Chapter 11 | The Fight | Blue Jackets

Chapter Eleven.

“Oh, if I only dared hooray!” I said to myself; and then a flush of pride rose to my cheeks, for the captain gave me a smart clap on the shoulder.

“Bravo, Herrick!” he said in quite a whisper. “I thought you were right, my lad, or I shouldn’t have done all this. Mr Reardon and I will make a fine officer of you before we have done.”

“Shall I pass the word down for the men to be on the qui vive?” said the lieutenant.

The captain laughed, and nodded his head in the direction of the hatches, which were black with peeping heads.

“No need, Mr Reardon; there is not a soul on board who does not know. It is no time for making fresh arrangements. We’ll keep exactly to our plans. Don’t let a man show on deck, for depend upon it they will have a look-out aloft ready to give warning of danger, and we must not give them an excuse for signalling to their confederates to sheer off.”

“Keep steadily on, then, sir?”

“Yes, steadily and stupidly. Let the men go on as before up aloft, and let the rest of the men show their white heads and pigtails at the bulwarks as if they were wondering who the strangers were. Good pressure of steam below?”

“Yes, sir, almost too much,” said the lieutenant, after communication with the engine-room.

“Not a bit,” said the captain, rubbing his hands. “We shall want it soon.”

My heart began to beat as they passed on, and I wondered what would be the first steps taken. But I did not forget my promise. My duties were about nil, and as soon as I had seen the men staring over the bulwarks, and noted that the sham repairs to the rigging were steadily going on, I ran down the companion-way, and breathlessly told Barkins and Smith.

“Then there are four of them, Smithy,” cried Barkins. “Look here, Gnat; he stuck out that there were only three. But well done, old chap, you are a good one to come and tell us. Here, don’t go yet; I want to—”

I never heard what he wanted to, for there was too much exciting attraction on the deck, to which, being as it were licensed, I at once returned.

The captain and Mr Reardon were on the quarter-deck, conscious that savages as the Chinese or Formosan pirates were, they probably did not despise the barbarian instruments known as telescopes, and that most likely every movement on board the Teaser was being watched. Any suspicious act would be quite sufficient to make them sheer off, and consequently the strictest orders were given to the men to play their parts carefully, and make no movement that was not required.

Dressed as I was in flannels, my appearance was thoroughly in keeping with the assumed peaceful character of the ship, and hence I heard and saw nearly everything.

Just as I went on the quarter-deck the captain was saying to the first lieutenant—

“Don’t be so excitable, man. When I ask you a question, or give an order, take it deliberately, and dawdle off to see it done.”

“Right through, sir?” said Mr Reardon petulantly.

“No,” said the captain quietly. “When I give the order, ‘Full speed ahead,’ then you can act. Till then you are mate or passenger, whichever you like, of this dirty-looking trader. Ah, those three low junks, or whatever they are, can creep through the water pretty quickly.”

“Yes; and the big junk too,” said Mr Reardon, using his glass. “It is astonishing how rapidly those great heavily-sailed craft can go. She’s full of men, sir,” he continued; “I can see more and more beginning to show themselves. Not much appearance of dishipline, though.”

“So much the better for us,” muttered Captain Thwaites, turning in his cane arm-chair, and looking in the direction of the islands again, from which the three smaller vessels were coming on rapidly. “Yes,”—he said, as if to himself, “a head keeps showing here and there; they are full of men too.”

I was not experienced, of course, that only being my third voyage, but I knew enough of navigating tactics to grasp the fact that the four vessels were carefully timing themselves so as to reach us together, and this evidently was their customary mode of procedure, and no doubt accounted for ship after ship being taken and plundered. I felt startled, too, as I realised the strength of the crews, and what a simultaneous attempt to board might mean. With an ordinary merchantman, even with a strong crew, undoubtedly death and destruction, while even with our well-armed men and guns I began to have doubts. A slip in the manoeuvres, ever so slight a mistake on Captain Thwaites’ part, or a blunder in the carrying out of his orders, might give one vessel the chance to make fast, and while we were arresting their onslaught there would be time for the others to get close in and throw their scores of bloodthirsty savages upon our decks.

Mr Reardon had strolled forward, and returned just as the captain said to me—

“You may as well fetch me my sword and cap from the cabin, Mr Herrick.”

“Yes, sir,” I said quickly, and I was off, but he stopped me.

“Not now, boy,” he cried impatiently; “when the first gun is fired will be time enough. Well, Reardon, men all ready?”

“Ready, sir? they want wiring down. I’m only afraid of one thing.”

“What is that?”

“That they will jam one another in the hatches in their excitement.”

“Give fresh stringent orders, sir,” said the captain sternly; “every man is to go quickly and silently to his post, as if on an ordinary drill. By George! they are coming on quickly; we shall have it all over by daylight.”

“And they’ll plunder the ship by lamplight, eh?” said Mr Reardon drily.

“Of course. I think there is no need to feel any doubt now as to these being the men we want?”

“I don’t know, sir,” said the lieutenant quietly; “but there is no doubt about their meaning to try and take this peaceful merchantman. Look, they feel sure of us, sir, and are showing themselves. Why, they swarm with men.”

“Poor wretches!” said the captain gravely. “I don’t like shedding blood, but we must do it now, to the last drop.”

The enemy were now less than a mile away, and coming on rapidly, the smaller vessels helping their progress with long, heavy sweeps; and as I stood behind the captain’s chair, and looked round the deck from the wheel, where one of our sham Chinamen stood, with another seated under the bulwarks apparently asleep, but ready to spring up and join his messmate at a word; round by the bulwarks where four or five stood stupidly looking over the side; and then up aloft to the men making believe to work very hard at the damaged spar—all looked peaceful enough to tempt the wretches, without counting the most prominent figure of all, Ching, as he sat high up, smoking placidly, and looking as calm and contemplative as a figure of Buddha.

“The men ought to be called up now, and the guns set to work,” I said to myself, as every pulse throbbed with excitement, and in imagination I saw, from the captain’s neglect or dilatoriness, our deck running with blood.

But I had to master these thoughts.

“They know better than I do when to begin,” I said to myself, and, after a sharp glance at the coming vessels, I began to pity my two messmates who were cooped up below, and I thought of how excited they must be. Then I thought of Mr Brooke, and hoped he would not be hurt; and shuddered a little as I remembered the doctor, who would be all ready below, waiting to attend upon the first wounded man.

“See that, sir?” said Mr Reardon quickly.

“What?” said Captain Thwaites in the most unmoved way.

“That smoke on board two of them.”

“On board all,” said the captain. “I noticed it a minute ago. They are getting the stinkpots ready for us, I suppose.”

“Yes, that’s it, sir. Do you think it necessary to have the hose ready in case of fire?”

“No; if any come on board, the firemen can be called up from the stokehole with their shovels. I think we’ll go now upon the bridge. You can come too, Mr Herrick. I may want you to take an order or two.”

And as he walked quietly towards the bridge, where the speaking-tubes and signals joined with the engine-room were, he was as calm and deliberate as if there was not the slightest danger menacing the Teaser; while for my part I could not help feeling that the position there upon the bridge was a highly-exposed one, and that I should have been much safer in the shelter of the bulwarks, or down below.

All this time we were gently forging ahead, and the junk was quietly manoeuvring so that we should pass her so close that she could just avoid our prow, and then close and grapple with us, for they were busy on her starboard quarter, and through my glass I could make out great hooks.

“Won’t they think we are taking it too coolly, and grow suspicious, sir?” whispered Mr Reardon excitedly.

“I hope not,” said the captain. “Perhaps one might show fight now, but I am trusting to their believing that we are stupid, for I want to get them all, Reardon, if I can. Now, silence, if you please.”

Mr Reardon drew back a step or two and waited during those terrible minutes which followed, and I gave quite a start, for the enemy suddenly threw off all reserve as a yell came from the junk, which was answered from the other vessels, and, with their decks crowded with savage-looking desperadoes, they swept down upon us literally from both sides, bow and stern.

But still the captain did not make a sign; and, in the midst of the horrible silence on board, I saw the dressed-up men turning their heads to gaze at us anxiously, as if the suspense was greater than they could bear, and their eyes implored their commander to give the word before the wretches began swarming on board.

I glanced at Mr Reardon, whose face was white, and the great drops of perspiration stood upon his cheeks, while his eyes, which were fixed upon the captain between us, looked full of agony; for the great junk with its wild crew was apparently only a hundred yards ahead, and the others not much farther, coming rapidly on.

“It’s all over,” I thought, in my horror, “he will be too late;” and that I was not alone in my thoughts obtained confirmation, for, though the crew to a man stood fast, I saw Ching suddenly drop from his perch and look round for a place of retreat.

At the same moment the captain moved his hand; there was a sharp tinging of the gong in the engine-room, which meant full speed ahead; and, as the vibration rapidly increased, he then gave a sharp order or two, and in an instant almost the men came pouring up from the various hatches upon deck, but so quickly and quietly that the transformation was almost magical.

I don’t think my eyes are peculiarly made, but I saw the various crews muster round the guns, and the marines range up, and the men with their rifles at their various posts, with each officer in his place, although all the time I was standing with my gaze fixed upon the great junk.

I saw, too, my twenty pigtailed men come sliding down the ropes from above, and snatch up the cutlasses and rifles laid ready beneath a tarpaulin; but all the time I was seeing, in obedience to orders, two parties of the crew going forward at the double, and I knew that the captain was communicating with the two men at the wheel.

Quick as lightning there was another order as we began to leave the three low vessels behind, and I involuntarily grasped the rail before me as all the men on board lay down—crews of the guns, marines, and those who had doubled forward under the command of Mr Brooke.

Hardly was the evolution performed, when there, right before us, were the lowering mat-sails of the great junk, and then, crash! there was a wild despairing yell, and we were into her amidships, the ponderous gunboat literally cutting her down and going right over her; while at a second command every man sprang up again, and for the next minute or two bayonet and cutlass were flashing in the evening sunlight as the wretches who climbed on board were driven back.

While this was going on, the bell in the engine-room rang out again and again, and we began to move astern to meet the three low junks, which, undismayed by the fate of their comrade, came at us with their crews yelling savagely.

Then there was a deep roar as the first gun belched forth its flame and smoke, with the huge shell hurtling through the air, dipping once in the calm sea, and crashing through one of the junks, to explode with a report like the echo of the first, far beyond.

Captain Thwaites turned quietly and looked at me.

“Yes, sir?” I stammered.

“I said when the first gun was fired you could fetch my cap and sword, Mr Herrick,” he said quietly, and I ran down just as the second big gun bellowed, but I did not see with what result. I heard the sharp, short order, though, and another gun roared, and another, and another, as the junks came well into sight; for each gun I heard the crash of the shell hitting too, and the fierce yells of the men, as I dashed into the cabin, seized cap and sword, and then ran back to the bridge, eager to see the fight, and in my excitement forgetting to feel afraid.

But a heavy smoke was gathering over us and the junks,—two were indistinct, though they were close aboard of us. Then, as the Teaser glided astern, I saw that the third was smoking, while crash, crash, the others struck our sides, and their crews grappled, hurled their stinkpots on board, and began to swarm over the bulwarks.

But the guns were being steadily served with terrible effect; the few poor wretches who reached the deck were bayoneted, and in how long or how short a time I cannot tell, for everything seemed to be swept away in the excitement; we steamed away out of the smoke into the ruddy sunset, and there I saw in one place a mass of tangled bamboo and matting, with men clustering upon it, and crowding one over the other like bees in a swarm. There was another mass about a quarter of a mile away, and I looked in vain for the third junk; but a number of her crew clinging to bamboos, sweeps, spars, and what looked to be wicker crates, showed where she had been. The last of the four, with her great matting-sails hauled up to the fullest extent, was sailing away toward the nearest island, and on either side they had sweeps over with two or three men to each, tugging away with all their might to help their vessel along.

“The brutes!” I thought to myself, as I watched the glint of the ruddy sun upon their shiny heads and faces, with their pig tails swinging behind, as they hung back straining at the great oars. For their sole idea seemed to be escape, and not the slightest effort was made to pick up any of their comrades struggling in the water.

It was wonderful how quickly they went, and I began to think that the junk would escape. Three miles would be enough to place her all amongst the reefs and shoals, where the gunboat dare not follow; and I was thinking, as we glided rapidly in her wake, that the Teaser would chase her swiftly for about half the distance, and then lower the boats to continue the pursuit, but I was wrong; I saw that the captain gave Mr Reardon some order, then the gong rang in the engine-room, the way of the Teaser was checked, a turn of the wheel made her describe a curve, and she slowly came to a standstill broadside on to the flying junk.

The next minute the crews were piped away to the boats with their complement of marines to each; and as they were lowered down a steady fire was maintained with shell upon the junk.

I stood watching the shots, and saw the first of the broadside from one heavy and three smaller guns strike the water close to the junk’s hull, fly up, dip again, and then burst over the cliffs.

The second went wide to the left, while the third also missed; and I saw the captain stamp impatiently as the fourth went right over her.

“She’ll get away,” I thought; and it seemed a pity for this junk to escape and form a nucleus for another strong pirate gang.

The firing continued, another broadside being directed at the flying pirates, who seemed to be certain now of escape, for the junk was end-on to us, and moving rapidly, forming a very difficult object for our marksmen; the gunboat, of course, rising and falling all the time upon the heaving sea.

In the intervals between the shots I had caught a glimpse of Barkins and Smith climbing into two of the boats, but it was only a glimpse; and then I was watching the effects of the fire again, as the boats pushed off to go to the help of the floating men.

Shot after shot had been fired most ineffectively, and I heard expostulations and angry words used to the captains of the guns; while at every ineffective shell that burst far away a derisive yell rose from the crowded junk—the shouts increasing each time.

“Another broadside, Reardon,” cried the captain; “and then we must run in as far as we dare. Pick out half-a-dozen of the best men with the rifle to place on the bows to pick off the steersman.”

“Ay, ay, sir,” cried Mr Reardon; then directly, “All gone in the boats, sir.”

Just then, as I was thinking that the junk must escape, one of our big guns was fired with a crash which made the deck vibrate. There was a tremendous puff of smoke, which was drawn toward us so that I could not see the effect, but the shell seemed to burst almost directly with a peculiar dull crash, and another yell arose from the distant vessel. Only it was not a derisive cry like the last, but a faint startling chorus of long-continued shrieks, despairing and wild.

“That’s got her, sir,” cried Mr Reardon; and we waited impatiently for the smoke to float by. But it still shut out the junk from where we stood, while it passed away from the men forward at the gun, and they gave us the first endorsement of Mr Reardon’s words by bursting out into a hearty cheer, which was taken up by the crews of the other guns. Then we were clear of the smoke, looking landward to see a crowd of men struggling in the water, swimming about to reach planks and pieces of the junk, which had been blown almost to pieces by our great shell, and had sunk at once, while yet quite a mile from the nearest rocks.

“Ha!” ejaculated the captain, “a good evening’s work! Now, Reardon, down with the other two boats, and save every poor wretch you can.”

“Only one left, sir,” cried Mr Reardon; and in a few minutes, fully manned, she was about to be lowered down, when I looked quickly at the captain, and he read my meaning.

“Want to go?” he said, and then nodded sharply.

I dashed down, climbed upon the bulwark, seized the falls just as they were about to be cast off, and slid down into the stern to take my place. Then the oars fell with a splash, and away we went over the ruddy sea to try and save all we could of the wretches upon whom so terrible a retribution had come.

One of the warrant officers was in command; he gave me a grim nod.

“Want to see the fun?” he said.

“I want to see the men saved,” I replied; “I don’t know where the fun comes in.”

“You soon will,” he said. “Look out for yourself, my lad; and don’t be too eager to help them.”


“You’ll soon see,” he said gruffly. Then turning to the four marines in the stern-sheets—“fix bayonets, and keep a sharp look-out.”

I looked at him wonderingly, for fixed bayonets did not seem very suitable things for saving drowning men. But I said nothing, only sheltered my eyes from the level rays of the sun as we rowed swiftly on, and gazed across the water at the despairing wretches fighting for their lives upon the blood-red surface of the water.

It was very horrible after a time, for, as I looked with my heart feeling contracted, I saw a man, who had been swimming hard, suddenly throw up his hands and sink.

It was too much for me.

“Row, my lads, row,” I cried; “we may catch him as he comes up.”

“No,” said the warrant officer grimly, “we shall never see him again.”

“But try, try!” I cried.

“Yes, we’ll try our best,” said the officer sternly; “but it’s their turn now. Many a poor wretch have they seen drown, I know, and laughed at when he cried for help.”

I knew it was true; but all the same there was only one thought besides in my breast, and that was to save all the poor wretches who were clinging to the pieces of wreck.

As we drew nearer, we came upon the first of quite thirty, clinging to a sweep which was under his left arm; while, to my horror, I had seen three more swimming without support go down without a cry, and not one rise again.

“Easy there,” said the officer; “ready there, coxswain; can you reach him with the hook?”

The man who was standing in the bows reached out to hook the pirate, but just then the end of the floating sweep touched our boat, and turned right off, so that the coxswain missed his stroke, and the result was that the pirate glided aft.

The officer by my side leaned over, reached out, and, to my intense satisfaction, caught the Chinaman by his left sleeve to draw him to the boat; but in an instant the wretch threw his right arm out of the water, and I saw the flash of a long knife in his fingers, as, with his teeth grinning, he struck at my companion with all his might.

I was so taken by surprise that I sat as if paralysed; but I was conscious of a quick movement from behind, something red passed over me, and, all instantaneously, there was the flash of another blade, a horrible thud—the pirate was driven under water; and I wrenched, as it were, my eyes round from him to look up over my shoulder at the marine, who with a dexterous twist of his rifle withdrew his bayonet from the savage’s chest.

“Hurt, sir?” he said.

“No thankye, marine. Very quick and well done of you. There, Mr Herrick; now you see why I told you to look out.”

“The brutes!” I cried excitedly; “they’re not worth trying to save.”

“No,” he said; “but we must do it. I suppose they don’t believe much in the mercy they’ll get from us; so there’s no wonder. Look at that!”

I turned my head in the direction in which he pointed, and saw what he meant. Five men were clinging to a piece of floating wreck about fifty yards away, and three more left the plank to which they had been clinging as we approached, and swam to join them.

I looked at the first group, fully expecting to see them hold out their hands to help their comrades; but in place thereof, I saw one wretch, who occupied the best position on the floating mass of wreck, raise a heavy piece of bamboo with both hands, and bring it down with a crash upon the head of the first man who swam up.

“Yah, you cowardly beggar!” roared one of the boat’s crew. “I’ve marked you.”

“Nice wild-beasts to save, Mr Herrick,” said the warrant officer. “I feel as if I should like to open fire on them with my revolver.”

“It’s too horrible,” I panted. “Look, look, Mr Grey!”

“I’m looking, my lad,” said my companion. “Give way, my boys; let’s stop it somehow.”

For there was a desperate fight going on at the piece of wreck; three men, knife in hand, were trying to get upon the floating wood, and those upon it stabbing at them to keep them off.

But, in their despair, the swimmers made a dash together, regardless of the blows, climbed on, and a terrible struggle began.

“Starn all!” roared Mr Grey; and the boat’s progress was checked. We were backed away just in time, for the pirates were all now on one side of the piece of wreck, thinking of nothing but destroying each other’s lives, and heaped together in what looked like a knot, when the side they were on slowly sank, the far portion rose up and completely turned over upon them, forcing them beneath the water, which eddied and boiled as the struggle still went on below the surface.

“Give way, my lads,” said the officer sternly; “let’s try and save some of the others.”

“Ay, ay,” cried the man who had shouted before. “These here arn’t worth saving.”

The boat swept round in a curve, and we pulled off for another group, kneeling and crouching upon what seemed to be a yard and a mass of matting-sail.

Mr Grey stood up.

“Now, my lads,” he shouted, “surrender.”

For answer they bared their knives and defied us to come on, yelling and striking at us with them.

Mr Grey looked round at me half-laughingly.

“Cheerful sort of prisoners to make. If we go close in, some of us will get knifed.”

“You can’t go close,” I said.

“If I don’t they’ll drown,” he cried; “and the captain will ask me what I’ve been about.”

“Hadn’t you better let the jollies put ’em out of their misery, Mr Grey, sir?” cried one of the men. “They arn’t fit to live.”

“No,” cried another fiercely. “They arn’t men; they’re tigers.”

“Silence!” said the officer sternly. “There is a man yonder about to sink; give way,” he cried.

This man had left a barrel, to which he had vainly tried to cling, but it kept on turning round; and at last, in his despair, he had left it to try and swim to the nearest rocks.

His strength was failing, though, and he began to paddle like a dog, too much frightened to try and swim.

A few strokes of the oar took us within reach, and this time the coxswain succeeded in hooking his loose cotton jacket, and drawing him to the side.

Hands seized him directly, and he was hauled in to lie down trembling, and looking wildly from one to the other.

“Come; he’s a quiet one,” said the coxswain. “Mind, sir!”

“Mind! look out!” roared the boatswain.

But he was too late. One moment the Chinaman crouched, limp and helpless, in the bottom of the boat forward, with his hands hidden in his wet sleeves, the next he had made a frog-like leap at the coxswain, driven a sharp knife in the muscles of his back, and leaped overboard. Not into safety, though; for one of the men stood ready, and, as the wretch rose, brought down the blade of his oar with a tremendous chop across the head, and the pirate went down to rise no more.

I heard the boatswain utter a low fierce growl as he crept forward, and I followed to try and help, for the injured man had sunk upon his knees, with the boat-hook across the bows, and began to wipe the perspiration from his forehead.

“Much hurt, my lad?” cried Mr Grey.

“Tidy, sir, tidy; makes one feel a bit sicky-like. Any one like to have the next turn with the boat-hook? I’m going to miche a bit.—Do it bleed?”

All thought of saving the pirates was given up till the wound, which bled sharply, was carefully bandaged, and the man laid down in the bottom of the boat. Then the crew looked at their officer.

“Hadn’t we better polish ’em off, sir?” growled one of the men.

“The captain’s orders were to pick up all the drowning men we could,” said the boatswain sternly.

“But they won’t be picked up, sir.”

“Give way.”

The men rowed to another floating group of four, and I stood up and called to them to surrender.

For answer they sprang into the water, and began to swim to some of their comrades on the next piece of wreck.

“This is a puzzling job, Mr Herrick,” said the boatswain. “I’m not a brute; I’d jump overboard to save any of the wretches, but it would be like giving my life, or the lives of any of the crew, to set them the job. Those wretches will begin upon their mates, you’ll see.”

He was quite right, for the possessors of the next floating piece of wreck yelled to their comrades to keep off, and, as they still swam on, a fresh fight began of the most bloodthirsty nature, and one of our men said drily—

“Take it coolly, sir. If we lay on our oars a bit, there won’t be none to fish up.”

The feeling of horror and pity for the drowning men began to wear off, and I was glad when Mr Grey suddenly ordered the men to row hard, and I saw him steer shoreward to cut off a little party of four, who, with a thick bamboo yard between them, were swimming for the rocks.

“They must be saved as prisoners or not at all,” he said sternly; “not a man of them must land.”

As soon as this last party saw us coming, we noticed that they drew their knives to keep us off, but energetic measures were taken this time. We got between them and the shore; and then a rope was made ready, one of the men stood up and dexterously threw it right over a pirate’s head, snatched it tightly to him, dragged him from his hold, and he was at last drawn to the side half-drowned, hauled aboard, and his hands and feet tied.

This successful plan was followed out with the others, with the result that we had four prisoners lying safely in the bottom, and then turned to capture some more in the same way.

But we had been so excited and taken up by this work that we had not seen what was going on seaward, where a gun was fired for our recall.

“Where’s the next of them?” said Mr Grey.

I did not answer, as I stood up looking round to see a few fragments of wreck floating here and there, but there was not another pirate left to save.