Joseph Shepherd Chapter 6

William Harvey was a man becoming known in scientific circles in Europe. He was studying the heart and blood, and challenging medical principles that had been accepted since Galen. Harvey was not one to shy away from criticism, and he did know how to play the political and power games so necessary for support of scientific pursuits. His brilliance was unquestioned, and he was also adept at winning friends, quite a profound combination of talents.

 “Captain Braden,” began Harvey, “how are you getting along today?” “I feel much better, Doctor,” said Braden. At this point, he was nearly back to his normal vigor. Harvey looked again at the purple splotches, which had almost completely disappeared. Harvey was sure that this man had suffered from plague, and he was also sure that he was recovering. “Amazing,” breathed Harvey, nearly inaudibly. “Captain Braden, you are one fortunate man. Whatever treatment you received is far above any medical procedure I know of short of a pure miracle.” “It was a miracle, Doctor,” said Braden. “It was.”

Still, Harvey did not want Braden exposed to the other passengers on the Elizabeth, so he told Captain Carr to continue the isolation. At the same time, Harvey told Carr that he could speak further with Braden to gather whatever information might be important to help the Elizabeth in her final leg home to England. Braden could offer only the sketchiest information to Carr about the location of the encounter with the pirates, but it was sufficient for Carr to help plot a course that could keep the Elizabeth clear of trouble.

Mr. North was confiding to Mr. Ross that he was glad the pirate victory was behind him. At this point, he was short on powder, had a damaged mainsail, and considered the possibility that plague was still on his ship. The sooner he reached Plymouth, the better he would feel. Besides, he could now return as a victorious ship captain. He would relate that Captain Braden had died of illness while on the cruise. His crew better damned well back up that story, and as for Shepherd and me, well, we could turn up dead too, as far as he figured. Just as he was turning over in his mind how this all could play out, Mr. Crowell, the lookout, barked, “Pirate ship to starboard!” “Another pirate ship?” screamed North. “Are you sure it isn’t a Spaniard?” North barked to Crowell.  “She flies nothing but a black flag!” screamed Crowell.

 North was puzzled, but began to be resigned to another fight. The second pirate ship had evidently been lurking near the first fray, unseen by the Intrepid in the excitement of the moment. The privateer probably had seen that the Intrepid had put forth a small boat some days earlier, and they may have surmised that this could mean mutiny. Mutinous ships made nice prey, since they could fold at the first sign of a real fight. At any rate, these pirates from North Africa were daring opportunists. They were willing to engage any ship that they believed could be in any way crippled. They had not failed to notice that the Intrepid’s crew was continuing to work on a mainsail, which never seemed to fully unfurl.

 The pirates began to close on the Intrepid, and North did not hesitate to respond. “Make ready to fight,” he screamed. Immediately, sailors began to race to the cannons, while others started to secure powder and shot from below. The sun was low on the horizon, and the setting sun silhouetted the Intrepid. The pirates were now closing fast, less than a thousand yards away. The pirate ship was a captured English ship, the Bristol, smaller than the Intrepid, but faster than the now crippled Intrepid.

North believed that the pirates would not attack into a broadside blast, but would drift to the rear of the Intrepid to pursue for boarding. North chose to use his slowed speed capability to his advantage. He ordered the sails tacked to slow the Intrepid, maintaining his starboard to the pirates as long as possible as they tried to creep behind his crippled vessel. He would, by God, get at least one broadside volley into the teeth of the pirates.

As the Intrepid slowed, the pirates found themselves closing too quickly on their prey. As the pirates steered to the south to get behind the Intrepid, they were going to be, for a brief time, starboard to starboard, the Intrepid facing north, the Bristol south. Just as the pirates started the turn south, North knew he had a window of opportunity. He ordered his men to fire when they heard his pistol shot. The pirates drew closer, and as they made the anticipated turn, North fired his pistol. The Intrepid’s entire starboard side erupted in fire as cannons discharged. The pirates were raked with a deadly volley of heavy shot.

 Screams could be heard as splintered wood flew into the air. Cursing pirates swore withering oaths at the Intrepid’s crew. The jib mast of the pirate ship cracked as it received a direct hit. The pirate captain apparently was undaunted by this first volley. He assessed the damage, and he found no other sail damage, some damage to the front deck, and the loss of four crewmen. The distance between the ships had saved the pirates. The pirate captain may also have realized that he was still vulnerable to another volley. Despite the distance, now about eight hundred yards, he ordered his men to fire a starboard volley of their own.

The pirate guns let loose with a roar. Inferior cannons on the Bristol yielded no hits on the Intrepid as the shots mostly fell harmlessly short. The Intrepid was now turning east, exposing another starboard approach to the Bristol, which was now running with its aft facing the Intrepid. Another volley of cannon fire belched from the Intrepid, but now from even closer range. Shots whistled past the Bristol, which had been outflanked by the Intrepid. Two cannon shots found their mark on the Bristol with devastating effect. The rear cabins, exposed to the murderous fire, caved in. A gaping hole in the Bristol, framed by shattered windows and shards of wood, stared at the Intrepid.

As the Bristol made no turn to return fire, Mr. North assessed his situation. The Intrepid had sustained no damage in the brief exchange, but she was low on powder. The earlier failure to secure the kegs below deck would now cause North to disengage from a fight he could easily win. His bluff of letting everything loose on two broadsides belied his low stock of powder and shot. The Intrepid had never been outfitted to fight on this maiden voyage. She was only to test out the equipment. She had surely done that under very trying circumstances, but she was not prepared for two extended battles. At the very moment of likely triumph, North gave the command to break off the fight and head north. The pirates, not sure of the Intrepid’s motives, nonetheless chose to continue south. Pirates generally did not prefer a fair fight with a healthy enemy. They much preferred trader ships, which could not put up a fight. A few well-placed shots by the Intrepid had convinced the pirates to seek easier prey. The Bristol continued to limp south, wounded by a superior enemy. As the Intrepid proceeded north, Mr. Shepherd and I discussed the brief but powerful encounter we had just witnessed from below deck. “Dr. Shepherd,” I said, “Mr. North is a savage scoundrel, but he is a fine fighting commander, I’ll give him that.” “Yes,” said Shepherd, “he has a gift of battle strategy. Too bad that talent is wasted on a man who cannot fully appreciate it.”  

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