Chapter 21 | In the Creek | Blue Jackets

Chapter Twenty One.

Ching’s announcement cleared up what had been somewhat of a mystery. It had appeared strange to everybody that the junks had been up this river apparently for no purpose, and more strange that they should have been light, and not laden with the plunder of the vessels they had taken. And now, as without any need for taking soundings the Teaser slowly steamed back, Ching pointed out a kind of landing-place in a little creek hidden amongst dense growth, so that it had been passed unnoticed on our way up.

The country here on both sides of the river was wild, and no trace of a dwelling could be seen; but about half a mile from the shore there was a low ridge, round one end of which the creek wound, and toward this ridge Ching pointed, screwing his eyes up into narrow slits, and wrinkling up his face in all directions.

“Velly bad man live along-along there. Plenty plize-money; plenty tea, lice, silk; plenty evelyting. Come and see.”

The Teaser was moored, and a couple of boats manned with well-armed crews, Ching looking on the while and cunningly shaking his head.

“No wantee big piecee sword gun. Pilate all lun away and hide.”

“Never mind,” said Mr Reardon, who was going in command of the expedition; “we may find somebody there disposed to fight.”

“Takee all along big empty boat; cally tea, silk, lice, plize-money?”

“Better see first,” said the captain; “there may not be anything worth carriage. Go with them,” he said to Ching. “They may want an interpleter.”

“Yes, Ching interpleter. Talk velly nice Inglis.”

“You can come if you like in my boat, Mr Herrick,” said the lieutenant; and I jumped at the opportunity, but before I reached the side I turned, and saw Barkins and Smith looking gloomily on.

“Well, what are you waiting for?” said Mr Reardon.

“Beg pardon, sir,” I said; “I was only thinking that Mr Barkins and Mr Smith would be very glad to go ashore.”

“Of course they would, but I suppose you don’t want to give up your place to them?”

“No, sir,” I said; “but I will.”

“Oh, very well. Here, Mr Barkins, Mr Smith; do you feel well enough to go in my boat?”

“Yes, sir,” they cried together eagerly.

“Jump in, then.”

“Thank you, sir,” cried Smith, and he mounted into the first boat; but Barkins hesitated a moment.

“Thank you, old chap,” he whispered, “but I don’t like to go.”

“Off with you,” I said, and I hurried him forward. “Shall I give you a leg up?” I added, for he limped a good deal still.

“No, no; I don’t want to let them see I’m lame. But I say, Gnat, you go.”

“Be off,” I whispered. “Quick!” and I helped him in.

“Here, Ching, you had better go in the second boat,” said Mr Reardon sharply; and, as the Chinaman rolled out of the first boat, blinking and smiling, orders were given to lower away, and the first boat kissed the water.

I was looking down at my two messmates, feeling a little disappointed, but glad that they had a chance at last, when Mr Reardon looked up.

“Here, Mr Herrick,” he cried. “You had better come on in the other boat, and take charge of the interpreter. Look sharp.”

I did look sharp, and a few minutes later I was sitting in the stern-sheets, being rowed ashore.

“Plenty loom in littlee liver,” said Ching, pointing to the creek. “Pilate take allee plize-money in sampan up littlee liver.”

“Ching thinks the boats could go up the creek, sir, and that the pirates go that way.”

“Try, then; go first, Mr Grey,” cried the first lieutenant; and, ordering his boat’s crew to lie on their oars, he waited till we had passed, and then followed.

“Ching going showee way,” whispered the Chinaman to me.

“But how do you know there is a place up there?” I said. “Have you ever been?”

Ching shook his head till his black tail quivered, and closed his eyes in a tight smile.

“Ching interpleter,” he said, with a cunning look. “Ching know evelyting ’bout Chinaman. Talkee Chinee—talkee Inglis—velly nicee.”

“But talking English velly nicee doesn’t make you understand about the pirates.”

“Yes; know velly much allee ’bout pilate,” he said. “Velly bad men—velly stupid, allee same. Pilate get big junk, swordee, gun, plenty powder; go killee evelybody, and hide tea, silk, lice up liver. One pilate—twenty pilate—allee do same. Hide up liver.”

“Perhaps he’s right,” said Mr Grey, who sat back with the tiller in his hand, listening. “They do imitate one another. What one gang does, another does. They’re stupid enough to have no fresh plans of their own.”

By this time we were in the creek, which was just wide enough for the men to dip their oars from time to time, and the tide being still running up we glided along between the muddy banks and under the overhanging trees, which were thick enough to shade as from the hot sun.

The ride was very interesting, and made me long to get ashore and watch the birds and butterflies, and collect the novel kinds of flowers blooming here and there in the more open parts, the lilies close in to the side being beautiful.

But we had sterner business on hand, besides having the first lieutenant in the following boat, so I contented myself with looking straight ahead as far as I could for the maze-like wanderings of the creek, and I was just thinking how easily we could run into an ambuscade, and be shot at from the dense shrubby growth on the bank, when Mr Reardon called to us from his boat.

“Let your marines be ready, Mr Grey,” he said, “in case of a trap. If the enemy shows and attacks, on shore at once and charge them. Don’t wait to give more than one volley.”

“Ay, ay, sir,” said the boatswain; and the marines seized their pieces, and I looked forward more sharply than ever.

But Ching shook his head.

“No pilate,” he whispered to me. “Allee too velly much flighten, and lun away from foleign devil sailor and maline.”

“But they might have come down to their place here,” I said.

Ching smiled contemptuously.

“Pilate velly blave man, fight gleat deal when allee one side, and know sailor can’t fightee. When plenty sailor can fightee, pilate lun away velly fast, and no come back.”

“Can you understand him, Mr Grey?” I said.

“Oh yes, I understand him, and I daresay he’s right, but there’s no harm in being on the look-out;” and, to show his intention of following out his words, the boatswain took his revolver from its case, and laid it ready upon his knees.

“How much farther is this village, or whatever it is?” said Mr Reardon from behind.

“Do you hear, Ching?” I said.

“Ching hear; Ching don’tee know; not velly far,” was the unsatisfactory reply.

“I’m afraid we’ve come on a cock-and-bull hunt,” said the boatswain, looking to right and left as he stood up in the boat, for the creek now grew so narrow that the men had to lay in their oars, and the coxswain also stood up and drew the boat onward by hooking the overhanging boughs.

“Do you think they do come up here, Ching?” I said.

He nodded, and looked sharply about him.

“There can be no big traffic up here, Mr Grey,” said the lieutenant. “What does the interpreter say?”

“Do you hear, Ching?” I whispered; “what do you say?”

“Allee light,” he replied. “Pilate come along in littlee sampan; cally silk, tea, lice.”

“Oh, bother!” I said. Then aloud to Mr Reardon, whose boat was half hidden by the growth overhead, “He seems quite sure they do come up here, sir.”

“Well, then, go a little farther, but I feel far from sure. Push right in at the next place where there’s room for the boat, and climb up the bank.”

“Yes, sir,” I cried; and we went on again for another hundred yards, when all at once I caught sight of an opening where I could land, and pointed it out to Mr Grey.

“Yes,” said Ching, “allee light. That place where pilate land allee plize-money.”

I laughed, and Mr Grey told the coxswain to draw the boat close to the bank, when, to my intense surprise, I found there was a broadly-trampled path, beaten into soft steps, and I turned in my glee and shouted—

“Here’s the place, sir.”

The boat glided rustling in; two men sprang out, and then we followed. The second boat came alongside, and five minutes later our sturdy little force was tramping along through a dense patch of wood by a well-beaten path, and in about ten minutes more were out at the foot of a low ridge which hid the river from our sight, and in face of a couple of dozen or so low bamboo huts, two of which were of pretty good size.

“Steady! halt! form up!” cried the lieutenant, and skirmishers were sent forward to feel our way, for no one was visible; but open doors and windows, suggested the possibility of danger in ambush.

A few minutes settled all doubts on that score, and the word to advance was given. We went up to the front of the huts at the double, and examination proved that the places must have been occupied within a few hours, for the fire in one hut was still smouldering; but the people had fled, and we were in possession of the tiny village so cunningly hidden from the river.

Our men were pretty quick, but Ching surpassed them.

“Look at him running!” cried Barkins, as, with his tail flying, Ching ran from hut to hut, and finally stopped before the two more pretentious places, which were closely shut.

“Hong—warehouse,” he cried to me, and an attempt was made to enter, but the doors of both were quite fast.

“Steady!” said Mr Reardon; “there may be some of the enemy inside;” and our men were so placed that when the door was burst in, any fire which we drew would prove harmless.

One of the sailors came forward then with a heavy flat stone, which looked as if it had been used to crush some kind of grain upon it, and, receiving a nod from the lieutenant, he raised it above his head, dashed it against the fastening, and the door flew open with a crash, while the sailor darted aside.

But no shot issued from within, and Mr Reardon stepped forward, looked in, and uttered an ejaculation.

“Look here, Grey,” he cried; and the boatswain stepped to his side. Then my turn came, and there was no doubt about Ching’s idea being correct, for the place was literally packed with stores. Chests, bales, boxes, and packages of all kinds were piled-up on one side; bags, evidently of rice, on the other; while at the end were articles of all kinds, and crates which seemed to be full of china.

“Sentry here,” said the lieutenant sternly; and, leaving a marine on guard, he led the way to the other store, whose door was burst in, and upon our entering, without hesitation now, this place proved to be choked with the cargo of different junks which the pirates had rifled, for everything of value had been packed in tightly, and the pirates’ treasure-houses were no doubt waiting for some favourable opportunity for disposing of the loot.

“Sentry here,” cried Mr Reardon again; and the man having been planted, we stood together in one of the huts, while the lieutenant made his plans.

“You wantee big empty boat?” said Ching suddenly.

“Yes, my man, and I wish we had brought one.” Then, after a few minutes’ consideration, Mr Reardon decided what to do.

“Now, Mr Herrick,” he said, “take a marine and one man with the signal flags, and go up to the ridge yonder. Place your marine where he can command the plain, and he will fire if he sees the enemy approaching. The man is to signal for two more boats.”

I started for the ridge after getting my two men, which was about two hundred yards away, the ground rising in a slope; and, as we went off at the double, I heard orders being given, while, by the time we were up on the top, I looked back to see our men going in a regular stream down to the boats, laden with bales of silk, the white frocks of the Jacks showing through the thick growth from time to time.

My sentry was soon posted in a position where he could command the plain for miles, and the Jack hard at work waving flags till his signal was answered from the ship, which seemed from where we stood to be lying close at hand.

Then we two returned, to find that one boat was already packed as full as it would hold; and Barkins and Mr Grey went off with it back to the river, while the second was rapidly laden, and in half an hour followed the first. Then Smith and I followed the lieutenant into the store, with its low reed-thatched roof, and gazed about wonderingly at the richness of the loot upon which we had come.

“I say, Gnat, we shan’t go home without prize-money this voyage,” whispered Smith; and then, nothing more being possible, the sentries—four, posted at different distances—were visited, and we all sat down in the shade to rest, and partake of the refreshments in the men’s haversacks.