1636: Commander Cantrell in the West Indies – Snippet 33

Eddie smiled. “In a manner of speaking, rating. In a manner of speaking. Svantner?”

“Yes sir?”        

“Tell me when that Spaniard starts to come around to port. As soon as he does, we’ll crowd him from the south with the Crown.”

Eddie checked his watch. And in about ten minutes, we’ll end the chase. For good.

*     *     *

Nine minutes later, Commander Eddie Cantrell called for the range.

After a moment’s delay, the intraship communications officer piped up, “Seven hundred yards, sir.”

“Mount One, acquire the target.”

The intraship piped up so quickly that Eddie suspected he was in constant conversation with the mount’s commanding officer. “Acquiring, sir!”

“Send word to load with solid shot.”

“Aye, sir.” A pause. “Gunnery officer requests confirmation on that last order: solid shot?”

“Solid shot. Tell him we’re not going to waste an explosive shell until we have a proven targeting solution.”

“Solid shot, aye, sir. And Mount One reports a firing solution. Range now six-hundred fifty yards.”

Perfect. “Fire one round and continue tracking. Svantner, reef sails.”

The wire-wound eight-inch naval rifle roared, flew back into its recoil carriage, smoke gouting out its barrel in a long, sustained plume. A moment later, a geyser of water shot up about thirty yards off the Spaniard’s port quarter.

Eddie raised his glasses. He could see arms waving frantically on the deck of the carrack. While they had no idea exactly what kind of gun was shooting at them, it was a certainty that they knew it was like no gun they’d ever encountered before. And that it was also far more deadly.

“Reload,” Eddie ordered as he felt the Intrepid‘s forward progress diminish, its sails retracting upward, “and adjust. Watch the inclinometer.”

From where he stood, Eddie could watch the gun’s crew go into its routine like one well-oiled machine in service of another. The handle on the back of the gun was given a hard half turn and the interrupted-screw breech swung open, vapors coiling out and around the crew. The cry of “swab out!” brought forward a man holding what looked like, at this range, a gargantuan Q-tip. He ran it into and around the interior, ensuring no embers or sparks remained to pre-detonate the next charge. Meanwhile, a half-hoist brought up the next shell — akin to a short, somewhat pointed bullet eight inches at the base and sixteen inches long — and the loaders swung it out of the cradle and into the breech, where another man promptly pushed it in until it was snug. Powder bags were loaded in next and then the breech was sealed while the second gunner inserted a primer in the weapon’s percussion lock.


“Primed! Hammer cocked and locked.”

“New firing solution,” called out the chief gunner. “Right two, up one!”

The second gunner hunkered down, made a slight adjustment to a small vertical wheel on the side of the mount, and another to a small horizontal wheel. “Acquired!”

The intraship pipe at Eddie’s elbow announced, “Mount One reports ready, Commander.”

“At the discretion of the gunnery officer,” — watch the inclinometer more closely! — “fire.”

There was a pause, the gunnery officer studying the levels that indicated roll, pitch, and yaw, and then he shouted, “Fire!”

The second gunner pulled the lanyard, and the long black tube roared again.

Eddie saw the shot go into the water only ten yards in front of the carrack’s bow. And he also realized why the gunnery officer was always a fraction off on measuring the roll: because from his position on the deck, he could not watch the sea close to the Intrepid. Standing only seven feet higher, Eddie had a much better view. He could keep an eye on the inclinometer even as he read the proximal swells and troughs.

One of which was coming. The Intrepid came off the crest of a two foot riser, slid down into a long trough — and Eddie knew the inclinometer was going to be perfectly level the moment before it was.

“Fire!” he yelled forward over the weather deck at the same moment that the inclinometer showed level.

The eight-inch rifle spoke a third time as Eddie jerked the binoculars back up to his eyes —

— Just in time to see the shell tear into the carrack, just aft of its bow on the starboard side. Planks and dusty smoke flew up and outward — and, puzzlingly, from the portside bow as well. Which, Eddie realized an instant later, had been caused by the round exiting the hull on the other side.

The Spanish ship reeled, first to port, then tottered back to starboard, the bow digging into the swells heavily. She wasn’t taking water, but it was possible that her stem — the extension of the keel up into the curve of the prow — had been damaged and her forecastle was starting to collapse, riven by the tremendous force of the shell. As the smoke began to clear and the human damage was revealed — bodies scattered around the impact point, others hobbling away, several bobbing motionless in the cold northern waters — Eddie barked out his next order through a tightening throat. “Load explosive shell. Maintain tracking.”

He waited through the thirty seconds of reloading. The Intrepid was now moving slowly, so her position was barely changing. And the carrack, which had already lost a great deal of her headway by being forced to tack back and forth in response to the harrying ships to either side, had been moving at barely one and a half knots before she was hit. And now, with her bow damaged and her crew panicking —

“Mount One reports ready.”

Eddie kept his eyes just far enough from the binoculars to watch the inclinometer. “Fire,” he ordered calmly.

Perhaps he had become so used to the sound and buffeting of the big guns that he didn’t notice it. Or perhaps he was simply too fixated on the fate of the ship that he was about to kill. Either way, he could not afterwards remember hearing the report of his own gun. Instead, burned into his memory, in slow motion, was the impact of the shell upon the carrack.

There was a split-second precursor: a light puff of what looked like dust. That was the shell, slicing through the starboard corner of the stern so swiftly that it was inside the vessel’s poop before the shock waves sent rail, transom, and deck planks flying in a wide, wild sphere of destruction.

But in the next blink of an eye, that was all wiped away by the titanic explosion that blasted out from the guts of the ship itself. The poop deck literally went up in a single piece, discorporating as it rose, bodies shooting toward the heaven that Eddie hoped was there to receive them. The mainmast, the rearmost on the two-masted carrack, went crashing forward, tearing the rigging down with her and stripping the yard clean off the foremast. Black smoke and flames spun up out of the jagged hole that had been the ship’s stern, and the men on her decks were a moving arabesque of confused action. Some were trying to fight the fires, others were making for the rail, others were trying to give orders, several were trying to get her dinghy over to the port side. None of them were achieving their objective.

“Check fire,” Eddie croaked. “Crowd sails and move to assist.”

Ove Gjedde, as still and silent as a forgotten statue, now reanimated. Suddenly at Eddie’s elbow, he asked, “Commander, you are planning to assist?”

Eddie stared at the men who were now in the water. Their cries were audible even at this distance. He nodded. “We have to.”

Gjedde made a strangely constricted noise deep in his throat. “Commander, I do not wish to intrude upon your prerogatives –“

The radioman looked up. “Commander, message from Resolve. Coded urgent, sir.”

“Read it, please.”

“Aye, sir. Message begins. Captain Mund of Resolve to Commander Cantrell of Intrepid. Stop. Balloon at three hundred feet has spotted three, possibly four ships fifteen miles south of Gob a Ghaill headland. Stop. Heading is due north. Stop. Currently making slightly less than three knots. Stop. Awaiting instructions. Stop. Message ends.'”

Eddie could sense Gjedde standing uncommonly close to him. He wants me to break off, but that isn’t right. We can save those men. “Send this reply, my command line. Message starts: to Captain Mund, Resolve. Stop. Lead flotilla north by northwest on heading parallel to Crown of Waves and Courser. Stop. Intrepid will effect rescue operations and follow all haste. Stop. Secure balloon immediately to minimize possibility of enemy sighting it. Stop. Message ends.”

Gjedde was frowning. For some reason, Eddie imagined himself as Bilbo Baggins at one of those moments when he had pissed off Gandalf mightily. Avuncular Gjedde continued to stare at him, seemed to be weighing his next choice of words very carefully.

Finally he began, “Commander, this is not wise. I must point out –“

“Commander Cantrell,” the radioman muttered, “another message from Resolve. Again, coded urgent.”

Eddie held up a hand to pause Gjedde, nodded at the radioman. “Go ahead.”

“Message starts. CO Resolve to acting CO Intrepid. Stop. First action is concluded. Stop. Command changes are now terminated. Stop. Secure from general quarters. Stop. Captain Gjedde resumes direct command immediately. Stop. Rescue operations hereby countermanded. Stop. Flotilla X-Ray immediately heads north by northwest true, at best speed of slowest ship. Stop. Compliments to Commander Cantrell for successful first engagement. Stop. Message ends.”

Eddie was still watching the men struggling in the chill grey waters, saw that some of them seemed to be weakening already. Those who had been clustered around the dinghy got it into the water, where it promptly foundered. Probably some splinter or shrapnel had punched a hole in it and they had not noticed that damage in their frenzied attempt to escape their ship. Which was a prudent course of action: the carrack, her stern savaged as if some kraken of the deep had taken a vicious bite out of it, was settling back upon her rudder, and listing slightly to starboard. At the rate she was going down, her decks would be awash within the hour. And her crew —

Gjedde put a hand on Eddie’s arm, drew it and the binoculars it held down slowly. “There is nothing to be done, Commander. If we stayed to rescue those men, the Spanish would see us before we could get away again. We must break off now, at best speed, to remain undetected. You must know this.”

Eddie didn’t want to know it, but he did. “Perhaps they’ll be picked up by the Spanish then.”

Gjedde didn’t blink. “You know better than that, too, Commander. They may see the smoke or they may not. If they do not, it is unlikely they would come close enough to see wreckage or hear cries for help. And even if they do, it will be fifteen hours from now. There will be no one for them to rescue and few enough bodies to see, should they chance to come so close to the site of our engagement.”

Eddie looked over the bow. Only three hundred yards away, now, the Spanish were struggling in the water, and the first were already losing the battle to stay above the cold grey swells of the North Sea. He nodded. “Aye, aye, sir. You’re the captain.”

Gjedde’s eyes fell from Eddie’s. Suddenly, he looked even older. Then he turned on his heel and began giving orders. “Mr. Bjelke, secure from general quarters and give orders to unload battery and personal weapons. I want no unnecessary or accidental discharges as we run from the Spanish. Pilot, set us north by northwest true. Mr. Svantner, pass it along to crowd all sail. There will be no rescue operations.”

As the crew of the Intrepid scrambled to set about their duties, Eddie noticed that the Tropic Speculator, which had been traveling under full sail the whole time, was drawing abreast of them. Lining the starboard gunwales were more of the Irish mercenaries, who peered ahead at the wreckage and the ruined carrack.

The Spanish, seeing the ships approach, called out for quarter, for aid, for mercy for the love of god.

Passing them at two hundred yards off the portside, their cries were half swallowed by the sound of the wavelets against the Intrepid’s hull.

But the Tropic Speculator passed them at a distance of only one hundred yards to her starboard side. The Spanish cried out to the men lining her rail, perhaps seeing the facial features and even the tartans and equipage they associated with their traditional Irish allies.

But the Irish made no sound, and watched, without expression or, apparently, any pity, as more of the Spanish began to sink down deeper into the low rolling swells of the North Sea.