1636: Mission To The Mughals – Snippet 09

The ship was swaying in the swell, not a great deal, but enough to pose a challenge at range. The fluyt was higher at the stern than the xebec was at the bow, so he’d still have a tiny bit of increased aspect on the targets.

Ricky climbed into view, blankets over his shoulders.

John thanked him and started setting up his rest.

“What are you doing?” Bertram asked.

“Helps to have a steady base to fire from.”

“Oh. Do you think you can do much good?”

He shrugged, hands busy setting up the improvised shooting bench. “I ain’t no Julie, but I can hold my own.”

“Julie who?” Bertram asked, then answered his own question: “Oh, that Julie.”

John handed his binoculars to Ricky. “I need you to call them as you see them, all right?”

The younger man swallowed. “Never done this for real, J.D.”

“Me neither, but if you see the round, tell me where it’s gone so I can adjust.”

“Will do.”

Using a bucket for his seat, John unslung the rifle and laid it across the improvised rest. “Rate of closure?”

“No clock, but, uh, call it a bit more’n hundred yards a minute,” Rodney said. He even sounded sick.

John raised the Winchester, removed the covers from the cheap but functional Bushnell 3×9 scope Poppa Ennis had bequeathed him and said, “Captain Strand, you sure these men are pirates?”

“Certain and sure, Mister Ennis. Nothing else they could be, not here, not behaving the way they are.”

He shouldered the rifle and put his eye to the scope. “Okay.”

* * *

Caid Youssef el Inglizi returned the wolf-smiles of his crew with his own.

And why not smile? Surely finding a fat merchant becalmed so close to Sallee is a sign that God favors our enterprise?

As there wasn’t a good man among the crew, such signs were less wasteful than the usual methods he had to resort to in order to ensure his commands were followed. Always, the new men among the crew wanted to test him, wanted to see if the white Muslim was truly fit to lead the brotherhood.

Such behavior had only become more common since he’d sent his son off to Grantville to plumb their secrets. The other captains all believed he was trying to place his son beyond their reach, or worse, questioned his conversion to Islam. They campaigned, in whispers, against him. Their short-sighted bigotry would eventually prove their undoing, but for now Youssef needed every cruise he undertook to result in easy profits and many slaves.

The rowers of Quarter Moon were drawing them steadily closer to the foreign fluyt, as they had since sighting the vessel some hours ago. By his reckoning, less than half an hour remained until the sharks were fed the blood of unbelievers.

Youssef el Inglizi, born in London as Joseph Bingley, shaded blue eyes with one hand, staring hard at the slack banner hanging from the mast of the taller vessel. Several pale faces at the stern of the ship stood staring at their approaching doom.

“Hamburg?” he murmured.

“Would explain why they are alone — no convoys like the Spaniards or English,” his first mate, Usem, said from beside him. “Though it’s strange they should be this close in to shore.”

Youssef shrugged. “Not after the storms of last week, the calm that’s held since, and the current to drag them close.”

Usem nodded, white turban sparkling with jewels.

“Raise our banner, let them know who comes for them.”

“Yes, Captain.” Usem gestured.

Moments later a young sailor unfurled the banner of the Sallee Rovers from the mast, a gold man-in-the-moon on a red background.

“Brothers, we will soon set upon the infidel and take his goods, his ship, and the lives of any who resist!”

A crashing, ululating cheer greeted his words.

“Man the guns and make ready, then!”

Youssef and Usem joined the crews of the three cannon in the bow. The xebec, although not to the extent of a galley, had somewhat limited broadside armament because of the oars, and so mounted three of its thirteen guns in the bow. Because it lacked the banks of rowers of a true galley, it didn’t have the sheer speed of such a ship, either, allowing them to make only about four, perhaps five, knots. Still they closed the distance.

A meaty thump, like a mallet striking flesh, came from the gun-captain of the starboard bow gun.

A sharp crack reached his ears just as Youssef turned to look at his slowly slumping sailor.

“Wha –” The man gurgled, crimson staining his lips.

Something whistled through the air above Youssef. Another crack rolled across the water to him.

Youssef ducked instinctively, the men about him doing the same.

He saw it then, a tiny flash of light from one corner of the stern of the fluyt, like a gunshot, but without the cottony cloud of gun-smoke.

Shooting at us, from there? That’s — another of his cannoneers reeled back, arm dangling by a thread of meat — impossible!

Again the sharp cracking noise rolled across the waves.

“Down!” Youssef shouted, unnecessarily. His men were already pushing tight behind the cannon, fighting for space.

Another flash.

Something rang off the cannon directly in front of him with a sound like hell’s own hammer, then went whistling through the air between him and Usem.

Merciful Allah, how many guns does this man have?

That evil crack again.

The men were now leaning forward, close to the deck, as if bracing against a gale.

Youssef raised his head, gauging the distance. Almost four hundred yards still separated the ships.

“Faster!” he bellowed, “Row faster!”

Usem rose up to repeat the Captain’s order. He lost his life for it. The round took him in the jaw, sending teeth and bone rattling wetly across the deck behind his toppling corpse.

“Merciful Allah!” someone screamed.

“Faster!” Youssef barked, the now-expected crack punctuating his order.

The slaves responded at last, pulling harder at their oars. Slowly, the ship built speed. Several breaths passed without one of the horrible flashes, only the groan of wood on wood and the cries of the man who’d lost his arm. They were nearly three hundred yards out when the next flash appeared.

A dimly visible red-orange light appeared at the end of the flash. Barely visible, it crossed the space between the two ships and sailed by well above the deck.

This time, the crack of the gun was nearly drowned in the cheering of his crew.

“Down, you fools!”

A second dirty streak of light was sent their way, again appearing to have gone high. Another cheer from the men.

“Closer!” he shouted.

The crew shouted wordless aggression.

Glad his men were less afraid of the strange weapon than he, Youssef looked up to offer a silent prayer of thanksgiving. It was then that he saw a tiny curl of smoke rising from the furled mainsail.

As he stared, another of the burning things struck the furled sail along the spar just port of the mast. It went in and didn’t exit. Colored smoke began seeping from the hole as the noise of the shot followed the results across the water.

“Water the sail!” Youssef’s shouted order held more of an edge of panic to it than he wished.

Nearly all the crew looked up and saw the reason for the order. A collective groan went through them.

Hassan, youngest of the brotherhood and the quickest climber among them, stood to his duty and grabbed the bucket line. In moments he was straddling the spar. He dragged the first of the buckets up and started to pour it over the growing smoky stretch of sail.

The next red-orange streak ended in Hassan’s ribs. The boy shrieked, overbalanced, and fell. Even striking the deck from such a height did not end the pain for poor Hassan, who lay writhing, as if the thing that struck him continued to burn inside his flesh.

The crew moaned. Hassan was well-liked.

Youssef stepped across the boy, who lay twitching like a wounded scorpion, broken limbs flailing.

Youssef’s sword hissed from its sheath. A small mercy.

* * *

Why stop shooting? Bertram wondered, looking from the still-advancing pirate ship to John.

The up-timer looked pale, and no longer had his eye to the shooting telescope attached to his rifle, instead staring at the wooden rail inches from his face.

“Jesus, John,” Ricky said. His voice cracked.

“I know. Fuck me, but I know,” John breathed.

“Just a kid, John.”

“I wasn’t aiming at him!”

“They’re turning,” Captain Strand said.

“What?” Bertram heard himself ask.

“They’re turning,” Strand repeated, relief evident in his voice. “Heading for port.”

John climbed to his feet. He left the rifle where it lay.

Strand grabbed the younger man by the shoulder and looked down at Ricky, addressing them both: “John, Ricky, regardless of the difference between whatever you meant to do and what happened, it was them who came after us. They would have enslaved your women and you, given half a chance.”

“Don’t make it right, Captain.”

Strand released him. “But we live to make better choices.”

“And remember,” John said, climbing out of view.