Michael Goddard cursed the dying wind and the barnacles on the keel of his Devon Rose as it wallowed in the heaving swells of the Atlantic. He swore at the fates that had let him come this close to home and England before deserting him. Bracing himself on the poop deck within reaching distance of the stern lanthorn, he brooded at the two Spanish galleons bearing down on him off the starboard quarter with all sails spread.
The November day was cold and raw with a threat of rain in the dark thunderheads off to windward. Less than an hour before, a masthead lookout had shouted the warning and pointed into the offshore breeze to direct the aiming of his spyglass.
He had hoped these might be English vessels come to welcome him home, but that hope had died at the sight of the golden tower of Castile and the red lion of Aragon on the ships' mainmast pennons. They were broad of beam as every Spanish ship was broad, with bulbous gilt woodwork at stern cabins and bowsprits. Along each rail his glass picked out fifteen guns. Twin long toms peered at him from the galleon fore-decks There would be similar eighteen-pounders jutting from below the stern cabins. Outnumbered and outgunned, with his men exhausted from the long ocean voyage—they'd raised anchor off the Mosquito Coast of Central America four weeks ago—he was in no position to fight.
"And I can't run," he muttered, thinking of the jewels in the wooden caskets beneath the bedstead of his cabin. "My keel is foul with marine growths."
Aside from the diamonds and rubies taken from the Spanish plate fleets during the past two years, the ship's hold was laden with giant gold chains and statues of raw red gold, magnificent crosses studded with emeralds and rubies together with long ropes of milk-white pearls. He'd been homing toward Queen Elizabeth and England in this year of 1586 with enough of a fortune to buy a kingdom. Now he'd never get there.
"Hard over the tiller," he roared at the whip staff hutch.
His only chance to catch what wind there was lay in the courses at mainmast and foremast. He would drop the bonnet and the triangular lateen as well. The Devon Rose answered sluggishly, pitching in the trough of a wave before nosing about, shedding water at bow and trail boards. The galleons were appreciably nearer, less than a mile off the starboard quarter.
His mate, a wiry little Cornishman, came running from the main deck. There was despair in his black eyes as he scrambled up the ladder to where Michael stood. "One of our stern cannon's cracked, Cap'n!"
"Oh aye, the other's well enough. But—"
"Load her. I'll sight her myself. Order the crew to stand to battle stations."
His gaze ran the length of the Devon Rose. The big ship was painted a sober black now, but two years ago she had been the thousand-ton galleon Encarnacion out of Cadiz, all red and gilt but without that customary shallow hull that made Spanish ships so clumsy in a sea fight. He'd exchanged shot with her during a running battle off Cap Francois. When the waves and riptide impaled his English-built Devon Rose on jagged rocks that lay like dragons teeth all along the coast of Hispaniola, he'd tumbled his crew into three small boats and boarded the Encarnacion. It had been cutlass and rapier then, with a pistol barrel in the face on a deck awash with thundering waves before the Spanish captain surrendered.
"If only we had the wind to side us," Michael groaned, and struck the wooded capping of the poop-deck rail with a fist.
"Aye," rumbled his Cornish mate, who called himself Black Mark. "Do ye mind the gale we took the Todos Santos in? Blowing so hard we had to lash ourselves to the cannon to keep from bein' swept oversides."
They saw the puff of smoke from a fore-deck gun of the nearer Spaniard an instant before they heard its muffled, flat report. A geyser of water rose into the air twenty feet astern. Michael smiled coldly, eyes touching the gun crews on his main deck, knowing the long toms forward were manned and ready.
"The stern tom?" he asked crisply.
"Ready to let go, Cap'n," said Black Mark.
"We'll let them have two more shots. They'll need at least five before they hit us, Spanish marksmanship being what it is."
The Cornishman looked dubious and pointed a gnarled finger at the single row of dipping oars on either side of the closer vessel. "That galleass don't need five tries. She'll soon be close enough to aim a ball down our throats. I'll say this fer 'em, the Spaniards are smart to build a ship like that, half galleon wi' its sails, half galleass wi' its oars. They need never depend on the wind as we do."
"They have to carry food for a hundred galley slaves. That extra weight slows them down when the wind is blowing."
"Like she ain't doing now," the Cornishman muttered glumly.
On their third try, a Spanish ball struck the mizzenmast between yards and keel. There was a cracking of seasoned timber, a rustle of falling sail, the tortured wail of snapping cordage. The broken mast thudded on the quarter-deck planking. Spanish cheers came early across the water.
Black Mark was knee-deep in the wreckage, slashing hemp ropes and sail tatters with a curving dagger. His voice—amazingly deep for such a little man—yanked his deck crews up by the seat of their breeks and sent them headlong into the wreckage. Moments later the broken masthead was being heaved over-side and the mizzen and bonnet folded for storage.
The Spanish long tom roared again.
As the bull splashed into the sea half a yard from the starboard bulwark timbers, Michael Goddard dropped from the poop deck onto the quarter-deck. The Cornishman came after him, waving his gun crews back to their stations. Michael took the main-deck cabins on the run, moving between the wooden bunks of the officers' quarters and past a storage locker to the tiller flat.
The tiller flat was a small room directly under the captain's cabin fitted with twin wooden windows which could be swung outward to permit a gun crew to work the long toms. Only one eighteen-pounder stood for firing now; the other had been pushed back against the bulwark timbers. Three crewmen waited beside the brass culverin. One of them was blowing on a smoking igniter. He blew harder when he saw his captain. A tiny flame jumped to life and held as Michael reached for the taper. Overhead the long round tiller rod swung back and forth with a creak and groan of anguished wood.
"Powder poured, ball in the breech, sir."
Michael nodded and sank to a knee behind the cannon. He sighted along the corrugated iron barrel at the big red ship that was less than three cable lengths away, using the lifting rings to frame the Felipe Rey on the upper edge of the muzzle guard. He blew a moment on the waxed taper, then held it to the touch-hole
There was a flash of powder, a thunderous roar. The iron bombard kicked back hard against the ropes that held it.
"Load away," said Michael.
Over the shoulders of the laboring gun crew he saw the heavy ball hit the fore-boards of the red ship as a wave lifted the galea high. Before he could learn whether the shot had glanced off the wet bulwark timbers or crushed them, the Felipe Rey dipped into the green waters and surged forward with undiminished speed.
"A miss," he said calmly.
The ball was in the breech and powder was flowing in a black river from a wooden keg. Black Mark slapped a hand to the keg, thrusting it up and aside. He blew on the taper a moment, then gave it to his captain.
Michael crouched, judging distance, the lift and fall of the ships. A corner of his mind took this incongruous moment to remember other days and other years when he had sailed these same waters in a herring smack, working with his father and two older brothers out of Sutton Pool, dragging their nets and wiping salt spray from their faces when a sea squall struck. He had been a boy in those dimly remembered years. Today he was a man, heavily muscled but lithe, with brawny shoulders and lean waist, his yellow hair close-cropped to his skull in sailor fashion. Wryly he told himself he would be a dead man if he did not concentrate on what he was doing.
Ah, now! Now while the big red ship was framed just as he wanted her on a lifting wave. The flaming taper met the touch-hole Michael stepped nimbly aside as the long tom belched smoke and flame, jerking backward until the guy ropes hummed with its weight.
The Cornishman shouted, "Lookee, Cap'n! A hole in her fore-board timbers. She ships water!"
Michael grinned mirthlessly, showing white teeth behind tawny beard stubble. "She'll slow a little now, despite her oar banks."
Black Mark frowned. "Will she slow enough?"
"Enough for what I mean to do. Have a man lower away the tender place two kegs of gunpowder between the seats. Tell him to cover them with canvas sacking."
The little man cocked a curious eye. "You're up to deviltry, Michael. I'm going with you."
"You'll stay to fight for the Devon Rose. I've more than three million guineas in gold and jewels on this ship. I don't mean to let the Spaniards have it—nor the ocean bottom, either." He drew a deep breath. "Now listen to me, little man. See you follow instructions to the letter. Break out my sea chest..."
He continued to talk as he led the way to his cabin below the poop deck. Within moments he was stripped to cotton breeches. His chest was deep and heavily ridged with muscle, very white from waist to shoulders where a V of brown flesh showed the years of exposure to a tropic sun. His arms were long and powerful. There was the deceptive grace of a jungle cat in Michael Goddard; he moved so fluidly as he dressed that he seemed not to move at all, yet he was clad in black velvet breeks with his legs thrust into bucket boots of red cordovan leather before Black Mark could rise from his kneeling position before the iron-bound sea chest.
The Cornishman was grumbling, "—a mort of trouble to pull some trick that may cost your life! Why not just fight it out?"
Michael caught his mate and swung him close, pointing toward the stern windows. "Use your head! We're outnumbered. They have three times our weight in guns. Those damn oars give them a mobility we don't have, without wind. If the Felipe Rey closers with us we're done for. If the other ship—El Gran Grifon—comes up on our other quarter while we're fighting the red ship, we'll be like a wheat grain between two millstones!"
The Devon Rose shuddered, lost headway. In a moment she was surging forward, but now they could hear a man screaming in agony from the main deck and the thudding of bare feet across its boards. Michael said tonelessly, "You'll do what I say or this night we'll burn in Hell."
From the cabin bulwarks Michael yanked two rapiers. One he tossed to the Cornishman. Head lowered, he plunged through the companionway to the main deck. The Cornishman ran after him, shouting curses.
Michael caught a stupefied seaman alongside the chin with his fist and drove for the little man, his blade a twisting, stabbing blur. The point touched Black Mark on the shoulder. The little man screeched and clapped palm to wound, falling to his knees. Michael tossed his blade aside and, mounting to the after rail, leaped outward toward the small-boat
His booted foot struck a seat and he pitched forward, slamming into the canvas-covered kegs, knocking them aside. A trifle dazed, he lay a moment, gasping for air. Above him a crewman aimed a pistol. Michael twisted aside as the ball struck splinters from the moldboard.
"Hijos de perros!" he screamed.
His hands sought the loose knot, tossing the holding rope into the water. With his rump pressing onto a thwart and the oars in his big hands, he dug blades into the water and pulled away from the Devon Rose. Twice more crewmen from the Devon Rose fired down at him. Once Michael rose to his feet to shake his fist at the receding ship and scream with Spanish fury.
His broad back and white linen shirt made a splendid target for the Spanish arquebusiers and crossbowmen. Momentarily he expected the dig of lead ball or stubby crossbow quarrel in that back.
As if the thought of danger from the Felipe Rey had just occurred to him, he turned and faced the oncoming galea. His hands cupped his mouth, "Un amigo! I'm a friend! Don't shoot! I am Don Esteban Nunez de Valasco! Sometime captain of the plate ship Maria Esquivel. Don't shoot!"
Michael blessed the lazy days and idle curiosity that made him learn Spanish tongue back on the island of Jamaica when the Devon Rose lay careened on its sands and the real Don Esteban Nunez de Valasco had been his prisoner. To while away the tropic days they fenced with wooden tips fitted on their rapiers. At night Don Esteban sharpened his English while teaching Captain Goddard melodious Castilian.
He bent to the oars again.
The gilded red galea came on with a rush. One moment it was a hundred yards away, then it towered high above him and a rope was flying like a gigantic snake whipping and twisting through the air. His hands reached and missed. He flung himself forward, caught the rope end and held it, propping a foot against the forward moldboard. He leaned far back, bracing himself until agony rippled along his thighs and arms. Slowly the tender moved forward, caught and held by the forward progress of the galea. Now the tension eased so that Michael could bend and secure the rope around the stem post.
He sank forward, letting his head drop as if exhausted. For the length of ten deep breaths he remained this way, then leaned forward and began to pull himself in slowly on the rope, bringing the jolly boat close under the stern cabin and gallery, slipping the extra rope through the rudder brace and tying it. Under the stern cabin he was sheltered from any eyes that might observe him.
Turning, Michael whipped off the canvas cover.
A tinder box lay beside the powder kegs. He knocked the cover off one of the powder kegs and, upending it, carried it from one end of the jolly boat to the other, scattering a thin black line along the keel boards. From the tinderbox he took flint and steel and scratched them together so that a spark fell into the charred cloth strip. With shredded bark he nursed the spark into the tiny flame, and the flame until it became a small fire. He touched the flame to the black powder line along the bottom of the boat.
One glance he took at the sizzling powder before he kicked free of his boots and, turning, put toes to the moldboard and dove deep into the cold water. Like a stone he went down and down until the greenish waters became black and his lungs heaved desperately for air. Dear God above! Had the powder misfired? The kegs should have blown by now. To rise to the surface before—
The water trembled all around him and he felt lifted and shaken. As deep as he was, Michael heard the thunderous reverberation of the explosion. He turned upward and kicked savagely. When he came to the surface he found himself in a mass of splintered wood and gilt-work The entire stern of the galea was a sheet of red flame.
The Spanish ship was lowering a bum-boat Soldiers in breastplates and helmets were climbing down rope ladders carrying muskets. They were coming for him, probably to bring him back and tie him naked to the burning ship before they abandoned it to seek shelter on El Gran Grifon. He struck out purposefully but after a dozen strokes realized his sodden clothes acted as a sea anchor. Kicking hard, he freed himself of breeks and shirt and underclothes.
He noticed as he swam the Devon Rose was veering to leeward, jibing and coming out. El Gran Grifon would be almost abeam of the galea by now. He risked a glance behind him. The galleon was luffing, lowering its main courses and sending boats over-side to pick up survivors. Between himself and the galea was its small-boat, oars flashing wetly in air and burying themselves deep in water.
A musketeer moved to the small-boat's prow and steadied himself, leaning the arquebus barrel on a gun rest, sighting and pressing trigger. A ball cut into the water a foot from Michael's head. To dive for shelter would slow him down. To swim straight ahead for the Devon Rose that was running before the wind meant he would expose head and shoulders to the Spanish marksman.
"I'll die one way or the other," he told himself, and began to swim.
The soldier fired again. Michael felt something touch the top of his head and sting. For an instant the world was a dizziness of empty gray sky and green water with a black ship flying upside down before his senses cleared. Through the sickness churning in his middle he head the deep boom of a saker, the dry rumble of a culverin. El Gran Grifon was paying its respects to the approaching Devon Rose.
The fore-deck guns of the English ship roared. There was a shrill whistle overhead. A moment later Michael heard the cannon ball drive into the prow of the jolly boat. Men screamed and cursed behind him.
Black Mark was half over the starboard rail, a weighted rope's end in a fist. When Michael came within hurling distance he whipped it about his head and flung it. Michael took three strokes, caught the wet rope before it sank and clung. He was dragged through the water until two men came overboard on rope ladders to catch and lift him between them.
The Cornishman was grinning from ear to ear as the men lowered their captain to the deck planks. "One Spanisher going down by the stern, the other too overcrowded to do more than turn and beat for home. A good day's work, Captain Goddard."
Captain Goddard took deep gulps of salt air. He was cold and tired and naked. "We'll beat for home ourselves, Mark. Give the order."
"Aye, sir–after we get the pumps working. We took two balls in the storage lockers while you was rowing to the Felipe Rey. Big holes, large enough to drive a sow through. We're shipping water with every wave."
"Get a repair crew to rig a free-board plug. Meanwhile crowd on what sail she'll take an veer north by nor'west. We'll make for Plymouth port rather than for London."
The Devon Rose limped through the cold gray day with pumps working and the sound of hammer and saw in her hold. The Felipe Rey was a mass of red fire low on the horizon before a sheet of canvas could be nailed to the Devon Rose's free-boards and reinforced with a makeshift patch of wood and leather. She tacked before what wind there was but she was a badly crippled ship.