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"Hillo, Master Sprawl; hillo, Master Brail; Lanyard, my boy, what sort of an afternoon have you spent ? Slept sound, eh? But why the devil did you keep blazing away and wasting his Majesty's powder in minuteguns in this way? What were you after the whole night through ?” sung out old Pumpbolt, the master of the Gazelle.
“Come on board, my lad,” said Sprawl; "come on board, will ye, and you shall hear the whole story."
They did so, and after a lengthier explanation than the reader would willingly listen to, it was determined, reinforced as we now were, that if we could make out the whereabouts of the fort that had so annoyed us, we should make a dash at it, even were we to have broken heads in prospect. As to attacking the battery in front, where there was no standing ground, it was utterly out of the question; so, as the tide was now low ebb, and the slaver nearly high and dry on the bank, although, in the hole we had dropped into, the felucca was floating quietly out of cannon-shot, we left her in charge of ten hands, and crowding the other boats, three in all (the damaged boat having been repaired, as already mentioned), dropped down with the current along shore, our whole force amounting to six-and-forty seamen and twenty marines; and keeping a bright look-out for the smallest gap in the mangroves that could afford an entrance. At length we did arrive at such an opening; it was a narrow creek, about thirty feet broad, overhung with the everlasting mangrove, which formed an arch overhead by the weaving of the thickly-leaved branches together, utterly impervious to the sun's rays. I was in the sternmost boat; the next to me was commanded by the first lieutenant of the frigate, old Davie Doublepipe; and as wc sculled along in the clear creek-for here it was translucent as a mountain lake, whatever the water might be in the river-our boats were touching, stem and stern. Sprawl, whose experience of the coast, and, still more, of expeditions of this kind, greatly surpassed my own, immediately asked me to shift from aft, where I sat, forward to the bow of the boat; the men continuing to pole along, as there was no room for them to ply their oars.
“I say, Master Brail,” quoth he, as soon as we could communicate without being overheard, “supposing we do carry his position-cui bono, what advantageth it us? The slaves, which, when the Midge first saw the polacre, and chased him, were on board, are without question once more back into cover, and must all have been landed; so if we could even weigh the hooker, and carry her to Cape Coast, I very much fear we should be unable to condemn her."
“But the honour and glory?" quoth old Dick.
"Both be-ahem;" quoth he; "but if you think it an object to have a brush, why, come along, my hearties, it is all the day's work."
I was a younger man by ten years than our friend, and, boy-like gloried in the opportunity; so we again began to scull along the creek, sheltered by the same umbrageous screen of mangroves, now so luxuriant that it shut out both sun and light as if it had been a continuous artificial arbour. I cannot describe the beauty and coolness of this shade—water clear and pellucid as crystal under foot; a long, distinct view through forests of naked mangrove-stems on each side, while aloft there was a perfect web of verdure resting on the trelliswork formed by the interlacing of their boughs, which spread out in a delicious covering over the whole creek. We dislodged innumerable birds of every variety, from the tall, floating, ghost-like crane to the chattering paroquet; and more than one owl fitted away from us and flew up through the branches until the sun struck him, with a flaff and a rustling brush through the topmost leaves, he came down overhead like a shot, until, restored by the green twilight, he would recover himself, and once more sail away along the narrow creek, and disappear round the corner of it ahead of us. In one instance, a boy in the bows struck one down with a boat-hook, so that the bird fell against Lieutenant Sprawl's head as he sat in the sternsheets of the boat ahead.
“Hillo, Brail, my man,” quoth he, "where awaywhat are you after?"
This narrow canal was absolutely alive with fishthey surrounded us on all sides, and, although we could discern some dark, suspicious-looking figures at the bot. tom, which we conjectured to be alligators, still there was no perceptible motion amongst them, and we continued to pull quietly until the headmost boat took the ground for a moment, and the others closed upon her.
“What is that?" sung out Old Bloody Politeful.
“Lord only knows," answered the midshipman beside him, as a loud snorting noise, approaching to a roara sound that hovered between the blowing of a whale and the bellowing of a bull half choked in a marsh— echoed along the green arch.
“Now, what customer can that be?” quoth your humble servant.
"A hippopotamus," said one of the launch's crew; and before we could hear anything more, an animal with a coarse black leather skin and a most formidable head, about the size of a small Highland cow (it must have been a young one), foundered down the creek past us, stirring up the mud as thick as tar all round about; but we had other work in hand, so he escaped without a shot. We pulled on, and presently the mangroves settled down right across the narrow creek, twisting their snakelike branches together into an impervious net. Ahead, our course was thus most effectually stopped by this ligneous portcullis; but close to the obstacle a small muddy path branched off to the right, and we determined to follow it.
It appeared a good deal poached, as if from the passing of a number of people recently along it, and we had not proceeded above twenty yards when we came upon a spare studding-sail boom to which some heavy weight had been attached, for two slings were fastened round it, showing, by the straight and wire-like appearance of the rope, how severe the strain had been; the spar itself was broken in the midst, as if the weight attached to it had been more than it could bear.
“Aha l" thought I, "we are getting near the earth of the fox anyhow; the scent is high."
We carried on. The path became more and more cut up, but no other evidences of our being on the proper trail occurred; and as we could not fall in with a tree tall enough to afford us a glimpse of the lay of the land about us had we ascended it, we had no alternative but to stand on.
"No chance of doing any good here,” grumbled an old quartermaster, close to where I was struggling nearly knee-deep in mud. "We shall catch nothing but fever here."
"Hillo !” said a little middy, as we braced up sharp round a right-angled corner of the pestiferous path; "hillo, the road stops here"; and so it certainly appeared to do, about pistol-shot, or nearer, ahead of us, where a mound of fresh-cut prickly bushes was heaped up about six feet high right across the path. Whether this was a casual interruption thrown up by the natives, or an impediment cast in our way by our concealed amigos, I could not tell. A loud barking of dogs was now heard ahead of us. Presently a halt was called, and the word was passed along to see that the priming of the muskets was dry and sound; and all of us instinctively drew his cutlass a finger's breadth or so from its sheath, to see that it would come readily to one's hand should need be. The first lieutenant, who, disdaining the common ship cutlass, had buckled on a most enormous Andrea Ferrara with a huge, rusty basket-hilt, advanced boldly towards the enclosure, when a smooth-faced, very handsome, dark young man suddenly raised his head above the green defence: "Que quieren ustedes, amigos mios?”
"What's that to you?” rejoined Sprawl; "give us a clear road, my darling, or maybe we shall cooper you, after a very comical fashion."
We had scarcely uttered the words when a discharge of grape burst from the green mound, crashing amongst the branches, and sending them down in a shower on our heads; while all the neighbouring trees, like Jacob's wands, became, in a twinkling of an eye, patched with white spots, from the rasping of the shot.
"Forward !" shouted Davie Doublepipe; "follow me, men!” when-rattle !-a platoon of musketry was fired at us. The grape had missed, from a wrong elevation of the gun; not so the small arms-one of our party was shot dead and three wounded; but the spring was