Authors: Jeff Stone
Tags: #General, #Speculative Fiction, #Action & Adventure, #Juvenile Fiction, #Sports & Recreation, #Asia, #Historical, #Martial Arts
“They are still a ways off,” Charles said. “If they get much closer, those balls will break through the ship's sides. Stay away from the walls.”
Charles raced onto the deck and heard Captain Rutger's voice cry out in the crisp night air, “They've destroyed the batteries and are entering the cove! It's a Chinese man-o-war, and there are shapes in the sea beyond it. There is no telling how many ships they have out there. Clear the decks, men!”
Sailors began heaving overboard anything on deck that wasn't a weapon. Wooden chicken coops and rabbit pens soon littered the water, floating atop the waves. Through a wall of chicken feathers, Charles saw Malao poke his head out of a hatch, throw a rope around the neck of the ship's goat, and lead it belowdecks.
“Stay out of the way!” Charles shouted in Malao's direction as a gang of young powder boys raced toward the hatch. They dropped down with alarming speed, returning moments later with armloads of gunpowder, shot, and wadding for the cannons on deck.
“Starboard gun teams, to your stations!” Captain Rutger commanded, and men began to assemble in tight formations around the schooner's ten cannons on the ship's right side, facing their oncoming attacker. Tendrils of acrid smoke started to rise from buckets of slow match being lit next to each great gun.
“Incoming!” someone shouted from high atop the mainmast, and Charles heard a single enemy cannon
erupt. Several sailors hit the deck, but Charles stood his ground defiantly. He stared toward the mouth of the cove and caught a glimpse of the approaching cannonball flying a few hands above the water. The ball dipped, skipped across the water, and went airborne again. It skipped two more times, its last short hop sending it harmlessly over the schooner's starboard stern rail. It rolled noisily over to port, stopping next to the helmsman's foot.
A powder boy scooped it up and tossed it over the side so that no one would trip over it.
“They're getting close!” Captain Rutger shouted. “Sharpshooters, to the tops!”
That was Charles’ cue. He hurried to the nearest ratline and climbed aloft to a dizzying height with a speed and agility that would have made Malao proud. Once there, he hooked his legs and one elbow into the rigging and withdrew his pistols.
“Rig the splinter netting!” Captain Rutger ordered, and Charles looked down to watch netting fall from strategic locations among the lower shrouds. Sailors raced about, tying the nets up so that they formed a webbed ceiling above the deck. The netting was designed to catch any blocks or boom shards that might be blasted free from overhead by enemy fire.
“Prepare yourselves for battle, men!” Captain Rutger roared, and the gunners pulled large handkerchiefs from their pockets, tying them on their heads to keep hair and sweat out of their faces and away from the slow match.
Charles looked over at the enemy ship, nearer now, and he was certain that it was Tonglong's man-o-war. He called down, “On deck there! That ship belongs to General Tonglong! I'm sure of it.”
“Aye, aye!” shouted Captain Rutger in response. “Thank you for the confirmation. Let us—”
KA-BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! BOOM!
Cannons erupted in rapid sequence from Tonglong's ship, sending a hailstorm of iron and lead toward the schooner. A cannonball the size of Charles’ head slammed into the ship's railing below, sending a shower of gigantic splinters in every direction. A sailor cried out and fell to the deck, an enormous splinter of oak protruding from the center of his chest.
“Somebody help that man!” Captain Rutger ordered. “Now it's our turn, mates! Remember, wait for the roll! On my mark …”
Charles felt the schooner dip slightly as a wave rolled beneath them. The ship began to rise again with the next swell, and as it reached the wave's crest, Captain Rutger cried, “FIRE!”
The schooner's starboard broadside erupted, its cannons disappearing in their own smoke. Thick haze drifted skyward, and Charles could taste the burnt air around him.
KA-BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! BOOM!
Tonglong's ship fired another devastating sequence. How had they fired again so quickly? Charles wondered. They must have added more cannons since he had seen their ship a few weeks ago. No gun team could reload and fire a cannon that fast.
KA-BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! BOOM!
Again, cannon fire erupted from Tonglong's vessel, and this time several of Captain Rutger's men fell, either dead or wounded. Tonglong must be using grapeshot now instead of cannonballs. If they switched to chain shot and aimed for the schooner's rigging, Charles would have to—
KA-BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! BOOM!
Another round of cannon fire confirmed Charles’ worst fear. All around him, spars and sailcloth began to tumble into the sea, ripped to shreds by long sections of chain that had iron balls welded to each end. Several of his sharpshooting compatriots were torn from the rigging without having fired a single shot. Tonglong's vessel was likely within pistol range by now, but the combined smoke from both ships’ cannons left Charles nearly blind.
“On my mark …,” Captain Rutger bellowed from below. “FIRE!”
The roar of the schooner's cannons was answered by the roar of soldiers’ voices aboard Tonglong's ship. They were not cries of agony but cries of war. Most of the schooner cannons must have missed their mark.
Charles felt a sudden powerful jolt as Tonglong's vessel slammed into Captain Rutger's moored schooner.
“Prepare to be boarded!” Captain Rutger shouted, and netting dropped from the ratlines, covering the sides of the ship like a curtain.
Charles peered down through the thick smoke and could just make out Chinese soldiers slashing through the schooner's boarding nets with wicked-looking
broadswords. Other soldiers followed immediately behind with boarding axes, sinking them deep into the schooner's thick wooden hull to gain purchase before leaping over the schooner's starboard rail, onto the deck.
Charles took aim at a boarding soldier, then paused. His pistols were only single-shot devices, and he possessed just two. If he used them up now, he would never get off the ship. Loading would be impossible with all this activity. He slipped them back into the holsters across his chest and climbed down into the melee.
Soldiers and sailors were fighting everywhere in solo battles, members of both sides getting hung up on dangling ropes and broken spars or tripping over the bodies of their fallen comrades. The Dutch sailors had abandoned the cannons in favor of pistols and cutlasses, while the Chinese soldiers carried large broadswords and boarding axes, plus pistols of their own.
Charles backed up to the ship's far rail, away from the action, and realized that he was shaking. They were losing the battle, and still, the enemy came. They didn't appear to be highly skilled, but they were capable and there were so very many of them.
A sailor cried out from the topmast, and Charles looked up to see flames. A sharpshooter's musket blast must have ignited one of the canvas topsails. Sharp shooters all along the mizzen tops were shouting at one another, jumping down into the sea.
“Charles!” someone growled in Chinese. “Over here!”
Charles ran to the bow and found Fu hauling two people out of the water, one in each hand. The first was a small boy, and the second was an older man. Charles stepped closer and realized that he knew the man. It was LoBak. Perhaps the boy was ShaoShu.
“Fu, Malao, Hok!” Charles scolded. “You
take cover. If you stay exposed like this, you're bound to get—”
Malao suddenly shrieked and leaped clear over Charles’ head. Charles turned to see him land a perfect sidekick to the temple of a soldier wielding a broadsword. The man dropped in a heap, and Malao tossed the sword to Fu.
Malao turned to Charles. “You were saying?”
Charles opened his mouth to reply, but Captain Rutger cried out, “Charles! Come, quick!”
Charles raced toward the captain's voice and found him leaning against the schooner's starboard rail, a wide stream of blood pouring from his scalp.
“Tell the men to abandon ship,” Captain Rutger gasped. “They won't want to do it, but they must preserve themselves. I would tell them myself, but I don't have the strength.”
Charles looked about to see how best to begin the evacuation, when he sensed someone staring at him. He looked across to Tonglong's ship and saw a man with a ridiculous number of pistols crisscrossing his chest. The man pulled one from its holster and aimed it at Charles.
Quick as a flash, Charles twisted away from Captain Rutger and pulled out a pistol of his own. He raised
his arm in the man's direction and to his surprise heard the man's pistol discharge.
Charles felt nothing. He glanced down and verified that he was untouched. He looked over at Captain Rutger and saw a neat hole in the captain's forehead.
“No!” Charles cried, and he fired at the spot where the man had stood. But he was already gone.
Charles stood and began to shout at the top of his lungs in Dutch, “Captain Rutger is dead! He ordered us to abandon ship! Repeat! Captain Rutger is dead! Abandon ship!”
“Never!” came the cries from fore and aft. The sailors began to fight with increased vigor.
Charles threw his arms into the air in frustration. At a loss about what to do, he ran back over to his friends. Hok, LoBak, and the boy were in the middle of a heated discussion. Fu and Malao were keeping the soldiers at bay with a variety of weapons they'd picked up.
Charles loomed over the others and spoke in Chinese. “We have to abandon ship. What are you arguing about?”
Hok pointed to the boy. “This is ShaoShu. He and LoBak have escaped from the hold of Tonglong's warship. LoBak sees the value of running away, and we're trying to convince ShaoShu to come, too.”
Charles looked up at the burning rigging, then at ShaoShu. “How much more convincing do you need? The ship is on fire!”
“Exactly,” ShaoShu said. “It's sort of my fault. I
think I might be able to sneak back onto Tonglong's boat and get back into his commander's good graces. I could get information to Hok and you and everyone else about Tonglong's future plans.”
Charles raised an eyebrow. “Good idea, but make up your mind, quick. My sloop is anchored on the opposite side of the island, and we must make a break for it.”
Hok huffed. “If you insist on staying with Tong -long, ShaoShu, go with him to Shanghai. There is a big fight club event there in three days, and he is bound to attend. Seek out a fighter called Golden Dragon, and tell him who you are. Tell him about Tong-long and about us. He is our older temple brother. Let him know that we are headed back to the north. If he needs to find us, he should get a message to a woman named Yuen at the Jade Phoenix restaurant in the city of Kaifeng.”
“But how is ShaoShu going to get back into anyone's good graces?” LoBak asked. “Tonglong hasn't questioned him yet about his possible acquaintance with me, but it's only a matter of time. He needs a convincing story.”
Hok tore a silk thread from around her neck and handed it to ShaoShu. At the end of the thread dangled a tiny jade crane. “This might help,” she said. “Give it to Tonglong and tell him LoBak was killed trying to flee this ship with a girl and a teenager with a face carved like a dragon. Do not admit that you know Ying, LoBak, or me. Ever.”
“Fair enough,” LoBak said. “But what about our supposed remains? Tonglong will search this ship for bodies.”
“Leave that to me,” Charles said. “I'll have to sink this schooner just to get the crew to abandon it. Now, everyone, to the stern! There are lifeboats there. Climb into one and start rowing to shore. I'll catch up with you. ShaoShu, you stay here with me for the moment. Go!”
Hok grabbed LoBak by the arm and hurried away, with Malao and Fu leading the charge, weapons whirling.
Charles pointed over the side of the ship. “ShaoShu, Tonglong's boat is beginning to drift away. He knows he's won. You're going to have to swim for it.”
“No problem,” ShaoShu replied.
“Good luck, Little Mouse,” Charles said, raising his remaining loaded pistol. “Swim for the bow. I'll watch your back.”
ShaoShu nodded and gripped a small pouch near his waist, then dove headfirst into the black water, out of sight.
haoShu surfaced near the bow of Tonglong's warship. He treaded water until he was alongside the craft, then lifted his mouse's pouch out of the water.
The mouse began to squirm, and ShaoShu smiled. It had survived. He felt around the darkness until his hands happened upon a dangling section of rigging that had spilled overboard from high above. He tested its strength by yanking on it, and it held firm.
ShaoShu began to climb and didn't stop until he'd reached a dizzying height. He looked along the sails and saw no soldiers standing on the slats like he'd seen earlier. They had all climbed down to join the hand-to-hand combat.
ShaoShu glanced down at the deck and noticed
with interest that it was empty. Everyone must still be aboard the Round Eye's ship. He thought about climbing down when he detected movement below. It was Tonglong, coming out of his cabin. He was alone, heading for the stern.