Chapter Eight: Sacrifice Near the Southern Coast of Mauritius
The captain's face was grim as he watched little Muskijl place itself between Redbird and the attacking French man-of-war, a David dwarfed by a terrifying Goliath. It was doubtful God could provide as lucky an outcome. Muskijl was far beyond her class in this match. Behind the looming warship, Analise and Ide were trying to flee to the northeast but Pam saw several smaller ships with elegantly slanting triangular sails in their path. “Lateen,” she said to herself, remembering the word from her far too brief crash course in seventeenth-century sailing. The kind of sails used by the infamous Barbary corsairs. That can't be good. What is going on here? A thundering boom jarred her from her thoughts; the French had opened fire on Muskijl.
“Will we fight beside Muskijl, Captain? The men are ready at the carronade and cannons,” Janvik asked, his face as pale as the wild, skirling clouds that blew before the tailing storm.
The captain watched the battle begin through his spyglass. After a moment of silence he shook his head. “No. Captain Gyllenskiöld has waved us off. He will sacrifice Muskijl to give us a chance of escape. Hard to port; we will make for the west. Have the men—”
Before he could finish his orders an explosion somewhere below them rocked the Redbird, throwing Pam to the deck. She came to her knees but stayed there, not daring to move, hand gripping the rail. The French had trained a long gun on them, a warning not to flee or just a sampling bite of their next meal.
“Jävla fransk kuksugare!” the captain cursed, “Keep steady for the west!”
“She's coming around sluggish, sir! I think they've hit our rudder!” The helmsman's voice was strained as he pulled on the wheel with all his strength. Another crewman leaped to his side to help.
Gerbald turned to Pam. “We should get below decks, Pam, it would be safer there.”
“I'm not so sure about that. I think I want to stay here. I'd rather know what's happening than wait in the cabin. You two go down; I'll be all right.”
Dore nodded. “I have seen enough war in my time, a battle at sea is not so different. I will go to the galley and prepare emergency supplies, in case we must leave the ship.”
“And I wish to go get my weapons. If we are boarded, I would stand beside these men.” Gerbald's voice was barely audible over the cannon fire. Despite announcing their intention to leave her side the two of them remained, looking to Pam for some signal that they really had her approval. After a moment she figured this out and gave them both a gentle shove.
“Go, both of you! I am as safe with these guys as I would be with you. Better we prepare for the worst. Go, and be careful!”
Looking back at her with worried faces Dore and Gerbald hurried down the ladder. Another shot from the man-of-war ripped through a sail, not doing much damage but definitely adding to the tension.
“Shall we return fire, Captain?” Janvik's eyes had taken on a predatory character, Pam was surprised to see a boiling fury there, the man was usually so cold, showing no emotion beyond a constant irritation. They all turned their gaze to the ongoing battle, poor Muskijl was barely visible within a pall of cannon smoke. She listed now, tattered and torn like a toy boat forgotten on the pond for the winter. She had scored a few hits on the man-of-war but the outcome was clear enough. The French soldiers were gathering now, readying to board her. Swedish marines stood proudly waiting on Muskijl's heavily damaged deck, prepared for the inevitable. They would give their lives to buy the fleet under their guard more time.
“No, damn it all, we run!” the captain's voice was filled with pain. “This is a civilian ship, the princess' mission comes before anything else!” he shouted. His tone softening, he added “We would stand no chance, my friend. Let us hope we live to see revenge. Bosun! Report!”
“Sir!” The bosun was bent precariously over the stern rail attempting to see how bad the damage was. “Not good, Captain. We barely have a rudder left; she's held together by splinters.”
Inch by painful inch the Redbird changed its course, exiting the battle with all available speed. Another shot from the French gun landed against her starboard side even as she pulled away. Pam started to get up to view the damage but the captain saw her move.
“Blast it all, woman, stay down! I'd tell you to get below but it's no safer there!" Behind them the roar of cannons had stopped, replaced by the lightning strike crack of musket and pistol fire. They were still near enough to hear the sound of men screaming in agony. Pam tried to watch the action astern but the ever increasing power of the waves slamming into their side made it hard to focus. She felt sick, but not from the movement of the sea. Men were dying today, dying for her and that damned dodo. She fought back angry tears, her hands pale and bloodless as they gripped the Redbird's rails. The wind was picking up, the storm had arrived with untamed Antarctic wrath.
“We've got to find safe harbor before this gale blows us up on the rocks!” Janvik yelled over the howling wind.
“If the rudder holds we have a chance!” The captain joined the sailor at the wheel; now he and the sailor held Redbird on course with all their strength. “Bosun, tell that fool Pers to come down from the rigging before he blows away!”
Redbird pitched up and down like a roller coaster, cold spray drenching them. It became much darker of a sudden as storm clouds overtook them. Pam saw Mauritius drawing closer, still lit by the setting sun, the waves pushing them toward frothing shores.
“Pam!” The captain called to her. She left her place by the rail to stand before him, steadied by one of his strong arms grasping hers. He was dripping wet, his muscles trembled from the cold and the strain of the damaged rudder. “Quickly now, go below and get only your most precious things. There is a chance we may have to abandon Redbird; best to prepare for the worst! Don't tarry! Then I want the three of you waiting beside the ship's boat, understood?”
“Yes, sir!” she shouted back over the roaring wind. Their eyes locked for a moment, icy blue to cloudy gray. The captain managed a smile for her. “Fear not, my friend. Who knows what fate awaits? We have escaped those French bastards and now we may survive the ocean's rage as well.” Pam sensed that he wasn't as hopeful as he meant to sound but gave him a smile back, anyway. This satisfied him, he gave her arm a squeeze before releasing her and turned back to his struggle with the wheel. Pam knew she wanted him to do much more than squeeze her arm but now was not the time for such thoughts. Still, she smiled again despite all the horror unfolding around her. We are going to survive, we must! she told herself.
Pam hurried down the ladder as carefully as she could. Everything was made slippery by the crashing sea and the icy rains that had come to join the winds. After a half-slipping half-sliding journey across the bucking ship, she paused at the rail near the hatchway to the lower decks. Pausing to catch her breath, she stole a look back at the battle they had left behind. There in the distance, still illuminated by the day's last feeble rays, the two ships were locked together, smoke streaming from battered Muskijl in long, orange ribbons. Pam saluted the brave crew that had sacrificed themselves to give Redbird and the rest of their fleet a chance. A great swell blocked the view, then another. The sun set, storm clouds swept low over the world and the tragic scene went to black.
Chapter Nine: Redbird Down
Pam was about to begin crying for lost Muskijl when Gerbald and Dore emerged, so she held back her tears to show courage to her friends. Each was carrying a variety of baggage. Pam wasn't sure how anyone could haul so much stuff.
“The captain says we may have to abandon ship. Wait beside the ship's boat while I go get my things.”
"I will go!" Gerbald told her.
"No, you stay with Dore! I'm smaller and I can move faster—three minutes!" Pam ran to the hatch and somehow made her way to the deck below without falling.
Pam was thrown against the wall of her cabin as Redbird listed hard again. She hit her elbow right on the funny bone, which is never very funny at all. Gasping with the pain, she pushed herself toward her desk. "I have seconds, only seconds," she muttered.
Her trusty rucksack was there already holding her most precious gear. Good thing I thought of that. I wish I wasn't right about things so much. She stuffed her notes from the desk and her pencil box in; everything else was replaceable. Her flashlight was on her bed; she grabbed it just as the boat listed again, this time throwing her to the wet and sloshing floor. She saw her grandmother's walking stick lying on the bed against the wall; sadly it would have to be left behind. There was no way she could hang onto it and get herself back topside; she would need both hands to navigate the dangerously tossing path. She shoved the flashlight into her rucksack, zipped it shut and shrugged it onto her back. Seawater slapped hard against the small portal. She realized she was standing in eight inches of sloshing seawater now, the ship must have sprung a leak from one of the cannon hits. It was time to go!
Back on deck the scene was mayhem. The waves were driving them closer and closer to the rocky shores of the island. Dore was clutching a large wicker basket as if it were a darling infant, while Gerbald helped load the ship's boat, a narrow pinnace, along with several of the marines while the sailors struggled to keep Redbird alive. Pam could barely see the captain through the rain and darkness. She thought she heard cannon fire again but it was the impact of massive waves on cliffs. Mauritius towered over them like an unfriendly giant, illuminated by eerie flashes of blue lightning.
The bosun arrived, his usually cheery face flushed and lined with worry. “We are abandoning ship! All hands to the pinnace!” The sailors grimly dropped whatever they were doing to make ready for launch. Pam couldn't imagine how this was going to work in these wild seas. She told herself to breathe and to trust in these good souls who she had come to love on their long voyage together. She was angry, too, but there was no time for that now, she knew she must focus on each moment or it may become her last.
"Come, my friends, get in, get in!" he told them. The first mate was holding tight to the line, his face gray with the strain, trying to keep the pinnace steady.
"The captain!" Pam cried, looking back at the man who now stood alone at the nearly useless wheel, buying them what time he could before the rocks could take her. "Captain!" she shouted, louder, frantically trying to get his attention.
He waved them off frantically. "Go, go now!" His words were barely audible over the crashing seas.
"He will do as he must; you can't help him! Now get in or we all die here!" the bosun shouted. With a firm hand, he half pushed, half helped Pam into the swinging pinnace. The small craft bucked and leaped on its lines. She and Dore collapsed into the boat's bottom on top of the baggage. Gerbald arched himself over Pam and Dore, trying to stay out of the way of the sailors as well as using his own bulk to prevent them from being pitched out.
They were lowered swiftly into the fast-moving water, which caused them to bounce even more crazily. Around them, the sailors and marines climbed in, readying themselves at the oars, their movements fluid and confident despite the raging waves. Pam looked up at the first mate who was still on deck, having seen them safely lowered. He favored her with a smile, the first she had ever seen upon his thin lips.
"May God be with you, Frau Miller." With a swipe of his knife he cut the pinnace loose. Suddenly understanding the risk he was taking for them Pam shouted "Thank you!" as loudly as she could. The first mate granted her a sketch of a wave before hurrying to join his captain at the wheel.
The nimble craft moved rapidly away from Redbird, more steady now that she was free of the ship and fully manned. They rode fast, carried by the marching swells, surfing along like the canoe in that old TV show Hawaii Five-0. The show's dramatic theme song began to play in Pam's mind and she wondered for a moment if she would wake up on her sofa in front of the TV, all of this just an awful dream.
"Thank the Lord! The cliffs stop here, there's a beach. Make for it!" the bosun shouted. The sailors and marines rowed for their very lives, silent and determined to beat the hungry sea.
Pam forced herself out from under Gerbald's protective weight to grasp the gunwale. She could see Redbird through the sheets of rain; some of her lanterns were still lit despite the gale. As the ship spun about and rolled precariously, she caught a glimpse of where the enemy cannon had punched a jagged hole beneath her water line. No wonder she had grown so sluggish. It was a bullet through the heart of her. The captain and first mate were still trying to steer the badly damaged craft away from the rocky point toward the same possible safety the pinnace was fleeing toward, but an unseen rock caught her and sent her over on her side. Pam couldn't see if they had time to leap free or not. The Redbird rolled completely over; the sound of her wood scraping and splintering against the rocks was the screeching music of hell itself. Pam screamed over the gale, her voice driving hopelessly into the curtains of rain that now mercifully hid the wreck of the Redbird from view.
Their troubles were not over. Sweeping twelve foot rollers pounded against the narrow beach they were aiming for. Landing would be dangerous.
The bosun shouted to the frightened passengers and crew, "We are going to try to bring her all the way in but it's ugly—if we go over, you'll have to try to make it on your own!"
Pam looked down to see Dore's face was white and filled with fear, a sight that Pam would have given anything never to see.
"I can't swim!" Dore blurted out, a trace of sob in her voice that brought a gush of tears from Pam's eyes. Thankfully, Dore couldn't see them as they were lost amongst the ceaseless raindrops.
"I can swim for both of us, don't worry!" Pam shouted back, injecting a tone of confidence she didn't really feel. Pam was in the grip of a clutching fear of an intensity she hadn't felt since the time she had stood between a badly wounded Gerbald and an evil man wielding a bloodstained sword. She had lived through that; maybe she would live through this, too. The thought helped quell the worst of her terror.
The pinnace and her frightened passengers sped toward the shore, the white sands intermittently lit by cobalt lightning like some haunted dance floor beneath a spectral strobe light. The bosun ordered the men to row harder as he used the tiller to guide the craft along the treacherous waves. Pam clutched Dore and Gerbald clutched them both, grimly ready to swim if they must. The bosun let out a whoop that had something of joy in it as he turned the pinnace quickly to starboard. Through the rain and darkness Pam could see that the shore at that edge of the wide cove was somewhat protected by a jutting wall of rock, another arm of the same rocky point that had destroyed the Redbird farther out. If they could make it in to the calmer waters behind that the chances of landing the boat safely would greatly improve; and if they didn't they would crash against the very rock that could save them.
"Get ready to jump if I say so. It's going to be close!" the bosun bellowed over the storm and hollow booms of the waves slamming onto the shore. The sailors heaved mightily on their oars at the bosun's hoarse commands, now surfing again along the face of an awesome wave, growing menacingly taller as it reached the shallows. The rock wall loomed ahead of them, waves crashing against it in foaming white fury.
"Steady . . . steady . . . Now, hard to starboard, men, heave!" The nose of the pinnace jumped to the right, well away from the fast approaching rocks. The boat bounced dangerously across an area of roiling white streaked water deflected from the rock face. "Now, hard port!" the bosun fairly shrieked. With a roller coaster flutter in their stomachs they slid over the hump of a smooth swell and into a patch of relatively calm water in the lee of the rock wall. "Brace yourselves!" The prow of the pinnace hit this gravelly section of beach hard, but stayed upright. "Jump to shore, hurry!"
Gerbald pulled Pam and Dore up by their arms and guided them to the prow, Pam leaping first. There were larger rocks amongst the gravel, she felt one scrape the side of her leg and knew it had drawn blood. She turned to help catch Dore, who, still clutching her wicker basket, landed with a heavy "Ooomph" but managed to stay upright. They were up to their knees in clutching, fast-moving water that almost knocked them over, but Gerbald had arrived and used his solid strength to keep them upright. Pam was towed along by the still very fit retired soldier, her arm in his powerful grip. Soon the three of them were above the tide-line standing amongst driftwood and the hearty kind of low brush that thrives along the edges of beaches. Gerbald ran back across the gravelly sand to help the men secure the pinnace. The sailors had gotten lines out and were dragging the boat safely away from the angry sea.
Pam squinted through the rain at Gerbald and the sailors working to secure the pinnace, almost grateful for the ghostly flashes of the lightning show that played across the scene. She wanted to help them, but how? She realized with relief that she still had her rucksack on and quickly doffed it, fumbling around within until she found the flashlight. She handed the bag to a still stunned Dore and said, "Try to find some shelter in those trees just above the beach!" Then she ran down to the waterline, following the narrow but powerful beam through the driving rain. Reaching the men, she tried to aim the flashlight at places she thought would help the most. Eventually the men had the boat nearly to the high tide line and were tying her to the sturdiest trees and rocks they could find. They secured the craft as best they could, then opened up the water-tight compartments that contained a few emergency supplies.
Pam found a relatively flat area of grass among the wind-twisted shrubs and small trees that lined the shore beneath rows of towering palms, which swayed like hula dancers in the howling wind. Dore joined her and they did their best to help the sailors set up a camp, using the pinnace's sail draped over lines tied between trees as a rain tarp. An oil lamp sprang to life, lighting the surroundings in a heartbreakingly warm glow. Pam could now see the faces of the sailors and soldiers she had come to know as friends. They were exhausted and fearful, but there was relief there, too; they would live to see the dawn. Suddenly Pam remembered the captain and the first mate left behind. She came to her feet quickly, feeling saltwater still sloshing in the toes of her boots.
"Get up! Get up! We have to search the shore for the captain and the first mate!" Pam told them. The weary men looked at her for a long moment; there was little hope in their eyes. Some of the marines started to stand before their officer, Löjtnant Lundkvist could growl at them. The sailors stirred, but it was plain they were exhausted.
The bosun's gravelly voice cut through the noise of the still raging storm. "Frau Pam is right. Move your arses, you lazy sots! We have a duty to perform." As one, the sailors rose to their feet, stifling groans. If there were any chance of finding the first mate and the captain alive, they must take it now.
Dore also stood. "Herr Bosun, do you have any kind of foodstuffs in the boat's stores?"
"Yes, but not much, I'm afraid."
"Then I will stay here and make us a supper. You will all need something to eat to regain your strength after a night like this."
The men all gave her a grateful murmur of thanks as they shuffled back out into the night's cold rains. Pam favored her friend with a grateful smile as she ducked out from under the tarp herself. Her doughty Dore was back and working, a glimmer of good in all this night of loss and pain. Better to stay busy, Pammie, because if you start to think too much about what's happened here you will lose it and not be of any help to anyone. The thought of the captain, her friend, and possibly the beginning of something more, sent a knife of fear into her, but the pain made her move faster. Please, oh please let him be alive!