Stories from an Alaskan Cabin: Chapter Five

Part of the morning cabin routine is to restart the fire. This responsibility falls to the person who first wakes up and can no longer stand the cold. The disadvantage of being the first one out of bed in the cold is that it is a sure way to wake up. The person who starts the fire won’t, generally speaking, go back to the sleeping bag, especially since starting a fire is more complicated than pushing a button. There’s paper to crinkle, smaller wood to put in and larger wood to follow after that. Anyone who is able to stay in bed through the morning chill will be able to wake up to a warm cabin. As a bonus, since the person who started the fire is up anyway, he or she will probably start on making coffee and breakfast. That’s just etiquette and hunger working together to create motivation.

Gerald felt the chill in the air, groaned, and rolled over. He opened one eye. The sun was out. No one was up, and the stove looked like it had gone cold. He snuggled into his sleeping bag a little more, rolled over, and decided he needed to head to the outhouse. Groaning, he rolled to the side of the bed, put his feet over and hopped down. He walked over to the stove and was glad to see that there were a couple of glowing coals. He grabbed some papers and crumpled them up. He put them into the stove and threw on some smaller kindling. They caught fire, and he added a bigger piece of wood. He threw in some more kindling and another smaller piece of wood. He topped the whole construction with a medium-sized piece of wood.

That should do it, he thought though he was far from an expert fire builder. Gerald sat back and watched the flames devour the kindling. Then, he remembered why he had gotten up. He went over to the door, grabbed his heavy jacket, scarf, and hat. He put his plastic pants over his long johns and hoped his legs would be warm enough. It shouldn’t be colder than eight degrees, but he didn’t know for sure. It won’t matter in the outhouse anyway, he thought.

He opened the door, looked for the moose and closed the door behind him. The air was fresh and crisp. It smelled clean. Gerald double-timed it to the outhouse. When he was done, he returned to the cabin. No one else was awake, so he started the coffee and pulled out the bagels he had packed for breakfast. He wasn’t sure about the cream cheese, but he opened it, and it tasted fine.

The other guys woke up slowly as the fresh brewed coffee scent filled up the room. Lee woke up and smiled. He grunted and threw off his sleeping bag. George reluctantly started to move, and John was up like a ghost and cooking bacon and eggs. The men poured themselves water, used the outhouse, and sat at the table enjoying the cabin atmosphere.

John went outside and filled a metal pot with snow. It melted on the stove. “So, fellows, what are we going to do today?”

“Enjoy the freedom!” said George.

“Huzzah!” shouted Lee.

“I brought a book,” said Gerald.

“Of course, you did,” said George. “But hey, it’s cool to read.”

“I think we’re going to need more kindling, so we’ll have to chop up some of this bigger stuff. When it warms up, we can go to this little spot I know not too far from here,” said John.

Everyone agreed that they would follow this loose plan. Gerald used the snow-water from the stove to wash the dishes in the sink while everyone else prepared to go outside. John went out first and found the axe. George and Lee joined shortly afterwards. Gerald came to see them setting up a large log with a smaller log on top of it.

John took a step back and brought the axe up from behind him in a beautiful, graceful arc. The smaller log split in two. He handed the smaller of the two pieces to George who brought it to the cabin porch. John set the larger of the two pieces up and brought the axe around and over the top of his head. The wood split into two equal pieces and he grabbed it.

“George, you want to give it a go?” asked John.

George took the axe and used it like a pro. He had split kindling from four small logs in no time. “Lee?”

“What am I supposed to do?” asked Lee.

“Take a smaller log and swing the axe to break it in two. Just make sure your grabbing the axe at the far end of the handle and that you stand far enough away that the wood chips won’t hit you,” said John.

Lee set up the smaller log and took his first swing. He missed completely and the axe thudded into the large log. Lee worked the axe free, set up the small log again, and this time, his glancing blow produced a small piece of kindling. He tried again with the same result.

“Hey, Lee, at this rate, we won’t need paper to start the fire. We’ll just use the toothpicks your making,” said George.

“This is hard. How much practice have you guys had?”

“I have lived in Alaska for 10 years,” said John.

“I grew up on a farm,” said George.

“Ha! Ha! Funny guys!” Lee took another swing and split the small log in two. “That’s enough of that. Gerald, you want to try.” He picked up his log pieces and walked to the porch.

Gerald hesitated. He wasn’t really built for chopping wood, but then again, what was he doing out here if he wasn’t going to try something new. “Sure.” He walked to the log and grabbed the axe from Lee.

“You ever do anything like this?” asked George.

“Not really. I helped my grandpa load firewood once. I was 18, he was in his late 60s. He worked me into the ground,” said Gerald. “I did use a hatchet once, but it never worked out well.”

“Just be confident. It’ll be fine,” said George.

Gerald set up a smaller log and brought the axe down. The axe head struck the smaller log and sent it flying 20 feet away. Gerald retrieved it and set it up again. He swung the axe in an arc and brought it down on the log. The axe split the log to the middle and then stuck. Gerald picked up the axe and banged the smaller log against the larger log – once, twice, three times, four times, the log finally split apart.

Gerald grabbed another smaller log and tried again. The axe stuck and he spent another ten blows trying to split the log. It wouldn’t budge. He had to use his foot to pry the log off the axe head. He could feel the axe handle through his gloves. There was good chance he would be getting blisters. He set up the smaller log to try again, as he brought the axe down the smaller log fell over. The axe head bounced off the smaller log. Gerald set the smaller log upside down and tried again. This time the axe head stuck and after a few blows against the larger log, the piece of wood split in two.

“Alright, well, not bad,” said George. “We should have enough kindling for tonight.”

Gerald picked up his logs and turned to the porch. The other men were standing there drinking coffee from tin cups. “Good thing we aren’t reliant on me to provide kindling, huh?”

“Well, that’s true,” said George, “but it’s good you kept at it.”

They moved the wood into the cabin so that the snow could melt off it.

“How far away is this place, John?” asked Lee.

“It’s not far, we could be there and back by lunch, or we could go after lunch, either way.”

The others hesitated in making a decision. “Let’s seize the day and go now. It’ll work up an appetite and make lunch taste so much better,” said George.

They all got their warm clothes on, grabbed some essentials, and stuffed them into backpacks. In no time, they were ready to head out.

John led them down a path that had undisturbed snow on it. Their boots crunched underneath them. The trees were covered in ice and looked like they had been coated by glass. They sparkled in the sun. Brown grass poked up through the snow on the sides of the path. They went through a darker forest where the evergreens were coated in snow and obscured the sun. They went over a hill and dropped down the other side.

The trail was warm in the sun. The air was still. The path ran along a frozen stream; clear spots could be seen in spaces where the ice wasn’t covered with snow. There was a cracking, popping sound in front of them. Soon, the trail was covered in water. It spilled over their boots.

“Wow, that was an ice dam breaking up. It looks like we should head back to the cabin,” said John.

They all turned around and headed back to the cabin. The return was quicker than the trip out. When they arrived back at the cabin, they removed their shoes and placed them near the stove. They stoked the fire and prepared lunch. It was a simple fare of sandwiches with a variety of lunchmeats, lettuce, tomatoes and mustard.

When they were done, John said, “Well, that’s not what I meant to show you. Still, an ice dam braking and flooding the trail is pretty cool. You all heard it break up, right?”

“Yeah,” said Lee.

“It was crazy,” said George.

“The water flowing up on to the path and flowing over our boots was weird. It’s freezing out there,” said Gerald.

“That path won’t be usable for the next week or so, unfortunately,” said John. “We’ll have to find another way to entertain ourselves. Maybe, we’ll make it out there next year. Let’s have another round of stories. Who wants to start?”

“I will,” said Lee. “The Knights of St. John were contemporaries of the Templars. While the Templars organization was dissolved on the grounds of heresy by Pope Clement V under pressure from France’s King Philip IV, the Knights of St. John are still around. Their history is long and includes the occupation of Jerusalem and stops at the Islands of Rhodes and Malta. They have other names, most notably, the Knights Hospitaller because of their work with the injured and ill, and the Maltese Knights because of the amount of time they spent in Malta and the successes they enjoyed there. It’s said they received Malta for the rent of one falcon due to the King of Spain every year, which is where Dashiell Hammett got his idea for ‘The Maltese Falcon.’

“In 1565, they held Malta against a vastly superior force of Ottoman Turks who outnumbered them more than four to one. This action ensured that the Ottomans wouldn’t be able to use Malta as a jumping point to attacking the rest of Europe. As time went on, the knights turned to privateering to increase their income.

You can imagine that their rich history provides a multitude of stories to choose from.” And this is the story he told:

Grandmaster Ferdinand von Hompesch zu Bolheim lounged in his chair. His wig was powdered white. His limbs long and thin. His red and white fur-lined cloak hung up on a nearby rack. It was really unnecessary for the climate in Malta, but it added authority and luxury to his countenance and was worth wearing when dealing with his subordinates and heads of state.

His eyes darted over the most recent records of the Knights of St. John’s finances. They did not look good. In fact, they looked even worse after the French had seized the Order’s landholdings during their revolution. He couldn’t tax the Maltese any more. They were already angry about the downturn in the economy. European countries had forgotten about the Knights’ contributions to their safety and the protection of Christianity. His knights were not much more than a relic from the past. Most of them would be hard-pressed to be effective in battle.

Malta itself was too small and without resources needed for a successful economy. What could they export exactly? Lace? He breathed out heavily. How could he salvage the Order and maintain the quality of his life?

He heard footsteps. They echoed off the marble and through the hall to the room he was seated in. He grabbed his cloak and draped it over him.

“Sir, we have news from France,” the aide extended an envelope.

“Nothing good I expect,” said Ferdinand, “unless someone has defeated Napoleon.” He raised his eyebrows.

The aide continued to hold the envelope out to him.

He took it. “You are dismissed.” From the seal, he could tell the information was from a contact in France. He broke it open and removed the report. “Dammit!” He spat. “Who does that puffed up capuchin think he is?” He fumed over the letter. The Maltese Knights had declared neutrality in the wars against Napoleon. They had oaths not to fight fellow Christians. Almost two-thirds of the knights on Malta were French. It was likely they would not raise a gauntlet against fellow Frenchmen.

Ferdinand called for his closest advisor, Sir Oliver Brandle, and asked his counsel. “If this report is true, we are no match against them. We have fewer than a fourth of their army, and our ships are no match for their fleet. We might be able to withstand a siege,” Oliver inhaled, “but it doesn’t look good. It’s likely we lose 150 or more knights simply because they are French.”

“I agree. What terms do you think Napoleon will agree to?”

“With a man like him, you have to find a balance between force and flattery. We will have to show him that we can withstand a prolonged siege, but not threaten him so much that he takes it as a challenge. In the meantime, we can be sure he has his spies here. We need to proceed with caution so as not to provoke him,” said Oliver.

“So, first we hope the report is false, and he’s headed to Egypt. If he does come to do battle…”

Oliver shrugged. “We have claimed neutrality, so that may help our cause. He wouldn’t outright attack us without provocation. The Knights of St. John still carry some weight as a fighting force on the Mediterranean.”

“Yes, 1565 still rings out our dominance on the island,” said Ferdinand.

“Being neutral means we have to leave everything the way it is until Napoleon declares his intent,” said Oliver.

“So, I will not inform the other Langues. This is between the two of us,” said Ferdinand. “I will order a stockpile of supplies into the city as a show of preparation without it necessarily being so.”

“That’s sounds like a good move,” said Oliver. “We can’t let it get to a fight, but we can’t appear weak either. If we’re to negotiate, we will need to do so form a position of strength.”

“Thank you, Oliver.”

Oliver saluted and left the room.

Ferdinand ordered that supplies be brought in from the surrounding areas to fill Valletta’s store rooms. He wasn’t planning on using them, but he may not have had a choice.

His aides brought in missives that tracked Napoleon’s movements. They confirmed he had 600 ships and nearly 29,000 men. They weren’t clear whether Napoleon was going to attack Malta, but it was certain that he would be heading to Egypt, and Malta was in his direct path.

Paolo Castillo from the Spanish Langue and Jean Marineaux from the French Langue approached Ferdinand at the same time.

“We must do something about the approach of this maniac, Napoleon. He will destroy us,” said Paolo.

“Paolo, I appreciate your opinion, but he’ll only stop if he needs provisions. We should make sure that he has everything he needs as befits a Christian helping another Christian. We are all brothers in Christ,” said Jean.

Paolo spat, “That man cares nothing for Christ. He will depose us with the help of the Maltese, and there’ll be no stopping him. We will be homeless and landless like our brothers before they found Malta.”

“Gentlemen, must I remind you that we are neutral in the conflicts between our Christian brethren. We need to honor our oaths and do our best to avoid conflict between us. Go back to your Auberges and tell your fellow knights to be ready for a siege but not to expect it to come to that.”

Paolo rushed off angrily. Jean sauntered away.

Five days later, the advanced ships in Napoleon’s fleet were visible. One of them entered the Grand Harbor and sent an envoy to the Grandmaster. Ferdinand sat on his gold-lacquered chair in his red and white fur when he received the emissary. Oliver stood beside him.

The emissary bowed and handed Ferdinand a letter requesting that he allow Napoleon’s ships into the Grand Harbor to replenish their supplies. “Oliver, take note. Honored Leader Napoleon, We have received your request and are happy to oblige. However, we must insist that, pursuant to our declaration of neutrality, only two ships at a time may be allowed entry into the Grand Harbor.”

Oliver handed the letter to Ferdinand, who folded it, put it in an envelope, and sealed it. He held it out to the emissary, whose hands trembled, and sent the young man on his way.

“Well, now we wait,” said Ferdinand.

The emissary went back to his ship, and they met Napoleon’s ship in the Mediterranean. He took the envelope, opened it, read it, and crumpled it up. He threw it on the deck and spat at it. He ordered his generals to take men to the west side of the island and he fired a volley from the ships that remained. The cannonballs whistled and exploded against the walls around Valletta.

“Call in all the Knights. We must be ready,” said Ferdinand.

The next day, Maltese refugees streamed in from the countryside, and Ferdinand saw that the city was surrounded by the French. Many of the French soldiers laid down their arms; some went out to greet their French brothers.

Ferdinand stood on the ramparts of the city walls and looked out at the gathering forces. He turned to Oliver, “So, it has come to this. We must now sue for peace.”

“So, we must,” agreed Oliver.

Ferdinand sent an emissary to Napoleon’s ship with the offer for peace.

The emissary arrived before the Emperor and bowed. He handed the envelope to Napoleon. His eyes remained lowered and his head bowed.

Napoleon opened the letter and laughed, “Now, the dog sees sense. No one can deny the might of the French army.” He laughed again and shouted, “Vive la France!” Sailors and soldiers on his ship shouted the same. “I am in the mood to be generous. A long siege could’ve been mighty inconvenient.” He had his secretary pen the agreement for a Treaty of Surrender and sent it back with Ferdinand’s secretary.

The emissary returned to Ferdinand and handed him the letter.

“You are dismissed,” Ferdinand said with a wave of his hand. He read the letter and called in Oliver. “I fear that the terms of this surrender may engender some ill feelings amongst the Knights. Grab our relics and prepare a boat. When I finish signing it and before the terms are made known widely, we’ll head toward Italy. Tell our boy to come back, so I can send a reply.”

Oliver saluted, walked out of the chamber, and sent the emissary in. Ferdinand handed him a message for Napoleon. They would meet to sign the Treaty of Surrender tomorrow.

The guns of Valletta fired a salute as napoleon’s ship entered the Grand Harbor. Napoleon disembarked and was greeted by Ferdinand. They walked up to Valletta proper and into the Grandmaster’s formal chambers. Napoleon sat at the head of the desk, where he and Ferdinand signed the treaty. Ferdinand stood up, bowed, and left the chamber. He took a horse from the stables and left Valletta to meet Oliver at a secret bay where they sailed for Trieste.

Ferdinand was upset that he had to give Malta to napoleon without a fight. His pride was hurt. There was nothing for it though. He had negotiated for himself to receive land and a pension from the French. He also saved the Order’s relics, including the Hand of St. John the Baptist though he had to leave its reliquary in the church in Valletta.

Lee took a deep breath. “The French only lasted two years on Malta before the Maltese chased them from the island with the help of the British. The relics went to Paul I of Russia in attempt to get his help to restore the knights to the island, but the British blocked the attempt. When Ferdinand died in Montpellier, France, he was penniless. He is now considered the weakest Grandmaster of the Knights of Malta.”

“So, who’s next?” asked Lee. “I volunteered to go first.”