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CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

There was no time to watch the sloops: Ramage snatched up the speaking trumpet and called forward: "Major Golightly! Have your men stand by to embark in the boats!"

Then he shouted louder: "Boats' crews, to your boats. Afterguard - smartly there, haul the boats round to the entryports."

There was going to be a mad rush of soldiers, Marines and seamen for the quay: the boats were ready to ferry them, but it would take minutes to row them across: minutes in which the Saracens could prepare for the attack.

Now the Betty had passed safely and was heading for the wall. The Rose was swinging out to follow in her wake. Was there another sandbank between the sloops and the wall? Jason King was taking a chance that there was not; the Betty was still under full sail, though Ramage could see men aloft preparing to furl the canvas.

By now the cutters were alongside, one to larboard and the other to starboard with the jolly-boat and gig waiting, and the soldiers were scrambling down after the boats' crews. They were making good time: all the exercising was paying off. They knew how to sling their muskets; they knew how to kick their swords out of the way so that they did not catch between their legs.

As the last of the soldiers disappeared over the side, the Marines split in two sections, one going to starboard and the other to larboard, one led by Rennick and the other by Sergeant Ferris.

Apart from the soldiers, the quay was still empty: obviously the flotilla had not been spotted approaching. Ramage picked up the speaking trumpet and shouted to the seamen below at the guns: "Boarding parties fall in."

Nearly two hundred seamen armed with cutlasses, pikes and tomahawks stood by at the entryports. Ramage intended that only twenty-five seamen would be left behind on board. Would they be enough to work under Aitken to get the Calypso off the sandbank?

"Will you have enough men to refloat the ship?" he asked the first lieutenant.

"I'll make do," Aitken replied. "You need all the men that can be spared."

"Very well, it's time I went on shore. I'll tell the jolly-boat to come back as soon as possible so you can use it to take soundings. I think you'll find deeper water a few yards further out - where the sloops went. We were just a bit too close to the quay."

"Leave it to us," said Southwick, who had got over his disappointment at not being in the landing parties. The argument with the master had been brief: Ramage had pointed out that Major Golightly had two ensigns with him to command the troops, there were Kenton, Martin and Hill to command the seamen, and Rennick and Sergeant Ferris could look after the Marines. Meanwhile, unless Southwick stayed behind, Aitken would be left alone in the Calypso, having to face any emergency alone. And, as it happened, there was now a real emergency: the frigate was stranded on a sandbank right at the beginning of the attack.

Ramage scrambled down into a boat and found himself among a party of Marines and a few seamen. The boat cast off and the crew struck out for the quay. It was not high; it took only a few moments for all the men to scramble out of the boat and up on top.

Suddenly Ramage realized that he had come on shore in the jolly-boat and he shouted to its coxswain to return to the Calypso and report to the first lieutenant, who would use it to sound round the ship.

The sudden roar of the Betty's first broadside showed that not only had she arrived alongside the wall but there were Saracens there. Were they the normal guards at the barracks or were they men from the town? Ramage had not heard any alarm.

He saw that Major Golightly was already leading his soldiers, including those from the Amalie, at the double down the quay, running round towards the barracks. Now Rennick's Marines were following and the three lieutenants were hurriedly forming up their seamen, the last to get on shore.

Ramage drew his cutlass and waited for the seamen. Then, as soon as they were ready he waved his cutlass in the air. "Come on lads, follow me!"

As he began running he heard the Rose's first broadside, followed a few moments later by the Betty's second, and he thought of the balls of the caseshot cutting into the Saracens. And the popping of distant musketry showed that the Marines on board the sloops were adding their share.

The quay was uneven and twice he almost stumbled as he ran. The quay seemed longer than he expected. He saw Major Golightly's troops reach the end and turn left for the final dash to the barracks, and saw that Rennick was not far behind with his Marines. Then he saw the first of the Saracens beginning to pour out of the side streets, and pour was the right word: they were running out, screaming and waving scimitars, as though they had been lying in wait.

Golightly's soldiers stopped, knelt, raised their muskets and fired a volley. Immediately they resumed their dash, loading their muskets as they ran. The Rose fired her second broadside as Ramage reached the end of the quay and turned to lead the rush of seamen towards the barracks. By now he saw dozens of turbans and beards in front of the soldiers while more came running out of the side streets. They seemed to be gathering in front of the barracks and just as he was registering the fact the Betty fired another broadside of caseshot into the middle of the Saracens.

Ramage guessed that thirty Saracens had been cut down, perhaps more, because he could not see very clearly. And Major Golightly was going to be facing a difficult decision in a few moments: should he halt and wait for the guns of the Betty and Rose to clear the front of the barracks of Saracens, or should he continue advancing, forcing the sloops to stop firing.

Ramage wanted to shout at him to stop and leave it to the sloops for the time being, and just as he was cursing that the major would never hear him he realized that Paolo Orsini was running beside him. "Here, quick! Tell the major to halt and leave it to the sloops!''

The Italian youth ran through the Marines, dodging them like a jinking hare, and Ramage, deliberately slowing down, saw him reach the troops.

King's plan had been a good one; it was working perfectly. For some reason the Saracens, as soon as they appeared, were making for the barracks instead of forming up at the end of the quay. Did they regard the barracks, with its contents of scores of slaves for the galleys, as their most valuable possession? It would make sense: without the galleys they were powerless; without the slaves the galleys could not move.

Finally, as soon as he saw the troops halt, showing that Orsini had got through to Golightly with the order, Ramage halted the seamen and was glad to see that Rennick had halted his Marines behind the soldiers. On their right a series of narrow streets led away into the town and Ramage saw that Saracens were now beginning to come out of them, instead of making for the barracks.

He shouted to his men to face right and in moments they were firing muskets and pistols, followed almost immediately by the Marines as Rennick saw what was happening.

At the same time broadsides continued thundering out from the Betty and the Rose, the detonations being almost simultaneous. The soldiers must also be reloading quickly and calmly because between the thunder of broadsides Ramage heard the popping of muskets.

By now many more Saracens were pouring out of the side streets wielding scimitars and spears and screaming at the top of their voices as they grouped in front of the Marines and seamen.

Any moment now, Ramage thought, and it's going to be hand-to-hand fighting. The Rose and the Betty could keep the courtyard in front of the barracks clear - indeed, they were doing so, most effectively - but the Marines and seamen were going to bear the brunt of the rest of them.

The crowd opposite, Ramage saw, were working themselves into a frenzy: they were waving scimitars and spears and screaming even louder, and behaved as if they were awaiting an order to charge. The Marines and seamen formed a column three or four deep facing them. Should he form them into a square, or anyway form them into a line six or seven deep? Ramage finally decided against it; the Saracens would probably charge while the Britons were in the middle of the movement.

Suddenly, yelling demented cries, the Saracens charged just as the Marines fired one more volley. Ramage saw several Saracens collapse under the hail of musket shots. Then Marines and seamen dropped their muskets and stood by with cutlasses, pikes and tomahawks. The approaching Saracens looked fearsome, heads swathed in turbans, bearded and wearing what looked to Ramage like white nightshirts.

Within moments cutlass was clashing with scimitar, pike was warding off spear. Ramage, at the head of the column, found himself almost alone as he slashed and parried attacks from two Saracens. He managed to parry one attack and slashed back to send the Arab reeling when the Arab beside him collapsed, gurgling horribly, twisting to his knees with Orsini's cutlass in his side.

Ramage just had time to see Jackson and Stafford fighting their way towards him when a screaming Saracen ran at him with a spear. He managed to deflect it with his cutlass but the man cannoned into him and, as Ramage struggled to stab at him with his cutlass, fell gurgling as once again Orsini attacked from the side.

In the brief moment after the attack Ramage realized that the Marines and seamen were being overwhelmed: they were outnumbered two to one by men who fought with a terrible ferocity. The only place where the British attack was succeeding was in front of the barracks, which was being kept clear by the broadsides of the Betty and the Rose. Ramage turned to slash at the next Saracen, conscious that the Arabs were among the seamen and Marines, many of whom were now lying on the ground dead or wounded. This made the fighting at Licata look like a tea party; as he parried a scimitar and thrust with his cutlass he realized that the Marines and seamen were doomed by the sheer weight of numbers. Every man was fighting two or three Arabs. There was no chance of retreat: for a start there was nowhere to go because the boats could never take them off to the Calypso or Amalie. And anyway the Saracens were too mixed up with the British. It was as he had feared: they were outnumbered and they would end their days - if they survived - in the galleys.

With Jackson on one side and Orsini and Stafford on the other, with Rossi and Gilbert close enough for Ramage to hear cursing in French and Italian, he fought on. A wild-eyed and black-bearded Arab hurled himself at Ramage, scimitar whirling like a scythe. Ramage deflected the sword with his cutlass but the Arab's impetus sent him spinning towards Stafford, who jabbed at the man's throat with his cutlass, and Ramage saw him fall, blood spurting through his beard Just as Ramage was deciding it was only a matter of time before they were all slaughtered there was a wild yelling from his left and almost before he had time to register what was happening, Major Golightly's soldiers were in the melee, swords flashing and yelling at the tops of their voices The surprise attack by three hundred soldiers drove off the Saracens, who broke and ran back into the streets behind them It all happened so quickly that Ramage was left holding his bloodstained cutlass and staring at the backs of the Saracens Suddenly Major Golightly appeared in front of him, grinning happily "Just in time, eh?"

"Only just!' Ramage exclaimed 'Thanks!'

' We weren't doing any good where we were - thanks to the guns of those two sloops - so I thought I'd lend you a hand "

Ramage looked towards the barracks The quay was clear "Come on," he said to Golightly, 'let's get those slaves out!"

With that he shouted to his men and Golightly barked out an order to the troops, and nearly five hundred men started running up the street along the quay towards the barracks ' What about the sloops' guns7" Golightly gasped as he ran beside Ramage "They'll stop firing when they see us coming Then they'll guard our rear "

Ramage heard another couple of broadsides as he ran and, seeing that the road and courtyard in front of the barracks was clear of Saracens, guessed that King and Payne were now firing up the streets , The barracks was a plain rectangular building with a big double door on one narrow side, which was the nearest The only windows were slits, too narrow for a man to crawl through They looked at first like gun loops but Ramage saw they were too high for that They were narrow, he decided, because they were intended to let in a little air and not much sun He saw that the right-hand door had a small wicket gate and it was open the guards must have fled when the sloops began their broadsides, which must have made a terrifying noise Later Ramage had no memory of that last frantic dash up to the barracks, but he remembered vividly the stench that hit him as he ran through the door with Golightly it was like diving into a midden In the half darkness of the building he saw a long corridor with cell doors opening off it Perhaps twenty cells, each door padlocked "Blacksmiths'" he yelled, thankful that he had detailed half a dozen men to bring sledge-hammers and chisels Several men thrust their way past him and without further orders began attacking the padlocks As soon as the first one fell to the ground, the door was swung open and half-naked men began pouring out Realizing that there would soon be chaos, Ramage bellowed in Italian, telling the men to go back in the cell until told to come out He ran to the door and called "How many in there9"

"Forty-seven," came back the answer in an excited chorus Forty-seven9 And twenty cells9 More than nine hundred men9 Perhaps not all the cells were full, the Saracens might crowd the slaves into the first few As the men designated as blacksmiths smashed away at the padlocks, Ramage ran back to the wicket gate and peered out, momentarily dazzled by the bright sunlight No, the Saracens had not come back they were being held off by the sloops' broadsides From this position, less than forty yards from the muzzles of the guns, the noise was deafening, the noise alone seemed powerful enough to knock a man down The padlocks were crude affairs and each one took the blacksmiths only two or three minutes to smash open At each cell Ramage had to explain to the inmates that they had to wait, that it was impossible for them to escape from the building at the moment When would the moment arrive9 Getting back to the frigates meant running the gauntlet of the men in the side-streets where the seamen and Marines had their desperate fight before Major Golightly arrived with his soldiers And there were the women held in the brothel a hundred yards further along the quay They would be no problem because it had already been arranged that they would escape to the sloops Finally the blacksmiths reported that the last padlock was opened but there were no men in the last eight cells. Ramage decided to keep the freed slaves in the building until the women were rescued and put on board the sloops; then the men could all be convoyed back to the frigates using everyone he had - soldiers, Marines and seamen. He looked round for Major Golightly, found him by the wicket door, peering out into the courtyard, and gave him his orders: with the seamen they would make a rush for the brothel and the Marines would be left behind to keep an eye on the freed slaves and to protect them from any marauding Saracens. He called to Rennick and gave him his orders.

He decided that the seamen should lead the charge and shouted to his men as he led the way to the door. He stood at the wicket gate for a few moments, watching the two sloops continue blasting the ends of the streets with caseshot, then led the rush along the road beside the port that led to the brothel. He had expected to have to fight every inch of the way but there were no Saracens: clearly they had regarded the barracks as the only target that the infidels would attack.



CHAPTER SIXTEEN | Ramage and the Saracens | CHAPTER EIGHTEEN



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