1634: THE BALTIC WAR – snippet 40:



            By now, Grabnar had the small ship heading into the center of the Channel, miles from either shore. Anyone on land who observed the unfolding little drama wouldn’t really be able to make out any of the details, even with an eyeglass. Two ships meet; one leaves; one doesn’t. Who can say what actually happened?


            Matija was also, cleverly, making sure the ship lost headway while he was at it. The pirates pursuing them would notice, probably, but they’d just write it off to panic and lousy seamanship. Harry didn’t think there was much chance they’d get suspicious at all.


            Why should they? The English Channel had been infested with pirates for centuries, going back into medieval times. For the past few decades, piracy in the Channel had been dominated by so-called “Sallee rovers,” because they operated from the port of Salé in northwest Africa, not far from Rabat. They were usually referred to as Algerines, although the members of the crews came from all over Europe as well as the Moslem world. 


            A few rare occasions aside, neither the English nor the French crown had ever made much of an effort to eliminate the vermin—not even after the Sallee rovers, early in the seventeenth century, became bold enough to raid towns and villages in Cornwall as well as attack ships. Partly, that was because neither nation had a powerful navy, and partly it was because the usual victims of the pirates were poor fishermen. The Algerine pirates were more interested in capturing slaves than cargo.


            So, they’d grown arrogant, which was fine with Harry Lefferts. He’d been dismantling overconfident bullies since he was eight years old. Six years old, if you counted Fatso Binghampton.


            He looked around the deck, and then pointed to a tarpaulin piled up untidily toward the bow. “Paul, you set up with a shotgun. You can hide in there until the business starts. Donald, you go back with Matt at the helm, and figure on using rifles when the shit hits the fan. Felix, you stay with me. You’re the best shot with a pistol. You got a backup?”


            Kasza sniffed. “Do I have a backup?”


            “Sorry, didn’t mean to offend you.”


            “Yes, of course I have a backup. Two, if you count the little ankle gun.”


            “Ought to do. Blow ‘em off the rail, scare the shit out of them, George and Gerd will do the rest.”


            “What about me?” demanded Sherrilyn. “If you think I’m just going to sit here looking terrified, you can—”


            “Easy, girl, easy.” Harry glanced at the oncoming pirates. They were still three hundred yards away, too far to really see anything. “Holler down to Gerd to pass you up his ten-gauge. Now’s your chance to prove you can handle a man-sized gun.”


            Sherrilyn’s sniff was on a par with Kasza’s. “He’ll whine at me. He loves that ten-gauge. There’s something unnatural about that relationship, if you ask me. Even for you gun nuts, it’s over the top.”


            Harry chuckled. It was invariably Sherrilyn’s habit to ascribe to the male members of the unit all of the macho sins to which she was even more prone herself.


            Gun nut? She owned at least twenty, that she’d admit to. And when it came to the Ultimate Macho hang-up, Harry was convinced there was no greater practitioner in the world than Sherrilyn Maddox. The woman simply could not resist a challenge. Evel Knevel with tits. Before the Ring of Fire, she’d been one of the high school’s P.E. teachers. She’d been a rock-climber, sky-diver—you name it, if the sport was dangerous and within the pocketbook of a West Virginia schoolteacher, she’d done it.


            She’d also been an avid hunter, and while she wasn’t in Julie Mackay’s league—nobody was—she was undoubtedly one of the best shots in Grantville. She’d brought home her deer every year, never later than the second day of hunting season. Her second deer, rather, because she’d already gotten one during bow-hunting season.


            Needless to say, the charge of lesbianism had followed her like a trailing mist for years, despite the fact that Sherrilyn had been no slouch at proving otherwise. With Harry himself once, in fact, in a fling that had only lasted three weeks but was still a fond memory. Very fond memory, indeed, the way that a man who’d been only twenty himself at the time will remember an affair with a woman eight years older than he was.


            Sherrilyn was a lot of fun and somebody you could always count on, even if part of that was counting on her to blow you off sooner or later. The truth was, outside of a purely formal bow in the direction of male chauvinist instinctive disapproval, Harry hadn’t hesitated at all when she’d volunteered to transfer from the Thuringian Rifles to his unit. Leaving aside the fact that he knew Sherrilyn could cut the mustard, guts and mayhem-wise, her being a woman might come in handy for the unit someday.


            Every man in the unit had raised a fuss at the idea, of course. And then, of course, every one of them had hit on her as soon as she joined. Fat lot of good it did them. They would have bounced anyway, even if Sherrilyn hadn’t heard about the ruckus they’d raised over her transfer—which she didn’t hesitate to rub in the faces of the would-be Casanovas once she arrived.


            Harry could have told them, but hadn’t bothered. Good ole boys, sure, but they just weren’t suave and debonair enough to have profited from his advice anyway. The only way you hit on Sherrilyn Maddox was to get her intrigued by a challenge. Standard issue lines were a pure waste of time. The way Harry had pulled it off was to ignore her altogether until he ran across her one day in a bar over in Clarksburg, where he was drinking with a fake license, and she’d started making suggestions herself.


            “I dunno,” Harry had said, looking at her dubiously. “Word is you’re a rock-climber. Is that true?”


            After she confessed to an enthusiasm for the sport, a little shudder had swept his shoulders. “Jeez, Sherrilyn. Your hands must be like sandpaper. Strip the skin right off a man’s back.”


            Worked like a charm.


            He smiled at the memory, as he watched the ten-gauge getting hoisted out of the hold and into Sherrilyn’s hands. He could hear Gerd’s voice coming from below, although he couldn’t quite make out the words themselves. From the tone, though, Gerd was sure enough whining and grousing. There was something a little kinky about his love affair with that monster, even if Harry didn’t think it quite crossed the line into outright perversion.


            He looked at the pirate ship. Two hundred yards away.


            “Hey, Paul! We ought to be starting to get drunk around now.”


            Maczka frowned at him. Harry’s unit had a capacity for prodigious alcohol consumption, when they relaxed. But they were stone sober any time they were on duty. Then, realizing what Harry was getting at, his frown deepened.


            “I don’t think we got any empty bottles. Hate to waste good liquor, pouring it out.”


            Sherrilyn looked up from checking the loads in the shotgun. “Pour it into one of Juliet’s bowls. We’ll make a punch for the celebration afterward.”


            Paul nodded and lowered himself down the hatch.