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Chapter XX. The Bushranger's New Stratagem.

THE canoe lay so low in the water, and the two boats were so intent on the movements of the brig, and the brig of them, that it entirely escaped the notice of both parties; but as it was directly in the course of the vessel, the man on the look-out forward presently sung out to the bushranger, who was aft attending to the steering of the vessel, that “there was a canoe right ahead with a man in it.”

Brandon had scarcely time to put the helm hard up before the brig was close upon the frail machine, and at the same moment the man in the canoe recognising a fellow-prisoner on board, called to him by name. His comrade without

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hesitation threw a rope to him, which its occupant instantly securing round his body, he was pulled out of his canoe and dragged for a few moments astern as the vessel continued her course.

When he was hauled up on board he quickly explained to Brandon that there were eight-and-twenty of them ashore, some with fire-arms, and all with weapons of some sort or other ready to join them, and to take their chance on board the brig.

Mark, who was as quick as a bandicoot and as cunning as a platyplus in perceiving and avoiding danger, was not less ready to take advantage of all opportunities in his own favour without regard to the interests or safety of those whom he made use of for his purposes. Despairing of making his way out by force, but seeing at once the advantage of making a diversion so as to draw off one of the boats from the pursuit of the vessel, he pretended to hail the news of such an accession of strength with delight, and proposed that the messenger should without delay assemble all his comrades on the beach, from which the brig would manage to take them off by means of ropes and

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other contrivances, which he would invent by the time they were ready to avail themselves of them.

To this effect he kept on his course towards the land till he had arrived within less than a quarter of a mile of the beach, and then urging the messenger to do his best in swimming on shore, he dropped him into the water, and turning the vessel's head round on the other tack, shot over to the further side of the bay.

The hoisting of the man on board from the canoe which had been just visible on the surface of the water, but which had turned over with the jerk of his being pulled out of it, and was no longer to be seen, was not unobserved by the vigilant mate, who was standing up in the boat, and who was at a loss to comprehend the meaning of it; and which was rendered more puzzling by the vessel running the needless risk, as it appeared to him, of keeping so close in-shore.

He kept his eye on the spot, and, shortly, he saw a something which he presently made out to be a man emerge from the water, and make his way rapidly up the slope of the bare hill. Struck with this circumstance, he bade the men lay on

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their oars a moment while he pointed out the object to the major.

“What can be the meaning of that?” said the major: “that's a man making his way up that hill as plain as can be; but whether it is a native or not, is more than I can tell.”

“Whatever it is,” said the mate, “I saw him come out of the water in that direction, and he must have come out of the brig; where else could he come from?”

“There he goes,” said the constable: “now he has disappeared over the top of the hill. What the deuce is the meaning of this? Some new dodge of Mark's. Depend upon it, whatever Mark does he has a reason for it; but what his game is in sending that chap over the hill beats my guessing.”

“Can it be to see what we have done with the girls at our fortress?” asked the major of the mate, with some anxiety—natural under the circumstances. “There is only that poor fellow Silliman to protect them.”

“No fear of harm there,” said the constable; “if the young ladies' sentinel only keeps himself

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close, and shows the muzzle of his musket through the barricade at the cave's mouth, no single man will venture to attack him; but after all, the man's leaving the vessel in that way means something. Mark is as full of tricks as a hunted fox: but what this new move is, is more than I can tell."

"Never mind," exclaimed the mate; “don't lose time in guessing; our business is to get possession of the brig, and have her we must; for you see we are regularly chasing her into a corner, and we must bring her to close quarters at last, and then we will at her, and hurrah for the first in! Now, my men, give way.”

"Stay,” said the constable; “keep the boat steady a moment longer. I see a body of men coming over the hill; there are twenty or thirty of them. What's the game now?”

“I see them,” said the mate; “and look! the brig has gone about to meet them. Hulloa! we shall have a spree by-and-by! If those chaps are Mark Brandon's friends, and they get aboard the brig, we shall have more work to do than we reckoned on. And here comes the soldiers' boat,

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pulling with all their might: hold hard, my sons: the soldier officer, I suppose, wants to speak to us.”

“Have you observed that body of men?” said the ensign eagerly to the major as his boat came up alongside. “From all appearances they are friends of those on board, and I have no doubt that they are the other body of prisoners escaped from camp. If they join those who are on board they may prove too strong for us: I have counted nearly thirty of them.”

“Bless your heart!” said the mate, “they will make no difference; it's only a little more fighting, and it's all in the day's work! Why, such fellows as those can do nothing when it comes to downright hard knocks. We can take 'em easy. Hulloa! what's that lubberly bushranger doing with the brig, knocking her about that way! Going about again—what's that for? Is n't he going to take the other fellows on board? No: he's about again. Major, we are only losing time; we had better make way and join him in the bottom of the bay; we must have him then.”

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“Those fellows on shore,” said the major, “may be making their way to our fortress. Don't you think your party on the rock would be well employed in making head against them before they do mischief?”

The ensign eagerly caught at the suggestion. There was no knowing what outrage a band of desperate miscreants might commit on defenceless women. Their only protection at present was Mr. Silliman; and the party of soldiers on the rock was at least half a mile from the fortress,—a long distance, as he had already learned, in the pathless bush.

“I will make my way back to the rock,” he said, “and direct the sergeant to march his men against this new body of marauders. If it be done promptly, it may have the effect of preventing their junction with their friends on board the brig.”

“Do so,” said the major: “we will lay on our oars till you come back; and then as the brig cannot escape us now, we will attack her in concert, and bring this affair to a conclusion. The sight of the two boats together may perhaps frighten the

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rascals, and cause them to surrender without bloodshed.”

“Not he,” said the constable, as the ensign's boat left them. “If you think Mark Brandon will let himself be taken without fighting, you are mistaken, I can tell you that. Mark will have a tussle for it, depend upon it; but I think we have him at last. I don't know, though; he has so many schemes in his head—has that man—that you never know when you have got him and when you haven't. After all I should not be surprised if he was to slip through our fingers—sure as we are of him.”

“Never fear,” said the mate, rubbing his hands impatiently, “I only wish I was as sure of the command of an East Indiaman as I am of grabbing that rascal. I wouldn't give up my chance for … See! the fellows on the beach are going back; and now the brig goes about again. Ha! they see it; and now they are coming down to the beach again. What is all that backing and filling for? Is the brig going to take them on board or not?”

“That's more than any of us can tell,” said the

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constable; “nobody knows Mark's plans but himself: but depend on it, whatever he does, is done with a reason. He is watching us now, and knows what we are about as well as we do ourselves, I'll be bound. He has seen the ensign's boat join us, and go away again towards the rock where the other party of soldiers is, and I'll swear that he knows at this minute what it's for. But why he waits for the soldiers to attack his fellow-prisoners on the beach is more than I can tell. You might as well try to fathom the middle of the sea as Mark's deepness.”

“Our friend Trevor has reached the rock,” said the major; “I see the men saluting. Now he is giving his orders; now they move on. That's right, double quick time my men. Now—I lose sight of them;—I see; they are going to take the rascals behind, and hem them in between themselves and the sea. Only twelve file, though. However, they are soldiers, and the others are ragamuffins; so there's force enough; and they can fire three times for the others' once. Here comes Trevor, again. Now, my boys, we shall wait no longer; the brig can't escape us. We

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will board her while the red coats engage her attention in another way. Hard case this, Northland, to be obliged to take our own vessel again by force of arms.”

“Force of arms!” said the mate disdainfully, and with a contemptuous motion of his hand towards the brig; “force of a fiddlestick! Those fellows will never stand us; we have only to show ourselves on board. And suppose they do fight?—all the better. I'm blest,” said he, with a jovial grin at his brother blue-jackets, “if we arn't all of us getting rusty for want of a scrimmage! Hurrah! here's the red-coats! Now, major, I suppose we may be moving?”

The breeze from the north in the mean time had freshened considerably, and it threatened to blow hard, so that the advantage on the side of the brig was considerably increased, and she made her way so rapidly through the water as to give hope to the Bushranger that he should be able to baffle his enemies by her speed of sailing. The boats however neared him every minute, and he made up his mind to make a dash through them with the fair wind which he had in his favour—

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when one of those changes occurred, so frequent at that season of the year. The wind suddenly lulled; the boats set up a cheer, and pulled vigorously to their mark. They were within half a mile of the brig when a blast of air from the high hills on the other side of the bay suddenly filled her sails, and she again shot through the water.

At this time the party of convicts on shore had caught sight of the soldiers coming down upon them over the bare hills, and they hastily retreated, keeping within reach however of the margin of the bay, in the hope of being taken on board the brig.

But the wind now began to blow from all quarters of the heavens, and it was impossible for the brig's crew to lend their assistance to those on shore, even had they been willing; and as Brandon had accomplished his object in making use of them for the purpose of the diversion which he desired, and had succeeded in drawing away the party of soldiers which had been stationed on the rock at the entrance of the passage, he would have had no objection to receive

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them on board had the opportunity been afforded to him. But it was too late; it was as much as he could do to attend to the sails and steering of the brig, feebly assisted as he was by his companions, unused as they were to manœuvring a vessel.

In the mean time the retreat of the convicts on shore had drawn the sergeant's party round the bay to the further side, and a few shots were faintly heard, indicating that the fray was becoming serious in that quarter.

The elements also seemed to be mustering up their strength, and a squall from the south-east twisting round the brig, drove her furiously, and before those on board could trim the sails or avoid the danger, to the bottom of the bay. There was a low sandy shoal stretching from the shore far into the water, towards which the brig was propelled rapidly. There was no help for it. The bushranger saw that all exertion was vain; all hope of escaping by the brig was lost.

Making up his mind on the instant, with the rapid decision for which he was so remarkable, and which in an honest course of life might have

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raised him to high fortune and distinction, he summoned up all his energy to bear the bitter disappointment with fortitude. He knew that if he allowed his mind to be depressed by the failure, his ideas would become clouded and his invention blunted, so as to lessen his chance of escape from the imminent danger which now hung over him.

In a very few minutes he had formed in his head a new scheme, by which he calculated he might make terms for himself in case of extremity; and in any event, he considered he could take to the bush, and wait for another chance, though he did not disguise from himself that taking to the bush was a desperate expedient, and to be had recourse to only in case of the failure of all other means of safety. He had no sooner made up his mind as to the best thing to be done under the circumstances than he set about its execution.

He immediately collected in the cabin, which at the moment was the place most easily got at, all the combustibles that he could readily heap together, which, with the assistance of his companions,

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was quickly done, and he then disposed it so as to be readily fired, taking care that the materials were so placed as to make as large a blaze as possible. The sight of the brig on fire he calculated would cause his pursuers to occupy themselves in the first place with extinguishing the flames, without busying themselves about him, which would give him time to execute his ulterior project.

He had scarcely made this arrangement, and prepared himself and his companions for leaving the vessel, when the brig struck violently on the shoal, and swinging round, while the mainmast went by the board with the shock, presented her broadside to the sands.

Mark Brandon instantly set fire to the lumber in the cabin, and then descending the ship's side, with his confederates, they made their way to the top of a low hill in the immediate vicinity of the shore.

In pursuance of the plan which he had formed, and knowing well that numbers are an inconvenience in the bush, unless so great as to defy attack, which in the present case was out of the

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question, he immediately selected two men on whom he thought he could entirely depend, and who had not the ability to outwit him, but on whose dogged courage he could rely; and at the same time he directed the remaining four to lose no time in joining the party who kept up a running fight with the sergeant's party of soldiers.

“Our only chance, my mates,” he said, “is to keep together; but we must try to draw off the attention of the soldiers in the boats, and lead them in a different direction. Tell our friends to keep up the fight and retreat towards the north, while I will, with Jim and Roger, entice the boat party to the westward. And, do you see that high hill yonder, quite in the distance—may be a dozen miles off, or more? Well; rally round that hill, and before night I will meet you there, and then we can consult together as to the best course to be taken. See! the soldiers have turned our party of friends somehow, and they are retreating inland. The sergeant's party will not follow them far; it's only for every man to make the best use of his legs, and get at once into the

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bush. Now, my men, start, and do the business cleverly, and leave me to do mine.”

The four subordinate ruffians, unable or unwilling to dispute the direction of a leader, whom they had become accustomed to obey as much from the superiority of his force of mind as by their voluntary adoption of him as their chief, lost no time in following Mark Brandon's directions, and in a brief space they had joined their new companions, and given them the word.

But the soldiers in pursuit had pushed them too closely to allow them to put Mark's advice in execution, and, by a quick military movement, they contrived to place the convicts between their fire and the water; and the fugitives thus turned, were driven in the direction of the burning brig, towards which the boats were rapidly hastening.

“It will do,” said Mark, as he cautiously peered over the top of the hill and observed the progress of affairs below; “it will do; and now for my work. Roger, tread like a native: there must be no noise. Jemmy, my man, wind yourself after me like a snake; sharp's the word; but there must be no sound—not a word spoken; and

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mind, the report of a musket would ruin all my plan.”

So saying, he proceeded by a circuitous route, and at as rapid a pace as possible, to the back part of the rock which had formed the site of the major's temporary encampment the preceding night, and the exact locality of which he had marked from the light of the bivouac fires which had been made on the occasion of the junction of the ensign's party of soldiers with the ship's crew of the brig. The bushranger went on with confidence; and conscious of his powers in plots and stratagems, with a sort of joyous prescience that his artful and diabolical plan would be successful.

It is necessary, however, to return to the scene of the advancing boats and the devoted vessel, from the stern windows of which volumes of smoke and flame now broke out with appalling fury.