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1636: Mission to the Mughals: Chapter Five
Last updated: Wednesday, January 25, 2017 18:48 EST
Northwest African Coastline
Bertram hissed in pain as his salt-stiffened shirt sawed across the raw meat of his neck. He looked heavenward. Four days almost without wind, baking in the sun. Even the crew was starting to grumble. Seeking distraction, he glanced at Rodney, who was bent over the port side rail, the dirty white line of the coast of Africa inching slowly by beyond him.
This devil’s own sunburn was still better than Rodney’s endless puking. The poor man hadn’t been right since they boarded. Everyone was a touch miserable when they sailed right into that rough weather getting round Ireland, but Rodney had been a class apart the entire time.
A snort from the poop deck above drew him from thought. “This sun will make you look a redneck, that’s for sure.”
Bertram turned, craning his sizzling neck, and saw it was John Ennis speaking. The oldest of the up-timers with the mission for their technical expertise, Ennis had a set of the telescopic contrivances up-timers called “binoculars” hanging from his neck.
Bertram returned the smile. “In appearance only, I’m told. Randy and Ricky say there’s more to being a proper redneck than a sunburn.”
“A ‘proper’ redneck? Now there’s a contradiction in terms.” John beckoned Bertram to join him, stepping back from the ladder to make room.
Bertram scrambled up the ladder, finding Captain Strand, the First Mate, and Gervais keeping company round the tiller. He gave the knot of men a nod and turned to John. “Could you explain that?”
“Yes, please do.” Gervais said, stepping over to join them, leaning against the rail. He didn’t seem the least bit uncomfortable in the heat, and his neck was already nut-brown.
John pursed his lips slightly. “Well, the term’s much more popular among southerners in the nation we came from, than it was among West Virginians. We generally prefer the slang term ‘hillbilly.’ ”
“Yes, I have noticed that is a title all you up-timers seem to bear with pride.”
A broad smile, full of teeth. “Not all of us, but,” a slow nod, “yeah, most of us who came from Grantville do take being called hillbilly with a degree of pride. It was, my father told me, originally an attempt by some city flatlanders to describe ignorant mountain folk, just like ‘rednecks’ was a sneer at dumb farmers whose necks were burned red by the sun.
“Over time, things change, and the two terms had mixed meanings when I was growing up — which partly depended on where you grew up. The term ‘redneck,’ especially, got mixed in with attitudes during the civil rights movement.”
“Which was ?”
John waved his hand. “I don’t want to go into that right now. Hillbilly, though, more-or-less kept its original meaning. Sometimes people would try and insult me with it, but I always took it as something to be a bit proud of: Most hillbillies I knew were more willing to help their neighbors than most city-folk, were clever with their hands, and not above bending their back to work for a living.” He shrugged. “So it wasn’t a bad thing, for me, being called a hillbilly.”
“Me neither,” Rodney gasped, between retching sessions at the rail below. “Except I was born in Georgia so I’d go with ‘redneck.’ But for the love of God” — he managed to fight down another retch — “don’t ever call my West Virginia-born wife a ‘redneck’ or you just restarted the civil war. ‘We seceded from you damn secessionists!’ is the first thing she’ll say, and it’ll go downhill from there.”
Bertram was looking a bit confused again. John chuckled and said: “I’m afraid that’s another up-time history lesson we’ll gave to postpone for the moment.”
“But, with all the wonders you have brought to us, it’s hard to imagine someone ” Bertram trailed off, trying to find the correct phrase.
“Looking down on us?”
“Well, there were a lot who did. Small towns had a reputation for being backward, just like today and we Americans didn’t have the best reputation overseas, either.” Another shrug. “Hell, Grantville still ain’t anyone’s idea of a cultural center.”
“Plebeians, then?” Gervais offered.
“Huh?” John asked.
Finding it endlessly interesting how these up-timers, so highly educated in matters technical, could be so ignorant of terms common to every modern down-timer’s education, Bertram explained: “The Roman Republic had patricians and plebeians. The former looking down on and fearing the latter, who were the majority. The patricians would do whatever possible to keep the plebeians from capitalizing on their numbers and seizing power, including bribing them with food and putting on entertainments like gladiatorial combats and circuses.”
“Oh, so that’s where that bread and circuses thing comes from?”
Bertram smiled. “Exactly so.”
John looked thoughtful a moment, then shrugged again. “Seems people have always been looking for ways to make themselves special, even at the expense of others.”
“True ” Gervais murmured.
A sailor in the rigging shouted something that, between the accent and the nautical term, Bertram missed.
But he couldn’t help but hear Strand cursing as the captain pulled out a telescope and stood to the rail along the port side next to Gervais.
There was another shout from above.
“Where away?” the captain bellowed.
“#8220;Port, three points.”
Strand adjusted the telescope, muttered, then said clearly: “Damnation.”
John appeared on the deck. “What is it, Captain?” he asked, bringing his binoculars up in the direction the captain was looking.
“Not good,” Strand muttered, chewing one end of his mustache.
Bertram squinted, but could not see anything. “What?”
“One of those ships with both sail and oars –” John said.
“Pirates,” Strand said.
“How can you tell that at this distance?” John asked.
Strand snorted. “Xebec with her oars out, pulling hard for us.”
“And?” John said.
“Damnation,” Bertram breathed.
Strand ignored them both, stomping over to his first mate. “Open the arms locker and man the guns. We’re in for a visit from the slaver scum.”
“I still don’t understand what he saw,” John said, peering at the horizon again through his binoculars.
“Would you want to row in this heat?” Bertram asked.
John let the binoculars hang from his neck and looked at him. “Hell, no.”
Bertram saw understanding dawn in the up-timer’s eyes.
“Shit.” John scrambled down the ladder and disappeared below decks.
Bertram heard a mechanical click, followed by a gentle whirring from just below. Bertram looked over to see a blue-steel pistol had appeared in Rodney’s hand, the cylinder opened to reveal shining brass.
Satisfied with the state of his loads, Rodney snapped the revolver closed with a practiced motion. “I’ll make sure the boys are ready.” He staggered off.
“And I’ll see to the women,” Gervais muttered.
First Mate Loke shouted from the rail, “Malte, Short Leif, Ulf, Lukas with me to the weapons locker! The rest of you, to your guns or stations!”
Bertram watched as the mast of the pirate slowly grew to reveal a ship as men leapt to their posts all over the Lønsom Vind.
“Knew we should have stood further out to sea,” Strand grumbled.
“Not much choice; what with the weather, the English, the Dutch, and the Spanish,” Bertram said, fear squeezing the words through a suddenly tight throat. He had no wish to be killed or, worse yet, watch Monique and the others gang-raped and sold into slavery.
John kissed his wife and pulled the Winchester free of its case. There was barely enough room in their cramped quarters for the two of them, and the barrel of the gun bumped the low ceiling as he slung it over one shoulder.
“What’s going on, John?” Ilsa had been lying down, suffering from seasickness nearly as bad as Rodney.
He grabbed the small ammo box his father had left lying around, the one labelled M25. “Pirates. Captain says they’re all slavers, too.”
Ilsa blanched. “Oh, no, John.”
He kissed her again. “Got to go.” Holding her at arms length, he added: “Keep your head down.”
“I’ll join the others.”
“Sounds good.” He left, squeezing past Gervais in the narrow gangway outside. The Frenchman was readying a coach-gun, sweat dripping from his round face. “On my life, they’ll not pass, Monsieur Ennis.”
Not sure what to say to that, John just nodded and climbed out on deck.
The sun beat on him as he considered his options. Setting up in the rigging would give him height and better viewing aspect on the targets, much like a deer stand in a tree, but the ropes and spars were swaying far more than the deck.
Ricky and the rest of the boys boiled out behind him while he thought it through, all shotguns and pent-up aggression.
He spat over the side and decided on the poop deck. “Ricky, do me a favor, get me five or six of those winter blankets.”
“Will do, J.D.”
John climbed up, Rodney right behind him, and rejoined the Captain and Bertram. Strand was still peering through his telescope.
“Captain Strand, what range do their guns have?” he asked, trying to keep his mind off of what he was preparing to do.
“They’ll probably give us a warning shot at about a hundred paces, reload, and if we don’t just give up, they’ll get to the business of trying to break us at around fifty.”
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.”
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.
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!#8221; 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.
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