By RALPH D. PAINE
Illustrated by Frank E. Schoonover
THE PENN PUBLISHING COMPANY PHILADELPHIA
COPYRIGHT 1922 BY THE PENN PUBLISHING COMPANY
Made in the U. S. A.
I. THAT COURTEOUS PIRATE, CAPTAIN BONNET 7
II. THE MERCHANT TRADER, PLYMOUTH ADVENTURE 21
III. HELD AS HOSTAGES TO BLACKBEARD 43
IV. THE CAPTIVE SEAMEN IN THE FORECASTLE 62
V. RELEASING A FEARFUL WEAPON 79
VI. THE VOYAGE OF THE LITTLE RAFT 99
VII. THE MIST OF THE CHEROKEE SWAMP 114
VIII. THE EPISODE OF THE WINDING CREEK 132
IX. BLACKBEARD'S ERRAND IS INTERRUPTED 147
X. THE SEA URCHIN AND THE CARPENTER'S MATE 161
XI. JACK JOURNEYS AFOOT 177
XII. A PRIVATE ACCOUNT TO SETTLE 189
XIII. OUR HEROES SEEK SECLUSION 203
XIV. BLACKBEARD APPEARS IN FIRE AND BRIMSTONE 217
XV. MR. PETER FORBES MOURNS HIS NEPHEW 232
XVI. NED RACKHAM'S PLANS GO MUCH AMISS 248
XVII. THE GREAT FIGHT OF CAPTAIN TEACH 260
XVIII. THE OLD BUCCANEER IS LOYAL 274
XIX. THE QUEST FOR PIRATES' GOLD 288
THIS LEAN, STRAIGHT ROVER LOOKED THE PART OF A COMPETENT SOLDIER Frontispiece
THE BRAWN OF THESE LADS MADE THE PIKE A MATCH FOR A PIRATE'S CUTLASS 83
THE FIRST MATE LEAPED UP WITH A HORRIBLE YELL 120
JACK ALMOST BUMPED INTO THE DUGOUT CANOE 129
THEY CAPERED AND HUGGED EACH OTHER 164
HE LOOMED LIKE THE BELIAL WHOM HE WAS SO FOND OF CLAIMING AS HIS MENTOR 224
THAT COURTEOUS PIRATE, CAPTAIN BONNET
THE year of 1718 seems very dim and far away, but the tall lad who sauntered down to the harbor of Charles Town, South Carolina, on a fine, bright morning, was much like the youngsters of this generation. His clothes were quite different, it is true, and he lived in a queer, rough world, but he detested grammar and arithmetic and loved adventure, and would have made a sturdy tackle for a modern high-school football team. He wore a peaked straw hat of Indian weave, a linen shirt open at the throat, short breeches with silver buckles at the knees, and a flint-lock pistol hung from his leather belt.
He passed by scattered houses and stores which were mere log huts loopholed for defense, with shutters and doors of hewn plank heavy enough to stop a musket ball. The unpaved lanes wandered between mud holes in which pigs wallowed enjoyably. Negro slaves, half-naked and bearing heavy burdens, jabbered the dialects of the African jungle from which they had been kidnapped a few months before. Yemassee Indians clad in tanned deer-skins bartered with the merchants and hid their hatred of the English. Jovial, hard-riding gentlemen galloped in from the indigo plantations and dismounted at the tavern to drink and gamble and fight duels at the smallest excuse.
Young Jack Cockrell paid scant heed to these accustomed sights but walked as far as the wharf built of palmetto piling. The wide harbor and the sea that flashed beyond the outer bar were ruffled by a piping breeze out of the northeast. The only vessel at anchor was a heavily sparred brig whose bulwarks were high enough to hide the rows of cannon behind the closed ports.
The lad gazed at the shapely brig with a lively curiosity, as if here was something really interesting. Presently a boat splashed into the water and was tied alongside the vessel while a dozen of the crew tumbled in to sprawl upon the thwarts and shove the oars into the thole-pins. An erect, graceful man in a red coat and a great beaver hat roared a command from the stern-sheets and the pinnace pulled in the direction of the wharf.
"Pirates, to be sure!" said Jack Cockrell to himself, without a sign of alarm. "'Tis Captain Stede Bonnet and his Royal James. I know the ship. I saw her when she came in leaking last October and was careened on the beach at Sullivan's Island. A rich voyage this time, for the brig rides deep."
The coast of South Carolina swarmed with pirates two hundred years ago, and they cared not a rap for the law. Indeed, some of these rascals lived on friendly terms with the people of the small settlements and swaggered ashore to squander the broad gold pieces and merchandise stolen from honest trading vessels. You must not blame the South Carolina colonists too harshly because they sometimes welcomed the visiting pirates instead of clapping them in jail. Charles Town was a village at the edge of a wilderness filled with hostile Indians. By sea it stood in fear of attack by the Spaniards of Florida and Havana. There were almost no crops for food and among the population were many runaways from England, loafers and vagabonds who hated the sight of work.
The pirates helped them fight their enemies and did a thriving trade in goods that were sorely needed. Respectable citizens grumbled and one high official was removed in disgrace because he encouraged the pirates to make Charles Town their headquarters, but there was no general outcry unless the sea-rovers happened to molest English ships outside the harbor.
It was Captain Stede Bonnet himself who steered the pinnace and cursed his sweating sailors in a deep voice which went echoing across the bay. He made a brave figure in his scarlet coat, with the brass guard of his naked cutlass winking in the sun. His boat's crew had been mustered from many climes and races, several strapping Englishmen, a wiry, spluttering little Frenchman, a swarthy Portuguese with gold rings in his ears, a brace of stolid Norwegians, and two or three coal black negroes from Barbadoes.
They were well armed, every weapon burnished clean of rust and ready for instant use. Some wore tarnished, sea-stained finery looted from hapless prizes, a brocaded waistcoat, a pair of tasseled jack-boots, a plumed hat, a ruffled cape. The heads of several were bound around with knotted kerchiefs on which dark stains showed,—marks of a brawl aboard the brig or a fight with another ship.
Soon a second boat moved away from the Royal James and many people drifted toward the wharf to see the pirates come ashore, but they left plenty of room when the captain scrambled up the weedy ladder and told his men to follow him. Charles Town felt little dread of Stede Bonnet himself. He knew how to conduct himself as a gentleman and the story was well known,—how he had been a major in the British army and a man of wealth and refinement. He had left his home in Barbadoes to follow the trade of piracy because he couldn't get along with his wife, so the rumor ran. At any rate, he seemed oddly out of place among the dirty rogues who sailed under the black flag.
He looked more the soldier than the sailor as he strode along the wharf, his lean, dark visage both grim and melancholy, his chin clean shaven, his mustachios carefully cropped. There were respectful greetings from the crowd of idlers and a gray-haired seaman all warped with rheumatism spoke up louder than the rest.
"Good morrow to ye, Cap'n Bonnet! I be old Sam Griscom that sailed bos'n with you on a marchant voyage out of Liverpool. An' now you are a fine gentleman of fortune, with moidores and pieces of eight to fling at the gals, an' here I be, a sheer hulk on the beach."
Captain Stede Bonnet halted, stared from beneath heavy brows, and a smile made his seamed, sun-dried face almost gentle as he replied:
"It cheers me to run athwart a true old shipmate. A slant of ill fortune, eh, Sam Griscom? You are too old and crippled to sail in the Royal James. Here, and a blessing with the gift."
The pirate skipper rammed a hand in his pocket and flung a shower of gold coins at the derelict seaman while the crowd cheered the generous deed. It was easy to guess why Stede Bonnet was something of a hero in Charles Town. He passed on and turned into the street. Most of his ruffians were at his heels but one of the younger of them delayed to pay his compliments to a pretty girl whose manner was sweet and shy and gentle. She had remained aloof from the crowd, having some errand of her own at the wharf, and evidently hoped to be unobserved. Jack Cockrell had failed to notice her, absorbed as he was in gazing his fill of Captain Stede Bonnet.
The girl resented the young pirate's gallantry and would have fled, but he nimbly blocked her path. Just then Jack Cockrell happened to glance that way and his anger flamed hot. He was about to run after Captain Bonnet and beg him to interfere but the maid's distress was too urgent. Her blackguardly admirer was trying to slip his arm around her trim waist while he laughingly demanded a kiss from those fair lips. She evaded him and screamed for help.
There were lusty townsmen among those who beheld the scene but they sheepishly stood in their tracks and were afraid to punish the insolent pirate with his dirk and pistols. He was much taller and heavier than Jack Cockrell, the lad of seventeen, who came of gentlefolk and was unused to brawls with weapons. But the youngster hesitated no more than an instant, although his own pistol lacked a flint and was carried for show.
His quick eye spied a capstan bar which he snatched up as a cudgel. Chivalry had taught him that a man should never reckon the odds when a woman appealed for succor. With a headlong rush he crossed the wharf and swung the hickory bar. The pirate dodged the blow and whipped out his dirk which slithered through Jack's shirt and scratched his shoulder. Undismayed, he aimed a smashing blow at the pirate's wrist and the dirk went spinning into the water.
The rascal tugged at a pistol in his belt but it was awkward work with his left hand and he was bewildered by this amazing attack. Before he could clear for action, Jack smote him on the pate and the battle ended then and there, for the pirate staggered back, missed his footing, and toppled overboard with a tremendous splash.
Leaping to the edge of the wharf, Jack saw him bob to the surface and strike out for shore. Then the doughty young champion ran to offer his escort to the damsel in distress. But she had hastened to slip away from this hateful notoriety and he saw her at the bend of the street where she turned to wave him a grateful farewell.
He would have hastened to overtake her but just then Captain Stede Bonnet came striding back in a temper so black that it terrified his own men. His wrath was not aimed at Jack Cockrell, for he laid a hand upon the lad's arm and exclaimed:
"A shrewd stroke, boy, and a mettlesome spirit! You struck him swift and hard. 'Twould please me better if you had killed the dog."
Stede Bonnet waited with folded arms until the culprit had emerged from the water. Jack Cockrell had punished him severely and there was no more fight in him. His head was reeling, the blood ran into his eyes, and he had swallowed much salt water. Captain Bonnet crooked a finger at him and he obeyed without a word. For a moment they stood face to face, the wretched offender trembling, the captain scowling as he said:
"And so you mistook a lady for a common serving wench, Will Brant? Would ye have Charles Town rise and reeve the ropes about our necks? Is this your promise of good behavior? Learn a lesson then, poor fool."
With the steel-shod butt of a pistol Stede Bonnet hit him squarely between the eyes. He dropped without a groan and lay stretched out as if dead. The captain kicked him once and carelessly shouted:
"Ho, men! Toss this squire o' dames into the pinnace to await our return. And harkee, take warning."
Jack Cockrell felt almost sorry for his fallen foeman but the other pirates grinned and did as they were told. It was a trifling episode. Resuming his stroll to the tavern, Captain Bonnet linked Jack's arm in his and fairly towed him along while the assorted scoundrels trooped behind them. It was shocking company for a lad of the most respectable connections but he felt greatly flattered by the distinction. The name of Stede Bonnet had spread terror from the Capes of the Chesapeake to the blue waters of the Caribbean.
"And so you were unafraid of this bullying Will Brant of mine," said the captain, with one of his pleasant smiles. "You clipped his comb right handsomely. And who may ye be, my brave young sprig?"
"I am John Spencer Cockrell, may it please you, sir," was the answer. "'Twas a small thing to do for a lady. Your pirate would have been too much for me in a fair set-to."
"Pirate? A poor word!" objected Captain Bonnet, his accents severe but the bold eyes twinkling. "We are loyal servants of the King, sworn to do mischief to his lawful enemies,—to wit, all ships and sailors of Spain. For such a young gentleman adventurer as you, Master Cockrell, there is a berth in the Royal James. Will ye rendezvous at the tavern and sign your fist to the articles?"
Jack stammered that his kinfolk would never consent, at which Captain Bonnet forbore to coax him but kept a grip on his arm as though they were chums who could not bear to be parted. Down the middle of the street paraded this extraordinary company, the seamen breaking into a song which ran:
"In Bristowe I left Poll ashore, Well stored wi' togs an' gold, And off I go to sea for more, A-piratin' so bold. An' wounded in the arm I got, An' then a pretty blow; Comed home I find Poll's flowed away, Yo, ho, with the rum below!"
Charles Town might be glad to get the pirates' gold but it seemed a timorous welcome, for the merchants peered from their doorways like rabbits when the hounds are loose, and nervous old gentlemen took cover in the near-by alleys. Stede Bonnet knew how to keep his men in hand and allowed only part of the company ashore at once. They were like hilarious children out for a lark, capering outside the tavern to the music of a strolling fiddler or buying horses on the spot and trying to ride them. When they were pitched off on their heads the mirth was uproarious.
In a field beside the tavern some townsmen were shooting at a mark for a prize of a dressed bullock while a group of gentlemen from the plantations were intent on a cock-fight in the tap-room. Here was rare pastime for the frolicsome blades of the Royal James and soon they were banging away with their pistols or betting their gold-pieces on the steel-gaffed birds, singing the louder as the bottle was passed. Captain Stede Bonnet stayed prudently sober, ready for any emergency, his demeanor cool and watchful while he chatted with old acquaintances.
He talked often with Jack Cockrell to whom he had taken a strong fancy, and pressed the lad to dine with him. Jack was uneasy at being seen so publicly with a notorious pirate but the experience was delightful beyond words. The captain asked him many questions, twisting his mustachios and staring down from his commanding height with an air of friendly interest. He had found a lad after his own heart.
The seamen tired of their sport and sought new diversion. Some of them kicked off their boots and clinched in wrestling matches for prodigal stakes of gold and jewels. Others found girls to dance with them or wandered off to buy useless trinkets in the shops. Jack Cockrell knew he ought to be posting home to dinner but he was tempted to accept Stede Bonnet's cordial bidding. Boyish friends of his hovered near and regarded him as a hero. No pirate captain had ever deigned to notice them.
Alas for Jack and his puffed-up pride which was doomed to a sudden fall! There advanced from a better quarter of the town a florid, foppishly dressed gentleman of middle age who walked with a pompous gait. He was stout-bodied and the heat of the day oppressed him. Mopping his face with a lace handkerchief or fanning himself with his hat, he halted now and then in a shady spot. Very mindful of his rank and dignity was Mr. Peter Arbuthnot Forbes, sometime London barrister, at present Secretary to the Council of the Province.
He differed from some of his neighbors in that he abominated pirates and would have given them short shift. A trifle near-sighted, he was quite close to the tavern before he espied his own nephew and ward, Jack Cockrell, in this shameful company of roisterers. The august uncle blinked, opened his mouth, and turned as red as a lobster. Indignation choked his speech. For his part, Jack stood dumfounded and quaking, the picture of a coward with a guilty conscience. He would have tried to steal from sight but it was too late.
Captain Stede Bonnet enjoyed the tableau and several of his wicked sailors were mimicking the pompous strut of Mr. Peter Arbuthnot Forbes. Poor Jack mumbled some explanation but his irate uncle first paid his respects to Captain Bonnet.
"Shame to you, sirrah," he cried in a voice that shook with passion. "A man of good birth, by all accounts, who has fallen so low as to lead these vile gallows-birds! And you would entice this lad of mine to follow your dirty trade?"
Captain Bonnet doffed the great beaver hat and bowed low in mocking courtesy. He perceived that this fussy lawyer was not wholly a popinjay, for it required courage to insult a pirate to his face. The reply was therefore milder than expected.
"Mayhap I am painted blacker than the fact, Councilor. As for this fine stripling who has so disgraced himself, the fault is mine. He risked his life to save a maid from harm. The deed won my affection."
"The maids of Charles Town would need to fear no harm if more pirates were hanged, Captain Bonnet," roundly declared Mr. Forbes, shaking his gold-tipped cane at the freebooter.
"'Tis fortunate for me that you lack the power, my fat and petulant gentleman," was the smiling response.
"Laugh while you may," quoth the other. "These Provinces may soon proclaim joint action against such pests as you."
With a shrug, the Secretary turned to his crestfallen nephew and sharply exclaimed:
"Home with you, John Cockrell. You shall go dinnerless and be locked in your room."
The seamen guffawed at this and Jack furiously resented their ridicule. He was on the point of rebellion as he hotly retorted:
"I am no child to be treated thus, Uncle Peter. Didn't you hear Captain Bonnet report that I had proved myself a man? I trounced one of his own crew, a six-foot bully with a dirk and pistols."
"A fig for that," rapped out Uncle Peter. "Your bully was drunk and helpless, I have no doubt. Will you bandy words with me?"
With this his plump fingers closed on Jack's elbow which he used as a handle to lead him firmly and rapidly away. Behind them pranced a limber young negro who showed every tooth in his head. Jack heard the derisive laughter of the pirates who had hailed him as a hero. His cup of bitterness overflowed when it occurred to him that Captain Bonnet would despise a lad who could be led home in custody of a dandified tyrant of an uncle.
THE MERCHANT TRADER, PLYMOUTH ADVENTURE
RUBBING his ear which Mr. Peter Arbuthnot Forbes had soundly boxed before releasing him, Jack marched along in gloomy silence until he was conducted into his small, unplastered room. His uncle stalked out and shot the ponderous bolt behind him. Passing through the kitchen, he halted to scold the black cook as a lazy slattern and then sat himself down to a lonely meal. Jack was a problem which the finicky, middle-aged bachelor had been unable to solve. He had undertaken the care of the boy after his parents had died in the same week of a mysterious fever which ravaged the settlement. The uncle failed to realize how fast this strapping youngster was growing into manhood. He disliked punishing him and was usually unhappy after one of these stormy episodes.
Mr. Peter Forbes pecked at his dinner with little appetite and his plump face was clouded. Shoving back his chair, he paced the floor in a fidgety manner and, at length, opened the door of Jack's room. The hungry prisoner was lounging upon a wooden settle, his chin in his hand, while he sullenly stared at the wall. Always mindful of his manners, he slowly rose to his feet and waited for another scolding.
"I wish we might avoid such scenes as these, Jack," sadly observed Uncle Peter, his hot temper cooled. "No sooner do you leave my sight than some new mischief is afoot."
"You do not understand, sir," impatiently protested the nephew. "In your eyes I am still the urchin who came out from England clinging to his dear mother's skirts. Would ye have me pass my time with girls or have no other friends than snuffy old Parson Throckmorton, my tutor, who tries to pound the Greek and Latin into my thick skull?"
"He is a wise and ripened scholar who wastes his effort," was the dry comment. "Most of the lads of the town are coarse louts who pattern after their ribald elders, Jack. They will lead you into evil courses."
"I shall always pray God to be a gentleman, sir," was the spirited response, "but I must learn to fight my own battles. Were it not for hardy pastimes with these other stout lads, think you I could have cracked the crown of a six-foot pirate?"
Uncle Peter gazed at the boy before he spoke. Tanned and hard and muscular, this was a nephew to be proud of, a man in deeds if not in years, and there was unswerving honesty in the straight mouth and firm chin. The guardian sighed and then annoyance got the better of his affection as he burst out:
"Perdition take all pirates! You were cozened by this hell-rake of a Stede Bonnet and thought it a rare pleasure! John Spencer Cockrell, own nephew to the Secretary of the Colony!"
"I did but copy older men of fair repute," demurely answered Jack, a twinkle in his eye. "Graybeards of Parson Throckmorton's flock traffick in merchandise with the pirates and are mighty civil to them, I note."
"A vile business!" cried Uncle Peter. "It was decided at the recent conference in Virginia that I should go to England as a delegate to lay before His Majesty's Government such evidence as might invoke aid in our campaign against the pirates. It was my intention to leave you in care of Parson Throckmorton, Jack, but I have now resolved to take you with me. And you will remain at school in England. No more of this boon comradeship with villains like Stede Bonnet."
Poor Jack looked most unhappy at the tidings. It was not at all in accord with his ambitions. Here was worse punishment than he had dreamed his uncle could inflict. Dolefully he exclaimed:
"To live in tame and stupid England, locked up in a school? Why, I am big enough to join the forays against the Indians, or to fight bloody battles against the pirates if you really mean to chastise them. But I cannot promise to attack Captain Bonnet. He is a friend of mine."
"You shall come to see him hanged," shouted Mr. Peter Arbuthnot Forbes, very red in the face. "The merchant ship Plymouth Adventure is expected soon, and you and I shall take passage in her for Merry England, thanking heaven to see the last of the barbarous Carolinas for a time."
"Thank your own thanks, sir," grumbled Jack. "Captain Bonnet may be a pirate but he is not nearly so heartless as my own uncle. He asked me to dinner at the tavern. I am faint for lack of food. My stomach sticks to my ribs. 'Tis a great pity you were never a growing boy yourself. For a platter of cold meat and bread I will take my oath to chop you a pile of firewood as high as the kitchen."
The gaoler relented and bustled out to ransack the pantry. Having demolished a joint and a loaf, young John Spencer Cockrell was in a mood much less melancholy. In fact, when he swung the axe behind the fence of hewn palings, he was humming the refrain of that wicked ditty: "Yo, Ho, with the Rum Below!" He was tremendously sorry that he had been snatched away from the engaging society of Captain Bonnet and his wild crew, and the future had a gloomy aspect, but even these grievances were forgotten when he descried, in a lane which led past the house, the lovely maid whose cause he had championed at the wharf.
She was Dorothy, only daughter of Colonel Malcolm Stuart who commanded the militia forces of the Colony. Although she was the elder by two or three years and gave herself the airs of a young lady, Jack Cockrell hopelessly, secretly adored her. It was an anti-climax for a hero to be serving out his sentence at the wood-pile and he turned his back to the gate while he made the chips fly. But Dorothy had no intention of ignoring him. She paused with a smile so winsome that Jack's heart fluttered and he dropped the axe to grasp her outstretched hand. He squeezed it so hard that Dorothy winced as she said:
"What a masterful man it is, but please don't crush my poor fingers. I fled from those pirates at the wharf, Jack, instead of waiting to offer you my most humble thanks. Will you accept them now? They come straight from the heart."
For such a reward as this Jack would have fought a dozen pirates. Baring his head, he murmured bashfully:
"A trifling service, Mistress Dorothy, and 'tis my devout hope that I may always be ready in time of need."
"So?" she exclaimed, with mischief in her eyes. "I believe you would slay a pirate each morning before breakfast, should I ask it."
"Or any other small favors like that," gallantly returned Jack.
"A proper courtier," cried Dorothy. "My father will thank you when he returns from North Carolina. When I ventured to the wharf this morning it was in hopes of sighting his armed sloop."
The dwelling of Mr. Peter Arbuthnot Forbes was at some distance from the tavern which was on the sloping ground that overlooked the harbor, among the spreading live-oaks and magnolias. Borne on the breeze came the sounds of Stede Bonnet's pirates at their revels, pistol shots, wild choruses, drunken yells. Jack was not disturbed although Mistress Dorothy moved closer and laid a hand on his arm. Presently the tumult ceased, abruptly, and now Jack was perplexed. It might mean a sudden recall to the ship. Something was in the wind. The youth and the maid stood listening. Jack was about to scramble to the roof of the house in order to gaze toward the harbor but Dorothy bade him stay with her. Her fair cheek had paled and she shivered with a vague apprehension.
This sudden stillness was uncanny, threatening. Soon, however, a trumpet blew a long, shrill call to arms, and they heard one hoarse, jubilant huzza after another.
"Have Stede Bonnet's pirates mustered to sack the town?" implored Dorothy.
"I can speedily find out," replied her protector.
"Oh, I pray you not to leave me," she tremulously besought him.
"Captain Bonnet will wreak no harm on Charles Town," Jack assured her. "I know him too well for that. You saw what he did to the base varlet who annoyed you at the wharf,—felled him like an ox."
"If only my father were here, to call out the troops and rout this rabble of sea rogues, Jack dear," was her fluttering prayer.
A little after this, the tumult increased and it was drawing nearer. It was a martial clamor of men on the march, with the rattle of drums and a loud fanfare of trumpets. Mr. Peter Arbuthnot Forbes came running out of the house, all flustered and waving his hands, and ordered the two young people indoors. The servants were closing the heavy wooden shutters and sliding the bars across the doors.
Jack slipped out into the lane and hailed a neighbor who dashed past. The news was babbled in fragments and Jack scurried back to blurt to his uncle:
"An Indian raid,—the savages are within a dozen miles of Charles Town, laying waste the plantations,—slaying the laborers. The militia is called to arms but they lack a leader. Colonel Stuart is sorely missed. Captain Bonnet called another boat-load of his pirates ashore, and they march in the van to assail the Indians. May I go with them, Uncle Peter? Must I play the coward and the laggard?"
"Nonsense, John Cockrell. These mad pirates have addled your wits. Shall I let you be scalped by these painted fiends of Yemassees?"
"Then you will volunteer in my stead," shrewdly ventured Jack, with a glance at Dorothy.
"Um-m. Duty and my official cares prevent," quoth the worshipful Secretary of the Colony, frowning and pursing his lips. Dorothy smiled at this and winked at Jack. Uncle Peter was rated a better lawyer than a valiant man of war.
"Let us stand at a window," exclaimed the girl. "Ah, they come! My faith, but this is a brave array. And Captain Bonnet leads them well."
She had never expected to praise a pirate but there was no denying that this lean, straight rover in the scarlet coat and great cocked hat looked the part of a competent and intrepid soldier. He was superbly fit for the task in hand. Catching sight of Jack Cockrell and Dorothy Stuart in the window, he saluted by raising the hilt of his cutlass and his melancholy visage brightened in a smile.
Behind him tramped his men in column of fours, matchlocks across their shoulders, bright weapons swinging against their thighs as they sang all together and kept step to the beat of the drums.
"But ere to Execution Bay, The wind these bones do blow, I'll drink an' fight what's left away, Yo, ho, with the rum below."
Behind these hardy volunteers straggled as many of the militia company as had been able to answer the sudden call, merchants, clerks, artisans, and vagabonds who seemed none too eager to meet the bloodthirsty Yemassees. Their wives and children trailed after them to the edge of the town, amidst tears and loud lamentations. The contrast did not escape the eye of Mr. Peter Arbuthnot Forbes who reluctantly admitted:
"Give the devil his due, say I. These wicked brethren of the coast go swaggering off of their own free will, as though it were to a frolic. I will remember it in their favor when they come to hang."
A long roll of the drums and a lilting flourish by the pirate trumpeter as a farewell to Charles Town and its tavern and its girls, and the company passed from view. The lane was again deserted and silent and Jack offered to escort Dorothy Stuart to her own home. As they loitered across an open field, he cried in a fierce flare of rebellion:
"My good uncle will drive me too far. Let him sail for old England and leave me to find my own career. Upon my soul, I may run away to join a pirate ship."
Dorothy tried to look grave at this dreadful announcement but a dimple showed in her cheek as she replied:
"My dear Jack, you can never be braver but you will be wiser some day. Banish such silly thoughts. You must obey your lawful guardian."
"But did you see the lads in the militia company? Two or three of them I have whipped in fair fight. And Uncle Peter wants to keep me tucked in a cradle."
"Softly, Jack," said she, with pretty solicitude. "Stede Bonnet has bewitched you utterly."
The stubborn youth shook his head. This day of humiliation had been the last straw. He was ripe for desperate adventure. It would have made him happy and contented to be marching against the Indians with Stede Bonnet and his cut-throats, in peril of tomahawks and ambuscades.
Small wonder that poor Jack Cockrell's notions of right and wrong were rather confused, for he lived in an age when might ruled blue water, when every ship was armed and merchant seamen fought to save their skins as well as their cargoes. English, French, Spanish, and Dutch, they plundered each other on the flimsiest pretexts and the pirates harried them all.
Still sulky, Jack betook himself to the rectory next morning for his daily bout with his studies. Parson Throckmorton was puttering in the garden, a shrunken little man who wore black small-clothes, lace at his wrists, and a powdered wig. Opening the silver snuff-box he almost sneezed the wig off before he chirruped:
"Ye mind me of Will Shakespeare's whining schoolboy, Master John,—creeping like snail unwillingly to school. A treat is in store for us to-day, a signal treat! We begin our Virgil. 'Arma virumque cano.'"
"Arms and a man? I like that much of it," glowered the mutinous scholar, "but my uncle makes me sing a different tune."
"He accepted my advice,—that you be educated in England," said the parson.
"Then I may hold you responsible for this hellish thing?" angrily declaimed Jack. "Were it not for your white hairs——"
He subsided and had the grace to apologize as they entered the library. The tutor was an impatient old gentleman and the pupil was so inattentive that his knuckles were sharply rapped with a ruler. A blunder more glaring and the ruler came down with another whack. This was too much for Jack who jumped up, rubbed his knuckles, and shouted:
"Enough, sir. I would have you know that I all but killed a big, ugly pirate yesterday."
"So rumor informs me," rasped Parson Throckmorton, "but you will give yourself no grand airs with me. Construe this passage properly or I must tan those leather breeches with a limber rod."
This was too much for the insulted Jack who slammed down the book, clapped on his hat, and tramped from the room in high dudgeon. Such scurvy treatment as this was fairly urging him to a life of crime on the rolling ocean. He wandered down to the wharf and wistfully gazed at the lawless brig, Royal James, which swam at her anchorage in trim and graceful beauty. A few men moved briskly on deck, painting the bulwarks or polishing brass. Evidently Stede Bonnet had sent off word to be all taut and ready to hoist sail for another cruise.
After a while the truant went homeward and manfully confessed to the quarrel with Parson Throckmorton. Uncle Peter Forbes was amazingly mild. There was no gusty outbreak of temper and, in fact, he had little to say. It was in his mind to patch up a truce with his troublesome nephew pending their departure for England. He even suggested that the studies be dropped and advised Jack to go fishing in his canoe.
Several days later, Captain Bonnet and his pirates came back from their foray against the Indians. They were a foot-sore, weary band, the wounded carried in litters and several men missing. Their gay garments were caked with mud, the finery all tatters, and most of them were marked with cuts and scratches, but they pulled themselves together and swaggered into Charles Town as boldly as ever to the music of trumpet and drum. Stede Bonnet carried an arm in a sling. As he passed the Secretary's house he cheerily called out to Jack:
"Ahoy, my young comrade! 'Twill please you to know that fair Mistress Dorothy Stuart may sleep in peace."
"Did you scatter the savages, sir?" asked Jack, running out to shake his hand.
"God bless ye, boy, we exterminated 'em."
The gratitude of Mr. Peter Arbuthnot Forbes was stronger than his dislike and he came out to thank the captain in behalf of the citizens of Charles Town. To his excited questions the pirate replied:
"There be old buccaneers from Hispaniola in my crew, may it please Your Excellency,—fellows who hunted the Indians in their youth,—tracked 'em like hounds through forest and bayou. Others served their time with the log-wood cutters of Yucatan. They laughed at the tricks of these Yemassees of the Carolinas."
One of the militia company broke in to say to Mr. Forbes:
"Your Honor's own plantation was saved from the torch by this doughty Captain Bonnet. It was there he pulled the flint arrow-head from his arm and was near bleeding to death."
Mr. Peter Forbes could do no less than invite the pirate into the house, for the wounded arm had been rudely bandaged and was in sore need of dressing. Jack fetched a tray of cakes and wine while his uncle bawled at the servants who came running with soft cloths and hot water and healing lotions. Captain Bonnet protested that the hurt was trifling and carelessly explained:
"My own ship's surgeon was spitted on a boarding-pike in our last action at sea and I have not found me another one. You show much skill and tenderness, sir."
"The wound is deep and ragged. Hold still," commanded Mr. Peter Forbes. "You have been a soldier, Captain Bonnet, commended for valor on the fields of Europe and holding the king's commission. Why not seek pardon and serve with the armed forces of this province? My services in the matter are yours to command."
Stede Bonnet frowned and bit his lip. All he said was:
"You meddle with matters that concern you not, my good sir. I am a man able to make my own free choice."
"Captain Bonnet does honor to the trade of piracy," cried the admiring Jack, at which his uncle declared, with a wrathful gesture:
"I must remove this daft lad to England to be rid of you, Stede Bonnet. You have cast a wicked spell over him."
"To England?" said the pirate, with a sympathetic glance at the boy. "I would sooner lie in gaol."
"And reap your deserts," snapped Uncle Peter.
"No doubt of that," frankly agreed the pirate. "And what thinks the lad of this sad penance?"
"I hate it," was Jack's swift answer. "Will you grant our merchant ship safe conduct, Captain Bonnet?"
"What ship, boy? You have only to name her. She will go scathless, as far as in my power."
"The Plymouth Adventure," replied Jack. "It would ruin my uncle's temper beyond all mending to be taken by pirates."
"I pledge you my word," swore Stede Bonnet. "Moreover, if trouble befall you by sea or land, Master Cockrell, I pray you send me tidings and you will have a friend in need."
That night those who dwelt near the harbor heard the clank of a windlass as the crew of the Royal James hove the cable short, and the melodious, deep-throated refrain of a farewell chantey floated across the quiet water. With the flood of the tide and a landward breeze, the brig stole out across the bar while the topsails were sheeted home. When daylight dawned, she had vanished in the empty reaches of the Atlantic.
The brig sailed without Jack Cockrell. His shrewd uncle saw to that. It was not by accident that a constable of the town watch loitered in the lane by the Secretary's house. And Uncle Peter himself was careful not to let the lad out of his sight until the beguiling Stede Bonnet had left his haunts in Charles Town. Life resumed its routine next day but the boy's whole current of thought had been changed. He was restless, craving some fresh excitement and hoping that more pirates might come roaring to the tavern green.
He found welcome diversion when the Plymouth Adventure, merchant trader, arrived from London after a famous passage of thirty-two days to the westward. Her master's orders were to make quick dispatch and return with freight and passengers direct from Charles Town. Jack was given no more leisure to brood over his own misfortunes. There were many errands to be done for Mr. Peter Forbes, besides the chests and boxes to be packed and stoutly corded. As was the custom, they had to supply their own furniture for the cabin in the ship and Jack Cockrell enjoyed the frequent trips aboard.
He found much to interest him in the sedate, bearded Captain Jonathan Wellsby of the Plymouth Adventure, in the crew of hearty British tars who feared neither man nor devil, in the battery of nine-pounders, the stands of boarding-pikes, and the triced hammock nettings to protect the vessel against hand-to-hand encounters with pirates. The voyage might be worth while, after all. There were to be a dozen of passengers, several ladies among them. The most distinguished was Mr. Peter Arbuthnot Forbes, Secretary of the Provincial Council, who was accorded the greatest respect and given the largest cabin.
It was an important event when the Plymouth Adventure hoisted all her bunting on sailing day and Charles Town flocked to the harbor with wistful envy of the lucky people who were bound home to old England. There were sad faces among those left behind to endure the perils, hardships and loneliness of pioneers. Jack Cockrell's heart beat high when he saw sweet Dorothy Stuart in the throng. He tarried ashore with her until the boatswain's pipe trilled from the Plymouth Adventure to summon the passengers on board. Colonel Stuart, blonde and bronzed and stalwart, escorted his winsome daughter and he praised Jack for his deed of courage, telling him:
"There will soon be fewer pirates for you to trounce, I hope, my lad."
"The town will be a stupid place without a visit from the jolly rovers now and then," honestly replied Jack, at which Colonel Stuart laughed and his daughter suggested:
"With my brave knight in distant England, deliver me from any more pirates."
Jack blushed and was both happy and sad when the dear maid took a flower from her bodice and gave it to him as a token of remembrance. He solemnly tucked it away in a pocket, stammered his farewells, and went to join his uncle who waited in the yawl at the wharf. Once on board the Plymouth Adventure, they were swept into a bustle and confusion. Captain Jonathan Wellsby was in haste to catch a fair wind and make his offing before nightfall. His sailors ran to and fro, jumping at the word, active and cheery. Stately and slow, the high-pooped merchant trader filled away on the larboard tack and pointed her lofty bowsprit seaward.
The watches were set, ropes coiled down, and the tackles of the cannon overhauled. The skipper paced the after-deck, a long telescope under his arm, while the passengers lined the rail and gazed at the rude settlement that was slowly dropping below the horizon. The sea was tranquil and the breeze steady. The ship was clothed in canvas which bellied to drive her eastward with a frothing wake. Safely she left the outer bar astern and wallowed in the ocean swell.
The afternoon sun was sinking when a sail gleamed like a bit of cloud against the southerly sky. Captain Wellsby held to his course and showed no uneasiness. Soon another sail became visible and then a third, these two smaller than the first. They might be honest merchantmen steering in company, but the skipper consulted with his mates and the spy-glass passed from hand to hand. The passengers were at supper in the cuddy and their talk and laughter came through the open skylights.
Presently the boatswain piped the crew to quarters and the men moved quietly to their battle stations, opening the gun-ports and casting loose the lashings. The boys fetched paper cartridges of powder in buckets from the magazine and the gunners lighted the matches of tow. Cutlasses were buckled on and the pikes were scattered along the bulwarks ready to be snatched up.
It was impossible to escape these three strange vessels by beating back to Charles Town, for the Plymouth Adventure made lubberly work of it when thrashing to windward. She was a swift ship, however, before a fair wind, and Captain Wellsby resolved to run for it, hoping to edge away from danger if his suspicions should be confirmed.
Before sunset the largest of the strange sail shifted her course as though to set out in chase and overhaul the deep-laden merchant trader. Captain Wellsby stood near the tiller, his hands clasped behind him, a solid, dependable figure of a British mariner. The passengers were crowding around him in distressful agitation but he calmly assured them a stern chase was a long chase and he expected to slip away under cover of night. So far as he was aware, no pirates, excepting Stede Bonnet, had been recently reported in these waters.
Here Mr. Peter Forbes broke in to say that the Plymouth Adventure had naught to fear from Captain Bonnet who had pledged his word to let her sail unmolested. Other passengers scoffed at the absurd notion of trusting a pirate's oath, but the pompous Secretary of the Council could not be cried down. He was a canny critic of human nature and he knew an honorable pirate when he met him.
It was odd, but in a pinch like this the dapper, finicky Councilor Peter Arbuthnot Forbes displayed an unshaken courage as became a gentleman of his position, while young Jack Cockrell had suddenly changed his opinion of the fascinating trade of piracy. He had not the slightest desire to investigate it at any closer range. His knees were inclined to wobble and his stomach felt qualms. His uncle twitted him as a braggart ashore who sang a different tune afloat. The lad's grin was feeble as he retorted that he took his pirates one at a time.
The largest vessel of the pursuit came up at a tremendous pace, reeling beneath an extraordinary spread of canvas, her spray-swept hull disclosing an armament of thirty guns, the decks swarming with men. She was no merchant ship, this was already clear, but there was still the hope that she might be a man-of-war or a privateer. Captain Wellsby looked in vain for her colors. At length he saw a flag whip from the spanker gaff. He laid down the glass with a profound sigh.
The flag was black with a sinister device, a white blotch whose outline suggested a human skull.
Captain Wellsby gazed again and carefully examined the two sloops which were acting in concert with the thirty-gun ship. It was a squadron, and the brave Plymouth Adventure was hopelessly outmatched. To fight meant a slaughter with never a chance of survival.
The passengers had made no great clamor until the menacing ship drew close enough for them to descry the dreadful pennant which showed as a sable blot against the evening sky. Two women fainted and others were seized with violent hysteria. Their shrill screams were so distressing that the skipper ordered them to be lugged below and shut in their cabins. Mr. Peter Forbes had plumped himself down upon a coil of hawser, as if utterly disgusted, but he implored the captain to blaze away at the besotted scoundrels as long as two planks held together. The Honorable Secretary of the Council had been too outspoken in his opinions of pirates to expect kindness at their hands.
The sailors also expected no quarter but they sullenly crouched at the gun-carriages, gripping the handspikes and blowing the matches while they waited for the word. The pirate ship was now reaching to windward of the Plymouth Adventure, heeling over until her decks were in full view. Upon the poop stood a man of the most singular appearance. He was squat and burly and immensely broad across the shoulders. What made him grotesque was a growth of beard which swept almost to his waist and covered his face like a hairy curtain. In it were tied bright streamers of crimson ribbon. Evidently this fantastic monster was proud of his whiskers and liked to adorn them.
The laced hat with a feather in it, the skirted coat of buff and blue which flapped around his bow-legs, and the rows of gold buttons across his chest were in slovenly imitation of a naval uniform. But there was nothing like naval discipline on those crowded decks where half the crew appeared to be drunk and the rest of them cursing each other.
Captain Jonathan Wellsby smothered a groan and his stern mouth twitched as he said to his chief mate:
"God's mercy on us! 'Tis none other than the bloody Edward Teach,—that calls himself Blackbeard! My information was that he still cruised off the Spanish Main and refitted his ships in the Bay of Honduras."
"The madman of the sea," said the stolid mate. "A bad day for us when he sailed to the north'ard. He kills for the pleasure of it. Now Stede Bonnet loots such stuff as takes his fancy and——"
"He loves to fight a king's ship for the sport of it," broke in the skipper, "but this murderer—— An unlucky voyage for the old Plymouth Adventure and all hands, Mate."
One of the women who had been suffered to remain on deck was close enough to overhear the direful news. Her hands to heaven, she wailed:
"Blackbeard! Oh, my soul, we are as good as dead, or worse. Fight and sink him, dear captain. What shall I do? What shall I do? If I had only minded the dream I had the night before we sailed——"
Jack Cockrell sat down beside his uncle, a limp and sorry youth for one who had offered to slay a six-foot pirate before breakfast to please a pretty maid. With a sickly grin he murmured:
"This cockerel crowed too loud, Uncle Peter. Methinks I share your distaste for piracy."
HELD AS HOSTAGES TO BLACKBEARD
TO discover the pestilent Blackbeard in Carolina waters was like a thunderbolt from a clear sky. Captain Wellsby had felt confident that he could beat off the ordinary pirate craft which was apt to be smaller than his own stout ship. And most of these unsavory gentry were mere salt-water burglars who had little taste for hard fighting. The master of the Plymouth Adventure, so pious and sedate, was a brave man to whom the thought of surrender was intolerable. From what he knew of Blackbeard, it was useless to try to parley for the lives of his passengers. Better it was to answer with double-shotted guns than to beg for mercy.
The British tars, stripped to the waist, turned anxious eyes to the skipper upon the quarter-deck while they quaffed pannikins of rum and water and cracked many a rough jest. They fancied death no more than other men, but seafaring was a perilous trade and they were toughened to its hazards. They were facing hopeless odds but let the master shout the command and they would send the souls of some of these pirates sizzling down to hell before the Plymouth Adventure sank, a splintered hulk, in the smoke of her own gunpowder.
Captain Wellsby delayed his decision a moment longer. Something most unusual had attracted his attention. A ball of smoke puffed from a port of Blackbeard's ship, but the round shot splashed beyond the bowsprit of the Plymouth Adventure instead of thudding into her oaken side. This was a signal to heave to. It was a courtesy both unexpected and perplexing, because Blackbeard's habit was to let fly with all the guns that could bear as the summons to submit. Presently a dingy bit of cloth fluttered just beneath the black flag. It looked like the remains of a pirate's shirt which had once been white.
"A signal for a truce?" muttered Captain Wellsby. "A ruse, mayhap, but the rogue has no need to resort to trickery."
The two sloops of Blackbeard's squadron, spreading tall, square topsails, came driving down to windward in readiness to fire their bow-chasers and form in line of battle. The passengers of the Plymouth Adventure, snatching at the chance of safety, implored the skipper to send his men away from the guns lest a rash shot might be their ruin. They prayed him to respect the precious flag of truce and to ascertain the meaning of it. Mystified and wavering in his purpose, he told the mates to back the main-yard and heave the ship to.
Upon his own deck Blackbeard was stamping to and fro, bellowing at his crew while he flourished a broadsword by way of emphasis. The hapless company of the Plymouth Adventure shivered at the very sight of him and yet there was something almost ludicrous in the antics of this atrocious pirate, as though he were play-acting upon the stage of a theatre. He had tucked up the tails of his military coat because the wind whipped them about his bandy legs and made him stumble. The flowing whiskers also proved bothersome, wherefore he looped them back over his ears by means of the bows of crimson ribbon. This seemed to be his personal fashion of clearing for action.
"There be pirates and pirates," critically observed Mr. Peter Forbes as he stared at the unpleasant Blackbeard. "This is a filthy beast, Jack, and he was badly brought up. He has no manners whatever."
"Parson Throckmorton would take him for the devil himself," gloomily answered the lad.
And now they saw Blackbeard raise a speaking-trumpet to his lips and heard the hoarse voice come down the wind with this message:
"The ship ahoy! Steady as ye be, blast your eyes, or I'll lay aboard and butcher all hands."
He turned and yelled commands to the two sloops which now rolled within pistol-shot. In helter-skelter style but with great speed, one boat after another was lowered away and filled with armed pirates. They rowed toward the Plymouth Adventure and there were enough of them to carry her by boarding. In addition to this, she was directly under the guns of Blackbeard's powerful ship. One valorous young gentleman passenger whipped out a rapier and swore to perish with his face to the foe, but Captain Wellsby kicked him into the cabin and fastened the scuttle. This was no time for dramatics.
"It looks that the old ruffian comes on a peaceful errand," said the skipper, by way of comfort. But the hysterical ladies below decks redoubled their screams and one substantial merchant of Charles Town scrambled down to hide himself among them. Mr. Peter Arbuthnot Forbes folded his arms and there was no sign of weakness in his pink countenance. His dignity still sustained him.
As agile as monkeys, the mob of pirates poured over the bulwark, slashing through the hammock nettings, and swept forward in a compact mass, driving Captain Wellsby's seamen before them and penning them in the forecastle. Having cleared the waist of the ship, they loitered there until a few of them discovered the galley and pantry. They swept the shelves and lockers bare of food like a pack of famished wolves. Jack Cockrell looked at them from the poop and perceived that they were a gaunt, ragged lot. The skins of some were yellow like parchment, and fits of trembling overtook them. Something more than dissipation ailed them.
With a body-guard of the sturdiest men, Blackbeard clambered up the poop ladder and, with wicked oaths, told the skipper to stand forth. Clean and trig and carefully dressed, Captain Jonathan Wellsby confronted these savage, unwashed pirates and calmly demanded to know their errand. It was plain to read that Blackbeard thought himself an imposing figure. With a smirk and a grimace he bowed clumsily to a woman on deck who had refused to desert her husband. He growled like a bear at Captain Wellsby and prodded the poor man with his cutlass as he thundered:
"You tried my patience, shipmaster, with your cracking on sail. A little more and I'd ha' slit your throat. Blood an' wounds, would ye dare to vex Blackbeard?"
Captain Wellsby faced him with unshaken composure and returned in a strong voice:
"I beg no favors for myself but these helpless people, women amongst them, came on board with my assurance of safety. They have friends and kinsmen in Charles Town who will ransom them in gold."
Blackbeard's mien was a shade less ferocious as he cried:
"Gold? Can it cool a fever or heal a festering sore? A score of my men are down and the others are tottering ghosts. Medicines I must have. A foul plague on those ports of the Spanish Main which laid my fine lads by the heels."
Jack Cockrell, who had retreated to the taffrail, decided that this unkempt pirate was not so absurd as he appeared. There was the strength of a giant in those hulking shoulders and in the long arms which bulged the coat-sleeves, and the man moved with a quickness which made that clumsy air deceptive. The beard masked his features but the eye was keen and roving, and he had a trick of baring his teeth in a nasty snarl. He uttered no more threats, however, and seemed to be anxiously awaiting the reply of Captain Wellsby, who said:
"The few medicines and simples in my chest will not suffice your need. Your ships are rotten with the Spanish fever."
"A ransom, shipmaster?" exclaimed the pirate. "'Twas in my mind when I flew a white flag for parley. I will hold some of your fine passengers as hostages while the others go in to rake Charles Town for medicines to fetch back to my fleet."
"You will send my ship in?" asked the skipper.
"No! This Plymouth Adventure is my good prize and I will overhaul the cargo and sink her at my leisure. My ship will tack in to Charles Town bar. Then let the messengers go in the long-boat to find the store of medicines. Harkee, shipmaster,—two days, no longer, for their return! Failing this, the hostages feed the fishes. Such sport 'ud liven the hearts of my doleful seamen."
It was a shameful bargain, thus to submit to a pirate's whim, but the wretched ship's company hailed it as a glad surprise. They had stood in the shadow of death and this was a respite and a chance of salvation. Captain Wellsby was heart-sick with humiliation but it was not for him to take into his hands the fate of all these others. Sadly he nodded assent. Jack Cockrell nudged his uncle and whispered:
"Why doesn't he sail in with his three ships and take what he likes? The town lies helpless against such a force as this."
"Ssh-h, be silent," was the warning. "He is a wary bird of prey and he fears a trap. He dare not attack the port, since he lacks knowledge of its defenses."
Jack's cheek was rosy again and his knees had ceased to tremble. There was no immediate prospect of walking the plank. To be captured by Blackbeard was a finer adventure than strutting arm-in-arm with Captain Stede Bonnet. It was mournful, indeed, that Captain Wellsby should have to lose his ship but 'tis an ill wind that blows nobody good and the voyage to England, which Jack had loathed from the bottom of his heart, was indefinitely postponed. Such an experience as this was apt to discourage Uncle Peter Forbes from trying it again.
There were sundry chicken-hearted passengers anxious to curry favor with Blackbeard, who gabbled when they should have held their tongues, and in this manner he learned that he had bagged the honorable Secretary of the Provincial Council. The bewhiskered pirate slapped his thighs and roared with glee.
"Damme, but he looks it! Alack that my sorry need of medicines compels me to give quarter! Would I might swing this fat Secretary from a topsail yard! And a rogue of a lawyer to boot! He tempts me——"
"I demand the courtesy due a hostage," exclaimed Mr. Peter Forbes.
"Ho, ho, you shall be my lackey,—the chief messenger," laughed Blackbeard, showing his yellow teeth. "Hat in hand, begging medicines for me."
The honorable Secretary was near apoplexy. He could only sputter and cough. He was to be sent as an errand boy to the people of Charles Town, at the brutal behest of this unspeakable knave, but refusal meant death and there were his fellow captives to consider. He thought of his nephew and was about to plead that Jack be sent along with him when Blackbeard demanded:
"What of the boy? He takes my eye. No pursy swine of a lawyer could sire a lad of his brawn and inches."
"I am Master Cockrell," Jack answered for himself, "and I would have you more courteous to my worthy uncle."
It was a speech so bold that the scourge of the Spanish Main tugged at his whiskers with an air of comical perplexity. The headstrong Jack was keen enough to note that he had made an impression and he rashly added:
"'Tis not long since I knocked a pirate on the head for incivility."
Mr. Peter Forbes gazed aghast, with slackened jaw, expecting to see his mad nephew cut down by the sweep of a broadsword, but Blackbeard merely grinned and slapped the lad half-way across the deck with a buffet of his open hand. Dizzily Jack picked himself up and was furiously scolded by his uncle. Their lives hung by a hair and this was no time to play the fool. For once, however, Jack was the wiser of the two. In an amiable humor Blackbeard exclaimed:
"And so this strapping young jackanapes knocks pirates on the head! There be lazy dogs among my men that well deserve it. You shall stay aboard, Master Cockrell, whilst the juicy lubber of a lawyer voyages into Charles Town. He may sweat an' strive the more if I hold you as his security. Zounds, I'll make a gentleman rover of ye, Jack, for I like your mettle."
It was futile for the unhappy uncle to argue the matter. He could only obey the tyrant's pleasure and hope for a speedy return and the release of the terrified passengers. The Plymouth Adventure was ordered to haul her course to the westward and jog under easy sail toward the Charles Town bar. Blackbeard was rowed off to his own ship, the Revenge, leaving his sailing-master and a prize crew. These amused themselves by dragging the weeping women on deck and robbing them of their jewels and money, but no worse violence was offered. Middle-aged matrons and elderly spinsters, they were neither young nor fair enough to be stolen as pirates' brides.
The Revenge and the two sloops hovered within sight of the Plymouth Adventure and their sails gleamed phantom-like in the darkness. There was little sleep aboard the captured merchant trader. Some of the pirates amused themselves with hauling chests and boxes out of the cabins and spilling the contents about the deck in riotous disorder. One sprightly outlaw arrayed himself in a silken petticoat and flowered bodice and paraded as a languishing lady with false curls until the others pelted him with broken bottles and tar buckets. By the flare of torches they ransacked the ship for provisions, cordage, canvas, and heaped them ready to be dumped into boats.
Jack Cockrell looked on until he was too drowsy to stay awake and fell asleep on deck, his head pillowed on his arm. Through the night the watches were changed to the harsh summons of the pirate sailing-master or his mate. Once Jack awoke when a seaman staggered into the moonlight with blood running down his face. He was not likely to be caught napping on watch again.
At dawn the Plymouth Adventure was astir and the Revenge ran close aboard to watch Mr. Peter Arbuthnot Forbes and two prosperous merchants of Charles Town bundled into the long-boat. Blackbeard shouted bloody threats through his trumpet, reminding them that he would allow no more than two days' grace for their errand ashore. Uncle Peter was deeply affected as he embraced his nephew and kissed him on the cheek. Jack's eyes were wet and he faltered, with unsteady voice:
"Forgive me, sir, for all the trouble I have made you. Never did I expect a parting like this."
"A barbarous coast, Jack, and a hard road to old England," smiled the Secretary of the Council. "Have a stout heart. By God's grace I shall soon deliver you from these sea vermin."
The boy watched the long-boat hoist sail with a grizzled, scarred old boatswain from the Revenge at the tiller. It drove for the blue fairway of the channel between the frothing shoals of the bar and made brave headway for the harbor. Then the ships stood out to sea to go clear of a lee shore and the captives of the Plymouth Adventure endured the harrowing suspense with such courage as they could muster. Should any accident delay the return of the long-boat beyond two days, even head winds or foul weather, or if there was lack of medicines in the town, they were doomed to perish.
Jack Cockrell endured it with less anguish than the other wretched hostages. He had the sublime confidence of youth in its own destiny and he had found a chum in a boyish pirate named Joseph Hawkridge who said he had sailed out of London as an apprentice seaman in a ketch bound to Jamaica. He had been taken out of his ship by Blackbeard, somewhere off the Azores, and compelled to enlist or walk the plank. At first he was made cook's scullion but because he was well-grown and active, the chief gunner had taken him over as a powder boy.
This Joe Hawkridge was a waif of the London slums, hard and wise beyond his years, who had been starved and abused ever since he could remember. He had fled from cruel taskmasters ashore to endure the slavery of the sea and to be kidnapped into piracy was no worse than other things he had suffered. A gangling lad, with a grin on his homely face, he had certain instincts of manliness, of decent conduct, although he had known only men whose souls were black with sin. Heaven knows where he learned these cleaner aspirations. They were like the reflection of a star in a muddy pool.
It was easy for Jack Cockrell to win his confidence. Few of his shipmates spoke kindly or showed pity for him. And their youth drew them together. Jack's motive was largely curiosity as soon as he discovered that here was one of Blackbeard's crew ready to confide in him. The two lads chatted in sheltered corners of the deck, between watches, or met more freely in the night hours. Jack shuddered at some of the tales that were told him but he harkened breathless and asked for more.
"Yes, this Blackbeard is the very wickedest pirate that ever sailed," said Joe Hawkridge in the most matter-of-fact tones. "You have found him merciful because he fears a mortal sickness will sweep through his ships."
"You have curdled my blood enough for now," admitted Jack. "Tell me this. What do they say of Captain Stede Bonnet? He chances to be a friend of mine."
Joe Hawkridge ceased to grin. He was startled and impressed. Real gentlemen like this young Cockrell always told the truth. Making certain that they could not be overheard, Joe whispered:
"What news of Stede Bonnet? You've seen him? When? Did he cruise to the north'ard? Has he been seen off Charles Town?"
"He came ashore not long ago, and invited me to dinner at the tavern with him," bragged Jack. "And he coaxed me to sign in his ship."
"Yes, you'd catch his eye, Cockrell, but listen! What ship had he, and how many men? God strike me, but I'll not tattle it. I'm true as steel to Stede Bonnet. If you love me, don't breathe it here."
"There is no love lost betwixt him and Blackbeard?" excitedly queried Jack.
"Mortal foes they be, if you ask Stede Bonnet."
Feeling sure he could trust this young Hawkridge, Jack informed him:
"Stede Bonnet flies his pennant in a fine brig, the Royal James, with seventy lusty rovers. But what about him, Joe? Why does he hate this foul ogre of a Blackbeard? Did they ever sail together?"
"'Twas in the Bay of Honduras. Captain Bonnet was a green hand at the trade but zealous to win renown at piratin'. And so he made compact with Blackbeard, to sail as partners. There was Stede Bonnet with a fine ship and his own picked crew. By treachery Blackbeard stole the vessel from him. Bonnet and his men were left to shift for 'emselves in a rotten old hulk that was like to founder in a breeze o' wind."
"But they stayed afloat and took them a good ship," proudly exclaimed Jack, with a personal interest in the venture.
"True, by what you say. D'ye see the Revenge yonder, Blackbeard's tall cruiser? The very ship he filched from Stede Bonnet by dirty stratagem and broken oaths!"
"Then the powder will burn when next they meet?"
"As long as there's a shot in the locker, Jack. And Blackbeard's men are ripe for mutiny. Let 'em once sight Stede Bonnet's topsails and——"
A gunner's mate broke into this interview with a cat-o'-nine-tails and flogged Joe Hawkridge forward to duty. He ducked and fled with a farewell grin at the nephew of the Secretary of the Council. Now all this was diverting enough to keep Jack from bemoaning his fate, but the other passengers counted the hours one by one and their hearts began to drum against their ribs. They scanned the sea and the harbor bar with aching eyes, for the two days were well-nigh spent and there was never a sign of the long-boat and the messengers with the ransom of medicines which should avert the sentence of death.
Sunrise of the second day brought them no comfort. The sea was gray and the sky leaden, without the slightest stir of wind. The drifting vessels rolled in a swell that heaved as smooth as oil. It was a calm which presaged violent weather. Against her masts the yards of the Plymouth Adventure banged with a sound like distant thunder and the idle canvas slatted to the thump of blocks and the thin wail of chafing cordage.
Captain Jonathan Wellsby was permitted the freedom of the poop by Blackbeard's sailing-master who seemed a sober and competent officer. They were seen to confer earnestly, as though the safety of the ship were uppermost in their minds. Soon the pirates of the prize crew were ordered to stow and secure all light sail and pass extra lashings about the boats and batten the hatches. They worked slowly, some of them shaking with fever, nor could kicks and curses and the sting of the whistling cat make them turn to smartly. The sailing-master signaled the Revenge to send off more hands but Blackbeard was either drunk or in one of his crack-brained moods. With a laugh he pulled a brace of pistols from his sash and blazed away at the Plymouth Adventure.
The two sloops of the pirate squadron had sagged down to leeward during the night and were trying to work back to their stations when the dead calm intervened. Their skippers had sense enough to read the weather signs and had begun to take in canvas. On board of the Revenge, however, there was aimless confusion, the mates making some attempt to prepare the ship for a heavy blow while Blackbeard defied the elements. His idea of arousing his men was to try potshots with his pistols as they crept out on the swaying spars.
It was quite apparent that the sailing-master was sorely needed in the Revenge, if order was to be brought out of this chaos, but he received no orders to quit the Plymouth Adventure. He was a proper seaman, Ned Rackham by name, who had deserted from the Royal Navy, after being flogged and keel-hauled for some trifling offense. Rumor had it that he was able to enforce respect from Blackbeard and would stand none of his infernal nonsense.
"In this autumn season we may catch a storm from the West Indies, Mr. Rackham," said Captain Wellsby. "The sea has a greasy look and this heavy ground swell is a portent."
"The feel of it is in the air, shipmaster. There fell an evil calm like this come two year ago when I was wrecked in a ship-of-the-line within sight of Havana. Four hundred men sank with her."
"If my sailors were not penned in the fo'castle——" suggested the merchant skipper.
"None o' that," was the stern retort. "This ship is a prize to Blackbeard and so she stays, and you will sink or swim with her."
The morning wore on and the two days of grace had passed for those doleful hostages in the Plymouth Adventure. They beheld the black flag hoisted to the rigging of the Revenge as a signal of tragic import, but the bandy-legged monster with the festooned whiskers was not to disport himself with this wanton butchery. The sky had closed darkly around the becalmed ships, in sodden clouds which were suddenly obscured by mist and rain while the wind sighed in fitful gusts. It steadied into the southward and swiftly increased in force until the sea was whipped into foam and scud.
Staunch and well-found, the Plymouth Adventure went reeling off across the spray-swept leagues of water, showing only her reefed topsails and courses. The two pirate sloops vanished beyond the curtain of mist. When last seen, one of them was dismasted and the other was laboring in grave peril. The Revenge loomed as a spectral shape while Blackbeard was endeavoring to get her running free in pursuit of the Plymouth Adventure. But slovenly, reckless seamanship had caught him unready. His sails were blowing to ribbons, ropes flying at loose ends, and it was with great difficulty that the vessel could be made to mind her tiller.
Already the sea was rising in crested combers which broke with the noise of thunder and the fury of the wind was insensate. Slowly the struggling Revenge dropped astern, yawing wildly, rolling her bulwarks under, splintered spars dangling from the caps. She was a crippled ship which would be lucky to see port again. It was to be inferred that Blackbeard had ceased to cut his mirthful capers on the poop and that he would have given bushels of doubloons to regain his sailing-master and men.
In the Plymouth Adventure things were in far better plight, even with the feeble, short-handed prize crew. Prudently snugged down in ample time, with extra hands at the steering tackles, they let her drive. She would perhaps wear clear of the coast and there was hope of survival unless the tempest should fairly wrench her strong timbers asunder.
Lashed to the weather rigging, Captain Jonathan Wellsby wiped the brine from his eyes and waved his arm at the helmsman, now to ease her a little, again to haul up and thus thwart some ravening sea which threatened to stamp his ship under. Sailing-Master Ned Rackham was content to let the skipper con his own vessel in this great emergency.
The mind of Captain Wellsby was very active and he pondered on something else than winning through the storm. He had been helpless while under the guns of the Revenge, with the two sloops in easy call. Now the situation was vastly different. He had been delivered out of Blackbeard's clutches. And in the forecastle were thirty British seamen with hearts of oak, raging to be loosed with weapons in their hands. Peering into the gray smother of sea and sky, Captain Jonathan Wellsby licked his lips hungrily as he said to himself:
"Not now, but if the storm abates and we float through the night, these lousy picaroons shall dance to another tune."
THE CAPTIVE SEAMEN IN THE FORECASTLE
JACK COCKRELL was seasick. This was enough to spoil any adventure. Curled up under a boat, the spray pelted him and the wild motion of the ship sloshed him back and forth. He took no interest even in piracy. Joe Hawkridge, tough as whip-cord and seasoned to all kinds of weather, came clawing his way aft while the water streamed from his thin shirt and ragged breeches. The pirates of the prize crew had sought shelter wherever they could find it. The waist of the ship was flooded with breaking seas. A few of the larboard watch were huddled forward, close to the lofty forecastle where they were stationed as sentries over the imprisoned sailors of the Plymouth Adventure.
The commotion of the wind shrieking in the rigging and the horrid crash of the toppling combers were enough to convince a landlubber that the vessel was doomed to founder. But Joe Hawkridge clapped young Jack an affectionate clout on the ear and bawled at him:
"For his work he's never loth, An' a-pleasurin' he'll go, Tho' certain sure to be popt off; Yo, ho, with the rum below!"
Jack managed to fetch a sickly smile of greeting, but had nothing to say. Joe snuggled down beside him and explained:
"I wouldn't dare sing that song if Blackbeard's bullies could hear me. 'Tis known as Stede Bonnet's ditty, for a fight or a frolic."
"By Harry, they can roll it out. My blood tingled when they chorused it through Charles Town," said Jack, with signs of animation and a sparkle in his eye. "Tell me truly, Joe. What about this pirate sailing-master, Ned Rackham? He seems a different sort from your other drunken wretches. He is more like one of Captain Bonnet's choosing."
"Gulled you, has he?" cried Joe. "I was afeard of that. And he's getting on the blind side of your skipper. This Cap'n Jonathan Wellsby is brave enough and a rare seaman, but he ne'er dealt with a smooth rogue like Ned Rackham. He stays sober to plot for his own advantage. He will serve Blackbeard only till he can trip him by the heels. Now listen well, Jack, seasick though ye be. You will have to warn your skipper, Captain Wellsby."
"Warn him of what? My poor head is so addled that I can fathom no plots. How can Ned Rackham do us mischief while this infernal gale blows? He toils with might and main for the safety of the ship."
"Yes, you dunce, and let a lull come," scornfully exclaimed the boyish pirate. "What then? A fine ship this, and well gunned. She would make a smackin' cruiser for Ned Rackham, eh? He hoists the Jolly Roger on his own account and laughs at Blackbeard."
"Take our ship for his own?" faltered Jack, his wits confused. "I never thought of that. Why, that means getting rid of us, of the passengers and crew."
Joe passed a hand across his throat with a grimace that said more than words.
"He has the ship's company disarmed and helpless, Jack. And pirates a-plenty to work her till he recruits a stronger force. All hands of 'em have a surfeit of Blackbeard's bloody whims an' didoes."
"And Captain Wellsby will be caught off his guard?" said Jack, shivering at the aspect of this new terror.
"Can he do aught to prevent, unless he is bold enough to forestall it?" answered the shrewd young sea waif. "Better die fighting than be slain like squealin' rats."
"Recapture the ship ere Ned Rackham casts the dice," said Jack. "But it means playing the hazard in the midst of this storm. How can it be done? A forlorn venture. It can but fail."
"You are as good as dead if you don't," was Joe's sensible verdict.
Jack Cockrell forgot his wretched qualms of mind and body. The trumpet call of duty invigorated him. He was no longer a useless lump. The color returned to his cheek as he crawled from under the boat and shakily hauled himself to his feet. Joe Hawkridge nodded approval and exhorted:
"A stiff upper lip, my gallant young gentleman. Steady she goes, an' not too hasty. Ned Rackham is as sharp as a whetted sword. Ware ye, boy, lest he pick up the scent. Fetch me word, here, beneath this jolly-boat."
Jack stole away, staggering along the high poop deck until he could cling to the life-line stretched along the roof of the great cabin. There he slumped down and feigned helplessness, banged against the bulwark as a dripping heap of misery or kicked aside by the pirates of the watch as they were relieved at the steering tackles. From half-closed eyes he watched Ned Rackham, a vigilant, dominant figure in a tarred jacket and quilted breeches and long sea-boots. Now and again he cupped his hands and yelled in the ear of Captain Wellsby whose beard was gray with brine.
Jack saw that it was hopeless to get a private word with the skipper on deck. The clamor of the storm was too deafening. The one chance was to intercept him in the cabin when he went below for food and drink. Jack dragged himself to the after hatchway which was shoved open a trifle to admit air, and squeezed himself through. Before he tumbled down the steep staircase he turned to glance at Captain Wellsby. Unseen by Ned Rackham, the boy raised his hand in a furtive, beckoning gesture.
The pirates had taken the main room of the after-house for their own use, driving the passengers and ship's officers into the small cabins or staterooms. The air was foul below, reeking of the bilges, and the main room was incredibly filthy. The pirates ate from dirty dishes, they had scattered food about, and they kicked off their boots to sleep on the floor like pigs in a sty.
Several of them were seated at the long table, bottle and mug in hand, and the gloomy place was poorly lighted by a swinging whale-oil lamp. Jack Cockrell crept unnoticed into a corner and was giddy and almost helpless with nausea. It seemed ages before Captain Wellsby's legs appeared in the hatchway and he came down into the cabin, bringing a shower of spray with him. His kindly face was haggard and sad and he tottered from sheer weariness. Passing through to his own room, a scurvy pirate hurled refuse food at him, with a silly laugh, and others insulted him with the foulest epithets.
He paid them no heed and they returned to their own amusements. Jack Cockrell aroused himself to stumble after the skipper who halted to grasp the lad by the shoulder and shove him headlong into the little room. The door was quickly bolted behind them. A lurch of the vessel flung Jack into the bunk but he managed to sit up, holding his head in his hands, while he feebly implored:
"Did you note me wave my hand, sir, when I came below?"
"Yes, and I followed as soon as I could," answered the master of the Plymouth Adventure. "There was the hint of secrecy in your signal, Jack. What's in the wind?"
"I am the only passenger to win the confidence of one of Blackbeard's crew," explained the lad. "This Joe Hawkridge is true to us, I'll swear it. He is a pressed man, hating his masters. He bids me tell you that Ned Rackham will seize the ship for his own as soon as ever the wind goes down."
"Um-m, is he as bold as that?" grunted the skipper, rubbing his nose with an air of rueful surprise. "No honor among thieves, Jack. I thought him loyal to Blackbeard. I have considered attempting something of my own when the weather permits but this news quickens me. This young imp o' Satan that ye call Joe,—he will side with us in a pinch?"
"Aye, sir. And he knows this Ned Rackham well. There has been talk among the pirates of rising against Blackbeard to follow the fortunes of Sailing-Master Rackham. Here is the ship, as Joe says."
"It has a plausible sound," said Captain Wellsby. "My intention was to wait, but I shall have to strike first."
"Can we fight in this storm, sir, even if we manage to release our sailors?" asked Jack, very dismally.
"Not what we can, but what we must do," growled the stubborn British mariner. "The shame of striking my colors rankles like a wound. God helping me, we shall wipe out that stain if we drown in a sinking ship. I talk to you as a man, Master Cockrell, for such you have proven yourself. And who else is there to serve me in this adventure?"
"To set our sailors free, you mean, sir?" eagerly exclaimed Jack. "I took thought of that. There is nobody but me, neither your mates nor the passengers, who can pass among the pirates without suspicion. The knaves have humored me, hearing the tale of the pirate I knocked on the head and my braggart remark to Blackbeard. They have seen me about the decks with Joe Hawkridge as my boon comrade. 'Tis their fancy that I am likely to enlist."
"Well said, Jack," was the skipper's compliment. "Yes, you might make your way for'ard without interference,—but the fo'castle hatches are stoutly guarded. Again, should my brave fellows find exit, they are weaponless, unready. Moreover, they have been crammed in that dark hole, drenched by the sea, cruelly bruised by the tossing of the ship, and weakened for lack of food and air."
"Granted, sir," sighed Jack. "But if some message could be smuggled in to forewarn them of the enterprise,—would that brace 'em to the assault?"
"Will ye try it, Jack?" asked the skipper, with a note of appeal in his hearty voice. "I know not where else to turn. You take your life in your hands but——"
The shipmaster broke off with a grim smile. It was absurd to prate of life or death in such a strait as this. The boy reflected before he said:
"If—if I fail, sir, Joe Hawkridge will try to pass a message in to the men. You can depend on 't."
"A last resort, Jack. You vouch for him but I trust you far sooner. He has kept sorry company."
"When is the best hour, Captain Wellsby?"
"Just before nightfall when the watches will be changing. I dare not delay it longer than that. In darkness, my lads will be unable to find the foe and strike hard and quick. Nor can they rush to lay hold of the only weapons in their reach,—the pikes in the racks beside the masts. Not a pistol or cutlass amongst 'em, and they must fight with these wicked dogs of pirates who think naught of killing men."
"Let your lusty sailors once get clear, sir," stoutly declared Jack Cockrell, "and they will play a merry game with those long pikes. Then I am to slip the message written by your hand on a bit of paper?"
"That's it! I will command them to pound against the scuttle, three raps, for a signal of response, and you must listen for it. Then it is for them to stand ready, on the chance that you can slip the bar of the hatch or the bolts on the door."
"But if they have to come out singly, sir, and the sentries are ready-witted, why, your men may be cut down or pistoled in their tracks."
"I am so aware," said Captain Wellsby, his honest features glum, "but we cannot change the odds."
He found an ink-horn and quill and laboriously wrote a few lines on a leaf torn from the back of a sea-stained log-book. Jack tucked it carefully away and thus they parted company, perhaps to meet no more in life. Through the waning afternoon, Jack stowed himself on deck and held long converse with Joe Hawkridge when they met between the keel-chocks of the jolly-boat. Because he shared not the skipper's feeling of distrust, Jack sought the active aid of his chum of a pirate lad. It was agreed that they should endeavor to reach the forecastle together when the ship's bell tolled the hour of beginning the first night watch.
Joe hoped he might decoy or divert the sentries. If not, he had another scheme or two. A gunner's mate of the prize crew had sent him to overhaul the lashings of the battery of nine-pounders which were ranged along the waist. With several other hands Joe had made all secure, because the guns were apt to get adrift in such weather as this and plunge to and fro across the deck like maddened beasts. Now Joe Hawkridge had lingered, on pretext of making sure that one forward gun could be fired, if needs be, as a distress signal should the ship open her seams or strike upon a shoal.
He had satisfied himself that the tompion, or wooden plug which sealed the muzzle was tight, and that no water had leaked through the wrapping of tarred canvas which protected the touch-hole. Before replacing them, he had made two or three trips to the deck-house amidships in which was the carpenter's room. Each time he tucked inside his shirt as many forged iron spikes, bolts, and what not as he could safely carry.
Unobserved, he shoved this junk down the throat of the nine-pounder and wadded it fast with handfuls of oakum. He worked coolly, without haste, as agile as a monkey when the ship careened and the sea spurted through the cracks of the gun-ports. Well pleased with his task, he said to himself, with that grin which no peril could obliterate:
"God alone knows how I can strike fire to a match and keep it alight, but the sky shows signs of easier weather."
The fury of the storm had, indeed, diminished. It might be a respite before the wind hauled into another quarter and renewed its ferocious violence, but the air was no longer thick with the whirling smother of foam and spray and the straining topmasts had ceased to bend like whips. The ship was gallantly easing herself of the waves which broke aboard and the rearing billows astern were not threatening to stamp her under.
It lacked almost an hour of nightfall when Jack Cockrell crept along the poop and halted to lean against the timbered railing by the mizzen shrouds. All he could think of was that Ned Rackham might seize upon this sudden abatement of the gale to hasten his own wicked conspiracy and so ruin the plan to restore the Plymouth Adventure to her own lawful company. This menace had occurred to Captain Jonathan Wellsby who stood tense and rigid at the sailing-master's elbow, watching him from the tail of his eye.
Relief o'erspread the skipper's worn features when he espied Jack Cockrell who stood as if waiting for orders. A nod, a meaning glance, and they understood each other. Striving to appear unconcerned, Jack moved toward the forward part of the ship. He was aquiver with excitement, and his breath was quick and small, but the sense of fear had left him. Captain Wellsby had called him a man and, by God's sweet grace, he would so acquit himself.
The pirates were swarming out of the cabin to taste the clean air and limber their cramped muscles. The ship still wallowed as she ran before the wind and it was breakneck work to clamber about. From the topsail yards fluttered mere ribbons of canvas where the reefed sails had bellied. Ned Rackham shouted for the watch to lay aloft and cut the remnants clear and bend new cloths to keep her from broaching to.
Jack Cockrell's heart leaped for joy. At least a dozen of the most active pirates would have to obey this order. This would remove them from the deck for a precious interval of time. He slouched aimlessly nearer the forecastle, stretching his neck to gaze up at the pirates as they footed the ratlines and squirmed over the clumsy tops. Joe Hawkridge joined him, as if by chance, and they wandered to the lee side of the forecastle. There they were screened from the sight of the sentries.
The wooden shutters of the little windows had been spiked fast on the outside and Jack was at his wits' end to find by what means he might slip the fateful message to the captive seamen. He dared not climb upon the roof and seek for a crack in a hatchway. This would make him too conspicuous.
Cautiously he stole around the massive structure and was all but washed overboard when he gained the windward side where the water broke in hissing cataracts. So great had been its force during the height of the storm, that one of the shutters had been splintered and almost crushed in. Clutching the bit of paper which was tightly rolled and wrapped in a square of oiled linen, Jack pushed it through a ragged crevice in the shutter.
It was gravely doubtful whether the men would discover the message in the gloom of their prison. It might fall to the floor and be trampled unperceived. And yet Jack Cockrell could not make himself believe that deliverance would be thwarted. He said a prayer and waited with his ear against the wall of the forecastle. There he leaned through an agonized eternity as the slow moments passed. It was like the ordeal of a condemned man who hopes that a blessed reprieve may save him, in the last hour, from the black cap and the noose.
Up aloft the pirate seamen were slashing the torn canvas with their dirks and casting loose the gaskets. Presently they began to come down to the deck, one by one. Some whispered word must have passed amongst them, because they drifted aft as by a common impulse although it was not yet the hour to change the watch. Their gunner's mate, a gigantic mulatto with a broken nose, went to the poop when Ned Rackham crooked his finger and these two stood aside, beyond earshot of Captain Wellsby, while they conferred with heads together.
"They will strike first," Jack whispered to himself.
The misty daylight had not darkened. The decks were not yet dusky with the shadows which Jack had hoped might enable him to approach the forecastle door in his brave endeavor to unbar it. The plans were all awry. Tears filled his eyes. And then there came to his ear a muffled knock against the other side of the forecastle planking.
Once, twice, thrice! The signal was unmistakable. A little interval and it was repeated.
Softly the trembling lad tiptoed to the corner of the forecastle house and peered around it to look for the sentries. Two of them had moved a few yards away to join a group which gazed aft as if expecting a summons from Ned Rackham on the poop. The third sentry leaned against the forecastle door, a cutlass at his belt. He was a long, bony man with a face as yellow as parchment from the Spanish fever and it was plain to read that there was no great strength in him.
Faithful Joe Hawkridge sat astride the breech of the nine-pounder at which he had been so busily engaged earlier in the afternoon. He appeared to be an idler who merely looked on but he was watching every motion, and that hard, canny face of his had, for once, forgot to grin. Releasing a three-foot handspike from its lashing beside the gun-carriage, he awaited the next roll of the deck and deftly kicked this handy weapon. It slid toward the forecastle and Jack Cockrell stopped it with his foot.
There was no time for hesitation. Snatching up the iron-shod handspike, Jack rushed straight at the forecastle door. Just then the ship lurched far down and he was shot headlong, like falling off the roof of a house. He had the momentum of a battering-ram. The sentry yelled and drew his cutlass with a swiftness amazing in a sick man. His footing was unsteady or Jack would have spitted himself on the point of the blade. As he went crashing full-tilt into the man the impact was terrific. They went to the deck together and the handspike spun out of Jack's grasp. There was no need to swing it on this luckless pirate for his bald head smote a plank with a thump which must have cracked it like an egg.
Not even pausing to dart after the cutlass which had clattered from the lifeless fingers, Jack spun on his heel and wrenched at the heavy bar across the forecastle door and felt it slide from the fastenings. He tugged it clear and swung himself up to the roof to draw the bolts which secured the hatch. Rusted in their sockets, they resisted him but he spied a pulley-block within reach and used it as a hammer.
All this was a matter of seconds only. The pirates grouped amidships had been waiting for Ned Rackham's word from aft and they were muddled by this sudden shift of action. The other sentries stared in foolish astonishment. The brief delay was enough to let Jack Cockrell free the hatch. While he toiled furiously, several pistols and a musket were snapped at him but the flint sparked on damp powder in the pans and only one ball whistled by his head.
Out of the forecastle hatchway and through the door, the enraged sailors of the Plymouth Adventure came rocketing like an explosion. They stumbled over each other, emerging head or feet first, blinking like owls in the daylight but with vision good enough to serve their purpose. Their goal was the nearest stand of boarding-pikes at the foot of the mainmast.
But as they came surging on deck, they were not empty-handed. In the forecastle was a bricked oven for warmth in winter and for cooking kettles of soup. This they had torn to pieces and every man sallied forth with a square, flat brick in each hand and more inside his shirt. Those who were first to gain the deck pelted the nearest pirates with these ugly missiles. The air was full of hurtling bricks and the earliest casualty was a stout buccaneer who stopped one with his stomach.