15th June 1779, off Spanish Louisiana
The sheet made no sound roving through its greased block as gnarled hands pulled it taut. With orlop-red canvas bellying above him, Jack settled onto the stern thwart, cradling the tiller in his right arm.
"Look sharp there Mister Pullings. We don't want to be surprised by rebels."
"Aye aye Jack - er, sorry - sir, " said the young midshipman standing in the bows, eyes astrain in the moonless dark before dawn.
What little breeze there was freshened as the cutter tacked out of the lee of tall, epiphyte-curtained trees and came into clear water, and the foetid smell of the swamp gave way to a tang of salt. Jack, happy in the command of his first shore party, rode with the lift of the sea.
"To starboard. Small boat with a bone in's teeth," came the urgent whisper for'ard.
Through the thinning mist, Jack could see a glimmer of bow wave and he heard the familiar susurration of a stem cleaving water. His free hand moved to the thwart for the reassuring heft of his cutlass.
A light flashed. One short, white. Two. Then a long third, red.
"It's alright sir, it's L'tenant Saumarez," called the eager Pullings.
"Quiet, dammit!" - this from Jack in the stentorian shout he fondly thought of as a whisper. "Bonden, show the signal."
The broad-shouldered young seaman lifted a dark-lantern and slid the shutter - one long, three short.
"Ahoy Hinchinbrookes, come alongside."
" 'Morning, Mister Aubrey. Glad to see you in one piece. How'd it go?"
"All a-dando, sir. The place was awash with American rebels, as we surmised. But we laid slow-matches in the Spaniard's powder store - should give a fine show by the turn of the tide."
At this came a low moan from the other boat and Jack saw, by the light growing to eastward, a dark shape amidships. A small man, huddled in a most unseamanlike manner in a borrowed boatcloak.
"Very well Mister Aubrey, away to the ship now. Our business ashore is most urgent."
Aboard the frigate once more, Jack strode through the coachhouse and was shown into the stern cabin by a Marine sentry.
"Come in Mister Aubrey. Pray tell me how it went ashore."
As he gave his report, Jack gazed down in awe at the slight figure standing by a walnut bureau in the Georgian drawing-room that was the Captain's cabin on His Britannic Majesty's frigate Hinchinbrooke.
"Slow-matches in their powder store, you say. Hmm. You met with L'tenant Saumarez going ashore? That strange creature with him was sent by their Lordships, some kind of spy I think. He has a plan to keep the Spanish with us in this damned war with the Americans."
The two men swayed slightly as the hull shifted to the turning tide. Immediately, their faces were lit by a bright orange flash from the shoreline astern.
"Blast, bor! We may have been a touch hasty, Jack."
Midshipman Aubrey could only agree with his idol, the future victor of Trafalgar.
© 1998 Jay Reay