Chapter X
 

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.