As we approached we raised a red ensign, the British flag, and sure enough the Galley remained where she was, thinking us an English privateer on her side.
Which we were. In theory.
Men primed their pistols and checked the action of their swords. Boarding hooks were taken up and the guns manned. As we came up alongside and the Galley crew realized we were primed for battle, we were close enough to see their faces fall and panic gallop through the ship like a startled mare.
We forced her to heave to. Our men raced to the gunwales where they stood ready for action, aiming pistols, manning the swivel guns or with cutlasses drawn and teeth bared. I had no pistol and my sword was a rusty old thing the quartermaster had found at the bottom of a chest, but even so. Squeezed in between men twice my age but ten times as fierce, I did my utmost to scowl with as much ferocity as they did. To look just as fierce and savage.
The guns below were trained on the Galley opposite. One word and they’d open fire with a volley of shot, enough to break their vessel in half, send them all to the bottom of the sea. On the faces of their crew was the same sick, terrified expression. The look of men caught out, men who had to face the terrible consequences.
“Let your captain identify himself,” our first mate called across the gap between our two vessels. He produced a timer and banged it down on the gunwale rail. “Send out your captain before the sands run out, or we shall open fire.”
It took them until their time was almost up, but he appeared on deck at last, dressed in all his finery and fixing us with what he hoped was an expression of defiance—which couldn’t disguise the trepidation in his eyes.
He did as he was told and ordered a boat to be launched, then clambered aboard and was rowed across to our ship. Secretly I couldn’t help but feel sympathy for him. He put himself at our mercy in order to protect his crew, which was admirable, and his head was held high when, as he ascended the Jacob’s ladder from his boat, he was jeered at by the men manning the mounted guns on the deck below, then grabbed roughly by the shoulders and dragged over the rail of the gunwale to the quarter-deck.
When he was hauled to his feet he pulled away from the men’s clutching hands, threw his shoulders back and, after adjusting his jacket and cuffs, demanded to see our captain.
“Aye, I’m here,” called Dolzell, who came down from the sterncastle with Trafford, the first mate, at his heels. The captain wore his tricorn with a bandana tied beneath it, and his cutlass was drawn.
“What’s your name, Captain?” he said.
“My name is Captain Benjamin Pritchard,” replied the merchant captain sourly, “and I demand to know the meaning of this.”
He drew himself up to full height but was no match for the stature of Dolzell. Few men were.
“The meaning of this,” repeated Dolzell. The captain wore a thin smile, possibly the first time I had ever seen him smile. He cast an arch look around his men gathered on the deck, and a cruel titter ran through our crew.
“Yes,” said Captain Pritchard primly. He spoke with an upper-class accent. Oddly, I was reminded of Caroline. “I mean exactly that. You are aware, are you not, that my ship is owned and operated by the British East India Company and that we enjoy the full protection of Her Majesty’s Navy.”
“As do we,” replied Dolzell. At the same time he indicated the red ensign that fluttered from the topsail.
“I rather think you forfeited that privilege the moment you commanded us to stop at gunpoint. Unless, of course, you have an excellent reason for doing so?”
I glanced across to where the crew of the Galley were pinned down by our guns but just as enthralled by the events on deck as we were. You could have heard a pin drop. The only sound was the slapping of the sea on the hulls of our ships and the whisper of the breeze in our masts and rigging.
Captain Pritchard was surprised. “You do have a good reason?”
“I see. Then perhaps we should hear it.”
“Yes, Captain Pritchard. I have forced your vessel to heave to in order that my men might plunder it of all its valuables. You see, pickings on the seas have been awfully slim of late. My men are getting awfully restless. They are wondering how they will be paid on this trip.”
“You are a privateer, sir,” retorted Captain Pritchard. “If you continue along this course of action, you will be a pirate, a wanted man.” He addressed the entire crew. “You all will be wanted men. Her Majesty’s Navy will hunt you down and arrest you. You’ll be hung at Execution Dock, then your bodies displayed in chains at Wapping. Is that really what you want?”
Pissing yourself as you died. Stinking of shit, I thought.
“Way I hear it, Her Majesty is on the verge of signing treaties with the Spanish and the Portuguese. My services as a privateer will no longer be required. What do you think my course of action will be then?”
Captain Pritchard swallowed, for there was no real answer to that. And, for the first time ever, I saw Captain Dolzell really smile, enough to reveal a mouth full of broken and blackened teeth, like a plundered graveyard. “Now, sir, how about we retire to discuss the whereabouts of whatever treasure you might happen to have on board?”
Captain Pritchard was about to complain, but Trafford was already moving forward to grab him and he was propelled up the steps and into the Navigation Room. Men, meanwhile, turned their attention to the crew of the ship opposite us and an uneasy, threatening silence reigned.
Then we began to hear the screams.
I jumped, my eyes going to the door of the cabin from where they had come. Darting a look at Friday, I saw that he too was staring at the door of the Navigation Room, an unreadable look on his face.
“What’s going on?” I asked.
“Hush. Keep your voice down. What do you think is going on?”
“They’re torturing him?”
He rolled his eyes. “What did you expect, rum and pickles?”
The screams continued. Over on the other ship the men’s expressions had changed. A moment ago they stared at us resentfully, balefully, as though biding their time before they might launch a cunning counter-attack. Like we were scoundrels and knaves and would soon be whipped like the scurvy dogs we were. In their eyes then was sheer terror that they might be next.
It was strange. I felt both ashamed and emboldened by what was happening. I’ve caused my fair share of pain and left terrible sorrow in my wake, but I’ve never been able to abide cruelty for its own sake. Dolzell would have said, “Not for its own sake, boy, to find out where the treasure was hid,” but he would have been telling a half-truth. For the fact was, as soon as our men swarmed their vessel they’d quickly locate whatever booty was aboard. No, the real purpose of torturing the captain was the changing faces of the men who stood opposite. It was to strike terror in their crew.