HAM TAKES CHARGE
LET’S SEE, aren’t we missing someone here? Where-oh-where is that peacock, Hamilton Makepeace Meredith?
. . . . . The assault was scripted. Meredith had lingered on his Turbulent. His lieutenant was to handle the preliminaries. If the boy was taken into custody, dandy. If not, the demon of a First Officer would be forced to take brutal control of the stalk. When he was done screaming and stomping and swearing a blue streak, none would doubt his worst intentions.
. . . . . The youngster remained at large. Ham, fulminating, was boarded. On the quarterdeck, center stage, he upbraided his stone-faced lieutenant for gross incompetence. The search had been suspended, the crew herded into the waist of the ship. “Someone knows where the sweetmeat is,” he screamed. “He should have been nabbed by now. Someone keeps him safe. Who is that someone, eh? Who is the greedy bastard who jeopardizes the lives of his shipmates for his own enrichment?” He paused to let this concept sink in.
. . . . . “Is it your captain? He strikes me as a decent man.” He tipped his cap to Moreno, who was gathered with his officers on the half-deck. “Yes, the uncle offers a goodly sum for the capture – uh, return – of a beloved relative. Hellfire! We all know he means the innocent ill. That’s not our problem. Look, would your honorable employer, a wealthy man, I believe, sacrifice his men, his ship too, the source of his prosperity, to protect one unfortunate? Who would blame him for it? No, the Judas who betrays you is certainly not your sensible capitan.” As if delivering a sermon, he afforded his subdued audience time to reflect.
. . . . . “Lunkheads! Save yourselves! The boy has a protector. Who is he? You know. I know you know. Who sticks to him like glue? Who tolerates the insolence of a changeling, I’ve heard him described, a nasty little incubus, with unimaginable patience? The tender ministrations derive from an impulse for kindliness, says he. From the desire to protect an asset, say I. Who is first, and last, for himself? Who is arrogant enough to think that he can get away with a monstrous plot to prevail at the expense of those he calls compadres? Who imagines himself brighter than the rest, making no more than a feeble attempt to hide it? Who judges himself smooth as satin, no one topping him for cunning? Who, I imagine, is widely slammed as being too clever for his own good?”
. . . . . “A boy was boarded in Bilbao. I suggest he’s been segregated, for he is not any bumpkin, he’s a precious commodity. He‘s been supervised, I believe. Ha! You see the light, do you?” The Spaniards, shaking their heads, were beginning to confer. “At the risk of being tedious, I repeat myself. It is within your power to save yourselves, my friends. Help me help you to survive this unpleasantness.”
. . . . . “If anyone here merits a probe, it’s that one!” cried one captive. He pointed to a man in front of him. “I ain’t saying he’s your cockroach. But no one here fits the bill like him. He’s for himself, that one. It’s him with the nose in every business. He’s a marvel for skirting rules. He’s always ready to share his tricks, but he does nothing on the cuff. He’ll have a favor in return, and you can bet it ain’t ever something convenient. Oh, he hawks a line of bull you’d not believe. Hell, sure you would. You’re a cadge yourself, no offense. Most of these imbeciles swallow his gull. Me, not quite.” All eyes were fixed on the man known as Gato, on Hernando Del Gado.
. . . . . “Let’s get one thing straight!” responded Del Gado, addressing the English officer. “I ain’t scared of you Jack-Quicks. Listen, you morons,” he turned on his shipmates. “They got the boy, they’re gone. Why make needless trouble for themselves? They got no boy, they swear to sink our scow. Think about it! They sink our scow, they got no boy, they get no pay-off. No, they’ll rip us apart and snag the squirt, in which case, if we can believe ‘em, we’re off the hook. But, maybe not.
. . . . . “There’s a snag: there’s gonna be a blow-up. After all that effort, the twerp’s no Duke. He’s a snot, sure. He’s prissy enough to be a Duke. But he ain’t. There’s no price on his head. How do I know? I’ve had charge of the little insect for a week. You think I couldn’t size him up by now? You know me better than that! So why’s he hiding? Scared to death, I should think. These fellows won’t be pleased to find they’ve wasted a day on us, and let the quarry they were tailing escape. These boys are not your common easy-ways seamen. They’re cut-throat buccaneers, just look at those faces. You think we’re getting out of this with a handshake and an apology?
. . . . . “We’re for it, my friends. Well, maybe I can convince ‘em there’s something on board worth even more, and that’ll do ‘em. “Cause there is!” he roared. All speech ceased. You heard the wind in the sails, the slap of the waves, that was it.
. . . . . Del Gado had decided to push the buried treasure fantasy for all it was worth. The thugs must be convinced to head for French coast. He must get Pedro to shore, strip him of his valuables, maybe turn him loose, maybe not. He’d play it by ear. “I’m onto something, thanks to my eternal sniffing. Worth more that any damn reward any damn uncle might be offering by a long shot.”
. . . . . “Listen, you fools,” Del Gado turned to his shipmates, but he made sure to speak loudly enough for anyone within thirty feet to hear. “We seem to be on a fool’s errand. We’ve got no cargo, where’s our profit? Our captain’s no fool. I snoop. Sure I do. I look. I listen. I fall in with a young cocksure, and I coddle him like he’s my filthy-rich aunt, and me determined not to rile the old dear. Guess what? He buys it. He opens up. He tells me things. Not much, but enough to get me going.
. . . . . “The captain’s got this book, see. He studies it, every chance he gets. But he won’t be caught at it. When I come up he slams it shut and grabs up papers, anything, to bury it. Whatever he’s up to, it ain’t going well. He’s cursing over it since we left Lisbon. Well, you know damn well I got to have a peek. He leaves it out the other morning, while he takes a dump. I’m in the pantry. I creep around the corner and see a spot of red. I say to myself, jump on it, Nando! Here’s your chance.
. . . . . “It’s a queer business. Letters. Numbers. A code. That’s when it hit me. The lay-up in Bilbao, the boy snuck on. Moreno’s got a fix on something. The book’s key to it, but he can’t make head nor tail of the thing. Pedro’s got answers, that’s why he’s here: whispers from a grandfather, a shipwreck, valuables, stashed, something in that line. Here’s what’s for certain: There’s a journal, in code. He knows about it. How comes the little stinker by information about a code? Oh, he’ll deny it. Me, his pal, I got him to slip and admit it!
. . . . . “Here’s my idea: a broke-down rogue of a grandfather – unable to do for himself – sent a package to a friend. I fetch the mail, you know that. A parcel waited on us in Lisbon. Our Captain eyes it, makes no headway. You bet he ain’t for bringing in a mathematical genius to unravel it, demand a share, maybe pull a flim-flam. He hauls up in Bilbao and storms off into the hinterlands. A key! There must be a key. The Grand-Papa can’t talk. That crumbcake kicked the bucket long since. The boy, he recalls things, bedtime stories, probably. Once he’s in the vicinity, maybe his memory will improve. That’s my gut hunch. Anyone got a better?”
. . . . . “How about our original presumption of a runaway duke?” Meredith asked acidly. “The ledger is a record of transfers of wealth. The mother secretly moved assets abroad, in anticipation of a need for asylum. Not as creative as your fairytale, but more likely.”
. . . . . “Search the cabin!” cried Del Gado. “Dredge up evidence to sink my theory and float yours. Either way, there is a book, God’s truth. It’s either Moreno’s own log, in which case he can provide a key. It’s some kind of secret stuff, something worth having, or why would it be hidden away? Why go to the trouble of throwing it into code? Look, I know that roost. I sweep it. I’ve been looking for that journal every chance, but I ain’t had the freedom to really go at it. Turn me loose. What have you got to lose? By the way, I’m just the one to bust a code. I studied the hoo-doo under the instruction of a true proficient during two long years in stir.”
. . . . . Moreno blanched. His cabin would be torn apart. The journal would be found. Could Del Gado really unravel the code? Or was this previously undisclosed talent a ploy? The man’s machinations were never-ending. A nine-year-old would be located also, the truth of his geniture unraveled later. Treasure, what a crock! He must reinforce his aide’s screwball story to give the youngster a fighting chance.
. . . . . “From what I understand,” he admitted, “somewhere between _____ and _____ languishes a chest of precious objects, pulled by Englishmen, your kin perhaps, from a prize off the Azores. Heading home, their ship was grounded by a storm on mudflats outside La Rochelle. The swag was wrestled ashore and buried, on an island, I believe. The survivors rowed for the mainland, meaning to filter home to England and to return in a boat of shallower draft. Unfortunately, this was the time of the Saint Bartholemew Day Massacre of heretics. La Rochelle, a Protestant stronghold, was under siege from Catholic troops. It was rumored that English were on their way to support their co-religionists. English seamen stumbling ashore were thought to be the advance party of an invasion force. They were chased down by soldiers from the encampment encircling the town and butchered.
. . . . . “One man was hidden by a brave cleric whose warped understanding of scripture required compassion for all, despite fiendish beliefs. One shipwreck, at death’s door, or so it seemed, dictated information. The priest set it down in a code, his cunning game, the pastime of a subtle mind. What was to be done with a cripple? He could not be abandoned, vulnerable as he was.
. . . . . “The Samaritan, a priest on sojourn from Andalusia, bundled him into a barge and sailed for home, where the flotsam recovered and eventually married. Years slipped by, as they tend to do. The man apparently dismissed any notion of trying for pie-in-the-sky booty, probably already retrieved by his former ship mates. But the priest still had his codebook. He passed it to my cousin, for the benefit of her boy, our Pedro, the spawn of the English sea-dog. A key, alas!, was absent, but the boy, as my aide suggested, was told tales. That’s the history as relayed to me. That’s what I know. It’s all I know. I’ll give you the item, welcome to it. Carry off Señor Del Gado – he’ll solve it for you, I don’t doubt. Take the boy, take me as well, he’ll tell me the truth of the matter if he tells anyone, and let my lugs be.” He prayed that he and Pedro would be able to escape before the truth were known.
. . . . . He led a party, Meredith and his staff along with his own officers and his aide, to the cabin. All the lock-fast places had been busted open, except for a splendid foot-locker, which no one had dared to damage, Meredith would have had his head. Grave-faced, Moreno bent down and jimmied a node in the inlay. As he pulled out a concealed drawer, he let out a yelp. He looked up, straight at Gato. The snake had been foisted upon him by a coalition of investors in Madrid. He’d had no say in the hire. His is a unique set of skills, he’d been told, the board of directors is delighted with his qualifications. He’s your man. Del Gado was outstanding at his duties, but he was a weasel. What did he know, or think he knew? Here was an opportunity to dispose of the pest once and for all. “You!” he screeched at his aide. “You have it!”
. . . . . “Me! How the blue blazes would I have it?” exploded Gato. “I had no idea where it was.”
. . . . . “No? You’re the one with the easy comings and goings. But for you, no one enters my rooms unless bidden.”
. . . . . “Ya, I looked for it, plenty. I never found it. I took one final stab at it an hour ago, me and John Cole. No luck. The clown outside,” Del Gado meant, of course, Jack Daw, “I kept my eye on him while we were treated to the excellently informative commentaries of Your Honor, sir.” He smiled glumly at Captain Meredith. “He was in here too. Twenty minutes, about.”
. . . . . “That moron?” cried Meredith. Incredible! The dim-wit Daw able to sniff out the prize, and in minutes, when the captain’s diligent manservant could not? The brother-in-law was behind it. Cole had refined tastes, and an appreciation for fine craftsmanship. That handsome chest, an outstanding article, would immediately have enthralled him. He, not the imbecile relation, taking note of a work of art, fingering it with reverence, had discovered the secret, and had whispered instructions to his brother-in-law on how to access it after he and Del Gado had cleared out.
. . . . . Daw, sternly summoned, crept through the door, slump-shouldered, a normally boisterous mountain of a man doing his best to imitate a mild drumlin.
. . . . . “You were in here,” announced the captain. “Don’t deny it. He’s the one?” he asked Del Gado. Del Gado nodded.
. . . . . “I was, sir,” the quaking man replied. “There was a thump, you see –”
. . . . . “A thump, was there! Like this one?” Meredith looked to his lieutenant and raised an eyebrow. The officer sprang forward and punched him in the midsection while two others pinned his arms to his sides.
. . . . . “Where is it?’
. . . . . “Where’s what?”
. . . . . “Don’t rile me, Mister Daw. You know what. What Jack Cole handed you, or told you where to find. Fork it over, and you’ll get off easy, six lashes. Meredith moved away from the chest, exposing the open, empty drawer. Daw stared at it in confusion.
. . . . . Meredith turned again to his junior officer. “Strap him to the _________, Mister Goodwin. Encourage the dolt to come clean, with your usual efficiency.” This was the captain’s command for a brutal bashing.
. . . . . “Wait!” Jack cried. He fished a knot of handkerchief from his pocket. “Here!”
. . . . . The lieutenant grabbed it and conveyed it to his captain.
. . . . . Meredith unwrapped a hunk of cheese. “What the hell is this?” he demanded.
. . . . . “Ain’t that what you want, then?”
. . . . . “Blast your bones! Why do I want a slab of chewed on cheese?”
. . . . . “Chewed on cheese, to be sure, with a brilliant drilled down in it.”
. . . . . Meredith took a closer look. Sure enough, a stone winked at him from the depths of the pliable substance. ”What’s this, now? Where’d you get it?”
. . . . . “Twas given me, by John Cole.”
. . . . . Well! The miser John Cole letting go of a diamond, without a knife held to his throat? Extraordinary!
. . . . . “Why?”
. . . . . “He wanted in here, bad.”
. . . . . “Why?”
. . . . . “To sneak a look for a treasure map, he said.”
. . . . . “Well, now, Mister Daw. This purely breaks my heart.” Meredith registered anguish. “I work so hard to build fellowship among my laddies. Fair shakes, boy: one for all, all for one, the key to any successful voyage. I know you, Jackie. You’re a hot-head, but no thief. I’d expect you to be involved in a fist fight, never to go along with blackhearted attempt to deprive your brother adventurers of their fair share of a prize. It ain’t like you, boy. You’ve been led astray by that relative of yours. Ain’t that the way of it? Ain’t I warned you against him, more than once? You can bet I won’t sign him again.
. . . . . “You don’t listen to my best intentioned advice, me who has the welfare of the company in his thoughts every waking second. You youngsters don’t guess how I worry over the burden of keeping you healthy and safe, food in your bowl and shoes on your dogs, but why should you? It’s my burden to bear. I set sail time and again, not because I need the dough, but because I feel the responsibility of giving home folks gainful employ, most of them some degree my blood. We are connected in a powerful way, you and I, sprung from the same salt-soil. You’re family, that’s my view. I am harsh from time to time, but a father must instill rightful behavior or be branded a derelict of duty.”
. . . . . Jack, overcome by the enormity of the injustice which he had committed, bowed his head in shame. Meredith put his arm around the young man’s shoulders. “You rue your transgression. Tell all, keep nothing back. Where’s the log?”
. . . . . “I don’t know, swear to him on high,” blubbered the quivering criminal.
. . . . . “Does John Cole have it?” whispered Meredith, as if sharing a secret, into his ear.
. . . . . “Not to my knowledge, sir. Fit to be tied, he was. I know that look of his when he’s steamed. Said we was crossed.”
. . . . . “Crossed? How, that? By whom?”
. . . . . “How? Ask John Cole. Who? By that one there.” Jack Daw pointed at Del Gado.
- Haute-Navarre is fictitious, although the country of Navarre did exist in this period.
. . . . .