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Chapter XIX. Preparations for the Fight.

THE sentry's announcement of the brig being in motion at once turned the attention of all parties from Mr. Silliman's disaster to the business of the day. The few light clouds which were floating over their heads had already made them aware that the wind had changed, and that unless the boats arrived in time, there was little hope of their being able to prevent the escape of the brig from the bay.

The cheering light of dawn now enabled the major and his daughters to take a better survey of the spot which had formed their first resting-place on the shores of their adopted country; and although the southern and western coasts are

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remarkable for their general rugged and barren appearance, the sheltered nook in which they found themselves presented some of the most pleasing features of the country: and the more so from its contrast with the bare hills and sterile character of the country beyond.

The girls felt the influence of the scene; and had it not been for the expedition of danger on which their father and Mr. Trevor were intent, they would have keenly enjoyed the change from the boisterous storm at sea of the preceding day to the present tranquil scenery of their encampment.

The morning was clear and bright. The cold southern gale, which had driven the shattered brig into the land-locked bay, had been succeeded by a gentle air from the warm north; and the rising sun gave promise of one of those genial spring days in September, which delight so much with their enlivening freshness in Van Diemen's Land.

The melodious note of the native magpie was heard welcoming the dawn, A flock of white cockatoos from a neighbouring gum tree surveyed the

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strangers with curious eyes, as they elevated their yellow crests and chattered among themselves, without betraying the slightest alarm at the presence of their enemy—Man. Mr. Silliman wanted to have a shot at them; but the sisters prayed him to desist, and with some reluctance he obeyed; for with the true instinct of a Cockney, he wanted to fire at everything he saw, without caring much what it was that he killed, so long, as he expressed it, he “brought 'em down.”

A kangaroo rat would now and then hop across the grass, and scurry away when Jerry tried to catch it by the tail; and the shy bandicoot would timidly poke its nose out of a bush to see what was going forward.

On the withered branch of a distant tree sat a pelican, gravely watching the waters of the bay, on which a group of black swans were disporting, unconscious of danger.

A pair of black cockatoos, in a thicket hard by, were busy building their nest. Numerous Rosina parrots, with their bright green plumage, and pink heads and throats, flew hither and thither;

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and Mr. Silliman horrified the gentle Louisa by informing her that, according to the information of his vulgar friend, the constable, they made excellent pies!

A pair of eagles, soaring in circlets close above their heads, gave indication that the nest of those kings of the air was somewhere near, as with discordant screechings they strove to scare away the intruders from their haunts; while the singular cry of the little bird, not inappropriately called by the colonists “the laughing jackass,” and which particularly attracted Mr. Silliman's attention, added variety to the sounds of the awakened bush.

These novel sights and sounds were little heeded, however, by Mr. Trevor and the major, who had other matters of more pressing import to attend to.

The one had to consider the best means of regaining possession of the vessel, in which nearly the whole of his property was embarked, and the loss of which would leave him almost a beggar in a strange land, where the worst of all conditions is that of a poor gentleman unskilled in

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mechanical employments and without capital; and the other was impressed with the serious responsibility that attached to him, as the official commander of the party, if, in spite of him, the convicts should succeed in effecting their escape with the brig from the island; and, in defiance of the measures taken by the colonial government, set the dangerous example of a successful piratical expedition for the imitation of the other convicts, too many of whom would be ready and eager to make similar attempts at plunder and escape.

He had plenty of force to cope with a much larger body of bushrangers than those on board the brig; but without the boats his men were useless, and many accidents might prevent the arrival of the boats in time; and in such case it was impossible to prevent the escape of the brig to the open sea, where pursuit would be difficult, and perhaps impossible. Under such circumstances, all he could do was to take the best means in his power to intercept the brig at the entrance of the bay, with a faint hope that by a lucky shot some important rope might be cut in two,

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which would lead to a confusion on board, of which he might be able to take advantage.

Having refreshed his men, therefore, and seen that nothing was deficient in their equipments, he marched them to a platform on a rock which commanded the passage.

As it was of importance to have as heavy a fire as possible directed against the sails and rigging of the vessel, he did not think it consistent with his duty to leave a single man behind; but as Mr. Silliman could hardly be considered in a condition fit for active service, he left him in charge of the cave, which was turned into a temporary fortress for the protection of Helen and Louisa, and, with the aid of some dead timber, scientifically disposed, it was deemed that the safety of the ladies was secured against any sudden attack of the natives, should any be lurking in the vicinity; an event, however, which was regarded as quite beyond all possibility.

Mr. Silliman therefore remained on guard, to his infinite satisfaction; and, stifling his feelings in respect to the ills which remained behind, the warlike Jerry placed his hand upon his chest,

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and assured the major that before any harm should happen to Miss Helen or to Miss Louisa, the savages should eat him, musket and all! Shouldering his weapon with martial energy, he gave the departing body a military salute by holding up his firelock in a style which was a very good imitation of that military courtesy as performed by the soldiers, and which, to judge from the smiling sign of approbation of their officer, and the grins of the men, seemed to afford to those professionals not less amusement than satisfaction. The scene, however, presently grew more serious.

The sails of the brig meanwhile became gently distended with the favourable breeze which had sprung up from the north with the rising sun; and it was observed by the major that a sort of screen had been erected aft on the starboard side of the vessel to protect the man at the wheel from the fire of a hostile party on shore. Saving this indication of the presence of a steersman, there was no sign of a living soul on board; the sails seemed to act without the direction of human agency, and the gallant brig glided slowly through

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the tranquil water as if by the power of its own volition.

“That bushranger,” said the major to the commander of the party, “neglects nothing; my principal hope was shooting down the man at the helm and taking our chance of the vessel being swayed against the wall of rock on either side; and now there is no hope of that, for so far as I can make out, he has raised an effectual bulwark between us and the wheel. Musket balls will be of no use against that mass of canvass and stuff that he has built up so ingeniously. What is become of the boats?”

“They are here,” said the ensign, as he pointed to the head of one of them which at that moment came in sight from behind the projecting cliff, and which was quickly followed by the second, the largest of the two; “and they are just in time, for in another half-hour the brig would have been out at sea! Now, major, what do you advise to be done?”

“We must try to board them at once, and without giving them time to prepare themselves; although I fear that crafty freebooter has not

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left anything undone for his defence; but we must try at any rate. Let the brig come up close enough to allow the fire of half of your men to take effect from the shore, which will clear their decks, and give the opportunity to the boats to get alongside without loss. That shall be my duty in the large boat, while my mate commands the other. Do you back me up with your party from the top of the rock, and keep up as brisk a fire as you can, and try to keep the rascals on board below till we get alongside.”

The boats were not long in coming within hail, and the plan of the major was immediately acted on; with the difference only, that Trevor insisted on going in one of them, as it was the service of danger leaving his sergeant in command of the remaining military on shore, with directions to support the movements of the boats by keeping up a sharp fire at all who appeared on the deck of the vessel.

In the mean time the brig advanced slowly on towards the entrance of the bay, where the boats were lying to intercept her.

The vigilant bushranger, however, who surveyed

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the preparations made for his reception with a cool and deliberate eye, was well aware that if he persisted in attempting to force his way out through the enemies who were assembled to greet him, the chances would be prodigiously against his success.

He had only six followers, making, with himself, seven in number; whereas the party in the boats could not be less, as he calculated, than twenty persons or more, many of whom, he could see, were soldiers; and besides, there was a party of a dozen soldiers at least on the top of the rock at the entrance, in a position to sweep his deck with their fire. Under these circumstances, it was clear that while his enemies remained together he was by far the weaker party. His game therefore was to entice the boats from the entrance of the passage, and if possible to divide them.

He was inclined at first to run the gauntlet and take his chance; but his usual habit of cool and cautious policy prevailed; and he judged it best to endeavour to gain time and wait for the breeze to freshen, which it seemed likely to do, and which would give him a better chance of

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baffling the boats and of shooting through the narrow entrance of the bay.

With this intent, he kept the vessel steadily on her course, the sails requiring no trimming, as the wind was nearly fair; but when he had advanced within a quarter of a mile of the boats he suddenly changed her course, and directed the head of the vessel towards the opposite side of the bay.

“Now for it!” called out the mate; “we have him now. Give way, boys!”

“Stop!” said the constable, standing up and addressing his commander, who was in the other boat; “don't be in too great a hurry; depend upon it, Mark Brandon has not made that movement for nothing: he has some design in it, I'll swear. You see, sir, so long as we stay here we are sure of him, for he can't pass us—he sees that—but if we go after him, we may not catch him, perhaps, and we shall leave the passage open.”

“You are right,” said the officer, who was by no means offended at the interference of the constable, who was an experienced hand, and bush expeditions always allowing liberty of speech and

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of advice to those qualified to give it; “but suppose the other runaway convicts that we have had notice of should come up and join the party on board the brig? They might be too strong for us then; or at any rate it would cost the loss of more life in the capturing of them.”

“That's true,” said the constable; “but all I say is this, that Mark Brandon has not made that move for nothing; he is up to some dodge, depend upon it.”

“I am inclined to think,” said the major; “that our surest plan is to wait for him here: if we leave our position we leave the passage free, and he might slip through before we could come up with him.”

“No, no, major,” said the mate, whose head was too clear not to see at once the best course to be pursued in a case requiring nautical skill and judgment; “it will never do to stick here: it's all very well so long as there is but little wind, because we can be on him before he can help himself; but if it was to come on to blow a stiffish breeze, d'ye see, he might bang through us, and run down one of the boats, perhaps, before

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we could be aboard of him. My advice is to go slap at him. Lord! we are enough to eat him; and with two boats he can't get away from us. There he goes about again: you see what he's after; he's manœuvring for the wind to get up, and then he'll pass us with a wet foresail, and leave us to grin at him!”

The harangue of the mate was received with a general hurrah by the sailors, who had their own wrongs to avenge, and the soldiers showed by the restless handling of their firelocks that they were not less pleased at the prospect of getting at the possessors of the brig; although the habit of military discipline prevented any outward expression of their inclination.

“Why,” continued the mate, “we can take them with one boat, and the other can remain here, to catch 'em, if they get away from us. If the major will say the word, I'll be bound to have the rascals under the hatches, with our own men, without troubling the soldiers.”

“I think that is a good plan, Mr. Trevor,” said the major; “sailors are best for boarding. But we will alter Mr. Northland's plan a little, this

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way. I will go with him and the blue-jackets in chase of the vessel; while you, with your own boat, can keep steadily on in a straight line, so as to intercept her either way, and then we shall be able to close with her fore and aft.”

This plan was instantly adopted, and an interchange of the men in the boats having been effected, the major, in command of the blue-jackets, having his trusty mate as his lieutenant, immediately started in pursuit.

These arrangements were not unobserved by those on board the brig. The dimensions of the bay being about five miles from the entrance, and three broad, it seemed impossible for the brig to escape one or the other of the boats, although the wind was most favourable for her manœuvres, as it blew directly from the north towards the open sea, and gave the advantage to the vessel to make tacks on her quickest point of sailing from one side of the bay to the other.

But this game the bushranger was aware could not last long, if both the boats did their duty, and his only chance of escape was to delude them into pursuing him to the bottom of the bay, from

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which the fair wind would enable him easily to emerge; and then, as he calculated, if the breeze would only freshen a bit, he should be able to distance the boats, and get out to sea. As to the party lying in ambush for him on the rock at the entrance, he cared very little for their opposition, as the worst that their musket balls could do would be to riddle his sails here and there; and if the wind kept up, he should soon be out of their reach.

But when he saw the systematic plan adopted by his enemies, he began to fear that for once he had met with his match, and that his fate, so far as the brig was concerned, was sealed. With these thoughts he turned his attention to the possibility of making his escape to the shore; but before he did that, he was resolved to try every possible means of getting the brig out of the bay, either by stratagem or force. An unexpected accession of strength seemed to favour most opportunely the latter plan.

The second body of convicts who had taken to the bush as the ensign had informed the constable when he first joined that party, and whose escape

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had caused the authorities at Hobart Town to despatch the auxiliary detachment of soldiers under an officer's command, had made their way to the southern part of the island, whither, the report was, Mark Brandon had led his followers.

They had formed part of a road gang stationed about six miles from Hobart Town, on the road beyond Sandy Bay, and were most of them characters of the worst description, having been returned from settlers' service up the country to government employ, on account of bad conduct and insubordination.

It was the monotonous work, the restricted indulgences, and the severe discipline to which they were subjected when working on the roads, that had prompted them to the desperate expedient of taking to the bush, to which they had been stimulated also by the report that was abroad of a brig having been telegraphed which had not come up the river, and which led them to surmise that its capture was the object of Brandon's flight, a man who was well known to all the prisoners as one whose cunning in difficulties and

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daring in danger was sufficient for the successful execution of almost any enterprise howsoever difficult.

By dint of forced marches, which nothing but the desire of liberty could have enabled them to sustain, the runaways had contrived to make their way to the southern part of the coast, and to reach the hill which overlooked the bay—and which was the same on which Mr. Silliman had performed the part of a native with such dramatic effect—by daylight, on the morning when the boats commenced their active hostilities against the brig.

For some time they were doubtful how matters stood, and which was the party of Mark Brandon—that in the boats, or in the brig; and they watched the proceedings of both parties with intense interest from their covert behind the crest of the hill. But when the brig neared that side of the bay where they were concealed, and the rising sun glancing on the polished firelocks revealed the presence of the military, they had no doubt of the presence of enemies in that quarter; the more especially as the ensign standing up in the

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boat betrayed in a moment by his dress and demeanour his soldierly character.

They could see only four or five figures on board the brig, which confirmed them in their belief that it was in the possession of Mark Brandon, who was reported to have taken to the bush with half a dozen followers. Fired with the prospect of escape which this state of things afforded to the runaway convicts, and seeing the disproportion of strength between the attacking party in the boats and the small number which they concluded to be on board the brig, they saw at once that if they could add their additional numbers to Mark Brandon's force they might be able to beat off the boats, and fight their way successfully to the open sea. A consultation was immediately held between them.

They found that all their party were in an efficient state, notwithstanding the fatigue of their forced march through the bush, which nothing but the fear of pursuit and the desperation of their condition could have enabled them to perform. They had among them one musket and five fowling-pieces, which they had contrived to

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purloin previous to their escape from camp, with a dozen axes. They had no doubt of finding more arms on board: once there, they felt sure of the result. But how to apprise Mark Brandon of the arrival of friends—that was the point?

It was proposed that one of them should endeavour to swim on board; but that experiment was rejected as too hazardous. Another suggested that a signal should be made to the brig from the shore; but that course it was feared was as likely to attract the observation of the boats as of the vessel, and then their project would be defeated: besides, how was Mark to know from whom the signal proceeded—from friends or foes?

The attempt of communicating with the brig might have been altogether baffled if one rogue more ingenious than the rest, who had been a long time in the colony, and was well acquainted with bush expedients, had not thought of making a bark canoe after the manner of the natives, which would enable one of them to get afloat and reach the vessel. This idea was unanimously approved, and half a dozen immediately repaired to a cluster of stringy-bark trees, which were

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observed about a quarter of a mile off, in a hollow, sheltered from the cold and boisterous south winds.

One of them being mounted on the shoulders of the rest, cut the bark horizontally all round, while the same operation was performed below; then slitting the bark in a vertical direction from top to bottom of each cut, they peeled the bark from the tree, which came off in a single piece, about ten feet long. Gathering up the two ends, they tied them firmly with such materials as they had about them, at either end, so as to prevent the admission of water, and the machine then presented the appearance of a long and narrow canoe, in which two men could sit easily, but which, from its shape and frail manufacture, was liable to overturn, or to split at the slightest impediment.

The man who had suggested the expedient volunteered to make his way on board, and “whether he was drowned or whether he was shot,” he said, “made little odds, for he was tired of his life of slavery, and he would as lieve die as live any longer in such a wretched state.”

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Two branches were cut down and shaped as well as the hurry and circumstances permitted, to serve as paddles, and the man putting the canoe on his shoulder and taking the paddles under his arm, went stealthily down to the edge of the water. Having launched his canoe, and crept into it carefully without his shoes, to prevent its upsetting, he balanced himself in a sitting posture in the centre, and by the aid of his paddles propelled his light bark over the water in the direction of the brig.