From the depths of a dreamless sleep, Hornblower started awake, a hand gently shaking his shoulder. "Sorry to wake you, sir," Bush's voice said from the darkness, "but we've sighted a ship and she looks like a Spaniard." The first lieutenant did not carry a lantern; outside the frigate's stern windows, the sky was the grey of early dawn.
"Thank you, Mr. Bush," Hornblower replied shortly. "I will join you on deck." He didn't need a light to find his clothing and sword. They were hanging on the same hooks where he had left them every night for the past three months. He knew exactly where they were, just as he knew exactly what he would eat for breakfast, lunch, and supper. The days passed in a grey blur, each one seeming no different from the next, though the Lydia had made good progress and now sailed off the coast of Brazil. After the monotony of the voyage, it would almost be a relief to sight an enemy ship.
On deck, the crew spoke in hushed voices though the unknown ship was over a mile away. The officer of the watch, Gerard, had had the sense to extinguish any lights. He handed Hornblower a telescope. "She appears to be alone, sir. She's given no sign that she sees us."
The ship had the high stern and antiquated sail plan of a Spanish galley. Two great black sails were rigged fore and aft, and a row of sweeps projected from her lower deck, rising and falling in a graceful arc. The open Atlantic would smash her to pieces, but her shallow draught and oars made her well-suited to rivers and sheltered coastal waters. She might have strayed from a fleet, or perhaps she'd been sent ahead as a scout. Hornblower scowled at the black ensign that fluttered at the foremast. Or perhaps she was a pirate—they had long haunted these waters.
Hornblower turned, sweeping the horizon with the telescope. The captain of the galley was heading north to the mouth of the Sao Francisco. The Portuguese Navy patrolled these waters, but Hornblower saw no sign of its ships. According to the charts, many small settlements crowded the lower river. Left unguarded, they would be easy prey for marauders.
The steward Polwheal silently appeared with a steaming cup of coffee. Used to his captain's early morning temper, he moved with the care of a gunner working in the ship's magazine. Hornblower took the cup and drank without thinking, his mind fixed on the strange ship. Brazil was Britain's ally, and he had been told to aid her in any way possible as long as it did not conflict with his more specific orders regarding Nicaragua. Hornblower glanced at his first lieutenant.
"She's no match for the Lydia, sir." Bush's face was expressionless, but his right hand was clenched as if holding a sword. Among both officers and men, a special hatred was reserved for Spain's galleys. Those graceful oars were rowed by prisoners, wretches who were left chained to their benches until they died from mistreatment and exhaustion.
Hornblower snapped shut the telescope and handed it back to Lieutenant Gerard. "Close with her as the wind allows." He wanted to avoid using the sweeps and tiring the men before a fight.
In the wake of the galley, the Lydia slowly tacked up the river. Frowning slightly, Gerard studied an old Spanish chart. Its edges were curled and tattered, and mermaids and dragons had been inked in the unexplored areas. Hic sunt dracones, Hornblower thought. Here there be dragons.
Gerard pointed to where a black line ran inland from the Atlantic coast. "According to this chart, sir, the course of the river should take us northwest, but instead we're heading due north."
"One heavy storm could have changed this river beyond recognition," Hornblower said. "We'll have to take our own soundings."
A sailor was set to working the lead line, calling the depth to the helmsman as they slowly tacked upstream. On the western side of the river, the land was neatly divided into orderly fields and orchards. They passed several villages where racks of fish dried in the sun and fishing boats swayed at their moorings. A string of stone forts overlooked the river, but strangely, they had no artillery, not even the ancient cannon that Hornblower had seen in some Spanish fortifications.
"No wonder they have trouble with pirates," Bush remarked, shaking his head at the vagaries of foreigners.
On the eastern shore, there was no sign of habitation except for the rotted pilings of long-abandoned piers, and tangled thickets grew down to the water's edge. The Sao Francisco basin belonged to the Crown of Portugal. Why was one shore devoid of any settlement? The chart had shown villages along both sides. It made no sense to Hornblower. Had the Spanish invaded the eastern shore? Gerard and Bush retreated across the quarterdeck as Hornblower started to pace.
He stopped for a moment to stare at the black sails of the galley. She was only a mile away. She must have seen the Lydia and would try to escape by heading upstream, hoping to reach water too shallow for the frigate. Hornblower doubted that she would succeed. Even with the need to tack, they would soon overtake her.
The man taking the soundings called out, "There's something ahead, sir. Looks like a fishing weir." These were a common hazard when sailing close to the shore. Lines of sturdy poles, interwoven with sticks, were used to trap large fish and funnel them toward a holding pen. Anchored firmly to the riverbed, this type of structure could cause serious damage to a ship. Gerard ran forward to look then gave the course correction to the helmsman.
As the Lydia drew abreast of the weir, Hornblower noticed that something was caught in the poles. He realized what it was just as the lookout shouted, "Man overboard! To port!" Someone was clinging to the weir, his head just above the water.
"Bring her about," Hornblower snapped at Gerard then ran to the stern. Bush was already in the jolly boat, shouting orders. The first lieutenant looked up in surprise as his captain swung gracelessly from the davits into the boat.
"You need someone who can speak Spanish," Hornblower told him before he could protest. The boat swayed sickeningly as Midshipman Clay dropped from the davits, followed by three sailors. Someone tossed them a pile of blankets, and the boat lurched down to the river. They made good speed and soon reached the weir, but wary of fouling the oars on the poles, they stopped when the man was still ten feet away.
"We are going to throw you a line to tie around yourself," Hornblower called in Spanish. The man looked up at them, his face white against the dark water, but he didn't seem to understand. Even if he spoke Portuguese, he should have been able to follow the meaning. Hornblower tried again in Spanish, this time more slowly, but the man just shook his head weakly. "Throw him the line," Hornblower ordered. Still clinging to the weir, the man reached out with one hand, but the rope slid through his grasp.
"He's been in the water too long, sir; he's lost the feeling in his hands," Bush said. "But we'll hit either him or those poles if we try to come any closer."
Unbuckling his sword belt as he spoke, Hornblower replied, "Keep the boat back—I'll bring him in." Unlike Bush and the others, Hornblower was a strong swimmer. Most sailors never learned to swim, viewing the water with a superstitious dread.
"Be careful of the current, sir," his first lieutenant told him with a worried scowl. "It's likely faster than it looks."
Hornblower pulled off his coat so it wouldn't hinder his movements, then he slipped over the gunwale and into the water. He thought his heart would stop from the shock of the cold, but he forced himself to keep moving. A coil of rope was looped around his arm. One end was tied to the boat, and he paid out the slack as he swam toward the weir.
He knotted the line around the man then kept him afloat as the crew hauled them in. Hornblower had feared the stranger would panic and try to drown them both, but he scarcely had enough strength to keep his face above water.
Hornblower waited while the crew hoisted him into the boat. Then it was his turn, and they reached down and pulled him over the gunwale. Midshipman Clay handed him a blanket, and he gratefully drew it around his shoulders.
The stranger lay shivering in the bottom of the boat, naked except for knee-length trousers. Bush was already beside him, checking for signs of injury. "He's from that Spanish ship, sir," the first lieutenant said flatly. "Look at the stripes on his back. And the sores on his ankles from the leg irons."
"Dago bastards," one of the sailors muttered. "They just threw him over the side."
They wrapped the man in blankets, and Midshipman Clay brought a flask of brandy, the cure for all ills in the Navy. Bush held the man propped against his shoulder while Hornblower tried to coax him to drink. "It's wine," Hornblower told him, speaking slowly in Spanish. "It will help restore your strength."
"Where am I?" the stranger murmured in English. "I was drowning…so cold."
"By God, sir, he's British," the first lieutenant said under his breath.
"You are on a British ship," Hornblower replied, which was close enough to the truth. "And under the protection of the Royal Navy."
The stranger stared up at him through half-closed eyes. "I must find the rangers…must warn Captain Faramir..."
"By God, sir, he's one of our soldiers," Bush said.
Hornblower glanced at the first lieutenant and saw his own horror reflected in his face. There were well-established rules regarding the treatment of prisoners of war. "We'll get you back to your regiment," Hornblower told the man, unsure what else to say to reassure him.
"I'll wager he's from the Connaught Rangers," Bush said. Less than a year before, the 88th Regiment of Foot-also known as the Connaught Rangers-had been sent to invade Argentina. After a disastrous campaign, the entire regiment had surrendered to the Spanish. And then by some final stroke of misfortune, this ranger had ended up in a galley.
As they rowed back to the Lydia, every idler and off-watch crewman was watching from the rigging, and there was a great cheer as the jolly boat came alongside. The news spread quickly that the rescued man was a British soldier, and the cheers for the captain grew even louder. Hornblower tried to pretend that he did not notice, while Bush made no attempt to hide his grin.
The frigate resumed her course up the river, slowly closing the distance to the galley. Now Hornblower could see the small figures of the Spanish officers walking on the upper deck. A sword hilt or pistol glinted in the midday sun. She would soon be within range for round shot, though still too far away for canister or grape. The ranger had been given into the care of Acting Surgeon Laurie and carried below to the relative safety of the orlop deck, while under Bush's watchful eye, the ship's crew readied for battle.
Hornblower listened to the clatter as the bulkheads were taken down, and he felt as if the ship were suddenly coming alive after a long sleep. Sailors hurriedly spread sand on the gun deck and filled the buckets of water by each gun. With a solid rumble, the cannon were run out the ports. He had decided there was nothing to be gained by being coy, and there was even the slight possibility that the Spaniard would strike her colors at the sight of thirty-six guns bearing down on her. She had not been designed to withstand that sort of damage.
They were close enough now that the shouts of the overseer drifted across the water. To the steady beat of a drum, the sweeps rose and fell. Bush peered at the enemy through his telescope then gave Hornblower a puzzled frown. "They must have her guns hidden, sir. I don't see a one, not even on the quarterdeck."
Hornblower ordered the crew to fire a warning shot. It sailed high above the galley and fell with a great splash in front of her bow. Her officers threw themselves to the deck, but the overseer only shouted more loudly and the drum beat picked up speed. Her captain showed no intention of stopping.
"We asked politely, sir," the first lieutenant said. "But it seems they won't listen to reason."
"Well, I don't mean to ask a second time," Hornblower said shortly. He needed to finish this quickly, before the rowers died from exhaustion. He ordered the cannon loaded with chain shot.
The broadside tore through the rigging and left the black sails trailing over the side. Abandoning their posts, men flung themselves in the water, while others ran below deck. A second broadside sheared off the top of the foremast. The drum beat was silenced, and the sweeps faltered in their arc then stopped. Through the smoke, Hornblower called in Spanish, "Surrender yourselves, and your lives will be spared." But there was no response except for the shrieks and frantic splashing of the sailors in the water. The crewmen left on the galley stayed hidden.
Hornblower silently cursed her captain for not surrendering. The galley had little value as a prize. He would gladly have sent her to the river bottom if it weren't for the prisoners who were trapped below deck. Now he had no choice but to board her.