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   Chapter 8 No.8

Among Malay Pirates By G. A. Henty Characters: 18320

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02

During the rest of the day preparations were actively carried on for the night's work. The fifty marines and a hundred bluejackets were to take part in the landing expedition; the ammunition to be carried was ranged along the deck, and the men told off for the various work there was to be done, some being allotted to carry stretchers and surgical requirements for the wounded. The first lieutenant was to command the party, having with him the third lieutenant, the master's mate, and the two senior midshipmen; besides, of course, the marine officers. Dr. Horsley was also to accompany them. Some cartridges were made up with powder and musket bullets for two of the brass guns captured, in order that, if the Malays succeeded in landing, they might meet with a hot reception. It was decided that no carriages should be taken for them, but that they should be simply laid on the sandbags.

The party on shore had kept up a fire all day at the forest. The yells of defiance which at times rose showed that the Malays were in great force all round its edge. Towards evening all on shore returned to the ship. As soon as it became absolutely dark, the anchor chain was unshackled, and a buoy being attached to the end, it was noiselessly lowered into the water. Then the screw began to revolve, and the vessel gradually backed down the river. All lights had been extinguished, and no sound from the forest showed that the movement had been observed. A mile lower down the ship was turned, the screw began to revolve more rapidly, and at half speed she ran down to the junction of the two branches of the river, and steamed up the other arm until within half a mile or so of the village at the mouth of the creek. Then a light anchor was let go, the boats were lowered, and the landing party took their places in them; the oars were all muffled, and keeping close to the right bank of the river, they rowed up until past the village, and then crossing, entered the mouth of the creek, and rowed up it until they reached the spot where the landing had been effected on the previous night.

Half a dozen men provided with well greased saws first landed under Dick Balderson's command, and cleared a passage six feet wide to the path; then the landing began in earnest. The guns were first put on shore, and carried bodily to the path; the rest of the marines and the bluejackets then landed, each carrying, in addition to his arms and ammunition, a gun cartridge, or a box of rifle ammunition, and a couple of empty sacks. As fast as they landed they proceeded up the path. Dick Balderson led the way, and the men were directed to step as closely as they could to each other. As they arrived near the pool, each deposited his burden, and then went back to assist to drag up the guns and carriages.

Scarcely a sound was heard during the operation. Their feet fell noiselessly on the soft earth of the track, and no one a few yards away would have guessed that a hundred and fifty men were engaged in laborious toil. There was far more noise than there had been the night before on board the prahus, an incessant jabber being maintained, and voices rang high in excitement as the men discussed the destruction of the town and the orders that had been received for a portion of them to land on the following morning and take part in the annihilation of the whites if they entered into the forest. As soon as the two heavy guns were placed upon their carriages, just behind the screen of bushes, the greater portion of the men were sent back as far as the point where they had landed, there to fill the sacks with earth from the bank of the river, a number of shovels having been brought for the purpose.

Several large bundles of bamboos, cut into lengths six feet long, and sharpened at both ends, had been among the articles taken up to the battery, and while most of the men were engaged filling and carrying the sacks of earth, some were employed in constructing chevaux de frise, ten paces on each side of the spot where the battery was being constructed. The bamboos were set diagonally a foot and a half into the soft earth, and bound together by being lashed to strong poles running along them. These fences extended from the edge of the bushes by the water to the trees. The forest behind was so thick and entangled with creepers that there was little fear of an attack being made from that quarter.

Accustomed to work in the darkness, the sailors had no difficulty in carrying out the operation, and before morning broke the battery was complete. It was six feet high on the side facing the water, with two embrasures for the guns, four feet high on the sides covered by the chevaux de frise. The front face was twenty-five feet in length, the sides forty. Morning was breaking as the work was finished, and bread and cold meat were served out, with a full ration of grog. By the time these were consumed it was broad daylight; for there is little twilight so near the equator.

"Now for it, Dick," Harry Parkhurst said, as the lieutenant gave the signal for all to rise and take their places. Filing out of the battery, the marines lined the bank on one side, and the sailors, other than those who were to work the guns, on the other. Some of the sailors climbed over the front wall and with their jackknives cut away the boughs in front of the guns. There was silence on board the prahus, where the Malays had dropped off to sleep a couple of hours before daylight. Mr. Ferguson himself superintended the laying of the guns, seeing that each was most carefully trained upon the waterline of a prahu. As the distance was some seventy or eighty yards, he had little doubt that the two vessels aimed at would be sunk at once. When he was thoroughly satisfied, he drew back and gave the order to fire.

The two reports sounded as if one, and were mingled with the explosion of shells as they struck the prahus exactly on the waterline. There was a momentary silence, and then a wild hubbub of yells of surprise and fury, while a loud cheer broke from the British, as they saw the success of the shots. Almost instantly the two craft struck began to settle down, and in a minute disappeared, the water being covered with the heads of the crew, who were swimming to the other prahus. The guns of these had evidently been kept loaded, for before the two eighteen pounders were again ready, a fire was opened by the four craft, one or two balls striking the sandbags, while the rest went crashing into the forest behind. Every shot from the British guns struck the prahus, but none effected such damage as the first two fired.

"They are taking to their boats, Ferguson," the doctor, who was standing beside him, said.

"Yes, but I fancy they have no thought of giving it up at present; they are going to make a dash at us. They can still work their guns and spare any amount of men to attack us."

The next minute, indeed, a dozen boats, crammed with men, shot round from behind the prahus.

"Grape now," the lieutenant ordered, while, at the same moment, the marines and seamen, who had hitherto been silent, opened fire from under the bushes, beneath which they were enabled to obtain a view of what was going on.

Two of the boats were sunk by the discharge of the grape; but the others, without checking their course, pushed on.

"Quick, lads, give them another round before it is too late."

The guns were loaded with incredible quickness, and two more of the boats were shattered, their swarthy occupants striking out for the shore, making for the most part towards the battery, as did the boats. Twenty of the sailors and as many marines were at once called in from the bank to aid in the defense of the battery, and a desperate conflict was presently raging here and along the bank, the Malays, swarming up, striving to force their way up through the embrasures, or to climb the sandbags; but as fast as they did so, they were cut down or bayoneted by its defenders. Those trying to land at other points were impeded by the bushes, and numbers were killed; but they pressed on so furiously that at last Mr. Ferguson, who had been moving backwards and forwards along the line, thought it best to call the men in, and in a minute or two the whole party were collected in the little fort, and ranged along the sides.

With furious yells the Malays came on, and although swept by volleys of musketry reached the bamboos, which they strove in vain to pluck up or climb. In the meantime the eighteen pounders had never ceased their fire, the sailors working them steadily, regardless of the fight that was going on on either flank. Here the little brass guns did good service; each time they were fired the recoil sent them tumbling from the top of the sandbags, only, however, to be seized, sponged, and loaded, by the four sailors in charge of each, and then lifted to their place again, crammed with bullets to the muzzle, in readiness to check the next charge of the Malays. Suddenly their yells redoubled, and were answered by similar shouts from the forest.

"The rajah's troops have come up," the first lieutenant said

to the marine officer; "our position is getting serious. Do you think that we could make our way back to the boats without great loss? We have sunk two of their craft, have badly damaged the others, and inflicted very heavy loss on them."

"It would be a very risky operation; but it might be done, Ferguson. Listen!"

There was a fresh outburst of shouts, this time on the path by which they had come. Evidently a number of the newly arrived Malays had struck into it by some other track from the town.

"That settles it," the lieutenant said shortly; "we must fight it out here. It is lucky we have a fair stock of ammunition, and can keep it up for some hours yet. You see, the sailors have not had to use their pistols yet, and they will astonish those fellows if they do manage to scale the sandbags."

For another half hour the fighting continued. Again and again the Malays fell back, but only to return to the attack with fresh fury, and the defenders had been obliged to betake themselves more than once to their pistols. The two heavy guns were now removed from their position to the sides, for the attack by boats had ceased entirely, and the destruction of the prahus was of less importance than the defense of the little fort from the attacks on its flanks. The operation began just as the Malays made one of their retreats, and by the time they returned, the guns were placed in their new position, their muzzles peeping out from among the sandbags, while the embrasures on the water face had been closed by bags taken from the upper line. The effect of the fire at such close quarters was to drive the Malays flying into the forest. Shortly afterwards the sound of chopping was heard.

"The beggars are trying to cut a path through the jungle to our rear, Dick," Harry Parkhurst said.

"Obstinate brutes! But I don't think much of that, Harry: they will get on well enough until they arrive within twenty or thirty yards of us, when we can pepper them so hotly that they will soon get sick of it."

At this moment there was the report of a heavy gun, and a shell crashed through the forest fifty yards in the rear of the fort. Loud yells of rage and alarm rose from the Malays, while a hearty cheer broke from the defenders of the fort. Closely following, came the sound of another gun, and then a rain of grape, some of which whistled over the fort.

"Keep yourselves well down behind the sandbags, men," Lieutenant Ferguson shouted; "the captain knows that we have shelter, and will sweep the Malays out of the forest round us. That shot must have done great execution among the Malays on the path between us and the boats."

The guns of the ship kept up a heavy fire, searching the wood for some distance round with shell, and pouring volleys of grape into the trees near the battery. Presently the fire ceased.

"I fancy they have all bolted, Dick," his comrade said; "after the first five minutes we have not heard a sound. I wonder what the prahus are doing?"

A minute later the lieutenant said, "Mr. Morrison, take a dozen men and make your way along the path until you get to the boats. I hope they have escaped. If they are within hail go on board, and report to the captain that we have sunk two of the prahus, and that for the present the Malays who have been attacking us have made off. Say that large numbers of them have gone on board the four prahus, and that I am about to open fire upon them again."

As soon as the mate had left, parties of men were set to work to shift the guns to their old positions, and fire was again opened upon the piratical prahus, who replied, as before, with their little guns. A very few minutes later a shell flew overhead, and fell in the water near where the craft were anchored. Another and another followed quickly. Intense excitement was manifest on board the prahus, and almost immediately their cables were cut, oars got out, and at a great rate they started down the creek.

"The place has got too hot for them altogether, Harry; they think it better to run the gauntlet of the ship's guns than to be sunk at their moorings."

Scarcely had the prahus issued from the pool, than the guns of the ship were heard.

"I am afraid that some of them will get away, Harry. The beggars row so fast that there won't be time to give them more than one broadside as they pass. If the ship is aground, which is likely enough, for the captain pushed up farther than we thought possible, they will be pretty safe when they have once got past her."

Presently the guns were heard to fire in rapid succession. Loud yells and cries followed; then came shouts of triumph and defiance; then all was still, save that a few cannon shot were discharged at regular intervals.

"They have got one of the guns round to fire over the stern, Dick. There, it has stopped now; evidently the prahus have got round the next corner. It is a pity that any of them should have escaped, and they would not have done so if the Serpent had remained at the mouth of the creek; but I suppose the captain became anxious at the continuation of the heavy firing here, and so came up to our help. It is lucky he did so, for, though we might have beaten them off, they were in such tremendous force that I fancy it would have gone hard with us in the long run. I was beginning to think so myself, Harry."

Dr. Horsley had been busy enough from the time that the fighting began in earnest. Ten men had been killed by balls that had passed through the embrasures, or by kris or lance wounds, and twenty-eight others had been more or less severely wounded. A quarter of an hour after the firing ceased, Captain Forrest himself, with the mate, rowed into the pool in one of the cutters, and landed at the end of the path close to the battery.

"I congratulate you on your success, Mr. Ferguson," he said, shaking hands with the first lieutenant; "it has been a very hot affair, and by Mr. Morrison's report it was just as well that I decided to change my plan and come up to your aid, though it has resulted in two of the prahus getting away."

"Then you sank two of them, sir?"

"No, indeed, we only sank one; the third went down just after we saw her come out from the pool. Certainly we had not hit her, so that the honor of accounting for three out of six of the craft falls to you and your party. Well, Doctor, what is your report? I am afraid it is a bad one."

"Serious, indeed," he went on, after he had received the figures. "Still it is much less than might have been expected from attacking such a host of pirates. I am glad to hear that none of the officers are dangerously wounded."

"Parkhurst had his forearm laid open with a cut from a kris, and Balderson had one of their spears through his ear. Dr. Horsley said if it had been half an inch more to the left, it would probably have killed him. Lieutenant Somers of the marines is more badly hurt, a spear having gone through the thigh. It cut an artery. Luckily the doctor was close to him at the moment, and clapped on a tourniquet, and then cut down to the artery and tied it. As he says, 'A delay of two minutes, and it would have been all up with the young fellow.' Are the boats safe, sir?"

"Yes, the boat keepers pushed off a little way when the firing began in the forest, and when they heard the shouts of a large party of the enemy coming along the path, they went out almost into the middle of the creek; and it was well they did, for many of the Malays came down through the path you cut, and would have riddled them with their spears had they been within reach. The boat keepers acted very wisely; all of them got into the gig and towed the other boats astern, so that if the Malays came along, either in their prahus or in their boats, they could have cut them adrift and made a race of it down to the ship.

"Well, I think that there is nothing more to be done here. The men may as well have a tot of grog served out, and then the sailors can march down to the landing place and bring up the boats and take the guns and what ammunition you have left, on board. Mr. Morrison will go back with me to the ship; he has one of his arms broken by a ball from the prahus."

"I did not know that he was wounded, sir; he did not report it. I should not have sent him if I had known it."

"It is just as well as it is, Ferguson; it will give me an opportunity of specially recommending him for promotion in my report. The assistant surgeon temporarily bandaged his arm when he reached the ship."

"Is she afloat, sir?"

"No; I want you back as soon as possible. We shall have to get out the anchors and heave on them. We put on a full head of steam and drove her two or three hundred yards through the mud before she finally brought up. I wanted to get as near to you as possible, in order to clear the woods round you."

By two o'clock the whole ship's company were on board again, and set to work to get her off; but it was not until after some hours' exertion that the Serpent was again afloat. She was at once turned round, steamed down to the mouth of the creek, and cast anchor opposite the village.

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