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An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge fishkeeping forums A man stood upon a railroad bridge in northern Alabama, looking down into the swift water twenty feet below. The man's hands were behind his back, the wrists bound with a cord. A rope closely encircled his neck. It was attached to a stout cross-timber above his head and the slack fell to the level of his knees. Some loose boards laid upon the sleepers supporting the metals of the railway supplied a footing for him and his executioners--two private soldiers of the Federal army, directed by a sergeant who in civil life may have been a deputy sheriff. At a short remove upon the same temporary platform was an officer in the uniform of his rank, armed. He was a captain. A sentinel at each end of the bridge stood with his rifle in the position known as "support," that is to say, vertical in front of the left shoulder, the hammer resting on the forearm thrown straight across the chest--a formal and unnatural position, enforcing an erect carriage of the body. It did not appear to be the duty of these two men to know what was occurring at the center of the bridge; they merely blockaded the two ends of the foot planking that traversed it. Beyond one of the sentinels nobody was in sight; the railroad ran straight away into a forest for a hundred yards, then, curving, was lost to view. Doubtless there was an outpost farther along. The other bank of the stream was open ground--a gentle acclivity topped with a stockade of vertical tree trunks, loopholed for rifles, with a single embrasure through which protruded the muzzle of a brass cannon commanding the bridge. Midway of the slope between the bridge and fort were the spectators--a single company of infantry in line, at "parade rest," the butts of the rifles on the ground, the barrels inclining slightly backward against the right shoulder, the hands crossed upon the stock. A lieutenant stood at the right of the line, the point of his sword upon the ground, his left hand resting upon his right. Excepting the group of four at the center of the bridge, not a man moved. The company faced the bridge, staring stonily, motionless. The sentinels, facing the banks of the stream, might have been statues to adorn the bridge. The captain stood with folded arms, silent, observing the work of his subordinates, but making no sign. Death is a dignitary who when he comes announced is to be received with formal manifestations of respect, even by those most familiar with him. In the code of military etiquette silence and fixity are forms of deference.
The man who was engaged in being hanged was apparently about thirty-five years of age. He was a civilian, if one might judge from his habit, which was that of a planter. His features were good--a straight nose, firm mouth, broad forehead, from which his long, dark hair was combed straight back, falling behind his ears to the collar of his well-fitting frock coat. He wore a mustache and pointed beard, but no whiskers; his eyes were large and dark gray, and had a kindly expression which one would hardly have expected in one whose neck was in the hemp. Evidently this was no vulgar assassin. The liberal military code makes provision for hanging many kinds of persons, and gentlemen are not excluded.
The preparations being complete, the two private soldiers stepped aside and each drew away the plank upon which he had been standing. The sergeant turned to the captain, saluted and placed himself immediately behind that officer, who in turn moved apart one pace. These movements left the condemned man and the sergeant standing on the two ends of the same plank, which spanned three of the cross-ties of the bridge. The end upon which the civilian stood almost, but not quite, reached a fourth. This plank had been held in place by the weight of the captain; it was now held by that of the sergeant. At a signal from the former the latter would step aside, the plank would tilt and the condemned man go down between two ties. The arrangement commended itself to his judgment as simple and effective. His face had not been covered nor his eyes bandaged. He looked a moment at his "unsteadfast footing," then let his gaze wander to the swirling water of the stream racing madly beneath his feet. A piece of dancing driftwood caught his attention and his eyes followed it down the current. How slowly it appeared to move, What a sluggish stream!
He closed his eyes in order to fix his last thoughts upon his wife and children. The water, touched to gold by the early sun, the brooding mists under the banks at some distance down the stream, the fort, the soldiers, the piece of drift--all had distracted him. And now he became conscious of a new disturbance. Striking through the thought of his dear ones was a sound which he could neither ignore nor understand, a sharp, distinct, metallic percussion like the stroke of a blacksmith's hammer upon the anvil; it had the same ringing quality. He wondered what it was, and whether immeasurably distant or near by--it seemed both. Its recurrence was regular, but as slow as the tolling of a death knell. He awaited each stroke with impatience and--he knew not why--apprehension. The intervals of silence grew progressively longer, the delays became maddening. With their greater infrequency the sounds increased in strength and sharpness. They hurt his ear like the thrust of a knife; he feared he would shriek. What he heard was the ticking of his watch.
He unclosed his eyes and saw again the water below him. "If I could free my hands," he thought, "I might throw off the noose and spring into the stream. By diving I could evade the bullets and, swimming vigorously, reach the bank, take to the woods and get away home. My home, thank God, is as yet outside their lines; my wife and little ones are still beyond the invader's farthest advance."
As these thoughts, which have here to be set down in words, were flashed into the doomed man's brain rather than evolved from it the captain nodded to the sergeant. The sergeant stepped aside.
Peyton Farquhar was a well-to-do planter, of an old and highly respected Alabama family. Being a slave owner and like other slave owners a politician he was naturally an original secessionist and ardently devoted to the Southern cause. Circumstances of an imperious nature, which it is unnecessary to relate here, had prevented him from taking service with the gallant army that had fought the disastrous campaigns ending with the fall of Corinth, and he chafed under the inglorious restraint, longing for the release of his energies, the larger life of the soldier, the opportunity for distinction. That opportunity, he felt, would come, as it comes to all in war time. Meanwhile he did what he could. No service was too humble for him to perform in aid of the South, no adventure too perilous for him to undertake if consistent with the character of a civilian who was at heart a soldier, and who in good faith and without too much qualification assented to at least a part of the frankly villainous dictum that all is fair in love and war.
One evening while Farquhar and his wife were sitting on a rustic bench near the entrance to his grounds, a gray-clad soldier rode up to the gate and asked for a drink of water. Mrs. Farquhar was only too happy to serve him with her own white hands. While she was fetching the water her husband approached the dusty horseman and inquired eagerly for news from the front.
"The Yanks are repairing the railroads," said the man, "and are getting ready for another advance. They have reached the Owl Creek bridge, put it in order and built a stockade on the north bank. The commandant has issued an order, which is posted everywhere, declaring that any civilian caught interfering with the railroad, its bridges, tunnels or trains will be summarily hanged. I saw the order."
"How far is it to the Owl Creek bridge?" Farquhar asked.
"About thirty miles."
"Is there no force on this side the creek?"
"Only a picket post half a mile out, on the railroad, and a single sentinel at this end of the bridge."
"Suppose a man--a civilian and student of hanging--should elude the picket post and perhaps get the better of the sentinel," said Farquhar, smiling, "what could he accomplish?"
The soldier reflected. "I was there a month ago," he replied. "I observed that the flood of last winter had lodged a great quantity of driftwood against the wooden pier at this end of the bridge. It is now dry and would burn like tow."
The lady had now brought the water, which the soldier drank. He thanked her ceremoniously, bowed to her husband and rode away. An hour later, after nightfall, he repassed the plantation, going northward in the direction from which he had come. He was a Federal scout.
As Peyton Farquhar fell straight downward through the bridge he lost consciousness and was as one already dead. From this state he was awakened--ages later, it seemed to him--by the pain of a sharp pressure upon his throat, followed by a sense of suffocation. Keen, poignant agonies seemed to shoot from his neck downward through every fiber of his body and limbs. These pains appeared to flash along well-defined lines of ramification and to beat with an inconceivably rapid periodicity. They seemed like streams of pulsating fire heating him to an intolerable temperature. As to his head, he was conscious of nothing but a feeling of fulness--of congestion. These sensations were unaccompanied by thought. The intellectual part of his nature was already effaced; he had power only to feel, and feeling was torment. He was conscious of motion. Encompassed in a luminous cloud, of which he was now merely the fiery heart, without material substance, he swung through unthinkable arcs of oscillation, like a vast pendulum. Then all at once, with terrible suddenness, the light about him shot upward with the noise of a loud splash; a frightful roaring was in his ears, and all was cold and dark. The power of thought was restored; he knew that the rope had broken and he had fallen into the stream. There was no additional strangulation; the noose about his neck was already suffocating him and kept the water from his lungs. To die of hanging at the bottom of a river!--the idea seemed to him ludicrous. He opened his eyes in the darkness and saw above him a gleam of light, but how distant, how inaccessible! He was still sinking, for the light became fainter and fainter until it was a mere glimmer. Then it began to grow and brighten, and he knew that he was rising toward the surface--knew it with reluctance, for he was now very comfortable. "To be hanged and drowned," he thought? "that is not so bad; but I do not wish to be shot. No; I will not be shot; that is not fair."
He was not conscious of an effort, but a sharp pain in his wrist apprised him that he was trying to free his hands. He gave the struggle his attention, as an idler might observe the feat of a juggler, without interest in the outcome. What splendid effort!--what magnificent, what superhuman strength! Ah, that was a fine endeavor! Bravo! The cord fell away; his arms parted and floated upward, the hands dimly seen on each side in the growing light. He watched them with a new interest as first one and then the other pounced upon the noose at his neck. They tore it away and thrust it fiercely aside, its undulations resembling those of a water snake. "Put it back, put it back!" He thought he shouted these words to his hands, for the undoing of the noose had been succeeded by the direst pang that he had yet experienced. His neck ached horribly; his brain was on fire; his heart, which had been fluttering faintly, gave a great leap, trying to force itself out at his mouth. His whole body was racked and wrenched with an insupportable anguish! But his disobedient hands gave no heed to the command. They beat the water vigorously with quick, downward strokes, forcing him to the surface. He felt his head emerge; his eyes were blinded by the sunlight; his chest expanded convulsively, and with a supreme and crowning agony his lungs engulfed a great draught of air, which instantly he expelled in a shriek!
He was now in full possession of his physical senses. They were, indeed, preternaturally keen and alert. Something in the awful disturbance of his organic system had so exalted and refined them that they made record of things never before perceived. He felt the ripples upon his face and heard their separate sounds as they struck. He looked at the forest on the bank of the stream, saw the individual trees, the leaves and the veining of each leaf--saw the very insects upon them: the locusts, the brilliant-bodied flies, the grey spiders stretching their webs from twig to twig. He noted the prismatic colors in all the dewdrops upon a million blades of grass. The humming of the gnats that danced above the eddies of the stream, the beating of the dragon flies' wings, the strokes of the water-spiders' legs, like oars which had lifted their boat--all these made audible music. A fish slid along beneath his eyes and he heard the rush of its body parting the water.
He had come to the surface facing down the stream; in a moment the visible world seemed to wheel slowly round, himself the pivotal point, and he saw the bridge, the fort, the soldiers upon the bridge, the captain, the sergeant, the two privates, his executioners. They were in silhouette against the blue sky. They shouted and gesticulated, pointing at him. The captain had drawn his pistol, but did not fire; the others were unarmed. Their movements were grotesque and horrible, their forms gigantic.
Suddenly he heard a sharp report and something struck the water smartly within a few inches of his head, spattering his face with spray. He heard a second report, and saw one of the sentinels with his rifle at his shoulder, a light cloud of blue smoke rising from the muzzle. The man in the water saw the eye of the man on the bridge gazing into his own through the sights of the rifle. He observed that it was a grey eye and remembered having read that grey eyes were keenest, and that all famous marksmen had them. Nevertheless, this one had missed.
A counter-swirl had caught Farquhar and turned him half round; he was again looking into the forest on the bank opposite the fort. The sound of a clear, high voice in a monotonous singsong now rang out behind him and came across the water with a distinctness that pierced and subdued all other sounds, even the beating of the ripples in his ears. Although no soldier, he had frequented camps enough to know the dread significance of that deliberate, drawling, aspirated chant; the lieutenant on shore was taking a part in the morning's work. How coldly and pitilessly--with what an even, calm intonation, presaging, and enforcing tranquillity in the men--with what accurately measured intervals fell those cruel words:
"Attention, company! . . Shoulder arms! . . . Ready! . . . Aim! . . . Fire!"
Farquhar dived--dived as deeply as he could. The water roared in his ears like the voice of Niagara, yet he heard the dulled thunder of the volley and, rising again toward the surface, met shining bits of metal, singularly flattened, oscillating slowly downward. Some of them touched him on the face and hands, then fell away, continuing their descent. One lodged between his collar and neck; it was uncomfortably warm and he snatched it out.
As he rose to the surface, gasping for breath, he saw that he had been a long time under water; he was perceptibly farther down stream nearer to safety. The soldiers had almost finished reloading; the metal ramrods flashed all at once in the sunshine as they were drawn from the barrels, turned in the air, and thrust into their sockets. The two sentinels fired again, independently and ineffectually.
The hunted man saw all this over his shoulder; he was now swimming vigorously with the current. His brain was as energetic as his arms and legs; he thought with the rapidity of lightning.
The officer," he reasoned, "will not make that martinet's error a second time. It is as easy to dodge a volley as a single shot. He has probably already given the command to fire at will. God help me, I cannot dodge them all!"
An appalling splash within two yards of him was followed by a loud, rushing sound, diminuendo, which seemed to travel back through the air to the fort and died in an explosion which stirred the very river to its deeps!
A rising sheet of water curved over him, fell down upon him, blinded him, strangled him! The cannon had taken a hand in the game. As he shook his head free from the commotion of the smitten water he heard the deflected shot humming through the air ahead, and in an instant it was cracking and smashing the branches in the forest beyond.
"They will not do that again," he thought; "the next time they will use a charge of grape. I must keep my eye upon the gun; the smoke will apprise me--the report arrives too late; it lags behind the missile. That is a good gun."
Suddenly he felt himself whirled round and round--spinning like a top. The water, the banks, the forests, the now distant bridge, fort and men--all were commingled and blurred. Objects were represented by their colors only; circular horizontal streaks of color--that was all he saw. He had been caught in a vortex and was being whirled on with a velocity of advance and gyration that made him giddy and sick. In a few moments he was flung upon the gravel at the foot of the left bank of the stream--the southern bank--and behind a projecting point which concealed him from his enemies. The sudden arrest of his motion, the abrasion of one of his hands on the gravel, restored him, and he wept with delight. He dug his fingers into the sand, threw it over himself in handfuls and audibly blessed it. It looked like diamonds, rubies, emeralds; he could think of nothing beautiful which it did not resemble. The trees upon the bank were giant garden plants; he noted a definite order in their arrangement, inhaled the fragrance of their blooms. A strange, roseate light shone through the spaces among their trunks and the wind made in their branches the music of olian harps. He had no wish to perfect his escape--was content to remain in that enchanting spot until retaken.
A whiz and rattle of grapeshot among the branches high above his head roused him from his dream. The baffled cannoneer had fired him a random farewell. He sprang to his feet, rushed up the sloping bank, and plunged into the forest.
All that day he traveled, laying his course by the rounding sun. The forest seemed interminable; nowhere did he discover a break in it, not even a woodman's road. He had not known that he lived in so wild a region. There was something uncanny in the revelation.
By nightfall he was fatigued, footsore, famishing. The thought of his wife and children urged him on. At last he found a road which led him in what he knew to be the right direction. It was as wide and straight as a city street, yet it seemed untraveled. No fields bordered it, no dwelling anywhere. Not so much as the barking of a dog suggested human habitation. The black bodies of the trees formed a straight wall on both sides, terminating on the horizon in a point, like a diagram in a lesson in perspective. Overhead, as he looked up through this rift in the wood, shone great garden stars looking unfamiliar and grouped in strange constellations. He was sure they were arranged in some order which had a secret and malign significance. The wood on either side was full of singular noises, among which--once, twice, and again--he distinctly heard whispers in an unknown tongue.
His neck was in pain and lifting his hand to it found it horribly swollen. He knew that it had a circle of black where the rope had bruised it. His eyes felt congested; he could no longer close them. His tongue was swollen with thirst; he relieved its fever by thrusting it forward from between his teeth into the cold air. How softly the turf had carpeted the untraveled avenue--he could no longer feel the roadway beneath his feet!
Doubtless, despite his suffering, he had fallen asleep while walking, for now he sees another scene--perhaps he has merely recovered from a delirium. He stands at the gate of his own home. All is as he left it, and all bright and beautiful in the morning sunshine. He must have traveled the entire night. As he pushes open the gate and passes up the wide white walk, he sees a flutter of female garments; his wife, looking fresh and cool and sweet, steps down from the veranda to meet him. At the bottom of the steps she stands waiting, with a smile of ineffable joy, an attitude of matchless grace and dignity. Ah, how beautiful she is! He springs forward with extended arms. As he is about to clasp her he feels a stunning blow upon the back of the neck; a blinding white light blazes all about him with a sound like the shock of a cannon--then all is darkness and silence!
Peyton Farquhar was dead; his body, with a broken neck, swung gently from side to side beneath the timbers of the Owl Creek bridge.
Maurice Kinane Eastward, from the coast of New Guinea, there lies a large island called, on the maps, New Britain, the native name of which is Berara. It is nearly three hundred miles in length and, in parts, almost sixty in width, and excepting the north-eastern portion, now settled by German colonists, is inhabited by a race of dangerous and treacherous cannibals, who are continually at war among themselves, for there are many hundred tribes living on the coast as well as in the interior. Although there have been white people living on the north-east coast for over thirty years--for there were adventurous American and English traders living in this wild island long before the natives ever saw a German--not one of them knew then, or knows now, much of the strange black tribes who dwell in the interior of the centre and western part of the island, save that they were then, as they are in this present year, always at enmity with the coast tribes, and are, like them, more or less addicted to cannibalism.
Sixty miles from the western end of the island is the mountainous land of German New Guinea; and sometimes, when the air is clear and the south-east trade wind blows, the savages on Berara can see across the deep, wide strait the grey loom of the great range that fringes the north-eastern coast of New Guinea for many hundred miles. Once, indeed, when the writer of this true story lived in New Britain, he saw this sight for a whole week, for there, in those beautiful islands, the air is very clear at certain seasons of the year.
From Matupi, where the principal settlement in New Britain is situated, to the deep bay at Kabaira, fifty miles away, the coast is very beautiful. And, indeed, no one who looks at the lovely grassy downs that here and there show through the groves of waving palm trees stretching from the beach away up to the rising land of the interior could think that such a fair country was the home of a deadly fever; and that in the waters of the bright limpid streams that ran gently down from the forest-clad hills to meet the blue waters of the Pacific there lurked disease and death to him who drank thereof.
At the time of my story (except for the adventurous American whalemen from Nantucket and New Bedford, and the sandal-wood cutters from New South Wales, who sometimes touched there) white men were unknown to the people of New Britain. Sometimes when the sperm-whaling fleet was cruising northwards and westward to the Moluccas, a ship would sail along the coast in the daytime, but always anchored at night, for it was dreaded for the many dangerous reefs that surround it. And once the anchor was down a strict watch was kept on board, for the natives were known to be fierce and treacherous.
Between where is now the German settlement and the great native town at Kabaira Bay there is an island called Mano, which stands five miles off from the mainland. Early one morning, when the wild people of the villages among the palm-groves which lined the long winding beach came out of their thatched huts for their morning bathe they gave a great cry, for a large full-rigged ship was standing in close under the lee of Mano, and clewing up her sails before she came to an anchor.
Now the natives who lived on the mainland of New Britain were the hereditary enemies of those who dwelt on Mano Island, and it was hateful for them to see a ship anchor there, for then the Mano Islanders would get axes and muskets and hoop-iron.
So, with Baringa, the chief, at their head, they all ran to the summit of a high, grassy hill (known, by reason of a terrible deed once done there in the olden times, as the Hill of Old Men's Groans), and sat down to watch if the ship would send her boats ashore.
'Look!' said Baringa, fiercely, striking the ground with his heavy jade-headed club, 'look, I see a boat putting out from the side. Who among ye will come with me to the ship, so that I may sell my turtle shell and pearl shell to the captain for muskets and powder and bullets? Are these dogs of Mano to get such things from the ship, and then come over here at night and slay and then cook us in their ovens? Hungry am I for revenge; for 'tis now twelve moons since they stole my son from me, and not one life have I had in return for his.'
But no one answered. Of what use was it, they thought, for Baringa to think of his little son? He was but a boy after all, and had long since gone down the throats of the men of Mano. Besides, the Mano people were very strong and already had many guns.
So for an hour Baringa sat and chafed and watched; and then suddenly he and those with him sprang up, for a sound like thunder came over to them, and a cloud of white smoke curled up from the ship's side; she had fired one of her big guns. Presently Baringa and his people saw that the boat which had gone ashore was pulling back fast, and that some of the crew who were sitting in the stern were firing their muskets at the Mano people, who were pursuing the boat in six canoes. Twice again the ship fired a big gun, and then the boat was safe, for the two twenty-four pounders, loaded with grape-shot, smashed two of them to pieces when they were less than a hundred yards from the ship.
Baringa shouted with savage joy. 'Come,' he cried, 'let us hasten to the beach, and get quickly to the ship in our canoes; for now that the white men have fought with these Mano dogs, the ship will come here to us and anchor; for I, Baringa, am known to many white men.'
* * * * *
The name of the ship was the Boadicea. She was of about seven hundred tons, and was bound to China from Port Jackson, but for four months had remained among the islands of the New Hebrides group, where the crew had been cutting sandal-wood, which in those days was very plentiful there. Her captain, who was a very skilful navigator, instead of going through Torres Straits, had sailed between New Ireland and New Britain, so that he might learn the truth of some tales he had heard about the richness of those islands in sandal-wood and pearl shell. So he had cruised slowly along till he sighted Mano Island, and here he decided to water the ship; for from the deck was visible a fine stream of water, running from the forest-clad mountains down to the white sands of the quiet beach.
As soon as possible a boat was lowered and manned and armed; for although he could not see a native anywhere on the beach, nor any signs of human occupation elsewhere on the island, the captain was a very cautious man. A little further back from the beach was a very dense grove of coco-nut trees laden with fruit, and at these the crew of the Boadicea looked with longing eyes.
'We must water the ship first, my lads,' said Captain Williams, 'and then we'll spend the rest of the day among the coco-nut trees, and fill our boats with them.'
Just then as the bronze-faced captain was ascending to the poop from his cabin; a small barefooted boy came aft, and, touching his hat, said,--
'Av ye plaze, sor, won't ye let me go in the boat, sor?'
'Why, Maurice, my boy, there's quite enough of us going in her as it is,' said the captain, kindly, for the dirty-faced but bright-eyed Maurice Kinane was a favourite with everyone on board.
'Ah, but shure, sor,' pleaded the boy, 'av yer honour would just let me go, av it was only to pluck a blade av the foine green grass, and lave me face in the swate clane wather I'll be beholden--'
'Well, well, my lad, jump in then,' said Captain Williams, with a smile, and buckling his cutlass belt around his waist he sent the lad down the ladder before him and the boat pushed off.
* * * * *
Ten months before, this poor Irish lad, who was but thirteen years of age, had lost both his parents through the upsetting of a boat in Sydney Harbour. His father was a sergeant in the 77th Regiment, and had only arrived in the colony a few months previous to the accident, and the boy was left without a relative in the world. But the captain of his father's company and the other officers of the regiment were very kind to him, and the colonel said he would get him enlisted as a drummer.
And so for a time Maurice lived in the barracks under the care of Sergeant MacDougall, a crusty old warrior, who proved a hard master and made the boy's life anything but a happy one. And Maurice, though he was proud of the colonel's kind words and of serving with the regiment, fretted greatly at the harsh manner of the old sergeant.
One morning he was reported as missing. Little did those who looked for him all the next day think that the boy was far out at sea, for he had stowed away on board the Boadicea; and although Captain Williams was very angry with him when he was discovered and led aft, the lad's genial temper and bright, honest face soon won him over, as, indeed, it did everyone else on board.
For nearly an hour after the boat had landed at the mouth of the little stream the seamen were busily-engaged in filling the water casks. Not a sign of a native could be seen, and then, regardful of the longing looks that the sailors cast at the grove of coco-nuts, the captain, taking with him Maurice and four hands, set out along the beach for the purpose of gathering a few score of the young nuts to give to his men to drink.
One of the four seamen was a Kanaka named 'Tommy Sandwich.' He was a native of Sandwich or Vaté Island in the New Hebrides. In a very short time this man had ascended a lofty palm-tree, and was throwing down the coco-nuts to the others, who for some minutes were busily engaged tying them together to carry them to the boat.
'That will do, Tommy,' cried the captain, presently. 'Come down now and help the others to carry.' He did not see that Maurice, boy-like and adventurous, had managed to ascend a less lofty tree some little distance away, out of sight of his shipmates, and at that moment was already ensconced in the leafy crown, gazing with rapture at the lovely scene that lay before him.
It took the men but another ten minutes to tie up the coco-nuts into bunches of ten, and then each of them drank copiously of the sweet milk of half a dozen which Tommy had husked for them.
'Come, lads,' said Captain Williams, 'back to the boat now. By-and-by--'
A dreadful chorus of savage yells interrupted him, and he and the men seized their muskets and sprang to their feet. The sounds seemed to come from where the boat was watering; in a few seconds more four musket shots rang out.
'Run, run for your lives,' cried the captain, drawing his pistol. 'The savages are attacking the boat.' And the seamen, throwing down the coco-nuts, rushed out of the palm grove to rescue their shipmates.
They were only just in time, for the banks of the little stream were covered with naked savages, who had sprung out of the thick undergrowth upon the watering party, and ere the boat could be pushed off two of the poor sailors had been savagely slaughtered. Fortunately for the captain and his party, they were nearer to the boat, when they made their appearance, than were the natives, and, plunging into the water, and holding their muskets over their heads, they reached her in safety, and at once opened fire, whilst the rest of the crew bent to the oars.
But the danger was not yet over, for as soon as the boat was out of reach of the showers of spears sent at her from the shore, a number of canoes appeared round a bend of the mountainous coast. They had evidently been sent to cut off the white men's retreat. And then began the race for life to the ship which had been witnessed by Baringa and his people from the mainland.
Maurice, from his tree, had heard the yells of the savages and the gunshots, and was about to descend and follow the captain and his shipmates, when he heard a rush of bodies through the palm grove, and saw beneath him forty or fifty natives, all armed with clubs and spears. They were a horrible-looking lot, for they were quite naked and the lips of all were stained a deep red from the juice of the betel-nut, and their dull reddish-brown bodies were daubed over with yellow and white stripes. This party had perhaps meant to surprise the captain and his men as they were getting the coco-nuts, for, finding them gone, they at once rushed out of the grove in pursuit. Fortunately for Maurice they were too excited to think of looking about them, else his end would have come very quickly.
For nearly ten minutes the lad remained quiet, listening to the sounds of the fighting, and in fearful doubt as to his best course of action--whether to make a bold dash and try to find his way to the boat, or remain in the tree till a rescue party was sent from the ship. Suddenly the thundering report of one of the ship's guns made him peer seaward through the branches of his retreat; and there, to his delight, he caught a brief view of the boat. Again the report of another gun pealed out, and a wild screaming cry from the natives told him that the shot had done some execution.
'I must get out of this,' he thought, 'and make a bolt along the beach in the other direction, till I get into the hills. I can see better from there, and perhaps make a signal to the ship.' Maurice got quietly down from the tree, and after looking cautiously about him, was about to set off at a run, when he found himself face to face with a young native boy, who, running quickly forward, grasped him by the hands, and began to talk volubly, at the same time trying to drag him towards the beach. The boy, save for a girdle of ti leaves, was naked, and Maurice, anxious and alarmed as he was for his own safety, could not but notice that the young savage seemed terribly excited.
'Let me go, ye black naygur,' said Maurice, freeing his hands and striking him in the chest.
In an instant the native boy fell upon his knees, and held up his hands, palms outward, in a supplicating gesture.
Puzzled at this, but still dreading treachery, Maurice turned away and again sought to make his way to the hills; but again the boy caught his hands, and with gentle force, and eyes filled with tears, tried to push or lead him to the beach. At last, apparently as if in despair of making the white lad understand him by words, he made signs of deadly combat, and ended by pointing over to where the boat had been attacked. Then, touching Maurice on the chest, and then himself, he pointed to the sea, and lying on the ground worked his arms and legs as if swimming.
'Sure, perhaps he's a friend,' thought Maurice, 'an' wants me to swim off to the ship. But perhaps he's a thraitor and only manes to entice me away to be murdered. Anyway, it's not much of a choice I've got at all. So come on, blackamoor, I'm wid ye.'
Although not understanding a word that Maurice said, the native boy smiled when he saw that the white lad was willing to come with him at last. Then, hand-in-hand, they ran quietly along till they reached the beach; and here the native, motioning Maurice to keep out of view, crept on his hands and knees till he reached a rock, and then slowly raised his head above it and peered cautiously ahead.
Whatever it was he saw evidently satisfied him, for he crawled back to Maurice, and again taking his hand broke into a run, but instead of going in the direction of the river, he led the way along the beach in the opposite direction. Feeling confident now that he had found a friend, Maurice's spirits began to rise, and he went along with the boy unhesitatingly.
At last they rounded a sandy point, covered with a dense growth of coco-nut trees and pandanus palms; this point formed the southern horn of a small deep bay, in the centre of which stood an island, warded by a snow-white beach, and on the nearmost shore Maurice saw a canoe drawn up.
The island beach was quite three hundred yards away, but Maurice was a good swimmer, and although he shuddered at the thought of sharks, he plunged in the water after his dark-skinned companion and soon reached the islet, which was but a tiny spot, containing some two or three score of coco-palms, and three untenanted native huts. It was used by the natives as a fishing station, and the canoe, which was a very small one, had evidently been in use that day. Close by were the marks in the sand where a larger one had been carried down. In one of the huts smoke was arising from a native ground-oven, which showed that the fishermen had not long gone; doubtless they would return when the food was cooked, for the native boy pointed out the oven to Maurice with a look of alarm.
The two boys soon launched the canoe, and each seizing a paddle, at once struck out in the direction of the ship. The native lad sat aft, Maurice for'ard, and clumsy as was the latter with the long and narrow canoe paddle, he yet managed to keep his seat and not capsize the frail little craft.
'Hurroo!' cried foolish Maurice, turning to his companion, 'we're all right now, I'm thinkin'. There's the ship!'
There she was sure enough, and there also were four canoes, paddling along close in-shore, returning from their chase of the captain's boat. They heard Maurice's loud shout of triumph, at once altered their course, and sped swiftly towards the two boys.
* * * * *
Scarcely had Captain Williams and his exhausted crew gained the ship when the mate reported that a fleet of canoes was coming across from the mainland of New Britain, and orders were at once given to load the ship's eight guns with grape and canister. (In those days of Chinese and Malay pirates and dangerous natives of the South Seas, all merchants ships, particularly those engaged in the sandal-wood trade, were well armed, and almost man-of-war discipline observed.)
'We'll give them something to remember us by, Hodgson,' said Captain Williams, grimly. 'That poor lad! To think I never noticed he was not in the boat till too late! I expect he's murdered by now; but I shall take a bloody vengeance for the poor boy's death. Serve out some grog to the hands, steward; and some of you fellows stand by with some shot to dump into the canoes if we should miss them with the guns and they get alongside.'
But just as he spoke the mate called out, 'The canoes have stopped paddling, sir, all except one, which is coming right on.'
'All right, I see it. Let them come and have a look at us. As soon as it gets close enough, I'll sink it.'
For some minutes the canoe, which contained seven men, continued to advance with great swiftness; then she ceased paddling, and the steersman stood up and called out something to the ship, just as she was well covered by two of the guns on the port side. In another minute she would have been blown out of the water, when Tommy Sandwich ran aft and said,--
'I think, cap'n, that fellow he no want fight ship; I think he want talk you.'
'Perhaps so, Tommy; so we'll let him come a bit closer.'
Again the native paddles sent the canoe inward till she was well within easy hailing distance of the ship, and the same native again stood up and called out,--
'Hi, cap'n. No you shoot me. Me Baringa. Me like come 'board.'
'All right,' answered Captain Williams, 'come alongside.'
The moment the canoe ranged alongside, Baringa clambered up the side, and advanced fearlessly toward the poop. 'Where cap'n?' he asked, pushing unceremoniously aside those who stood in his way; and mounting the ladder at the break of the poop he walked up to the master of the Boadicea and held out his hand.
In a very short time, by the aid of Tommy Sandwich, whose language was allied to that of the natives of New Britain, Captain Williams learnt how matters stood. His visitor was anxious to help him, and volunteered to join the white man in an attack on the treacherous people of Mano, though he gave but little hope of their finding Maurice alive. They had, he said, stolen his own son twelve months before, and eaten him, and he wanted his revenge. Presently, as a proof of his integrity, he produced from a dirty leather cartridge pouch, Chatroulettethat was strapped around his waist, a soiled piece of paper, and handed it to the captain. It read as follows:--
'The bearer, Baringa, is the chief of Kabaira Coast. He is a thorough old cannibal, but, as far as I know, may be trusted by white men. He supplied my ship with fresh provisions, and seems a friendly old cut-throat.
'Master, ship Algerine of New Bedford.
'October 2 st, 1839.'
'Well, that's satisfactory,' said Captain Williams, turning to Tommy. 'Tell him that I am going to land and try and find Maurice, and he can help me with his people. Mr Hodgson, man and arm the boats again.'
In a moment all was bustle and excitement, in the midst of which a loud 'hurrah' came from aloft from a sailor who was on the fore-yard watching the remaining canoes of Baringa's fleet. 'Hurrah! Here's Maurice, sir, coming off in a canoe with a nigger, an' a lot of other niggers in four canoes a-chasin' him.'
Springing to the taffrail, Captain Williams saw the canoe, which had just rounded the point and was now well in view. The two boys were paddling for their lives; behind them were the four canoes filled with yelling savages.
'Into the boats, men, for God's sake!' roared the captain. Had a greater distance separated Maurice from his pursuers the master of the Boadicea would have endeavoured to have sunk the four canoes with the ship's guns; but the risk was too great to attempt it as they were. However, the gunner and carpenter were sent into the fore-top to try and pick off some of the natives by firing over Maurice's canoe.
Five minutes later the ship's three boats were pulling swiftly to the rescue, and Baringa, jumping into his own canoe, beckoned to the rest of his flotilla to follow him, and six natives urged the light craft furiously along after the boats.
On, on, came the two poor boys, straining every nerve; but every moment their pursuers gained on them; and on, on dashed the heavy, cumbersome boats. Free Classified adsAlready the nearest canoe was within fifty feet of Maurice and his black friend, the savage paddlers undaunted by the fire from the muskets of the gunner and carpenter, when Captain Williams saw a native rise up and hurl a club at the two boys. Quick as lightning the captain picked up his musket and fired, and the savage fell forward with a bullet through his chest. But quick as he was he was too late, for the club whizzed through the air and struck the native boy on his right arm.
A savage yell of triumph came from the pursuing canoes as their occupants saw the boy go down and the canoe broach-to, and then the leading canoe dashed up alongside that of Maurice and his companion.
'Pull, men, pull, for God's sake!' cried the captain, frantically, as he saw the Irish lad, paddle in hand, standing up over the body of the fallen boy, and strike wildly at his murderous pursuers.
With heaving bosoms and set teeth the seamen urged the boats along, and they and the four canoes crashed together in deadly conflict. But as they met, a huge savage stood up and, poising a spear, darted it at the prone figure of the native boy; it did not reach him, for Maurice, wounded and bleeding as he was with a spear wound through his thigh, flung himself in front of the weapon to save his friend. It struck him in the shoulder and came out a full foot at his back.
'You dog,' said Williams, raising his pistol, and the native went down with a crash.
And then ensued a scene of slaughter, as the seamen of the Boadicea got to work with their cutlasses. It did not take long to end the fight, and not one of the Mano men escaped, for now Baringa's canoes had come up, and with their heavy jade clubs dashed out the brains of those of their enemies who sought to swim ashore. It was in truth a hideous sight, and even the hardy sailors shuddered when they saw the merciless manner in which wounded and dying men were massacred by their naked allies.
As quickly as possible, the two boys were lifted out of the little canoe and placed in the captain's boat, where their wounds were examined. The native boy's arm was broken, and his back badly hurt, but he was quite conscious. As for Maurice, he was in a bad state, and Captain Williams decided not to pull out the spear till the ship was reached.
Just as he had given orders to pull for the ship, Baringa's canoe returned from the slaughter of the remaining fugitives, and drew up alongside the captain's boat, and the moment the chief saw the native boy lying in the stern sheets of the boat he sprang out of the canoe and embraced him.
'It is my boy, my Lokolol--he whom I thought was dead.'
Little remains to be told. The two boys were carefully attended to as soon as they reached the ship, and to the joy of everyone the spear, when extracted from Maurice's body, was pronounced by Baringa not to be a poisoned one. As for Lokolol, the chief's son, his arm was put in splints, but during the time that was occupied in doing this his hand was clasped around that of the brave young sailor lad who had saved his life, and his big, black eyes never left Maurice's pallid face.
For three days the Boadicea remained at anchor opposite the village--she had sailed there the morning after the fight--and the chief showed his gratitude by every possible means. On the morning of the day on which the ship sailed he came on board, attended by thirty canoes, every one of which was laden deep down with pearl shell. It was passed up on deck, and stacked in a heap, and then Baringa asked for the captain and the white boy who had saved his son. Beside him stood Lokolol, his arm in a sling, and tears running down his cheeks, for he knew he would see Maurice no more.
Then Captain Williams came on deck and showed the chief the little cabin boy, lying in a hammock under the poop awning. The burly savage came over to him, and taking Maurice's hand in his, placed it tenderly upon his huge, hairy bosom in token of gratitude. Then he spoke to the captain through Tommy Sandwich.
'Tell this good captain that I, Baringa, am for ever the white man's friend. And tell him, too, that all this pearl shell here is my gift to him and the boy who helped my son to escape from captivity. Half is for the good captain; half is for the brave white boy.'
Then, after remaining on board till the ship was many miles away from the land, the chief and his son bade the wounded boy farewell and went back to the shore.
Maurice soon recovered, and when the Boadicea arrived at Hong Kong, and Captain Williams had sold the pearl shell, he said to his cabin boy,--
'Maurice, my lad, I've sold the pearl shell, and what do you think I've been paid for it? Well, just eight thousand dollars--£1600 in English money. You're quite a rich boy now, Maurice. It's not every lad that gets four thousand dollars for saving a nigger's life.'
Maurice's bright blue eyes filled with honest tears. 'Shure, sor, he was a naygur, thrue enough. But thin, yere honour, he had a foine bould heart to do what he did for Maurice Kinane.'
And, as I have said, this is a true story, and old Maurice Kinane, who is alive now, himself told it to me.