Pirates it is, and a battle there comes, and killed Phineas believes himself to be! We see this battle from the gun deck – the best and worst part of the battle – it is the very heart of the beast.
“Pirates?” Phineas gasped.
“Comin’ down on us from wind’ard, in these waters? She’ll be a bloodthirsty buccaneer as sure as I be standin’ ‘ere,” Duffy whispered harshly.
“All hands!” Lourdburton roared from somewhere far away in the ship. “All hands, prepare to make sail!”
“Aye, it’d be pirates, a’right,” Duffy muttered as he looked over the side. “They’ll be having the wind gauge on us.”
“What’s the wind gauge?” Phineas asked.
“It means that they’re upwind of us, and there’s nowhere we can go that she can’t follow,” Taylor replied.
Duffy looked at him in surprise.
“It also means she can swoop down and engage us whenever she wishes,” Taylor continued.
Phineas’ heart stopped. At first it was kind of exciting to think about fighting pirates. But this talk of tactics, and swooping down. That had a vulture-ish quality to it that made him nervous. Everything he’d ever read about pirates, about their tortures and their brutal killing of innocent sailormen, flooded to the top of his mind. He looked over the rail, hoping to see them, but there was nothing on the horizon.
“How come you to be knowing all this, then?” Duffy asked suspiciously.
“Reynolds, Modern Sailing Tactics. He references Pembroke’s book, too. A Compendium of Useful Sailing Maneuvers, I think it’s called.”
“Well,” Duffy replied sourly, “book-learning is all fine and well. But I’m sure your books don’t say nothing about getting away from bloodthirsty buccaneers.”
“As I recall,” Taylor said, “the best advice is generally to set every possible sail in hopes of outrunning them, perhaps to lose them in the dark, or perhaps in a fog, or even running…”
“All right, all right,” Duffy interrupted gruffly, “ye made yer point. Get you two back to the galley whilst I figure out what to do with ye should it come to a fight.”
He led them back into the galley and carefully shut the small beakhead doors behind them.
“And don’t ye let me hear of you two lubbers climbing out on the bowsprit, or the beakhead, or the maintop, or anywhere I aren’t said ye could be,” he added. He pushed past them and out into the waist, muttering as he went.
“Flying, for the love of the saints. Flying…”
“Do you think it will come to a sea fight?” Phineas asked nervously.
“Well,” Taylor said with a sigh. “Duffy is convinced it’s a pirate. And Lourdburton has begun setting more sail, which tells us that he must think the same thing.”
Taylor’s voice was pleasant, and unintentionally comforting. He spoke the way Phineas figured a big brother might.
“But they’ll have to catch us first,” Taylor continued. “She’ll probably have a deeper hull, which means she’ll make better time through the water.”
Phineas nodded sagely.
“What does that mean?”
“It means she sails faster than we do.”
“I daresay,” Phineas said.
Duffy had said it would come to a fight. A battle between the Kathryn B and the bloodthirsty pirates out there. He looked around the galley, wondering briefly what it would be like during a battle. The stories he’d read about sea fights with pirates were hard to believe… he never dreamed he might be in one. And now, here he was, marked down by a vicious gang of brigands and hunted like wild dogs in the street. He could almost feel their foul breath breathing down his neck and they waved their cutlasses around like dervishes, thrusting and hacking at everything that moved. Cannonballs flying through the air so thick you’d think they were mosquitoes. Smoke and fire and screaming and…
“I suppose we should do some work,” Taylor said.
His voice cut into Phineas’ thoughts like a church bell.
“Huh?” Phineas stared at him, calmly leaning against the cutting board. “What do you suppose the sea fight will be like?”
“How on Earth should I know?” Taylor answered. “I’ve only read about them in books.”
The deck tilted beneath them, causing them both to stagger.
“We’re sinking!” Phineas blurted. The battle was already over!
“We’re steering a new course,” Taylor replied evenly. “No doubt taking the wind over our quarter. It’s our best sailing point. My father considered himself a bit of a buff on naval tactics. Oh, I’ve read his whole library. He was killed in the attack on Ville St. Marie. I miss him terribly. I never wished to pursue a life at sea, but it does make for interesting reading. It’s rather like chess.”
“My father was a sea captain,” Phineas answered. “He was in the Navy. I would imagine these things were sort of commonplace for him.”
“What happened to him?”
“We don’t really know. He retired from the Navy, and captained merchant ships out of Boston. And then he just sort of disappeared a few years ago. He just… went away.”
“Do ye think he’s dead?”
“We’ve imagined as much, but the Navy still pays his pensions, or whatever those are called.”
“Well, it’s no wonder you take to the sea so naturally then, is it?”
“What are you two doing, skylarking in there?” Duffy roared from the waist. “Both o’ you! Get out here!”
Taylor shrugged at Phineas.
“All hands!” Lourdburton bellowed from the quarterdeck rail, “clear for action!”
“Clearing for action,” Taylor whispered as they trooped out toward the waist, “means we’re preparing for a fight.”
Phineas’ foot caught in a coil of rope.
“Watch it, there,” Wentworth grumbled from the deck where he crouched on the deck with a small pile of ropes and the wooden pulleys the sailors called blocks. “Mind yer feet, ye lubber.”
Phineas stepped a little more carefully around the end of the cannon upon which Gruyere, that tall African fellow Tomas, and a roundish fellow named Huss busily attached ropes, blocks, and hooks. They had rolled the massive gun, about the size of a very large pig, backwards toward the center of the deck.
“What are you doing?” he asked.
“Makin’ ready,” Huss said simply. “Wentworth’s laying out the training tackle while we get the restraining ropes in place.”
Phineas nodded wisely and stepped out into the waist. They certainly knew their gun parts, and didn’t appear to be too worried about the pirate ship. In fact, they seemed rather cheerful, about it.
He looked about quickly, imagining the pirates to be alongside, but there was no sign of another ship.
“There she is,” Taylor said quietly.
“Right there,” Taylor said and nodded towards a black smudge on the horizon.
“Are you sure? It just looks like a cloud.”
“All right, lads,” Duffy said and rubbed his hands together. “It’ll be awhile before that blaggard catches our range, but Mr. L plans to be ready for ‘im when he does. You two will be going below and reporting to Mr. Sturgis.”
“What are we to do?” asked Taylor.
“Powder monkeys. Get a move on, now.”
Duffy turned and headed into the galley.
“Come on, then,” Taylor said quietly and rumbled down the stairs that led into the hold.
The stench was every bit as putrid as Phineas remembered.
Far forward, up where the sunlight from the open grating did not reach, a lantern flickered, and Sturgis’ voice rattled out.
“Come on, ye land-lubbin’ swabbies. There don’t be much time.”
Phineas followed Taylor around the kegs and barrels, into the increasingly dark forward section of the hold, until the only light that shone came from Sturgis’ lantern.
Just as they reached the little circle of lantern light, and the bosun’s grim face within it, the lantern went out. They were plunged into a deep gray darkness.
“Wha… what are we doing?” Phineas asked nervously. “Why did the lantern go out?” Something bad was about to happen.
Wood scraped on wood in front of him. In the very dim light creeping in from the ladder he saw Sturgis lift the lid of a big keg. He carefully set the lid on the deck next to him.
“Ye don’t want to mix gunpowder with open flames, lad,” he replied softly.
“Gunpowder,” Taylor whispered.
“A proper warship has the luxury of a powder room,” Sturgis said softly. “But little merchant ships the likes of us makes do with powder barrels in the dark.”
Both boys involuntarily took a step backward
“Wha…what are we doing?” Phineas repeated.
“Be quiet. There lies a box by your left foot,” Sturgis said matter-of-factly. “Be so kind as to reach into it and hand me one of them canvas bags.”
Phineas did as he was told, fumbling with the wooden lid of the box on the deck by his left foot. It was impossible to see down there, and he was quite concerned lest a rat be hiding in the box. His fingers found a coarse canvas bag, and he picked it up carefully.
“Is – is this it?” he asked. His hands trembled as he passed the baguette-sized bag over to the bosun.
“Aye,” Sturgis grumbled. He carefully filled the bag with powder from a wooden scoop. Phineas watched with a mix of fear and confusion as the bag filled up with the black granular powder. With a start he realized that he could now see quite well – his eyes had become accustomed to the gloom.
Sturgis carefully tied the bag shut and hefted it in his hand. He then reached across the barrel and offered it towards Taylor.
“Give me another bag,” he grunted. “Taylor, hold this.”
Taylor’s hands shook as he took the heavy bag full of deadly explosive powder from the bosun. He held it tightly in both hands, fearful lest he should drop it and blow them all to Kingdom Come.
“Wha…what are we doing?” Phineas asked for the third time.
“Well, now,” Sturgis replied with a grin, “the guns won’t fire themselves, will they?”
“What are we supposed to do with these?”
Sturgis laughed and shook his head.
“Your pappy taught you nothin’, did he? Do ye not ken to running powder?”
“But, I don’t want to be a monkey,” Taylor replied sadly.
“You’re to run these powder bags to every gun in the ship, do ye ken? When ye’ve delivered ‘em ye runs bag here and grabs some more. In the Navy it was the cabin boys what did the task, just as you be, and we called ‘em powder monkeys.”
As he talked he filled cloth bag after cloth bag with the black, sandy gunpowder. He pointed off into the dark.
“Grab ye that bucket there, and put these within.”
“Still, it’s the word ‘monkey’ to which I object…” Taylor began.
“I don’t care if ye calls yerself Billy Barnacles!” Sturgis roared. “Ye can paint your face blue and hang from the deck beams like a Mohawk for all I care! The powder has to be delivered to the guns, and I do not care a fiddler’s fart what ye call yourself whilst you do it!”
The three stood in awkward silence for a moment. Phineas snickered at the term “fiddler’s fart” – Mother would never have used language like that! Taylor stared down into his nearly full bucket, and Sturgis filled more and more of the foot-long powder cartridges.
“Loose headsl’s” Lourdburton’s inhumanly loud voice barked out from the quarterdeck. The thunder of bare feet boomed on the deck above them.
The ship bucked under their feet. After a brief corkscrew motion, she settled into a new, rougher motion. Her gentle rocking rhythm became startlingly raucous as she bashed through the waves.
“What are we doing?” Phineas asked.
“Now we be sailin’,” Sturgis said.
A whistle blew, and somebody began pounding a drum. Feet thundered on the deck over head, and a new noise, like the scraping of furniture over a wooden floor, shook the entire ship.
“Wh…what’s that?” Phineas gasped again. “Is it the four foot knees?”
“The what?” Taylor asked. Sturgis cackled.
“He keeps jabberin’ on about four foot knees!”
“What, the forefoot knees?” Taylor grinned.
“They’re on his daughter,” Phineas snapped. “What’s all that noise?”
“Clearin’ for action,” Sturgis said solemnly.
“Clearing for what?”
“Our ship is clearing for action in order to do battle with that pirate ship,” Taylor said.
“Clearing for action?” Phineas asked.
“Yes,” Taylor answered. “You know, getting the guns ready to fight, putting items that could get damaged below the waterline… I read all about this is Hathaway’s Modern Ships of War.”
“Books,” Sturgis snorted. “If ye ask me, this is the very best part of working the seas. The smell of powder and hot iron, and crack and roar as the guns go off. It fills your soul, so it does.”
“Aren’t you afraid of getting killed?” Phineas asked.
“Ye get as good as ye give,” Sturgis answered simply. He stopped filling the bags for a moment and stare off into the dark. “Ye look through the port and there she is, her sides blowing smoke and sails jerkin’ as your shots pour through. The word comes to wait for the uproll, and ye watch, watch, makin’ sure ye don’t shoot too high and go over, and ye don’t fire down into the sea. Ye can feel the slow match cracklin’ in your hand. Then comes the word to fire. One last look down the barrel, and then you stubs the fuse with the match. She hisses and ye jump back, knowin’ that the bugger’s gonna leap at you like a wounded buffalo. Just when ye think maybe the fuse didn’t take, she lets go with a roar that blots out the sea and the sky and the heavens theyselves, and she thunders back, pouring smoke and fire, and slams herself hard against the tackles. And then she wants it again… sponge out, Billy. For the love of God sponge out ere ye put that powder down there or she’ll blow ye to pieces. Mind, Billy, mind… easy with that bag… “
The old man’s voice trailed off into a murmur. He stared off into the dark, his lips finishing a conversation they couldn’t hear.
Taylor looked at Phineas and shrugged.
“Well,” he said, “I imagine I’ll just go and deliver these cartridges.”
“Yes,” Phineas replied uneasily. “I shall do the same.”
They backed away into the darkness and headed for the ladder.
“What was that all about?” Taylor asked.
“It gave me the chills, I can tell you!” answered Phineas.
“Taylor to port, Phineas to starboard,” Sturgis’ voice called after them.
The new, more aggressive motion through the sea made the ladder to the main deck much more difficult to climb, especially with the heavy, cartridge-filled buckets.
“What do we do?” Phineas gasped as climbed onto the steeply canted deck.
He looked about in surprise.
“Heavens,” Taylor gasped. “Things have rather changed!”
The masts were crowded with sails that bulged under the pressure of the wind. Enormous fountains of green and white spray leapt over the front of the ship as she plowed through the waves. The decked leaned so steeply off to the right that the ragged, white-capped waves were just inches short of washing over the starboard rail.
“Right. Let’s work from forward to aft,” he said. “You take the starboard side, and I’ll work the port. Meet you back here!”
“I… I’m not so sure,” Phineas stammered. Things had changed so quickly, he didn’t like the idea of splitting up.
“Go that way,” Taylor pointed toward the front of the ship. “Stay on that side, and hand out these cartridges. When you run out, come back here.”
“Aye, sir,” Phineas replied meekly.
Taylor shook his head and lumbered off under the forecastle, lugging his cartridge bucket behind him.
Phineas’ bucket was quite heavy, with no less than fourteen of the big canvas cartridges in it. He set it on the deck and looked at it.
“I imagine I must do this,” he sighed, and dragged it off toward the forecastle.
He dragged the thing through the galley, scraping it along the deck as he worked his way forward.
“Here now, don’t drag that on the deck,” a voice called out. He glanced about, expecting to find Lourdburton or Sturgis or someone glaring at him. To his surprise, nobody was looking at him – someone just didn’t want him to drag the bucket on the deck. For all the excitement and strangeness of clearing for action and racing headlong before the wind, that little gesture was welcoming and heartening. Here was a pirate about to chase them down, and some fellow was concerned about damage to the deck made by a bucket.
He hefted the bucket and stumbled his way forward, to the foremost gun on his side. Like the others, it was a shiny brass piece mounted on a heavy wooden carriage. The men who worked the gun had it backwards to the center of the deck, and scuttled nervously around it as if it was a pregnant cow.
“There we are, lad,” said that man Jablonski. “Give us some powder then, eh?”
“This isn’t bad luck is it?” Phineas asked him. The sight of Jablonski down there with the guns, and the men all grim and nervous, with a pirate ship chasing after them – it all seemed like bad luck to him.
Jablonski looked at him blankly for a second, and then smiled in a wide grin.
“Still worried about bein’ a Jonah, is ye?”
Phineas nodded dumbly. Jablonski laughed quietly.
“Don’t ye worry about that, lad. You’ll be all right.”
Phineas smiled weakly and moved off to the next gun. Jablonski had meant to be kind, but Phineas couldn’t find much comfort in his words.
The men at the next gun took the cartridges greedily and stuffed the cannons with them. Phineas watched closely as they shoved two cartridges down each barrel, rolled not one but three heavy cannon balls behind it, shoved a wad of cloth behind that, and then jammed it all down the barrel with a wooden stick.
“You put too many cannonballs in there,” Phineas said.
The men chuckled at that.
“We’m treble-shotting the guns, lad,” Jablonski said with a grin. “They fly slower, but they hits ’em much harder.”
“Oh,” Phineas replied. He didn’t quite know what to make of that answer.
He watched as the men heaved on ropes at either side of the heavy cannon to pull it right up against the square port cut into the side of the ship in front of them.
“Hoy,” a voice called. “Powder. Over ‘ere.”
Phineas ignored it, instead watching Jablonski as he leaned down to blow on a slowly sputtering piece of fuse glittering evilly in a wooden tub on the deck.
“What’s that?” Phineas asked, instinctively swinging his bucket of gunpowder away from the flame.
“Slow match,” Jablonski puffed. “It’s how we fire the gun.”
“Hey, dere, young fella,” Swede called from the next gun. “We are needing of the powder too, ya?”
“Hey!” Phineas said when he recognized him.
“Quiet,” Cheswick grumbled. He was a huge block of a man, nearly as wide as he was tall. Not fat, but infinitely solid, reminding Phineas of nothing so much as the enormous stump that sat resolutely behind their pump house in Duxbury. Like the stump, Cheswick stood massive and immovable on the other side of the brass cannon. “There aren’t no time for chit-chat. Give us the powder.”
Phineas carefully reached into the bucket to dole out four cartridges. Cheswick snapped the bucket out of his hands with a catlike agility – so fast that Phineas gasped in surprise.
Cheswick poured all of the cartridges out onto the deck and tossed the bucket at him. Things happened so fast Phineas hadn’t had a chance to react, and the bucket hit him square in the chest.
“Bring us more powder,” Cheswick grumbled.
“Please,” Swede added.
“Go, blast your hide,” Cheswick finished.
Phineas ran back out into the sunshine of the waist, shocked and scared, and not a little disappointed at having been treated so rudely.
Taylor passed on the other side of the waist. He gave a broad smile and a firm thumb’s up as he went by.
Phineas ducked into the ‘tween decks, tripped over a ringbolt in the deck and crashed straight into Gruyere. In the dim lantern light Gruyere looked like a gnome, with that Alfred-Townsend-like hatchet face. He was drenched in sweat – even the bald spot on top of his head glinted in the dim lantern light.
“Here, lad, give us the powder, eh?” He grabbed at the bucket in Phineas’ hand. It was empty.
“What’s this, then?”
Phineas stared at him blankly, not knowing what to say.
“You come in ‘ere wit’out no bleedin’ powder? And we’un’s s’possed to give them blaggards what for? And yew haint got no powder? Why I’ve ‘alf a mind to…”
“Silence on deck!” Lourdburton’s immensely loud bellow wrapped around them from the deck overhead. The men all jumped in surprise.
“I don’t know what ye’re problem is, boyo, but…” Gruyere began in an angry whisper.
“I’ve got powder,” Taylor interrupted, coming from the other side of the deck. “I was supposed to give it to you.”
He offered his bucket to Gruyere, who snatched it out of his hands greedily. The three men at the guns worked quickly and quietly, loading each gun with three cannon balls.
Phineas looked at Taylor in surprise and a deep, deep gratitude.
“Fee-nay-use,” the princess’ voice drifted out from behind Mr. Lourdburton’s closed cabin door. He looked down at the deck in embarrassment as the men at the guns chuckled and nudged each other.
“Best answer ‘er ladyship, lad,” Wentworth called from the last gun. “Best not keep the lady waitin’, eh?”
Phineas groaned and loped up to the cabin door. He glanced back at Taylor, who raised his eyebrows and shook his head in amazement.
“Uh, your highness?” he said softly.
“‘Oo is there?”
“Uh, Phineas, your majesty,” he answered as quietly as he could. Despite the impending battle the sailors at the guns couldn’t tear their eyes off of him. They grinned as if he was going to a cotillion.
The door opened carefully. Louise looked at him with calm, black eyes. She glanced around him, standing in the doorway. She looked at the guns, and their crews staring at them.
“We are battling les boucaniers, non?” she stated firmly.
“I don’t know what those are,” Phineas answered honestly.
“They are like you English,” she replied with a small smile. “Pie-rats.”
“Oh,” Phineas nodded. “Yes, we are. I mean no, we are not pirates. But they are…”
“Well, you must get me down to the ‘old. It is the only place I will be safe,” she said quietly.
“The hold?” The nightmarish image of the rats and scary Mr. Sturgis and that open keg of powder drifted through his mind. “Well, Mr. Sturgis is down there with an open keg of gunpowder…”
“Gunpowder? Ma foi!” she blinked. “Very well, a pistol then. Bring me the pistol rapidement.”
“Well, actually, I’m a little busy with the powder… “
“I cannot stay in this tiny cabin without a weapon. I am defenseless ‘ere. A pistol. A sword. Anything. You ‘ave to ‘elp me!”
“Me? What can I do?”
“You are the sailor, non?” she snapped.
“Oh, ‘e most certainly is, your ladyship,” Wentworth jeered from his cannon. “‘E’s a regular Admiral ‘awkins, ‘e is!”
The men burst out laughing at this. Phineas’ cheeks glowed hot.
“I, uh,” he stammered, “I will speak with my Uncle. He’s the ship’s captain.”
“Merci,” the princess said quickly and closed the door.
He strode past the men – they grinned at him like a pack of baboons. Swede gave him a nod as he headed forward.
“We’ve got to get more powder,” Taylor said quietly.
“Alouette, gentile Alouette,” Cheswick sang softly as Phineas went by.
Phineas’ arms ached so badly he hoped they would fall off. He set the immeasurably heavy bucket on the deck and mopped away the sweat from his forehead with his shirtsleeve. He and Taylor had run the powder cartridges from the hold to the guns for well over an hour, and now, he noted proudly, each gun had at least ten bags of gunpowder carefully arrayed next to it.
“Come on, then,” Gruyere whispered to himself, “come on. Give us the word.”
He arched himself over his cannon, staring out the square wooden gun port. The Pope and Higgs, the other two men of his gun crew, stood expectantly on either side of the glittering brass weapon, their eyes, too, concentrated on the small square of sunlight before them.
Phineas stared, too. He had stopped to catch his breath, when, out of the corner of his eye, he caught just a glimpse of the ship, drifting like a ghost on the far away waves. She was there for just a moment, before the Kathryn B veered a certain way and made her disappear.
“Give the word,” Gruyere hissed.
“We can’t shoot yet, can we?” Phineas asked.
“Eh, what now?” Gruyere replied without looking up. “What?”
“I mean, you can’t even see the other ship…”
“Just you watch,” Gruyere grunted.
It took just a moment, but suddenly the other ship was right there, just a few hundred feet away.
“But, how did they…” Phineas gasped in surprise.
“Ye can’t tell distances at sea. Things don’t always look a’right…”
“On the uproll, FIRE!” Lourdburton’s insanely loud bellowed echoed down the deck.
“‘At’s more like it,” Gruyere cooed. “Easy lads, easy, wait…”
The ship rolled on a wave, and the sky outside the gunport shone blue and clear.
Gruyere jammed the slow match onto the gun’s fuse. It sputtered for a hundredth of a second and then disappeared.
The gun’s explosion was so loud Phineas didn’t think he could even hear. Gruyere and the others disappeared in a thick cloud of smoke
The cannon flew backwards, its wooden wheels screaming like tortured cats, directly at Phineas.
“Look out, ye stupid lubber!”
Gruyere elbowed Phineas in the ribs so hard that he fell over backwards, rolling on the deck in pain and surprise. The cannon thundered backwards toward him and stopped, just inches from his face, held in place by an enormously thick rope.
“Th… thanks,” he stammered and slowly got to his feet.
“Sponge!” Gruyere yelled and beat his fist into his hand. “Come on! Powder, Pope! Move!”
The cannon next to them went off with a thunderous roar – it shook the air so hard it seemed like the air exploded. Another gun went off, and another.
“Tackle! Pull, ye hearties, pull!” Gruyere bellowed. The Pope and Higgs hauled on ropes and pulled the brass cannon back up to the square window.
Without even looking out the window, Gruyere jammed the slow match onto the gun again. The thing leapt back, thundering out an enormous cloud of thick gray smoke.
The gun next them went off again, and the one on the other side. The men roared and yelled through the thick clouds of gun smoke that enveloped the entire ship. On the crowded ‘tween decks Phineas felt as if the sun had gone out.
“A guinea for a mast!” Lourdburton yelled from above.
“Ye hear that, lads?” Gruyere bellowed.
“Come on, Tom,” The Pope yelled at Gruyere. “We could use that guinea!”
A shaft of sunlight suddenly appeared in front of them. Phineas stumbled backwards, his face pelted with a thousand gnats.
The thundering guns had stopped. The yelling had gone away. A blot of black ink, the size of a large apple, flew silently and intently at his face. All the world faded away in his focus on the iron ball. The thing traveled in a cloud of splinters and sawdust, spinning slightly as it closer and closer.
Phineas slowly fell backwards and raised his arms.
The ball screamed just half an inch past his face, sucking the wind out of his lungs with the pressure of its passing, and pulled at his hair. It cracked through the side of the ship behind him.
He tumbled heavily onto the deck, unable to breathe, certain he was dead.