The helmsman’s ear caught a faint lapping sound from the bow as the ship moved with virtual silence through the black river water. Directing the cumbersome ship held his attention. He must pull the tiller against all eddies as he felt them to keep the vessel straight and it made him weary. The shore, twenty feet to the right remained a barely discernible darker night presence.
Watchers at the bow strained and tried to pierce the blackness. The moonless night made seeing any darker than dark shape looming in their path so difficult. An up-thrusting fallen tree or submerged rock might be ahead unseen. Either could easily rip out the bottom of the boat in the steady current. He worried and worry took its toll.
Fear gnawed at all the men. The strange surroundings frightened them and in the blackness of night their thoughts magnified the silence into nebulous monsters that loomed.
The silent helmsman’s thoughts pursued a different train. Roger drowned yesterday. It didn’t have to happen. What if we had gotten off in time? This nightmare journey in pitch-blackness would not be necessary. The enemy with their bows and arrows would not pace us as they do now just beyond our hearing.
He searched the night blindly and fear blossomed in his chest. Must we rely on the fragile safety of the river? Yes, we must. The enemy could see better with their keen eyesight.
Did he hear a sound just then? The helmsman’s heart gave a little flutter. He became aware of his exposed back as he held the tiller. He wrestled for control.
The crew to a man listened. They tried to pick up the faintest of faint sounds, the deadly swish of an arrow, a night bird call, but they heard nothing. Ahead the forest encroached past the river’s edge and crowded the water. No bird sounds, no splash of a small aquatic animal diving into the water, no jumping fish. The river held its breath.
At times the helmsman could almost believe the Indians had melted back into the brush and gone their way. What if they were gone? We would fear for our lives still, and for no good reason. Were we worth the trouble that dogged us? It all seemed so unfair, so maddening. We could all die.
No one of the crew peering into the soupy thickness had reported a sign or sound of Indians for twenty minutes as close as they could reckon. No occasional twig had cracked for that long, yet Georges felt them. Fear-heightened imagination? But could he chance being wrong? What if one of the savages was notching an arrow right now, readying it for his heart?
Up ahead the river changed. It appeared to widen. The trees pulled back and gave the ship a wide berth. But wait! Ahead something loomed darker than the surrounding night. An island! The river split in two to pass around this higher ground. Which channel to take?
The helmsman pulled hard over and the riverboat carrying its cargo of frightened souls sluggishly responded to the helmsman’s will. What if I have chosen the wrong channel? We could run aground. Worse, we might run into rapids. The ship wasn’t strong. Even though he had a hand in its construction and felt justifiably proud of what he and the crew had built so quickly, green wood does not make a fine ship. What if they had taken more time at the start to build well?
There had not been time.
So hard to see. Georges offered up a little prayer, but he didn’t feel any better. Born on the hope that the Indians would be further away with the channel he chose, maybe they would have a better chance now. What if the Indians had crossed onto the island? They surely knew their territory and could be lying in wait on the other side.
Great fear clutched at Georges heart now. What if I have made a wrong decision? Then we are doomed men, and I have caused it.
The ship gathered speed, the night no longer silent. Another sound, a deep, low whisper penetrated to the straining ears of the men. It grew rapidly in volume and the boat picked up speed.
Georges gained more control, but now the great fear froze him to the tiller. What if those are falls up ahead? The Indians won’t kill us; we will drown in this unknown river’s mighty surge. He pulled on Andre’s sleeve.
“Help me. We have to beach on the far side.” Georges speaks now because the roar has muffled any sounds the Indians might hear.
“Claude…Marcel. Pole us to starboard. We have to get out of this current!” he speaks loudly. Georges is desperate.
“The rest of you, get amidships. We need all the balance we can get. Are your muskets at ready?”
So hard to hear against the roar. The message passes through the company, yelled one to the other. All comply. It is a good ships company. Georges experiences a brief touch of pride, but then desperation is back. They are now fighting for their lives against a horrifying new enemy.
As the appointed ones strain to get the boat into a safe harbor, Georges thinks, we have gone through so much. Mon Dieu! What if we make it ashore, and there are no Indians and they have gone home? Could he hope?
They make headway but the far shore is shrouded in a deep darkness. Many dangers live on the river yet. Suddenly the riverboat swings sharply to port. The helm is ripped from Georges hands! With a shout of fear, Claude and Marcel grip their poles and push mightily.
Slowly the little craft Georges has named Jean d’Arc is forced into another channel in the river, one that seems calmer. In seconds, a grating sound accompanied by a shout from amidships portends disaster. “Mon Dieu, the hull is breached. We are taking on water!”
Michel is near the break. He says quickly, “I will bail. Keep on!”
Such a good crew. We may be dead in moments, but they will give all they have to the very end. Pride surfaces once more, followed again by desperation. The river is very loud now. The current is swift and there is a new sound, a thundering deep bass note that portends death.
Suddenly the riverboat lurches and turns sideways. The crew’s fear rises near to hysteria. A babble of voices rise and is quickly stilled. As suddenly, discipline takes its place. Everyone who can grip something does so, but some are knocked down. Hands grasp their fellows. Blind darkness and the sudden, disastrous movement of the vessel combine to bring heart-stopping terror to the crew.
Now the riverboat begins to tip! The three or four who can, move to counteract it. The boat stops. Water soaks the pant-legs of the crew. The hull is breached in several places now, but Jean d’Arc no longer moves.
The reality of death by drowning stills all voices for a minute or two. Finally, Andre calls from the bow. “Georges, we are caught on three rocks. The hull is breached, but unless a flood is following us, we will not move again.”
The heart of each man begins to calm.
“It could be worse, Andre,” Georges says in evident relief. What if the rocks had not been there? “We must determine how far is the shore. We must take stock. Only one danger has abated.”
They have traveled on a river of fear for most of the night. Sunrise by Georges reckoning isn’t far off. He strains to see beyond his abilities. What if I can see the faintest lightening of the sky? Is there hope, after all?
The first hint of fatigue hits the crew. They have been working on adrenaline for hours, it seems. The massive tiredness that begins to seep into their consciousness is a good sign as they begin to think about something other than death.
To the crew, Georges says, “We must wait a short time more. Soon, I believe, we will see the shore and perhaps a clear path to it.”
And Georges thinks, the thunder remains deafening, but the light of a new day is upon us. We will find a way! We will survive! What if we had just believed in our hearts that all was lost? Then it would be lost, surely.
After assuring himself they weren’t going to lose their perch on the river rocks, Georges called the crew together, had them get on their knees, and led a prayer to “the Lady.”
This must end well. When it became light enough for the Jean d’Arc’s crew to see and ford the river from its mid-point to safety, they rigged a line, sent a strong swimmer over the side and gained the shore. From there they cleared the ship. In the early light of day it became evident how close to death they had been. Beyond the rocks that held the little ship the earth fell away and the river with it. Nothing could have lived through such a fall.
Once on shore, bruised and tired, but with no loss of life they celebrated their twist of fate by giving themselves to jubilation and prayer. Then, again a trained military unit, they formed a perimeter, reconnoitered, and made their way out of hostile territory.
Georges lived to tell his story. What if he had not?