A Roving Commission: or, Through the Black Insurrection at Hayti
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"What is it, Monsieur Glover! Are those noises really the sound of guns?"
"There is no doubt about it. There is a fight going on seven or eight miles away. We should hear the sound more plainly were it not that there is a headland between us and the vessels engaged."
"Who can they be?" Madame Pickard said.
"A pirate and a merchantman, no doubt. None of the European nations are at war, but the seas swarm with piratical craft of one kind or another. The small ones content themselves with plundering native coasting vessels, the larger ones attack ships from or to Europe. The Orpheus, to which I belonged at that time, last year rooted out one of their worst nests. They had no fewer than four ships. We were lucky enough to catch one of them, and learned where the rendezvous was, and fortunately found the other three at home, and destroyed them and their storehouses."
"Are you going on in that direction now?" Valerie asked.
"Yes, we are going to have a look at them. If the trader is making a good fight of it, our arrival may turn the scale; if we arrive too late and find the enemy too big for us, we can run away; in a light wind like this there are very few vessels that could catch us. It is probable that we should not interfere were it not for the possibility that we may be in time to save some of the passengers and crew of the merchantman. She must be a vessel of some size, judging from the sound of her guns. Even if she has surrendered before we get there, and we find that we are in any way a match for the pirate, we might, after defeating her, save at least some of the captives. As a rule, these scoundrels, when all opposition has ceased, confine the prisoners in the hold, and after emptying the prize of everything valuable, scuttle her, and of course drown all on board. In that way all traces of their crime are lost, whereas if they killed them some of the bodies might float inshore, or if they burnt the ship the smoke might bring down any cruiser that happened to be in the neighborhood.
"I am sorry that you are on board, ladies."
"Oh, do not think of us!" Madame Pickard exclaimed. "After the wonderful deliverance that we have had, I am sure that none of us would mind any risk if there is a chance of saving others in as dire peril as we were."
The two girls and Monsieur Pickard warmly agreed. "Please put us altogether out of consideration," the latter said. "Even if we knew that it was probable we should all lose our lives we should not hesitate. We are not, I hope, any of us, afraid of death. It was the kind of death that we were terrified at."
"I thank you all," Nat said gravely. "I shall not fight unless I think that there is at any rate a fair chance of victory."
On going on deck when breakfast was finished, Nat ordered the magazine to be opened and ammunition brought up. The wind had freshened a little, and the schooner was going faster through the water; and in three quarters of an hour after hearing the first gun they neared the promontory.
"I am afraid it is all over," Nat said to the ladies, who had also come on deck; "there has not been a gun fired for the past two or three minutes.However, we shall soon see."
On rounding the point they saw two vessels lying side by side, a mile and a half distant, and about a mile from shore. One was a barque, evidently a large merchantman; the other a brigantine. There was no question that the latter was a pirate, and the other her prize. The sailors, after a glance at them, turned their eyes anxiously towards Nat for orders. The latter stood quietly examining the ships through his glass.
"She mounts five guns a side, and I should say that they are about the same weight as our own," he said to Turnbull; "and from the men swarming on her deck and that of her prize she must have nearly, if not quite, three times our strength, even counting the Frenchmen in."
"She is too big to fight squarely, sir," Turnbull reluctantly agreed. "I am afraid she is altogether too tough a customer for us; and yet one hates the thought of leaving them to complete their devil's work on their prize."
"Yes, we can't think of doing that, Mr. Turnbull. The first thing to do will be to draw them off from her."
"But they would be sure to leave some of their men in possession of her."
"Well, if they do, there will be so many the fewer for us to fight. We are within a mile now, I should say?"
"Then train the two forward guns on them, and let them see that we mean fighting."
A cheer broke from the sailors clustered round the guns as Turnbull gave the order.
"Now, ladies," Nat said, "you can stop to see the effect of our first shot, and then I must ask you to go down on to the lower deck. Sam will show you the way and take some cushions down for you; you will be out of danger there."
As he spoke, the two guns which were already loaded were fired, and the men gave a cheer as two white patches appeared on the side of the brigantine.
"Please hurry down, ladies," Nat said, checking the entreaty which he saw they were going to make. "It won't be long before they answer us."
"Give them another round, lads!" he said, as they reluctantly obeyed his orders. "Get them in if you can before he is ready."
Busy as they were, the pirates had not observed the schooner until her guns were fired. With shouts of alarm they ran back to their own ship, but these were succeeded by exclamations of anger and surprise when they saw how small was the craft that had thus intruded into the affair. By the captain's orders twenty of the crew, under his first mate, returned to the deck of the prize; a portion of the men ran to the guns, others threw off the grapnels fastening them to the prize. Before they were ready to fire, two more shots from the schooner crashed into the brigantine, one passing through the bulwarks, killing three men and wounding several others with the splinters. The other struck her within a few inches of the water-line.
The schooner at once bore up, discharging the guns on the starboard side as she came round, and laying her course as close to the wind as she could be jammed, showed her stern to the pirate. Two of his guns forward were fired, others could not be brought to bear. The Arrow was now almost retracing her course, for the wind was west-nor'-west, and she could just follow the line of coast.
"Here they come after us!" Turnbull said, rubbing his hands, "as savage as bees whose hive has been disturbed."
"Now, Mr. Turnbull, get the two guns right aft, so as to fire over the taffrail. We must see if we cannot knock some of her spars away. As soon as you have moved the guns let all hands, except those serving them, go forward and lie down there. The weight of the guns will put her rather by the stern, and I don't want to let that fellow come any nearer to us. She is in her best trim now."
As soon as the guns were ready they opened fire. The brigantine answered with her bow-chaser, but, as she was obliged to yaw each time she brought it to bear, she presently ceased firing.
"We are gaining on her, sir," Lippincott said, as he watched the pirate through his glass.
"Yes, and sailing fully a point nearer to the wind than she does. Get a stay-sail fastened to a rope, and drop it over close to the bow. I don't want to run away from her. If she found that we were too fast for her she would give up the chase, and go back to the prize. I want her to gain just enough to encourage her to keep on. She is a fast craft, but we are faster. We shall be able to manage her, providing she does not knock away any of our spars."
The start the schooner had made had at first widened the distance between them, and there was now a mile and a quarter of water separating them. The brigantine was hulled several times and her sails pierced, but her spars were still intact. She was permitted to gain until she was little more than half a mile astern, but the schooner had weathered on her, and was now nearly half a mile to windward.
"If we had an open sea on this side instead of the land," Turnbull said, "and were to cut away that sail, they would not see us again."
"No; they must have come to the same conclusion. As it is, they no doubt think that our clawing out to windward is of no advantage to us. Now, get another gun over to the larboard side. It is lucky that there is a spare port there. We must make an effort to knock one of his spars out, or he may cripple us." For by this time the brigantine had again opened fire. "Let the three best shots we have got lay the guns on her mainmast. Tell them to train them rather high, so that if they miss the mark they may cut one of the halyards, which will give us all the start we want."
The guns were run into their position on the broadside. "Don't hurry over it," Nat said; "let each fire as his gun comes to bear." There was a crash and a cry as he spoke; a ball had gone through the Arrow from side to side, tearing jagged holes through her bulwarks, one of the sailors being struck to the deck by a splinter. No one spoke, every eye being fixed on the guns. These were fired almost together. There was a pause for a second or two, and then a burst of cheering as the gaff of the great mainsail of the brigantine was seen to collapse.
"It is hit close to the jaws," Turnbull, whose glass was levelled on the pirates, exclaimed.
"Cut away that sail in the water!" Nat shouted. "Up with your helm, men, and bring her round. That is right," he went on as the schooner came up into the wind and payed off on the other tack. "Now, slack away her sheets!"
Three guns were vengefully fired by the pirate, but the sudden change in the schooner's position disconcerted their aim, and the shot flew wide. Without waiting for orders, the seamen at two of the guns ran them over to the starboard side, and, all working at the highest pressure, poured shot after shot into the brigantine, which answered but slowly, as numbers of the men had run aloft to get the sail down to repair damages. Before she was under way again the schooner had left her a mile behind. She was now on her best point of sailing, while the brigantine was to some extent crippled by the mainsail setting badly, and by the time the headland was again passed the schooner was fully two miles ahead. Her crew had for some time been puzzled at the action being so abruptly concluded, and Turnbull had even ventured to say:
"I should think, sir, we should have a fair chance with her now."
"Not a very good chance. We have been lucky, but with ten guns to our four, and her strong crew of desperate men, she would be a very awkward customer. We can think of her later on. My plan is to retake the prize before she can come up. It is not likely that they have killed the crew yet, and I expect the captain told those left behind to leave things as they were until he returned. We may scarcely be a match for the brigantine, but the prize and we together should be able to give a good account of ourselves."
"Splendid, sir!" Turnbull exclaimed joyously; "that is a grand idea."
"Have the guns loaded with grape," Nat said quietly, "and run two of them over to the other side. We will go outside the prize, bring our craft up into the wind, and shoot her up inside her, and give them one broadside and then board. Tell the men to have their pistols and cutlasses ready, and distribute the boarding-pikes among the Frenchmen."
As soon as they rounded the point they could see by their glasses that there was a sudden commotion on the deck of the merchantman.
"They did not expect to see us back first," Lippincott laughed.
"Even now, I should think, they are expecting to see the brigantine close behind us in chase, and don't suspect what we are up to. Don't head straight for her," he said to the helmsman, "take us a couple of lengths outside her."
The pirates, indeed, were completely deceived, but when at last they saw that the brigantine did not appear, they ran over to the guns. It was, however, too late. Two or three of these were discharged as the schooner passed, but beyond making holes in her sails no damage was done, and one of the schooner's guns poured in a volley of grape. When she was two or three lengths ahead her helm was put hard down. She flew round and just caught the wind on the other tack, gliding up alongside the merchantman, the three guns being discharged in succession as the two vessels touched.
The grapnels were thrown, and the sailors and Frenchmen leapt on to her deck headed by the three officers. Nearly half the pirates had been killed or wounded by the four discharges of grape. The remainder made but a poor fight of it, and were cut down to a man.
"Off with the hatches, men!" Nat shouted. "Run down and release the crew."
He himself ran aft into the saloon. Here six gentlemen and eight or ten ladies were lying bound hand and foot. Several of the men were wounded. Nat at once cut the cords.
"You are safe," he said. "The ship has been retaken by his majesty's schooner Arrow, but we have not done with the brigantine yet, and any of you who have weapons and can use them may lend a hand."
Without waiting to listen to the chorus of cries of gratitude, he ran out again. A minute later a number of seamen poured up on deck. Many of them were wounded.
"How many are there of you?" he asked an officer among them.
"There are thirty of us," he said; "we had lost nearly half our crew before they boarded us. The captain was killed early in the fight, as was the first officer."
"Well, sir, set your men to load the guns at once. There is the brigantine just coming round the point. Monsieur Pickard, will you remain here with your party and help the sailors? Get your sails sheeted home, sir!" he went on to the ship's officer. "Is your vessel a fast one?"
"Yes, but she is not so fast as that brigantine."
"That is of no consequence," Nat said. "Get every sail you can on her. Now get twenty of our men on board again, Mr. Lippincott, and on second thoughts I will take five of the Frenchmen. Mr. Turnbull, you will remain on board in command of this ship with the other five of our men. My endeavour will be to knock away one of her masts. Do you keep as close as you can to us, and we will board her together, one on each side. If she knocks away one of our spars, I shall as far as possible come back to meet you, and if she follows us we will fight her together."
"I understand, sir."
"The moment we push off, get your head sails aback and put her on the wind so as to get out of our way. I shall fill her off on the other tack and then come round and join you. We will keep together until we see whether she means to fight or run. Remember, the great thing is to knock a spar out of her."
So saying, he leapt on to the deck of the schooner, and Turnbull's voice was at once heard shouting the order, "Haul aft the weather sheets of the jibs;" and in a minute the two vessels were gliding away from each other on opposite tacks. Then the Arrow was brought round and followed the Thames, which was the name of the merchantman. The brigantine was now three quarters of a mile away. Suddenly she was seen to change her course. As she wore round she presented her broadside to the two vessels, and her five guns puffed out together. The reply, both from the merchantman and the Arrow, followed almost simultaneously, and a cheer rang out from both ships as the pirate's bowsprit was seen to snap off.
"Place yourself two or three cables' length from his larboard quarter," Nat shouted.
Turnbull, who had leapt on to the rail to see the result of the broadside, waved his hand.
"Down topsails!" Nat shouted, "she will be handier without them."
In a moment the two great sails came fluttering down. Turnbull followed the example, and the men ran up the ratlines and furled some of the upper sails. Deprived of her head sails, the pirate was unmanageable, and the two vessels speedily ran up and laid themselves a couple of hundred yards from his quarters and opened a steady fire. The pirates endeavoured to drag two of their guns right aft, but the volleys of grape poured into them were too much for them, and although their captain was seen to shoot two of the men, the rest ran forward. The helmsman deserted his now useless post.
"Give her one more broadside," Nat shouted to Turnbull, "and then run in and board."
The captain of the pirates, mad with rage, leapt on to the taffrail and shook his fist in defiance. At that moment two rifles cracked out from the merchantman, and he fell forward into the sea. The effect of the storm of grape from the three guns of the schooner, and the four from the trader, among the men huddled up in the bow of the pirate was terrible, but knowing that their lives were forfeited if they were taken prisoners, none made a movement aft to haul down the black flag that still floated from the peak. In two or three minutes their antagonists were alongside; a volley of musketry was poured in, and then the crews of both ships leapt on to the deck. The pirates, who were now reduced to about thirty men, rushed to meet them, determining to sell their lives dearly. But the odds were against them; they missed the voice of their captain to encourage them, and when twenty of their number had fallen, the remainder threw down their arms.
"Let no man stir a foot to go below," Nat shouted, remembering the explosion in the pirate's hold, and fearing that one of them might make straight for the magazine. He had not used his pistols in the fight, and now stood with one in each hand pointing threateningly to enforce the order.
"Mr. Lippincott, take four men below and close and securely fasten the magazine."
The middy ran down, and returned in two or three minutes to report that he had executed the order.
"Tie those fellows' feet and hands," Nat said, "and carry them down into the hold."
When this was done he was able to look round. The deck was a perfect shambles. The brigantine, as he afterwards heard, carried originally eighty hands. Ten of these had been either killed or seriously wounded in the fight with the Thames, and twenty had been killed on board that barque when she was retaken. Forty lay dead or dying on the deck. One of the Frenchmen had fallen, six of the sailors and three Frenchmen had been severely wounded, Turnbull somewhat seriously wounded, and Lippincott slightly. Monsieur Pickard, and the male passengers on board the Thames, had all joined the boarders.
Two of them had previously done good service with their rifles. Had not the pirate leader been killed, the fight would have been even more desperate. One of the passengers was, fortunately, a surgeon. He at once set to work attending to the sailors' wounds, and after he had bandaged them he examined those of the pirates. These had for the most part been killed outright, and of the wounded there were but four or five with any prospect of recovery. These he first attended to, while the other passengers carried water to the dying men.
"Now, my lads," Nat said, "clear the decks of the dead, and get up an awning and carry those who are alive into the shade."
All the dead pirates were thrown over without ceremony, the body of the Frenchman being laid down by his compatriots by one of the guns for proper burial in the evening. As soon as the fight was over, Monsieur Pickard – who, after the capture of the Thames, had gone below to assure his wife and daughters that all was going on well, and that they had saved nine ladies and six gentlemen from the hands of the pirates – hurried down with the welcome news that the fight was over and the brigantine captured.
"You can go up to the cabin," he said, "but don't come on deck till I come down and tell you that everything has been made clean and tidy. You will be glad to hear that, although we have several wounded, Fran?ois Amond is the only man that has been killed."
One of the passengers of the Thames had carried similar news to the ladies there. The crews of both were at once set to work to wash decks, and in an hour the holy-stones had obliterated the worst signs of the conflict, though it would require many more scrubbings before the stains of blood entirely disappeared. All this time the vessels had remained side by side, and the ladies now ventured on to the decks of the Thames and Arrow.
"What do you intend to do, sir?" one of the passengers asked Nat.
"I shall sail at once for Jamaica," he said. "We shall want some more hands, and I must at present borrow a few from you, for my own men are not sufficiently strong to navigate my own craft and the prize. The wind is favourable, and if it holds as it is we shall be at Kingston in forty-eight hours, so there will be no great loss of time."
He then crossed to the Arrow.
"I must congratulate you most heartily on your success," Madame Pickard said. "It is wonderful indeed that you should have taken both these vessels. The pirate ship is, I should think, three times as big as you are, and the other looks a giant by her side."
"Yes, she is six hundred tons, and the brigantine is about three hundred. However, it has all gone very fortunately. In the first place, we have rescued some fifteen gentlemen and ladies, and twice as many seamen, from the death that they would certainly have met with; and in the next place, we have thrashed this pirate; we shall get both credit and prize-money, and a good sum for the recapture of the Thames, which the chief officer has just told me carries a very valuable cargo. Lastly, I am happy to say that, although several of the crew are injured, I have not lost a single life among them. I am sorry that one of your men fell in the fight."
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