The Black Vale: Beginnings Part 2
There is a sense of timing to raise the pirate flag. Too early and the quarry has time to prepare for a fight. Too late pressures the other captain to fight for survival. The best time is just entering cannon range and the implied threat of immediate cannonfire if the quarry fails to strike her colors.
All four cutter captains know the timing. The pirate colors rise nearly simultaneously across the little fleet. Through the spyglass, sudden frantic gestures on the Brig’s deck points at the pirates. Sweeping to the Snow finds the crew scrambling into the rigging. “Pah! The Snow is runnin’. She’ll be goin’ downwind”, says the redheaded captain. The Brig captain’s shouts are heard over the splashing waves and creak of wood as the cutters alter for an intercept course. The big ship’s sails haul over for a new course. “Damn’d blighter captain. Couldn’t just give us the damn Snow, could ye?” Disgust tinges her angry voice. Eyeing the situation, it looks like her and Jason’s ship could slip by the intercepting Brig. The other two leeward cutters won’t make it. Hmm … stay with the fleet to take on the Brig, or give chase after the Snow?
The decision is made by Captain Jason raising the chase flag.
“Well. There is that. Cannot leave him to himself.” Raising voice, the captain calls, “Chase flag and all the sail we got! We’ve a ship to catch!” Cheers rise from the crew who would rather not fight an armed and willing Brig.
A look back finds the trailing cutters not unaware of the tactical situation. First one then the other raises a flag to signal engagement. With luck they may keep the Brig busy enough for the chase ships to catch the Snow. Though the cost of the delay will be bloody awful. A murmured prayer floats from her lips, “God be with ye. Try not to get killed.”
In passing the Brig, both chase cutters fire half-hearted broadsides that mostly fall short. After all, may as well clear the round shot loaded cannons to load chain shot.
Half hour later finds the distance closing between the chase cutters and Snow. As loaded as the Snow is, her normally faster-than-a-cutter speed is reduced while the ship plows through the waves. Contrastingly, the cutters seem too easily glide over the water with wind strained sails and frothy wakes trailing. The continued sounds of cannonfire from the battle behind counterpoint the nearly serene chase. The redheaded captain looks back and grunts. Appalling clouds of smoke partially obscures shadowed hulls and sails lit with flashes of flame spewing cannons. The battle is well and joined … and hopefully going well for the two engaged pirate cutters.
Minutes pass, yards between ships grows shorter until Jason’s bowsprit is nearly tapping upon the Snow’s galley windows. Amazingly, the Snow continues sailing straight even with the wolf nipping at her stern. At this point, the redhead’s ship is trailing 50 yards off and to the right of the Snow’s stern.
“Ready up! Helm, break to starb’d 6 points and hold steady when Jason breaks to port. Port cannons ready fire! Aim high! We want the sails!” The words are barely spoken as the other cutter heels with rudder thrown hard over. “There he goes! … Come on! Come on! Turn dammit! … Ready cannons! … Hold steady! … FIRE!!!”
The quartermaster echoes the commands. A series of concussive booms ripple down the ship as cannons spew suffocating clouds of smoke belching flame driven chain shot. The sound sets ears ringing and eyes watering. Yet the gun crews leap into action, reloading step by step with speed born of practice and familiarity with the cannons violence. The captain spies the quartermaster moving from gun crew to gun crew, clapping them on the shoulder for a job well done and wordlessly (who can hear from deafened ears?) urging them on. Good on the man! Thick smoke clears to find the sail-shredded trader Snow bracketed by the two speedy cutters. Yet only for a handful of heartbeats as the Snow’s gunners fine tune aiming and unleashes deeper yet curiously hollow sounding cannons. The redhead blinks, easily tracking the massive iron balls lobbed towards her ship. The splashed near miss sprinkles saltwater upon ship and crew alike. “Carronades! Big ones! Helm to two points starboard! Get us some distance!”, the captain yells! Hemp ropes and wood creaks as the ship takes on the new bearing. The distance between ships opens to make it harder for those shorter ranged mortar-like carronades to score a hit. A hard look towards Jason’s ship reveals harder luck. A great gouge mars the hull as the ship sloughs hard to port and obviously out of the fight. “Well hell. A cutter against a Snow? Now what?”, she muses. Spyglass out and a quick scan to the stern finds cutter sails on the near horizon following the pursuers … and taller sails of the brig trailing even further astern. Pursing lips and swinging the glass to check Jason, she quickly decides on a plan. “Right.” Waving for the Quartermaster and Bosun to meet her at the helm, she quickly outlines the plan. Agreeable nods all around and off to stations they go. The redheaded woman stays near the helm, watching with critical eye as cannons are readied and rigging is set. When the Quartermaster and Boson wave ready, she smiles and turns to the helmsman. “Ready when ye be, Mister Teid.” Teid grins and pulls the tiller hard.
The lone cutter swings quickly to port. The boom swings across on the gybe and expertly caught and set by firmly guided sheets under the Boson’s experienced directions. The ship settles into its new heading to angle behind the running Snow. The captain eyes the new heading and gives Teid a grin. “Perfectly done.” The starboard gun crews hold ready in anticipation with cannons aimed up to compensate for the heeling ship. The captain stands watchfully silent with a hand braced against the swaying waves. Minutes count down until the cutter passes behind the Snow …
“Fire!”, shouts the Quartermaster and cannons boom in reply! Six cannons belch six chain-and- ball shot high through the Snow’s sails. One shot luckily catches a halyard and neatly severs it to send a staysail flapping. “Wait fer it, Teid … now. Go.”, murmurs the captain as cannon crews reload. The Cutter’s sailing angle keeps the ship safely behind and out of the Snow’s carronades arc of fire. The slower turning Snow doesn’t even have a chance to start a turn to bring carronades to bear before the Cutter turns hard to starboard with another nimble gybe and set upon a reversed crossing course behind the bigger ship. Gun crews, done reloading the starboard cannons, rush to the port cannons with minutes to spare before unleashing another volley of chain shot through helpless Snow sails.
So the process repeats. Back and forth sails the little Cutter, reloading and shredding Snow’s sails with every pass until the big ship is barely making half its usual speed. At the captain’s signal, grape shot replaces chain shot. Although the higher hulled Snow protects the crew from the cannon driven shot, open ports and windows let the devastating rounds take a toll upon those unluckily exposed.
By now, the Snow looks like a swarm of Egypt’s locusts descended upon it. Sails in near tatters, wood dented, chipped, and splintered from hundreds of grapeshot, the big ship seems to miserly wallow in the ocean swells.
“Next pass!”, she shouts! The command sends crew into new actions under the Boson’s and Quartermaster’s shouted instructions. Muskets are passed up to crew already in the rigging. Sheets and halyards are readied to cast off and drop sails. Cannons are reloaded one last time. Knives and swords are taken up by able bodied crewmembers who take cover behind the ship’s sides. Just as the cutter passes close astern of the Snow, Teid pulls the tiller. The Cutter swerves and is suddenly alongside the bigger ship. A shout is quickly obliterated as sails cascade down and cannons boom one last load of grapeshot into the Snow. The smoke obscures tossed grapnels to give hauling crewmen a chance to bring the ships together without having to contend with musket fire. A thump and a heavy jar heralds hulls meeting … and the battle for the Snow truly commences.
Until now, the battle has been one of ranged cannonfire, of drifting smoke and measured booming volleys of cannonfire. As cannons were reloaded, the only sounds were waves and splashing from the hulls, the creak of wood and hemp, the breathless grunts and sounds of crew working hard with cannon and sails. There was time to think for action was slow as measured by the stately movements of sailing ships.
Not so when boarding actions starts!
Challenging yells from attacking crew meld with answering screams of rage from the defenders. Metal on metal clanging interspersed with moans fill the air with noise. Smaller yet as deadly booms from tossed grenades followed by screams assault the ears. Muskets on both sides punctuate the wall of noise, sometimes followed by exclaimed curse by a shot fellow. Thus the Cutter’s crew strives to take the Snow. The higher hull makes it difficult to scale and attack at the same time while providing the defenders with cover. The Captain casts a critical eye over the locked together ships, estimating the odds about even in numbers. Not a good thing when the defenders have the advantage! Yet the crew fights on, not quit gaining a foothold on the other ship. Fighters fall on both sides from musket and swords, though the tide seems to be turning in favor of the well-entrenched Snow defenders. Suddenly, cannonfire rocks all the fighters with sound and smoke! That came from the other side of the Snow! Craning neck, the redhead spies the tops of a cutter off the Snow’s port side. It’s Jason! The man must have repaired his ship to reenter the fight! Cannons boom once more, spewing grapeshot across the Snow and mowing down defenders. The cutter’s crew, protected by the taller hull alongside, takes heart and double their efforts, literally fighting over the Snow’s rail to gain a much needed foothold on deck.
With the timely assistance, the Snow is quickly taken. The two captains meet on the Snow’s deck and exchange handclasps. “Well done! Rather timely of ye.”, says the redheaded woman. The taller man grins in return. Jason sweeps a hand grandly around the ship. “Given you did the hard work in in taking the ship at the cost of good men, we’ll put the prize crew to get her back to port.” A glance up and he adds wryly, “Though little is left of the sails.” “Ye’ll manage. Meantimes, we’ll cast off and see if the other ships need help with that brig. See ye in port!”, she replies. As the redheaded woman turns towards her ship, one of the prisoner’s ask, “What’ll become of us Captain?” That pauses the women long enough to answer, “Ye’ll be released in port. Who else be tellin’ who captured the ship?” “And who be that?”, says the prisoner. Swinging a leg over the railing and starting the climb down to her cutter, the redhead replies with a grin, “Ye can call me The Red Hellion. And we be…”, a nod of the head towards Jason …
“The Black Vale.”