There are times in life when events reach a point where it would not be thought possible they could fall any lower. Then, without warning, destiny leads the way to the pit. It is at this point when a choice has to be made: either take the long arduous climb and confront all obstacles, or step into the abyss and allow fate to take its course.
As if the rape of Maracaibo were not enough to witness, the blameless crew of the Maryland brig were also forced to endure the loss of their ship. After two long weeks the bloodshed and looting of innocent towns had finally ceased and most of the flotilla had now headed out to sea. It was misfortune that The Chesapeake Venture was one of the last vessels to leave the Spanish colony for, by the time she reached the bar, the tide was already beginning to run. The ship didn’t stand a chance, she buried her keel into the sand and refused to move. For the Spanish fort at the western point of the channel, the brig became a steady target from that moment on. Already scarred from a week of battering, there was little hope for the vessel. It was decided that all hands should abandon ship; not such an easy task as the French who had commandeered the vessel had already slipped away in the cutter an hour before. The remainder of the crew were now at the mercy of the sea. As luck would have it, an English barque had anchored on the windward side of the bar to pick up the survivors.
Having spent most of the morning lifting men from the wreck strewn waters, the crew of the English vessel had expected the task to be over by now and were waiting to weigh anchor and head out to sea. All eyes were fixed on the brigantine with its bow wedged into the leeward side of the sand bar. Another distant crack sounded from the fort guarding the entrance to the bay. Seconds later the iron went crashing into the sea less than twenty feet off the stern of the vessel; and still the last man didn't appear to be in a hurry to leave.
At a distance his appearance seemed hardly that of a merchant seaman; not only did he seem to be younger than most of the survivors they had taken aboard, but his clean shaven features, boyish face and fashioned hair were more akin to a city-dweller than that of a sea captain. The crew looked to one another as a second shot fired out from the Spanish fort. This time the ball ripped through the rigging of the vessel and yet, still unconcerned, the stoic figure seemed only interested in reaching for something over the bowsprit of his ship.
Tobias Hopkins, the man at the centre of the crew's attention, set his mind to the task at hand. The forward jib, the only sail intact, was flapping in the breeze with its sheet trailing out over the starboard bow. If only he could find something that would reach -- a pole, a staff, anything long enough to bring the rope aboard -- he could then bring his ship downwind and slip her over the bar before it was too late.
Toby glanced across to the shore as a distant crack and an angry puff of white smoke drifted out into the bay. He squatted behind a cable housing. A whistling sound, gentle at first, approached The Chesapeake from the direction of the fort. Within seconds the sound increased to a screaming crescendo as it passed somewhere over the mizzen yard. The ball hit the water with a crash about twenty yards off to starboard. Toby returned to his task.
He searched amongst the wreckage littered across the forecastle deck - nothing there. The main deck was worse; broken spars, tangled ropes, ripped canvas everywhere. The ship had taken on serious list and most of the wreckage was piled up against the port gunwale. Toby surveyed the heap. His eye caught something; something glittering in the sunlight. He took a closer look. Buried deep beneath a pile of splintered wood was a gold band; a band which was attached to the finger of a very pale arm. Who the arm belonged to he had no idea. All the surviving members of the crew had been mustered before abandoning ship, so who was this? He reached forward and gripped the man’s wrist. With feet placed apart he gave one mighty heave. The next moment he was on his back; hands still clinging on to the man’s wrist. The wrist was certainly attached to an arm, but that was all: no body, just an arm, pale and torn with a bone protruding from a matted tangle of veins and sinews.
Then he remembered. This was Nathaniel Lathan’s arm. The unfortunate man had been stationed on deck when the main mast came down. The vessel took on such a shake that Nathaniel fell to the deck and landed his right hand into a coil of wire. The mast came crashing to the deck and the wire shot up to the sky taking the man’s arm clean away from his body as if it were a twig from a dry bush. Toby looked at the limb. Not much use to Lathan now, he thought. However, he may be pleased to have his ring returned. Toby tried to ease the band off the finger, but it wouldn’t shift. He took his knife from his belt, sliced through the digit at the knuckle and pocketed the ring. He was wondering what he should do with the appendage. Should he toss it over the side?
He looked over to the waiting English vessel; to the breaking surface of the waters on the windward side of the bar and hoped all his crew had made it to safety. But judging by the frenzy of activity beneath the surface he feared the worst. Another shot came from the fort across the bay, this time sending a tower of spray a few yards off the stern. Toby stuffed the arm back amongst the wreckage and got to his feet. There may be something he could use below.
The silence was so strange down below decks: unexpected, eerie. Normally there would be much activity on this deck but, without the presence of the crew the silence was unworldly. The scent of burnt powder still hung in the air as if the shots had been fired only moments before. The gangway along the main hold was in much the same condition as the decks above. A number of canons had loosened from their moorings and blocked the gangway, powder kegs overturned with their contents strewn over the planks, and canon irons, like French boules, rolled about the deck everywhere. Toby’s eyes wandered to the bulkhead where the French sea-robbers, in their crude manner, had hacked through the hull of his beautiful ship to make six gun ports. And what use had they been? Most of the canons had been salvaged from Spanish galleons and didn’t work at all, and those that did were about as accurate as Cromwell’s musket.
Another crack from the shore reminded Toby to move. Lying across the port side of the hatch was a ramrod; a pole of about five feet in length: just what he was looking for. He took one step forward then stopped. Slumped against the base of the mast housing was Owen Fuller. While the nature of this poor man’s demise had been reported to him earlier that day, Toby was not prepared for the sight which was presented to him now. The man was well turned out; a clean singlet and dusted breeches, even his shoes looked as if they had been respectfully polished for the occasion. In fact, Fuller was as well turned out as the day he enlisted aboard The Chesapeake three months before. Healthy in every respect except for one - his head was missing.
Fuller would have been facing the starboard bulkhead when the incident happened. Toby looked over his shoulder. At eye level, a clean round opening of about six inches diameter had been pierced through the hull of the ship. The ball, which passed with equal force through the port side of the ship, would have taken Fuller’s head off in an instant. There would be little point in looking for it now.
He dragged the body over to the canvas awnings stacked in the corner and heaved the man onto the pile. He wrapped the top sheet around the body and fastened it with a length of lanyard. Once done, he lifted Fuller over his shoulder and dropped him onto the deck at the nearest gun port. Toby considered the package for a moment, then left, returning a minute later with the Holy Bible in his hand. Turning to Psalm 107 he started to read aloud.
“They that go down to the sea in ships, that do business in great waters, these see the works of the LORD, and his wonders in the deep...”
When he reached verse twenty-eight there was a resounding crash and the whole brig shook like a baby’s rattle. There was no crack of canon fire, nor a whistle to warn him, just a deafening crash as the ball splintered its way through the port side of his ship.
He raised his voice. “He maketh the storm a calm, so that the waves thereof are still.”
Then came another sound: a rushing sound of water entering the bilge space below his feet.
It was now only a matter of time.
“Then are they glad because they be quiet so he bringeth them unto their desired haven.”
With that, Toby closed the Holy Book and lifted the body to the gun port. It was as Fuller was suspended half way through the opening that Toby had a thought. The last thing he wished to do was give the sharks a free offering in the way of a body bag. He rested Fuller’s feet on the deck and fed a cannonball into the lower part of the canvas tube. Once secured, he pushed the body through the port and stuck his head through the opening. For a few moments the bag floated on the surface of the sea then sank to the depths below.
The ship gave a sudden lurch followed by an unhealthy creaking as the stern began to rise above the waterline. Toby raced to the upper deck, returned his Bible to his kitbag and crammed the remaining space with as many pieces of splintered wood as he could lay his hands on. Without a second thought, he leapt over the starboard rail and allowed the current to take him over the bar towards his rescuers.
As soon as the word went out that the man had gone over the side the crew of the Lady Charlotte gathered at the rail. The tide was running fast now. With his kitbag supporting his head, the man slipped over the bar and raced towards them, his lifeless body lying face-up amidst a trail of blooded water. At that point the crew took him to be finished.
But Tobias Hopkins was far from being dead; rather than make a commotion in the water and attract the attention of hungry sharks, he chose to lie perfectly still; his thoughts occupied with the arduous task ahead. As he was lifted from the frenzied waters, his main concern was, not for himself, but for the well-being of the crew of his vessel. And particularly the well-being of John Fowler, for without him his next task would be impossible.
He was somewhat disappointed by the crowd who had gathered around the gunwale to greet him. The disorderly group appeared to be little different to the company of French buccaneers he and his crew had been forced to endure over the past few weeks. While their clothing was conventional enough; canvas or linen knee-length slops, waistcoats and plain linen shirts, most had adorned themselves with an identifying accessory of sorts. Some wore an earring of gold, for others it was a shark’s tooth or some other sort of trophy. And all were armed with a general disregard to safety; pistols tucked into cummerbunds and muskets propped against the gunwale. There was a sense that these men had a disregard for authority as most of the company were either leaning against a bulkhead or slouched on the hatch cover.
Soaked and bedraggled, Toby’s first words as he was dragged over the rail were to enquire of the whereabouts of his Mate. Toby straightened up and slung his kitbag over his shoulder.
“Would you be so good and direct me to Mister Fowler.” He said surveying the bemused onlookers.
A man dressed in a naval lieutenant’s jerkin stepped forward from the crowd. “And who, may I ask, are you?”
“Hopkins. Tobias Hopkins, Master of the Chesapeake Venture.”
This statement was greeted with a few chuckles from the group.
The naval man held up his hand. “Give the boy a chance.” He turned back to Toby. “But we were told that the vessel was commanded by a Monsieur Lafaiette.”
“The vessel was commandeered from us when we were set on course for Barbados. They held us hostage and took us on to Tortuga. The Chesapeake is a merchant vessel…” Toby looked up toward the empty horizon, “was a merchant --”
“That’s as we thought, Captain Hopkins. Those French butchers couldn’t handle a canoe let alone a brigantine. You will be pleased to know we set them adrift in a cutter to let the Spanish deal with them.”
A member of the group, who had been running a kerchief through the barrel of his pistol, leaned across to his shipmates. “Ha! An’ pissin’ their breeches, they was too.”
The man in the naval jerkin leaned with his back against the gunwale. “I am Captain-Lieutenant Hackett and I am in command of this vessel. Welcome aboard the Lady Charlotte, Captain Hopkins.” He nodded toward the stern. “You will find your crew over there on the poop deck.”
Toby thanked him and was about to take his leave when one of the group raised his hand. “You forgettin’ something Captain? Or should I say 'Master'?”
Laughter erupted from the crowd.
The Lieutenant addressed his crew. “Leave him be. I have my doubts the boy could stay afloat for long with his pockets laden with takings.” He turned back to Toby. “You are welcome aboard, Mister Hopkins. We are now bound for Port Royal on the Island of Jamaica. Have you been there afore?”
“No, I fear I have not, Lieutenant.”
“Then you are in for a treat.”
The crowd roared.
Since mid-morning the survivors of The Chesapeake had been mustered on the poop deck where John Fowler, a bear of a man with wavy light-brown hair and a beard which hid much of his genial face was calling out names from the vessel’s crew list.
“Aye.” A man standing in the front of the gathering raised his hand.
“Matthew? Where’s Matthew?” There was a note of panic in the Mate’s voice.
A young hand of about fourteen years pushed to the front. “Here I am, Mister Fowler.”
John let out a sigh of relief. “That’s fine, lad. Just stand easy.” He placed a mark against the boy’s name. “You all together, Son? Not been hurt, have you?”
“Good.” John gave a concerned glance over to the mizzen deck where the crew of the Lady Charlotte were still gathered at the port rail. He returned to his list.
“Aye.” The gentle reply came from the back; a seaman who stood a good head and shoulders above the rest. Samuel, a Yaocomaco Indian who could lift a main spar with one hand, had been The Chesapeake's bosun from the very beginning.
The Mate was about to call the next name when there was a distraction amongst the crew. He looked over his shoulder to see his captain making his way up to join them. Toby leaned against the poop rail while the men who had followed him from the main deck sat around to watch the proceedings.
John, somewhat relieved, continued with the roll.
The name was greeted with an empty silence. All looked to their captain as the name was called again. The look on the crew's ashen faces was to haunt Toby over the next weeks.
“Went down with the starboard skip, Chief.”
All eyes turned to Jackson.
“His feet was tangled in the rigging when she went down. Sucked under like a lead, he was.”
A man squatting on the hatch, removed his pipe and stabbed the air. “If those French bastards hadn’t overloaded that skip with canon irons he'd be here with us now!”
This evoked a response from the crew; “Aye, aye!” “True enough.” “Butchering bastards!”
“Alright now. Let’s get on, shall we?” John Fowler read out the next name.
The man with the pipe blew out a cloud of smoke. “John, you know I’m here. I was just talking with --”
“Yes, bear with me. Let's get this job done properly, then we can move on.” Fowler marked Davies as present.
“May I intervene for a moment, Mister Fowler?” Toby, who had been standing aside during the proceedings, felt that a degree of formality was required. With his speech prepared, he stepped forward and addressed his crew.
“Gentlemen, the raids along the coast are now over and God has spared us.”
These opening words elicited a few looks amongst the privateers who had followed Toby from the mizzen deck.
“No longer do we have to endure another day with the scent of blood on our hands,” Toby continued. “We should now put all this behind us and set to --”
“Forgive me, Captain.” Fowler moved close to Toby and gave a nod towards the gathering of onlookers. “With respect,” said the Mate, “but now may not be the right time to say too much on that topic, do you not think, Sir?”
Toby frowned at their audience who, in turn, waited for a further response from The Master.
“As you wish, Mister Fowler, but I would like a private word with you when you’ve done.”
“Aye Captain,” John nodded. “May I also suggest that you get that arm seen to?”
A pool of fresh blood was spreading across the deck beneath the captain’s right arm. “Point taken, Mister Fowler, I’ll do that right away. Carry on.”
Toby left the company and was directed to the purser's quarters where he was bandaged, given a hammock and an issue of rum. Armed with these items he took claim of a quiet corner on the forecastle where he laid out the contents of his kitbag to dry.
Copyright © 2014 James Faro