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Authors: Joan Druett

Deadly Shoals

BOOK: Deadly Shoals
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Table of Contents

About the Author

Copyright Page

 

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For Laura Langlie, loyal agent,

faithful friend, and Wiki's first fan

Author's Note

On Sunday, August 18, 1838, the six ships of the first, great United States South Seas Exploring Expedition, commanded by Lieutenant Charles Wilkes, set sail from Norfolk, Virginia, headed for the far side of the world. The goal was the Pacific, but over the next four months the fleet surveyed the Atlantic Ocean, various calls being paid at Madeira, Cape Verde Islands, the northeast coast of Brazil, and Rio de Janeiro. The final Atlantic landfall was at Patagonia, for a survey of the shifting shoals of the Río Negro. This is the setting of the fourth Wiki Coffin mystery.

While the background is based on true events, the real people in the following list of dramatis personae are treated novelistically, while other characters are imagined, some of them being the crew of the equally fictional seventh ship of the fleet, the U.S. brig
Swallow.

List of Several of the Officers and Men Attached to
The United States Exploring Expedition

U
NITED
S
TATES
S
HIP
V
INCENNES

Charles Wilkes, Esq.

                

Commanding Exploring Expedition

Thomas T. Craven

                

Lieutenant

Lawrence J. Smith

                

Lieutenant

Christian Forsythe

                

Lieutenant

Edward Gilchrist

                

Surgeon

John Fox

                

Assistant Surgeon

Robert R. Waldron

                

Purser

Joseph P. Couthouy

                

Naturalist

U
NITED
S
TATES
S
HIP
P
EACOCK

William L. Hudson, Esq.

                

Commanding

Oliver Hazard Perry

                

Lieutenant

Silas Holmes

                

Surgeon

James Dwight Dana

                

Mineralogist

Titian Ramsey Peale

                

Naturalist

Horatio Hale

                

Philologist

U
NITED
S
TATES
S
HIP
R
ELIEF

Andrew K. Long

                

Lieutenant-Commandant

U
NITED
S
TATES
B
RIG
P
ORPOISE

Cadwallader Ringgold

                

Lieutenant-Commandant

 

                

transferred to
Sea Gull
for the Río Negro survey

U
NITED
S
TATES
B
RIG
S
WALLOW

George Rochester

                

Passed Midshipman, Commandant

Constant Keith

                

Junior Midshipman

William “Wiki” Coffin

                

Linguister

James Stoker

                

Steward

Robert Festin

                

Cook

Dave Meagher

                

Gunner

Sua, “Jack Polo”

                

Seaman

Tana, “Jack Savvy”

                

Seaman

T
ENDER
S
EA
G
ULL

James W. E. Reid

                

Passed Midshipman, Commandant

T
ENDER
F
LYING
F
ISH

Samuel R. Knox

                

Commandant

One

Off the coast of Patagonia, January 24, 1839

Wiki Coffin was in the saloon of the U.S. brig
Swallow
when he heard the man at the masthead call out for a sail. The
Swallow
was flying south on the breast of a favorable nor'west wind, so he assumed the sighting was of a homeward-bound ship passing on the opposite course. However, it was the first sign of company on the seas for the past eight days, and so he ran up the companionway to the deck and then climbed the mainmast to see what it was all about.

It proved to be a whaleship, about five miles away but coming down fast from the east, with all sails set but flying no flags. Her four boats were triced up in davits on the outside of the vessel, ready to be lowered at an instant's notice if whales were sighted, but her canvas was pristine white, unmarked by tryworks smoke, an indication that she hadn't done any whaling of late. Even from this distance, Wiki could discern a glint of copper under her foot as she crested the top of a wave, so knew that this was no northbound whaler deeply laden with oil.

Instead, she was racing to come up with them. Looking about the empty sea from his lofty vantage point, Wiki frowned, touched with uneasiness. They were off the Patagonian coast, with the shoal-ridden estuary of the Río Negro on the western horizon. It was notorious as a hotbed of revolutionaries, having been deliberately impoverished by General de Rosas, the tyrant of Buenos Aires. Wiki also knew that de Rosas was currently waging war with the French over his territorial ambitions in Uruguay—and had heard rumors in Rio that the French were issuing letters of marque to their merchant vessels on this coast, which included a number of whalers. He swung down a backstay to the quarterdeck.

Captain Rochester was standing on the weather side, one fist gripping the starboard shrouds. He was scowling, too. The instant he sighted Wiki he said, “What do you reckon, old chap?”

“Her captain seems determined to intercept us, but he isn't flying any signals—not even his ensign.”

“Do you recognize her?”

Wiki grimaced. For the past seven years he had drifted from one American whaleship to another, deserting at exotic landfalls whenever he had become heartily tired of whaling, or fed up with the captain and officers, or simply wanted to get back to the Bay of Islands to pay a call on his
whanau
—his folks in New Zealand. However, this made him no authority on the identity of individual whalers.

He said, “It's infamously hard to tell one whaleship from another, George.”

The trouble was, they were all built for the same purpose, with no variety in the pattern. There had been one captain of his acquaintance who had painted his command in a myriad of colors just to make himself different, but most of his crew had promptly jumped ship, declaring that their garish appearance frightened off the whales. Accordingly, the old spouter master had returned his typically beamy old tub to her former livery of black, interrupted with one white streak painted with black squares to fool innocent savages into thinking she had gunports with cannon behind them. And, with that, she had returned to being indistinguishable from the rest of the whaling fleet.

“So how do we know she's American?”

Wiki, who'd had the same thought, said flatly, “We don't. She could be French. If she is, she could be a privateer—which seems likely, as she looks far too clean to be a working whaler.”

“Then let's make sure that her master knows beyond doubt that we're a United States Navy brig,” Rochester decided. “Bo'sun,” he hollered. “Get the biggest ensign aloft.”

It took just a moment to comply, and events followed fast. No sooner had the bright flag been run up to flicker from the gaff of the
Swallow,
than smoke puffed up from the stranger's foredeck, and a cannonball screamed across the rapidly diminishing gap between the two ships. “He's fired a shot across our bows!” George exclaimed in shocked disbelief. “Beat to quarters, by God—
beat to quarters
!”

The stunned silence fore and aft turned into commotion. Sua, the brig's Samoan drummer, rushed into the forecastle for his drum—a length of log—and set to hammering out a primitive, blood-stirring rhythm even before he arrived back on deck. Rochester's youthful second-in-command, Midshipman Keith, raced up from below, the off-duty watch tumbling hard on his heels. As usual in any emergency, Wiki, who was the best helmsman in the ship, took over the wheel.

Every man was at his station; every head turned to watch the captain. “Wear ship, Mr. Keith, if you please,” instructed Rochester. Not only would this bring the brig around so that the two chaser cannon on the deck at the stern would come to bear on the stranger, but the
Swallow
would present a much smaller target.

BOOK: Deadly Shoals
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ads

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