On Stranger Tides Page 12


"Who on Haiti?" Shandy took hold of a taut shroud to steady himself, and he had to consciously keep from dropping the cup.


"Lapin - that means rabbit, they say, kind of fits the man, actually - and Shander-knack or however Frenchies pronounce it really." Skank frowned drunkenly. "Your real name is something like that, ain't it?"


"A little like it." Shandy took a deep breath and let it out. "Does this ... Shander-knack character have a lot of dealings with y - with us?"


"Oh, aye, he's a speculator. Thatch does love comin' across a speculator. That sort is always just about to get rich, you know, but somehow if you come back in a year they're still just about to. When they have money they can't wait to give it to us, and when they don't have it they want credit - and with rich citizens Thatch is happy to give it to 'em."


"Must be a hard sort of debt to enforce, though," Shandy mused.


Skank gave him a pitying smile, pushed away from the swivel gun post and ambled back aft.


Shandy stayed on the forecastle, and a smile slowly deepened the lines in his dark face, and his eyes narrowed in anticipation of the day when he'd be able to use this new bit of information against his uncle. He was glad the pirates were only going to an uninhabited section of the Florida coast, and not aiming at some fray, for it would be unthinkable for him to be killed before dealing with his father's brother.


As soon as they had got north of the Bahama shoals and were into the deep blue water of the Providence Channel, Shandy was summoned aft by Hodge, the Jenny's lean, grinning skipper, and told that he would now begin to earn his keep ... and for the next five hours Shandy was kept exhaustingly busy. He learned to hoist the peak of the gaff-spar until a few wrinkles were visible in the mainsail, running parallel to the spar, and not just so that the sail was smooth, as looked to him to be more correct; he had already grasped the baffling fact that sheets and shrouds were ropes, not sails, but now he learned some of the tricks of using the sheets to oppose the sails most profitably against the wind, and, the Jenny being so much more nimble than the Carmichael that Hodge decided to let the new recruit get a taste of maneuvering tactics, he learned the principles of tacking into the wind, and when to let a shift in the headwind be a cue to tack; he learned to glance up at the wooden hoops that held the mainsail to the mast, and to know by their trembling when the boat should bear slightly away from the wind for maximum speed.


As if to help out with Shandy's education, the cauliflower bump of a cumulo-nimbus cloud appeared on the eastern horizon, and though it must have been many miles away, Hodge got everyone busy preparing for a storm, "taking in the laundry," as Hodge referred to reefing the sails, and getting a white-haired old bocor up on deck to whistle a Dahomey wind-quelling tune, and restringing some of the shrouds so that loose sheets or likely-to-break spars wouldn't foul them.


The squall crawled blackly across the cobalt blue of the sky and was on them within an hour of its first sighting - Shandy, who'd never had occasion to pay particular attention to the weather, was awed by its speed - and even just under the minimum working canvas the boat heeled when the wind buffeted her.


Hard-driving rain followed a minute later, giving the waves a steamy, blurred look and making a gray silhouette of the Carmichael. Hodge ordered all shrouds loosened against the inevitable shrinking, and Shandy was surprised that the skipper didn't seem at all dismayed by the storm.


"This anything serious?" he called nervously to Hodge. "This?" replied Hodge, shouting against the drumming of the rain on the deck. "Nah. Just enough to dry your clothes. Now if the rain had come first, we might be in some trouble."


Shandy nodded and went back up to the forecastle. The rain wasn't uncomfortably cold, and, as Hodge had pointed out, it would be pleasant to have the salt washed out of his clothes so that tomorrow they would - for once - dry out completely. The first fury of the downpour had abated, and the Carmichael was again clearly visible ahead. Chandagnac knew that in a few hours he'd be crawling below, still in his sopping wet clothes, to find a corner to sleep in, and he hoped Beth Hurwood was finding more comfortable accommodations aboard the ship. He leaned back and let his aching muscles relax for the next task Hodge would set for him.


The next day's leisure moments were spent in gunnery practice, and Shandy, always good at things demanding dexterity, was soon an expert at the tricky craft of aiming a swivel gun and touching a slow match to the vent without either jiggling the long barrel out of line or scorching out an eye when the powder charge went off. When he'd rapidly blown to splinters six in a row of the empty crates that the men aboard the Carmichael were dropping overboard for targets, Hodge had Shandy switch from pupil to instructor, and by dusk every man on the boat was at least a somewhat better marksman than he had been that morning.


On the third day they did more maneuvering practice, and in the afternoon Shandy was allowed to take the tiller and give the commands, and in a period of twenty minutes he piloted the sloop in a long but complete circle around the Carmichael. Emergency drills followed, and when they were practicing battle tactics Davies helpfully fired a couple of the Carmichael's cannons into the water near them to make it seem more realistic.


Shandy was proud of the way he could scramble around on the decks and in the rigging now, and of the fact that - though many of the pirates protested against these energetic activities - he was only pleasantly tired when the lowering, ambering sun began to bounce needles of gold glare off the waves ahead; but his pleasure in his seamanship evaporated when Davies, yelling across the water, told them that too much time had been lost last night when they had laid to, and that tonight they would keep sailing straight through to dawn.


Shandy was assigned the midnight-to-four watch, and the first thing he learned when he crawled up onto the deck was that night sailing was wet and cold. The dew was heavy, and made even the rough deck planks slick, and every length of rigging he grabbed on the way aft spilled chilly water down his sleeve. Hodge was sitting behind the bittacle-pillar, his humorous, angular face weirdly lit from below by the red-glassed bittacle lamp that let him watch the compass without being dazzled; to Shandy's relief, the jobs the skipper gave him were easy and infrequent: periodically take a lantern and check certain recalcitrant sections of the rigging, keep watch ahead against the long chance that another vessel might be somewhere nearby on the vast face of the sea tonight, and make sure the lamp on the bow stayed lit and kept casting the dim glow that prevented the Carmichael's night helmsman from either crowding the sloop or bearing too far off.


The Carmichael was a flapping, creaking tower of darkness on the starboard side, but sometimes Shandy stood by the port rail and stared out across the miles of moonlit ocean, sleepily wondering if he didn't see heads and upraised, beckoning arms in the farther middle distance, and faintly hear choirs singing an eternal two-toned song as old as the tides.


At four Hodge gave him a cup of rum warmed over the bittacle lamp, told him who to rouse and send up for a replacement, and then sent him below to sleep for as long as he could.


It was at about noon of the next day, Tuesday the twenty-sixth of June, just as the two vessels encountered the north-flowing Gulf Stream between the Bimini Islands and Florida, that the Royal Navy man-of-war found them.


When it was first sighted, a white fleck on the southern horizon, it had seemed to be a merchant ship of about the Carmichael's size, and several of the pirates half-heartedly proposed taking it instead of going to Florida; then a few minutes later the man in the bow with the telescope shouted, excitedly, the news that it was a British Navy vessel.


In the first few minutes after this discovery there was tension but no panic, for the Carmichael had been altered for maximum speed and the Jenny could easily tack back to the Bimini shoals, where the water in many areas was twelve feet deep or less - the Jenny only drew eight feet of water, and could skate safely over shoals the man-of-war wouldn't dare approach.


But the Carmichael surged steadily along on her southwest course, her sails bright and unshifting in the tropical sunlight, and Hodge didn't call to have the Jenny come about.


"Why do we wait, cap'n?" queried one bare-chested, white-bearded giant. "We might not be able to lose 'em if they get too close."


Shandy was crouched on the starboard rail beside the horizontal bar - which was called, for some reason, the cathead - that supported the hoisted anchor, and he looked expectantly at Hodge. Shandy thought he saw a new pallor under the man's tan, but the captain swore foully and shook his head. "We'd lose a day, at least, outrunning them and sneaking around back onto course, and with Saturday's rain and that damn layover Sunday night we'll already have to work her thefty to get to the rendezvous in Florida by Lammas Eve. No, lads, this is one time the Navy can run. But hell, the Carmichael is at least as well armed as yonder man-o'-war, and we're no fishing boat ourselves, and we've still got Mate Care-For and Legba and Bosu up our sleeves."


The burly old man stared at Hodge in disbelief; then as if explaining something to a child, he pointed at the no longer distant sails and said distinctly, "Henry - it's the bleeding Royal Navy."


Hodge turned on him angrily. "And we're in action, Isaac, and I'm the captain here today, and Davies' quartermaster besides. God's blood, man, do you think . I like these orders? The hunsi kanzo will have us all for zombies if we back off now - but in going on all we risk is death."


To Shandy's uneasy surprise the crew found this logic unfortunate but unassailable, and they set hastily about preparing for combat. The lighter sails were reefed and a couple of men were sent aloft with buckets of alum solution to splash onto the sails to keep them from burning, the shrouds were replaced with lengths of chain, the cannons were trundled forward so that their muzzles poked out of the ports, the bocor went to the bow and began chanting and flinging shards of carefully broken mirror toward the British ship, and Shandy was ordered to fill all available buckets with sea water and soak a spare sail and then clump all of it around the powder kegs.


During the last three weeks Shandy had been taking some satisfaction in how well he'd behaved when the Carmichael was originally taken, but now, watching his own hands tremble while dragging another bucket of sea water up over the high gunwale, he realized that his relative coolness on that day had been a result of shock, and, even more than that, of ignorance: for he had hardly grasped the fact that he was truly in trouble before he was out of it. This time, though, the trouble was approaching with torturing slowness, and this time he knew in advance exactly how a man died of a gunshot wound in the head, or a saber chop in the abdomen. This time he was so terrified that he felt drunk - all colors were too vivid, all sounds too loud, he felt suspended halfway between weeping and vomiting, and he had to keep thinking about not wetting his pants.


When he'd got the powder kegs surrounded with full buckets and draped over with wet canvas, he hurried back up to the deck, where he was grabbed, handed a smoldering match-cord, and hustled to the starboard bow swivel gun. "Don't shoot till Hodge says, Jack," snapped the man who'd shoved him at the gun, "and then make it count."


Looking out ahead over the pitted muzzle of his gun, Shandy saw that all three vessels were slanting east, into the wind, the Carmichael and the Jenny more sharply than the man-of-war - which was in three-quarter profile to him now, the beige-and-black checkerboard pattern of her gunports visible along her port side.


I can't fire on a Royal Navy vessel, he thought. But if I refuse to shoot, these men will kill me ... as a matter of fact, if I don't do a good job here, the Royal Navy may very well kill me, along with everyone else on the Jenny. My God, there simply isn't an acceptable course of action for me.


A white plume of smoke jetted from the Navy ship's side, and a moment later the cannon's hollow drumbeat rolled across the half mile of blue water that separated the vessels, and a moment after that a towering splash bloomed on the sea face to Shandy's left, stood for an instant, and then fell back like an upflung shovelful of diamonds.


"That's past us," called the tension-shrill voice of Hodge. "She's in range - fire!"


And, as many soldiers have been surprised to discover, the intensive, exhaustingly repetitive training he had received made obeying the order automatic; he had aimed, touched the match-end to the vent, and stepped back to the next gun before he'd even made up his mind whether or not to obey the order. Well you're in it now, he thought despairingly as he aimed the second gun; you may as well work hard for the side you've cast your lot with.


As he touched the match-cord to the second gun's vent, the csloop's seven starboard cannons all went off at more or less the same instant, and the boat, which he hadn't realized until now was heeled over to starboard, was kicked almost back up to level by the recoil.


Then the Vociferous Carmichael, moving awesomely fast for the bulk of her, swept into the smoke-veiled gap between the man-of-war and the Jenny, close enough so that Shandy could clearly recognize the men in her rigging and hear Davies shout, "Fire!" an instant before the Carmichael's starboard guns went off with a sound like close thunder, rendering the man-of-war's sails quite invisible for a moment behind a churning mountain range of white smoke. The Jenny was maintaining her sharp turn to windward, following the Carmichael, and when the cannon smoke was left behind, Shandy was horrified to see the man-of-war, apparently unhurt, pacing the Jenny only a hundred yards away, but when Skank had grabbed him again and flung him onto another swivel gun, and he automatically sighted along the barrel at the bigger vessel, he realized that the man-of-war was not undamaged after all - the safety net over her waist was bouncing and angular with fallen spars, and the checkerboard pattern of the gunports was marred by a half-dozen fresh, ragged holes - and he realized too that the Jenny was moving faster than the Navy ship and would in a minute or so be safely out in front of her. Almost certainly against orders, Davies had driven through and punched the man-of-war to buy the Jenny time to get away.

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