Yankee privateer Captain Phillip Fairaday and Royal Navy Lieutenant Eliot Marlborough return in this sea adventure of 1776. As the conflict in the Chesapeake Bay grows more savage, so, too, does the conflict between these former friends. While Fairaday raids Tory commerce with increasing success, Marlborough joins the ship’s company of HMS Roebuck 44 in order to intercept and destroy the inshore Rebel threat. When they meet in ship to ship action off the North Carolina coast only one will retain his command; for the other, an uncertain fate looms.
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Captain Phillip Fairaday rested his telescope against the main shrouds and gazed at the image of the English frigate Roebuck charging out of the southeast, still hull down but closing fast. The sun was brilliant, dancing off the rolling water of the Chesapeake Bay. The breeze was as fresh, as kind, and as dependable as any true seamen could wish. Yet, despite the generosity of the weather gods, it had been a foul turn to find Roebuck here this afternoon of April of 1776, particularly for the master of an untested little Yankee privateer sloop like the one bucking the seas beneath Captain Fairaday’s boots. It was enough to kick the devil out of all high hopes. Enough to raise the cockles on a corpse.
"Damn foolish," Fairaday said aloud.
Fairaday was not in the habit of talking to himself, but the present circumstances ever so warranted it. The Roebuck, a crack fourth-rate with 44 guns, each capable of crunching the privateer sloop’s bulwarks, looked to be a weatherly sailor and handled by a trim crew and captain of right mariners. Fairaday dearly wished he could say the same of his own vessel and men.
"She’s gaining sure and fierce on this point of sailing, Captain," said Thomas Kemper, the second-in-command of the little private man-of-war Javelin.
"Yes, Mister Kemper, that she is. It is, however, the best point we can manage in this dray."
Fairaday could have chosen to share his plan of escape with his first officer, but he found that there was something predatory about Kemper that precluded taking him into his confidence. The fellow had the sort of active spirit that always looked for a chink in the wall of reason. It was better to keep him preoccupied with the workings of the crew rather than the business of ship handling or the difficult questions of command. Too much of the proud tempered New Englander in him for Fairaday’s taste. Too much by half.
"Helmsman, bring her two points to larboard, if you please."
"Two points to larboard, aye, Captain."
The maneuver would bring the sloop close-hauled, as close to the wind as the ship could sail. Fairaday checked his pocket watch. The tide would now be on its run. He hoped that would be enough to see them through.
"Begging pardon, Captain, but mightn’t that be putting things a jot too close. They is a number of shoals here about and rough ones at that. Steering outen the channel is likely to stick us aground under that barky’s broadside," Kemper advised.
"Do you see that point of land there, Mister Kemper?" Fairaday said pointing to a sandy windswept spit. "That is where my grandfather beached his open boat to set up a cooking fire every Sabbath eve for the last ten years of his life. All that day he would spend fishing the mouths of the small channels which cross here. From the time I was able to hold an oar I was sitting on the thwart beside him, learning the underwater paths. That was in the year ’58. Would you like further assurance that I know what I’m about?"
No sooner had Fairaday uttered his declamation than the deck of the sloop lost the natural roll of the bay water, shuddering. The blood left Fairaday’s face. Had he misjudged the flow of the tide? He saw Kemper turning toward him, simpering. Fairaday reached for the back stay, the long, taut line reaching from the tall mast down to the deck. He felt the rising tension, the trapped force of the wind straining the hawser. Either ship or ground had to give. The hull’s grinding grew to a deep rumble, still pressing through the resistant sand, mud and rock. Fairaday urged the vessel forward with every precious reserve of will he could muster. Finally, the Javelin dipped and rose, clearing the strand, as if she had dropped a curtsy on passing the bar.
Kemper abandoned his scowl, his prepared invective temporarily deflated.
"Is there something I can do for you, Mister Kemper?" Fairaday demanded.
"No, Captain. I’ll go below to see what damage we’ve taken," Kemper answered coldly.
Fairaday allowed the impertinence to go below decks with its bearer. He leveled his telescope at the English frigate once again. Her sails narrowed as she angled away on a new tack. Good, she was bearing off. Despite the Englishman’s zeal, he appeared to be a sensible commander, not wishing to risk the dangers of uncharted shoals. The shallows offered only a temporary reprieve, however. A ship the size of Roebuck had more than one way of chasing her prey and if the Javelin was not careful to conceal her course the English would harass them in open boats.
As the sun touched the tree tops Fairaday brought the sloop in dangerously close to the shore of St. George’s Island to take advantage of the late afternoon light. The strong rays struck the Roebuck blind to the Javelin’s movements, as was testified by the scintillating display of flashing telescope lenses when the British officers strove vainly to track the sloop’s course in the brilliant horizon. Once the sun had set Fairaday ordered all canvas stripped off and the anchor dropped to the sandy bottom, letting his low-slung vessel blend in with the backdrop of the island’s forest. That and the encroaching dusk would be their strongest ally against the English.
Half an hour later the Roebuck stood off, demurely showing her starboard quarter as if to argue her harmless intentions. Fairaday knew he would not be so lucky as to rid himself of her as that. He went forward and was about to see what damage had been done below when Kemper emerged from the fore hatch and sauntered up to him.
"Well?" Fairaday asked.
"Well, Captain, it’s a right mess, it is. We’ve got two feet of water in the hold and rising good and quick. Might take a fair turn to have her patched up right. ‘Chips’ is down there with a couple of others trying to gum it up with oakum. I say it might answer well if we had a pair of men manning the pumps."
"Very well, take care of it. I’ll be in my cabin."
"Aye aye, Captain," Kemper drew the acknowledgment out mockingly and knuckled his forehead navy style.
"Just see to it!" Fairaday hissed, stamping past.
As full night settled in, Fairaday paced the flushed deck of the Javelin, now wearing a heavy pea jacket and canvas seaman’s trousers, the brisk northwesterly wind roaring out of the tangled Virginia wilderness and rippling across the Chesapeake Bay. He warmed his big sailor’s hands in the jacket’s deep pockets as he stamped his way to the fore hatch, his hobnailed boots smacking the deck with mechanical regularity. He leaned over the dimly lit rectangle and peered down at the grimy glow of two lanterns and a small circle of three men working furiously under the light.
"What can you make of it, ‘Chips’?" he spoke in a low baritone.
A bearded man not much over five feet stared up and dragged a sweating forearm across his face. Despite the wintry air above decks, the air beneath was close and the working party members were all stripped to the waist. Their hands were streaked with dark stripes of oakum where they had been working to patch the leak.
"We may have her fixed up right enough, Captain. But I think we may need to keep a pair of men at the pumps or we’ll lose what we’ve gained," answered the ship’s carpenter, John Cooper.
Fairaday climbed down and made his way in among the working party. They were up to their knees in cold water. He held one of the lanterns closer to get a look at the patch. The light cast an odd glimmer across the surface of the water, a gentle boiling becoming visible where the bay pushed in through the damaged hull. Even the best patch was imperfect. The jagged edges left behind from the shoaling damage reminded Fairaday of a set of malicious teeth. In its gaped mouth the Yankee captain saw a dirty looking paste of hemp and tar slathered across a piece of thick canvas, probably cut from one of the Javelin’s storm sails. It was a disturbingly thin barrier against the might of hissing water rushing just a few inches beneath them.
"Is this the best we can do?" Fairaday asked.
Cooper looked hurt and nodded apologetically.
"I’m afraid it is, Captain. At least until we have a chance to heave her down and replace the whole beam. It is a good patch though. I’ve done enough to know."
"I’m not doubting your word, Chips. We should take it easy though."
"Aye, sir. Wouldn’t try to win any yacht races with her just yet."
A faint smile lingered on the carpenter’s weary face as Fairaday returned to the deck. He turned aft and resumed his rhythmic pacing, desperately wanting a cigar. He had become lately addicted to their soothing properties, the result of spending too many hours in taverns along the Rappahannock River. One advantage of living the life of a rogue was in its exotic pleasures. The Rappahannock had long been a smuggler’s paradise, offering many a nook and stream for men who had reason not to be direct about their comings and goings. As such, the markets along the river offered some of the choicest wines, victuals and gentleman’s amenities than could be readily found anywhere in the world. The excellence of a prime cigar could not be topped, in Fairaday’s estimation. He was not sure whether it was the nerves or the habit that brought the craving on anew. He crunched the inside of his pockets for the third time in the last half hour but again found them empty.
He pulled the silver watch from his inner breast pocket, tilting the face so as to catch a glint of starlight to read it by, but it was far too dim. He guessed it to be a half an hour before ten. The time when his older brother would be well into his cups no doubt, supposedly engaged in the mission of "recruiting" new hands within the walls of each and every tavern up and down the Rappahannock. Despite his natural inclination for dourness, Fairaday could not disapprove of Elias for long. His fellow captain had a naturally generous and convivial spirit, which disarmed even the sternest critic. It was better to have Elias ashore at any rate. A great fighter and a greater talker but not much in the way in the naval line. Elias’ second in command, John Boldswift, tended to the business of sailing, thank God.
Fairaday listened to the rustle of the pine boughs ashore, the wind kicking up again. A screech owl trilled its inviting song somewhere inland. The mask of night had lowered itself lovingly over the sleeping face of Old Virginia. Yet somewhere beyond an army lay encamped, Virginia men living in the mud and ready to meet the red coated hordes with whatever they could muster. Fairaday knew that all too often it was not enough. In his own way he hoped he could something to ease their hardship. If only he was lucky enough to fall in with a rich cargo of uniforms, coal, or rum, but alas—nothing thus far.
Two men came from their work below at the pumps to catch a few minutes of fresh air. Their replacements appeared from astern and started down the after hatch. Fairaday tapped the shorter one, Isaac Evans, on the shoulder.
"Ply your time here, Mister Evans. I’m not yet too far gone for a bit of man’s work," Fairaday smiled. Stripping his pea jacket and doffing his cocked hat, he descended the short companionway below decks and made his way forward to the pumps in company with the swarthy Spaniard Mazaal. The lithe foreigner glanced silently over his shoulder at his young captain.
Mazaal wore a richly colored jacket with fine embroidery bespeaking painstaking craftsmanship, quite unlike the utilitarian wear of the other seamen aboard. His demeanor was that of someone above the station he currently served. Such mannerisms and unique attire lent a murky air to the Spaniard’s background. One quality alone was safely attributable to him: his devout Papism. He maintained a small collection of iconography to various minor saints in his seaman’s kit; on his off-watch he produced these likenesses and arranged them carefully on his hammock, kneeling and praying with his back to his shipmates. This behavior elicited a few stares and whispered comments but nothing in the way of open derision. His mettle as a sailor prohibited it. Mazaal was a prime hand and his eccentricities were tolerated in deference to his skill. Fairaday had never known the fellow to utter a single word other than the nightly prayers or an acknowledgment of orders. Yet, with all that, there was nothing contentious in his silence. He was a fine enough sort and understood how to read the colors of a river to indicate depth much better than most, obviously well acquainted with inshore sailing. Quite an asset for working aboard a coastal privateer.
Mazaal and Fairaday approached the iron crank of the pump and began turning the device wordlessly, forcing the bilge water up to the deck where it would drain from the scuppers. The lantern, charged with spermaceti oil, gradually grew dim and snuffed itself out, someone having forgotten to refill it during an exchange of workers. Mazaal and Fairaday remained in place, working the pumps and listening to the steady clicks of the pump in complete darkness.
"Close thing, today," Mazaal said in a heavy accent.
"Yes, much too close."
"Still, quite good to give the old Roebuck the shake," Mazaal said.
Fairaday smiled invisibly.
After some time the hold was pumped dry and both men, exhausted by their laborious trick at the pumps, cast themselves down against the bulwarks.
"How long we wait out here?" Mazaal asked.
That was a question Fairaday could not easily answer.
"When the time is right we’ll go. We’ll know when that is."
"Yes, that is what I thought."
Fairaday groaned as he stood and shuffled aft toward his small cabin. There was no use in explaining what he meant. He valued his intuition above his sense of reason. It had pulled him through a few warm scrapes and he was not ready to forsake the good luck that had favored him thus far. He entered the small cabin and felt his way to his swinging cot, shucking off his heavy boots and sprawling out on top of the wool blanket. The air here was cooler because of the small stern window he had left opened. He turned his head on the pillow and gazed out at the evening sky, listening to the bay water gently lap against the stern counter. A quartering breeze freshened, driving a stream of colder air into the cabin and introducing a new chill to his thinly clad torso. He rolled himself into the wool blanket and closed his eyes.
Despite his exhaustion, he could not sleep. He had a bad sense about the men of his crew. Kemper’s public disobedience was just symptomatic of a general dissatisfaction among the Javelins. He could tell they were considering running or perhaps even mutiny. They were good enough seamen and Fairaday sensed that they could snap up a fine number of prizes if they could only slip out beyond the Tory fleet and perhaps hunt off the Carolinas and Georgia. But that seemed so far away and such a terrible risk. For a moment he selfishly wished he had no part in this foolish war at all. Yet all the wishing in the world would not make the British fleet sail away and forget the insult of their rebellious colonies in this revolutionary spring of 1776.
Without realizing it, Fairaday slipped into unconsciousness. The dream enfolded him gradually, luring him into its utter blackness with warm fingers. The blackness faded away into a pale light of memory. Awakened by a quick, urgent shake at his shoulder, Fairaday rose on one elbow and swung his feet onto the deck. A rush of dizziness stayed on him as he struggled to make out the dark face of the man less than a foot before him. He had no idea how long he had been asleep.
"Captain, there’s some serious trouble above."
The voice belonged to Mazaal.
"What do you mean?"
"A boat of British, Captain. They hooked onto the main chains and boarded before any man on deck knew what had happened. We’ve been taken!"
Fairaday shook his head, trying to rid himself of this nightmare.
"How long ago?"
"I’m not sure, Captain. I fell asleep as well. But they have rounded up all of our men and sent ‘em to the mast and tied them together in a circle, as tightly knotted as you please. They’re bending on sail now, trying to take us out to the British fleet, from what I’ve heard. I saw ‘em from the aft hatch but now it’s battened down. The fore hatch, too. We’re trapped down here."
A flood of thoughts burdened Fairaday’s still dazed mind. He quickly realized that he had to meet this thing square on. The arms chest had only a dozen cutlasses and about twice that number of pistols. But with only he and Mazaal free and able to fight, those numbers would not be enough.
"Come on, let’s have a better look."
Fairaday led Mazaal forward to the after hatch, both men now in stocking feet so as not to betray their presence. Easing himself onto the steps of the companionway, Fairaday could see through the hatch grating. A tall English midshipman was in charge, wielding his sword absently as he paced a circle around the captive Javelins. Beyond that he could see the bright red coats of a few marines, but because of the limited field of vision he could not make a good count of their numbers. He heard the clinks of the capstan as the anchor was hove short and weighed. A few minutes later the commands for raising all sail were shouted and answered. The Javelin responded and within a few minutes she was surging out to the deeper water of the bay, the water chuckling from her wake.
Time was precious. With the strong breeze the Javelin was catching on her beam they would be within hailing distance of the Roebuck in an hour, perhaps less. An hour that made the difference between escape and ten men’s necks stretched from a British yardarm. Fairaday felt his conscience biting at him. How could he have left the deck at such a crucial moment? He wrestled his regrets aside. He could not allow himself to think from a point of desperation. Only his wits could save them from this English evil.
Fairaday felt his way through the gloomy air to a place amidships where the arms chest was secured. He ran his hands inside, careful not to disturb the contents with undue noise. He sensed a plan beginning to take form in his mind, the shadowy edges beginning to solidify and arrange themselves into a chain of events.