Sunday, July 5, 2009

Chapter 10 - night action

Slowly Gunboat Number 14 moved through the night. Lieutenant Kuhlin had only given his men enough time to rest for a meal on a small island in the late afternoon. Then they had taken their places at the sweeps again. Exhausted though they were, they all understood the importance of making all possible haste towards Gran and his party. Although they did not know how much of a head start the Russians had, they were sure they would not sail at night. These waters were difficult enough to navigate in daylight. Now, fortunately it wasn't that dark, but with the skies overcast still after the rain, visibility wasn't exactly good.

Kuhlin stod next to the boatswain, Tapper, who was at the tiller himself. They were not moving very fast, so if they'd ran aground the boat probably would not be holed. Still, Tapper wanted no one else to be responsible. Kuhlin, on the other hand, could not be expected to helm the vessel himself, being an officer. It was the naval way it was done. Kuhlin had all the responsibility but was not allowed to do the work himself. He was only to command. On a bigger ship this was alright, but on a gunboat? Kuhlin sometimes wished he just could take the tiller and steer the thing himself. At least it would do away with the delay that involuntarily came with helm orders.
"Two degrees to starboard, Tapper", he said instead.
"Aye, aye, Sir". Tapper moved the tiller to the left, swinging the rudder the other way, thus turning the boat to starboard. This was only a minor course change, but if they had to turn more quicky, they would stop the men pulling on one side as well, or even have them back their sweeps, making the turn yet faster.

Kulin tried to make out the chart in the dim light. Essentially he was just trying to reverse the course they had come days before. Still there were lots of islands around and he needed the chart to find the channel. It was a little lighter now, with the moon showing between clouds once in a while.

On the island, Sub-lieutenant Gran prepared to make his move. He squeezed Eleonoras hand and kissed her lightly on the cheek.
"Please be careful", she whispered. Gran nodded and started to make his way through the woods towards the rocks. Trying to make as little sound as possible, he took his time. It was dark enough, although the moon was out frequently and sihouetted the rocks above him. That was good, he thought, he would see the Russians clearly while appraoaching them from the darkness. He clutched his cutlass, moving uppwards.
Soon he could see the Russian sentries. They did not look particularly viligant as they sat with their backs against a rock. Gran made his way around them and hid behind the very rock they were leaning against. From here he had a good view over the surrounding sea.

At first he saw nothing but glittering water in the moonlight. Down in the cove, the two Russian gunboats were partly beached, men around them, sleeping. Two sentries did look a little more alert. They were standing next to the boats, talking. Gran wondered if the Russian discipline really was this bad or if it just was another way of dealing with things, and there was a way to get those unorganized men up and fighting in a minute. Somehow he doubted it, but this was not the right time to find out.

He looked out over the sea again. There was something moving far in the distance. Surely it wasn't an island? No, it was moving. Gran could almost sea a glittering wake. It was clearly a boat. But was it Russian? Or one of Kuhlin's boats? If it was the latter, then the Russians could not be allowed to see it. But if it was Russian it was better to leave the sentries alone. Even if he could disable them silently they would be missed soon. And then the Russians would know they weren't alone on this island.

"Tapper, look there is the island". Lieutenant Kuhlin was relieved they had finally made it. It had been a hard pull and he was not sure if the men were fit enough for action still. He decided to let them have half an hours rest.
"Then we will prepare for action and move in on the cove."

Gran stared at the faint dot on the sea. There was no more glitterling wake now and nothing was moving. Maybe it hadn't been a boat after all. Or did it just stop? He was confused. In fact, he didn't have a clue what he should do now. Should he take out the Russian sentries? Could he even do it without them making enough noise to alert the others? He shifted his body closer to the edge of the rock in order to find out what the Russians were doing. One of them was now standing at the edge of the rock, looking towards the dot that was - or was not - a boat. Then he said something to the other Russian who rose and started to climb down to the beach.

Now it was too late. The sentry had clearly decided that the dot was a boat and sent his companion down to alert the troops. Gran cursed for himself.

Gunboat Number 14 was moving again. In the bows, gunnery officer af Klint was peering into the darkness towards the island. He could just se a faint glow over it, probably from a fire on the beach. He was sure the Russians were there. Probably lying drunk around that fire. He only hoped they did not catch Gran and his party. And the girl. Particularly not the girl. Having been in Russian captivity before, she really did not need this. He wondered how many boats the Russians had in that cove.

Down on the beach the Russians were now stirring. The officer, pipe in hand, shouted orders and the men were gathering, forming some sort of orderly group next to their boats.

Sub-lieutenant Gran had been climbing down and made his way back into the woods. He still wasn't sure if the boat was friend or foe, but he had to risk it. Surely the Russian officer did not expect it, otherwise he would not have started this commotion.
Once back in the woods Gran instructed his men. This was their chance to alert the gunboat off the island and at the same time spread confusion amongst the Russians.

The Russians were just about to climb onboard their vessels when Gran's swivels opened fire. Completely taken by surprise the shots did confuse more than hurt the Russians. Not knowing exactly who fired on them and from where, they stopped in mid-motion.

"Gunfire ashore", shouted af Klint, immediately feeling stupid as everybody else would have heard the shots as clearly as him.
"Firm up togheter", orderered Kuhlin. "Pull as fast as you can!"

In the woods, Gran's men reloaded as fast as they could in the dark. Soon the swivels were barking again. Now Russians were falling, while others tried to find cover down the water's edge. The officer was still standing, shouting orders. Some men had made it into one of the gunboats and were manning the sweeps, others were hauling at the kedge.

"Muskets, fire at the men in the boat", Gran ordered. But he simply did not have enough firepower. The boat was afloat now, pulling slowly out of range, while men were working at it's guns. Soon they would be under fire themselves. Some Russians were forming a line along the beach, bayonettes ready, muskets lowered. They fired blindly at the woods without doing any real damage. Advancing now.
"Hurry up or they'll get us", Gran hissed towards the swivel crew. In the last moment the gun fired, cutting down three Russians, causing the others to stop, then retreat towards the boats.

Then the Russian boat gun joined in. The first shot from the main gun was high, whizzling throught the trees, cutting down branches. The next one was short, the shot crashing into the pebbles, showering the men in the woods with small stones and dust.
"Move back, into the woods", ordered Gran, grabbing Eleonora's arm and dragging her unceremoniously with him. As soon as they had left their position the Russian gun belched again. A big hole emerged where they had been only seconds ago.

The Russian soldiers started to advance again. More confident of their own firepower now, they soon entered the woods, slowly advancing. Gran's party had to abandon the swivel guns in order to be able to move more swiftly. Now, they only could hope that the darkness would keep them hidden until help arrived.

Gunboat Number 14 was rounding the headland. Af Klint finally had a clear view into the cove.
"Guncrew, on the nearest gunboat, fire as you bear!". The boat was still swinging round. Slowly the Russian gunboat came into the sights of the gun. Then it fired. The shot was in line, but too short. It bounced off the water seveal yards in front of the Russian vessel and flew right over it, although creating some confusion on the beach.
Lieutenant Kuhlin was now essentially under af Klints command. In close battle the whole boat had to be moved to train the gun sideways, while the boat had to be kept on station otherwise in order not to throw off the gunner's aim. Kuhlin could see men on the Russian boat running towards the aft gun. Then their own gun fired again, followed by an unusual crash. Someone was screaming in the bows. Af Klint was swearing.
"What happened?"
"The sliding carriage broke! I did tell you I didn't like it didn't I". Af Klint was making his way back towards Kuhlin while others were dragging away one of the gunners, whos leg had been crushed by the gun.
"We've to turn around, use the aft gun! Starboard, back your sweeps, port give way togehter. Hard a starboard, Tapper".
"Load aft gun!" shouted af Klint.
Gunboat Number 14 was turning on the spot. Kulin looked at the Russian gunboat. Men were still working at the aft gun. Just when their boat was broadside on to it, the gun fired. The shot bounced overhead. Now the turn was complete. The aft gun fired almost immediately, its shot striking the Russian boat's bow with a crash. Splinters flew like dust around the gunboat. Then it began to settle by the bow, slowly sinking.
"Shift aim to the other boat", af Klint shouted.
"Belay that!", Kuhlin ordered. "Prepare to board her, boarders to the stern! Back your sweeps togheter!"

Sub-lieutenant Gran held Eleonora close to him. They were crouched behind some bushes deep inside the woods. Now he lifted her head and looked her into the eyes. "I think we made it, darling." The Russian troops had hastily retreated as soon as the big boat gun had announced Kuhlin's appearance in the cove. Being trapped between enemy lines they clearly had realized that their future was with the boats, not the party in the woods.
Eleonoras eyes were wet with tears, but now she smiled. "I like it when you call me darling", she whispered.

On the beach, the Russian soldiers were now advancing towards the water over exactly the same ground they only half an hour before had fought for in the opposite direction. Their aim was clearly the second gunboat which not was being boarded by Kuhlin's men. They made their way forward in order to man the sweeps and pull the boat off the beach. But they were soon under fire from the Russian muskets. Kuhlin ordered his own boat backed away a few yards in order to be able to use his swivels against the troops ashore.
"Fire swivels!"
The guns barked. Russian soldiers fell, but others were soon upon the men trying to get the boat afloat. Af Klint, who commanded the boarding party, swore. This wasn't going as well as it could. Although they had taken the Russians by surprise they still were greatly outnumbered. This mess was almost as bad as the incident with the priest's daughter, he thought. Rising his cutlass he swept away a Russian bayonett while shooting the soldier with his pistol at the same time. Then he saw the Russian officer cutting down one of his men with his sword. Af Klint slashed his way towards the man. If he only had one more pistol, he would not have to dance around here like in a fencing lesson. He raised his cutlass and stroke out, but the Russian parried. His sword was slightly heavier, not as good a weapon at sea, but on a beach, where there was more room to move, it was an advantage. Still, af Klint held his ground. He heared another swivel gun bark in the distance, then the Russian came at him again and forced him to back towards the boat's bows. This may not work so well, he thought. The he felt pain in his side and stumbled. He saw the Russian officer raise his sword again, but then there was a crash and everything went black.

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