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by Rodryn
Rated: 13+ · Short Story · Action/Adventure · #2296266
IAM Image Prompt - May 10, 2023 - The Inferno - Revised

         Men of cautious temper have no place upon the open sea. Without remorse, she will haul any forsaken soul downward into a crushing, dark abyss, while cannonade and cutlass lurk beyond every horizon. Lieutenant Wilkes bellowed, and all starboard batteries belched fire and iron into the stolen merchant vessel. Those vile curs offered a retort of similar ferocity. Remorseless metal screamed into the Falchion, sundering wood, flesh, and bone. Undeterred, gunnery crews labored to prime the guns for another salvo, and medics arrived on deck to aid wounded men. A jarring scrape from the port side caused a heavy listing to starboard, and Wilkes swore and flinched. Sailors struggled to remain on their feet, clinging to any object to steady themselves, and the ship returned to a proper position. Eager for blood, that fool captain sailed them into waters too shallow for a ship of its rate. This fight needed to end before they encountered another reef. One by one, cries of readiness rose from the firing line, and with all cannons ready, Wilkes ordered the volley. Dissuaded from further battle, their adversaries took the leeward in retreat, sails full, deeper into the shallows.
         "Halt pursuit, trim sail, and stow cannons!"
Master-At-Arms, Warrant Officer Harriot, approached Wilkes and furrowed his brow.
"Sir, we're letting 'em go?"
"Aye. We'll resume the chase in open waters."
"Aye, Aye, sir"
         Sailors scurried across the deck, enamored with their various duties while exchanging vulgarities and meaningless taunts in jovial tones. Wilkes moved among them, offering commendation towards their endeavors, and praised their courage. Returning to the quarterdeck, he consulted various charts and instruments, and he ensured enough distance sat between the ship and any reefs that lay ahead. Satisfied with his heading, he turned to the helmsman and provided him with a fresh course. A sailor approached Wilkes' and saluted, bearing a message.
"The capt'n is asking fer ya, sir,"
Wilkes nodded, dismissed him, and set off to the lower deck.
         Piss, blood, and gunpowder from the battle lingered upon the air within the gun-deck. Every gunport and porthole sat open, a vain effort to vent the foul stench. Upon entering the sickbay, pained moans from wounded and dying men greeted Wilkes. He strode past cot after cot to reach a private cabin in the back and knocked on the door. Wrapped in wet, red bandages, the captain lay sprawled, his pale face soaked with sweat. Each labored breath required more life than it provided, and he needed several moments to position himself to return Wilkes' salute.
         "Report, Lieutenant,"
"Pursuit broken, and we are navigating to open waters, sir."
The captain spat blood and threw several curses at Wilkes
"I don't know how you attained lieutenant, but I know you will never become captain. Why did you let them flee?"
"Sir, the Falchion has taken three scrapes, and we cannot risk any further damage to the hull."
A wet, ragged cough erupted from the captain.
"You are a timid man, lieutenant, and you best ensure those curs do not escape. Have you forgotten who issued our orders?"
"No, sir, they will not escape."
"Find your bollocks or they will, and the Governor will deny you quarters on dry land."
He waved his hand in dismissal and Wilkes departed the cabin.
         Back topside, Wilkes focused on plotting an intercept course and tried to ignore the growing, seething sensation in his stomach. He tossed the compass aside and turned his gaze over the sapphire desert. Hang that fool for calling his prudent decision a timid choice. Keeping the ship intact and completing the mission are of equal importance, and fretting over reprisals from Governor Lee served no purpose. Low rumbling reached Wilkes' ears, and the air tasted saltier than usual. A dark purple sky sat in the distance. Crooked arcs of lighting poked from the clouds, while thunder rolled over an angry, writhing surface, and the wind pushed a torrential downpour in all directions. His gaze danced between storm and maps several times, and he determined they can skirt the worst squalls on their present course.
         Twilight crept across the horizon as the Falchion reached open waters, and five rapid bell clangs, followed by ill tidings, spread across the ship. Sailors bowed their heads while removing their covers, rendering respect for the departed. A heavy mass formed in Wilkes' chest, and a sudden burden dropped upon his shoulders.
"Lieutenant Wilkes takes the con"

         Dour in face and spirit, the entirety of ship's company stood mustered topside while thirty bodies wrapped in linen lay opposite their formation. Morning light failed to pierce the grey sky and chilled fog sat upon them. After receiving their last rites, each departed soul was ferried to the railing, and offered to the sea. A bell tolled, paired succession three times, for every burial. At last, the captain joined his fallen crew, and all aboard rendered one final salute. Respects paid, Wilkes dismissed the ceremony, and thanked both living and dead for their loyalty. Sailors shuffled to their stations, muttering personal prayers, and Wilkes turned his mind to the task at hand. Their mission remained and in two days' time, by his reckoning, they will have caught up with their quarry in open water. Heavy footfalls rose from the right staircase, and he turned to see the Boatswain, Master Leonard, upon the quarter deck. He cracked a gaped tooth smile and saluted.
         "Reportin' as or'ered, sir."
"The bad news and good news be one 'n the same. Gots a tiny leak in the hull. Didn't even know until 'his mornin'."
"How high is the water?"
"Ain't high no more, sir. The lads got 'er down quick, not like it be high to start wit'. As I said, cap'n, it be a small leak."
Wilkes flinched, unaccustomed to his new title, and he brushed his concern aside.
"Form a detail, six men, around the clock, and do not let it go above one standard foot."
"Aye, Aye, cap'n"
         Dark clouds continued to gather as the day crept on. Wilkes pondered upon the fluttering in his chest, gaze locked upon a distant squall line. He knew becoming a captain was the next step, but he lamented over it occurring in such a manner yet welcomed the opportunity. Several years at sea are still required before his title matched his rank. Quelling his thoughts, he took a deep breath, savoring the ominous and seductive scent of the approaching storm. The heavens parted and small, thin tears fell from on high, and the ship started swaying as white-capped waves frothed below. Angry gusts tore at the sails and those upon deck. Curses tumbling from his lips, Wilkes confirmed their heading, but refused to alter it. However, he made note of a heading towards an island that could shelter them if they failed to outrun the storm front.
         "All hands, secure for rough seas."
Sailors darted about, securing any loose object in sight. Wilkes moved amongst them, offering guidance and corrections as needed, and satisfied by their efforts, turned his inspection below decks. He felt the swaying turn into minor listing as he staggered through the ship. Ending in the hold, he observed two men operating the pumps. Inspection complete, he returned topside, and a vicious wind tore over the ship, sails bulged, and rig lines groaned under the strain. The heavens burst, and a torrential downpour began.
         "Trim main sail to half, haul home all topsails."
As the turbulence intensified, men tied their lifelines and clamored to their stations. Sea spray reached the railings and with the sails secure, the listing calmed. Wilkes turned his gaze upward, and his stomach fell. Cruel fate lay upon them as the storm shifted course, and the squall line drew near. His blood froze, and a somber realization dawned on him. They cannot maintain their heading. He turned to the helmsman and ordered a course adjustment.
         "Bring her about, east by southeast"
The ship plowed into several waves while making its turn, and it listed hard to port.
         "Midship," Wilkes said to the helmsman. "Steady on, and nothing off."
Darkness crept across the horizon despite it being mid-afternoon. Towering waves slammed into the Falchion, each impact caused a creaking and groaning to erupt from the hull. Coated in foam, a wave rushed over the deck. Secure lifelines prevented the sea from claiming any men, and they stumbled to their feet, drenched to the bone. Master Leonard appeared from below decks, and fought his way to the quarterdeck, shouting his message at Wilkes.
         "Sir, the hull be takin' it hard. Men need be on the pump a' all times 'n the water is risin'."
"Double the detail. Use pails if you must but keep the water at bay!"
Master Leonard saluted and tumbled down the stairs and returned below, and Wilkes cursed under his breath. Thunder roared above them, while forked tendrils of lighting cracked upon clouds, and the gale reached its apex. A shiver ran down his spine. No telling how long their punishment will last, and he considered putting the mainsail to one-quarter. Cries of 'land ahead' relayed across the deck, and Wilkes fumbled with the spyglass. His heart leapt into his throat as the island came into focus. Gaze locked upon safe harbor, he realized the Falchion was moving at an undesirable speed. Jagged rocks dotted the bay's opening, and he felt a shift in the wind causing the ship to drift starboard.
         "Captain takes the helm," Wilkes said, grasping the wheel "Haul home all sails, prepare to weigh anchor!"
Chest swelling with pride, he muttered words of commendation as the crew endured the horrid conditions, and he realized he could not recall a finer group of sailors. He worked the wheel in brief turns and kept his eyes fixed upon the rocks. Their destination drew near, and Wilkes made his final adjustments.
         "Clear cable lines, and prepare to let go all anchors!"
With sails doused, the Falchion slowed. The current carried them into the bay, and Wilkes nodded. No rocks posed a threat once clear of the bay's mouth.
         "Let go all anchors!"
The anchors plunged into the surface. Cable lines sprung from their rest and snapped taut once the anchors found purchase. Upon reaching a full stop, Wilkes ensured all anchor lines were secure, and he smiled as he motioned to the men on deck.
         "Secure all rig lines and clear topside."

         The storm failed to abate overnight, and water continued to flood the hold. Wilkes stood shin deep in seawater, arms working the pump, and he let his mind wander. Their mad dash to safety damaged the hull further, and the original detail of twelve men turned into twenty. He formed a second detail to ferry water with pails, yet it refused to subside. Arms burning, Wilkes tried to ignore an iron mass growing in his stomach. A sailor tapped his shoulder, and he yielded the pump, and moved to the end of the queue. Sipping from a cup offered to him, his gaze bore into the bulkhead and his thoughts turned sour.
         Pursuit of their quarry was unfeasible in their current state. They will have to return to port once the storm dissipates, and a shudder tumbled through Wilkes. No man could expect an honored reception upon reaching port, and he pondered what fate could await himself. His station as an officer meant the failure was his alone, and he expected to be made an example of. Wilkes doubted the noose awaited him. Governor Lee lacked authority to execute a military officer without proper cause, but his navy career ends the instant his foot touches dry land.
         Without speaking, the pump queue rotated. Wilkes cast his eye over each man, and his chest swelled. They are the finest crew he has ever sailed with, and he owed them a journey home. A burning sensation radiated from his stomach. He realized no merchant vessel upon any sea could produce a crew such as his. Life outside a navy uniform was inconceivable, and he pondered if the hangman's noose would be a mercy.
         Relief arrived, and Wilkes reset the rotation by taking the pump. Repetitious labor soothed his thoughts. Moments later, Master Leonard appeared, requesting his presence topside. Wilkes followed his boatswain to the quarterdeck. Harriot awaited them, saluting upon Wilkes' arrival.
         "Report, gentlemen."
Leonard and Harriot exchanged a glance, and Harriot spoke first.
"Thought you might need some fresh air, captain."
Wilkes looked them over and sensed they were holding something back
"Speak freely. What troubles you?"
"No offense sir, but it not be proper fer the cap'n to be down in the hold all day," Leonard said.
"I consider it proper to keep the ship afloat Master Boatswain."
"Aye, that be true, cap'n. But the crew... they be talkin', sir."
A frown crept across Wilkes face, a knot formed in his chest, and he nodded for him to continue.
"Ya see, cap'n... It be well and good ya helpin' with the pump, but..."
Harriot picked up Leonard's sentence.
"Captain, the men appreciate your help, but they dare not speak as they please in your presence. They sense your mood and worry you might order a reckless action."
         Wilkes nodded in agreement, admitting his mistake. He dismissed both men and promised to remain topside. As he paced the quarterdeck, his heart took on a steady beat. Deliberate action and steadfast courage will carry them home, and as captain, he needed to project such qualities at all times.

         Sunlight danced over glistening sapphire waves, and the gulls carried their song for all to hear. The air held a fresh, calming scent as the Falchion skimmed with full sails. Exhaustion marked the face of every man, but upon hearing the order to return home, a second vigor took hold. Wilkes smiled, grateful for such a blessed day. He took in every detail, as he needed fond memories to serve him for the trials ahead. For the last hour, he engaged with his helmsman, testing his knowledge and offering advice. Bless the lad, he was intimate with his station and asked questions only experience could answer.
         Cries of 'ship, ahoy' rose from the crow's nest, and Wilkes aimed his spyglass into the distance. His heart screamed from his chest, and he felt a shiver shoot down his spine. Those curs have returned. He observed the stolen vessel for several moments, and determined they remained oblivious to the Falchion. If ignored, they could slip past without incident. No ship could match her with sails full. However, fate proved cruel yet again, and the stolen vessel turned upon an intercept heading.
         Time appeared to halt for Wilkes. Cries rose from the deck, men requesting orders. A fight lay ahead, but if they were victorious, he could not spare any crew to monitor prisoners and keep the ship afloat. Flying the bloody red would inspire fierce resistance from their adversaries. However, if he took prisoners and made summary executions later, he faced the same manpower issue. Deciding to outrun them, fearing his crew lacked the strength to fight, the former captain's words echoed in his head. Fire erupted in his gut and a grin crept across his face. The obvious answer stood before him.
         "All hands, battle stations!"
Continuous clangs of the bell sent all men clamoring to the ready. Harriot mustered the port guns and Wilkes provided new orders.
"Abandon cannon deck guns. Topside batteries load grapeshot. Standby to board and seize."
Harriot threw Wilkes a satisfied grin and turned to bark orders and muster the marines. Leonard darted from below deck and approached.
"Cap'n, what of the pumps?"
"Hang the pumps. Get all hands ready to board the enemy vessel."
"Aye, Aye, cap'n"
Leonard disappeared below decks.
         As the two ships neared each other, calamity gave way to an eerie calm. It was a natural phenomenon of maritime engagements, a moment to send a prayer above or bid your mate farewell. Wilkes noted several topside guns on the stolen ship sat deserted. He took it as a portent and offered a prayer of thanks. The moment arrived, both ships sat opposite of each other, and Wilkes broke the silence with a roar.
         "Fire all!"
Hot iron tore into the pirate's deck, and men screamed and fell, unable to man topside cannons. They offered a muted reply from their cannon deck, and Wilkes gave the order to board. Gangplanks crashed down upon the rails, flintlocks cracked, and sabers sprung from their sheaths. Thunderous footfalls erupted as men charged. Wilkes drew his saber and joined the fray. Reaching the pirate vessel, he felled his first opponent in a single swipe and darted through the melee, eyes fixed upon the quarterdeck.
         The pirate captain drew his blade as Wilkes reached the top of the stairs. They locked eyes and Wilkes lunged. His adversary countered and took the offensive, but he refused to yield any ground. Several cuts adorned both men's coats and their sabers gleamed in the air. Wilkes felt a growing numbness in his arms, sweat lined his brow, and he forced his opponent back. An opening presented itself and Wilkes flicked his wrist, disarmed his foe, and drove his saber into flesh. Face contorted, the pirate captain spat blood and crumbled to the deck. Removing gore from his sword, Wilkes spun to meet footsteps rising behind him, but lowered his weapon. Harriot stepped onto the quarterdeck, and rendered a salute with his crimson coated saber.
"The ship is ours, sir."

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