GAMBLE AT TRAFALGAR
by David Cook
Gamble at Trafalgar
Copyright © David Cook 2017
The right of David Cook to be identified as the Author of the Work has been asserted by him in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.
''England expects that every man will do his duty''.
- Horatio Nelson
Captain Simon Gamble stared out across the Atlantic Ocean to where the distant enemy waited. His blue-green eyes twinkled in the hazy early morning light as HMS Sea Prince; a third rate seventy-four gun vessel of the line, was in one of the two columns that made up Vice Admiral Horatio Nelson's battle fleet.
The British had spent the summer chasing and hunting the French fleet, which had slipped through the blockaded port of Toulon. Nelson had sent the fleet to the Mediterranean after them, thinking the French admiral, Pierre-Charles Villeneuve, would likely try to make for the coast of Egypt. But the French were not spotted and Nelson, quickly realising his error, ordered the British ships west. The pursuit took them to the Caribbean and then back across the Atlantic towards Europe where bad weather forced Villeneuve to combine with the Spanish fleet at Cádiz, a port-city on the south-west coast of Spain. The French ships were built to aid Napoleon Bonaparte's planned invasion of the United Kingdom and together, they could conquer the English Channel, and if the Franco-Spanish ships managed to now evade the British fleet, then a landed invasion of the United Kingdom was terrifyingly real.
'Colder than a dead man's handshake,' Sergeant Archibald Powell said through chattering teeth, as a sudden gust struck the ship.
Gamble agreed with him. He had not felt this cold since leaving the Channel Islands in January, where the Sea Prince had spent three months having repairs done and her bottom scraped clean. The hull below the waterline was covered with copper plates to protect it from flora and fauna that would eat into the unprotected wood or grow on the hull and restrict the ship's movement. He had half-forgotten how cold it could be on deck even wearing his thick cloak and kidskin gloves. He wore the red woollen coat faced with Royal Blue, a mark that the Corps of Marines had been given the King's honour and was now called the Royal Marines. Gamble had proudly served as a marine for seventeen years. An auspicious life; some would say lucky when so many others had perished since the outbreak of the wars against Revolutionary France, and now Imperial France. He had fought the Spanish in Tenerife, boarded a French ship during the Battle of the Nile, led countless cutting out actions, landings, and was responsible for the liberation of Gozo, one of the Maltese Islands, by storming an enemy held fortress. He had been present during the French capitulation of Malta, but allowing revenge against a French officer to get the better of him, he had been shot in the leg. Recovery had been painfully slow, because the wound had become infected and Gamble shivered and sweated for six months in the Santa Infermeria, the city's main hospital. He was too ill to join Sir Ralph Abercromby's Expeditionary force, which gained a great victory at the Battle of Alexandria in March '01. By the spring of that year, Gamble had been sent to Guernsey to convalesce.
It was a blessing to see his beautiful island home again, but also a heart-breaking reminder for his father had driven the family into penury. He vanished, leaving the stately ancestral home to be sold to offset monstrous gambling debts. Gamble's mother and sisters managed to rent a small cottage, but they could no longer afford luxuries or servants and paying for food was always a concern. Gamble unconsciously touched the pommel of his cutlass, hanging in its scabbard at his left hip, where his fingers twirled around a tattered scrap of silk. It had once been a handkerchief belonging to his mother; a parting gift for her eldest son who promised to return with enough money to pay for his father's grievous arrears and buy back their home. Most of Gamble's wages went to his mother, but there was still a hefty balance outstanding. His rough finger tips felt the hard stitches of the embroidered family crest. He clenched his jaw hard; the memory of the ruin still rankled after all the years.
Boots thumped and Gamble looked up to see his marines run to the forecastle rails to stare out across the flat, slate-coloured ocean to espy the enemy.
'Like bloody excited weans,' Corporal Thomas MacKay growled. Gamble noticed that he was walking with a limp. 'That useless bastard Bray puked his stinking guts out over my boots, sir,' MacKay explained. 'I ordered him to clean them and the silly bastard threw a pail of seawater over them while I was still wearing them. Head full of holystone!'
Holystone was soft sandstone used to scrub the decks and Gamble stifled a chuckle. Marine Uriah Bray was the most useless soldier under his command.
'I'll say it again,' Powell said, his voice deepened by years of salt air, 'let me tip the bastard overboard. No one will care.'
'Not before he pays me back the shilling he owes,' MacKay grumbled.
'You were too trusting of that fuck-beggar, Tom,' Powell remarked disdainfully.
'I was too drunk,' the Scotsman muttered regretfully.
Gamble wasn't listening. The wind was like a lover's gentle whisper and the ships were lumbering. The decks were crammed with men gazing eastwards where a thin bar of rose-gold sun, streaked across the ocean and over the smudge of topsails of the enemy ships. Through countless volleys of musket-fire and rills of powder smoke, under cannonades that shook his very bones, Gamble, at thirty-five, as scarred and hardened as any Royal Marine, still felt the pang of anxiety at the anticipation of battle.
'Not since the Nile, sir,' Powell said, echoing Gamble's own thought's. 'Not been in a sea battle since.'
Gamble turned to his old friend, knowing there was no one else he would rather have at his side.
'You and I understand that it gets better when the fighting starts. The fear does go.'
'Aye, sir,' Powell replied, scratching at a louse bite at one of his thick black side whiskers that framed his battered face, 'but it's the waiting that makes my old bones ache.'
Gamble often considered that the Plymouth-born Powell was like an ancient English oak; his torso was like a thick-bellied trunk, his arms were like knotted branches and his weathered-face like wrinkled bark. The sergeant always bristled with weaponry. He carried a long-barrelled musketoon; a weapon that had a flared muzzle similar to a blunderbuss that was deadly in close quarter fighting. As well as a boarding pike that could stab and pierce, he wielded a pair of throwing axes, much like a tomahawk, which each had a spike atop the blades head. The matching pair had been a gift given to him for saving the life of a Shawnee Indian named Blue Jacket who fought for the British during the war against the Americans. The blades showed their age, the notches and scratches each had a story and Gamble looked down at his own weapons, which were as richly detailed.
The cutlass had a rolled iron grip, a thirty-inch blade of finely tempered steel, but although some considered it ugly, it was a weapon Gamble would not dare go into battle without. Tucked into his belt was a bone-handled dirk and a pistol that was hooked to the leather in case he accidently dropped it boarding an enemy vessel.
'You think we'll fight today, sir?' MacKay asked.
Gamble gave a slight shrug. 'If we're lucky Monsewer doesn't escape. If we're lucky the damned weather holds out.'
'Oh, I'm sure we'll give our broadsides to the Crapauds today,' said a voice behind Gamble.
It was Benjamin Pym, captain of the Sea Prince, a Cornishman and good friend.
'Is that so?' Gamble asked.
Pym, wearing his finest naval dark blue coat adorned with twin gold epaulettes, tasselled hat, white silk stockings and polished shoes, smiled as though he held the answers to the world's grief. He held his expensive telescope in his hands, clasped behind his back. 'I detect an ounce of scepticism in your voice, Simon. There'll be a fight today. I can feel it in my belly.'
'Amen to that, sir,' Powell said.
Pym swivelled his head, hazel eyes glinting brightly in his freckled face. 'Keen to have a go at the enemy, Sergeant?'
'All-a-gog, sir. It's our God-forsaken duty to fight the bastards at every opportunity.'
'Well said, Sergeant.'
'Thank you, sir,' Powell replied, then cleared his throat. 'I learned to trust my gut instinct many moons ago, sir. Back in '77 when I fought the Yankees at Philadelphia—'
Gamble groaned. 'Not now, Archie.'
'Aye aye, sir,' Powell replied with disguised disappointment.
Pym jabbed a finger towards the enemy fleet. 'Command have said that there are thirty-three of the enemy against the twenty-seven of us,' he said to no-one in particular, then turned to one side and summoned coffee to be served. Two young midshipmen, overhearing the request, sauntered over in the hope that Pym might be generous enough to include them.
Gamble looked up at the huge sails that rippled and then sagged. 'If the wind keeps up we'll catch them. If not, it could be hours until we engage.'
'Is that your best summation, Captain?' Pym teased.
'Aye, sir,' Gamble replied with a smile.
'You should have a think about becoming a midshipman,' Pym continued to mock good naturedly, his Cornish accent purposefully thickened. Midshipmen, usually in their teens, were to help lieutenants control the crew. If good enough, they could take command of small boats or prizes. 'A captain commanding one of His Britannic Majesty's vessels could learn a lot from your expert knowledge.' He then gave a great burst of a laugh, saw the two junior officers waiting for coffee. 'What are you doing here?' he asked.
The braver of the two answered. 'We seek to learn from you at every opportunity, sir.'
Pym ordered them to the poop deck. 'Damnable cheek,' he said scowling at their retreating form, then grinned liking their effrontery. The ships bell sounded indicating that a new watch had begun. 'A good captain needs able men, Simon. Lord Nelson was kind enough to impart that advice to me.'
'I know, sir,' Gamble replied. 'I was there and he said the same to me.'
Pym laughed at the memory. 'So he did.'
A few weeks ago Gamble was invited aboard HMS Victory where he met his good friend Charles Adair, another marine captain, and both were present when Nelson had explained his plan of attack to his naval officers. Gamble recalled that Nelson had said that the ships were to form two columns, with Nelson in command of one and Vice-Admiral Cuthbert Collingwood the other, and sail at the centre and rear of the enemy line of battle that would bring the British ships into close action and cut off the van of the Franco-Spanish fleet. With the enemy split into three parts, the results would be decisive. The officers had applauded Nelson and congratulated him on a masterly and yet, controversial plan. Firstly, it would bring the fleet in close with the enemy reducing the chance of their escape and secondly it would bring close quarter fighting which Nelson had confidently exclaimed the British would win. 'We have superior ships, gentlemen,' he had said fervently, 'superior seamen, faster gunnery and better morale. The Frogs and Dons don't stand a chance.'
But what Gamble understood from that plan is that the leading British ships would be exposed to raking broadsides from the enemy, and the shots would smash into their unprotected bows. Also the British would not be able to offer counter-fire.
'Like your namesake,' Pym had told him, 'Nelson's plan is a gamble. But if it pays off, the prize money will make us all rich.'
Money, Gamble had let the word echo around his skull. He knew it was a shameful truth, but that was the way of the world, and money would bring happiness. He would clear the debt and buy back his family home after nearly two decades of hurt and shame. Battle, blood, horror and death could make that happen in this wicked world.
'As you said,' Pym continued, 'if the wind keeps up.' He gave the sea and the grey sky a bitter glare as the Sea Prince ghosted along. 'At this speed, a healthy landlubber could out walk us.' He glanced at Gamble, eyes took in the multitude of scars that covered his sun-darkened face and felt proud to have him as his marine captain. 'Speaking of healthy men, how are your marines? Still know still know which end of their musket the ball comes out of?'
Gamble grinned. 'Of course, but if they don't then they'll get a basting from Sergeant Powell. There is one that I could happily throttle with my bare hands, but as I am down to one platoon, I need all the men I can muster.'
Gamble commanded a large company of one hundred and twenty, but the Royal Marines had all been dispersed about the fleet, so the first lieutenant and his platoon were now aboard the Dreadnought to bolster the redcoats stationed there.
'Good man. I can't tell you that having you here alleviates any . . . fears I might have.'
'You have nothing to worry about,' Gamble told his friend. 'Your men serve you as well as Commodore Eaton. In fact, I detect they are happier.'
'It probably had something to do with that double ration of rum some idiot in charge agreed when we tacked out of the Indies,' Pym suggested with an innocent shrug. 'Luckily there were no incidents that arose from that rather naïve and asinine instruction.' He then peered at the gold light seeping from the horizon. 'This is my first command,' he spoke quietly and solemnly. 'I want to prove I am capable.'
Gamble understood his fears; maybe not of battle, for Pym had often accompanied him on cutting out missions and had led naval landing parties, but a fear of failure.
'You are the most capable officer I've ever known,' Gamble told him. 'Your gun crews can load and fire faster than most. The men will follow you into the gates of Hell if you gave such a command.'
Pym beamed at his friend who, despite a savage scar running up his jaw line and half and ear missing, looked quite dashing in his short scarlet coat adorned with a gold gorget, gold lace and buttons, royal blue breeches and tall polished boots. Pym waited for the servant to finish bringing up the cups of steaming coffee before making his reply. 'When the battle begins, I have already instructed Lieutenant Tapp, should I fall, to continue with the plan to bring the ship as close to the enemy as possible and destroy them. I would like you to tell Rebecca that I died a hero's death; an honourable death and that I never stopped loving her until the last.'
Gamble hesitated, then dipped his head. 'You have my word.'
Gamble thought momentarily about such an empty, cold and dreadful world without his friend and shuddered. He brought his cup to his mouth and was pleasantly surprised to find that the coffee was actually from coffee beans and not 'scotch coffee', a drink made of ship's biscuit over-baked until it crumbled, boiled with water until reduced to a thick consistency and served with a little brown sugar. He savoured the taste, thinking it must have been during the winter that he had last had a real cup of coffee.
Pym pleased with the affirmation, smiled. 'I have left my wife a letter in my trunk. See that she receives it also.'
'I will, of course.' Gamble said, then sighed. 'You're being peculiarly morbid?'
'One has to make preparations for the end, Simon.' Pym said peevishly, then looked out across the vast water. 'I want you on the foretop when this day's business starts, but you are to remain with your marines at the forecastle until I give the word. When we sail at them, the enemy's gun port's will be aiming right at us and that's when the raking will begin. It could take thirty minutes to reach their line. Thirty minutes of defenceless broadsides.'
'They won't be able to fire all their guns,' Gamble answered, considering the angle of the gun ports will restrict the fire. 'When we break their line we can fire the larboard and starboard broadsides at the bastards. That's how we're going to slaughter them. Remember the Nile.'
Pym said nothing, thinking what Englishman would dare forget such a triumph. England rejoiced at the news and the country would again after the looming battle for Nelson had said it would be one that our grandchildren's children would still celebrate in their lifetimes. Pym always felt stronger when his friend's steely confidence seemed to batter away the dark clouds of his insecurities. 'Three shots in five minutes,' he said in a mixture of awe and pride.
'That's why we'll win,' Gamble said. 'I don't know any Frogs that can fire that fast. We're going to win by our gunnery,' he added with force.
'And we have Nelson,' Pym offered a sly grin.
Gamble crossed over to the larboard rail, gazed at Nelson's column that lay a mile to the north, and grinned wickedly. 'The enemy don't stand a bloody chance.'
Except that the wind was still light, frustratingly light, and the English ships sailed as slow as lead models. And Gamble understood that a miracle was needed if they were to catch the enemy in time, for if they failed, Bonaparte would be unopposed and would land his reported one hundred-and-fifty thousand men camped at Boulogne.
The fate of the United Kingdom wrestled with the Royal Navy.
'Christ, a chorus of farts sound better than this,' Powell grumbled loudly, a finger in one ear, as the Sea Prince's band played a number of songs on the weather deck. Gamble recognised most of them for the crewmen could carry a tune such as; 'Come All Ye Valiant Heroes', 'Heart of Oak' and 'Rule Britannia'.
Marine William Coombe, one of Gamble's drummer boys, asked permission to join the band.
'Denied,' Gamble shook his head at the snub-nosed teenager. 'I want you to remain at the forecastle. Besides, the Tars are getting bored with the usual ballads and will no doubt soon be singing about girls with big tits, plump thighs and heavenly doodle-sacks.'
'That's why he wants to join in, sir,' Powell said, grinning.
Coombe, not yet fourteen, blushed.
'I bet you can't wait to split a lady's beard, eh lad?'
Coombe's young face was puce with embarrassment.
'Careful you don't end up with a blue boar,' Powell said, using the nickname for a bubo brought on by unclean intercourse. 'Private Fry ain't stopped scratching his ballocks for a month and Doctor Girling can do nothing for him. Not even a dose of mercury can shift it.'
'I thought you've been laying with Lizzie?' Gamble asked Coombe.
Lizzie, one of the dozen whores aboard ship, was a strikingly attractive woman, slim with dark curls and eyes that twinkled like blue diamonds.
'No, that was me, sir,' said Nathaniel Priest, Gamble's seventeen year old Second-Lieutenant crossing the deck. He was from Norfolk, a black-haired, tall, long-limbed young man, green eyes and carried with him an easy going, playful and yet respectful air. 'Big lad from Blakeney. She can't get enough of me.'
'It's those eyes of yours, Nate,' Gamble told him, 'draws you to her like a moth to a candle flame.'
Priest's mouth twitched. 'There I was thinking she was just after my shaft.'
The men laughed raucously.
Gamble liked Priest and had served with many other fine marine officers over the years. Good men, all of them. Most were dead now, but his old friend, Henry 'Harry' Kennedy, was now a captain and commanded his own company. Gamble had not seen him for two years and missed him awfully, but Kennedy was a good and able officer and Gamble had always known at he would never have stayed his lieutenant for too long.
Gamble brought out his long-barrelled telescope and stared at Nelson's northern column. He extended the brass tubes and trained it on the black and yellow painted ships. There, between the Ajax and the Conqueror, Britannia; Kennedy's ship, seemed to glide along with the others on the vastness of water.
'Good fortune to you, Harry,' Gamble said softly.
He brought the scope around to the east, extended the tubes and tracked the enemy vessels. The nearest showed their hulls above the water, but he thought the fleets seemed no nearer than a couple of hours ago. He guessed it might be four or five hours until battle ensued.
Gamble heard men talk about their wives or sweethearts and felt a pang of remorse. He had often considered that one day his heart might find itself heavy and cross the great ocean of love, and perhaps that would happen in peacetime. For now, his thoughts were on battle and love would have to come another day.
'Rather portentous,' Pym uttered.
Gamble glanced at him, then up at the blue sky and astern where to the west, the clouds were massing in dark hellish forms. 'Nothing to worry about,' he said calmly. 'Looks like they'll turn southerly.'
Pym sighed. 'I wanted to give a speech.'
'What's that got to do with the weather?' Gamble asked, confused.
'I don't want the men seeing an approaching storm as I try to instil some confidence,' Pym countered airily. 'I want them keening for enemy blood, not wondering if a gale will rip away the main sails.'
Gamble thought about that. 'Perhaps the storm is a portent of our enemy's destruction?' he suggested.
Pym opened his mouth to offer an acidic response, considered the words and, liking them, nodded with approval instead. He edged to the quarter deck rail, and removed his hat. The band saw him mid-song, and instantly went still. Voices quietened to a low hum then nothing, and suddenly two hundred pairs of eyes were gazing up at him.
Gulls screeched far above the foremast, circling like scraps of white linen tossed in the sky. The rigging creaked, timber boards groaned and the sound of the bow cutting through the ocean were the only sounds.
Pym cleared his throat. 'Time will soon be upon us, men,' he said. 'Time to give the Frogs and the Dagoes a proper thrashing before we have to batten down the hatches,' he gestured up at the threatening clouds. 'They fear us, but we don't fear them.' A murmur rippled in the great throng below him. The was a woman on deck dressed in long skirts, a sharp nose set in a pitted face. One of the whores, Pym considered, and he pretended not to notice her. 'We've fought them before and we've been victorious. I have served with you for many years. Some of you old hands will recall my younger days as a wet-behind-the-ears midshipman.' He let a chuckle from the men die away. 'I know you will not let me down. I will not let you down. Obey the orders and when we find ourselves lee side or weather side of an enemy ship, we shall be victorious! We will take the fight to the enemy for the world will not wait for us! For England!'
The men cheered him and immediately the band played 'Rule Britannia' louder than before. Gamble watched as men danced jig's and applauded. They swore oaths to King George, to Pym, to God and to Nelson. Voices spoken in a score of different accents, most English, but there were Scots, Welsh, Irish, Portuguese, Norwegian, Danish, American, German, West Indian and even a Frenchman aboard.
Pym carefully placed his hat back on his head and turned to the senior officers present. Gamble heard him repeat Nelson's plan of action. A Cornish lieutenant by the name of Fullbrook went as pale as cartridge paper, while another by the name of Treasure-Jones seemed indignant as though he found such a strategy reckless.
'They shall tear our bows to kindling,' the Welshman complained. 'We shall be shot through, dismasted and left to the mercy of God.'
There were gaps in the ships and Collingwood, aboard the Royal Sovereign, was starting to break away. The Sea Prince was the fifth ship in the column, between the Tonnant and the Bellerophon.
'I'm proud of the Prince of Waves,' Pym said to Gamble, using the nickname given to the Sea Prince. 'It's a proud day, Simon. I–' he started to say, but Burrows, the signal lieutenant was calling for his attention. 'What is it?'
'Signal, sir!' Burrows said, gazing at the pennants of colour were hoisted from the Royal Sovereign. The message was being repeated and passed down through every ship. He was squinting at the flourish of colours stark against the weathered-white sails, trying to decipher the message from the flag code.
'Can you read it or not?' Pym called up to him impatiently.
'Aye, sir,' Burrows replied desperately trying to understand the long signal of thirty-one different flags running down the masts. The last seven flags represented a letter for the word not included in the code book. He grinned when he understood. 'It's from the admiral, sir. England expects that every man will do his duty.'
Pym considered it. 'Very good,' he replied, turning to his assembled officers. 'Make a note of that order in the logbook. Pass the message on down to the men.'
'Aye aye, sir.'
Fullbrook leaned in with a impudent smirk. 'Does the admiral's order include the foreigners aboard, sir?'
'Of course it does,' Pym said haughtily. 'We all serve King and country. The trouble with you, Lieutenant, is that anyone who isn't Cornish is a foreigner.'
Fullbrook nodded. 'Very true, sir. Thank God the admiral has two of Cornwall's finest at his command.'
There was a huge roar of patriotic cheering on the decks which made the hairs on the back of Gamble's neck stand on end. 'I think the men rather like the admiral's message, sir,' he said.
A smile ghosted on Pym's face. 'Time the order was received, Mister Ward?'
A small and painfully thin midshipman replied. 'Ten minutes to noon, sir.'
Pym chewed on his bottom lip and then gave the order for the men to go to their stations. 'The guns are to be double-shotted and charged with grape.'
'Aye aye, sir.'
The gunners would load the guns with two round shot and then pack a charge of smaller balls on top that would burst apart as the guns fired. Gamble understood that the Sea Prince's opening broadside would be extremely deadly. He had cast off his gloves and cloak to a private to store them in his quarters for he would not need them in battle.
The decks were mostly silent now. The scores of seamen with the band had disappeared down the hatchways to man the lower-deck guns. The wind seemed to fill the huge sails for a brief moment before slacking off.
'Another signal from the admiral, sir!' Burrows called out.
'He has a lot to say, doesn't he?' Pym said.
'Must be Cornish,' Tapp muttered under his breath.
'The admiral is made of Cornish granite,' Fullbrook declared, having heard Tapp, 'because the enemy have tried to kill him numerous times and only managed to chip bits off him. He's impervious. He'll live forever.'
After a brief pause Burrows had decoded the order. 'Make all sail possible with safety to the masts.'
Pym frowned and cast a caustic eye up at to the heavens. 'Does the admiral expect me to conjure the elements? I need wind! I need to kneel to . . . to . . . The God of Wind, Mister Ward?'
The midshipman tiny face screwed up. 'God, sir?'
'Refer to your Greek history, Mister Ward.'
The midshipman licked his dry lips. 'Apollo, sir?' he guessed after a moment.
Pym groaned and then shook his head despairingly at the young officer.
'Aeolus,' Gamble said, breaking the uncomfortable silence.
'It took a bloody bootneck to answer that simple question. Aye, Aeolus. Mister Ward, if you survive today, then I will be adding Greek mythology to your exams.'
There was a sudden boom coming across the swells. Gamble turned and caught sight of white splashes in the water far ahead of the Royal Sovereign's bows. It had sounded like barrels being rolled over timber boards, some would say like thunder, but the enemy had decided to offer the opening salvo at a distance. He trained his glass at the enemy ships and noticed that their ensigns were now flying from the masts making it easier for the British ships to distinguish French Tricolours and Spanish Royal colours. The nearest enemy ships fired again, obscuring their hulls in spurts of cannon-smoke. A few seconds later the sound of the guns resonated across the water.
'Gentleman,' Pym said to the officers around him, 'to your places please.' In a flurry of blue the officers immediately went to their designated stations. 'Simon,' Pym touched the marine's arm, 'keep safe,' he said earnestly.
'You too, Ben.'
For the gunfire had split the morning's calm and battle was imminent.
Gamble waited on the forecastle with two dozen of his marines under Powell, while Priest commanded thirty on the quarterdeck. Gamble looked to the Tonnant and then weather side to the Bellerophon. He could see marines in their red coats manning their stations on both. Gamble considered everyone was waiting for the moment they would be thick amongst the enemy.
One of his men bent larboard to vomit, narrowing missing being tripped up by the gunners manning the two thirty-pounder carronades.
'It's normal for a man to be nervous before a fight,' said a sonorous-accented voice. It was spoken by a squat, dark-skinned man called Joseph.
'Set's a fighting man's stomach,' Gamble answered correctly.
Joseph chortled. He was a freed slave from Florida, barefoot and naked to the waist with a red neckerchief tied around his ears to help against the deafening bellow from the guns. The material offered no real protection to the seamen, but it kept sweat from stinging eyes. There was a thick lattice work of pale notched scars across his back which denoted many floggings.
'You ready for a fight, Joseph?'
The black man smiled, showing pearly-white teeth. 'There hasn't been a day yet that I haven't, Captain.'
'That's why I'm glad I'm on your side.' He glanced at the other Tars with him who were grinning back, armed with muskets, pistols, cutlasses and pikes.
The marine who had been heaving was Uriah Bray and Gamble was not surprised. Bray half-collapsed back onto the deck and Powell grabbed him by his collar and dragged him back to his post. The private's bulbous eyes were as wide as eggs and his weak chin was slick with vomit.
'If one drop gets on me, Private Bray,' Powell growled, 'I'll smite your costard and feed you to the fishies!'
'Even they wouldn't want him,' a skeletal-like private called Nicholas Adams joked. The marines laughed at their hopeless companion.
As the Sea Prince sailed towards the enemy, the sea was being pockmarked by shot, churned white where the iron balls skimmed across the waves, though no missiles struck. Gamble could see that the Tonnant was taking shots, a ball smashed part of her starboard bow and holes appeared in parts of her sails.
'Not long now, sir!' Joseph had to shout because the enemy gunfire was suddenly loud.
Gamble watched as the French ship that the Sea Prince was sailing directly towards disappeared in smoke and in the grey fog, large orange flashes denoted the guns hammering shot over the water. A ball sent a huge fountain of spray over the forecastle, like a shower of silver rain.
'That was close, sir,' Powell muttered.
But the gunfire intensified. The rumble of cannon fire faded and then was replaced again as more guns spat malice, and scores of splashes landed about the British ships. None fired back and none would until they closed the gap.
Gamble heard the order to open ports, which meant that the lower deck's gun ports were to be raised. Daylight would flood the shadows to reveal the mass of seamen, guns and the ship's masts that looked like the trunks of oak trees. Then an order brought the cannon forward so that the long barrels jutted out of the ship when they were hauled in place by the gun teams.
'Lie down!' The final order was given, so that the sailors would be better protected in the gaps between the huge guns should the enemy shot strike the ship rather than stand up in the cramped space.
The French and Spanish ships pounded the closing gap with a deadly hail of iron, chain and bar shot. The iron balls whipped the water to foam, slashed great holes in the sails and splintered the upper decks. One chain shot whirled through the air making a loud noise like a gigantic whistling wasp. Luckily, it missed the masts and rigging that it was designed to damage. Gamble watched it flicker away. Suddenly, a marine gasped and a ragged leg spun across the forecastle, spattering the crouching men with hot blood. The maimed private began to scream.
'Get him below!' Gamble yelled, and two men picked him up to take him to Girling, the ship's surgeon, who waited for the first casualties in the lantern lit cockpit of the Orlop deck.
The Sea Prince was hit twice, both shots making the ship jerk from the impact. Gamble felt the boards under his feet quiver. The first shot crashed through the beakhead, narrowly missing the boomkins and bowsprit. It gouged a furrow along the gang board and disappeared larboard side. The second smashed into the lower gun deck, striking a gun which sent it crashing into another where it decapitated one seaman, eviscerated another and crushed two more. The bodies were tossed out of the gun ports and the damage inspected by the carpenter.
'Jesus,' said a marine.
'He ain't here lad,' Powell quickly remarked, 'just us and that'll have to do.'
A billow of wind was loud overhead and Gamble looked up to see that a ball had punched through the foresail leaving a large hole. His mouth was dry and he found himself gripping the hilt of his sword. Another shot skimmed the waterline sending a cascade of water over the forecastle to spatter the carronades. The mutilated marine's blood was washed over the deck.
The Royal Sovereign had sped ahead and broken the enemy line. A huge broadside erupted from the starboard guns into the bows of a French ship that twitched from the impact. Dirty smoke rippled along the decks and bits of shattered wood flecked the sea. Then the larboard guns opened up and the massed fire tore into the stern of a Spanish ship. The sails and rigging shook as the shot smashed through the unprotected timbers, beams and glazed galleries. Gamble stared at the enemy ships as the Sea Prince sailed directly towards rows and rows of ominous dark muzzles. There were enough guns in both fleets to destroy an army with massed artillery fire. The nearest enemy, a Spanish seventy-four gun two-decker, painted black and yellow, suddenly erupted with a broadside that pumped clouds of reeking smoke and sent round shot screaming straight at the Sea Prince. Luckily, most bounced across the swells as the ship crawled to leave trails of white spume as they plummeted to the depths. One hit the timbers below the figurehead; a bust of a young Prince of Wales surrounded by sea nymphs, that sent whistling fragments of painted wood high in the air. Another crashed along the starboard quarterdeck missing Pym and the officers and a third thumped against the copper sheeting covering the hull.
The fickle wind did nothing to lift the gun smoke that shrouded the ships in thick fog so that only the rigging, top sails and masts could be seen. And the guns still fired. The thunderous noise was beginning to hurt the landsmen and the newer marine recruits' eardrums. Gamble heard a great splintering crash followed by screams where a ball had found targets on the poop deck. He watched seamen drag a number of bodies and unceremoniously tip them over the larboard rail. A part of the rail was hit and the air filled with sawdust and fragments of wood. One of the sailors was cut in two by round shot and disappeared in a whirl of blood, gore and bone. Gamble glanced over at the Tonnant where there were rips in the sails, and gouges and splintered marks on the black hull. A blood-soaked body momentarily appeared at one of the upper gun ports where it dropped into the water.
Sail-handlers and other seamen were climbing the rigging to the masts to try to repair broken yards, snapped lines and damaged sails. The British ships near the Sea Prince, the Belleisle, Mars, Colossus and Achille, were all similarly suffering from battle wounds and sailing to death or glory.
Five minutes passed by and the Spanish ship had not fired again. Too slow, Gamble thought, too bloody slow, but perhaps the captain was planning to unleash the hellish guns with one last broadside before the Sea Prince entered the line where those guns could not hit it due to the angle. A brisk wind cleared the air and Gamble could see musket-armed men in the rigging and fighting platforms. Sunlight sheeted the rolling acrid clouds with a pale golden light. The two ships were eight ship length's apart and then suddenly the Spanish ship opened fire. The barrage was so powerful that Gamble felt the vibrations shake his very bones. Jets of flame pierced the grainy-smoke. Solid shot howled and screamed. A ball snatched a marine back in a shower of gore. Another plucked a chunk out of the foremast, a third slammed along the starboard side of the weather deck, bounced as it hit a gun carriage to decapitate Lieutenant Treasure-Jones who was standing no more than three feet from Pym. Terrible screams came from the lower gun deck where an enemy ball had punched through the oak hull and into the gun crews. A sliver of wood, the length of Gamble's cutlass, was driven into the neck of one the seamen couching by Joseph. The man fell forward in a spray of blood, gasping, wide-eyed and began to shake. Joseph and another Tar held the dying man until he went limp and then they tipped the body over the side.
Pym was steering the Sea Prince in between a French ship and the bows of Spanish vessel, her gaudily painted figurehead showed the Virgin Mary in prayer. Both were four ship lengths away. 'Larboard a point,' Pym called to the helmsman. 'Steady her! Steady her!' He was gauging the distance so that the Sea Prince would drive straight in the gap between the enemy, but get that wrong then he would ram the Spanish ship or become entangled and prone to being boarded. 'Nearly time,' he said to no one in particular, perhaps trying to steady his nerves.
Something slapped the air next the Gamble's mutilated ear, followed by several buzzing sounds around him. It was musket-fire coming from both enemy ships. He was standing in front of the foremast, a prime target for the enemy shooters for they would see the gold epaulette on his right shoulder, sash and cutlass from the decks and platforms. He could not duck away or hide for that was not seemly for an officer to do, and besides Gamble would never contemplate such a thing. He willed the fear away by cursing the enemy. Musket balls drummed the forecastle and weather deck. Splinters flew and the canvass sails were shredded. A ball buried itself in the mast behind him with a loud thud. A marine went down.
'Gun crews to stand!' came the order. The boatswain's whistle blew. The midshipmen and lieutenants in charge of their divisions; the gun teams under their command, repeated the order. The gunners cocked their weapons, lanyards held at the ready.
The Sea Prince seemed to lurch as it passed through smoke like great drifting fog banks. The gunners could not see the enemy but they knew the time was close until the order to fire came. A musket ball shattered one of the great lanterns on the quarterdeck.
Gamble could read the name Algésiras written in gold lettering of the French ship below the windowed galleys that spanned the entire width of the stern, and was so close that he reckoned he could reach up and grab a handful of the silk of the trailing Tricolour. A volley of musketry hammered down from the higher stern at the British on the forecastle. A sailor was struck in the head and a marine hissed as a bullet slashed down his back. Spanish marines fired across from their forecastle and the balls thumped into the deck, killing a seaman crouched by a carronade.
'Give the Frog bastards a volley, Sergeant!' Gamble ordered.
The marines brought up their muskets and sent a blast of musketry up at the blue-coated French marines obliterating the view with smoke.
'Nearly!' Joseph shouted, waiting for the starboard carronade facing the Spanish marines to face the foremast. Then his arm twitched back and the lanyard pulled the firing mechanism and the ugly, squat gun roared its belly full of grapeshot. The shot blew the marines apart and shredded the deck to splinters. The larboard carronade demolished Algésiras's upper galley windows, sending glass shards and fragments of wood everywhere, and tore the French marines aiming at the forecastle into clumps of meat.
'Aim at the platforms!' Gamble ordered his marines as there were still many musket-armed soldiers on both enemy ships. 'Fire! Fire!'
Then Pym gave the order and the lower deck guns belched flame. The noise was deafening. The remaining stern windows shattered immediately and the heavy round shot crashed through the gun decks whipping off limbs, heads and disembowelling the French seamen. The starboard guns ripped into the Spanish ship's bows as every gun discharged twin balls and grapeshot. The balls punched their way through the oak planks, turning the figurehead of the Virgin Mary to kindling, twitching the ratlines to threads and flaying the masts and sails. The air was hot and debris floated in the billowing smoke pumping up from the busy gun ports. The succession of gunfire shivered the sea. Blood and gore sheeted the decks. The starboard broadside seemed to have stalled the Spanish vessel for it hung back. Pym realised the captain had backed his topsails in the hope that, as the Sea Prince carried on, he could fire a deadly starboard broadside into her stern.
Gamble's marines fired up at the huddled enemy and he watched a man tumble from the foretop, the platform that was built where the lower mast jointed to the upper. A bullet hissed to snatch a chunk of wood next to his left boot.
Pym ordered the helmsman larboard for he wanted to turn with the enemy ships as, once past the line, there was a patch of open sea before the dark coastline of Spain. The Sea Prince turned slowly and the smoke drifted lee side. Gamble left the marines at the forecastle under Powell to check upon Priest. The junior officer had brought every able marine to the foretop and larboard rails, where a staccato of musketry blasted across at the Spaniards.
Priest repositioned his round hat on his head which had struck by a spent musket ball. 'Three gone below to the good doctor. Two overboard.'
Gamble nodded at the report. 'Keep up the fire. Captain Pym will be bringing us alongside the Dagoes. We'll swing larboard like a bloody door and that's when things will get rough.'
'Board her, sir?'
'Aye, we will. We'll trade broadsides first then we'll get in close and board the bitch.' He stared down at the floating wreckage, noting a half-dozen bodies drifting on the current. 'The captain will want to take her as a prize. He'll be a rich man, come dusk.'
Priest looked at the dozen enemy ships astern the Spanish ship. 'There is enough quarry here to make a man rich a thousand times over,' he said.
'And to make a name for yourself,' Gamble said, but then gave his young friend a concerned look. 'Just don't do anything bloody silly. Think of Lizzie.'
Priest grinned. 'Every night, sir.'
A marine stumbled away with blood bright on his white cross belts. Both sides traded musket-fire but the range and the constant swells meant that nearly all the lead balls fell short or went wide. The volleys crackled like hundreds of branches aflame. Pym was staring at the Spanish ship hoping to turn before the enemy let her two deck guns blast the Sea Prince to matchwood. Spaniards armed with pikes, axes and small arms crowded the weather deck. A blast from a carronade twitched the quarterdeck rail and hammered around the gun ports. Smoke curled between the vessels and hovered above the waves like sea mist.
'Larboard a point,' Pym commanded the helmsman. The ship's were a pistol shot apart. 'And keep her steady as she goes.'
'Aye aye, sir.'
The Sea Prince rolled and heaved upon a wave larboard. Lieutenants, petty officers and midshipmen were bringing seamen onto the weather deck. Gamble sent Corporal MacKay to bring Powell and the rest of marines here. He turned to his men when they assembled. 'Make sure you are loaded and fix bayonets! We're going to be boarded, so make ready your weapons!'
A command echoed from the Spaniards as the two ships edged closer and then dozens of grappling hooks were thrown over and were hauled tight on rigging and anything they could hook on to. They closed their gun ports and more men clambered ready to swamp the British ship. Planks were dropped. British Tars scrambled to cut the lines and cast away the boards with axes and dirks when a furious volley slashed into the seamen. The hail of lead cut down ten men and misted the streams of pale light air red.
'Make ready!' Gamble screamed in the acrid air.
'Now!' Pym, watching the scene unfold, ordered his gunners to fire.
The British guns launched a response that rippled along the two decks, pouring a lethal fire into the Spanish hull. The ship shook from the assault and the sailors and marines were wary of that.
'Hold your fire!' Gamble held up a hand, for he did not want a wasted shot. 'Let them cross before you shoot the bastards!' The space between the vessels was a killing ground. He admired any man who would cross because it would take nerves of steel to be the first.
Then, as the boarding party started to climb over the gunwales, a massive barrage tore into the ship's larboard side. Some men slipped and fell between the ships. Officers were shouting. The Spaniards turned to see what the commotion was. The Bellerophon's guns had torn into the ship's hull, carronades slashed into the men on deck, drenching the wood and splashing the sails with bright blood.
'Fire!' Pym shouted at his gunners. 'Keep up the fire!'
The Sea Prince's cannons blasted through the hull and the closed gun ports and the shots twitched the gunners to red ruin. Men screamed, cursed and died. The quarterdeck carronades spat grapeshot and Gamble saw two dozen of the enemy were snatched back.
The Spanish boarding party seemed dazed by the larboard attack as the British guns continually pounded both sides of the ship. There was a lull and then a huge crack as the mizzen mast collapsed amidships, sending men screaming from the maintop and down onto the packed decks trailing rigging, broken timber and sails. The mast crushed men and rammed to a stop against the mainsail. Smoke stung eyes and choked lungs. A musket cart-wheeled through the air.
Gamble knew what to do.
'Marines!' he shouted, withdrawing his cutlass, squeezing the hilt he always did before a fight for good luck. 'With me! With me!'
Pym saw what was happening. 'Take fire to the devils, Captain Gamble!'
The marines and sailors roared in answer.
Gamble climbed up and over the rail and used the nearest timber board to cross. He had to be quick for the surprise would not last. He took three steps and a bullet fluttered past his head. Scores of the enemy were looking at him. Gamble was screaming as he dashed across and jumped to miss a pike thrust. He brought his cutlass down on the Spaniard's bare head, yanked it back in time to parry a marine officer's sword that would have speared his heart. The blue-coated man with a trimmed moustache was younger and slimmer than Gamble, but bright eyes flashed fear when Gamble back cut the cutlass to scythe open the officer's throat. A man with large calloused fingers and arms covered with tattoos came at Gamble with a broad-bladed dirk. Gamble thumped him hard in the belly and then tipped him over the gunwale.
Powell landed with a thud, dropped his pike, and brought the musketoon up. 'Bastards,' he said, hauling the trigger and the flared muzzle whipped two charging Spanish marines back into oblivion. He slung the impotent, smoking weapon over his shoulders, grasped the pike and sliced it savagely into the face of an enemy who, struck by the weapon, hauled back the trigger on his musket to send the ball up at the great sails.
'Marines!' Gamble was shouting it like a war cry. He rammed the cutlass into a seaman's belly, twisted it free and the blood spilled like a broken wineskin. A man, wounded by grapeshot, moaned when Gamble trod on his mangled leg. A sailor with a crucifix tattooed onto his face snarled as he came at Gamble with an axe. He swung it madly, but Gamble thrust his sword underneath the man's chin, the mouth, the tongue and behind the nose so that the tip jarred against the inside of his skull. Blood burst from his nostrils. Gamble kicked the corpse, but the cutlass wouldn't come free. A seaman tried to bludgeon Gamble with a handspike, a tool used to shift the guns. Gamble dodged the club-like weapon, his hat falling from his head, and then suddenly Powell rammed his pike into the man's belly as the enemy lifted the heavy tool and shook like a netted fish. Gamble had to clasp the dead man's hair as he ripped the sword free, sending splintered teeth onto the deck. A sailor with blackened gums sliced the air with a cutlass and Gamble let the man come forward before kicking him between the legs. A gunner went down to a marine's bayonet, letting out a foul cry of pain as he slid beside the walls of fighting men, his beard frothing red. A musket banged and the ball drummed into the redcoat's chest. A Spanish marine tripped on the body and Gamble chopped the cutlass down, feeling its brutal edge crunch through hair, skin and bone. A pistol fired and the ball plucked at the hem of Gamble's coat. 'Marines!' he yelled again. 'Marines!'
More redcoats surged onto the deck. Marine Coombe beat a frantic rhythm with his drum. A ragged volley flashed from both sides and men were plucked off their feet. Somewhere, a wavering Spanish voice was crying out for God. A bullet hit a cannon barrel and ricocheted noisily away. A seaman gasped and vomited blood. Corporal MacKay, having lit one of the magazine's grenades, was shot through a lung. He fell back against the gunwale, the grenade spinning free as his arm was jarred. The fuse fizzed bright. With the last of his strength, MacKay, blood dribbling from his lips, threw himself on top of it as it rolled with the sway of the ship. The grenade exploded, shredding the Scotsman's corpse in the blast that sent another marine overboard, but doing no other damage. Marine John Willoughby, a hulking, evil-looking rogue who had once been an incessant troublemaker, fired his musket into the mass of enemy, then picked up a discarded axe and charged on in a frenzy. Spanish marines in the foretop fired down at the redcoats and sailors who were cutting a bloody path through their comrades, but the British looked unstoppable.
'Come on!' Gamble bellowed in the sheer madness of battle. 'Kill the bastards!'
Captain Pym still lived. Lieutenant Tapp had been struck by a bullet that had shattered a collarbone and was down in the cockpit. A midshipman, killed by musketry, was lying on the quarterdeck, having not yet been taken away. Blood ran with every roll of the ocean and made an ugly pattern around the corpse. A cannon ball punched through the spanker and a bullet smacked into the mizzen mast behind Pym. He heard a groan.
The young Cornishman, facing away, seemed to be having trouble moving, as if he was disorientated. 'Aye, sir?'
'Our boarding party,' Pym asked, 'tell me what do you see?'
'I’m afraid I see nothing, sir.' Fullbrook turned to reveal his face was a mask of blood, cut to pieces by splinters. One jagged piece was sticking in his forehead like a devils horn.
'Get below to the surgeon, man,' Pym told him.
'I won't leave my post, sir.'
'That's an order, lieutenant.'
Fullbrook nodded and was helped away by a seaman with a bandaged face and Pym felt alone. He looked at the body of the midshipman and wondered if it was Mister Ward. He should have been below supervising his gun teams. Or was it one of the other young officers? A musket ball smacked into the mizzenmast taking Pym out of his thoughts. He stared across to where his marines and seamen were fighting desperately.
And it was desperate.
The British were outnumbered, but the combined assaults to their ship had stunned the Spanish. The sound of steel striking steel, men hacking, cutting, lunging, twitching and the noises of the dying filled the air. There was no clever plan to outwit the enemy, it was just a vicious fight to the death.
A Jack Tar reeled from a musket shot, blood fountained from his mouth. Gamble slashed at an enemy gunner whose left arm hung limp at his side from having his shoulder crushed during Bellerophon's fire. The man hissed curses at Gamble. Then, a powder-stained naval officer, whose sword was as dark as a hell-creature's fang, emerged from behind the foremast, chopped down and Gamble parried it and threw off the attack, back-stepped and then lunged at the first to spear the man's heart. He kicked the dying Spaniard off the cutlass, then swung the gore-crusted blade to drive the officer back. Gamble snarled at the man, called him a puppy and then had to quickly side-step when the officer rammed the sword at his face with surprising speed. Gamble dodged, but his right boot slid on a patch of blood and he fell onto his side. The officer, long black hair tied behind with a bow, sprang forward and stabbed down. Gamble rolled, but the blade pinned his right sleeve to the deck, and sliced his forearm. The enemy laughed triumphantly. He leaned in calling Gamble a godless whoreson who would die like all the other Englishmen who had come aboard the Bahama. He did not see Gamble bring up his dirk in time. The wickedly-sharp blade punctured his throat. Gamble kept the blade going up, driving it hard into soft skin, staring at the dying, twitching and choking man until he was still. Blood dripped down the hilt and ran down his left hand. A tall, moustached man, stripped to the waist and whose smoke-blackened skin was criss-crossed with sweat, saw Gamble and let out a blood-curdling cry. He hefted a boarding axe and swung it down to cleave Gamble in half. Gamble couldn't move his sword arm, because it was still trapped by the blade. He had to act fast. He kicked the dying officer into the man who was sent backwards against the wide-bellied foremast. The axe dropped into a puddle of seawater, urine and blood. Gamble frantically tried to free himself but he was stuck fast. The axe-man snarled and stretched a big arm out to grab the blade. Gamble knew he was doomed if the man reached it, so stamped his boot hard against the enemy's throat to hold against the foremast. The Spaniard grabbed his leg with both hands, teeth clenched, as he tried to force himself free. Gamble couldn't hold him long, but managed to bring his loaded pistol from his belt and shot him neatly through the head. Gore spattered the foremast as the bullet exited the back of his skull. Gamble used his left hand to wrench his right arm, slicing the sleeve as he freed himself. A Spaniard stooped over Gamble, thinking him wounded and presumably wanting to loot him, and Gamble punched the man in the face, then rose, sword swinging, and he slashed it hard across the man's face. Another enemy seaman was screaming a high-pitched scream as a redcoat's bayonet chopped into his body.
The sky was darkening for it was now late afternoon. Pym paced up and down, musket balls pattered the deck around him from the knot of enemy marksmen still present in the fighting tops. He stared down at a gunner who seemed to be wearing skirts. He blinked. A woman, and she was manning one of the starboard cannons firing at French ship turning away from the battle. A broadside saw the shots plunge in to the sea, but two struck the lower gun deck. Pym felt the blow under his feet. The woman, neckerchief tied around her head was ready with a swab. She looked like she had done this plenty of times before and that made Pym smile. He saw that a gunner lay dead beneath her filthy skirts and Pym was suddenly consumed with sorrow, considering that the gunner may well have been her husband. A sailor, slops tattered, was crawling with his guts hanging out, leaving glistening coils behind. Somewhere a man was begging for water. A bullet buzzed overhead and hit a mast hoop making a ear-splitting noise.
A barrage of thunderous cannon-fire made Pym dash to the starboard rails. The French also had a ship in their fleet called the Achille; a seventy-four gun Téméraire-class vessel, and it was caught between the Defiance and the Dreadnought. A great fire was spewing black smoke from the galleys and the main mast had fallen. Bodies littered the decks. Blood had dribbled down the shattered black and white painted hull. A dozen more ships were fighting astern. More were exchanging fire to the north signifying that the fight still raged where Nelson commanded the fleet. Men were still being mangled by gunfire, but a handful of the French and Spanish ships had struck their colours and were yielding. A burning mastless ship was drifting east. A ship, Pym suspected Spanish, was trailing a mast and fallen rigging, was being continually raked by the Swiftsure. The burning Achille suddenly exploded in a great sphere of light that seemed to scorch the heavens. Fiery debris flecked the water and Pym, a hand shielding his eyes from the painful glare of the blast, could see the bodies, tossed into the air like ragdolls, spiral back down to earth, a few hitting the sinking wreck with a wet crunching sound. Great clouds of steam hissed as the flames were doused by the water. Bubbles broke the surface. Dozens of long boats, barges and gigs were being rowed out by British sailors to pick up survivors from the fight, or were sent to the enemy ships who had succumbed to take a formal surrender from their officers.
Some Spaniards had escaped Gamble's charge and rushed to the gunwales to slice the grapnel lines to cut off the British, but they were too few and were killed by the Sea Prince's carronades spitting casks of musket balls.
Gamble and his marines had fought like crazed men across the weatherdeck to where a final knot of enemy were offering resistance on the quarterdeck. The decks were bullet-ridden, blood-slick, and the Spanish crews utterly exhausted or dazed by the ferocity of the battle.
Gamble was growing weary. A ship fight brought out the bloodlust in him although during such horror he had no time to think on that. It was only afterwards when he would reflect on the men he had killed or seen killed. He knew he was good at fighting; close quarter fighting, where men would be close enough to smell each other's sweat. To fight like a fiend, a man had to get angry and Gamble channelled rage from life's injustice and the determination to win. The enemy had to be beaten at all costs.
But they would not give in yet.
'With me! With me!' Gamble yelled, voice becoming hoarse. He was desperately thirsty too.
A pikeman was drawing back his weapon, but a man stepped in front with a cutlass held low and Gamble drove his own blood-clotted blade into his chest, feeling it strike his breastbone. A boat hook yanked a redcoat off his feet where he was subsequently bayoneted by two Spanish marines. Men were punching, kicking, biting and trying to claw each other's eyes out. Gamble punched an enemy and a wounded man reached out to grab his boot to trip him, but Gamble stamped on his fingers and kicked him hard in the face. A figure appeared at the corner of his right eye and he quickly swept the cutlass in a massive haymaking blow that deflected a bayonet thrust. He then twisted to hammer a pike away from slicing up into his groin, cursed the man and then lunged to drive the musket-armed enemy towards the rail. A Spanish marine officer, well-dressed with hardly a stain on his uniform, levelled a pistol at the base of Gamble's head.
'Look out, sir!' A voice shouted, and hands pushed Gamble out of the way.
The pistol flared bright and the ball ripped though the marine's left arm. A throwing axe whirled through the air to strike the officer square in the chest with a horrible crunching sound. Gamble grabbed the musket's barrel, twisted it away, and pushed the man backwards over the rails. There was a sharp cry before a splash. Gamble turned around to see Powell finish off the pikeman and wrench the axe free. Priest was there, and Gamble could see the lieutenant cutting his cutlass at a much bigger enemy who flailed at the young man with a pike, then Willoughby drove his bayonet-tipped musket into the man's ribs. The Spaniard went down under the marine's weight, and suddenly there were more marines and seamen forcing the last of the enemy to surrender.
'Thanks Archie,' Gamble rasped, his strained sword arm aching, chest heaving.
'Wasn't me, sir,' the sergeant jutted his sweat-laced head at the wounded marine.
It was Private Bray and Gamble stared in disbelief.
'I'm all-a-mort as you are, sir,' Powell commented.
'I . . .' Gamble didn't know what to say. The most useless man he had ever known had saved his life. A musket shot brought him out of his thoughts. There were still a handful of enemy marines in the foretop. 'Fire at those bastards!' he shouted and a volley of musket and pistol fire swept up to obliterate them.
The Spanish were throwing down their weapons, a few huddled and cowered. A few still offered defiance with swords, levelled pikes and muskets tipped with bayonets. A redcoat thumped a sailor hard in the belly and then drove his musket butt into another man's face. A pistol shot flashed bright, but the bullet went God knows where.
'Surrender! It's over!' Gamble shouted, knocking a bayonet down. 'It's over!' The enemy stared at him, sweat-stained and wide-eyed. They did not speak English, but they understood. One man collapsed sobbing into his hands. Weapons clattered onto the deck. Gamble gestured that they sit down. 'Lieutenant Priest!'
'Get our men below and have the rest of the Dons surrender.'
'Aye aye, sir.'
Gamble watched the lieutenant weave through the press of panting and exhausted men and a score of marines and seaman disappeared down the ladders. He wiped his cutlass on the coat tails of a dead enemy marine and then sheathed it. 'That was a proper fight, Archie.'
Powell handed him a canteen of grog. 'That was bloody desperate,' he muttered.
Gamble almost emptied it, then thrust it back to him. The ship rocked under gunfire and Gamble sent an order to the Sea Prince to cease firing and that Pym be told of the victory, a sweat-stained, smoke-blackened and blood-spattered victory. Then, the realisation hit Gamble that they had won and he staggered down to the weatherdeck that was strewn with corpses, congealed puddles of blood that resembled spilt pitch, discarded weapons and fragments of the battered ship. The stench of blood was thick and metallic. Seamen were putting out small fires. A Spaniard, wearing a silver cross around his neck, tried to talk to him, but he pushed the man away. Coombe was giving water to a wounded enemy. Lieutenant Burrows, arm in a sling, appeared with the Union Jack to be hoisted on the maintop and the Spanish flag taken to be presented to Pym. Privates' Bray and Adams were carrying a wounded senior Spanish officer towards the Sea Prince, for evidently he had demanded to be treated by a British surgeon.
'Private Bray,' Gamble said and the marine halted. 'How's the arm?'
'Just a flesh wound, sir,' Bray replied, clenching his teeth.
Gamble could see that it wasn't. He scanned the heap of bodies, immediately being drawn to the score or more wearing redcoats. Willoughby lifted MacKay's body with a gentle reverence that he had never assumed the man capable of. Gamble had been wrong about men before and today had taught him a good lesson in judgment.
'I never thanked you for what you did,' Gamble said. 'You saved my life.'
Bray looked down at his feet and muttered something unintelligible.
'From this moment on,' Gamble told him, 'you are promoted to corporal. I want two stripes sewn onto your arm by dawn.'
Adams stared dumbfounded.
Bray, with his round shoulders and ugly slack mouth, suddenly straightened. 'Aye aye, sir.'
'Get the wound looked at. Oh, and be careful not to drop the bastard overboard.' Gamble shot them a mischievous grin. 'Carry on.' He watched them go and let out a chuckle of astonishment at the private's elevation. If there had been one man who had not deserved it, Gamble would have wagered this morning that the man would have been Uriah Bray. But life was strange and Gamble recognised such an act should deserve recompense. He came across Joseph who was spattered with gore.
'None of its mine, sir,' Joseph said, the whites of his eyes and his teeth were startling bright.
'I'm glad,' Gamble replied warmly. 'There's a dead officer behind me. Rich looking bugger. Might have something on him.'
Joseph smiled. 'Bless you, sir,' he said and disappeared to loot the victim.
Cheers sounded and a ripple of hurrahs rang out as Pym stepped onto the deck some minutes later.
'Congratulations, sir,' Gamble said, watching the Spanish prisoners be herded to the foredeck. British seamen were lashing the two ships together. 'Your prize awaits.'
Pym was smiling, went to speak and then suddenly his eyes flooded with tears. 'Stay here a moment,' he said to Gamble as they spilled down his freckled cheeks to drip onto his grimy coat. Please don't move. I don't want the men to see me like this.'
Gamble nodded, wondering what ill news waited. The sound of cannon-fire still rocked the sky but the ensigns showed all of them here were British ships and captured vessels. The wounded were being carried below decks. Water was being rolled out in their barrels to quench the men's thirst.
'I apologise, Simon,' Pym said, wiping his face. The blood on Gamble's face was turning black. 'So many dead.'
'A victory is never without its casualties.'
'Admiral Nelson was killed,' Pym blurted. 'Collingwood is flying the commander-in-chief's flag. Dear God, Nelson is dead.'
Gamble couldn't believe it. He suddenly felt a cold emptiness creep through his body. He fingered his tattered sleeve because he didn't know what else to do. Nelson killed? It didn't seem possible.
A hand gripped his forearm.
'I wanted to tell you something else. No,' Pym said seeing Gamble's battered face suspect more grim news. 'I might well be awarded forty thousand pounds in prize money,' he said and Gamble whistled softly. Pym smiled. 'I'm paying off your debt.'
Gamble stared at him and then laughed. 'Don't be ridiculous. I won't accept the gift.'
'You took this ship,' Pym explained, 'and you will receive your own distribution of the prize, but it won't be enough to clear the debt, will it?'
'Then, old friend, I will do my utmost to help you secure your family's home. I will not watch you struggle anymore. It's the least I can do for you.'
Gamble wanted to tell him that he would not accept such charity, but that was his stubbornness talking. All of a sudden the weariness of today's battle and the bitter turmoil he had been carrying for years which had strained every muscle and every bone and had poisoned his mind, felt as though it was beginning to lift. A serene blaze of elation engulfed him and Gamble half-collapsed. Tears of relief sheeted his eyes before he could stop them and he could not hold them back.
'Sir!' Powell rushed over, thinking his captain had been struck by something.
'I'm fine, Archie,' Gamble said, wiping his eyes. 'I'm fine.' He was smiling so widely that it made his face tighten painfully. But Gamble didn't care. He turned around to stare out to sea. The future had changed now because of battle and he considered that without it he may never have had much of a future. Men had to die and blood had to be spilt so that a future life of possibilities could be lived.
Gamble felt free at last and the ships sailed for home.