by Laela Relfe
A privateer captain gets more than he bargained for during a simple escort mission.
|This is the second half of a story that began in 'Jamaica Horizon - Part One'
“What are you doing?” cried a horrified Miss Seldon as Richard pointedly ripped a very large hole in the skirt of her red dress.
“Making a signal flag,” he replied, ripping another hole. She gasped faintly. “That was my favorite dress, Captain!”
“And it's saving your life.” He threaded a rope through the holes and began to hoist it to the masthead. “If I don't do this, we'll have to surrender to the pirates. Not that they'd give quarter. I respectfully suggest you go below decks.”
“And I respectfully refuse.”
He turned to her. Her voice had been calm, but her eyes were flashing. He could tell she wasn't going to give in without a fight. An irresistible force meeting an immovable object, he thought with a sigh. He didn't have time for this!
“You're going below. I have a responsibility to keep you from harm.”
“Now look who's playing the gentleman!” she scoffed.
“My concern is not for you!” he almost yelled. “I promised your guardian I'd get you and the King Charles to Port Royal safely. I have a job to do, and you're making it very difficult!”
He thought she wasn't going to back down, but to his surprise she lowered her gaze. “I see, Captain. My apologies.” She turned smartly and stalked below decks. He'd won, but it didn't feel much like a victory.
The dress, flapping in the wind, reached the topmast.
“What on earth?” muttered Miles Stanford, peering through his telescope at a red object flying from the topmast of the King Charles. “It's a dress!”
“A what, sir?” asked the helmsman standing by him. Miles ignored him.
“And red, too. 'Come to our aid.'” he continued. “A signal?”
Something else caught his eye. A white sail just past the Charles, with a red speck flying above it. He stared, eyes aching. The vessel came into focus.
“Pirates!” he gasped. “Hard a larboard! We need to get between them and the King Charles!”
The helmsman obeyed, and the Lara began to close the gap.
The red dress came down the mast back to the deck, followed by the Charles's English colours.
“You're surrendering?” cried Fairchild. “I must protest! This is my vessel, and I insist we fight, not strike our colours like cowards! What about Miss Seldon? What will the pirates do with her?”
“I'm not surrendering!” said Richard through gritted teeth.
“That's what it looks like, sir!”
“Looks can be deceiving.”
“This is ridiculous!” yelled Fairchild. “You're a coward! I insist you hoist those colours, or I will do it for you!”
“Are you second-guessing Captain Cartwright's decision?” said a voice. The two furious men turned to face Miss Seldon, who looked equally angry, but was in control of her emotions. “I'm sure he has his reasons.”
“But ma'am, he's surrendering!”
“I don't think he would do that, somehow.” As Miss Seldon stared at him, Richard had the uncomfortable sensation of being carefully analyzed. “It's a ploy, isn't it, Captain?”
“You're correct, Miss Seldon. A poor plan, but the only chance we have. If the pirates think we have surrendered, they may slow down long enough for the Lara to get between us and show her teeth.” Richard was still seething from Fairchild's accusation of cowardice, but he was in control. Sort of.
“I see.” Miss Seldon said. “And I think we better go with it. No time to come up with a better one, anyway.” She pointed past Richard's shoulder, and he turned.
The pirates were getting ever closer.
“I don't get it,” muttered Miles. “Why's he surrendering?” It wasn't like Richard to give in – but maybe surrender had been Fairchild's idea. They'd have to get around the King Charles anyway: the red flag of no quarter meant that the pirates would not honour the surrender. They'd do whatever they liked with those aboard the sloop.
He turned back to the pirate ship. Was it ... slowing? He raised his telescope. Yes, it was! It had slowed down; they'd have time to get between the ships now. Miles breathed a sigh of relief. Now he understood the surrender.
“Nice one, Richard.”
“They're slowing,” reported Richard. He turned to the Lara. “And Miles has taken the hint.” He sighed with relief and turned to Captain Fairchild, but to his surprise saw Miss Seldon instead. “You see, your dress has saved your life – at least temporarily.”
“Maybe so,” she said icily. “But if you needed something red, why didn't you use your coat?”
Richard glanced down at himself. His dress coat was indeed red. “It's not large enough to make an effective signal flag, Miss Seldon.”
“Well, at least that's what you're telling me,” she muttered.
Richard started to say something, then stopped. He had been about to thank her; if she hadn't spotted the pirate ship they'd be dead meat by now. But now she'd put him on the defensive, and he wasn't about to give her an opening.
“The danger is not over yet. I thought I told you to go below.”
“Then why have you come back on deck?”
“Because I'm not a child. I don't need looking after.”
He realised now why she had agreed to go below earlier. Tucked into the belt of her dress, half-hidden by her skirt, was a flintlock pistol. He raised an eyebrow.
“I understand you think yourself capable of looking after yourself, Miss Seldon, but what about my responsibility to your guardian?”
She waved her hand in a dismissing gesture. “What he doesn't know won't hurt him. Or you.”
“And if you die?”
She glared at him. “Don't be so morbid.”
He shrugged and turned back to the advancing vessel.
The next few minutes were some of the most tense of Richard's life to date. He watched the pirates close with them with bated breath, hoping that the Lara might be able to get between them in time. The pirate ship advanced relentlessly, bounding over the waves like an excited pony. Richard gripped the side so hard his knuckles were white. Fairchild stood next to him, watching and waiting. Miss Seldon stood a short distance behind them; Richard had given up trying to send her below.
In contrast, things aboard the Lara were frantic. Miles had never been in command in a situation like this, but there was no time to wonder if he was up to it. He stood on the quarterdeck, calling orders in a subdued bellow. The pirates had not yet noticed them; it was essential that they maintained that advantage as long as possible. He too waited, tensely watching the pirate as they began to come around the King Charles.
Aboard the Charles, Richard could stand it no longer. He raised his telescope to his eyes again, although it was now hardly necessary. He could see the pirate captain standing on the quarterdeck of the other brig – confident, aloof. He obviously wasn't expecting any trouble. Had he seen the Lara? He couldn't have, or his crew would be loading the guns.
He lowered the telescope and looked towards the Lara. His treasured brig was slowly coming around; she'd be in position in five minutes. Did they have that long? He turned back to the brig. They were slowing even more; preparing boarding gear by the look of it. He bit his lip. If the Lara could get in position, they'd be fine. If not, they'd be dead. And if he didn't die, Lynch would kill him when he got back to Port Royal.
It's your own stupid fault, he chided himself. If he'd paid attention, got back to the Lara more quickly, then they wouldn't be in this situation. He clenched his fists and gritted his teeth. They'd find out what would happen soon enough.
Aboard the Lara, it soon became evident to Miles that they'd been spotted by the brig. Through his glass he could see a sudden panic on the deck of the pirate: the captain screaming orders, crew scurrying to load the guns too late. He smiled grimly. Richard's plan had worked so far, but had it bought them enough time?
The first shot was fired by the Lara; a ranging shot from one of the nine-pounders. It crashed expertly into the side of the pirate brig, sending splinters flying into the with a deafening crash. Another soon followed, this time disabling a gun crew. Richard could see panic on the deck of the brig, and he echoed Miles's grim smile. Time for part two of the plan.
The King Charles only boasted two small swivel cannon on each side, but at this range it would be enough. He turned to the crew manning one of the cannon, now loaded with chainshot.
“Prepare to fire at my command!” he ordered. “And mind you don't hit the Lara!”
The crew of the cannonade took aim, carefully training the gun on the enemy vessel.
The chainshot hit the foremast of the pirate brig. The mast almost toppled, but was just held up by a surviving piece of standing rigging. Splinters flew, sailing across the deck of the pirate and the King Charles.
Next second the pirates returned fire. Most of the balls missed both ships, but one hit the King Charles's standing rigging. Her mast swung dangerously above the heads of the three standing on the quarterdeck.
“Look out!” Fairchild yelled. To Richard his call sounded distant amongst the crash of cannon, but he ran to the lower deck, pausing only to drag Miss Seldon along behind him. On the lower deck, power smoke eddied about dizzyingly, making it difficult to both breathe and see. Richard coughed, trying not to inhale the smoke.
When it had cleared somewhat, Richard was met by an alarming sight – the pirate was about to crash into the King Charles. Pirate crew stood at the ready on the bow of the vessel, armed to the teeth with pistols and cutlasses. One took aim and hit Fairchild in the arm. The inept captain crumpled to the deck. Impact would be any second now. Despite himself, Richard glanced at Miss Seldon. She was reaching for her pistol, but her hand was shaking.
A deafening boom rang out. When the smoke cleared, Richard had looked up to see the bow empty of pirates. In fact, the brig barely had a bow anymore. He turned in disbelief to the Lara; smoke blocked her deck from his view. When it dissipated, Richard could see Miles standing just behind the Lara's largest cannon with the gun crew. He'd aimed the shot that had saved the tiny sloop.
“I have to thank you, Captain,” said Fairchild, more than slightly embarrassed. He was leaning against a gun carriage, the surgeon bandaging his wounded arm.
“The credit should go to my lieutenant, sir. He saved all our lives.”
“But you came up with the plan to warn him, didn't you?”
Richard said nothing. Fairchild smiled faintly. “Don't be modest, Cartwright.”
“I'm not, sir. If I'd been paying attention, we would not have been in range of the pirates in the first place.”
Fairchild held up his good hand. “Enough. No point in laying blame. We have more, uh, immediate problems.”
Richard nodded. Fairchild was right there. They had to see to picking up the survivors of the wreck of the brig, fix the sloop's mast, and tend to the wounded. Lots to do. He sighed wearily.
“Thank you, Miles,” said Richard, sinking gratefully into the chair in his cabin.
His lieutenant looked startled. “For what, sir?”
“I understand you aimed the shot that destroyed the pirates.” Richard waited for a reply, but it was long in coming. Finally Miles spoke.
“I don't know why you're thanking me, sir. I was in command, and I failed to notice the pirates until you alerted me to them. That was inexcusable.”
Richard almost laughed. Here he was blaming himself and thanking Miles for saving the day, and Miles was doing the opposite!
“As Fairchild said to me earlier, no point in laying blame. It's no more your fault than it is mine.” Miles opened his mouth to protest, but Richard held up his hand. “Not another word. That's an order.” Miles laughed, reverting to his usual cheerful self.
“Just one problem,” said Richard with a frown. The cabin on the King Charles was almost destroyed. It's no longer fit for a lady.”
“Are you suggesting we take her aboard the Lara?”
“I wish I didn't have to. She's insufferable, but it's our duty.” Yet another unpleasant one, he almost added.
“That's the third time in five minutes you've said she's insufferable,” Miles said with a twinkle in his eye. “She can't be that bad.”
“Trust me, she is.” Miles tried unsuccessfully not to laugh. “What?” Richard snapped.
“Nothing, sir!” Miles covered his mouth with his hand, but couldn't disguise the fact that his shoulders were shaking with suppressed laughter. Richard rolled his eyes. Miles was so childish sometimes.
“Are you making this invitation out of duty or proper feeling?” Miss Seldon's eyebrows shot up when Richard asked if she'd like to come on board the Lara.
“I assure, you, ma'am, that I only have in mind your safety,” Richard stammered. Why did she have to ask such difficult questions?
She smiled faintly, but whether she was sincere or teasing him he had no way of telling. “On one condition.”
“What might that be?” asked Richard warily.
“That you buy me a new dress when we get to Port Royal.”
The sun sank slowly like a fat orange, and as it sunk below the horizon, it seemed that someone had stuck a knife into it, for juice spurted in all directions.
Richard watched the spectacle from the topmast of the Lara. He balanced on the yardarm with the ease of long practice and watched the sunset, dreading the moment when he would have to return to the deck and have dinner with Miss Seldon.
They were one day's sail from Port Royal. The past few nights had been torture; Miles snickering behind his napkin while Miss Seldon did her best to make an utter fool of Richard. That's the way he felt, anyway, he told himself. His imagination was probably exaggerating it. So he had told himself on each of the last three sunsets, but it had not helped his humiliation.
He caught at a nearby piece of rigging and dropped slowly, hand over hand. About halfway down he realised she was waiting for him at the bottom, and stiffened. But he couldn't go back up, not now. She'd think he was a coward. He gritted his teeth and continued his descent.
“Good view from up there, Captain?” she asked as he jumped the last five feet.
He nodded shortly. “Excuse me.” He fled to his cabin as fast as was dignified. The last thing he saw before he disappeared below decks was Miles laughing at him.
Richard took a deep breath and opened the door to the officers's dining room, but she wasn't there yet. He heaved another sigh, this time of relief, and sank into his favorite chair. He poured himself a glass of wine and sipped carefully, wishing for the thousandth time that he could have escaped this particular duty.
The door creaked open. It was Miles. Richard smiled and pointed to the chair across from him. Miles sat wordlessly and regarded him with a serious face for so long that Richard was unnerved.
“What on earth are you staring at me for?” he snapped.
“Trying to work out why you look like a sheep waiting for the blow that will start its transformation into lamb.” Miles ran his finger around the rim of the wineglass Richard had handed him, refusing to make eye contact. The glass began to sing.
Richard shrugged defensively. Miles shook his head and was about to speak, but whatever he had to say died on his lips as the door squeaked again.
As Miss Seldon entered the gentlemen stood, as the rules of etiquette dictated. She gestured for them to sit. Miles pulled out her chair for her, and she sat gracefully, staring quizzically at Richard from under her eyebrows. “How was the sunset, Captain?”
Richard started guiltily. He'd forgotten how he'd slighted her. “I'm sorry for my behavior, Miss Seldon. It was unpardonable.” How hard that had been to say!
“Apology accepted,” she said quietly. Then, more confidently: “How far are we from Port Royal?”
“We should sight land tomorrow morning,” replied Miles.
“Finally!” She looked relieved. Richard stared at her, puzzled. Could it be she was as eager to get away from him as he was from her? “My guardian would fuss over me no end if we were any longer.” She glanced at Richard. “And you'd probably get in trouble, Captain.”
Richard paused, glass halfway to his lips. She cared?
Miles saw Richard's discomfiture and smoothly changed the subject to Jamaica. Miss Seldon had not been there before, of course, and was enthralled by Miles's tales of its beauty. Richard shot Miles a grateful look of relief.
Miss Seldon was an enigma.
“My lieutenant, Mr. Stanford, must take full credit for defeating the pirates, sir.”
“Why, Captain Cartwright?”
Governor Lynch had been thrilled to see his ward. She had borne him away to talk, and Sir Thomas had not spoken to Richard until he had sent for him the next afternoon. So here Richard was, sitting in a very ornate and very uncomfortable armchair, sipping disgusting tea.
“Because he aimed the shot that saved the King Charles II from disaster.”
“But he wouldn't have been able to fire that shot had it not been for your actions, Captain.”
Richard blinked. “How do you know, sir? I've barely told you anything.”
Sir Thomas smiled. It had the queer effect of lengthening his jaw even more. “My ward has given me a full account.”
Richard choked on his tea. “She did, sir?”
“Yes, and it included a very glowing account of your part in the proceedings.”
Now Richard was confused. He would have thought Miss Seldon had nothing good to say about him at all. He remained silent.
“Come, Cartwright, no false modesty! I'm sure my girl did not exaggerate. She was very pleased with your resourcefulness in coming up with a signal flag.”
Richard almost groaned. “She told you about that?”
Lynch laughed, a deep ugly sound. “Yes, and I'm sure there will be no hard feelings. Although she was very fond of that dress.” Richard tried to join his laugh, but failed miserably. His head was spinning. Why? Why on earth? She had been nothing but insulting to his face. Why now so complementary?
Miles laughed out loud. “I knew it! I knew it!”
“Knew what?” snapped an irritated Richard.
“Never mind!” said Miles, trying in vain to halt the fit of laughter that had overtaken him. “It's nothing!”
“It's not nothing!” Richard strode angrily across the tiny cabin. “Here I am, asking you for advice, and all I get is you laughing at me!”
“I'm sorry,” said Miles, calming down. “But if I told you, you'd only get more mad.”
“I'm not mad. Just, uh, annoyed.”
“Then why are you looking at me like I'm your worst enemy?”
Richard softened. “Sorry.”
“No problem.” Miles sat on one of the rickety chairs, and blue eyes met brown.
“I'll be in my cabin,” said Richard awkwardly. He turned and fled.
Another stunning Jamaica horizon, thought Richard with a smile. He was facing into the sun, the stabbing light making his eyes ache. Streaks of sunlight shot into the air in every direction as the majestic sun slowly vanished.
Richard closed his eyes and he could feel the dying warmth of the sun. He felt oddly lonely. He couldn't even talk freely to Miles – it was the first time they'd ever hidden anything from each other; and now there was something Miles wasn't telling him. And Richard wasn't even sure he wanted to know.
“There you are,” said Miles. Richard turned to see his friend in the rigging looking up at him. “Message from the governor. He wants to see you tomorrow morning.”
“Great,” muttered Richard. Aloud he said, “Certainly. I'll be down in a moment for dinner.” He turned away, staring westward past the sun into unknown horizons. Miles waited to see if Richard would say anything else, but when he didn't he turned silently away.
On a balcony in the governor's mansion, Katherine Seldon watched the same sunset.