1636: Commander Cantrell in the West Indies – Snippet 32

Chapter 16

St. Kilda archipelago, North Atlantic

Eddie transferred Anne Cathrine’s hands from him to the rail — “Hold on, Anne Cathrine, and be ready to take the ladies below” — and made for the stairs to the observation deck atop the pilot house. “Orderly?”

“Yes, sir?”

“Glasses topside, please. And call Mr. Bjelke back on deck. Smartly.”

“Yes, sir!” The response was dwindling aft already.

As Eddie made his way up the stairs — damnit, can’t this leg go any faster? — he heard Gjedde’s voice behind him. “No point in breaking your neck, Commander. Things do not happen quite so quickly in this century.”

As Eddie thumped his prosthetic down upon the observation deck — another change from the Hartford — he turned to offer a smile to the older captain, whose mouth looked a little less rigid than usual. It might have even had a faint upward curl at one side. If he hadn’t spent so much time with Simpson, he might have completely missed that hint of a smile. So, Gjedde doesn’t hate me. Either that, or he’s hoping I’ll get offed in the next hour or so…

Eddie went straight to the speaking tubes, popped back the covers, and toggled the telegraphic command circuit. “Circuit test,” he shouted.

“Tests clear,” came the muffled shout from under his feet where the intraship telegrapher was stationed.

The orderly bounded up the stairs, passing a new-pattern spyglass to Gjedde, and holding a case out toward Eddie, who snapped it open and lifted out the precious up-time binoculars. The signalman hustled past with a hastily muttered “Verlot!” and was immediately ready, pad to his right, left index finger poised on the telegrapher’s key. “Comms manned, Captain Gjedde.”

Who shook his head. “You will make your reports to, and take your orders from, Commander Cantrell. He will direct this ship through her first combat.”

Eddie turned, stunned, “What?”

Gjedde bowed. “Your command, Mr. Cantrell. Compliments of your father in law, Christian IV.”

Why that old son-of-a — “Then Captain Gjedde, I say three times: I have the bridge. What’s the word from the foretop crow’s nest? What manner of ship, flying what colors?”

After a pause, the report came back. “A carrack sir. Old design. Spanish colors.”

Spanish colors? Up here? What the hell were they –?

Apparently, telepathy was a strong trait in the Danish; now it was Gjedde who seemed to read his mind. “Not so unusual. They supply the Irish with guns and powder, from time to time. Sometimes the Scots, too. There is no shortage of rebels against English occupiers up here, and Spain is only too happy to provide them with assistance.”

Eddie nodded. “I understand, but why ever they happen to be here, it seems that they’ve seen us. They ran between Crown of Waves and Courser like they were waiting for that opening. I suspect they saw our smoke, peeked around the northwestern point of Hirta — at Gob a Ghaill — saw our flotilla, measured the breeze, and realized their only way to avoid us was to run before the wind after our advance picket had passed them, but before our main van drew too close.”

Gjedde nodded, the visible slivers of his eyes sharp. “Ja, that is how I see it, also.”

“Very well. Signalman, relay this to intership telegrapher for immediate send. ‘To Captain Mund aboard Resolve. Message starts: Have spotted –“

“Sir,” said the radioman, “incoming message from Captain Mund.”

Well, speak of the devil — “Read it as you get it, Rating.”

“Captain Mund commanding Resolve to Commander Cantrell, presumed to be in temporary command of Intrepid. Message begins: By joint order of Emperor Gustav Adolf and His Royal Highness Christian IV, I relinquish operational command of Reconnaissance Flotilla X-Ray to you for duration of first engagement. Stop. Awaiting instructions. Stop.”

Oh, so all the heads of state are seeing if I have the goods when the shit starts flying. Well, no reason not to give them a good show — “Radioman, send the following under my command line. To Captain Mund, on Resolve: message received and acknowledged. Stop. To all ships: general quarters. Stop.” He turned to see Bjelke pound up the stairs to the observation deck. He nodded at, and gave him an order, in the same instant: “Sound general quarters, Mr. Bjelke. Orderly, make sure our passengers understand that ‘general quarters’ means ‘battle stations.’ Only duty personnel on deck.”

“And if they don’t understand that, sir?”

“Then correct their misunderstanding. With main force, if necessary. No exceptions. Including my wife. Especially my wife. Is that clear, mister?”

“Very clear, ja, sir!” And again the young orderly was off, with a rising tide of coronets and drums carrying him on his way.

Bjelke returned to his side. Gjedde watched from the rear rail of the observation deck. Eddie thought for a moment, turned to the signalman, “Forward mount, get me range, bearing, and speed of the Spaniard. Then send to Crown of Waves and Courser: I need their precise heading and speed.”

“What are you thinking, Commander?” asked Bjelke.

“That whatever the Spanish do or do not understand from having seen us, we can’t let them escape and report. Just knowing that a flotilla of USE ships is on a course that would suggest a New World destination is bad enough. Anything else could be disastrous. They might have seen the smoke and presumed that one of our ships was on fire, or that we have whalers with us who were putting blubber through some of the new shipboard try-works. But someone with better information on the USE’s activities is likely to figure that this carrack spotted our steam warships. Word of this encounter can not — not — reach people with that kind of knowledge.”

The radioman called out. “All messages acknowledged, except Crown of the Waves. I think something is wrong with her radio-set, sir. Lots of lost characters. And they seem to be losing some of ours, too.”

Well, now it’s a real military engagement: we’ve got commo snafus. So without the radio — “Send to Courser: Radio on Crown of Waves inoperable. Stop. Your position gives best line of sight and shortest range. Stop. Relay command signals to Crown of Waves via semaphore and aldriss lamp. Stop. End of Message. New message to Resolve starts. Drop to rear of formation. Stop. Remain at one mile distance. Stop. Deploy balloon ASAP. Stop. Maintain close rear watch. Stop. Message ends.”

Bjelke’s left eyebrow raised. “Rear watch, sir? A trap? Up here?”

“Traps are most effective where they’re least expected, wouldn’t you agree, Lieutenant Bjelke?”

“Aye, sir.”

“So we eliminate that admittedly slim possibility first, then take the next steps.”

Gjedde folded his arms. “And what steps are those?”

“To box the Spaniard in. Radioman?”

“Just received acknowledgment from Courser now. Captain Haraldsen passes along word that Major Lawrence Quinn sends his compliments and will oversee technical coordination on that hull.”

Eddie felt his heart rate diminish slightly. It was good to know the other — the only other — military up-timer in the flotilla was out there, lending a hand. The down-timers were competent, eager, and obedient, but sometimes, they just didn’t get how all the parts of a steam-and-sail navy worked together. In all probability, the most important test during this shakedown cruise would not be of Simpson’s new ships, but of the crews of his new navy. “Send Major Quinn my greetings and thanks. And have him relay this to the Crown of Waves: set course north by northwest, paralleling the Spaniard. Course for the Courser, the same.”

“Speed, sir?”

“What God and sail-handlers will allow, radioman. We are not raising steam.”

Bjelke made a sound of surprise. Eddie turned to look at him. “You can speak freely, Rik.”

“Sir, I thought combat was exactly the time when you would order steam. Is that not one of the main purposes of this cruise, to see how the steam ships fare in actual combat, under power?”

“Normally, yes, but this time, I’m worried about detection. If this ship is not alone then, trap or no trap, raising steam means sending a message to any and all of the rest of an enemy formation about where and what we are.”

The radioman cleared his throat politely. “Message from Resolve, Commander.”

“What does Captain Mund have to say?”

“Sir, he points out that in order to deploy the balloon, he will have to clear his stern of canvas. And if he does so, if he slacks the sails on the mizzen and swings wide the yard to clear the deck for air operations, he will slow down and fall further behind.”

“Send that this is not an operational concern. He’ll still have better speed than either Patentia or Serendipity, whom he must remain behind and protect. More importantly, please remind him that decreasing his ship’s speed makes it a better platform for the balloon. When you’re done sending that, send to the Serendipity and Patentia that they are to crowd sail. I don’t want them lagging behind too far, and stretching out our formation. And have the Tropic Surveyor close on us as she is able, crossing our wake when we clear Gob a Ghiall.”

“Aye, sir. Sending now.”

Bjelke frowned. “You want the bark to the south of us, closer to the island?”

“Absolutely, Lieutenant. Because if the enemy has more ships behind that headland, I want to give them something to deal with while we bring round our rifles and teach them just how long our reach is.”

Gjedde may have nodded. “And so, what will Intrepid be doing?”

Eddie smiled and, by way of answer, waved Svantner over. “Lieutenant, do we have solutions for range, bearing, and speed of the Spaniard?”

“Yes, sir. Mount One has rechecked first findings and confirms the following with highest confidence: the Spaniard is now just under a mile off, making two and a half knots and heading north by northwest true.”

Crown of Waves and Courser?”

“Now on parallel courses with the Spaniard, sir. Crown is making three knots and a bit, Courser is almost at six.”

Eddie made a mental map plot. The Spanish carrack was in a tight spot. If she turned to either port or starboard, she’d be turning into the paths of faster, better-armed ships, and losing the wind in doing so. And since the ships boxing her in — Crown of Waves to the south, Courser to the north — could sail closer hauled and faster, their speed and maneuverability would be even less affected if they made a matching course change. He had the Spaniard straitjacketed. Now to shorten the chase —

“And our speed, Mr. Svantner?

“Five knots, sir. We can make a bit more if we steer a half point to port, and put the wind just abaft the starboard beam.”

“Do so, but keep me out of a direct stern chase. I don’t want to shrink the target profile.”


“I don’t want to have to shoot straight up that Spaniard’s narrow ass; I want a little more of his side to aim at.”

“Aye, aye, sir!”

“Mr. Bjelke, send the word to Mount One: stand ready.”

“At once, Commander!”

Gjedde unfolded his arms as Bjelke hurried down the stairs. “About fifteen minutes then.”

Eddie turned. “I beg your pardon, Captain?”

“Fifteen minutes before you start firing. The range will have dropped to under half a mile, by then.”

Eddie smiled. “Less.”

Gjedde narrowed his eyes. “How?”

Eddie felt his smile widen. “I would be delighted to demonstrate, sir.”

Gjedde crossed his arms again and frowned. “Please do.”

Eddie gave a partial salute and turned to his First Mate. “Mr. Svantner, has the Spaniard reacted to our course change yet?”

“A bit, sir. She shifted course slightly to the north, keeping us at distance.”

“But closing on the Courser, yes?”

“A bit sir, yes.”

“Then send to Courser: change heading one point to port. Full sheets on the spencer masts. Give that Spaniard a reason to run the other way.”

“Aye, sir.”

Eddie turned — and caught Gjedde smiling. His face became stony in an instant. “So. You’ll scare him into tacking. Each turn of which costs him time and momentum.”

Eddie shrugged. “It’s what you taught me, second day on ship. Seems like the right plan, here.”

Gjedde nodded. “Seems so.”

The radioman uttered a confused grunt, checked an incoming message a second time. “Sir, signal from the Courser. But it doesn’t make sense.”

“Read it, radioman.”

“From Major Quinn, technical advisor aboard Courser, to Commander Cantrell on Intrepid. Stop. Regarding course change. Stop. Aye, aye, Commander . . . Hornblower?” The radioman’s voice had raised to an almost adolescent squeak. “Stop. Message ends. Sir, is Commander ‘Hornblower’ code, sir?”