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   Chapter 4 TWO NARROW ESCAPES.

Marcy the Blockade Runner By Harry Castlemon Characters: 27019

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


"Another Cuban trader," shouted Captain Beardsley, standing erect upon the crosstrees and shaking his eye-glass in the air. "She's worth double what the Hollins was, dog-gone it all, and if we lose her we are just a hundred thousand dollars out of pocket. Pitch that shell into her, Tierney. Take a stick out of her and I'll double your prize money. Run up our own flag, Marcy. May be it will bring him to his senses."

The howitzer's crew sprang at the word. The canvas covering was torn off the gun and cast aside, the train-tackles were manned, and a minute afterward a fifteen-second shrapnel went shrieking toward the brig, all the privateer's men standing on tiptoe to watch the effect of the shot. To Marcy's great delight the missile struck the water far short of the mark, ricocheted along the surface a few hundred yards farther, and finally exploded, throwing up a cloud of spray, but doing no harm to the brig, which never loosened tack or sheet, but held gallantly on her way. A moment after the shrapnel exploded, her flag-the old flag-fluttered out from under the lee of her spanker, and little puffs of smoke arose from her port quarter. Some of her crew were firing at the privateer with rifles. Of course, the distance was so great that they never heard the whistle of the bullet, but it was an act of defiance that drove Captain Beardsley almost frantic.

"When we catch her I'll hang the men who fired those shots," he shouted, jumping up and down on his lofty perch. "What are you standing there gaping at, Tierney? Give that gun more elevation and try her again."

"I had her up to the last notch in the rear sight, sir," replied Tierney. "I can't give the gun any more elevation. The cascabel is down to the bottom of the screw now. I can't reach the brig into an eighth of a mile."

"Try her again, I tell you," roared the enraged captain. "Are you going to stand chinning there while a hundred thousand dollars slips through our fingers?"

The captain continued to talk in this way while the howitzer was loaded and trained for the second shot; but he might as well have saved his ammunition, for this shrapnel, like the first, did no harm to the brig. It didn't frighten her company, either, for they set up a derisive yell, which came faintly to the ears of the privateer's crew.

"Oh, how I'd like to get my hands on that fellow!" shouted Captain

Beardsley. "I'd learn him to insult a Confederate government vessel.

I'd--"

Marcy Gray, who stood holding fast to the halliards, looking aloft and listening to what Beardsley had to say, saw the lookout, who had remained at his post all this time, touch the captain on the shoulder and direct his gaze toward something in the horizon. Marcy looked, too, and was electrified to see a thick, black smoke floating up among the clouds. Could it be that there was a cruiser off there bearing down upon them? He looked at Captain Beardsley again, and came to the conclusion that there must be something suspicious about the stranger, for the captain, after gazing at the smoke through his glass, squared around and backed down from aloft with much more celerity than Marcy ever saw him exhibit before.

"It is a cruiser," thought the young pilot, when the captain assumed charge of the deck and ordered the schooner to be put about and headed toward Crooked Inlet. "She has heard the sound of our guns and is coming up to see what is the matter."

Marcy couldn't decide whether the captain's pale face and excited, nervous manner were occasioned by the fears that had been conjured up by the sudden appearance of that strange vessel in the offing, or by the rage and disappointment he felt over the loss of the valuable prize he had so confidently expected to capture. He hauled down the schooner's flag, packed it away in the chest where it was usually kept, and then had leisure to take a look at the crew. Could they be the same men who had so valiantly fired into that unarmed brig a short half hour before?

"It is a cruiser," repeated Marcy, turning to the side to conceal the look of exultation which he knew the thought brought to his face. "It can't be anything else, for the whole ship's company are scared out of their boots. We were so busy with the brig that we never saw her until she got so close on to us that she is liable to cut us off from the Inlet. If she comes within range of us Captain Beardsley will find that there is a heap of difference between shooting and being shot at. I hope--"

Marcy was about to add that he hoped the on-coming war ship would either capture or sink the Osprey, and so put a stop to her piratical career; but if she did, what would become of him? If one of those big shells came crashing into the schooner, it would be as likely to hit him as anybody else, and if the privateer were cut off from the Inlet and captured, he would be taken prisoner with the rest of the crew and sent to some Northern prison. Of course, Marcy could not make the captain of the war ship believe that he did not ship on the privateer of his own free will, and that he was strong for the Union; and indeed it would be dangerous for him to try, for the folks at home would be sure to hear of it sooner or later, and then what would happen to his mother? As the young pilot turned these thoughts over in his mind, he came to the conclusion that he would feel a little safer if he knew that the schooner would reach the Inlet in advance of the steamer, but he was obliged to confess that it looked doubtful. She was coming up rapidly, land was a long way off, and it would be many hours before darkness came to their aid.

"That rain squall out there is our only salvation," Marcy heard the captain say to one of the mates. "When it comes up we'll haul our wind and run for Hatteras. The cruiser will hold straight on her course, and if the squall lasts long enough we may be able to run her out of sight."

Although Captain Beardsley was frightened at the prospect of falling into the hands of those whose flag he had insulted, he did not lose his head. The plan he had suddenly adopted for eluding the steamer proved that he could take desperate chances when it was necessary. By hauling his wind (which in this case meant shaping the schooner's course as near as possible toward the point from which the wind was blowing), he would be compelled to pass within a few miles of the steamer, and if the rain-cloud, under cover of which he hoped to escape, lifted for the space of one short minute, he was almost certain to be discovered. The squall came up directly behind the steamer, and in about half an hour overtook and shut her out from view.

"Now's our time," exclaimed Beardsley. "Flatten in the fore and main sails and give a strong pull at the headsail sheets. Tierney, go to the wheel."

Marcy lent a hand, and while the orders were being obeyed was gratified to hear one of the crew remark that the squall was something more than a squall; that it was coming to stay, and that they would be lucky if they saw the end of it by sunrise the next morning. If that proved to be the case they would have nothing to fear from the steamer. All they would have to look out for was shipwreck.

Half an hour was all the time that was necessary to prove that the sailor knew what he was talking about. The wind blew a gale and the rain fell in torrents. Just before the storm reached them, Captain Beardsley thought it would be wise to shorten his canvas, but all he took in were the gaff-topsails and fore-topmast staysail. Shortly afterward it became necessary to reef the sails that were left, and when that had been done the captain declared that he wouldn't take in anything else, even if he knew that the wind would take the sticks out of the schooner by the roots. He would rather be wrecked than go to prison any day.

Things could not have worked more to Beardsley's satisfaction if he had had the planning of the storm himself. The privateer's crew never saw the steamer after the rain and mist shut her out from view; and when the sun arose the next morning, after the wildest night Marcy Gray ever experienced on the water, there was not a sail in sight.

"I wish it was safe for us to stand out and try our luck again," said Captain Beardsley, who had been aloft sweeping the horizon with his glass. "But the Yankee war ships are getting too thick for comfort."

"Don't you expect to find some of them about Hatteras?" inquired Marcy.

"Of course I do. I believe the one that was chasing us yesterday came from there, and that that brig we lost held some communication with her before she sighted us. If she hadn't been warned by somebody, what was the reason she began dodging the minute she saw us? I hope to slip in between them, or at least to get under the protection of the guns of the forts at the Inlet before any of the cruisers can come within range. Privateering is played out along this coast. As soon as we get into port I shall tear out the bunks below, reduce my crew, and go to blockade running."

"But you'll run the same risk of capture that you do now," Marcy reminded him.

"But I won't be captured with guns aboard of me," said Beardsley, with a wink that doubtless meant a great deal. "Perhaps you don't know it, but I gave orders, in case that steamer sighted us again, to throw everything in the shape of guns and ammunition overboard. Then they couldn't have proved a thing against us."

"The size of your crew would have laid you open to suspicion," replied

Marcy.

"Yes; but suspicion and proof are two different things," was the captain's answer. "But I am afraid of them howitzers, all the same, and am going to get shet of them the minute we get to Newbern. I don't reckon I can give you a furlong to go home this time, 'cause it won't take two days to get the schooner ready to take out a load of cotton."

"But you'll not need a pilot any longer," said Marcy, who was very much disappointed.

"What's the reason I won't? Do you reckon I'm going to run out of Hatteras in the face of all the war ships that are fooling around here? Not much. And I'm not going to hug the coast, neither. I'll make Crooked Inlet my point of departure, like I always have done, and then I'll stand straight out to sea till I get outside the cruisers' beat. See? Then I'll shape my course for Nassau. It'll give us a heap of bother and we'll go miles out of our way; but we'll be safe."

"But suppose we are captured after all your precautions; what then?"

"Well, if we are we'll lose our vessel and be sent to jail; but we'll not be treated as pirates, don't you see? The Northern folks are awful mad 'cause our President has issued letters of mark-we and reprisal, and their papers demand that every one of us who is taken shall be hung to the yardarm. To tell you the honest truth, that kinder scared me, and that's one reason why I want to get out of the business of privateering."

"And you think you will still need a pilot?"

"Can't you see it for yourself from what I have told you?" asked Beardsley, in reply. "And, Marcy, you'll make more money with less risk than you do in this business. It ain't to be expected that men will run the risk of going to jail for regular foremast hands' wages. They want more money, and it's right that they should have it. Why, them blockade-runners I told you about paid their hands five hundred dollars apiece for the run to Nassau and back. What do you think of that?"

"I think it is good wages," replied Marcy. ["If the business was only safe and honorable," he added, to himself.]

"Of course it is good wages. I don't expect to get a crew for any less; but, as I said before, I'll do the fair thing by you. If you go home you will have to enlist-I've heard the folks say that everybody had got to show his hand one way or the other-and then you would get only twelve or thirteen dollars a month. Think of that!"

Marcy was right when he told himself that the captain had him fast, and that there was no release for him as long as the Osprey remained in commission. It was a gloomy outlook, but the only thing he could do was to make the best of it.

As soon as the captain thought it safe to do so every inch of the privateer's canvas was given to the breeze, and she made good headway toward her destination. That day and the ensuing night passed without excitement of any sort, and at sunrise the next morning two objects were in plain sight from the schooner's deck. One was the entrance to Hatteras Inlet, and the other was a large steamer in the offing. The two vessels had been in view of each other ever since daylight. They were both headed for the same point-one making the most desperate efforts to place herself under cover of the guns of the forts, and the other making equally desperate efforts to bring the schooner within range of her bow-chaser before she could get there. It was a close and exciting race, and the crews of both vessels watched it anxiously. The black smoke rolled in thick clouds from the steamer's funnels, and the privateer's topmasts snapped and bent like fishing-rods, while her white-faced captain paced his quarter-deck, dividing his attention between his imperilled top-hamper and the pursuing steamer, and rubbing his hands nervously. At last the climax came. A puff of white smoke arose from the steamer's bow, and a shell from an old-fashioned smooth-bore thirty-two pounder dropped into the water about half way betwe

en her and the flying schooner. If that same steamer had had for a bow-chaser the heavy rifled gun she had a few months later, the result would have been different. As it was, Captain Beardsley gathered courage, and the anxious look left his face.

"If that's the best he can do we're all right," said he gleefully. "If this breeze holds half an hour longer we'll show him our flag."

"Shall we give him an answer from one of the howitzers, sir?" inquired

Tierney.

"Not for your life!" replied Beardsley, quickly. And then he added in a lower tone, addressing himself to Marcy, who stood near, "That would be a bright idea, wouldn't it? This breeze may die away any minute, and we don't want to do anything to make them Yankees madder at us than they be now. Another thing, we mustn't give 'em anything to remember this schooner by. We may be caught when we try to run the blockade with our cargo of cotton, and we don't want anybody to recall the fact that we once had guns aboard. See?"

It was a long time before Marcy Gray could make up his mind how the chase was going to end, although he noticed when it first began that there were two things in the schooner's favor. One was that she was so far out of range that her pursuer could not cripple her, and the other was, that the wind that was favorable to her was unfavorable to the steamer, so that the latter could not use her sails. He also took note of the fact that Beardsley hugged the shore pretty closely, and this made it evident that he intended to beach the schooner rather than permit her to fall into the hands of the Yankees. But he was not driven to such extremity. The breeze held out, and although the steamer continued to fire her bow-chaser at intervals, the privateer rounded the point unharmed; while the pursuer, not caring to trust herself within range of the rifled guns on shore, veered around and stood out to sea. A look through his glass showed Beardsley that the half-finished batteries had been manned in readiness to give the war ship a warm reception if she had ventured to follow the privateer through the Inlet.

"Marcy, run up the flag so that our friends in the forts can see who we are!" commanded Beardsley. "The last time we sailed through here we had a prize following in our wake, and we would have had a more valuable one to-day if that brig hadn't been warned by them Yankees outside."

The Confederate emblem proved to be as good as a countersign, and Captain Beardsley was permitted to sail on through the Inlet without going ashore to give an account of himself. As soon as he was safe inside the bar he directed his course toward Newbern, which he reached without any more adventures; but there were no cheers to greet him as his schooner was pulled into the wharf. Beardsley's agent, who was the first to spring over the rail, looked very much disgusted.

"Why, Captain, how is this?" were the first words he uttered. "I didn't expect to see you come back empty handed."

"No more did I expect to come back that way," was the captain's reply. "But we can't always have luck on our side. There is too many cruisers out there."

"Did you see any of them?"

"Well, I reckon. We had a race with two of them, and I ain't going privateering no more."

"Scared out, are you?" said the agent, with some contempt in his tones. "Well, it may interest you to know that while you were fooling around out there, doing nothing, we have fought the battle that will bring us our independence."

"You did?" exclaimed Beardsley, who knew that the agent thought he had played the part of a coward in making such haste to get back to port. "You didn't have nary hand in it. You stay around home, yelling for the Confederacy, and flinging your slurs at we uns who have been under the fire of a Yankee war ship, but you ain't got the pluck to go into the service yourself. We didn't see but one merchantman while we was gone and she was a brig; and as she carried three times the canvas we did she had the heels of us, and besides she wouldn't let us come within range. It was all we wanted to do to get into Hatteras, on account of the cruiser that fired on us. What battle was it that gained us our independence?"

"Bull Run," replied the agent.

"Where's that?"

"Somewhere up in Virginia. We had thirty-five thousand men and the Yankees more than twice as many; but we threw them into a panic and run them clear into Washington. I expect our army has got the city by this time."

"I didn't think the Yankees would fight," said the captain reflectively.

"Then the war is just as good as over."

"That's what the Richmond papers say."

"And it won't be no use for me to go blockade running?"

"Oh, yes it will. Peace hasn't been declared yet, and you had better make money at something while you can. After all, I don't know that I blame you for coming back. We've lost two blockade-runners and one privateer since you went out."

"There, now"; exclaimed Beardsley. "And I'd have lost my own vessel if I hadn't had the best of luck. What you sneering at me for?"

"Well, you see you were safe outside, and I was sure you would come back with a prize. I was disappointed when I saw you coming up the river alone."

"Not more disappointed than I was myself," answered the captain. "That brig was worth a power of money, and I might have been chasing her yet if that man-of-war hadn't hove in sight."

This was all the conversation Marcy overheard between Beardsley and his agent, for the two drew off on one side and talked earnestly in tones so low that he could not catch a word they said. It was plain that they came to an understanding on some point, for shortly afterward they went into the cabin, and Marcy was commanded to station himself at the head of the companion ladder and pass the word for the crew as fast as their names were called. He could see that the schooner's books and papers had been placed upon the cabin table, and that led him to believe that the reduction of the crew was to begin immediately. When the first man who was sent below came on deck again with his wages in his hand, Marcy whispered:

"What did the captain say when he paid you off B+"

"He didn't say he was gallied," replied the sailor, with a knowing look, "but I'll bet he is. The booming of that war ship's guns was too much for his nerves, and he's going to quit pirating and go to blockade running. I don't see but that one is about as dangerous as the other." One by one the members of the crew were sent into the cabin, and as fast as they received their money and their discharges they bundled up their clothes and bedding and went ashore. At last there were only six foremast hands left, including Marcy Gray, and these were summoned into the cabin in a body to listen to what Captain Beardsley had to propose to them. He began with the statement that privateering was played out along that coast, because numerous cruisers were making it their business to watch the inlets and warn passing vessels to look out for themselves. It was no use trying to catch big ships that would not let him come within range, and so he had decided to put his howitzers ashore, tear out the berths and gun decks fore and aft, and turn the Osprey into a freighter. He would change her name, too, give her another coat of paint, and take the figures off her sails, so that she could not be recognized from the description the Hollins's men would give of her when they went North.

"I have kept you men because you are the best in the crew," said Beardsley in conclusion, "and of course I want none but good men and true aboard of me; but you needn't stay if you don't want to. I want you to understand that blockade running is a dangerous business, and that we may be captured as others have been; but if you will stand by me, I'll give you five hundred dollars apiece for the run-one hundred to spend in Nassau, and the balance when you help me bring the schooner safe back to Newbern. What do you say?"

The men had evidently been expecting something of this sort, for without a moment's hesitation Tierney, speaking for his companions, replied that the captain's liberal offer was accepted, and they would do all that men could do to make the Osprey's voyages profitable. Marcy said nothing, for Beardsley had already given him to understand that he was to be one of the blockade-runner's crew. He was the only native American among the foremast hands, and the only one who could sign his name to the shipping articles, the others being obliged to make their marks. When this had been done the men returned to the deck, and the agent went ashore to make arrangements for landing the guns, to hunt up a gang of ship carpenters, and find a cotton-factor who was willing to take his chances on making or losing a fortune. He worked to such good purpose that in less than an hour two parties of men were busy on the schooner-one with the howitzers and the other with the bunks below-and a broker was making a contract with Beardsley for taking out a cargo of cotton. When the broker had gone ashore Beardsley beckoned Marcy to follow him into the cabin.

"The schooner owes you seventeen hundred dollars and better," said he, as he closed the sliding door and pointed to a chair. "It's in the bank ashore, and you can have it whenever you want it. Would you like to take out a venture?"

It was right on the point of Marcy's tongue to reply that he would be glad to do it; but he checked himself in time, for the thought occurred to him that perhaps this was another attempt on the part of Captain Beardsley to find out something about the state of his mother's finances. So he looked down at the carpet and said nothing.

"There's money in it," continued Beardsley. "Suppose you take out two bales of cotton, sell it in Nassau for three times what it was worth a few months ago, and invest the proceeds in quinine; why, you'll make five hundred percent. Of course I can't grant all the hands the same privilege, so I will make the bargain for you through my agent, and Tierney and the rest needn't know a thing about. What do you say?"

"I don't think I had better risk it," answered Marcy.

"What for?" asked Beardsley.

"Well, the money I've got I'm sure of, am I not?"

"Course you are. Didn't I say you could have it any minute you had a mind to call for it?"

"You did; but suppose I should put it into cotton, as you suggest, and the Osprey should fall into the hands of one of those war ships outside. There'd be all my money gone to the dogs, or, what amounts to the same thing, into the hands of the Yankees. I may want to use that money before the war is over."

"But didn't you hear the agent say that we ain't going to have any war?

We've licked 'em before they could take their coats off."

"But perhaps they'll not stay whipped. My teachers at the academy were pretty well posted, and I heard some of them say that a war is surely coming, and in the end the Southern States will wish they had never seceded."

"Well, them teachers of yourn was the biggest fules I ever heard tell of," exclaimed Beardsley, settling back in his chair and slamming a paper-weight down upon the table. "Why, don't I tell you that we've got 'em licked already? More'n that, I don't mean to fall into the hands of them cruisers outside. I tell you that you'll miss it if you don't take out a venture. And as for your mother needing them seventeen hundred dollars to buy grub and the like, you can't pull the wool over my eyes in no such way as that. She's got money by the bushel, and I know it to be a fact."

"Then you know more than I do," replied Marcy, his eyes never dropping for an instant under the searching gaze the captain fixed upon him. "Now, I would like to ask you one question: You have money enough of your own to load this vessel, have you not?"

"Why, of course I-that's neither here nor there," replied Beardsley, who was not sharp enough to keep out of the trap that Marcy had placed for him. "What of it?"

"I know it to be a fact that you could load the schooner with cotton purchased with your own money if you felt like it," answered the young pilot, "but you don't mean to do it. You would rather carry cotton belonging to somebody else, and that is all the proof I want that you are afraid of the Yankees. If you want to do the fair thing by me, why do you advise me to put my money into a venture, when you are afraid to put in a dollar for yourself?"

"Why, man alive," Beardsley almost shouted, "don't I risk my schooner? Every nigger I've got was paid for with money she made for me by carrying cigars and such like between Havana and Baltimore."

"That's what I thought," said Marcy, to himself. "And you didn't pay a cent of duty on those cigars, either."

"I do my share by risking my schooner," continued the captain. "But I want somebody to make something besides myself, and if you don't want to risk your money, I reckon I'll give the mates a chance. That's all."

"What in the name of sense did I go and speak to him about them cigars for?" he added, mentally, as the pilot ascended the ladder that led to the deck. "I think myself that there's a war coming, and if we get licked I must either make a fast friend of that boy or get rid of him; for if he tells on me I'll get into trouble sure."

It looked now as though Marcy might some day have it in his power to make things very unpleasant for Captain Beardsley.

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