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THE FIERY FATE OF THE PHOENIX By S. Patrick McCully

 

August 7, 1588

 

            Lt. Morrow could feel the shift of the winds on the tiny hairs at the base of his neck.  It matched a gut feeling that had been honed by years of sailing in open seas. 

 

            “Mr. Longhan, I believe the winds are turning to our favor. Are we ready?”

           

            “We can be underway at any moment, Sir.”

 

            “Very well.”  Lt. Morrow stood from his seat and straightened his uniform.  He took a deep breath and prepared to give the orders that would transform the ship from a captured Spanish transport manned by an understaffed makeshift crew into the Phoenix.

           

            Morrow reflected back on the week’s events.  Morrow and the crew of the Avenger had been scooped from the sea by Drake’s Revenge after their hull had been splintered by a well-placed shot from the Spanish galleon, Corazon. They only lost a few men in the frigid waters before being rescued. His crew had been scattered throughout the fleet due to a shortage of trained hands and a lack of new ships for Morrow to command.  He suffered only a minor public shame, but his pride had taken a terrible hit.   That led him to volunteer the remainder of his crew to assist John Young’s men in the development and execution of a daring plan.

 

            “All hands, prepare to set sail!  Raise the main sail! Set the jib! Hoist the anchor! Make way for the heart of the crescent.”

 

            Under the dark night sky, the deck came alive with activity as the commands were echoed throughout the rickety hull of the Phoenix, a former Spanish transport, that had been damaged and nearly scuttled before being captured by the Avenger a month before.

 

            Twelve men scrambled through the rigging, unfurling sails and raising them high on the main mast. Monday, the orphan, was named after the day of his birth, the only thing anyone knew about his life.  He was only thirteen, but he scurried over the ropes like a seasoned hand.

 

             Dothwaite, the veteran hand, kept watch on the men swinging and sliding over the rigs, making ready the sails that would pull the ship across the mighty seas.  They loosed enough sail for the Phoenix to capture the wind and pull away from her moorings.  Dowthwaite was  a balding redhead whose hands were scarred and leathery from years spent at sea and in the midst of swinging tackles and coarse ropes.

 

             Mr. Tenpenny, the rookie helmsman, took hold of the wheel and began moving it gently, getting a feel for the waters beneath the Phoenix.  He was short for a helmsman and had nailed several boards to the deck beneath him, so he could see over the top of the wheel.  Although he had some experience at the helm, this was his first assignment as chief helmsman.  All he had to do was pilot the ship on its final voyage.

 

            Midshipman William Longhan, the first mate, raced over the decks supervising the securing of the anchor and ensuring that no hatches were left unsecured from the morning inspection. 

 

            Lt. James Morrow, the captain of this tiny vessel, gathered himself.  He took a deep breath and exhaled as the ship stirred with life.  The sails blossomed with the night air and the ship creaked into motion.  He felt a slight tug as the ship gathered sail and moved forward from the port.  His eyes swept over the makeshift braces that held the once splintered mast in place and made a silent prayer for the nails and boards to hold fast. 

 

            Tenpenny called out the first report of the voyage.

 

            “We are at full sail and under way, Sir.”  Longhan echoed the cry and turned toward Morrow, whose face bore a thin smile.

           

            “Very good, Mr. Longhan.  Take us out. Mind the fleet and keep the others in sight.”  He turned toward Tenpenny, whose hands gripped the wheel so tight it cracked beneath his fingers.  “Tenpenny, I know you enjoy sailing at night, but let’s keep this one by the books.”

 

            “Aye, Sir.”  The blood returned to Tenpenny’s hands and the wheel began its normal ebb and sway as the waves buffeted the tiny ship.

 

            Morrow turned from the deck and walked into his Captain’s quarters.  It was a tiny room with a single bunk, a locker, a desk and a series of maps and communiqu├ęs scattered on a table nailed down in the center of the deck. One map was unrolled on top of the others.

 

            He made a mark on the map and sat down. His shoulders slumped as he let the tension of the last few hours seep from him.  This was not the posting he had wanted.  But the Admiral felt that a seasoned officer would make a fitting captain for this crucial mission.  John Young had made a personal request for him to captain one of the eight ships in this unorthodox fleet and 1oo pounds and a citation from the Queen were tough rewards to pass up.  It was not exactly a suicide mission, but it was certainly a task that any reasonable man would have passed on, if given the chance.  Yet here he was, captain of a ship stuffed full of explosives, oil and pitch.

 

            The crew’s orders were simple.  The patchwork fleet of eight ships would set sail for the center of the crescent of the Armada, light the explosives and pitch and steer her into the heart of the Spanish fleet.  Each crew had to remain on board until certain that the ship would damage or scatter the center of the fleet.  Otherwise, the Spanish ships might open their rigging and slip past the approaching fireballs.  A coxswain’s boat would be towed astern for the crew to make their escape once the ship was aflame.

 

            Now moored in Calais, the Spanish Armada awaited a rendezvous with their reinforcements before attacking England and advancing on London.  Drake’s attacks had taken their toll on the armada and the reinforcements were necessary to break through the gathering line of British defenses now filling the waters around Calais.  The Armada had anchored in a crescent formation, giving them a powerful defense from the cannons at the ‘horns’ of the curves, while keeping the well-filled transports protected on the inner arch of the crescent.

           

            Those protected transports were the target of the eight ship assault.  Admiral Howard hoped that the sight of eight flaming ships bearing down on the heart of the “Invincible Armada” would scatter the ships and give the smaller but better armed British fleet a chance to tear through the formidable array of ships.

 

            The Phoenix was manned by a skeleton crew only one fifth of its normal crew.  This meant that each man had to work twice as hard to keep the ship underway.  Ten of the twenty man crew were volunteers.  The conscripts had been sent from the fleet as a way to force the men to be productive in the war effort. Morrow had assigned them to simple tasks amidships and to assist Thomasson in preparing the coxswain’s boat. 

 

            “Mr. Longhan?” asked Morrow as he stepped from his quarters, a telescope extended from his hand and scanning the horizon.

 

            “Yes, Sir.”

 

            “Is everything in order?”

 

            “Aye, Aye, Sir.  We are fully underway and keeping pace with the fleet.”

           

            The tiny fleet of eight ships cut through the seas, each crew working under moonlight.  Each ship was buzzing with labor as sailors and hands moved across riggings and across decks silently preparing for their task.  Morrow’s glass moved left to right across his ship’s bow.  Lights were appearing on the horizon.  Bright lights of torches and candles marking sentries working the night watch onboard the gigantic fleet.

 

            “Prepare the cargo.  We are almost in position.” Morrow never took his eye from his glass, but Longhan had worked with Morrow long enough to recognize a command meant for him.

 

            “Aye, Sir.”  He turned back to the helmsman.

 

            “Tenpenny, hold her steady. I’ll be in the hold.”

 

            “Aye, Sir, holding steady.”

 

            Monday saw Longhan and three hands marching toward the door to the hold.

 

            “Mr. Monday, you’re with us”

 

            “Aye, Sir.”

 

 

            Longhan made his way across the desk to the large double doors leading to the hold.  He gently opened them and stepped down onto the rotting wooden steps.  The acrid scent of the explosives filled the room.  No torch or light was possible, for fear of igniting the volatile load. Instead he and the others made their way by the faint light from the opened cargo door and the tiny portholes surrounding the hold.  He had practiced this drill a hundred times in the past few days, but he was still nervous. 

           

            Monday was wearing his staunchest expression, pretending to be a much braver sailor than he was.  He shuffled behind Longhan and the others, afraid that he might get lost in the maze of gunpowder barrels and pitch containers.

           

            “Mr. Monday.  Please refrain from scratching your shoes on the deck, unless you want to start this fire yourself.”

 

            Monday‘s feet seemed to float from then on, barely touching the floor.  He would have hauled himself around on his hands if he could.

 

            Endless strings of wicks had been strung throughout the hold. There were also large sails coated in pitch folded in the corners.  The sails had to be unfurled and lashed over the desks.  Two of them would be strung up alongside the mainsails, adding height to the bonfire they were preparing. 

 

            Monday and two of the hands began dragging the sails above decks and securing them in place.

 

            Longhan made a final inspection of the oil-soaked wicks and returned to Morrow’s quarters.

           

            “Everything is in order, Sir.”

 

            Morrow made a small dash on the map and stepped out onto the deck. The lights from the Spanish fleet were visible to the naked eye now.  He checked his eyeglass against the ships in front of them, noting the position of any sentries or gunners that might take notice of the eight ships sailing into their midst.   

 

            “Full ahead, Mr. Tenpenny.”

           

            “Aye, Sir.”

 

            Dothwaite and the others quickly unfurled the final sails and let them fly into the wind, gathering every bit of the tailwind that was chasing them.  The ship lurched under the power of full sail.  The wind blew them recklessly toward the center of the crescent.  Puffs of smoke appeared along the desks of the Spanish ships before them.  Splashes from the water reminded the crew how close they were coming to the deadly shot of the Spanish cannons.  Morrow knew the volleys wouldn’t last.  They were still out of range and the Spanish Captains would not waste shot on a ship beyond the range of their cannons. As he had planned, the cannons were silenced, waiting for the eight ship fleet to draw within range of an accurate shot. That bought them a few minutes, but still might not get them within distance of their target.  The full size of the Armada at anchor was coming into view.

 

            Thomasson and the twins were the first to hear the shrill whine of grape shot whistling toward them.  It struck a beam just in front of and above them and sent a shower of splinters into Thomasson’s leg. He doubled over in pain, blood spurting from the numerous nicks and gashes on his body.  One splinter, nearly two feet in length and two inches thick had bored through the front of his pants and into his thigh.  His hands wrapped around the piece, hoping to keep it from hurting him any more.  He looked up, but the twins were gone, a thin yellow puddle the only reminder of the two boys that had ducked down into the hold to shiver in fear behind a stack of gunpowder casks. He grasped the thick center of the piece and jerked it free, wincing as the sharp wood tore his flesh.

 

            Thomasson gathered himself and limped to within earshot of Morrow.

           

            “Haven’t we gone close enough?  I can have the coxswain’s boat underway in minutes.”

           

            Morrow kept his eyes pressed against his glass and did not answer Thomasson.

 

            “Aye, Sir.”  Thomasson realized the folly of his argument.  He slumped against the side wall and took a series of shallow breaths as the fear of death swept over him.

 

            Even with his eyes locked on the Ships in front of him, firing broadside at his tiny ship, Morrow could feel the despair on his coxswain’s face.  Thomasson needed a task to get his mind off his pain and his fear.

 

            “Thomasson?”

 

            “Yes, sir?”

 

            “Make preparations to get the coxswain under way. We may well have to jettison the ship in short notice and I need that boat ready to go.”

 

            “Aye, Aye, Sir.”

 

            Thomasson turned back toward the stern. Despite his shock at seeing the amount of blood he had left on the deck, he staggered to the coxswain’s moor and began removing the lashes and securing the oars for transport. 

 

            Steel shot began to pepper the sides of the tiny ship, sending chunks of wood flying throughout the ship.  A cannonball slammed hard against the port side of the ship, drawing screams from the men still working in the hold. 

 

            “Patch it up, get a man on the pumps.  Don’t let the cargo get wet.”

 

         Morrow barely noticed the enemy shot tearing through the deck.  No fear seeped through him, but rather an irritation that he would have to waste a man on the bilge pumps.

 

            “Dothwaite, take three men and man the forward guns.  Let them know we have a few teeth of our own.”

 

            Morrow smiled as the forward guns erupted with gunfire and splashes began to appear alongside the towering galleons in front of them.

 

            Longhan returned from the hold and steadied himself in front of Morrow, even as the boat tipped and rocked beneath them.  Wood bits ricocheted from the deck beneath his feet as more grapeshot found its way onboard the ship.

 

            “The wicks are ready, sir.  The crew is accounted for and ready to proceed.”

 

            “Very well. Mr. Tenpenny, keep her as steady as you can. All Hands! Make final preparations of the pitch and cargo.”

 

            “Aye, Sir” answered Longhan as the pitch-covered sails were hoisted alongside their working counterparts.

 

            Morrow stepped down from his perch and went to his quarters.  He retrieved a steel fire bucket from his locked locker.  The bucket contained the only implements for making fire on the entire ship.  It would have been disastrous to have a fire break out while the ship was in port.  Even a partial explosion could have splintered the hulls of every ship anchored within earshot of the Phoenix.

           

            Morrow set the bucket beneath the main sail.

 

             Longhan dragged a thick strip of oiled wick to the edge of the cargo hold’s doors.  He secured the hatch open and then secured the wick to a grommet in the pitch covered main sail.

 

            Morrow struck the flint and steel together, sparking a tiny flame in the center of the bucket. Longhan dipped a torch into the bucket.  It roared to life with the flame.  This torch would soon ignite the trail of wicks leading to the hold.  Longhan handed the torch to Morrow.

 

            Morrow’s voice boomed out the last order he planned to give as captain of the Phoenix.

 

            “All hands to the coxswain’s boat. Secure the boat and clear this ship.”

 

             Feet scurried over the main deck and poop deck as the crew scrambled to the escape boat lashed to the stern of the ship. 

 

            Tenpenny set the hasp over the handle of the wheel, locking the ship oncourse with the center of the fleet. 

 

            Morrow touched the torch to the base of the mainsail, watching the flames dance on the canvas, turning it from a brilliant white into an ashy, charred black.  He then touched the torch to the wick lighting the slow-burning fuse that would ignite the explosive contents of the hold.  The heat from the sails was intense, forcing him to move quicker than he had anticipated.

           

            The crew hurried down long gangways and stepped into the coxswains moor.  Monday reached it first, but stopped when he got to the final step.  Dothwaith stopped just behind him, his face filling with rage at what he saw.  The others skidded to a stop on the wooden steps.

 

            The coxswain was gone, as was Thomasson.  Morrow raised his glass to his eye and found the coxswain bobbing a hundred yards astern, filled with the remaining ten crewmen.  The fire raged above them and Morrow began to calculate how much time remained before the hold would ignite.

 

            “Gentlemen, I know this is not what you signed up for, but we still have a job to do.”

 

            Morrow handed the torch to Longhan who tossed it as far toward Thomasson’s coxswain as he could, watching it hiss and disappear under the waves.

 

            Morrow raced to his quarters and with Monday’s help dragged a large locker onto the deck and forward to the forecastle. Morrow unlocked the oversized box and began handing its contents to the others. 

 

            “If we must face out fate today, we will face it like Englishmen!”

 

            Morrow drew his cutlass from his belt and held it out before him.  The flaming fury behind him glistened in the shimmering blade.  He raised it high over his head as the ships drew near.  He charged forward to the bow, the others racing to keep up behind him.  Longhan ran at Morrow’s right side, waving his saber in his left hand while urging the men on with his right..  Dowthwaite was on the other side, a cutlass in his right hand.  The trio stopped at the forward edge of the bow.  Bullets and shot whistled by them.  Monday and the remaining crew spread out on the bow alongside the others, brandishing grapnels and pole-hooks to latch on to the Galleon that was desperately firing at the men gathered at the bow of the Phoenix. 

           

            The Sangre  cut anchor and tried to slip past the Phoenix.  Morrow could see the fear in the eyes of the Spanish sailors as his flaming, hell-sent ship bore down upon them.  He heard the tell-tale spark of the wick striking the barrels in the hold of his ship.  He steadied himself and raised his sword high over his head.

 

            “Let us bring hellfire and death to the Spaniards!”  

 

            Morrow took a step back and then flung himself at the port side of the galleon, followed closely by his men.  The bellow of the galleon’s cannons was matched by the roar of the Phoenix’s cargo hold swelling from the explosions within.  The planks and decks of the Phoenix gave way, sending shrapnel into the air and deep into the hull of the Sangre.

 

            The  Sangre  listed in the water. Sailors and soldiers alike raced to man the bilges, but the damage was too great.  Lifeboats flooded into the sea as the waters claimed another ship for its collection.  Several Spanish ships cut anchor to avoid the flaming fire-hulls and left themselves as the mercy of raging seas and terrible weather.  During the melee, John Young would send two ships, including one manned by Thomasson, into the terrifying wreckage of the Phoenix and Sangre, but no sign of Morrow or his courageous men was ever found. 

 

*************

 

Mr. McCully is a police officer in the Dallas, TX area.  He has a Master's Degree in Human Development.  He's been published on the Aphelion website (for a military/fantasy set in present day Iraq), The Writer's Post Journal and an upcoming issue of Surreal.   His writing runs from horror to science fiction to drama.