Jack gritted his teeth and clung to the mast as the lash cracked against his shoulders. The pain was so sharp he thought he might faint. He could smell his own blood and feel it running down his back.
“Let this be a lesson,” Captain Avery called out to the assembled crew. “Disobedience will not be tolerated on his majesty’s ships.”
Despite the pain, Jack kept his eyes on the captain. When he remembered this moment, he would think of him. He would remember being punished for something he hadn’t even done.
He promised himself, never again.
Jack stood at the head of a band of mutineers, a cutlass in his hand. Others were at the ship’s guns, ready in case the admiralty’s offer to talk was nothing but a distraction.
A black bicorn hat appeared over the rail as Captain Norman ascended from the boat below.
“Gentlemen.” Normanton nodded to the mutineers. His expression was stern but with a hint of concern. Most of them had served under him before Avery took over. Jack reckoned him a reasonable man.
“Where is Captain Avery?” Normanton asked.
“Below,” Jack replied. “Alive.”
“What do you think?”
After all the cruelty Avery had heaped upon his crew, it was a wonder he still had all his limbs. Jack had fought to restrain himself as well as the others. It hadn’t been easy.
Normanton nodded, apparently not surprised.
“Are you willing to discuss your demands?” Normanton asked.
Jack had considered saying no to this, but even he knew that they would have to make compromises.
He nodded. As he did so, his shirt shifted and he felt the pain in his back again. It gave him steel.
“Avery goes,” he said. “Forever. We get a decent captain. We get proper rations. We get to appeal unjust punishments. And nobody gets punished for this.”
“I am authorised to agree to most of that,” Normanton said stiffly. “But the admiralty cannot let a mutiny go entirely unpunished. The ringleaders will face the lash.”
There was an angry hubbub from the men around Jack. Weapons were raised.
To his credit, Normanton remained calm as the ocean on a windless day. He took a step closer and lowered his voice.
“You know what happens if we can’t agree.” He shot a glance toward the other ships nearby, sitting ready for action.
Jack felt the stinging of his back. He heard the growing noise around him. He imagined what would happen to these men, his friends and comrades, if this turned into a fight.
He had promised himself never again. No more unjust punishments, for him or anyone else. What sort of man would he be if he gave in on that now?
Perhaps a just one.
“I’m the ringleader,” he said. “Punishment falls on me. No-one else.”
The crew fell silent, watching for Normanton’s reaction. But they still clutched their weapons, ready for a fight.
Jack peered past the mast, watching Captain Avery’s boat disappear towards land. The captain sat hunched over, a broken man in a uniform coat. Normanton sat beside him, looking back at the ship.
The lash cracked against Jack’s shoulders. He groaned in pain and clung on tight to the mast, determined not to pass out. At least this time he had earned his punishment. He had committed the crime and he bore its burden.
This time he made no promises.
* * *
In the late 18th century, Britain’s Royal Navy became a powerful fighting force, but that didn’t make it a nice place to work. Cruel discipline was common. When Admiral Nelson managed his men through consideration and leading from the front, he was considered a wild innovator. There were several mutinies, some leading to better treatment, some not ending so well.
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