“What the hell’s the matter with ‘im?! Savin’ us just to let the damned British catch us again?!” We had rescued Axel, a small man with a long beard and round stomach from the gallows earlier that day, and he was not keen on being recaptured by the British. What crime he had committed none of us knew, but he was one of us now. As always, we had entered the nearest city under the cover of night and acted as beggars during the day-a believable disguise given our ragged, sun-bleached clothing. We had found Axel along with a dozen other criminals awaiting their deaths behind a public gallows. Just as the first man was about to hang, our captain had led us in a surprise attack, killing some of the nearby guards while forcing others at gunpoint onto our ship, Freedom. The Captain must’ve known we couldn’t outrun the British as it was now those captured guards that kept us alive.
Brand, the tallest and oldest among us crewmen, answered Axel’s question. “Ye fool, the British are too fast for this ‘ere ship, and got more guns too. Without these prisoners,” he kicked the foot of one of the guards tied up and seated nearby, “we’da been shot to the depths of the sea hours ago. I don’t know what deal Cap’s thinkin a makin or how he’s gonna get us outta this one, but mark me words, lad, he always does.” The rest of us gathered below decks shook our heads in agreement as Axel shot a worried look out of a cannon hole towards the British ship floating nearby. Her name was the HMS Sphinx, and at 114 feet long she carried a 160-man crew with additional British guards and soldiers. She dwarfed Freedom, which was 91 feet long and held around 100 sailors. The 12 cannons on the starboard side of the Sphinx glared menacingly, waiting to unleash devastation on us and our ship. The 7 cannons we had facing the British were smaller and weaker, and would do little if it came to open battle.
Hilt, the ship’s weapons officer, called down to us that the Captain was returning and that the prisoners were to be handed over. We helped the relieved young British men to their feet and walked them up the stairs leading to the top deck, where a few of us waited to watch the exchange. Our Captain had returned to Freedom’s deck, facing the British as our prisoners hurried back to their own ship. The Captain was an average-sized man whose bulk came more from his long black coat than muscle, but those among us who knew him knew that he was not a man to be underestimated. With a white shirt underneath a brown jerkin, it was the black coat he wore that separated him from other crew members. The dagger and sword at his belt, as well as two flintlock pistols, had been put to good use in more battles than any other man on the two ships had witnessed.
As the last of the prisoners made it back to the British ship, the Captain removed his well-worn hat to reveal his long, black unkempt hair. He did a dramatic bow aimed at the British captain, a man wearing a blue coat and powdered wig as we all waited with bated breath to see if the British would honor the deal they had made with our captain and let us go.
As the British officer relayed a quiet order to his men, the soldiers around him marched onto the deck of Freedom, forming a semicircle around the Captain. Our tall and thin first mate, Leen, could be heard muttering under his breath. “Damned British, even we pirates got more honor than ‘em. You know what to do, laddies. Get ready.”
As the Captain slowly rose from his bow and returned his hat to his head, the British captain called out to us. “Attention, crew of Freedom! This man you call Captain is wanted by the crown, and as such I will take him to stand trial for his crimes. Given the extent of his crimes, if you do not resist and allow us to take him, the rest of you may go free. The choice is yours.”
At this declaration we began to murmur amongst ourselves, some of the newer members of the crew arguing to let them take the Captain to save their own skins. To those of us who had sailed alongside the Captain the longest, there was no question of letting him be taken. “We’ll be shot to pieces!” Axel argued as Leen, our tall, thin first mate growled back. “Every one o’ you here owe yer lives to that man! We’da hung at the gallows or faced the firing squad long ago if he didn’t break us free, and I’ll be damned if we’re leavin ‘im behind!” Hilt, the weapons officer, agreed. “It’ll be one helluva fight lads, but that’s our lot. Crew to the end, I say!”
The growing din of our arguing suddenly disappeared as the Captain drew his massive sword and turned to face his crew, coat blowing in the growing wind. A was forming in the distance. With a sad look on his face, he saluted us in a sort of farewell before turning to face the British and sticking the sword into the deck in front of him, admitting surrender. High above, our flag overlooked the scene below, flapping wildly as if in anger. Black, white and red, it showed a sword and rifle crossed beneath a bloody skull with broken chains along the border. Beneath its judgment, as the Captain began to step forward, some of us found our courage-and anger. As we stood still, torn between what to do, Leen made the decision for us. “Fuck this,” he growled as he drew his pistol and fired at the nearest guard. Unsheathing his sword, we were spurred to action as he charged across the deck and chaos erupted. Led by Leen, we surged across the deck like the wave of a great, hateful ocean and unleashed a war cry that would drown out even the sounds of cannonfire.
The Captain pulled his sword from the deck and leapt to cover while the British, caught off guard and fearful at the horde of madmen that would soon descend on them, fired only a few shots before we reached them and began a bloody melee. The British Captain stood back and screamed at his men to board Freedom as bodies began to fall and blood began to pool. “Leave none alive! And get that damn captain!” he shouted. Within seconds, those of us below decks who waited with prepared cannons fired a volley into the Sphinx, wood splintering as gaping holes were blasted into its clean exterior. The British did not fire back, refusing to kill their own men engaged on the deck.
The Captain joined us in the bloody battle, his sword swiftly flying through the British as it appeared to be everywhere at once. We watched in awe as he ceased to be a man and became death itself, nimbly making his way through the battle to his first mate who found himself surrounded by enemies. As he sliced a path through the British and reached Leen’s side, they stood back to back, swords whirling through the air at any enemy unlucky enough to find themselves within striking distance. “Just like old times, eh, brother?” Leen remarked as the two moved in perfect synchronization, their movements complementing each other, each man covering the other’s weaknesses and building off his strengths. Had they not been surrounded by the British, we may have seen a grim smirk on the Captain’s face. If any one of us had fear in our hearts, seeing these two men at the forefront of the battle banished it instantly. The British had discipline, but we fought with the madness of a dog backed into a corner, throwing ourselves with wild abandon at the enemy in a desperate bid for life. The sky grew darker as we fought, as if in mourning of our lost men and the bloodshed that consumed us.
Markus, our navigator, had led the rest of us to the top deck where we were hastily unfurling Freedom’s sails before joining in the melee. So many dead littered the deck, mostly British but a good number of our men as well. Men who had sailed together for months or years saw each other cut down in an instant, friends lost to the brutality of battle. Just as the sheer numbers of the British were beginning to push our line back, Freedom’s sails did their job well and pulled us away from the Sphinx. Many of the British leapt to the safety of their own ship just before the separation, knowing their fate if they remained onboard Freedom. The wounded or those that hadn’t jumped ship in time would find no mercy among us-we had vengeance in our eyes and would avenge our fallen friends, leaving no British soldier alive.
As the Captain took the wheel and we fled the Sphinx, the British finally fired their return volley at us, blowing holes in Freedom’s hull and stealing the life from some of us who believed we had escaped death. The Captain began to turn us to face the Sphinx again, as Leen questioned him. “What’re ye doin? We can’t win a shoot-out!” The Captain calmly looked at him and nodded before pointing at Hilt below, then the cannons and the enemy’s masts. As the rest of us tried to help the wounded, Leen ran down the steps to the deck and relayed the Captain’s unspoken orders to Hilt. Hilt looked at the Captain with a questioning look before ordering some of us to man the cannons. As the Sphinx sped towards us and we waited for what was to come, we took measure of our losses.
We had all lost someone close to us, and many men shed tears openly above their fallen friends. Some had known each other for months, others for years, and some had just met, but we were all equally a part of this crew. Bonded by our criminal pasts and hopes for the future where we could escape the younger versions of ourselves, every man lost was a blow to the heart. Some of us had escaped our pasts with the Captain, becoming new men and creating new lives for ourselves, but today it appeared as though our new lives were merely illusions. The suddenness and finality of the past’s return today would not be something easily erased from our minds. We had seen battle and death before, aye, but this time was different. Before there had been small skirmishes or quick battles with relatively few casualties. We honored the memories of the price they had paid for our freedom by carving their names into the large table in the Captain’s quarters. We thanked them for their sacrifices and briefly mourned their losses before moving on. Today though, there were too many dead to look past. Scores of young men who had come on this journey with good intentions would never make it back to Outlaw Island, our home. All of us were shaken to the core, as not only had all of our lives nearly ended, but the Captain and his ship and everything they stood for were almost destroyed as well. He was the only hope of a better life for many of us criminals, and without the Captain and this crew to turn to, they would all be destined to die.
The boom of cannons shook us out of our ruminations as we were brought back to the present. Freedom’s cannonballs struck their targets, the sails of the pursuing ship, with a much-practiced accuracy. Gaping holes appeared in the cloth and the Sphinx slowed considerably, though we still wouldn’t be fast enough to escape her. Leen had returned to the Captain’s side and asked what they were to do now. The Captain thought for a moment, his calm face seemingly untroubled by the danger of their situation. The dark skies above had only grown darker, and ahead a storm could be seen brewing. The Captain smiled and looked at Leen before drawing his sword and pointing at the storm.
“Ye wanna sail us into a storm?!” Leen asked the Captain. “Yer dam mad!” The Captain nodded as he turned the wheel towards the storm. Shaking his head in disbelief, Leen shouted to those of us still on the deck. “Prepare for a storm! Tie everything down and repair what ye can! And get the wounded inside!” “And god help us,” he muttered to himself.
Once we had done all that we could to prepare, most of us waited below deck as dark clouds blotted out the sun and rain washed away the blood of battle. We rotated shifts to man the main deck throughout the storm, trying our best to avoid a watery demise. The majority of us sat in a circle amongst our bunks, with a single lantern providing some light amidst the darkness of the ship’s interior. Some of us laid in bunks alone, mourning the loss of a close friend, while some others brought water and replacement bandages to the wounded.The only man who refused to take a break and rotate in shifts was the Captain.
“Well lads, I’ve hated knowin ya, but may your afterlives be filled with rum!” the cook, Handle, eventually said to break the silence. A slight chuckle went through our ranks, and more of us began to speak in an attempt to forget about the storm. As the ship rocked back and forth, Axel eventually asked Leen, “so who is yer Captain? Strange feller, not talkin and all.” As those of us new to the crew like Axel strained to hear the response above the rain, waves and lightning, Leen began to speak.
“He’s my brother. Up until a couple years back, he was a part of the British guard. Back then ‘e was a good soldier, doin everything he was told without askin too much. He even killed people as part of a firing squad, criminals like ye and I. Well, one day that changed. I had stolen from some royal prick, and got caught. I was sentenced to die by a firing squad, not at his hand, mind ye. The day I was set to be murdered, I stood in line with the others as the officer was lookin’ at some official papers in a small office building. My brother had assured me that he would get me out of this, and strode into the building to argue my case. The officer musta had none of it though and my brother soon burst through the door covered in blood. No shots had rung out, but looking inside I saw that all the guards inside the building were dead. To this day I don’t know how the bastard did it, but ‘e saved me and we got the hell outta there before any other guards could see. I dunno if ‘e got injured in the fight or if it be by choice, but since that day none have heard ‘is voice. He refused to be called ‘is old name, probably to leave that life behind ‘im. I think now he travels the seas to save us poor bastards and make up for the guilt from killing criminals in ‘is past.”
All of us around had stopped our conversations to hear the tale, a sort of legend among us experienced crewmen. “Y’all should respect the hell outta that man,” Hilt said, to no one in particular. He was eating a piece of salty meat off his knife as a thunderclap filled the air, as if the sky was making sure we all were listening. “Storm’s gettin worse,” Rend, a quiet hulking behemoth of a man said in a deep voice that easily filled the room. Done with listening to the story, we noticed, as he had, the swaying of the hammocks and the tilting of the lantern’s flame as the rain grew stronger and the rocking of the sea grew more violent. The ship began to groan in protest as the wind and waves sought to tear her apart.
“Might as well die doin somethin I like,” Markus said as he grabbed his banjo and started playing some common songs most of us knew. “Yer goddam right,” Handle agreed as he pulled off his peg-leg to sit more comfortably. “Pass me a bottla rum-a full one.” Hilt began taking apart and putting back together his pistols, polishing every surface and marveling at the craftsmanship of the weapons. Seeing the most experienced of us admitting that this may be the end, the rest of us grew fearful about our common fate at the hands of the storm. We had already escaped death once today, but now it might catch up, taking us all with one strike of lighting or attack from some mythical beast of the sea.
“I’d always wanted to play for a group, get paid, ye know?,” Markus admitted. “I wanted to cook for the rich’s parties,” Handle said as he scoffed at the notion. “And I wanted to design new weapons, or forge them as a blacksmith,” responded Hilt. “I just wanted ‘nough food to live without stealin,” Leen said in a quiet, sad voice as he gazed into the withering flame of the lantern. The wax was rocking with the ship, and threatened to extinguish their light at any moment. The rest of us quietly shared the lives we’d been taken from or what we’d always dreamed of doing, or shared our greatest secrets and regrets. Many of us had families we’d left behind, and hoped above all else to see them again one day. We said what we felt needed saying, in case this was our last chance. Gathered in the hull of this ship, beneath our Captain on the deck who wrestled with the sea and the storm, we were more than just crewmates-we were brothers. And we were free.
The rain became a relentless roar punctuated by the blasts of thunder and Freedom groaned ever more under the stress of the storm. The flame in the lantern finally went out, and we were left in utter darkness as Markus’ banjo fought a losing battle to be heard.
There are no comments for this story
Be the first to respond and start the conversation.