THE BLACK BUCCANEER
STEPHEN W. MEADER
ILLUSTRATIONS BY THE AUTHOR
HARCOURT, BRACE AND COMPANY
COPYRIGHT, 1920, BY HARCOURT, BRACE AND COMPANY, INC.
Twelfth printing, May, 1940
PRINTED IN THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA BY QUINN & BODEN COMPANY, INC., RAHWAY, N. J.
"If a man starts to haul on that line, I'll shoot him dead!" Frontispiece
"Ho, ho, young woodcock, and how do ye like the company of Stede Bonnet's rovers?" 23
"Don't say a word—sh!—easy there—are you awake?" 143
A sudden red glare on the walls of the chasm 223
Job had bracketed his target 247
THE BLACK BUCCANEER
On the morning of the 15th of July, 1718, anyone who had been standing on the low rocks of the Penobscot bay shore might have seen a large, clumsy boat of hewn planking making its way out against the tide that set strongly up into the river mouth. She was loaded deep with a shifting, noisy cargo that lifted white noses and huddled broad, woolly backs—in fact, nothing less extraordinary than fifteen fat Southdown sheep and a sober-faced collie-dog. The crew of this remarkable craft consisted of a sinewy, bearded man of forty-five who minded sheet and tiller in the stern, and a boy of fourteen, tall and broad for his age, who was constantly employed in soothing and restraining the bleating flock.
No one was present to witness the spectacle because, in those remote days, there were scarcely a thousand white men on the whole coast of Maine from Kittery to Louisberg, while at this season of the year the Indians were following the migrating game along the northern rivers. The nearest settlement was a tiny log hamlet, ten miles up the bay, which the two voyagers had left that morning.
The boy's keen face, under its shock of sandy hair, was turned toward the sea and the dim outline of land that smudged the southern horizon.
"Father," he suddenly asked, "how big is the Island?"
"You'll see soon enough, Jeremy. Stop your questioning," answered the man. "We'll be there before night and I'll leave you with the sheep. You'll be lonesome, too, if I mistake not."
"Huh!" snorted Jeremy to himself.
Indeed it was not very likely that this lad, raised on the wildest of frontiers, would mind the prospect of a night alone on an island ten miles out at sea. He had seen Indian raids before he was old enough to know what frightened him; had tried his best with his fists to save his mother in the Amesbury massacre, six years before; and in a little settlement on the Saco River, when he was twelve, he had done a man's work at the blockhouse loophole, loading nearly as fast and firing as true as any woodsman in the company. Danger and strife had given the lad an alert self-confidence far beyond his years.
Amos Swan, his father, was one of those iron spirits that fought out the struggle with the New England wilderness in the early days. He had followed the advancing line of colonization into the Northeast, hewing his way with the other pioneers. What he sought was a place to raise sheep. Instead of increasing, however, his flock had dwindled—wolves here—lynxes there—dogs in the larger settlements. After the last onslaught he had determined to move with his possessions and his two boys—Tom, nineteen years old, and the smaller Jeremy—to an island too remote for the attacks of any wild animal.
So he had set out in a canoe, chosen his place of habitation and built a temporary shelter on it for family and flock, while at home the boys, with the help of a few settlers, had laid the keel and fashioned the hull of a rude but seaworthy boat, such as the coast fishermen used.
Preparations had been completed the evening before, and now, while Tom cared for half the flock on the mainland, the father and younger son were convoying the first load to their new home.
In the day when these events took place, the hundreds of rocky bits of land that line the Maine coast stood out against the gray sea as bleak and desolate as at the world's beginning. Some were merely huge up-ended rocks that rose sheer out of the Atlantic a hundred feet high, and on whose tops the sea-birds nested by the million. The larger ones, however, had, through countless ages, accumulated a layer of earth that covered their gaunt sides except where an occasional naked rib of gray granite was thrust out. Sparse grass struggled with the junipers for a foothold along the slopes, and low black firs, whose seed had been wind-blown or bird-carried from the mainland, climbed the rugged crest of each island. Few men visited them, and almost none inhabited them. Since the first long Norse galley swung by to the tune of the singing rowers, the number of passing ships had increased and their character had changed, but the isles were rarely touched at except by mishap—a shipwreck—or a crew in need of water. The Indians, too, left the outer ones alone, for there was no game to be killed there and the fishing was no better than in the sheltered inlets.
It was to one of the larger of these islands, twenty miles south of the Penobscot Settlement and a little to the southwest of Mount Desert, that a still-favoring wind brought the cumbersome craft near mid-afternoon. In a long bay that cut deep into the landward shore Amos Swan had found a pebbly beach a score of yards in length, where a boat could be run in at any tide. As it was just past the flood, the man and boy had little difficulty in beaching their vessel far up toward high water-mark. Next, one by one, the frightened sheep were hoisted over the gunwale into the shallow water. The old ram, chosen for the first to disembark, quickly waded out upon dry land, and the others followed as fast as they were freed, while the collie barked at their heels. The lightened boat was run higher up the beach, and the man and boy carried load after load of tools, equipment and provisions up the slope to the small log shack, some two hundred yards away.
Jeremy's father helped him drive the sheep into a rude fenced pen beside the hut, then hurried back to launch his boat and make the return trip. As he started to climb in, he patted the boy's shoulder. "Good-by, lad," said he gently. "Take care of the sheep. Eat your supper and go to bed. I'll be back before this time tomorrow."
"Aye, Father," answered Jeremy. He tried to look cheerful and unconcerned, but as the sail filled and the boat drew out of the cove he had to swallow hard to keep up appearances. For some reason he could not explain, he felt homesick. Only old Jock, the collie, who shouldered up to him and gave his hand a companionable lick, kept the boy from shedding a few unmanly tears.
The shelter that Amos Swan had built stood on a small bare knoll, at an elevation of fifty or sixty feet above the sea. Behind it and sheltering it from easterly and southerly winds rose the island in sharp and rugged ridges to a high hilltop perhaps a mile away. Between lay ascending stretches of dark fir woods, rough outcroppings of stone and patches of hardy grass and bushes. The crown of the hill was a bare granite ledge, as round and nearly as smooth as an inverted bowl.
Jeremy, scrambling through the last bit of clinging undergrowth in the late afternoon, came up against the steep side of this rocky summit and paused for breath. He had left Jock with the sheep, which comfortably chewed the cud in their pen, and, slipping a sort pistol, heavy and brass-mounted, into his belt, had started to explore a bit.
He must have worked halfway round the granite hillock before he found a place that offered foothold for a climb. A crevice in the side of the rock in which small stones had become wedged gave him the chance he wanted, and it took him only a minute to reach the rounded surface near the top. The ledge on which he found himself was reasonably flat, nearly circular, and perhaps twenty yards across.
Its height above the sea must have been several hundred feet, for in the clear light Jeremy could see not only the whole outline of the island but most of the bay as well, and far to the west the blue masses of the Camden Mountains. He was surprised at the size of the new domain spread out at his feet. The island seemed to be about seven miles in length by five at its widest part. Two deep bays cut into its otherwise rounded outline. It was near the shore of the northern one that the hut and sheep-pen were built. Southwesterly from the hill and farther away, Jeremy could see the head of the second and larger inlet. Between the bays the distance could hardly have been more than two miles, but a high ridge, the backbone of the island, which ran westward from the hilltop, divided them by its rugged barrier.
Jeremy looked away up the bay where he could still see the speck of white sail that showed his father hurrying landward on a long tack with the west wind abeam. The boy's loneliness was gone. He felt himself the lord of a great maritime province, which, from his high watchtower, he seemed to hold in undisputed sovereignty.
Beneath him and off to the southward lay a little island or two, and then the cold blue of the Atlantic stretching away and away to the world's rim.
Even as he glowed with this feeling of dominion, he suddenly became aware of a gray spot to the southwest, a tiny spot that nevertheless interrupted his musing. It was a ship, apparently of good size, bound up the coast, and bowling smartly nearer before the breeze. The boy's dream of empire was shattered. He was no longer alone in his universe.
The sun was setting, and he turned with a yawn to descend. Ships were interesting, but just now he was hungry. At the edge of the crevice he looked back once more, and was surprised to see a second sail behind the first—a smaller vessel, it seemed, but shortening the distance between them rapidly. He was surprised and somewhat disgusted that so much traffic should pass the doors of this kingdom which he had thought to be at the world's end. So he clambered down the cliff and made his way homeward, this time following the summit of the ridge till he came opposite the northern inlet.
It was growing dark already in the dense fir growth that covered the hillside, and when Jeremy suddenly stepped upon the moss at the brink of a deep spring, he had to catch a branch to keep from falling in. There was an opening in the trees above and enough light came through for him to see the white sand bubbling at the bottom.
At one edge the water lapped softly over the moss and trickled down the northern slope of the hill in a little rivulet, which had in the course of time shaped itself a deep, well-defined bed a yard or two across. Following this, the boy soon came out upon the grassy slope beside the sheep-pen. He looked in at the placid flock, brought a bucket of water from the little stream, and, not caring to light a lantern, ate his supper of bread and cheese outside the hut on the slope facing the bay. The night settled chill but without fog. The boy wrapped his heavy homespun cloak round him, snuggled close to Jock's hairy side, and in his lonesomeness fell back on counting the stars as they came out. First the great yellow planet in the west, then, high overhead, the sparkling white of what, had he known it, was Vega; and in a moment a dozen others were in view before he could number them—Regulus, Altair, Spica, and, low in the south, the angry fire of Antares.
For him they were unnamed, save for the peculiarities he discovered in each. In common with most boys he could trace the dipper and find the North Star, but he regrouped most of the constellations to suit himself, and was able to see the outline of a wolf or the head of an Indian that covered half the sky whenever he chose. He wondered what had become of Orion, whose brilliant galaxy of stars appeals to every boy's fancy. It had vanished since the spring. In it he had always recognized the form of a brig he had seen hove-to in Portsmouth Harbor—high poop, skyward-sticking bowsprit and ominous, even row of gun-ports where she carried her carronades—three on a side. How those black cannon-mouths had gaped at the small boy on the dock! He wondered—
"Boom...!" came a hollow sound that seemed to hang like mist in a long echo over the island. Before Jeremy could jump to his feet he heard the rumbling report a second time. He was all alert now, and thought rapidly. Those sounds—there came another even as he stood there—must be cannon-shots—nothing less. The ships he had seen from the hilltop were men-of-war, then. Could the French have sent a fleet? He did not know of any recent fighting. What could it mean?
Deep night had settled over the island, and the fir-woods looked very black and uninviting to Jeremy when he started up the hill once more.
As their shadow engulfed him, he was tempted to turn back—how he was to wish he had done so in the days that followed—but the hardy strain of adventure in his spirit kept his jaw set and his legs working steadily forward into the pitch-black undergrowth. Once or twice he stumbled over fallen logs or tripped in the rocks, but he held on upward till the trees thinned and he felt that the looming shape of the ledge was just in front. His heart seemed to beat almost as loudly as the cannonade while he felt his way up the broken stones.
Panting with excitement, he struggled to the top and threw himself forward to the southern edge.
A dull-gray, quiet sea met the dim line of the sky in the south. Halfway between land and horizon, perhaps a league distant, Jeremy saw two vague splotches of darkness. Then a sudden flame shot out from the smaller one, on the right. Seconds elapsed before his waiting ear heard the booming roar of the report. He looked for the bigger ship to answer in kind, but the next flash came from the right as before. This time he saw a bright sheet of fire go up from the vessel on the left, illuminating her spars and topsails. The sound of the cannon was drowned in an instant by a terrific explosion. Jeremy trembled on his rock. The ships were in darkness for a moment after that first great flare, and then, before another shot could be fired, little tongues of flame began to spread along the hull and rigging of the larger craft. Little by little the fire gained headway till the whole upper works were a single great torch. By its light the victorious vessel was plainly visible. She was a schooner-rigged sloop-of-war, of eighty or ninety tons' burden, tall-masted and with a great sweep of mainsail. Below her deck the muzzles of brass guns gleamed in the black ports. As the blazing ship drifted helplessly off to the east, the sloop came about, and, to Jeremy's amazement, made straight for the southern bay of the island. He lay as if glued to his rock, watching the stranger hold her course up the inlet and come head to wind within a dozen boat-lengths of the shore.
One of the first things a backwoods boy learns is that it pays to mind your own business, after you know what the other fellow is going to do. Jeremy had been threshing his brain for a solution to the scene he had just witnessed. Whether the crew of the strange sloop, just then effecting a landing in small boats, were friends or enemies it was impossible to guess. Jeremy feared for the sheep. Fresh meat would be welcome to any average ship's crew, and the lad had no doubt that they would use no scruple in dealing with a youngster of his age. He must know who they were and whether they intended crossing the island. There was no feeling of mere adventure in his heart now. It was purely sense of duty that drove his trembling legs down the hillside. He shivered miserably in the night air and felt for his pistol-butt, which gave him scant comfort.
The ridge, which has already been described, bore in a southerly direction from the base of the ledge, and sloped steeply to the head of the southern inlet. High above the arm of the bay, where the sloop was now moored, and scarcely a quarter of a mile from the shore, the ridge projected in a rough granite crag like a bent knee. Jeremy had a very fair plan of all this in his mind, for his trained woodsman's eye had that afternoon noted every landmark and photographed it. He followed this mental map as he stumbled through the trees. It seemed a long time, perhaps twenty or thirty minutes, before he came out, stifling the sound of his gasping breath, and crouched for a minute on the bare stone to get his wind. Then he crawled forward along the rough cliff top, feeling his way with his hands. Soon he heard a distant shout. A faint glow of light shone over the edge of the crag. As he drew near, he saw, on the beach below, a great fire of driftwood and some score or more of men gathered in the circle of light. The distance was too great for him to tell much about their faces, but Jeremy was sure that no English or Colonial sloop-of-war would be manned by such a motley company. Their clothes varied from the sea-boots and sailor's jerkin of the average mariner to slashed leather breeches of antique cut and red cloth skirts reaching from the girdle to the knees. Some of the group wore three-cornered hats, others seamen's caps of rough wool, and here and there a face grimaced from beneath a twisted rag rakishly askew. Everywhere about them the fire gleamed on small-arms of one kind or another. Nearly every man carried a wicked-looking hanger at his side and most had one or two pistols tucked into waistband or holster.
This desperate gang was in a constant commotion. Even as Jeremy watched, a half dozen men were rolling a barrel up the beach. Wild howls greeted its appearance and as it was hustled into the circle of bright light, those who had been dancing, quarreling and throwing dice on the other side of the fire fell over each other to join the mob that surrounded it. The leaping flames threw a weird, uncertain brilliance upon the scene that made Jeremy blink his eyes to be sure that it was real. With every moment he had become more certain what manner of men these were.
His lips moved to shape a single terrible word—"Pirates!"
The buccaneers were much talked of in those days, and though the New England ports were less troubled, because better guarded, than those farther south, there had been many sea-rovers hanged in Boston within Jeremy's memory.
As if to clinch the argument a dozen of the ruffians swung their cannikins of rum in the air and began to shout a song at the top of their lungs. All the words that reached Jeremy were oaths except one phrase at the end of the refrain, repeated so often that he began to make out the sense of it. "Walk the bloody beggars all below!" it seemed to be—or "overboard"—he could not tell which. Either seemed bad enough to the boy just then and he turned to crawl homeward, with a sick feeling at the pit of his stomach.
His way led straight back across the ridge to the spring and thence down to the shelter on the north shore. He made the best speed he was able through the woods until he reached the height of land near the middle of the island. He had crashed along caring only to reach the sheep-pen and home, but as he stood for a moment to get his breath and his bearings, the westerly breeze brought him a sound of voices on the ridge close by. He prayed fervently that the wind which had warned him had served also to carry away the sound of his progress. Cowering against a tree, he stood perfectly still while the voices—there seemed to be two—came nearer and nearer. One was a very deep, rough bass that laughed hoarsely between speeches. The other voice was of a totally different sort, with a cool, even tone, and a rather precise way of clipping the words.
"See here, David," Jeremy understood the latter to say, "It's for you to remember those bearings, not me. You're the sailor here. Give them again now!"
"Huh!" grunted Big Voice, "two hunder' an' ten north to a sharp rock; three-score an' five northeast by east to an oak tree in a gully; two an' thirty north to a fir tree blazed on the south; five north an' there you are!" He ended in a chuckle as if pleased by the accuracy of his figures.
"Ay, well enough," the other responded, "but it must be wrong, for here's the blazed tree and no spring by it."
Close below, Jeremy saw their lantern flash and a moment later the two men were in full view striding among the trees. As he had almost expected from their voices, one was a tremendous, bearded fellow in sea-boots and jerkin and with a villainous turban over one eye, while his companion was a lean, smooth-shaven man, dressed in a fine buff coat, well-fitting breeches and hose, and shoes with gleaming buckles.
They must have passed within ten feet of the terrified Jeremy while the tossing lantern, swung from the hairy fist of the man called David, shone all too distinctly upon the boy's huddled shape. When they were gone by he allowed himself a sigh of relief, and shifted his weight from one foot to the other. A twig broke loudly and both men stopped and listened. "'Twas nought!" growled David. The other man paid no attention to him other than to say, "Hold you the lantern here!" and advanced straight toward Jeremy's tree. The boy froze against it, immovable, but it was of no avail.
"Aha," said the lean man, quietly, and gripped the lad's arm with his hand. As he dragged him into the light, his companion came up, staring with astonishment. A moment he was speechless, then began ripping out oath after oath under his breath. "How," he asked at length, "did the blarsted whelp come here?" The smaller man, who had been looking keenly into Jeremy's face, suddenly addressed him: "Here you, speak up! Do you live here?" he cried. "Ay," said the boy, beginning to get a grip on his thoughts.
"How long has there been a settlement here? There was none last Autumn," continued the well-dressed man. Jeremy had recovered his wits and reasoned quickly. He had little chance of escape for the present, while he must at all costs keep the sheep safe. So he lied manfully, praying the while to be forgiven.
"'Tis a new colony," he mumbled, "a great new colony from Boston town. There be three ships of forty guns each in the north harbor, and they be watching for pirates in these parts," he finished.
"Boy!" growled the bearded man, seizing Jeremy's wrist and twisting it horribly. "Boy! Are you telling the truth?" With face white and set and knees trembling from the pain, the lad nodded and kept his voice steady as he groaned an "Ay!"
The two men looked at each other, scowling. The giant broke silence. "We'd best haul out now, Cap'n," he said.
"And so I believe," the other replied, "But the water-casks are empty. Here!" as he turned to Jeremy, "show us the spring." It was not far away and the boy found it without trouble.
"Now, Dave Herriot," said the Captain, "stay you here with the light, that we may return hither the easier. Boy, come with me. Make no fuss, either, or 'twill be the worse for you." And so saying he walked quickly back toward the southern shore, holding the stumbling Jeremy's wrist in a grip of iron.
Crashing down the hill through the brush, the lad had scant time or will for observing things about him, but as they crossed a gully he saw, or fancied he saw, on the knee-shaped crag above, the slouched figure of a buccaneer silhouetted against the sky. It was not the bearded giant called Herriot, but another, Jeremy was sure. He had no time for conjectures, for they plunged into the thicket and birch limbs whipped him across the face.
The events of that night made a terribly clear impression on the mind of the young New Englander. Years afterward he would wake with a shiver, imagining that the relentless hand of the pirate captain was again dragging him toward an unknown fate. It must have been the darkness and the sudden unexpectedness of it all that frightened him, for as soon as they came down the rocks into the flaring firelight he was able to control himself once more. The wild carouse was still in progress among the crew. Fierce faces, with unkempt beards and cruel lips, leered redly from above hairy, naked chests. Eyes, lit from within by liquor and from without by the dancing flames, gleamed below black brows. Many of the men wore earrings and metal bands about the knots of their pig-tails, while silver pistol-butts flashed everywhere.
As the Captain strode into the center of this group, the swinging chorus fell away to a single drunken voice which kept on uncertainly from behind the rum-barrel.
"Silence!" said the Captain sharply. The voice dwindled and ceased. All was quiet about the fire. "Men," went on Jeremy's captor, "clear heads, all, for this is no time for drinking. We have found this boy upon the hill, who tells of a fleet of armed ships not above a league from here. We must set sail within an hour and be out of reach before dawn. Every man now take a water-keg and follow me. You, Job Howland, keep the boy and the watch here on the beach."
Fresh commotion broke out as he finished. "Ay, ay, Captain Bonnet!" came in a broken chorus, as the crew, partially sobered by the words, hurried to the long-boat, where a line of small kegs lay in the sand. A moment later they were gone, plowing up the hillside. Jeremy stood where he had been left. A tall, slack-jointed pirate in the most picturesque attire strolled over to the boy's side and looked him up and down with a roguish grin. Under his cloak Jeremy had on fringed leather breeches and tunic such as most of the northern colonists wore. The pirate, seeing the rough moccasins and deerskin trousers, burst into a roar. "Ho, ho, young woodcock, and how do ye like the company of Major Stede Bonnet's rovers?"
The lad said nothing, shut his jaw hard and looked the big buccaneer squarely in the face. There was no fear in his expression. The man nodded and chuckled approvingly. "That's pluck, boy, that's pluck," said he. "We'll clip the young cock's shank-feathers, and maybe make a pirate of him yet." He stooped over to feel the buckskin fringe on Jeremy's leg. The boy's hand went into his shirt like a flash. He had pulled out the pistol and cocked it, when he felt both legs snatched from under him.
His head hit the ground hard and he lay dazed for a second or two. When he regained his senses, Job Howland stood astride of him coolly tucking the pistol into his own waist-band. "Ay," said Job, "ye'll be a fine buccaneer, only ye should have struck with the butt. I heard the click." The pirate seemed to hold no grudge for what had occurred and sat down beside Jeremy in a friendly fashion.
"Free tradin' ain't what it was," he confided. "When Billy Kidd cleared for the southern seas twenty years agone, they say he had papers from the king himself, and no man-of-war dared come anigh him." He swore gently and reminiscently as he went on to detail the recent severities of the Massachusetts government and the insecurity of buccaneers about the Virginia capes. "They do say, tho', as Cap'n Edward Teach, that they call Blackbeard, is plumb thick with all the magistrates and planters in Carolina, an' sails the seas as safe as if he had a fleet of twenty ships," said Job. "We sailed along with him for a spell last year, but him an' the old man couldn't make shift to agree. Ye see this Blackbeard is so used to havin' his own way he wanted to run Stede Bonnet, too. That made Stede boilin', but we was undermanned just then and had to bide our time to cut loose.
"Cap'n Bonnet, ye see, is short on seamanship but long in his sword arm. Don't ye never anger him. He's terrible to watch when he's raised. Dave Herriot sails the ship mostly, but when we sight a big merchantman with maybe a long nine or two aboard, then's when Stede Bonnet comes on deck. That Frenchman we sunk tonight, blast her bloody spars"—here the lank pirate interrupted himself to curse his luck, and continued—"probably loaded with sugar and Jamaica rum from Martinique and headed up for the French provinces. Well, we'll never know—that's sure!" He paused, bit off the end of a rope of black tobacco and meditatively surveyed the boy. "I'm from New England myself," said he after a time. "Sailed honest out of Providence Port when I was a bit bigger nor you. Then when I was growed and an able seaman on a Virginia bark in the African trade, along comes Cap'n Ben Hornygold, the great rover of those days and picks us up. Twelve of the likeliest he takes on his ship, the rest he maroons somewhere south of the Cubas, and sends our bark into Charles Town under a prize crew. So I took to buccaneering, and I must own I've always found it a fine occupation—not to say that it's made me rich—maybe it might if I'd kept all my sharin's."
This life-history, delivered almost in one breath, had caused Howland an immense amount of trouble with his quid of tobacco, which nearly choked him as he finished. Except for the sound of his vast expectorations, the pair on the beach were quiet for what seemed to Jeremy a long while. Then on the rocks above was heard the clatter of shoes and the bumping of kegs. Job rose, grasping the hand of his charge, and they went to meet the returning sailors.
To the young woodsman, utterly unused to the ways of the sea, the next half-hour was a bewildering melee of hurrying, sweating toil, with low-spoken orders and half-caught oaths and the glimmer of a dying fire over all the scene. He was rowed to the sloop with the first boatload and there Job Howland set him to work passing water-kegs into the hold. He had had no rest in over twenty hours and his whole body ached as the last barrel bumped through the hatch. All the crew were aboard and a knot of swaying bodies turned the windlass to the rhythm of a muttered chanty. The chain creaked and rattled over the bits till the dripping anchor came out of water and was swung inboard. The mainsail and foresail went up with a bang, as a dozen stalwart pirates manned the halyards.
Dave Herriot stood at the helm, abaft the cabin companion, and his bull voice roared the orders as he swung her head over and the breeze steadied in the tall sails.
"Look alive there, mates!" he bellowed. "Stand by now to set the main jib!" Like most of the pirate sloops-of-war, Stede Bonnet's Revenge was schooner-rigged. She carried fore and main top-sails of the old, square style, and her long main boom and immense spread of jib gave her a tremendous sail area for her tonnage. The breeze had held steadily since sundown and was, if anything, rising a little. Short seas slapped and gurgled at the forefoot with a pleasant sound. Jeremy, desperately tired, had dropped by the mast, scarcely caring what happened to him. The sloop slid out past the dark headlands, and heeled to leeward with a satisfied grunt of her cordage that came gently to the boy's ears. His head sank to the deck and he slept dreamlessly.
A rough hand shook him awake. He was lying in a dingy bunk somewhere in the gloom of the cramped forecastle. "Come, young'un," growled a voice, strange to Jeremy, "you've slept the clock around! Cap'n wants you aft."
The lad ached in all his bones as he rolled over toward the light. As he came to a sitting position on the edge of the bunk, he gave a start, for the face scowling down at him looked utterly fiendish to his sleepy eyes. Its ugliness fairly shocked him awake. The man had a grim, bristly jaw and a twisted mouth. His eyes were small and cruel, so light in color that they looked unspeakably cold. The livid gray line of a sword-cut ran from his left eyebrow to his right cheek, and his nose was crushed inward where the scar crossed its bridge, giving him more the look of an animal than of a man. A greasy red cloth bound his head and produced a final touch of barbarity. To the half-dazed Jeremy there seemed something strangely familiar about his pose, but as he still stared he was jerked to his feet by the collar. "Don't stand there, you lubber!" shouted the man with the broken nose. "Get aft, an' lively!" A hard shove sent the boy spinning to the foot of the ladder. He climbed dizzily and stumbled on deck, looking about him, uncertain where to go. It must have been past noon, for the sun was on the starboard bow.
The Revenge was close-hauled and running southwest on a fresh west wind. Dave Herriot leaned against the weather rail, a short clay pipe in one fist and his bushy brown beard in the other. At the wheel was a swarthy man with earrings, who looked like a Portuguese or a Spaniard. Glancing over his shoulder, Jeremy saw most of the crew lolled about forward of the fo'c's'le hatch. Herriot looked up and called him gruffly but not unkindly, the boy thought. He advanced close to the sailing-master, staggering a little on the uneven footing.
"Now look sharp, lad," said the pirate in a stern voice, "and mind what I tell 'ee. There's nought to fear aboard this sloop for them as does what they're told. We run square an' fair, an' while Major Stede Bonnet and David Herriot gives the orders, no man'll harm ye. But"—and a hard look came into the tanned face—"if there's any runnin' for shore 'twixt now and come time to set ye there, or if ever ye takes it in yer head to disobey orders, we'll keel-haul ye straight and think no more about it. You're big and strong, an' may make a foremast hand. For the first on it, until ye get your sea legs, ye can be a sort o' cabin boy. Cap'n wants ye below now. Quick!"
Jeremy scrambled down the companionway indicated by a gesture of Herriot's pipe. There was a door on each side and one at the end of the small passage. He advanced and knocked at this last one, and was told, in the Captain's clear voice, to open.
Major Bonnet sat at a good mahogany table in the middle of the cabin. Behind him were a bunk, two chairs and a rack of small arms, containing half a dozen guns, four brace of pistols, and several swords. He had been reading a book, evidently one of the score or more which stood in a case on the right. Jeremy gasped, for he had never seen so many books in all his life. As the Captain looked up, a stern frown came over his face, never a particularly merry one. The boy, ignorant as he was of pirates, could not help feeling that this man's quietly gentle appearance fitted but ill with the blood-thirsty reputation he bore. His clothes were of good quality and cut, his grayish hair neatly tied behind with a black bow and worn unpowdered. His clean-shaven face was long and austere—like a Boston preacher's, thought Jeremy—and although the forehead above the intelligent eyes was high and broad, there was a strange lack of humor in its vertical wrinkles.
"Well, my lad," said the cool voice at last, "you're aboard the Revenge and a long way from your settlement, so you might as well make the best of it. How long you stay aboard depends on your behavior. We might put into the Chesapeake, and if there are no cutters about, I'd consider setting you ashore. But if you like the sea and take to it, there's room for a hand in the fo'c's'le. Then again, if you try any tricks, you'll leave us—feet first, over the rail." He leaned forward and hissed slightly as he pronounced the last words. Something in the eyes under his knotted gray brows struck deeper terror into the boy's heart than either Herriot's threat or the cruel face of the man with the broken nose. For that instant Bonnet seemed deadly as a snake.
Jeremy was much relieved when he was bidden to go. The sailing-master stood by the companionway as he ascended. "You'll bunk for'ard," he remarked curtly. "Go up with the crew now." The boy slipped into the crowd that lay around the windlass as unobstrusively as he could. A thick-set, bearded man with a great hairy chest, bare to the yellow sash at his waist, was speaking. "Ay," he said, "a hundred Indians was dead in the town before ever we landed. They didn't know where to run except into the huts, an' those our round-shot plowed through like so much grass—which was what they was, mostly. Then old Johnny Buck piped the longboat overside and on shore we went, firin' all the time. Cap'n Vane himself, with a dirk in his teeth and sword an' pistol out, goes swearin' up the roadway an' we behind him, our feet stickin' in blood. A few come out shootin' their little arrers at us, but we herded 'em an' drove 'em, yellin' all the time. At close quarters their knives was no match for cutlasses. So we went slashin' through the town, burnin' 'em out an' stickin' 'em when they ran. Our sword arms was red to shoulder that day, but we was like men far gone in rum an' never stayed while an Indian held up head. Then we dropped and slept where we fell, across a corp', like as not, clean tuckered, every man of us. Come mornin', the sight and smell of the place made us sober enough and not a man in the crew wanted to go further into the island. There was no gold in the town, neither. All we got was a few hogs and sheep. We left the same day, for it come on hot an' we had no way to clean up the mess. That island must ha' been a nuisance to the whole Caribbean for weeks."
Job Howland nodded and spat as the story ended. "Ye're right, George Dunkin," he said. "That was a day's work. Vane's a hard man, I'm told, an' that crew in the Chance was one of his worst." He was interrupted by a villainous old sea-dog with a sparse fringe of white beard, who sprawled by the hatchway. He cleared his throat hoarsely and spoke with a deep wheeze between sentences.
"All that was nowt to our fight off Panama in the spring of 'eighty," he growled. "We weren't slaughterin' Indians, but Spaniards that could fight, an' did. What's more, they were three good barks and nigh three hundred men to our sixty-eight men paddlin' in canoes. Ah, that was a day's work, if you will! I saw Peter Harris, as brave a commander as ever flew the black whiff, shot through both legs, but he was a-swingin' his cutlass and tryin' to climb the Spaniard's side with the rest when our canoe boarded. Through most of that battle we was standin' in bottoms leakin' full of bullet holes, a-firin' into the Biscayner's gun-ports, an' cheerin' the bloody lungs out of us! When we got aboard, their hold was full of dead men an' their scuppers washin' red. They asked no quarter an' on we went, up an' down decks, give an' take. At the last, six men o' them surrendered. The rest—eighty from the one ship—we fed to the sharks before we could swab decks next day. Eh, but that was a v'yage, an' it cost the seas more good buccaneers than ever was hanged. Harris an' Sawkins an' half o' their best men we left on the Isthmus. But out of one galleon we took fifty thousand pieces-of-eight, besides silver bars in cord piles. Think o' that, lads!"
A fair, stocky, young deserter from a British man-of-war—his forearm bore the tattooed service anchor—broke in, his eyes gleaming greedily at the thought of the treasure.
"That was in New Panama," he cried. "Do you mind old Ben Gasket we took off Silver Key last summer! Eighty years old he was, and marooned there for half his life. He was with Morgan at the great sack of Old Panama before most on us was born. An' Old Ben, he said there was nigh two hundred horse-loads o' gold an' pearls, rubies, emeralds and diamonds took out o' that there town, an' it a-burnin' still, after they'd been there a month. Talk o' wealth!"
The man with the broken nose raised himself from his place by the capstan and stretched his hairy arms with an evil, leering yawn. Every eye turned to him and there was silence on the deck as he began to speak.
"Dollars—louis d'ors—doubloons?" said he. "There was one man got 'em. Solomon Brig got 'em. All the rest was babes to him—babes an' beggars. Billy Kidd was thought a great devil in his day, but when he met Brig's six-gun sloop off Malabar, he turned tail, him an' his two great galleons, an' ran in under the forts. Even then we'd ha' had him out an' fought him, only that the old man had an Indian princess aboard he was takin' in to Calicut for ransom. That was where Sol Brig got his broad gold—kidnappin'. Twenty times we worked it—a dash in an' a fight out, quick an' bloody—then to sea in the old red sloop, all her sails fair pullin' the sticks out of her, an' maybe a man-o'-war blazin' away at our quarter. Weeks after, we'd slip into some port bold as brass an' there, sure enough, Brig would set the prisoner ashore an' load maybe a hundred weight of little canvas bags or a stack of pig-silver half a man's height. The very name of him made him safe. I'd take oath he could have stole the Lord Mayor o' London and then put in for his ransom at Execution Dock.
"We got good lays, us before the mast, but there never was a fair sharin' aboard that ship. One night I crawled aft an' looked in the stern-port. 'Twas just after we'd got our lays for kidnappin' the Governor o' Santiago—a rich town as you know. In the cabin sat ol' Brig, a bare cutlass acrost his lap, countin' piles o' moidores that filled the whole table. When a rope creaked the old fox saw me an' let drive with his hanger. Where I was I couldn't dodge quick, an' the blade took me here, acrost the face. Why he never knifed me, after, I don't know."
The scarred man stopped with the same abruptness that had marked his beginning. His fierce, light eyes, like those of a sea-hawk, swept slowly around the audience and lit on Jeremy. He reached forward, clutched the boy's shirt, and with an ugly laugh jerked him to his feet. "'Twas havin' boys aboard as killed Sol Brig," he rasped.
"They hear too much! Look at this young lubber"—giving him a shake—"pale as a mouldy biscuit! No use aboard here an' poverty-poor in the bargain! Why Stede don't walk him over the side, I don't see. Here, get out, you swab!" and he emphasized the name with a stiff cuff on the ear. Job Howland interposed his long Yankee body. His lean face bent with a scowl to the level of the other's eyes. "Pharaoh Daggs," he drawled evenly, "next time you touch that lad, there'll be steel between your short ribs. Remember!"
He turned to Jeremy who, poor boy, was utterly and forlornly seasick. "Here, young 'un," he said kindly, "—the lee rail!"
Bright summer weather hovered over the Atlantic as the Revenge ploughed smartly southward. Jeremy grew more accustomed to his new manner of life from day to day and as he found his sea-legs he began to take a great pleasure in the free, salt wind that sang in the rigging, the blue sparkle of the swells, and the circling whiteness of the offshore gulls. He was left much to himself, for the Captain demanded his services only at meal times and to set his cabin in order in the morning. In the long intervals the boy sat, inconspicuous in a corner of the fore-deck, watching the gayly dressed ruffians of the crew, as they threw dice or quarrelled noisily over their winnings. He was assigned to no watch, but usually went below at the same time as Job Howland, thus keeping out of the way of Daggs, the man with the broken nose. As Howland was in the port watch, on deck from sunset to midnight, Jeremy often took comfort in the sight of his loved stars wheeling westward through the taut shrouds. He would stand there with a lump in his throat as he thought of his father's anguish on returning to the island to find the sheep uncared for and the young shepherd vanished. In a region desolate as that, he knew that there was but one conclusion for them to reach. Still, they might find the ashes of the pirate fire and keep up a hope that he yet lived.
But the boy could not be unhappy for long. He would find his way home soon, and he fairly shivered with delight as he planned the grand reunion that would take place when he should return. Perhaps he even imagined himself marching up to the door in sailor's blue cloth with a seaman's cloak and cocked hat, pistol and cutlass in his belt and a hundred gold guineas in his poke. Not for worlds would he have turned pirate, but the romance of the sea had touched him and he could not help a flight of fancy now and then.
Sometimes in the long hours of the watch, Job would give him lessons in seamanship—teach him the names of ropes and spars and show how each was used. The boy's greatest delight was to steer the ship when Job took his trick at the helm. This was no small task for a boy even as strong as Jeremy. The sloop, like all of her day, had no wheel but was fitted with a massive hand tiller, a great curved beam of wood that kicked amazingly when it was free of its lashings. Of course, no grown man could have held it in a seaway, but during the calm summer nights Jeremy learned to humor the craft along, her mainsail just drawing in the gentle land breeze, and her head held steadily south, a point west.
One night—it was perhaps a week after Jeremy's capture, and they had been sighting low bits of land on both bows all day—Dave Herriot came on deck about the middle of the watch and told Curley, the Jamaican second mate, he might go below. He set Job to take soundings and, himself taking the tiller, swung her over to port with the wind abeam. Jeremy went to the bows where he could see the white line of shore ahead. They drew in, steering by Job's soundings, and by the time the watch changed were ready to cast anchor in a small sandy bay. Herriot came forward, scowling darkly under his bushy eyebrows, and rumbling an occasional oath to himself. The sloop, her anchor down and sails furled, swung idly on the tide. The men were clearly mystified as the sailing-master started to give orders. "George Dunkin," he said, "take ten men of the starboard watch, and go ashore to forage. There be farms near here and any pigs or fowls you may come across will be welcome. You, Bill Livers," addressing the ship's painter, "take a lantern and your paint-pot and come aft with me. All the rest stay on deck and keep a double lookout, alow an' aloft!" The forage party slipped quietly off toward the beach in one of the boats. The remainder of the crew looked blankly after the retreating Bill Livers.
"Hm," murmured Job, "has Stede Bonnet gone clean crazy?"—and as Herriot let the painter down over the bulwark at the stern—"Ay, he's goin' to change her name, by the great Bull Whale!"
An hour before dawn the crew of the long-boat returned, grumbling and empty-handed. Herriot appeared preoccupied with some weightier matter and scarcely deigned to notice their failure by swearing. There was no singing as the anchor was raised. A sort of gloom hung over the whole ship. As she stole out to sea again, the men, one by one, went aft and leaned outboard, peering down at the broad, squat stern. Jeremy did likewise and beheld in new white letters on the black of the hull, the words Royal James. Next day in the fo'c's'le council he learned why the renaming of the Revenge had cast a pall of apprehension over the crew. There were low-muttered tales of disaster—of storm, shipwreck, and fire, and that dread of all sailors—the unknown fate of ships that never come back to port. Apparently the rule was unfailing. Sooner or later the ship that had been given a new name would come to grief and her crew with her. Pharaoh Daggs cast an eye of hatred at Jeremy and growled that "one Jonah was enough to have abroad, without clean drownin' all the luck this way," while the crew looked black and shifted uneasily in their places.
The bay where they had anchored overnight must have been somewhere on the eastern end of Long Island, a favorite landing place for pirates at that time. All day they cruised along the hilly southern shore. The men seemed unable to cast off the gloom that had settled upon them. Stede Bonnet sat in his cabin, never once coming on deck, and drinking hard, a thing unusual for him. Jeremy, who saw more of him than any of the foremast hands, realized from his gray, set face that the man was under a terrible strain of some sort. He told Job what he had seen and the tall New Englander looked very thoughtful. He took the boy aside. "There'll be mutiny in this crew before another night," he whispered. "They'll never stand for what he's done. If it comes to handspikes, you and I'd best watch our chance to clear out. Pharaoh Daggs don't love us a mite."
But the mutiny was destined not to occur. An hour before noon next day the lookout, constantly stationed in the bows, gave a loud "Sail ho!" and as Dave Herriot re-echoed the shout, all hands tumbled on deck with a rush.
As the pirate sloop raced southward under full sail, the form of the other ship became steadily plainer. She was a brig, high-pooped, and tall-masted, and apparently deeply laden. Major Bonnet, who had come up at the first warning, seemed his old cool self as he conned the enemy through a spyglass. Jeremy had been detailed as a sort of errand boy, and as he stood at the Captain's side he heard him speaking to Herriot.
"She's British, right enough," he was saying. "I can make out her flag; but how many guns, 'tis harder to tell. She sees us now, I think, for they seem to be shaking out a topsail.... Ah, now I can see the sun shine on her broadside—two ... three ... five in the lower port tier, and three more above—sixteen in all. 'Twill be a fight, it seems!"
Aboard the Royal James the men were slaving like ants, preparing for the battle. Every man knew his duties. The gunners and swabbers were putting their cannon in fettle below decks. Others were rolling out round-shot from the hold and storing powder in iron-cased lockers behind the guns. Great tubs of sea water were placed conveniently in the 'tween-decks and blankets were put to soak for use in case of fire. Buckets of vinegar water for swabbing the guns were laid handy. In the galley the cook made hot grog. Cutlasses were looked after, pistols cleaned and loaded and muskets set out for close firing. Jeremy was sent hither and thither on every imaginable mission, a tremendous excitement running in his veins.
The sloop gained rapidly on her prey, hauling over to windward as she sailed, and when the two ships were almost within cannon range, Stede Bonnet with his own hand bent the "Jolly Roger" to the lanyard and sent the great black flag with its skull and crossbones to fly from the masthead. The grog was served out. No man would have believed that the roaring, rollicking gang of cutthroats who tossed off their liquor in cheers and ribald laughter was identical with the grumbling, sour-faced crew of twenty hours before. As they finished, something came skipping over the water astern and the first echoing report followed close. The cannonade was on.
A loud yell of defiance swept the length of the Royal James as the men went to their posts. The gun decks ran along both sides of the sloop a few feet above the water line. They were like alleyways beneath the main deck, barely wide enough to admit the passage of a man or a keg of powder behind the gun-carriages. These latter were not fixed to the planking as afterward became the fashion, but ran on trucks and were kept in their places by rope tackles. In action, the recoil had to be taken up by men who held the ends of these ropes, rove through pulleys in the vessel's side. Despite their efforts the gun would sometimes leap back against the bulkhead hard enough to shatter it. As the charge for each reloading had to be carried sometimes half the length of the ship by hand, it is easy to see that the men who served the guns needed some strength and agility in getting past the jumping carriages.
Jeremy was sent below to help the gunners, as the shot from the merchantman continued to scream by. Job Howland was a gunner on the port side and the boy naturally lent his services to the one man aboard that he could call his friend. There was much bustle in the alley behind the closed ports but surprisingly little confusion was apparent. The discipline seemed better than at any time since the boy had been brought aboard the black sloop.
Job was ramming the wad home on the charge of powder in his bow gun. The other four guns in the port deck were being loaded at the same time, three men tending each one.
"Here, lad," sang out Job, as he put the single iron shot in at the muzzle, "take one o' the wet blankets out o' yon tub an' stand by to fight sparks." Jeremy did as he was bid, then got out of the way as the ports were flung open and the guns run forward, with their evil bronze noses thrust out into the sunlight.
The sloop, running swiftly with the wind abeam, had now drawn abreast of her unwieldy adversary. The merchant captain, apparently, finding himself out-speeded and being unable to spare his gun crews to trim sails, had put the head of his ship into the wind, where she stood, with canvas flapping, her bows offering a steady mark to the pirate.
"Ready a port broadside!" came Bonnet's ringing order, and then—"Fire!" Job Howland's blazing match went to the touch-hole at the word and his six-pounder, roaring merrily, jumped back two good feet against the straining ropes of the tackle. Instantly the next gun spoke and the next and so on, all five in a space of a bare ten seconds. Had they been fired simultaneously they might have shaken the ship to pieces. Jeremy was half-deafened, and his whole body was jarred. Thick black smoke hung in the alleyway, for the ports had been closed in order to reload in greater safety. The boy felt the deck heel to starboard under him and thought at first that a shot had caught them under the waterline, but when he was sent above to find out whether the broadside had taken effect, he found that the sloop had come about and was already driving north still to windward of the enemy. Bonnet was giving his gunners more time to load by running back and forth and using his batteries alternately. Herriot had the tiller and in response to Jeremy's question he pointed to the fluttering rags of the brig's foresail and the smoke that issued from a splintered hole under her bow chains.
Below in the gun deck the buccaneers, sweating by their pieces, heard the news with cheers. The sloop shook to the jarring report of the starboard battery a moment later, and hardly had it ceased when she came about on the other tack. "Hurrah," cried Job's mates, "we'll show him this time! Wind an' water—wind an' water!"
The open traps showed the green seas swirling past close below, and off across the swells the tall side of the merchantman swaying in the trough of the waves. "Ready!" came the order and every gunner jumped to the breach, match in hand. Before the command came to fire there was a crash of splintering wood and a long, intermittent roar came over the water. The brig had taken advantage of her falling off the wind to deliver a broadside in her own turn. Stede Bonnet's voice, cool as ever, gave the order and four guns answered the brig's discharge. The crew of the middle cannon lay on the deck in a pitiable state, two killed outright and the gunner bleeding from a great splinter wound in the head. A shot had entered to one side of the port, tearing the planking to bits and after striking down the two gun-servers, had passed into the fo'c's'le. Jeremy jumped forward with his blanket in time to stamp out a blaze where the firing-match had been dropped, and with the help of one of the pirates dragged the wounded man to his berth. Almost every shot of the last volley had done damage aboard the brig. Her freeboard, twice as high as that of the sloop, had offered a target which for expert gunners was hard to miss. Jagged openings showed all along her side, and as she rose on a swell, Job shouted, "See there! She's leakin' now. 'Twas my last shot did that—right on her waterline!"
"All hands on deck to board her!" came a shout, almost at the same instant. Jeremy hurrying up with the rest found the sloop bearing down straight before the wind, and only a dozen boat's lengths from the enemy.
A wild whoop went up among the pirates. Every man had seized on a musket and was crouching behind the rail. Bonnet alone stood on the open deck, his buff coat blowing open and his hand resting lightly on his sword. An occasional cannon shot screamed overhead or splashed away astern. Apparently the brig's batteries were too greatly damaged and her crew too badly shot up to offer an effective bombardment. She was drifting helplessly under tattered ribbons of canvas and the Royal James, whose sails had suffered far less, bore down upon her opponent with the swoop of a hawk.
As she drew close aboard a scattered fusillade of small arms broke out from the brig's poop, wounding one man, a Portuguese, but for the most part striking harmlessly against the bulwark. The buccaneers held their fire till they were scarce a boat's length distant. Then at the order they swept the ship with a withering musket volley. The brig was down by the head and lay almost bow on so that her deck was exposed to Bonnet's marksmen. Herriot brought his sloop about like a flash and almost before Jeremy realized what was toward, the ships had bumped together side by side, and the howling mob of pirates was swarming over the enemy's rail. Job Howland and another man took great boat-hooks, with which they grappled the brig's ports and kept the two vessels from drifting apart. Jeremy was alone upon the sloop's deck. He put the thickness of the mast between him and the hail of bullets and peered fearfully out at the terrible scene above.
The crew of the brig had been too much disorganized to repel the boarders as well as they might, and the entire horde of wild barbarians had scrambled to her deck, where a perfect inferno now held sway. The air seemed full of flying cutlasses that produced an incessant hiss and clangor. Pistols banged deafeningly at close quarters and there was the constant undertone of groans, cries and bellowed oaths. Above the din came the terrible, clear voice of Stede Bonnet, urging on his seadogs. He had become a different man from the moment his foot touched the merchantman's deck. From the cool commander he had changed to a devil incarnate, with face distorted, eyes aflame, and a sword that hacked and stabbed with the swift ferocity of lightning. Jeremy saw him, fighting single-handed with three men. His long sword played in and out, to the right and to the left with a turn and a flash, then, whirling swiftly, pinned a man who had run up behind. Bonnet's feet moved quickly, shifting ground as stealthily as a cat's and in a second he had leaped to a safer position with his back to the after-house. Two of his opponents were down, and the third fighting wearily and without confidence, when a huge, flaxen-haired man burst from the hatch to the deck and swung his broad cutlass to such effect that the battling groups in his path gave way to either side. The burly form of Dave Herriot opposed the new enemy and as the two giants squared off, sword ringing on sword, more than one wounded sailor raised himself to a better position, grinning with the Anglo-Saxon's unquenchable love of a fair fight. Herriot was no mean swordsman of the rough and ready seaman's type and had a great physique as well, but his previous labors—he had been the first man on board and had already accounted for a fair share of the defenders—had rendered him slow and arm-weary. The ready parrying, blade to blade, ceased suddenly as his foot slipped backward in a pool of blood. The blond seaman seized his advantage and swung a slicing blow that glanced off Herriot's forehead, and felled the huge buccaneer to the deck where he lay stunned, the quick red staining his head-cloth. As the blond-haired man stepped forward to finish the business, a long, keen, straight blade interposed, caught his cutlass in an upward parry and at the same time pinked him painfully in the arm.
Jumping back the seaman found himself faced by the pitiless eyes of Stede Bonnet, who had killed his last opponent and run in to save his mate's life. That quick, darting sword baffled the sailor. Swing and hack as he might, his blows were caught in midair and fell away harmless, while always the relentless point drove him back and back. Forced to the rail, he stood his ground desperately, pale and glistening with the sweat of a man in the fear of death. Then his sword flew up, the pirate captain stabbed him through the throat and with a dying gasp the limp body fell backward into the sea.
Meanwhile the pirates had steadily gained ground in the hand to hand struggle and now a bare half-dozen brave fellows held on, fighting singly or in pairs, back to back. The brig's captain, wounded in several places and seeing his crew in a fair way to be annihilated, flung up a tired arm and cried for quarter. Almost at once the fighting ceased and half the combatants, utterly exhausted, sank down among their dead and wounded fellows. The deck was a long shambles, red from the bits to the poop.
While the hands of the prisoners were being bound, Bonnet and all of his men not otherwise employed hurried below to search for loot. The man who had held the boat-hook astern left this task and greedily clambered up the brig's side lest he should miss his chance at the booty. Job alone stuck to his post, and motioned Jeremy to stay where he was. Cheers and yells of joy rang from the after-hold of the merchantman where the pirates had evidently discovered the ship's store of wine.
After a few moments Pharaoh Daggs thrust his scarred face out of the companion, and with a fierce roar of laughter waved a black bottle above his head. The others followed, drinking and babbling curses, and last of all Stede Bonnet, pale, dishevelled, mad with blood and liquor, stood bareheaded by the hatch. He raised his hand in a gesture of silence and all the hubbub ceased. "We have beaten them!" he cried between twitching lips. "I Captain Thomas, the chiefest of all the pirates, and my bully-boys of the Royal James! We'll show 'em all! We'll show 'em all! Blackbeard and all the rest! He, he, he!" and his voice trailed off in crazy laughter. The men of the crew stood about him on the brig's deck dumbfounded by his words. Jeremy could hardly breathe in his surprise. Suddenly he gave a start and would have cried out but that Job Howland's hand closed his mouth. A swiftly widening lane of water separated the sloop from her late enemy.
As she cleared the side of the waterlogged merchantman, the Royal James began to move. Her sails which had been left flapping during the close fighting, now filled with a bang and she went away smartly on the starboard tack. Job had dragged Jeremy aft and the two were huddled at the tiller, partially screened by the mainsail, when a howl of consternation broke out aboard the brig. Few if any of the firearms were still loaded, or they might have been shot to death, out of hand. As it was, the sloop had drawn away to a distance of nearly a quarter of a mile before any effort was made to stop her.
Then a single cannon roared and a round shot whizzed by along the tops of the waves. When the next report came, Jeremy could see the splash fall far astern. They were out of range.
The two runaways now felt comparatively safe. It was certain that the brig was too badly damaged to give chase even if she could keep afloat. Jeremy felt a momentary pang at the thought of leaving even that graceless crowd in such jeopardy, but he remembered that they had the brig's boats in which to leave the hulk, and his own present danger soon gave him enough to occupy him.
Job lashed the tiller and going to the lanyard at the mainmast, hauled down the black flag. Then they both set to work cleaning up the deck. The three dead men were given sea burial—slipped overboard without other ceremony than the short prayer for each which Jeremy repeated. The gunner who lay in agony in his berth had his wound bound up and was given a sip of brandy. Then the lank New Englander went below to get a meal, while Jeremy sluiced the gun decks with sea water.
Night was falling when Job reappeared on deck with biscuit and beans and some preserves out of the Captain's locker. There was little appetite in Jeremy after what he had witnessed that day, but his tall friend ate his supper with a relish and seemed quite elated at the prospect of the voyage to shore. He filled a clay pipe after the meal and smoked meditatively awhile, then addressed the boy with a queer hesitancy.
"Sonny," he began, "since we picked you up, I've been thinkin' every day, more an' more, what I'd give to be back at your age with another chance. Piratin' seemed a fine upstandin' trade to me when I begun,—independent an' adventurous too, it seemed. But it's not so fine—not so fine!" He paused. "One or two or maybe five years o' rough livin' an' rougher fightin', a powerful waste o' money in drink an' such, an' in the end—a dog's death by shootin' or starvation, or the chains on Execution Dock." Another pause followed and then, turning suddenly to Jeremy—"Lad, I can get a Governor's pardon ashore, but 'twould mean nought to me if my old days came back to trouble me. You're young an' you're honest an' what's more you believe in God. Do you figger a man can square himself after livin' like I've lived?" The boy looked into the pirate's homely, anxious face. He felt that he would always trust Job Howland. "Ay," he answered straightforwardly, and put out his hand. The man gripped it with a sort of fierce eagerness that was good to see and smiled the smile of a man at peace with himself. Then he solemnly drew out his clasp-knife and pricked a small cross in the skin of his forearm. "That," said he, "is for a sign that once I get out o' this here pickle I'll never pirate nor free-trade no more."
The wind sank to a mere breath as the darkness gathered and Jeremy stood the first watch while his tired friend settled into a deep sleep that lasted till he was wakened a little after midnight. Then the boy took his turn at sleeping.
When the morning light shone into his eyes he woke to find Job pacing the deck and casting troubled looks at the sky. The wind was dead and only an occasional whiff of light air moved the idly swinging canvas. A tiny swell rocked the sloop as gently as a cradle.
"Well, my boy, we won't get far toward shore at this gait," said Job cheerfully as Jeremy came up. "Except for maybe three hours sailin' last night, we've made no progress at all. I've got some porridge cooked below. You bring it on deck an' we'll have a snack."
The meal finished, they turned to the rather trying task of waiting for a breeze. About noon Job climbed to the masthead for a reconnaissance and on coming down reported a sail to the east, but no sign of any wind. The sky was dull and overcast so that Job made no effort to determine their bearings. They figured that they had drifted a dozen or more sea-miles to the west since the battle, and were lying somewhere off the little port of New York.
The day passed, Job amusing Jeremy with tales of his adventures and old sea-yarns and soon night had overtaken them again. This time the boy had the first nap. He was roused to take his watch when Job saw by the stars that it was eight bells, and, still yawning with sleep, the lad went to stand by the rail. Everything was quiet on the sea, and even the swell had died out, leaving a perfect calm. There was no moon. The boy's head sank on his breast and softly he slid to the deck. Drowsiness had overcome him so gently that he slept before he knew he was sleepy.
Jeremy's first waking sensation was the sound of a hoarse confused shout and the rattle of oars being shipped. He struggled to his feet, staring into the dark astern. Almost at the same instant there came a series of bumps along the sloop's side, and as the boy rushed to the hatch to call his ally, he heard feet pounding the deck. "Job!" he cried, "Job!" and then a heavy hand smote him on the mouth and he lost consciousness for a time.
The period during which he stood awake and terrified had been so brief and so fraught with terror that it never seemed real to the lad in memory. There was something of the awful hopelessness of nightmare about it. Always afterward he had difficulty in convincing himself that he had not slept steadily from the time he drowsed on watch to the minute when he opened his eyes to the light of morning and felt his aching head throb against the hard deck.
As he lay staring at the sky, a footstep approached and some one stood over him. He turned his eyes painfully to look and beheld the dark, bearded visage of George Dunkin, the bo's'n, who scowled angrily and kicked him in the ribs with a heavy toe. "Get up, ye young lubber!" roared the man and swore fiercely as the boy, unable to move, still lay upon his back. A moment later the bo's'n went away. To Jeremy's numb consciousness came the realization that the pirates had caught them again.
The words of the Captain on his first day aboard came back to the lad and made him shudder. There had been stories current among the men that gave a glimpse of how Stede Bonnet dealt with those who were treacherous. Which of a dozen awful deaths was in store for him? Ah, if only they would spare the torture, he thought that he could die bravely, a worthy scion of dauntless stock. He thought of Job who must have been seized in his bunk below. The poor fellow was to have short happiness in his changed way of life, it seemed.
Jeremy tried to steel his nerves against the test he was sure must follow soon. Instead of going to pieces in terror, he succeeded in forcing himself to the attitude of a young stoic. He had done nothing of which he was ashamed, and he felt that if he was called to face a just God in the next twenty-four hours, he would be able to hold his head up like a man.
Time passed, and he heard a heavy tramp coming along the deck. He was hoisted roughly by hands under his arm-pits and placed upon his feet, though he was still too weak to stand without support. A dozen faces surrounded him, glaring angrily. Out of a sort of mist that partly obscured his vision came the terrible leer of the man with the broken nose. The twisted mouth opened and the man spoke with a deliberate ugliness. The very absence of oaths seemed to make his slow speech more deadly.
"Ah, ye misbegotten young fool," he said, "so there ye stand, scared like the cowardly spawn ye are. We took ye, and kept ye, and fed ye. What's more, we was friends to ye, eh mates? An' how do ye treat yer friends? Leave 'em to starve or drown on a sinkin' ship! Sneak off like a dog an' a son of a cowardly dog!" Jeremy went white with anger. "An' now"—Daggs' voice broke in a sudden snarl—"an' now, we'll show ye how we treat such curs aboard a ten-gun buccaneer! Stand by, mates, to keel-haul him!"
At this moment a second party of pirates poured swearing out of the fo'c's'le hatch, dragging Job Howland in their midst. He was stripped to his shirt and under-breeches and had apparently received a few bruises in the tussle below. Jeremy's spirits were momentarily revived by seeing that some of the buccaneers had suffered like inconveniences, while the young ex-man-o'-war's-man was gingerly feeling of a shapeless blob that had been his nose. Dave Herriot, his head tied up in a bandage, was superintending the preparations for punishment. "Let's have the boy first," he shouted.
Aboard a square-rigger, keel-hauling was practiced from the main yardarm. The victim was dragged completely under the ship's bottom, scraping over the jagged barnacles, and drawn up on the other side, more often dead than living. As the sloop had only fore and aft sails, they had merely run a rope under the bottom, bringing both ends together amidships. They now dragged the boy forward, still in a half-fainting condition and made fast his feet in a loop in one end of the rope, then, stretching his arms along the deck in the other direction, bound his wrists in a similar way. He was practically made a part of the ring of hemp that circled the ship's middle.
Without further ceremony other than a parting kick or two, the crew took their places at the rope, ready to pull the lad to destruction. He set his teeth and a wordless prayer went up from his heart.
The wrench of the rope at his ankles never came. As he lay with his eyes closed, a high-pitched voice broke the quiet. "If a man starts to haul on that line, I'll shoot him dead!" Jeremy turned his head and looked. There stood Stede Bonnet, his face ashen gray and trembling, but with a venomous fire in his sunken eyes. He held a pistol in each hand and two more were thrust into his waist-band. Not a man stirred in the crew.
"That boy," went on the clear voice, "had no hand in the business, and well you know it. It is for me to give out punishments while I am Captain of this sloop, and by God I shall be Captain during my life. Pharaoh Daggs, step forward and unloose the rope!" The man with the broken nose fixed his light eyes on the Captain's for a full five seconds. Bonnet's pistol muzzle was as steady as a rock. Then the sailor's eyes shifted and he obeyed with a sullen reluctance. Jeremy, liberated, climbed to his knees and stood up swaying. Just then there was a rush of feet behind. He turned in time to see Job Howland vanish head foremost over the rail in a long clean dive. The astonished crew ran cursing to the side and stared after him, but no faintest trace of the man appeared. At dawn a breeze had sprung up and now the little waves chopped along below the ports with a sound like a mocking chuckle. They had robbed the buccaneers of their cruel sport.
Mutiny might have broken out then and there, but Stede Bonnet, cool as ever, stood amidships with his arms crossed and a calm-looking pistol in each fist. "Herriot," he remarked evenly, "better set the men to cleaning decks and repairing damage. We'll start down the Jersey coast at once."
Jeremy got to his bunk as best he might and slept for the greater part of twenty-four hours. When he awoke, the crew had just finished breakfast and were sitting, every man by himself, counting out gold pieces. Bonnet had divided the booty found on the brig and in their greedy satisfaction the pirates were, for the time at least, utterly oblivious to former discontent. When he got up and went to the galley for breakfast, Jeremy was ignored by his fellows or treated as if nothing had occurred. Indeed, there had been little real ground for wishing to punish the boy aside from the ugly temper occasioned by having to row a night and a day in open boats. Only Pharaoh Daggs bore real malice toward Jeremy and his feelings were for the most part concealed under a mask of contemptuous indifference.
As the day progressed the lad found that matters had resumed their accustomed course and that he was in no immediate danger. He missed his brave friend and co-partner as bitterly as if he had been a brother, but partially consoled himself with the thought that Job's act in jumping overboard had probably spared him the awful torture of the keel or some worse death. The Captain would never have defended the runaway sailor as he had done Jeremy, the boy was certain.
All day the sloop made her way south at a brisk rate, occasionally sighting low, white beaches to starboard. Sometime in the first dog-watch her boom went over and she ran her slim nose in past Cape May, heading up the Delaware with the hurrying tide, while the brig's long-boat, towing behind, swung into her wake astern.
When the gang of buccaneers had tumbled down the hatch after Jeremy's cry of warning, Job Howland, barely awake, had leaped to the narrow angle that made the forward end of the fo'c's'le, seizing a pistol as he went. Intrenching himself behind a chest, with the bulkhead behind him and on both sides, he had kept the maddened crew at bay for several moments. The pistol, covering the only path of attack, made them wary of approaching too close. When, finally, a half-dozen jumped forward at once, he pulled the trigger only to find that the weapon had not been loaded. In desperation he grasped the muzzle in his hand and struck out fiercely with the heavy butt, beating off his assailants time after time. This was well enough at first, but the buccaneers, who cared much less for a broken crown than for a bullet wound, pressed in closer and closer, striking with fists and marline-spikes. It was soon over. They jammed him so far into the corner than his tireless arm no longer had free play, and then bore him down under sheer weight of numbers. When he ceased to struggle they seized him fast and carried him to the deck.
Job was out of breath and much bruised but had suffered no lasting hurt. He saw Jeremy led forward, heard the men's cries and realized that the torture was in store for them both.
Unbound, but helpless to interfere, he saw the boy stretched on the deck and the rope attached to his arms and legs. He suffered greater agony than did Jeremy as the crew made ready to begin their awful work, for he had seen keelhauling before. And then suddenly Stede Bonnet was standing by the companion and the ringing shout that saved the boy's life struck on Job's ears. He could hardly keep from cheering the Captain then and there, but relief at Jeremy's delivery brought with it a return of his quick wits. He himself was in as great danger as ever.
He was facing aft, and his eye, roving the deck for a means of escape, lit on the brig's boat, which the pirates had tied astern after reboarding the sloop. She was trailing at the end of a painter, her bows rising and falling on the choppy waves. He waited only long enough to see that the Captain succeeded in freeing Jeremy, then drew a great breath and plunged over the side. Swimming under water, he watched for the towed longboat to come by overhead, and as her dark bulk passed, he caught her keel with a strong grip of his fingers, worked his way back and came up gasping, his hands holding to the rudder ring in her stern.
The hot, still days had warmed the surface of the sea to a temperature far above the normal, or he must certainly have become exhausted in a short time. As it was, he clung to his ring till near noon, when, cautiously peering above the gunwale, he saw the sloop's deck empty save for a steersman, half asleep in the hot sun by the tiller. With a great wrench of his arms the ex-buccaneer lifted himself over the stern and slipped as quietly as he was able into the boat's bottom. There he lay breathless, listening for sounds of alarm aboard the sloop. None came and after a few moments he wriggled forward and made himself snug under the bow-thwart. The boat carried a water-beaker and a can of biscuit for emergency use. After refreshing himself with these and drying out his thin clothing in the sun, he retreated under the shade of the thwart and slept the sleep of utter fatigue.
Late the next day he took a brief observation of the horizon. There was sandy shore to the east and from what he knew of the coast and the ship's course he judged they must be nearing the entrance to Delaware Bay. His long rest had restored to him most of his vigor and although he was sore in many places, he felt perfectly ready to try an escape as soon as the sloop should approach the land and offer him an opportunity.
As the night went on the Royal James made good speed up the Bay aided by a strong tide. A little while before light she came close enough to the west shore for Job to see the outlines of trees on a bluff. He figured the distance to be not above a mile at most. There was some question in his mind whether he should cut the painter and use the boat in getting away or swim for it. He decided that it would be better for him in most ways if the pirates still supposed him dead. So, quietly as an otter, he slipped over the gunwale, paddled away from the boat's side and set out for the land, ploughing through the water with a long overarm stroke.
Job had a hard fight with the turning tide before the trees loomed above his head and his feet scraped gravel under the bank. When at last he crept gasping out upon dry ground, it was miles to the southward of his first destination. Dawn had come and the early light silvered the rippling cross-swells and glinted on the white wings of the gulls. The big mariner shook the water from his sides like a spaniel, stretched both long arms to the warm sky, laughed as he thought of his escape and turning his gaunt face to the northward set out swiftly along the tree-clad bluffs.
Meanwhile the Royal James was far up inside the Capes, sailing demurely along, the ports of her gun deck closed and the British colors fluttering from her top. Jeremy watched the shores they passed with deep interest. He wondered if there would be a chance for him to get away when they came to anchor. There was nothing but hardship in his lot aboard the sloop, now that Job was gone. He was unnoticed for the most part by the men of the crew, and when any of them spoke to him it was with a cuff or a curse. As for Captain Bonnet, he had relapsed into one of his black moods. Nothing brought him on deck or made him speak except to give Herriot monosyllabic commands.
Late the following day, after a slow progress along the Delaware shore, the sloop hove to in a wide roadstead and the anchor was run out. The steeples and shipping of a little town were visible by the water side, but no one put off to meet them. To the surprise of all, Bonnet himself came on deck, wearing a good coat and fresh ruffles and with his hair powdered. He ordered the gig lowered, then looked about the assembled crew and addressed them good-humoredly enough. "Now, my lads," said he, "I'm going ashore with a picked boat's crew to get what news there is about. You that go with me remember that you are of the Royal James, honest merchant coaster, and that I am Captain Thomas, likewise honest navigator. We'll separate into every tavern and ship-chandler's place along the wharves, pick up the names of all ships that are soon to sail, and their cargoes, and meet at the gig at eight bells. Herriot and you men aboard here, keep a strict watch. Daggs, I leave the boy in your charge. Don't let him out of your sight."
At the last words Jeremy's heart sank to his boots. He knew how futile would be any attempt to escape under the cold hawk-eyes of the man with the broken nose. As the gig put off from the sloop's side, the boy leaned dejectedly against the rail. Pharaoh Daggs slouched up to him. "Ah there, young 'un," said he with cynical jocularity, "just thinkin' o' leavin' us, were ye, when the old man took the gimp out o' ye?" The bantering note vanished from the man's voice. "I'ld like to break yer neck, ye young whelp, but I won't—not just yet!" He seemed to be licking his ugly chops at the thought of a future occasion when he might allow himself this luxury. Then he went on, half to himself it seemed. "Hm, Bonnet's a queer 'un! Never can tell what he'll do. Them eight men aboard that brig, now—never was a rougher piece o' piracy since Morgan's day than his makin' those beggars walk the plank. Stood there an' roared an' laughed, he did, an' pricked 'em behind till they tipped the board. An' then to stop us from drownin' a blasted little rat that'd tried to kill us all! Oh, he's bad, is Stede—bad!" Jeremy gave a start as this soliloquy progressed. He had wondered once or twice what had become of the prisoners taken aboard the brig. That attempted escape of Job's had cost dear in human life it seemed. And his own deliverance had been the mere whim of a mad-man! He shuddered and thanked God fervently for the fortune that had so far attended him.