"Sail on the port bow," cried the lookout from aloft.
"That must be Rogers," exclaimed Murray; and before long the Supplejack was made out standing to the northward, so as it was hoped to cut off the chase. No sooner did the schooner discover her, than taking in her studding-sails she hauled to the wind. The corvette did the same, and had now to depend on her own speed more than on the assistance she could obtain from the Supplejack.
The chase now became more exciting than ever, the breeze freshened, and both vessels tore along through the water; their bows, as they clove their way through it, throwing up masses of sparkling foam, while they left a long white line in their wake.
The wind after some time again shifting to the southward, both the schooner and her pursuer once more set studding-sails, the former somewhat edging in towards the land, behind which the bright sun was rapidly sinking.
"I would give a half-year's pay if we could but catch her," exclaimed Snatchblock to some of his messmates. "If night comes on before we are up to her, she may give us the go-by after all."
The wind, which had been variable all day, still continued so, and now once more came from the eastward. The chase immediately took advantage of it to alter her course. The corvette had now gained greatly on her.
"I think our bow-chasers will reach her," said Murray. "Try them, Adair; we will see if we can knock away some of her spars."
The excitement on board increased, and every one now felt as if the chase was already within their grasp. The gun was run out. Murray gave the word, "Fire!" Scarcely had its loud report rung through the air, than his voice again was heard—
"All hands, shorten sail! In studding-sails and royals. Let fly tacks and sheets."
The corvette had been taken aback, but every man was at his station, and the sails came in without the loss of a royal or studding-sail-boom. As soon as the sails were handed, and the ship wearing round was put before the wind, the chase was eagerly looked for; she was seen running before the wind for the northeast. Her bearings being taken, the corvette steered directly for her, but darkness, which had been rapidly coming on, now hid her from sight, and even the most sanguine gave up all hopes of finding her again. Still Murray determined to keep after her as light as she was; he was convinced that with a strong wind blowing she would continue before it.
The first watch was set, the watch below turned in, and many a grumble was heard at their ill success. Adair, who was officer of the watch, was walking the deck, with Desmond by his side. The wind still blowing fresh, he had his eye aloft on the spars, ready to shorten sail should it increase. The sea, however, was tolerably smooth; a few stars only could be seen among the clouds which passed rapidly across the sky. The night was therefore rather darker than usual. The wind whistled shrilly in the rigging, and Desmond declared that he could hear strange sounds coming across the waters. A sharp lookout was, of course, kept ahead, and hopes were still entertained that the chase might possibly be again sighted. Snatchblock, who was on the forecastle, hailed in a loud, sharp voice, "Sail ahead! the chase! the chase! That's her! No doubt about it."
Adair and Desmond hurried forward, but by the time they reached the forecastle no sail was to be seen. Snatchblock, however, was positive that he had not been mistaken. He rubbed his eyes in vain, and peered into the gloom. She was certainly not visible. Adair, who had returned aft, was pacing the deck, when suddenly a tremendous shock was felt. He and others on deck were nearly thrown off their legs, and a cry arose of "We are on shore! we are on shore!" The watch below came tumbling up on deck, fully believing that the ship had struck. One of the hands seizing a leadline, sprang into the chains and hove it.
"What induced you to do that?" asked Adair.
"I thought we had struck on a rock, sir," was the answer.
"You found no bottom?"
"We must have run over the chase! Heaven be merciful to the poor creatures!" exclaimed Murray, who unperceived had just come on deck. "She must have attempted to haul her wind, to alter her course, and, being too much lightened, capsized."
Desmond and several others who had run aft declared they saw several objects, like the heads of human beings, floating for an instant on the surface, but when they looked again they had disappeared. Not a cry, not a sound of any sort had been heard. At that instant probably some four or five hundred human beings chained in the hold of the slave-ship, with their white captors, had been carried into eternity.
Next morning the Tudor spoke the Supplejack, which, however, had seen nothing of the chase. No manner of doubt remained that she had been capsized, and that the Tudor had run over her during the night.
CHAPTER TWENTY TWO.
AN AMERICAN SKIPPER GIVES IMPORTANT INFORMATION—JACK LEADS A BOAT ATTACK ON A SLAVER IN THE RIO FRIO—CAPTURE—SLAVER BLOWN UP—THE SUPPLEJACK EXPOSED TO A HOT FIRE—THE CORVETTE AND BRIG IN THE HARBOUR OF PARANAGUA—SLAVERS ATTACKED—SEVERAL PRIZES MADE—FIRED AT FROM THE SHORE—ENGAGEMENT WITH A FORT—PRIZES DESTROYED—CARRY ONE OFF—A MAN OVERBOARD—PICKED UP—HIS HAIR TURNS WHITE.
The corvette and brig had been cruising for some days in company, having chased several vessels, some of which got away, while others were found to be honest traders. They were some way to the southward of Cape Frio, when land just being in sight, a brig was made out, standing towards them. She hoisted American colours, and as she approached, passing close to the corvette, a man, who appeared to be her skipper, standing on the poop-deck, hailed.
"If you will heave to I will come aboard you, as I have information to give."
The corvette was immediately brought to the wind, her foretopsail backed, the brig performing the same movement, when a boat was lowered, and a stout florid man, a Yankee in appearance from truck to kelson, dressed in Quaker costume, came alongside in her. Quickly climbing on deck, without making the usual salutation performed by visitors to a man-of-war, he advanced towards Murray, and introduced himself as Captain Aaron Sturge, of the brig Good Hope bound for Boston.
"This ship, I guess, friend, is one of the cruisers engaged in putting down the slave-trade," he said.
Murray replied in the affirmative, and inquired what information he had to give.
"It is this, friend; I have just come out of the Rio Frio, where I left a wicked-looking craft, called the Rival, nearly ready for sea, which will carry, I guess, six hundred slaves at least. She is a vessel I heard that the British cruisers have been long looking after; so if thou dost wish to catch her, now is thy time, and I would advise thee to stand in at once, and thou mayest cut her off as she comes out, or, what would be more certain, catch her before she puts to sea."
Murray thanked the Yankee skipper for his information, and invited him below.
"No, friend, I thank thee. The sooner thou art on thy way toward the coast and I on mine northward, the better. Thou will do thy best to take this vessel?"
Murray assured him that he would, and would lose not a moment in standing in for the land.
The honest skipper then shaking hands, swung himself down the side into his boat, and returned to the brig, which stood away to the southward, while the Tudor and Supplejack, hauling their wind, stood towards the coast. Murray hoped to be off the mouth of the harbour some time after dark. He hailed Jack, and told him what he intended to do.
His plan was to send the brig in with the boats and capture the slaver, before she got under weigh, or, should she sail that evening, catch her as she was coming out. As the vessels drew near the land, a sharp lookout was kept, on the chance of the slaver having put to sea, but no sail appeared in sight, and some time after nightfall, having got well in with the land, they hove to, to wait for daybreak.
Just before dawn Murray despatched two of his boats, one under charge of Higson, and the other of the master, with directions to Jack to stand in directly there was light enough to see his way. Jack, having a good chart, felt confident of being able to take the brig in without a pilot.
Directly the first streaks of dawn appeared in the sky, he put the brig's head towards the harbour. The sea breeze set in sooner than usual, and, having a leading wind, he rapidly stood on towing the boats.
He was soon passing through the narrow entrance.
"I see a number of fellows coming along the beach, some of them with arms in their hands. They probably suspect us, and will give us some trouble when we are coming out again," said Bevan.
"I shall care very little for that, provided we get hold of the slaver. I only hope that she has not given us the slip," answered Jack.
"There she is, sir, high up the harbour," cried Bevan. "Her topsails are loose, and had the wind held she would probably have been under weigh by this time."
"We have her safe enough now, however," said Jack.
The brig stood on for some way, but the wind fell light, the current was running out, and the channel here was far more intricate than the part already passed through. Jack determined, therefore, to bring up, and to board the slaver with the boats. Those selected for the expedition eagerly leaped into them. Jack took command of the whole, five in number, leaving Bevan in charge of the brig.
"It is possible that the Brazilians may imitate the example of those fellows at Bahia, and attempt to attack you," said Jack to Bevan; "you will therefore keep a good lookout, and allow no boat to approach under any pretence whatever. Order them to keep off, and fire a musket-shot or two ahead of them, as a sign that you are in earnest. If they still come on, fire the carronades into them, and drive them back as you best can."
The boats shoved off and made good way towards the slaver. Jack observed a horseman or two galloping along the shore, but no attempt was made to molest the English, though they passed round a couple of points within musket-shot. At last the slaver was seen at anchor right ahead. The expected prize before them, the boats' crews gave way with a will, Jack's boat leading.
He had ordered Higson to board on the port side, while he attacked on the starboard. The schooner's sails, though they had been loose when first seen, had in the meantime been furled. One man only was visible on board her, he was composedly walking the quarterdeck with a glass under his arm, through which he had been watching the approaching boats. As they got close he hailed in broken English, and ordered them to keep off.
"No, no; we intend to come aboard and examine that schooner," cried Jack.
"And I say you shall not," answered the man; "if you attempt it you must stand by the consequences."
"We intend to do so. Give way, lads," shouted Jack. As he spoke, the schooner's ports were opened. Her hitherto silent decks appeared crowded with men, while the next instant, four guns, run out on either side, let fly a shower of grape and canister, while twenty or thirty men opened fire with muskets. Happily the guns did no damage, for the boats were already close up to the schooner's sides, though two or three men were slightly wounded by the bullets which came in sharp thuds against the gunwales.
"Board her, my lads," shouted Jack; and he and his followers threw themselves quickly on deck. The slaver's crew stood their ground for a few seconds only; then, throwing down their cutlasses and muskets, they sprang overboard, and attempted to make their way to the not distant bank. A few had been cut down at the first onslaught; half-a-dozen yielded themselves prisoners, and two had tumbled into the boats, making eight in all captured. The others, in shoals, were swimming for their lives. The seamen, irritated at the opposition they had met with, would have shot them down, but Jack ordered them to desist.
"These fellows are not to be treated as enemies, now that they have abandoned their vessel. It was their duty to defend her," he shouted out, knocking up their muskets. "We must now get her out of this before their friends collect on the shore, or we shall find it rather a hot berth, I suspect."
The cable was cut, and the boats, taking the prize in tow, began to make way down the harbour. They had not, however, got far from the spot, before several shots struck the schooner, fired from some men who had already collected on the shore. No one was hurt, and she was soon beyond the range of the muskets. As the breeze increased it became very hard work, towing the schooner against it; still Jack determined, if possible, to carry her off. As they approached one of the points which they had to round, they observed a number of armed men collecting on it. To avoid them the schooner was kept over to the opposite side. Just then a squall struck her and drove her on a bank. The Brazilians, encouraged by this, opened a hot fire, and though at some distance, several of their shot struck the schooner. In spite of it, Jack ordered warps to be got out, and endeavoured to haul her off. Two of his men had been hit and he in vain endeavoured to get the prize into deep water. Ahead was a bank over which he found it impossible to haul her; she had driven, indeed, into a bay, shoal water being found ahead, astern, and on her port side.
"It must be done, though I am sorry to lose so fine a craft; we must blow her up," he said to Higson.
Several casks of powder were found on board. They were placed in her hold, surrounded by such combustible materials as could be quickly gathered together. All hands were then ordered into the boats; Jack, with Higson and Needham, set her on fire simultaneously amidships and fore and aft. They then jumped into the boats, and Jack, anxious to have his men safe from further risk of being shot, gave the order to pull down the river as fast as they could lay their backs to the oars.
The Brazilians probably fancied that they had taken to flight, and three boats, which had been concealed behind the point, were now seen shoving off for the schooner. They had got more than half way towards her when the flames burst out through all the hatchways; still they pulled on, hoping to extinguish them. The people in the leading boat were on the point of jumping on board, when the flames catching the gunpowder, up she went, her masts and spars shooting towards the sky, with fragments of her decks, while her sides split in all directions. Whether any of the Brazilians were injured could not be discovered; two of their boats pulled away in hot haste, the third following far more slowly. It was the general opinion that the people in her must have suffered severely, as they were close to the side of the vessel when she blew up.
Jack fearing that his vessel might be attacked, made the best of his way on board. On the arrival of the boats alongside, Bevan reported that he had not been molested, but that he had seen a considerable number of boats pulling along the shore, towards a spot further down, where people were collected in crowds. Though Jack felt perfectly confident that even should they venture to attack him he should beat them off, being anxious to avoid bloodshed, he resolved to get under weigh as soon as possible. The breeze, however, still blowing up the harbour, he had to wait till it died away, and the land breeze reassumed its power.
It was an anxious time, for without a pilot he dare not attempt to heat out of the harbour.
"At all events, if they do show their noses, we can give them a taste of Long Tom, sir," said Needham; "it's my opinion they will not come nearer if they hear him bark."
The brig lay with her sails loose and her cable hove short: still not a breath of air stirred the glass-like surface of the harbour.
Jack did not wish to risk the loss of his vessel by attempting to cross the bar without a leading wind, besides which from the example the Brazilians had given of their disposition they might take the opportunity of attacking her while passing along the narrow channel he would have to traverse.
He hoped to get out before nightfall. At length the pennant which long had hung up and down the mast, began to move. Again it dropped, but at length out it blew steadily, while here and there gentle ripples appeared on the surface of the water.
"Hands, up anchor and make sail," shouted Jack.
The boats quickly towed the brig round, the canvas was let drop, and away she glided. As she increased her speed, the boats were dropped astern, and now with a fair breeze the gallant little brig under all sail stood towards the mouth of the harbour. As she neared the narrowest part of the channel a number of people were seen collecting on the beach. On her approach they ran behind the high bank, sheltered by which they opened a hot fire with muskets and rifles, the bullets whizzing over the brig. Jack on this ordered all hands to lie down, with the exception of the helmsman, the man in the chains, and the lookout forward, while he himself stood at his post, conning the vessel.
The wind held fair, and after having been peppered for about ten minutes with a few stray shots sticking into her sides and hammocks, and a splinter or two torn off the masts, the Supplejack bounded gaily out to sea, having performed her duty, and being able to laugh at her opponents. None of the men struck had been much hurt, so the affair was altogether satisfactory. Just as it was getting dark, she met the corvette, which had stood in as close as was safe, to meet her.
The two vessels now stood to the southward, for the purpose of looking into the harbour of Paranagua, a notorious slave-mart, about three hundred miles from Rio. They came off the bay or gulf, as it may probably be called, soon after dawn on the third day after leaving the scene of their last exploit.
On one side of the somewhat narrow entrance lay a fort in which they could count fourteen or fifteen guns frowning down upon them.
"We might have some hot work if we were entering an enemy port," observed Murray. "The Brazilian officer in command will, however, scarcely dare to molest us, even though he may be favourably disposed to the slave-traders."
As a precautionary measure, however, the crews were sent to quarters, and, the corvette leading, the two vessels stood into the harbour. As he approached, Murray dipped his flag, the salute being duly returned from the fort. He accordingly stood on, intending to run up the harbour till he came in sight of the vessels he expected to find there. Jack, following his leader, did the same, and passed unmolested.
The two men-of-war proceeded on for some distance, but no vessels appeared, and Murray began to fear that the slavers had had some intimation that the port was likely to be visited by British cruisers, and had slipped away in time. Ahead lay an island with buildings on it. Some were dwelling-houses, others were long sheds of a suspicious character. As the water was still deep, and the channel tolerably wide, he stood on, when rounding a point he saw several large vessels lying at anchor, which from their appearance, as well as from the sheds and leaguers, or huge casks for holding water, which lay on the shore, together with planking for slave-decks, and other articles easily distinguishable through the telescope, he had no doubt were slavers. As the channel at this point became very narrow and intricate he thought it prudent not to stand on farther, and dropping his anchor, he ordered Jack to do the same. He then got a spring on his cable, so as to be able to bring his broadside to bear on the vessels, and to cover the boats which he intended to send forthwith to attack them.
"There is a stir among the vessels," observed Adair, "and two of them have got under weigh, and are standing out towards us."
Murray accordingly ordered him and Higson to board them, and ascertain their character. One carried the British and the other the American flag. The boats were lowered and the two vessels in a short time coming up were boarded. Neither of them made any resistance. Their papers were found to be correct—they were honest traders.
"As soon as we saw you approaching, we two agreed to stand out from among the black sheep. The rest of the craft in there are one and all slavers, and if you take or destroy them they will only get their due," said the American master.
He then gave a description of the vessels, and the number of guns and men they carried. Terence thanked him for the information, and the two vessels were allowed to continue their course down the river.
Murray now ordered five boats under the command of Jack to board and overhaul all the vessels lying at anchor off the island.
One was a large ship, two were brigs, and a fourth a wicked-looking schooner, evidently a slaver. The question was whether they would offer resistance. The ship was seen getting a spring on her cable, which looked something like it; Jack was therefore prepared for all contingencies.
"We will take the smallest ones in detail, and that big fellow will then see that he has no chance of assistance," he said to Higson.
Further off lay another large ship with the Brazilian colours flying, and two barques, one an American, the other a Portuguese, with a brigantine, which, as Needham remarked, from truck to kelson had the cut of a slaver.
"We will take them all, lads, never fear. They have got into a net, and it will be a hard matter for them to make their way out again. The truth is, they thought we should never find our way up here; but they have discovered their mistake, and have made their last voyages with blackies aboard, I hope."
The boats were pulling on steadily towards the first brig, a beautiful vessel, with sharp bows and clean run; she would be a prize worth having, Jack knew, as she would give no end of trouble to the British cruisers engaged in the suppression of the slave-trade. A number of men were seen on board, but, as the flotilla approached, they jumped into their boats and pulled for the shore. The brig was immediately boarded, when not a soul was found in her, though she had her cargo on board; she was completely fitted for the slave-trade. Jack, suspecting treachery, had her thoroughly examined.
"All's right, sir," said Needham. "The crew were in too great a fright to think of anything but saving themselves, or they might, to be sure, have laid a slow match to the magazine, and tried to blow us up. The only pity is that she has no sails on board. It will be a job to know what to do with her."
Jack had, in the meantime, sent the other boats to take possession of the second brig. This also was abandoned by her crew. She, too, was found fully fitted for the slave-trade. They now headed the boats towards the ship, the broadside of which having been brought to bear on them, she was apparently prepared for a determined resistance. Ordering Adair to pull for her stern and Higson for the bows, Jack and Needham dashed up alongside. As they approached the ship opened fire with round, grapeshot, and musketry, but, as is often the case, when men fight in a bad cause, the slaver's crew took uncertain aim, and no one was hurt in either of the boats. The Brazilians had soon cause to repent of their folly in attempting to defend themselves; the English seamen quickly climbing up the side, they at once gave way, and rushing across the deck sprang overboard, and attempted to swim towards the shore. Some of the seamen, enraged at the opposition they had made, picked up the muskets from the decks, and would have fired after their retreating foe, had not Jack, as on a previous occasion, stopped them.
"Let the wretches, though they deserve punishment, have a chance for their lives," he said.
Several boats putting off from the shore picked up most of the swimmers, though some were seen to go down before they were rescued.
The ship was a remarkably fine one, called the Andorinha. On examining her she was found to be American built, while the flag of the United States was discovered on board. Another discovery was also made. Her stern was covered by a piece of painted canvas, on ripping off which there appeared the name of the Mary Jane, of Greenport, in large letters, and as she carried two whale-boats on her quarters, the most vigilant of British cruisers might have passed her without the slightest suspicion of her real character.
Leaving the crew of one of the boats on board the ship under the command of Tom, who was vastly proud of the confidence placed in him, Jack pulled on for the other large Brazilian ship. The captain received him on board with a smiling countenance, for the fellow well knew that though evidently a slaver, she could not be touched. All the slave fittings had been landed, and lay abreast of her along the shore. The American brig, which was next boarded, was as clearly intended for the same nefarious traffic, but as she had not yet been fitted up with slave-decks, though they also were discovered close to her ready to be shipped, with her leaguers and other fittings.
The day's work was not yet over; a brigantine lay temptingly near, inviting a visit. The boats soon surrounded her, she was found to be the Stella, a vessel which had long eluded the vigilance of British cruisers.
Though some of her fittings had been landed, a sufficient quantity remained to condemn her. Jack, however, having to secure his other prizes, was obliged to leave her, intending to visit her the next day; he therefore pulled back to the brigs, and commenced towing and warping them towards the corvette.
The channel through which they had to pass was excessively narrow, and, unfortunately, Jack, forgetting that the boats might pass in a direct line where the vessels could not follow, they both took the ground. Now came the task of hauling them off; it was accomplished, however, and they were brought at length to an anchor between the two men-of-war. He next pulled back to the ship, and reached her just as darkness came on. He found Tom and his crew on the alert; he had seen a number of boats coming off from the shore, with the intention, he fully believed, of attacking him.
"But we would have treated them just as Mr Adair did the slave-dealers at Bahia," he exclaimed. "We had all our arms loaded, and if they had come near us, we should have given them a pretty warm reception, you may depend upon that."
Jack felt very sure that Tom would have done so, though he was glad he had not been exposed to the danger he would have had to run.
Sounding as he went, Jack got the ship safely under the guns of the corvette at a late hour of the night. The skulking crews of the slavers, eager as they might have been to regain the vessels taken from them, dared not attack them, and the night passed off quietly. Next morning by daybreak the boats again put off; the most important vessel to capture was the brigantine, and they at once pulled for her. As they approached, they made out several boats pulling backwards and forwards between her and the shore. Jack regretted that he had not left a prize crew on board, though he had acted, as he thought at the time, for the best.
"Give way, my lads, those fellows are after some mischief, we must put a stop to it," he shouted.
The brigantine lay floating on the calm water, her taunt, raking masts, and the tracery of her spars and rigging reflected in its surface. She was just the style of craft to please a seaman's eye. The men gave way, in a few minutes they hoped to be aboard her. Suddenly her masts moved to starboard, then over they heeled to port, when, gradually, her bows sank, and down she glided, head foremost, beneath the surface of the water.
"What a pity!" broke from the lips of those in the stern sheets of the boats, who had observed what had taken place; the look of astonishment in the countenances of the men at the oars, when, turning their heads, they found the brigantine had disappeared, was almost ludicrous. Had they got hold of any of the Brazilians they would have made them pay dearly for their trick. It was very evident that the vessel had been scuttled during the night, to prevent her from falling into the hands of the English, while the crew had landed every article of value from her. Jack was thus compelled to be contented with his three prizes, none of the other vessels could be touched. It now coming on to blow hard, it was impossible to get under weigh. The time, however, was employed in fitting the ship for sea; Higson and a prize crew had charge of her. Murray intended to tow one of the brigs, while Jack was to tow the other. All hands on board both vessels were hard at work till sunset.
The next morning, the wind coming down the harbour, they got under weigh, and proceeded down the gulf. In a short time, the squadron got abreast of the fort, the commandant of which was well aware that the English had, in accordance with the wishes of his own government, performed their duty in capturing the slavers, and Murray therefore expected to pass without molestation. He saluted as usual, and was standing on, when a gun was fired at the corvette.
"What are the fellows about!" he exclaimed.
"It may have been let off by mistake," observed Adair.
"That was not let off by mistake, though," exclaimed Murray, as a shot from a second gun whistled close under the stern, followed immediately by another, which, however, passed ahead.
"Beat to quarters," cried Murray, "the fellows mean mischief."
Scarcely had the first roll of the drum sounded than the eager crew sprang to their guns.
Jack imitated his example; both vessels opened their broadsides, firing shot and shell as fast as their guns could be brought to bear.
The fort, meantime, fired showers of grape, canister, and round shot.
"This is hotter work than we met with up the Saint Juan; I did not expect such fun," exclaimed Desmond.
"We had only muskets, and we have now got big guns to pay back the compliments we receive," observed Archy, who was standing near him.
"Yes, but the enemy have stone walls, instead of timber stockades to protect them," said Desmond; "it's very good fun, though."
"I don't call that fun," cried Archy, as a round shot struck a seaman at one of the guns near them on the breast, and laid him dead on the deck, before he had time to utter a groan. A grape shot, the next moment, hit another man on the shoulder, and he was carried below. Two others were shortly afterwards wounded.
Fortunately the wind held, or the men-of-war might have suffered much more than they did. The object of the Brazilians was probably to compel them to abandon their prizes, which would have undoubtedly been immediately taken possession of.
Murray signalled Higson to keep further off the fort, to escape the risk of damage.
The English ships, having passed the front of the battery, had their sterns exposed to a raking fire from the sea face of it, which they were unable to return, in consequence of the vessels in tow. One of the after guns of the Tudor, was, however, fitted for throwing shells, and as Murray could bring it to bear, when the openings between the vessels astern would allow of it, he occasionally fired one into the fort. Long Tom did his duty, and Jack had the satisfaction of believing that his shot produced as much effect as those of the corvette.
"On my word I should like to land and storm that fort, to punish the rascals," he exclaimed.
"I am afraid that as it is on a friendly territory, that would be unlawful," observed Bevan.
"Then people on friendly territory should not attack those engaged in the performance of their duty," answered Jack; "give them a parting shot, Needham; we shall soon be out of range of their guns, if the breeze holds."
"I will do my best to make it tell," said Dick; training Long Tom aft as far as possible. He fired—the effect of the shot was to silence the gun which had for some minutes annoyed them the most, and it was conjectured, therefore, that it must have either killed several of the gunners, or injured the carriage. The next shot which came from the fort, fell short of the brig. As soon as the vessels were completely out of range, Murray ordered the anchors to be dropped.
A heavy sea setting over the bar at the entrance he considered it unwise to attempt crossing till the top of high water. The place in which he had brought up was not however altogether free from danger. On either hand were wild rugged rocks, while a line of foaming surf stretched across the mouth of the harbour. As it would be impossible to cross with the two prize-brigs, Murray determined at once to destroy them. The two cutters and the Supplejack's jollyboat were directed to perform this service. Tom and Desmond agreed to go and see the fun, and just as the brig's boat was shoving off they jumped into her, unobserved by Jack. The boats having taken charge of the brigs, towed them half-a-mile from the ships. They were then set on fire, and were soon in a blaze fore and aft, when the wind, having more power than the tide, rapidly carried them towards the foaming breakers. The corvette's two boats were returning, when Jack, looking round to ascertain what had become of his boat, caught sight of her close to one of the blazing vessels, on the point of being driven among the dangerous breakers. Having discovered that the two youngsters had gone in her, he naturally felt doubly anxious on their account, and suspected that some accident must have happened to prevent her return. Instantly jumping into the pinnace with the best hands he could collect, he pulled away for the boat, the crew of which were labouring desperately to head her off the breakers. He had gone but a short distance when he caught sight of the two brigs, like huge floating bonfires, gliding into the midst of the foaming waters, which danced up wildly around them, as if greedy for their prey. A few seconds the vessels struggled with the wild breakers, then their keels grated on the sharp rocks, they rose and fell a few seconds more, when, the waters leaping triumphantly over them, they were shattered into a thousand fragments, which were scattered on every side.
Jack's interest was, however, centred on the boat which was already awfully near the breakers, and once in them her fate would be that of the slavers. His men strained every muscle to reach her. Already scarcely half a cable's length existed between her and the inner line of breakers, a foaming sea had burst close astern. Jack dashing forward shouted to the bowman to have a rope ready. It was hove on board as he swept round, and securing it he steered away from the dangerous spot.
Two of her oars had been lost alongside the burning brig, and another had been sprung; and had not assistance come, the boat and all on board would in another minute to a certainty have been engulfed. As Jack made his way back to the brig he was received with loud cheers from the corvette and prize.
He was thankful when he at length reached the deck of the Supplejack, feeling that he ought to punish the two youngsters for their misconduct, though very unwilling to do so. He contented himself with giving them a severe lecture, and pointing out to them the fearful risk they had run of losing their lives.
"When duty calls you, it is quite a different matter," he observed: "then never be daunted by danger. Your duty was to remain on board. Had you been lost I should have had double cause to mourn for you, as you would have uselessly thrown your lives away."
"That's just what Admiral Triton said to me," observed Tom to Desmond. "Jack is right—no doubt about that."
By this time the tide had sufficiently risen to allow a passage over the bar, and Murray being unwilling to lose a favourable wind by a longer delay, the anchors were hove up, sail was made, and the two men-of-war, with the captured slaver, leaving the fort astern, dashed proudly out to sea. They had, however, to keep their pumps going, in consequence of the large amount of water which had rushed into them before the shot-holes they had received could be thoroughly plugged. Murray then gave Higson directions to carry the slaver to Saint Helena, and, after delivering her up, to return to Rio by the first opportunity.
The midshipmen were sorry to lose him, for he never forgot that he had been their messmate, and, notwithstanding his few eccentricities, he was always kind and considerate.
While he steered to the eastward, the corvette and brig shaped a course for Rio. The result of the expedition had been the destruction of three noted slavers, and the capture of a fourth, while their owners had learnt an important lesson, that the risks of the trade in which they were engaged were considerably increased, and that it might possibly be wiser to abandon it.
Next night, during Adair's watch, a pampeiro, a squall off the Pampas so called, suddenly struck the ship; the boatswain's shrill whistle summoned all hands to shorten sail; happily, the tacks and sheets were let fly before its full force was felt.
Ned Somers, a foretop-man, on the lee yardarm, with the earring in hand, was struck by the wild, flapping sail, and overboard he fell. Murray, who had now come on deck, saw the accident, and the instant the ship could be brought to the wind, ordering a boat to be lowered, he cried out for volunteers to man her. Adair sprang into her, and Snatchblock took the bow oar. Other hands followed. The man's cries directed them, as they believed, towards where he was floating. Away the boat dashed through the foaming waters, but when they reached the spot the man was nowhere to be seen. They pulled round and round it, shouting to him, but no answer came. Unwillingly, at length Adair put the boat's head towards the ship. The men had not pulled many strokes when Snatchblock felt a blow on the bow of the boat, and by a sudden impulse (there was no time for thought) stretching himself over the gunwale, he plunged down his arm and got hold of the missing man, whom eager hands assisted him to haul on board. Somers was immediately passed aft, and, as fast as the crew could pull, the boat returned to the ship.
The man, who still breathed, was hoisted on deck, and placed under the surgeon's hands.
Strange to say, he seemed next morning to outward appearance not much the worse for his accident.
From that day, however, he was in reality a changed man. Once among the most high-spirited and joyous of the crew, he became melancholy and silent, though he went through his duty as usual. About a month afterwards, as Adair was going forward, he saw a whitehaired man sitting on the coamings of the fore-hatchway.
"Where did that old man come from?" he asked of Snatchblock.
"I never saw so strange a thing in all my life, sir," was the answer. "Last night when he turned in his hair was as black as mine, and this morning, when the hammocks were piped up, it was as you see it. That man, sir, is Ned Somers!"
Adair could scarcely believe what he heard till he spoke to poor Ned, who, however, not having a looking-glass, did not seem to be aware of the change. After this he grew weaker and weaker; his nervous system, when he fell overboard, had received a shock which was too much for him. Murray had resolved to send him home, when the surgeon reported that the poor fellow had not many hours to live. Before night he breathed his last, and was buried in the seaman's wide sepulchre, the Ocean. He survived the accident scarcely three months.
CHAPTER TWENTY THREE.
UP THE PARANA—MURRAY'S FOREBODINGS—BATTLE OF PUNTA OBLIGADO—ATTACKED BY FIRESHIPS—SCHOONER BLOWS UP—JACK AND MURRAY PERFORM A GALLANT EXPLOIT—MURRAY WOUNDED—THE BATTERIES STORMED—TOM AND GERALD CARRIED OFF BY GAUCHOS.
"Hurrah! my boy, there is a prospect of more glorious or, at all events, more exciting work than slave-hunting," exclaimed Adair, as he came on board the Supplejack from the Tudor, both vessels then lying in Rio harbour.
"When? where?" asked Jack.
"Up the Parana, and immediately, as far as I can make out. Murray has just received his orders, and you will get yours before the day is many hours longer. I conclude that small vessels are wanted for the work, so you are certain to be sent."
"Has Murray heard what we are to do when we get there?" asked Jack.
"Yes, to force our way up the river, which a certain General Rosas, calling himself President of Buenos Ayres, has taken it into his head no one shall do; and so, of course, he will attempt to stop us."
"Who is the fellow? I don't think I have ever heard of him before," said Jack.
"Nor did I till Murray told me, and, as he reads everything, he, of course, knew all about the matter. You have an atlas, just get it out, and I will try and impart the information Murray gave me.
"The river Parana, you see, runs a course of many miles nearly north and south before it runs into the river Plate. On the east side are the provinces of Paraguay, Entre Rios, and Banda Oriental, and on the west and south those of Santa Fe and Buenos Ayres, comprised under the general name of La Plata. General Rosas wants to unite these provinces under one confederation, and to make himself dictator or emperor.
"Another party calling themselves Unitarios want to unite them into one state, and have, for this slight difference of opinion, for several years done their best to knock each other on the head. His troops having blockaded Monte Video and captured some French merchantmen, the French have, therefore, sent a squadron to take satisfaction, and open up the commerce of the river Plate.
"We are going to join them, as the Buenos Ayrians have treated some of our merchantmen in the same way, and Rosas dares us to do our worst, and declares that up the river we shall not go.
"By an old treaty it appears that the English and French governments having guaranteed the integrity of the Banda Oriental, Rosas was ordered to withdraw his troops from the territory, and as he refused to do so, his squadron besieging Monte Video has been taken from him, while the province of Paraguay, and that of Corrientes, have combined to overthrow his power. In revenge for this, he has closed the outlets of their rivers, so as to put an effectual stop to their foreign commerce.
"The Parana, though it looks of no great size on the map, is broad and deep, and even large vessels may make their way some four or five hundred miles up it.
"The French squadron and some English ships are already off Monte Video, and as soon as we and the other vessels join them we are to begin the ascent of the river. Here is Monte Video, on the northern shore of this wide river of La Plata, which, however, looks more like a huge gulf than what we call a river in Europe, and here, some way up on the southern bank, is Buenos Ayres. There was a fearful ruffian, called Orribe, who got the upper hand in some of these provinces, and murdered all his opponents who fell into his power; he therefore got the appropriate name of the 'butcher.'
"Don Rosas, with a devoted army of gauchos, the wild horsemen of the Pampas, united with him, and the two mild-mannered gentlemen together endeavoured to get possession of Monte Video, but, being defeated, Rosas has since wisely kept to his own side of the river.
"Besides the horsemen, he has managed to get together a good supply of heavy guns and flying artillery, with which he expects to send us to the right about, and our business will be to show him that he is mistaken.
"That is all I know of the matter, and I hope I have made it as clear to your mind as Murray did to mine."
Jack duly received his orders, and the next morning by daybreak the corvette and brig, in company with a few other vessels, sailed out of the harbour. They had a quick run to Monte Video, where they fell in with the English and French squadron, consisting of several steamers and sailing-vessels.
Soon after their arrival, the ships were ordered to proceed up at once to Guassu, one of the mouths of the Parana; a heavy gale, however, coming on, drove the ships back. The midshipmen were, of course, as eager as any one for the fun, as they called it, which they expected to meet with, and were much disappointed at the delay which occurred. The steamers could have gone ahead without them, but as there were only four in the whole squadron, two English and two French, such a force would not have been sufficient for the object.
Day after day they had to beat backwards and forwards, a strong westerly wind blowing in their teeth, giving General Rosas time to complete his defences.
"Well, there is one satisfaction," exclaimed Desmond. "If we had gone up at first we might have caught the enemy unprepared, and lost all the honour and glory we shall now reap in thrashing him."
"As to that, considering that he and his followers are half savages, as the commodore says, I don't see that there is much honour and glory to be obtained," observed Tom.
"Faith, now it seems to me that it does not much matter what kind of people the enemy are, provided they have got arms in their hands, and don't run away," answered Desmond. "These fellows fight fiercely enough among themselves, and they are not likely to change when they have got foreign foes to deal with."
Paddy was not far wrong after all. At length the weather moderated, the steamers got up their steam and the sailing-vessels hauled their wind and stood for the westward.
They had proceeded some distance, when down came another pampeiro upon them, and they were once more disappointed. Still the work was to be done, and the English and French commodores were not men to be beaten by a difficulty. Days and nights together the ships kept at it, doing their uttermost to reach the rendezvous off the mouth of the river.
At length they all met, and the flag of England flying from the peaks of some, and that of France from others, in friendly proximity, with a fair breeze they commenced their ascent of the mighty stream.
As they watched the distant shore on either hand it was difficult to persuade themselves that they were at a considerable distance above the mouth of the river. Still, on and on they sailed. With their glasses they could occasionally see horsemen galloping along apparently watching them, although no opposition was offered, indeed they were generally too far out of the range of field-pieces, even should the enemy have possessed any.
As the current was strong and the wind light, it was slow work, and often they did not make ten miles a day. They had got about a hundred miles up when the commodore gave the signal for the squadron to anchor, and they found that they were within three miles of a place called Punta Obligado, on the right bank of the river, where General Rosas had thrown up some strong defences to oppose their further progress.
All hands were in high spirits at the thoughts of the fight, which they expected would take place the next morning. Murray and the more reflective officers, could not help thinking that fighting was a serious matter, and that if a report that they had heard was correct, before another day was over, many enjoying high health and spirits might be laid low.
Jack, who brought up close to the Tudor, came on board with Tom to pay their friends a visit. Their chief regret was that Higson was not there to take part in the expected achievements of the following day.
"We never know what may happen to us when we go into battle," said Murray, as Jack sat with him in his cabin. "In case I should fall, I must get you to take this packet to Stella. She is ever in my thoughts, and I am anxious to make arrangements for her future comfort and support, for I doubt that she is as well provided for as she supposes. Her father spent most of his fortune in the wild schemes in which he took part, and careless as I heard he was about his own pecuniary affairs, he probably neglected to make due provision for his daughter. Had she married me, she would, at all events, have enjoyed a pension as my widow, and as those who would otherwise obtain it can do very well without any addition to their incomes, I have left all the property I possess to be enjoyed by her for her life; and you, Jack, must undertake to see that my intentions are carried out."
"Of course I will, my dear Murray," answered Jack. "But you must not suppose that you are to be knocked on the head. I hold to the belief that no man knows beforehand what is to happen to him, though, of course, when he goes into battle, he may be killed, but his thinking that he will or will not will make no difference."
"It may be true," answered Murray, with a sigh, "but there is something within me which says that I ought to be prepared."
"Of course, and I hope you are, my dear Alick," said Jack gravely. "A truly religious man like you always is prepared, and I suspect that the weather, together with the fatigue you have gone through, and your state of health, have something to do with your forebodings. If you won't think me frivolous, let me ask you what you had for dinner yesterday?"
Murray at first did not answer, at last, faintly smiling, he answered—
"Well, perhaps you are right, and I dare say tomorrow morning I shall see things in a different light. However, in case I should fall, you will see my wishes carried out."
Jack again promised that he would do anything and everything that Murray wished. Terence joined them shortly afterwards, and the old shipmates spent a pleasant evening, as did Tom with his friends in the midshipmen's berth. They did not trouble themselves with forebodings of evil, and all talked eagerly of the fun they hoped to see before long.
A sharp lookout was kept during the night. The steamers had their fires banked up, as it was thought probable that the enemy might have prepared fireships to send down among them. As soon, therefore, as it was dark, the boats were sent ahead to row guard, and to tow them out of the way, so that they might drop down clear of the squadron. The night, however, passed away without any occurrence of the sort, and at daybreak the two commodores proceeded up the river in their gigs to reconnoitre the position of the enemy. A dense fog which hung over the water enabled them to approach unobserved. Their return was anxiously waited for. They quickly acquainted themselves with all they desired to know, and, immediately they got back, the commanders of all the vessels were directed to repair on board the flagship to receive instructions. They then learned that Rosas had thrown up strong fortifications about three miles from where they then lay. They consisted of four batteries, two on heights sixty feet above the surface of the river, and two in an intervening valley. The batteries mounted altogether twenty-two guns, some long thirty-two pounders, and others of smaller calibre. Opposite the point was an island, which occupied a considerable portion of the breadth of the river, so that vessels going up must of necessity pass close to the batteries. Yet, further to strengthen the position, three heavy chains, supported by twenty-four vessels, extended across the river from the main land to the island, one end being defended by a man-of-war schooner, mounting six guns, while close to the chains, ready to be let loose at any moment, lay ten fireships. A force of nearly four thousand men, artillery, cavalry, and infantry, was collected, so the commodores learnt from their spies, to man the forts, and to oppose any force that might be sent on shore to attack them.
The sailing-vessels were now formed in two divisions, while the steamers formed a third, to take up a position as soon as they had disposed of the fireships. All on board the ships waited eagerly for the signal to weigh.
The hands had been piped to breakfast. The meal was over, still the fog prevailed. Suddenly a light breeze sprang up from the southward, when the fog cleared, and at a quarter to nine the signal was given for the leading division to weigh. With eager alacrity the men sprang aloft to loose sails, and in a few minutes the two divisions of sailing-vessels were gliding up the stream; the one to attack the northern, and the other the southern batteries, with directions to anchor about seven hundred yards from them. With all sail set to stem the current, they approached the batteries, which immediately opened fire on the headmost vessels. They returned the compliment with interest, as soon as they could bring their guns to bear, the thunder of the artillery breaking the silence which had hitherto reigned over the scene, the loud roaring increasing as ship after ship got into action.
The wild gauchos fought their guns well, and showered down on their assailants round shot, grape, canister, shells, and rockets, which the ships returned with similar missiles, French and English vying with each other as to who should load and fire their guns the fastest. The roar of the guns, the crashing of the shot as they struck the ships, and the shouts of the men, increasing every instant, became perfectly deafening.
About an hour from the time the gallant little Philomel got under fire, the action became general. Several of the vessels were suffering severely; on board the French commodore's brig especially the men were falling fast, while numberless shots struck her between wind and water.
The effect of the terrific cannonading going on was to make the wind fall light, and some of the ships, therefore, were unable to reach the exact stations assigned to them; the consequence was, that they were exposed, more than would otherwise have been the case, to the fire of the batteries.
Murray had carried his vessel as close as he could, and Jack did not fail to follow his example. Round shot and grape came sweeping over their decks, some of the missiles striking the hulls of the vessels, others going through their sails and cutting up the rigging; but the hotter the fire became, the more the British seamen seemed to enjoy the fun, tossing about their guns with right good will, and sending shot after shot, well aimed, into the batteries.
"I say, this is pretty hot work, Archy," observed Desmond; "I wonder how long it is going to last?"
"I suppose till we drive the enemy from their guns and take possession of their fort, unless they blow themselves up, and finish the batteries in that way," answered Gordon.
"But, I say! look there! what are those craft about?"
Archy, as he spoke, pointed ahead, where about a dozen vessels were seen bearing down on the squadron from the upper part of the river. Presently, first one, and then another, burst into flames.
"They are fireships!" cried Desmond, "and if they come aboard they will blow us all into smithereens."
"The steamers won't let them do that," observed Gordon; "see, they are paddling towards them, and will sink or tow them out of the way before they touch us, I hope."
Still the danger was imminent. It was evident that the steamers could not take all of them in tow at once, and while some were got hold of, others might continue their course.
The commanders of the men-of-war made preparations for the reception of the fireships, and got their boats ready to tow them away, should they threaten to drift closer than was safe. On came the burning masses; the steamers had got hold of some of them.
"That fellow will be down upon us before long, sir," said Needham, "if we cannot manage to get her out of the way."
Jack, on this, ordered a boat to be lowered; Needham, followed by Tom, jumped into her, and rapidly pulled for the fireship. The difficulty was to secure the towrope, while there was no time to be lost if the brig was to be saved. Many of the shot, intended for the vessels, came flying over the boat; no one was hit in her, however, and Needham managed to hook on the towrope to her stern. The crew gave way, and, aided by the current, just got her clear of the brig, when, the flames rapidly increasing, Needham saw it was high time to cast off, and get out of her neighbourhood.
The crew had not given many strokes when up she blew, and the fragments of her deck and bulwarks came rattling down over them.
For a moment it seemed that all in the boat must be destroyed. Jack, who had anxiously cast his eyes in that direction, as had also the two midshipmen of the corvette who were looking on, thought that every one in the boat must perish. Jack regretted that he had allowed Tom to go in her; his anxiety, however, was soon relieved when he saw them emerging from the shower and returning to the brig.
The other fire-vessels passing clear of the squadron, either drove on shore or went floating harmlessly down the broad stream, till they blew up and sank.
The battle still continued raging as at first, for the Spaniards fought their guns with desperation, and no sooner had one set of men been swept away than they were replaced by others. A body of cavalry was also seen hovering about in the wood which backed the fort, and when any of the artillerymen, as some did, could no longer stand it, and took to flight, they were driven back, and compelled to fight till they were killed or wounded.
The action had continued with unmitigated fury for a couple of hours, and there appeared no prospect of its cessation as long as the enemy's ammunition held out. Although the gunners were continually swept away, fresh men, as at first, were driven up to take their places. The number of casualties on board the squadron had greatly increased; two or three officers and several men had already been killed, and many wounded. Suddenly a still louder roar than the thunder of the guns was heard.
"Hurrah! there goes their magazine," cried Desmond.
"No! see the schooner guarding the chains has blown up," answered Gordon, pointing in the direction of the barrier placed across the river.
For a few seconds the enemy, astounded by the occurrence, ceased firing, but the English gave them no respite, and both parties immediately again set to work, battering away at each other. Shot after shot struck the Tudor, but the crew kept up their fire with unabated vigour. Murray had forgotten all about his forebodings of the previous evening; no sooner had the schooner blown up, than he saw that the chain being left unprotected it might easily be cut through, and the steamers would thus be able to pass up the stream, and open a flanking fire on the fort.
The same idea had occurred to Jack, and he sent Tom on board the commodore's ship, offering to make the attempt. Murray had, in the meantime, sent Archy Gordon with a similar offer. Both being accepted, they pulled away in their gigs towards the chains. Though several shot came flying by them, and they were exposed to a hot fire of musketry, they succeeded in reaching the chains. Had the schooner remained, the attempt would have been hopeless, as her guns with an ample crew had full command of the spot; but the guns were at the bottom of the river, and most of her crew had either been blown into the air, or drowned. Still it was no easy matter to cut through heavy chains. With cold iron, axes, and hammers, Murray and Jack set to work, and although bullets were whizzing over them, and every now and then pattered against the boats, they worked dauntlessly away.
"There is one cut through, at all events," cried Jack, as he succeeded at length in severing one of the thick links. Murray had unshackled another; the third, however, still remained; they both worked away at it, knowing that before it could be cut through the enemy might bring down some of their flying artillery, and render their position still more dangerous; besides which, the sooner the ships could get up the more quickly would the victory be won.
"A few more blows, and we shall do it," cried Murray. He was raising his arm to strike, when he fell back into the hands of Snatchblock, who was assisting him.
"Go on, Jack," he exclaimed. "Don't mind me; you will have it through in another minute."
Jack, though his heart felt very sad at the thoughts of Murray being badly wounded, or perhaps killed, laboured away with all his might, assisted by Needham.
"We will do it in a few minutes more," cried Jack, bringing down his axe with tremendous force.
The chain was at length cut; the boats' crews uttering a loud cheer at their success, while the vessels which supported it swung to the current, floating down towards the opposite bank.
"Give way, now, lads," cried Jack, and the two boats proceeded as fast as the men could bend to their oars back to the ships. Jack saw Murray lifted on board and carried below—the surgeon expressed a hope that his wound was not dangerous, though he had fainted from loss of blood. Jack had, however, to hasten on board the commodore's ship, to report what had been done.
The steamers were immediately ordered to proceed up the river and flank the batteries. Jack's anxiety was increased by the knowledge that his ship was greatly exposed, several of her people having fallen, and the purser having been killed while assisting the surgeon below.
The French commodore's brig, however, was suffering much more severely, a shot cutting her cable she dropped astern before another could be ranged, with upwards of an hundred shot-holes through her sides, ten or twelve of her people killed, and forty, or more, wounded. The French and English vessels were now ordered up to place themselves within musket-shot of the battery, that they might assist the flanking fire of the steamers. This they did in a most dashing way, receiving a hot fire in return, when one of the lieutenants of an English vessel was killed. At length, however, the well-served guns of the squadron produced their effect; the fire from the batteries began to slacken, some of the guns being dismounted and the gunners driven from others. The engagement had now lasted six hours.
At length, only an occasional shot came from the shore, but still the enemy's flag continued flying, and the commodore made a signal for the boats of the squadron to rendezvous alongside his ship, with marines and bluejackets prepared for landing, to storm the batteries.
The ships were brought in as close as the water would allow to cover the landing. The English forces, consisting of an hundred and eighty bluejackets, and one hundred and forty-five marines were the first on shore; here they quickly formed. Terence, with two boats' crews from the Tudor, were among them. Desmond had accompanied his uncle; they were soon afterwards joined by Bevan and Tom with the men from the Supplejack.
"So we are to have some campaigning," said Tom. "I was afraid my brother would not let me come, at first, but he thought, as I had escaped the round and grape shot of the enemy which came rattling on board, that I should not get into much harm on shore, and I was very anxious to see the fun."
While the boats were disembarking the men destined for the attack, the ships kept up a hot fire over their heads, to prevent the enemy from rushing down to interrupt them.
"I suppose the ships will cease firing when we storm the hill, or they may chance to knock our heads off instead of the enemy," said Desmond.
"No fear about that," answered Tom. "See, they have knocked off already. The commodore will give us the signal to advance before long, depend on that."
On the crest of the hill a strong force was drawn up to oppose them. Without waiting for the French the word to advance was given, and uttering three hearty British cheers, the marines with fixed bayonets charged up the hill, the bluejackets on their flank.
They were received with a hot fire of musketry, but the gauchos, brave as they were, could not stand the bayonets of the marines. As they saw them coming they took to flight. On one side was a wood in which a body of the enemy were posted. This was at once attacked by a light company of seamen, and in a few minutes it was carried; the French landing, rushed up to the attack of the forts, while the bluejackets pursued the flying enemy, who now and then, when they found themselves in sufficient force to make a stand, turned round and fired at their pursuers. Bodies also of gauchos, who had been hovering in the rear during the action, came sweeping down, endeavouring to cut off any of their assailants whom they might find unprepared to receive them.
Terence, accompanied by the two midshipmen and a small party of seamen, carried away by their ardour, after having assisted to clear the wood, were considerably in advance of the main body. The marines were at the same time in the act of charging a large body of the enemy, who were again attempting to stand their ground.
"Halloa! who are these fellows?" cried Tom, pointing in the direction in which he had seen a large body of the gauchos flourishing their long lances, as they galloped fiercely forward.
"They intend to try and cut us down, and so they will if we don't drive them back with a warm volley," cried Terence. "Prepare to receive cavalry!" The seamen had been drilled to act as light infantry, and being armed with muskets and bayonets were well able to use them. On came the wild horsemen firing their carbines, when, with lances at rest, they charged full down on the body of seamen. Several saddles were emptied, but not till they had got close up to the bayonets did they wheel round, apparently with the intention of retreating. Believing that they were doing so, the bluejackets rose from their knees, and imperfectly disciplined as they were for fighting on shore, without waiting for their officer's orders, rushed forward in pursuit of the apparently flying enemy. Tom and Gerald, carried away by their ardour, took the lead, and having only their swords in their hands, got ahead of the rest. At that moment the horsemen, once more wheeling, charged with desperate fury against the partly broken square.
The seamen, however; again rapidly forming, fired a volley which prevented the gauchos from cutting their way through them. Two of the gauchos, however, as they came up, threw their lassos over Tom and Gerald, who were at that moment in the act of springing back to gain the protection of the bayonets, and greatly to their horror and dismay they found themselves dragged up on the saddles of the horsemen, who with their companions galloped off amid the showers of bullets which the bluejackets sent after them. Among the few who, amid the smoke from the muskets and the confusion, had seen the midshipmen spirited away, was Snatchblock.
"We must get the young reefers back, lads! It won't do to lose them," he shouted out, and followed by a dozen of the Supplejack's crew, less accustomed to discipline than the rest, he started off in pursuit. Terence seeing them going, and not knowing the cause, called them back, but not hearing him they ran on, hoping to overtake the fleet horsemen. The gauchos, discovering from the flight of their party in other directions that the day was lost, continued their flight: had they turned back, they would probably have cut down the whole of their pursuers.
Snatchblock, compelled at length to return, told Adair what had happened.
"Rogers and my nephew carried off?" exclaimed Adair. "How did you fellows come to allow that?"
"We couldn't help it, sir! indeed we couldn't!" answered Snatchblock. "There isn't a man among us who wouldn't have given his own life rather than have let the young gentlemen be carried off by the savages, to be killed and eaten for what we know, but their horsemen came down upon us like lightning, and spirited them off before any of us saw what they were about."
"Well, well, I am ready to believe that none of you could help it, and I am sure, Snatchblock, that you would have risked your life to save the youngsters," said Adair, his rising anger appeased. "They have themselves alone to blame. We must now see what we can do to get them back, for the gauchos will look upon them as prizes of too much value to kill, and though they are savage enough, from all accounts, they are not addicted to eating men or boys either."
"That's a comfort, at all events, for I couldn't tell what those wild chaps might do with the young gentlemen," observed the honest sailor. "If we might go off in chase, maybe we should come up with them before long."
"Without cavalry we shall have no chance of overtaking the gauchos, and I can only hope that they will not treat their prisoners ill. The lads have their wits about them; if they have the chance, they will make their escape," answered Adair.
"You may trust the young gentlemen for that, sir," said Snatchblock. The recall being sounded, Adair with his party was compelled to rejoin the main body; indeed, he saw too clearly that any attempt to rescue the youngsters would be useless. The only task now to be accomplished by the seamen and marines was to spike the guns and destroy the batteries, which being quickly accomplished, they re-embarked.
The crews of the vessels which had been most severely treated had work enough to do in stopping shot-holes and refitting the rigging, which had been considerably cut up.
Adair on his return having to pass close to the Supplejack, went on board to tell Rogers of the unfortunate loss of the two midshipmen, and to offer him all the consolation he could.
"I would rather that anything had happened than that," exclaimed Jack. "You don't suppose that the gauchos have killed the poor lads?"
Adair said he hoped from what he had heard that they had not injured them, and probably supposed that they had made a valuable prize in a couple of officers. They questioned Snatchblock further as to what he knew of the affair.
"I would have given my right hand rather than have had the young gentleman carried off, sir," he answered. "You see, sir, we did not expect those horse-fellows would attack us on that side, and we were not standing in shipshape fashion like the sodgers. Somehow or other also the young gentlemen were where they should not have been, I'll allow, and just then down the gauchos pounced upon us, and all in a moment, before we could sing out, a couple of them whipped their lassos over the lads' shoulders and hoisted them up on their saddles. You may be sure, sir, we made all sail after them as fast as we could carry on, but it was all of no use. The horses' four legs were better than our two, and we were afraid of firing for fear of hitting the young gentlemen. Maybe the fellows carried them off to save their own hides."
Poor Jack felt very unhappy, and at once pulled off to the commodore, to consult him and some of the other captains as to what was best to be done.
"It is only to be hoped that Rosas will not treat them as he is said to have treated some of his prisoners, and cut off their ears," was the remark made when Jack told his story. "Of course every effort must be made to recover the youngsters; and as soon as we can hold any communication with Rosas, we will send to demand their release, and will offer to exchange any of his followers who may fall into our hands for them. In the meantime such private means as are available must be employed, and you and Mr Adair shall have every possible opportunity given you of carrying them out. We will think over the matter, and decide what steps, under the circumstances, it is best to take. The general, however, has shown no inclination whatever to come to terms; and not withstanding his defeat, it is evident that he intends to fight out the quarrel to the bitter end." This was poor consolation to Jack and Terence, who felt more cut up than they had ever been in their lives.
Jack had not, however, forgotten Murray, and as soon as duty would allow him, he went on board the Tudor. He found his old friend able to sit up at table in his cabin, though looking pale and ill from loss of blood, and certainly more fit to be in his cot.
"You see, Jack, that my forebodings are partly realised," he said, as his old shipmate entered; "at all events, had the bullet struck me the sixteenth of an inch on either side my wound would have been fatal. I am afraid, from what the doctor says, that it may be some time before I am fit for active duty, and he advises me to apply to be superseded, and to go home."
Jack of course hoped that the doctor was wrong, and that Murray would be able to remain out till the affair on which they had been sent had been brought to a satisfactory issue.
"But you look unusually grave, Rogers; has anything happened?"
Jack told him all about Tom and Gerald's loss. Murray of course heartily sympathised with him, and expressed his fears, as his other friends had done, that it would be a hard matter to get the youngsters back. He suggested, however, that Jack should try and get hold of some natives, who might communicate with them, and perhaps assist them to escape.
The suggestion gave him some consolation, as offering a means of recovering the lads.
"Don't be cramped in your efforts for want of money," said Murray. "Bribery with these fellows will go a long way, and you know that my purse is always at your service, and never more so than on this occasion."
"I know it, Alick," answered Jack. "Depend on it, if I can fall in with any natives, I will try what bribery can do with them; and if my own means are insufficient, I will come to you."
CHAPTER TWENTY FOUR.
EFFORTS MADE TO RECOVER THE MIDSHIPMEN—MURRAY SAILS FOR ENGLAND—AN OFFER FROM A NATIVE TO RECOVER THE MIDSHIPMEN—THE FLEET ASCENDS THE PARANA—THE SUPPLEJACK SENT IN SEARCH OF THE ENEMY'S VESSELS—CHASES A SCHOONER UP A RIVER—NEEDHAM CAUGHT IN A TRAP—BOAT EXPEDITION—SCHOONER BLOWS UP, AND JACK IS BLOWN UP WITH HER—RETURN—NO NEWS OF THE MIDSHIPMEN—THE SUPPLEJACK COMMENCES VOYAGE UP THE PARANA.
Jack keenly felt the loss of his brother Tom. What might be his and Desmond's fate it was impossible to say, though he could not suppose that the gauchos, savage as they were supposed to be, would put the two young midshipmen to death. He and Adair had for several days made vain attempts to gain information about them.
Their captors might by this time be hundreds of miles away. All they could learn was that the troops of Rosas, having entirely abandoned Fort Obligado, had retreated to a distance. Jack, too, heard that Murray was certainly to be sent home in the Tudor, and for the sake of his friend he was glad of this, but he then should lose the assistance of Adair in his endeavours to recover Tom and Desmond.
He was seated in his cabin one evening after the work of the day was over, with his head resting on his hands—a very unusual position for him—when Lieutenant Adair was announced.
"Beg him to come below," answered Jack, and Adair entered the cabin.
"I am glad to say, my dear Jack, that I am to remain out here instead of taking the corvette home, which, for Murray's sake as well as my own, I should have naturally wished to do; but besides wishing to see the end of this affair with Rosas, I should have been excessively unwilling to leave the country till we can get back our young scapegraces. I wish we could see Murray looking as if he was in a fair way to recover. Still the doctors say he will do well, and the thought of again meeting with his lady-love will, I hope, assist to bring him round. He expects to find her in England, though I fancy that he has not heard from her since we came out here."
"I am indeed glad that you are to remain," said Jack. "What ship are you to join?"
"I am appointed to the commodore's ship, but I have received directions to serve under your orders on board the Supplejack, which I assure you gives me infinite satisfaction, as I have hopes that you and I, by putting our heads together, may devise some plan for the recovery of the youngsters."
Jack of course said how glad he was.
"When does the Tudor sail?" he asked.
"As soon as the wind will allow her," said Adair.
"At all events, I will go on board early to-morrow morning to see Murray," said Jack. "The worst of it is that I must, of course, send a letter by him; and yet I scarcely like to write home with the unsatisfactory intelligence I have to give. However, they will be more anxious and alarmed if they do not hear, so I must tell the whole truth, and express my hopes that we shall recover the youngsters before long."
"I must write the same to my poor sister Nora," observed Terence. "I was half inclined to say nothing at all about the matter; but as it is certain to get into the papers, the poor woman will see it and be troubling herself about her boy, and fancying that she is never to see him again. For my part, I feel sure, however, that the youngsters will turn up somewhere or other; as it is my firm conviction, from experience, that a midshipman has as many lives as a cat, or, considering the immense trouble most youngsters take to expend themselves, there would be no superior officers in the service."
"What is the squadron to do next? have you heard?" asked Jack.
"To proceed up the Parana to Santa Fe de Baxadar, and to convoy down a fleet of merchantmen which Rosas has shut up there," answered Adair. "Whether or not he will let us pass peaceably up is the question. He has still got plenty of light artillery, which will prove excessively troublesome to us, as they can fire from the top of the cliffs right down on our decks, and, as we may probably be peppered pretty severely for the greater part of the way, it will not be altogether an amusing expedition, though we may get plenty 'of the bubble reputation, e'en at the cannon's mouth.' Anything, however, is better than idleness."
"We are not likely out here to meet with much besides fighting to amuse us," observed Jack. "However, I am thankful to find that you are to join the brig, and am much obliged to the commodore for it."
The two old shipmates sat talking for some time, and as soon as Terence returned to the corvette, Jack took out his writing materials and indited his letter for home. He made as light of Tom's capture as possible, and spoke as if it was certain that he and Desmond would find their way back again before many days were over. He begged that his father would find out Murray through Admiral Triton, and from him learn where the Bradshaws, with Miss O'Regan, were staying, that his family might pay them any attention in their power; he expressed a hope that, after the Parana business was over, he himself should be sent home, and bring back Tom safe and sound.
He tried to make his letter appear cheerful, but in reality he never in his life before felt so much out of spirits.
Next morning he took it on board the Tudor and wished Murray farewell.
"You will do well, depend on it, Alick," he said. "You already look better, and we shall meet again before long in old England."
Murray smiled faintly; his wound was painful, though the surgeon assured him that it was going on favourably. The officer who was to supersede Adair having come on board the corvette, the latter accompanied Jack back to the brig.
He received an order directly afterwards to proceed in search of a schooner, supposed to be in one of the numerous passages which carries the waters of the Parana into the River Plate.
"It is very well to say go, but we must get a breeze first," said Jack.
A breeze soon afterwards got up, but it came from the wrong direction; it was, however, favourable for the Tudor, and Jack and Terence watched her as her sails were let fall, and she glided away down the river. They would for many reasons have liked to have been on board her. Few men, after having spent several years on a foreign station, can look without concern on a homeward-bound ship, which carries away friends and acquaintances, while they themselves are left behind.
Their chief regret was, however, that Tom and Gerald had not been recovered before she sailed.
Previous to this, numerous merchantmen had been for some time collecting at the mouth of the river, awaiting the convoy of the men-of-war up the Parana. They now lay at anchor together, forming a large fleet, with the flags of all nations flying from their peaks, while fresh arrivals came gliding up to an anchorage, and boats were pulling about in all directions.
Jack and Terence employed the interval in visiting the shore, for the purpose of finding some one who would undertake to search for the midshipmen, and endeavour to obtain their liberation or assist them to escape.
They could not, however, be long absent from the brig, as a breeze might spring up, and not a moment was to be lost in looking after the Buenos Ayrian schooner.
They ran some risk in going on shore of being cut off by the enemy, who might possibly pounce upon them. The country people, however, very frequently came down to the beach with their provisions, for which they were sure to obtain a good price, and the two lieutenants hoped that through their means they might find some person willing to undertake the task about which they were so anxious.
At length, one evening after the market-people had taken their departure, just as they were about to step into their boat, a dark-skinned man, with a coloured poncho over his shoulder, leathern leggings, and a broad-brimmed hat, made his appearance from behind a bank, and fearlessly came up to them. Though both Jack and Terence by this time spoke a little Spanish, they could not clearly understand him; they made out, however, that he wished to accompany them on board the ship, and that he had some information of importance to give.
"Well, step in, my friend," said Jack. "We will hear what you have got to say as we pull on board."
By degrees they made out that he had heard of their inquiries about the two young midshipmen, and that he was willing to try and recover them, provided he was sufficiently rewarded; he confessed that he had lost his last real in gambling, and, being a ruined man, he set but little value on his life, or that he certainly would not have offered to undertake the task. As he only demanded a hundred dollars, they very willingly promised him the sum.
"And who have we the honour of addressing?" asked Jack.
"Jose Gonzalves, an hidalgo of pure blood," answered the fellow, drawing himself up with an attempted exhibition of dignity. "Circumstances have brought me into my present condition."
"Your purity of blood does not much matter to us, Don Jose Gonzalves, provided you bring back these young officers," answered Jack. "What means have you for carrying out your plan?"
"My own talent and perseverance," replied the Don, in a self-satisfied tone.
"Well, we must trust to that," remarked Jack. "How soon can you commence the undertaking?"
"When I can be landed at a spot some miles higher up the river. I must depend on you for carrying me there."
This was a disappointment to Jack and Terence, who thought that the man would at once have set out; but he explained that General Rosas had moved away to the northward, and that the young officers would have certainly been carried in that direction.
Just as they reached the deck of the brig, the long-wished-for breeze setting in, Jack gave the order to make sail.
The anchor had not left the ground, when a boat from the commodore's ship came alongside, with a despatch for him. His directions were to hunt down any of the enemy's vessels he could hear of, and then to follow the squadron, which was on the point of proceeding up the river.
The signal for the fleet to weigh was already flying from the commodore's masthead, the steamers were getting up their steam, dense volumes of smoke issuing from their funnels, from the yards of the sailing-vessels folds upon folds of snowy canvas were being let fall in all directions, while the boats which had been absent were hurrying back to their respective ships. Two or three men-of-war alone were left at the mouth of the river, to prevent any of the enemy's vessels from escaping, and to keep up the communication with the admiral at Monte Video.
"Come, this is something like work; I wish we were among them," exclaimed Terence; "they will have rare fun going up the river."
"Our turn will come, depend on that," answered Jack; "Rosas is not likely to let us pass without giving us a taste of his flying artillery."
The Supplejack was some hours in reaching the mouth of the river, in which it was reported that one of the enemy's vessels, a schooner, had taken refuge. Darkness soon coming on, Jack was obliged to anchor, and await for daylight to proceed up it. A sharp lookout was kept, however, to prevent any vessel from passing down during the night, without his knowledge.
Two boats were in the water alongside, and their crews, with cutlasses in their hands, and pistols in their belts, were ready to start at a moment's notice. The night was calm and clear, and the shores on either hand could be distinguished with the dark line of the forest, which extended down to the water. Silence reigned over the scene, though it was occasionally broken by strange cries which came out from among the tall trees, probably the death-shriek of some animal, seized by a prowling jaguar or puma.
Jack and Terence got all the information they could out of Jose Gonzalves, who had been frequently up the river, and felt pretty certain as to the locality where the schooner was likely to be found.
The brig was brought up in a bay or bend of the river, a point running out ahead, and concealing her from any vessel coming down the stream till close upon her. This was a disadvantage in one respect, as an approaching enemy could not, for the same cause, be seen from the Supplejack, and only a short time, therefore, could be allowed for getting under weigh. Jack had given orders that the bell should not be struck, lest, should the schooner, or any other vessel, attempt to slip out, it might give notice of the vicinity of the brig.
Jack and Terence had turned in just about the commencement of the morning watch. Needham, who was on the lookout, observed beyond the point above the trees a white spot, on which the light of the moon, just then emerging from behind a cloud, shone brightly. Guessing at once, that it was the head of the schooner's fore-topgallant-sail, he sent to call the commander. Jack and Terence were on deck in an instant; the latter jumped into one of the boats and pulled across the stream to intercept the stranger, while Jack ordered the anchor to be got up, and sail to be made. The wind came off from the shore on the starboard side, so that though the schooner might manage to get out, the brig could also make her way up the stream.
"We shall catch her now, at all events—she is trapped," said Jack to Needham. The schooner's jib was seen coming round the point, which she was compelled to hug closely. Jack might have done better by remaining at anchor, as the schooner would not have so soon discovered the foe lying in wait for her. Directly the brig was perceived she put up her helm, and, quickly easing off her mainsheet, ran again up the river with the wind on her starboard quarter. Jack had to wait some time to pick up his boat, when making all sail, he stood after the schooner, with no little risk of getting on shore, though Jose Gonzalves affirmed that he knew every inch of ground. The lead, however, was kept going, and Jack hoped by keeping as much as possible in the middle of the stream to avoid such a catastrophe.
The chase had had a good start, and now getting into a reach where the wind blew right aft, she was able to set studding-sails, when being very light, she ran through the water even faster than before. She was too directly ahead to enable Jack to fire "Long Tom" at her, unless he yawed considerably. He got, however, at last to the end of a reach, which brought the schooner on his port bow. Needham had been eagerly on the watch for the opportunity. The shot flew through the lower sails of the chase, but no spars were carried away, and she stood on, rapidly increasing her distance from her pursuer.
There was great risk, however, that at any moment the brig might take the ground. Still Jack felt that it would not do to let the prize, almost within his grasp, escape; the wind might draw ahead or drop, and he might take her with the boats. But instead of falling, the breeze rather freshened and continued to favour the chase.
Dawn at length appeared, and as the light increased, the dangers of the navigation somewhat lessened. Three more shots were fired from "Long Tom." The first struck the chase, but what damage it did could not be ascertained, while the second scarcely touched her, and the third fell considerably short. It was evidently of no use to fire again. Still as long as the chase could be kept in sight Jack had hopes of coming up with her, or at all events of discovering into what creek or passage she might run. Having the advantage of being able to make short cuts by channels through which the brig could not venture, she got farther and farther ahead, till she could only just be discerned in the far distance up the river, the dark trees appearing almost to close her in. As the sun rose the wind began to die away, the channel became narrower and narrower. At last it became perfectly calm, the brig was brought to an anchor.
"We must not let her escape," cried Jack. "Out boats, and as the wind will no longer help her we shall find her before long."
Three boats were at once manned, Jack, Terence, and Needham going in them while Bevan remained in charge of the brig.
Jose Gonzalves declined accompanying the expedition, on the plea that should a reverse be met with, he would be knocked on the head by his countrymen, which would have undoubtedly been the case, so Jack was obliged to dispense with his services. The men gave way with a will, hoping soon to overtake the chase. They pulled on, however, for some time without again catching sight of her.
Although the shore offered abundant shelter to an enemy they were allowed to pass without opposition, and concluded therefore that no force of armed men was in the neighbourhood. A sharp lookout was kept on either hand for any opening into which the schooner might have made her way.
At last they reached the mouth of a narrow channel which, perhaps, connected the river they were on with some other stream, or it might, they thought, possibly be a river falling into the first. It was a question whether the schooner had gone up it, and on the chance of her having done so, Needham volunteered to explore it, while the other two boats pulled up the main stream. Jack was at first unwilling to let him go, lest he might be overpowered. At last, however, he consented, ordering him not to attack the schooner, but should he catch sight of her to return immediately and follow the other boats with the information. Jack and Terence accordingly continued their course, while Needham pulled up the channel.
Jack did not believe that the schooner would have ventured into so narrow a place, and he fully hoped before long to catch sight of her. The two boats pulled on for nearly half an hour; the channel, as they advanced, narrowing, till the lieutenants became convinced that the schooner could not without wind have got so far ahead. They accordingly pulled round, being now satisfied that she must have gone up the channel into which Needham had entered. They had almost reached the mouth of it when distant shots were heard; the next instant there came the sound of regular volleys, fired in quick succession.
"Needham must have fallen into a trap, I fear," said Jack, "we must hurry to his assistance. Give way, my lads!"
The men needed no urging, and in a few minutes they were entering the channel. Though narrower at the mouth, after they had gone some way up it widened, and on sounding, they found that there was water enough for a far larger vessel than the schooner. The sound of the firing now became more distinct; then it ceased. It was too probable that Needham had been cut off, and he and his boat's crew destroyed.
Still Jack and Terence, though they might be exposed to a similar danger, felt it was their duty to go on and ascertain the fact. Jack was standing up in the sternsheets, so that he might obtain as far a view as possible up the river, when he caught sight of a boat in the distance.
On she came towards them.
"Hurrah! that must be Needham," he said.
"No doubt about it," answered Terence.
In a short time Needham's boat reached them. The splintered oars, and the white marks along the gunwales and sides, showed the danger to which they had been exposed; though of all her crew, only two had been wounded. Needham said that he had pulled on, not meeting with a human being, and had begun to doubt that the schooner had gone up the channel, when he suddenly saw her, her sails furled, and close in with the shore, apparently being towed, either by men or horses, along the bank. He had gone on some little way further to ascertain this, when several shots were fired at him, and as there was no object to gain by going farther, he had pulled round and began to make the best of his way down the river. Immediately he did so, a whole volley was fired at him from one side, and directly after a second came peppering him from the other. He now discovered that he had been caught in an ambush, but as yet, no one having been killed, he hoped to get out of it. The men at the oars pulled away lustily, while the others returned the fire, and, as they believed, knocked over several fellows who incautiously showed themselves. After running the gauntlet for five or six minutes, they got out of range of the enemy's muskets, and had since been unmolested, neither had they seen any one on the banks. Jack and Terence were unwilling to lose the chase, now that she appeared almost within their grasp, and yet they felt that it would be imprudent to expose their men and themselves to the fire of the numerous enemies posted under cover.