Chapter 20 | After the Fight | Blue Jackets

Chapter Twenty.

“Bravo, Gnat! Well done, little ’un!” whispered Barkins the next minute, as I walked aft, feeling quite confused, while my headache and sensation of misery passed off as if by magic. “Blacksmith would have done it better, of course; wouldn’t you, Smithy?”

“Done it as well as you would,” said my messmate sulkily; and there was a heavy frown on his brow; but, as he met my eyes, it cleared off, and he smiled frankly. “I say: Well done our side!” he whispered. “What would they do without midshipmen!”

“I say, though,” said Barkins, “we’ve given John Pirate another dressing-down; but what about the plunder?”

“Ah, of course,” said Smith. “Junks both burned, and no swag. What about our prize-money? Eh, Gnat?”

“I wasn’t thinking about that, but about our poor lads. They must have had a sharp fight. I hope no one is hurt.”

My companion were silent for a moment or two. Then Barkins said quietly—

“I thought it would be only the teapots that were broken. Think our chaps were hurt? You couldn’t see?”

“I could see that there was a big fight going on; and look here!”

I nodded in the direction of one of the companion-ways, from which the doctor suddenly appeared with his glasses on, and an eager, expectant look in his eyes as he bustled up to us.

“I’m all ready,” he said. “Boats in sight yet?” I shuddered, and I noticed that Smith looked white. “Well, why don’t you answer? What’s the matter, my lads? Oh, I see.” He laughed.

“Horrible sort of person the doctor, eh? But you didn’t look like that when I tackled your wounds the other day. But if you people will fight, the surgeon must be ready. Oh, let’s see: you were up at the cross-trees, Mr Herrick, with your glass, and saw all. Will there be much work for me to do?”

“I don’t know, sir,” I said, trying hard to speak quietly. “I couldn’t see much for the smoke. I hope not.”

“So do I, boy, heartily. I don’t mind the wounds so long as they’re not too bad. It’s painful to have fine strong lads like ours slip through one’s fingers. But we must do our best. Any Chinese prisoners? Sure to be, I suppose.”

“I should think so, sir.”

“And wounded. Well, if there are, you three lads ought to come and be my body-guard with your dirks. Like to see the operations, I daresay?”

“Ugh!” I said, with a shudder.

“Bah! Don’t act like a great girl, Herrick,” said the doctor scornfully. “You would never have done for a doctor, sir. I never shudder at the worst cases.”

“But then you are hardened, sir,” said Barkins.

“Hardened be hanged, sir!” cried the doctor indignantly. “A clever surgeon gets more and more softened every time he operates, more delicate in his touches, more exact in his efforts to save a limb, or arrange an injury so that it will heal quickly. Hardened, indeed! Why, to judge from your faces, any one would think surgery was horrible, instead of one of the greatest pleasures in life.”

“What, cutting and bandaging wounds, and fishing for bullets?” blurted out Smith; “why, sir, I think it’s hideous.”

“And I think you are an impertinent young coxcomb, sir,” cried the doctor indignantly. “Hideous, indeed! Why it’s grand.”

He looked round at us as if seeking for confirmation of his words, but neither spoke.

“Hideous? horrible?” he said, taking off his glasses and thrusting his hand into his pocket for his handkerchief to wipe them, but bringing out something soft and white, which proved to be a piece of lint. “Oh, I do call it cool. If there’s anything hideous it’s your acts, sir; having those thundering guns fired, to send huge shells shivering and shattering human beings to pieces for the doctor to try and mend; your horrible chops given with cutlasses and the gilt-handled swords you are all so proud of wearing—insolent, bragging, showy tools that are not to be compared with my neat set of amputating knives in their mahogany case. These are to do good, while yours are to do evil. Then, too, your nasty, insidious, cruel bayonets, which make a worse wound than a bullet. Oh, it’s too fine to call my work horrible, when I try to put straight all your mischief.”

“Here they are,” cried Barkins excitedly, as a hail came from the top.

We ran aft to see the first boat come steadily along close in shore, which was being hugged so as to avoid the full rush of the tide.

Directly after the others came in sight, and glasses were all in use from the bridge and quarter-deck.

I adjusted mine directly, and saw at the first glance that there was plenty of work for Dr Price, for men were lying in the stern-sheets with rough bandages on limbs and heads, while several of those who were rowing had handkerchiefs tied round their foreheads, and others had horrible marks upon their white duck-frocks, which told tales of injury to them as well as to their enemies.

The third boat was given up to men lying down or sitting up together, leaving only just room for the rowers, while the fourth and largest boat was being towed; the thwarts, that in an ordinary way would have been occupied by rowers, now holding the marines, who sat with their rifles ready, and fixed bayonets, while the stern-sheets were filled with Chinamen, seated in three groups, and all in the most uncomfortable-looking way. I could see that their hands were tied behind their backs, and it was horribly plain that several of them were wounded; but why they should have formed these three groups, and sat there with their heads laid close together, was what puzzled me.

A loud cheer rose from our deck as the boats came near; and this was taken up directly by the returning party, the men rowing harder as they shouted, and the little triumphant procession reached the side.

The first hail came from the captain.

“Mr Brooke—where’s Mr Brooke?”

“Here, sir,” cried that officer, standing up with a stained handkerchief about his head, and his uniform all black and scorched.

“Any fatalities?”

“No, sir; not one.”

I saw the captain’s lips move, but no one heard him speak. I guessed, though, what he said, and I felt it.

Then as quickly as possible the boats were run up to the davits, and the uninjured men leaped on deck. Next the wounded, such as could stir, descended from the boats, one poor fellow staggering and nearly falling as soon as he reached the deck. After which the badly wounded were carefully lifted out and carried below, to be laid in a row to wait the doctor and his assistant make their first rapid examination, to apply tourniquets and bandaged pads to the most serious injuries.

“Good heavens, Mr Brooke, what a condition you are in! The doctor must take you first.”

“Oh no, sir,” said the young lieutenant quietly. “I’m not very bad; a cut from a heavy sword through my cap. It has stopped bleeding. My hands are a little bruised.”

“But how was this?”

“As we advanced to board, they threw quite a volley of stink-pots fizzing away into us. I burned myself a little with them.”

“Chucking ’em overboard, sir,” cried the boatswain. “Splendid it was.”

“Nonsense!” cried Mr Brooke. “You threw ever so many. But it was hot work, sir.”

“Hot! it is horrible. How many prisoners have you there?”

“Eighteen, sir; the survivors escaped.”

“But you shouldn’t have fired the junks, man,” said the captain testily. “There may have been wounded on board.”

“Yes, sir,” said Mr Brooke, with his brow puckering; “wounded and dead there were, I daresay, thirty; but the enemy set fire to their vessels themselves before they leaped overboard, and it was impossible to save them: they burned like resin. We saved all we could.”

“I beg your pardon; I might have known,” cried the captain warmly. “Come to my cabin. Mr Reardon, be careful with those prisoners; they are savage brutes.”

“Enough to make ’em, Gnat. Look! What a shame!”

I looked, but I could not see any reason for Smith’s remark.

“Beg pardon, sir,” growled one of the men, who had a bandage round his arm; “you wouldn’t ha’ said so if you’d been there. They was all alike. The junk we took was burning like fat in a frying-pan, and me and my mate see one o’ them chaps going to be roasted, and made a run for it and hauled him away—singed my beard, it did; look, sir.”

Half of his beard was burned off, and his cheek scorched.

“Then my mate gets hold of his legs, and I was stooping to get my fists under his chest, when he whips his knife into my arm ’fore I knowed what he was up to. But we saved him all the same.”

“Here,” cried Mr Reardon, as the marines descended from the third boat, and stood at attention in two parties facing each other; “who was answerable for this? Why, it is an outrage. Brutal!”

“S’pose it was my doing, sir,” said the boatswain, touching his cap; “but I asked leave of Mr Brooke first, and he said yes.”

“What, to tie the poor wretches up like that, sir, and half of them wounded!”

“Beg pardon, sir; there was no other way handy. We lashed their arms behind ’em to keep ’em from knifing us, and then they kept on jumping overboard, and trying to drown themselves. We haven’t hurt them.”

“Cast them loose at once.”

“Yes, sir; I should like half-a-dozen strong chaps in the boat, though.”

“Well, take them,” said Mr Reardon, who was speaking less severely now. “I’ll have the uninjured men in irons this time. Be careful.”

“And if I’d my way, I’d have ’em all in iron boxes, ’cept their hands.”

The boatswain said this to me, with a nod, as the first lieutenant turned away, and, unable to control my curiosity, I sprang up on the bulwark to look into the boat.

“Let’s have a look too,” cried Smith, and he jumped up to gain a position much closer than mine, but quitted his hold and dropped back on deck, lost his footing, and came down sitting; for, as he leaned over the boat’s gunnel, one of the prisoners made a sudden snap at him, after the fashion of an angry dog, and the marines burst into a roar of laughter.

Smith got up scowling and indignant.

“My hands slipped,” he said to me aloud. And then, to carry off his confusion, “How many are there, Herrick?”

“Three lots of six,” I said, as I now saw plainly enough how it was that the prisoners were in such a strange position. For they had been dragged together and their pigtails lashed into a tight knot, a process admirably suited to the object in hand—to render them perfectly helpless; and their aspect certainly did not excite my anger.

Meanwhile the boatswain had stepped into the swinging boat, and he turned to me, but looked at Smith as he spoke.

“Like to try whether either of the others will bite, Mr Herrick?” he said.

Smith coloured and frowned.

“No, thank you,” I replied; “I’m satisfied.”

“Now then, you two,” said the boatswain, “stand by with your bayonets; and you, my lads, be ready as we cast them loose. Get a good grip of each fellow by the tail; he’ll be helpless then.”

I stood looking on at the curious scene, and the next minute was conscious of the fact that the first lieutenant had returned to supervise the putting of the prisoners in irons himself; and, as the tails were unlashed, he took note of the men who were injured, and had them lifted out and laid on deck.

The others made no attempt to escape, for they were too firmly held; but, as the armourer fitted on the irons, I could see their wild-beast-like eyes rolling in different directions, and then become fixed with a look of savage hate on our men, who were certainly none too tender with a set of wretches who only waited an opportunity to destroy life without the slightest compunction.

At last they were all lying on the deck—nine with serious wounds, the other half for the most part injured, but only to a very slight extent, and these were soon after taken one by one between a file of marines to the place in the hold appointed once more for their prison.

Then the doctor came up for ten minutes, and, after a few words with the sergeant of marines, examined the nine prisoners, passing over six to the sergeant with orders, and having three laid aside for his own ministrations.

We three lads stood watching the sergeant, who had evidently had some practice in ambulance work, and skilfully enough he set to work sponging and bandaging injuries. But all the time a couple of marines stood, one on either side, ready to hold the prisoners down, for each seemed to look upon the dressing of his wounds as a form of torture which he was bound to resist with all his might.

“Nice boys, Mr Herrick,” said the boatswain drily. “Do you know why we are taking all this pains?”

“To save their lives and give them up to the authorities at Tsin-Tsin, I suppose.”

“Yes, sir.”

“For them to be put on their trial for piracy on the high seas.”

“Yes, sir, that’s it; but it would be a greater kindness to let the wretches die out of their misery.”

“But some of them mayn’t be guilty,” I said.

The boatswain laughed.

“I don’t think there’s much doubt about that, sir,” he said. Just then, as the last man was treated by the sergeant, the doctor came on deck with his assistants, both in white aprons and sleeves—well, I’m a little incorrect there—in aprons and sleeves that had been white.

“I’ve no business here,” said the doctor hurriedly; “but these men cannot be left. Keep an eye on them, my men, and don’t let them do me any mischief. I can’t be spared just now.”

The next moment he was down on his knees by the side of one of the prisoners, who, in his eyes for a few minutes, was neither enemy nor piratical Chinaman, but a patient to whom he devoted himself to the full extent of his skill, performing what was needful, and leaving his assistant to finish the bandaging while he went on to the next.

In another ten minutes he had finished, and rose from his knees.

“There, Mr Herrick,” he said; “do you call that horrible? because I call it grand. If those three ill-looking scoundrels had been left another hour they would have died. Now, with their hardy constitutions, they will rapidly get well, perhaps escape and begin pirating again. Possibly, when we give them up—oh my knees! how hard that deck is!—the authorities will—”

“Chop off all head. Velly bad men—velly bad men indeed.”

The doctor laughed, and hurried away while the last prisoner was carried down below.

“There,” said the boatswain, when all was over, “that job’s done, Mr Herrick. Nice fellows your countrymen, Ching.”

“Not allee nice fellow,” replied Ching seriously. “Pilate velly bad man. No use. Why captain save him up?”

“Ah, that’s a question you had better ask him. But I say, Ching, those fellows came up here with cargo, didn’t they?”

“Calgo?” said Ching.

“Yes; plunder out of the ships they took.”

“Yes,” said Ching.

“Then where is it? There was none on board the junks.”

“Ching know,” said the interpreter, laying his finger to the side of his nose. “You likee Ching show?”

“Yes, of course. Prize-money, and you’d share.”

“Ching likee plize-money. You bling ship along, and Ching show.”