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April 08, 2024

The Phantom

By Tyler Willson

The captain walked silently but swiftly through the foggy darkness across the deck. His experienced feet found their own way around the slippery deck, as sure footed as a mountain goat. He knew every inch of that deck, had in fact taught himself to be able to navigate its crowded space without a second thought. Appearances were vital to the respect given by a crew to its master, and so he cultivated the appearance that he was so confident that he could walk across the deck in a pounding gale without so much as reaching for a handhold. He arrived at the bow of the ship, where several men were gathered around a spyglass aimed into the fog. His approach was so stealthy that when he laid his hand on the shoulder of one, he startled and nearly fell down.

"Report, Merryweather?" whispered the Captain.

"Nothing yet sir, we caught a glimpse of her lights about half an hour ago, but she faded into the fog and nothing at all since."

The Captain nodded and stepped back, silently commanding the men to return to their task. The darkened, silent ship glided eerily through the fog. The water lapping at the sides of the ship seemed to ring like a bell in the extreme silence. Although the Captain knew that there were men scattered all along the railings of the ship, each also scanning the foggy night for any sign of the other ship, not a sound was made. His crew was well trained and disciplined. They also knew the importance of stealth this night, and the consequences of failure.

Reaching beneath his cloak, the Captain felt the hands of his watch. His pulse quickened as he realized that dawn was only minutes away. The thick fog would give them a few minutes more before full light, but he knew how fast the fog tended to burn off this time of year, and he desperately wanted to find his adversary before they knew he was there.

Then, out of the thick fog his ears detected a noise -- a familiar sound to anyone who has ever sailed the ocean, but this morning it was a terrifying omen: the muffled clang of the watch bell, signaling the beginning of a new watch. Instantly his head pinpointed the direction of the sound, and he reached over and snapped the spyglass out of the hands of the startled watchman. Before he got it up to his eyes however, he realized that it was completely unnecessary. A hulking dark shape suddenly appeared in the darkness off the port bow. Passing the spyglass back to the watchman the Captain turned and sprinted back towards the cabin. Halfway there he stopped and grabbed a line which had been lashed to the railing. Careful to find the correct line, he untied it and gave a mighty pull. The line was tied to the jacket of the port side gunner's mate, who was waiting for just such a signal. He quickly stood up and ran down the aisle behind the twelve cannon lashed to the deck. As he went he slapped each of the gunners to bring them to full wakefulness. Each of them in turn leaped to their feet and rousing their crew began untying the guns and rolling them towards the already open portholes. By now the gunner's mate had returned to his original station, and when he was satisfied that the guns were in place and ready, tugged back on the signal line.

All of this was done in such profound silence that it was hard to believe that anything had happened, but weeks of drilling and planning for this operation ensured that the crew had learned precisely what their parts were, and which of these parts were liable to cause the slightest noise. Now the men were frozen in place; all was in readiness except for the lighting of matches. Until the final signal was given, the Captain had threatened to keelhaul anyone who gave their hidden adversary even the slightest hint of what awaited them in the fog. The tension in the air was palpable. The men knew that their only chance of survival, let alone victory, lay in utter and complete surprise. Thus far the foggy night had been their ally. Now it became more of an equalizer. If the Captain's navigation was off in the slightest, they would end up prisoners or worse.

Back on deck, the Captain felt the answering tug on the signal line. His heart pounding, he turned and walked swiftly back to the stern of the ship, where his first mate stood at the rudder. From his higher vantage point, he could see the first signs of the approaching dawn. The fog was changing slowly from an invisible black curtain to a wispy grey. The dark hulk of the other ship was coming even more clearly into focus, and the Captain knew that the time had come. Mounted on the stern deck behind the rudder was a small three-incher. It was already primed and loaded and the Captain hastily removed the leather cover from it. Turning it towards the shadow in the fog, he angled it upwards towards the sky and yanked the cord. The flint struck true, and a spark jumped into the pan. The powder hissed and popped, then the gun sounded. A line of fire shot skyward and then a flare popped, illuminating the gigantic man o' war in the fog.

The crack of the gun seemed to open the fires of hell on the deck of the ship. The men in the gun deck below sprang to life and taking aim at the dark shape in the fog struck their matches almost simultaneously. Twelve ten inch guns bellowed smoke and flame into the lightening fog. As the gunners leapt forward to reload, on deck the rest of the crew were busy with their own attack. Makeshift catapults had been loaded with clay bottles filled with pitch. A rag wick hung from the mouth of the bottle was lit, and as soon as the fire had taken hold, the catapult launched. Fire arced from the smaller schooner over the silent sea and impacted on the larger ship. Months of drilling ensured that these projectiles all flew true, and the larger ship was soon engulfed in smoky orange flames.

The twelve guns sounded again, as their gunners performed their jobs with machine like precision. The man o' war, caught sleeping was already listing towards the attackers. The gunners were aiming at the hull near the waterline, in an effort to sink the ship as fast as possible. The catapults on deck kept up a constant rain of fire and brimstone on the decks, and most of the rigging was now blazing merrily. The Captain had reloaded the swivel gun, and was waiting for the right time to give the next signal. The next step in this battle counted more on nature than on the abilities of the men, and could prove to be their undoing if it went awry.

The man o' war had now come to life, although perhaps too late to mount much of a defense. The gundecks were still above water, but the portholes were smashed and fire was licking at the door of the powder magazine. Sailors appeared on deck and began firing muskets at the apparition in the fog, but the fate of the larger ship was already sealed. As another broadside ripped through the lower decks, the man o' war shuddered and her list became even more pronounced. The first of two gun decks was now awash, the main mast had collapsed and men were beginning to dive into the water.

The Captain watched nervously, his hand tense on the pull cord of the swivel gun. He watched as the rising sun illuminated the fog and it began thinning. Then Mother Nature arrived to bless his daring maneuver with what he had been waiting for. This time of year, it was well known that the rising of the sun brought a gentle seaward breeze. Not enough wind to get a large ship in motion, it was plenty for a small schooner, lightly loaded to get in motion. The breeze was a mixed blessing however, since it would also dispel the fog and make his ship vulnerable to the shore guns and the other ships in the harbor. He knew that they had already heard the cannon fire and would be moving quickly to investigate. As soon as he felt the cool fingers of the breeze blow in his hair, he pulled the cord on the swivel gun, and another flare launched over the decks of his own ship.

At this signal, all of the men on deck fired their last firepot and then abandoned their catapults to scramble up the rigging. Every last piece of cloth the ship owned was dropped, and filling slowly with the gentle breeze, the ship began moving away from the foundering wreck.

The fog quickly began to dissipate, and in the distance, they could hear alarm bells sounding in the garrison on shore. Within minutes they would begin to hear the reports and then sickening screech of incoming rounds. The gunners below were now casting their unused ammo overboard. Their survival now depended on speed more than steel, and the extra weight would only slow them. As the ship picked up speed, they could now clearly see the shoreline as it slipped further away. Cannon began firing from the fort, and geysers of water erupted as the shells impacted the water. But Mother Nature was kind, and the stiffening breeze had already carried them out of range. They could see sails beginning to billow on some of the ships in the harbor, but they knew how long it took to get a ship away from the dock, and they would be far over the horizon by then.

The Captain surveyed his busy crew with satisfaction. The plan had been daring, and counted on far too many factors beyond his control, but today he was the victor.

For today, he remained The Phantom.

Article © Tyler Willson. All rights reserved.
Published on 2010-05-31
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