DEADLY SHOALS

St. Martin's Press edition

First chapter of DEADLY SHOALS, the fourth Wiki Coffin adventure:

One

Off the coast of Patagonia, January 24, 1839

Wiki Coffin was in the saloon of the U.S. brig Swallow when he heard the man at the masthead call out for a sail. The Swallow was flying south on the breast of a favorable nor'west wind, so he assumed the sighting was of a homeward-bound ship passing on the opposite course. However, it was the first sign of company on the seas for the past eight days, and so he ran up the companionway to the deck and then climbed the mainmast to see what it was all about.

It proved to be a whaleship, about five miles away but coming down fast from the east, with all sails set but flying no flags. Her four boats were triced up in davits on the outside of the vessel, ready to be lowered at an instant's notice if whales were sighted, but her canvas was pristine white, unmarked by tryworks smoke, an indication that she hadn't done any whaling of late. Even from this distance, Wiki could discern a glint of copper under her foot as she crested the top of a wave, so knew that this was no northbound whaler deeply laden with oil.
Instead, she was racing to come up with them.

Looking about the empty sea from his lofty vantage point, Wiki frowned, touched with uneasiness. They were off the Patagonian coast, with the shoal-ridden estuary of the Río Negro on the western horizon. It was notorious as a hotbed of revolutionaries, having been deliberately impoverished by General de Rosas, the tyrant of Buenos Aires. Wiki also knew that de Rosas was currently waging war with the French over his territorial ambitions in Uruguay―and had heard rumors in Rio that the French were issuing letters of marque to their merchant vessels on this coast, which included a number of whalers. He swung down a backstay to the quarterdeck.

Captain Rochester was standing on the weather side, one fist gripping the starboard shrouds. He was scowling, too. The instant he sighted Wiki he said, "What do you reckon, old chap?"

"Her captain seems determined to intercept us, but he isn't flying any signals―not even his ensign."

"Do you recognize her?"

Wiki grimaced. For the past seven years he had drifted from one American whaleship to another, deserting at exotic landfalls whenever he had become heartily tired of whaling, or fed up with the captain and officers, or simply wanted to get back to the Bay of Islands to pay a call on his whanau―his folks in New Zealand. However, this made him no authority on the identity of individual whalers.

He said, "It's infamously hard to tell one whaleship from another, George."

The trouble was, they were all built for the same purpose, with no variety in the pattern. There had been one captain of his acquaintance who had painted his command in a myriad of colors just to make himself different, but most of his crew had promptly jumped ship, declaring that their garish appearance frightened off the whales. Accordingly, the old spouter master had returned his typically beamy old tub to her former livery of black, interrupted with one white streak painted with black squares to fool innocent savages into thinking she had gunports with cannon behind them. And, with that, she had returned to being indistinguishable from the rest of the whaling fleet.

"So how do we know she's American?"

Wiki, who'd had the same thought, said flatly, "We don't. She could be French. If she is, she could be a privateer―which seems likely, as she looks far too clean to be a working whaler."

"Then let's make sure that her master knows beyond doubt that we're a United States Navy brig," Rochester decided. "Bo'sun," he hollered. "Get the biggest ensign aloft."

It took just a moment to comply, and events followed fast. No sooner had the bright flag been run up to flicker from the gaff of the Swallow, than smoke puffed up from the stranger's foredeck, and a cannonball screamed across the rapidly diminishing gap between the two ships. "He's fired a shot across our bows!" George exclaimed in shocked disbelief. "Beat to quarters, by God―beat to quarters!"

The stunned silence fore and aft turned into commotion. Sua, the brig's Samoan drummer, rushed into the forecastle for his drum—a length of log—and set to hammering out a primitive, blood-stirring rhythm even before he arrived back on deck. Rochester's youthful second-in-command, Midshipman Keith, raced up from below, the off-duty watch tumbling hard on his heels. As usual in any emergency, Wiki, who was the best helmsman in the ship, took over the wheel.

Every man was at his station; every head turned to watch the captain. "Wear ship, Mr. Keith, if you please," instructed Rochester. Not only would this bring the brig around so that the two chaser cannon on the deck at the stern would come to bear on the stranger, but the Swallow would present a much smaller target.

"Sta-a-a-tions!" Keith yelled, and hands clapped on to the weather braces and the spanker sheets. Men tailed onto lines, orders were shouted, and the spanker was hauled in with muscular jerks. Wiki heaved the wheel to leeward, and the Swallow's fine bow turned away from the wind. His broad back suddenly chilled as a splash lifted over the taffrail and wetted his shirt.

"Brace round foresails!" Down went the helm as Wiki shoved on the spokes, and round the brig came. When he looked over his shoulder the whaleship was firmly in their sights. Crews hauled manfully at train tackles to drag the guns inboard, and powder and shot were rammed home. Then, with the cannon run out again, they were ready for action.

It had been a matter of mere moments. "Let's return the compliment, and fire a shot across his bows," Rochester suggested to the gunner, Dave. "Let's see how he likes being brought to," he added, and received a broad grin.

There was a huge explosion, the gun carriage screeched backward across the planks, and the cannonball whistled across the bows of the whaleman with wonderful precision. The result was both dramatic and effective―to Rochester's immense gratification, the spouter captain came up into the wind and backed his fore and mizzen topsails in a panic-stricken hurry, slowing to a near standstill.

His blood being thoroughly up, however, he was determined to teach the impudent stranger yet another lesson. In response to his orders the brig luffed up, rounded to with a flourish, hastened up the wind, and bore down on the whaleship with all sails set. Moments rushed by in the creaking of rigging and the swish of water, and then Wiki could see the expressions on the faces of the men who were standing at the rails of the whaler. They were staring paralyzed with horror as the brig tore down upon them.

Just as impact seemed inevitable, "Ready about!" George bellowed, and around the Swallow came. Losing speed fast, the brig sheered past the whaleship's stern, while the sailors who could read called out the name on the sternboard―"Trojan of New London, Connecticut"―to those who could not. Their voices were incredulous. A fellow national had fired at them―a countryman! Oaths echoed from all about the decks, and the boatswain hollered for quiet.

Like most American whalers, the Trojan had a hurricane house built over the stern, which was designed to shelter the helmsman, and contain such amenities as the sail locker. The master was standing on the flat roof of this, his fists propped on his belt, and his wide-brimmed leather hat crammed well down on his head. He was a middle-aged, deeply tanned, extremely wrinkled character, wearing a New Bedford beard―a fringe of short whiskers around the edges of his cheeks and chin―and a deeply wounded expression.

Such had been the precision of Rochester's maneuver, the captains were able to converse without speaking trumpets as the brig slid slowly past the whaleship's stern. According to protocol, this chat should have been an exchange of formal details, such as names of ship, captain, and last port, but instead the spouter skipper inquired in unmistakably aggrieved tones, "Why the hell did you fire a gun at me, sir?"

"I could say the same to you, sir," Rochester replied.

"Well, ain't you a United States Navy ship?"

"U.S. brig Swallow―and I'm uncommon glad you recognized me as such," Captain Rochester said dryly.

"So why didn't you respond to my flag of distress?" the other demanded. "You carried on without giving me a chance to run down and speak! All you did was send up a bloody big ensign―as if you wished to taunt me! What choice did I have but to fire a gun to make you pay attention?"

There was a moment of utter silence, disturbed only by the swish of the sea. Then George queried gently, "What flag of distress?"

The spouter master visibly started, then stared up and about his own rigging. Wiki, still at the helm, saw him push back his hat to scratch his head, and distinctly saw his lips move in the words, "Well, goddamn it." Someone on board the Trojan who had neglected to follow orders was going to be in big trouble, obviously―once the encounter was over.

The gap between the two ships was widening. Rochester lifted his voice, yelling, "Come on board and explain yourself, sir!" and then they had sailed on past.

The Swallow stilled a half-mile downwind from the whaleship, her mainyard brought aback so that the sails worked against each other, keeping her in more or less the same spot as she waited for her visitor. Then, everyone on deck watched the whaleboat cross the sparkling stretch of water, a process that evidently took long enough for the master to remember his manners, because when the boat touched the side of the brig, he stood up and hailed, "Ship ahoy!"

George arrived at the rail. "U.S. Exploring Brig Swallow, Rochester, five months from Norfolk, Virginia, last port Rio de Janeiro."

"Whaleship Trojan of New London, Stackpole, twenty-five months out, last port Montevideo, eight hundred barrels," said the other. His expression was dour as he rattled off the information, and Wiki grimaced in understanding. After a two-year voyage eight hundred barrels was a truly miserable report, indicative of long months with no glimpse of whales. No wonder, he thought, the Trojan's sails were so clean.

The whaling master went on, "Permission to come aboard?"

George Rochester cast an all-comprehensive look at the boat and the ship beyond. Apart from the usual knives sheathed in their belts, the oarsmen were unarmed. Their ship floated quietly in plain view, the sun shining on her pale canvas. However, he decided to keep his crew at battle stations, so said to the boatswain, "Tell the men to stand fast." Then he nodded, and stepped back from the rail.

Stackpole reached out, grabbed a dangling rope, and walked his way up the side of the brig. Close up, he didn't appear any less confrontational. Like all seamen, he first cast a comprehensive, professional look at the sails and rigging. Then, after glancing suspiciously about the decks where men waited alertly with their pistols and cutlasses, he challenged, "What do you mean, exploring brig?"

George was studying him with his head tipped a little on one side, his hands linked loosely behind the seat of his white trousers, his muscular calves pushing out the legs at the back. He said, "We're part of the United States Exploring Expedition."

"The―what?" Stackpole's face was quite blank.

"The U.S. Exploring Expedition," George repeated, eyebrows high. "I'm surprised you haven't heard of it."

"Well, I haven't," confirmed the other, as hostile as ever.

"But that's amazing," said Rochester, obviously wondering where this chap had been all these years. "It took a whole decade of heated discussion in clubs, salons, and conference chambers to get the mission going, and then, when the seven ships finally departed from Norfolk, Virginia, back in August, it was a national sensation."

"Well, I wasn't there, was I? Seven ships?" Stackpole repeated, and whistled. "That's quite a fleet. Who's the commodore?"

"Lieutenant Charles Wilkes."

"A lieutenant?"

"It's complicated," said George. Wiki, listening from the helm, thought it was more than that―even though Charles Wilkes was called "captain" out of respect for the position he held, the fleet commander was understandably aggrieved that the Navy Department had not thought fit to endow him with a rank to suit the demanding job. Furthermore, it made the situation devilishly difficult at times, what with having to hand down orders to men who were actually higher than he was on the Navy List, which had a bad effect both on his temper and on general shipboard morale.

"But I do assure you that the mission is a grand one," Rochester assured his listener. "We have instructions to explore and survey the Atlantic and Pacific, promote the honor and dignity of our nation, forward the interests of science, further American commerce, and protect American whaling adventures."

Stackpole did not look impressed. Indeed, Wiki thought that his expression had become more suspicious than ever. He repeated, "Seven ships?"

"Seven," repeated George, whose patience was starting to fray. "The flagship is the sloop of war Vincennes, and the other six ships are―"

"So how come there's only one of you here?"

George said stiffly, "The others aren't far away, I assure you."

"But why ain't you sailing as a squadron?"

"There was an unfortunate incident as we were leaving the harbor of Rio de Janeiro, involving both the Vincennes and the second-in-command, the sloop Peacock, and―"

"You mean they got into a war, or something?"

"Absolutely not. They merely ran afoul of a merchant brigantine."

"What? Both of them?"

"The Vincennes blundered into the merchantman first. Unfortunately, the Peacock, which was following close behind, didn't have time to take evasive action."
"In full view of the whole of Rio?"

Stackpole snorted rudely, Rochester kept a dignified silence, and Wiki winced. The merchant brigantine had been his father's Salem trader Osprey, and it had been not the first, but the second time, that she had got into a collision with expedition ships. While Wiki had not been on board the Vincennes to see the confrontation with Wilkes that had followed this latest episode, he had been assured by those who had been there that Captain Coffin's fury had been truly awe-inspiring.

The whaling master jibed, "I hope they made a real lubberly job of it, and sent the brigantine to the bottom."

"On the contrary, it was a trivial matter," Rochester snapped. "There were a few repairs to be done, and the matter of compensation to be discussed with the master of the merchantman, but that should delay them only a couple of days."

"So what about the other four vessels? Did they get into collisions, too?"

"The gun brig Porpoise was instructed to send a party into the city in search of a few deserters, with squads from the schooners Flying Fish and Sea Gull to assist. The storeship Relief was sent ahead some days before, as she's a slow sailer, and impedes the fleet sadly."

Wiki concealed a grin at this. He had been on board the Vincennes when Captain Wilkes had given the captain of the Relief his marching orders, and so he knew better―that Wilkes had sent the storeship off early not because of her undeniably slow sailing qualities, but because rumors had been running about the fleet that the captain and officers of the Relief had been invited to a merry spree on shore.

Then he heard the whaling master say, "And you were sent ahead, too?"

"Not because the Swallow is a slow sailer," George said, very firmly indeed.

"I reckon not," Stackpole agreed without hesitation, taking another admiring look at the brig's vast sails and taut rigging. "But why were you in such a hurry?"

"Our orders are to get to the mouth of the Río Negro―where the other ships will join us―and commence a survey of the shoals."

"But what the hell for? They change with every tide!"
Wiki silently agreed. Indeed, he considered the assignment insane. Though it was supposed to be a secret as deep as the grave, every member of the expedition was perfectly aware that Captain Wilkes was determined to embark on a search for the fabled Antarctic continent as soon as the fleet had doubled Cape Horn―but if that was ever to be undertaken, it had to be accomplished before the end of the southern summer, and it was the third week of January already.

"And the taxpayers are paying for this useless expedition?"

"Over the past five months we've accomplished a great deal," George Rochester returned with offended dignity. "Unknown tracts of the ocean have been charted―making the sea safer for people like you! Important gravitational measurements were carried out in Rio―mountains were surveyed, along with an immense lot of jungle. Great loads of specimens will be forwarded to the States. By the time the mission is over, the government will be well rewarded for their investment, I assure you!"

"Well, I most surely do hope so," said the whaling master, sotto voce, and then, with an abrupt change of topic, inquired, "Do you have any marines on board?"

"Marines? No, we do not. Why do you ask?"

"Because I'm in dire need of a well-armed squad."

"What the devil for?"

"You said that part of the mission is to protect American whaling adventures, and that's exactly what I need―protection!"

George Rochester cast an all-comprehensive look about the innocently sparkling sea. "Protection from what, pray?"

"I need help to apprehend a thief."

"A thief? You need a sheriff, Captain, not a squad of marines!"

"Well, there ain't no sheriff about here―and I don't actually care how you do it, sir, just so long as I get my money back."

"You've been robbed?"

"Of a significant sum―by a man by the name of Adams, who's American, which I reckon makes all the difference. He's an American trader who has a store in the village of El Carmen, up the Río Negro," Stackpole went on, jabbing a finger at the landward horizon. "I gave him a thousand dollars―and he absconded with it!"

Wiki, at the helm, had trouble not shaking his head in disbelief at such credulous trust in an undoubted adventurer, and George, obviously, felt the same, demanding, "What in God's name did you give him all that money for?"

Stackpole shifted from one boot to another, giving the sails another look to conceal his embarrassed expression. "The whaling hasn't been going well," he muttered. "So I thought I'd invest in sealing."

"Sealing?"

"And why not?" queried the whaling master, back to delivering George an antagonistic stare. "The sealing trade ain't finished, yet. There's plenty of rookeries what ain't been discovered, with hordes of seals just waiting to be taken."

Wiki and George exchanged a startled glance, having already heard this kind of claptrap from a bunch of old sealers they had picked up at Shark Island, off the coast of Brazil, a couple of months earlier in the voyage. There had been a time when men could make a fortune out of a sealing venture, when an eight-man gang could take twenty thousand skins in one four-month season, but since then the rookeries―the breeding beaches―had been devastated, the seal herds wiped out to the very last pup by the hunters' cruel greed. Despite all the grim evidence, however, a certain type of sealing man still clung obstinately to the mad belief that there were some more lucrative beaches to be found, if only one kept up the hunt. An experienced whaling master, in Wiki's silent estimation, should have had more sense.

Rochester said, "But why Patagonia?"

"There's plenty of seals about these parts, believe me. Patagonia has been considered too dangerous till just lately, but only six years ago the Penguin sailed into Stonington with fourteen hundred pelts from round these parts, and since then there's been a lot of interest in the coast. Just one month ago, I heard that the New York brig Athenian did very well indeed over the past coupla seasons, and so I thought I might as well try a venture of my own. The season don't finish till March, you know! But I need a tender to do it. Adams had a schooner for sale, so I agreed to buy her, even if she were a bit pricey."

"But that's a devil of a lot of money to hand over to a Río Negro trader, American or not!"

"Adams has never cheated me before," the whaling master protested. "And I've been buying his stores for the past three years. All the whalers use him when they recruit for salt beef on this part of the coast―he's built up a good little business."

"And he just happened to have a schooner for sale?"

"It wasn't his vessel," Stackpole said defensively. "He told me he was acting as the agent for the captain of the Athenian. The brig's holds are full, so they are heading home. Naturally, they wanted to sell their tender first―a solid little schooner, ideal for me. I gave Adams the wherewithal to buy her, and then told him to provision her, load her with salt for curing the skins, and hire a gang of Indians for sealing hands. I'd be back before long, I said, to take over the craft and settle up accounts. But when I arrived up the river with three spare hands to collect the schooner and sail her downriver, it was to find he'd vanished, along with my cash!"

Wiki asked curiously, "Did you really pay him in cash?"

Stackpole turned and looked him up and down, from wild black ringlets to bare brown feet. Then he turned away again, saying contemptuously, "Say sir when you speak to me, boy."

George flushed. "I'm sorry, sir, I should have introduced you before," he snapped. "This is Mr. Coffin, the expedition linguister."

"He's―what?"

"Wiki Coffin is a member of the scientific corps."

The whaling master looked at Wiki again, eyebrows high as he surveyed his muscular, dungaree-clad frame again. "But how can a Pacific Islander―a kernacker!―be a scientist, for God's sake?"

"Not only is Wiki Coffin a scientist, but he could be exactly the man you need," Rochester loftily informed him. "He's the representative of U.S. law and order with the expedition, authorized by the sheriff's department of Portsmouth, Virginia."

"What the hell are you talking about?"

George said to Wiki in tones of sorely tried patience, "Could I trouble you to fetch your warrant, old chap? It seems we have to prove our point."

Wiki paused, interested enough by the contradictions of this strangely blatant theft to repeat his question to Stackpole. "Did you really give him the thousand dollars in cash?" he asked.

The whaling master frowned, but admitted, "I gave him a draft on my Connecticut bank, payable to bearer."

Wiki's lips pursed up in a silent whistle as he contemplated the interesting implications of this. "And the schooner has disappeared, too?"

"Of course," said Stackpole sourly.

******************

Intrigued? Hopefully so! DEADLY SHOALS will be in the stores in the United States at the end of this year, and for sale downunder shortly after that. This will be part of the ALLEN & UNWIN publication of the Wiki Coffin series, complete with truly stunning jackets, to be revealed in due course.