The fight with the pirates is desperate and violent, and leaves young Phineas with a whole new conundrum…
He lay on the deck, stunned and frightened, and waited for someone to help him. The cannons roared out over and over again. Smoke billowed around the gun crews and made them look like pictures from the bible. The deck shook underneath him so violently that the little pieces of broken wood lying around him danced a constant tiny jig. Each time he heard a higher pitched cracking noise, he saw even more pieces of wood shower down around him.
He wondered how long he would have to lie like this until somebody helped him. They knew he might be injured – Gruyere and his team must have seen him fall down. But Gruyere’s men just kept firing their gun. Higgs didn’t seem to be on their team anymore. Someone else was in Higgs’ spot. Where was Higgs?
He sat up with a jolt. That hump over there, beyond the gun, at the edge of the deck. That was Higgs. Higgs was dead.
He leapt to his feet. Those little pieces of wood were splinters, pieces of the Kathryn B, shot off by that other ship. That high-pitched cracking noise was Kathryn B’s wood, shattering under the impact of those cannon balls, just like the one that almost killed him. Panic washed over him like bucket of very cold water.
“Merciful heavens,” he gasped.
“Powder,” Gruyere roared. “Bring us powder, Phineas!”
Phineas searched for the bucket and finally spotted it lying upside down over by Higgs. He didn’t want to touch Higgs or even look at him, but needed the bucket. He froze, not knowing what to do.
Gruyere glanced at him, at the bucket, and that over at The Pope.
“Pope… the bucket.”
Without looking up from his task of running a long pole down the gun’s sizzling barrel, Pope kicked the bucket, sending it spiraling across the deck to Phineas.
“Thank you,” Phineas muttered as he leaned down to pick it up. There was a blood smear down one side.
He carefully kept his fingers away from the blood and dashed out towards the waist. A gun erupted in smoke in front of him, screaming backwards against its rope.
“Powder!” Cheswick bellowed at him. “We’re running low!”
Phineas nodded and ran out into the bright sunshine of the waist. The afternoon sun slanted across the deck, golden and cold. The shadows of the rigging marched across the billowing clouds of smoke.
“I see it!” Wilkins yelled from way up above the cloud, somewhere up on the mast. “Another ship!”
“Mr. Wilkins,” Lourdburton roared, “a proper report, please.”
“Deck there,” Wilkins sounded a little apologetic, “sail fine on the port quarter, making for us, sir.”
“Can ye make her?”
“I believe her to be the Grace, sir.”
Phineas sidled closer to the companion ladder in order to hear what was going on.
“We are done for sure,” Uncle Neville said sadly. “They say Grace turned pirate. I should never have let you run us into a battle with this Williwaw. We should have surrendered the instant we saw her.”
“We’d all be dead now, Neville,” Lourdburton replied gently. “There was no choice.”
A cannon ball from the other ship, the one Phineas now knew to be the Williwaw, crashed through the companion ladder, sending splinters flying everywhere. He stumbled backwards, shielding his eyes with the bucket. He bumped into someone moving behind him and almost fell.
“Steady, boyo,” Duffy said and steadied him on his feet. He pushed past Phineas and scrambled up the remains of the companion ladder, his heavy frame making the wreckage creak under his weight. He turned halfway up and faced Phineas.
“Ye’d best get below. The lads are running low on powder.”
“Aye, sir,” Phineas gasped and turned towards the ladder.
“That’s Mad Pat,” Duffy called up to the deck, “or I’ll be the son of a turtle.”
Taylor met Phineas at the bottom of the stairs.
“Warm work, eh?”
Phineas nodded as the ship shuddered beneath his feet.
“They’re shooting us apart!”
“I heard there’s another ship.”
“Captained by somebody named Mad Pat, I believe,” Phineas said seriously, trying to sound as calm as Taylor. It took all of his concentration to not scream the words out in panic. “Uncle Neville believes we are lost.”
Taylor nodded and ran up the stairs, his heavy bucket full of cartridges. Phineas lugged his bloodstained bucket through the darkness towards old man Sturgis.
The deck beneath his feet jumped again, but the crash was accompanied by an odd sound, like a hammer striking a thick log.
“Below the line!” Sturgis yelled in the dark.
Phineas hurried forward in the near darkness to find Sturgis crouching over his barrel, madly scraping out powder with his wooden scoop. A pile of filled cartridges lay on the deck at his feet.
“What was that?” Phineas asked anxiously.
“Hit us below the waterline, that one. We’ll be taking on water now for sure.”
“Are… are we going to sink?”
Sturgis paused for a long, long time.
Phineas scooped the cartridges off of the deck and crammed into his bucket. This morning he’d never seen a cartridge before. Now he handled them as if were simply loaves of bread.
The ship was sinking. That much was clear. Sturgis hadn’t laughed at him the way he had over the four-foot knees. She was going to sink. And Mr. Duffy said that the other ship had Mad Pat aboard – the Grace, that was it. And the Williwaw, that was the ship Duffy had said had betrayed them, and had done that hurt to his face. A tear ran down his cheek. All was so surely lost.
A cannonball skipped across the deck right in front of him as he emerged at the top of the stairs, just as if some child had rolled it.
“Starboard over!” Lourdburton yelled.
The deck heeled beneath Phineas’ feet, causing him to stumble with the heavy bucket.
“Hands to the braces!”
The Kathryn B’s gunfire immediately ceased. Several men, Swede among them, scrambled to grab the long ropes leading up to the yards. Swede winked as he went past.
“Don’t you vorry.”
An enormous barrage of several cannons roared out all at once, the sound so severe the very air shook around Phineas’ head. He looked down at the deck, expecting it to fall away beneath him, certain that nothing could survive that horrific noise.
A couple of cannons replied, but it was nothing compared to that terrible cannonade. The Kathryn B was curiously quiet. Even as another barrage, as loud as the first, went off.
He looked at the Williwaw, expecting her cannonballs to scream past him. But the cannon fire wasn’t from her, but from the Grace, which, even as he watched, fired another. All of her guns on one side, firing as one.
And they weren’t firing on the Kathryn B, but on the Williwaw.
“Huzzah, lads! Huzzah!” Duffy bellowed from the quarterdeck. “Mad Pat’s done it!”
Several of the men cheered at that.
“All hands, prepare to make sail!” Lourdburton roared.
The sailors who had moments before abandoned their cannons to pull on the ropes now scrambled into the rigging to loosen the sails. Swede waved at Phineas as he headed for the maintop.
“I say,” Taylor said, emerging from the ‘tween decks. “That’s rather unexpected.”
“The Grace fired on the Williwaw!”
“So I see,” Taylor replied casually. “That’s a bit of a turnabout, isn’t it? One pirate, fighting another?”
“It seems most odd to me. Although, come to think on it, Duffy told me once that the captain of the Williwaw had fired on the Grace. Perhaps the Grace has come for some sort of retribution or something.”
“Most odd, in either case,” Taylor replied with a shake of the head. “I haven’t read about this.”
“Hands to the pumps!” Lourdburton bellowed.
“Pumps?” Taylor asked
“Sturgis said we’re sinking.”
The air shook around them as more cannons bellowed out from the embattled ships. At the sound, Phineas and Taylor both turned and looked stared over the side.
In just the moment their conversation had taken, the Kathryn B had edged away from the Grace and Williwaw. The two ships poured shot after shot into one another. Thick smoke poured out of the Williwaw, and the orange tongue of fire reached up around her forward structure.
“Won’t be long for her,” Taylor said softly.
“Like the Bartolomeo,” Phineas whispered. Fire at sea seemed was such an odd, unsettling combination. If your house burned down you could run outside – but where do you run in the middle of the ocean?
“Pass the word for Mr. Lourdburton, if you please, Phineas,” Uncle Neville said loftily.
“Pass the word?” Phineas replied. The nearly empty silver coffee pot was awkward to handle on the wooden tray, on good days, but the ship’s rough, aggressive motion through the sea made the thing deucedly tippy.
“Yes,” his uncle replied testily. “Pass the word. Go tell him I want to see him.”
“Oh, I see. You know, if you had said that first… “
Phineas scurried down the ‘tween decks without another word. Everything smelled of burnt powder and fresh wood shavings. All around him Sturgis and his assistants knocked replacement boards and timbers into place with wooden mallets. The guns had been put back in their places, and nobody seemed to care much about the battle in the least, even though it had happened just yesterday.
Poor Higgs and another fellow named Weston had been killed. Three more had been wounded, and Phineas’ face still itched from when he’d been peppered by gnats.
“They don’t be gnats, you numbskull,” Duffy had told him as he washed off the boy’s face with greenish fresh water. “Those’d be splinters.”
“Splinters?” Phineas gasped.
“The Kathryn B don’t be made of iron, eh?”
The thousands of little tiny splinters, knocked out of the shattered planks of the Kathryn B, had all been swept up. Phineas saw them – most no more than a toothpick in size, but some as big as carrots – as they were put into buckets to be used as firewood.
Lourdburton stood at the quarterdeck rail, his dark eyes surveying the repairs going on in the waist. Wentworth, Swede, the Pope, Gruyere, even Cheswick, knotted and tied ropes together under Lourdburton’s watchful eye.
“Triple them lines, there, Wentworth. Double won’t stand a blow.”
Phineas took a step up the newly repaired companion ladder. It creaked slightly under his weight.
“Yes?” Lourdburton asked without looking at him. Lourdburton had been nicer since Phineas made that crazy climb to the masthead. Not friendly, but not quite as mean.
“Uncle Ne… I mean, the captain asked me to fetch you.”
Lourdburton did not look at him, but continued surveying the rope work.
“You must be very proud of your father.”
“My… my father?” Phineas stammered.
“Aye,” Lourdburton said without turning. “He did us quite a favor, eh?”