Date: 27 June
Location: In a madhouse.
Conditions: As should be expected: mad.
If a man were to ask me what is the experience of captaining a ship, of leading a crew, I would say this: when you are the captain of a ship, everything goes wrong all at once. It is never simply that your vessel is blown into a storm; it is ever that your ship is blown into a storm – when your food stores have turned up rotten, and all your men are drunk on grog poured into empty bellies to quiet the pangs, and the lines have been poorly lashed by fainting fog-headed men, and the steersman collapses in a swoon and heels the boat crosswise to the waves just as the wind tears loose the moorings and leaves the sails flapping and the ship out of control – even as the cry of “Fire!” issues from the galley. That is the life of a ship’s captain. But with one difference from my depiction: generally the threats a captain faces are invisible and unknowable before they strike.
Here I had a group of men, three of them my own officers, who saw fit to defy my orders even after they joined their voices in affirmation of my right to command. Four men who were such blithering, vacuous idiots that they apparently did not understand the danger of piling more risk onto the perils we already face, who sought to prod the sleeping animal whose den we had invaded, and whose nature we could not discern: was it, perhaps, merely an aged and toothless dog, who would grumble at our violation of its rest and then turn to sleep once more? Or was it a savage bear with a sore tooth, awakening ravenous from a winter’s sleep, which would prove the destruction of us all? In less poetic terms: would a raid on a local establishment spur the far-flung and isolated colonials to flee our wrath, surrendering to our dominant wills if caught? Or would it break the dam and release a flood of heavily-armed soldiers on us? We did not know, and yet those men – my men, my officers, my own cousin, men whom I trusted to bear responsibility with probity and wisdom and fortitude – those men chose to take that risk for us all, and prod yon sleeping beast.
While our ship, our greatest weapon and only means of escape, lay mortally wounded on the sand.
And they did this all for grog.
And – most immediate – someone allowed them to go.
I strode through the Palace with Lynch at my heels, to the landward portico. The two men on watch – Shane MacManus and Raymond Fitzpatrick, a man whose loyalty I questioned and another whose witlessness, unfortunately, I did not – took their ease in two of the woven-cloth chairs that had previously stood on the seaward pavilion, but now stood in shaded places somewhat near the front door, and somewhat within reasonable view of any approaching enemies.
Perhaps I misspoke, before; perhaps the essence of captainhood is this: when your subordinates, in everything they do from sleep to eat to work to watch to fight to shit, are incessantly toeing the line of indolence and insubordination, but never quite far enough over it to deserve chastisement. A captain is ever left with two unpalatable choices: berate and punish those who have done very little that is wrong, and be known as a tyrant and martinet, or allow standards to slacken lower and lower until doom is as assured as the captain’s reputation for laxity. After all, these men were at their stations, and they were awake and unintoxicated, and they faced the road. Could I really begrudge them a comfortable seat in this tedious duty?
At the moment: a thousand times yes. “AVAST!” I roared as I came through the door and espied their lazy carcasses. “STAND AND REPORT, YE IDLE SWINE!” The two leapt from their chairs with satisfying alacrity, MacManus with a charged musket in his hands and Fitzpatrick sending his chair flying all a-tangle with the vigor of his upright leap. MacManus, seeing no immediate threat but my own humble self, turned and snapped off a crisp salute, knuckles to brow. “Nothin’ to report, Captain, sir!” he said, his words brusque and his stare blank. MacManus had served in the Royal Navy and was no stranger to surprise inspections from angry officers. Fitzpatrick shook his head to confirm MacManus’s negative reply.
I stepped close, pressing my face within inches of MacManus’s. “Where are O’Flaherty and Burke, Shane? Where is Carter? And Moran?”
He blinked and reddened, slightly, though it may have been the heat. “They . . . they left, sir. Half a turn gone, now, fifteen or twenty minutes, I’d say.”
I stepped closer, forcing him back on his heels. “And you didn’t stop them?”
He frowned. “No, Captain. By what authority would I stop the Quartermaster goin’ where he likes, sir?”
“By the authority of your own brain, were it not as shriveled and worm-eaten as his!” I snarled, pointing at the slack-jawed Fitzpatrick.
MacManus’s flush deepened. Definitely not the heat. Not the sun’s heat, at least. “They claimed to be acting under orders, sir. I had no orders to hold or question or countermand their leavin’. Captain.”
Damn it all, he was right. I should have guessed that this was a possibility, and I should have expressly forbidden their departure, or any others’. I can only say in my defense that I had been too preoccupied with the storm and the flapping sails to also fight the galley-fire below – the fire named O’Flaherty. And “grog.”
But MacManus was not free of sin, here. I stepped back and stared at him some more, before saying quietly, “Why did I not receive a report of their leaving?”
MacManus paled even faster than he had reddened. “I – I thought you knew, Captain. They said you had ordered them.” He trailed off without any word from me. He knew better than that. On a ship, any ship, anything and all things must be reported up the chain of command. Always. All commands, all shouts of warning, even simple declarations of fact, are repeated again and again. Too much depends on men doing the right thing at the right moment, and on the officers knowing the right thing to do and the right moment to do it. If I am told by my Sailing Master that the wind is turning, and I give the order to come about, then the Master repeats it for clarity, and then tells the same to the steersman. The steersman says, “Aye, coming about, sir,” and shouts it to the Bosun. The Bosun, who must make the men reorient the sails as we change course, cries out, “Coming about!” And the men, to acknowledge the order and verify that it was the correct order, all shout, “Coming about!” Then the ship begins to turn. Not before.
MacManus should have reported the departure. The reason he hadn’t was clear to me: he knew I’d have stopped them, and he hadn’t wanted them stopped before they accomplished this errand. It was most likely the siren call of the grog which had whelmed his thoughts and suborned him from doing his duty.
I merely waited until he dropped his gaze, and then I began issuing new orders. “We will fortify this door, now. You two will dig a trench and build a breastworks with the earth, to either side of the palace. Take tools from the barn-shed if there be any. And if not, use your bloody hands.”
I watched them salute and trot off to the barn-shed; I told Lynch off to stand watch for now, and he nodded. Should have had him there in the first place, curse me for a trusting fool.
As I came back through the doorway into the entry hall, I encountered once more another unwelcome complication: our new carpenter, Shluxer. He stood, cowed but trying nonetheless to catch glimpses of the goings-on from where he was, confronted and halted from going any further by a surly and silent Owen MacTeigue. I clapped my cousin gratefully on the shoulder, and he nodded and relaxed – but he did not leave.
“I regret, Master Shluxer, that the realization of our partnership must be postponed. I trust that my assurances of your future enrichment will prove sufficient for the nonce, and I would also ask that you endeavor to keep our presence here a secret, moot as the request may be.”
“What’s going on?” he asked, still craning his neck to see around my and out the front door.
“Some of my men have gone to beard the lion in his den. We must prepare to face the wrath.” I turned to MacTeigue. “Go find two of the men who brought him here, and have them escort Master Shluxer home. Then –”
Shluxer interrupted me. “They left on foot? Why don’t you just go after them?”
I turned to him with raised brow and lowered patience. “Because they left twenty minutes ago. They would reach their destination before we caught them, even at a dead run.”
He stared at me for a moment, uncomprehending, I thought – and how amazed I was that he couldn’t grasp such a simple problem! Then he said, “Why don’t you just take the car?”
Now I had to stare, uncomprehending. “Take the what?”
“The car.” He pointed out the door. “What is that, an Accord? It’s got balls, for a riceburner. It could catch them. You got the keys?”
I turned to see where he was pointing: it was the nearer of the two beast-wagons, the one that Juan and Ignacio Lopez had arrived in – the one which we had not shot. I turned back to Shluxer. “That thing could catch them? Before they reached the Piggly-Wiggly?”
He snorted. “Sure. What are they going to do, grow wings and fly? It’s a car, dude. That thing could break a hundred, easy.”
I stared some more. Surely his language was English, I knew each individual word, but he made no sense to my ears. “Break a hundred what?” I asked him.
He looked at me as if I were the idiot. “M.P.H., dude.” And when this clearly offered me no help, he said, “Miles per hour?” as though questioning me, and vastly fatigued for doing so.
It took me a moment, but it started to dawn on me. “That thing,” I said, pointing, “that beast out there, could run one hundred miles – that’s two days good riding on a strong horse over adequate roads – in only one hour?”
He shrugged, palms up, and raised his eyebrows at me. “Duh. It’s a car?”
I merely stared.
His brows lowered. “You really don’t know what a car is, do you?”
Slowly I shook my head. I didn’t like to confess my ignorance, but a fool’s bluff would have been no improvement.
Shluxer’s hand darted out and flicked at the wall near him, as through brushing at a fly. Brilliant light burst forth from the ceiling, where shining round objects like enormous pearls hung; we had thought them merely idle decoration, but now they glowed as if they were tiny suns, or great lanterns encased in smooth white glass – but we saw no flame. And from whence had the spark come? MacTeigue and I both flinched away, our hands going to weapon hilts in our startlement.
“Jesus Christ,” Shluxer swore quietly. He brushed the wall again, and now I noticed a small rectangle with a peg of some kind sticking out of it where his hand touched; he moved the peg so it pointed down, and the light vanished, as quickly as it had come – startling MacTeigue and I anew. Shluxer snapped his fingers, and when I looked at him, he said, “Find the keys. I’ll drive.”