Chapter 39 | Tricked | Blue Jackets

Chapter Thirty Nine.

They were singularly quiet, these people on board the junks, I suppose from old experience teaching them that noise made might mean at one time discovery and death, at another the alarming of some valuable intended prize.

This quietness was remarkable, for as we listened there was the creaking and straining of the rough capstan used, but no shouted orders, no singing in chorus by the men tugging at the bars; all was grim silence and darkness, while we lay-to there, waiting and listening to the various faint sounds, till we heard the rattling of the reed-sails as they were hauled up. Then we knew that the junks were off, for there came to us that peculiar flapping, rattling sound made by the waves against a vessel’s planks, and this was particularly loud in the case of a roughly-built Chinese junk.

“Are you going to follow them at once?” I said in a whisper.

“Yes, till within an hour of daylight,” was the reply. “Now, be silent.”

I knew why Mr Brooke required all his attention to be directed to the task he had on hand—very little reflection was necessary. For it was a difficult task in that black darkness to follow the course of those two junks by sound, and keep doggedly at their heels, so as to make sure they did not escape. And then once more the slow, careful steering was kept up, Mr Brooke’s hand guiding mine from time to time, while now for the most part we steered to follow the distant whishing sound made by the wind in the junk’s great matting-sails.

All at once, when a strange, drowsy feeling was creeping over me, I was startled back into wakefulness by Mr Brooke, who said in an angry whisper—

“Who’s that?”

I knew why he spoke, for, though half-asleep the moment before, I was conscious of a low, guttural snore.

“Can’t see, sir,” came from one of the men. “Think it’s Mr Ching.”

“No; Ching never makee nose talk when he s’eep,” said the Chinaman, and as he spoke the sound rose once more.

“Here, hi, messmate, rouse up!” said the man who had before spoken.

“Eh? tumble-up? our watch?” growled Tom Jecks. “How many bells is—”

“Sit up, Jecks,” whispered Mr Brooke angrily. “Next man take the sheet.”

There was the rustling sound of men changing their places, and I heard the coxswain whispering to the others forward.

“No talking,” said Mr Brooke; and we glided on again in silence, but not many yards before a light gleamed out in front.

“Quick, down at the bottom, all of you! Ching, take the tiller!”

We all crouched down; Ching sat up, holding the tiller, and the light ahead gleamed out brightly, showing the sails and hulls of the two great junks only fifty yards away, and each towing a big heavy boat. There were the black silhouettes, too, of figures leaning over the stern, and a voice hailed us in Chinese, uttering hoarse, strange sounds, to which Ching replied in his high squeak.

Then the man gave some gruff order, and Ching replied again. The light died out, and there was silence once more.

“What did he say?” whispered Mr Brooke.

“Say what fo’ sail about all in dark?”

“Yes, and you?”

“Tell him hollid big gleat lie! Say, go catchee fish when it glow light.”


“And pilate say be off, or he come in boat and cuttee off my head.”

Mr Brooke hesitated for a few moments, and then reached up, took the tiller, and we lay-to again for quite an hour.

“Only make them suspicious if we are seen following, Herrick. Let them get well away; I daresay we can pick them up again at daybreak.”

But all the same he manipulated the boat so as not to be too far away, and arranged matters so well that when at last the dawn began to show in the east, there lay the two junks about six miles away, and nothing but the heavy sails visible from where we stood.

We all had an anxious look round for the Teaser, but there were no tell-tale wreaths of smoke showing that our vessel was on her way back, and there seemed to be nothing for us to do but slowly follow on along shore, at such a distance from the junks as would not draw attention to the fact of their being followed, till we could catch sight of our own ship and warn our people of the vessels; or, failing that, lie in on the way to warn the junk which Ching believed would sail from the river before long.

Mr Brooke reckoned upon our being provisioned for two days, and as soon as it was light he divided the little crew into two watches, one of which, self included, was ordered to lie down at once and have a long sleep.

I did not want to lie down then, for the drowsy sensations had all passed away; but of course I obeyed, and, to my surprise, I seemed to find that after closing my eyes for two minutes it was evening; and, upon looking round, there lay the land upon our right, while the two junks were about five miles away, and the boat turned from them.

“Have you given up the chase, Mr Brooke?” I said.

“Yes, for the present; look yonder.”

He pointed towards the north-west, and there, some three miles distant, and sailing towards us, was another junk coming down with the wind.

“Another pirate?” I cried.

“No, my lad; evidently the junk of which Ching told us.”

“And you are going to warn her of the danger, sir?”

“Exactly; we can’t attack, so we must scheme another way of saving the sheep from the wolves.”

As we sailed on we could see that the fresh junk was a fine-looking vessel, apparently heavily laden; and, after partaking of my share of the provisions, which Ching eagerly brought for me out of the little cabin, I sat watching her coming along, with the ruddy orange rays of the setting sun lighting up her sides and rigging, and brightening the showy paint and gilding with which she was decorated, so that they had quite a metallic sheen.

“Take a look back now,” said Mr Brooke. “What do you make of the pirate junks?”

“They seem to be lying-to, sir,” I said.

“Then they have seen their plunder, and the sooner we give warning the better. She must turn and run back at once, or they will be after and capture her before she can reach port again.”

Just then I saw him stand up and give a sharp look round, his face wearing rather an anxious expression.

“You can’t see the Teaser, sir?” I said.

“No, my lad; I was looking at the weather. I fear it is going to blow a hurricane. The sky looks rather wild.”

I had been thinking that it looked very beautiful, but I did not say so. Certainly, though, the wind had risen a little, and I noticed that Tom Jecks kept on glowering about him in a very keen way.

Just then Mr Brooke shook out the little Union Jack which we had brought from our sinking boat, and held it ready to signal the coming junk, which was now only about a mile away, and came swiftly along, till our leader stood right forward, holding on by a stay, and waved the little flag.

“Three cheers for the red, white, and blue!” muttered Tom Jecks. “Look at that now. We in this here little cock-boat just shows our colours, and that theer great bamboo mountain of a thing goes down on her marrow-bones to us, metty-phizickly. See that, Mr Herrick, sir?”

“Yes, Tom,” I said excitedly; “and it’s something to be proud of too.”

For, in obedience to our signals, I saw one of the many Chinamen on board wave his hands as he seemed to be shouting, and the great vessel slowly and cumbrously rounded to, so that in a few minutes we were able to run close alongside.

“Tell them to heave us a rope, Ching,” said Mr Brooke, and the interpreter shouted through his hands, with the result that a heavy coil came crashing down, and was caught by Tom Jecks, who was nearly knocked overboard.

“We said a rope, not a hawser,” growled the man, hauling in the rope. “Better shy a few anchors down too, you bladder-headed lubbers!”

“Now, say I want to speak to the captain,” said Mr Brooke.

A showily-dressed Chinaman leaned over the side of the huge tower of a poop, and smiled down on us.

“Are you the captain?” cried Mr Brooke, and Ching interpreted.

“Say he the captain,” said Ching; “and you please walkee up top sidee big junk.”

“Yes, it will be better,” cried Mr Brooke. “Come with me, Herrick. You too, Ching, of course. There, keep her off a bit, Jecks, or you’ll have the boat swamped.”

He seized the right moment, and began to climb up the junk’s side. I followed, and Ching was close at my heels, the clumsy vessel giving plenty of foothold; and we soon stood upon the deck, where some dozen or so Chinese sailors pointed aft to where the captain stood, bowing and smiling.

We had a rough set of bamboo steps to mount to the clumsy poop-deck, and there found the captain and half-a-dozen more of his men waiting.

“Now, Ching, forward,” I said. But he hung back and looked strange.

“Don’t be so jolly modest,” I whispered; “we can’t get on without you to interpret.”

At that moment there came a loud hail from our boat, invisible to us from where we stood, and there was a tremendous splash.

“What’s the matter?” cried Mr Brooke, making for the side; but in an instant the attitude of the Chinaman changed. One moment the captain was smiling at us smoothly; the next there was an ugly, look in his eyes, as he shouted something to his men, and, thrusting one hand into his long blue coat, he made a quick movement to stop Mr Brooke from going to the side.

The various incidents took place so quickly that they almost seemed to be simultaneous. One moment all was peace; the next it was all war, and the warnings I heard came together.

“Pilate! pilate!” shouted Ching.

“Look out for yourself, my lad! Over with you!” roared Mr Brooke, as I saw him dash at the Chinese captain, and, with his left fist extended, leap at the scoundrel, sending him rolling over on the deck.

“Now!” cried Mr Brooke again, “jump!”

“Jlump! jlump!” yelled Ching; and with a bound I was on the great carven gangway, just avoiding three men who made a rush for me, and the next moment I had leaped right away from the tower-like stern of the huge junk, and appeared to be going down and down for long enough through the glowing air before striking the water with a heavy splash, and continuing my descent right into the darkness, from which it seemed to me that I should never be able to rise again.

At last my head popped out of the dark thundering water, and, blinking my eyes as I struck out, I was saluted with a savage yelling; the water splashed about me, and I heard shots; but for a few moments, as I looked excitedly round, I did not realise that I was being pelted with pieces of chain, and fired at as a mark for bullets.

But in those brief moments I saw what I wanted: Mr Brook and Ching safe and swimming towards me, and the boat not many yards behind them, with two of our men at the oars, and the others opening fire upon the people who crowded the side of the junk, and yelled at us and uttered the most savage throats.

“This way, Herrick, my lad,” panted Mr Brooke, as he reached me. “Ah! did that hit you?”

“No, sir, only splashed up the water; I’m all right!” I cried; “the bullet didn’t touch.”

“Swim boat! swim boat!” cried Ching excitedly.

But our danger was not from the water but the sharp fire which the Chinese kept up now, fortunately without killing any of us. Then the boat glided between us and the junk, ready hands were outstretched from the side, and I was hauled in by Tom Jecks, who then reached over and grasped Ching by the pigtail.

“No, no touchee tow-chang!” roared the poor fellow.

“All right; then both hands and in with you.”

“Lay hold of the sheet, Jecks!” cried Mr Brooke, who sprang over the thwart to the tiller, rammed it down, and the sail began to fill, but only slowly, for the towering junk acted as a lee, and all the time the men yelled, pelted, and fired at us.

“Look out, my lads; give it to them now. Make fast the sheet, Jecks, and get your rifle. Ten pounds to the man who brings down the captain!” roared Mr Brooke. “Here, Herrick, my gun!” he cried; and, handing it to him, I seized mine, thrust in two wet cartridges with my wet fingers, and, doubting whether they would go off, I took aim at a man on the poop, who was holding a pot to which another was applying a light.

The next minute the pot was in a blaze, and the man raised it above his head to hurl it right upon us, but it dropped straight down into the sea close to the junk, and the man staggered away with his hands to his face, into which he must have received a good deal of the charge of duck-shot with which my piece was charged.

Excited by my success, I fired the second barrel at a man who was leaning over the bulwarks, taking aim at us with his great clumsy matchlock, and his shot did not hit any one, for the man dropped his piece overboard and shrank away.

As I charged again, I could hear and see that our lads were firing away as rapidly as they could up at the crowded bulwarks, while Tom Jecks was making his piece bear upon the deck of the high poop whenever he could get a shot at the captain; and now, too, Mr Brooke was firing off his small-shot cartridges as rapidly as possible, the salt water not having penetrated the well-wadded powder enclosed in the brass cases.

By this time we were fifty yards away from the junk, and gliding more rapidly through the water, which was splashed up about us and the boat hit again and again with a sharp rap by the slugs from the Chinamen’s matchlocks.

The men were returning the fire with good effect as we more than once saw, and twice over one of the wretches who sought to hurl a blazing pot of fire was brought down.

“They can’t hurt us now,” I thought, as I ceased firing, knowing that my small-shot would be useless at the distance we now were, when I saw a spark of light moving on the poop, and then sat paralysed by horror as I grasped what was going to take place. It was only a moment or two before there was a great flash and a roar, with a puff of sunset-reddened smoke, hiding the poop of the junk; for they had depressed a big swivel gun to make it bear upon us, and then fired, sending quite a storm of shot, stones, and broken pieces of iron crashing through the roof of our little cabin, and tearing a great hole in our sail.

“That’s done it!” shouted Tom Jecks, giving the stock of his rifle a heavy slap.

“You’ve hit him?” cried Mr Brooke.

“Yes, sir; I caught him as he stood by watching the cannon fired.”

“Yes, that’s right,” cried Mr Brooke, shading his eyes and gazing hard at the scene on the high poop, where, in the last rays of the setting sun, we could see men holding up their captain, who was distinctive from his gay attire and lacquered hat, which now hung forward as the scoundrel’s head drooped upon his breast.

“Cease firing!” said Mr Brooke, for we were a hundred yards away now, and rapidly increasing the distance. “We can do no more good. Thank you, Jecks. Now then, who is hurt?”

There was no reply.

“What, no one?” cried Mr Brooke.

“Yes, sir: why don’t you speak out, Tom Jecks? You got it, didn’t you?”

“Well, so did you; but I arn’t going to growl.”

“More arn’t I, messmate. It’s nothing much, sir.”

“Let me see,” said Mr Brooke, as we sailed steadily away, while the junk still remained stationary; and, after a rapid examination, he plugged and bound a wound in the man’s shoulder, and performed a similar operation upon Tom Jeck’s hind-leg, as he called it, a bullet or slug having gone right through the calf.

I could not help admiring the calm stolidity with which the two men bore what must have been a painful operation, for neither flinched, but sat in turn gazing at his messmate, as much as to say, “That’s the way to take it, my lad; look at me.”

This done, Mr Brooke turned his attention to the wound received by the boat, where the charge from the swivel gun had gone crashing through the top of the cabin and out at the side. It was a gaping wound in the slight planking of the boat, but the shot had torn their way out some distance above the water-line, so that unless very rough weather came on there was no danger, and we had other and more serious business now to take up our attention.

For Ching pointed out to us a certain amount of bustle on board the junk, which was explained by a puff of smoke and a roar, as simultaneously the water was ploughed up close to our stern.

“Not clever at their gun drill,” said Mr Brooke coolly, as he took the helm himself now, and sent the boat dancing along over the waves, so as to keep her endwise to the junk, and present a smaller object for the pirate’s aim.

“That’s bad management under some circumstances, Herrick,” he said, smiling. “It’s giving an enemy the chance of raking us from stern to stem, but I don’t believe they can hit us.—I thought not.”

He said this smiling, as the water was churned up again by another shot, but several yards away upon our right.

Another shot and another followed without result, and by this time we were getting well out of range of the swivel gun, a poor, roughly-made piece, and our distance was being rapidly increased.

“Going away!” said Ching, as we saw the great mat-sails of the junk fill.

“Or to come in chase—which?” said Mr Brooke quietly. “It does not matter,” he added; “we shall soon have darkness again, and I think we shall be too nimble for them then.”

“Beg pardon, sir,” said Tom Jecks.

“Yes, what is it? Your wound painful?”

“Tidy, sir; but that warn’t it. I was only going to say, look yonder.”

He pointed right away east, and, as we followed his finger with our eyes, they lit upon a sight which would have even made me, inexperienced as I was, think it was time to seek the shelter of some port. And that something unusual was going to happen, I knew directly from Mr Brooke’s way of standing up to shelter his eyes, and then, after gazing for some time in one direction, he turned in that of the great Chinese port we had so lately left.