I stayed in the chains for’ard with Farrel, desperately searching for the two dark smudges in the water that would signal we had found the barrels, and with them, the channel! A splashing of water from the other side of the ship, indicated the boats were in the water, and were casting off! I watched along the line of the stem of the ship eagerly, then saw the tell tale white of the oars hitting the water. The first boat was well away, the towing cable trailing over its transom. I could hear the murmur of voices as the leadsman in the bow of the boat called the depth to the coxswain in the stern. I could see nothing now from here, other than the receding boat. It was now joined by the second boat, which crept around the ship’s bow and was ahead of us about two fathoms away. The leadsman in this boat was also calling the depth. I saw the dripping hemp cable trailing astern of the boat, lifting clear, dripping with water, then dipping back below the water as the oars were lifted clear.
“Farrel!…..I am going on deck to the fore sprit, see what I can see from there!”
“Aye sir! The boats will soon have them sighted sir I’m sure!”
“Maybe! Maybe!” I muttered.
I clambered back over the starboard rail and dropped to the deck in front of a surprised Ryan!
“Ready on both sets of bitts to make fast sir!”
“Very well Ryan! Let me go for’ard and see what I can see!”
I peered through the telescope into the darkness. Nothing but the stern of the disappearing starboard boat! Then….a stroke of luck! The cloud cover broke for a few minutes allowing the moon to illuminate the “Anna”. I scrambled as fast as my legs would carry me to the very end of the fore sprit, hanging on for dear life along the slippery timber! I could see the boats plainly in the moonlight. Fanned out a little, they were heading for the gap in the white water! Balancing precariously, I raised the glass to my eye, scanning the water in front of the boats……just swell…nothing else! Had I been tricked?? Was there no channel?
I felt vibration under my feet! I turned to look aft….someone was joining me on the bow sprit! Not enough room for two of us!!
I saw the whiteness of Moses’ smile in the darkness.
“Yes my friend?” I whispered, though why I was trying to be silent I didn’t really know! There was little chance of being heard from the shore!
“Cap’n suh! Look starbo’ Cap’n!! I tink is a ship!”
A ship??? A SHIP???
I swung the glass in the direction I thought he was pointing……sure enough…there was a huge dark patch…darker than the surrounding night, about thirty yards to starboard! Almost invisible in the Stygian night! God!! They were bound to see us, or bound to hear us!!!!
Damn! If this was the “Balazhad” then all my plans for routing the slavers from this island were in turmoil!
“But Cap’n suh! Is no light!! Mebbe is not man aboa’d!”
“How can we know for sure Moses?”
“We need to know for sure!” I had a thought!
“You take command here Number One! Let the boats do all the work….Farrel is in the chains, and will call the depth as we get under way!”
Suddenly the cables that were paying out from each side, through the fairleads, slackened and came to a stop!
I chased Moses back along the sprit until we were alongside the crew feeding the cables out!
“Able seaman Atkinson sir! The lines have slackened! We are waiting to feel if they start again…..if so…..that is the signal that the way ahead is clear….and we can make fast!”
“Very well Atkinson…..Mr Samuels is taking command! I….. I am going for a swim!”
Before Moses, or Perkins, who had materialised out of the darkness, could voice objections…I had stripped off my shirt, grabbed Moses huge knife from his waistband, and clambered over the starboard rail and dived into the water! I had my own knife with me, but I knew Moses’ knife was a better man for the job I had in mind!! The coldness took my breath away! From this low in the water, the swell was quite high, and wavelets broke into my face! I took a large breath and slipped under water. Sound diminished to a bubbling and gurgling noise in my ears. I kicked out for where I thought the ship lay! I counted the strokes in my head….25….26….27….28….29….30….I needed air…my feet were touching sharp coral or rocks! The surging of the water, dictated by the nearness of the reefs, took me from side to side as I struggled to keep a straight course for the ship!! My stomach, grazed along painfully, what I assumed were rocky ridges, my moving hands tangling in fronds of weed! Then I was into deeper, quieter water! I felt as though my lungs would burst!!! I wanted to break surface and gasp in the precious air…..but ever so gently let my head break the surface, only to have a face full of sea water as I attempted to regain my breath! It was definitely a ship!!! She was huge! A four master!! I tread water gently, taking in the scene now in front of me! It was a good job we had pulled up, and taken the way off the “Anna” when we did! Her route ahead was definitely blocked, and she would have grounded given any more headway! As Moses had so rightly said, there were no lights aboard! No indication that there were any crew aboard at all! Probably all ashore enjoying the hospitality of the female captives no doubt!
Ducking under the water again, I frog kicked towards the ship. She was now only a few yards ahead of me…The cold of the water sapped my strength…I needed to breath again, but kept doggedly on until the black timbers of the ship were directly in front of me! I put my hands out and touched the barnacled sides! Thick weed encrusted her hull! She would not be fast in a life or death race that’s for sure! With a good clean she would probably achieve three or four knots more in speed! She was certainly carrying passengers on her hull!!! Gently I raised my head above the water, fighting to stop the urge to take a huge breath. I held onto the barnacled side until I got my breathing back under control and my heart stopped thumping in my ears! I put my ears against the ships side! Only the gurgling of the water along her flanks! I worked my way silently along towards the bow. Reaching the stem I looked up…there was a cable running out to an anchor about thirty feet ahead! Ducking back under water, I worked my way towards the stern. God!! She was a big vessel…a long vessel too! I had to come up for air again as I rounded her counter, and came face to face, a few feet ahead, with her huge rough-hewn rudder! Slipping back underwater, I kicked another couple of strokes, seconds later I reached out to the rudder to give me support, then gently raised my head to take in another breath! The rudder too, was covered in weed and barnacles! Did they ever careen their ships for a good cleaning of her bottom? She was a fast ship….but would be very slow with this load of encrustation on her!! Holding onto her rudder pintle, I looked above me…another cable paid out over the stern high above me. It too, led out to an anchor on the bottom some thirty feet away! Excellent! I could hear the surf on the reef a short distance away! I struck out underwater for the spot where I could just make out the dim whiteness of the water swirling around the anchor cable…..Darkness below, darkness above, just my instinct to guide me! Suddenly, after a couple of minutes, I came face to face with a huge rocky underwater cliff!! Breaking surface, I could see I had missed the place where the anchor rope slipped beneath the waves! Missed it by several feet! This tide run was treacherous!! Ducking below the water again, I once more struck out for the rope! A few seconds and it was on my right shoulder! I ran my hands down its length….not a lot of silt on it! She hadn’t been at anchor long….not long enough for the silt carried along by the tide to get caught up in her anchor ropes! My thoughts were probably right! After being at sea for a while…they no doubt wanted to foist their charms upon the poor unfortunate women captives! I was hoping the women might all be in the compound that Maria had told me about to the West of the main encampment! The compound where they were kept locked in chains, awaiting the pleasure of their captors!! But now I had thoughts that they might be being “entertained” in the main encampment! The very place I didn’t want them to be!! I dismissed the thoughts, and set about my task! I slipped Moses’ knife from my belt and started to saw through the hemp! Two minutes and I was done…holding on to the ropes end leading to the ship….with one final sawing motion I cut through the final strand…and felt myself being pulled towards the ship!!! Right! Now for the bow rope!!!
(To be cont................)