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   Chapter 9 THE SUMTER LOSES A PRIZE.

Marcy the Blockade Runner By Harry Castlemon Characters: 22564

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


While the majority of the Sabine's crew chafed and fretted like captive birds which beat their wings against the bars of their cage to no purpose, there were two who stood aloof from every one and from each other; who never spoke a word, but who nevertheless came to a perfect understanding through the interchange of frequent and expressive glances. They were the captain and Jack Gray. Each one knew as well as if the other had explained it to him, that both had resolved upon the same thing-that before the sun rose again the Sabine must be taken out of the hands of the prize crew, and her course shaped toward a Northern port, no matter what the risk might be.

"I knew, although I had no chance to speak to the old man about it, that our first hard work must be to disarm those five rebels," said Jack, in telling his story. "I knew it would be easy enough to do that if we all moved together, for there was but one native American in the prize crew-the midshipman-and he was a little whiffet to be strangled with a finger and thumb. Even the fact that we were in the middle of the tow, the Sumter ahead and the Herndon behind, wouldn't have made any difference to us if we had had control of the brig, because a few lusty blows with an axe would have severed the two hawsers and the darkness would have aided us in making our escape; but the trouble was, the elements were against us. The wind would not come up, and of course it would be of no use for us to take the brig unless we had a breeze to help us draw off."

While the captain and his vigilant second mate were waiting and watching in the hope that something might unexpectedly turn up in their favor, Captain Semmes came to their aid. The Sumter with her heavy tow and little breeze to help her, was making headway altogether too slowly to suit him; and besides, it had occurred to him that it might be well to run ahead and find out what the authorities at Cienfuegos thought of him and his government, and whether or not they would permit Yankee prizes to be condemned and sold in that port. The first intimation the brig's crew had that Captain Semmes was about to cast off his tow was a warning whistle from the Sumter. This was followed by a sudden slackening of the hawser, and a few minutes later the Sumter's black hulk showed itself on the starboard bow. She was backing water.

"Sabine ahoy!" came the hail.

"On board the Sumter! replied the midshipman.

"Cast off the Herndon's hawser and stand by to pass it aboard of us."

The midshipman responded with an "Ay, ay, sir!" and ordered the brig's crew to lay aft and hold themselves in readiness to cast off when they received the word. It took half an hour to transfer the line from one vessel to the other (it was accomplished by the aid of a small boat), and then another order came to the prize-master of the Sabine.

"Haul in your own hawser and make sail and follow us into port," were the instructions he received, and which he at once proceeded to act upon. He did not notice, however, that the first man to seize the hawser and lay out his strength upon it with a "Heave yo! All together now," was the surly second mate, who seemed to take the loss of his vessel so much to heart that he hadn't said a word to anybody since the prize crew was put aboard of her. But Jack Gray was there with an object. When the end of the hawser had been wound around the capstan, and the bars were shipped, he took pains to place himself next to a couple of Green Mountain boys, whose courage had been proved in more than one trying ordeal.

"Heave yo! 'Round she goes. Strike up a song, somebody," shouted Jack; and then he leaned over and spoke so that not only the two men who were heaving at the bar with him but also the three who were on the bar in front could hear every word he said. "Listen, boys," said he earnestly. "We're going to take the ship out of the hands of these pirates. Put a handspike or an axe where you can get your hands on it, and be ready to jump the instant the old man or I make a move."

Jack could say no more just then, for in his progress around the capstan he came opposite the place where the midshipman was standing. He breasted the bar manfully and joined in the song, looking as innocent as though he had never thought of knocking the midshipman overboard if the latter gave him even the shadow of a chance to do it.

"I knew well enough that you cabin fellows would never let these villains get away with the brig," said the man on his left, as soon as it was safe for him to speak. "Jump as soon as you get ready and we'll be there. What was it you read to us from that Mobile paper you brought aboard at Rio-that one Southern gentleman is as good as five Northern mudsills? We will give them a chance to prove it."

"Pass the word among the boys and tell them to stand by to bear a hand when the time comes," added the second mate. "But be sly about it, for we must not arouse the suspicions of these rebels. They are armed and we are not."

In due time the hawser was hauled aboard and stowed away, and then the midshipman prepared to make sail and follow the Sumter which was by this time so far off that her lights could not be seen. It took a good while to do this, and once, while working on the foreyard, Jack was delighted to find himself by his captain's side.

"I hope that rebel officer didn't see you come up," said Jack. "If he did he will be on his guard, and then good-by to all our chances of taking the ship."

"Do you take me for a dunce?" asked the captain, in reply. "I came up when he wasn't looking, because I wanted a chance to say a word to you."

"I know what you would say if you had time," was Jack's answer. "So do the men. They have all been posted, and are as eager to get the ship back as you can possibly be."

"Very good," said the captain, who was highly gratified. "Stand by the companion-ladder and watch all that goes on in the cabin."

Having seen the last sail sheeted home Jack obeyed the order to "lay down from aloft," and engaged the midshipman in conversation to give the captain a chance to gain the deck without being discovered. At the same time he noticed that the long wished for breeze was springing up, and that everything was beginning to draw beautifully. At this moment the steward came up from the cabin and approached the place where they were standing.

"You haven't had any supper, sir," said he, saluting the midshipman.

"Won't you come down and drink a cup of coffee and eat an orange?"

Jack fairly trembled while he waited for the officer's reply. He was afraid he would decline the invitation-Jack knew he would have done so if he had been in the midshipman's place, and that nothing short of an overpowering force would have taken him from the deck so long as he was prize-master of the brig. But the young officer's fears had not only been lulled to sleep by the orderly conduct of the Sabine's crew, which led him to believe that they, like all the rest of their countrymen, were too cowardly to show fight under any circumstances, but he was tired and hungry, and he thought that a cup of coffee and something good to eat would take the place of the night's sleep which he knew he was going to lose. Accordingly he followed the steward toward the cabin, and then Jack told himself that something was about to happen-that this was a part of the captain's plan for seizing the vessel. Jack had been instructed to stand at the top of the companion-ladder and watch all that went on below, and in order that he might carry out those instructions without attracting the midshipman's attention, he quietly removed his shoes and stood in his stocking feet. As he was about to start for the post that had been assigned him, he saw an opportunity to aid the captain that was too good to be lost. Standing within less than ten feet of him was one of the Confederate sailors. He was leaning over the rail looking down into the water, evidently in a brown study. He held his musket clasped in his arms in a position something like "arms port," and Jack knew that he carried his revolver on the right side, that the butt was entirely out of the holster, and that there was no strap to hold the weapon in place. He had taken note of these facts when the prize-crew first came aboard.

Before attempting to carry out the desperate plan he had so suddenly conceived for securing this particular rebel, Jack swept a hasty glance over the deck to calculate his chances for success. They could not have been better. There was not another one of the prize-crew in sight; but just across from him, on the other side of the deck, stood Stebbins, one of the Green Mountain boys who had worked at the capstan with him. Other members of the crew were making a pretense of being busy at something in the waist, but they were one and all keeping a close watch on the second mate, and there were hand-spikes, axes, or belaying-pins within easy reach. Jack made a warning gesture to Stebbins, and the sailor at once reached for his capstan-bar. With two quick, noiseless steps Jack placed himself close behind the dreaming rebel, and thrusting his left arm over his shoulder seized his musket with a firm grasp, while at the same time, with his right hand, he deftly slipped the revolver from its holster.

"Not a word-not a whisper!" said Jack, placing the muzzle of the heavy Colt close to the rebel's head. "Let go that gun. Stebbins, take off his cutlass and buckle it around your own waist."

When the captive recovered himself sufficiently to look around, he was astonished to find that he was confronted by four of the brig's foremast hands, all of whom carried weapons of some sort, which they held threateningly over his head. There was no help for it, and he was prompt to obey both Jack's orders; that is to say, he gave up his gun and kept his lips closed.

"Lead him aft, Stebbins, and stand guard over him with your cutlass," commanded Jack. "If he tries to run or give warning to his companions, cut him down. Smith, take this musket and keep a sharp eye on me. The officer is in the cabin, and I don't think the old man means to let him come out very soon."

Stebbins moved off with his prisoner. Smith and the other two sailors stationed themselves where they could see everything the second mate did, and the latter advanced close to the companion-way so that he could look down and obtain a view of the interior of the cabin. At the very first glance he saw something to discourage him.

"The moment the old man told me to watch all that went on in the cabin, that moment I understood his plan," said Jack. "And when I afterward compared notes with him and the steward, I learned that I had made no mistake. The captain was not denied the privilege of going in and out of his cabin as often as he pleased, and that was one place where the midshipman, who was really a sharp officer, did wrong. Another wrong move he made was in scattering his men about the deck. If he had kept them close together, so that they could have helped one another, we never could have taken the brig."

It was during one of these visits to the cabin that the captain took his revolver from the place in which he had concealed it

when he saw the prize-crew coming aboard, and put four pairs of hand-cuffs into his pockets; for when the rebel boarding officer hauled down his colors, he determined that at sunrise the next morning the Stars and Stripes should again float at his peak if he had to sacrifice half his crew to get them there. His next move was to order his steward to dish up supper, and when it was ready he sent word to the midshipman to come down and have a bite; but, although the brig was towing at the stern of the Sumter and there was not the smallest chance for her to escape, the officer would not trust himself within reach of the skipper and his mates. However, he was not afraid to go into the cabin alone, and when the steward asked him, in Jack's hearing, to come below and drink a cup of coffee and eat an orange, he accepted the invitation; but his actions indicated that he was very suspicious.

"Sit down here, sir," said the steward, drawing back the chair he had placed for him.

"Well, hardly," replied the officer, glancing at the door behind him, which, by the way, opened into the captain's state-room. "Move that chair and plate to the other side of the table."

"Certainly, sir," said the steward, in his politest tones; and the command was promptly obeyed.

The first thing the midshipman did after he had taken his seat, was to draw his revolver from its holster and show it to the steward; and then he placed it on the chair under his left leg.

"You will observe that I don't put it on the table and give you a chance to snatch it while I am in the act of drinking my coffee," said he blandly.

"Certainly, sir," said the steward again.

"You Yankees have the reputation of being pretty sharp people," continued the officer, "and I believe you are somewhat famous for the tricks you play upon unsuspecting strangers; but you will find that there are smarter men south of Mason and Dixon's line than there are north of it. Now, if we understand each other, trot out your grub."

The steward ran up the ladder, at the top of which he found the second mate, standing back out of the light so that the midshipman could not see him if he chanced to look toward the deck.

"Did you notice that he would not sit where I wanted him to?" whispered the steward. "The old man is in his state-room, waiting for a chance to rush out and grab him, but I am afraid that move on the Confederate's part will knock the whole thing in the head."

"Not by a long shot," replied Jack. "We've got firearms of our own now, and if the worst is forced upon us, we'll engage them in a regular battle. But we don't want to shoot if we can help it, for that might bring the Sumter upon us."

The steward vanished in the galley, and while he was gone Jack thought seriously of giving him the revolver he had taken from the captured rebel, and telling him to watch his chance to put it to the head of the midshipman while he was eating his supper, and demand his surrender on pain of death. That would have been just the thing to do, Jack thought, if he were only sure that the steward's courage would not fail him when the critical moment came; but unfortunately he was not quite positive on that point. He had never had an opportunity to see how the steward would act in an emergency, and after a little reflection he concluded that he had better keep the weapon in his own possession.

In a few minutes the steward came out of the galley, carrying a tray upon which he had placed a tempting supper, and Jack saw him descend into the cabin and put it on the table.

"Here, you fellow, that won't do," he heard the midshipman exclaim. "Don't take quite so much pains to get behind me, if you please. Stand around on the other side of the table, so that I can see everything you do."

"Certainly, sir," answered the steward, as he hastened to take the position pointed out to him.

If Jack Gray had been in the cabin at that moment he would have seen that he did a wise thing when he decided to hold fast to his revolver instead of handing it over to the steward and depending upon him to capture the midshipman, for when the latter emphasized his commands by pulling his six-shooter from under his leg and raising and lowering the hammer with one hand, keeping the muzzle pointed toward the steward's head all the while, the latter grew as white as a sheet and trembled in every limb. After he thought he had inflicted sufficient torture upon the timid fellow, the Confederate put up his weapon and demanded:

"What State are you from?"

"Massachusetts, sir."

"Are all Massachusetts men as great cowards as you are?"

"Certainly, sir," answered the steward, who was afraid to say anything else.

"Then we're going to have a walk-over, sure enough," said the rebel.

"You Yankees are afraid to fight."

"Certainly, sir."

Every word of this conversation was overheard by a man who, but for a most unfortunate interruption, would have forced the Confederate officer to swallow his words almost as soon as they had left his lips. It was the skipper. He had come down from aloft and reached his cabin without being seen, and it was in obedience to his instructions that the prize-master had been asked below to get some supper. His plan was to have the steward seat the officer with his back to a certain state-room, so that he could be seized from behind and choked into submission before he knew that there was a third party in the cabin; but that could not be done now. The rebel's suspicions led him to change to the other side of the table, and he now sat facing the state-room door, on whose farther side stood the merchant captain with rage in his heart and a cocked revolver in his hand. The captain knew that he was going to put himself in danger when he attempted to make a prisoner of the midshipman, but that did not deter him. When he heard that sweeping charge of cowardice made against the men of his native State he could stand it no longer, but jerked open the door and sprang into the cabin.

Now came that unexpected interruption to the skipper's plan of which we have spoken. The steward heard the door of the state room creak softly behind him, and, knowing what was coming, he made a quick jump to one side to get out of the skipper's way and leave him a clear field for his operations; but he was so badly frightened that he hardly knew what he was about, and consequently he did the very thing he tried to avoid. He sprang directly in front of his commander, and the two came together with such force that they measured their length on the cabin floor, the captain and his revolver being underneath. For one single instant the prize-master sat as motionless in his chair as if he had been turned into a block of wood; but it was for one instant only. He was quick to comprehend the situation, and equally quick to act. He sprang to his feet, and before either of the prostrate men could make a move he ran around the end of the table and covered them with his revolver.

"If you stir or utter a word I will shoot you as quickly as I would shoot a couple of dogs which disputed my right to use the highway," said he, in tones that could not have been steadier if he had been ordering the boatswain's mate of the Sumter to pipe sweepers. "Captain, drop that revolver on the floor without moving your hand a hair's-breadth."

"Let go your own revolver," said a voice in his ear: and to his infinite amazement the Confederate suddenly found himself in a grasp so strong that it not only rendered him incapable of action, but brought him to his knees in a second. One vise-like hand was fastened upon the back of his neck and the other upon his wrist, turning the muzzle of the revolver upward, so that it pointed toward the roof of the cabin.

[Illustration: JACK GRAY RECAPTURES THE BRIG.]

This is what we referred to when we stated that if it had not been for Jack Gray's courage and prompt action, it is probable that the brig would never have been recaptured. When the midshipman jumped from his chair and ran around the table, he turned his back toward the companion-way; and the moment he did so, Jack Gray, who saw that the critical time had come and that the next few seconds would decide who were to be masters of the brig, made a spring for the ladder. As he was in his stocking feet his movements were noiseless, and so rapid, too, that he had the Confederate prize-master in his grasp before the latter was fairly done speaking. Then he was powerless, for the second mate had a grip that few who knew him cared to contend against.

"Didn't you have the revolver you took from the captured sailor in your pocket?" inquired Marcy, when Jack reached this point in his story.

"I did, but I didn't think it best to depend upon it, for this reason: Although the midshipman wasn't much to look at, he had showed himself to be possessed of any amount of pluck, and I was afraid that even if I succeeded in getting the drop on him he might shoot any way, for the double purpose of disabling me and calling his men to his assistance. So I made all haste to get a hold on him."

"Now that I think of it," continued Marcy, who was deeply interested in the narrative, "why did Captain Semmes keep the Herndon in tow when he cast off the Sabine? Why didn't he let both vessels go?"

"I have never been able to account for that except upon the supposition that he had more confidence in our prize-master than he had in the one he put aboard the Herndon," replied sailor Jack. "The Herndon was a heavy vessel, and had a much larger crew than we had; and perhaps that had something to do with it. I think we taught Semmes a lesson he will remember. I don't believe he will ever again trust a Yankee prize and a Yankee crew out of reach of his big guns."

The master of the brig and his frightened steward got upon their feet as soon as they could, and found that the Confederate officer had been secured beyond all possibility of escape. The second mate had twisted his revolver from his grasp; Smith, the man to whom Jack had given the captured musket, was holding a bayonet close to his nose, and another sailor was threatening him with a handspike.

"Did you really think that nine Yankee sailors would permit five traitors to work their sweet will on them?" demanded the skipper, as he let down the hammer of the officer's revolver and dropped the weapon into his own pocket. "I think you will learn to your cost that you have been very much mistaken in the opinions you have formed of Northern people. I shall have to ask you to go into my state-room and remain there, leaving the door open. Smith, stay here and watch him, while the rest of us go on deck, and attend to the other four."

"There are but three left, Captain," observed Jack. "One is already a prisoner, and Stebbins is keeping guard over him."

At that moment a body of men marched aft from the forecastle, came to a halt at the top of the ladder, and a hoarse voice hailed the cabin. It was the voice of the first mate.

"Tumble up, Cap'n," said the officer. "We've got the rest of 'em hard and fast. Tumble up and take command of your ship. She's your'n once more."

That was the most gratifying piece of news Jack Gray had ever heard.

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