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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Three Midshipmen - Chapter 16. A Flight For Life
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The Three Midshipmen - Chapter 16. A Flight For Life Post by :Satish Category :Long Stories Author :William H. G. Kingston Date :May 2012 Read :2760

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The Three Midshipmen - Chapter 16. A Flight For Life

CHAPTER SIXTEEN. A FLIGHT FOR LIFE

The time passed slowly by while the _Archer's boat, with Murray, Adair, and Dick Needham aboard, and the young African lad Wasser, lay hid under the bank of the river, waiting for the time when they might sally forth to the rescue of Jack Rogers. Everybody was eager for the moment, for all longed to have him safe among them.

Wasser's deep gratitude to Hemming was very remarkable, after a separation of so many years, as was also his recollecting him. Murray felt sure that if any one could rescue Jack Rogers, Wasser was the person to do it. The day at length passed away, and after the party had taken a supper, as soon as Wasser thought it was safe, they issued forth from their leafy bower, and with rapid strokes pulled up the stream towards the fort which had been the scene of contest. Wasser remarked that none of the blacks would be venturing there at night, and that it would be the best place for the boat to remain at. Murray and Adair only landed. Needham had directions to wait for them till within an hour of daylight, and then, if they did not appear, to conclude that they were taken, and to pull down as hard as he could to inform Mr Hemming, and to bring him up to their assistance.

Wasser led the way, Alick and Paddy following close after him. Little would any of their friends have recognised in the two half-naked blackamoor lads the neat midshipmen who were wont to walk the deck of Her Majesty's ship _Ranger_, in all the pride of blue cloth, gold-laced caps, and gilt buttons. Now, except a pair of scanty drawers, a shirt fastened round the waist with a piece of rope-yarn, and a tattered straw hat, clothes they had none. Their feet were tolerably hard, from the custom in which they indulged, in common with most midshipmen, of paddling about without shoes or stockings when washing decks. They were not however unarmed, for both of them had a brace of pistols and their dirks stuck in belts concealed by their shirts. It was curious also to see one of the despised negro race taking the lead as Wasser did on the present occasion.

They landed close to the fort, when without hesitation he led the way inland, and then after a little time they found that they were going up hill. Up, up they went for a long distance, it seemed a mile or more, over a well-beaten path.

It was not so dark as it had been. The light was increasing, it was that of the rising moon. They found that they had arrived in front of some palisades. They formed the wall to the negro city. Wasser signified that they must get over it to see their friend, and conducted them to the left, along the outside of the palisade. At last they got to a spot where he showed them that they might climb over, and whispered that there were no houses near whose inhabitants might discover them. The moon, as I was saying, was rising, so there was no time to be lost in reaching Jack's prison before the light might render the approach more difficult. Cautiously they crept on under the shadow of the houses. The inhabitants appeared to be asleep. Now and then a dog barked, but they saw no one. At last, at the end of a street, they came to an open space, in which stood a solitary hut. Wasser pulled up, and said, "Dere your friend." How Alick's and Paddy's hearts longed to get at him! Their impulse was to run across the square and to let him out, but at that moment a sentry appeared from the other side of the hut with a musket on his shoulder. Though they did not fear the musket, they knew he might possibly let it off and alarm the town, so they stood under the dark shade of a wall, deliberating what was to be done. They watched him for some time, and ascertained that, like a clockwork figure, he always made the same round at the same pace.

"We shall have time to get across the square and to seize him before he makes his round," observed Murray. Adair signified that he thought the same, as did Wasser.

"Then," added Murray, "you and I, Paddy, will seize him, while Wasser lets Jack out of the prison, and he can come and help us bind and gag the sentry."

"Now is our time," whispered Murray. "One, two, three, and away!" Down the square they dashed at full speed. Paddy leaped like a wild man of the woods on a sudden on the astonished sentry's back, and pressed his hand tightly over his mouth, while Murray grasped his musket, putting his hand on the pan, to prevent it going off (he need not have taken so much trouble, as it had no flint in it), while Wasser climbed up to the top of the hut, where he had ascertained there was a hole. It was his honest countenance Jack saw looking down upon him. Jack little thought all the time how near his friends were, and what essential service they were rendering him. Wasser put down his hand, and Jack catching it, Wasser, with a strong tug, enabled him to grasp some of the rafters. Jack very quickly was on the roof, and seeing two negro lads struggling with the sentry, guessing that they were in some way trying to serve him, leapt down to help them. The sentry had very little chance against four stout lads, and so they soon had him down and gagged, and dragged inside the hut.

"Now run, run," whispered Wasser, "no moment lose."

Away they all ran as hard as they could pelt. They reached the palisade and began to scramble over it. Jack had not recognised any of his deliverers, but he was much obliged to the little black fellows for the help they had afforded him. Just then a dog barked, then a man's voice was heard shouting, then another and another joined in the outcry. There could be no doubt that the town was aroused.

The wild hubbub in the negro town increased. The midshipmen and their sable ally had too much reason to fear that they should be captured. Wasser led the way over the palisade, Jack followed, Alick and Paddy brought up the rear. Jack had not yet discovered his friends, as in consequence of their dread of being discovered no one had spoken. Jack only thought that some negro lads, for some reason or other, had come to his assistance.

"Run, run!" cried Paddy, as they jumped down on the outside of the palisades. There was little necessity for his saying this though.

"Who are you?" exclaimed Jack, the truth breaking oh him.

"Alick--Terence," they answered.

"Oh, capital! just what I should have thought you'd have done, if I had fancied it possible," said Jack. "Then let's stop and fight them."

"No, no," said Wasser, "too many men come to fight. Run on, run on!" His advice was evidently the wisest, so run they did, and at a very great rate too. It was clear that by some means or other the sentry had made himself heard. He probably did not describe, in the most complimentary of terms, the people by whom he had been knocked down, gagged, and bound. Some horrible fetish had done it, that of course he believed and asserted. The blacks must have thought that their town was attacked, and very quickly tumbled up from their beds (they had not many clothes to don) and flew to their arms. Shots were heard in different quarters, and the previous stillness of the night was rudely broken by shouting and hallooing of men, barking of dogs, and crying of children, and screaming of women to each other to inquire what it was all about. The noise, however, was not a thing to be much-dreaded. It showed that the negroes were awake, but it was also pretty evident that they had not yet begun the pursuit, so Jack and his companions thought. Wasser led them back into the chief pathway up the hill. There was no other by which they could reach the boat. They had, therefore, to pass very close again to the principal gate of the city. There was a great chance of their being seen as they did so. There was no help for it, so on they dashed. Never had any of them ran faster in their lives, for they were running for their lives. Down the hill they went. They heard a shout; some men were rushing out of the gate of the city in pursuit.

"On, on--mans come--neber fear," cried Wasser.

"I should think not," observed Jack, but he did not slacken his speed. Their pursuers came on at a great rate. They knew the ground and their feet were accustomed to it. Alick and Paddy found theirs hurt horribly, while Jack, having on shoes, could not run as fast as the negroes. It was a long way to the boat. Happily, however, the path wound about a good deal, or probably their pursuers, who had arms, would have fired, that is to say, if the arms had locks and were loaded--slight points in which negro soldiers are not always very particular. Luckily they had to go down the hill instead of up it. At length they reached the bottom; still they had some way to go. The voices of their pursuers grew louder and louder. They fancied that they heard some Spaniards among them, uttering their usual horrid oaths. They knew that those wretches were far more barbarous than their black brethren. With the negroes they might have had some chance of escape, with the Spanish pirates none. On they went. They dared not look round. There was a sharp report of a pistol--a bullet flew by them. Another and another followed. Happily, as their pursuers were running, they could not take steady aim; still they were getting dreadfully near. Another enemy was added to the pursuers. The midshipmen heard the baying of a bloodhound. There could be no doubt about the sound. The brute was still at a distance though; probably let loose by some of the Spaniards not roused till late to join in the chase. Murray and Adair remembered their pistols, and it was a satisfaction to feel that they might possibly shoot him before they were torn to pieces. Not that the task would prove an easy one though. Just then appeared before them through the dark foliage a sheet of silvery hue; it was the river. The sight nerved their limbs afresh; they had need of something to encourage them. Scarcely thirty yards behind them came the savage rabble. The fugitives had difficulty to keep ahead of them. Fierce were the shouts of blacks and Spaniards, and more savage was the baying of the bloodhound. Paddy, who brought up the rear, could scarcely help shrieking out, for he felt the brute close at his heels. He cared much more for it than he did for the bullets. He was certain that in another moment the animal would have hold of his legs, when up there started, just in front of the fugitives, honest Dick Needham and two seamen, well-armed with muskets and cutlasses. Dick, springing forward, made a cut at the savage brute, which almost severed its head from its body, and then shouted, "Back, back, you villains, or we'll blow you into the sky!" and then, in another tone, he cried out, "Run for the boat, young gentlemen, we'll cover your retreat." No one required to be told this a second time, and Needham and the seamen, facing the crowd of blacks, and firing as they retreated, kept the enemy completely at bay till the midshipmen and Wasser had reached the boat. They were not long in jumping in after them, and, shoving off, away they pulled, shouting with delight at their success, and leaving their enraged pursuers swearing and grinning with rage on the shore.

"A miss is as good as a mile," cried Paddy, as he seized one of the oars; but they were not altogether out of the fire. Many of the people collected on the shore had muskets, and began blazing away at them, several of the shots striking the boat, and others coming uncomfortably near; this only made them pull the faster however. While some of the slave-dealers' people were firing, others ran along the bank, and, launching several canoes, paddled off in pursuit. This was much worse than their shooting. The British boat, a light gig, pulled well, but the canoes would probably paddle faster. Nothing daunted, however, Jack and Murray set to work to reload all the muskets and pistols, to make as good a fight of it as they could, should they be overtaken. They could count the canoes as they appeared darting out from among the bushes on the banks--one, two, three, four, five, six, came out one after the other. It was a long way down to the spot where Hemming had said he would await their return. Before they could reach it the blacks must have overtaken them, unless Jack and Murray could manage to pick off some of their chief men, and so perhaps frighten them back; both said that they would do their best to effect that object, however. Wasser sat quiet; he could do no more for the present--not all men even _can sit quiet. The canoes drew nearer and nearer. However, a sailor feels very differently on the water and on shore, for even when compelled to run away on his own element, he can face his enemy and show fight: this Murray and Rogers now did to some effect. The canoes had got well within range of their muskets: the sooner, therefore, they began to fire, the better chance they would have of stopping their pursuers. Old Brown Bess, however, was never celebrated for carrying very straight, and neither Jack nor Alick did much execution. At the same time, now and then, they saw the negroes bob their heads as the bullets whistled unpleasantly near them. Some of the people in the canoes fired in return, but, as Dick Needham observed, they might as well have been firing at the moon for all the harm they did.

The English boat pulled on, the canoes following. A long reach was before them. Surely and steadily the canoes were gaining on the boat. The greater portion of the distance to the end of the reach was got over, and now in another five minutes, perhaps less, the canoes would be up with her. "While there is life there is hope;" so thought Jack and his companions, and so they continued making every effort to escape. The voices of the negroes chattering away in the headmost canoe, sounded very loud. Jack and Murray had ceased firing--for the best of reasons-- they had come to the end of their ammunition. Perhaps it was fortunate; they could have done no good, and would only the more have enraged the negroes. The latter also had not fired for some time, probably on the same account.

"I feel somewhat inclined to squeak, as a hare does when a greyhound catches hold of her, but I won't," said Jack, as the headmost canoe got almost up to them. "You two in the bows, Johnson and Jones, keep pulling, while all the rest lay about them to drive off the blacks. We are not going to be beat by a parcel of pirates and niggers."

The men cheered at Jack's address, and, grasping their cutlasses, stood ready to obey his directions. Now came the tug of war. The other canoes got up and crowded round them, but again the undaunted seamen cheered, and firing their pistols right and left among the pirates, laid about them most lustily with their well-sharpened cutlasses. As they cheered, what was their surprise to hear their cheers answered, and at the same moment five dark objects on the water were seen coming round the next point. Murray exclaimed that they were men-of-war boats. They must have made out that their presence was much needed. On they dashed towards the canoes. The pirates saw them coming, and dared not stand their onslaught. Before they turned to fly, they made a desperate attempt to capsize the boat, and to carry off some of the English as prisoners. They very nearly got hold of Paddy, whom, in spite of his costume and colour, they had discovered not to be a negro; but Jack and Alick hauled him back, with the loss only of part of his shirt. Poor Wasser was in the same manner saved by Needham; had they got him they would, to a certainty, have killed him. The other boats, now dashing on, put them to flight, and off they went at a great rate up the stream. Hemming himself had come to their rescue. He had felt some misgivings about them, and had returned, intending, if he did not meet them, to land and threaten to ravage the black king's whole territory with fire and sword if they were not given up. Jack was received with warm congratulation by his friends; but there was not much time for compliments, as Hemming instantly went off in pursuit of the canoes. The canoes paddled fast, but the men-of-war boats pulled just then faster, and the negroes and their Spanish allies, finding escape problematical, ran the canoes in on the bank, and, leaping on shore, left them to their fate. As they were undoubtedly employed to assist, directly or indirectly, the nefarious slave-trade, Hemming set fire to them all with the exception of one, which he carried off as a trophy. As it was important to get on board as soon as possible, Hemming pulled at once back to the place where the rest of the boats, with the prisoners and liberated slaves, had been left. They were all safe, and by noon the next day the expedition returned once more to the ship. Sad indeed was the loss they had to report--so many fine fellows cut down in a nameless fight with a band of rascally pirates. The captives not only exonerated Hemming of all blame, but assured him that they believed he had done all that a man could do under the circumstances of the case. Everybody on board both ships welcomed Jack, and poor Wasser was highly delighted with the way he was received and praised for the assistance he had afforded in rescuing him from the slave-dealers; nor did Murray and Adair fail to get their meed of applause.

"I am much obliged to you for all what you have to say," answered Paddy, laughing, "but I wish some of you would tell me how to wash a blackamoor white. I have heard that it was a difficult operation. The burnt cork would have come off by itself, but Dick Needham rubbed in the oil and grease so hard that soap and water won't do it."

Doctor McCan, when applied to, looked rather grave, and, after he had heard the circumstances of the case, delivered a long lecture to prove that black powder rubbed in in that way, in such a climate, when the pores were open, would take root and become ineradicable.

Terence saw a twinkle in the doctor's eye, which made him suspect a quiz, and the laughter of Jack, Alick, and some of his other messmates who stood round, confirmed this suspicion. At first he felt that he ought to be very indignant, but his good-humour seldom kept away many seconds together, and he quickly joined in the laugh against himself. He then accompanied Alick into the hospital, where, in a tub with some hot water and soap, and some alkali the doctor gave them, they very soon got washed white, and returned on deck as spruce-looking midshipmen as they usually appeared. Theirs and Jack's great regret was, that as Alick had to go back to the brig, and they must join the frigate, they would again be separated. Rogers and Adair were once more or board the _Ranger_, with Lieutenant Hemming and Needham, and the rest of the people who had escaped the various dangers to which they had been exposed since they quitted her. Captain Lascelles was of opinion that it would be necessary to inflict a severe punishment on the slave-dealing king and his white allies, and accordingly resolved to send another expedition up the river without delay, to burn his town and any other barracoons which might be in the neighbourhood; or to induce him to break off all intercourse with the Spanish slave-dealers. The Commodore was able to carry out his object even sooner than he expected, by the arrival of two other brigs, the _Rambler and the _Tattler_. Jack and Terence were very much disappointed when they found that they were not to go. To their earnest request to be allowed to volunteer, Captain Lascelles replied, "I admire your spirit, my lads, but as you are not made of iron, and I cannot afford to expend my midshipmen, others must take their share of the work. You are both of you already as thin as thread-papers."

Certainly by this time they had become very brown and wiry, and bore but a slight resemblance to the rosy, jolly-looking midshipmen they were when they left England. Hemming, however, again went in command, and Wasser begged that he might accompany him as interpreter. With somewhat of an envious feeling the midshipmen saw a considerable flotilla of boats cross the bar and pull up the river.

The day passed away, and so did the greater part of the next, and still the boats did not reappear. Captain Lascelles became somewhat anxious. Hour after hour went by. "There they come, there they come!" was shouted by several who were on the lookout on deck. Not only were all the boats seen, but several large canoes were in their company. In one of the latter, as they drew near, Jack recognised his friend, the negro king, seated in the stern and dressed in the same magnificent uniform in which he had appeared in his own palace. He seemed perfectly happy, and was smoking a pipe with true regal dignity. The side was manned to receive him, and with a grand air he stepped on deck, making a profound bow and a wide flourish with his cocked-hat. Captain Lascelles, on this, went forward to meet him, and, ordering up some cushions from the cabin, begged him to be seated and to continue smoking his pipe, while he ascertained from Hemming the particulars of the expedition. The expedition had proceeded up the greater part of the way towards the fort without meeting any one. When near it a canoe appeared approaching them. In it were the stout pilot, Jack's friend, and three other blacks rigged out in what they considered full fig. They came, they said, as ambassadors from the king. He wished to inform the English that Don Diogo and the rest of the Spanish slave-dealers had gone away overland, to the south--he could not tell where--and that, as he wished to be friends with everybody, he hoped that no further harm might be done to his country. Hemming replied that he was very glad to hear this, but that profession was not practice, and that he must have stronger proofs of his sincerity. The pilot said the king hoped all the English would visit his capital. Hemming answered, that half would go and half would stay to look after the boats. Whether treachery was intended or not, the idea was, it appeared, abandoned, and Hemming, with thirty of his men well-armed, proceeded up the hill to the king's capital. They found it to be a tolerably strong place, and though they might have taken it by storm, not, perhaps, without difficulty and loss. The king received them very courteously, and seemed to be really a sensible fellow, perfectly alive to his own interests. During a long palaver, Hemming explained to him that if he persisted in carrying on the slave-trade, the English would destroy his barracoons, and injure and annoy him in every possible way; but that if he abandoned it, and refused to have anything to do with slave-dealers, but would engage in commerce, encourage agriculture, well treat his people, and act like an honest man, they would assist and encourage him in every possible way; that the Queen of England would be friends with him, call him her well-beloved brother, and send him presents of far greater value than any he got from the Spaniards. So eloquently, indeed, did Hemming put the case before him, that his negro majesty expressed his eagerness to come off to the good queen's big ship and ratify the treaty, which he desired might forthwith be drawn up. Captain Lascelles lost no time in clenching the matter. All sorts of presents were bestowed on the black sovereign; a gun, some crockery, a pair of boots, a tooth-comb, a pair of epaulets, and half a dozen gaily coloured pocket-handkerchiefs, the pilot and the other chiefs coming in for a share of the good things, the captain hinting that this was only a forestalment of what they might expect if they behaved well. Highly pleased with all that had occurred, under a salute of eleven guns from the frigate, and more than half-seas over, the negro potentate and his great ministers of the realm, and other followers, betook themselves to the shore.

"They are slippery as their own skins," observed the Commodore; "we must have a sharp look on them, to keep them to their engagements."

The _Ranger had captured several slavers, and sent them away to Sierra Leone for adjudication, and had driven many more off from the rivers into which they were bound to take in their cargoes, when, being under easy sail, about six miles off the coast, a large schooner was seen in-shore of them. Though all sail was made in chase, as the schooner increased her distance, Captain Lascelles ordered two boats to be manned in order to pursue her. To their great delight Jack got command of one, the cutter with eight men, and Adair of the other, a gig with six, many of the other officers being away in prizes. Their chief object was to come up with her before the setting in of the sea-breeze. Both boats, however, pulled badly, being soddened from having been so constantly in the water, besides which they leaked not a little. However, Jack and Paddy had learned that perseverance conquers all difficulties. Hot, as usual, was the sun. "Another warm day, Jack," cried Terence, as they pulled away; "I wonder how much marrow we shall have left in our bones and how much fat outside them when we get home."

Two hours and a half passed before they got up with the chase. The gig, from pulling best, was ahead. Jack did not grudge his messmate the honour, though he liked to be first when he could. The schooner, with all her sweeps out, as the boats neared her, put her helm up, and tried to run them down, opening at the same time a sharp fire of musketry. They, however, were too quick for her, and, pulling on either side, each man seized his musket and let fly in return. Loading again with the greatest coolness, as they passed her, they poured in another volley. The sweeps being rigged out, prevented them from climbing up by the chains.

"Never mind," cried Jack, "let us try the quarters." He pulled up to one quarter, Adair to the other, and before the slavers knew where they were going, the boats had hooked on, the seamen, led by their two gallant young officers, were springing over the low quarters of the schooner. Adair, however, got a severe lick on the shoulder, which would have sent him back into the boat had not one of his men given him a shove up; while Jack got an ugly gash on his arm from a cutlass, and would have had his head laid bare, had not Dick Needham's trusty weapon interposed to save him. All this time the slaver's crew were firing away down into the boats. One of the cutter's men was shot, and fell over. A messmate, Brown, attempted to lift him up, but he sank down like a piece of lead.

"It's all over with him," cried Brown, springing over the bulwarks, and resolved to avenge him. It was too true. He had been shot through the heart. A like fate befell one of the gig's crew. Still, with diminished numbers, the British fought on, but the odds were fearfully against them. They had, however, gained a footing on the slaver's deck, and as they had cutlasses and pistols in their hands, which they well knew how to use, they felt themselves to be on equal terms with six times their number of the sort of mongrel wretches who made up the slaver's crew. The latter at the same time seemed in no way daunted, and fought on with the greatest desperation. Hitherto neither Jack nor Adair had made out who were the officers of the wretches opposed to them, for the smoke hung so thickly over the deck, crowded as it was with people of every hue and every variety of costume, that it was difficult to distinguish one from the other. At last Jack caught sight of a little man, urging on his companions. The voice too he had heard before. A puff of wind cleared away the smoke: Jack recognised his old enemy, Don Diogo. The Don knew him also. "Ah, ah, have you come to be killed?" sang out the little man, with a horrid grin. "Cut him down, cut down the little spy, my men. He was one of those who destroyed our barracoons and deprived us of our property. The sea-breeze will soon be up to us, and we may laugh at the frigate. Revenge, revenge!" Instigated by these shouts from their fierce chief, the slaver's crew, uttering loud imprecations, made a desperate rush against the English, and Jack, in spite of the gallant defence made by those around him, found himself brought on his knee to the deck.

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