The last volley of attacks severely damaged the Swordfish. However, it gave the Jackdaw an opportunity to change directions. This avoided the Swordfish from being attacked continuously.
The cannon’s shutters on one side of the Jackdaw were ajar. With their gunners in position, and upon Zhang Heng’s orders, they finally began returning fire.
After two successful looting trips, the Jackdaw shot to fame in Nassau after killing Wilton’s two hundred men in one night–an opportune moment for their recruitment drive.
If Zhang Heng wanted to, he could have quickly recruited two hundred men, the entire ship’s complement, in half a day. However, that wouldn’t have been too sensible a move. With each addition, the share of the loot that each person would receive would decrease. As opposed to the merits of the quantity he could amass, Zhang Heng cared more about the quality of the sailors they recruited.
For that reason, each time they returned to the island, the Jackdaw’s recruitment threshold would be significantly higher than the last. The standard of the ship’s gunners was now completely different from those of the first voyage. On top of that, the Jackdaw was one battleship with outstanding firepower. The moment they began firing, it instantly caught the attention of the three Spanish ships.
However, at this time, the Spanish fleet commander was still focused on the Swordfish. The latter’s hull now wrecked, and it seemed like the fabulous time to sink them with one blow. It would be a real pity if the Spaniards chose to give up right now and let the Swordfish get away. Not only would that mean changing targets, but it also meant having to realign the sights of the heavy cannons.
Realizing the consequences of the aforementioned actions, all three Spanish vessels ignored the Jackdaw and concentrated their firepower on the Swordfish instead.
Upon realizing the enemy’s tactical maneuvering, Brook decided to abandon the original plan. Although the Swordfish had its sideboard facing the Spanish treasure ship, she didn’t fire but instead did a left full rudder, preparing to escape!
The Swordfish was severely battered during the attack, and the damage to its hull caused it to lose some mobility. Fortunately, their main mast was still intact, and Brook’s well-timed reactions were enough for the Swordfish to complete the U-turn successfully. This allowed them to retreat before the next round of firing could begin.
Brook’s excellent seamanship was on full display. The three Spanish vessels launched another two cannonball volleys, and despite their damage, the Swordfish dodged most of the shells effortlessly. Not to be outdone, the Spanish commander was just as quick to react! Realizing that his opponent was a crafty one, the Spanish quickly changed tactics and fired on them with all their cannons, all at the same time!
This time, even Brook’s superior rudder skills were useless, as the Swordfish’s stern was hit four times! Even then, the Swordfish stayed afloat. Instead, at the cost of the enemy, they were able to put a good distance between them and the three Spanish ships.
On the other side, the Jackdaw’s attacks were growing fiercer. Zhang Heng had chosen to target a frigate. This time, he did not hold back. After being fired at for such a long time, the Jackdaw’s gunners had enough. Fueled by anger, the gunners got into the action with a fury the moment they received their orders.
The main gunner took aim, then lit the fuse! As the cannonballs launched in a staggered staccato of blasts, the assistant gunners packed gunpowder into the barrel with rapid clockwork accuracy. In seconds, cannon smoke fogged the surface of the sea with a cloud of thick smog.
After two rounds of intense bombardment, the frigate’s deck was a mess. Her hull, after being hit by gargantuan 24-pound shells, was perforated with large, gaping holes. Fortunately for them, they were all above the waterline. For now, they were not in danger of sinking, at least not yet.
However, the frigate wasn’t holding up any longer, as the captain had already started sending desperate signals for help to the commander of their mothership.
The Spanish commander looked at the swaying Swordfish in the distance with a bitter look in his eyes. That ship was at the very end of her tether. Two more volleys and she would be done for. After that, they could go on and attack the other pirate ship, thus completely wiping out this gang of wicked robbers, once and for all.
There was nothing wrong with the plan itself, except that the Spanish commander did not expect the Jackdaw to be so potent. If this went on, and even if he exterminated the two pirate ships, it might just cost him an entire frigate, a price he wasn’t willing to pay. In frustration, he signaled to the other two in his fleet, instructing them to switch targets. He would have them give up on the Swordfish and take it all out on the Jackdaw instead.
Despite everything, Zhang Heng’s objective had been achieved, and he was already turning around to leave the battlefield. Then, out of the blue, at the very last minute, he decided to change direction abruptly. Now, they weren’t heading to Parrot Island as initially planned!
“Captain?” asked a very puzzled Billy.
“Our opponent’s commander is no slouch. We only have two ships, and yet, we had the nerve to attack them. If we head for Parrot Island, wouldn’t he grow suspicious?”
“But what if they all decide to come after us?”
“The probability of that happening is minuscule. The Swordfish is practically in a critical condition, and with two of her masts gone, she’s now very slow. If you were to be them, which ship would you choose to go after?”
As if confirmation of Zhang Heng’s conjecture, all three Spanish ships gave up chasing the Jackdaw and turned around to pursue Swordfish again.
The Spanish commander, looking down with indignant disgruntlement. He had been in charge of this route for ten years, and through that period, never once had pirates dared provoke them. If he’d allow those infernal pirates to get away without paying a hefty price, it would be too good to be true for them.
The Swordfish was once the fastest three-masted vessel in all of the oceans. However, at the current state of her hull, she was half as fast as what she used to be. Moreover, they were still some distance away from Parrot Island. In the past, such a small distance would not have bothered Brook, but right now, every minute felt like an hour.
Seeing how close the three Spanish ships had come, and having no way getting rid of them, Brook’s forehead broke out with streams of cold sweat. All too soon, the bow of a Spanish frigate was almost touching the stern of the crippled Swordfish! But then, the Jackdaw, well on her way to the other side, turned around again! With their chief gunner manning the ship’s main cannon, they began harassing the warship dead ahead of the Swordfish, giving Brook and his battered ship a much-needed chance for a breather.
Brook had his men tried desperately to lighten their ailing boat, throwing away every heavy object they did not need. The weight-loss exercise helped it inch faster by half a knot. Nonetheless, it was this half a knot that saved the Swordfish in this pivotal moment.
The Spanish commander became inconsolably outraged by his opponent’s constant outmaneuvering. Zhang Heng’s earlier escape in the other direction had debilitated him. In the past, whenever he encountered islands or terrain that hindered his field of vision, he would instinctively be on high alert. Right now, though, he was overcome by a crazed urge. Seeing that he was so very close to sinking the Swordfish, he had lost all means to think clearly.