Pacific Ocean, 1814
It was like a dream, that entire day. We woke, performed the drill, and got to work like normal, but there was something strange in the air. I scrubbed the deck, avoiding sharp stares from Izzy as usual. I wondered if his fixation on me would wane once he did his bidding. There was something else that seemed to hover in the atmosphere; a sense of impending doom I had never felt before. Perhaps we were nearing the end of the world.
Smyth’s sudden yell broke the monotony.
“We shall beat to quarters!”
I froze in place as the deluge of running sailors and officers surrounded me. The sharp sound of battle drums set me in motion. I ran to the magazine. Panting in the darkness, I collected the gunpowder into a bag. The three other boys I barely spoke to rushed in to do the same task. I ran out, dodging sailors on my way to the gun deck. I reached Smyth, who was the captain of one section of guns, and he took the powder from me to prepare the cannons. Glancing through the gun port, I caught a glimpse of the French frigate. She was black and streamlined like a prize racehorse.
Eerie silence filled the ship as I raced back to the magazine, well ahead of the younger powder monkeys. On my way back out, the thundering of the French’s firing cannons rose above my ringing ears. I caught sight of the captain standing on the bowsprit.
“Get down!” he commanded.
We all hit the floor as iron balls hit the ship. Splintered wood flew and rained down everywhere. I could barely move as I stared at the carnage on deck. I jumped back to my feet only to trip over a wounded sailor. I dropped the bag of gunpowder, staring down at the fallen man. His vacant brown eyes stared up at the sky. By the time my weary mind registered that he was dead, another volley of cannon balls hit us. Instead of cowering, I moved ahead, ducking, hoping for the best. We needed to fire another round at the bastards and fast.
Reaching the gun deck once again, a sharp elbow knocked me hard in the ribs. One of the sailors.
“Move quickly to the magazine, Pup! Before you get your legs blown off,” yelled Smyth from his station.
Groans and cries surrounded us. I didn’t want to look, but I knew several of the men were already injured badly. Their blood formed pools on the floor. The terror in their eyes drove a chill down my spine, forcing me into a sprint away from the guns. I made my way back toward the belly of the ship.
A bolt of lightning struck the ship, followed by a thunder crash so loud that I lost my breath. I sunk to my knees, covering my ringing ears with shaking hands. Before me, the captain lay dead among other limp bodies. Thick, black smoke swallowed up his war-ravaged body like a wicked spell. My eyes traveled upward to fire devouring one of the topsails. Nature had joined in on the war. Sailors climbed up the rigging and worked together to put it out, but the strengthening winds only fed the flames. I caught sight of Phil up there making a vain attempt to drown the flames with his shirt.
I choked back a sob as our battered war ship swayed beneath threatening dark clouds. We were at the mercy of the storm and the French. The thick clouds sent a heavy rain upon us, yet the flames still ate away at our ship. Pearson took command of the ship, with all his superiors dead. He screamed orders left and right.
The French ceased fire on us, preparing to weather the growing waves themselves. Our ship jerked sharply to the left. Every man yelled as they slid down the deck. I grabbed onto everything that I could to keep from sliding further across the rough wood. Dead and injured bodies tumbled past me as I clung into roping for dear life. I closed my eyes and strengthened my hold. Some of the sailors fell overboard into the choppy sea. When our frigate righted her position, I crawled along the deck, too disoriented to stand.
Smyth appeared through the haze. He stumbled over dead bodies as the sails burned above him. His stoic countenance vanished, forcing him to look every inch the fifteen-year-old boy that he was.
“Smyth, Sir!” I called.
He turned in my direction, but his gaze remained fixed on the fire above. I ran up to him and shook his shoulders with both of my hands.
“Our captain’s dead,” he said, remaining in his trance. “It doesn’t matter anymore. We’re all dead.”
“We’re not dead yet, Sir!”
A wave washed over the ship, startling both of us enough to grab onto the rigging before it washed us overboard. The fire raced down the masts; men started to jump overboard of their own will. I searched for Phil again, but he was gone. The little boys were gone. Don, Sandy, and Izzy were gone. Pearson was gone. All the midshipmen were gone. It seemed like Smyth and I were one of the few who remained aboard our sinking ship. We jumped over burning debris to get to the ship’s edge as it groaned in protest from the waves. It appeared that a group of sailors already took the paddle boats. We leaned against the railing and stared out at the swells.
“What is the point?” asked Smyth. “We burn with the ship or we drown in those waves.”
His tone fell heavier than the rain. I clenched my jaw to stop my teeth from chattering. That was it. War and rules has been cast aside like fallen leaves in the wind.
“We have to try to swim to land, Sir,” I pleaded.
He pointed east. “The Galapagos Islands are roughly 3 miles away. Swim for your life, Pup. Maybe we’ll make it!”
The desperation in his voice struck a chord in me and I started to cry.
“We can make it, Sir,” I blubbered. “We can.”
He brushed his wet hair away from his eyes and met my gaze before uttering an out of place laugh.
“Hold fast, Pup,” he said.
Thunder rolled over the ocean as we removed our coats and shoes. I was grateful to have him at my side as we prepared to jump into the cold, unforgiving sea. He jumped first. I stood alone on the hopeless ship, watching as the waves swallowed him whole. My heart raced as doom surrounded me on all sides. I took a deep breath, and then suddenly, my entire body was under water. My flailing limbs brought my head back to the choppy surface. Taking in a desperate breath of air, I started swimming toward land that was too far away.
I fought to keep my head above the waves. My muscles burned as I struggled against the waves. Something hard hit my side. I cried out as my exhausted body sunk back below the water’s surface. I fought my way back up and laid eyes on the large chunk of wood. I swam after it with all my might, riding rolling wave after rolling wave until I caught it somehow. I climbed on top of it and wrapped my shaking limbs around the solid wood. I cried and shivered so bad that I was sure my insides would explode, but I somehow remained intact. The jarring motions of the waves forced me to empty the contents of my stomach. I continued to retch as lightning danced in the sky above. The men’s voices echoed in my ears as I paddled on my pathetic vessel. The beautiful HMS Wind, a frigate which had endured several years of battles, had been claimed by the sea. I imagined Smyth’s limp body sinking to the ocean floor, even though every inch of me hoped for his survival. His odd laugh haunted me. Perhaps it was his final way of fighting. To laugh in the face of death was a brave act, I thought.
The dark swells moved all around me like moving hills in a strange nightmare. As my paddling limbs went numb, I wondered if the cold would kill me before the waves did. I fought to stay awake, for the sea would surely claim me if I submitted to sleep.