1637 No Peace Beyond The Line – Snippet 15
Petit-cul-de-sac Marin, Guadeloupe
“Starboard battery two, A gun, reports ready, Commodore!” Svantner cried over the flap of Intrepid‘s sails.
“Fire at the crew chief’s discretion, Lieutenant!” Eddie shouted back, albeit with none of his XO’s animation.
That permission, shouted down a speaking tube to the cruiser’s gun-deck, brought no immediate response from the weapon. Take your time, thought Eddie, raising his binoculars to examine the state of their target.
The French bark, only two hundred thirty yards away, was in difficult straits — literally and figuratively. Barely more than a third the length or freeboard of the Intrepid, she had been at anchor in Guadeloupe’s large southern bay, the Petit-cul-de-sac Marin, when the larger ship appeared with the Dutch jachts Zuidsterre and Fortuin.
These escorts, lately attached after completing their duties as the northern arms of the detection net spread before La Flota, harried the larger bark, dancing away from her guns, but cutting off any escape out into open water. Eddie had kept Intrepid slightly back from those maneuvers, watching the Frenchman for signs of where she felt it safe to go and where not. Had he been conning the bark, his goal would have been to entice the impossibly large steam cruiser to follow him into shallows and there either run aground, or be in enough danger of doing so that she would abandon pursuit in favor of carefully navigating back to safe waters.
That did indeed seem to be what the Frenchman had been hoping to achieve. After the first quarter hour, when it was clear that the cruiser was not taking that bait, he made one run to escape, hard along the eastern shore. He had not counted on the range of Intrepid‘s carronades. Starboard battery one had discharged all three guns. The result was one embarrassingly wide miss, a very near one, and a solid hit amidships. The power of that sixty-eight pound ball at such close range sent strakes, planks, and a deck gun flying up and the Frenchman flying back the way he had come.
As the bark heeled over to beat that retreat, Eddie would almost certainly have scored at least one more hit by coming a point to port, thereby giving battery two a ready target. But by chasing the enemy hull back into the Petit-cul-de-sac Marin, he hoped its captain would see and submit to the hopelessness of his situation, and thereby surrender his ship to ensure the survival of his crew.
Either the captain was made of sterner stuff or was simply stubborn. For the next half hour, he attempted to entice Intrepid into chasing him, ultimately tucking tightly around the western end of one of the bay’s small islands — Îlet Cochon — and making for the glorified sand-bar named Îlet Boissard. It was an act of desperation, in that no mariner worth their salt would have followed him there, not even the shallow-drafted jachts. But the French captain had little choice; he was now operating in a patch of water so small, and so uneven in the rise and drop of its sandy bed, that his only remaining hope was for his enemies to make a foolish mistake or intercession by force-majeur. Which on a day as clear as this one, Eddie reflected with a rueful smile, would mean the freakish appearance of either a water-funnel or a hoary-hided kraken.
Neither appeared, and his opponent’s desperation took its toll: it was the Frenchman that ultimately found itself brushing the bottom in a touch-and-go dance with running aground. Instead of Intrepid, it was the bark that had to slow and, using sails ill-suited for the purpose, reverse her course out of the labyrinth of silt and sand at the foot of the bay. And at the present moment, that meant showing her stern to Intrepid.
And still, Eddie realized, starboard two’s A gun had yet to fire. He was about to make a loud suggestion that sooner would be better than later when the gun released its raucous blast along with a plume of white smoke. An eyeblink later, its ball punched down upon the amidship deck planks of the bark, just aft of the mainmast. It’s angle of impact — extremely acute — had the effect of almost skipping the shot back up, but it was blocked by two very solid objects: the mainmast and its deck collar.
The impact generated a crack like a wood-splitting lightning strike, and the surrounding planks buckled or sheared, broken ends sticking up like sawed-off toe-tips. The chaotic spray of wood dropped several deckhands and those who remained fought to keep the mast up. Either orders or a greater understanding of the damage reversed those labors; now they were trying to ensure that its fall would not bring down the foremast.
They managed that, but settling back into the divot dug by the carronade’s ball, the mainmast tilted and then rushed down sternward, stripping the gaff clean off the mizzen as swiftly and surely as an axe trimming a dried branch.
“She’s done!” Svantner said enthusiastically, loudly. “They’ll strike colors any second, now.”
Eddie crossed his arms and frowned. This captain had persisted when most others would have accepted the inevitable. “We’ll see,” was all he said.
Three minutes later, the Frenchman’s starboard stern cannon roared defiance at her three opponents; the six-pound ball missed Zuidsterre by thirty yards. Not bad shooting, given the range of two hundred fifty yards. On the shattered deck, men were moving with purpose: making repairs, passing out muskets, adjusting the foresail to renew their attempts to escape the twisting shallow, and tossing the dead over the side.
Eddie shook his head; just what he’d feared.
Svantner was outraged. “What instructions for the Master Gunner, sir?” he almost shouted, although the cannons were still that moment.
Eddie sighed. “Starboard battery one is to load with canister.”
“To bring down their foresail, sir?”
“Svantner, it’s not their foresail that keeps them fighting.” Eddie sighed more deeply. “Aim low. Sweep the length of the deck. Stop when she strikes her colors.”
“And if she doesn’t?”
“Then keep firing until there’s no one left to shoot back.”
* * *
As his longboat’s prow touched the sand with a grating hiss, Eddie glanced past the white flag fluttering over its transom: Intrepid looked deceptively small at this distance. It was the first time since coming to the New World that he’d been in potentially enemy territory while outside of her protective umbrella and stout hull. It was not, he decided, a particularly enjoyable sensation.
He rose from the seat as the team of Marines in the bow — armed with percussion cap rifles and revolvers — jumped into the knee-deep water on either side and made their way out of the lazy surf. There was no indication that anyone in the small encampment a hundred yards east and just beyond the margin of the beach had noticed their arrival. Nor was there a Kalinago war party waiting for them, either. About which he had to wonder: was that a good sign or the calm before a storm?
Since being lowered down from Intrepid‘s aft davits, Eddie had thought more than once that maybe Svantner had been right: mount the outboard motor for this mission. Probably wouldn’t be needed, but if it was, there was nothing like a 30 horse-power engine to ensure a quick get-away. But mounting it and testing it would have meant a delay, and following up the decisive defeat of the French bark with a prompt, confident visit under a flag of truce was the best way to keep the initiative.
Which, Eddie acknowledged with a sigh, would not be achieved by remaining on Intrepid‘s skiff. As he made ready to stand — not easy with a prosthetic foot and ankle, even one of up-time design and manufacture — Lieutenant Gallagher jumped out and pulled the boat a foot or two further up the strand. The young Irishman — one of the Wild Geese mercenaries — smiled back at him. “Mind, there’s a wee undertow, Commodore.”
Eddie nodded, pushed down two resentments. First, that he didn’t have two feet of his own any longer. And second, that he’d agreed to having the commander of his elite troops accompany him as a personal guard, the notion of which fit Eddie’s view of himself and the world about as well as kneepads fit a chicken. But Svantner’s objections had bordered on insubordination: it was his role to make landfall instead of his CO. And, under other circumstances, he would have been right.
But these circumstances were not typical, and required a diplomatic touch that Svantner sorely lacked. So Eddie had suggested that one of the Wild Geese could look after his safety. Even that failed to mollify Svantner until Gallagher overheard the debate and promptly volunteered himself for the duty.
Which left Eddie with three choices. Decide against a guard from the Wild Geese (no good; it had been his idea); insist upon another of the mercenaries (a slap to Gallagher’s face), or reverse his order and refuse any guard at all (probably stupid and a CO can’t even appear to waffle).
With a nod to the two ship’s troops who were remaining behind to guard the skiff and maintain visual contact with Svantner (who was probably about to have kittens), Eddie threw his good leg over the side, waited for the slack in the space between the tide’s ebb and flow, got his prosthetic solidly on the sand, and marched toward the tents to the east.
* * *
Eddie had anticipated many possibilities when he had seen the cluster of tents and lean-tos from the deck of Intrepid. It could have been the starving survivors of a failed colony; a camp of invalids, weakened by malnutrition and struck down by a local disease; cripples who, after fleeing from retribution after their failed attack on St. Eustatia, had lost their health along with the limbs taken by a combination of gangrene and the surgeon’s saw. The only thing that seemed certain was that its inhabitants were neither numerous nor vigorous; forty-five minutes of observation through a spyglass had yielded only a few signs of brief, labored movement.
But none of that prepared him for what he discovered as he approached the tents. For the first few moments, he couldn’t even come up with a mental label for it. But then one emerged: The colony of lost women. Almost all of whom were malnourished, sickly, or both.
At the center, one thin, well-featured man — pale, dark-haired, bearded — was sitting on the remains of a sun-bleached crate. He stood unsteadily and said, “I am Jacques Dyel Du Parquet. Nephew of Pierre D’Esnambuc, late the Governor of the French colony on St. Christopher, whose ship and life you have just erased from this world.” His smile was both sardonic and rueful. “I suspect you wish our surrender.”