The wind, driving storm-scattered ships, blew gale-force during the night. John Killen lay in his swinging bunk, unable to sleep. Through a thin canvas bulkhead he heard horses bang about the hold, struggling to keep on their feet as the transport pitched deep into the troughs between waves.
Major Cavendish proved accommodating to his unexpected guest but not to the extent of allowing Killen a share of the cramped officers’ cabin in the bows. Instead, an extra hammock was hung in the hold alongside the remainder of the major’s squadron, men of the 7th Hussars who had sailed, full of hope, with Lord Paget and now found themselves facing an ignominious repatriation.
When it came, the tearing, grinding cacophony as the transport struck rocks took Killen by surprise. The ship heeled over, sending horses crashing around the hold in pitch darkness. One animal off its legs lashed through the bulkhead into the makeshift sleeping quarters, splintering timbers. Water cascaded through cracked planks.
Those men not thrown from their bunks when the ship foundered clambered out. Killen dragged on boots and coat while from around him hussars dashed at the broken bulkhead, one screaming as the still flailing horse smashed his leg with a single blow. Killen forced his way past, men behind pushing at his back in growing panic. He hugged the ship’s side until he touched the nearest companionway, hooking his hands over each worn tread to claw his way out of the fast-flooding hold.
On deck he found chaos. Any escape at the stern meant climbing over the fallen mizzen mast, still tethered to the hull by a tangle of ropes and sailcloth.
Killen turned. The farrier, Ravel, was shouting at him, windblown hair a black halo round his face.
“This way, sir.” Taking Killen’s arm he walked purposefully amidships. “We’ll have to jump for it! She’s fast starting to break up!”
Killen looked over the bulwarks, at inky-black waves tearing the transport to pieces, “What about boats?”
“No time! They’d be swamped in this sea, if they’ve not been smashed already!” He pulled Killen closer, shouting over the wind, “You need to go now, sir!”
Killen put a foot over the side and felt Ravel’s shove. He plunged deep into raging water, kicking frantically until his head broke the surface. He must get further away: falling masts might crush him or rigging drag his body under.
from "Leopardkill" by Jonathan Hopkins
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