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Dewey Lambdin - The King`s Commission

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    The King`s Commission
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1782 First officer on brig o'war . . . Fresh from duty on the frigate Desperate in her fight with the French Capricieuse off St. Kitts, Midshipman Alan Lewrie passes his examination board for Lieutenancy and finds himself commissioned first officer of the brig o'war Shrike. There's time for some dalliance with the fair sex, and then Lieutenant Lewrie must be off to patrol the North American coast and attempt to bring the Muskogees and Seminoles onto the British side against the American rebels (dalliance with an Indian maiden is just part of the mission). Then it's back to the Caribbean, to sail beside Captain Horatio Nelson in the Battle for Turks Island. . . .Naval officer and rogue, Alan Lewrie is a man of his times and a hero for all times. His equals are Hornblower, Aubrey, and Maturin--sailors beloved by readers all over the world.

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"If he wanted to fight, sir, he could have defended his anchorage, or backed and filled during the night much closer towards St. Kitts, sir," Alan surmised. "Starting that far to the suth'rd and out to sea from us, he practically gave it away. And he could have pushed through the gap Prudent made if he'd tried."

"Has Admiral Hood made any mistakes yet?" Treghues went on, loving his role of experienced teacher to his neophyte officers.

"He almost abandoned the last four or five ships, sir," Burney ventured. "But it was more important to get on north to St. Kitts."

"Very good, sirs, very good." Treghues nodded with a pleasant smile and strolled away with his hands clasped in the small of his back.

Hood had indeed head-reached on the suddenly baffled French, and as they watched, and the afternoon of January 25 wore on, Hood's line-of-battle ships gained the anchorage, swung east and anchored in line-ahead from almost the reefs of Frigate Bay stretching back west to seaward, blocking the French from entry into their former anchorage. Desperate had to snake her way between the heavier 3rd Rates as they rounded up to anchor, passing to the disengaged side through the battle line, which was the proper station for frigates to find safety once more inside the screen of larger ships.

"Find us good holding ground to leeward, Mister Monk," Treghues said. "We shall anchor west and north of the last ships in the line of battle."

"Charts show thirty fathom there'bouts, sir," Monk replied after a long squint at one of his heavily creased and much doodled-upon charts. "Soft sand un mud, though, not good holdin' ground! Hard coral 'bout a mile closer ta shore, though."

"We could fetch to, sir," Lieutenant Railsford suggested. "If there is a threat, we'd be caught putting put a kedge anchor from the stern and not have the springs ready."

"Anybody ta loo'ard o' us'd take the devil's own time beatin' up ta windward ta get at us, though," Monk chuckled. "We might have time ta put out the kedge un bower, un get springs on the cables."

"Or get caught anchored by a 3rd Rate, sir," Alan stuck in to try the waters. It was not Desperate's place, or function in life, to become an immobile target for a larger ship that could blow holes in her.

"Hard to get a bower up out of soft sand and mud," Treghues speculated audibly. "Very well, bring her to, Mister Railsford. Back the mizzen tops'l and shift the head sheets."

With the foresails cocked up to produce forward motion, and the square-sails laid aback or furled to the yards to retard her, Desperate "fetched-to," her helm hard over as though she were trying to tack and had been caught in irons by a capricious shift of wind, drifting slowly and making barely discernible sternway, to all intents at a dead stop.

"Stand the hands down from Quarters, Mister Railsford," Treghues ordered as eight bells chimed from the belfry at the break of the fo'c'sle, ending the afternoon watch and beginning the first dog-watch at 4 p.m.

"Cooks to light the galley fires, sir?" Railsford asked. It took time to develop enough heat under the steep-tubs so the rations could be boiled up, and the first dog was the usual time to start cooking.

"Not yet, not until we are sure we shall not be called upon to engage should a foe break the leeward end of the line," the captain said, frowning. "I'll not risk fire aboard until dusk. There's still daylight enough to do something glorious."

Freed of the tedium of duty, Alan betook himself below after one last lungful of fresh, clean Trade-Wind air. Below decks in the cockpit it would be a close and humid fog of humanity's reeks. The day had been pleasantly warm, and the wind bracing, and his nostrils pinched at the aromas of a ship when he reached his tiny dog-box of a cabin. Pea soup farts, armpits, unwashed bodies and rancid clothing, the garbage-midden stink of the bilges and holds where cheeses, bread-bags, dried beans and peas slowly rotted, where kegs of salt meat slowly fermented in brine.

"Got you, you bastard!" he exulted as he managed to mash a large roach with his shoe at the foot of the accommodation ladder. At least half a dozen more scurried from sight.

He tossed his cocked hat onto the peg above his cot, peeled off his tail-coat, and almost tore the stock from his throat to open his collar, oblivious to the continual booming and thudding of artillery that still roared between the two opposing fleets.

"Freeling, fetch a bucket of seawater," Alan demanded past the flimsy lath and canvas door to his cabin. Indeed, the whole dog-box afforded nothing more than the semblance of privacy, framed out in light deal and canvas that could be struck down before battle.

"Coomin' zurr," the mournful Freeling intoned joylessly, sounding even more put-upon than normal. Alan had finally gotten the man's measure, and was no longer in thrall to the cockpit servant's truculent behavior, as he had been when still merely a midshipman.

Once the water arrived, Alan took down a mildewed rag, sniffed at it and thought it could do for a few more days, then soaked it in the seawater and stripped to scrub himself down. Aboard a ship of war, the water was rationed at a gallon a day per man and officer, but not much of that went for washing or drinking; most of it was used in the steep-tubs to boil food. Personal consumption for cleanliness or shaving was limited to a pint a man, and most people found drinking the small-beer or wine more palatable than ship's water after it had been in cask for a few weeks, for it usually turned whiskey-brown, stained by the oak casks or the animalcules that grew in it. It was best when used to dilute rum or wine, which killed the brackish taste. Certainly, seawater made you itch all over, and one developed rashes and boils from constant exposure, but that was a sailor's lot. Besides, everybody itched and scratched constantly, even ashore. At least ships were free (for the most part, anyway) of lice, fleas and ticks.

"Ah, that feels good," Alan whispered, working up a slight lather from a stub of soap cake he had purchased in Wilmington. He would be sorry when it was finally gone, for in his lengthy shore service with the Army at Yorktown during the siege, one of his few pleasures was a soak in a creek or a hot half-barrel of clean water with some soap at least once or twice a week. Most of the hands, who came from poorer circumstances, thought him "tetched" for his obsession with hot water.

He rinsed down and shook out his clothing. Now that he was a junior warrant, his clothes did not take half the abuse of a mid-shipman's uniform. The tar and linseed oil stains were almost gone from the days and weeks he had lived in the rigging aloft and had turned positively grimy from the running rigging, standing rigging, and the spars. Sure he could pass muster, he flapped his breeches and shirt to air the last of the sweat from them and put them back on. He'd save his clean clothing for Sunday Divisions. No sense getting potty about things.

"Bloody Frogs!" Burney was crowing from the cockpit outside his flimsy door as they rumbled down to their berth from the gun deck. "What a jape on those bastards!"

"Freeling, trot out some Black Strap," Avery called.

"An't been no eesue, zurr," Freeling mooed mournfully.

"Then break out a bottle of our personal stores, and be quick about it, man," Avery insisted. "We'll drink confusion to our foes, damme if we shan't."

Putting his stock back on, Alan came out from his dog-box and took a seat at the scarred mess table with the midshipmen, which put a chill on their cock-a-hoop airs.

"I take it the Frogs have indeed been confused?" Alan asked.

"They sailed right up to us in column and had to sheer away as our line took them under fire," Burney said proudly. "Then they loped off to seaward, to the sou'west."

"Trying to think of something to do about us holding the harbor." Alan smiled. "Probably try something tomorrow at first light. Are we to anchor?"

"The captain still hasn't said, Mister Lewrie," Avery replied in his best professional manner, unable to look Alan in the eyes. Freeling arrived with some chipped glassware and a bottle of fairly decent Bordeaux, part of a lot the mess had gone shares on in New York after Yorktown, when Desperate was still refitting from the pummeling she had taken before her daring escape.

"Only two glasses?" Alan pointed out. "I mind I went shares on that case of bottles, too. Freeling, fetch me a glass."

"Oh," Freeling groaned. "Aye, zurr."

"If you do not mind me joining your celebrations?" Alan put the dig in with a sly smile.

"Not at all, Mister Lewrie," Burney chirped.

"Honored, sir," Avery added.

They were into their first glass of wine when Railsford, Cheatham the purser, Dr. Dorne and the Marine lieutenant Peck came aft through their quarters for the airier and more spacious accommodations of the wardroom dead aft of them in the stern.

Burney put down his second glass, then was caught short and stumbled off for the beakhead up forward to make water, leaving Avery and Lewrie alone in the midshipmen's mess.

"I don't think this Frog de Grasse is half as smart as we've been thinking, sir," Avery said shyly. "We diddled him pretty well today."

"Aye, that we did. He was badly placed to get to grips with us, too far to leeward and he waited too long to come about from south to north and take us under fire."

"Might have been better for him if he had reversed course and order as soon as he saw us and waited closer to St. Kitts, yes." David grinned. "Gotten to windward inshore of Nevis himself."

"Frogs like to fight to leeward, though, David," Alan stated. "Makes sense if you're a two-decker and can keep your heaviest artillery on the lower deck in action. If you take the windward, your guns are slanting down and even with the quoins all the way out, you don't have the range an upward slanting deck could give you."

"And they like to fight at long range, too, and shoot for the rigging 'stead of closing for a clean shot."

"Probably top their whores at arm's length, too," Alan laughed.

"Won't get to grips like a good Englishman," Avery added, getting more comfortably into the conversation.

"Like that buttock shop we went to in Charleston on your birthday?" Lewrie reminisced. "What was it, Maude's?"

"Lady Jane's," David hooted. "I still owe you for that."

"Well, it was only a crown apiece. Or are you thinking of the brawl we got into after we left?" Alan shrugged and made free with the bottle to top up both their glasses.

"I owe you for that one, too. They'd have split my skull in that street if you hadn't been there, sir," David shot back.

"Sir, is it?" Alan asked. "Damnit all, David…"

"Well, you are a master's mate now."

"That's only because we're short-handed. I'm still the same as you, just another midshipman. I could be chucked out of my dog-box and back in a hammock next week. You've been acting like I've been made post. The Navy and its discipline be damned!"

"It's not just what the Navy expects." David sobered. "It's the way you came back aboard after Yorktown. Maybe even before then, when we went inshore. Before we were equals… fellow sufferers in this nautical misery, eh?" David essayed a small laugh. "But you changed, became a hard man. Like you'd aged ten years and I was still seventeen, d'ya see?"

"So you're afraid of me?" Alan gaped. "In awe of my new grandeur?"

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