1637 No Peace Beyond The Line – Snippet 26

In hindsight, he might have been able to make it out of Galveston Bay under sail alone, but in the event that the wind became fickle at just the moment she was running a gauntlet between two close sandbars, Haraldsen had wisely decided that it was essential to reserve a measure of coal to ensure reaching open water. Once there, the wind would allow them to make way, even if Courser‘s bunkers were empty. As it was, yesterday’s signal reported that they had indeed used more than half of their remaining fuel to finally exit the bay, and while they did, to provide power to the condensers to make much-needed fresh water for the boilers.

With the wind remaining uncooperative, Haraldsen’ last message was that he could not be sure when they would reach Calcasieu. Between dried driftwood and coal, they had barely enough fuel for another thirty minutes of steam and there was no reason to suspect that the weather was done making their lives miserable. Larry told them to bypass Calcasieu, promising that he would meet them near the equally narrow and unreliable mouth of the Mermentau.

What he didn’t tell them was that if he couldn’t remain in the Calcasieu. The chances of sufficient fish was decreasing and of returning natives was increasing, so Larry and his team would very likely be dead by the time Courser arrived. They had to leave while the channel was still open and they had enough food and water to reach the Mermentau, get inland, and maybe bring down some game.

The Calcasieu was only thirteen miles from the inlet of the Mermentau, so they made it in one day. But once they found the inlet, and then followed its winding inland course through the Mud Lakes, Grand Lake, and Lake Arthur, the dense bayou foliage did not reveal any game. Even the alligators — if they had been willing to chance taking on one of those left-over wannabe dinosaurs — were few and far between. So as night fell, and with the bugs clearly trying to convince them to return to Texas, they consumed their meager rations of fish and water, crowded together while rank with the chemical stink of ketosis, and slept in the boat.

Or tried to. Because tomorrow they would enter the Mermentau, where they would either find sustenance or die in the attempt.

*   *   *

Larry Quinn smiled ruefully at the memory of last night’s sleep-stealing anxiety over dying from hunger or dehydration. Because almost as soon as they had entered the Mermentau this morning, it became evident that they had stealthy company observing their progress. So it turned out Larry and his team had been worrying about the wrong things. It wasn’t starvation that was proving to be their likeliest cause of death: it was an arrow between the eyes.

“They’re watching us from the thickets on the right,” Vogel muttered. Maneuvering around the fallen tree had brought them closer to that bank.

Larry simply nodded and put a hand on Karl Klemm’s tense arm. “Ease off the engine. Let us coast.”

“Why?” muttered Kleinbaum from his perch back on the barrels carrying the last of their gasoline. “To make us easier targets?”

Quinn turned and bestowed his “dead-fish eyes” stare upon the woodsman and tracker, who looked away, grumbling inaudibly. If the small, wiry fellow hadn’t come so highly recommended for his work with the Dutch in the jungles of the Pernambuco and the attempted relief of Bahia, Larry would have sent him packing. What Kleinbaum lacked in size he made up for in mouth, and Quinn had already had one sharp, private conversation with him during their sojourn beside Lake Calcasieu. Another frank exchange of views might be necessary, if they lived to have it.

Karl had brought the throttle back slowly, smoothly, reducing the engine sounds to a dyspeptic mutter. Eckdahl, the Swedish leadsman who’d eased them into Galveston Bay, peered over the bright red nose of the motor boat and commented, “We’re drifting toward weeds, sir. Water lilies of some kind. Could snare the propeller if we drift in too far.”

“Use the gaff to push us back off. Slowly, gently,” Quinn ordered with a faint nod.

Eckdahl picked up the pole, lowered it into the water and leaned into it. The Sportsman’s bow veered back toward the center of the Mermentau River. As the boat slowed and Quinn felt the sluggish current begin to push them back toward the Gulf that was now almost fifty miles of meandering river and muddy lakes behind them, he casually asked, “Vogel? Any reaction from our watching friends?”

“No,” the hunter’s son from Rothenburg-ob-Tauber drawled. “They left.”

“Do you think they even knew we saw them?” Winkelman wondered.

Vogel shrugged. “Well, one of them nodded at me.”

“Nodded at you?” echoed Kleinbaum.

“Yes. You know, it was one of those ‘I can see that you are watching me watching you’ kind of nods. The one that scouts use to acknowledge the nonsense of having to play hide-and-seek like so many children. But with real weapons,”

“I mean no disrespect, Herr Vogel,” Karl commented, “but can you be so sure that what a nod means in Europe is what it means here?”

Vogel smiled; it was not unkind, just mildly amused. “You were the son of a townsman, and then, lived in cities, yes, Herr Klemm?”

Quinn saw the back of Karl’s neck redden. “That is so.”

“Then allow me to assure you of this: hunters are hunters the world over, just as scouts are scouts. And from one to another, you have ways to acknowledge the skill of the other. Signs of professional respect, if you will. That nod, and the leaf he turned back that he did not have to, were such signs.”

“Well,” sighed Larry, “let’s hope that mutual respect means they’re interested in meeting us.” With any luck, raising that possibility would keep Karl from wigging out.

Vogel cleared his throat. “Er, Major, not all scouts who exchange such compliments are friendly. In fact, most often, they are your enemy. That is why you are hiding from each other, to begin with.”

Larry nodded, but stared hard at Vogel: you just had to say that, didn’t you? But what he said was, “I am aware of that,” as Karl swallowed loudly. “Well, let’s hope for a different situation here. Karl, we should be coming up on a tributary to the left. There, beyond that stand of willows. That’s the Nezpique Bayou.”

Karl stared at what looked like a thirty-foot-wide tunnel that vanished into the black shadows of the overhanging trees and Spanish moss. “We are to go in there?” he asked hoarsely.

“We are. That’s the way to the Jennings oil field. And, hopefully, a meeting with the Atakapas.”

Karl nodded again and eased the nose of the Sportsman over toward the Stygian hole in the foliage. Standing behind the young German, Larry noticed that Klemm’s embarrassed flush was quite gone. Instead, the back of his neck had acquired a pallor, despite the mild case of sunburn he’d acquired on their coast-hugging trip along the Gulf coast.