1637 No Peace Beyond The Line – Snippet 36

Chapter 19

Oranjestad, St. Eustatia

 Cornelis Jol began stumping along rapidly on his peg leg when he caught sight of the three of them in the far shadows of the Fort Oranjestad’s seaward wall. He waved to two others behind him, who had become ensnared in the growing tumult of trade and acquaintance-making in the street.

“Keep up, you malingerers!” he shouted over his shoulder. “I’ve a wooden leg and I move twice as fast as you do!” He grinned at van Walbeeck, clapped a hand down on Tromp’s shoulder, and exhaled a rum-scented greeting toward Eddie. “Of course,” he muttered conspiratorially, “I had to be sure to push off so that the striplings I have in tow would have a chance with all the young ladies back there. Wouldn’t do to have a fine, mature specimen of a man like myself attracting all the female attention and interest, now would it?” He smiled in amusement, thereby revealing that he retained approximately half his very stained teeth. The crow’s lines that extended far from his eyes blended with and helped hide the various scars that almost two decades of privateering had left on his well-weathered face. Houtebein, or “Peg-Leg,” Jol was at least as famous for his self-deprecating wit as his devilish skill at raiding.

“And do you have any of your equally prepossessing piratical friends in tow?” asked Tromp, folding his hands like a mild-mannered school master.

“Sadly, no,” Jol answered. “Moses went his own way again, right after he came to report what he’d encountered in the seas around Dominica just before you clipped Philip’s beard, there. He and Calabar are still raiding down along the Main, and they were eager to get back to it. The others?” Jol flipped a palm at the cloudless sky. “Reliability is not what freebooters are known for, as I’m sure you know.”

“I’m sure I do,” Tromp said, “since I know you.”

“Maarten Tromp, I’m a privateer. Why do you lump me in with those bandits?”

“As I said, because I know you. And because if you weren’t halfway to living the life they do, they’d never meet with you except over crossed cutlasses.”

Jol scratched his furry ear. “Well, I suppose there’s some truth to that.”

A new voice: “Well, here’s a conspiratorial trio if I’ve ever laid eyes on one!”

Eddie knew the source, was smiling before he turned, “Hugh O’Donnell, it’s good to see you again.”

“You as well, Eddie.” The Irish earl nodded all around as his aide-de-camp Aodh O’Rourke slipped up behind him “Governor, Admiral. ‘Tis a fine show you’re putting on here, today.”

Tromp looked meaningfully at van Walbeeck, who asked the Irish earl. “Is it truly that obvious, Lord O’Donnell?”

Hugh squinted, assessing the ware-lined roads that ran away from the head of the dock. “Depends upon the eye of the beholder, I’m thinking. For the people who’ve not been working toward this end, either as confidencers or soldiers, it’s merely an overdue turn o’ the wheel. Fortune has been frowning, but now fortune smiles again: the seasons of fate, you might say. But for those of us who have been seizing islands for oil, making alliances with England’s abandoned colonies, or most recently, making off the entirety of this year’s Flota, . . . well, I’ve come to wonder: does anything look like happenstance to us anymore?”

Walbeeck smiled. “I doubt it. A fair answer for a fair day.”

“Aye, and it’s a fair all right,” added O’Rourke from over Hugh’s shoulder. “Maybe not as big as the May market in Brussels or Antwerp, but it’s none the less’t any other. It’ll bring fair coin to Montserrat, right enough.”

Van Walbeeck glanced eagerly at Jol. “So, you ported there on your way up from Trinidad?”

“We did. As luck had it, we saw that nasty squall that caught you as we were crossing the stretch between Carriacou and Union Island. We crowded sail and got into the lee of the southern bay there, just in time to watch the storm slow and move northward. If we’d gone on, we might have lost all the bitumen we’re carrying, and the oil itself. Although there’s much less of that.”

“How much of each?” Eddie asked.

Jol shook his head. “Your up-time friend, Miss Koudsi, will be able to tell you that when we are all…er, gathered. When we got under way again, we were low on water and decided that was a fine excuse to make port at Montserrat, which was what Lord O’Donnell had been angling for since the beginning.”

“New recruits for the Wild Geese,” Hugh explained as eyes turned to him. “Also, some hands for the Eire, the French bark we took off Bloody Point. And the island needs the trade, so a few of them came along to sell their vegetables, fruit, chickens, and goats.”

“More goats?” Eddie asked.

Jol laughed. “These are the Caribbees, Commodore. There are always more goats.”

O’Rourke, who had not moved forward into the conversational ring, muttered something about how long they’d been tarrying in the shadows and that others were waiting on them. Van Walbeeck spotted Joost Banckert making his way up the dock to the shore, suggested they all join the general movement in that direction: after all, he and Tromp had to put in at least a brief appearance in the thick of the activity.

As the six of them began heading back along the narrow track while staying in the shadow of the fort’s wall, Eddie found himself distracted from the frenetic market activity by something that had changed in Aodh O’Rourke posture since last he’d seen him. The senior sergeant of the Wild Geese glimpsed his attention, nodded and flashed a smile. And he saw my attention because he’s always looking around, Eddie realized. 

He hadn’t seen O’Rourke since late January, when the Irish veteran had preceded the still-recuperating Hugh back to Trinidad. “Just to mind the shop” as he put it with the other most senior of the Irish mercenaries, Kevin O’Bannon. When Hugh had returned there, he’d announced the need for more officers. There were more Wild Geese coming over aboard the first convoy — the one in port now — and coin-strapped men from Montserrat had been sending him entreaties that he consider their pleas to join the unit. O’Bannon was glad for the promotion to major, but O’Rourke staunchly and repeatedly refused to become an officer.

The reason had never been made clear to Eddie; it was a private matter without appreciable operational consequences, so inquiries would have been essentially nosiness, not need-to-know. But whatever his reasons, O’Rourke showed neither animus nor resentment toward those who were promoted over him, several of whom were more than a decade his junior. Rather, as senior sergeant and aide-de-camp, he helped the other sergeants who could read and do sums to prepare for life as officers. At the same time, he cheerfully brutalized and buoyed up (in that order) new potential to ready them for the demands of that job. Rumor had it that he wanted nothing to do with the life and society of officers, preferring the gritty tasks and earthy pleasures of his long-held rank.

But in becoming the Wild Geese’s de facto head of training, he also seemed to have slowly and subtly moved away from the day-to-day field operations of the Wild Geese. It was unclear to Eddie if he even remained in the unit’s table of organization, or if he’d been shifted sideways into something more akin to a staff assistant to O’Donnell.

But even that didn’t quite explain the changes. The number of Irish who’d been educated at Leuven meant that Hugh also had a growing cluster of staff officers or “ensigns” who’d also proven themselves in the field. O’Rourke did not have their technical skills and so, was clearly not being retained for that purpose.

Eddie frowned, watching the Irish veteran’s behavior as they passed the beach where the lighters were still coming and going so rapidly that near-collisions seemed to the rule rather than the exception. O’Rourke was looking everywhere and at everything except at his commander. It tweaked at a dim memory, at similar behavior that Eddie had noticed before but couldn’t remember where or when. But given the way that O’Rourke always had his “head on a swivel,” to use Larry Quinn’s expression, made Eddie feel that the bluff sergeant should have been wearing sunglasses and an earpiece.