For the Term of His Natural Life/Book III/Chapter XXIII
Chapter XXIII: Running the Gauntlet
The Pretty Mary—as ugly and evil-smelling a tub as ever pitched under a southerly burster—had been lying on and off Cape Surville for nearly three weeks. Captain Blunt was getting wearied. He made strenuous efforts to find the oyster-beds of which he was ostensibly in search, but no success attended his efforts. In vain did he take boat and pull into every cove and nook between the Hippolyte Reef and Schouten's Island. In vain did he run the Pretty Mary as near to the rugged cliffs as he dared to take her, and make perpetual expeditions to the shore. In vain did he—in his eagerness for the interests of Mrs. Purfoy—clamber up the rocks, and spend hours in solitary soundings in Blackman's Bay. He never found an oyster. "If I don't find something in three or four days more," said he to his mate, "I shall go back again. It's too dangerous cruising here."
On the same evening that Captain Blunt made this resolution, the watchman at Signal Hill saw the arms of the semaphore at the settlement make three motions, thus:
The semaphore was furnished with three revolving arms, fixed one above the other. The upper one denoted units, and had six motions, indicating one to six. The middle one denoted tens, ten to sixty. The lower one marked hundreds, from one hundred to six hundred.
The lower and upper arms whirled out. That meant three hundred and six.
A ball ran up to the top of the post. That meant one thousand.
Number 1306, or, being interpreted, "prisoners absconded".
"By George, Harry," said Jones, the signalman, "there's a bolt!"
The semaphore signalled again: "Number 1411".
"With arms!" Jones said, translating as he read. "Come here, Harry! here's a go!"
But Harry did not reply, and, looking down, the watchman saw a dark figure suddenly fill the doorway. The boasted semaphore had failed this time, at all events. The "bolters" had arrived as soon as the signal!
The man sprang at his carbine, but the intruder had already possessed himself of it. "It's no use making a fuss, Jones! There are eight of us. Oblige me by attending to your signals."
Jones knew the voice. It was that of John Rex. "Reply, can't you?" said Rex coolly. "Captain Burgess is in a hurry." The arms of the semaphore at the settlement were, in fact, gesticulating with comical vehemence.
Jones took the strings in his hands, and, with his signal-book open before him, was about to acknowledge the message, when Rex stopped him. "Send this message," he said. "Not seen! Signal sent to Eaglehawk!"
Jones paused irresolutely. He was himself a convict, and dreaded the inevitable cat that he knew would follow this false message. "If they finds me out——" he said. Rex cocked the carbine with so decided a meaning in his black eyes that Jones—who could be brave enough on occasions—banished his hesitation at once, and began to signal eagerly. There came up a clinking of metal, and a murmur from below. "What's keepin' yer, Dandy?"
"All right. Get those irons off, and then we'll talk, boys. I'm putting salt on old Burgess's tail." The rough jest was received with a roar, and Jones, looking momentarily down from his window on the staging, saw, in the waning light, a group of men freeing themselves from their irons with a hammer taken from the guard-house; while two, already freed, were casting buckets of water on the beacon wood-pile. The sentry was lying bound at a little distance.
"Now," said the leader of this surprise party, "signal to Woody Island." Jones perforce obeyed. "Say, 'An Escape at the Mines! Watch Oone-tree point! Send on to Eaglehawk!' Quick now!"
Jones—comprehending at once the force of this manoeuvre, which would have the effect of distracting attention from the Neck—executed the order with a grin. "You're a knowing one, Dandy Jack," said he.
John Rex acknowledged the compliment by uncocking the carbine. "Hold out your hands!—Jemmy Vetch!" "Ay, ay," replied the Crow, from beneath. "Come up and tie our friend Jones. Gabbett, have you got the axes?" "There's only one," said Gabbett, with an oath. "Then bring that, and any tucker you can lay your hands on. Have you tied him? On we go then." And in the space of five minutes from the time when unsuspecting Harry had been silently clutched by two forms, who rushed upon him out of the shadows of the huts, the Signal Hill Station was deserted.
At the settlement Burgess was foaming. Nine men to seize the Long Bay boat, and get half an hour's start of the alarm signal, was an unprecedented achievement! What could Warder Troke have been about! Warder Troke, however, found eight hours afterwards, disarmed, gagged, and bound in the scrub, had been guilty of no negligence. How could he tell that, at a certain signal from Dandy Jack, the nine men he had taken to Stewart's Bay would "rush" him; and, before he could draw a pistol, truss him like a chicken? The worst of the gang, Rufus Dawes, had volunteered for the hated duties of pile-driving, and Troke had felt himself secure. How could he possibly guess that there was a plot, in which Rufus Dawes, of all men, had refused to join?
Constables, mounted and on foot, were despatched to scour the bush round the settlement. Burgess, confident from the reply of the Signal Hill semaphore, that the alarm had been given at Eaglehawk Isthmus, promised himself the re-capture of the gang before many hours; and, giving orders to keep the communications going, retired to dinner. His convict servants had barely removed the soup when the result of John Rex's ingenuity became manifest.
The semaphore at Signal Hill had stopped working.
"Perhaps the fools can't see," said Burgess. "Fire the beacon—and saddle my horse." The beacon was fired. All right at Mount Arthur, Mount Communication, and the Coal Mines. To the westward the line was clear. But at Signal Hill was no answering light. Burgess stamped with rage. "Get me my boat's crew ready; and tell the Mines to signal to Woody Island." As he stood on the jetty, a breathless messenger brought the reply. "A Boat's crew gone to One-tree point! Five men sent from Eaglehawk in obedience to orders!" Burgess understood it at once. The fellows had decoyed the Eaglehawk guard. "Give way, men!" And the boat, shooting into the darkness, made for Long Bay. "I won't be far behind 'em," said the Commandant, "at any rate."
Between Eaglehawk and Signal Hill were, for the absconders, other dangers. Along the indented coast of Port Bunche were four constables' stations. These stations—mere huts within signalling distance of each other—fringed the shore, and to avoid them it would be necessary to make a circuit into the scrub. Unwilling as he was to lose time, John Rex saw that to attempt to run the gauntlet of these four stations would be destruction. The safety of the party depended upon the reaching of the Neck while the guard was weakened by the absence of some of the men along the southern shore, and before the alarm could be given from the eastern arm of the peninsula. With this view, he ranged his men in single file; and, quitting the road near Norfolk Bay, made straight for the Neck. The night had set in with a high westerly wind, and threatened rain. It was pitch dark; and the fugitives were guided only by the dull roar of the sea as it beat upon Descent Beach. Had it not been for the accident of a westerly gale, they would not have had even so much assistance.
The Crow walked first, as guide, carrying a musket taken from Harry. Then came Gabbett, with an axe; followed by the other six, sharing between them such provisions as they had obtained at Signal Hill. John Rex, with the carbine, and Troke's pistols, walked last. It had been agreed that if attacked they were to run each one his own way. In their desperate case, disunion was strength. At intervals, on their left, gleamed the lights of the constables' stations, and as they stumbled onward they heard plainer and more plainly the hoarse murmur of the sea, beyond which was liberty or death.
After nearly two hours of painful progress, Jemmy Vetch stopped, and whispered them to approach. They were on a sandy rise. To the left was a black object—a constable's hut; to the right was a dim white line— the ocean; in front was a row of lamps, and between every two lamps leapt and ran a dusky, indistinct body. Jemmy Vetch pointed with his lean forefinger.
Instinctively they crouched down, lest even at that distance the two sentries, so plainly visible in the red light of the guard-house fire, should see them.
"Well, bo's," said Gabbett, "what's to be done now?"
As he spoke, a long low howl broke from one of the chained hounds, and the whole kennel burst into hideous outcry. John Rex, who perhaps was the bravest of the party, shuddered. "They have smelt us," he said. "We must go on."
Gabbett spat in his palm, and took firmer hold of the axe-handle.
"Right you are," he said. "I'll leave my mark on some of them before this night's out!"
On the opposite shore lights began to move, and the fugitives could hear the hurrying tramp of feet.
"Make for the right-hand side of the jetty," said Rex in a fierce whisper. "I think I see a boat there. It is our only chance now. We can never break through the station. Are we ready? Now! All together!"
Gabbett was fast outstripping the others by some three feet of distance. There were eleven dogs, two of whom were placed on stages set out in the water, and they were so chained that their muzzles nearly touched. The giant leapt into the line, and with a blow of his axe split the skull of the beast on his right hand. This action unluckily took him within reach of the other dog, which seized him by the thigh.
"Fire!" cried McNab from the other side of the lamps.
The giant uttered a cry of rage and pain, and fell with the dog under him. It was, however, the dog who had pulled him down, and the musket-ball intended for him struck Travers in the jaw. The unhappy villain fell—like Virgil's Dares—"spitting blood, teeth, and curses."
Gabbett clutched the mastiff's throat with iron hand, and forced him to loose his hold; then, bellowing with fury, seized his axe and sprang forward, mangled as he was, upon the nearest soldier. Jemmy Vetch had been beforehand with him. Uttering a low snarl of hate, he fired, and shot the sentry through the breast. The others rushed through the now broken cordon, and made headlong for the boat.
"Fools!" cried Rex behind them. "You have wasted a shot! Look to your left!"
Burgess, hurried down the tramroad by his men, had tarried at Signal Hill only long enough to loose the surprised guard from their bonds, and taking the Woody Island boat was pulling with a fresh crew to the Neck. The reinforcement was not ten yards from the jetty.
The Crow saw the danger, and, flinging himself into the water, desperately seized McNab's boat.
"In with you for your lives!" he cried.
Another volley from the guard spattered the water around the fugitives, but in the darkness the ill-aimed bullets fell harmless. Gabbett swung himself over the sheets, and seized an oar.
"Cox, Bodenham, Greenhill! Now, push her off! Jump, Tom, jump!" and as Burgess leapt to land, Cornelius was dragged over the stern, and the whale-boat floated into deep water.
McNab, seeing this, ran down to the water-side to aid the Commandant.
"Lift her over the Bar, men!" he shouted. "With a will—So!" And, raised in twelve strong arms, the pursuing craft slid across the isthmus.
"We've five minutes' start," said Vetch coolly, as he saw the Commandant take his place in the stern sheets. "Pull away, my jolly boys, and we'll best 'em yet."
The soldiers on the Neck fired again almost at random, but the blaze of their pieces only served to show the Commandant's boat a hundred yards astern of that of the mutineers, which had already gained the deep water of Pirates' Bay.
Then, for the first time, the six prisoners became aware that John Rex was not among them.