1636: Commander Cantrell in the West Indies – Snippet 34

Chapter 17

East of St. Christopher, Caribbean

Through the salt spray and dusty rose of early dawn, Hugh Albert O’Donnell compared Michael McCarthy Jr.’s pinched, weather-seamed eyes with Aodh O’Rourke’s pale-lipped scowl. The latter, staring at the balloon as it swelled up and off the poop deck, muttered, “You’d not get me to swing ‘neath that bag o’ gas.” Then Hugh’s lieutenant of eight years nodded to the up-timer beside him. “No offense to your handiwork, Don Michael.”

‘Don’ Michael — who Hugh had convinced, at no small expense of effort, to accept the honorific — simply shrugged. “No offense taken. I’m not riding in it myself. That’s for young Mulryan, here.”

Mulryan, an apple-faced lad with an unruly shock of red hair, nodded. “An’ it’s not so bad, O’Rourke. After the fourth or fifth time, yeh forget the height. Seems natural’t does.”

“To you, maybe,” O’Rourke grumbled, and then moved aside as feet thumped up the stairs from the weather deck behind him.

Hugh swayed up from his easy seat on the taffrail as Captain Paul Morraine rose into view. He was followed by a taller, thinner man whose arrival resulted in an almost uniform hardening of expressions and veiling of eyes: Morraine’s immediate subordinate, First Mate Georges St. Georges, was not a favorite with the Irish, nor with his own crew. Only Michael’s expression remained unaltered. The two senior officers of the Fleur Sable joined the group just as McGillicuddy, chief of the balloon’s ground crew, set his legs firm and wide to help his men tug on the guidelines. Straining together, they drew more of the swelling envelop up toward them and away from the mizzenmast, the yard having been dropped to accommodate this process.

Morraine nodded at Hugh. “Lord O’Donnell.”

Hugh nodded back. “You wish to have your mizzen back as soon as possible, captain?”

The left corner of Morraine’s mouth quirked. For him, this was the equivalent of a broad grin. “It is so obvious?”

Hugh smiled. “Well, yes. And sensible as well. But at a height of six hundred feet, we will see what lies before us and enter the channel between St. Christopher and St. Eustatia as fast and unseen as the wind that’s rising behind us.”

“Which I do not wish to miss, sir. Monsieur McCarthy tells me this is a swift procedure, yes?”

McCarthy shrugged, inspecting the billowing envelope. “It’ll be aloft in fifteen minutes, up for ten, down in ten, deflated enough for you to remount your mizzenmast in another ten. So, forty-five minutes, barring mishaps.”

Morraine nodded, nose into the wind. “Just in time, I would say. I want to be see the lights of Basseterre behind us by midnight.”

St. Georges sniffed distastefully at the pitch-soaked combustibles already smoking in the hand burner that Tearlach Mulryan was readying. “I, for one, am worried that your observer will not see all the ships before us.”  

Mulryan raised a mildly contentious index finger. “Ah, but I will, sir. Six hundred feet altitude and this improved spyglass” — he tapped the brass tube in his rude ‘web gear’ — “will show us the horizon out to thirty-three miles or so, and we’ll see the top of most any masts at least ten miles further out.”

“So you have said.” St. Georges sniffed again, this time at Mulryan’s claim.

“And so we have seen in the trials we’ve conducted since leaving France,” Morraine followed with a calm, if impatient glance at his XO. “However, we will want to keep your men below decks much of the time, now, Lord O’Donnell. In the event our reconnaissance is incomplete, or Fate forces an encounter upon us, it would not do to have a passing ship see our complement to be markedly greater than the expected crew of this vessel.”

“Agreed, Captain. Point well taken. Besides, my men will be busy at their own tasks.”

“Which shall be?”

“Sharpening their swords and cleaning their pieces.”

Morraine’s left eyebrow arched. “Indeed. I took the liberty of inspecting the armorer’s locker after your men came aboard. All snaphaunces, even a few flintlocks. Expensive equipment, if I may say so.”

“Say away, for its true enough. But Lord Turenne agreed that it makes little sense to go to all the expense of mounting our expedition, and then arm the shore party with inferior firearms.”

“True enough. But almost half were pistols and the new-style musketoons. Most uncommon.”

“As uncommon as our task, Captain.” Hugh leaned back against the taffrail. “We’ll not spend much of our time at ranges greater than fifty yards, if my guess is right.  So while we’ll want the ability to pour in a few volleys, I expect we’ll have little time or reason for serried ranks and maneuver. As I hear it, Pitch Lake itself is the only ‘open field’ we’ll encounter. But there’s plenty of bush to worm through. So I suspect most of the fighting will be quick and close.”

Morraine nodded. “Reasonable. Let us hope you do not have much fighting to do, though. Sixty men is not many for such an enterprise, even on the sparsely populated islands of the New World.”

O’Donnell nodded. “I agree.” He smiled. “Perhaps you could convince Lord Turenne to send along a few more.”

Morraine’s lip almost quirked again. “Indeed. I shall mention it to him upon my return, perhaps over our first glass of wine.”

Hugh nodded, let his grin become rueful. It was out of the realm of possibility that Morraine would actually ever meet Turenne, much less have the position or opportunity to suggest anything to the French general about operations here in the Caribbean. In addition to Turenne’s being a phenomenally busy man, Morraine’s appointment as the commander of the Fleur Sable had been a somewhat delicate business, handled by faceless bureaucrats at the unspoken but clear promptings of Turenne’s immediate subordinates. To have gone about it more openly would have been seen as undermining the naval court which had been well-paid to dismiss Morraine as a scapegoat for a young and thoroughly incompetent executive officer who just happened to be the son of an unscrupulous duke. Consequently, it was necessary that Turenne should never have direct contact with Morraine, lest both of them come under the scrutiny of that same duke, who, like most powerful men guilty of suborning a court, would spare no effort to ensure that the lies he had paid to be called ‘the truth’ would not be revealed or revisited.

Morraine’s point about a scant sixty-man force was true enough. It left Hugh O’Donnell no margin for error, no extra resources with which to cope with surprises, reversals, or just plain bad luck. But the other Wild Geese who had been scheduled to follow him down from the Lowlands had never arrived. According to Turenne’s last message, Fernando of the Lowlands had personally forbidden their departure, pending a reconsideration of their contracts and oaths to Spain. It all sounded a little suspicious to Hugh, but that was several months, and several thousand miles, behind him now. He would have to make do with the men and resources he had, and hope for the others to come along in due course.

Morraine’s version of a smile had faded. He looked at the expanding balloon, then at the seas over the bow. “Well, Lord O’Donnell, I shall leave you and your, er, ‘ground crew’ to your business. The sooner you are done here, the sooner we can be under way and finish this dirty business.”

Hugh kept even the faintest hint of resentment out of his voice. “‘Dirty’ business?’ “

Morraine paused. “Lord O’Donnell, I mean no offense. As you, I am estranged from my country. And so I will not be happy until I may stand proud beneath French colors. I am no pirate.”

“Indeed, and so you are not flying one of their dread flags.”

“Nor am I flying the flag of France, Lord O’Donnell. And until I do, my loyalties and intentions must be considered suspect by all whom we encounter. So I leave you to your work, that we may both return to service beneath our nation’s banners with all possible haste.” He nodded a farewell.

As Hugh nodded in return, he considered Morraine’s tight, craggy, and mostly immobile features. The Breton had a good record operating in the open waters off Penzance and Wight, and was patriotically eager to end his estrangement from the pleasure of Louis XIII. He was also clearly thrilled to have a cromster’s deck under his feet. During her trials off Dunkirk, he had made eager use of her mizzen’s lateen-rig, getting a feel for the Fleur Sable‘s maneuverability. He had demonstrated a keen appreciation of her comparatively shallow draft, and enhanced (albeit not extreme) ability to tack against the wind — operational flexibilities he had not had much opportunity to enjoy while serving in His Majesty’s lumbering battlewagons. Hugh just hoped that, like uncounted thousands of commanders before him, Morraine did not over-indulge his new enthusiasms during combat. War was a messy business, best approached by leaving wide margins for error and the unexpected.

Morraine’s swift descent from the poop deck prompted St. Georges into a hurried attempt to follow, which was suddenly blocked by the balloon’s uncoiling guidelines. As he sought clear passage, further obstacles obtruded themselves. Spools of down-timer telegraph cable and McGillicuddy’s thick, powerful legs threatened to tumble him. Aggrieved, the third son of a wealthy merchant glared archly at the Irish earl. “I must pass, Monsieur O’Donnell.”

Who found the make-believe-officer too ridiculous to be a source of offense. St. Georges’ class paranoia was as thick about him as the smell of his abysmal teeth. Every time he addressed O’Donnell as ‘Monsieur’ instead of ‘Lord,’ he seemed poised to gloat over the slight. “I must pass,” St. Georges repeated.

Hugh smiled wider. “And you have my leave to do so.”

St. Georges stared down at the tangle of cables, grabbing ground-crew hands, and McGillicuddy’s tree-trunk legs. Pointing at the latter, St. Georges raised his chin. “I know nothing of your Irish military customs, but in our service, this man must make way for me when I approach. You:” — he addressed the word sharply to McGillicuddy — “move! At once!”

Hugh had just decided that St. Georges was able to annoy him after all, when the aeronaut of the hour — lean and lively Tearlach Mulryan — jumped between them. He made his appeal with a lopsided grin. “Lieutenant St. Georges, the chief of our ground crew, McGillicuddy, regrets being unable to move aside, but he is hard at his duties. The equipment for the balloon is rather cumbersome and hard to control during deployment.”

“Then he can at least show proper deference to his betters, and excuse himself.”

“Sir, he does not understand French, and his English is imperfect. He is from a remote area of Ireland, and speaks little but Gaelic.”

“Then use that tongue to acquaint him with my displeasure!”

Mulryan did so. McGillicuddy listened to young Tearlach’s fluent stream of Gaelic gravely. Toward the end, the big crew chief brightened, looked up at St. Georges and smiled. “Pog ma thoin,” he offered sincerely.

“What did he say?”

“‘A thousand pardons.'”

“That’s better.” St. Georges marched briskly off.

Hugh turned carefully astern, looked into the brightening east, and did not allow his expression to change.

Someone came to stand beside him: McCarthy. “Okay, what’s the joke?”


“Don’t give me that. You’re wearing your best poker-face and the ground crew is about to split a gut. What gives?”

“Mulryan translated ‘pog ma thoin’ incorrectly.”

“So it’s not ‘a thousand pardons?’ “

“No. It’s ‘kiss my ass.’  And by the way, McGillicuddy speaks perfect English.”

Hugh glanced at Mike, saw the hint of a smile that matched his own. Then McCarthy shook his head and looked up at the dull blue-grey canvas swelling over their heads. “C’mon,” he said, “let’s go fly a balloon.”