Read Birds of Prey Online

Authors: Wilbur Smith

Birds of Prey (4 page)

BOOK: Birds of Prey
7.83Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

In the crow’s nest, Hal swung the long-barrelled falconet on its swivel and aimed down at a length of floating kelp that drifted past on the current. Then with the point of his dirk he
scraped the damp, caked powder out of the pan of the weapon, and carefully repacked it with fresh powder from his flask. After ten years of instruction by his father, he was as skilled as Ned
Tyler, the ship’s master gunner, in the esoteric art. His rightful battle station should have been on the gundeck, and he had pleaded with his father to place him there but had been answered
only with the stern retort, ‘You will go where I send you.’ Now he must sit up here, out of the hurly-burly, while his fierce young heart ached to be a part of it.

Suddenly he was startled by the crash of gunfire from the deck below. A long dense plume of smoke billowed out and the ship heeled slightly at the discharge. A moment later a tall fountain of
foam rose dramatically from the surface of the sea fifty yards to the right and twenty beyond the floating cask. At that range it was not bad shooting, but the deck erupted in a chorus of jeers and

Ned Tyler hurried to the second culverin, and swiftly checked its lay. He gestured for the men on the tackle to train it a point left then stepped forward and held the burning match to the touch
hole. A fizzling puff of smoke blew back and then, from the gaping muzzle, came a shower of sparks, half-burned powder and clods of damp, caked muck. The ball rolled down the bronze barrel and fell
into the sea less than half-way to the target cask. The crew howled with derision.

The next two weapons misfired. Cursing furiously, Ned ordered the crews to draw the charges with the long iron corkscrews as he hurried on down the line.

‘Great expense of powder and bullet!’ Hal recited to himself the words of the great Sir Francis Drake – for whom his own father had been christened – spoken after the
first day of the epic battle against the Armada of Philip II, King of Spain, led by the Duke of Medina Sidonia. All that long day, under the dun fog of gunsmoke, the two great fleets had loosed
their mighty broadsides at each other, but the barrage had sent not a single ship of either fleet to the bottom.

‘Fright them with cannon,’ Hal’s father had instructed him, ‘but sweep their decks with the cutlass,’ and he voiced his scorn for the rowdy but ineffectual art of
naval gunnery. It was impossible to aim a ball from the plunging deck of one ship to a precise point on the hull of another: accuracy was in the hands of the Almighty rather than those of the
master gunner.

As if to illustrate the point, after Ned had fired every one of the heavy guns on board six had misfired and the nearest he had come to striking the floating cask was twenty yards. Hal shook his
head sadly, reflecting that each of those shots had been carefully laid and aimed. In the heat of a battle, with the range obscured by billowing smoke, the powder and shot stuffed in haste into the
muzzles, the barrels heating unevenly and the match applied to pan by excited and terrified gunners, the results could not be even that satisfactory.

At last his father looked up at Hal. ‘Masthead!’ he roared.

Hal had feared himself forgotten. Now, with a thrill of relief, he blew on the tip of the smouldering slow-match in his hand. It glowed bright and fierce.

From the deck Sir Francis watched him, his expression stern and forbidding. He must never let show the love he bore the boy. He must be hard and critical at all times, driving him on. For the
boy’s own sake – nay, for his very life – he must force him to learn, to strive, to endure, to run every step of the course ahead of him with all his strength and all his heart.
Yet, without making it apparent, he must also help, encourage and assist him. He must shepherd him wisely, cunningly towards his destiny. He had delayed calling upon Hal until this moment, when the
cask floated close alongside.

If the boy could shatter it with the small weapon where Ned had failed with the great cannon, then his reputation with the crew would be enhanced. The men were mostly boisterous ruffians, simple
illiterates, but one day Hal would be called upon to lead them, or others like them. He had made a giant stride today by besting Aboli before them all. Here was a chance to consolidate that gain.
‘Guide his hand, and the flight of the shot, oh God of the battle-line!’ Sir Francis prayed silently, and the ship’s company craned their necks to watch the lad high above

Hal hummed softly to himself as he concentrated on the task, conscious of the eyes upon him. Yet he did not sense the importance of this discharge and was oblivious of his father’s
prayers. It was a game to him, just another chance to excel. Hal liked to win, and each time he did so he liked it better. The young eagle was beginning to rejoice in the power of his wings.

Gripping the end of the long brass monkey tail, he swivelled the falconet downwards, peering over the yard-long barrel, lining up the notch above the pan with the pip on the muzzle end.

He had learned that it was futile to aim directly at the target. There would be a delay of seconds from when he applied the slow-match, to the crash of the shot, and in the meantime ship and
cask would be moving in opposite directions. There was also the moment when the discharged balls were in flight before they struck. He must gauge where the cask would be when the shot reached it
and not aim for the spot where it had been when he pressed the match to the pan.

He swung the pip of the foresight smoothly over the target, and touched the glowing end of the match to the pan. He forced himself not to flinch away from the flare of burning powder nor to
recoil in anticipation of the explosion but to keep the barrels swinging gently in the line he had chosen.

With a roar that stung his ear-drums the falconet bucked heavily against its swivel, and everything disappeared in a cloud of grey smoke. Desperately he craned his head left and right, trying to
see around the smoke, but it was the cheers from the decks below that made his heart leap, reaching him even through his singing ears. When the wind whisked away the smoke, he could see the ribs of
the shattered cask swirling and tumbling astern in the ship’s wake. He hooted with glee, and waved his cap at the faces on the deck far below.

Aboli was at his place in the bows, coxswain and gun captain of the first watch. He returned Hal’s beatific grin and beat his chest with one fist, while with the other he brandished the
cutlass over his bald head.

The drum rolled to end the drill and stand down the crew from their battle stations. Before he dropped down the shrouds Hal reloaded the falconet carefully and bound a strip of tar-soaked canvas
around the pan to protect it from dew, rain and spray.

As his feet hit the deck he looked to the poop, trying to catch his father’s eye and glean his approbation. But Sir Francis was deep in conversation with one of his petty officers. A
moment passed before he glanced coldly over his shoulder at Hal. ‘What are you gawking at, boy? There are guns to be reloaded.’

As he turned away Hal felt the bite of disappointment, but the rowdy congratulations of the crew, the rough slaps across his back and shoulders as he passed down the gundeck, restored his

When Ned Tyler saw him coming he stepped back from the breech of the culverin he was loading and handed the ramrod to Hal. ‘Any oaf can shoot it, but it takes a good man to load it,’
he grunted, and stood back critically to watch Hal measure a charge from the leather powder bucket. ‘What weight of powder?’ he asked, and Hal gave the same reply he had a hundred times

‘The same weight as that of the round shot.’

The blackpowder comprised coarse granules. There had been a time when, shaken and agitated by the ship’s way or some other repetitive movement, the three essential elements, sulphur,
charcoal and saltpetre, might separate out and render it useless. Since then the process of ‘corning’ had evolved, whereby the fine raw powder was treated with urine or alcohol to set
it into a cake, which was then crushed in a ball mill to the required size of granules. Yet the process was not perfect and a gunner must always have an eye for the condition of his powder. Damp or
age could degrade it. Hal tested the grains between his fingers and tasted a dab. Ned Tyler had taught him to differentiate between good and degenerate powder in this way. Then he poured the
contents of the bucket into the muzzle, and followed it with the oakum wadding.

Then he tamped it down with the long wooden-handled ramrod. This was another crucial part of the process: tamped too firmly, the flame could not pass through the charge and a misfire was
inevitable, but not tamped firmly enough, and the blackpowder would burn without the power to hurl the heavy projectile clear of the barrel. Correct tamping was an art that could only be learned
from prolonged practice, but Ned nodded as he watched Hal at work.

It was much later when Hal scrambled up again into the sunlight. All the culverins were loaded and secured behind their ports and Hal’s bare upper body was glistening with sweat from the
heat of the cramped gundeck and his labours with the ramrod. As he paused to wipe his streaming face, draw a breath and stretch his back, after crouching so long under the cramped headspace of the
lower deck, his father called to him with heavy irony, ‘Is the ship’s position of no interest to you, Master Henry?’

With a start Hal glanced up at the sun. It was high in the heavens above them: the morning had sped away. He raced to the companionway, dropped down the ladder, burst into his father’s
cabin, and snatched the heavy backstaff from its case on the bulkhead. Then he turned and ran back to the poop deck.

‘Pray God, I’m not too late,’ he whispered to himself, and glanced up at the position of the sun. It was over the starboard yard-arm. He positioned himself with his back to it
and in such a way that the shadow cast by the main sail would not screen him, yet so that he had a clear view of the horizon to the south.

Now he concentrated all his attention on the quadrant of the backstaff. He had to keep the heavy instrument steady against the ship’s motion. Then he must read the angle that the
sun’s rays over his shoulder subtended onto the quadrant, which gave him the sun’s inclination to the horizon. It was a juggling act that required strength and dexterity.

At last he could observe noon passage, and read the sun’s angle with the horizon at the precise moment it reached its zenith. He lowered the backstaff with aching arms and shoulders, and
hastily scribbled the reading on the traverse slate.

Then he ran down the ladder to the stern cabin, but the table of celestial angles was not on its shelf. In distress he turned to see that his father had followed him down and was watching him
intently. No word was exchanged, but Hal knew that he was being challenged to provide the value from memory. Hal sat at his father’s sea-chest, which served as a desk, and closed his eyes as
he reviewed the tables in his mind’s eye. He must remember yesterday’s figures and extrapolate from them. He massaged his swollen ear-lobe, and his lips moved soundlessly.

Suddenly his face lightened, he opened his eyes and scribbled another number on the slate. He worked for a minute longer, translating the angle of the noon sun into degrees of latitude. Then he
looked up triumphantly. ‘Thirty-four degrees forty-two minutes south latitude.’

His father took the slate from his hand, checked his figures, then handed it back to him. He inclined his head slightly in agreement. ‘Close enough, if your sun sight was true. Now what of
your longitude?’

The determination of exact longitude was a puzzle that no man had ever solved. There was no timepiece, hourglass or clock that could be carried aboard a ship and still be sufficiently accurate
to keep track of the earth’s majestic revolutions. Only the traverse board, which hung beside the compass binnacle, could guide Hal’s calculation. Now he studied the pegs that the
helmsman had placed in the holes about the rose of the compass each time he had altered his heading during the previous watch. Hal added and averaged these values, then plotted them on the chart in
his father’s cabin. It was only a crude approximation of longitude and, predictably, his father demurred. ‘I would have given it a touch more of east, for with the weed on her bottom
and the water in her bilges she pays off heavily to leeward – but mark her so in the log.’

Hal looked up in astonishment. This was a momentous day indeed. No other hand but his father’s had ever written in the leather-bound log that sat beside the Bible on the lid of the

While his father watched, he opened the log and, for a minute, stared at the pages filled with his father’s elegant, flowing script, and the beautiful drawings of men, ships and landfalls
that adorned the margins. His father was a gifted artist. With trepidation Hal dipped the quill in the gold inkwell that had once belonged to the captain of the
Heerlycke Nacht
, one of the
Dutch East India Company’s galleons that his father had seized. He wiped the superfluous drops from the nib, lest they splatter the sacred page. Then he trapped the tip of his tongue between
his teeth and wrote with infinite care: ‘One bell in the afternoon watch, this 3rd day of September in the year of our Lord Jesus Christ 1667. Position 34 degrees 42 minutes South, 20 degrees
5 minutes East. African mainland in sight from the masthead bearing due North.’ Not daring to add more, and relieved that he had not marred the page with scratchings or splutterings, he set
aside the quill and sanded his well-formed letters with pride. He knew his hand was fair – though perhaps not as fair as his father’s, he conceded as he compared them.

Sir Francis took up the pen he had laid aside and leaning over his shoulder wrote: ‘This forenoon Ensign Henry Courtney severely wounded in an unseemly brawl.’ Then, beside the entry
he swiftly sketched a telling caricature of Hal with his swollen ear sticking out lopsidedly and the knot of the stitch like a bow in a maiden’s hair.

Hal gagged on his own suppressed laughter, but when he looked up he saw the twinkle in his father’s green eyes. Sir Francis laid one hand on the boy’s shoulder, which was as close as
he would ever come to an embrace, and squeezed it as he said, ‘Ned Tyler will be waiting to instruct you in the lore of rigging and sail trimming. Do not keep him waiting.’

BOOK: Birds of Prey
7.83Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

Other books

On the Beach by Nevil Shute
A Passage of Stars by Kate Elliott
Siren in Store by Megan Hussey
Skeletons in the Closet by Terry Towers
Breaking the Gloaming by J. B. Simmons
No Mercy by Forbes, Colin
The Count's Prize by Christina Hollis