Midshipman Farragut - James Barnes

A Lucky Scrape

"I think it's a shame," said Midshipman Odenheimer, who was one of the largest and oldest of the boys, "that the old man keeps us cooped up here and doesn't allow us to go ashore and see some of the fun or fighting. I am tired of mathematics and study. I should think he ought to know by this time that you and I can be trusted, David."

Midshipman Odenheimer had also served as an acting prize master, and felt a little bitter at being treated as an ordinary middy again.

David did not reply. He was lying full length on the deck, with his head against the end of a gun carriage. Through the open port a cool breeze was blowing.

It was late in the evening, and strange sounds were in the air—singing and chanting, weird and musical, and the rhythmic beating of time. This sound was made by the clapping of a hundred pairs of hands, and the song was one of the plaintive melodies sung by the natives of the island of Nukahiva, against whose shore, scarcely a biscuit-throw away from the deck of the Essex, Jr., the little waves were lapping softly.

But of course all this requires an explanation. The Essex had not remained long at the Galapagos. She had sailed away into the mystical and partly unknown archipelagoes of the mid-Pacific. Her present resting place was at this beautiful island, one of the Marquesas. Porter had named the bay Massachusetts Bay. For three weeks the fleet had been here at anchor and strange happenings had followed.

The natives, a kindly people with light-brown skins and comely, well-proportioned bodies, had met the Americans with open arms. The island tribes were divided into four or five different clans. The Tachas, the Happahs, and the Shonemes were tribes that lived near the coast and that welcomed Porter's fleet with every demonstration of affection and hospitality.

But these last tribes were at war with the Typees, a tribe of the inland, warlike and strong. Porter had formed an alliance with the seacoast natives, and at the time at which this chapter opens was waging a successful war in their behalf against the Typees.

But the midshipmen, much to their disgust and annoyance, had not been allowed to take any part in these land ventures, and had been cooped up on board the Essex, Jr., closely kept at their studies. Occasionally, of course, they were allowed runs on shore, but the crews of the vessels and the prisoners were given almost complete liberty, and lived in a village of their own built in a beautiful forest of breadfruit trees and spreading shade palms.

But to go back to the two lads lolling on the deck of the Essex, Jr.

The song which had been welling louder and louder suddenly ended, and a new chorus arose seemingly from all about the anchored fleet. The boys crawled to an open port and gazed out. It was a great sight. The calm waters of the bay were thronged with canoes drifting to and fro like pleasure boats on a pond. In the stern a native would be lazily paddling, while, lying about in comfortable positions, the others were singing in chorus the plaintive song that had answered the one from shore. It was the sailor's paradise; the fiddler's green "of his dreams, where all is music and dancing, tobacco, and easy times. Captain Porter was giving a vacation to the crew that had stood by him so nobly through the hardships of Cape Horn and the many dangerous expeditions into which he had ventured.

"I wish we could get ashore," said Midshipman Odenheimer. I am sick of being cooped up here."

"Listen!" said David; there's one of our men singing."

A great fire was jumping up against the dark shadows of the trees, and the group of natives seated around it showed plainly. The white uniforms of the Yankee sailors mingled among them. The native music had stopped, but in a clear barytone a sea song now struck up.

"It is Boatswain Bill," went on Midshipman Farragut. "He's singing 'The Isles of Cathay'."

"I can't stand this any longer," said Odenheimer. "I don't think there would be much done to us if we took French leave. Whist! I have it. We are not on duty until to-morrow morning. Let's off with most of our duds and overboard and spend the night on shore."

No boy is perfect; the temptation was strong. Many times had the midshipmen done it before, but Farragut had resisted all inducements to join in the nocturnal liberty parties. Odenheimer had kicked off his shoes.

"Come along, David," he said. "No one will find us out. Come on."

David shook his head.

"Well, then, good-by, and here goes for it!"

Odenheimer leaned out of the port: A rope swung from the bulwarks overhead. He hooked it in with his feet and, grasping it, slid down to the water. It had grown so dark that David could just see his head and the motion of his arms as he struck out for the shore. Never was a boy so tempted before. It was two days now since he had set his feet on land. The chances were that they could swim back to the ship without detection; but he hesitated.

All at once he heard a bubbling cry. Odenheimer was not the best of swimmers. David remembered once how tired he had become when they were in bathing, and how he had almost foundered before they could get him into shallow water. He listened attentively. Again the bubbling sound! To his ears it seemed a cry, half inarticulate, for help. Perhaps Odenheimer had caught a cramp; perhaps he was in danger!

The anchor watch, composed of one man only, who was walking up and down the forecastle, heard a plash alongside. He did not even turn to look. It was none of his business if the midshipmen desired to have some fun, and, as there was no reason for him to worry, he only paused and then resumed his beat.

The plash was occasioned by Midshipman Farragut going head first out of the open port. When he came to the surface he looked at first in vain for Odenheimer. At last he saw something white gleaming a rod or so astern of the great shadow of the ship. Hand over hand he struck out for it. It was Odenheimer struggling faintly. David grasped him by the collar. It was nearer to the shore than to the vessel, and he swam with all his strength until he felt the steeply shelving beach beneath his feet. His friend was coughing and spluttering badly, and with some difficulty waded out to the dry, warm sand. There was something that excited David's suspicions and he felt his anger rising. Had it been a ruse of Odenheimer to get him to forget his duty? No sooner had the idea crossed his mind than he spoke quickly.

"You're shamming!" he said, "and you did it to get me to come with you. You're bigger than I am, but, by sixty, if it is so, I'm going to punch your head!"

Odenheimer had been shamming, but he saw that the best way out of it was to make no answer. He coughed and spluttered harder than ever, and the suspicion faded from David's mind.

"I beg your pardon for what I said," he whispered, and thumped his friend hard between the shoulders. The choking ceased and Odenheimer rolled over on his back.

"Whew! That was a narrow squeak," he said. "Do I owe my life to you?"

"Pshaw!" said 'David, who now wished to make light of it, "it was nothing. Cheer up; you're all right."

The boys had landed near the collection of huts which were occupied by the prisoners that the Essex and her consort had taken from the vessels that lay at anchor under guard in the harbor. The men were not kept in close confinement. They were allowed to walk about at will within a certain proscribed place, the only difference between them and the Essex's crew being that the latter were armed and were distinguished by having white badges with the ship's number marked upon them. At the narrow causeway that led to the prisoners' village (their huts were on a little island) stood a marine with a musket.

"We might as well make an evening of it," said Odenheimer. "Let's go down where we can see some of the fun."

David's conscience was clear of any willfulness, and he could see no reason why he should not acquiesce. In fact, a strange excitement made his heart beat quickly. Stolen sweets have a zest and a flavor that no one appreciates more than a boy of, twelve. They knew they could gain the farther camp if they could slip by the sentry. So they stole along the beach, Odenheimer leading, and dodged into the thicket of bushes. Suddenly the midshipman paused and raised his hand with a gesture of silence and attention. There was a murmur of voices coming from off the left and a light glimmered through the trees. Stepping anxiously, they worked their way in that direction. To their surprise they found they had stumbled across a meeting of the prisoners and that something unusual was on foot. The men were gathered in a circle close together, and a lantern burning dimly swung from the low branch of a tree. A tall, light-haired Englishman was talking in a loud whisper and pounding his right hand into the hollow of his left to emphasize his words.

"It could be done," he said. "All that, can swim take for the ship. The rest of us, disguised as natives can go out in a canoe; and once alongside, we can over-power them; they're not many. Then up sail and away for a cruise on our own account. What say you, lads? Are you all with me? Will it be to-night or tomorrow?"



"To-night, before dawn," spoke up one of the group seated on the ground; "no good of caution—dash wins the day."

The boys listened with their hearts beating wildly. Perhaps it was some kindly fate that had guided them in their midnight escapade.

"Back to the ship at once!" whispered Odenheimer in David's ear.

The boys groped their way through the bushes. Just as they reached the beach they heard behind them the sound of some one rushing through the underbrush in their direction. The noise of their retreat had probably been heard.

"Dive for it," said Odenheimer in a whisper.

There came the sound of two sudden plunges, then all was silent. A big man emerged from the brush and stood listening to the sound from the waters. The boys swam as long as they could without coming to the surface, but at last both heads bobbed up to view.

"Who is that out there?" shouted the man. It was the boatswain's mate of the captured Montezuma.

The only reply was a laugh and a few unintelligible words, for on the spur of the moment David had recalled to mind a few native sentences he had learned.

The tall figure had been joined by another.

"I dare say you are mistaken, Jock," said the second comer. "It is only two young niggers out in the water."

The boys struck out for the ship. They had not gone very far when Odenheimer turned.

"There is some one swimming after us," he said. "Can't you hear him?"

It was a fact. The man's suspicions had been excited and he thought he had detected an English accent in the strange jargon that had answered his first hail. The boys could hear the long measured strokes and the steady breathing of some one following them swiftly in the water—a strong swimmer evidently, for he gained upon them rapidly.

"We will never make the ship before he catches us," whispered Odenheimer. "What shall we do?"

David turned; he could see the face now plainly and the water rippling against the man's chin. At first he thought it might be one of the Kanakas, but now he perceived it was one of the English prisoners. His strong arms were kicking up a wake like that made by a pair of sweeps.

"Heigh, there! Who are you and what are you doing?" panted the pursuer, who was now only a dozen or so feet away.

Odenheimer turned this time and David caught the look on his face; it was that of a cornered animal.

"Let's at him, youngster," he said, and splashed toward the astonished Englishman.

The man was taken by surprise. He half swung about just as Odenheimer twisted his strong young arms about his neck, uttering a shriek of desperate fear and anger. He had caught the man just right, for his back was turned to him, and every effort the Englishman made to free himself but lifted his antagonist out of the water. How it would have terminated would have been hard to conjecture, but the rattle of oars and a sudden hail came from the direction of the Essex, Jr.

"What's going on out there?"

David's answer was a cry for help. A boat manned by three men pulled out of the darkness, and in another minute Odenheimer and the now exhausted seaman were hauled over the gunwale. David himself crawled in by the aid of an extended oar.

The Englishman was wellnigh drowned. He lay in the stern sheets choking and groaning weakly.

"Why, it is two of our midshipmen!" said one of the seamen, bending down close to look at Odenheimer.

"Where is Mr. Downes?" panted David.

"He has just returned to the ship, sir," answered one of the men. "We rowed him off to the ship, sir."

They had pulled to the gangway and three or four of the foremast hands came down to meet them. They carried Odenheimer and the prisoner up on deck.

Lieutenant Downes was standing at the lantern that hung against the mainmast. David walked up to him.

"Mr. Downes," he said, "we took French leave, but there is something of importance we have to tell. The prisoners are planning to retake the Essex, Jr."

"They brought one with them, sir," put in the seaman who had hauled David into the gig.

"Perhaps he can give us some information," said Lieutenant Downes, looking at the exhausted man who was being lifted to his feet.

But not a word could they get from him. He had recovered his senses and stood there glowering at the boys in silence.

"Go below, young gentlemen, and get on dry clothes and report on deck. You will tell your story to Captain Porter himself," Mr. Downes said curtly.

Then the lieutenant turned to a quartermaster standing near.

"Turn out the guard," he ordered, "arm all hands, and call away the gig."

In half an hour the boys were standing before Captain Porter's table in the cabin of the Essex.

Lieutenant Downes had said nothing about the matter of leaving the ship; he had merely introduced the subject by stating that the two midshipmen had captured one of the prisoners in the water and that there was a plan to take the Essex, Jr.

The Commander thanked them in few words, and immediate preparations were made so that closer surveillance of the prisoners' settlement might be made. Nothing further, however, was heard of the plot. The strange capture of the ringleader had apparently had a discouraging effect upon them.

The next morning at daylight the Essex, Jr., was moved farther from the shore. As she was about to drop anchor in her new berth, signals flew from the flagship. At the entrance to the bay a strange sail was seen hove to, and evidently surveying the mysterious fleet anchored farther inshore. Soon an order was received from Captain Porter for the Essex, Jr., to get under way and ascertain who the interloper was. The latter had now become suspicious; she had spread all her canvas and was making off to the southward. The Essex, Jr., cleared the point and rounded on her track. But a stern chase is a long one, and as Midshipman Farragut looked back at the island he did not know what a strange adventure was before him.