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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Three Midshipmen - Chapter 26. Another Fierce Conflict
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The Three Midshipmen - Chapter 26. Another Fierce Conflict Post by :Aragon2005 Category :Long Stories Author :William H. G. Kingston Date :May 2012 Read :796

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The Three Midshipmen - Chapter 26. Another Fierce Conflict

CHAPTER TWENTY SIX. ANOTHER FIERCE CONFLICT


A ship on shore is, at all times, a melancholy spectacle; but very sad it makes the hearts of those feel who see their own vessel lying among rocks in strange seas, far away from any friendly ports, and surrounded by enemies. Mr Cherry and his companions pulled away with all their might to ascertain the worst. The frigate, during this time, occasionally fired one of her bow guns. As they drew nearer, they perceived that she was doing so at a fleet of war-junks clustering in the distance, but who prudently were keeping out of range of her shot. Still, from their remaining where they were, it was evident that they were meditating an attack on her should another gale spring up, or any other occurrence give them a chance of success. The boats could not be of any great assistance, but still they would be of some use in the exertions to be made in getting her off. The brig would be of far more service; but where she was, it was difficult to say. When last seen, she was in a chase of another fleet of pirates to the northward. When they got alongside, every man of the frigate's crew was busily engaged in efforts to get the ship off. Mr Cherry and his party were warmly welcomed, however, and in spite of the fatigue they had gone through, they all at once lent a hand to effect the desired object. Anchors were got out astern, the anchors and some of the heavy guns were lowered into the boats, and the capstan was manned. Round went the men with the capstan bars, but the cables were soon stretched to their utmost, and there they stood pressing with might and main, but not an inch did the frigate move.

"We shall have to start the water and heave some of the stores and guns overboard, I fear," observed the first lieutenant to the captain.

"We will do anything rather than lose our guns," said Captain Grant. "I have no fancy to have our teeth drawn. The crew may rest for a spell. See, there is a breeze coming ahead," observed the captain, after some time. "Man the capstan again. Set the mainsail, mizen-topsail, and topgallant-sail. Let the people run from side to side as the capstan goes round."

The orders were put into execution. The men strained every nerve as before. Suddenly the capstan went round an inch; then another and another. Was it the anchors coming home? No: the ship herself was moving. Everybody on board felt her move. "Hurrah! hurrah!" There was a general shout. Again the men sprang round with the capstan bars; the frigate was afloat. She was soon hauled off into deep water. The well was sounded, but she did not appear to have received any damage. Night was now coming on, and the master was unwilling to take the ship through the intricate channels, among which she was entangled, without daylight to guide him. She was therefore brought up with a spring on her cables, ready to make sail, should any emergency arise to make this necessary.

The three old messmates were now together again, for the first time since they left England. Jack and Adair had all their adventures to tell to Murray, who was keeping the first watch, and so, though tired as they were, they preferred walking the deck with him to turning in and going to sleep. The night was very dark, but the wind fell, and it became almost calm, so that the only sound was the splash of the water as the swell broke over the reef ahead. All on board had reason to be thankful that they were not on it. The young men had a good deal to talk about; but it did not prevent them keeping their eyes about them, or their ears open. Jack, also, did not forget his young charge, little Harry Bevan.

"It is high time we should be thinking of turning in," he observed. "But I must see first how Harry gets on."

He went below to the berth where the young midshipman had been placed, and found one of the assistant-surgeons with him. The poor boy was very feverish, and was continually crying out for lemonade, and other cooling beverages. Jack sat with him for some time till he became calmer and better, and then went on deck to have another look out before he turned in for the night, as, not belonging to the ship, he had no watch to keep. He found the officer of the watch, Murray, and others peering through the darkness, over the frigate's quarter.

"Some suspicious sounds were heard coming from that direction," remarked Murray. "There were voices, and creaking of blocks, and the splash of oars. It is just to windward, and sounds travel a long distance in a dark night. Our friends, the pirates, are about some mischief. Perhaps they expect to find us napping, and purpose paying a visit."

Everybody on deck was on the alert, and there was not much chance of the crew of the frigate being taken by surprise at all events. Captain Grant was told of what had occurred; they waited and waited, but still nothing more was seen, or rather heard, of the pirate junks. Yet Murray and Mr Cherry, and all the officers who had been on deck, were so certain that they had not been deceived, that it was concluded that the pirates had been really close to them, but finding the frigate afloat, had thought better of the matter and hauled off.

Jack and Adair at last went below. Jack did not turn in, but lay down on one of the lockers in the midshipmen's berth, with a writing-desk for a pillow, and a boat-cloak for a mattress. The instant he put his head on the desk he was fast asleep. It appeared to him but a moment afterwards that he heard the cry, "All hands on deck." Immediately afterwards several shots were fired from the frigate. He was up in a moment. On looking out he saw the dark shadowy forms of numerous large war-junks gliding round the ship, and the next instant a shower of jingall balls and round shot came rattling on deck. The salute was returned by a broadside from the frigate, which, if it did not send several of the pirate's junks to the bottom, must have severely crippled a number of them. They must have thought that the frigate was still ashore, or that she had hove her guns overboard to get off, or they would not have ventured so near.

Still the unseen enemy showed more courage than might have been expected, and from every direction, on each beam and ahead, and astern, a shower of missiles came crashing in which could not fail to do a considerable amount of damage. The cries of several poor fellows showed that they were badly wounded, while one seaman, standing close to Jack Rogers, fell heavily to the deck. Jack stooped to raise him, but the man did not speak, and from the inert weight of the body, he feared too truly that he was killed. The worst part of the business was that, from the excessive darkness of the night and the thick mist which hung over the water, it was only from the flashes of the enemy's guns that the frigate's crew were able to see how to point theirs. By the cries and shrieks which arose every now and then in the distance they had reason to believe that their shot had told with dire effect. Still the pirate's shot was doing them a great deal of mischief, and, notwithstanding all their courage and power, all they could do in return was blindly to blaze away. Still there could be no doubt that the pirates would ultimately get the worst of it, and haul off long before morning. Of course, in daylight they would not venture to remain near her. After the frigate had fired several broadsides, it was discovered that the enemy on each side did not reply, but that all the shot came from ahead or astern. Again, the guns being loaded, Captain Grant hauled in on the spring so as to bring the broadsides in the direction the head and stern had before been. The word "fire!" was given. Instantly the terrific shrieks which rent the air showed that the enemy had there most thickly assembled. Some random shots were fire in return, and then all was silent.

"Really it is difficult to believe that so short a time ago the ship was surrounded by bloodthirsty enemies," observed Murray to Jack, as they stood together looking out into the darkness. "Besides the poor fellows who have been hit, I dare say that our running rigging and sails will show that we have been engaged; yet now how calm and quiet everything is."

"I, for one, would not trust them, though," said Jack; "if they can play us a trick they will."

The night, however, wore on. The pirates had evidently a sufficient taste of the frigate's quality, and had no wish to try it further.

Once more Jack was going below to finish his nap on the locker, when he heard Adair sing out, "There are two big junks close aboard us."

Captain Grant was on deck in an instant, and ordered the capstan to be manned to work the ship round as might be required.

"They are desperate fellows on board those crafts, or they would not attempt to get so near us," observed Adair.

"They are indeed," said Jack. "See, there's another of them. I don't like their looks. I wonder the captain has not ordered us to fire at them."

Just then Captain Grant's voice was heard ordering the boats to be lowered. Scarcely were the words out of his mouth than a bright light burst out of one of the junks, and instantly she was in flames, casting forth rockets and missiles of every description.

"They are fire-ships," cried numerous voices--a very evident fact. Without a moment's delay, Jack and Murray and Adair, with two of the lieutenants of the frigate, and the men nearest at hand, jumped into the boats, and, being lowered, pulled off to tow the fire-ships away from her; as, in consequence of the darkness, they had been brought thus close up before they were discovered, there was little time to spare. One in another minute would be alongside. Jack boldly sprang up her high bow, and making fast a tow-rope, ordered the men to give way. The spring on the frigate's cable was manned, and her broadside was turned away from the approaching fire-ships. Scarcely had Jack got hold of his prize than the flames burst forth from her, and he and the crew were covered with sparks and burning fragments of wood, which several times nearly set their clothes on fire and singed them not a little. Fortunately the rockets and other fireworks on board took an upward flight, but they soon found themselves pulling under a complete cascade of fire. Jack cheered them on: "Never mind, my lads," he shouted; "it's better than having the old frigate burnt, at all events."

He could scarcely bear the heat of the fire; still he persevered. At last he got his unpleasant captive just clear astern of the frigate, and a little way to leeward. Still a shift of wind might send her back, so he was towing her a little farther, when, with a loud roar, some magazine, which had been hitherto preserved at the bottom of the ship, exploded, sending every particle of her which remained high into the air, and as the wreck came down, the fragments very nearly swamped the boat and killed all in her. No one was hurt, however, and he and his brave crew instantly pulled back to grapple with another foe. All the other fire-ships had been seized hold of and were very nearly towed clear of the frigate.

Jack heard Murray's voice calling to him. Alick was fast to one which seemed heavier than the rest, and he had great difficulty, apparently, in moving her. Had not Jack gone to his assistance, in a few seconds she would have been alongside the frigate. When just under her stern, she broke out into the fiercest flames, and Jack, whose clothes were by this time very nearly done brown, was glad enough to cast loose from her. In another moment she blew up with a violent explosion, and as before, fragments of the burning wreck came flaming down into and around the boats, while the other fire-ships were still burning away brightly to leeward. Once more the boats were hoisted up, and the frigate was made ready to get under weigh the instant daylight would allow her to be carried free of the reefs. Just as one of the quarter boats was being secured, a splash was heard, and instantly the cry was raised of "A man overboard!"

Jack Rogers, who was on the quarter-deck, without stopping to ask who it was, kicked off his shoes, and threw off his jacket, and gliding down a rope, struck out astern. There was a strong current running, he had before discovered, and he knew that the man who had fallen overboard would be carried rapidly away from the ship.

"Who are you?" he sang out in a loud voice. "Tell me, that I may know where to swim to you."

There was no answer.

"It was Mr Murray, sir," cried some one from the ship. "We are afraid that he must have hurt himself as he fell."

This was sad news to Jack. Still he determined to persevere. The only light he had to guide him was from the burning fire-ships now drifting away. Should Murray come to the surface, he hoped he might see him and be near enough to support him, till a boat could arrive and pick them up. He heard the sounds of a boat being lowered from the frigate. He raised himself out of the water for an instant to look around, and he felt sure that he perceived a person's head not far off. He made strenuous efforts to reach it. Just then also he saw, the glare of the burning vessel being cast on it, what he would rather not have seen--a large Chinese boat. He was certain that the head was Murray's. His old friend was drifting rapidly down towards the pirates. He had every reason to fear that they would strike at Alick the moment he got near. He knew also that they would equally strike at him, but this did not make him hesitate a moment. He clove the water with all his might, dashing on till he was close up to the drowning man. He hoped that the pirates might not have seen him.

"A few more strokes, and I shall have him," he exclaimed to himself. Just then he saw some of the savage-looking pirates standing up in the boat peering towards him. A gleam of light fell on the head of the person in the water. It was Murray. He seized his friend by the collar and turned him on his back, then struck out once more towards the frigate. Of course he had but one hand at liberty, and in spite of all his efforts he could not stem the current, but found himself and Murray still drifting down towards their relentless foes. Some accident had, apparently, happened to the boat, and he could not tell whether or not she was even yet in the water. He could do nothing but keep himself and his companion afloat. He dared not shout, as his so doing would draw the attention of the pirates towards them, and he felt sure that, at all events, a boat would be sent to look for him. Jack and Alick had now another danger to encounter. They were drifting down on one of the fire-ships, and ran a great chance of being burnt. To avoid the fire-ship, Jack was obliged to approach nearer the pirate-boat, which had been keeping so as to leave the burning vessel between her and the frigate. The miscreants now saw him, and dashing their paddles in the water, were rapidly up to him. He fully expected that the next moment would be his last; but he still held fast the senseless form of his friend. He looked up for an instant, and saw the hideous countenances of the Chinamen glaring down on him over the side of their boat.

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