Chapter Seventeen : Narrative Continued by the Doctor: The Jolly-boat’s Last Trip
THIS fifth trip was quite different from any of the others. In the first place, the little gallipot of a boat that we were in was gravely overloaded. Five grown men, and three of them—Trelawney, Redruth, and the captain—over six feet high, was already more than she was meant to carry. Add to that the powder, pork, and bread-bags. The gunwale was lipping astern. Several times we shipped a little water, and my breeches and the tails of my coat were all soaking wet before we had gone a hundred yards.
The captain made us trim the boat, and we got her to lie a little more evenly. All the same, we were afraid to breathe.
In the second place, the ebb was now making—a strong rippling current running westward through the basin, and then south’ard and seaward down the straits by which we had entered in the morning. Even the ripples were a danger to our overloaded craft, but the worst of it was that we were swept out of our true course and away from our proper landing-place behind the point. If we let the current have its way we should come ashore beside the gigs, where the pirates might appear at any moment.
“I cannot keep her head for the stockade, sir,” said I to the captain. I was steering, while he and Redruth, two fresh men, were at the oars. “The tide keeps washing her down. Could you pull a little stronger?”
“Not without swamping the boat,” said he. “You must bear up, sir, if you please—bear up until you see you’re gaining.”
I tried and found by experiment that the tide kept sweeping us westward until I had laid her head due east, or just about right angles to the way we ought to go.
“We’ll never get ashore at this rate,” said I.
“If it’s the only course that we can lie, sir, we must even lie it,” returned the captain. “We must keep upstream. You see, sir,” he went on, “if once we dropped to leeward of the landing-place, it’s hard to say where we should get ashore, besides the chance of being boarded by the gigs; whereas, the way we go the current must slacken, and then we can dodge back along the shore.”
“The current’s less a’ready, sir,” said the man Gray, who was sitting in the fore-sheets; “you can ease her off a bit.”
“Thank you, my man,” said I, quite as if nothing had happened, for we had all quietly made up our minds to treat him like one of ourselves.
Suddenly the captain spoke up again, and I thought his voice was a little changed.
“The gun!” said he.
“I have thought of that,” said I, for I made sure he was thinking of a bombardment of the fort. “They could never get the gun ashore, and if they did, they could never haul it through the woods.”
“Look astern, doctor,” replied the captain.
We had entirely forgotten the long nine; and there, to our horror, were the five rogues busy about her, getting off her jacket, as they called the stout tarpaulin cover under which she sailed. Not only that, but it flashed into my mind at the same moment that the round-shot and the powder for the gun had been left behind, and a stroke with an axe would put it all into the possession of the evil ones abroad.
“Israel was Flint’s gunner,” said Gray hoarsely.
At any risk, we put the boat’s head direct for the landing-place. By this time we had got so far out of the run of the current that we kept steerage way even at our necessarily gentle rate of rowing, and I could keep her steady for the goal. But the worst of it was that with the course I now held we turned our broadside instead of our stern to the Hispaniola and offered a target like a barn door.
I could hear as well as see that brandy-faced rascal Israel Hands plumping down a round-shot on the deck.
“Who’s the best shot?” asked the captain.
“Mr. Trelawney, out and away,” said I.
“Mr. Trelawney, will you please pick me off one of these men, sir? Hands, if possible,” said the captain.
Trelawney was as cool as steel. He looked to the priming of his gun.
“Now,” cried the captain, “easy with that gun, sir, or you’ll swamp the boat. All hands stand by to trim her when he aims.”
The squire raised his gun, the rowing ceased, and we leaned over to the other side to keep the balance, and all was so nicely contrived that we did not ship a drop.
They had the gun, by this time, slewed round upon the swivel, and Hands, who was at the muzzle with the rammer, was in consequence the most exposed. However, we had no luck, for just as Trelawney fired, down he stooped, the ball whistled over him, and it was one of the other four who fell.
The cry he gave was echoed not only by his companions on board but by a great number of voices from the shore, and looking in that direction I saw the other pirates trooping out from among the trees and tumbling into their places in the boats.
“Here come the gigs, sir,” said I.
“Give way, then,” cried the captain. “We mustn’t mind if we swamp her now. If we can’t get ashore, all’s up.”
“Only one of the gigs is being manned, sir,” I added; “the crew of the other most likely going round by shore to cut us off.”
“They’ll have a hot run, sir,” returned the captain. “Jack ashore, you know. It’s not them I mind; it’s the round-shot. Carpet bowls! My lady’s maid couldn’t miss. Tell us, squire, when you see the match, and we’ll hold water.”
In the meanwhile we had been making headway at a good pace for a boat so overloaded, and we had shipped but little water in the process. We were now close in; thirty or forty strokes and we should beach her, for the ebb had already disclosed a narrow belt of sand below the clustering trees. The gig was no longer to be feared; the little point had already concealed it from our eyes. The ebb-tide, which had so cruelly delayed us, was now making reparation and delaying our assailants. The one source of danger was the gun.
“If I durst,” said the captain, “I’d stop and pick off another man.”
But it was plain that they meant nothing should delay their shot. They had never so much as looked at their fallen comrade, though he was not dead, and I could see him trying to crawl away.
“Ready!” cried the squire.
“Hold!” cried the captain, quick as an echo.
And he and Redruth backed with a great heave that sent her stern bodily under water. The report fell in at the same instant of time. This was the first that Jim heard, the sound of the squire’s shot not having reached him. Where the ball passed, not one of us precisely knew, but I fancy it must have been over our heads and that the wind of it may have contributed to our disaster.
At any rate, the boat sank by the stern, quite gently, in three feet of water, leaving the captain and myself, facing each other, on our feet. The other three took complete headers, and came up again drenched and bubbling.
So far there was no great harm. No lives were lost, and we could wade ashore in safety. But there were all our stores at the bottom, and to make things worse, only two guns out of five remained in a state for service. Mine I had snatched from my knees and held over my head, by a sort of instinct. As for the captain, he had carried his over his shoulder by a bandoleer, and like a wise man, lock uppermost. The other three had gone down with the boat.
To add to our concern, we heard voices already drawing near us in the woods along shore, and we had not only the danger of being cut off from the stockade in our half-crippled state but the fear before us whether, if Hunter and Joyce were attacked by half a dozen, they would have the sense and conduct to stand firm. Hunter was steady, that we knew; Joyce was a doubtful case—a pleasant, polite man for a valet and to brush one’s clothes, but not entirely fitted for a man of war.
With all this in our minds, we waded ashore as fast as we could, leaving behind us the poor jolly-boat and a good half of all our powder and provisions.