With hacking coughs, Benjamin Longmoore spat the seawater out of his lungs. Kneeling on all fours, his chest was on fire as he struggled to stay conscious. He focussed on the noises around him to help keep him alert. Waves smashing against rocks, the shriek of timber smashing apart, men screaming.
His head exploded with pain, centred on a lump beneath his sodden grey hair. He fought down the urge to vomit, gritting his teeth and trying to collect his thoughts and put them into order. What had happened? Where was he?
Footsteps pounded across the shingle. Someone was moving around him, pulling and pushing him to make sure he was alright before running off along the shore. Feeling reassured that the pain he felt didn’t look as bad from the outside, he sat himself down and surveyed the scene. It was a sailors worst nightmare.
Lit by the the setting sun, the hulk of the Gorgon was speared on the rocks no more than two cables out, broken and dying. Her hull bled supplies as the waves hacked chunks of timber from her corpse.
Ben saw what was left of her crew, people he knew, struggling to shore. The few that could swim were braving the water again to drag anyone out that looked alive. Figures waved and screamed in the water as men were dragged under by tangled rigging. A mighty rumble echoed over the water as one of the ships sixty four canon broke its ties and rattled across the deck. It crashed its way through the gunwale, landing on two seaman trying to stay afloat below and throwing up a spray of red water.
His stomach felt tight, but he didn’t have the breath to cry out as faces he’d known for years disappeared before him. The distinctive ginger hair of his apprentice flashed through splashes as he fought the waves in vain. Tears filled Ben’s eyes as watched, helpless, as the young body smashed against the rocks and slid back into the waves, broken and unmoving. He couldn’t even remember the lad’s name.
“We have to move away from the shore. We have to find shelter.”
Striding along the water’s edge and calling out with a strong voice was Charles, both Ben’s friend and the ship’s surgeon. He moved back and forth between groups of survivors and giving instructions. Sailors and marines alike moved around at Charles’ orders without question, an underlying familiarity of command taking over.
Charles stood straight backed and strong as he stopped and scanned the shore. A few years past fifty, he could have passed for a gentleman in any street of the civilised world if it wasn’t for the now drenched clothing. He nodded as he met Ben’s gaze.
“Help anyone you can out of the water and group up.” Charles called, moving down the beach towards him.
Climbing to his feet with a groan, Ben reached a hand out and embraced his friend. “It’s good to see you’re well Charles.”
“You too, Old Ben.” He offered a smile that didn’t reach his eyes and faded fast. “I have no idea how some of us escaped so unscathed.”
“I’m having a hard enough time trying to put faces to names.” Ben shook his head and regretted it, turning his face to the floor. ” But I’m trying not to think of that right now.”
“You’re right. Come, let’s get moving and find shelter. We have no idea what the dark could bring in an unknown land like this.”
The two friends moved away from the water, towards the survivors grouped up by a path leading from the bay. It could be seen winding along and up the side of the high cliffs that wrapped round the shore into the distance.
Some of the men comforted wounded friends, some stood staring with blank faces at the sea while others were curled up sobbing on the ground. Ben saw one man sat to one side holding something and choked down a cry as he realised it was a severed head. He was stroking the hair and saying that everything will be alright, those nearby not sure what to do.
Ben held back as they approached to allow Charles to continue his role in command. Without hesitating, the surgeon singled out a group of men with red jackets on with a wave of his arm.
“Marines, scout along the path ahead and find somewhere sheltered for the night, but two of you stay here.” He gestured at a large group standing together. “Head back to the shore and keep an eye out for more survivors while you collect supplies. Gather what you can before it gets washed out to see.”
The rest were told to take the wounded along the path after the marines. No one argued or even spoke as they carried out his instructions, and soon Ben was left with the two marines and the seaman sat down with his grisly burden.
He felt lost and unsure what to do, relying on his friends direction as much as anyone else. Why couldn’t he be more like Charles instead of feeling like this empty shell? But Charles was different. He was used to the pressure of keeping calm and dealing with injuries during and after a battle. What good was a sail maker right now?
Ben was about to ask Charles for something, anything, to do but missed his moment. The surgeon had already crouched beside the seaman holding his friend’s head.
“Hello there Thomas.”
“Charles, thank God you’re here.” The man looked up with wide eyes and gestured at the head in his arms. “It’s Hugh, I think he’s hurt. He won’t talk to me.”
The surgeon reached out for the head. “Leave him to me, I’ll do what I can for him, but I need your help. Hugh and the others are going to need fresh water. Can you go with those marines and find some for them?”
Thomas nodded with over-enthusiastic vigour and placed Hugh’s head into Charles outstretched hands. Without saying another word he was up and running off past the nearby redcoats, forcing them to hurry after him.
Ben watched Charles take the head down to the water and cast it into the tide. His expression remained soft and unmoving, but his eyes told a different story.
“You’ve given everyone something to do except me,” said Ben. “What can I do?”
With a weary sigh, Charles clapped a hand to Ben’s shoulder. “I need you can stay by my side and keep me sane.”
As they both took deep breaths and started along the cliff path, Ben couldn’t help but think he had been given the toughest job of all.
The dark had settled in but the night was clear, lit by a waning moon. Ben was thankful for the small mercy but still wished for somewhere away from the wind that whipped through his wet clothes and made his teeth chatter.
Time had stretched and flowed around them as they climbed the path upwards and stood at the top of the cliff, looking for a sign of the men sent before them.
“Over there,” Charles pointed.
Ben stared into the distance, straining to see anything. The silver lined shapes of rock and bush stood before him. Something was moving against the outline of the starry sky and he realised it was a man waving at them.
Hugging his arms tight around himself, Ben strode out over the grassy land towards the figure. As he got closer he could make out the shape of the land better. He was moving away from the cliffs and behind the waving man he saw a narrow valley, a ripple in the cliff top. It was shallow with steep sides, but deep enough to take them below the gusting wind.
The man was one of the scouts sent out earlier. With his wits starting to return, he recognised him now as one of the lookouts and wondered if Charles knew that when he sent him off as a scout. The man nodded in greeting then continued his waving as more survivors crested the cliff path.
Standing on the edge of the valley, Ben saw a score of men moving around below. The silence sent a chill through him, far colder than the wind.
The side of the valley looked steeper now he was contemplating descending it. It couldn’t be more than twenty feet down, but the first tentative step made his legs shake.
“Dignity be damned,” Ben muttered, and sat on the ground, scooting down on his backside.
Once among the crew below he saw traces of life creeping back into them. A few had brought some wood and pieces of tarred rigging with them and were trying to start a fire while others stripped any foliage they could find to make beds for the wounded. A few men were still coming down the side of the valley, the wounded they were bringing with them more seriously injured than the last.
Charles appeared alongside him and handed him a blanket. His face wore heavy lines and Ben saw the despair in his eyes. He’d seen this look before, years ago, when Charles tried and failed to save a young midshipman that had lost his leg.
With the arrival of Charles, Ben noticed there were no more men coming down the valley. He must have waited until they were all there. Others had noticed the same thing and a stillness seemed to wash over the make shift camp as each man looked to see the faces that were left.
As much as he tried not to, Ben couldn’t stop himself counting them. Out of the near five hundred strong crew on board at sunset, a mere forty eight had made it here alive. Of those, fifteen of them were wounded.
By the dark expressions around him, he wasn’t alone with his mixed feelings. With a strange sense of detachment Ben felt like he was surveying a morbid painting.
“If the Captain had survived I’d have bloody killed him by now.” A voice called out near the stacked kindling. The sailor coughed and stood up. “I could do with a woman right now and that bastard was determined not to let us have any on board.”
Silence continued for a second or two then someone started to chuckle ,followed by another. In a few moments, the whole camp was roaring with a laughter that bordered on insanity.
Ben chuckled too and even Charles was touched by the infectious mirth, the worry smoothed from his face once more.
A light flickered and a cheer rose as flames licked around the wood and took hold. Sailors congratulated each other on the simple task of starting a fire, and an easy chatter descended across the temporary settlement.
Ben smiled at the audacity and good thinking of the seaman that had broken the silence as memories returned of the wreck.
A shudder as the hull hit something below the water, bringing down the foremast. The Captain shouting orders and grabbing an axe himself to cut it away as it dragged in the water, steering them toward the rocks. Then the shiver through the ship that left them in no doubt. Many had seen the Captain grab a topman and save him from going over the side. Watched in vain as the deck tilted, and cast him into the churning water beneath the dying vessel.
One of the men broke into his thoughts as he brought over a make-shift bed, putting it down by Charles. “For you, sir.”
“Thank you, but I’m not a sir, just Charles.” He smiled and the seaman smiled back.
“Beggin’ your pardon sir, but I’m just a simple sailor. Someone who gives orders and commands respect is sir to me.” The man gave a shallow nod and walked away.
Ben grinned at Charles’ discomfort. The bed looked well made considering the others he could see around, pieces of heavy canvas folded and stuffed with anything they could forage. The mattress was a sign of respect as much as calling Charles ‘sir’ was.
“It looks like we have a new Captain, sir.” Ben said.
Charles sat down on his bed, the strain showing again. “Thanks Ben, but I think I’ll pass on that honour as soon as I can.”
“Did any of the officers make it?”
“I saw the Second Lieutenant being carried up unconscious. I had a look at him, and other than a nasty head wound, he should be alright.”
“I’m glad it’s Lieutenant Graves that survived and not that devil Blake. Is that wrong of me?”
Charles hesitated for a moment then shook his head. “I’m not sure any more what’s right or wrong. I must admit to feeling relieved that Graves will be in charge instead of the First Lieutenant, but I would never have wished the man dead.”
A scream rose above the chatter of the camp, and cut short. Charles took a deep breath and blew it out, looking at the floor for a moment before standing up.
“I don’t think I’ll be able to use that,” he said, gesturing at the bed. “Get some sleep. We’ll have a long day tomorrow.”
Ben’s shoulders slumped as he thought of the night Charles had lying in wait. The burden of dealing with the wounded after a wreck would take its toll from a man half his age. Deciding to help out, Ben took a step forward and wavered on his feet, his vision swimming.
With a heavy thump he sat on Charles’ bed. He led down and closed his eyes. A few hours should be enough.
As images of swirling water and jagged rocks filled his mind, the sounds of screaming men filtered in again. He wondered how many of the wounded would survive until morning.