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1637: No Peace Beyond the Line: Chapter Fifteen

       Last updated: Sunday, October 25, 2020 09:39 EDT



Port-of-Spain, Trinidad

    Morning started for Hugh O’Donnell with the face of his aide and old friend Aodh O’Rourke scowling down at him. “A fine example to your men, sleeping away half the morning,” was how the veteran aide-de-camp said “good morning.” before howling for drums and coronets to awaken the Wild Geese mercenaries that were travelling with them. In actuality, the middle watch had not ended long before, but the east was already gray and Port-of-Spain would soon be aware of the presence of the ship that had carried them there: the Dutch jacht Eendracht.

    When Hugh arrived on deck, he saw that the second, promised ship had joined them during the night. This was the comparatively high-sided Hollandische Tuijn which sported the same number of guns as the Eendracht — thirty-eight — but was equipped with 22-pounders. Any knowledgeable person ashore, equipped with a spyglass, would know instantly what those big brass and iron muzzles portended: a truly ruinous bombardment.

    Evidently, some such knowledgeable observer had been present — either that or Port-of-Spain simply had no belly for a fight. Which was not too surprising: the Spanish had a history of none-too-benign neglect of this outpost which was routinely bypassed when each year’s Flota invariably made its first landfall further along the Main. After all, neither silver nor spices made their way to this easternmost point on Tierra Firma, so what was the profit in stopping there?

    In consequence, the harbor’s modest defenses were dilapidated, as Hugh could plainly see while he and ten of his Wild Geese made their way to shore in a pair of Dutch skiffs. He was met by the Spanish equivalent of a sergeant who reeked of wine and whose belly suggested it was a common indulgence. The fellow was startled at Hugh’s polished Spanish, expressed further confusion that Irish mercenaries were landing from Dutch ships, and then became speechlessly compliant when Hugh informed him that Port-of-Prince was now under the control of the Dutch and the USE. And the Union of Kalmar.

    The Spaniard had blinked, sputtered once, and then gestured mutely toward the approximate center of the town — well, village — that serviced the harbor. Whether or not Hugh’s proclaimed source of authority mattered to the sergeant, the many ominous muzzles bristling from the side of two ships and pointed in his direction evidently conferred a sufficient measure of political legitimacy.

    Next to a small central church was an equally small garrison that was responsible for manning the four-gun battery which overlooked the harbor. Only two guns had ready powder and shot and there was only one guard present — who had to be awakened by the Wild Geese when they approached him. Just inside, the ‘governor’ of the tiny town also had to be roused and seemed relieved to surrender it to Hugh. Or anyone else who wanted to take responsibility for it.

    The transfer of power having been effected, O’Rourke had left the next senior of the Wild Geese, O’Bannon, in charge of rounding up weapons and securing the paroles of the Spanish militia and any locals who had been inveigled to offer services in support of it. Hugh, in the meantime, had asked to be shown the officer’s paddock. There he found a reasonable gelding, a rather sweet-natured old mare, and a third ill-kept creature that was bound for the stew-pot if its care did not improve immediately and dramatically.

    Giving orders for that care to be furnished, he and O’Rourke mounted and rode to the eastern margins of Port-of-Spain where they found, as they had been told to expect, two Nepoia guides waiting in concealment. Exchanging nods, the two Irishmen followed the natives.

    However, before O’Donnell and O’Rourke felt comfortable enough to distract themselves with conversation, more Nepoia emerged from fields and forests until their escort numbered upwards of twenty. Hugh had the strong impression that perhaps a dozen more shadowed their flanks just beyond the edges of the treelines that hemmed in the small farm plots on either side of the cart-track. This cautious security force, and the absence of farmers working the fields or moving their livestock, confirmed what Hugh had instinctively felt when he had walked through the few, dusty lanes of Port-of-Spain: this was a land poised in the midst of a war. And presently there was, so to speak, another shoe waiting to fall.

    The anticipation of which had been what led to his being here in the first place. . .



    Hugh had been to Spain while in the service of Philip IV’s vassal — and aunt — Archduchess Isabella of the Spanish Lowlands, but even there, February was noticeably chilly. But here on St Eustatia? It was as balmy as ever. Whereas last year at this time, he and his tercio of Wild Geese had been in Brussels, shivering in freezing rain and bitter winds every time they poked a nose outside.

    He turned away from the view out the window and let his eyes readjust to the comparative gloom of the second floor council chamber of Fort Oranje. Mike McCarthy, the up-timer who’d brought him into the scheme to secure Trinidad’s oil, was standing in front of a phenomenally detailed and accurate map of that same island. He was pointing to the strongpoint Hugh had constructed, Fort St. Patrick, and assuring Eddie Cantrell that the neighboring Arawaks represented a minimal threat, at most.

    “They’re not much to worry about,” he was saying, “not when you’ve got a well-armed force in a prepared position like this one.”

    Eddie shook his head. “I’m not worried about them attacking, Mike. I’m worried about them telling the Spanish where they can find us.”

    The older up-timer rubbed his chin. “Well, I don’t like it, but we should be able to keep the Arawak busy enough that they don’t have the time to go wandering over to Pitch Lake, which is further west than they usually range.”

    Eddie leaned forward. “And how do we do that?”

    Mike sighed. “By heating up the war they’re waging against the Nepoias.”

    “Last I heard, the Nepoia cacique Hyarima had stopped asking to meet Hugh and started asking for more guns. He’s barely holding his own.”

    Hugh nodded. “Right before setting sail to join you here, he sent an emissary to make that same request. The Nepoia are badly outnumbered.”

    Mike stared at his feet. “Then we send them more guns. Not like we don’t have hundreds of outdated pieces left over from last year’s attack on Oranjestad and The Quill.” He sounded like he might spit.

    Eddie was frowning. “So, we fuel a brush war to keep the Arawak too busy to think about going to Pitch Lake or, if they do, telling the Spanish about what they found there?” When there was no answer, he pressed, “Mike, is that wise? Is it right?”

    Mike shrugged. “Is it wise? Sure, because it will work. Is it right?” He scratched his cheek. “Look, Eddie, about five minutes after I started hatching this wild-ass Trinidad scheme, I realized why I never should have started in: because the choices aren’t between what’s right and what’s wrong, or what’s good and what’s bad. Here, the choices are always between what’s bad — and what’s worse.

    “So, is supplying the Nepoia with enough guns so that they can take the war to the Arawaks ‘right?’ I don’t know. All I know for sure is that we’ve got to keep all the Spanish eyes in the Caribbean focused on Trinidad for as long as we can. So yeah, if making sure that the war with the Nepoias gets hot enough to pull the Arawak lookouts away from Pitch Lake and the oil rig, then that’s the right thing to do.” He did not look up as he spoke.

    Eddie was running a hand through his hair. “I dunno, Mike. I don’t think that’s enough. I think we need to actively coordinate with the Nepoia.”

    “Coordinate? How?”

    “Well, when our contacts bring them that load of guns you’re talking about, they also bring a message.”

    Mike looked up. “This oughta be good.”

    Eddie nodded. “We let them know that the Spanish won’t be able to supply the Arawak anymore. Because we won’t let them.”

    Mike stared, laughed mirthlessly. “Yeah, good luck with that.” He sighed. “As best as we know, the Arawaks are still crawling all over the majority of the island’s landmass in the east. That’s a lot of supply line to sever.”

    Eddie shook his head. “We’re not thinking about that whole area, Mike. In fact, the last thing we want and the last thing we can afford is to put a lot of troops into an unfamiliar jungle region. We know how that works out. Besides, it’s our intention to stay out of the way, to let the native groups settle their own affairs, as much as possible.”

    “That will be a nice trick, since both sides are now providing them with guns.”

    “I agree it won’t be easy, might not even be possible. But if we can cut off the Arawaks’ Spanish supply of guns and powder, don’t join any fights, and stay the hell off of ninety-eight percent of their land, hopefully the Arawaks will feel safe making peace with the Nepoia. Maybe they’d even come around to accepting our presence at Pitch Lake, too.”

    “And in the meantime? Could be a lot of body counts and massacres until that happy time when we’re all passing the jug and singing kumbaya, Eddie.”

    Eddie nodded, but Hugh was no stranger to councils of war and state. The look in the young up-timer’s eyes was exceedingly patient as was his tone as he answered: he was placating as much as he was agreeing. “No argument. For now, however, let me be more specific about how we can cut off the Spanish supply to the Arawak: we isolate the inland capital of San José de Oruña by taking the small harbor town that connects it to the wider world, Port-of-Spain.”

    Mike leaned forward. “I’m listening.”

    “The last known governor there is Cristoval de Aranda, who has a pitifully small garrison. He has so little Spanish help or local control that he has to allow the island’s tobacco farmers to freight smoke on any ship that happens by. Now, in our timeline, those were almost all French, English, or Dutch. But in this timeline, that means he’s even in worse straits: the Dutch are hiding, the only English left can’t even freight their own tobacco, and before summer comes, we’ll have eliminated the last French colonies in the Caribbean.

     “But, so long as San José de Oruña and Port-of-Spain are in Spanish hands, they can use it to anchor ships, land troops, store or gather food, and most important, send guns to the Arawaks. Fortunately, given our forces in that region, we can visit Port-of-Spain with such a profoundly superior show of force that we should be able to take the place without having to fire a shot. Literally.”

    Mike studied Eddie. “I know that smile of yours; there’s a kicker.”

    “A what?” asked Hugh.

    “A final card he can play to ensure that this plan actually works.”

    Eddie’s smile broadened. “Sure there’s a kicker, Mike. We make sure Hyarima knows when it’s going to happen, so he can make whatever plans he considers best. And we also let him know who he can thank for taking Port-of-Spain and thereby, cutting off his enemies’ access to weapons and powder.”

    Hugh smiled. “You needn’t glance at me next, Eddie. I know what you’re thinking and why you’re thinking it.”

    Mike frowned. “Well . . . I don’t. So, you wanna tell me?”

    Hugh smiled at his friend. “O’Rourke was part of the original party that met with Hyarima’s representatives to trade guns for food last year. Also, given the Wild Geese’s share in the oil profits, we have a personal investment in ensuring an outcome on Trinidad that makes the Nepoia our happy and willing friends. And finally, most of us are all too well acquainted with both the Spanish language and the empire’s bureaucracy.

    “So,” Hugh finished, looking back at Eddie, “if anyone is able to compel this fellow Aranda to relent without a fight, I suspect it would be us. And the ‘kicker’ is that by sending me, Hyarima gets the meeting he’s been asking for.”

    Eddie nodded, his eyes bright and appreciative. “That was my thinking precisely, Hugh.”

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