About the Faces on the Cutting Room Floor, Number Six: Pirates as Prey

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Much of the second half of 1635: The Papal Stakes involves defeating, avoiding, even stealing resources from, the plentiful pirates of the seventeenth-century Mediterranean. And while all the main scenes involving these scrapes and adventures were retained, some of the lesser ones could not be kept, even though characters referred to them.

This truncated story-telling was particularly pronounced in the events surrounding the operations team’s arrival on Mallorca and its subsequent attempts to contact local agents to facilitate the rescue of Frank and Giovanna Stone. One such excised scene was the capture of the pirates occupying the Caves of Arta, a necessary refuge and water source for the group. While not a major battle in terms of the plot development, it was a defining moment for Estuban Miro who, until this moment, had always lived more by his wits and words than by the sword . . .

 

By the end of that day, Estuban Miro knew that the Coves des Arta would live in his nightmares. Not because of the soaring, fluted columns formed from fused stalactites and stalagmites, not because of the ghostly faces that erosion had etched faintly into the sheer walls, or the sudden inky abysses that opened up before the team’s feet as they crept forward quietly into the dark. No: it was because here he at last he made his intimate acquaintance with killing–at very, very close range.

Miro had been sailing in pirate-infested waters since his teens and so had come under fire repeatedly. And had returned the same. But that had been in open air, at ranges of fifty yards or more.

This day, the team began by crawling forward into the caves of Arta, led by a once-local sailor named Miguel who was the only man on the expedition who had ever been in the Caves before. And he had only been there once.

But that turned out to be invaluable since Miguel proved to have a damned good memory. Twice he kept them from blithely crawling over ledges that would have led to fifty yard falls into stalagmite-toothed crevasses. About forty yards into the Caves, they caught sight of the glimmer of a fire up ahead, and the low sound of casual, intermittent conversation. The six of them—Miro, North, two Hibernians, and two Wild Geese—stopped to whisper and confirm their final plans.

What they had not seen ahead of time was the pirates’ sentry, who had apparently been dozing. A chunk of shadow seemed to jump out at them from the opposite wall; Estuban didn’t think, he simply drew the HP-35 North had given to him and fired three times. The shadow fell toward him, and, as one of the Hibernians uncovered a lantern, the lightless oblong shape turned into bearded man, chest bloodied, one eye crossing as they both rolled back into his head.

It didn’t matter that the man was smelly, unwashed, and had probably cheerfully raped and murdered his way around the shores of the Mediterranean: he was dead by Estuban’s hand, and fell into Estuban’s lap.

Who scrambled and clawed his way backward, pushing the body off. After that, he didn’t really have very clear recollections of the sequence of following events. He remembered feeling like an ass for compromising their surprise attack, watched the two Wild Geese—Grogan and Dillon—charge forward, pistols and swords at the ready, heard—deafening in the cave—one of the Hibernians cutting loose with his .40-72 lever action and saw the first shadow that rose up into the low firelight go down just as fast, knocked over by that flurry of man-killing rounds.

North ran forward, gun secured in both hands, checking the flanks for other nooks or clefts such as the one the sentry had been hidden in. With surprise gone, the two Irishmen had gone ahead full speed, not checking the sides of the cave as they did. Speed was of the essence now, and the first rank had to trust in the thoroughness of the next rank in securing the flanks. Which meant Miro and the other Hibernian, neither of whom found any threats.

By the time the two of them got to the small cooking fire, the execution was over. For it had not been a battle: it had been—truly—an execution. Of the four pirates there, one had been drunk, and another asleep. Of the other two, the first one to stand had been gunned down by the Hibernian with the lever action rifle. By the time the other one had his weapon out, the Wild Geese were upon him; they hadn’t even needed to discharge their pistols. The sword wounds in the pirate’s belly were so deep and wide that his own digestive fluids were leaking out along with his blood. The next corsair—the drunkard—had been stupid enough to grab a hand toward his cutlass: the first Irishman’s sword had neatly taken off the hand; the second removed his head.

So now they were looking down at the last surviving pirate, who woke from what had evidently been pleasant dreams into his very worst nightmare: angry men, soaked in the blood of his mates, staring down at him with weapons out, teeth bared, and eyes bright with the fight-or-die rush of adrenaline. It was the terrified look in the raider’s eyes—and the uncertainty of what might happen in the next moment—that brought back the image of the pirate sentry’s dying face tumbling out of the darkness at Estuban, like a hammer of judgment falling toward him. It did not matter that there were more capital crimes upon that pirate’s balding head than there were hairs, or that it had been a life-or-death situation, or that (as the others pointed out gratefully later on, with many pats on the back) Estuban’s swift and immediate reaction had probably saved one or more of their lives. All he could recall was the face, its transition from being alive to being dead, and the terrible knowledge that he had been the architect of that change.

Standing over the final pirate, gun firmly trained at the man’s forehead, Estuban made himself conform to the image of the stone-cold killer, all the while fighting the urge to vomit.

 

 

With the Caves of Arta secure, Estuban Miro is compelled to journey overland to Palma to make contact with potential allies in the island’s xueta (converso) community. Waiting behind, Thomas North and Harry Lefferts keep the operations team in readiness, and, hopefully, hidden from shore-watching Spanish eyes. It is during this often tense interlude that North realizes that his young up-time comrade has grown immeasurably since their first ill-fated attempt to rescue Frank and Giovanna in Rome . . .

 

Thomas North had to hand it to Harry Lefferts: the up-timer had grown up and become a real soldier. No, more than that: a real leader.

The problems had started five days after Miro had gone on his utterly insane solo jaunt across Mallorca to Palma. And would probably fall into the hands of the Spanish and give them all up, if military fortune kept faith with its usual obedience to Murphy’s Laws.

Although Miro had told everyone that he would be gone at least a week, possibly ten days, the crews had started getting antsy. And it was easy to understand why: the entire mission force was now necessarily split up, strewn halfway across the horizon.

abf-p6-twrThe problem stemmed from the location of the Caves of Arta, where they had happily discovered a sizable supply of the pirates’ perfectly serviceable food, dubious water, and wildly heterogeneous weapons. The Caves were entered by clambering up to a rocky shelf perched about sixty feet above the smooth blue surface of the Bahia de Canyamel. However, the primary problem was not the ascent, but possible observation by guards atop the eponymous Torre de Canyamel, a solid thirteenth-century tower that was a great deal more formidable than the rest of the diminutive watchtowers that ringed the island. Located just under two miles inland, it was over seventy-five feet tall and furnished with walls three-foot thick, at the base. It didn’t hold much of a garrison anymore, but, being a worthwhile military structure, it was still occupied by regular troops who maintained their coast watch according to military standards, rather than those of a local militia. Which, in the latter case, meant no standards whatsoever.

However, with the Torre de Canyamel nearby, it meant that the operation’s small flotilla of boats could not remain close to the sizable shore party which was both  bivouacking in, and guarding the concealed water sources of, the Caves of Arta. And if they loitered together, even well off-shore, fishermen would no doubt report this coherent group of new boats, several alarmingly large by local standards. And that report would surely prompt an immediate and disastrous investigation by the local authorities.

abf-p6-gjtSo the mission force’s boats were necessarily scattered. The xebec was well out to sea, over seven miles, simultaneously dodging the watchful eyes atop the Torre de Canyamel as well as the pirate vessel they knew to be in the area, which was evidently waiting for a signal from own (now defunct) shore party. The barca-longa was escorting it. Meanwhile the scialuppa, having become a semi-familiar and non-threatening sight in the local waters, cycled back and forth between the Bahia de Canyamel and the waters on the opposite side of its southern headland: the rocky coastline of the Costa des Pins. The gajeta, although no larger than the scialuppa, was built along lines that were different enough from the local small boats to occasion notice, and so it tracked along the coast three miles out, legitimately fishing in order to supplement the group’s food stores.

Having their forces so badly split up, too far to help each other in the event of an emergency, unnerved all but the most seasoned troops and sailors. The operation’s true veterans of war and wave were no more happy with the state of affairs; they simply knew from experience that it was unavoidable, and worrying about what you couldn’t change simply meant you were too tired to perform when and if an actual emergency presented itself. So they slept a lot.

That was when the Piombinesi stationed with the security elements in the Caves of Arta started approaching Harry Lefferts—nervously, respectfully—asking if, perhaps, they shouldn’t all rejoin the ships and stay together for safety while they waited for Miro’s return.

Harry had been patient, pointing out that, in the first place, the pirates were eventually going to send a contingent to check on what had become of their shore party. When they did, they might squat in the cave again, thereby depriving the whole flotilla of its access to a coastal and well-hidden source of fresh water Consequently, there had to be someone in the caves to greet those unwelcome guests—and greet them warmly.

The Piombinesi all liked, and smiled, at that. But they still pressed him to consider relocation.

Harry pressed right back, reminding them that Estuban Miro had no way to signal to them out at sea when he returned, so some of them had to remain here. Besides, until the whole mission force was ready to leave, it could not move the pirates stores’ down the treacherous slopes leading from the cave mouth to the water: someone in the cottages of the small alqueries clustered along the southwest banks of Cala Canyamel would be sure to see and sound an alarum. And loading at night was simply too dangerous to risk, given how close the boat would have to stay to the treacherous and rock-fanged flanks of Cap Vermell.

But still the Piombinesi had persisted, countering sound logistics and common sense with the same kind of cyclical argumentation that North had observed in some of the spoiled children of Grantville—and in every group of impressed civilians that he had ever accompanied on a military mission. Unaccustomed to the constant tension and uncertainty, their anxiety ultimately ate through what thin veneer of courage civilians had and revealed the face of true terror that lay beneath.

Which, North had to admit, Harry had handled like a real pro. Firstly, he had realized that shouting never does any good; it was just as inefficacious as threatening a child in the throes of a true tantrum with a good switching. In short, the Piombinesi’s fear was already so intense that reprimands were only going to make matters worse. Even more impressive was Harry’s full embrace of the opposite, but essential, instinct: he did not try to soothe them. Attempts to do so brought little, if any, calm to troubled units: grown men discerned pretty quickly if reassurances were genuine—and if they weren’t, you had now primed them for a mutiny by making false promises.

Instead, Harry calmly reviewed all the reasons that made it incumbent upon them all to stay put, and finished by saying. “So you see, by staying here, you’re not only doing your job and helping everyone else, but you’re saving your own lives, too.”

That stopped them. One of them asked, “It saves us? How?”

“Well,” commented Harry with a shrug, “reason it out. The only way we could all evacuate is by boat. But that will signal our presence to the soldiers in the Torre de Canyamel, so once we take that step, our next move has to be to run like hell before they can positively identity, let alone intercept, us. So that will mean abandoning Don Estuban, without whom there is no mission—and no pay.”

Another Piombese had murmured. “We could wait for him—further offshore.”

“Let’s hope the local fishermen don’t see and report us. But more to the point: what sign would Don Estuban be sending us that won’t get him snatched up by the tower’s garrison before we can extract him? And loitering off shore also means we might encounter the corsair we haven’t seen yet—and although our captive tells us its just an outsized llaut, we won’t know if he’s telling the truth until we see it. Or we might run into a Spanish counter-piracy sloop that’s already out hunting them. So it seems to me that the smart plan is for us to move only once and to leave this coast behind as quickly as possible when we do.”

He looked around the group; few met his eyes. But most started nodding, muttering and breaking into smaller clumps of disgruntled men who were not happy, but resigned to their current conditions.

Yes, thought North, looking over at Harry, where he sat in the stern, rolling loosely with the scialuppa, the up-timer had become a passable enough officer.. He’d even learned how to wait like a professional, God love him.

 

And finally, as Estuban Miro is about to lead the team’s small flotilla toward Palma in the final do-or-die rescue mission, he confronts the one captive pirate who survived the team’s assault of the Caves at Arta:

 

As he walked toward the shore, Miro came upon a single, disheveled man standing between two of the more combat-experienced sailors from the Guerra Cagna.

The ragged man—the pirate they had taken captive at the Caves of Arta—looked from one face to another, suddenly alarmed. “What?” he asked. “You are leaving?”

Miro nodded. “We are.”

The pirate swallowed. “Don’t kill me. I did everything you asked.”

“So you did.”

“I’ve never even killed anyone. On my father’s scrotum, I never—”

“Do not lie, and do not insult your father’s genitalia by smearing them with that lie. You do not deserve to live, perhaps, but that is not my decision to make.”

The man’s face relaxed into a smile. “Thank you, Lord, thank you. I will remain your servant, if I might, to help you in these treacherous waters where pirates abound—”

Miro shook off his reaching hand. “I am no lord, and I would not have you for a servant, no matter how great my need. Nor are you coming with us.”

The man’s face became horrified once again. “You are—are leaving me? Here? On this god-forsaken rock?”

“Yes.” Miro began walking down to his boat, the two sailors peeling away from the pirate and following him.

“But Lordship, I might be found by Algerines!”

Miro turned. “Indeed you might. And perhaps your prior job experience will be of interest to them. Who knows? They might even make you a full-fledged member of their crew—after you’ve been a slave at their oars for a few years.”

 

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