Nearly two weeks had passed since the events of the previous chapters. The journey through Portugal to the coast had taken as few days as one could possibly expect it to take, and David and his party had already been out to sea, on board a Portuguese trading vessel, for at least four days. They were not idle, as they had been taken on condition that they, being able seamen, would work alongside the hands. It had been agreed, however, that they would all be in the same watch.
On this particular day, they were on duty in the middle watch of the night. Accordingly, Gabriel was manning the helm, Mark, Matt, and Raphael were in the crow’s nests atop the masts, and Luke and John were standing beside David, who was officer of the watch, on the maindeck, when they heard first the shots, and then the cries.
“Fall off and stand by for boarding! We shall fire if you attempt anything!”
“Luke,” David whispered to his son “Go give the captain my compliments and tell him that it seems he needs to prepare his papers and what little armament he has.”
“Are we going to fight?”
“Yes. Just go.” David replied, slapping Luke lightly on the back.
Luke took the hint and ran off into the darkness.
After Luke had left on his errand, David strode over to the wheel to have a few words with Gabriel. “Have you fallen off yet?”
“Do I look like I’m wet? I need the crew to fall off. We’ve no worries yet. They can’t see us.”
“Then how do they know we’re here? Believe me, if they called out to us, they’ve surely got guns trained on us.”
By this time, Luke had brought the Portuguese captain on deck. David, who knew enough of the man’s language to make his point, pointed out in the direction that the British voice had come from and held out his other hand for the night-glass the captain had brought with him. Taking it, he took a long look at the British ship, which he could now see easily. Handing back the night-glass, he pronounced in Portuguese “Frigate. Gunports open and prepared.” Turning to Gabriel, he repeated the statement in English and added “So what are we going to do about it?”
“What do you expect us to do about it? They outnumber us at least three to one and are already prepared to blow us out of the water. What arms does the captain have?”
“There’s a carronade on the bow. Besides that, he has only small arms for the men.”
“Then it is obvious. We have to run. Tell him to lower his boats. We’ll row away on muffled oars.”
“Under the loaded guns of a British frigate?”
“One can’t be the hero every day, or night, for that matter. The night’s at it’s darkest now. We must go. Send the night-glass up to Mark. He’ll keep us informed. Tell John to stay up there with him to relay messages.”
Soon, there was nothing more to be said or done. In a short time, all the few boats the Portuguese had on deck were in the water, hooked to that side of the ship which faced away from the British vessel, and pulling hard to move their ship out of danger quietly.
On deck, Gabriel, who was still at the wheel, tested the wind and then turned to David, saying “Ask him how fast his ship can go.”
Without replying to Gabriel, David did so, and then addressed his brother. “He says... it can fly like a bird when he wants it to. But you’ll have to give him the wheel.”
“Fly like a bird, can it? What sort of bird, a falcon or a dodo?” Gabriel said, grinning broadly as he relinquished the wheel.
The captain must have had an idea of what Gabriel had said, because he took the wheel scowling and immediately began snapping out orders to the crew. David turned on Gabriel indignantly. “You need to apologize to him. At the moment, he’s our captain, to a point. You know perfectly well you never would have said that if you thought he would understand.” David paused as the captain addressed him. Turning back to Gabriel, he added “He wants you to heave the log.”
Saluting to the captain, Gabriel turned and strode off without saying a word. Five minutes later, he came running back. “I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t seen it myself!” he called to David. “We’re already running off the reel!”
Just then, John appeared at Gabriel’s side. Saluting, he announced “Mark said it’s been long enough that I can tell you that it appears that there’s nothing behind us anymore. We’re safe.”
And then, a moment later, a totally unexpected cry from the boys on the lower mastheads. “Look out! Look ooouut beloooow! Mark, Where are your eyes?!” An instant after the boys’ cries had stopped, those on deck saw what Matt and Raphael had just noticed. A large British ship had materialized out of the darkness, directly in their path. The captain spun the wheel as fast as he could, but it was too late. The merchant vessel collided head-on with the broad side of a British frigate. The bow of the trader immediately snapped almost completely off.
David immediately began shouting at the captain in Portuguese. “Arm as many men as you can and send them after us! We have a hard fight ahead, for it’s capture that frigate for ourselves or sink!” And then in English “Come on Gabriel! This is as good a time as any!” Throwing off his coat to reveal a menacing array of knives, and even a tomahawk, David drew a pistol, ran to the extreme forward end of the sinking merchant vessel, and leapt aboard the frigate, ready to fight.
Gabriel, who was just as ready as David, followed his brother a moment later. As soon as he hit the British deck, there was a pepperpot pistol in each of his hands. Mark, Matt, and Raphael came down from the mastheads moments later. Each was carrying a pistol and a saber. As the armed crewmen ran past them to the aid of David and Gabriel, the five boys grouped together on the safest point of the rapidly sloping deck. Mark spoke first.
“Alright. Matt, you stay behind with Luke and John. Raphael and I are going in.”
Matt was taken aback by this statement. “What? You think we’re too young for this? You’re my elder by what, five minutes? Remember what our father said.”
“I am remembering. He taught me to be the best just for this purpose. Wait here. Someone’s going to get hurt.”
“Do you remember that this ship is sinking under us?” exclaimed Luke, exasperated at the twin’s arguing. “We can’t stay here anyway!”
“Look at it as it really is, Mark.” John spoke up “We need every man we can get, you can’t stop us anyway, and if you really are the best, the last thing you want is for Luke to feel compelled to knock your head on straight again when you would rather be out there fighting. We’ll come behind you.”
“Alright then. Come on. We’ve wasted too much time already.”
Without another word, the boys, led by Mark, clambered over the side of the British vessel and joined the fray, which was going badly for their fathers and their allies. David and Gabriel, with the Portuguese crewmen, had their backs to the figurehead of the ship. It was all they could do to stay alive in the face of the foe’s overwhelming numbers and superior training.
The boys caught the British marines by surprise, and had soon cut their way to their friends’ sides. Turning to David, Mark asked “Well, sir? Are we going to get home to our families, or are we going to die ignominiously on a bloody British deck? Shall we show these redcoats how men in full possession of their wills fight?”
“You are confident we can beat them? You’re only a boy.”
“Only a boy? There you go again. I’ll show you what a ‘boy’ trained by the phantom can do!” With that, Mark drove straight into the line of British troops. He was soon lost to sight behind the numerous ranks of marines.
Matt, the Mellinos, and their allies continued the fight, asking no quarter. No speech was heard from any quarter for several minutes. Then, suddenly, from a far quarter of the ship, came a cry, which Matt and the Mellinos could hardly believe. “Help! Help! Heeeellllp meee or I’ll die!”
Everyone could tell who was calling out. Matt and David stared at each other for a moment, and then, without a word from either of them, charged straight into the British lines. The British troops were so taken aback by this sudden, seemingly hopeless move, that their deeply imbedded military precision and skill which was so often unstoppable was no match for Matt’s wild desperation, backed by David’s veteran skill.
In consequence of this, it was not long before the two had reached Mark. They had reached him at the last possible moment. Mark lay sprawled on the deck, quite apparently senseless once more. The captain of the ship, who had just struck the decisive blow, was standing over him, determining whether it would be better to finish the boy now or hold him captive.
Before he had time to make his choice, though, David’s tomahawk had decided for him.
While David held off the attackers, Matt immediately set about rousing Mark. On one knee beside his brother, Matt slapped him several times with his free hand.
“We’ve come! Don’t be dead now, after all we’ve been through!”
Releasing a drawn-out moan, Mark replied “That bloody Brit doesn’t know how to hit a man. Thought he’d knocked me out. I did too. Then I find all he’s done is to give me a blasted nasty headache.”
“Then stay still. We’ll be out of this soon enough.” Rising, Matt raised his sword, standing over Mark. Standing back to back with David, he held off every man who came his way.
It seemed to Mark, as he lay on the deck, doing his best not to move, that Matt changed as he watched. There was something about him which had been longing to come out, and apparently not had a chance to do so until this battle. Mark could not immediately decide how Matt had changed, but after a few moments had passed, he determined what it was. There was a new hardness about Matt, a new determination, which had not been present before. This too, was a question Mark found himself unable to answer at the moment. So, there, as his brother and his Godfather continued to slay British marines left and right to protect him and themselves, Mark turned inward, to discover what he really thought.
Even the act of thinking was painful, due to his awful headache, but after several minutes had passed, Mark began to see the answer to his question. As they grew up, he had always seen Matt only as a friend, and not as an equal. But in the recent weeks, he had been over the edge of despair and back, and only now began to see things in their proper light. Matt was his equal, and in some ways, his better. Mark, who had been trained as the fighter, was now forced to watch as Matt proved that he, too, was brave enough to handle anything thrown his way. The days when Mark had had to shield Matt were long past. Now, their roles, as they had been long since in reality, were reversed, and Matt was doing his best to shield Mark. The words which had brought him back from the edge ran through Mark’s mind again: “Trust Matt, and you’ll live long and happily. Ignore him, you’ll die soon.” Mark, however, had always been too impetuous to heed those words before. Now, as he lay helpless on the deck, he finally saw what he had been missing.
That which Matt had, Mark was finally gaining, through Matt’s unquestioning determination to stand and fight, for the first time without Mark at his side. An understanding. An understanding that men do not accomplish great tasks without support from others. Even those who appeared to have done their deeds alone always had others to thank for support. Mark’s greatest need for support had finally come, and Matt had risen to the challenge. There was no longer anything to fear. Mark slowly allowed himself to relax. Moments later, he succumbed to the urge to sleep, even in the midst of a battle.
It was hours later when he opened his eyes again, his headache completely gone. Silence had once more returned to the ship. David and Matt soon showed themselves, leaning over Mark as if he were something that had fallen from the sky. “So, you’re finally awake, eh? Hose to the deck!” David called loudly as Matt said in a stage whisper, grinning widely “I’d get up if I were you. They’re about to douse you.”
Scrambling up, Mark dashed up the nearest mast until he reached the yards. Laughing, he called down “Truce! Truce! I’m awake now, see? I’m not coming down ‘till you put that dangerous hose away!”
It was not long before Mark was joined on the yard by John. Settling himself into position, John said “You would think it a pity that you missed most of the battle. You would have been as surprised as we were to see what we saw. Matt fought like twenty and shouted like ten. Of course, we all had to stand up to waves of marines, but if one man’s blade was stained, it was Matt’s. And then afterwards. We used nearly all the spare sailcloth, for uncle David insisted the job had to be done respectfully. You slept through all that, and stayed out until the same time today.”
“I slept all day?!” exclaimed Mark, astonished “Well-Well--- That captain and I both thought he’d done for me, but I didn’t think it was that bad. Why didn’t anyone move me?”
“They said you needed rest. Said a nap that long would get you over anything that was wrong. Also said that if you found you’d been moved to a bunk, you’d likely blow off at everyone. That was Matt.” John added, almost as an afterthought. “Well, I’ll be going. They’ll be wanting you on deck soon now you’re fit for duty.” Swinging off the yard, John grabbed a rope and went on his way down to the deck.
It was fortunate for all concerned that they did not cross paths with another British ship during their passage to America. At long last, after several weeks of hard labor (for the ship would have been undermanned had they won the battle unscathed), Luke, whose turn it was to stand up the mainmast, cried “I see it! I see it! America! We’re home at last!” Closing his father’s telescope, he grabbed a backstay and slid back down to the deck.
He was soon met by David, who took the glass and said “We’re a long way from home yet if you’ve just seen it now. Back to your duties. I’ll send another man up now.”
Knowing it would be futile to protest, Luke turned dejectedly and made his way back along the deck until he came alongside the twins, coiling loose rope. “Drat this cruise!” He exclaimed suddenly. “Wasn’t this cruise supposed to make us all rich? So where are the riches?”
Without looking up, Mark replied “It has made us rich. Our riches are inside. If you’re wondering where all the galleons have gone, ask your father. If you want friends, we’ll be glad to help.”
But Luke was not going to be put off easily. Frustrated at having not received the commendation he thought he deserved for being the first to sight land, he was looking for a fight. “Keep your boring inner peace to yourself! Give me the riches! You wouldn’t care! It’s not as if you ever had anything!”
At this, Mark snapped. Leaping up after Luke, who had turned away, he quickly spun him around and grabbed his wrists to ensure that he was not knocked out. He spoke angrily, spitting out the words as if they tasted offensive. “Listen, Luke. You’re right. We haven’t got anything. We’re not wealthy like some boys I could name, We hardly know each other, and we lost our father, twice. But you don’t know what that’s like, because you haven’t lost him once yet. Now leave us be to work.”
As Mark resumed his work, Matt remarked “You handled that well. The old Mark probably would have threatened to toss him overboard. What did he want?”
“Didn’t you hear? More money, apparently. I can’t imagine why. Seems he really just wanted someone to shout at.”
“He’ll get over it. We all will. Didn’t he say we were almost home?”