Chapter VII. The Lieutenant Unmasked
 

I had in truth hardly more than grasped the reality of the boat's presence--it seemed so spectral a thing amid the mists of the night--when it had vanished utterly once more behind the curtain of darkness. There was no sound to convince me my eyes had not deceived; that I had actually perceived a boat, flying before the wind, under complete control, and headed to the northward. No echo of a voice came across the water, no slight flap of sail, no distant creak of pulley, or groaning of rope--merely that fleeting vision, seemingly a phantom of imagination, a vision born from sea and cloud. Yet I knew I was not deceived. Where the craft could be bound; for what secret purpose it was afloat; who were aboard, were but so many unanswerable questions arising in my mind. I stared vainly into the darkness, puzzled and uncertain, impressed alone by the one controlling thought, that some mysterious object, some hidden purpose alone could account for that swift, silent passage. Where could they have come from, unless from that strange Dutch bark riding at anchor off the point below? The passing craft had impressed me as a ship's boat, and no craft of fishermen; and if it really came from the Namur of Rotterdam, had it been sent in answer to some signal by Sanchez? I could think of nothing else. They must have chosen this late hour purposely; they had doubtless endeavored to slip past us unobserved, seeking some more desolate spot on the coast where they might land unseen. Possibly, deceived by the night, the helmsman had approached closer to the wharf than he had intended; yet, nevertheless, if he held to his present course, he must surely touch shore not more than five hundred yards distant. In all probability that was his purpose.

I stood up, tempted at first to arouse Sam, but deciding almost as quickly that at present this was unnecessary. I had no wish to be the occasion for laughter; it would be better first to ascertain who these parties were, rather than create an unwarranted alarm. The reasonable probability was they composed merely a party of innocent fishermen, returning home after a day of sport--plantation servants possibly, who having stolen away unobserved, were now endeavoring to beach their stolen boat, and reach quarters without being seen. This theory appeared far more reasonable than the other, and, if it proved true, to arouse the sleepers on deck, would only result in making me a butt for ridicule. It appeared safe enough for me to adventure alone, and I was at least determined to assure myself as to the identity of these strangers. If they had actually landed it would require only a few moments to ascertain the truth, and I could accomplish this fully as well by myself, as though accompanied by others--indeed with less danger of discovery. I quietly lowered my body over the rail, and found footing on the wharf.

My knowledge of the path to be pursued was extremely vague, for our arrival had been in the dusk of the evening, so that any observation of the shore lines had been quite casual. I merely remembered that the bluff rose rather steeply from the water's edge, the path leading upward toward the house crowning the summit, turning and twisting in order to render the climb easier, and finally vanishing entirely as it approached the crest. Beside this, leading downward straight to the shore end of the wharf, was the broad slide, along which the bales and hogsheads of tobacco were sent hurtling on their way to market. My impression remained that the strip of beach was decidedly narrow, and generally bordered by a rather thick growth of dwarfed shrub. The point of land beyond clung dimly in my memory as sparsely wooded, tapering at its outer extremity into a sand bar against which the restless waves of the Bay broke in lines of foam. The only feasible method of approach to the spot I now sought would be by following this narrow strip of beach, yet this might be attempted safely, as my movements would be concealed by the darker background of the high bluff at the left.

In spite of the unfamiliarity of this passage, I succeeded in making excellent progress, advancing silently along the soft sand, assured I was safe from observation by reason of the intense darkness. The waves lapping the beach helped muffle my footsteps, but no other sound reached my ears, nor could my eyes perceive the slightest movement along the water surface within reach of vision. The distance proved somewhat greater than anticipated, because of the deep curve in the shore, and I had nearly reached the conclusion that the boat must have rounded the point and gone on, when suddenly I was brought to a halt by a voice speaking in Spanish--one of those harsh, croaking voices, never to be reduced to a whisper. Imperfect as was my knowledge of the tongue, I yet managed a fair understanding of what was being said.

"Not the spot, Manuel? Of course it is; do you not suppose I know? The cursed fog made me run in close ashore to where I could see the sloop, so as not to mistake. This is the place, and now there is nothing to do but wait. The Senor--he will be here presently."

"Ay, unless you misread the signal," a somewhat more discreet, but piping voice replied doubtfully. "I saw nothing of all you tell about."

"Because you knew no meaning, nor read the instructions," a touch of anger in the tone. "I tell you it was all written out in that letter brought to me from England on the Wasp. They were his last orders, and it was because of them that we anchored off the point yonder, and explored this coast. You saw the Senor touch the handkerchief to his cheek?"

"As he went forward alone--yes, surely."

"It was that motion which bade us come here, Manuel. Once for each cursed plantation along this west coast from the point. He touched the cloth to his cheek but the once, and this is the first. I watched for the sign with care for he is not one with whom to make a mistake."

"Dios de Dios! Do I not know, Estada? Have I not a scar here which tells?"

"True, enough; and have I not received also my lesson--eight hours staked face upward in the sun. So 'tis my very life wagered on this being the place named. Besides 'tis proven by the sloop lying there by the wharf."

"Where then is the Captain?" perversely unsatisfied.

"At the house yonder on the hill--where else? He knew how it would be, for this is not his first visit to the Bay. 'Twas because of his knowledge he could plan in England. Tis the custom of these planters to stop by night along the way, and go ashore; not to camp, but as guests of some friend. Only beforehand it was not possible for him to know which plantation would be the one chosen. That was what he must signal. You see it now?"

"Clearly, Estada; he is the same wary fox as of old."

"Never do they catch him napping," proudly. "Santa Maria! have I not seen it tried often in ten years?"

"About his plan here? He wrote you his purpose?"

"Not so much as a word; merely the order what to do. Dios! he tells nothing, for he trusts no man. A good thing that. Yet I have my own thought, Manuel."

"And what is that?"

The other hesitated, as though endeavoring to rearrange the idea in his own mind, and possibly doubtful of how much to confide to his companion. When he finally replied his words came forth so swiftly I could scarcely grasp their meaning with my slight knowledge of the tongue.

"'Tis no more than that I make a guess, friend, yet I have been with the Captain for ten years now, and know his way. This planter Fairfax is rich. The letter says nothing of that--no, not a word; but I made inquiries ashore. There is no one more wealthy in these Colonies, and he returns now from London, after the sale of his tobacco crop. No doubt he sold for his neighbors also. 'Tis the way they do, form a combine, and send an agent to England to get the best price. He will surely bear back with him a great sum. This the Senor knows; nor is it the first time he has done the trick, Manuel. Santa Maria! 'tis the easiest one of all. Then there is the girl."

"The one who was aboard the sloop?"

"Of course. I knew nothing of her, but I have keen eyes, and I have been long with the Senor. Marked you not how he approached her? No sea rover ever had greater desire for women, or won them easier. 'Tis a bright eye and red lip that wins him from all else. Even to me this one looked a rare beauty; yet am I sorry he found her, for it may delay the task here."

"Why must you fear that?"

"Bah! but you are stupid. Who will take by force what may be won by a few soft words?" He paused suddenly, evidently struck by a new thought. "Yet I think, Manuel, the Captain may have failed in this case. I watched their greeting, and her's was not that of love. If this be true, we strike at once, while it is safe."

"Here, you mean--tonight?"

"And why not here, and tonight? Is there a better spot or time? With another night the sloop will be far up the Bay, while now from where we are anchored, we could be beyond the Capes by daybreak, with the broad ocean before us. We are five--six with the Senor--and our ship lies but a short league away, ready for sea. There are only four men on the sloop, with some servants above--spiritless fellows. Why else should he have signaled our coming, unless there was work to do? That will be the plan, to my notion--the money and the girl in one swoop; then a quick sail to the southward. Pist! 'tis boys' play."

The other seemed to lick his lips, as though the picture thus drawn greatly pleased him.

"Gracioso Dios! I hope 'tis so. It has been dull enough here this month past. I am for blue water, and an English ship to sack."

"Or, better yet, a week at Porto Grande--hey, Manuel? The girls are not so bad, with clink of gold in the pocket after a cruise. Wait, though--there is someone coming down."

I crouched backward into the bushes, and, a moment later, the newcomer moved past me scarcely a yard distant, along the narrow strip of sand. He appeared no more than a black shadow, wrapped in a loose cloak, thus rendered so shapeless as to be scarcely recognizable. Directly opposite my covert he paused peering forward in uncertainty.

"Estada." He spoke the name cautiously, and in doubt.

"Ay, Captain," and another figure, also shapeless, and ill-defined, emerged noiselessly from the gloom. "We await you."

"Good," the tone one of relief. "I rather questioned if you caught my signal. I was watched, and obliged to exercise care. How many have you here?"

"Four, Senor, with Manuel Estevan."

"Quite sufficient; and how about the others?"

"All safely aboard, Senor; asleep in their bunks by now, but ready. Francois LeVere has charge of the deck watch."

"Ah! how happens it the quadroon is with you? A good choice, yet that must mean the Vengeance is still at Porto Grande. For what reason?"

"Because of greater injuries than we supposed, Captain. There were two shots in her below the water line, and to get at them we were obliged to beach her. LeVere came with us, expecting this job would be done before now, for by this time the schooner should be in water again, her sides scraped clean of barnacles, fit for any cruise. We have been waiting for you along this coast for several weeks."

"Yes, I know. The boat we intended to take met with an accident, while the one we did take proved the slowest tub that ever sailed. How is it here? Are there suspicions?"

"None, Senor. We have cruised outside most of the time. Only once were we hailed; while Manuel, with a boat crew, was ashore for nearly a week, picking up such news as he might. There is no warship in these waters."

"So I discovered on landing; indeed I was told as much in England. However your disguise is perfect."

Estada laughed.

"There is no mistaking where the Namur came from, Senor; she's Holland from keel to topmast, but the best sailing Dutchman I ever saw. You said you were being watched on the sloop. Are you known?"

The other uttered an oath snarling through his teeth.

"'Tis nothing," he explained contemptuously. "No more than the bite of a harmless snake in the grass. A dog of a servant who came over with us--one of Monmouth's brood. He has no knowledge of who I am, nor suspicion of my purpose. It is not that, yet the fellow watches me like a hawk. We had some words aboard and there is hate between us"

"If he was indentured, how came he on the sloop?"

"Fairfax bought him. The fellow won the interest of the girl coming over, and she interceded in his behalf. It was my plan to get him into my own hands. I'd have taught him a lesson, but the papers were signed before we landed. Yet the lad is not through with me; I do not let go in a hurry."

"May I ask you your plans, Senor?"

"Yes, I am here to explain. Are we out of ear-shot?"

"None can hear us. Manuel has gone back to the boat."

"Then listen. This planter, Fairfax, has returned from England with a large sum. It is in gold and notes. I have been unable to learn the exact amount, but it represents the proceeds in cash of the tobacco crop of himself, and a number of his neighbors. They pooled, and made him their agent. Without doubt, from all I could ascertain, it will be upward of fifty thousand pounds--not a bad bit of pocket money. This still remains in his possession, but a part will be dispersed tomorrow; so if we hope to gain the whole, we must do so now."

"Fifty thousand pounds, you say? Gracioso Dios! a sum worth fighting for."

"Ay; we've done some hard fighting for less. It is here under our very hands, and there could be no better place than this in which to take it. Everything is ready, and there is not the slightest suspicion of danger--not even a guard set over the treasure. I assured myself of this before coming down."

"Then it is at the house?"

"In an iron-bound chest, carried up from the sloop, and placed in the room assigned to Fairfax for the night. He considers it perfectly safe under his bed. But before we attempt reaching this, we must attend to those men left below on the boat. They are the only dangerous ones, for there are none of the fighting sort up above. Only two servants sleep in the main house, the cook, and a maid, both women. The others are in the slave quarters, a half mile away. Fairfax is vigorous, and will put up a fight, if he has any chance. He must be taken care of, before he does have any. Travers is an old man, to be knocked out with a blow. All we have to fear are those fellows on the sloop, and they will have to be attended to quietly, without any alarm reaching the house. I am going to leave that job to you--it's not your first."

"The old sea orders, Captain?"

"Ay, that will be quicker, and surer," The voice hardened in gust of sudden ferocity. "But, mark you, with one exception--the Englishman is not to be killed, if he can be taken alive. I would deal with him."

"How are we to recognize him from the others?"

"Pish! a blind man would know--he is the only one of that blood on board, taller, and heavier of build, with blond hair. A mistake, and you pay for it. Besides him there are two negroes, and an Irish fool. It matters not what happens to them; a knife to the heart is the more silent; but I would have this Geoffry Carlyle left alive to face me. You will do well to remember."

"I will pass the word to the men."

"See that you do. Then after that," Sanchez went on deliberately, as though murder was of small account, "you will follow me up the bluff. Who are the others with you?"

"Carl Anderson, Pedro Mendez, and Cochose."

"Well chosen; Mendez is the least valuable, and we will leave him with the prisoner at the boat. The big negro, Cochose, together with Manuel, can attend to Travers, and the two negresses--they sleep below. That will leave you and the Swede to get the chest. No firearms, if they can be avoided."

"You are certain of the way, Senor--in the dark?"

"I have been over the house, and drawn a rude diagram. You can look it over in the cabin of the sloop, after affairs have been attended to there. The stairs lead up from the front hall. I will go with you to the door of Fairfax's room."

Estada hesitated, as though afraid to further question his chief, yet finally, in spite of this fear, the query broke from his lips.

"And you, Senor--the girl?"

"What know you of any girl?"

"That there was one on the deck of the sloop--an English beauty. It was when you turned to greet her that you gave me the signal. I merely thought that perhaps--"

"Then stop thinking," burst forth Sanchez enraged. "Thinking has nothing to do with your work. If there is a girl, I attend to her. Let that suffice. Dios! am I chief here, or are you? You have my orders, now obey them, and hold your tongue. Bring the men up here."

Without a word, evidently glad to escape thus easily, Estada vanished into the gloom, leaving behind only the vague figure of Sanchez pacing the sands, his lips muttering curses. I dared not move, scarcely indeed to breathe, so closely did he skirt my covert. To venture forth would mean certain discovery; nor could I hope to steal away through the bushes, where any twig might snap beneath my foot. What could I do? How could I bring warning to those sleeping victims? This heartless discussion of robbery and murder left me cold with horror, yet helpless to lift a hand. I had no thought of myself, of my possible fate when once delivered into the hands of this monster, this arch villain, but all my agony of mind centered on the imminent danger confronting Dorothy Fairfax, and those unsuspecting men. All my preconceived impressions of Sanchez had vanished; he was no longer in my imagination a weakling, a boastful, cowardly bravado, a love-sick fool; but a leader of desperate men, a villain of the deepest dye--the dreaded pirate, Black Sanchez, whose deeds of crime were without number, and whose name was infamous. Confronted by Fairfax's ill-guarded gold, maddened by the girl's contemptuous indifference, no deed of violence and blood was too revolting for him to commit. What he could not win by words, he would seize by force and make his own. As coolly as another might sell a bolt of cloth, he would plan murder and rape, and then smilingly watch the execution. And I--what could I do?

The little band of men emerged from the concealment of the fog noiselessly, and gathered into a group about the figure of Sanchez, where he stood motionless awaiting them. I could distinguish no faces, scarcely indeed the outlines of their separate forms in the gloom, but one was an unusually big fellow, far taller and heavier than his companions. When he spoke he possessed a negro's voice, and I recognized him at once for Cochose. The Captain swept his impatient eyes about the circle.

"Lads," he said, incisively, a sharper note of leadership in the tone "it has been a bit quiet for you lately; but now I am back again, and we'll try our luck at sea once more. There must be many a laden ship waiting for us. Does that sound good?"

There was a savage growl of response, a sudden leaning forward of dark figures.

"I thought it would. We'll begin on a job tonight. There are fifty thousand pounds for us in that house yonder, and I waive my share. Estada will explain to you the work I want done; see that you do it quietly and well. By daylight we shall be on blue water, with our course set for Porto Grande. How is it, bullies, do you sniff the salt sea?"

"Ay, ay, Captain."

"And see the pretty girls waiting--and hear the chink of gold?"

"Ay, Senor."

"Then do not fail me tonight--and remember, it is to be the knife. Estada."

"Here, Senor."

"I have forgotten one thing--scuttle the sloop before joining me. 'Tis better to make all safe; and now, strong arms, and good luck. Go to your task, and if one fails me, it will mean the lash at the mast-butt."

They moved off one by one, Estada leading, along the narrow strip of sand, five of them, on their mission of murder. The leader remained alone, his back toward where I crouched, his eyes following their vanishing figures, until the night had swallowed them.