, about halfway along. All right, this was as close as they were going to get, with a clear shot. It had been agreed that the sergeant would give the signal to begin shooting, familiar as he was with the islanders’ muskets as well as the rifles.
“Take aim.” There was a stirring all along the wall.
“Light them up.” Goosens raised the signal pistol and launched a blue parachute flare into the sky. Off the mouth of the Elbe, it would have summoned a pilot. Here . . .
In the space of two seconds a couple of dozen muskets went off. It wasn’t quite a military volley, but it was close enough. Out in the harbor a rower slumped over his oar. Then the rifles started hitting among the packed boat crews. Down on the water there was shouting, and a few return shots that came nowhere close. After half a minute or so, muskets started to fire again, and Cornelius shouted something. There was a pause, then he shouted again and twenty or so fired together.
That was enough. Somebody down below roared out an order, and the survivors spun around and pulled for the galley, with a few long-range shots falling around them to hurry them on their way.
“Well, that’s what I like, Cornelius. An anticlimax.”
“And good riddance and bad luck to them all. I couldn’t help noticing, though, it was those few little guns of yours that did most of the killing.”
“You and your kin want to buy some, you mean? That can be arranged. One more thing for us to talk about tomorrow. But we couldn’t have driven off that many men by ourselves. It was your musket volleys that convinced them not to try closing with us.
“And now I suggest we post our night watches and get some sleep. I want to start repairs as soon as my men are rested enough not to hurt themselves with their own tools.”
The islanders watched while the galley cleared the harbor mouth and hoisted sail, meanwhile gathering up their gear. As they began to leave the bluff, Denis looked back over his shoulder and stopped. “Cornelius? Look at that! I think you’re getting your wish.”
“How? Oh, indeed, I see. The way they’re heading, sure, that’s an unlucky course to steer. For them, anyway.”
“And what’s such terrible bad luck about that?”
“You’re not from around here, Corporal. You can tell your captain the bad luck waiting the way they’re headed is an English frigate, prowling out of Kinsale. At least, when they can lay hands on enough supplies to leave port. That English captain holds a burning grudge from four years ago; if he once sees them, he’ll be sure to give them a letter of introduction to the Devil.”
“A letter . . . Oh, you mean one delivered out of a cannon? Sure, that’s bad luck for that collection of heathen robbers.”
Denis shouldered his musket with a sardonic laugh. “More like, a couple of copies sent from every gun in his broadside, just to make sure it’s delivered. For once in my life, I wish good luck to the English.”