So there I was, buried under a sprawling, chaotic mass of thrashing arms and legs. Fury lent me a strength almost superhuman; with a mighty effort, I flung off the soldiers on top of me, rising to my feet.
I knew escape was hopeless, but that only goaded me into a greater rage. Like a bull I rushed at the head officer, Don Pedro Priego, only to be caught by a dozen of the bronzed veterans surrounding me.
For a second, I succeeded in flinging them off.
“No more!” I gasped, my anger almost choking me. “No more! Fleming though I am, I was a loyal servant of King Phillip, but I tell you no more! You take my money. Very well. I can earn more. You take my job. I can get another. You take my home. Yet I raise no protest. But you are not content! You are never content!” I spat each sentence out as though it were poisonous. Through narrow eyes I looked at him, and he met my stare with a gaze every bit as cold and icy. I tore myself out of the grip of a soldier who had seized my arm. “You are never content,” I repeated. “Now you want my life! Master-gunner on his Imperial Majesty’s Invincible Armada’s Rear Admiral’s flag ship! Slavery!”
Scorn dripped like oil from each word.
He merely motioned with his arm.
I bucked like a wild horse, but still they hauled me back. “You will regret this!” I cried. “Next time, it will be my turn!”
His lips curled in sarcasm. Relentless, his men dragged me away.
A cloudless sky and the unbroken swell of the sea combined to form a truly magnificent backdrop, betraying their reality only in the salty smell the light breeze brought along. I am a sailor at heart, and I soaked in the day’s lazy warmth. The memory of last week’s outrage had already left me. If this was slavery, after all it was not the worst form. I let my eyes travel over the ship. Stem to stern, she was a beauty – the San Salvador.
Then once more I looked ahead. Far out in the distance I could spot the tiny vessels of the English. I felt sorry for them. What could a handful of little ships, barely more than sailboats, do against the powerful “Invincible” Armada of Spain?
“Run out your guns! Prime! Point your guns!” But even as the command came out of my mouth, I frowned. The little English ship, rapidly coming alongside us, was too low in the water for our sights. “Depress them, boys,” I shouted, although I knew depression would be useless.
Through the blast of smoke I saw the splash our cannonade had caused. “Useless waste of powder,” I grumbled.
And now it was the Englishmen’s turn, and their shot came tearing through our high bulwarks and whistling through the shrouds. Another round bellowed out portside, but again our shot flew high and wide.
The men working the guns growled in impatience. The English had fired five times already, and the evidence was obvious in the splintered wood, cut shrouds, and wounded sailors. Now their ship was backing out, and before I could give the command to point the guns they were already on another tack.
“Starboard, hard,” Priego bellowed. He was captain of the ship, and was pacing the decks, eager to get a hand to hand fight with the English sea dogs. But by the time we had turned enough to favor them with another broadside they were far out of range, blasting away at the Rosario.
Now we had another visitor, close up on our starboard side. We ran our guns over, only to find that once again our lofty sides were far too close to heaven to allow us to sight the heretics. But somehow, they were able to send shot after shot, crashing through the bulwarks, ripping holes in the sails, and thinning the ranks of King Phillip’s soldiers.
And so it went throughout the day.
The sun was setting in a blaze of glory behind us, but the day’s glory was certainly not ours. I kicked a barrel in my way, frustrated.
In front of me I could hear the paymaster soundly berating Priego for the poorness of our fighting. After all, it wasn’t his fault. It was the fault of our size, our bulk – everything that made us invincible, I thought wryly. But listening to the paymaster heightened my dissatisfaction.
Was this what I had come for?
The answer, of course, was that I hadn’t come of my own will at all! All my forgotten wrath returned, and I glared angrily at the peaceful ocean far below.
Behind me, someone grabbed my shoulder. I spun around to face Priego. Livid at the paymaster’s insults, he was not in a mood to measure his words. “You! Careless shot that you are! See that you depress the guns next time!”
I was already mad enough, but the unjustness of his comment was the last straw. I clenched my fist, but he anticipated me, shoving me violently against the bulwarks.
Furious, I picked myself up and watched him disappear into his cabin. I dropped down the hatchway, hitting the floor with a vengeance. Some careless person, I noticed, had left the door to the gunpowder room open.
Suddenly a horrible thought came to me. I drew a long match out of my pocket. Without a pause I struck it, dropped it onto an open keg of powder, and dove head first out of the nearest port hole.
A terrific explosion lit up the sky and rocked the water. I had my revenge.
With cupped hands I cleft the water above me, rising to the surface like a cork. I dashed the spray out of my face and glanced around. Seeing a Spanish ship fairly close by I struck out with energy.
Suddenly something caught me round the leg. I tried to shake it off, but instead it seemed to drag me down. Over my shoulder I caught a glimpse of a dark haired Spaniard, just before, gasping for breath, I disappeared beneath the surface.
I kicked and struck out blindly, and my right hand came in contact with soft flesh. My head rose above the water, and I sucked in a breath of air and salt water. Through my wet and matted hair I caught a glimpse of my antagonist, and somehow I was not surprised to see who it was.
“You did that!” Priego hissed. “Dog of a Fleming, prepare to die!”
I took a gurgling breath before once more feeling the water close over my head. This time, I struggled like a madman, twisting, kicking, biting even, but nothing would induce Priego to loose his hold.
My lungs were burning inside me, and all of a sudden my past life flashed before me; all sorts of details, that I had thought long forgotten, came before my mental vision. What a fool I had been! I thought bitterly. What was the use of my trying to get revenge? In the end it all turned against me, justly too. For while perhaps Priego had done me some harm, what was that to my blowing up a ship full of men?
My thoughts were becoming clouded, I threw all my energy into one final struggle and, lo! Priego’s hold loosened, and I came again into the fresh air, exhausted and bewildered. Then I noticed something floating beside me, and I saw it was Priego.
Upon a sudden impulse I grasped his shoulder, turning his face to the air. I would not let him die!
But I had overrated my powers. My legs felt like lead, the body I was carrying pulled me under – I rose, gasping and desperate, only to sink once more. Yet I would not let go, but with one great effort, I came to the surface, this time crying out for help.
To my joy, I heard the splash of oars, the churning of the water as a boat neared us. I pushed my burden forward, and willing hands dragged Priego out of the water. Half drowned, I leaned against the gunwale, looking behind me at the smoking ruin. Then, ahead, I saw the pale beauty of the sunless sky, and I knew that we had been saved.
That the blowing up of the San Salvador occurred during the first fight of the Spanish Armada is factual. No one knows for sure if the explosion was done on purpose, but one of the many conflicting stories afterwards circulated ascribed the deed to a Flemish Master-gunner. His name is unknown, but the name given to the Captain is real.