FROM THE TOP

mainsail

Sharp eyes were needed in the days before radar. And even more so in times of war. The sloop Annabelle is on her way home with cargo from the warm southern islands but also with a package that will not fall into the hands of the French. Not if Captain Ben Deland has a say in the matter.

From my recently released action/adventure historical novel, CAPTAIN’S SORTIE:

“Sail! Sail there, off the bow.” The call from the boy at the masthead drew a sharp look from the tall youth at the helm. The helmsman’s young eyes focused out over the tossing ocean spray leaping up and away from the bowsprit of the sloop.

“Captain…” the helmsman shouted, but swallowed the rest as Ben Deland appeared at the step to the quarterdeck below and to the left, then moved toward the windward stays.

Before he went five paces, Ben turned and his dark eyes met the helmsman’s. “The glass, Thomas.”

Dogging the ship’s wheel with rope loops, the almost nineteen year old reached behind him to a small locker and pulled out the short telescope. He tossed it underhanded to his captain who caught it and then raced to the stay and up to join the lookout in the top. Ben was tall and broad shouldered like the helmsman, but his long dark hair and dark eyes were set on a heavier frame and Ben was just over ten years the helmsman’s senior.

Slipping around the swaying mast, Ben eased up next to the boy looking into his bright, wide eyes staring out between loose strands of unkempt blonde hair. Those eyes flashed a memory of Ben’s long dead father. His father’s widowed sister had been very reluctant to send Ben’s young cousin off to sea, but his father’s other sister and her husband convinced the boy’s mother.

The boy pointed out into the grey mist. “There, Sir. A big one. Saw it as we crested a wave.”

Ben handed the glass over and said, “Here Paul, take another look.”

Paul was only twelve, a late addition to the family, but he was a hard working lad and had earned his bunk on the sixty-two foot sloop, Annabelle. His young eyes were the sharpest of any of the crew, save his cousin and captain. He extended the short glass and locked onto the white speck far out to the north. It took only a moment for him to separate the sail from the white capped waves stirred by the strong winds washing over them from the northwest.

Paul studied the speck and his brow wrinkled above the eyepiece. Ben patiently waited while looking over the unknown ship out to their north each time it came into view in the waves. Ben said, “Well, lad? What do you think?”

Paul was still not used to his older cousin’s ways. Ben was sometimes rough with his orders and sometimes a jokester, but always teaching and pushing Paul, Thomas and the other crew to think and learn more about the ship, the ocean and people. “Could be a frigate, I’m, I’m not sure. She’s a three master, though, whoever she is.”

“And she’s got the wind on us,” Ben said then took the glass and looked for himself. After only a short time he said, “Well, Paul, she has us and if she’s of an ill will, we are greatly outgunned. What should we do?”

The boy started to speak, but snapped his mouth shut. It was cold at the top of the mast and though he was barefoot and his deck pants barely reached his ankles, he had not felt it until now. A chill ran merrily down his spine and he found it almost impossible to utter a word.

His captain looked away from the glass and into Paul’s blue eyes. “Think a moment. Where we are, and think where the wind is.”

Paul swiveled his head and then said, “The shoals,” and nodded to the west. “She can’t follow us there.”

Ben smiled, winked and then shouted down to the deck. “Wills!”

Only a moment later a shiny black head sprinkled thinly with a bit of gray hair popped out of the forward hatch and the grinning face looked up toward the pair at the top. “Aye, Captain, I’m here.”

“Let’s put her closer to the cape. Take the helm.” Ben was in motion sliding down a stay and onto the deck landing next to the starboard six pounder. Wills was scrambling out onto the deck and followed Ben up onto the small raised quarterdeck where the auburn haired and slightly bearded Thomas stood.

Ben handed the glass to Thomas and they went to the windward rail as the short and stocky Black man took the wheel. Ben said, “Let’s look at the charts while we get a little closer and then we can decide how the rest of our day will go.”

Ben followed Thomas off the quarterdeck into a passageway and down a narrow short ladder to the galley below. Just forward, at the stove stirring a steaming pot, Jeffrey, their young and thin Canadian cook and half doctor asked, “Should I douse this?”

Ben hesitated before following Thomas aft into the cramped captain’s cabin and said, “No, I think we can elude the newcomer for a while. Long enough for the lads to get a supper.” Two more faces, one flushed and sunburned and the other lean and black, appeared from the opening into the cargo hold forward of the galley and crew bunks.

The Black man said, “A fight, Captain?”

Ben replied, “I don’t think so, Johnson. You and Martin get up on deck and get ready to come about. We go for the slot.” No one, including Johnson himself, knew if he had a first name. Ben sometimes tried to get him to pick one, but Johnson was happy to be freed from slavery and adopted the name as his own, discarding what he’d been called by his former master and the pirates that plundered his fishing boat in the Bahamas then threw him overboard. Ben had not tried to find who may have a claim on Johnson after Johnson had been taken aboard and that seemed to be acceptable to everyone.

Martin was a bit of a mystery, but did his work and Ben let him be. His French accent betrayed his origins, but he had no love for the French King and so he was now aboard Annabelle, so long as she didn’t go anywhere near New Orleans. Only Wills, Jeffrey and Thomas had been with Ben for more than a year. But Annabelle was a gentle sloop that was as fast as she was agreeable to sail. Some of that speed was soon to be tested along with her young captain’s knowledge of the dangerous waters off Cape Hatteras.

“It will be a close thing,” Thomas said as Ben ducked and entered the cabin. The small space was the width of the ship with windows letting in the afternoon light across the stern. Only a small, sturdy wooden table and two plain chairs occupied the deck between the captain’s bunk and a narrow bench under the windows. Thomas was bent over the table holding the edges of a chart spread out under his gaze. The chart was well worn and generously marked with notes and cryptic messages from years of experience put there by former owners and by the captain, who moved next to Thomas where he could see the chart in the light from the windows.

Ben stuck a finger to the chart and said, “I put us here.” Thomas had learned much since Ben rescued him five years ago from a cold frontier cabin, orphaned and alone. The quivering victim of a savage Indian attack had grown inches in height and inches across his shoulders since. A short, razor sharp sword hung from his belt in a rough leather scabbard and a heavy knife was on the opposite side at his right hip. He was now as familiar with the ship and Ben’s charts as Ben himself and his advice was well received.

“More like here.” Thomas picked a spot just north of where Ben had. “The wind has freshened since noon. We should come back to the shoal now and draw her to us. That should smoke out their intentions and their flag.”

Ben hesitated just a moment to calculate the tide and then said, “Well our bottom may get the scrubbing she needs sooner than later. But I fear she is but one of several that lurk here. We race for darkness and escape. I don’t want to take them on.”

Thomas was startled at Ben’s timidity. They’d been in several fights with the ship since the war began to get warm and Ben always sailed to the sound of the guns without turning away. Thomas gave Ben a curious look.

Ben saw that and sighed. He stepped to the locker beneath his bunk and removed a cloth sack heavy with stones. From the sack he pulled a sealskin pouch wrapped tight with a leather strap. Holding it out to Thomas he said, “I have not told you of this until now. This must make it to New York. The Admiral has entrusted us and two other fast sloops with these dispatches. One of us has to break through the French pirates to deliver it. I have more confidence in us than the others.”

Thomas stood back from the chart and nodded. He’d come to accept what Ben said as sensible and straightforward. “Then we are once again in service to His Majesty?”

Ben returned the nod. “Once again. This war has forced us to do more than we should.” Ben returned the pouch to the locker. “This is our first unfriendly sail since leaving Jamaica; our first challenge. The French, and I have little doubt our sail is a French pirate, hope to pinch us off as we weather the cape, but I think they have not bargained on Annabelle’s swiftness.”

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