Part the Two Hundred Eighty Fourth: Short Handed While Shot At
“How bad is it?” Hope called boward as she pointed to the torn jib, its tack loose and flapping with the breeze.
Mullins raced to the bow to have a look. “She’s pretty well gone,” he replied. “I’d say from the look of her it was a 24 pounder that ripped that hole.”
She looked back up the hill to the fortress guarding the mouth of Santiago Bay, where the cannon shot had come from. She thought she could see movement, the heads of the Spaniards manning her, making the structure appear to move like a poisonous snake coiling for another strike.
Mullins and Samuel were first to the jib to get her down as Hope took the tiller. The rest of the crew seemed nervous, save for Goddard, atop the mast keeping his eye on everything, and Charity, whose gaze flew between the fortress and a three pounder and cried, “Vous ne sert à rien agaun que, êtes-vous?”
“Hold the boom line!” Osei called. “Steady her until she fills fully with the wind!”
The rest of the crew snapped to Osei’s roar and did their best to get the sail filled.
“Steady her on!” he commanded.
Hope did her best to correct the course of the Swallow, trying to keep the sloop heading for open water on the best possible tack she could. She gave up looking behind her to see if the Casa was closing when she found that every time she sneaked a glance the mainsail would slacken.
As Samuel came up to her after securing the sail, she asked, “How close are they now?”
“No closer,” he replied. “We’re keeping our distance up.”
“I wish we were better prepared for this. We should have done more to prepare for this.”
“We did as best we could. But considering what befell us ashore, we were probably going to suffer no matter what sailed against us.”
“How do you mean?” Hope asked, trying to deny the slow realization that Samuel brought to her attention.
“The fact that most of the crew we lost in the raid on de Colera were the more experienced seamen we had. Of those of us who are left, not counting Forget, Goddard, Osei and myself, only Mullins knows the ropes well enough to keep his head in such a case as this.”
She did not respond. She did not want to respond, as to do so would make the matter more humbling and embarrassing in embracing it.
The growing whistles of incoming shot made the men securing the boom drop to the deck.
There were splashes in the water off the starboard and stern, plumes of spray nearly as high as the mast. Hope wondered if the drops she felt on her cheeks were from the splashes, or just sweat dripping from her brow…
“Steady her on!” Hope yelled. “If we don’t hold the boom down, we’ll be hanging before sunset!”
The men hustled for their places to grip the lines and put the Swallow under sail again.
“Do not drop that line,” Hope admonished them, “for if you do, then everything we accomplished will be for naught.”
As Mullins made his way aft, shot from the fortress screamed overhead…
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