The Englishman's helm went up, his yards creaked round, and gathering way he plunged upon the larboard galley.
"A dozen gold nobles to him who brings down the steersman!" shouted Carey, who had his cue.
And a flight of arrows from the forecastle rattled upon the galley's quarter-deck.
Hit or not hit, the steersman lost his nerve, and shrank from the coming shock. The galley's helm went up to port, and her beak slid all but harmless along Amyas' bow; a long dull grind, and then loud crack on crack, as the _Rose_ sawed slowly through the bank of oars from stem to stern, hurling the wretched slaves in heaps upon each other; and ere her mate on the other side could swing round, to strike him in his new position, Amyas' whole broadside, great and small, had been poured into her at pistol-shot, answered by a yell which rent their ears and hearts.
"Spare the slaves! Fire at the soldiers!" cried Amyas; but the work was too hot for much discrimination, for the larboard galley, crippled but not undaunted, swung round across his stern, and hooked herself venomously on to him.
It was a move more brave than wise; for it prevented the other galley from returning to the attack without exposing herself a second time to the English broadside; and a desperate attempt of the Spaniards to board at once through the stern ports, and up the quarter, was met with such a demurrer of shot and steel that they found themselves in three minutes again upon the galley's poop, accompanied, to their intense disgust, by Amyas Leigh and twenty English swords.
Five minutes' hard cutting, hand to hand, and the poop was clear.
The soldiers in the forecastle had been able to give them no assistance, open as they lay to the arrows and musketry from the _Rose's_ lofty stern. Amyas rushed along the central gangway, shouting in Spanish, "Freedom to the slaves! death to the masters!" clambered into the forecastle, followed close by his swarm of wasps, and set them so good an example how to use their stings, that in three minutes more there was not a Spaniard on board who was not dead or dying.
"Let the slaves free!" shouted he. "Throw us a hammer down, men.
Hark! there's an English voice!" There is indeed. From amid the wreck of broken oars and writhing limbs, a voice is shrieking in broadest Devon to the master, who is looking over the side:
"Oh, Robert Drew! Robert Drew! Come down and take me out of hell!"
"Who be you, in the name of the Lord?"
"Don't you mind William Prust, that Captain Hawkins left behind in the Honduras, years and years agone? There's nine of us aboard, if your shot hasn't put 'em out of their misery. Come down--if you've a Christian heart, come down!"
Utterly forgetful of all discipline, Drew leaps down, hammer in hand, and the two old comrades rush into each other's arms.
Why make a long story of what took but five minutes to do? The nine men (luckily none of them wounded) are freed, and helped on board, to be hugged and kissed by all comrades and young kinsmen; while the remaining slaves, furnished with a couple of hammers, are told to free themselves and help the English. The wretches answered by a shout; and Amyas, once more safe on board again, dashes after the other galley, which has been hovering out of reach of his guns; but there is no need to trouble himself about her; sickened with what she has got, she is struggling right up wind, leaning over to one side, and seemingly ready to sink.
"Are there any English on board of her?" asked Amyas, loth to lose the chance of freeing a countryman.
"Never a one, sir, thank God."
So they set to work to repair damages; while the liberated slaves, having shifted some of the galley's oars, pull away after their comrade; and that with such a will, that in ten minutes they have caught her up, and careless of the Spaniard's fire, boarded her en masse, with yells as of a thousand wolves. There will be fearful vengeance taken on those tyrants, unless they play the man this day.
And in the meanwhile half the crew are clothing, feeding, questioning, caressing those nine poor fellows thus snatched from living death; and Yeo, hearing the news, has rushed up on deck to welcome his old comrades, and:
"Is Michael Heard, my cousin, here among you?"
Yes, Michael Heard is there, white-headed rather from misery than age; and the embracings and questionings begin afresh.
"Where is my wife, Salvation Yeo?"
"With the Lord."
"Amen!" says the old man, with a short shudder.
"I thought so much; and my two boys?"
"With the Lord."
The old man catches Yeo by the arm.
"How, then?" It is Yeo's turn to shudder now.
"Killed in Panama, fighting the Spaniards; sailing with Mr. Oxenham; and 'twas I led 'em into it. May God and you forgive me!"
"They couldn't die better, Cousin Yeo. Where's my girl Grace?"
The old man covers his face with his hands for a while. "Well, I've been alone with the Lord these fifteen years, so I must not whine at being alone a while longer--it won't be long."
"Put this coat on your back, uncle," says some one.
"No; no coats for me. You'd better go to your work, lads, or the big one will have the wind of you yet."
"So she will," said Amyas, who has overheard; but so great is the curiosity on all hands, that he has some trouble in getting the men to quarters again; indeed, they only go on condition of parting among themselves the new-comers, each to tell his sad and strange story. How after Captain Hawkins, constrained by famine, had put them ashore, they wandered in misery till the Spaniards took them; how, instead of hanging them (as they at first intended), the Dons fed and clothed them, and allotted them as servants to various gentlemen about Mexico, where they throve, turned their hands (like true sailors) to all manner of trades, and made much money, and some of them were married, even to women of wealth; so that all went well, until the fatal year 1574, when, "much against the minds of many of the Spaniards themselves, that cruel and bloody Inquisition was established for the first time in the Indies"; and how, from that moment, their lives were one long tragedy.
The history even of their party was not likely to improve the good feeling of the crew toward the Spanish ship which was two miles to leeward of them, and which must be fought with, or fled from, before a quarter of an hour was past. So, kneeling down upon the deck, as many a brave crew in those days did in like case, they "gave God thanks devoutly for the favor they had found"; and then with one accord, at Jack's leading, sang one and all the ninety-fourth Psalm:
"O, Lord, Thou dost revenge all wrong, Vengeance belongs to Thee," etc.
And then again to quarters; for half the day's work, or more than half, still remained to be done; and hardly were the decks cleared afresh, and the damage repaired as best it could be, when she came ranging up to leeward, as closehauled as she could. She was, as I said, a long flush-decked ship of full five hundred tons, more than double the size, in fact, of the _Rose_, though not so lofty in proportion; and many a bold heart beat loud, and no, shame to them, as she began firing away merrily,, determined, as all well knew, to wipe out in English blood the disgrace of her late foil.
"Never mind, my merry masters," said Amyas, "she has quantity and we quality."
"That's true," said one, "for one honest man is worth two rogues."
"And one of our guns, three of theirs," said another. "So when you will, captain, and have at her."
"Let her come abreast of us, and don't burn powder. We have the wind, and can do what we like with her. Serve the men out a horn of ale all round, steward, and all take your time."
So they waited for five minutes more, and then set to work quietly, after the fashion of English mastiffs, though they waxed right mad before three rounds were fired, and the white splinters began to crackle and fly.
Amyas, having, as he had said, the wind, and being able to go nearer it than the Spaniard, kept his place at easy point-blank range for his two eighteen-pounder guns, which Yeo and his mate worked with terrible effect.
"We are lacking her through and through every shot," said he.
"Leave the small ordnance alone yet awhile, and we shall sink her without them."
"Whing, whing," went the Spaniard's shot like so many humming-tops, through the rigging far above their heads; for the ill-constructed ports of those days prevented the guns from hulling an enemy who was to windward, unless close alongside.
"Blow, jolly breeze," cried one, "and lay the Don over all thou canst. What's the matter aloft there?"
Alas! a crack, a flap, a rattle; and blank dismay! An unlucky shot had cut the foremast in two, and all forward was a mass of dangling wreck.