Jack walked into the wheel house, still wiping the rusty grime from his hands with a greasy rag, exchanging one form of filth for another. A look out the aft port holes showed the approaching ship now only six miles away, chugging blacker still as her crew drove their ship mercilessly in chase. “May I?” Jack inquired, pointing to the powerful binoculars which sat atop the chart table.
“Sure, sure” Vasiliy replied.
Jack picked them up and walked to the aft ports. He trained them on the pursuer and brought the ship into focus. “She is a warship. An old warship… Can’t see any markings. No flags.” Then, after a long pause he said “I don’t think she’s gaining on us anymore. If she is, it’s very little. Vasiliy, do you have a sextant?”
“Of course, of course! Let me find it.” He rustled through several drawers in the cabinets that made up the instrument console along the forward wheel house bulkhead, retrieved wooden box, and passed it to Jack. He took the sextant from it’s case, aimed it at the pursuing ship, and noted the elevation.
Jack noticed Vasiliy’s questioning look, and he explained; “I can tell if the ship is gaining by the elevation of her mast in relation to the horizon.”
“Ah!” Vasiliy cried, slapping his forehead. “The closer she gets, the taller she gets, no? This I should have known! I am durak, ha ha! Stupid!”
“Don’t beat yourself up, I only thought of it because I read about it in a novel” Jack consoled, with a wry grin.
Except for the fact they were under power, and possessed no cannon, the Caribe and her sister Tropic Star might have leapt from the pages of that seafaring novel read long ago. The tall ships were running wide open, making just under nine knots. Jack took another sight on the chase, and his heart dropped as he found they were gaining.
“How fast can we sail, if we had a wind?” Jack asked Vasiliy.
“Oh, I seen ten… no, eleven knots before. In the trade winds. But where they are…” Vasiliy shrugged his shoulders. “You think we can outsail that ship?”
“I think she’s giving all she’s got right now. Just shy of ten knots, tops. I think she’s hurt, maybe has an engine down. If only we had wind, I think we could lose her. Otherwise, she’ll be alongside in about six hours. Who knows what her firing range is.”
Not five minutes after those words were uttered, a puff of smoke came from the bows of their pursuer, followed by the whump of the report, and a splash fifty yards shy of Caribe’s stern. Not a large splash, Jack noted with a sort of relief. Maybe a three inch shell. But plenty big enough to do some serious damage none the less.
Vasiliy took over the helm from the watchman and altered course slightly to port. “We don’t want to be sitting ducks, no?” he said, grinning. “I was in Russian Navy many years ago. How you say? The old dog knows his tricks.”
“Close enough” Jack said as another shell splashed not ten yards to starboard, right where the ship would have been. He surveyed the horizon, then doubled back to look again to starboard. A solid bank of low, dark cloud was just barely visible, stretching the length of the westward sky. “Vasiliy, me might just get our wind. And then some.”
“Ah, yes!” Vasiliy exclaimed. “Do you think we…”
“Yes, I do” Jack said before Vasiliy could finish. With a wink, he spun the helm to starboard, heading straight for the approaching storm. Tropic Star altered course as well, but a bit more to southward, forcing their pursuers to choose one ship or the other. They fired two rounds; one at each ship, both missing their mark by fifty yards or more.
“Thank God their gun crew is not so good!” Vasiliy said with a chuckle. “And we hope practice does not make perfect, no?!”
The chase latched on to Caribe, which was the nearer of the two tall ships. On and on they zig zagged toward the darkening clouds, dodging rounds that came closer to their mark with each volley. The wind finally began to ruffle the sea’s oily slick surface, and streaks of lightning shot across the not too distant sky. Vasiliy gave the helm back to the watchman with instructions on when to zig or zag, then opened the wheelhouse door. “Time to set sail” he said, his eyes shining brighter than his grin.
“Let me know where I can be useful” Jack said.
Linda, who had been sitting quietly in the aft corner of the wheel house, stood up and said “I will help too.”
Jack smiled, and the trio went on deck to hoist sail with the rest of the crew.
Thunder rolled and lightning flashed just a few miles ahead as the Caribes bravely climbed into the rigging to set sail. Several more shots from the chase had landed perilously close to the ship, and in the back of Jack’s mind he feared they would finally find their aim. They were no more than four miles distant now, and they would certainly find their mark as the gap closed. The crew worked feverishly, and soon the deck began to heel as the wind filled Caribe’s sails. Another shot from the chase found it’s mark, and the ship’s hull rang with the impact. The crew cast nervous glances at each other, then redoubled their already Herculean efforts.
The first enormous drops of rain began to pelt the crew high aloft, and shortly thereafter the first good gust of wind hit them from the northwest. Almost simultaneously, a round from the chase holed the main course, then glanced off the steel foremast with a loud CLANG! With tremendous effort, the sparse crew managed to set courses and topsails as the ship heeled down, her leeward rail dipping into the increasing swell from time to time, sending sheets of green water down the deck. Suddenly, the ship gave a sickening lurch as another round from the chase struck home, and she sheared off of her course to windward. Instantly Jack raced down the ratlines as the helmsman ran out of the wheel house shouting “Bloody bastards shot away the steering!”
Jack followed Vasiliy down the engine room ladder and aft through a water tight door that led to the steering compartment. Vasiliy cursed in his native tongue something fierce as he held up a piece of the severed tiller, then threw it down to the deck in rage. “We are finished!” He yelled to Jack.
“We can rig something” Jack replied, his eyes searching the room. “We can rig something…”
“There is no time” Vasiliy lamented. “They will be on us before we can have steerage.” He kicked the remnants of the long steel tiller, still attached to the great cables that led to the helm, which was now completely useless.
“Are there any weapons aboard?” Jack asked, his mind searching for some solution.
“No” Vasiliy sulked. “This is cruise ship, not war ship. All we have are distress rockets, no more. We have no teeth, Jack. No teeth, no claws…”
The war ship drew alongside Caribe in the lightning streaked darkness, her guns leveled at the deck, and a crew of right cutthroats lining her rail, with a menagerie of small arms trained at the Caribe’s crew. Their captain appeared on deck and roared across the water above the din of flapping sails, wind, and sea, in English, surprisingly devoid of accent to Jack’s ear.
“Good evening, prisoners” he began. “You made a good run of it, but succumbed to our superior force, as was inevitable. But fear not, I hold no grudge against those who wish to preserve themselves, as I would wish to preserve myself.”
“What do you want from us?” Jack shouted.
“Why, your ship, of course! Surely you must know that fuel is rather hard to come by these days, do you not? As you nearly demonstrated, a sailing vessel has it’s advantages. Your flight led me to burn nearly half of our reserves in chase! Had my gunner not knocked away your rudder, I might have been forced to break off. But happily his lack of practice was superseded by good luck. Ammunition, especially that of the naval variety, is rarer than fuel you know. I despised the thought of burning rounds as well as fuel for what should have been an easy catch, but since we were so close I thought it worth the expense. How happy I am to have remained steadfast in my pursuit!
Vasiliy spat over the side and gave a murderous glare at the captain. “And what will you do with us?”
“Well, I suppose that is up to you. As I mentioned, I will have your ship. My force is superior; therefore you are at my mercy. I may find it in my heart to set you ashore some place appropriate, should you give me no trouble. And should you and your crew prove helpful, I may even allow you food and water.”
Jack’s blood began to boil, his hands clenched into fists, and his body began to tremble visibly. Vasiliy lay a calming hand on his shoulder, and quietly whispered “Easy, easy my friend. I know this kind of man. I know what he wants, and I know how far he will go.” Then, in a slightly louder whisper, he said “Linda, hide below.”