What sail appears on the larboard tack with greater promise, thought I, as the Captain opens his glass and peers into the distance. Light breezes, a gentle Caribbean Sea, the bluest of skies and we sit square in the path any Spanish treasure ship must take for the distant safety of Cadiz. “Mr. Lambdin,” the Captain calls to me, his first lieutenant, “Please take the ship fifteen degrees larboard and send a midshipman aloft with a glass to survey our new friend.”
“Aye, sir!” says I, and give the appropriate commands to the proper crew, the ship heeling to its new course in good order and Midshipman Dewey scampering as high as the main mast crosstrees to scan the horizon. As the minutes pass in high anticipation what was a bare smudge on the horizon becomes more defined as sail advancing towards us. “What say you, Mr. Dewey?” I called.
“She’s Spanish, sir,” the spry midshipman hollers back. “But something’s amiss.” He climbs down, rushes back to the poop deck to report more clearly. “Most definitely Spanish, sir, I can make out the ensign, and a big ‘un! But she’s maneuvered not at all, even though clearly she must see us. And her tack is off for the wind and sails spill their winds lubberly.”
The Captain ponders this.
“Be a good hour or more before we’re up to her in this wind,” I tell the Captain.
He nods. “Send the crew to their breakfast, Mr. Lambdin.”
The crew rush to their biscuit, knowing full well quarters would be called thereafter and they would man their guns for battle. Already I can hear the murmurs of “treasure ship” amongst them. I move closer to the Captain and say quietly, “If indeed it is a ship of the line…”
“Which seems likely,” the Captain told me.
“…our frigate would be greatly outgunned.”
“Are you suggesting we decline battle?”
“Not at all,” I say, “As we approach bow on bow we could heel and present a raking broadside.” Well aimed, such an onslaught would send shot through the length of the Spaniard, wreaking havoc, destruction and death at a fantastic rate.
“It would even the odds considerably,” the Captain agreed, “Unless of course its captain gave orders to heel at the same moment placing us broadside to broadside, doubling and then some our number of guns.”
“Placing us at an extreme disadvantage,” I nodded.
The Captain leaned closer to me. “But if indeed she is at hazard …” He let that trail off. A ship handled so in this part of the sea carried a particular possibility. “Please take the glass forward,” he handed his over to me, “Keep sightings to yourself.”
“Aye, sir,” I said and moved quietly to the forecastle, making light small talk with the crew as I went. I watched off and on until the big ship had closed to less than half, no more than 40 minutes off now, and moved back to the Captain who cocked his ear close to receive my report. “I don’t see it,” I told him. “But the ship is barely making headway, perhaps moving only with the current.” He nodded. Then I told him, “It does, sir, sit exceptionally low in the water. Whatever it carries, it’s loaded to the gills.”
The Captain nodded. Moved away. He checked that the crew had finished with breakfast, which it had dispensed with quickly, and shouted, “Beat to quarters if you please, Mr. Lambdin!”
I had only just opened my mouth to shout the order before the young drummer struck up ‘Hearts of Oak’ and the crew rushed madly in every direction to take their posts, royal marines climbing the shrouds and rat lines with muskets with standing orders to pick off the officers as opportunity provided. The Captain watched the big Spaniard carefully, then gave orders to adjust course to pass to windward – clearly, he wanted to be upwind of the ship if possible. But as we crossed that invisible line by which the guns were in range it was clear the Spaniard was in no condition to fight, its sails hanging loosely, and its gun ports closed. “Haul in all sail,” the Captain ordered, and the topmen scurried aloft and made it happen. We would coast to within two cables. No reaction by the Spaniard. No activity seen.
By now, every officer and the more experienced crew had a sense of things. The Captain called for the second lieutenant. “Take a small party over to her. Do not board her, sir. Take a look over the rail if you can do so without having your head blown off, then report what you see back to me.”
“Aye, sir,” the second lieutenant touched his tricorne hat and called for the boatswain. Everyone watched as the small barge made its way between the ships with still no notice from the Spaniard. The second lieutenant made his way up the hull by the boarding battens, ducked his head over the top a couple times, then raised himself higher and made good observations for several minutes before returning.
“I seen it, sir,” he said to the captain once back onboard and hurrying to the poop deck. “The Yellow Jack,” he named the flag to be hoisted by ships in quarantine. “It’s sprawled on deck where it’s fallen, likely poorly winched, sir. Men are lying sick or dead all about.”
The Captain nodded, looked at me from tops of his eye sockets. “Plague,”
Those men what heard him whispered to those next to them, and on to those next to them, and word went like a hot wind.
“Seems clear, sir,” I agreed.
The Captain clasped his hands behind him. “Well, gentlemen,” he said, “What we have before us is all human enterprise; enough gold and silver waiting to make us all rich beyond our dreams. But if we proceed to take possession business as usual we die before we can spend a farthing of it.” He gave me ‘the eye.’
I stepped towards the rail and shouted to the waiting crew below, “What bastards among you think themselves immune!?”
All my life I have had to learn to do things differently. To see the world differently.