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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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The King`s Commission - читать книгу онлайн бесплатно, автор Dewey Lambdin

"One point harder up," Treghues said. "Lay her full and by as close to the wind as we may. I shall want the wind gauge even should she turn away and run down back to her protector."

"Aye, sir."

Alan turned to the starboard rails and looked back towards the fleet anchorage. There was another British frigate back there to the south trying to close up with them, but she was nearly two miles off, and could not be up with them for some time.

Laid close to the wind, Desperate put up a brave picture, her battle flags streaming from every mast, her bow slamming into the bright tropical waters and flinging spray as high as the bow sprit, wetting the foresails with an atomized cloud of salt water, and the quarter wave hissed down her side and spread out like a bride's train of white foam.

Alan leaned over the bulwarks to see how the suction of the wave on her quarter exposed the weeded quick-work of her bottom that rarely saw daylight, heeled over as she was against the wind. Spray flew about in buckets, splashing as high as the quarterdeck and showering him with cooling droplets now and again.

Damme, this can be exciting on a pretty day like this. Alan beamed. This is a glory. Makes up for all the humbug.

"Ahem!" Monk coughed, drawing Alan's attention back inboard, and he walked back down to the wheel and binnacle with some difficulty on the slant of the deck, his shoes slipping on fresh-sanded planking, getting traction from the hot tar that had been pounded between the planks.

"I hopes the hull meets yer satisfaction, Mister Lewrie," Monk said. "The captain ain't payin' much attention now, but juniors don't go ta windward if the captain's on deck-that's his by right."

"A cod's-head's mistake, Mister Monk, I admit," Alan realized. "But you'll be happy to know the coppering is fairly clean."

"Aye, I'm sure the bosun un the carpenter'll be pleased," Monk drawled pointedly. "Now stay down ta loo'ard, iffen ya don't object."

"Aye aye, sir."

Alan joined Sedge, the other master's mate. He was older, in his very early twenties, a Loyalist who had joined the Royal Navy years earlier, and who was thirsting for revenge against the Rebels who had ruined his family. He was a thatch-haired and ungainly fellow with a hard hatchet face, and so far had been no more friendly than he had to be to get along in the mess, or on duty.

"Think we'll get a chance to fight 'em?" Alan asked.

"Na, this schooner'll run to momma, an' momma'll drive us off," Sedge opined gloomily. "She's a twenty-eight. You kin mark her, if you've a mind now. Long nines for chase guns on her fo'c'sle, ten carriage guns abeam-twelve-pounders most like-and six-pounders on her quarterdeck."

"Only one more gun than us per broadside."

"Aye, but twelves, not our nine-pounders," Sedge said as though Alan had uttered some lunacy worthy of Bedlam. "An' two of our nines aft're short brass pieces just as like ta blow up in our faces sure as damnit."

"Wish we still had the 'Smashers,'" Alan shrugged, giving up on making pleasant conversation with a man who looked more at home tumbling out of a hay-wagon than on a quarterdeck. "Then we'd give 'em the fear of God and British artillery."

"Aye, but ya left 'em at Yorktown, didn' ya?" Sedge sneered. "I told ya. There she goes, haulin' her wind, runnin' for safety."

Alan thought the comment was grossly unfair. The "Smashers," the short-ranged carronade guns that threw such heavy shot had been commandeered by the Army. They had lost them, not anyone in Desperate, and now two older long-barreled six-pounders graced the frigate's fo'c'sle as chase guns. But then, he realized, Sedge was ever the graceless lout.

The despatch schooner had indeed fallen off the wind to wear to the west-nor'west to take the Trades on her larboard quarter, running off to leeward and the protection of the French frigate.

"Ease your helm, hands wear ship! Due north, quartermaster!"

The waisters and idlers sprang to the braces to ease them out to larboard, angling the yards to allow Desperate to take the wind on her starboard quarter, so they could interpose between the schooner, frigate, and the shore, maintaining the wind gauge advantage. The French ship eased her helm as well by at least a point, screening her weaker consort. The two warships were now on two sides of a triangle; one headed north and the other nor'east. If allowed to continue, they would meet about two miles west of the port of Basse Terre.

The schooner passed close ahead of her escort, then gybed to the opposite tack and began to reach sou'west away from the anchorage with the wind abeam. Moments later, the French man o'war came about as well, but instead of wearing down-wind, she threw herself up into the wind's eye for a tack. Since it slowed her down so much to do so, Desperate began to close her more rapidly.

"Helm up a point, quartermaster. Hands to the braces!" Treghues bawled. Desperate turned a bit more westerly of due north, taking the Trades more directly up the stern, a "landsman's breeze."

"She'll pass astern o' us; mebbe a mile, mile un a half off," Monk speculated, calculating speed and approach angles in his head after the Frenchman steadied on a course sou'sou'west to provide a mobile bulwark for the schooner.

"About two miles off now," Treghues commented, rubbing his chin thoughtfully. "Once astern, they could come about and try again, with us north of them and to leeward. They'd get into Basse Terre before we could beat south to interpose again."

He paced about at the windward rail, from the nettings overlooking the waist to the wheel and back, his fingers drumming on his ornately engraved and inlaid sword hilt.

"Hands wear ship, Mister Railsford! Gybe her and lay her on the same tack as yonder Frog. If we shall not have her information, I do not mean to allow her to pass that same information ashore for lack of effort on our part."

"Aye, sir!" Railsford shouted. "Stations for wearing ship! Main clewgarnets and buntlines, there, bosun!"

"Spanker brails, weather main cro'jack and lee cro'jack braces!" Alan cried at the afterguard men. "Haul taut!"

"Up mains'l and spanker!" Railsford went on with a brass speaking trumpet to his lips. "Clear away after bowlines, brace in the afteryards! Up helm!"

Desperate fell off the wind more, her stern crossing the eye of the wind slowly, for she was no longer generating her own apparent wind but sailing no faster than the Trades could blow.

"Clear away head bowlines! Lay the headyards square!" Railsford directed as the wind came directly astern, gauging the proper moment at which the foresails would no longer be blanketed by the courses and tops'ls. "Headsheets to starboard!"

"Main tack and sheet. Clear away, there. Spanker outhaul and clear away the brails," Alan added as the wind drew forward on the larboard quarter.

Within a breathless few minutes, Desperate was squared away on a new point of sail, paralleling the Frenchman to the sou'sou'west, and just slightly ahead of her by a quarter-mile.

"Smartly done, Mister Railsford." Treghues nodded in satisfaction at how professionally Desperate's crew did their sail drill.

"Thankee, sir." Railsford beamed. "Steady out bowlines! Haul taut weather trusses, braces and lifts! Clear away on deck!"

"He's shivering his mizzen tops'l, sir!" Alan pointed out as the French frigate tried to slow down, possibly so she could pass astern of Desperate and still get up to windward for Basse Terre,

"He's a game little cock, isn't he, Mister Railsford?" Treghues chuckled. "Once he gets an idea into his pate he won't give it up. Back the mizzen tops'l and haul in on the weather braces. Get the way off her."

Realizing that he could not dodge about Desperate, the Frenchman came up close to the wind and began to put on speed once more close-hauled, closing the range slightly. Oddly, Treghues let her approach to within three-quarters of a mile; just about the range of random shot, before ordering Desperate to haul in once more and maintain the distance.

"Pretty thing," Alan commented to Monk after a quick sharing of a telescope with the sailing master. The frigate had a dark brown oak hull, with a jaunty royal blue gunwale stripe picked out in yellow top and bottom, with much gilt trim about her bulwarks scroll-work and taffrail carvings of cherubs and dolphins and saints. Her figurehead could almost be discerned, a sword and shield-wielding maiden surmounted by a gilt fleur de lis crown.

"She's hard on the wind to close us, sir," Alan noted.

"Aye, but we'll draw ahead if she stays so," Monk growled.

There was a sudden puff of smoke from the Frenchman that blossomed on her far bow, then was blown away to a mist by the Trades. Seconds later, the sound of a shot could be heard, a thin thumping noise. She had fired one gun to leeward, the traditional challenge to combat. Evidently the French captain was so angered at being stymied by Desperate's maneuverings that he wanted to vent some round-shot spleen upon her.

Alan looked back at Treghues and saw the glint in his eyes. It would be galling to refuse combat, especially for a ship and captain under a cloud for previous actions, no matter how unfair the accusation was, and Alan could see Treghues' jaws working below the tan flesh of that narrow, patrician face.

No, he can't be thinking of it! Alan quailed. We can't fight a twenty-eight. We've done enough to clear our hawse already!

"Mister Gwynn, fire the leeward chase gun," Treghues said. "Brail up the main course, Mister Railsford. I think this stubborn Frog needs a lesson in manners. Mr. Peck, would you be so good as to assemble the band and have them give us something stirring?"

The starboard six-pounder banged, and the ship's boys with the drums and fifes met in the waist just below the quarterdeck rails and began a tinny rendition of "Heart of Oak," as the waisters and topmen took in the large main course and brailed it aloft on the main yard. The Marine complement paraded back and forth on the lee gangway by the bulwark and the hammock stowage, which would be their breast-works in the battle to come. A few of them who were better shots than others went aloft into the tops with their muskets and their swivel guns.

The Frenchman was closing fast, close enough to make out her open gunports. Alan groaned to himself when he saw that there were eleven of them. Two bow chase guns, six-pounders like Sedge thought, but only four quarterdeck guns, and eleven bloody twelve-pounders in each broadside battery, not ten! he noted with a sick feeling.

He wished he could squat down below the bulwarks of their own quarterdeck, for with her angle of heel, Desperated decks were bared just enough to make everyone aft a prime target.

The French ship fired, a solid broadside as all her guns lit off together, and his flesh quivered as the shot moaned in at them at twelve hundred feet per second. The range was just about five cables, half a nautical mile. Black shot droned overhead, slapping a hole in the spanker over where Lewrie stood. Fired on the up-roll, upward from a slanting deck, the lee ship had the advantage of range over Desperate. Alan's passion was artillery of all the skills he had been forced to learn in the Navy, and he knew Desperated nine-pounders could not be elevated high enough to reach as long as she was close-hauled and heeled over.

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