Prepare for Boarding
I somehow managed not to run us aground during the hour I had the tiller by keeping us in the middle of the river, as instructed. Anderson came back up to take the helm from me. “I see we’re still in the wet part!” he exclaimed.
“Yes, but only by the grace of God.” Actually, compared to some other things I had had to do, sitting there in the sunlight and seeing the natural beauty all around me, I found it rather relaxing in spite of the situation we were in. And I would need all the relaxation I could get, given what lay ahead of us. I prayed that all would turn out well.
I went back on the deck to where Hiram and Andrew lay asleep, both of them snoring, and, perhaps inspired by their example, or just worn out by our adventures in the past several months, I lay down. It felt good no longer to be on my feet, and I soon joined them in slumber.
“Up! Up! Up!”
Someone was shouting somewhere. I opened one eye to see Anderson standing over me. “We’re getting close! Get up and get ready!To arms! Or, as the French say, “Aux armes! Aux armes!” He winked at me. “They were our allies in the big war.”
I wonder what he thinks the present war is, I thought, and I struggled to sit up. Judging from the sun, I had been out for over four hours. I certainly was tired, but I had to get up quickly since we were drawing near to the other boat.
Anderson came over and handed me a rifle. Then something occurred to me. “Who’s steering?”
He laughed. “That little wharf rat. He’s an amazing little fellow. He can barely reach the wheel, but he’s doing a good job. I don’t see how he sees, but he does. I’d better watch out or he’ll lead a mutiny and take over the vessel!” He laughed some more at that and then said, “I wasn’t sure he would know how to use a rifle, but he says he has a slingshot and a supply of stones. I suppose that was good enough for David, so it should be good enough for us.”
“I believe it will be,” I said.
Andrew had been awakened by the clamor and sat up, groggy-eyed. “What’s going on?” he slurred sleepily.
“We’re almost on the brigands!” Anderson shouted. “Here’s your rifle!” He thrust it at Andrew, who took it and regarded it quizzically. He looked up at Anderson.
“What’s a ‘brigand,’?” he asked.
“Them what are on the other boats are brigands of the greatest degree. We will give them horrible deaths!”
It occurred to me that it was too bad Anderson was not in the army. H e certainlyhad the fire for it.
Now that Andrew and I were awake, Anderson said, “I pray all of ye will be good shots. In fact, I’m depending on it! I’m going back to take the helm. Line up on the starboard side. I’ll tell ye when to fire.”
We continued to make our way down the waterway, and about fifteen minutes later, we came around a bend and saw the other boat ranging about 500 yards ahead of us. “I don’t know what they’ll think of us,” Anderson called. “There’s no way to tell that. They’ll see that we’re with the company, which we are, but our coming the other way might make them suspicious. We’ll find out in a few minutes, but we need to be cautious.”
My stomach knotted as we crept closer and closer. I had tried to avoid fighting for a while now, but I would do anything to have Laurel and Caleb back, so I was willing to jump into this fray with everything I had. The three of us knelt behind the railing, holding our guns down so as to have the element of surprise on our side. Anderson called out, “Steady…steady…steady…that’s it. When I give the command to fire, kneel behind the railing, take your best shot and then drop down again Keep doing that but make sure you do so at irregular intervals so they can’t time their shots. Do you all understand?”
“Yes,” I said, and the others nodded. We kept our positions huddled behind the railing, awaiting his order to fire.
I could see there was one person in the wheel house of the other boat, the captain I assumed, and as I watched, he hailed Anderson. “Captain Anderson!” he called, “Yer going the wrong way! Is something wrong?”
“Aye, Captain Hughes. I have a sick crew member, and he fell ill when Chattanooga was the nearer of the two cities. I pray he doesn’t have the cholera, although it looks like it.”
“We’ll steer well clear of ye, then. God be with all of you.” He crossed himself.
“Thankee, Captain. Do you have any unusual passengers?”
“Aye. There’s a woman and a boy on board, and I have an idea they don’t want to be with the men who brought them on board.”
“I see.” Anderson took his Colt from his belt and fired a single shot into the air. “That’ll get ‘em up here,” he said.
He was right. Four of the Home Guard came bounding up the ladder, rifles held ready. I guessed one of them stayed behind with Laurel and Caleb. One of the guards dropped his rifle and went over to a small cannon I had not noticed before on the bow of the ship and shoved a charge down the barrel, followed by a cannonball. He lit a match and lowered it to the vent. We hadn’t counted on this.
“Fire!” screamed Anderson, and we let loose. Andrew was unaccustomed to rifles, and his first shot went high.
“Lower, Andrew,” I called. “You’re shooting high. Be sure to aim.”
We were concentrating on the man at the cannon, allowing the others to shoot at us without distraction.
“Fer God’s sake,” Anderson. “Don’t shoot at just one man! Take the others! Take the others!”
Hiram whirled his slingshot around and loosed a rock that struck the cannoneer in the head. He went down.
I remember this battle as salvo upon salvo aimed at the men on the other boat. All was confusion, but we managed to disperse our shots as Anderson ordered, and soon had the other three down. I did not know if they were killed or wounded, but they would not impede us further.
“We have them, boys! Prepare to board!” Anderson seemed to relish this action on the water. It reminded him of his actions during the war, I am sure. We were fortunate that he had such experience because he knew exactly what to do.
We jumped on the deck of the other boat. Hughes, who had hidden behind the railing of the wheel house, poked his head up, white as a sheet. Apparently he was unaccustomed to such actions. “They’re on the first deck down,” he called. “That is if he hasn’t moved them.”
“Anyone else on board?” Anderson asked.
Hughes shook his head. “They took over the boat. There was nothing I could do since they were armed and I wasn’t near my gun.”
“Do you know where on the deck that are?” Anderson looked grim.
Hughes shook his head. “They could be anywhere, or not even on the deck, as I told ye.”
“All right. We’ll have to trust to luck to get this done. I don’t like that, but we have no choice.” Anderson. He looked at me. “You have the most experience with this sort of thing, and you also have two dogs in this fight, so you lead the way. Tell us what to do.”
I thought quickly and said, “Do your best to keep to the sides of the ladder, and when you reach the deck, drop down and try to find the man holding her. Then shoot him.” I did not think it was necessary to add that, but I wanted to be sure they knew what I wanted. “Do you understand?”
They all nodded and I said, “Andrew, you follow me, and then Hiram. You’ll have to move fast!” I looked at Hiram. “Nice shot on the cannon, boy.”
Hiram grinned. “I usually kill rats. This was a much bigger target, so it was easy.”
I didn’t want to ask him what he did with the rats. Some things I don’t want to hear about.
I asked the boys, “Are you ready?”
“Ready!” they called, and I jumped for the ladder more sliding down the sides rather than using the rungs. It was totally dark below decks, and my eyes were assaulted by a blast of light. They Guard was shooting at me, but the muzzle flash told me where to point my gun. I fired, and heard someone shout with pain. In the brief light that my gun provided, I had seen the Guard holding Laurel by the arm, blood running from his arm. It looked like I only grazed him, and I had taken the chance that I might hit Laurel by firing blind. I would have to be more careful, if that were possible.
I dropped to the deck and rolled over behind a box. Andrew and Hiram piled in, so it was three against one. I liked those odds.
“Drop your guns,” the Guard shouted, “Or I’ll shoot her! I swear I will!”
I answered by firing another shot in his direction and had the satisfaction of hearing him scream. It was another hit, but I didn’t know how badly he was wounded. I decided that I would have to go to him and take him down. I had been lucky with two shots, and I didn’t want to risk another.
“Cover me!” I whispered to the boys. “I’m going to tackle him!” I gathered my strength and then launched myself through the space between us. As I did so, it occurred to me I hadn’t seen Caleb. Of course, there was little light. I could only pray that Laurel had put him some place safe, although I didn’t know where that would be.
I was expecting to grab the Guard by his arms, but I only slammed into the side of the hull. I had missed him! I lay there, trying to recover from the blow I had received. I heard Laurel scream, and the Guard shouted, “I know you can’t see me! I have your wife by the arm and I’ll kill her unless you stop!”
“Caleb, do as he says.” It was Laurel’s voice. “I’ve seen them do some things to people that are too horrible to describe. He will kill me in an instant unless all of you put down your guns.”
I had no choice. I knew that when we dropped our weapons, he certainly would kill all of us. It was my fault for trying to take Laurel and Caleb back by force but I was blinded by my need to have her with me. Then I thought, I had now choice. There were no other options open to me
I dropped my rifle, and Andrew followed suit. I heard his weapon clatter on the deck. I wondered where Hiram was since I hadn’t heard anything from him since the attack started.
“All right,” said the Guard. “You shot me, and now it’s my turn to shoot you, but I’m a better shot than you are, and I can see you well. You’d better say your prayers!”
Oddly enough, I was doing just that, praying that God would make my death as painless as it could be and asking forgiveness for all the wrong things I had done. I prayed quickly, and then I closed my eyes and waited for the final shot.
Instead, I heard the Guard cry out and fall to the deck. I immediately leaped on him, as did Andrew. We soon had him down, and Hiram found some rope so we could tie him up with since our eyes had finally accustomed themselves to what little light there was. We bound him as securely as we could, and then Laurel fell into my arms, and I was overjoyed to feel the warmth of her beautiful body.
“I have missed you so much, my dear love, and now you have saved me from these awful men.”
“These brave lads and the captain helped me,” I said. “But where is Caleb?”
“I left him asleep in one of the cabins, with I doubt he is still so with all this commotion. He has been a brave lad during his captivity.”
“I want to see him as soon as possible, but first I knew I had to ask Hiram something.” I turned to him and said, “Did you do something to bring him down?”
“Yep. Used my slingshot.” This had truly been a David and Goliath situation.
“Thank you so much. I owe you everything.”
“I’d be glad to take it, but I don’t have any place to put it.”
We laughed at that, but the Guard snarled, “There are more like me, and it will go badly for you when they hear of what has happened.”
“I’ll worry about that when it happens. If it happens.” I said that confidently, perhaps with more confidence than I felt.
“Halloo below decks! Are ye well?” It was Captain Anderson.
“We have the brigand tied up, Captain. It’s safe to come down now.”
He clambered down the ladder, moving gingerly since his eyes had not accustomed themselves to the dim light. He looked around. “I can’t see ye well, but I’m glad all of ye are safe. For a moment there, from what I heard, I thought you were all dead. That was a horrible feeling, all right.”
“We’re fine, Captain, thanks to Hiram and his slingshot.”
“Well, I never heard of such a thing. What do you think of that?” He turned to Hiram. “You’re a brave lad, and maybe this makes up for some of the awful things you’ve done in the past.”
I thought, I don’t want to know what Hiram has done in the past. I only know that without him we would all be dead.
“We all owe our lives to Hiram,” I said. “I’m glad I ‘hired’ him to go with us.”
“I was glad to do it,” Hiram answered. “I think I need a bonus for what I did.”
“We’ll talk about that later. Right now we need to get moving.”
Captain Anderson looked at me. “What do we do now?”
“I’ll need your approval for this, but I think we should leave this desperado tied up on the boat. Someone might find him before he starves or bleeds to death, but I hope not. That sounds cruel, but I’m sure he has done some terrible things as well.”
“I’ll show you some more terrible things when I get loose from this.” The Guard gave all of us a look of pure hatred.”
“I doubt you’ll get loose from those bonds. And if you do, we’re all armed now and you’re not>” Anderson spoke confidently.
“My comrades will be looking for me when I don’t show up in Chattanooga in a couple of hours, and then they will come looking for you, and we are numerous!” The Guard spat out these words, and I had no doubt there would be more like him as he said. We would have to hurry to get away from him and his fellows, I thought, but we would have no problem doing that.
I ignored what the Guard said, and continued to speak to Anderson. “If you’d take us to Chattanooga, we’d be much obliged, Captain. You can take Hiram back with you, if that’s what you want to do. And what he would like.”
We all turned toward Hiram. “I’d like to come with you,” he said, smiling, one of the few smiles I had seen from him. “I never have had a real family.”
Laurel came over and took him in her arms. “You saved all of us. Of course you can come with us.”
“It’s settled, then, I said. On to Chattanooga!”
Laurel went and fetched Caleb, and I had a joyous reunion with him. As we climbed the ladder to return to our boat, I thought, I bet not many men are as lucky—and as blessed as I am. I hope we can continue to be lucky, I thought, but I am certain we will continue to be blessed. That much I am sure of.