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CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

There were no guards on the building, which was much smaller than the barracks but was also rectangular, with narrow slits for windows. It took the blacksmiths two or three minutes to smash open the door, which was small and held shut by an enormous padlock, the largest Ramage had ever seen. It was as crudely made as the others in the barracks, but effective.

As soon as the door was swung open the same stench came out that they had met at the barracks but it seemed every woman in the building was screaming in hysterical terror, frightened first by the gunfire and then by the pounding on the door as the blacksmiths went to work.

Ramage went into the building and started shouting in Italian to the women to be quiet. His sudden arrival and obviously peaceful intentions - even though he was holding a bloodstained cutlass and more of his men were coming through the door - had a calming effect on the women. One large woman with long black hair, whose unkempt appearance made Ramage think of a witch, seemed to be the leader, and as soon as she understood what Ramage was saying she screamed at the rest of the women to be silent. Ramage's shouts had been loud, but the woman's shrill command had much more effect.

She turned to Ramage. "What do you want us to do?"

"There are two British ships waiting at the quay. I want you all to run to them and get on board. They are British and no one will speak Italian but we are going to take you home again."

"Our men!" the woman exclaimed. "They are shut up in the barracks."

"They have just been freed. They will go in the other two ships. You will all be home again soon."

"But the guns!"

"It has been necessary to kill the Saracens," Ramage said drily. "Come on now, let's not waste time. Don't forget, no one in the two ships will speak Italian, but don't worry: they are English."

He beckoned to the big woman. "Follow me, and tell the rest of them to come along."

She followed at once, shouting at the other women, who hurried to join her. They were a haggard-looking crowd who, even though they had not been prisoners very long, showed signs of undernourishment. All of them had their hair hanging in greasy ringlets; most had dark smudges like bruises under their eyes. Almost all of them were now crying almost hysterically, overcome with relief, and, Ramage was sure, hardly aware of what they were doing.

Once out in the open air Ramage called to his men to form up round the women and led the march to the sloops, which were still firing desultory broadsides.

King and Payne obviously saw the motley crowd approaching, and the guns fell silent while men appeared at the bulwarks to help the women on board. Ramage saw Payne first and explained that the women had been told no one would speak Italian. "They know they are going home, so all they need is feeding - and let them wash, if you have enough water."

With that he hurried along to repeat it to Jason King. He then remembered he had forgotten to tell Payne about resuming fire. "I am going to march the slaves out of the barracks now - we'll make a dash for the frigates, but if the Saracens come back open fire on them as you cast off. Get out of the harbour as best you can - but don't waste a moment."

With that he was leading his men back to the barracks, followed by the soldiers. He found Rennick and his men outside the big double doors.

"Just guarding against a surprise attack," the Marine explained, "but the sloops' guns seems to have frightened the Saracens off."

"Right, now we'll escort the Italians round to the boats: the Saracens might try to rush us as we embark them. It's going to take time - these men are dazed, and they'll be clumsy. And as we go, pick up any of our wounded that you see; these damned Saracens will otherwise torture them to death."

Ramage went back into the barracks and shouted down the corridor in Italian: "Come out everyone, we are going to the ships."

The men who streamed out were long-haired, wild-eyed men almost hysterical with a mixture of fear and excitement. "Where are we going, Commandante?" one of them shouted.

"Out to ships that will carry you home," Ramage said. "Now, calm yourselves and obey orders, we may have to fight our way through."

Major Golightly's soldiers led the way to the boats, followed by the Italians, then came the Marines and the seamen followed up behind.

Then Ramage had a moment to look at the Calypso and the Amalie and saw that they were in the same position, aground on the sandbank. He caught sight of boats rowing round them, and just as he was despairing of the time they were taking he realized that only about twenty minutes had passed since they had landed from the boats. Taking soundings round the ships would be a tedious job for Aitken and Roper. Roper! For the first time he realized that the frigate captain was not leading his men. He had not noticed who was leading the Amalie seamen, but it certainly was not Roper. Why? Was the man frightened of the smell of powder? He thought of the attitude of Aitken and Southwick, both angry at being left behind, and compared it with Roper's. Staying behind in his ship had not helped much; she was still aground . . .

Well, they were past the first lot of streets: the Saracens seemed reluctant to attack, contenting themselves with waving their scimitars and screaming threats from a distance. There were many bloodstains in the dust and fifty or so bodies, all Saracens. Golightly's soldiers had obviously collected the bodies of the dead Britons, as well as the wounded. A considerate act, Ramage thought; Golightly knew the bodies would be defiled if they were left.

Now they were at the quay and they followed the soldiers round. Ramage glanced over his shoulder yet again. The Saracens were leaving the side streets now but they were not following. The Rose had her sails set and was drawing away from the wall; the Betty was casting off. Well, the women were safe.

They were halfway down the quay when the Saracens charged: they ran, shouting and waving scimitars and spears, their robes flying. Ramage looked across at the Calypso and was thankful to see that Aitken had anticipated him and the four boats were waiting at the quay, while the four from the Amalie were rowing the last few strokes before they too were ready to embark men.

The Saracens still had nearly a hundred yards to go before they caught up with the seamen from the Calypso and the Amalie and Ramage was just going to send Orsini ahead with the order when Golightly anticipated him and broke into a trot with his troops and the Italians.

Clumsy soldiers helping panicky Italians into the boats would quickly reduce the quay to chaos, so Ramage shouted: "Kenton and Martin: get your divisions ahead and help those Italians into the boats. Pack them in, we don't have much time!"

Soldiers, Italians, Marines and seamen had all reached the boats by the time the Saracens arrived. Golightly and his soldiers covered half the quay while the seamen and Marines from the two frigates spread out over the other half. All had time to reload their muskets and pistols and, at orders from Golightly and Ramage, they held their fire until the leading Saracens were only ten yards away.

Golightly, who had a stentorian and unmistakable voice, bellowed "Fire!" and the crackling of the muskets rippled the width of the quay. The first row of Saracens collapsed but the men behind them leapt over the bodies and charged the British.

Ramage guessed there were perhaps three hundred of them: the sloops' caseshot must have taken a dreadful toll, and the first fight with them near the side streets had also killed dozens. For once the Saracens were outnumbered: there was a good chance of embarking everyone in the boats - if they could hold this crowd off long enough.

And then Ramage and the rest of the men were parrying and slashing. Ramage realized that the Saracens had attacked to one side, throwing all their men against the seamen and Marines and leaving the soldiers alone. And they were driving the seamen and Marines back by the fierceness of their rush; they fought like men who had gone berserk, rarely bothering to parry: they kept on slashing wildly with their scimitars or jabbing with their spears.

Ramage was just beginning to despair of holding the Saracens away from the boats when Major Golightly and his troops swept in from the rear, whooping and yelling. The Saracens paused for a moment, caught between the seamen and Marines in front and the soldiers behind. Then, as if suddenly realizing they were outnumbered, they ran out to the side and then bolted back along the quay, still shouting what Ramage took to be defiance.

Seeing Golightly in the melee he shouted his thanks and pointed back towards the boats. Golightly understood at once and hurriedly the soldiers and the men from the frigates formed in a half-circle round the point where Kenton and Martin were hurrying the Italians into the boats, which were being rowed off at top speed to the frigates.

Ramage elbowed his way through the men to talk to the two lieutenants. "How many have you got off so far?"

"That's the sixth boat, sir," Kenton reported breathlessly. "The Italians are stepping lively, thanks to Orsini!"

Only then did Ramage realize that the young Italian was with the two lieutenants, shouting orders at the Italians, who were now formed up into orderly groups.

Ramage glanced at the boats. Well, the oarsmen were bending their backs. The danger would come when there were only a hundred seamen and Marines left: that was when the Saracens were likely to make a last desperate attack.

But the Calpyso's carronades could hold them off. Ramage acted quickly. "Martin,! Go out in the next boat and warn Mr Aitken to stand by to open fire on the quay with the carronades using case: the Saracens might well try and rush us when there are only a few of us left."

The first of the boats were returning and Orsini was giving sharp orders to get the rest of the Italians embarked. Now that the Italians were being given clear and concise orders they were much calmer, and they scrambled down into the boats without any delay.

Ramage realized that Golightly was standing beside him and the major said: "We'll form the rearguard while your seamen and Marines get off."

Ramage shook his head. "Very kind of you, but my men will stay on the quay until all your men are embarked. You've saved us twice, now it's our turn!"

Golightly shrugged his shoulders. "Please yourself, Ramage."

Ramage quickly explained that the Calypso's carronades should be able to cover them for the last few minutes, and Golightly nodded approvingly. "Very good," he said. "I hadn't thought of that."

Finally the last of the Italians dropped down into a boat which shoved off at once, making for the Amalie. When the next boat arrived alongside the quay Ramage signalled Golightly to start embarking his troops. At once thirty soldiers dropped down into the boat, which set off for the Calypso. Ramage then noticed that the Rose was now outside the harbour and lying hove-to while the Betty was passing outside of the Calypso, using her as a mark to keep clear of the shoal. King and Payne had done their jobs perfectly; at least the women had been rescued, even if the men were for the moment marooned on board two grounded frigates.

If only the frigates had more boats; four each seemed enough for most occasions, but now they needed eight to embark men from the quay while two more continued taking soundings - or even laid out an anchor if it proved impossible to sail off the shoal.

What was Roper going to do during the next fifteen minutes? Ramage had to admit that his opinion of the young man had gone down considerably when he realized that he had stayed on board, instead of leading his landing party. Staying on board had not done any good - the Amalie was still as hard aground as the Calypso, so Roper's presence had contributed nothing.

Ramage glanced up the quay. The Saracens were still waiting at the far end. Had they been genuinely scared off by Golightly's attack on their rear or were they waiting until the last of the frigates' men were waiting to be embarked? It was impossible to guess. Had they got over the shock of being attacked from the sea so that they could work out the tactics for counter-attacking? As far as Ramage could see, they were men who fought bravely and desperately up to a certain point: after that their nerve failed them and they quit. Yet was that reading too much into what they did at Licata? Was it reading too much into Golightly's two attacks on them? Well, when they outnumbered their enemy they fought well; perhaps when they equalled him they would fight well. But when they were outnumbered - there was the question mark.

But outnumbered or not, the important thing for the moment was that they were staying at the other end of the quay and Golightly's soldiers were being embarked in the boats of the Amalie and the Calypso. There were heads looking over the bulwarks on the quarterdeck of the Calypso and Ramage could see that the carronades had been run out and trained as far forward as possible, covering the quay between the Saracens and the landing place. Ramage could imagine Southwick watching the Saracens through a telescope while Aitken was at the entryport, hurrying soldiers below as soon as they climbed on board. Aitken, he guessed, was anxious to get the ship afloat again; being aground induced a strange feeling of physical helplessness, like having one's arms tied behind the back.

Did Aitken and Southwick already know the direction of the deep water? Had they just completed the soundings when the time came to send the boats over to the quay? Or did that interrupt them in the tedious job of rowing, a cast of the lead, note the depth on the slate and row on farther? Had they already decided that a backed topsail (perhaps topgallant as well) would swing the bow round enough, or would it need an anchor carried out in the boats and laid in the right place to let them warp the ship off, using the brute strength of the men at the capstan?

Ramage realized that there was nothing to compare with the helpless feeling of a captain standing on shore while his ship was lying aground: Aitken and Southwick might feel helpless, but at least they were on board and not standing here on a dusty quay looking after four hundred seamen and fifty Marines from two frigates, and embarking three hundred soldiers.

Well, look on the bright side, if there is one. At least the women are safe in the sloops and the Italian men are in the Amalie and the Calypso. Apart from the two frigates being aground, the orders (request, rather) of the King of the Two Sicilies had been carried out (probably much to the surprise of Rear-Admiral Rudd).

Carried out except that the two frigates were aground. And you might as well face the fact that if you sailed a frigate on to a sandbank with all plain sail set, you were making enough knots to drive on hard; hard enough for it to be very difficult to get off.

At least it had not felt as though there had been rock under the sand - rock that would wedge the ship. It had been a gentle business, like sliding off a mattress filled with goose down. It was sand (of that he was fairly certain) and not mud, which sucked at the hull and would not give a decent bite to an anchor. If you are going to go aground, for preference always choose a sandy shoal.

And three more boats left the quay loaded with soldiers while two more came alongside. Sixty soldiers scrambled on board them and they cast off, and Major Golightly walked across and said: "Your fellows are making quick work of it: they must be exhausted with all that rowing."

"They're used to it," Ramage said. "You should see them when they have to tow the ship for eight or ten hours in a flat calm."

Golightly shuddered at the thought. "That must be equal to a fifty-mile route march under a tropical sun."

Now it was Ramage's turn to shudder. "Perish the thought! Think of those blisters on the feet!"

"Think of the blisters your men are getting on their hands!"

"My men's hands are probably as tough as your men's feet," Ramage said. "In other words, they are well trained for their individual jobs."

Golightly gestured along the quay towards the Saracens. "Those fellows seem to be getting more excited."

And Ramage realized that the major was right: the Saracens were shouting more excitedly, and seemed to be jumping up and down more vigorously. He looked round and saw that fewer than fifty soldiers remained, with the seamen and Marines from the two frigates.

He then saw more Saracens streaming along the road to join the rest at the end of the quay. He estimated there must be a couple of hundred of them hurrying to join the three hundred already waiting. Obviously they were concentrating for another attack. Would there be more reinforcements? Five hundred raving Saracens . . .

Finally Golightly said: "That's the last of my men."

Ramage turned and saw two boats leaving the quay. "Why didn't you go with them?"

"I thought it would be more interesting to stay with you."

"You should be with your men."

"They know their way round the Calypso now, and the rest are safely on board the Amalie." Ramage shrugged his shoulders. "There's nothing for you to do here now."

Golightly grinned cheerfully and said: "I enjoy stretching my legs on shore: very confining, being on board a ship. Besides, I enjoy killing a few Saracens."

There was little left to do but prepare for an attack by the Saracens, and Ramage gave orders to Rennick, Kenton and Hill to assemble their men round the embarkation point. The lieutenants from the Amalie quickly obeyed Ramage's order and grouped their men next to the Calypsos.

More than a hundred of the Amalie's and Calypso's seamen had been taken off in the boats when Hill suddenly called: "Here they come!" And at last the Saracens, scimitars waving and robes flying, came running along the quay, screaming at the tops of their voices.

They were, Ramage decided, the most frightening sight he had ever seen on land. He knew that not one of those men cared whether he lived or died: that the only thing that made him retreat was knowledge that he was outnumbered, and the mathematical certainty that he would be driven off.

Now, though, they knew they were not outnumbered; they were charging to cut off the hundred or so British seamen and Marines left waiting on the quay.

Ramage hoped that Southwick was watching with his telescope -not that one needed a bring-'em-near to see what was going on. Nor, for that matter, an ear trumpet to hear.

The Arabs had covered thirty yards. Now fifty and they were another fifty yards away. Ramage imagined the carronades trained round to cover a small area of the quay into which the Saracens were now running. The guns would be loaded with case; forty-two four-ounce balls to a case. The locks would be cocked; the gun captains would be taking the strain on the triggerlines.

Then, suddenly, they fired: there was a shattering concussion and spurts of smoke, and Ramage felt the muzzle blast. And the oncoming horde reeled as the barrage of caseshot bit into them. At first glance it seemed to Ramage that fifty or more of the turbaned figures now lay sprawled in the dust, and while the rest stood paralysed by the shock of the attack, Rennick's Marines and the seamen opened fire with their muskets.

The gunners on board the Calypso would be reloading the carronades knowing their shipmates' lives depended on their speed, and for the moment the Saracens were stopped in their tracks, obviously uncertain what to do next.

"What a sight!" Golightly said conversationally. "Close-range caseshot. . . Most effective."

He might, Ramage thought, be commenting on the progress of some game. How impressed he would have been had the 12-pounders been able to fire, but they could not be trained as far as the carronades, and with the Calypso firmly aground there was no way of turning the ship.

Even before the Saracens had collected themselves, the carronades thundered out again, cutting another swathe through them. Just at that moment four boats came alongside the quay but none of the seamen made a move to climb down into them. Ramage turned and shouted at the men nearest the boats to embark, but they did not move.

"We want to stay with you, sir," one of the men shouted.

There was no point in arguing - or giving overriding orders -with men showing that spirit, so Ramage threw up his hands. "Keep up a hot fire, then!"

Looking back at the Saracens, Ramage saw that the second blast from the carronades had been more effective than the first because they had bunched up with the shock. The second round had swept into the heart of the crowd of men and bodies were beginning to pile up, one on top of another.

A couple of crazed men began a desperate dash towards the seamen and were picked off by Rennick's Marines, sprawling into untidy heaps, looking as though someone had dropped two piles of old clothes.

"The third should do it," Golightly said judicially.

"There are plenty more," Ramage said grimly. "I want to kill 'em, not drive 'em off. We've got to refloat the frigates yet."

At that moment Orsini came up. "The men in the boats want to know if they can join in, sir: they've muskets with them."

"No they can't," Ramage growled. "This isn't a party!"

Golightly said: "Your sailors seem to be in fine spirit."

Ramage realized that he had become so used to the men's attitude that he was in danger of taking it for granted, and it took the comments of someone like Golightly to draw attention to it.

The third round of fire from the carronades crashed out and once again the caseshot cut a swathe through the Saracens, who were by now grouped helplessly and obviously did not know what to do next.

Ramage guessed that there were a hundred and fifty bodies now lying on the quay: the carronades had killed a good third of the men who had been gathered at the end of the quay. Now, he calculated, the seamen and Marines were not outnumbered - not that the Saracens looked as if they were going to resume their charge.

In fact even as he tried to gauge how many of them were left, the first of them began to run back along the quay towards the town, and they were quickly followed by the rest, who left the dead and wounded where they were lying.

Had they lost their nerve? Ramage decided not. They had simply realized that they were outnumbered and that they could do nothing against the guns that were firing at them, and very sensibly they were withdrawing.

Ramage waited until he was absolutely sure that all the Arabs had withdrawn and then he shouted an order for the men to start embarking. Three more boats had arrived alongside the quay and they were soon on their way back to the frigates with the majority of seamen and Marines.



CHAPTER SEVENTEEN | Ramage and the Saracens | CHAPTER NINETEEN



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