Authors: William W. Johnstone
The man who stood on the deck of the U.S. Navy's sloop of war
was dressed in the coarse black robe of a Spanish priest. That he was highly agitated was obvious, the way he kept pressing the heels of his hands into his eyes as though trying to eliminate a vision that continued to haunt him.
Commander John Sherburne, just thirty-seven years old but with the lined, weathered face of the lifelong sailor, stood beside him. “Father Diaz, the villagers are sure it was slave traders and not common bandits?”
Father Oscar Diaz took his hands from his eyes, their sockets red from the pressure of his hands. “Those that are still alive say slave traders. They were all dark, bearded men and their leader wore Arab robes.”
“Four young women taken, you say?”
“Yes, including a bride who was just married this morning.”
Father Diaz, young and pleasant-faced, trembled all over, as though he stood in snow. But it was fear and shock that caused him to shiver uncontrollably, not cold.
A man with a measure of stern kindliness in him, Commander Sherburne called for a glass of rum and bade the priest drink hearty. “If ever a man needed a drink, it's you, Father.”
The priest touched the glass to his lips, and then said, “Commander, what will you do?”
“I'll land and see the village for myself. If it is as you say, and I've no reason to doubt you, I'll pursue the pirate vessel.”
“The ship is long gone, I fear,” Father Diaz said.
Sherburne smiled. “This is the newest steam sloop in the United States Navy, Father. We'll catch her, never fear.”
“A schooner,” the priest mumbled.
“I beg your pardon?”
“One of the women said the ship was a schooner and it sailed away south. She is old, and may know these things.”
Sherburne nodded. “A fast ship, no doubt, but she depends on the wind and can't outrun the
never fear.” He turned to the lieutenant at his other side and said, “Lower the jolly boat and tell Sergeant Monroe I want him and two of his marines to accompany me onshore.”
“I will go with you,” Father Diaz said.
“You're welcome to remain on board,” Sherburne said.
The priest shook his head. “My place is with my flock, Commander. Now more than ever.” He tossed off his glass of rum and seemed glad of it.
White seagulls glided across a pale blue sky as Commander Sherburne and his men landed on the beach.
Sergeant Monroe, a profane man, cursed violently as he caught the smell of death. “Damn it. They're rotting already.”
Sherburne heard the marine, but ignored his outburst. He jumped into the surf and walked toward the village, a couple sailors close behind him. Monroe and his men followed, their bayonets fixed and eyes wary.
The scene was as Father Diaz had described. The blacksmith's body lay on the beach and the village was strewn with corpses, a few shot, the majority hacked with swords. There was blood everywhere, and fat, black flies gorged on open wounds. Higher than the seagulls, but gliding just as elegantly, buzzards waited and watched with their endless patience.
Women huddled in groups and wailed their grief. A few kneeled silently by the corpses of their menfolk, the restless rustle of the surging surf and the yodel of the gulls their only requiem.
Father Diaz, his face a mask of pain, said almost apologetically to Sherburne, “The women can't bury the dead, Commander.”
For his part the captain of the
was infused with a white-hot anger and, for the first time since he'd entered the service as a boy, the desire to kill the enemy. His ship carried twenty carronades, powerful, close-range weapons, and he made a vow to reduce the slaver schooner to matchwood and its crew to smears of blood and guts on the deck.
More seamen and the remaining marines were ferried from the sloop to bury the dead, a melancholy task that took until dark to complete.
Before he left for his ship, Commander Sherburne spoke to the priest. “I've done all I can for you, Father, and God knows it was little enough.”
“To bury the dead is a holy and honorable thing,” Father Diaz said. “And it is much appreciated.”
“I know you'll do what you can for the women, Father. Tell them I'll bring back the girls who were taken.” He tried to offer more words of consolation, but could find none. Finally he said. “Just . . . tell them that.”
Father Diaz bowed his head, and then said, “The village is gone and it will never come back. I'll take the women somewhere else, inland, where they'll feel safe.”
The commander nodded, but said nothing more.
The priest raised his hand and made the sign of the cross over Sherburne. “Go with God. And may holy Saint Brendan the Navigator protect you and all who sail with you.”
It was dark when Shawn O'Brien and Uriah Tweedy rode into Santa Fe. The old man led the way to the livery stable, a rectangular timber building with a flat roof, a wide door, and a sign outside.
LIVERY & FEED STABLE
M. Marshwood, prop. was a sour-faced, stringy old man who wore a tattered mackinaw and a scowl as though he'd never been pleased to see anybody or anything in his life. “Oh, it's you again, Uriah. I reckoned you was gone fer a spell.”
“Came back with this young feller in tow,” Tweedy said. “His name's Shawn O'Brien, one o' them Glorieta Mesa O'Briens.” “Colonel Shamus O'Brien your paw, boy?” Marshwood asked.
“He is,” Tweedy answered before Shawn could say a word.
“Can't he talk for hisself, or is he a little simple in the braincase?” Marshwood wondered.
“Colonel O'Brien is my father,” Shawn said. “And I can talk for myself.”
“Thank God for that,” Marshwood said. “I never could abide a silent man. Never could abide a talkin' one, either.” The oldster glared at Shawn from under the brim of his frayed Johnny Reb kepi. “Colonel O'Brien is a fine man and a gallant soldier.” He looked Shawn over from the toes of his boots to the top of his hat. “I cain't say you favor him.”
“Miles,” Tweedy said quickly, “we need to stay here for a couple days. Can you feed us and bring us some liquor?”
“Yes to both them things,” Marshwood answered. “Cost you, though.”
“Don't worry. We'll settle up when we leave,” Shawn offered.
“Damn right you will,” Marshwood growled. “If'n you don't, I've got a Greener scattergun that acts as my lawyer an' does my talkin' fer me.”
Shawn grinned. “Uriah told me you were a loveable old man, Marshwood.”
“If he said that, he's a damned liar. I don't like anything or anybody but that old calico cat you see over there. She's got better manners than folks, an' that's a natural fact.” He looked at Tweedy. “You sharp-set, Uriah?”
“Been living on grass fer a couple o' days, Miles.”
“You?” Marshwood said to Shawn.
“I could eat.”
“I'll bring you something.”
“And a bottle of good bourbon,” Shawn added.
“Show me your money, boy. Two things don't come cheap around these parts, good whiskey and fancy women.”
Shawn handed Marshwood ten dollars. “Will that cover it?”
The old man studied the coin, then said, “I guess it will at that.”
He threw a blanket over his shoulders, and then stopped at the door. “Stay out of my office while I'm gone, and don't touch nothing. If anything's missing or out of place I'll know it.”
“We'll see to our horses, Miles,” Tweedy said.
Marshwood nodded. “Sack of oats and hay back there. I got the oat sack marked, so don't take two scoops an' tell me you only took one.”
After Marshwood walked into the wind-torn night, Shawn smiled. “Trusting sort of feller, isn't he?”
Tweedy said, “Don't underestimate that old man, sonny. He helped blaze the Goodnight Trail and he fit more'n his share o' Comanche an' Apaches. He killed a man in Wichita and another in Fort Worth and one time when he was marshalin' he put the crawl on Bill Bonney and that hard crowd.”
“Something to remember,” Shawn said. “I won't take two scoops of oats and pay for one.”
“Miles is a good man to have on your side,” Tweedy said.
Shawn smiled. “He doesn't like me much.”
“Hell boy, he likes you just fine. If he didn't we'd be sleeping out in the snow tonight.”
“So that's the story,” Shawn said, using a piece of bread to wipe up the last of the gravy on his plate. “Right up until the time you came along and saved my life.”
Tweedy nodded. “Maybe you could've done it your ownself with the belly gun.”
“Yes, maybe. But I doubt it.” Shawn laid the plate aside. “How's the shoulder holding up?”
“It's a bigger hurting than ol' Ephraim ever laid on me. I can tell you that.”
“You should see a doctor.”
Miles Marshwood scratched his hairy neck. “Let me take a look o' that wound, Uriah.” He saw the doubt in Tweedy's face and went on. “I've patched up more gunshot punchers that you could shake a stick at. Now get them buckskins off an' let me take a look.”
“Miles, don't you go a-proddin' an' a pokin' now, like that Luther Ironside feller at Dromore did,” Tweedy said. “You could hurt a feller.”
“All I'm doing is lookin' to make sure the wound ain't pizened. Damn it, Uriah, you're surely a complainin' man.”
After a moment's hesitation, Tweedy pulled off his shirt. The wound in his shoulder was red, raw, and looked painful.
Shawn shook his head. “Uriah, you got yourself a misery there.”
“And don't you think I know that?” Tweedy grumbled.
“It ain't bad,” Marshwood said after his examination. “There's no pus and it don't smell bad.” He turned his head and said to Shawn, “If I smelled that it was rotten I'd suspect the gangrene and have to cut it out of him. But even then, he'd probably give up the ghost. A man can't live through a deep cuttin' like that.”
“I'm here, you danged fools, and I got ears,” Tweedy protested. “And Miles, you ain't cuttin' at me with a bowie.”
“Hell, didn't I just say I don't have to? Ain't that what I said, huh?” Marshwood rose to his feet. “Stay there. I'm gonna get a salve from the office.”
“What kind of salve?” Tweedy asked, suspicion in his eyes.
“Well, if'n you must know, it's Dr. Gisborne's surefire cure fer piles, pox, consumption, pimples, female problems, cancer, baldness, poor eyesight, the rheumatisms an' a dozen other miseries. Now if'n it can fix all them things, I reckon it will fix that shoulder.”
“Good for Dr. Gisborne,” Shawn said, grinning. “I guess his salve will fix most anything.”
“That's what's printed right there on the box,” Marshwood said. “An' the printed word never lies.” He stepped into his office and returned with a box the size of a soup bowl and a strip of red cloth. He applied a liberal amount of the good doctor's cure-all to the cloth and then bound it around Tweedy's shoulder. “A few days an' you'll be right as rain, Uriah.”
“Yeah, if it don't kill me first.”
“Well, if'n it does, I'll write a sharp letter to Dr. Gisborne, I can tell you that,” Marshwood said. “I'll let him know that his salve don't work a damn. Mind you, I used it on the cat one time when she got chewed up by Tom McMaster's hound dog and she healed up just fine.”
Tweedy poured a liberal dash of whiskey into his tin cup, growled that the “damned snake oil is punishing me something terrible,” and withdrew into an aggrieved silence.
But the quiet didn't last long. Venting his spleen on Shawn, he said, “You given any thought to how we'll scout the saloon? You bein' a walkin' gun target an' all.”
“I figured that was down to you, Uriah,” Shawn said.
“Not all day and all night I can't, sonny, with me bein' all shot up an' all.”
Marshwood interrupted. “I have a solution to your problem, Uriah. His name is Willie Wide Awake an' he's a watching kind o' feller.”
“Miles, I'm not catching your drift.”
“Willie don't sleep,” Marshwood said. “I mean never. Oh, there was a time he laid down to it, but he don't any longer. He says when he drops off he has scary dreams about his wife's mother, so he reckons to stay awake fer the rest of his days. He says it keeps a man sharp.”
“You mean he could keep an eye on the Lucky Lady for us?” Shawn asked.
“Yes sir,” Marshwood said, “all day an' all night, that's the intention. Nobody pays heed to what's goin' on around him like a sleepless man.”
“How much will we have to pay him?” Tweedy said, his face sour.
“O'Brien here has change comin' from the whiskey an' grub. That will cover it just fine.”
“Can we trust this wide awake feller?” Tweedy asked.
“Willie will keep his mouth shut, and if he did open it, nobody would pay any attention to what he had to say anyway.”
“He'll need to start now,” Shawn said. “And I mean right away.”
Marshwood nodded, then threw his blanket around him. “I'll go talk to him.”
“Miles,” Tweedy said, “tell him about my intended. If he sees her leaving the saloon with Zeb Moss he's got to come a-runnin' to us right quick.”
“I'll make that plain to him, Uriah. Just make sure you're ready to move when he gits here with news.”
“I don't much care for a night action, Mr. Wilson,” Commander John Sherburne commented. “What does she have in hand?”
“Half a league, sir,” Lieutenant Wilson answered. “She's a fast ship, like all damned slavers.”
Sherburne slanted his second-in-command an irritated
don't tell me what I already know
look. “Then steady as she goes, Mr. Wilson,” he said finally, his brass telescope to his eye. “We'll catch her soon enough.”
“Sir, perhaps I could do something with the long gun forward.” Wilson was young, eager, with a round, open face.
“We'll get a little closer, Mr. Wilson.” Sherburne smiled. “And then you can have at it.”
Apart from the helmsman, a stoical, weather-beaten old hand, the two officers were alone on the quarterdeck. The sloop of war
battled an oncoming sea, and great breaking waves crashed over her bow. The ten carronades on each side of the ship were lashed down tight, but their well-drilled gun crews could clear for action in less than two minutes.
Sherburne reached into the pocket of his peacoat and produced a silver flask. “A brandy with you, Mr. Wilson?”
The lieutenant shook his head. “Regrettably, I must refuse, Captain. Before I left for sea, Miss Edna Coffin, my betrothed, bade me promise that my lips would ne'er touch strong drink, nor would I indulge in the sinful pleasures of loose women.”
“You weren't on the beach today, Mr. Wilson.”
“No, sir. On your orders I remained on the ship.”
“Trust me, if you'd seen what I saw, you'd want a drink.”
“Yes, sir. Perhaps, sir.”
Sherburne sighed and tilted the flask to his mouth. After a hearty swallow, he put the flask away and returned the ship's glass to his eye. “She has every scrap of sail set, Mr. Wilson, but God willing, we'll catch the rogues before nightfall.”
“The long gun, Captain?”
“Soon, Mr. Wilson.” Sherburne stroked his black, spade-shaped beard. “It won't be long now until we're in range.”
“She's a sloop of war, great lord,” Hassan Najid said, his black eyes troubled. “An American steamship. Allah curse it to Hades.”
Sheik Abdul-Basir Hakim glanced at the billowing sails and realized he could get no more speed out of his schooner.
“Ten carronades a side,” Najid said as if his thoughts ran parallel to his master's. “She can stand off and blow us out of the water, damn her.”
“Aye, and they'll have a long nine forward.” Hakim studied the sloop through his glass and nodded. “She'll be in nine-pounder range soon.”
Najid thought for a moment, then said, “We can throw the women overboard, lord. The sloop will stop and try to save them.”
“They're Americans. They won't sail past drowning women in a shark-infested sea.”
Hakim nodded. “You've given me an idea.”
“When do we toss them into the sea, lord?” Najid grinned.
“We don't, but bring the women on deck. I have other plans for them.”
“But . . . but my lord . . .” Najid said hesitantly.
“You're right about Americans, a soft people. Will they loose a broadside on us with captive women lined along the deck?”
Najid's expression changed from doubt to glee. “A fine plan, great lord.”
“Then let it be done.” Hakim stared across a mile of churning gray sea to the oncoming sloop. “Hurry, Najid, there is no time to be lost.”
Commander Sherburne put the speaking-trumpet to his mouth and yelled, “Belay the long gun, Mr. Wilson, and report to the quarterdeck.”
Lieutenant Wilson arrived breathless and before the captain could speak he said, “The wind is dropping, sir. I believe I can hit her stern and disable her steering.”
Sherburne passed his telescope to Wilson. “Look. On deck.”
Wilson was not by nature a profane man, but he swore loud and long. “The fiends. No Christian man would do such a thing.”
“Very effective though,” Sherburne said. “Don't you think?”
“I still believe I can reach out to her with the long nine, Captain. If I disable her steering, she'll wallow like a sow.”
“And if you miss, what then, Mr. Wilson? I rather fancy dead women all over the deck and questions to be answered when we get back to port.”
“I await your orders, sir,” Wilson said humbly.
“We'll overtake her and then you can try the long gun,” Sherburne said. “We'll need to be close to avoid hitting the women.”
Wilson saluted. “I understand, sir.”
Sherburne glanced at the graying sky and the slowly dying light as the afternoon shaded into evening. “You may pipe the hands to dinner, Mr. Wilson. It will be yet a while before we can risk a shot with the nine.”
“A most singular situation, Captain,” Wilson replied.
“Indeed, Mr. Wilson, most singular,” Sherburne agreed. “And I fear it will get even more so if darkness overtakes us.”
“She's holding her fire, lord,” Hassan Najid pointed out.
“Yes,” Sheik Abdul Basir-Hakim murmured. Then after some thought, “Her captain wishes to get closer before he risks a shot.”
“But he'd kill the women,” Najid said.
“Perhaps.” Hakim grabbed Najid's arm. “Put the woman in the bridal dress at the stern where she can be seen. The Americans might try to disable our rudder but with her there, they'll think twice.”
Najid rushed off to carry out the sheik's order, and for the hundredth time that afternoon, Hakim stared at the sky. The wind was falling and the sloop was gaining fast. He needed the darkness. Why wouldn't it come?
“Damn it, Captain, where did that come from?” Lieutenant Wilson pointed to the wall of blue-gray fog rolling toward the stern of the
and her prey with the sullen persistence of a rainsquall.
Sherburne said nothing.
Wilson stepped to the rail and looked back to the stern, where the sloop's fast-spinning screws churned the water to a V of white foam. “The fog is closing in on us fast, Captain.” His voice rose in agitation.
“Get for'ard to the long gun, Mr. Wilson. Try a shot across the schooner's bow. Maybe we can convince them that lowering sail would be a sociable thing to do.”
Wilson saluted. “Aye, aye sir.” He hurried forward, calling on the gun crew to ready the nine-pounder.
The port rail was lined with idlers who were watching the beautiful ship in the distance and exchanging opinions on how the captain would handle this latest crisis. The opinion of the majority was expressed by a red-bearded, Scottish seaman who said, “I say the cap'n should blow that slave scow into matchwood, women an' all, afore the haar gets here.”
Mutters of agreement were drowned out by the roar of the long nine. A moment later an exclamation point of sea and foam rose twenty yards off the schooner's port bow.
“Damn them,” Sherburne said. “They're not slowing.” As far as he could tell there were almost fifty women on deck, lined up along the starboard rail and one, the bride from the village, lonely and vulnerable at the stern.
Did the destruction of an Arab slaver justify the killing of their captives? Sherburne wrestled with the question while Mr. Wilson, for'ard at the long gun, looked back expectantly for an order.
The captain's orders were to engage and sink any foreign ship, boat, barge, or galley that posed a threat to the United States. A slave ship so close to the California coast was an obvious threat and his duty was clearâhe must engage and sink the vessel. Sherburne was about to order Wilson to pound the schooner with the long gun and clear the carronades for action.
The fog bank took the matter out of his hands.
A thick gray mist enveloped the
and within seconds, visibility was reduced to a dozen yards.
Sherburne cursed the vagaries of the Pacific weather, then left the quarterdeck and hurried forward. “Did you mark her last position, Mr. Wilson?”
The lieutenant's ruddy face was ashen behind the veil of the fog. “I did, captain.”
“Lead her fifty yards and fire.” Sherburne turned to the seamen around him. “Listen for the fall of shot, lads.”
The breach loading long nine roared, belching flame and smoke, and its carriage recoiled back on the hooking ropes with mindless savagery.
Sherburne raised a hand for quiet, and he and the crew listened for the fall of shot. A faint splash sounded in the distance, no louder than a rock thrown into a pond. Then silence.
“Shall I try again, Captain?” Wilson said.
“No,” Sherburne said. “We've lost her, by God.” He looked around at his seaman. “But we'll find her, lads, never fear.”
A few of the hands cheered. Then the only sound was the
of the sloop's engines, a small ship dwarfed into insignificance by the vastness of the lonely sea and sky.