The wind was blowing hard through the rigging, but my ship was built well and stood up to the storm. Some of the men weren’t faring as well. Their bodies may have developed sea legs, but somehow that message hadn’t been sent to their stomachs. Or else they had forgotten after being filled with rum.
My first mate was a stout lad with many years on the sea under his belt. He was man enough to command his own ship, but I paid him well and, well, we were a team. We’d been together for longer than I could remember, ever since I’d been enslaved on Tripoli and we escaped together. We’d had many adventures since then and more than a few women, some worth remembering.
More importantly, we were free men. I captained my own ship, and some interests besides. But my first love was the sea. I didn’t need to sail, or to captain a group of ruffians trying to become men in a hard world. I didn’t need to, but that’s what I was. I didn’t care if I was rich or poor, as long as I had a stout ship beneath my feet and a song in my soul. I loved the feel of the sea, the way it spoke to me when I stood watch under the stars, the peace I felt as it rocked me to sleep in my cabin, the way it filled the fiber of my soul when driving before the wind. I loved the feel of my sea boots on feet and calves, I loved the way a cotton shirt fit around my chest, I loved the comfort of warm steel sheathed at my side. This was freedom. Sometimes I think I loved being at sea because I didn’t have to kow-tow to a conniving bastard for a boss, or dress to make the hierarchy happy. I could go days or weeks without touching a razor to my face, and more often than not my hair was long without benefit of a stuffy wig. If man could live on the wind, the world would be a better place, I often thought.
Some called me a pirate. I never thought of myself as such. For one thing, I ran a taut and clean ship. I made the men bathe at least once a week, sometimes sooner if the smell got too bad. We never raped or pillaged when we took over another ship – well, sometimes the men got a little out of hand when we took to port. When taking prisoners, they got decent food, if a little thin on quantity. I often felt some of the stuffed turkeys we hostaged who called themselves men could use a diet and hard work. We flew our own flag, a flag that was not black with skull and crossbones, but blue with a splash of yellow and red. It was becoming famous enough in its own right, and in the years to come would be flown over many a town and ship. But at the time of this story it only flew from one mast, my mast, and flew proudly.
I was holding forth on the quarterdeck, getting showered by the spray. The weather was warm and the dark sky turning to grey as the sun rose behind heavy clouds. We’d had word a British warship was coming into our waters. The intelligence I paid good money for said they were pretending to be a merchantman, but armed with 12 cannon and troops, readying for a landing somewhere in the Americas. The Spanish and the British wanted to claim these waters as their own; I figured I had as much right to claim them as they, although my simple boat and crew was no match for their mighty fleets. A large navy goes a long way towards claiming new lands and seas.
All I had to back my claim was wits and knowledge of the sea and islands, and the loyalty of my men. We’d been together for many years and were quite a crew. It took a couple of years to get them into shape – not so much as sailors, as most could already climb the rigging blindfolded when they came on board – but to turn them into men and warriors. Each man could sign his own name and most could read, something unheard of to this day. In their off hours, those who could read taught the others. To make sure this occurred, gold was offered to the best story readers, voted by the lasses when we made port. The competition was strong to become the best story readers, I can assure you!
I had one rule concerning the taking of prisoners: treat them with respect and make damn sure they don’t escape or get your weapon. And when it came to women, if I found any man took a lady without her consent, 50 lashes in the town square. If it happened twice, he was dropped overboard a mile off shore. It only happened twice, and one of them was back with me after marrying the girl proper and keeping his pants on while in another port. I let them have their whoring and their drinking; the whoring only in port and the drinking after the battle was won. We carried brandy on the ship, with the men allowed a weekly ration, but never within 24 hours before a planned campaign.
With all that, I never hurt for volunteers. The work was hard, the pay was good, the ship was clean, and by God, we were free men.
I was free in more ways than one. I’d courted a few ladies, but most wanted a husband steady and available to be bossed around. Don’t get me wrong—I enjoyed the company of women, but by now they knew my ways and stopped trying to trick me into marriage.
It was a good life, a man’s life, and we were off once again to seek our fortune, courtesy of the King of England. No doubt they were preparing for us, but the heavy seas and dark skies were in our favor. Few sailors or soldiers of the King had the stomach for a fight in this kind of weather. And I had a few tricks up my sleeve as well.
We drove before the wind all the rest of that morning. As was my wont, I stayed on deck from before sunup to ____ bells (10:00), then went below for a late breakfast. Dawn was always the worst time for an attack—the crew was half-asleep and a worthy adversary could catch one by surprise if unprepared. I ate a leisurely breakfast and went over the ship’s inventory and logs. As I was preparing the morning’s entree, the watch cried out “ship ho!”
Cursing, for I was not truly expecting to meet a ship until the next day, I went up on deck. The lookout came down from the topmast and reported to me. “It’s her, alright, sir. She’s broad and heavy in the water, and riding the sea well. She’s 20 miles at our 10:00 and heading due west.” Keen observations, and important. The fact that she was a day ahead of schedule told me he was running the ship hard. And if she was heavy and riding the seas well, her captain knew his trade. Things were getting more interesting by the minute.
I nodded to the First. “Come about and act lively, Mr. Swanson.”
“Act lively, men!” Called out the First. “Come about to 300° and hoist the storm canvas.” The crew sprang into action, pulling down the running canvas and hoisting the heavier grey sails. They were dyed grey to blend in with the dark clouds, heavier to give us more speed in strong winds while not getting torn to pieces. Our plan was to get ahead of them and then act crippled, drawing the “merchant” ship into a trap.
The crew was well drilled and quickly changed the canvas and stowed the old. We were making a good 16 knots in a quartering sea, perhaps twice as fast as our target. Because of the dark skies and our grey topsails, I was confident we could sneak just far enough away to get out of their sight and let them wonder, as they bounced around in the swell, if there really was a ship north of them.
We had built a special foremast that would break away and lay in the ocean, to feign a crippled ship. In rough seas we could cut it loose in three minutes, replace it and all rigging in twelve hours with a spare we carried just for that purpose. Once we got in front and had our quarry bearing down, we would drop the canvas on the foremast, prepare the rigging for fast removal, and knock it over into the sea. We had practiced the drill many times. This would be our first test in action. God willing, it would work. The game was on.
* * *
“Look at that damn ship in front of us, Mr. Smythe. Lubbers don’t know how to sail, losing their foremast in a breeze like this.”
Mr. Smythe didn’t completely agree, having nearly lost two men over the side in the last two days, and busting several stout lines trying to give the captain the speed he demanded. “Damn tough weather, sir. Could happen to anyone. Even a pirate. That bloody pirate is known to inhabit waters around here.”
“Aye, Mr. Smythe, but a pirate would smell a ship with a downed mast 12 leagues away and be on him like a shark. This crew in front of us could lose the whole ship if they’re not careful.”
“True, sir, but if that pirate is around, this could be a decoy to put us at a disadvantage. One can’t be too careful in these waters.”
“I’ll grant you that, Mr. Smythe, but long odds on success, especially with our 12 cannon and surprise troops waiting below the scuppers.”
“Mr. Smythe, go below and make sure our guests are well protected. The Admiral will have my hide if he hears anything happened to the Guv, even if it’s a mild inconvenience like aiding another crew and using his cabin for the survivors.”
* * *
“Yes, Mr. Smythe?”
“Your lordship, the Captain has asked me to look in on you. It seems there is a ship foundering in front of us, and the Captain wishes to take all precautions in case pirates might be lying in wait to take advantage of us.”
“Good lord, man, pirates?”
“Aye, your Lordship. However we are well prepared and have troops on hand in case there are any surprises. Just to be safe, the Captain would like to make sure that you and your family remain secure in your cabin. I’d like to keep a couple of armed soldiers inside, just in case. With these heavy seas, it would be damned difficult – begging your pardon, ladies – it would be quite difficult for anyone to take advantage of us, however the Captain wishes that your safety remains paramount. I sincerely doubt any difficulties will occur, but the Captain is a cautious man.”
“Mr. Smythe, is there really any possibility of pirates in these waters? One hears stories, you know, of this sort of thing, but I always thought they were exaggerated.” His Lordship’s daughter was deeply curious about everything, and asked the most un-ladylike questions.
“Yes, Lady Caroline, there are pirates on the seas. We’ve heard stories of one particular character in these waters, and we are taking precautions. The Captain has driven us ahead of schedule and further south of the normal route. It’s unlikely that pirates would prey upon a foundering ship in these conditions, but one must take the necessary precautions.”
“Is the ship in trouble?” His lordship was a most proper man, and careful to extend courtesies as befitting a proper gentleman.
“My apologies, your highness. A ship in the waters in front of us has lost its foremast and the crew appear to be working valiantly to rectify the situation. I daresay it will be several hours at best before they cut loose the foremast and rigging and she is out of danger.”
“But what do pirates have to do with a foundering ship in front of us?”
“One never knows where a pirate is—it’s their secrecy and stealth that make them so irritating. They appear, they disappear. I doubt they would know about the ship’s troubles in front of us, but they may know what ships are about and may be out looking for easy victims. There’s a fellow we’ve recently heard about that has been reported to be quite cunning and a skilled seaman.
“I wouldn’t expect him to be shopping for business in this kind of weather—ships have been lost in seas such as this from lesser failings. But best to be wary of any possible attack, even in the most unexpected circumstances.”
“I would like to see this ship, if I may.” Lady Caroline looked up at Mr. Smythe with her most beguiling smile.
“Caroline, you’re not going up on deck in this weather. You’ll ruin your dress and it took hours to make your hair.”
“Mother, the dress is hardly new, and if it takes hours more to do my hair again, well, we certainly have time on our hands. Besides, this is the most exciting thing that’s happened in weeks. It’s the only thing that’s happened in weeks, and I would like to have a look.”
“Caroline, you are the most unmanageable gir!”
“Oh, Father, you know I’ve got grandfather’s blood in me. I’ll not just sit idly by drinking tea and crocheting while some poor ship is flopping about in front of us.”
* * *
“Will you look at that, Mr. Swanson. There’s a lady up on deck and she’s put the glass to her eye.” If the skirt wasn’t a giveaway, the long brown hair blowing in the wind certainly caught my interest. “It seems to me the stakes in this little cat and mouse have just been raised.”
“Now, Captain, don’t go chasing a skirt and forgetting about the real prize on board. And may I take a look with the glass myself?”
I gave Swanson the glass and turned my attention back to the efforts of the men working on the foremast, although I wondered if perhaps the lady on deck watching us in this storm was truly a prize. It was hard work trying to make The Lady (my ship) behave like a foundering ship. It’s a real trick to keep the ship at the edge of catastrophe and not correct it, while making it look like we don’t know what we’re doing. “Mr. James, they have the glass on us. How about a little Shakespeare down there and make it look like we don’t know what we’re doing?”
* * *
“Captain, there’s a man over there wearing high boots shouting down at the men. Is he the captain of the ship?”
“Aye, Lady Caroline. Usually the captain wears a coat to distinguish his rank, but in this warm climate they often take it off. I don’t quite understand the high boots – although sometimes sailors like them to avoid cuts and bruises from flailing lines – and not to forget the occasional sword. Here, may I have the glass, please?”
Captain Richards looked through the glass and noticed one of the Mates looking at him, starting to wave frantically. He looked at the captain of the other boat as he was yelling at someone on deck. Alerted, he swung his glass towards the bow of the boat. One of the sailors was being berated by the coxswain, while two others were arguing about how to best salvage the broken mast and rigging. “Stupid bastards. No wonder they lost a mast. Their crew discipline is shot to pieces and they don’t know what to do in these heavy seas. They’re half falling over themselves trying to cut the lines.”
Lady Caroline was concentrating on standing upright, braced against the railing. “Are they pirates, Captain?” She paid no heed to the captain’s colorful language.
“I doubt it, m’Lady. Although if they are, they’re the most unorganized seamen I’ve come across in a long time. I would be more worried about their language and keeping them under control should we have to rescue them. Pirates, by nature, tend to be rather decent seamen, if somewhat undisciplined. And they’re known to fly the Flag of our country as a decoy. This ship’s Flag is unusual, which is more common for a privately owned ship, sometimes captained by the owner. Anyone with a few pounds can own a ship, but it doesn’t mean he can sail one.”
“He struck me as a handsome man, Captain.”
“M’Lady, many a handsome man has died at sea or in battle because of incompetence. If you want to find a solid man, look for someone who doesn’t have to brag about his capabilities. The best man I’ve ever served under won my respect by being calm and competent, not by being boisterous and loudly solving miniscule problems.”
“Is my father a solid man, Captain?”
“Now there’s trouble staring me in the face, m’Lady. Your father is a good man, with many accomplishments to his name. But without seeing him in action, with death staring him and his charges in the face, it’s unfair of me to say. We’re getting closer now and I think it’s best you went below. This could be a challenging situation, and it’s best if you’re down below where we don’t have to worry about your safety.”
After Lady Caroline went below, Captain Richards ordered Mr. Smythe to position the troops out of sight of the neighboring ship. He continued to scan the surrounding seas for signs of another ship. He noticed furious activity on the foredeck of the other ship as the crew struggled to free and save the rigging from the downed mast. “Must be a ship owner as captain. Trying to save a few pounds on rigging at the risk of losing the whole ship. Those poor sods must be getting a bit seasick with the bouncing and rolling they’re undergoing. If they’d put up a bit more canvas, they’d ride the swells a better.”
“I’m still wary, Captain,” intoned Mr. Swanson. “Is it possible they are laying a ruse?”
“Aye, Mr. Swanson, that thought has occurred to me. It it’s a trick, they’re a damn sight better at sailing than any crew I’ve ever seen. Look, they’re raising a distress flag. We’ll come around the stern to their port side. It’ll keep our passengers away from them and give them even less room to maneuver. And it lets us make use of our 15 pounder, should the need arise.”
* * *
“Captain, they’re changing course to come up on our port side. It appears they are coming in to help.”
“This will work, Mr. Swanson. I would have preferred the starboard side – we could use the toppled mast to distract them. However, when they pass astern, their view will be partially blocked and we’ll take advantage of that to improve our deployment. Until they arrive, we’d better act agitated and look particularly incompetent. Helmsman, 5 degrees to starboard. Immediately when their midships passes astern, turn 15 degrees to starboard. Mr. Swanson, throw the sea anchor. They’ll expect us to slow to allow them to lend assistance. They’ll have to keep a bit of distance until they come along our port side. Act incompetent, like the line has to be untangled, when Billy throws the sea anchor. I’m going up front to look important to our prey, like a distraught ship owner. And Mr. Swanson, cuss and swear a little and act agitated like you don’t completely agree with me.”
* * *
“Looks like the First Mate doesn’t agree with his Captain, Mr Smythe. He seems to be getting a bit irritated. Now our good captain is going up front to yell at the men working on the mast. A good captain always stays on the bridge.” Captain Richards was growing less and less concerned. The ship in front of him had the look of a privately owned ship, sailed by a slightly overchallenged owner/captain. Hardly the signs of a decoy – the ship was in good repair and decently clean, while appearing slightly disheveled from the fallen mast. The captain and first mate were trying their best to handle a circumstance that was a bit beyond them, and one that Captain Richards recognized as challenging in the extreme. He expected that some of his own crew were queasy at the moment and in no mood to be cutting loose a broken mast.
Captain Richards eyed his troops as they crawled into position, below the sides of the gunwales and out of sight of the crippled vessel in front of him. He was pleased with the somewhat orderly deployment, even if hampered by the heavy seas.
“Captain, they’re throwing out a sea anchor,” pointed Mr. Smythe. “It looks like the line is getting tangled. They’re bouncing around pretty good from the seas. We’ll have to change course once again to avoid the trailing line. We won’t be able to get quite as close as I would like to get a good view as we come around behind.”
“You’re right, Mr. Smythe. A good move, though. It appears the First Mate may not be as daft as his captain. Although they are having a devil of a time heaving the sea anchor in these seas.”
* * *
I turned and watched the change of course of His Majesty’s ship as Swanson threw the sea anchor. I noticed with satisfaction his cussing and swearing as he was purposely tangling the line as he “attempted” to deploy the sea anchor. He missed a calling in Stratford-on-Avon, I thought to myself.
I busied myself by fumbling around in the downed rigging, giving every appearance that I wanted to save as much as possible. Which I did, primarily because I wanted the new mast to be up and functioning in short order, and we’d spent a lot of effort preparing the rigging for a fast change. The crew chopped up a few extraneous bits of rigging and threw them overboard, trying to look for all the world like everything was hopelessly tangled and they had no other choice.
“Mr. Jones, are you ready to clear the rigging on my command and drop the mast overboard? You’ll have about two minutes warning, then clear the decks in three and be ready to board the merchantman in another three.”
“But Captain, we’ve never done it that fast in the drills! And that was in a calm harbor!”
“Aye, Mr. Jones, and we never had a “merchantman” with 12 cannon and a 15 pounder in her bow breathing down our necks either. You’ve got ten minutes to get her ready. I’ll signal you with my warning, then when I run my hand through my hair, cut loose the mast and stow the rigging. I have every confidence in you.” Despite my outward confidence, we were gambling on this one. But then, what was life without a little adventure?
“All right, lads, you’ve heard the Captain. Now let’s get ready to get this job done.”
* * *
“Your lordship, a word if you please.” Mr. Smythe knocked on the door.
“Yes, Mr. Smythe.”
“I’ve got two marines here for your protection, sir. We don’t expect any trouble–the vessel in distress isn’t acting like a decoy, but the Captain isn’t taking any chances. If anything, he’s concerned about rescuing the crew and them being a bit uncivilized, particularly with your wife and daughter on board.” Mr. Smythe positioned the marines, and instructed the three dignitaries what to do in case of any trouble. After satisfying himself that all was in order, he returned to the deck.
“The marines are positioned below, Captain. I believe the sailors and troops are ready as well.” Mr. Smythe surveyed the deployment with a practiced eye and was satisfied with what he saw. “I don’t believe we’ll have any trouble, but best to have a show of force as a deterrent.”
“Right, Mr. Smythe, turn to starboard and prepare to board the crippled ship.”
“Aye, Captain. Helmsman, turn to starboard 30 degrees and steady as she goes. Mr. Blount, drop half canvas and be prepared to run on midsails only as we pull alongside from behind. Be ready to drop canvas at my command. Ensign Cox, prepare to board. Board on the Captain’s command.”
* * *
Back on the quarterdeck, I watched the unfolding of the plan. By switching to my port side, I judged they had passengers on their port side. And judging by the lady on deck earlier, they were royalty – or close enough to fetch a very good price. Their switching sides also made it easier for us to count their troops. We had a man hidden above the crow’s nest specifically to count their deployment. Originally, their starboard side was away from us. From our vantage point, their gunwales effectively hid anyone who might be crawling around on deck. But our secret lookout above was able to count the majority of troops as they came into position. And as they changed their tack, the slant of their deck allowed a closer view of more exact locations.
I watched with satisfaction as Mr. Jones’ crew had the crippled foremast ready to cut loose. If he beat the margin I gave him, an extra gold allowance was the reward, and better wine and women at our next port of call. If he missed, well, more drilling while the rest of the crew enjoyed the local town. A tough, disciplined, crew, but a good one. We were as ready as we could be. Our plan was in place – if fortune smiled upon us we had a good chance. If not, well, another plan for another day.
The British captain was cagey, I readily admitted. I trusted my crew and we had two elements of surprise. We were a lot better than the Captain expected, and we were prepared to fight and our adversary was looking at preventing one. The odds were tipping in our favor, giving us an advantage. In this deadly game of cat and mouse, advantages were important.
It was a dangerous business we were in, with death waiting for the unlucky. But we all knew the score, and to a man we preferred a life of challenge and adventure. Better to die living than to live dying, we figured. We were ready.
The Britisher made his turn to starboard and we added another 15 degrees, which caught them by surprise—which was exactly what I intended. “Mr. Jones, it just occurred to me. Rig a line to the mast and we’ll drag it. It’ll look like we’ve screwed up again and give us a bit of balance.”
“Mr. Swanson, I trust the crew is now ready?”
“Aye, sir, they’re just in front on the deck, and waiting in the yardarms.”
Strategically hiding in front of the sails were 20 seaman with hooks and lines, ready to launch into the rigging of the Britisher. In any attack, height is an advantage. Control the air and you control the battle. The Britisher had no soldiers or sailors in her rigging that I could see, and my eye was keen. It took a practiced crew to wait in the rigging while bobbing like a cork. We’d been practicing.
Slowly, the ships drew closer and closer together. Careful to look resigned as they pulled alongside, I walked agitatedly around the deck, Mr. Swanson giving me a clear path, as a good First Mate should. When the British captain hailed me, I was careful to act respectful. “Yes, sir, I believe we could use some assistance, I’m embarrassed to say.” Looking fraught, I ran my hand through my hair. At that moment, Mr. Jones gave a cheer.
“Captain! I believe we’ve just about got her clear.”
“Thank God,” I replied. “Captain, we may not need your assistance after all. It appears we’ve just cut loose the mast at last.”
“Shit!” Even the British captain could hear Mr. Jones call out. “Captain, it appears the mast is still fouled. We’re working on it, but the line is tangled on the side of the ship below our reach.”
“Captain,” I turned dejectedly, “it appears I may have been a bit hasty. What would you like me to do?”
“Prepare for my men to board your ship. I have soldiers standing by to ensure safety in the event of pirates in these parts.” The British captain raised his arm, and on command, 50 soldiers stood next to the gunwales.
“Thank the lord, Captain, I was afraid you were the pirate. But I can see by the uniforms of your soldiers that you are indeed in his Majesty’s service. I have a few men standing by as well. Mr. Swanson, if you please.”
Mr. Swanson raised his arm and 25 of my men stood from behind the port gunwale, leaving another 25 crouched. “Although we are no match for you, we wouldn’t have given up without a fight.” I faced the British captain and saluted. “If you would, Sir, I would be honored if you’d pull alongside and lend us aid.”
The armed merchantman slowly drifted closer to us. The Captain was good with his canvas, matching our speed and coming ever closer.
Less than 6 feet separated us. The rigging above was neatly meshed, protruding masts from each ship expertly avoiding rigging from the other. “Captain, excellent seamanship, I must say. I see you know how to handle a ship on the ocean.” I saluted him with my congratulations.
On my salute, the 20 men in the rigging threw their lines and swung over to the Britisher. One fell into the sea, with the other 19 quickly into position.
“Captain,” I called in the sudden cauldron of confusion, “do you yield?”
Surprised by the unexpected move and by bold request, the captain confidently replied, “I hardly think, sir, that your few men are a match for crack British troops.”
“Captain, I will grant you quarter, should you ask for it. I have 19 men in your rigging and men ready to board. The odds are clearly in my favor.” The British captain laughed. He was a confident man, I’ll give him that. At that moment, the 25 standing men drew swords and clubs. “Board!” I yelled and the process started. Their six cannon were above our decks, and launched their balls through the air and into the sea. Rifle fire peppered the air and smoke from the powder enveloped the decks.
We scampered up to their deck as soldiers descended on ours. Our initial surprise was countered by the talent of the British soldiers. Mr. Swanson signaled the other 25 seaman from my ship to board, and they fought furiously. As the ships bobbed on the heavy seas, the battle raged. Men slipped and fell as the seas caused the ship to weave erratically.
Like two bulls in a ring, the two of us instinctively found each other in the pandemonium. As if on cue, a furious sword fight broke out between the two of us. Captain Richards was much better than I expected. All around us, the fighting was furious. Yet the noise and clamor seemed to disappear as Richards and I dueled back and forth across the deck.
I never noticed the slash that caused my shirt and left shoulder to split open, blood seeping into the white fabric. One minute I was dueling furiously, the next I noticed a stinging feeling with blood dripping onto the deck.
The sword seemed slow in my hand as the muscles heaved and groaned, pushed beyond endurance. Strength was failing in my sword arm as my left pulled the dagger from my belt, using it as a defense against Captain Richard’s skilled slashes. I forgot the battle around me as necessity drove me to complete exertion. When all else fails, run away, I remembered. As Richards prepared for another onslaught, I turned and ran back to the rail. Stunned, Captain Richards let out a yell intended to assault my honor. I yelled back and he came at me. I jumped up on the railing, surprising the good Captain once again. His aim at my previous position became empty and he faltered.
I seized the opportunity and jumped at him, slashing with the sword in my right hand and lunging with the dirk in my left. I caught several layers of fine linen, but could see no blood stains upon his clothes. He was stunned by my maneuver and stepped back to regroup. “I salute you, sir, you are both cunning and daring,” he intoned. As I nodded my head in acceptance, he attacked, almost catching me. Steel clashed as he drove me backward towards the rail yet again. Fortunately my legs were healthy and I was still nimble on my feet, despite the dragging in my arms. This realization gave me an idea and I gambled wildly. As the ship lunged from the heavy seas, I dove and rolled, slashing his thigh with my dagger. With satisfaction, I noticed the blood pouring out. Equal once again, I thought.
Warily we circled each other. I was now the weaker swordsman, but more maneuverable. Captain Richards could out-strike me, but was unable to move easily. The smart strategy was to nick and parry, ever careful to not engage his singing blade for too long.
We both became aware that the battle around us was waning. Watching us like two gladiators, and to the victor goes the spoils Both of us stepped up our pace. Whatever adrenaline I had left in me, I reached for. We danced the swordsman’s dance on that deck, neither admitting defeat. The dagger in my left hand became a decoy and my balance. Richards was equal to the task, matching steel with me despite his limited mobility. I swapped my blades through the air simultaneously, drawing a gasp from the crowd. The sword now in my left, the dirk in my right. I needed all the skill my right hand could muster, as I hurled my dagger at his torso with my right hand.
I missed, but grazed his sword arm, blood leaking like a river from the new wound. Seeing an opportunity I jumped up on the railing again, only to be knocked on my backside as the ship lurched from a freak wave. Richards was on me in a flash, the move causing blood to pour out of his injured thigh. His sword came thrashing down, grazing my left side and bloodying my tattered shirt. I turned and rolled and jumped to, out of his sword reach. The good Captain looked winded and haggard as his opportunity for victory slipped away. I felt as tired as Richards looked, but could not, would not dare to admit it.
Sensing an advantage, I pressed the attack, our blades singing the swordsman’s song as he matched me thrust for thrust. By some unknown guidance, I noticed our two ships were about to bang together and timed my next thrust. As the ships hit, his wounded leg buckled slightly and I was upon him. With a quick snap of my right hand my dirk slapped his sword out of his injured arm. I circled behind and grabbed him with my free arm while holding my sword against his throat.
“Once again, captain, I ask you to yield,” I whispered between lungfuls of air.
“It appears, sir, that I have been outflanked. Who are you, man?”
“Let’s just say that I am an entreprenuer, Captain. Names in these parts are often changed and discarded when no longer convenient.”
“I, Captain Richards, will yield, upon condition that my men are not murdered.”
“Granted, captain. Forgive me if I keep this blade in position until all of your men surrender.”
And the battle was over. A British ship, nicely armed and carrying valuable cargo, was in my possession. Bonuses would be rich indeed, and the whores and innkeepers at our next port of call would share in the wealth from a boisterous crew.
The remaining British soldiers were herded into the brig. As I bound Captain Richards’ wrists behind his back, both ships were attended to and gotten underway with light sail. I stayed aboard the Britisher as we attended to more pressing matters of the moment.
* * *
“Tell me, Captain Richards, about your passengers.”
“What makes you think I carry passengers?” he deadpanned.
I laughed. “Surely you jest, Captain. Anyone with half an eye could see the lovely lass on your bridge before the battle started. Anyone in such a state of dress could only be a Lady or daughter of a man of import. Since I doubt a captain in the service of his Majesty could afford such a woman, I must assume that she comes from royalty or wealth. And of course, coming upon my port side was not your best sea position, so one can only assume you carry passengers in your port quarters. If she was your lady, she would be aft, in your cabin. So come now, Captain, level with me and you shall dine with me, as a gentleman, instead of being thrown in the brig as a common seaman.”
“You’re a rogue and a scoundrel, sir, and I shan’t give you the satisfaction of information.”
“Mr. Richards, surely there must be a better position you can take. If I were a vengeful man, I would lock up a servant of his Majesty as retribution, along with anyone who acquiesces to the wishes of the crown. But look around you. All you see is a stormy sea. To our west lies a new world, and this portion of God’s kingdom is ruled by no man, not even the one who stands before you. Life is too short to waste it upon being mean and cruel, and I have no wish to treat you or your passengers poorly. I’m a negotiating man, and their presence on my ship allows for certain freedoms, shall we say, or potential profit for their safe passage. I will extend them every courtesy, for I am a decent man and my crew a loyal one. Go below and introduce me and I shall spare them the discomfort of the brig and offer them clean quarters. I shall also give you the respect you have earned as a valiant officer and allow you clean quarters on my vessel as well.”
Captain Richards was silent for several moments. “Very well, sir, you present a most compelling argument. This sharp blade pointed in my direction also invites me to accept your terms.”
“A wise choice, captain. You are most intelligent as well. And as I see that Mr. Swanson has ably taken matters into his own hand as he is wont to do, I believe we may introduce ourselves to your esteemed passengers. Your sword sir, if you please. Nothing fancy, if you’d be so kind as to unbelt it and hand it over in its sheath.” I kept my sword at the ready while he unbelted his scabbard. After accepting his sword, I placed mine in its sheath on my left flank. My dagger had found it’s way home on its sheath on my leg, and I kept my left hand close by. The formalities of surrender completed, I reached out my free hand.
“I am known as Trevor McAllister, and I accept your surrender, Captain Richards.”
“YOU! You bloody pirate! If I’d known it was you, I’d come in with guns blazing!”
“Aye, and you’d never catch me, sir. You’re a fair captain and an august seaman, judging by your early arrival, but you were outmatched. My ship’s got 5 knots on you in a decent wind, more in seas such as these. How many ships do you know who can drop a foremast into the sea and make a ship appear in trouble, while ready to capture a merchantman armed with 12 cannon? And how many ships do you know who can cut loose a foremost in three minutes and be ready to board a merchantman the same later? I was ready for you, sir, whereas you were not ready for me” I’d said too much already. “Don’t believe everything you’ve heard about me. I’m afraid I can’t live up to the rumors I’ve heard, even less to what some drunken sailors might say after being captured. And released.”
“How did you know I have 12 cannon?” demanded Richards.
“And a 15 pounder as well. Now if you please, sir, the passengers.” Captain Richards was somewhat stunned. He was a very good seaman and I would hazard had never lost a battle. I had to respect the man. Truth be told, his tactics weren’t all bad. But to be told how he was deceived was a serious error on my part. Never give an enemy information he can use against you in the future. Perhaps I would offer him a commission with me…
Richards grudgingly told me about his passengers. There was Lord Yarbey, the Duke of something or other, and his wife, the Duchess of the same. The maiden I had glimpsed with the long mane of brown hair was Lady Caroline, the daughter. We descended the main stairs and turned right as we approached the captain’s cabin. Nicely appointed hallways led us to a stout oak door. “Lord Yarbey, Captain Richards, sir. The battle is over. A word, sir, if you please.”
A slightly rotund man, once an athlete and still with a fair bit of muscle, opened the door. Upon seeing a stranger with Richards, he attempted to close it, but an errant foot stopped its progress. “Lord Yarbey, sir, according to the articles of war it appears you are my prisoner. A word, your lordship, if you please, to discuss terms and perhaps prevent your accomodations being transferred to less hospitable quarters.” I pushed the now unresistive door open and entered the cabin. The marines, caught unawares, started to rush me, but were restrained by a word from Richards. Prompted, of course, by the sharp point pressed against his backside from my aide.
Lord Yarbey was dressed in a gentleman’s clothes, much in contrast to my high boots, breeches and no longer white cotton shirt. I was no match for the Lord’s silk shirt and fine jacket and britches, with my tattered and blood-stained attire. His shoes were shined bright enough to floss my teeth in, however it didn’t seem the appropriate time to mention. “Lord Yarbey, my compliments. It is my pleasure to greet you at the end of this phase of your journey. If you would be so kind as to introduce me to your wife and daughter…”
Yarbey was caught off-guard by my civility. I’d found it to be useful in the past. He stammered, started to protest, stammered again, then turned towards his wife. “My wife, sir, the Lady Yarbey. And my daughter, Caroline, now where is she hiding herself?”
At that moment, the vixen came rushing at me with a knife in hand, letting out a loud yell. She caught me by surprise and I stumbled backwards, banging into the bulkhead. As she swung the knife down with her right hand, fortune smiled upon me. My left hand flipped my dagger into the deck and caught her wrist with the knife inches from my shoulder. Her green eyes flashed up at me with an energy that surprised me. I laughed.
“Lady Caroline, before you try such a move with the next gentleman you meet, you might try practicing a bit. A simple wench is known to be more effective in a barroom brawl. Perhaps I can arrange lessons for you.”
Lord Yarbey turned purple at the suggestion. Caroline’s eyes turned angry and she tried even harder to bury that blade in my neck. I grabbed her with my right arm and, wincing, pulled her closer to me, my left gradually easing the blade further away. I had made the mistake of looking into Lady Caroline’s eyes, and I’ll never forget that moment for as long as I live. It was as if the earth stood still and I was hit by a tidal wave in the same moment. Looking into her eyes was like looking into my own soul, only deeper, and richer, while doors to some long-forgotten room to my heart opened before me. It seemed an eternity as I gazed deep.
Suddenly submissive, Lady Caroline neatly disentangled herself from our unintended embrace as I slipped her knife into my boot. She touched my bloodied right arm gently and I grimaced. She curtsied and in one fluid motion plucked my dagger from the floor and handed it to me hilt-first. “A pleasure to meet your acquaintance, sir. I am Lady Caroline, and I don’t believe we have had the pleasure of being introduced.”
“Trevor McAllister, at your service, M’lady.”
“Your arm – is it – “ she started to look caringly at my bloody right arm. Her sudden tenderness seemed in concert with the unexpected longing filling my chest.
I laughed. “It is merely a wound, M’lady. A few stitches and some brandy and I’ll be as good as new.” I was talking with this woman as if I had known her all my life.
“Let me take care of it for you, Mr. McAllister.”
“Caroline, that man is a bloody pirate. I’ll not have you tending to such a cur.” Lord Yarbey was practically busting blood vessels with his consternation.
The spell was partially broken and I realized there were other occupants in that cabin. “Lord Yarbey, every courtesy will be offered you. If the seas were calmer, I would invite you to dine with me. However, this will have to wait for fairer weather. Perhaps on the morrow. Captain Richards will remain a guest upon my ship while my crewmembers sail this ship to a port of convenience. At that time, we will arrange for your continued passage to your original destination, return to England, or your residence in these parts. Weather permitting, we will dine tomorrow evening and discuss terms. As an added security measure, Lady Caroline will be quartered on my ship as will be Captain Richards. I do believe it best to keep certain insurance on hand.”
Out of the corner of my eye, I caught Caroline smiling at me despite herself behind those devilish eyes of hers.
* * *
Driving down the highway, I broke free from my reverie. It had been a long time since I knew her as Lady Caroline, and now I have met her again. I wondered how many other times I had known her…
©1998, 2012 Curt Larson