December 16, 1773
Perhaps he would die during this latest escape attempt, but one way or another death surely loomed in his near future. Indeed, he had no doubt he’d kill the next man to mistreat him if he remained as no more than a slave in His Majesty’s Navy much longer. George Chesman drew a long breath, counting slowly on the exhale in an effort to calm his growing desperation. The scars across his back itched but he chose to ignore the discomfort.
Better to die in a bid for freedom than hang from the yardarm.
Deserter. Traitor. Never to return home. No hope to resume the education I'd once hoped to attain.
Alone, he leaned against the aft port rail, calculating the odds and the distance from where HMS Somerset bobbed at anchor to the looming darkness of the Massachusetts coast. A thin fog hugged the outer harbor’s surface as the air temperature continued to drop with deepening night.
A sudden splash echoed from across the water.
“Lieutenant Branc, report.” The authoritative growl of Captain Fenning’s voice on the quarterdeck loomed not twenty paces behind and above.
George held still. Damn! There goes my choice route.
The slick click-slide of a spy glass preceded the junior officer’s reply. “Difficult to see clearly with the mist, sir, but it appears there are men aboard the Eleanor. I see feathers sticking up from heads, quite likely Indians.” The lieutenant paused. “It is possible the rabble mob of Boston coerced them to act in their stead to destroy the cargo. Now figures are boarding Beaver and Dartmouth.”
Are those not the East India ships we’ve been ordered to guard? George nonchalantly inched backward, closer to the quarterdeck stair, straining to catch every word.
“None seen, sir. Perhaps they disabled the posted sentries.” The telescope clacked shut.
“Indians are terrible fierce fighters, sir.” Marine sergeant Richards spoke. “Had our fill of ’em during the Seven Years’ War, that we did. Awful quiet as well. Ya don’t hear a single voice, no one calling to each other. That’s how them Indians work.”
Captain Fenning sniffed loudly. His voiced dripped sour disdain. “Pah. These are American made ships in the employ of the East India Company. I think it safe to assume any watchmen are typical undisciplined colonists and not inclined to fight. Well, I’ll not risk losing my men in the dark for a few crates of tea.”
Lying coward. George gritted his teeth and clenched his fist, disgusted. Captain Fenning was an arrogant, dangerous ass, sadistic and reckless. You care not of the risk to your men, only the probability of ridicule should the Admiralty determine your actions lead to failure.
George closed his eyes and deliberately unfurled each hand, finger by finger, and placed his palms on the rail to calm his ire. Surely his quick temper had led him to suffer many disciplinary actions under a tyrant such as Fenning. Now was not the time to let emotion scuttle his chances.
He concentrated on listening as the lieutenant spoke.
“Still, sir...” Branc lowered his voice. “These Bostonians have grown bolder in their insurrection, chafing at every tax levied upon them to pay for a war we fought to save their settlements from the French and possibly the very Indians they have employed tonight. How are we to stop them? Cannonade the town?”
“And set up another so-called ‘massacre’ of civilians to play into the plans of that vile madman Samuel Adams, instigating additional rebellion? I think not. We’ll go in with the tide. Which is—Branc?”
“High tide will be at one bell, sir.”
As if on cue, the midshipman rang the ship’s bell. George tightened his grip on the rail, his stomach contracting as well. Seven bells in the last dog watch. If I leave now, that allows nine hours to get where the tide will make no difference. And the moon has yet to rise, though it should shortly.
“Good. However, we shall keep a practiced eye on these ships. Branc, I want an extra officer on watch with a glass to continually assess the situation firsthand. Two sets of eyes at all times, and notify me immediately if there is any indication in the slightest if these ruffians intend to damage or scuttle the ships. If necessary we may use the longboats, but I mean to have the imposing might of this ship in their faces at first light. Then we shall see what spines these rebels possess.”
Silently, George sent a prayer of gratitude for the insubordination of Boston colonists. Thanks be to God for the perfect distraction of whatever mischief they’re concocting. His heart pounding loudly in his ears, he carefully removed his shoes, so worn they were no better than parlor slippers. He stuffed each into a pocket. Dark rough-spun trousers and coat with the black cap atop his head blended with the shadows. Between sun and wind weathering plus the complete absence of bathing opportunities, his skin had darkened during the past four years to nearly the same patina of the ship’s wood. He would not be easily seen.
Forcing himself to wait stretched minutes into an eternity as he listened for sounds of any approach. Hearing nothing but the continuing far-off splashes of cargo falling into Boston Harbor, he slithered silently over the rail. His callused fingers gripped the lowest edge of the decorative railing while hoary toes found scant purchase in the joint seams of the ship’s side. With deliberation, he worked his way astern. He dared not move more quickly, afraid the exertion would make his breathing labored and audible.
I’ll work my way to the transom. Thank Providence the pinnace is still tied, neglected after setting the stern anchor. With luck, I can use the tie rope to pull the boat close enough to slide in without getting too wet.
Cold cramped his hands and feet as he meticulously crept down the stern corner, then across the transom just below the windows of the captain’s quarters, high over the waterline, a good two stories up on this ship of the line. The four-inch ledge of the beam felt wide as a boulevard to his aching arches after crabbing along the side. Faint light shone through the glass panes above, stippling drops of wetness on the thick rope dangling ahead with flecks of gold.
George paused and lowered his right arm. Bee-stinging pins and needles shot from his bicep into his hand. He shook it quietly for a moment as he looked out. The mist he’d hoped would hide his departure had disappeared.
Damn. That took far longer than I wanted. Which means the water is now the same temperature as the air. So much for this evening’s earlier mildness. My breath will soon show. Ah, and now the moon breaches the horizon.
He watched the surface below, trying to determine the directional current, knowing he could not use the oars until he’d floated a good distance away. Simply getting them into the locks would create more noise than was prudent. The small rowboat’s long tether tantalized ahead, a carrot before a starving donkey. He could catch it if he stretched a little farther—
His right foot slipped.
Adrenaline surged on rising panic as his feet left the security of wood. Gasping, he leapt awkwardly forward and snagged the rope with his right hand as he fell through the air. He managed to grab on with his left hand as well but continued to slide, headed for the water. Rough hemp flayed the skin from his palms as the weight of his body dropped, jerking the boat rapidly toward the ship. He nearly bit through his lip to keep silent. If that boat hit the hull, the thud would draw unwanted attention.
Extending his unshod feet before him, he caught the side of the pinnace half a second before it would have collided with the ship. He could not stifle a grunt when the iron oarlock smacked against his right arch. Pain speared his leg. Still, the momentum of the craft eased enough to barely tap wood against the wood of the ship’s side. He held his breath and listened for a shouted alarm.
Lapping water kept time with the pounding of his heart. Minuscule squeaks of the rope knotted at the bow mimicked the sound of rats in the hold, surely inaudible up on the deck.
Hands blazing with pain and slick with blood, he carefully lowered himself into the boat. Transparent ice covered puddles left from shipping the oars earlier, slicing the skin from his ankles like a razor when his weight broke through. He spared a moment to try and deal with his ruined hands. He squeezed his eyes shut and grasped each wrist in turn, hoping to stench the bleeding. After a short minute, he opened his eyes and deliberately slowed his breathing. Still detecting no sounds of increased activity on deck, he donned his shoes the best he could. It was time to cut the rope. Clumsy with pain, he withdrew a knife from his pocket.
At first, determination enabled him to ignore the hurt. But alarm stole his breath when the blade slipped from his grasp and tumbled through the air. Frantic, he tried to catch it, grasping only air. The point landed in the wood with a tunk in a perfect mumblety-peg beside his knee.
Nothing was going as planned. George swallowed hard. Panic breeds mistakes. I must think calmly and take time to bandage these hands somehow. Else, how will I row?
He tugged the bottom of his filthy shirt free from his trousers. It would have to do. He reached his hand underneath the fabric, gripped the knife handle, and awkwardly wriggled it free. Then he sliced through the side seams before tearing a wide strip of cloth away from front and back, cringing at the noise that seemed to echo around him. Working quickly, he wrapped each hand and knotted it with his teeth. The fabric gave him better purchase on the knife. George attacked the rope with renewed gusto.
A sliver of moon threw paltry light around him when the final strands of hemp separated. Freed, the boat drifted away from HMS Somerset as he crawled beneath the benches and extended the length of his body into the shallow wetness in the bottom of the boat. He laid still, hands clasped beneath his chest in the cold wetness, praying that to any chance observer from above he’d appear to be a large, dark puddle of water.
He counted in his head—one-one thousand, two-one thousand—to five thousand before he rolled onto his back and studied the stars overhead, estimating his position before daring to rise to a crouch. HMS Somerset was merely another part of the dark silhouette of Boston on the horizon.
Fitting oars into locks as quietly as he could, every movement spearing agony through his shredded palms, he pulled away.