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Prologue

I wish I could remember more.

I try. Mama singing, fresh buttermilk, helping Papa in the fields, feeding the chickens, learning to use a bow, hunting game…

But those memories belong to another man.

Maybe they happened. Maybe not. But for me those good memories were just wishful fantasy, made up by a lonely young boy looking at the world through a mission fence. A boy who remembered nothing. For all my real memories start with fire. Everywhere fire with a flickering, evil light that showed me my Mother's face for the last time.

Nothing else exists before that day in my 6th year when they brought me, scarred and burned, into the crumbling mission in Nacogdoches. It all started with fire.

Edited by Mezcolanza
typos, changed the plain text to spoiler tag, organize
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The Early Years

The year was 1765 and Misión Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe, hereafter referred to as the Mission, would be my home for the next 7 years. It was not a grand place like the churches you see in Havana or Vera Cruz. Hell, it was not much more than an adobe walled chapel surrounded by some rather poor outbuildings, stables, and a wooden stockade fence to keep out thieves and Comanches should they come a calling as far east as Nacogdoches. Still, there was a lot of work to be done and it was short of Indian servants as the Caddo, whose souls the Franciscans had been sent to save, were dying off from white man's diseases faster than the spiritual and physical work could get done. So, for the price of a leaky roof, straw mat, tortillas, beans, and meat on Sundays, they had a young laborer.

Although Nacogdoches had yet to become and important town in East Texas, in addition to the Mission, there were a few outlying farms, a trading post, and a Caddo settlement. I was an outsider at all of them. I would eventually understand why. It was because of who my parents were. Or rather, who my parents were not. My mother was of the Caddo people, my father was French. They had not been married in the Church. I was the progeny of this "unholy" union. The missionaries told me that I was found alone among the smoldering ruins of their farm south of Nacogdoches on the Angelina River.

A bastard, Half French, half Caddo, an orphan with nothing, raised and educated by Franciscan missionaries in a Spanish town…

They called me Mezcolanza… a mix, a jumbled mess.

Life at the Mission could be difficult. The friars were strict. Their lessons were often more birch branch than Holy Bible, sometimes at the same time. However, they did do something for me that I am grateful for. They taught me to read and write. This unique knowledge for a person of my station would help me as I went out into the world. Without friends and family, books also created my dreams. Would I have ever set off on my journey if Don Quixote had not? Would I have had travels, if Gulliver had none? Would I have ever walked the deck of a ship if Robinson Crusoe had stayed home?

Edited by Mezcolanza
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For years, this boundary between Texas and Louisiana was in dispute. Spain claimed the Red River marked the border while France said it was the Sabine. France eventually abandoned the region, ceeding the lands west of the Mississippi to Spain. With less of an outside threat, Spain decided to consolidate her holdings and in 1772, the Crown ordered East Texas to be evacuated back to San Antonio. The Mission closed and soldiers forced the Spanish settlers to move. I was 13 years old. No one paid me any mind. The missionaries did not care. The soldiers did not care. My mother's people, the Caddo, had dispersed and had no interest in having a half breed join them. So, as my world headed West to San Antonio, I joined up with a group of traders heading East and started instead the next chapter of my life.

Edited by Mezcolanza
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The River

Our little caravan arrived in Natchez in May of 1774. There was more activity than I had ever seen. French traders in canoes loaded with beaver pelts arriving from the North. Keelboats and flat boats from New Orleans arriving from the South.  A great commercial enterprise was taking place on the frontier as trade goods, destined for the Iroquois and other northern tribes who controlled the fur trade, were exchanged for bundles of beaver pelts that ultimately would make hats for the insatiable European market. Looking out over it all was Fort Panmure, guarding the river from a high bluff above. It was odd for to see the British flag flying for the first time, but Natchez had been in British hands for over 10 years.

It was here, on the docks of the Mississippi, that I would find my first employment.

All Summer long, I would go to the docks and earn a few coins loading bundles of furs onto the keelboats. I was big for my age and the hard labor made me stronger. One particularly hectic day, several trappers were attempting to unload their canoes at the same time and I noticed that the count they claimed (and for what they were being paid) differed from the number of bundles that actually made it on to the keelboat where I was working. I brought it to the Captain’s (a grizzled old riverman named Enoch Turner) attention. He must have dealt with the matter because at the end of the day, he gave me a few extra coins and told me to come back and work for him the next day. I worked for the rest of the week on Turner’s boat and once it was loaded and ready to set out for New Orleans, he offered me a job on board.

I worked the river with Captain Turner for 4 more seasons. We would winter in New Orleans and once the waters and weather allowed, we would head up the river with trade goods and return with furs and increasingly with wheat and other produce from the Ohio and Tennessee River Valleys. I lived frugally, not wasting my earnings on the pleasures of New Orleans but instead started to buy and sell my own trade goods to be included on our boat. I made a tidy profit and grew into a young man of some means. Turner and I became business partners, eventually owning or operating 4 boats on the Mississippi.

In 1778, Captain Turner approached me with a proposition. He was originally from the British colony of Delaware which was in open revolt with the Crown. While he and I did not discuss politics very much, I had sensed that he sided with the rebels. Captain Turner intended to invest in a fast ship which he planned to load with the fine woods used in ship building and smuggle the cargo past the British blockade, in to Delaware Bay and Wilmington. It was a potentially a very profitable endeavour but one fraught with risk. Turner was too old for such a voyage so it was proposed that I be his partner and representative on board, serving on the crew and protecting our financial interests, potentially with my life.

I agreed. I was headed to sea.

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The Minstrel was a small top sail clipper of four 4 pound guns and a crew of 17. She’d been built in Boston a few years earlier and had somehow made her way to New Orleans. Although we knew we could stand up to none in a fight, she was fast. We hoped fast enough to get us out of harm's way during the long sail up to Wilmington. I invested every cent I had in this endeavour. Fully 1/5 of the cargo was mine. If we did not make it, I would be ruined.

 

I reckon I should take a moment to TRY and explain the politics in these waters during this time. In New Orleans, the Spanish flag had been flying since France gave Louisiana to their ally Spain as consolation for losing Florida to the British in the great Seven Years War. We had legitimate Spanish papers that the French should recognize us as well. Great Britain, as I said, was established in Florida but only lightly patrolled that coast as it was a long way from their bases in the Caribbean and colonies. Still, some enterprising British frigate captain might be looking for a juicy prize such as ourselves so we planned on giving Florida a wide berth as we sailed around. There was also a very real danger from Pirates. We'd hug the coast of Cuba as once we turned east. We had a plan for our northward leg later.

 

The Master, Zebulon Wright, ran a well disciplined ship but he was patient with me. He spent hours teaching me navigation and the other knowledges of sailing the seas. We had no other officers but he made sure I observed the roles of the mates, how to get the most from our craft, and always commenting on how he read the weather. I listened always. I knew that someday it would be important. Tho my original rank came just from being an investor in this enterprise, the crew began to see me more as a fellow, even as a superior. On a warship, they would have said I was midshipman. They already called me Mister.

 

I was glad for my days sailing packet boats and tenders on the Lac Pontchartrain. They proved a good school. The weather on this first voyage was overall fair and we saw not a sail once we cleared New Orleans. We made swift passage to our first landfall at Key West for fresh water and then it was a quick sprint across to the Cuban coast. Except for one Spanish patrol brig who hailed us to check our papers and cargo, this leg was without event.

 

Once we turned East, the wind was no longer our friend. Even though the Minstrel was keen close to the wind, we were forced to tack much further away from the Cuban coast than we would have preferred to keep making progress. We prayed for a change in the weather, but not the one we got. A sudden storm took a away our fore topmast and we lost a hand overboard. We threw a cask and rope but could not get back to him before he disappeared below the waves. Poor bastard. If the family of Wm. Reynolds ever reads this, know that he was a good hand and the sea took him quick. We limped in to Matanzas to  affect repairs and await good winds.

Edited by Mezcolanza
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Passage North

 

After 4 days in Matanzas, the Minstrel was ready. Two crew decided to stay in Cuba but we were able to recruit one young lad of 14, Mateo Armona, who wanted to go to sea. He seemed eager and intelligent and I thought he would make a fine addition. Our numbers were now 15, just barely enough to handle the work.

 

The risk was about to intensify. We would be leaving Spanish waters and heading into the strength of the British. Although it was legal for us to trade with the British, it was not legal, of course, to smuggle live oak to the American rebels. Until the final part of our deception was in place, we would do everything possible to avoid all other ships. Those of them who believed, began to pray. As for myself, I believed in the Minstrel.

 

Riding a clean, fine westerly wind, we set a east by northeast course towards Andros. On the 5th day, we spotted sails on the distant east horizon. We took this as a sign it was time to start north. While it was likely just another merchantman, the risk that it was a Pirate or British patrol was real. Indeed, the unknown vessel seemed to give chase, but could not beat back against the wind to keep up. We lost sight of him before dark but as a precaution, Captain Wright ordered a change of two points north by west to further confuse pursuit.

 

First light brought new danger. The call of “Sail Ho!” came from the lookout. Running on deck, I see a brig bearing down on us from windward. The Captain immediately ordered more sail but it was obvious the unknown vessel would soon have the Minstrel in range. Sure enough, as the approaching ship unfurled the British colours, a single cannon shot rang out and a ball fell several hundred yards across our bow. Captain Wright ordered our 4 little guns to be loaded with chain. What happened next was a lesson in the importance of knowing your ship, crew, and predicting what the enemy would do.

 

Forgive my poor attempts at illustration.

 

The British captain figured he had us cut off as he approached off our port bow. Besides, who would expect a small trade ship such as ours to fight or flee when caught in such a pickel? However, as he wore his ship to bring it alongside where he assumed we would heave to, Captain Wright suddenly ordered our wheel full over to port. Only the brig’s starboard battery was manned as they assumed this would be the side facing the Minstrel so they helplessly took two double loads of chain through their sails as we crossed their bow and passed down their port side. The Minstrel tacked through the wind like the dancer she was and we fled southwest. The British brig had to laboriously continue its wear, make a wide turn to port, tack, and then chase from behind sailing at a close reach. His brig would never catch us now. The Minstrel continued to widen our lead until the Brit’s sails disappeared behind. We were safe.

 

For now.

Edited by Mezcolanza
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