The Fort (Extract)

“Sweet Jesus Christ,” the helmsman said, surrendering the wheel.

Another round shot, heavy by its sound, smashed into the Hazard‘s bows, then the ship shuddered and there was a grating sound as her hull struck a submerged rock. Little grimaced, then turned the wheel and the Hazard hesitated. The grinding noise continued deep below, but then the brig lurched and loosed herself from the rock and settled on her new course. “Hands to the pumps!” Little called, “and gunners! Aim well!” The guns crashed back against their breech ropes and the smoke blossomed, and a British ball struck the belaying pins aft of the forward mast and splintered them, and Little was bellowing at his gunners to reload.

High on the bluff Moore watched the small brig. For a moment he thought its captain intended to ram the Nautilus, but then the brig turned to sail into the smoke left by the guns of the Black Prince, a big privateer. The brig spat its fire and iron. “A brave little ship,” Moore said.

“He gets any closer and he’ll be selling his hull for firewood, sir,” Sergeant McClure said.

Moore watched the Hazard sail down the line. He saw round shot strike her hull, but her rate of fire never diminished. She turned west beneath him and Moore saw her gunners reloading. “A terrier, that one,” he said.

“But we’re not rats, sir, are we?”

“We are not rats, Sergeant,” Moore said, amused. Pearce Fenistone’s small guns just behind the picquet fired, their balls slashing down at the enemy ships and their smoke filling the trees. The sun was low in the west now and made the smoke glow.

“Captain Campbell coming, sir,” McClure muttered in a low warning to Moore.

Moore turned to see the tall, kilted figure of Captain Archibald Campbell approaching from the north. Campbell, a highlander of the 74th, commanded all the picquets on the bluff. “Moore,” he greeted the Lieutenant, “I think the Yankees plan to inconvenience us.”

“It’s why they came, sir,” Moore replied happily.

Campbell blinked at the younger man as if suspecting he was being mocked. He flinched as the nearest cannon recoiled, its noise huge among the trees. The three guns’ breech ropes had been seized to the pine trees and every shot provoked a rain of needles and cones. “Come and look,” Campbell ordered, and Moore followed the lanky highlander back along the bluff’s top to a place where a gap in the trees offered a view of the wider bay.

The enemy’s transport ships were anchored in the bay which was being whipped into white scudding waves by the brisk wind. The gaggle of ships was well out of range of any cannon McLean might have positioned on the high ground. “See?” Campbell pointed at the fleet and Moore, shading his eyes against the setting sun, saw rowboats nestling against the hulls of the transports.

Moore took a small telescope from a pocket and opened its tubes. It took a moment to train and focus the glass, then he saw men in green coats clambering down into one of the longboats. “I do believe,” he said, still gazing at the sight, “that they plan to call on us.”

“I don’t have a glass,” Campbell said resentfully.

Moore took the hint and offered the glass to the captain who took an age to adjust the lenses. Campbell, like Moore, saw the men filling the small boats. He saw, too, that they were carrying muskets. “You think they’ll attack us?” he asked, sounding surprised at such a thought.

“I think we’d best assume so,” Moore suggested. It was possible that the men were being redistributed among the transport ships, but why do that now? It seemed far more likely that the Americans planned a landing.

“Bring your fellows here,” Campbell ordered.

The American warships were still shooting at Mowat’s sloops, though their fire was desultory now and none, not even the Hazard, was venturing close to the harbour mouth. Two of the attacking ships had already sailed out of range and dropped their anchors. Moore brought his men to join the rest of Campbell’s picquets just as the longboats left the shelter of the transports’ hulls and pulled towards the shore. The sun was very low now, dazzling the redcoats among the bluff’s trees. “They’re coming!” Captain Campbell sounded astonished.