Down in his stable, Jackson walked round the carronade like an anxious hen circling its chicks. "I hope we'll hear the rocket," he said. "Here, Rosey, you station yourself by the door. But make sure you jump back quick when you hear the rocket because I shall fire at once. Almost at once, anyway."
"You be patient," said the practical Rossi, moving to the door. "If I am to be sure of hearing the rocket I'll be standing only a foot from the muzzle."
"All right, all right," Jackson said and turned to Stafford. "To save our Italian friend from being blown to pieces accidentally, don't you cock the lock until the rocket's gone off. Does that satisfy you Rosey?"
The Italian nodded grudgingly.
Stafford was busy preparing the gun. First he took the long, thin, pricker and thrust it down the vent, jabbing it in and out until he was sure it had pierced the cartridge. Then he pushed a quill down the vent and then sprinkled some priming powder from the horn round his neck, so that it filled the pan and covered the top of the quill. The moment that Jackson pulled his firing lanyard and the lock was triggered to make a spark, the powder would fire the quill and a spun of flame would flash down the vent and detonate the cartridge. But until the lock was cocked, there was no way that the flintlock could cause a spark.
His job as second captain completed, except for cocking the lock, Stafford stood back. Jackson crouched down and s'ghted along the barrel, although he knew the gun was already trained on the right section of the quay.
"I wonder how many there are," said Stafford.
"I heard Mr Ramage say he reckoned they'd have about twenty boats," Jackson said. "Tell me how many men the boats carry and I'll tell you how many men they have."
"They'll be galleys and tartanes and maybe a few fishing boats. Thirty or forty men in each boat?"
"I doubt if they'd have as many as that," Jackson said. "They need room for prisoners."
"Even if they have only twenty in each boat, they'll outnumber us two to one."
"But they won't have six carronades, half a dozen boat guns and a couple of hundred muskets and pistols," Jackson pointed out. "Cheer up, Staff, you probably won't end up your days in a Saracen galley!"
Stafford shuddered. "I should hope not. I can feel that whip across my shoulders, and my hands are raw from holding the oar."
"It's your imagination that makes you tired," Jackson said unsympathetically. "You just keep this gun firing and we'll all be all right."
"We'll certainly surprise 'em," Stafford said, seeking some consolation in the fact. "There they come dancing ashore thinking they're attacking a helpless fishing port, and bang, bang, there are the Calypsos waiting for them."
"I suspect that's why we're here," Jackson said sarcastically. "I can't help thinking that that's what crossed Mr Ramage's mind when he first stepped ashore here."
"I 'sped so," Stafford said in the tone of voice that took it for granted that the captain worked miracles. "He's usually got a reason."
"I don't understand when we know to stop firing so that the seamen and Marines attack along the quay," Gilbert said.
"You weren't listening properly when Mr Ramage was giving us our orders," Jackson said. "There'll be a rocket - maybe more than one - telling us when to open fire, and three rockets when we're to cease fire and the seamen and Marines to go chasing up the quay."
"Supposing we don't hear the rockets?" Gilbert persisted.
"We'd better, otherwise we're going to kill a lot of our own men as they run out," Jackson said. "Anyway, we'll either see the rockets as they burst, or we'll hear the other guns stop firing. Or not hear them, rather."
"It's not a very good idea," Gilbert said. "Rockets don't make such a noise."
"As Mr Ramage said," Jackson growled, "there's no other way: men won't have time to run from gun to gun saying 'Please stop firing'. Anyway, rockets make a completely different noise from carronades or muskets. You listen hard, Gilbert - and the rest of you. Staff and Rosey and I will have enough to concentrate on."
"Rockets!" Gilbert said crossly. "Might as well have someone up at the castle blowing a whistle!"
Jackson stared at the Frenchman. "Say a prayer that we stay alive to hear the rockets. If those Saracens get near us with their scimitars, it will be all over!"
"They'll have to run fast to catch me," Gilbert said drily.
Up in the castle Ramage watched the oncoming Saracen boats. It was impossible to see how many men they carried but the telescope revealed one thing: the decks were not lined with men. The Saracens, Ramage concluded, were sure that all they were doing was attacking yet another undefended small fishing port; as far as they were concerned this was a repeat of Marsala, Mazara, Sciacca and Empedocle: a routine attack, nothing to get excited about.
"Light another slowmatch," he told Orsini. "I don't like having to rely on one. In fact light two more: let's have one each when we want to fire off three rockets. The men are more likely to hear three rockets fired almost simultaneously."
"We have about seven feet of slowmatch left, sir," Orsini reported.
"That's enough for another three Saracen raids," Ramage said impatiently.
The glare from the sea was strong now as the stiff breeze pewtered the water, throwing up small waves which reflected the sun like a million flashing diamonds. The Saracen craft were approaching like water beetles advancing across a pond. With this south wind, Ramage noted, the Saracens would be able to run into the port with a commanding wind, rounding up alongside the quay. It would be a head wind for them leaving - but, unless his plans went badly adrift, none of them would be doing that.
Five hundred yards? About that, then the first of the craft, a tartane, would be coming in through the entrance. Then a second and third tartane and then three galleys. They were gaudily painted. The tartanes were decked out in strakes of green and red, with blue and white triangles and stripes apparently painted on the hulls at random. The galleys were similarly painted but as Ramage swung his telescope further round he could see that the fishing boats were still painted in the Sicilian fashion, each with a big eye painted on either side of the bow.
Gaudy colours and patched sails, yet to give the devils their due the boats were fast: the tartanes were slipping along and the galleys, under sails and oars, were keeping up with them. The tartanes had pleasantly sweeping sheers while the galleys had almost flat sheers, with the banks of oars moving in unison as though the craft were breathing.
Now the first tartane had sailed through the entrance, followed by the second and then the third. The rest of the craft were beginning to turn like a gigantic tail. Very soon the first of the tartanes would be rounding up to come alongside the quay and the men at the guns, peering out of the stable doors, would be able to see them. If only all the Saracen craft had come alongside at the same time - then the guns could have opened fire on them before the men landed. A big if, Ramage thought.
The first tartane swung round head to wind and crashed alongside the quay. Ramage could not hear the noise but he saw the long yard quiver from the impact. The Saracens were more skilled at sailing their boats than handling them in confined spaces. Now the second and third large tartanes were alongside and the galleys were manoeuvring into position, an operation which took more care because each captain had to make sure the oars on the landward side did not hit the stonework of the quay.
"How do they boat those great oars?" Orsini asked.
Ramage shrugged his shoulders since he had no idea.
By now more tartanes and captured boats were streaming into the port but, Ramage noted, there was no mad rush to get on shore: the boats were giving themselves plenty of room, and they manoeuvred as though they had plenty of time, too. There was no hurry to attack the port. The Saracens knew that they had overwhelmed the other ports by sheer weight of numbers, and Licata was simply another like the others.
As he watched closely through his telescope Ramage could see men securing the first tartane alongside, throwing ropes over the stone bollards. The second tartane had come alongside the first and was securing to it, and while it was doing that, the third tartane came alongside her, so they were three deep. The first galley went alongside the quay and the second secured next to it, followed by the third. Then, like giant ants, the other boats came in and went alongside. The strange thing was, Ramage noted, that none of the Saracens had gone on shore, apart from the men throwing ropes over the bollards. It was a curiously leisurely invasion.
Soon all twenty or so craft were secured alongside the quay and then, as if someone had blown a whistle or bellowed an order that everyone could hear, the men started climbing over the bulwarks on to the quay. Ramage tried a rough count-twenty, forty, sixty, a hundred: that covered the first three tartanes and the galleys. Twenty, forty, sixty - that was two hundred. Quickly he reached a total of four hundred standing about on the quay, and that seemed the end of the exodus from the boats.
The four hundred stood in a crowd, as though undecided what to do next, but Ramage guessed that their leader - or leaders - were just getting their bearings.
If only the crowd would stay together and move into the area he had called the killing ground, but they would probably split up into groups as they made their way towards the town. Was there one leader or did each craft have its own leader - a man who became the chief of his own men as soon as they landed? It did not really matter except it might have some bearing on whether the men stayed together or split into smaller groups.
Then, watched by a startled Ramage, all the men turned to the east and flung themselves on to the ground. And from down on the quay Ramage could just hear a faint wailing: rhythmic and persistent but high-pitched.
"They're praying, by God!" exclaimed Orsini. "Those damned heathens are praying!"
"Praying for the souls of the infidels they are about to disembowel or drag off," Ramage said drily. "Don't forget we often have a prayer before battle - it's the same sort of thing."
"Yes," said Orsini, who did not agree with the prayers, "it gets everyone into the right attitude for murder and mayhem, knowing that God is on their side. These fellows call him Allah, but the idea is the same."
Then the Saracens stood up, gave a bloodcurdling shriek while waving their scimitars in the air, and turned towards the town. But they did not run: they did little more than amble, breaking up into small groups as they made their way along the quay.
Ramage could imagine six triggerlines belonging to six carronades being tightened as the gun captains took up the first strain. In the houses seamen and Marines would be cocking their muskets and pistols. The second captains of the carronades, too, would have cocked their locks and stood back clear of the recoil. Every one of the Calypsos would be listening for the crackling of the rocket as they watched the advancing Saracens.
The horde of men had covered about fifty yards so far: they must be very confident of themselves because they were not hurrying. And indeed, why should they not be confident? As far as they were concerned Licata was just another fishing port, so placed to provide Saracens with ablebodied men for their galleys and nubile women for the brothels.
The Saracens had covered seventy-five yards by now, a shambling group of men who were doing little more than shuffling their way towards the town. But more important, they were heading directly for the killing ground. They were not bunched up enough to make perfect targets for the carronades: in fact it was hard to believe that such a casual crowd of men were a menace to Licata. Except, Ramage realized, for the glint of the sun on the scimitar blades. The men were walking along swinging their scimitars just as men out for a peaceful walk might swing at flowers with walking sticks - in England it would be dandelions, but Ramage realized he was not sure that they grew in Sicily.
He almost laughed at himself when he found he was thinking about dandelions while at the same time he watched the Saracens through his telescope. No, there did not seem to be a particular leader, or at least no one man was heading the crowd. They were now thirty yards from the edge of the killing ground, and Ramage said to Orsini: "Stand by with the slowmatch."
Orsini picked it up and blew on it so that it glowed red, and he moved close to the rocket as it stood in its tube canted over the town.
Then the first of the Saracens had reached the edge of the killing ground itself. Ramage could see that all of the men were dressed in robes with scarves or cloths covering their heads. And they all had beards; black beards which made them look fierce.
Now half of them were in the area, the rest of them shuffling along as though they had all the time in the world - which, as far as they knew, they had. Most of them, Ramage thought grimly, have very little time left in this world, although they were blissfully ignorant of the fact.
Ramage felt the excitement gripping him now: so far his plan was working out and everything depended on the timing of that rocket. If it was too soon, it would raise the alarm for the Saracens; if it was too late then many of them would be outside the target area before the guns fired.
He watched and waited, looking sideways to make sure that Orsini was ready at the rocket with the slowmatch. Yes, the slowmatch was glowing. And he found he could judge the position of the Saracens better with his naked eye: the telescope distorted the view by foreshortening the foreground.
Damn, he had to watch that the leading men were not out of the area before the ones in the rear had entered it. There, now was the moment!
"Fire the rocket!" he snapped at Orsini and a moment later the rocket hissed up in the, air over the town and exploded with a crackling noise as it sped over the quay.
Before the last of the rocket's noise was lost there was a series of deep coughs as the six carronades opened fire and the barrage was punctuated by the lighter banging of the boat guns and the popping of more than two hundred muskets and pistols.
The leading Saracens collapsed in piles, cut down by caseshot and musket balls as they walked, and the rest of the crowd froze, taken completely by surprise. Then the muskets crackled again as seamen and Marines fired the spare guns they had beside them. And Ramage could imagine the carronade crews desperately ramming home cartridges, wads and caseshot and then he wing away with handspikes to aim the guns again.
Again the carronades barked out, cutting down more Saracens, who were now beginning to crouch down, obviously puzzled where the noise and swathe of death was coming from. The boat guns joined in, like puppies barking, and many more Saracens collapsed: the bodies were beginning to pile up on the quay.
But to Ramage's surprise the Saracens did not run back to their craft alongside the quay: instead they seemed to bunch up together, shouting and waving their scimitars as though in defiance. As the third blast of fire from the carronades bit into the crowd, they started running towards the town and towards where most of the carronades were positioned. And Ramage realized he had made a mistake in keeping the guns and the seamen and Marines separate: there were no men to guard the guns; the carronade crews would be cut down by the Saracens, who did not fear death. In fact, he suddenly remembered, they regarded death in battle as a certain way to Paradise, so they were men without fear.
How many had been killed - or, more important, how mam were left alive? Bodies were so piled up on the quay, sprawled in the ungainly poses of men unexpectedly hit by death, that it was hard to count, but Ramage guessed a hundred: that left three hundred getting ready to attack the guns and the town.
Again the carronades coughed and Ramage saw they were firing at ranges of only a few yards: the screaming Saracens were now running towards the wreaths of smoke spurting from the guns, which they obviously did not fear. There were fewer muskets and pistols crackling: the men had not had time to reload. The Saracens would be at the first of the houses in a couple of minutes. And the seamen would not be prepared for them: they had orders not to move until they heard the three rockets which would stop the carronades firing.
There was only one way out of this mess, Ramage decided.
"Fire the three rockets!" he shouted at Orsini and, looking round at the six lookouts, he added: "Bring cutlasses and follow me: we're going down to the town!"
The mad run downhill to the quay was a nightmare: the carronades had stopped firing the moment the rockets had crackled overhead, but as Ramage and the lookouts neared the quay in their wild dash through the town they could hear the screaming of the Saracens and the shouts of the Calypsos. Then, punctuating the shouting, they heard a single carronade fire.
It was the one of which Jackson was the captain. A couple of minutes earlier, just before the rockets, the four Frenchmen and Rossi were hurriedly reloading the gun when Stafford, walking to the door, exclaimed: "Jacko! The Saracens are coming here! They're charging the guns!"
As the rockets crackled, Jackson said grimly: "This gun is our best protection: hurry up and load!"
Stafford stood by the door watching the approaching Saracens, until the last moment, when he ran with pricker, quills and powder horn. Although he could not see them he knew the first of the Saracens were only a few yards away when he clicked back the lock to cock it and then sprang back telling Jackson: "Ready!"
The American waited, listening as the shouting grew nearer and watching the doorway, the triggerline taut in his right hand. Suddenly half a dozen raggedly dressed Saracens appeared at the door, yelling and waving their scimitars, Jackson waited a moment and then, as the first three Saracens were bursting in through the doorway, pulled tight on the triggerline.
The three men vanished in the cloud of smoke spewing from the muzzle of the carronade and, as Stafford ran through the smoke to the doorway, he saw five or six bodies, with heads and limbs missing, scattered across the paving in front of the stable.
Ramage in the meantime had arrived at the quay to find the Calypsos in a desperate fight with the Saracens, cutlass against scimitar. As far as he could see the Calypsos were in three groups, led by Kenton, Martin and Hill, and the Marines making a fourth group with Rennick.
Ramage, with the six seamen and Orsini, flung themselves against the nearest group of Saracens, slashing with their cutlasses. Ramage heard Orsini cursing them in shrill Italian as he slashed with his cutlass. Ramage stabbed at the back of one Saracen who was about to chop at a seaman and then turned just in time to parry a scimitar slicing down at himself.
The shouting of the Saracens was so intimidating that Ramage realized it could affect his men, so he began shouting "Calypsos! Calypsos!" and the seamen and Marines began to take up the cry until they were making as much noise as the Arabs.
Followed by Orsini, Ramage slashed his way towards the party led by George Hill, which was the nearest, and was amused to hear the jaunty way that Hill was encouraging his men. Ramage lunged at an Arab who parried, shouting at the top of his voice. As his cutlass slid down the curved scimitar Ramage snatched it back and stabbed again and the Saracen collapsed. So much for the lessons learned as a boy from an Italian fencing master, Ramage thought grimly. But there was no question that the Saracens wielded their scimitars crudely; they were no match for the seamen, who had cutlass drill at least twice a week.
A screaming Saracen dashed at Ramage with his scimitar held high over his head and before he had time to slice down Ramage lunged with his cutlass, which penetrated the man's stomach so that he collapsed gurgling, almost disembowelled.
The Saracens were holding their ground: they were standing and fighting, instead of making a bolt for their boats, and Ramage saw that by now eight or ten seamen and a couple of Marines were lying among the Saracens dead or badly wounded. Then in the distance he heard the cough of a carronade and for a moment wondered if it was firing into the middle of the swirling mass of Saracens and Calypsos.
In fact it was Jackson's gun. The American had realized that the Saracens' boats, secured alongside the quay, made a perfect target, and he had guessed that the captain would want them destroyed or damaged. He had therefore ordered his men to train round the carronade so that it raked the craft. It took him only a moment to decide that the slaves in the galleys would have to take their chance, and he fired the first round. After each round Stafford ran to the smoke-filled doorway to see if any more Saracens were coming to attack them, but they all seemed to be occupied fighting the seamen.
After six rounds Jackson went to the doorway himself to inspect the boats and he was satisfied to note that the masts and yards of three tartanes were now slewed down over the deck.
"If only we had some roundshot!" he exclaimed to Stafford. "This caseshot is only pecking at 'em!"
"It's cutting the running rigging, and that's all that matters: we're trying to put 'em out of action for an hour or two, not sink 'em!" the Cockney replied, coughing from the gun smoke.
The Frenchmen and Rossi were also coughing and spluttering from the smoke that filled the stable, and they were loading and running out the gun more by feel and instinct rather than being able to see what they were doing. After another six rounds, when he was coughing so much his eyes were streaming and he was gasping for breath, Jackson went to the doorway again. This time he could see that the carronade was having a considerable effect on the boats: of the twenty or so craft, only four or five still had masts standing; the slanting yards of the tartanes had all fallen to the deck, probably because their halyards had been cut, and the squaresail yards of two of the galleys were slewed round drunkenly and no sail could be set on them.
"Let some of this smoke clear," he told his men, "we can't go on like this: the damned gun'll get doubleshotted or something stupid."
The smoke cleared quickly and after a quick glance at the confused fight going on across the quay, Jackson set his men back to work. In two minutes the stable was once more full of smoke as the carronade fired and Jackson again adjusted the aim, having to wipe streaming eyes as he gave new elevating and training instructions that set the men busy with handspikes and had them turning the wormscrew that took the place of a wedge-shaped quoin.
By now Ramage had the desperate feeling that his men were being overwhelmed by the Saracens, who fought like madmen. The Calypsos were too spread out to take advantage of their training: they needed to be concentrated so they could make an organized attack. But getting them into any sort of formation meant several minutes that they would be vulnerable while they reformed. Ramage quickly decided to take the risk; it was a lesser one than having his men overwhelmed.
He ran to one side and shouted at the top of his voice: "To me, Calypsos; tome!"
Many of the men heard him above the yelling and screaming and, led by Rennick, Ken ton, Martin and Hill, the men ran to his side. As he waited for them he continued to hear the sporadic cough of a carronade and his eye caught sight of the twisted lateen yards of the tartanes. He realized that someone, probably Jackson, had seen how vulnerable were the Saracens' craft.
With the Calypsos collected round him, Ramage shouted at the lieutenants: "Form into sections; attack from different directions."
They were not orders that would be approved by the Marines but they were the best he could do shouting at the top of his voice in the middle of a battle. The men collected round their officers, choosing the lieutenant commanding their divisions of guns on board the Calypso. The sudden movement by the seamen and Marines had puzzled the Saracens, who stood nonplussed. Then Ramage, satisfied that his men were in some sort of order, bellowed: "Charge!"
Now the motley collection of Saracens were attacked by four separate columns and, lacking any discipline, were quickly broken into large and small groups. Ramage joined Hill's men, who were the nearest, and parried a scimitar as it sliced down on to the back of a seaman. The rasping of metal against metal made the seaman turn in time to slash the Saracen with his cutlass.
Orsini was shouting something at Ramage which he could not hear and pointing seaward. Ramage glanced up to see the Calypso sailing in through the harbour entrance: she must have spotted the smoke, since the flag had not been hoisted at the castle flagpole. But what could an undermanned frigate do? She could not open fire with her guns because she would kill more Calypsos than Saracens.
But Ramage had not realized the effect the great frigate - she seemed enormous in the tiny port compared with the Saracens' boats - would have on the Arabs: at that moment several of them spotted her and started a wild, demented howl which was quickly taken up by the rest of them. The moment they turned to look at the frigate the Calypsos redoubled their efforts, slashing at the Arabs in a desperate attempt to take advantage of their momentary preoccupation.
Suddenly the Saracens broke away and started running across the quay and back to their boats. At the same time they seemed to notice for the first time the twisted yards and this provoked more howling, as they realized that they were trapped.
At that moment Ramage heard a gigantic splash as the Calypso let go an anchor and then, as her sails were furled, began to .wing round head to wind, to lie parallel with the quay and the Saracen craft, which were fifty yards away from her.
As the Calypsos ran after the Saracens, chasing them back to their boats, they hurled curses after them, slashing with their cutlasses at the unprotected backs of men who had at last panicked and were only concerned with getting aboard their boats.
Ramage paused a moment. Aitken had enough seamen to man a few of the 12-pounders; in fact Ramage was certain that as many guns as possible would at this very moment be in the act of being loaded and trained. And if and when the Calypso's broadsides crashed into the boats, he did not want any of his men near.
He shouted to the lieutenants to halt the men. Hill and Rennick heard him and stopped their sections, and then the rest of the Calypsos, realizing that some of their comrades had stopped, halted and looked back. In the meantime the Arabs continued their headlong dash to the boats and started scrambling on board, despite the damage caused by Jackson's carronade.
At that moment the carronade barked out again and Ramage saw its caseshot cut a swathe through the running Saracens. By now there were few of them left on the quay: most had piled into the boats and were beginning frantically to cast them off.
Suddenly the Calypso's side was a flicker of winking red eyes and a moment later plumes of smoke streamed out. Then the erratic crash of the broadside rattled across the quay as at least eight 12-pounders fired into the massed boats.
Ramage stood with his lieutenants and the seamen and Marines to watch as the Calypso fired a second broadside and then a third. Two tartanes began to, sink, one of the galleys suddenly heeled over and filled, taking the slaves with it, and two of the captured fishing boats capsized.
"What a slaughter!" Hill commented. "What timing!"
Ramage suddenly felt rather weak; his knees no longer wanted to support him, and he wanted to giggle. Well, that was how relief took you because, he admitted, but for the Calypso he wondered if they would have been able to deal with all the Saracens.
"We'll wait and let Aitken finish them off," Ramage said. At that moment the carronade coughed again, and Ramage added: "And Jackson, too!"
Another two tartanes suddenly heeled over as water poured in through their shattered hulls and they slowly filled, and Ramage saw men floundering in the water. The Saracens could fight well enough, but they could not swim. The Calypso's fourth broadside smashed into the remaining boats and Orsini commented: "There go two more of them!" as two fishing boats suddenly sank, their masts vanishing as they disappeared into what Ramage guessed was five fathoms of water.
Yet again Jackson's carronade fired, and Ramage could imagine the American's glee at having caught the Saracens in such a crossfire. And the Arabs' own haste to escape had doomed them: they had cast off the craft alongside the quay, and all the rest of the vessels were secured to them. Slowly they drifted away from the quay so there was no chance for any of the Saracens to get back on to the land; instead they were doomed to drift closer under the Calypso's guns.
Ramage noticed that the Calypso was not firing at the two galleys: obviously Aitken had thought about the galley slaves chained to the oars and decided to give them a chance. But Ramage wondered how they were going to get at the Saracens -fighting across the galleys' decks would be risky as far as the slaves were concerned.
Now the Saracens' vessels had stopped drifting: those left afloat were being held by the lines of those that had been secured to them and then sunk. Which meant that they were perfect for the Calypso's guns, which had stationary targets at less than fifty yards' range.
In ten minutes the only craft left afloat were the two galleys, and the Calypso stopped firing, and so did Jackson's carronade. Ramage saw the frigate hoist out boats and through his telescope saw Aitken climbing down into one of the cutters, which then made for the quay. Ramage stood to one side and waved, and the cutter altered course towards him.
Aitken was jubilant. "I hope you approve of the timing, sir!"
Ramage smiled and said: "You were early - thank goodness."
"I saw all the masts and as soon as I could see the flag was not flying I guessed they were attacking. Then we saw the smoke of the carronade. Just one, sir."
"That was Jackson and his men firing on the boats. I had to stop the rest because the Saracens attacked them."
"I hope they didn't spike any," Aitken said anxiously.
"No - they didn't get near them, in fact. I had to let the seamen and Marines drive them off, which meant stopping the carronades firing. All except Jackson's gun: he took no notice and kept on firing at the boats."
"The galleys," Aitken said. "I didn't fire into them because of the slaves."
"Quite right, but now we have to hook out the Saracens."
"We can board them from the boats, sir."
"Ramage shook his head. "No, these fellows are madmen; our casualties would be enormous. I'm not prepared to lose that many men just to save slaves."
Damnation, it was a rotten dilemma. How was he to save the slaves without losing dozens of his men? The only way would be to swamp the Saracens; somehow attack them with a couple of hundred men.
It was easy. The idea came to him so quickly that at first he was suspicious of it, and tried to work out what could go wrong. But there seemed to be nothing wrong with it and he described it to Aitken.
"We want the two galleys back alongside the quay, so that we can board them from the land and completely outnumber them."
"I don't see any problem," Aitken said. "We just tow them back alongside."
"Yes, our boats with grapnels. Let them get close enough to heave grapnels on board and then tow them to the quay."
"Musketry," Aitken said doubtfully. "The men in the boats will be vulnerable for a long time."
Again Ramage shook his head. "The Saracens don't seem to have many muskets: they didn't use them when they attacked us, and I doubt if they'd have many in the galleys."
"Very well, sir, I'll go and give the boats their orders if you'll get your men ready."
"You'll be using just about all your men," Ramage commented.
"Yes, sir, but we've managed so far - thanks to Southwick!"
"What's he been doing?"
"Well, I had him dancing all over the quarterdeck, cursing and foaming when we guessed what was happening here. Then I suggested he went and helped at the guns, because we were so short of men, and he went off like a pistol shot. Enjoyed himself enormously. The last I saw of him just before I got into the cutter he no longer had white hair: it was grey from smoke and powder!"
With that Aitken jumped down into the cutter which was quickly rowed back to the frigate. It took fifteen minutes to get all the boats ready and surrounding the galleys, and by then Ramage had all his surviving seamen and Marines lining the quay two deep where the galleys would be towed alongside.
The grapnels were flung up from Aitken's boats and before the screaming Saracens realized what was happening all the Calypso's boats were hauling the galleys back alongside the quay.
They had only ten yards to go, and while the Saracens lined the landward side of the nearest galley shouting what Ramage assumed were threats intended to curdle the blood, the seamen and Marines waited patiently to fight their way on board.
It was while watching the prancing Saracens that Ramage suddenly realized that these were the only survivors of the four hundred or so that had landed: the rest had either been killed in the fighting on shore or drowned as the boats had been sunk by the Calypso's relentless fire. How many were there in the galleys? Thirty in each; not more. Sixty left out of more than four hundred. There were going to be many widows in whatever town they called home. More widows than one would at first suppose, Ramage thought, because most men probably had more than one wife. . .
Ramage saw that the galleys were sufficiently small for his men to line up four and five deep, and he shouted orders to Rennick, Kenton, Martin and Hill. Had Aitken brought over the blacksmith to free the slaves from their chains?
And then the galleys were alongside and the British seamen and Marines were pouring over the bulwarks, shouting and slashing with their cutlasses. It was such a violent and concerted attack, with Ramage and Orsini in the front row, that the Saracens quickly retreated into the second galley.
Ramage, noticing that Jackson, Rossi, Stafford and the Frenchmen had appeared from somewhere and were surrounding him like a bodyguard, was appalled by the stench: the galleys smelled like middens, and as he found his way from one galley to the next, Ramage just glimpsed the slaves hunched down, seated on benches.
As he slashed and parried, Ramage had to watch his footing: the galley, with its double row of oarsmen each side, had no deck in the accepted sense; the ship seemed to comprise catwalks, a central one down which the men in charge of the slaves presumably walked with their whips.
He scrambled across to the second galley, noting in the red haze of fighting that they had taken the first, and then he saw that several of the Saracens - in fact many of them, those trapped against the bulwarks - were jumping into the sea, a flurry of long robes, turbans and long hair. And then suddenly the fighting was all over; the sudden silence was almost unnerving.
Ramage scrambled back on to the quay again, found Kenton and Martin and said: "Take a couple of dozen seamen and go back towards the guns and bring back our wounded here: the sooner we get them out to the ship so that Bowen can have a go at them, the better."
"What about the Saracens, sir?" Hill asked.
"Our men first," Ramage said abruptly.
As the first of the wounded were brought along the quay and made ready to be lowered into the Calypso's boats, Kenton gave Ramage the butcher's bill: seventeen Calypsos had been killed and thirteen wounded. There were fifty-seven dead Saracens - many of them killed by the carronades, boat guns and musketry -and forty-four wounded, most of the men so seriously that they would not last out the night.
Just as Kenton finished his report - after adding that many of the men and women from the town were out helping the wounded - the mayor came up to Ramage, his face serious. He took Ramage's hand and said emotionally: "You saved us - but at what a cost to your men!"
"It was inevitable," Ramage said. "We were heavily outnumbered."
The mayor looked across at the galleys, startled by the banging of metal as the blacksmith got to work.
"Go on board and look," Ramage said. "We're freeing the men who had been taken as slaves. Once we find out where they come from we'll take them back home again."
The mayor clambered on board the first galley but was soon back, white-faced and clearly shaken by what he had seen.
"What our men have escaped!" he said apologetically. "It turns the stomach ..." and before he could say any more he was violently sick. "The stench," he said apologetically. "But, Commandante," he added, "I was going to tell you that our people are doing what they can for your wounded over there. Unfortunately, we do not have medical supplies. But the dead, we will give them a great funeral - it is the least we can do," he said when he saw Ramage about to protest. "The Saraceni we put in a pit, all of them."
It took a moment for Ramage to realize the significance of what the mayor had said.
"Not all of them," he said. "Just the dead."
"They'll all be dead," the mayor said grimly. "They would have killed us- but for you. And if we let them escape alive, who knows, they might come back one day, looking for revenge. And you won't be here to protect us. No, Commandante, we do it our way; it is safer for us."
Ramage shrugged his shoulders. Much as the idea of slaughtering wounded men repulsed him, there was no arguing with the mayor's logic: there would not always be a British frigate to protect Licata; the little port would be defenceless in two or three days' time, once the Calypso left.
The mayor shook hands again and left just as Kenton and Hill led the second group of wounded. Hill said: "The Italians are taking away our dead, sir: carrying them up to the church."
"Yes, I know, the mayor has just told me. They want to arrange the funeral - a sort of thanks offering."
"But the Saracen wounded," Hill began lamely. "What I mean is, those that were wounded . . ."
Ramage guessed what Hill was trying to say. "You couldn't stop them?"
"No, sir, they were too quick. We didn't expect anything like that and we were busy attending to our own men first. When we turned round it was all over. Throats cut."
"It wasn't your fault," Ramage said. "These people are frightened that if any Saracens escape they'll be back seeking revenge as soon as we've gone."
"Can't say I blame "em," Hill said. "A couple of dozen Saracens could cut everyone's throat in this town - judging from the way we saw them fight. No wonder the Italians dread the Saracens."
"It's a tradition," Ramage said. "The Saracens have been raiding Italian coastal towns and villages for centuries. It's something that we who were brought up in England will never understand."
At that moment Aitken came up and reported: "All the slaves have been freed, sir. Some of them are in a bad shape: a few of them have gangrene where the chains chafed them."
"Once we've got the wounded taken out to the ship, take these Italians across and give them a good meal. As soon as Bowen has finished with our wounded, he can have a look at these fellows."
The funeral of the dead Calypsos was held next day, with all the people of Licata, right down to crippled old women and stumbling little children, there to pay their last respects. Ramage translated much of the service for the Calypso's commission and warrant officers who attended the service, and then made a brief speech in Italian thanking the people of Licata.
Once he was back on board the frigate, Ramage settled down with his clerk to interview all the former slaves freed from the galleys. Bowen had treated the gangrene cases as best he could, and many of the men had bandages round ankles and shins.
Ramage had some trouble with the accents which, apart from being thick Sicilian, varied from village to village, a variation explained by the fact that very few of the men had ever visited other villages. , Slowly Ramage and the clerk progressed along the line of hammocks and benches, noting each man's name and the port he came from .All told the same story of being seized in daylight raids; some added the tragic postscript that their wives and daughters had been taken away too. They had first been taken to a town on the African mainland, and then transferred to the galleys and made to row back to Sicily. And as the clerk wrote down the names and home ports, Ramage realized that they came from every port from Empedocle to Marsala.
After saying goodbye to the mayor of Licata and the people, who lined the quay to cheer and wave, Ramage took the Calypso westward, to call in at all the ports and deliver the men who had long since given up hope of ever seeing their homes again. At Marsala - from where the majority of the slaves came - the mayor was so overcome that he wanted to give a banquet for all the Calypso's officers, but knowing the town was almost starving Ramage got out of it by inviting the mayor and many of the senior citizens to dinner on board the Calypso, lucky to have Orsini help him as translator.