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Chapter XXI. The Skirmish.

IT is impossible to describe the mingled rage and sorrow of the mate, when he beheld the gallant little brig, which he had brought safely fifteen thousand miles over the sea from the other side of the globe, with its mainmast lying shattered on the deck, and its stern-ports evolving clouds of smoke and flames,—the wicked work of the ignorance or the malice of the pirates.

All the epithets of execration which nautical or other phraseology could furnish, were lavished on the rascally bushranger and his villainous crew. Regarding, as the affectionate seaman did, his ship as his mistress, and personifying it, as sailors love to do, as a thing of life, he felt the ravages

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inflicted on her beautiful frame as much almost as wounds on his own body.

Nor was the major less exasperated at the sight of his burning vessel, on board of which was nearly the whole of his fortune, and which now seemed consigned irremediably to the flames. He forgot the bushrangers and everything else, in the all-absorbing desire to save his property, without which life would be to him a weary exile indeed in the colony of Van Diemen's Land.

The ensign, also, was quite alive to the ruin which threatened to overwhelm his anticipated father-in-law, and he urged his rowers to put out their utmost strength, in order to reach the vessel before the progress of the flames should render all assistance hopeless.

But of the three, the mate was the most energetic in his action, as he was most eloquent in his exclamations:—

“ Give way, boys,” he said, as he stood up, and endeavoured by the motion of his own body to add impetus to the movement of the boat; “give way, as you would save your souls! Oh, the infernal rascal! To set fire to her! What harm

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had the poor little brig done him, I should like to know? The dirty, sneaking, cowardly, shore-going, long-tailed blackguard!—There goes the sergeant after the other fellows! Pepper them well, my lads; stick it into 'em; they're all alike! There comes more smoke from the stern portholes! It's only smoke, perhaps, after all! No: it's flame too! Give way—bend to it; stretch to it; that's the stroke; hurrah! now she goes! Shouldn't I like to put out that fire with the lubberly carcasses of the villains! Hanging's too good for them,—the murdering, fire-raising thieves! Hurrah! my boys, we are just on her. Hold hard; jump ashore; no ceremony; follow me.”

So saying, the mate, seizing a rope which was hanging from the bowsprit, quickly slung himself on deck, and was followed with cordial promptitude by the crew of the brig, and with not less alacrity by the sailors belonging to the government boats. As in all cases of difficulty and danger, where the most skilful and courageous are instinctively looked up to for advice, he at once assumed the direction of those on board.

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“Major, make half a dozen fellows clear away the mast. Carpenter, come along with me. Get the buckets, and pass them aft down the companion-ladder. Boy, get the swabs and soak 'em well; and quick! be alive! I'll try to find my way down below, if it's a thing that's possible.”

Thrice did the sturdy mate endeavour to force his way through the smoke and flames: and thrice was he repulsed by the heat and vapour. But at last he was able to reach the cabin door, and he contrived to throw in a few buckets of water: he was relieved by the carpenter, who in his turn was compelled to retreat; and in this way the crew, taking it by turns, were able to withstand for a brief space the stifling effects of the smoke, and to deluge the cabin with water.

In the mean time the sergeant's party had driven the convicts close to the brig, and the ensign, seizing the opportunity, added his own force to that of the assailants, and hemmed in the prisoners on the beach, in a hollow crescent, close to where the brig was burning.

“Surrender yourselves!” he called out; “you have no chance of escape; you see we are too

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strong for you. Surrender yourselves, and trust to the governor's mercy.”

There was a pause for a moment on either side. The convicts looked at one another, and looked at the soldiers. There were only nineteen against them; and their own party, by the accession of the four from the brig, was raised to thirty-two. It was nearly two to one in their favour; and the four muskets of their new comrades were an important addition of strength. But their habitual dread of the military, and the smart of the wounds which one or two of them had already received, made them waver in their determination. At last one of them acting as spokesman, came a step forward, and asked, “If, on surrender, their lives would be spared?”

“I have no authority to promise that,” replied the officer; “but as my desire is to prevent the shedding of blood, I will promise to make the most favourable representation of your submission to the governor; but your surrender must be unconditional.”

“What's the use,” said one of the convicts to his fellows, “of having our lives spared, as you

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call it? If they are spared, we shall be sent to Macquarrie Harbour, and that's worse than death. If we can't get our liberty, let us die where we are. We are two to one, and it's hard if we can't beat those soldiers: they are only men like ourselves; and when it comes to close quarters, one man is as good as another. I'm for fighting it out, and taking our chance.”

“If we can only make our way to the hill, which you can see from the top of the ridge there,” said one of the men from the brig, “we shall meet with Mark Brandon and two more, and then we may be able to have a try at the vessel again, and get clear off—who knows? There may be luck for us, as well as another.”

“I wish Mark Brandon was with us,” exclaimed several; “we want a leader; there's nothing to be done without a leader.”

“If Mark was with us he would soon hatch a scheme to outwit that young officer, there. Let us take our chance, and try to join him; we can but surrender at last.”

“Hurrah, then! let us make a rush, and break through the soldiers;—if we can get into the

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bush, we shall be more of a match for 'em. Now, then, altogether!”

With a loud hurrah the prisoners fired a volley, and rushing forward, made their way through the soldiers, killing one, and wounding two more. But they had received a deadly discharge from the few whose position in front enabled them to take aim with effect; the soldiers at the sides of the short crescent being prevented from firing, from the consideration that if they did, their balls were likely to take effect on their comrades opposite.

Three of the prisoners fell on the beach; but the main body effected their retreat over the brow of a low hill, hotly pursued by the soldiers, who were exasperated at the death of one of their comrades. Their escape, however, did not avail them long; for as the country was nearly bare of trees in that direction, they were exposed to the practised aim of the military.

Three more prisoners were the sufferers by this running fire, both parties hastening forward at their best speed. But the prisoners, who were weary and footsore with their long and hurried journey from the camp, were outstripped on this

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occasion by the soldiers; and had not the latter been delayed in their pursuit by their occasional halts to reload, and by the habit of military precision which caused them to keep together, they would soon have overtaken the runaways, and have brought the matter to a sharp conclusion. As it was, the prisoners might have succeeded in effecting their escape had not an unexpected obstacle stopped their further progress. This was the inlet of the sea, branching out of D'Entrecasteaux's channel.

The ensign, at the instigation of the constable, had edged away to the left, by which manœuvre he forced the prisoners to continue their flight more towards the right, whither they were gradually propelled, till they were stopped by the broad part of the inlet in which the constable's boat had taken shelter, and in which recess the ensign's boat had afterwards joined the first pursuers.

The prisoners saw the trap into which they had been driven too late; they found themselves enclosed in the angle formed by the channel on the one side, and the inlet on the other; the soldiers'

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line, which now advanced in order, forming the base of the triangle. Without giving them time to recover themselves, the officer instantly summoned them a second time to surrender, and seeing that they turned round in an attitude of offence, he at once gave the word to fire.

Three volleys from the military disabled fourteen of the runaways, and their numbers being now reduced to twelve, Trevor gave the word to charge, when the prisoners, bewildered and panic-struck, allowed themselves to be taken without resistance.

Being disarmed, and bound with their hands behind them, they were carefully secured on the spot; and as the number of wounded was too large to be transported to the bay, the officer despatched half a dozen of his men back to the boats at the bay with orders for the larger one of the two to be immediately brought round by the government sailors, in order that the captured runaways might be transported with as little delay as possible to Hobart Town, where the wounded could receive the necessary medical assistance, and the whole be dealt with according to law.

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On questioning the prisoners, he learnt from some of them who were now willing enough to make terms for themselves by any disclosures they could offer, that Mark Brandon was to meet them at the foot of the hill, which they pointed out in the distance; and that the soldiers would be sure to find him there if they did their office warily, as Mark would have no suspicion of their having been set after him.

This prompt betrayal of their associates by the sneaks who trembled for their own skins, while it inspired the disgust with which it could not fail to strike an honest man's heart, abated considerably the commiseration which the ensign, as a brave soldier, could not avoid feeling for the sufferings which he was compelled to inflict in the execution of his duty.

“The dirty scoundrels!” said the constable, “they would betray their own father, most of them, for a glass of rum! And this you see,” he said to the ensign, “is what enables us to keep them down; they can never trust one another; every rascal knows that his fellow-rascal would sell him if he had the opportunity. Do you

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know,” he continued, “I have my doubts about Mark having intended to join them again. If he wanted to join them, why didn't he do so at once, and while there was a chance of their being able to resist us successfully? That Mark Brandon is up to some dodge, depend on it: no doubt he set the ship on fire that we might busy ourselves about putting it out without going after him; and—that hill? let me see: that lies to the north, and if Mark takes to the bush his game would be to go to the westward. By George, it looks very like it!”

“Looks very like what?” asked the ensign.

“Why, you see, dealing with Mark is like playing at all-fours, or cribbage,—or drafts, more like: it's all a matter of circumventing; but I'm up to his game; I've been after him before.”

“And what is his game, as you call it, now?”

“Look!” said the constable; “here's the north, and there's the west. Now, if Mark wanted to draw you and your men away from himself, what could he do better than tell these poor devils that he would meet them at that hill yonder, and so egg 'em on to fight their way there, and you after

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them, and that would leave the coast clear for himself?”

“But there was the major's party to watch him,” said the ensign, a flush coming over his face, as if struck with some sudden thought.

“He had provided against that by setting the ship on fire; and sailors would never leave their ship, he knew very well, at such a time, to go after all the bushrangers that ever went out.”

“You think then that this Mark Brandon, if he took to the bush, would go westward?” said the ensign, with much interest.

“To be sure he would! Why, he never would run into the lion's mouth by going on the road back to camp; and he can't go eastward, because there's the broad channel between him and that side of the island. No; he has started off to the west, depend upon it, and he is going to try his chance in the bush, and that's why he has allowed only two of his six men to be with him, because he knows that in the bush the great point is to avoid being tracked;—besides, it's easier to feed three than seven.”

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“If he has gone westward,” said the ensign, meditatingly .....

“No doubt of it.”

“The place where the major left his daughters is on the west side of the bay?”

“To be sure it is.”

“Do you think he would visit it?”

“I don't know,” said the constable; “it would be running a risk: to be sure there's only that poor Mr. Silliman there. What have they got with them? any money, or watches, or trinkets? any thing valuable that is easy to be carried?”

“I rather think the major said he had secured one or two bags of dollars; but there are the young ladies—of more consequence than money.”

“I don't know: women are all very well in their way, but they are dreadful troublesome in the bush. I don't think Mark would be bothered with them. He likes a pretty gal, though, if all stories be true, and ….”

“Could you engage to take charge of these prisoners,” said the ensign, suddenly, “if I left you?”

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“Ay, ay: leave your sergeant here with his party, and I'll engage to take care of them. We have 'em now as safe as bricks. You are going after Mark, then?”

“I think that unless we take him we shall effect but half our object. I will give instructions to the sergeant, and leave you in charge. The corporal and his two men will go with me.”

“Take care,” said the constable, as the ensign hastily took his departure, “that you don't lose your way going back: a man's easily lost in the bush, especially a new hand.”

“Now, corporal,” said Trevor, “we must put our best legs foremost; our work is not half done yet. Are you in good marching order?”

The corporal answered for himself and his men gladly, preferring much the roving and exciting life of such expeditions to the dull monotony of barracks and daily drill; and full instructions having been left with the constable and the sergeant in anticipation of all accidents, Trevor set out on his way, his mind filled with the most lively apprehensions of alarm for the fate of

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Ellen and her sister, should the bushranger take it into his head, for any purpose of plunder or violence, to visit the place of their retreat.