By Tyler Parsons
On the Sea Lion Press Forums, we run a monthly Vignette Challenge. Contributors are invited to write short stories on a specific theme (changed monthly).
The theme for the 49th contest was Pirates.
The engine thrummed away gently. In better days, sailing the river, the rhythm had been relaxing. Now, however, it struggled to drown out the tell-tale metallic clinks that signified some fresh assault upon the boat’s exterior.
His face was agony. The rag held against it by a stiffened, claw-like, hand was soaked with blood. He would lose the ear, at least so said the concerned faces that periodically floated into focus above him. They were good, noble faces. Loyal Vincente, brow furrowed in concern. Sweet brother Harry, so unsuited to these circumstances, who clutched his free hand more tightly than during any of their childhood scraps.
Their faces, drenched in concern, contrasted with the perpetually bloodshot eyes of the surly drunkard Andres. The arch-traitor. More fool I, trusting a Carolinian.
His compatriots in the city were almost as disappointing. Money-grubbing merchants. They possessed no spirit. None of that spectacular zeal with which their forefathers had won a glorious independence. They were patriots to profit, and naught else.
The wounded man steeled himself. Blinking away blood, he met the eyes of those above him. ‘’We will have our vengeance.’’
His attendants exchanged a concerned glance. They did not take him seriously. Vincente’s lips seemed to form the sentence ‘’he has lost a lot of blood,’’ though the noise didn’t come through.
Harry hushed him soothingly. ‘’Of course we will, brother, of course.’’
It had been an awful few weeks. Two pockmarked steamships, flying tattered Union flags, limping down the Chinese coast. The Chinese and Filipinos who made up so much of their crews lived in complete ignorance of the foreign squabble that had prompted their commander’s foolhardy attack on Shanghai and brought them to these desperate straits. More than a few took the opportunity to slip away whenever they anchored by the shore.
Those that remained lived in a state of constant high excitement. Every speck on the horizon was taken to be a British warship, come to finish the job. The men seemed to despair theatrically at each such event, never dissuaded by all the prior false alarms.
Only the Commander, the scars on the left of his face not yet healed, remained steadfast. The wounds made his famous, piercing, eyes only all the more striking.
He remained steadfast even now, when the cove in which they had hoped for a night of refuge had proven instead a nest of danger. They had been so tired, not at all alert, and been surrounded swiftly and efficiently.
It was a motley, scowling, bunch that had emerged silently from the tangled reeds and misshapen trees around their little inlet. Sharp implements of all descriptions protruded from calloused hands, well-practised in bloodshed. Muskets that would have been antiquated in the armies of Napoleon were trained upon them.
The Commander surveyed his own men. He had once had over a thousand under arms, and it seemed now he would die with only a few dozen in some nameless Chinese cove on the coast of Fujian. Those that remained rose from their fires slowly, reluctantly, clutching at daggers and pistols with a grim sense of inevitability.
‘’This is a welcome change of circumstance. For years it has been us on the run, driven over the horizon by your steel behemoths.’’ Their leader spoke jovially. He was an aged man, slightly stooped, though the helpers at his elbows treated him with the utmost reverence. A predatory grin emerged beneath elaborate grey whiskers. ‘’Though the ships that have bested us are… more impressive than those.’’ He pointed at their two ships, bobbing ineffectually in the water. They seemed to sag into themselves under the pressure of recent misfortune.
The Commander, ever personable, rose to the challenge. ‘’We have the same enemies.’’
‘’Oh?’’ The chief raised an eyebrow in skepticism. ‘’I find one foreigner to be quite the same as another.’’
‘’It is the British who harass you. I am American, none hate the British more than I.’’
‘’Really, and why is that?’’ It was a mocking kind of curiosity, though any chance to keep talking was a benefit.
‘’Even now they fight an unjust war against my homeland, just like those inflicted upon China.’’
The chieftain smirked again. He pointed disdainfully at the steamers. Their ragged flags fluttered wispily in the wind, revealing dozens of bullet holes. ‘’And yet I saw many ships bearing the American flag sail into ports opened by British guns?’’
The Commander equivocated. ‘’I do not deny it, though now let us go some way to making it right. I know the British. Their habits. Their weaknesses. I can source intelligence from friends in the settlements. I can be an asset to you, if only you’d let me.’’
‘’Hmm.’’ The chieftain stroked his chin in deliberation.
‘’I fight for my country. I need no greater reward. Glory will be shared, but all other prizes your own. Give me but a little succor now and we will do great things together.’’
‘’What great things?’’
‘’We will burn Shanghai to the ground.’’
The chieftain laughed. Heartily, perhaps exaggeratedly. He translated the boast to his men, who likewise cackled. ‘’You are a bold one, American. Perhaps you can be of use.’’ He smiled, genuinely this time, and clasped hands with his new ally. ‘’They call me Admiral Zhang.’’
‘’And me General Ward.’’
The small sampan rowed inexorably forward, down the Huangpu towards the open ocean. It darted between bigger ships. Mostly these were traditional Chinese junks, varying in size and number of sails, and some of them oared. The odd converted merchantman or armour-plated steamer appeared among them, evidence of the depredations that had been inflicted up and down the coast. Half-naked Chinese leered and hooted at them as they passed, shaking their makeshift bamboo pikes. Women too, were among them, and displayed equal bloodlust as their menfolk. Sometimes a musket was even discharged in their general direction. This brought a curse from their captors, though scum such as this were not known for their discipline so nothing further could be done. Other smaller shifts darted happily around, some sailing as close to the blazing shore as they dared so that they could lob further grenades into the inferno, or just taunt the desperate people milling about in the shadows.
Occasionally one would even spy a white man amongst the attackers. Thomas regarded them as even worse than the degenerate locals, having given up all claims to civilisation for a life of violence and plunder. Despicably they had preyed upon their fellow westerners, careless of the effect this might have on Chinese minds.
He glanced at his companion, Bourke. The man was not doing well. More blood seemed to drain from his face with every howl the rabble directed at him. Thomas smiled weakly, an empty attempt at reassurance. Gradually their destination became clear.
It was not the most sophisticated ship in the marauder’s fleet. The sleek steel gunboat that had so rudely interrupted their desperate escape was far more advanced. The vast, three-masted, lorcha seemed so clunky and ancient in comparison. Yet it had a certain regal magnificence, an intimidatory presence.
That was probably the intent of its commander, if the stories they told of him were correct. Thomas thought he spotted the man at the prow, though the smoke-drenched moonlight made it difficult to be certain. One could imagine him lapping up the destruction he had wrought, the burning city reflected in miniature in his enraptured eyes. Consumed by irresistible bloodlust, his clawed hands seemed to clench at the railing in ecstasy. The signature rattan cane, the only implement the commander carried into his battles, rested gently to the side.
He did not move as his prisoners were loaded roughly on board, keeping his back them in deigned indifference. Bourke and Thomas found themselves thrust to their knees in the middle of the boat, their backs pressed towards the central mast. Thomas thought for a moment that they were to be tied to it, but evidently they were regarded too contemptuously for such precautions to be taken.
It was only when one of the commander’s underlings, one of the vicious bandits he had collected, skipped up and whispered in his ear that the figure turned around. Behind him, one could just make out the burning silhouettes of the foreign settlement. He seemed to revel in the backdrop, loping towards them with affected menace before coming to a halt on the edge of the frontal dais.
By attire, one could not distinguish him from a particularly impecunious merchant, for he wore only a tattered coat and simple pants. All his character came from the face. Occasional bursts of flame from the burning horizon illuminated the battle-scars and predatory eyes, the flashes of light seemingly carried on the same wind as a thousand piteous wails.
Bourke recovered his courage. He hoisted himself unsteadily to his feat and then drew up to his full height. ‘’They’ll hang you for this, Ward.’’
Crew drew daggers at this sudden movement, but Ward shrugged them off. He sat down casually, dangling his legs downward. ‘’Then I shall die a martyr, like John Brown, having struck a blow against King Cotton and his imperial allies.’’
‘’You’ve burnt a city to the ground!’’ Pictures of the shoreline came back to Thomas, entirely unbidden. A great roiling mass of humanity, with flame licking at their heels and panic in their hearts. Few of the refugees who had gathered in the foreign settlement could swim, though many had tried. Those gathering in the shallows found themselves tripping over
Ward stood abruptly and lurched down the stairs. ‘’Small price to pay in the name of liberty.’’ He snarled it in Bourke’s face, and the Englishman seemed to shrink under the assault.
Those charismatic, blood-filled, eyes darted around the boat. They landed on Thomas, and seemed to bore into his soul before Ward finally spoke. ‘’What say you, Mr… ?’’
‘’Thomas Devereaux.’’ Thomas flinched, knowing what he had given away.
The loping figure drew back, surprised. ‘’You are American?’’
‘’Yankee, or Reb?’’
A deep breath. A gulp. ‘’Yankee.’’
Ward scratched casually at the scars on his cheek, before leaning in to lock eyes with Thomas once again. ‘’And yet you keep company with the Britishers?’’
‘’I got on the first ship I saw. What choice did I have? The city was afire.’’
The interrogator shook his head vigorously. ‘’And the British found a place for you on-board? Were you a friend to them, perhaps?’’
‘’They are not devoid of humanity-‘’ The misstep was obvious as soon as it was stated, to all present. One of the pirates grimaced sympathetically.
‘’They fight with the slavers!’’
Ward turned away, and at a signal one of his beastly confederates had sprung forward to offer the hilt of a greatsword. He inspected it performatively, hoisting it into the moonlight to inspect the blade.
‘’What should we do with him, Harry?’’ Ward turned to his offsider. The man resembled him, though seemed in every way the lesser. This was not altogether unwelcome, however, as his eyes lacked the bloodthirsty edge of his commander. They seemed, even, to regard Thomas with a hint of sympathy.
Harry glanced at the burning city, flinching at the screams on the wind. He had come to China to make a quick dollar, not for this. ‘’He seems innocent enough, Fred.’’
‘’Innocent? He collaborated with the Britishers.’’
‘’What choice did he have?’’
‘’Any true patriot would have slipped away, resisted tyrannous Albion with all they had.’’
Harry suppressed a laugh. He knew it was inappropriate. Knew his brother would take it badly. But in the face of such unreason, there was little else to do. ‘’Not everyone has your spirit.’’
Ward frowned. ‘’Do not laugh, brother. To accept such cowardice would doom the war effort and ensure the death of Liberty.’’
‘’And your path would see us kill every American in the city.’’
The Englishman sniggered and waved his arm at the fiery horizon. ‘’You’ve probably already done that. Americans, British, French, Chinese…’’
Ward whirled quickly, and in a moment the hilt of the sword had smashed into the Bourke’s face. The unfortunate collapsed downwards, clutching ineffectually at a shattered nose and choking out some splintered teeth.
Ward tilted his head quizzically, absent-mindedly watching the blood pool. He seemed to consider giving the Britisher a good kick or two, before thinking the better of it and turning to continue the conversation.
‘’No true American could have endured British tyrannies. Those that remained are lily-livered copperheads. Their deaths well-deserved. I regret only that it was fire, for the lot of them should have hanged.’’
Having so thoroughly rejected his brother’s entreaties, Ward turned again to his American prisoner- one who claimed to be American, at least, despite his treacheries. ‘’It will be a great honour,’’ he began gravely, ‘’for you to serve as a proxy for all your cowardly friends who escaped the justice of the noose.’’
The pungent smoke hung over the fleet as it sailed away from Shanghai, confident the wooden city would burn for days.
The corpse of Thomas Deveareaux, unfortunate surrogate for every Confederate sympathizer and cowardly Yankee, trailed behind the flagship. Harry Ward slept fitfully, in his mind every creak in his cabin and gust of wind in the sails transformed into death wails and howling screams. He would have happily fought for his country, but this seemed a grisly excess. Frederick Townsend Ward slept happily, assured- at least in his own mind- of his status as an American hero.