The Black Buccaneer by Stephen W Meader
Job Howland's long legs, clad as they were in nothing more cumbersome than a pair of under-breeches, made light work of hills and ravines as he held his way steadily up the Delaware shore. Like most of the sailors of that day, he had gone barefoot aboard ship since the beginning of the warm weather and his soles were so calloused that he hardly felt the need of shoes.
At a shack on a little cove, just before midday, he found several fishermen, to whom he applied for clothing. They had pity on his plight, fitted him out with a shirt, serviceable breeches and rough boots, and gave him, as well, as much biscuit and dried fish as he wished to carry. Thus reinforced he continued to put the leagues behind him till night, when he slept under a convenient jack-pine. Early next morning he pushed on and came without further adventure to the little port of New Castle, just as the sun was setting.
Job had been in the town before and now went straight to the Red Hawk Tavern, a small place on the water-front that catered chiefly to seafaring men. The tavern-keeper, a brawny Swede, to whose blue eyes half the seamen that plied along the coast were familiar, held out a big hand to him as he entered. He had known the tall mariner when he had been on the Virginia bark before Hornygold had captured it and had had no news of him since. Job told him his whole story over a hot meal in the back room, and it is merely indicative of the public mind of that day that the big Swede had not the slightest compunction in sympathizing with him. Indeed, in most dockside resorts it was a common thing for pirates and honest seamen to fraternize with perfect goodwill. The innkeeper offered him a bed for the night, and next morning directed him to the governor's house.
Delaware, a far smaller and less developed colony than her neighbors, Pennsylvania and Maryland, had, nevertheless, her own government, located at New Castle. The brick house of the King's appointee was on the High Street--the most imposing building in the town, excepting the two churches. Job knocked at the door and was admitted by a colored servant in livery, who gave him a chair in the wide hall and asked him to wait there.
As the long Yankee fidgeted uncomfortably on the edge of his seat, he heard voices raised in a room opposite, the door of which was closed. Some one, apparently growing angry, was saying:
"Good Gad, man, are we to sit idle and let these ruffianly thieves make off with our money--children--wives! One good man-o'-war could teach the scamps such a lesson as would scare half of 'em off the seas! Why, if I'd had even a good culverin aboard the Indian Queen last night, I'd have chased the beggars clear to Africa, an need were. Governor, you must see this as we see it!"
There was a reply in a lower tone and a moment later the door opened for two gentlemen to come out. One was thin and pale and seemed a suave, cool fellow, Job thought. He was elegantly dressed in gray. His companion, larger and more strongly built, seemed to have become very red in the face from suppressed emotion. His linen ruffles were awry and his fists clenched as he emerged. Without looking at Job, he jammed his cocked hat upon his head and strode out.
The man in gray turned to the waiting seaman and beckoned him into the room just vacated. Job, as cool and self-possessed as if he were loading his six-pounder under fire, told the story of his experiences aboard the pirate sloop, finishing with an account of the attempted flight with Jeremy, their recapture and his escape. The Governor listened gravely, starting once when the mariner named Captain Bonnet. At the end he nodded. "You shall have the pardon as ruled by the Crown," he said. "But there is another side to this affair. You say you slept at the Red Hawk. Was there no talk there of a boy stolen from the wharves late in the evening?" Job replied that he had gone to bed early and had breakfasted and left without hearing any gossip.
"From what you say," went on the Governor, "I should be ready to swear that the Captain Thomas, who proclaimed himself by that name in a tavern last night and later made off with the son of Clark Curtis, was the same man as your Stede Bonnet." Job hastened to relate the incident of the buccaneer's crazed speech from the brig's deck. He asked how the kidnapper had been described. The features tallied almost exactly with those of Stede Bonnet. In addition, the schooner, as half a dozen men would swear, had been painted black.
Thus satisfied that Bob Curtis was aboard the Royal James, the Governor wrote a formal pardon, stating that "Job Howland, late a pirate, having duly sworn his allegiance to his Majesty the King, and repented of all unlawful acts committed by him aforetime," was henceforward granted full release from the penalty of his crimes and was to be held an honest man during his good behavior. Then he took the seaman with him and passed quickly down to one of the larger warehouses by the dockside.
Standing in the doorway were the red-faced gentleman whom Job had seen that morning and a large man in sea boots, easily recognized as a ship's officer. To the rather cool greeting of the former the Governor returned a cheerful nod as they came up. "Look here now, Curtis," he said, "I can't spare those cannon, and that's flat, but to show that I mean well by you, I've brought a man whom you may find of some use. Tell him your story, Howland."
The tale was repeated, to the intense interest of its two new hearers. "By Gad," cried Mr. Curtis, slapping his thigh, as the seaman finished, "that's a clue worth having! We know who the scoundrel is, at least, and, of course, he'll be sure to head for Carolina. Bonnet couldn't keep away from that coast for more than six months if his life depended upon it. Howland, if you care to ship again, I'll make you gun-pointer aboard the Indian Queen here. You say you want nothing better than to get a crack at the pirate. We'll make what preparations we can and get off at once. This young friend of yours--about Bob's age he must be--well, I'm glad my boy's got company! Let's get to work aboard here now."
Job fell to with a good will helping the Indian Queen's crew get her ready for an encounter with the pirates. She carried only two light serpentine cannon of an ancient make, far below the standard necessary to combat a well-armed schooner like the Royal James. There were no other ships in the harbor carrying guns, however, and it was over the matter of procuring an armament that Curtis had had words with the Governor. There were six good culverins mounted in the fort below the town. The planter had wished to borrow them to fit out his vessel, urging that it was a matter of concern to the whole colony. To this the Governor replied that with the port stripped of defences it would be possible for a pirate fleet to enter and plunder without difficulty, while Curtis's ship was careering over the seven seas on a wild-goose chase. Naturally the personal element in the affair blinded Curtis to the truth in this argument. However, with the advent of Job Howland and the news he bore, all differences were forgotten. The planter and ship-owner now needed thorough, rather than hurried, preparation. He sent his overseer on horseback to Philadelphia to arrange for the purchase of guns, and put all the available carpenters and shipwrights to work on the Queen, strengthening the improvised gun decks and cutting the rows of ports.
The northeast gale that sprang up next day put a temporary stop to these activities and gave Job an opportunity to get himself some decent clothes and hobnob a while with his friend the Swede. The whole waterfront was agog with the news of the kidnapping, and everywhere the tall New Englander went he was surrounded by a knot of questioning seamen. Several coasting-skippers, whose vessels lay ready-loaded at the wharves, decided to put off sailing until some news should indicate that the Bay was clear.
When the storm had blown itself out the artisans again set to work on the big East Indiaman. Job, who had learned the science of gunnery under good masters, supervised the placing of every porthole with reference to ease and safety in firing as well as to the effectiveness of a broadside. He had a section of the deck forward of the capstan reinforced stoutly to bear the weight of a bow-chaser, on which he placed some dependence in case of a running fight.
It was about six days later, in the first week of August, when two men came into New Castle from different directions, one on horseback, the other on foot. The first of these was Curtis's overseer, returned from the larger colony up the Bay, and bringing the good news that a score of cannon were lying on the dock at the foot of Market Street, in Philadelphia, ready to be shipped aboard the Queen as soon as she was put in shape.
The other was a sour-looking man of middle height, lean and darkly sallow, dressed in good sea clothes somewhat worn. He slipped through the trees into a lane that led toward the wharves. Coming unobtrusively into the Red Hawk Tavern at a little after 7 o'clock in the evening, he asked for a pint of rum, paid for it, and began to talk politely to the Swede. Job was eating his supper in one corner. He started when the man entered, but made no exclamation, and shading his face from the light, continued to watch him narrowly. It was his old shipmate, Bill Curley, the Jamaican. The pirate finished his rum and giving the barkeep a civil "Good-night," passed out into the ill-lighted street. When he was gone Job rose and stepped to the bar. "Quick, Nels," he whispered, "what did he ask you? He's one of Bonnet's crew!" The Swede replied that he had inquired the way to Clarke Curtis's house. Job was armed with a good pistol. He made sure it was primed and then set out up the street, keeping a careful lookout.
Soon he detected the figure of the Jamaican in the gloom ahead, and followed it, keeping out of earshot. The man went straight up High Street to the town residence of the planter. There were tall shrubs in the yard and he waited behind one of these, apparently reconnoitering. Then he stooped, took off his shoes, and carrying them in one hand, advanced and pinned a piece of paper to the door. Turning, he made his way back to the gate and once on the soft earth of the road, started to run in the direction from which he had come. This brought him, in fifty yards, face to face with a pistol muzzle, the butt of which was held by his old friend, Job Howland. He stopped in his tracks and at the big Yankee's command held both arms above his head. Job jammed the nose of his weapon against Curley's breastbone and searched him without a word. Having removed a long dirk and a pistol from the Jamaican's waistband, he ordered him to face about and walk back to the planter's house. When they arrived there, Job took down the paper from the door and knocked loudly. A negro boy, scared almost into fits at the sight of the drawn pistol, led the way into his master's room.
Curtis rose with an ejaculation of surprise and heard Job's brief account of the events leading to Curley's capture. Then he took the paper and read it, alternately frowning and exclaiming. As he finished, he passed it to the New Englander. It was a letter neatly drawn up and written in Stede Bonnet's even, refined hand.
"Well," remarked Job as he finished, "we know where they'll be on September the 10th, at all events. As for our friend here, we can safely turn him over to the constable, I reckon. Here, Curley--march!" And he ushered the Jamaican out as they had entered. The gaol was only a few doors down a cross street, and Job had soon delivered his prisoner into capable hands. Then he returned to Curtis's house.
The shipowner was pacing up and down his library, where the paper lay half-crumpled on the floor. He looked up as Job entered and his brow was wrinkled deep with lines of worry.
"Gad!" he exclaimed, "this is awful! Must we actually give up trying to punish the dog? Why, he has us at his mercy, it seems. The money I can raise, I believe, and it's not the thought of losing it that cuts me. It's letting that gallows-hound go unscathed. And if anything should slip in the plans--good God, it's too terrible to think of!"
He dropped into an armchair, his head resting in his hands. Job understood something of the father's anguish and refrained from any comment. Standing by the broad oak mantelpiece, he mused over the chances of the boy's escape alive. Knowing Bonnet's eccentricities, he would have been the last to urge an armed attack in defiance of the terms in the letter. He had not the slightest doubt that the Captain, half-insane as he was, would be capable of even more dastardly crimes than the one he now threatened. Gradually an idea took form in the ex-pirate's brain. It was a bold one and needed to be executed boldly if at all. When the grief-stricken gentleman raised his head, Job turned and faced him. "Mr. Curtis," he said, "there's one thing to be done, as far's I can see, and I believe it's for me to do it. I've told you about Jeremy Swan, the boy we took aboard up north along. I think most as much o' getting him out o' this scrape as you do o' savin' your lad. Now here's my scheme. I know that coast around Cape Fear like I know the black schooner's deck. I'll get down there about the first o' September, an' I reckon they'll be there near the same time. I'll sneak up as close as I can in a small boat, then crawl acrost the bars till I'm near their moorin', an' swim out after dark, so I can look over the lay o' things aboard. It's just possible that I can get a word to one o' the boys and maybe take 'em off without bein' caught. You can be lyin' to, somewhere out o' sight, and' if we get clean away, we'll take the Queen around an' blow Bonnet out o' water. That's the best I can offer, but if it works it'll do the job up brown."
Curtis had listened earnestly, amazed at the daring of the man's suggestion. He reached out a broad hand and took Job's hairy fist in a grip that expressed the depth of his feelings. His eyes were blinking and he could not trust his voice, but the long Yankee knew that the risk he had offered to undertake was appreciated. They talked far into the night, planning the details of the attempt and discussing measures to be employed should it fail. They still had the best part of a month in which to work.
It was Job's suggestion that they should interest the governments of North and South Carolina to help in destroying Bonnet's craft. The pirate's port of departure had been Charles Town and he was to be fought in waters adjacent to both the colonies. It seemed not unreasonable to hope that there was aid to be obtained there. Next day they asked the Governor's sanction to this proposal, and were so far rewarded that in less than another twenty-four hours a messenger had been dispatched to Wilmington and Charles Town bearing letters under the colony seal.