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5.

TROUBLED WATERS
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RELIVED of his baby-sitting duties for an afternoon, shorn of his shadow – the boy was receiving a lesson in navigation – Sly took the opportunity to scramble to a favorite spot, as far on the forepart of the poop as he could get, alongside the bucket-rack. Here, unobserved, he was able to concentrate on a snippet of verse without being distracted by, and obliged to respond to, Pedro’s interruptions. The boy could not entertain himself, not a quarter hour. He had no interests, no consuming passions to sustain him. The animal did not, would not, kowtow to a brat whose brain was driven by selfishness and pride and not much else. That sluggish mechanism, surely in pristine condition since it had never suffered from too much cognition, would be oiled with ideas and set a-churning, if he had a say in it.

. . . . . What a treat! Blessed silence! There was, of course, the sloughing of the wind aloft, thrumming soft among the shrouds, or, as the gusts picked up, rattling and slapping and drawing curses from the men in the tops, but this was no annoyance, far from it. He scrawled blissfully, until he felt his shoulder tapped aggressively, followed by a box on the ears.

. . . . . It is an officer’s duty to keep his men at work, even when there is nothing to be done. When Sly was not actively in pursuit of rat, he was supposed to help scrape rust from chain cable, or to dismantle worn-out rope, to pick oakum. Caches of discarded hemp were set out for him around the ship, waiting on his dutiful attendance. A seaman is well advised to look busy at all times, or to face a reprimand.

. . . . . “So! Your pal’s had a dressing down!” Feo gloated. “The steward’s been put in charge of him, and the steward don’t take crap from no one. The good times are over, boy! Now maybe I’ll get some work out of you!” Sly looked up from his composition.

. . . . . “What are you doing there?” continued the irritated animal. “Writing more poetry?

. . . . . “I am,” replied Sly evenly. “What’s it to you?”

. . . . . “That’s it!” snapped his superior. “You read and write, do you? Damn your eyes and damn your lying tongue!”

. . . . . “Really! What do you call this?” Sly held up the sheet which he’d covered with small neat sentences. “Shall I recite?” he asked scornfully.

. . . . . “God rot your brassy bones!” roared the Spaniard. “I didn’t take you on to be taunted. Nor to be deceived. I have my informants. I’m well aware you pass your time hobnobbing with your lady-faced buddy.”

. . . . . “With all respect, sir,” howled Sly, “you are dead wrong on both counts!” He’d overlooked many a dig but this one would not pass unchallenged. He snarled: “I, for my part, did not sign on to take abuse from a foul tempered old tom for the harmless pursuit of the simple pleasure of versification. What’s worse, you malign my character, my honor! I am an efficient and effective hunter. I may chat – or write – or play, but let a rodent make the slightest move, I’m all eyes and ears and teeth. You know it well. As for the use of my personal time, the boy is a very congenial companion. He and I have much in common. You and I do not. I like to hunt but it is not the be-all and end-all of my existence. I have a mind.”

. . . . . The animals were close to trading blows. Injured feelings and thick-headedness on both sides had opened a rift between them which would not be mended.

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. . . . . As Sly prepared one afternoon to nap in his own lair, he noticed that the bedclothes had been disturbed. The woolen blanket which Pedro had loaned was not folded properly – he was a fastidious animal and liked to have his things just so – nor was the water bowl in its customary spot. His papers and writing implements had also been tampered with. His belongings had been searched! He raced to a certain sack of grain and punched at it until he struck a tell-tale buckle. Still there! His valuables were safe: the coins, the gems, the letters of introduction. His Majesty’s imprimatur might carry little weight far from home, but the documents certainly looked impressive and could, with a bit of doctoring, be made to serve any number of purposes.

. . . . . He’d signed the King Jakome’s writs for years. He’d even authored some himself, when he’d seen a need. Seldom was he taken to task over the forgery of a peculiar proclamation. The king’s harshest comment, even when he had issued a decree that every man in the land owed the crown a yearly duty of a dead dog, was, “What’s done is done. The less said about it, the better. Next time you get a notion for an edict, consult me first.”

. . . . . He moved his harness to a concealment under Pedro’s control. He stuffed it into a sleeve of the boy’s jacket, stowed in a duffel bag beside his bedding. He’d been considering an attempt at a reconciliation with his nemesis. This was now out of the question. The animal was a thief.

. . . . . From this point they spoke in the line of duty or not at all. Each made comments about the other to third parties which were in poor taste and of questionable accuracy. Sly, with his sarcastic tongue and wicked sense of humor, soon had the whole ship laughing at the befuddled old cat. (Chickens, hogs, and rabbits were penned or tied up on the weather deck, their fate the cookpot.) He was downright mean, mocking Feo’s sudden rage for education. Intimidated by the depth and breadth of Sly’s learning, the old cat was hell-bent on improving himself. An easier target for fun is hardly to be found. The poor thing was ashamed to show his face. This was not one of our hero’s finer moments.

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. . . . . The winds were getting ahead; an order was given to trim the yards. Dark clouds to windward were coming up fast. It was blowing great guns from the north. The sea had risen and the ship was rolling heavily, everything was pitched around in grand confusion. In the forecastle hats, boots, mattresses and blankets were fetched away to leeward, jammed under coils of rigging and boxes which had not yet been stowed away.

. . . . . ‘Bear a Hand’ was the order of the day. There was a trampling of feet, a creaking of the blocks, all the preparations for a growing storm. The heavy head sea was beating against the bows and flying over the deck. The wind was whistling through the rigging. Men were ordered aloft to reef sail. There was a sickening smell, caused by the shaking up of the bilge water in the hold. The ship made little headway; more often she was driven back. Four days out, the sea and wind went down, and the stars shone bright. Sly stood in the waist, watching the first streaks of early light on the face of the deep, signaling the beginning of the ordinary monotony of a calm sea day.

. . . . . The clouds cleared off at sunrise. Just after dawn, a ship was discernible on the horizon by the look-out in the tops. By ten it was clear that she was making for them, stunningly sharp upon a difficult wind, gaining at an alarming clip. At noon the man in the shrouds, studying her with a spyglass, called down his verdict: English! Dutch ships with the newer rigging were common in the area. She might have been a Dutch rascal. But she wasn’t.

. . . . . The deckhands swarmed the rail to get a look at the marauder. The flag of Saint George would soon flutter in her main top – a sight to send chills up the spine if ever there were one. Cast iron artillery was being run out her ports, ready to fire pop-gun nine pounders, laughable to a ship-of-the-line, but terrifying to a merchant crew. It was more than enough to wreck their timber-work before they’d landed a shot of their own, for English cannon had a longer range. Holding her way on a prosperous wind, the Santa Clara might escape. But the contrary blow which had brushed them back since their departure from Bilbao afforded no such marvelous scoot. A Latin-sailed square-rigger does not work to windward as English canvas does. In a few hours the bastards would be on them.

. . . . . English artillery had made huge strides. The English had perfected the production of cast-iron cannons. At a fifth of the cost of the bronze, which were largely the prerogative of princes, they were within the means of men like Meredith. His firepower was substantial. His men possessed an iron courage to match their iron guns and their deeply practiced marksman ship was renowned thanks, in no small measure, to sea-dragons like Raleigh and Drake.

. . . . . All shipping carried artillery. But a coastal trader was not a warship, armed to the teeth. The men were courageous brawlers, and they’d been drilled in the handling of armament. But seldom having been obliged to fend off a militaristic attack, they were neither ingenious nor confident when it came to mounting an all-out defense. They watched the English spitfire intently, a few of them telling their rosaries.

. . . . . “Keep your heads, my friends!” screamed Del Gado. “We’re twice their size. There’s got to be more of us.” This was not true. No vessel in the world goes so sparingly manned as an English one, and none do it so well. They work round and round ships with crews thrice the size. But privateers are another animal altogether. They need numbers to achieve their goals. And the discipline on board English ships was more severe.

. . . . . Spanish, Italian, and even French crews took life easier. Instead of running from place to place, wherever work is to be done, each man stood his station, and was answerable for the security of a finite piece of the ship. They sang more, they were ever ready to be musical. They jabbered more. To work at a frantic pace, except in emergencies, was not a requirement. Given oakum to pick apart during moments of idleness, they’d lay it aside as soon as your back was turned. They kept more holidays – many more. An English captain got nearly three weeks’ more labor out of his crew than one from a Catholic country. These were all God-minded men, but it seemed that the God of the Protestants was the harder task-master. The whole mind-set was very different. To the English eye, a Latin ship had a feel of sloth about it. The English had a saying: ‘In vain may the Dons fit fine ships; they cannot fit men’.

. . . . . “If they board,” the aide shrieked, “fight for all you’re worth. But first we try to convince them we’re not worth a battle. We’re no rich prize, thanks to the eccentricity of a captain mad to be under sail, payload or no.” He spat, under his breath. “Caca-fuego!” No one heard the slur except for a boy and a cat, who were hunched feet away, behind the jolly-boat.

. . . . . Pedro, white-faced, whimpered, “They’re after me.

. . . . . “We don’t know that,” replied Sly.

. . . . . “I’m lost,” the boy moaned.

. . . . . “You’re not!” insisted the cat. “You have me!

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. . . . . The close-hauled sail unfurled, a last-ditch chase began. The captain watched the pursuer through his glass. The men did their best, but it was no use. The ship was brought about, to present a smaller target. The crew got their firearms in order. The sailors tried to pretend that things looked a bit more promising, but they knew better.

. . . . . The hold of the aggressor was stocked with fire-bombs and chain-balls for breaking topmasts and other deadly work, and many arquebuses, pocket pistols, trappings, pikes, and a great quantity of knives and cutlasses. There were big guns mounted on box-shaped cartridges, easily handled and easily reloaded, unlike the Spanish sort which generally were made to discharge one lethal volley, after which grappling, boarding and hand-to hand combat were the norm. Most of the cannons were not even dragged up to the ports, for the captain did not expect to need them.

. . . . . At six bells the vulture was on their weather beam. She passed under their bow, showing the broadside of a full-rigged brig. She raced ahead, came about, and settled down, her startled-poultry scurry come to an end. She backed her maintopsail, and the two vessels stood ‘head on’, bowing and curveting each other like a couple of war-horses reined in by their riders.

. . . . . Meredith planned the engagement to be played out as high farce. The maws of heavy artillery aimed straight at you saps the will to resist. And a promise of leniency eats away at your less than entrenched ferocity.

. . . . . The first act would be to threaten, to knock out a mast and send it tumbling into the sea. Meredith would grab the bull-horn and shout his intentions, assuring that lives were not in peril, on his word of honor, if only they complied with his wishes. He would fire a round from his larger guns by way of encouragement, while a quickly launched longboat pulled alongside the merchant, allowing a party of aggressors to swarm up and over the side. They would meet with half-hearted resistance, overcome it, present his proposal, take charge of a chick, and leave them to drift, disabled.

. . . . . The engagement became a series of spasmodic encounters over many miles of sea. The English ship would come up, bank her sails, show her broadside to generally good effect, fall off, come about, and resume the stalk. She was superbly agile and energetic and was clearly not to be denied.

. . . . . The Turbulent hoisted out a boat. She came dropping down to the Clara under oars, and headed in to lie alongside, close up under the eyes of the embattled ship. At the same time, there was a flash and a roar, and a cannonball howled close overhead. Moreno looked up to see two elliptical holes in the mizzen topsail. Another flash and the ship trembled. The mainmast and cross-jack yards gave way, dangling shrouds. The waist was a tangle of ropes and rigging and canvas. Bosun and bosun’s mates roared out orders and the hands ran to their stations, a futile exercise, but it maintained a vestige of discipline.

. . . . . A score of cut-throats scrambled over the bows and took control of the ship. True to the captain’s pledge, they did no harm other than to crack a few skulls, deliver some minor flesh wounds, and collect swords and guns and keys. “Order your men to sit against the rail,” instructed one insurgent, snapping his fingers under the captain’s nose.

. . . . . The ships were yard-arm to yard-arm. Pirates leapt bulwark to bulwark. Meredith paced his poop deck magnificently attired, scarlet silk and a profusion of lace being, in his estimation, an appropriate costume, showing how little he felt the need to prepare for a violent struggle. A gypsy-looking man he was, black-haired, wild-eyed, full of mischief. He had a booming voice, he was clearly heard. No one could pretend not to grasp his meaning.

. . . . . “I’ll have the Duke, if you please,” he roared. “Hand him over and you’ll be be subject to no further inconvenience. You’ll have a cask of my excellent port for a thanksgiving dinner, and I’ll even let you keep your gold earrings.”

. . . . . “What hogwash is this?” muttered perplexed men. “Duke? What in seven devils is the fool talking about?”

. . . . . “Kindly do me the service of informing your esteemed commander that he has possibly mistaken us. We have no such a one,” Moreno, all silken Oriental, informed the trespassers, who grinned and brandished their cutlery in reply. They would get the rampage they relished after all.

. . . . . “I believe you!” sang out the ringleader cheerfully. “But our captain is convinced otherwise. Our instructions are to discover a boy, aged nine, whom he insists to obtain if, my friends – I hope we may presently be the best of friends – if the morsel be under your protection, for his loving uncle yearns to have him back. He has been beguiled away by those who do not have his best interests at heart. Help us to redress the misappropriation.”

. . . . . The spokesman began to harangue the cringing rank and file. “Do have some sense,” he lectured. “The unfathomable policies of the grandee, what do they signify to a working man, whose lot it is to break his back for a small return and, perhaps relieved of an arm or a leg, to retire on a handshake, sunk into squalor?” The sailors stared at him.

. . . . . ”I’ll sweeten the pot!” he screeched. “He who forks over the sweetmeat will be nicely rewarded and will be taken under our wing and transported to safe disembarkation on French coast. Do not dread the ire of your captain. Not a hair on your head will be disarranged, so help me God. On the other hand, if the jackanapes is not surrendered, heaven help you. Get cracking. Have the scut on the quarterdeck before our captain boards, or face his displeasure.”

. . . . . The crew was beginning to have a glimmer of an idea of who the English were after. Del Gado beat them to the punch. “Yes! There is a boy, a nose-in-the-air boarded in Bilbao. Ha! I suspicioned shady doings with that one.”

. . . . . “That’s a start!” screeched the pirate. “He is here, it’s been confirmed. Haul him forth. Form up! Groups of five with one of my lads in charge. Capitan Moreno remains with me. We’ll have ourselves a lovely chat.”

. . . . . Three work details spread out. Two headed below, one dispersed across the weather deck. “No! That’s not the way!” screamed Del Gado, to no one in particular. “The boy ain’t up here, you morons. You think he makes it easy for us? He’s dug in where there’s a hundred holes to dive into. We start in the hold and work up.” He looked to the man who seemed to be in charge for an approval.

. . . . . Harold Howard hesitated. He turned to Captain Moreno. “Who is he? What’s he up to? Give it to me straight.”

. . . . . “My aide,” said Moreno. “A slick. Up to something. Can’t say what.”

. . . . . “I tell you the burp’s below!” Gato, more calmly, addressed Moreno. “Captain! Should we waste our time up here, for nothing? Let’s first try below, eh?”

. . . . . “You!” Howard exploded. “Get over here!” Del Gado, a grin on his face, danced up the quarterdeck stair. “You’re awfully eager to help us out, Señor. Why?”

. . . . . Gato snorted. “Huh! I won’t shield a snot, not for all the gold in Caracas. You’ll grab him, sooner or later. Let’s get it over with! He’ll be below. I saw the cat slink down the _______way. Where the brat goes, the cat follows, like a dog would do. Find the cat, the boy ain’t far.”

. . . . . Howard smiled a solemn smile, which conveyed mirth about as well as a grimace at the end of a hangman’s rope might do. “Sir,” he said, “your smooth style of speech irritates me. I have, hardly knowing you, arrived at the conclusion that I don’t like you. I take your advice, but I watch you closely. “John Cole,” he ordered one of his boarders. “Hug this one. More fool you,” he told Del Gado, “for courting prominence. Bag the bunny-rabbit, big mouth, or you’re first into the drink.”

. . . . . Sly and Pedro looked at each other in astonishment. “See? You’re wrong about Gato, admit it!” Pedro whispered. They were both of the opinion that Del Gado knew very well where they were. “He’s trying to help me!”

. . . . . Sly detested the man. He’d warned the boy not to be drawn into a friendship. The slimeball had done all he could to ingratiate himself, with advice and encouragement and little gifts. He’d even attached himself to the hose-knotting episode, knowing full well that he’d be the one who would have to put the jumble to rights. And the questions! ‘Who are your people?’ involves a simple reply if you’ve nothing to hide, a troublesome one if you’re sailing under false colors, a potential disaster if you lack the ability to think steps ahead and anticipate a trap. “I admit nothing of the sort!” the cat replied. “TCome! Let’s get you – ya! – under that pile of canvas.”

. . . . . Near sat a stack of sail in the process of being patched, overlaid with tattered shrouds and splintered timber. Wood collapsed against the rail had formed a lean-to, difficult to penetrate, unless you were small of girth. There were several gaps wide enough for a boy to squeeze through. Sly crept in first, to explore.

. . . . . “Here’s my plan,” he whispered. “We insert you into the canvas, bound and gagged. I’ve got to see what’s what. If you’re found out before I reappear, don’t utter a word. Not a blessed word, hear?” He forced Pedro in, nipping at his posterior. It took all his powers of persuasion to get a terrified child shackled, hands behind his back, ankles roped together, and gagged with a neckerchief. He had to prod, push, and plead with the petrified youngster to manipulate himself into the pile of cloth, while he struggled to lift at the edges. Finally, in disgust, he leapt atop a lump of sobbing fabric and hissed, “Keep still, you little fool! I’ll get you out of this yet. Don’t screw it up!”

 

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  1. Haute-Navarre is fictitious, although the country of Navarre did exist in this period.

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