The wind out of the desert scorched across Tripoli harbor, carrying no hint of November with it. Sweat beaded Robert Fallon's face as he gained the deck of the brig Osprey. Six feet tall and stocky, he had the hooked nose, high cheekbones, and coloring of the Black Irish, belied by cobalt blue eyes. He ran those eyes over his ship, lying at anchor in four fathoms, just beyond range of the guns of the fort in the city, or those of the old pile across the harbor called the English Fort.
All eight of Osprey's guns were double-shotted and run out. Two swivels were mounted on the forecastle, and two on the quarterdeck, a crewman at each with a slow-match in his fist. Occasionally a lateen-rigged polacca or xebec slowly circled the brig, swarthy crew staring unblinkingly. The brig seemed to attract every triangular-sailed pirate in the harbor, and eyes from the launches and bumboats darting over the water as well.
One other Western-rigged vessel was there, a three-masted ship anchored close in behind the long, stone mole that served the harbor as a breakwater. None of the Tripolitans gave her a second glance.
Robert took up his spyglass. She puzzled him. Her crew was still on board, and not in chains, so she wasn't a prize. In fact, boatloads of turbaned men went aboard often, and seemed on good terms with her officers.
Three times he'd caught one of the other ship's crew watching Osprey in turn. No doubt it was only curiosity, but it made him uncomfortable all the same. He didn'tlike being in Tripoli, he decided, not even for twenty-four hours. And especially not now.
"Mr. Crane," he called.
"Yes, Captain?" His first mate's long legs and bobbing walk as he crossed the quarterdeck reminded Fallon of the man's namesake bird. His voice held a hard Massachusetts twang, and his manner was as fussy as a clerk's. "No sign of that water barge, yet, sir. That Hamid fellow said it would be here at daybreak, and it's near noon."
Robert scowled at the city, the palace and fort looming over it from the harbor side, the desert stretching in endless heat beyond. He'd never have stopped if the water he'd taken on at Rhodes hadn't been tainted.
That fall of 1799 few ports in the Mediterranean were more than nominally open to American ships. Half of Europe was at war with the other half, and the Barbary pirates seemed at war with everyone. Even America was involved in a war with France, though neither had declared it or admitted it. British captains were seizing ships right and left for trading with French-held ports. The Barbary pirates at least had treaties of a sort with the United States; they were supposed to allow watering. And he had to get back to South Carolina as fast as possible.
"I'll have the launch over the side, Mr. Crane," he said. "And issue a cutlass to each oarsman."
"God, no! I'm hoping cutlasses will make any troublemakers back off." He grinned sourly. "If we shoot, we'll likely none of us make it back alive."
"You're going back to that heathen Hamid, sir?" His mouth was drawn up in disapproval.
"No. If he doesn't deliver for one bribe, I'll not give him a second. I've heard President Adams was going to send consuls to the Barbary states." He took a deep breath. "See to the boat, Mr. Crane."
Six oars made the launch skitter across the harbor like a waterbug. Dark eyes followed their passage; Robert had eyes only for the other Western ship. They passed herstern; no name or home port was painted there. He shrugged. That was common enough these days.
They neared a boat landing at the quay, its slime-covered stone steps running down into water with a greasy film on top. The smell of the city drifted to him, pungent spices and rotting garbage, the smell of not-quite-arrested decay.
Berbers, Arabs, Turks, and men from inland tribes in a dozen variations of long flowing robes jostled on the quay. They eyed the men in the boat as they might exotic animals. Only a few paused in their rapid, sharply pitched speech, though, as the launch grated against the stone steps. Robert hopped out.
"Miller," he said, "Thompson, come with me. The rest of you back off, and wait till I return."
The two largest oarsmen climbed out after him, settling cutlasses awkwardly at their waists. The others backed oars to move away from the quay. Miller, looking like a balding bear, had a paunch that was belied by sunken knuckles and scarred hands. A wicked scar ran diagonally the length of Thompson's face, giving him a sinister air. It was rumored he'd sailed with pirates in the Caribbean, and Robert could believe it.
With the two men at his heels, Robert set out into the town. He had no idea which muddy stone or stucco building might be the consulate. Someone in the nearest market would surely know.
As they left the harbor area, the narrow, twisting streets became emptier. A handful of people stared suspiciously, or darted out of the way into even narrower alleys. Robert felt eyes on his back from every arched door and window. Moisture-leaching heat made the air shimmer. The low, stuccoed buildings seemed to be closing in. Then, as they rounded a bend, a sigh of relief escaped him. They were in a large square. At last, life that didn't disappear at their coming.
A public tank of stagnant water stood in the center of the square, veiled women filling jars from it. Scattered scraggly palms gave no shade at all to peddlers displayingtheir wares on blankets. People swathed to the eyes in robes bargained in a swift cacophony of high-pitched chatter.
"Not a bloody thing worth stealing," Thompson grunted. Miller, running a contemptuous eye over the square, nodded agreement.
Robert approached the closest cluster of peddlers, holding up a Spanish-milled dollar. "Do you know the American consulate? The United States?" They stared at him blankly. "Los Estados Unidos? Les Etats-Unis?" There wasn't a flicker of understanding. "Die Vereinigten Staaten?" he added without hope. All he had left was a little harbor-and-tavern Greek, useless here.
The next group he spoke to gave him the same looks of noncomprehension, and the next, and the next. Then a wizened little man with a black-toothed grin looked up at his voice.
"Ah!" he said. "You English?"
"American," Robert said. "I want--"
"I speak English plenty much good. You want buy plenty fine gold cup? English cup. No? Ring. See? Fine ring."
"I don't want any rings. I want the American consulate."
"No ring?" The little man rummaged among his wares. "You want plenty fine pin?"
"What I want is the Ameri--" Robert's voice trailed off as he focused on the cameo pin the wrinkled peddler held in front of him. The high-cheekboned face was exotically beautiful. And a twin for his half-sister, Catherine.
Slowly he took the pin, running his thumb around the cameo. It wasn't right, he thought, that any woman could so affect a man without trying. It was all that much worse that she was his half-sister.
He shoved the cameo back at the peddler. "I don't want cameos. If you don't know where the American consulate is, that's an end to it."
The old man eyed him shrewdly. "Plenty fine pin.Plenty fine amber. For good English friend, ten pound your money."
"Five pounds," Robert said suddenly. "For the pin, and directions to the American consulate." Why in the devil's name was he buying a cameo? This cameo, in particular.
The peddler frowned. "American? What? I do not know." He added plaintively, "I know English. Men like you."
"Yes, men like me. Men who talk English, but are not English."
The peddler looked at him reproachfully. "Eight pound?'.'
"Five. For the pin and the information." Robert took a deep breath. How? "The flag. Listen carefully. Have you seen a flag with red and white stripes?"
"I said listen. In one corner it's blue, with white stars. Sixteen of them, it should be, but stars anyway."
Creases in the old man's face deepened with pleasure. "Yes," he said suddenly. "Yes." He pointed to a street leading off the square. "Go there. Three street. Turn right and walk. You will see. Flag is there." He glanced hopefully at the pin. "Six pound?"
"Five." Robert dug Spanish and Turkish coins to approximate five pounds from his coat pocket, and shoved the cameo in. "Miller, Thompson, come on."
Of course, the man could just be making up his directions to sell the pin. Robert didn't believe it, though. One street, two streets; he'd know soon enough. Three steps after turning to the right, a smile appeared on his face. Ahead, on a pole in a courtyard, was an American flag.
The gate was barred by a scowling man in a turban. "I'm here to see the American consul," Robert announced.
The scowl deepened. "Who?"
"The American consul. I'm Captain Robert Fallon of--"
"Here, sir," Thompson growled. "I'll bash him so he knows who."
"No need," Robert said drily. "Baksheesh is one word I have learned in this part of the world." He tossed an English half-crown through the bars of the gate.
The gateman scooped it up and made it disappear. His scowl giving way to an oily smile, he pulled open the gate and discovered some thick English. "Come in, sidi. Come in. I will tell my master." Ducking and bowing his way across the slate-tiled courtyard, he disappeared through a stuccoed arch into the house.
Fig trees gave shade, and a fountain bubbled and splashed in one corner. Except for the American flag, it could have been any of ten thousand courtyards along the North African coast.
"Captain," Miller rumbled, "begging your pardon, but you think this fellow here will help? This consul, I mean. Mostly they don't."
Robert nodded. Every nation had consuls, though the United States hadn't for long, but they were usually men chosen because they were on the spot. They were also usually more interested in feathering their own nests than in sailors' problems. "He'll help us," he said grimly, "or I'll--"
"Captain--Fallon, is it?" A hook-nosed man with the coloring of the Black Irish appeared in the doorway. He was big, with a broad, open face, but his dark eyes measured shrewdly. "I'm James Cathcart. The American consul."
"Robert Fallon, Captain of--"
"Of the Osprey. Bound for South Carolina with a load of trouble."
After a moment, Robert said, "Yes. Of the Osprey." He took the hand Cathcart offered and was surprised to find it hard with calluses. The consul's bearing and well-cut russet coat bespoke a gentleman. But he did speak with an odd precision, like a man who had learned proper English as an adult.
"If you'll come to my study, we can talk."
"Miller, Thompson," Robert flung over his shoulder, "wait for me here." He nodded for the consul to lead the way.
Inside, Cathcart stopped to speak in rapid Arabic to a servant who murmured in reply. "I'm having tea sent out to your men. With a dollop of rum, if that's all right."
"Certainly." Cathcart nodded; the servant scurried away. Robert went on: "Now, I'd like to know how you know about my ship. And my trouble."
"In here, Captain. Away from prying ears." His eyes shifted as if he were actually watching for listeners.
Robert followed him into a room that, except for a mosaic tile floor, could have been in any house in America. The furniture, the rugs, even the pictures on the walls and the curtains at the windows had obviously been shipped out. The consul stopped in front of a sideboard topped with decanters. His manner was smooth again.
"Yes," Robert said shortly. Cathcart was obviously going to take his own time. He took the brandy the other man handed him.
"I knew your ship because there's only one American ship in port. Osprey. Last port Rhodes. Silk, olives, olive oil, salt, oranges, pepper, cloves, ginger, other spices. What else, I don't know."
Robert's jaw tightened as he listened. "That's a deal more than anyone here should know."
"Common knowledge, Captain Fallon. Talked on every street corner. Also, you need water. And you have paid bribes to get it."
"It's not as if it was something unusual. You can't get anything done without bribes in a Mediterranean port. But this time the Bashaw has been stirred up over it."
Cathcart sipped at his glass; Robert tossed his brandy down in one gulp. "The Bashaw himself? In God's name, why? You had the right of it. Bribes are as common as fleas in the Mediterranean." His mouth twisted mirthlessly."Damnation, our entire country bribes these pirate bastards."
"Not exactly," the consul sighed. "Besides, nearly every nation in Europe pays the pirates to be left alone. England does it. France has been trying hard enough to be allowed to. Do you think we're near as strong as they are? Or would you rather have to fight your way through every time you pass the Pillars of Hercules?"
Robert scowled. This was getting nowhere. "I need to sail as soon as possible. That's the only thing that's important. Now what's to be done? Is there a fine to pay?"
"Another bribe, rather. To the Bashaw." He smiled thinly at Robert's stunned look, and refilled the glasses. "Perhaps it will help if I explain a bit." Robert nodded numbly; Cathcart went briskly on. "Does the name Murad Reis mean anything to you?"
That jolted him out of his daze. "It does." About the Bashaw he knew little more than the name. But Murad Reis was known to any ship's captain, the most infamous of the Barbary pirates. The Mediterranean was too small to hold him. He had seized ships in the English Channel, taken a Spanish treasure ship in sight of Cartagena, raided an Irish town and enslaved all the inhabitants. "What does he have to do with this? Or with me?"
Cathcart frowned worriedly. "I don't know. Or at least, I know only a little. When you began passing bribes around, Murad whispered in the Bashaw's ear about the insult of all that gold being passed and not a coin going to him. Or so my informants tell me. As to why?" He shrugged, and his frown deepened.
"This is insane. Heads of state, even pirate ones, don't get bribed by ship captains. They're bribed by governments, with thousands of dollars of gold and square miles of land."
"It won't take that much." Getting down to the mechanics of the problem seemed to have relieved the consul's worry. "Yusuf Karamanli might be a prince, but he's still a pirate. Buy a girl in the slave market, dress her properly, and--"
"I don't own slaves," Robert said shortly.
Cathcart's eyebrows raised. "But you sound like a southerner. Well, I'll leave it to you, but it must be something that will catch his eye the way a slave girl would. I should be able to arrange an audience inside the week."
"A week! I can't wait that long. I need to sail today, tomorrow at the latest."
"Impossible. You ought to know how long dealing with princes takes."
Robert hesitated. It was instinctive not to tell anyone what he knew, but he couldn't afford to delay his return to Charleston by one unnecessary day. "The Spanish and French signed a secret treaty about four years ago. Sometime this coming year the French will take control of Louisiana, including New Orleans. With our frigates fighting every time they meet, it's not likely they'll continue to allow us to trade on the Mississippi. The Americans there won't know until it's too late, until their goods are seized, and they're thrown into prison."
"You are invested in the Mississippi trade?" Cathcart asked shrewdly.
"I am. But that doesn't change anything I've said. And there's the matter of having the French for neighbors."
Robert thought the French had too many problems in Europe to cause any but economic troubles in Louisiana, but he could see that Cathcart was thinking furiously. There was still some support for the French Revolution in America, but even its most ardent supporters might not like the possibility of guillotines and French armies in North America.
"No," Cathcart said finally. "It's impossible. Such a treaty couldn't have been kept secret so long. Word would have gotten out. Someone would have talked."
"Someone did. A Spaniard in Rhodes who was too drunk to be making up lies. Apparently he'd been caught in the wrong bed by the wrong husband. He was bitter that all his good friend Godoy could do was help him get out of Spain before he was murdered."
"That's right. A powerful name in Spain. As I said, the man was too drunk to lie, and the stories he told bore out his being close to men in power. Palace intrigues. Political dealings. One was this treaty. I believe him, Cathcart. I believe every word."
The consul seemed caught up in Robert's intensity. "Yes. Yes, I can see. This information has to get to the President."
"Then you'll help me get away as soon as possible?"
Some of the enthusiasm went out of Cathcart. "I'll try, Captain. At the best, though, it will take two or three days." He set down his glass and seemed to summon briskness from somewhere. "I had best get started. And you must see to your gift for the Bashaw. Is there anything else I can help you with, Captain?"
Robert paused on the point of leaving. "There is one thing. There's a three-master in harbor, painted black. What do you know of her?"
Cathcart eyed him. "Why do you ask?"
"The crew seems too friendly with the pirates. Makes me uneasy."
"Um. They've been making me uneasy since I got here. Four like this one have called in that time, all owned, I believe, by the same man. Their captains deal directly with Murad Reis, and that makes the dealings both large and foul. I'd advise you to steer clear of that ship."
"I intend to."
"Then I'll send word when an audience is set. And Captain Fallon"--Cathcart's voice was suddenly intent--"in this harbor, keep your eyes open for treachery."
Copyright © 1981 by James O. Rigney, Jr.