"What does he say?" Jeff Higgins asked, glancing at the captain of the coastal lugger.
Rebecca made a little face. "Not much, and most of that—if I am not mistaken—are Flemish profanities."
She glanced herself at the man in question, who was leaning over the rail of their little ship and glaring toward the stern. Two or three miles behind them, another ship could be seen following them.
"Most of those curse words, I suspect, were addressed at me. He seems to be having second thoughts about conveying us to the Low Countries."
"As much as he's charging us?" snorted Jeff. In a gesture which was not quiteidle, his large hand caressed the stock of the shotgun slung over his shoulder. That shotgun, along with the other firearms carried by Rebecca's escort, had been the subject of a number of sidelong examinations by the lugger's captain and his seamen. The weapons bore little resemblance to the arquebuses and wheel-lock pistols with which they were familiar. But Rebecca didn't wonder at their reaction to it. She could remember the first time she had seen an American firearm; and how, even for someone as inexperienced as she had been then, the things had practically shrieked: deadly.
"Do you expect any trouble?" Jeff jerked his head an inch or two in the direction of the captain. "From him, I mean, and his crew."
Rebecca considered the question. "Hard to say," she replied after a few seconds. "On the one hand, they will not be eager—not in the least—to get into a confrontation with you and your soldiers. On the other hand . . ."
She resumed her study of the distant ship in their wake, her face tightening. "On the other hand, it seems increasingly clear that we are being followed by a pirate vessel. Given the savage reputation of pirates in these waters, the captain and his crew will be wanting to make port anywhere they can before we are overtaken."
"Which would put us back on French soil," concluded Jeff, his head swiveling to starboard. The coast was not far distant. "Exactly where we don'twant to be."
Heinrich came up to stand beside them. "There's going to be trouble," he murmured. "The crew—three of them, in the bow—are fiddling with a locker. I'm quite sure it contains weapons." He smiled grimly. "And from what I overheard, I do not think they intend to shoot fish."
Rebecca eyed him. "How good is your Flemish?"
"Good enough," answered Heinrich, shrugging slightly. "Most of it was curse words."
"That's it, then," said Jeff. He straightened and looked down at Rebecca. "It's your call, of course, but I'm assuming you don't want to return to Richelieu's 'hospitality.' "
Rebecca shook her head, but the gesture was half-uncertain. "No, but . . . Can we fend off pirates, if need be?"
The only answer was a grin from Heinrich, and a faint sound from Jeff's nostrils. It might have been a sniff of derision.
A moment later, Heinrich was moving toward the captain, with Rebecca and Gretchen following in his wake. Jeff turned his head toward Jimmy and the other soldiers of the escort. "Jimmy, stay here with the ammunition. One of you give him a hand if he needs it. The rest of you come with me. I need to explain the facts of life to those twits up front."
* * *
The soldiers had been half-expecting the command. In an instant, their shotguns were unlimbered and four of them were following Jeff toward the bow. Jeff's own shotgun was still slung over his shoulder. The seamen working at the locker had just managed to open it when the sound of shotgun shells being jacked into chambers came to them. They looked up into four barrels aimed at their heads, and froze. Unfamiliar or not, the weapons looked . . . deadly.
Jeff motioned at them to step back. Hastily they did so. He came forward, making sure not to interpose himself between the shotguns and their targets. Then, after glancing into the locker, slammed the lid back down.
"You won't be needing those, fellas. Buncha junk, anyway." He grinned at the sailors cheerfully. "Just tend to your sails—whatever—and we'll handle the rest of it."
Clearly enough, the sailors didn't understand English. Jeff repeated the words in German. Then, when they didn't seem to understand that either, in his rusty high school Spanish.
Spanish, they didunderstand, even 21st-century Mexican-style Spanish spoken poorly and with an American accent. Well enough, at least. Their eyes moved nervously back and forth between the American soldiers holding them at gunpoint and the pirate ship two miles behind.
After a few seconds, one of the sailors muttered something to the others. Jeff didn't understand what he said, but gist of it was clear: devil and the deep blue sea, but the devil's right here. Words to that effect, at any rate. A moment later, the sailors sidled away from the locker and went back to their duties.
Jeff cocked his head and hollered: "Everything's clear here!"
* * *
By the time Heinrich got the word, everything in the stern was "clear" also. Crystal clear, in fact. Heinrich's command of Flemish might have been imperfect, but it was good enough for the purpose. The face of the lugger's captain was a mottled red and white. Red, with fury at Heinrich's insults; white, because the tough young German officer had been extremely explicit in his explanation of the consequences of disobedience. Even broken Flemish is good enough to explain mangled fingers, wrists, arms, heads, practically every body part in existence.
Rebecca's own face was a bit pale. Heinrich was normally such a pleasant fellow that she tended to forget just how savage he could be when he thought it necessary. She had no more doubt than the lugger's captain that the threats had not been idle ones.
Neither did Gretchen. The young German woman hadn't even bothered to draw her pistol. She'd known Heinrich for years, after all.
"That's that, then," she said with satisfaction. "Now we just have to deal with the pirates." She started to express her own opinion on the proper way to manage that task, when the scowl on Heinrich's face cut the words short.
"Never mind," she said, smiling sweetly. "Far be it from me to meddle in such manly and soldierly matters."
Heinrich's scowl faded into a half-grin. Then, after exchanging a glance with Rebecca, the major shrugged.
Heinrich nodded at Jimmy Andersen, who had been watching them eagerly. Jimmy already had the trunk containing the rifle grenades open. An instant later, he was pulling out the first of them and, with the help of another soldier, starting to position them on the deck.
Jeff and two of the soldiers at the bow came trotting back, leaving the other two to keep standing guard over the sailors. Jeff unlimbered his shotgun and began removing the rounds of buckshot so that they could be replaced with the special rounds for the grenades. Jimmy gave him a bit of a cold eye, but didn't try to argue the point. Jimmy loved the new rifle grenades. But Jeff was much more accurate with them than he was, and they didn't really have that many to spare.
As he took the special rounds from Jimmy and began reloading the shotgun, Jeff studied the ship pursuing them. That it was pursuing them was no longer subject to doubt, so much was obvious. The faster pirate vessel had been steadily overtaking them, and was now not much more than a mile astern. No honest ship would have approached that closely in these waters. The English Channel was still wide enough here to make a close approach unnecessary, especially since it was bound to be interpreted as a threatening gesture.
"Be a while yet," he pronounced calmly. Rebecca, watching him, was struck by the change in the young man in the two years since she had first met him. She could still see traces of "Jeff the nerd" in his youthful, pudgy features and thick eyeglasses. But the traces were faint, now. The large body had lost most of its adolescent softness, even more than the face. True, Jeff would probably be overweight all his life. But so is a boar, when you get down to it. And no one now, watching the young soldier calmly scrutinizing his approaching enemy, could have any doubt that the green eyes magnified by those spectacles were those of an experienced killer.
Rebecca didn't entirely like the change, but . . . She shrugged off the sentiment almost with irritation. Had the change not happened, after all, she would herself have been dead some time ago. And she couldn't deny that it amused her, a bit, to see the way Gretchen's hand idly stroked Jeff's broad back. Gretchen, of course, had never had any trouble accepting the transformation in her husband. Indeed, she was in good part responsible for it herself.
Jeff's superior officer came up to stand next to him at the stern. Gretchen, a bit reluctantly, moved aside. Her accommodation with military discipline, as always, was grudging.
"You're the expert," said Heinrich. "You want to handle it yourself, or with a volley?"
Jeff's heavy lips pursed. "Just myself, I think." Then, as if suddenly remembering that they were in a military situation: "Sir. We don't have that many of the grenades, when you get down to it. Besides, having to use manual arming pins like we do . . ."
He and Heinrich both winced. The idea of an armed grenade let slip from someone's hand, rolling around on a ship's deck, was the stuff of nightmares. Part of the reason Jeff was steadier and more accurate than anyone else with the weapons was simply because he was large and solidly built. Fired from a shotgun, the heavy grenades made for a vicious recoil. A lighter man, on the somewhat unsteady footing provided by a ship at sea, might well be knocked off his feet.
Jeff was back to studying the pirate vessel. "Do you know any more about ships than I do, sir?"
Heinrich smiled at the military formality. In the weeks since they'd left Grantville, Rebecca's escort had slid into a rather informal style of operation.
"I'm fairly certain that my aunt's old cow understands more about ships than you do, Sergeant." He swelled out his chest. "I, on the other hand—officer-grade material, even as a lad—could always stump the beast."
He fell silent for a few seconds, looking at the pirate ship. "I assume what you're wondering is if they'll have a bow chaser?"
Jeff nodded. Heinrich scratched his chest idly. "To be honest, I don't know. But, I wouldn't worry about it, either, not given how accurate naval gunnery usually is, anyway." He glanced at the sea around them. "The seas aren't that heavy, yeah, but if they really want to hit us they'll have to turn for a broadside."
"I don't think 'turn' is what you're supposed to call it. Sir."
Heinrich curled his lip. "Sailors and their damn jargon. And stop trying to pretend you're a—what's that American expression? 'Old salt,' isn't it, Jeff? Excuse me, Sergeant. You and me are foot soldiers."
He pointed a finger at the pirate ship. "So they'll have to turn, and if they do they'll lose too much ground. Water. Whatever you call it. Add to which, this pissant little tub carries exactly four swivels." He pointed at the small, one-pounder guns mounted on the bulwarks. "They're not going to be too worried about those, which means they'll keep following us until they can pull alongside and board us. Why waste time with guns when they can just swamp us with men? And if you can't hit them sooner than any gun they've got aboard can hit us—"
"I'll fire the first grenade at a hundred and fifty yards. Probably miss, but it'll give me a feel for it." He looked down between his feet at the deck; then, at the sea surging up and down with the vessel's motion. "Good thing I don't get seasick."
"Contact or timed fuse?" asked Jimmy eagerly. "Antipersonnel or incendiary?"
"Contact," growled Jeff. "You never know. I might get seasick, and if I do I'm damned if I wanna be fiddling around with a lit fuse. And let's save the incendiaries for close range if we need it. We've only got five of them."
"Contact it is. Hand me your shotgun."
* * *
The first grenade missed. One hundred and fifty yards, Jeff discovered, was too far to properly gauge the effect of the lugger's roll on the missile's trajectory. The grenade fell short. But its white waterspout showed he'd fired it in line, dead true.
"Just wait a bit," he said casually. Rebecca wasn't sure whether to laugh or cry.
At a hundred yards, he fired again. The second grenade landed in the pirate's rigging. The explosion didn't break the mast, but it did do a fine job of shredding the vessel's foresail yard. The big oblong of weather-stained canvas spilled down like an ungainly, dying bird, draping itself over the foredeck in a huge, untidy heap. Unfortunately—bad luck, here—neither the sail nor the highly inflammable rigging caught fire, but the ship's speed fell off noticeably.
Judging from the sudden bustle of activity on its deck, the grenade had shredded a lot of the pirate crew's self-confidence, too. They crew got the foretopsail set quickly enough, regaining most of their lost speed, but it took them almost five minutes to clear the foredeck of its enshrouding canvas. Soon thereafter, however, a cloud of smoke covered the pirate's bow. They did have a bow chaser, after all.
And it was just as inaccurate as Heinrich had guessed. The cannonball splashed into the water fifteen yards astern and as many yards to starboard.
Before the ball hit the water, Jeff had sent the third grenade on its way, and this one didn't waste any time on sails. It landed almost directly amidships, and from the sound of things, the pirates had been just a little careless with their own ammunition handling arrangements. The grenade obviously hadn't found the brig's magazine, but the initial explosion was followed by at least two more as ready charges for the broadside guns went up. The series of blasts threw up a thick cloud of dirty, gray-white smoke . . . and cut away the mainmast shrouds on the windward side. They may have damaged the mast itself, as well, or perhaps it was simply the loss of the shrouds' support. Neither Jeff nor Heinrich could tell, and the precise mechanics didn't really matter, anyway.
The brig's mainmast seemed to bend in the middle. Then the topmast and topgallant mast broke off and tumbled messily to leeward. The fore topgallant followed in a twanging forest of parting cordage, and the pirate ship staggered as its rigging was reduced to ruin. Judging from the faint sounds coming across the water, the grenade had also killed or injured several of the pirates themselves. And, within a few seconds, Jeff and Heinrich could see wisps of smoke. Apparently, the grenade had also started some fires aboard the enemy vessel.
"One more," commanded Heinrich.
The pirate had fallen off, turning broadside-on to the lugger. Not from intent, but simply from the effect of suddenly losing two-thirds of its masts. The fourth shot almost over-ranged completely, but struck the far rail on the pirate's deck. There probably wasn't much damage done, or casualties inflicted, but the screams coming from its crew seemed much louder.
"That should do it," said Heinrich. "I think they've probably had enough. They'll be scrambling around for a while, anyway, trying to put the fires out. Besides," he grinned nastily, "they can't possibly catch us with most of their spars turned into toothpicks. May as well save the ammunition."
* * *
So it proved. Within a few more minutes, the lugger had increased the distance between the two vessels by several hundred yards. And, from what they could tell, the pirate's crew was now simply trying to jury-rig a new sail and depart the scene. Luckily for them, whatever fires had been started by the grenade hadn't spread to what was left of the rigging.
By mid-afternoon, the pirate had fallen out of sight altogether.
"Good enough," pronounced Heinrich. He gave the lugger's captain a friendly smile. "See? Nothing to worry about."
The captain's returning smile was not as sickly as it might have been. True, the man was probably still resentful of Heinrich's peremptory ways. On the other hand, he had been paid a rather munificent sum—and, clear enough, he wouldn't have much to worry about from pirates on this voyage. Moreover, Rebecca was quite certain that the man would turn another tidy profit by selling his account of this incident to one of Richelieu's agents. Or, possibly, the Spanish; or, most likely of all, the French and Spanish both.
* * *
The pirate vessel's captain, on the other hand, was purely livid. When his battered ship finally moored at the dock in the nearby small port from which it had sailed, he stormed ashore and into one of the town's many taverns.
The man he was expecting to see there was seated at a table in the rear of the grimy room. The pirate captain slid into a chair across from him, leaned heavy arms on the table, and hissed angrily:
"Servien, you bastard. You never said—"
The cardinal's intendant cut him off with a peremptory gesture. "I toldyou they were dangerous. You laughed, as I recall, and only wanted to talk about the women." Servien shrugged. "Give me a full report, at least. I'll pay for that."
After the pirate captain had finished, Servien pulled out a heavy purse. Then, spilled a few coins onto the table. The casualness of the gesture—the apparent lack of concern for the danger of any lurking footpads who might be watching—indicated more than anything else the cardinal's subtle power. Not even a pirate-harbor footpad was crazy enough to try to rob one of Richelieu's special agents.
Sourly, the pirate captain swept the coins off the table and into his own purse. "Won't even cover the rigging, much less the spars."
Servien gave him a cold, reptilian stare. "You failed. Be glad I gave you that much."
With no further words, Servien rose from the table and stalked out of the tavern. After he'd taken three steps onto the muddy street beyond, he was joined by two other men. Both of them were considerably larger than the intendant who walked between them, and obviously soldiers. Officers, in fact, from the casual arrogance of their stride and the fine workmanship of the swords they carried.
"You will recognize him?" asked Servien. "And his ship?"
One of the officers grunted. The other murmured sarcastically, "If you can call that thing a 'ship'to begin with."
Servien nodded. "By tomorrow morning, at the latest, I want the captain dead. He'll be drunk within two hours and you should manage it easily. You can keep the money he carries." The intendant glanced toward the harbor. "Then rejoin your vessel and tell Captain de Hautforte to maintain a watch on this harbor. The next time that ship leaves, see to it that it is destroyed. And all the crew executed."
"Pirates," grunted the first officer.
"Under sentence of death whenever captured," added the other.
* * *
Servien said nothing further, plodding on grimly through the mud. He hadn't really expected this ploy to work, truth to tell. The cardinal, he'd found, still tended to underestimate the damnable new American technology. The problem was that it wasn't necessarily big. That made it hard to gauge what havoc might be contained in a few innocuous-looking trunks and valises.
Even worse was the fact that the Americans didn't seem prone to making the standard mistakes of foreign conquistadores. Instead of sneering at the "natives" and ignoring their advice, they seemed to have a positive genius for winning them over. The Jewess who headed the diplomatic mission was shrewd, for all her youth. And Servien had caught enough glimpses of the German mercenary who headed her military escort to recognize the type. Men like that, steeled in years of the warfare which had swept the continent since 1618, were as ruthless as any of the cardinal's agents.
Servien sighed. The sound was as heavy as his mud-laden feet. Then, there was the damn German woman. Servien had no doubt at all that, upon his return to Paris, he would be spending a fair amount of his time trying to ferret out the treasonous little cells of students and artisans she would have left behind her.
"Merde, alors!" he suddenly exclaimed.
One of the officers grunted again. The other glanced at his boots and grimaced. "Yes, that too. It'll take my servant an hour to clean them properly."