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Authors: Alexander Kent

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BOOK: Band of Brothers
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Bolitho reached the upper yard, and could feel his heart banging against his ribs.
Too long in harbour. Getting soft
… .
The lookout already curled in position, his arm around a stay, turned and peered at him.
‘Mornin’, sir!’ He jerked his thumb. ‘Land, larboard bow!’
Bolitho swallowed and forced himself to look. Sea and haze, an endless expanse of choppy white crests. But no land.
The lookout was one of
Gorgon
‘s foretopmen; more to the point, he had been chosen by Tinker for the passage crew.
He gasped, ‘Tell them, Keveth! No breath!’
He swung the telescope carefully around and beneath his arm, even as the lookout yelled to the small figures below. With a name like that, he must be a fellow Cornishman. Two wreckers up here together… .
He opened the telescope with great care, waiting for each roll and shudder running through his perch, causing
Hotspur
to vibrate from truck to keel.
Land, sure enough. Another careful breath, gauging the moment. The sea breaking; he could feel the power and height of the waves, but when he lowered the glass to clear his vision there was nothing there.
But it was there
. The blunt outline of land, sloping to a point which defied the waves. Like the little sketch in Verling’s log.
Jerbourg Point. Who or what was ‘Jerbourg’, he wondered.
He made his way down to the deck and hurried aft, slipped and almost fell, lightheaded, as if drunk or in fever.
Verling listened as he blurted out everything he had seen. He was conscious of his eyes, his patience, as he described the landfall.
All he said was, ‘Well done.’
Egmont said loudly, ‘I’ll note it in the log, sir.’
Bolitho said, ‘The lookout, Keveth.
He
sighted it first, sir. Without a glass!’
Verling glanced at both of them, as usual missing nothing.
‘A good hand, that one. A fair shot, too, when given the chance.’ The hint of a smile. ‘And should be. He was a poacher before he signed up with a recruiting party. One jump ahead of the hangman, I shouldn’t wonder.’

Deck there!
‘ It was the masthead again. The poacher. ‘
Wreckage ahead, larboard bow!

Verling did not hesitate. As if he had been expecting it; as if he knew.
‘Stand by to lower a boat. Two leadsmen in the chains.’ His hand shot out. ‘Good ones, Tinker. This is no coastline for chances.’
Egmont asked, ‘You know Guernsey, sir?’
‘I’ve sailed close by before.’ He was looking toward the land, which was still invisible. ‘It was enough.’
He walked to the hatch. ‘Wreckage. Wind and tide make their own landfalls, for
us
, eh?’
Dancer commented softly, ‘My God, he keeps a cool head!’ He clasped Bolitho’s arm. ‘Like another ancient mariner not a cable’s length away!’
It seemed to take an age for the drifting fragments of wreckage to become clearly visible, more scattered, and reaching out on either bow. There was absolute silence now, the seamen very aware of their kinship with these pathetic remnants which had once been a living vessel.
Verling was on deck again, and stood with his arms folded, watching the sea, and the strengthening blur of land which had almost been forgotten.
Hotspur
had shortened sail once more, so that her shipboard sounds in the silence added to the atmosphere of uneasiness, with the creak and clatter of loose rigging, and the groan of the rudder and yoke-lines as the helmsmen fought to maintain steerage way.
Verling said, ‘I think both boats will be necessary. It will save time. Not that there is much to see.’ He was thinking aloud, as if questioning each thought as it came to him.
Even Tinker’s voice seemed subdued as he watched the first boat being hoisted and swung above and over the gunwale.
Verling said, ‘You leave now, Mr. Egmont. See what you can discover. Small craft, I’d say.’
Egmont leaned over the side as some larger fragments of timber bumped against
Hotspur
‘s side.
Bolitho felt a chill run through him. It was, or had been, a cutter as far as he could tell. Like
Avenger
… There was part of a mast now, and torn sail dragging half-submerged, like a shroud.
The first boat was pulling away, with Egmont in the bows, leaning over to signal his intentions to his coxswain.
Verling called, ‘Now you, Bolitho.’ He had his glass up to his eye again, but trained on the spur of land, not the splintered remains drifting below him. ‘Take Sewell with you. Stay up to wind’rd if you can.’
He felt as if he were being cut off, abandoned, once the boat was in the water and the headrope cast off.
‘Easy, lads, keep it steady!’ He had taken the tiller himself and waited for the oars to pick up the stroke, each man feeling the mood of the sea, trying not to watch the schooner as she fell further and further astern.
At least the wind had eased. Bolitho felt the salt spray on his mouth and soaking into his shoulders. Sewell was crouched down beside him, his back half turned; impossible to see or know what he was thinking. Hard to believe that the confrontation in the cabin had ever happened. Only this was real.
He winced as the boat dipped steeply and more spray burst from the oars. This was no cutter or gig built for the open sea.

There!
‘ Sewell’s arm shot out. ‘Oh, God, it’s one of them!’
Bolitho stood up, holding fast to the tiller-bar to keep his balance.
‘Bowman! Use your hook!’
The seaman had boated his oar and was poised in the blunt bows like a harpoonist as more wreckage surged above a trough.
‘Oars! Fend off, lads!’
It was as if a complete section of the wreck had risen suddenly and violently from the depths, like some act of retribution or spite.
An oar blade splintered and the seaman pitched across his thwart, the broken loom still grasped in his fists. Surprisingly, nobody shouted or showed any sign of fear. It was too swift, too stark. Not just one corpse, but five or six, tangled together in a mesh of torn canvas and broken planking.
It lasted only a few seconds, before the corpses and their tangled prison rolled over and dipped beneath the sea.
Only seconds, but as they fought to bring the boat under command again, the grim picture remained. Staring eyes, bared teeth, gaping wounds, black in the hard light. And the stench of gunpowder. Like the splinters and the burns: they had been fired upon at point-blank range.
Bolitho tugged at the tiller-bar. ‘Back water, starboard!’ He felt the sea sluicing around his legs, as if the boat had been swamped and was going down.
He heard Sewell yell, ‘More wreckage!’ He was clambering over the struggling oarsmen, thrusting his legs over the side to fend off another piece of broken timber. Then he must have lost his footing, and slithered bodily over the gunwale, his face contorted with pain.
The seaman who had been in the bows flung himself over the thwart and seized his arm, just as Bolitho managed to bring the boat under control.
Nobody spoke; nothing mattered but the slow, steady splash of oars as they regained the stroke and gave all their strength to the fight. Only then did they turn and peer at each other, more gasps than grins, but with the recognition that, this time, they had won.
Bolitho eased the tiller very slowly, feeling the effort of each stroke, knowing they were in control.
Sewell lay in the sternsheets, the trapped water surging across his legs, his lip bleeding where he had bitten through it. Bolitho reached down and wrenched open his coat. His breeches were torn; it must have happened when he had used both legs to kick off that last piece of wreckage. But for his prompt action, the boat might have foundered.
There was blood, too, a lot of it. He could feel the torn skin, the muscle under his fingers clenched against the pain.
He exclaimed, ‘You mad little bugger!’
Pain, shock, and the bitter cold; Sewell was barely able to form the words.
‘I was drowning … I couldn’t h-hold on. My fault… .’
He cried out as Bolitho knotted a piece of wet rag around his leg, the blood strangely vivid in the grey light.
Bolitho pulled some canvas across his body and shouted, ‘You saved the boat! Did you think we’d just
leave
you?’ He was gripping his shoulder now, as if to force him to understand.
‘I just wanted to… .’ He fainted.
Bolitho swung the tiller-bar against his ribs until the impact steadied him.
‘Enough, lads! Give way,
together
!’
The boat lifted and swayed as the blades brought her under command again. Bolitho clung to Sewell’s sodden coat to ease the shock of each sudden plunge.
He heard himself gasp, ‘I
know
what you wanted! I’ll remind you when we get back on board!’
Someone yelled, ”Ere’s ‘
Otspur
, sir! Larboard beam!’
Bolitho wiped his streaming face with his wrist, his eyes raw with salt. A blurred shape, like a sketch on a slate. Unreal. He tugged at Sewell’s coat and gasped, ‘See? We found her!’
The rest was a confused daze, the schooner’s shining side rising over them like a breakwater, muffled shouts, and figures leaping down to take the strain and fasten the tackles for hoisting the boat into what suddenly seemed a stable and secure haven. He felt a fist thumping his shoulder, heard Tinker’s familiar, harsh voice.
‘Well done, me boy!’ Another thump. ‘Bloody well done!’
Then, almost choking over a swallow of raw spirit. Rum, cognac; it could have been anything. But it was working. He could feel every scrape and bruise, but his mind was clearing, like a mist lifting from the sea.
And Verling. Calm, level, a little less patient now.
‘What did you find?’
It was all suddenly very sharp. Brutal … Like the end of a nightmare. Even the sounds of sea and wind seemed muffled. The ship holding her breath.
‘They were all dead, sir. Killed. Point-blank range.’ Like listening to somebody else, the voice flat and contained. ‘No chance. Taken by surprise, you see.’ He could see their faces, the savage wounds and staring eyes. Not a drawn blade or weapon in sight.
Cut down
. ‘Grape and canister.’ He broke off, coughing, and a hand held a cloth to his mouth. Only a piece of rag, but it seemed strangely warm. Safe.
He knew it was Dancer.
Verling again. ‘Anything more?’
Bolitho licked his raw lips. He said, ‘There were two officers. I saw their clothes.’ The image was fading. ‘Their buttons. Officers.’
Verling said, ‘Take him below.’ His hand touched Bolitho’s arm briefly. ‘You behaved well. Anything else that comes back to you… .’
He was already turning away, his mind grappling with other questions. Bolitho struggled to sit up.
‘Sewell saved the boat, sir. He might have been killed.’
Verling had stopped and was staring down at him, his face in shadow against the fast-moving clouds. ‘
You
did nothing, of course.’ Somebody even laughed.
Bolitho was on his feet now. He could feel the deck. Alive again. He should be shivering. Holding on. He was neither.
Dancer was saying, ‘When I saw the boat, I thought… .’ He did not continue. Could not.
Bolitho held on to a backstay and looked at the sea. A deep swell, unbroken now but for a few white horses. No wreckage; not even a splinter to betray what had happened.
And the dark wedge of land, no nearer, or so it seemed. And yet it reached out on either bow, lifting and falling against
Hotspur
‘s standing and running rigging, as if it, and not the schooner, was moving.
Dancer said, ‘Young Sewell seems to be holding out well. I heard the lads say you saved his skin, or most of it. He’ll never forget this day, I’ll wager!’ He added bitterly, ‘Of course, Egmont’s boat found nothing!’
They were standing in the cabin space, although Bolitho could not recall descending the ladder. Here the ship noises were louder, closer. Creaks and rattles, the sigh of the sea against the hull.
Bolitho turned and stared at his friend, seeing him as if for the first time since he had been hauled aboard.
‘We might never have known, but for the gunfire. It was the merest chance.’ He held up his arm and saw that the sleeve was torn from wrist to elbow. He had felt nothing. ‘We can’t simply sail past and forget it, as if nothing has happened!’
Dancer shook his head. ‘It’s up to the first lieutenant, Dick. I was watching him just now. He’ll not turn his back on it.’ He regarded him grimly. ‘He can’t. Even if he wanted to.’
Someone called his name, and he said, ‘We’ll soon know. I’m just thankful you’re still in one piece.’ He was trying to smile, but it eluded him. Instead, he lightly punched the torn sleeve. ‘Young Andy Sewell has you to look up to now!’
BOOK: Band of Brothers
2.54Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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