LORENZO AND THE PIRATE
“Sail-ho!” the lookout yelled from the crow’s nest. “Off the port bow!”
Blackie scrambled up the schooner’s rigging to get a better look and trained
his spyglass on a warship barely visible on the distant horizon. He swept it
from bow to stern. It was a typical multi-deck vessel built in the Spanish
style. Three banks of windows marked officer quarters at the stern. One
room belonged to the captain; the rest, to officers. Typically, a warship had
a crew of a thousand.
It also had a surgeon.
Blackie stowed his spyglass. Deep in thought, he rubbed his thumb against
his lower lip. The Liberty was on its way to the closest port to get medical
help. The captain had fallen ill with a disease no one onboard had ever seen
before. His right leg was turning black and gave off the odor of rotting
flesh. A poison had started at the captain’s toes where circulation was
weakest and had slowly moved up to the ankle. It would soon work its way
through his entire body and kill him. Blackie feared the leg would have to
be amputated. For that, he needed a surgeon.
Blackie climbed down the rigging. He headed to the quarterdeck where he
stood with his hands laced behind him, his face a stone mask. He was
worried about the captain but determined not to let the hands on deck read
“Have you any knowledge of Spanish?” Blackie asked the boatswain.
“Does anyone onboard?”
“I believe Mr. Crowe does.”
“Tell him to report to me with alacrity.”
“With what, sir?”
“With alacrity. It means ‘with all due speed.’”
“Aye, sir,” the boatswain said, hurrying away.
The word alacrity had popped out as if it were a regular part of Blackie’s
vocabulary. Perhaps it was. For the last eight months, he had struggled to
recall something, anything about himself. His life was a blank. He did not
even know his real name. Blackie was a nickname the captain had bestowed
upon him when they first met because he dressed all in black.
“You are either an undertaker or a doctor,” the captain had quipped.
“Or perhaps a minister of God’s gospel.”
There was another possibility. He was in mourning. But the devil take
him! Blackie could not remember anyone dying. All he knew was that all
his clothes were black.
What else did he know about himself? Only the obvious. He appeared to
be in his mid-twenties and was in excellent health. He was pale and had an
English accent. From time to time, he sang a Methodist hymn.
Had something happened to him in the war? A head injury, perhaps? Did
he have family somewhere looking for him?
Blackie focused on the Spanish flag flying over the warship. Spain and
Britain were at war. He did not look forward to setting foot on an enemy
vessel, for the moment he opened his mouth, they would hear a British
However, the captain’s life was in peril. He had no other option.
* * *
Lorenzo Bannister leaned over the quarterdeck railing of the San Juan
Nepomuceno and watched it plow the sea. Faster! Faster! he silently
chanted as the warship churned up white-crested water.
He was three days out of New Orleans and a long-awaited reunion with his
wife, Eugenie. The trip to Cuba had taken seven days, but prevailing winds
and sea currents promised to cut two days off the journey home.
That suited Lorenzo just fine.
It was December 15, 1779, and he would be home for Christmas. When he
said good-bye to Eugenie on the New Orleans wharf, she hinted that she had
a special Christmas surprise for him. In Cuba, Lorenzo had bought presents
for her as he always did on his travels, one of them being a spider monkey.
He hoped it would make a good companion when military duty took him
away from home.
Lorenzo scanned the cobalt water stretching from horizon to horizon, seeing
nothing but sea and sky. He thought he saw a small ship on the horizon, but
he could not be sure. Overhead, wind-filled sails puffed out and propelled
the San Juan Nepomuceno through the Gulf of Mexico.
Sailing on the largest warship in the world was the last place he expected to
be, but in the last four months, his life had taken some unexpected turns. At
eighteen years of age, he gave up a budding medical practice to become a
staff officer for General Bernardo de Gálvez, a man who was like a father to
him. Perhaps Lorenzo would return to medicine some day, but for now, it
was more important to fight the British and protect his home.
The swarm of activity on the San Juan Nepomuceno amazed Lorenzo.
Sailors were busy swabbing the decks, polishing brasswork, and working
the sails. A sailor scrambled up the rigging like a monkey up a tree while a
midshipman hurried past on the way to the back of the ship.
Stern, Lorenzo said to himself. The back of the ship is called the stern.
A naval officer stood watch on the quarterdeck. He looked glorious in a
blue jacket with red cuffs, red lining, and wide red lapels. Gold buttons ran
down the jacket front and decorated the cuffs. Matching blue breeches,
white stockings, shoes with gold buckles, and a bicorne hat completed the
uniform. Like all naval officers, he wore a powdered wig tied with a black
Lorenzo was the only army officer on board and felt like a blue jay in a
flock of peacocks. His uniform consisted of a simple blue vest and
breeches, black boots, and white coat with blue collar and cuffs. He wore a
three-cornered hat with a red cockade, the symbol of his rank.
He went down the stairs connecting the quarterdeck to the main deck and
paused by the chicken coop. Hens craned their necks through the cage bars
and cheeped pitifully.
Lorenzo understood their misery. It was not natural for chickens to sail the
high seas. For that matter, it was not natural for him, a major in the
Spanish army, to be on a ship.
Should the San Juan Nepomuceno happen upon a British ship, a sea battle
would ensue. On land, there were options during combat. On the high seas,
there was nowhere to go if the ship sank, except into shark-infested water.
A lucky shot to the powder magazine would turn the ship into a hail of
splinters. Dodging incoming cannonballs during battle was hardly a sport
Lorenzo relished. He had seen sandbags stowed below and knew their
purpose. In battle, sailors spread sand on the decks to absorb blood.
If all that were not enough to turn a sane man from the sea-faring life, there
were hurricanes and pirates to consider.
No, Lorenzo decided. He was a landlubber through and through. His
grandfather once told him that Bannisters were navy men. If Lorenzo had
his way, that grand old tradition would soon die out.
A dark-haired cabin boy named Francisco climbed the ladder from the
forecastle to the main deck. He poured a bucket of water into troughs for
the caged chickens.
The lad was about twelve years old, tall for his age, and powerfully built.
Sun and sea had given his face a well-tanned, healthy look.
Without warning, the ship lurched. Lorenzo stumbled and grabbed the
Francisco, the cabin boy, seized his arm to steady him and gave Lorenzo a
wry smile. “Don’t have your sea legs yet, sir?”
“I was not meant for the sailing life.”
“Sir!” the cabin boy exclaimed, clearly dismayed. “What could be better
than sailing into heathen ports and seeing the world? It’s a grand life!”
“Not for me,” Lorenzo said. “I have as much business on this ship as those
“Their journey is at an end,” Francisco said. “Today they grace the captain’s
“Pity. I was growing fond of them.” They were the only birds he had seen
since leaving the Havana harbor. The Gulf of Mexico was vast. They had
reached the point where they were too far from shore to see birds.
Lorenzo squinted at the cabin boy. “Why did you choose the sailing life?”
“I was raised in Andalucía where it is bone dry. The first time I saw the
ocean, I couldn’t believe all the water. I fell in love with it.”
“You can have it. I hate water.”
Francisco looked shocked by the confession. “Surely, Your Mercy must
swallow a drop now and then. And I certainly hope Your Mercy takes an
Lorenzo laughed. He liked the way Francisco could joke without crossing
the invisible line of respect that separated officers from sailors. “I have
good reason to avoid water. Twice, I nearly drowned. Once, in a flash
flood. Once, in a hurricane.”
Francisco nodded. “That would turn a man against water.”
The ship’s cook walked up to the chicken coop, grabbed four hens by the
legs, and walked off carrying two in each hand.
“Not to worry, sir,” Francisco said in mock seriousness. “You’ll see your
friends again at eight bells.”
“Noon?” Lorenzo guessed.
Little by little, Lorenzo was learning the bell system that regulated
everything on the ship. Every thirty minutes on the hour and half hour, a
bell tolled, marking the time. Sailors had four-hour watches. In order to
time the ringing of the bell, the officer of the deck turned a sand-filled
hourglass. Eight bells marked the end of a four-hour watch.
All of a sudden, the lookout in the forward crosstrees shouted “Ship off the
The officer of the deck swiveled in that direction and scanned the area with
Lorenzo shaded his eyes with his hands and saw a three-masted ship on the
The officer of the deck shrugged, stowed his spyglass, and went about his
business with an amazing lack of concern.
Francisco seemed to read Lorenzo’s mind. “Not to worry, sir. She’s no
“How can you tell?”
“She’s too small to take us on. I see but three cannons.”
Lorenzo was suddenly glad the San Juan Nepomuceno bristled with cannon
on both sides of the ship.
“That’s a schooner, sir,” Francisco said. “A fast ship. Not weighted down
with cargo. She rides too high in the water. There’s only one problem,
“And that would be?” Lorenzo prompted.
“No flag at the mizzenmast. You’re supposed to fly a flag to show your
“And if you don’t?”
“Then you’re probably a pirate.”