An excerpt from

The Sheriff's Catch

James Vella-Bardon

‘I am sorry, Abel. I know how much you loved my sister.’

Too tired to even acknowledge his words, I exhaled wearily and leant my shoulder against his. For a few moments our ragged breaths sounded as one, with the hiss of the heavy rainfall outside being only exceeded by the creak of the ship’s beams. We then proceeded to exchange our last words, as a hoarse whisper left my swollen lips.

‘What are they waiting for? It’s been five days already.’

Maerten jerked his chin at the rower beside me.

‘And we’re running out of food…’

I turned to face the tall Algerian strokesman to my right, whose lips were frothed at the sides whilst his eyes rolled violently. In recent days he had boiled with campaign fever, so that his arms hung by his sides and his tattooed cheeks had turned a bright red. Disease had rendered Esteban a helpless invalid, and that same morning I had picked all hidden rinds and pieces of biscuit from the folds in his clothes.

Before falling ill the Algerian’s malice towards us had been so great that we were still seized by a sudden dread whenever his head sagged towards us. Often had I hoped to catch the vicious strokesman unawares with an oar blow, to then throttle him with my chains. These murderous urges had only been checked because of Dimas, who would have seized on such foul play to see me swing from the yardarm. For during our months at sea the overseer had often threatened us with hanging, and throughout the voyage his threats had rarely proved idle.    

‘Looks like the bastard won’t see out the day…’ said my Flemish companion, as Esteban’s head swirled away from us.

The hoarse whisper was cut short when our ship lurched sideways, shortly followed by the sound of footsteps. We threw ourselves upon our oars and feigned sleep, when one of the kitchen slaves appeared down the hold. We instantly made out Costa wobbling like a drunken sailor, clumsily sidestepping rowers who lay in his path.

‘Hey there, Costa!’ hissed Maerten, ‘what news from above?’

Costa bit his lower lip as a sign for us to keep silent, then tottered over with a crate held in both hands. He proceeded to place bowls of maggot strewn curd on our bench, but Maerten flipped them over without a second glance. Costa ignored the Fleming’s gesture, for the one-eared slave had himself advised us to starve, rather than touch the putrid servings that he brought to us from the kitchen.

He then looked over each of his shoulders, before reaching inside his cloak and holding out a palm full of sawdust towards us. The Fleming and I greedily picked the weevils out it and swallowed them whole, while the kitchen slave muttered to us beneath his breath.

‘Confusion still reigns above deck. There is one hell of a tempest brewing.’

Maerten’s forelock fell over his nose when he hung his head and sighed.

‘Will the captains not press on past Ireland?’

Costa cast yet another wide-eyed look over his shoulder, then whispered his last words to us.

‘I must away. I swear I heard the devil’s voice.’

So saying, he turned on his heel and scampered off.  We dared not utter another word, for his reference to Dimas left us terrified. In previous days the crazed overseer had lavished us with special attention whenever he had caught Maerten and I trading snatches of Flemish. Each time we were scolded for using a wicked, heretical tongue, before Dimas’ whip was raised and the benches reddened with our blood. These floggings always left us trembling in pain, and the cruel overseer had promised a hiding to anyone caught awake during sleeping hours.

  Maerten and I strove to nod off for a while, but our attempts were foiled by the increasing roll of our ship. In an attempt to quell our seasickness, we leant onto the shaft in front of us, with our bodies huddled closely together for warmth. A gelid fear had claimed my insides at Costa’s mention of Dimas, so that even my beating heart sounded too loud for comfort.  When the madman did not appear, Maerten nudged me and resumed his ranting.

‘I wonder if those fools will ever make a decision.’

‘Still awake, are we?’

I jerked our oar away in fright, catching Dimas full in the teeth. The scoundrel had crept up behind us from starboard, so that my bad ear had not picked up his approach.  Maerten drew a sharp breath when the overseer fell like a brick, with his baton sent flying over the catwalk. Amid a loud splash of bilge water, Dimas was up as swiftly as he had tumbled. His fingertips rested upon his bloodied mouth, which soon widened into a cruel smirk.

‘Strike out at your master? That was your last miserable act, you whoreson!’

The sadist wagged his coiled whip in front of my face, then struck me twice in the head with its handle and blew three shrill notes upon his whistle.

‘Useless cur! I shall string you up with my own hands!’

Some of the other slaves stirred around us. A snigger was poorly suppressed in the back benches, but most of the men looked away in fearful silence. Within moments two of Dimas’ German slave wardens appeared, who were instantly ordered to lead me away. Maerten hurled himself at the one who unshackled my leg iron, only to be beaten back for his pains.

‘Marti’ I cried, as we snatched up each other’s forearms.

An elbow in the head from Dimas had me slacken my grasp, and my eyes briefly met with the Fleming’s. As the Germans pulled me towards them I felt Maerten’s fingers closing about one of my ankles. This provoked a loud snarl from Dimas, who stepped forward and kicked the youth in the head until his hold on my foot was released.

‘Abel..’ groaned Maerten from below our bench, as my head swirled from the blows I had received.      

In moments we were led up the steps by the furious Dimas, and upon reaching the ship’s deck we were greeted by a flash of lightning that streaked the nightly heavens. The sight left us startled before our ears were deafened by a roar of thunder. Our galley continued to lurch as the end of great waves spattered the decks.  The scent of the open sea left me half-revived, as I took in the chaos which Costa had mentioned. Ahead of us guards beat back mutineers who swayed to the throes of the ocean, and at the prow a despairing nobleman flung gold doubloons overboard and cried out in despair.

‘Forgive us, oh Lord, for we have sinned!’

Furious pleas echoed within the officers’ cabin behind us, to what sounded like the loud beating of fists upon a table. A second bolt of lightning cut the sky in half, when another thunderclap drowned out all the shouting. Black waves rose as high as the crow’s nest, pounding both prow and stern with a fast-growing fury. The winds tore rigging off the mainmast as if it were lace.

Dimas seized me by the throat as he led us out onto the foredeck, screaming for rope and justice. His dripping face had turned as dark as the clouds gathered above us. Meanwhile the galley was shoved towards land like a squealing child led by the ear, causing us to wobble about the slippery boards underfoot.  Our mad dance was soon ended when a burst of seawater scooped the four of us over the ship’s rail.

‘Christ wept!’

The oath left my throat as I seized the ledge of the gunwale. Hailstones the size of small pebbles pelted my head, and my shoulder was half-wrenched from its socket as one of the Germans grabbed hold of my ankle. When I looked down at him he returned a supplicant gaze, whilst trying to reach for my cloak with his other hand. I kicked at his face until he finally let go of me, dropping with a howl into the dark swirl below.

Having lost its mooring, the Santa María sheered violently shoreward, as yet another westerly screamed across the ocean. I teetered violently along the ship’s edge, until my grip was loosened and I also fell towards the furious waves.   Breath burst from my lungs as I plunged deep into the icy sea, with its salt burning my wounds and grazes. I struggled back to the surface for a gasp of air, and spotted a wayward plank of wood to my right. No sooner did I grab it that I was borne to the heavens upon a white crest, coughing up the water that flew into my face.

When the wave toppled I still clung to the wood like a barnacle, finding myself pulled far beneath the surf by a vicious current. My left shoulder was slashed by a reef edge before I was hurled back above water, with my cries muffled out by the roaring thunder. A last moan left my throat amid the screaming of other drowning men, when the current dragged me down again and whirled me in all directions.

Great sea swells tossed me landwards as my hold on the board began to slacken. The waves shoved my bit of driftwood onto some low-lying rocks, and the collision flung me onto a gritty beach. Amid the rush of seawater I somehow hauled myself onto my feet, entirely uncertain where I was and shivering violently from fear and cold.

Dozens of other castaways staggered onto the ashen sand about me, and a swirl of cloaks ahead of us revealed men running in our direction. They were more than half our number, natives who appeared scrawnier than us and possessed of an even wilder cast. For a moment I took the approaching band to be rushing to our aid, when one of them flung a rock at the closest Spaniard. A loud crack was followed by a roar of agony, and we quickly scattered as the bandits fell amongst us, beating men senseless and rifling their garments.

These thieves were swiftly rewarded for their lawless efforts, since the King of Spain had paid his men before the Armada had left Seville. Even the poorest officer had gold doubloons stitched into his garments, but most Spaniards were too stricken by weariness and disease to provide resistance. Some sank silently to their knees as they were beset with cudgel and fist, while a handful of others fought back, throwing in the odd punch before they were themselves stunned with rocks and branches.

Other robbers soon arrived to swell our aggressors’ number. They ran towards the sea like fishermen at the start of the salmon season. Atlantic winds still screamed across the beach, hindering the natives’ attack as I span about and fell over. In the distance I could make out rushes billowing to my right, which presented a forlorn hope of escape. More Spaniards were washed up as yet more robbers thronged about us, when the waves suddenly spat a boat across the beach, which crushed all unfortunates in its path.

After a moment’s hesitation the brigands instantly gathered about the craft, cracking its caulked hatchway open as if it were a walnut. From within the broken vessel they pulled out a number of highborn Spaniards who coughed and spluttered, as well as the corpses of those who had drowned in the heavily leaking boat. Some of these nobles shouted at the rogues that seized them, only to be knocked out and stripped to the skin.

The robbers howled with delight when handfuls of jewels and crown pieces were also pulled out of the boat. I took full advantage of the attackers’ distraction, heaving my body through the dunes and making my way past a dazed sergeant major who had suffered a blow to the head. Just ahead of me I could also see the blood-soaked face of a dead sailor. Other bandits tore at his doublet and hose, pushing each other and squabbling over every last gold coin in these garments.

I crawled on, inch by inch, covering the few yards that remained between me and the rushes.  A glimpse over my shoulder revealed other corpses being pulled from the sea, which were also stripped and searched. The sight pushed me to redouble my efforts, when strident cries heralded the arrival of more robbers running down onto the beach. I lay low as they tore past me, thinking that I was safe until a I heard a robber cackling aloud behind me.

Out of the corner of my eye I could just make him out, as he held aloft a silver plate which he had plucked from a dead Burgundian’s jacket. Just then his eyes met mine, and for a moment I could see him taking a step towards me, before he was set upon by two of his ragged fellows who bickered wildly over his prize. Their quarrel allowed me to creep forward some more, with the fluttering grass ahead of me teasingly close. The anguished protests of the three robbers could still be heard behind me as I made my way over the harsh grains of sand.

The edge of the rushes was hardly reached when the cry of a pursuer was heard behind me. A low groan left my lips, as I crouched low in the undergrowth to peer over my shoulder. A youthful vagabond could be seen approaching me at a loping gait, having strayed from the main scenes of looting. He appeared slightly hunchbacked and brandished a knife.

I leant back upon the ground feeling wholly exhausted, when he reached me amid loud snorts of excitement. The malformed youth tugged at my mantle to turn me towards him, with his blade raised over my chest. I fumbled for something with which to strike out, and in that moment my fingers closed about a black rock. My backward swing was aided by a sudden burst of wind, with my assailant caught on the temple before he whirled about and fell onto his back.

The shrieking gales drowned out all sounds, but I knew that his skull had been cracked. I lay back on the ground for some time thereafter, struggling for breath whilst I relieved myself where I lay. The warmth down my thigh brought some relief in the biting cold, and I reached out for the cloak of my fallen pursuer. After wresting the garment free, I wrapped it about me to ward off the terrible chill. My chafed lips then widened enough for raindrops to land in my mouth, with each of them burning the back of my crusted tongue.

When I had swallowed half a mouthful of rainwater, I lifted my head above the bush that concealed me. The rout of the Armada’s castaways still raged ashore, and upon the ocean the three carracks were still being tossed landwards by the elements, spilling both men and flotsam into the waves. The reefs off the strand of beach resembled a sea monster’s fangs, with the rocks crushing the ships’ wooden hulls, causing a mad swirl of driftwood and torn rigging.

For close to an hour the galleys were hurled to and fro until at last their seams came apart. I watched as sailors fought to save their ships, only to be hauled beneath the relentless waves by their lifelines. Soon all that remained of the galleys were large mainsails that briefly trailed over the sea. I stared at the floating canvas in disbelief, sick from the realisation that all hopes of a swift return home had been dashed.

In truth, the foundering of the Santa María should have filled me with joy, since it had been my prison for over a year. But I was crushed by the thought of Maerten having gone down with her. A boiling tear streaked my cheek at the knowledge that I had lost him forever, as my sodden cloak and forelock flapped in the wind. The thought that he had finally been reunited with Elsien was of little relief to me, and I suddenly felt ravaged by loneliness, lost in a land of which I knew nothing.

New cries were soon heard from the brigands on the beach, when staves, barrels, and caskets bobbed towards the shore. Men clung to them howling in fear, with their fates decided by the fickle winds that crushed some against the rocks and sent others sprawling over the beach. Scores more Spaniards stumbled dizzily out of the waves, still wearing golden chains or silver crosses and saints. Their feet had hardly left the shallows before they were battered by the natives, who did not leave a shred of metal or a piece of cloth upon the castaways’ bodies.

I watched on in dismay until well beyond dusk, and it was an hour past midnight when a great scrabble of hooves was heard. The noise announced the arrival of a large body of armoured horsemen, who seemingly appeared out of nowhere as they charged the robbers upon the shore. Between the light of the moon and the flashing torches I could make out red mantles flapping behind these riders, who wore iron corselets over tawny and blue cassocks.

The red cross of St. George was also emblazoned upon their white shields, of which there were almost two hundred. Startled I ducked behind a clump of rushes, as the English troopers scattered the natives who fled from the beach at full pelt, dropping coins and jewels behind them. After killing both native and Spaniard, the troopers then galloped on towards the water, slaying more of the newly beached men who splashed about helplessly as they emerged from the sea.

Not a single pistol shot was fired by the riders, who despatched their Spanish foes by cold steel. In the time it took to recite an Ave María, the water ran red off the grey sand about the kicking hooves of the enemy’s mounts. I watched the slaughter that unfolded in horror, crushed by the realisation that my newfound freedom had been achieved in a land where the heretic held sway.

When their deathly work was done, the troopers dismounted to seize those clothes which struck their fancy. Velvet caps were whisked from the water whilst gloves and boots were pulled off the bodies of the slain. Helmets of every sort could be seen scattered everywhere, with Milanese sallets and burgonets also snatched up by those on horseback.

Overwhelmed by the sight of the great host, my head fell back onto a small mound of sand. I also felt half-dead from exhaustion, and must have resembled a corpse beneath a cloak. My bleeding shoulder still throbbed in agony as the gales screamed across the cloud-scudded sky. They were the last sounds in my good ear before I passed out.