Sea Stories

The Narragansett

"Twenty of those confounded Yankees give me more trouble than three decks full of Frenchmen," remarked Captain Brower of the prison-ship Spartan, one of the fleet of dismantled battle-ships that thronged the harbor of Plymouth, England. Lieutenant Barnard, commanding the neat little sloop of

war Sparrow, then on the guard station, laughed. "They are troublesome beggars, sure enough," he said; "but the funny thing is that they behave almost exactly the way our fellows do, or at least would under the same circumstances; that I verily believe." "Well, such insolence and impudence I never saw in my life," returned Brower. "I shall be glad when I get rid of this last batch and will rest easy when they have been sent ashore to Dartmoor. You should have seen the way they behaved about two weeks ago. Let me see, it was the evening of the fourth, I believe. In fact the whole day through they were at it--skylarking and speech-making and singing." It was July, 1814. Many vessels in the government service of Great Britain, returning from America, or from the high seas, brought into Plymouth crews of American vessels, and not a few of the troops captured about the Lakes and on the Canadian frontier had been brought over also. They were usually kept on board one of the prison hulks for three or four months; sometimes it was a year or more before they were transferred to the military prisons, the largest of which was situated at Dartmoor, and the second in size at Stapleton, not far from the town of Gloucester. Although the prison-ships and the prisons themselves were crowded with Frenchmen, the Yankees were three or four times as much trouble to control and to command. When they were not planning to escape, they were generally bothering the sentinels, drawing up petitions, or having some row or other, if only for the fun of turning out the guard. "I wish somebody else had this position," grumbled Captain Brower, pouring out a glass of port. "I don't think that I was made for it. When I am left alone, I am liable to become too lenient, and when I am angered, perhaps I may be too hasty.... At any rate, I wish some one else was here in my place.... I had to laugh the other day, though; you know old Bagwigge of the Germanicus, here alongside, what a hot-tempered, testy old fellow he is? Well, the other day he was walking up and down his old quarter-deck, and about fourscore of my Yankee prisoners were up on deck for air and exercise. Suddenly they began singing. Now, I don't object to that; if they'd never do anything worse, I'd be happy. They've only cut four holes through different parts of this ship, and once well-nigh scuttled her; but never mind; to go on: Bagwigge, he walks to the side and shouts across to my vessel: 'Hi, there! you confounded Yankees! avast that everlasting row.' I didn't see that it was any of his business, as it was on my own ship; but the Yankees--I wish you had seen them, Barnard, upon my soul." "What did they do? Slanged him, I suppose, terrible." "Well, you see," continued Captain Brower, "the potatoes had just been given out for the use of the prison mess cooks, and three big baskets of them lay there on the deck. One of the Yankees threw a potato that caught old Captain B. fair and square on the side of his head, capsizing his hat and nearly fetching away his ear. 'You insolent villains!' he cried, almost jumping up on the rail, 'I'll make you sweat your blood for this.' Well, ha, ha, not only one potato was thrown this time, but about half a bushel. I' faith, but those rascals were good shots. Old Bagwigge, he was raked fore and aft. Turning, he ran for it, and dove in the cabin." The younger man laughed. The officer about whom the tale had been told was not popular in the service. He had had no Americans on board his prison hulk, and the Frenchmen who were temporarily his guests trembled at his frown and cringed at his gesture. He was an overbearing, hot-tempered martinet, and was hated accordingly. But this was not the end of Captain Brower's story, and as soon as the Lieutenant had stopped laughing, he resumed:-- "Let me go on, for I haven't finished yet. When Bagwigge returned, he had with him a file of marines. Up he marches 'em, and the Yankees greeted them with a cheer, and then seeing that the Captain was going to speak to them, they desisted to let him talk. "'Now,' he said, 'you impudent scoundrels, below with you; every mother's son of you, or I'll----' He hadn't got any farther than that when the same fellow who threw the first potato hit him again. He was only about forty feet away, you know, and with such force was the vegetable thrown that it nearly took his head off his shoulders. 'Fire!' he roared. 'Fire at them!' I doubt whether the marines could have taken aim, they were so busy dodging potatoes, and as for Bagwigge himself, he was jumping, bubbling, and sizzling like a blob of butter in a skillet. I rushed forward and jumped on to the forecastle rail. "'If you dare fire, Captain Bagwigge,' I cried, 'you'll swing for it!' At this, he dove down the companionway again, with his marines after him. I turned to the prisoners and ordered them below, where they went readily enough. As to Bagwigge, I don't suppose that I'll hear from him again; I hope that he will attend to his own vessel and leave mine alone." All this conversation, or at least the relation of Captain Brower's story, had taken place in the Spartan's cabin, and when the two officers left, a detail of the prisoners was on the deck, walking briskly back and forth under the eyes of armed sentries, who guarded the gangways and patrolled narrow board walks, raised some two or three feet above the hammock-nettings. "Do you see that tall, brown fellow, there?" asked Captain Brower, pointing. "He is the one who did such sharp shooting with the potatoes." "A strange-looking creature, surely," responded the Commander of the Sparrow. "He looks a half-tamed man. Well, I wish you less trouble and all success. Good day to you; I have to return to my ship." Brower turned and went back into his cabin. Although he did not know it, and would have denied it if he had been told the truth, he was exactly the man for the position, for he was just and painstaking, humane and careful. Although there had been all sorts of attempts to escape formulated among the Yankees, and almost carried into successful execution, Brower had not lost a single prisoner, and his presence among them could restore order and quell a disturbance better than the parading of a file of soldiers. They were a strange lot, these captives. They came from all walks of life, and from every sort of place. Raw militiamen, who had been surrendered by Hull (the army Hull, mark you, not the brave Commodore), privateersmen, captured in all sorts of crafts and dressed in all fashions, but now principally in rags, and men-of-warsmen who had given themselves up while serving on board English ships rather than fight against their country. These last held themselves rather aloof from the others and messed by themselves. Poor devils, they had never had the satisfaction, even, of having struck a blow. They had turned from one kind of slavery to another; that was all. The tall, odd-looking figure that Captain Brower had pointed out, belonged to the wildest mess on the orlop deck. His appearance might, perhaps, be called startling; he was far from ill-looking, with straight aquiline features, deep-set and quick black eyes that could laugh or look cruel almost at the same moment. His teeth were beautifully white and even, and although he was not heavy or compact looking, he was as strong almost as any two other men on board the ship. He spoke English without an accent, but with an odd form and phrasing that would have attracted attention to him anywhere. His clear skin was the color of new copper sheathing, and his straight black hair that was gathered sailor fashion into a queue was as coarse as a horse's mane. The grandson of a chief he was, a descendant of the line of kings that had ruled the Narragansett tribes--a full-blooded Indian. But he rejoiced in no fine name. A sailor before the mast he had been since his sixteenth year, and he had appeared on the books of the privateer brig Teaser as John Vance, A.B. It is a wrong supposition that an Indian will never laugh or that he is not a fun-maker. John Vance was constantly skylarking, and he was a leader in that, as he was in almost all the games of skill or strength. Every one liked him, and to a certain extent he was feared, for a tale was told in which John and a knife figured extensively. The flash that would come into his eye gave warning often when the danger limit was being approached, yet he was popular, and even the detested marine guard treated him with some deference. In the last attempt to escape, the Narragansett had been captured after he had swum half-way to the shore and had dived more than twenty times to escape musket-balls from the guard-ships. Suddenly the order came "Prisoners below"--and the ship-bell struck eight sonorous strokes. As the last four or five men left the deck, the Indian touched one of them upon the shoulder. "Watch me," he said, "and say nothing." There was a narrow door in a bulkhead close to the companionway, but out of reach unless there was something like a box or barrel on which to stand. It was closed by a padlock thrust through two iron staples. As John descended, he caught the combing of the hatch and drew himself up to a level with his chin. Holding himself there with one arm, he reached forward and caught the padlock in his brown, sinewy fingers. Slowly he turned his hand. The iron bent and gave a little. A grin crossed his face. Swinging himself forward, he landed on a man's shoulders beneath him, and with a wild warwhoop he tumbled a half-dozen down the rest of the ladder, and they sprawled in a heap on the deck. Disdaining to notice the half-humorous curses, he sprang to his feet. Three other men who belonged to his mess followed him. "Can you do it, Red?" asked one. "Yes, surely," John replied. "So I can to-night." The whole of the gun-deck forward of the forecastle hatch had been divided, by a strong partition, into a sort of storeroom. There was one entrance into it from above from the topgallant forecastle, where part of the marine guard were stationed, and the other opening onto the hatchway, to be used in case of emergency. It was just past the midnight watch when four stealthy figures crept out from the shadows into the light of the dingy lantern that hung at the foot of the companionway. At night there was only one sentry stationed there, and he generally sat halfway up the ladder, and it was impossible for the prisoners to tell without crossing the dead-line that was drawn at night whether he was asleep or not. This was the risk that had to be undertaken; for if the man should see any one pass beneath that old rope that was drawn across the deck, he would have a right to fire. If the fellow was asleep, yet to gain the deck above, the venturesome prisoner would have to pass within arm's length of him. Perhaps John Vance had inherited from his long line of red ancestors the peculiar knack of moving without sound, the art of crawling on his belly like a snake, perhaps he had a acquired it by constant practice since he had been a prisoner. For it was his boast, and one that had been proved to be true, that contrary to rules he had visited every part of the ship, and after hours; as has been told, he had been retaken a number of times when just on the point of making good his escape. The three seamen who accompanied him on this occasion could see the legs of the sentry from the knee down, as he sat on the steps of the ladder leading to the berth-deck above. They could also see the butt of his musket as it rested beside him. Vance had disappeared in the black shadow that lay along the starboard side, and now the watchers saw a curious thing take place. The sentry's musket suddenly tilted forward, as if of its own volition, and then disappeared backward into the darkness, without a sound, much in the manner of a vanishing slide in a magic lantern. The man's legs did not move. "He is asleep," whispered Ned Thornton to Bill Pratt. "He's asleep," reiterated Bill Pratt to Gabe Sackett, who made the fourth one of the "constant plotters," as they were termed by the other prisoners. But in one minute that sentry was seen to be very wide awake indeed. That is, if movement signified wakefulness. His legs shot out in two vicious and sudden kicks. A hand, with wide-spread, reaching fingers, stretched out as if searching for the missing musket. The man wriggled from one side to another and floundered helplessly, with his body half-way off the edge of the ladder. But not one sound did he utter! "Red's got hold of him," croaked Thornton, and with the assurance of hunters who had watched their quarry step into the trap that held him fast, they stepped forward without fear or caution. It was as Thornton had said. The poor sentry's head was wedged against the steps. Around his throat were clasped the fingers of two sinewy, bronze-colored hands that held the victim as closely and in as deadly a clasp as might the strap of the Spanish garrote. The scene was really horrible. Sackett leaned about the edge of the ladder, and then he saw what a wonderful thing the Narragansett had done. The combing of the hatchway was fully six feet from where the sentry sat. Below yawned the black abyss into the mid-hold. Across this Vance had been forced to lean, balancing himself with one hand when he relieved the sentry of his musket, and then springing forward he had caught him from behind, about the throat. There the Indian hung as a man might hang over the mouth of a well. No wonder the unfortunate marine had been unable to cry out! "Let go of him, Red," whispered Gabe. "You've choked him enough." The Indian stretched out one of his feet and hooked it over the hatch combing. With a supple movement and without a stumble, he stood erect upon the deck. The sentry would have plunged over into the hold, had not the two others grasped him firmly by the shoulders. They carried him to one side and laid him in the deep shadow against a bulkhead. He was breathing, but insensible. The rest of the escape can be told in a few words: The lock of the door leading into the storeroom was wrenched away, and noiselessly the four entered, closing it behind them. They had been just in time, for they could hear, on the deck above, the new watch coming on. A port on one side of the storeroom was guarded by three flimsy iron bars. There was enough light outside from the young moon to show the direction of the opening. Vance bent the irons double at the first attempt. They were almost twenty feet above the water, for the old hulk floated high. But everything seemed working for the furtherance of their plan. There was a new coil of rope on the deck, and looking out of the port right beneath them, they could see a ship's dingy with the oars in it. Sackett slid down first; the other two followed, and Vance remained until the last. No sooner had he made the boat in safety than a great hubbub and confusion sounded through the ship. There came a sharp blare of a bugle, the rolling of the alarm drum, and they could hear the slamming of the heavy hatches that prevented communication from one part of the vessel to the other. The prisoners, cooped up below, knew what it all meant. Some one was out, and there in the pitch darkness they fell to cheering. But to return to the "constant plotters," in the dingy: they had made but a dozen boat's-lengths when they were discovered, for there was light enough to see objects a long distance across the water. There came a quick hail, followed by a spurt of flame. "Lord!" Pratt, who was pulling stroke oar with Sackett alongside of him, groaned; "I caught that in the shoulder." One of his arms drooped helplessly, but he continued rowing with the other. "Let go," grunted Sackett; "I can work it alone--lie down in the stern sheets." There were three or four vessels, mostly prison or sheer hulks, to be passed before they gained the shore. From each one there came a volley. Poor Sackett received a ball through his lungs and fell into the bottom of the boat, bleeding badly. And now the boats were after them! Vance and Thornton pulled lustily at the oars; but the others gained a foot in every four. The dingy was splintered by the hail of musket-balls. One of the prison hulks--the last they had to pass--let go a carronade loaded with grape. It awoke the echoes of the old town. So close was the charge delivered that it had hardly time to scatter, and churned the water into foam just astern of the little boat as if some one had dumped a bushel of gravel stones into the waters of the harbor. Not three hundred feet ahead of the foremost pursuing boat, the dingy's keel grated on the shingle. The Narragansett sprang out, Thornton after him. Sackett could not be raised. Pratt, holding his wounded and disabled arm, staggered up the incline towards some stone steps leading to the roadway above. But he had hardly reached the foot when there came another shot. He fell face downward and made no attempt to rise. Sackett and he would join in no more plots; but Vance and Thornton were now running down a side street. They dodged about a corner into an alley; crossed a small common, and just as they reached the other side they ran, bows on, into a heavy cloaked figure, who, seeing their haste, hailed them peremptorily, and sprang a huge rattle, making much the same noise that a small boy does when he runs down a picket fence with a stick. Thornton was laboring ahead like a wherry in a tideway. But the Indian was striding along like a racehorse, with the easy, springing gait inherited from his own father, "Chief Fleetfoot," who, if the story told be true, could run down a red deer in the woods. He turned to assist his comrade by taking hold of him and giving him a tow. But as he did so, Thornton's foot struck a round stone and he fell forward, and lay there groaning. "Run on, Red! run on!" he cried breathlessly. "I've broken a leg; something's carried away in my pins; on with you!" "Come you with me too," answered the Narragansett, pulling Thornton to his feet with one hand; but the poor lad groaned and fell again. "Run ahead, curse you!" he said. "Don't stay here and be taken!" The watchman's rattle had attracted the notice of the people in the houses. Windows were opened and heads were thrust forth, and from about a corner came another cloaked figure carrying a lantern, and a big pike was in his hand. There was nothing else to do, and, obeying Thornton's angry order, the Indian struck out again into his long distance-covering gait. Which way he ran it made little matter to him. He did not know the country; he had no plans; but the feel of the springy earth beneath his feet was good to him. The sight of the stars shining through the branches of the trees overhead--for he had soon reached the open country and left the town behind him--made him breathe the air in long, deep breaths, and tempted him to shout. It was freedom; liberty! The dim moonlight softened everything, and to his mind he seemed to be flying. He passed by great stone archways leading to private parks and great estates. Twice he had avoided little hamlets of thatched cottages. Once he had run full speed through the streets of a little village, and had been hailed by the watchman, who sprang his harmless rattle. But it was growing light. He must find some place to hide, for travel during the daytime he knew he could not. Leaping a fence, he made his way into an adjoining field and lay down, panting, beneath some bushes. Soon cocks began to crow; daylight widened; a bell in an ivy-covered tower tolled musically. Insects commenced their morning hum; birds twittered, and people moved out to their toil. From his hiding-place the Narragansett watched the unusual sight. In a field below him--for he lay at the top of a small hill--he could see some men and women working in a field of grain. One of the girls had placed a basket beneath the shade of a bush. The Indian was hungry. It required little trouble to snake himself through the grass and secure the contents of the little hamper, a loaf of bread and a large piece of cheese. Then he carefully replaced the cover and stole back to his former hiding-place. Soon he observed, in the road below him, a man riding along at a fast gait; he pulled in his horse and shouted something to the workers in the field. This done, he rode at top speed into the village. Very soon another horseman appeared, and soon quite a little band of them, among whom was a mounted soldier or two, and three or four in the pink coats of the hunting-field. But near footsteps sounded. A man in leather gaiters, with a fowling-piece over his shoulder, was coming down a little path from some deep woods on the right. A setter dog played in front of him. The man was reading a freshly printed notice. The ink was smeared from handling. The man spelled it out aloud. "Escaped from the hulks; a dangerous prisoner; a wild American Indian; ten pounds reward," and much more of it. All of a sudden the dog stopped; then with a short bark, he sprang forward. At the same instant the gamekeeper dropped the printed notice that had been handed to him but a minute previously by a horseman on the road. Surely he could not be mistaken, something had dodged down behind yonder hedge; and as the setter sprang forward, barking viciously, a strange figure arose, a man with a copper-colored face, and streaming, unkempt, black locks; he wore big gold ear-rings, and he was clad in a torn canvas shirt and trousers, with a sailor's neckerchief around his throat. The dog was bounding forward when suddenly the figure raised its arm. No cricketer that ever played on the village green could throw with such unerring force. A large stone struck the dog and took the fight out of him. Yelping, he sneaked back to his master's heels. The startled gamekeeper raised his gun and fired. Whether it was because of his sudden fright or the quickness with which the agile figure dropped at the flash, the charge whistled harmlessly through the leaves. But the sound of the shot had attracted the attention of the people in the fields. A cry arose, as a weird figure broke from the bushes and dashed down the hill, making for the woods. "Gone away! gone away! whoop, hi!"--the view hallo of the huntsman. A man in a red coat had sighted the chase. He leaped a fence, and four or five other horsemen followed. Soon there came the shrill yelping of the dogs as they found the plain trail of the barefoot man running for his life. It was a great run, that man-hunt, and one remembered to this day. Over fence and hedge, across ditch and stream, the Narragansett led them. No trained hurdler that ever ran across country in the county of Devonshire could have held the pace that Vance kept up. Twice he threw them off the scent by running up a stream and doubling on his tracks. But the whole countryside was out and after him. The dogs were gaining on him swiftly, and at last at the foot of a great oak they had him cornered. He fought them off with a broken branch, and soon the pack surrounded him in a yelping circle, not daring to come nearer. Up came the huntsmen. They halted at some distance and talked among themselves. Who among them was brave enough to go up and lay hold of this strange wild man? They called off the dogs and waited for the soldiers. Eight or ten yokels and some farmer folks joined the gaping crowd. Five men appeared with muskets, and one with a long coil of rope. But all this time the Narragansett had stood there with his back against an oak tree, with a sneer on his thin lips. They talked aloud as to how they should capture him. Some were for shooting him down at once; but as yet no one had addressed a word to him direct. Surely, he must speak an outlandish foreign tongue! Suddenly, the fugitive took a step forward and raised his hand. "Englishmen," he said, "listen to me." All started back in astonishment. Why, this wild man spoke their own language! "Who is the chief here? Who is the captain?" Every one looked at a middle-aged man astride a sturdy brown cob. He was the Squire, and magistrate of the neighborhood. "Well, upon my soul," he began, "I suppose----" But the Narragansett interrupted him. "To you I give myself," he said, advancing. He glanced at the others with supreme contempt. As he came forward, he held out his hand, and involuntarily the man on horseback stretched forth his. It was a strange sight, that greeting. The crowd gave way a little, and three or four mounted dragoons came tearing up hill. They stopped in astonishment. "You gave us a good run," said the Squire, with some embarrassment, not knowing what to say. "You are too many; I am your prisoner," was the answer. No one laid hands on him. Walking beside the Squire's horse down to the road, followed by the gaping, gabbling crowd, who still, however, kept aloof, the Narragansett walked proudly erect. When he reached the highway, he turned. There was a cart standing there. The Squire dismounted from his horse and spoke a few words to the driver. Then he mounted to the seat. John Vance sprang up beside him. At a brisk pace they started down the road towards Portsmouth, the soldiers and the horsemen trailing on behind them. At the landing where the boat from the old Spartan met them--for a horseman had ridden on with the news--was waiting a sergeant of marines. He advanced with a pair of handcuffs. "None of that!" exclaimed the Squire. "This man has given me his word." "The word of a chief's son," put in the Narragansett. The two men shook hands again; then proudly John Vance stepped into the boat, and unmanacled sat there in the stern sheets. In twenty minutes he was once more down in the close, foul-smelling 'tween decks. The only notice taken of the Narragansett's break for liberty was the fact that he was numbered among the next detail bound for Dartmoor; but the tradition of the man-hunt of Squire Knowlton's hounds, and its curious ending, lives in Devonshire to-day.

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