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   Chapter 6 No.6

Among Malay Pirates By G. A. Henty Characters: 17798

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02


"Things are coming to a crisis, Harry," Dick Balderson said, in a tone of delight, as they left the captain's cabin. "We now know what we all along suspected-the rajah is a rascal, and we have not only found out where his prahus are hidden, but have them corked up in a bottle."

"Nothing could be better, Dick, and I expect we shall have some pretty hot work. Of course the Serpent cannot get up that creek, though she can place herself at the entrance and prevent their getting away; but there still remains the work of capturing or driving them down the creek, and that is likely to be a very tough job."

The next morning the second lieutenant, the mate, and Harry Parkhurst were sent for to the captain's cabin. The first lieutenant was there. They were each asked their opinion as to whether the prahus could force their way through the creek by which they had ascended.

"It is a most important point," the captain said: "and indeed, everything might depend upon it."

"I am sure, sir," Mr. Hopkins said, "that they could not go straight down it. They might cut their way through, but it would be a work of considerable time, for with their masts they would have to clear away the branches to a considerable height. Down near the water the branches by which we pushed ourselves along were those of the undergrowth, with many rattans and other creepers varying from the thickness of one's thumb to that of one's wrist, and these would take a great deal of chopping before one of their war boats could be pushed through, but higher up they would probably have much thicker branches to contend with. It may be that they can lower their masts; but even if they could do so, I should think that it would take them over an hour's work, even with the number of hands they carry, to get a passage through that bit of thick undergrowth, fifty or sixty yards up the mouth of the creek. There are two or three other places where some chopping would have to be done, but that would be comparatively easy work."

The mate and Harry both agreed with the lieutenant.

"Practically, then," the captain said, "the Malays have but one mode of escape, while we have two of attack. At any rate, if we send up a boat beforehand, and fasten two or three iron chains from side to side among the branches, that passage would be securely sealed.

"Thank you, gentlemen; that is all I have to ask at present. It is a very difficult nut we have to crack, Mr. Ferguson," he went on, when he and the first lieutenant were alone. "To attack six strongly armed prahus with the boats of this ship would be a serious enterprise indeed, and its success would be very doubtful, while the loss would certainly be very heavy, especially as, if any of the boats were sunk, the crews would have but little chance in a place swarming with alligators. I don't think I should be justified in risking such an enterprise."

"There is no doubt, sir, the loss would be very heavy indeed; by all accounts, these Malays fight like demons on the decks of their own boats, and, for aught we know, they may, after nightfall, trice up rattans to prevent boarders getting on board. I have heard that it is their custom when they expect an attack, and that these are far more formidable obstacles than our boarding nets. Of course I should be quite ready to lead an attack should you decide upon making one, but I cannot conceal from myself that it would be a well nigh desperate undertaking."

"I am glad that you are of that opinion," the captain said. "There seems to me but one course, and that a difficult one-namely, to carry a couple of heavy guns through the forest to the edge of the pool. It would be a serious undertaking, and we should have to send a strong force to defend them, but if we could succeed in planting them in position, we should soon drive the Malays out of the pool."

"That would be a capital plan, Captain, if it could be managed. I suppose before we attempt it, you will take possession of this place, and capture the rajah?"

"That of course. I don't suppose we shall capture him. I have no doubt that we are closely watched night and day, and that the instant the boats are lowered, and the men get on board, the rajah would prepare for flight, though he might possibly make some resistance. However, that would be but trifling; our guns would cover the landing, and knock the place about his ears; but to penetrate the jungle would be vastly more difficult an affair. If, as is probable, he has succeeded in inducing some of his neighbors to join him, they may have already sent strong contingents, and the forest may be full of them. In that case it would be quite beyond our power to rout them out, and I certainly should not be justified in attempting it. The destruction of his town and the burning of his palace would be a serious blow to him, but the destruction of his piratical fleet would be a very much heavier one. If we can achieve that, we shall have done good service.

"The first thing to do is to find out whether there is a path either from this river, or the other branch, to the pool. If so, at dark, after destroying the town, we will recall all the men on shore, buoy the anchor and drop it noiselessly, and drift down the river till we are far enough away to use the engines, then steam down to the junction of the two streams, and up again to the entrance to the creek on that side. Then we will at once land a very strong party, land also two twenty-four pounders, and drag them to the pool. We might hope to do so without any opposition, for the Malays would no doubt be gathered at the edge of the forest near the town to repel any attack we might make from there, and before morning we might have the guns in position. I should take a hundred empty sacks. These you would fill with earth when you get near the pool, and form a battery with them behind the screen of bushes; then, when you are ready, you will cut down the bushes and open fire."

"I don't see why that should not succeed, sir. Of course the most difficult part of the operation is dragging the guns. These native paths are only broad enough for men in single file."

"Yes, that is the difficulty. We could not employ axes to cut down the trees, and to saw them down would be an interminable work. I think, Mr. Ferguson, we should have to carry them."

"I doubt if we could carry a twenty-four pounder, sir; but we might carry an eighteen. They have bamboos of almost any length here, and if we were to lash an eighteen pounder between two of them, I should say that ten men each side ought to able to carry them, while as many more might take the gun carriage."

"We will get some bamboos today, Mr. Ferguson, and try the experiment of how many men will be required to carry a gun; but now I think of it, I fancy that it will be still easier to lay the guns down on a sledge shaped piece of timber-these paths are smooth enough where the natives tread, and the men could haul the guns along with ropes."

"That would be better and easier, sir. The difficulty with the carriages will be greatest, but they might be taken to pieces as far as possible and slung on bamboos."

"I think that we shall be able to manage all that," the captain said cheerfully. "The first thing is to find the path. There is almost sure to be one from the village the Malay spoke of as close to the mouth of the creek, and the pool, and if we send the boats up as soon as we arrive at the creek, to row with muffled oars until they get near the pool, and then land and find the path, it would diminish very much the distance they would have to go and the work to be done."

"It would be a great thing to find that out beforehand, sir. If you like, I will drop down the river this afternoon in the gig; that will attract no attention, for it will be thought that we are merely going fishing or shooting. As soon as it is dark we will muffle the oars, and row up the other branch, find the mouth of the creek and row up it, first find how far it is to the pool, then drop down a quarter of a mile and land, strike into the jungle, and look for the path. I should, of course, choose a point where the creek bends that way, for as the path no doubt goes straight from the village to the pool, it would be nearer the creek at a bend than it would be at any other point. If it is a sharp bend it might go quite close to it."

"That would be a very good plan, Mr. Ferguson, and as you have proposed it, you shall take command of the boat; otherwise I should have sent either the third lieutenant or Morrison. I need not say that it will be necessary to use the greatest caution, and to avoid all risks as much as possible, though I fancy that my gig would run away from any of the ordinary native craft; but, of course, the great point is to avoid being noticed, for were one of our boats seen up the other riv

er near the creek, the alarm would be given, and the prahus might at once shift their position, and make up the river, where we should have little chance of finding them again."

"I quite understand that, sir, and will be as careful as possible. I will take one of the midshipmen with me, either Mr. Parkhurst or Mr. Balderson; if the worst came to the worst and one of the men were hit, he could man his oar, or, if I were myself badly wounded, could take the command. I think it is Balderson's turn for boat duty."

"Either of them will do," the captain said; "they are both strong, active lads, and as steady as you can expect lads to be."

Accordingly, at four in the afternoon the captain's gig was lowered. As the rule was that all men on boat duty should go armed no surprise had been excited when the order was given for the men to take their muskets and cutlasses, though, when an extra supply of ammunition and a brace of pistols were served out to each, they thought that something unusual was in the wind, and there was a grin on the men's faces when a hamper of provisions was placed in the bow of the boat. Dick was in a state of high but suppressed delight when informed by the first lieutenant that he was to accompany him on a boat expedition, and that he had better take his cloak with him, as they might be out all night.

"You can take your pistols with you, Mr. Balderson; it is not likely that they will be wanted, but it is as well to carry them."

Dick borrowed a cutlass from the armorer and ground it down to a razor edge, for his dirk was an altogether useless weapon if it came to fighting. He was the more convinced that something more than usual was intended when he saw the assistant surgeon place a parcel in the stern sheets.

"Bandages, I expect," he said. "Where do you think we can be going, Harry?"

"Perhaps you are going up the creek again, Dick. Who's going in command?"

"I have not heard. Morrison says he has not been told off, so I suppose it is Hopkins; in fact, if you are going up the creek, it is sure to be him, as one of us who went up there before would certainly be in command. It is rum they're taking the captain's gig. He is very particular about it, and it is very seldom indeed that even the first luff uses it."

"I suppose they think it possible that you may be chased, and there is no doubt she is far away the fastest boat on board. She is not a dockyard boat, but, as you know, is one the captain had specially built for himself, and for racing if we were at any station where there were other warships."

When four o'clock came, and the first lieutenant, with his cloak over his arm, came out and took his place in the boat, there was a general look of surprise among the sailors leaning on the rail to see her put off, for it was a very unusual thing for the first officer to take the command when only a single boat's crew were going out on any expedition.

"Row easy, men," Mr. Ferguson said, as he sat down on one side of the coxswain, while Dick took his place on the other. "Drop quietly down the river. There is my fishing rod by your side, Mr. Balderson; you may as well begin to put it together at once, so that the natives on shore may see that we are going on a fishing expedition."

They rowed some ten miles down at a leisurely pace, and then the boat's grapnel was dropped at a bend of the stream, where the water was unusually deep, and several baskets of fish had been taken at various times. A spare rod was brought out from under the seat, and Mr. Ferguson and Dick began to fish, one on each side of the boat, while the men lay on their oars, and a look of satisfaction came over their faces as the lieutenant told them that they could smoke. Hitherto, Dick had been in ignorance as to the object of the expedition. He had been much surprised when the order had been given for the boat to row down the river, and it was therefore evident that it was not the intention of the first officer to again explore the creek.

Several fish were caught, but as soon as it became dark the lieutenant said, "You can throw them overboard again, Mr. Balderson; we don't want any extra weight in the boat, and these fish must weigh thirty pounds at least. Now what do you suppose we are going to do?"

"I have no idea, sir. I thought that we might be going up the creek that Lieutenant Hopkins explored the other day, to have another look at the prahus; but as we came down the river instead of going up, of course it is not that."

"No; we are going to explore the creek, but from the other end."

"That will be first rate, sir, but I am afraid that we shan't find water enough for the Serpent."

"No, I fear that there is little chance of that; still we may obtain information that will be valuable."

The night was a dark one, and an hour after sunset the grapnel was got up, and the boat continued its way down the river, the oars being now muffled, and the strictest silence ordered.

"Keep your eyes open, Mr. Balderson," the lieutenant said. "I think that it must be another three miles to the point where the river forks. The other branch comes in on the right, so we will keep on the left bank. I don't think there is much fear of our missing the junction of the stream, but if we do, we will row on to a mile below the point where we think it is, then cross and keep up on the other side. In that way we cannot miss it."

For the next half hour no word was spoken in the boat. Dick kept his eyes fixed on the opposite bank. Suddenly he touched the lieutenant.

"There, sir, that must be it. The line of the trees has suddenly stopped, and I think I can make out a lower line behind it."

"Yes, no doubt that is the junction. We will go two hundred yards farther down before we cross; it is unlikely in the extreme that anyone is watching us, still I don't want to run the slightest risk."

In another five minutes they crossed the river, whose increased width showed them that they had assuredly passed the junction of the stream. Then they turned and followed the right hand bank.

"Stretch out a bit now, lads; you have fifteen miles' straight rowing before you, and the sooner you get to the other end, the better. We may have a long night's work before us, and I want to be able to get to the place where we fished before morning."

The men bent to their oars, and the boat sped swiftly along. The current was very slight, and after two hours' rowing, the lieutenant judged that they must be but a short distance from the village Hassan's messenger spoke of. Accordingly, he told the coxswain to steer across to the other bank, and warned the men that the slightest splash of their oars might attract attention, and that they were to row easier for the present. In a quarter of an hour the wall of forest ceased, and a hundred yards farther they saw houses. Two or three dim lights were visible, and the sound of voices could be heard. The boat's head was now turned out somewhat farther into the stream, so as to be out of sight of anyone who might by chance come down late to draw water. After rowing a hundred yards they could dimly make out the outline of a white house. There was a break just in the center, and the outline of a tree could be seen above the roof. Dick leant forward and again touched the lieutenant.

"That must be the house, sir," he whispered.

Mr. Ferguson nodded without speaking; and after the boat had gone another hundred yards, the line of forest could again be seen, and the boat was rowed into the bank, and two minutes later shot through a narrow channel and entered a creek some forty yards wide.

"Now you can give way again, lads."

An hour's paddling in a sampan would mean about three miles, and after twenty minutes' sharp rowing, the men were ordered to row easy again, and the lieutenant and Dick kept an anxious lookout ahead. The creek was here little more than fifty yards across, and, accustomed as their eyes were to darkness, they presently saw that it widened out suddenly. The word was passed down for the men to paddle easily, and in two minutes the pool opened before them. They could not make out the prahus, lying as they did against the shadow of the trees on the farther side, but they could see a number of lights, apparently from swinging lanterns, and hear a loud murmur of voices.

"Easy all," the lieutenant ordered now; "back her very quietly; now pull bow."

Noiselessly the boat was brought round, and its head directed to the right hand bank. They had passed a sharp bend nearly half a mile back, and the lieutenant said, "Look out for a landing place at the deepest point of the curve, Harris."

"Aye, aye, sir!" the coxswain said, standing up. A minute later he brought the boat alongside, at a point which was free from bushes, and where the bank was but two feet above the water's edge.

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