1636: Commander Cantrell in the West Indies – Snippet 23

1636: Commander Cantrell in the West Indies – Snippet 23

Chapter 12

Lübeck, United States of Europe

Nodding to the after-hours Marine guard, Eddie entered the antechamber outside John Simpson’s office. As he did, his stomach growled so loudly that he expected a Marine to enter behind him, sidearm drawn, scanning for whatever feral beast was making a noise akin to being simultaneously tortured and strangled.

And if being two hours overdue for supper wasn’t enough, he’d just received yet another letter from Anne Cathrine. It was alternately sweet, steamy, and sullen at having to spend her nights watching her father pickle his royal brain with excesses of wine. She made it emphatically — indeed, graphically clear — just how much, and in what ways, she’d rather be spending those nights with Eddie, indulging in excesses of —

Nope, don’t go there, Eddie. You have a job to do, which doesn’t include learning to walk with a stiff prosthetic leg and an equally stiff —

The door opened. “Lieutenant, there you are,” said Simpson.

Yes, here I very much am. A bit too much of me, in fact. Eddie cheated the folders he was carrying a few inches lower, shielding his groin from ready view. However, nothing slackened his line quite so quickly or profoundly as hearing the CO’s voice, so he was safe by the time he had entered the room and saluted.

As soon as Simpson had returned the salute and invited him to sit, Eddie produced one of the folders — rough, ragged cardboard stock of the down-time “economy” variety — with a black square on the upper right hand front flap. “News from the rotary drill project.”

“Not good?”

“Disastrous, sir. The rig literally blew apart. But it wasn’t a technical failure. One of the owners’ inexperienced factors decided to show up for a surprise inspection and start the morning by playing platform chief.”

“And how did that turn out?”

“Five dead, six severely wounded. The rig is a write-off. They’re still trying to fish all the drill pipe out of the hole.”

Simpson may have winced. “Well, so much for the overly-ambitious hope that they’d have that drill working by the time we left, and be boring holes by fall.”

“Yes, sir. But the Department of Economic Resources still wants to send the mainland prospecting team with our task force.”

Simpson shrugged. “Well, that only makes sense, assuming the test rig was reasonably promising. That way, by the time they get a working rig ready, they’ll know where to start drilling well holes.”

“That’s the ER Department’s thinking on the matter, sir. They’ve shifted all the actual drilling crew and operators over to the Trinidad cable rig team.”

“Which is just as well. That oil will be a lot easier to find.”

“Yes sir, although there’s a whole lot less of it.”

Simpson looked up from the paperwork. “Commander, let’s not go round on this again. Firstly, Trinidad’s oil will come to hand comparatively easily and it is sweet and light. Just what we need. And we’re not equipped to ship more oil than they can produce, won’t be for at least eighteen months. Secondly, and arguably more important, Trinidad has an additional strategic benefit of pulling our rivals’ attentions away from our other operations.”

Eddie knew it was time to offer his dutiful “Yes, sir” — which he did — and to move on. “All the regionally relevant maps, charts, graphs, and books that will comprise the mission’s reference assets have been copied and are en route from Grantville. We still have two researchers combing through unindexed material for other useful information on the Caribbean, but it’s been ten days since they found anything. And that was just some data on a species of flower.”

“Hmmph. I suspect the focus in the Leeward Islands will be on agriculture, not horticulture.”

“Yes, sir.” Which was typical Simpson: he was the one who had insisted on extracting every iota of up-time information available on the West Indies, Spanish Main, and environs. And now he was turning his nose up at the tid-bits he had insisted on pursuing. I suspect he’s going to be a very cranky old man. Well, crankier.

“Did you find any more of that data on native dialects in the Gulf region?”

Eddie shook his head. “No, sir.” All they had turned up were a few snippets of a local dialect alternately referred to as Atakapa or Ishak. And those snippets were so uncertain that would be better described as “second-hand linguistic rumors” than “data.”

“Provisioning and materiel almost ready?”

“Getting there, sir. Without the rotary drill equipment and pipe, we’ll have a lot more room than we thought. But we’re still taking on plenty of well casing for Trinidad. Each section is about the length, weight, and even girth of pine logs. So we got a lumber ship from the Danes to haul it.”

Simpson frowned. “‘Lumber ship?’ “

“Yes, sir. Their sterns are modified. In place of the great cabin, they have an aft-access cargo bay, so the logs can be loaded straight in through the transom. Sort of like stacking rolls of carpet in the back of your van.”

“Military stores?”

“Almost all are on site now, sir. We’re still waiting on the molds and casts for the two-caliber dual-use 8″ shells. Which are working well in both the carronades and the long guns. All our radios are tested and in place, as is the land-station equipment. And the special-order spyglasses came in two days ago and passed the QC inspection.”

“And the local binoculars?”

“There’s an update on that in this morning’s files, sir. The Dutch lens makers have demonstrated an acceptable working model to our acquisitions officer, but they haven’t worked out a production method inexpensive enough for us to afford multiple purchases for each ship. My guess is that they’ll have the bottlenecks licked by this time next year.”

Simpson made a noise that sounded startlingly similar to a guard-dog’s irritated growl. “Another key technology for which appropriations were not approved. Like the mitrailleuses.”

Eddie sat up straight, genuinely alarmed. “Sir? They’re not — not going to approve any mitrailleuses for the steamships? Why, that’s — “

“Insane? Well, as it turns out, the Department of Economic Resources is not completely insane. Only half insane. Which is, in some ways, worse.”

Eddie shook his head. “Sir, I don’t understand: half insane?”

“Speaking in strictly quantitative terms, yes: half insane. Instead of approving one mitrailleuse for each quarter of the ship, they’ve approved exactly half that amount.”

Eddie goggled. “A…a half a mitrailleuse for each quarter of the ship?” He tugged at his ginger-red forelock hair slightly, doing the math and coming up with a mental diagram. “So only two? One on the forward port quarter, the other on the starboard aft quarter?”

Simpson nodded. “That’s about the shape of what the wiser heads in Grantville have envisioned.” His voice was level and unemotional, but Eddie saw the sympathy in his eyes.

“But sir, how do you defend a ship against an all-point close assault with only two automatic weapons? If they come all around you in small boats — “

“Which they probably won’t. As the holders of the purse strings were pleased to point out, yours is only a reconnaissance mission. So to speak. And you have no business going in harm’s way, particularly at such close quarters. But if fate proves to take the unprecedented step of deciding to ignore all our reasonable expectations and plans” — Simpson’s bitter, ironic grin made Eddie’s stomach sink — “well, I just cut an order to Hockenjoss and Klott for a special anti-boarding weapon. Two per ship, to take the place of the two missing mitrailleuses.”

“Well, sir, I suppose that’s better than nothing,” Eddie allowed. And silently added, but not by much, I bet.

Simpson shrugged. “Certainly nothing very fancy or very complicated. Essentially I’ve asked them to build a pintel-mounted two-inch shotgun. Black powder breechloader. It’s already picked up a nickname: the Big Shot. It should help against boarders.” He must have read the dismay in Eddie’s face. “I know what you’re thinking, Commander. That such a weapon will be useless against the small boats themselves. That was my first reaction, which the committee has now heard repeatedly and, on a few occasions, profanely. I’ll keep fighting for the full mitrailleuse appropriation, but I think I’m going to have to spend all my clout just getting percussion locks standardized for the main guns.”

Eddie nodded. “Yes, sir. Which is of course where your clout belongs. Those tubes are carrying the primary weight of our mission.”

“Well said, Commander. And if you find yourself in a tight spot — well, to borrow a phrase from another service, improvise and overcome.”

Eddie tried to be jocular, but could hear how hollow it sounded when he replied, “Oo-rah, sir.”

Eddie’s failed attempt at gallows humor seemed to summon a spasm of guilt to the admiral’s face. It reminded Eddie of one of his father’s post-binge reflux episodes. The admiral’s tone was unusually self-recriminating. “It’s bad enough that we’re not getting all the resources we were promised, but having delayed your departure to wait for them was a bad decision. My bad decision. I should have insisted on keeping the mission lighter and going sooner. That would have given you more time in the Caribbean before hurricane season, less of a squadron to oversee — and fewer hangers-on, I might add.”


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18 Responses to 1636: Commander Cantrell in the West Indies – Snippet 23

  1. Greg Noel says:

    Hmmm… A diversion in Trinidad, “… pulling our rivals’ attentions away from our other operations.” This seems like a lot of resources for a feint, so the remainder of the plan must be something pretty special. Of course, there’s nothing like a feint that also accomplishes your own ends (makes it much more believable, don’t’cha know).

    • Mark L says:

      You didn’t catch the hint? Let me provide another one: GTT.

      Yeah, the rest of the plan is pretty special.

      • Tweeky says:

        What is “GTT”?

      • Greg Noel says:

        I can see a couple of tactical possibilities, depending on the strategic goals. Texas is a possibility: Establish control of the mouth of the Mississippi River (someplace that isn’t underwater) and set up outposts at places like Saint Louis, Pittsburgh, and Minneapolis (all reachable upstream on navigable rivers). That would lay claim more territory than all of Europe.

        On the other hand, I don’t see a lot of immediately valuable resources there. Lots of future farmland, but little else. So, assuming there’s a strategic objective to gain access to oil, I’d think about Venezuela. That has the advantage of staying in the Caribbean (the book title does have West Indies in it, after all) and the mainland is about a dozen miles from Trinidad, so it would be easy for a ship to slip over there without being obvious about it. And let’s not forget that there are all those Wild Geese on the ships who would be real handy for ground operations (like escorting some drilling engineers while they scout good locations, then fortifying the best locations).

        On the gripping hand, it’s probably something else entirely. But whether I’m close or not, it’s looking like a fun ride, and I’m looking forward to it (I’ve already ordered the book).

      • John Cowan says:

        Historically used for “gone to Texas”.

        • Mark L says:

          John Cowan wins.

          The coastal regions of Texas and Louisiana are swimming in oil. (Anyone remember Spindletop?) A visible expedition to Trinidad should successfully draw attention from any effort to set up a base on the Upper Gulf Coast. The two are as far apart as you can be and still have both points in the Gulf of Mexico/Caribbean basin.

          Depending on what they want to do, the base should either be at the mouth of the Mississippi or Galveston Island. The Mouth of the Mississippi offers access to the Mississippi watershed and access to the resources in the North American heartland, but is not as convenient to the oilfields as Galveston. Galveston offers the only natural sheltered port close to the coastal Texas and Louisiana oilfields.

          Galveston would be the best near-term base; New Orleans the best long-term base. Galveston has the advantage that you could set up refineries on Buffalo Bayou and lighter the cargoes to Galveston. That would protect the refineries from hurricanes.

          You could set up refineries on the Mississippi, but you would have to take the crude along the coast and up the Mississippi to get it there. Lots of opportunities for pirates. Plus, Mississippi flooding is at least as big a problem as Gulf Coast hurricanes.

    • Matthew says:

      I ‘m confused as to who’s doing what. There’s this expedition to Trinidad by the USE, there is also another being done by the French and instigated by the USE?

      I know the people who went to visit France, the earl and the uptimer, said they were private citizens but I can’t see Grantville or the Contessa in the Netherlands approving of anything that would harm Grantville’s interests.

  2. Doug says:

    “All the regionally relevant maps, charts, graphs, and books.” I wonder when or if the Atocha or the Santa Margarita will be mentioned. Two of the richest treasure ships ever to sail from Havana, wrecked 35 miles west of Key West in 1622. S.M. carried 9000 oz of gold, 10,000 pounds of silver bars, 166,600+/- silver coins (official cargo, not contraband) and Atocha even richer. Gustav would drool rivers.

    • Tweeky says:

      But how deep is the wreck because they’re going to need divers to salvage the wreck and aside from what SCUBA gear there is in Grantville (Assuming it’s still usable) what available diving gear is quite primitive.

      • Doug says:

        Both galleons went down on the Florida Reef, had masts in air. S.M. was subject to a salvage license from the Spanish Crown using a primitive diving bell, recovered approx. 1/2 of cargo. As for diving tech, Gustav and Christian would likely pony up cash to make their hardhat suit safe. As for question of anyone in Grantville knowing about the ships, National Geographic had 2 articles and a video about them.

      • Doug says:

        Just checked several sites. Atocha sank in water approx. 50′ deep. S.M. sank in similar depths.

  3. Stewart says:

    Both speculations are good — Gold will provide an immediate currency but establishing a presence at the mouth of the Mississippi and nearby access to “Texas Tea” is a better long term. An oiling station would be the equivalent to the 1880’s coaling stations established by the Naval powers (Guam and Midway for the USN, Saipan by the Kaiser, Tahiti by the French)

  4. Cobbler says:

    Why only two Big Shots? They’ve got to be cheaper in resources and construction time than a mitrailleuse. One Big Shot defending a ship’s quarter would be too slow to stop a multi canoe assault. A dozen, even half a dozen, would discourage any Amerindian pirate.

    • Tweeky says:

      I think this is a classic example of what happens when you let bean-counters make the decisions.

      • Doug Lampert says:

        I doubt it. They requested four anti-boarding weapons, they got two, they ordered two more (inferior) weapons.

        I would assume that means they thought four was what would fit in the amount of space and weight they think they can spare for such weapons. Deck space is not unlimited, and the more ordinance you place up top the less stable you are.

        Four is what they wanted, four is what they’re getting with. Just not the four they wanted.

        • Cobbler says:

          If the ship can handle the weight of a mitrailleuse, it can handle a dozen big shotguns. Pintle mounted guns can be stored in an arms locker. Then slid into gudgeons on the rail. No extra weight on deck until needed.

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