“Not pirates,” he said. “It’s the slaves. Look!”
Unskilled in the seamanship of large vessels, the escaped slaves of the Yallahs River plantations had evidently made a slow and blundering passage toward Hispaniola, and having somehow arrived at that island, had promptly run the ship aground. The Bruja lay canted on her side in the shallows, her keel sunk deep in the sandy mud. A very agitated group of slaves surrounded her, some rushing up and down the beach shouting, others dashing off toward the refuge of the jungle, a few remaining to help the last of their number off the beached hulk.
A quick glance out to sea showed the cause of their agitation. A patch of white showed on the horizon, growing in size even as we watched.
“A man-of-war,” Lawrence said, sounding interested.
Jamie said something under his breath in Gaelic, and Ian glanced at him, shocked.
“Out of here,” Jamie said tersely. He pulled Ian about and gave him a shove up the defile, then grabbed my hand.
“Wait!” said Lawrence, shading his eyes. “There’s another ship coming. A little one.”
The Governor of Jamaica’s private pinnace, to be exact, leaning at a perilous angle as she shot round the curve of the bay, her canvas bellied by the wind on her quarter.
Jamie stood for a split second, weighing the possibilities, then grabbed my hand again.
“Let’s go!” he said.
By the time we reached the edge of the beach, the pinnace’s small boat was plowing through the shallows, Raeburn and MacLeod pulling hard at the oars. I was wheezing and gulping air, my knees rubbery from the run. Jamie snatched me up bodily into his arms and ran into the surf, followed by Lawrence and Ian, gasping like whales.
I saw Gordon, a hundred yards out in the pinnace’s bow, aim a gun at the shore, and knew we were followed. The musket discharged with a puff of smoke, and Meldrum, behind him, promptly raised his own weapon and fired. Taking it in turns, the two of them covered our splashing advance, until friendly hands could pull us over the side and raise the boat.
“Come about!” Innes, manning the wheel, barked the order, and the boom swung across, the sails filling at once. Jamie hauled me to my feet and deposited me on a bench, then flung himself down beside me, panting.
“Holy God,” he wheezed. “Did I no—tell ye to—stay away—Duncan?”
“Save your breath, Mac Dubh,” Innes said, a wide grin spreading under his mustache. “Ye havena enough to be wasting it.” He shouted something to MacLeod, who nodded and did something to the lines. The pinnace heeled over, changed her course, and came about, headed straight out of the tiny cove—and straight toward the man-of-war, now close enough for me to see the fat-lipped porpoise grinning beneath its bowsprit.
MacLeod bellowed something in Gaelic, accompanied by a gesture that left the meaning of what he had said in no doubt. To a triumphant yodel from Innes, we shot past the Porpoise, directly under her bow and close enough to see surprised-looking heads poking out from the rail above.
I looked back as we left the cove, to see the Porpoise still heading in, massive under her three great masts. The pinnace could never outrace her on the open sea, but in close quarters, the little sloop was light and maneuverable as a feather by comparison to the leviathan man-of-war.
“It’s the slave ship they’ll be after,” Meldrum said, turning to look alongside me. “We saw the man-o’-war pick her up, three miles off the island. We thought whilst they were otherwise occupied, we might as well nip in and pick ye all off the beach.”
“Good enough,” Jamie said with a smile. His chest was still heaving, but he had recovered his breath. “I hope the Porpoise will be sufficiently occupied for the time being.”
A warning shout from Raeburn indicated that this was not to be, however. Looking back, I could see the gleam of brass on the Porpoise’s deck as the pair of long guns called stern chasers were uncovered and began their process of aiming.
Now it was us at gunpoint, and I found the sensation very objectionable. Still, we were moving, and fast, at that. Innes put the wheel hard over, then hard again, tacking a zigzag path past the headland.
The stern chasers boomed together. There was a splash off the port bow, twenty yards away, but a good deal too close for comfort, given the fact that a twenty-four pound ball through the floor of the pinnace would sink us like a rock.
Innes cursed and hunched his shoulders over the wheel, his missing arm giving him an odd, lopsided appearance. Our course became still more erratic, and the next three tries came nowhere near. Then came a louder boom, and I looked back to see the side of the canted Bruja erupt in splinters, as the Porpoise came in range and trained her forward guns on the grounded ship.
A rain of grapeshot hit the beach, striking dead in the center of a group of fleeing slaves. Bodies—and parts of bodies—flew into the air like black stick-figures and fell to the sand, staining it with red blotches. Severed limbs were scattered over the beach like driftwood.
“Holy Mary, Mother of God.” Ian, white to the lips, crossed himself, staring in horror at the beach as the shelling went on. Two more shots struck the Bruja, opening up a great hole in her side. Several landed harmlessly in the sand, and two more found their mark among the fleeing people. Then we were round the edge of the headland, and heading into the open sea, the beach and its carnage lost to view.
“Pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death.” Ian finished his prayer in a whisper, and crossed himself again.
There was little conversation in the boat, beyond Jamie’s giving Innes instructions for Eleuthera, and a conference between Innes and MacLeod as to the proper heading. The rest of us were too appalled by what we had just seen—and too relieved at our own escape—to want to talk.
The weather was fair, with a bright, brisk breeze, and we made good way. By sundown, the island of Hispaniola had dropped below the horizon, and Grand Turk Island was rising to the left.
I ate my small share of the available biscuit, drank a cup of water, and curled myself in the bottom of the boat, lying down between Ian and Jamie to sleep. Innes, yawning, took his own rest in the bow, while MacLeod and Meldrum took it in turns to man the helm through the night.
A shout woke me in the morning. I rose on one elbow, blinking with sleep and stiff from a night spent on bare, damp boards. Jamie was standing by me, his hair blowing back in the morning breeze.
“What?” I asked Jamie. “What is it?”
“I dinna believe it,” he said, staring aft over the rail. “It’s that bloody boat again!”
I scrambled to my feet, to find that it was true; far astern were tiny white sails.
“Are you sure?” I said, squinting. “Can you tell at this distance?”
“I can’t, no,” Jamie said frankly, “but Innes and MacLeod can, and they say it’s the bloodsucking English, right enough. They’ll have guessed our heading, maybe, and come after us, as soon as they’d dealt with those poor black buggers on Hispaniola.” He turned away from the rail, shrugging.
“Damned little to be done about it, save to hope we stay ahead of them. Innes says there’s a hope of giving them the slip off Cat Island, if we reach there by dark.”
As the day wore on, we kept just out of firing distance, but Innes looked more and more worried.
The sea between Cat Island and Eleuthera was shallow, and filled with coral heads. A man-of-war could never follow us into the maze—but neither could we move swiftly enough through it to avoid being sunk by the Porpoise’s long guns. Once in those treacherous shoals and channels, we would be sitting ducks.
At last, reluctantly, the decision was made to head east, out to sea; we could not risk slowing, and there was a slight chance of giving the man-of-war the slip in the dark.
When dawn came, all sight of land had disappeared. The Porpoise, unfortunately, had not. She was no closer, but as the wind rose along with the sun, she shook out more sail, and began to gain. With every scrap of sail already hoisted, and nowhere to hide, there was nothing we could do but run—and wait.
All through the long hours of the morning, the Porpoise grew steadily larger astern. The sky had begun to cloud over, and the wind had risen considerably, but this helped the Porpoise, with her huge spread of canvas, a great deal more than it did us.
By ten o’clock, she was close enough to risk a shot. It fell far astern, but was frightening, nonetheless. Innes squinted back over his shoulder, judging the distance, then shook his head and settled grimly to his course. There was nothing to be gained by tacking now; we must head straight on, as long as we could, taking evasive action only when it was too late for anything else.
By eleven, the Porpoise had drawn within a quarter-mile, and the monotonous boom of her forward guns had begun to sound every ten minutes, as her gunner tried the range. If I closed my eyes, I could imagine Erik Johansen, bent sweating and powder-stained over his gun, the smoking slow-match in his hand. I hoped that Annekje had been left on Antigua with her goats.
By eleven-thirty, it had begun to rain, and a heavy sea was running. A sudden gust of wind struck us sideways, and the boat heeled over far enough to bring the port rail within a foot of the water. Dumped onto the deck by the motion, we disentangled ourselves as Innes and MacLeod skillfully righted the pinnace. I glanced back, as I did every few minutes, despite myself, and saw the seamen scampering aloft in the Porpoise, reefing the topsails.
“That’s luck!” MacGregor shouted in my ear, nodding where I was looking. “That’ll slow them.”
By twelve-thirty, the sky had gone a peculiar purple-green, and the wind had risen to an eerie whine. The Porpoise had taken in yet more canvas, and in spite of the action, had had a staysail carried away, the scrap of canvas jerked from the mast and whipped away, flapping like an albatross. She had long since stopped firing on us, unable to aim at such a small target in the heavy swell.
With the sun gone from sight, I could no longer estimate time. The storm caught us squarely, perhaps an hour later. There was no possibility of hearing anything; by sign language and grimaces, Innes made the men lower the sails; to keep canvas flying, or even reefed, was to risk having the mast ripped from the floorboards.
I clung tight to the rail with one hand, to Ian’s hand with the other. Jamie crouched behind us, arms spread to give us the shelter of his back. The rain lashed past, hard enough to sting the skin, driven almost horizontal by the wind, and so thick that I barely saw the faint shape on the horizon that I thought was Eleuthera.
The sea had risen to terrifying heights, with swells rolling forty feet high. The pinnace rode them lightly, carried up and up and up to dizzy heights, then dropped abruptly into a trough. Jamie’s face was dead white in the storm-light, his sodden hair pasted against his scalp.
It was near dark that it happened. The sky was nearly black, but there was an eerie green glow all across the horizon that silhouetted the skeletal shape of the Porpoise behind us. Another of the rain squalls slammed us sideways, lurching and swaying atop a huge wave.
As we picked ourselves up from yet another bruising spill, Jamie grabbed my arm, and pointed behind us. The Porpoise’s foremast was oddly bent, the top of it leaning far to one side. Before I had time to realize what was happening, the top fifteen feet of the mast had split off and pitched into the sea, carrying with it rigging and spars.