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Captain James Lockwood 

     Several minutes of near-silence followed, broken only by the gentle creaking of a ship under easy sail and a few orders as sail was reduced. The crew of the Halcón could make out the brig’s name, Dispatch, gilded across her broad stern. The two ships thumped together. The Halcón had been built for speed, so the side of the Dispatch, a wallowing merchantman, towered above her. Otero barked another order, and grapnels were thrown from the bow and stern.

     The Halcón and the Dispatch were pulled together and secured. Many of the pirates set their weapons aside and prepared to scramble aboard the brig. They looked up hungrily at the tall side of the brig, though the morning sun was in their eyes.

Otero had a flickering premonition. He absently crossed himself, and then reached to draw his sword. He was on the brink of calling a warning when the brig came alive with a flash of red.

 

                                                                                                 *****

     Captain Lockwood leapt to his feet and roared “Inniskillings!” in a voice that brought blood to his throat.

None of his men—they proved themselves his men—flinched. In an instant every man on the rail was on his feet, the rail a steady line of red-coated Irishmen, many of them calling out in English and Irish, anxious to be at it.

     “Ready!” Every barrel was pointed down into the faces of the stunned pirates.

     “Fire!”

     Fire and smoke spewed from every muzzle. It seemed that every shot struck flesh; the narrow, crowded deck of the Halcón was scythed with lead balls. The men at the rail fell back to reload, their places taken by men who scrambled up from below.

“Fire at will!” His orders came loud but calmer in tone, meant to steady them. Too much excitement made for unsteady hands and slow loading. The smoke was dense, but in the brief lull of reloading, the wind cleared his view and he had the opportunity to study the deck below. Dozens dead and wounded. There was pandemonium on the deck of the sloop, most of the pirates scrambling for cover, some few keeping their wits and returning fire. A big man in a light blue coat at the stern was screaming orders in Spanish, pointing to the lines that held the ships together. Before James could say anything, he saw Clapsaddle and the two other seamen who had stayed aboard throwing their own grapnels into the pirate’s rigging. There would be no flight; one side would win, and the other would surrender or perish.

     Shanahan was standing near his captain. With his sword, James pointed out the officer in the blue coat and called to him, “Shanahan! Pot that fellow!”

     Seconds later Miguel Otero dropped to the deck, clutching his head.

     James called out, “Keep firing, men! Put them down!” A spattering of musket shots ensued, then a steady pattern of fire, balls striking the deck in a pelting gale. Captain Lockwood walked up and down the firing line shouting orders and encouragement. He stepped over the body of Private Robert O’Neal, dead with a shot to the head. Three men bent over the body, shocked and ashen until Lockwood pushed them back to the rail, crying, “Never mind, now! Pay the bastards back! Load and fire, there, load and fire!”

     Clapsaddle and his two men hurriedly loaded one of the four-pound guns and aimed it down into the teeming deck of the Halcón. Firing canister at close range, even such a light gun, was murderous. They served the gun like demons, the hail of shot carving paths of bloody destruction below.

     The volume of fire was steady—lead, smoke, and fire lashing the Halcón, stabbing flames from every shot cutting the dense smoke. Captain Lockwood continued to walk the line. “Fire and step back, men, fire and step back. Take aim, there, Reilly. Don’t throw your shot away. Rooney, well done. Steady, McIlhenny, remember your training, son. Well done, Monahan.”

 James felt the shock of surprise waning; the deck below was covered with bodies, but some of the enemy were regrouping—fierce, violent men. He had to press his advantage.

     Another roar from the captain: “Inniskillings! Fix! Bayonets!” The firing stopped as his men hastily snapped the eighteen-inch blades into place. He paused, judging them. A few were obviously frightened out of their wits, but most were flush with victory and bloodlust, panting, wild-eyed and anxious to be at it. Most had never truly injured another man in all their lives previously, but for these few minutes, they were as terrible as men could become.

James waited one more beat, feeling his fury, and theirs, rising, boiling, then roaring, “Across!” as he threw himself over the rail and down onto the enemy’s deck. James caught a glimpse of Clapsaddle, a sword in his hand, the first to follow.

Going over the side, several men cried out, “Baltimore! Baltimore!” It had been two hundred years since Barbary pirates had stolen away the entire population of that Cork village to a life of slavery. A pirate was a pirate; these mongrel pirates would pay for the crimes of those corsairs. Fineen O'Driscoll, who had been raised with stories of his ancestors’ slavery, was in such a fury that he foully cursed in Irish and howled for the blood of the godless slavers. And so the Irish came, scrambling after their captain, screaming curses.

     They found the deck a charnel house. Soft lead musket balls made terrible, gaping wounds, and dead and writhing wounded men lay everywhere, the decks slick with blood. But still the remaining pirates would not surrender, as captivity could lead to nothing better than hanging.

     They sold their lives dearly. Those who had run below came surging back on deck with pistols, pikes, and cutlasses. There were more of them than James had anticipated, furious and deadly. And then, they were amongst them, men packed together on the narrow deck, dealing and receiving blows, a reeling melee, slashing, thrusting, sweating, screaming, tripping over the bodies of the fallen. James pushed his way to where the pirates seemed best organized, parrying pikes and cutlasses, thrusting into the mass of teeming bodies. Close to his enemy now, he heard them calling out in Spanish, French, English, and for an instant James was shocked to hear more than a few pirates screaming the same Gaelic oaths that his own men called. Shanahan was now beside him, and O’Donnell, and some others, their bayonets doing deadly work.

     It was the type of fierce, merciless close-quarter fighting with which Captain Lockwood was all too familiar. At Badajoz, Waterloo and in the west of Ireland he had seen as much combat as any man in the king’s service. The wounds he had suffered in previous battles still hindered him, but his size, skill, and experience made him the deadliest man aboard.

     His focus was reduced to flashes of the men around him. One of the pirates, a viciously ugly white man in a red shirt, made a clumsy thrust with a cutlass and made no attempt to recover his guard. James handily parried and reposted his point into the man’s throat. A wild-looking pirate—in an instant of distraction, James judged him an Indian—snapped a pistol at him. The ball whistled past James’s head, and in turn, James slashed him down and finished him, pinning him to the deck. A black man with some knowledge of sword play lunged at Lockwood with an old-fashioned rapier. James parried the point, and in a flash the man was swept away by a wall of screaming Inniskillings. Darby Rooney, the little fellow who spoke only Irish, dashed past, thrusting his bayonet in a frenzy, wild-eyed and howling Irish profanities.

     Finally, there were only redcoats near Lockwood, and he could look up. In isolated pockets across the deck, crowds of soldiers closed in on the surviving pirates, but still the soldiers’ inexperience showed. Some of them failed to use the advantage of their long weapons, allowing the pirates inside their guard. A short, bald man, bare-chested with arms like an ape, leapt out from behind the capstan and brutally hacked down Tim O’Mulqueen, a gentle soul, a former weaver from Limerick. Gerald McNamara made a childish lunge at a gnarled old pirate, a lunge which the pirate easily parried, and he, in turn, slashed at McNamara. The soldier was fortunate to take the blow in the shoulder, and his life was only saved by Clapsaddle, who rushed in and struck the pirate down with a back-handed slash of his cutlass.

     It was a short, brutal, fight, but the soldiers’ superior numbers soon told. The last of the pirates were overwhelmed, fighting to the last.

     It was over. James allowed himself to double over, gasping and coughing. Shanahan and O’Boyle rushed to support him, barely keeping him from collapsing to the deck, as O’Boyle cried out, “Ah, shite, sir, are ye hit?”

Gasping, wincing, holding his side, James answered, “No, man.” Heaving breaths. “Waterloo wound.” A few seconds more. “Damn.”

     His breath grudgingly returned. Finally upright, looking about, the scope of the slaughter became evident. “Jesus.”

     The dead were still; the wounded crawled and writhed, groaning or screaming. Some of them were his men. “Captain Clapsaddle! Where is that bloody damned surgeon!”

     The redcoated soldiers stood motionless, staring at their captain, shocked, stunned, and relieved. “Sergeant Maguire, secure the prisoners!”

      James saw that the big man in the light blue coat was still alive, trying to rise, his head wound dripping blood on the deck. He pointed him out and said, “O’Boyle, I believe that man is the captain of this vessel. Do sit on him, won’t you? I shall want to speak with him later.”

     At his feet, a pirate with his entrails in his hands began to scream. Distractedly, James said, “Oh, be quiet, sir, be quiet.” He saw Private McNamara sitting on the deck clutching his shoulder, blood pouring through his fingers. He went to him, and, with Shanahan’s help, he eased the soldier back, pushing the wound closed, calling for the surgeon.

     A dead redcoat lay near the Halcón’s rail: Peter Blackburn, whose wife had died a few days before, in a Fermanagh ditch. He would not, of course, have known of his wife’s fate, though he might have taken some consolation if he had known that his orphaned son would grow up safe and loved, in a great house.

      The ship’s launch returned, bearing a concerned Mr. Read and the young David Clapsaddle, still wearing one of Captain Lockwood’s massive uniform coats, who anxiously looked up until he saw his father’s face at the rail, and then, with a beaming smile, yelled, “Da! Oh, Da, have you won?”

 

                                                                                            *****

     The dead pirates were tossed overboard without ceremony, and the prisoners secured below. The Inniskillings—they now deserved the title—asked their captain if they might stay aboard the Halcón. They had taken her and earned the right to keep her. So that night four men from the Dispatch joined the few soldiers who had some knowledge of the sea, and crewed the Halcón under easy sail, following the Dispatch south and west toward Guyana.

      Captain Lockwood stayed aboard as well. That night, as the men of the draft waked for their dead on the deck where they had died, he sat alone in Otero’s well-appointed cabin, a pen in hand, trying to compose a summary of the action for submission to the Governor of Guyana Colony. In the cold calculus of war, theirs was an astounding victory.

     An infamous pirate sloop had been taken, and seventy-four pirates killed. Eighteen more had been wounded and captured, screaming, at bayonet point. Only two prisoners had been taken unhurt. Six of his men—he would not say ‘only’ six—were dead, fourteen more wounded.

     James pondered those totals for a moment. In most any battle, the wounded outnumbered the dead by three to one. But many of the pirates had been determined to fight to the death, and his men had evidently been willing to oblige them. He had not thought them so bloody-minded. He should have known—their cries of “Baltimore!” ought to have told him of their fury. They had been blooded. For better or worse, they were now soldiers, bound to one another through experiences no other man could know.

     But he could think of little else but the cost of their victory. Those six soldiers were dead. That would never be undone. Twelve more were in agony: shot, stabbed and slashed, suffering in the relentless, staggering heat. The surgeon was tending to them, aided by one of the wives, young Mrs. McManus, who had clambered aboard the Halcón and set to work aiding the wounded and had proven herself a stout soul. The other two wives had flinched; horrified by the blood flowing from the scuppers of the Halcón, they screamed across, to learn that their husbands were unhurt, then remained aboard the Dispatch.

James found that his hands were shaking. He looked at them in surprise and set his formal letter aside. After a moment, he started another, this one for Brigid. He sat staring at the blank page for long minutes, until finally writing, “All those lives lost, and all the lives lost over these past years! I fear I have lost what little chance I had at heaven. In my heart I wonder if I have seen enough; perhaps I ought to just come home.” By writing those lines he felt as if he had shared them, across the endless miles that separated them, and that somehow she could hear him. Consoled, he folded the sheet of paper, held it over the candle and dropped the softly burning paper to the deck. It soon faded to a bit of ash and smoke, and the gentle Caribbean breeze wafted the smoke away.