Chapter XVI
 

The Royal James hurried down the Chesapeake for a day and a night before Captain Bonnet gave orders to free the young prisoners below in the bilboes. Jeremy and Bob came on deck stiff and weary from their cramped quarters and very far from happy in their minds. Rescue seemed farther away than ever, and though they had laid many plans for an escape by swimming, the sight of the great stretch of water off either beam--the shore was frequently a dozen miles away--quenched their hopes in this direction.

The crew seemed quite elated over something, and talked and joked incessantly about the prospect of action in the near future. Bonnet was merrier than Jeremy had ever seen him, came often on deck and even mixed a little in the conversation of the foremast hands. On the night that they cleared the Capes he served out double noggins of rum to all the men aboard. There was a good deal of prodigality in the way it was poured out and a fine scene of carousal ensued, lasting until after the watch changed at midnight. It was the first time either of the boys had heard the smashing chorus of "Fifteen Men" sung by the whole fo'c's'le. Of course, the words had often been hummed by one or two of the pirates, but it took the hot cheer of the grog to open most of their throats. At the final "Yo, ho, ho!" every cannikin crashed on the deal table and the lantern heaved to and fro overhead as if a gale were blowing outside. There followed the howling refrain that Jeremy had heard on the beach of the island a month before--"An' we'll walk the bloody beggars all below, all below--an' we'll walk the bloody beggars all below!"

The sentiment seemed too true to be picturesque after what had happened aboard the brig. The fierce-faced buccaneers, with their red, drunken eyes, strained forward, every man, and yelled like demons under the swaying lantern. Close behind and above were the smoky beams and planking, black with dancing shadows. Yet wild and exciting as it all was, Jeremy felt sickened. There was no illusion, no play-acting about it for him. He had seen the awful reality--the murder and the madness--and he had no admiration left for the jolly buccaneer of story.

On the following morning, and for two days thereafter, the schooner cruised slowly along a level sea under shortened sail. A double lookout was kept constantly on duty and as they bore up to the northward, Jeremy saw that they must be watching for south-bound shipping out of the Delaware. Bonnet was evidently gambling on the chance that Bob's friends had given up the idea of pursuit.

Then one hot mid-afternoon the two boys were startled from their places in the shade of the after-companion by a quick shout from the man at the masthead. They followed the direction of his pointing arm with their eyes and as the schooner heaved slowly on a gentle swell, they caught a glimpse of a low, broad sail on the port bow. The men were all on deck ready to trim the sails for greater speed, but Herriot, after consulting with the Captain, ordered the gunners and gun-servers below to prepare ordnance. Bob and Jeremy were under a tremendous strain of excitement. The stranger ship might be one of the New Castle fleet which Bob firmly believed to be searching the seas to recapture him from Bonnet. Should it prove to be so, their lives were in worse danger than ever, for neither of the boys doubted that the erratic Captain would kill them at once if the fight went against him.

However, their minds were soon set at rest on this score. As the pirate drew up closer and closer, the details of the other ship became visible to those on deck. She also was schooner-rigged, a trifle larger than the Royal James, but without the latter's height of mast. Her low free-board indicated that she was heavily cargoed. No gunports could be seen along her sides.

Bonnet now ordered an extra jib to be broken out, and had the sloop brought around on the port tack so that her course, instead of running opposite to the stranger's, would obliquely cross it. The wind, what little there was, came from the West.

As soon as the other ship perceived this change in direction, she veered off her course closer to the wind, and almost immediately the boys could see the white flutter of some extra canvas being spread at her bows. As this new piece filled out, it proved to be a great balloon jib, which increased her sail area by nearly half. Her head came off the wind again and she went bowing along over the swells to the southward faster than one would have imagined possible. Bonnet had figured on crossing her at close range, but as she swept onward he realized that he would go by too far astern to hail her if he kept his present direction. Herriot himself took the tiller. As quickly as he could, without loss of headway, he eased the Royal James over till she was running nearly parallel with the fleeing ship. His orders came quick and fast, while the men trimmed the main and fore sheets to the last hair's breadth of perfection. It was to be a race, and a hard one.

For nearly half an hour the sloops ran along almost neck and neck and perhaps half a mile apart. The pirates dared not risk pointing closer to the wind in order to get into cannon range. They would have lost so much speed that it would have developed into a stern chase--useless since they possessed only broadside batteries. The best they could do was to hold their position, hoping for luck in the wind.

Bonnet scowled awhile at the British Jack that still flew from the James's top, then went below and brought up the black pirate flag. The buccaneers, now all assembled on deck, gave it a cheerful howl of greeting as it fluttered up to the main truck. "Now we'll catch 'em, lads!" roared Herriot, and they answered him with a second cheer.

For once, however, the Jolly Roger seemed to bring bad fortune instead of good. The wind had hardly swept it easily to leeward once when it fell back against the shrouds, hardly stirring. The pirate sloop's deck righted slowly and her limp sails drooped from the gaffs. A sudden flaw in the breeze had settled about her, without interrupting her rival's progress in the least. A glum despair came over the crew. They lolled, for the most part silent or grumbling curses, against the rails, with here and there one trying to whistle up a wind. The other sloop rapidly drew away to the south.

Bonnet had been talking to Herriot with quick gestures and pointings. Now he walked forward swiftly and the men got to their feet with a jump. "We'll board the prize yet," said the Captain short and sharp. "Now look alive--every one of you!" He ordered one squad of men to the hold for spars, another for rope, a third for a spare mainjib. Meanwhile he set two men to making a sort of stirrup out of blocks of wood. This was fastened to the deck far up in the bows. When the spars came up he had one of them rigged with a tackle running to the foremast, and set its foot in the wooden contrivance just finished. It swung out forward like a great jibboom. The crew saw what was in the Captain's mind and gave a ringing yell of joy. A score of willing hands made fast the stays to windward and others spread the spare sail from the upper end of the spar. As the last rope was bent, a strong draught of air came over the water. The canvas shook, then filled, and as the fresh breeze steadied in her sails the sloop heeled far to port. She moved faster and faster, while the white water surged away under her lee. This was sailing worth while! The returning wind had come in much stronger than before the flaw, and was now almost worthy of at least one reef under ordinary conditions. With her extra canvas, the James was canted over perilously. Her lee scuppers were often awash and a good deal of water was coming into the port gundeck.

But to the delight of all on board, including the boys, who could hardly be blamed for relishing the excitement, Bonnet refused to take in an inch of sail. Instead, he ordered every available man to the weather rail. The dead weight of thirty seamen all leaning half-way over the side served to keep the light craft ballasted for the time being. Bob and Jeremy clung to the rail amidships and vied with each other in stretching out over the boiling seas that raced below.

The fleeing ship, which had gained four or five miles during the lull, was now in plain view again, nearly straight ahead. Her deep lading was telling against her now. The handicap of sail area being overcome, the black pirate's shallow draft and long lines gave her the advantage. Every buccaneer in the crew was howling with excitement as the race went on. The long main boom of the Royal James skipped through the spray and her mainsail was wet to the second line of reef points, but Herriot held her square on the course and Bonnet smiled grimly ahead, with a look that meant he would run her under before he would shorten sail. Hand over hand they overhauled their rival, until once more the tiny figures of men were visible over her rail. A little knot of them were gathered aft, busy at something. Bonnet seized his glass and scrutinized them intently. Then he yelled to Herriot to ease the sloop off to port. "They've got a gun astern there!" he shouted. "They'll try our range in a minute." Hardly had he spoken when a spout of foam went up from the sea far to starboard, followed almost instantly by the dull sound of an explosion. By the time the gunners on the ship had loaded their piece again the James had come over to their port quarter and they had to shift the cannon's position. The shot went close overhead, cutting a corner from the black flag of the pirate. Bonnet swore beneath his breath, then ordered the cannoneers below to their batteries. They went on the run. Jeremy and Bob stayed above watching the operations on the enemy's deck. The two sloops were less than three hundred yards apart and the James had drawn nearly abeam when a third shot came from her rival's deck gun. This time it crashed into the pirate's hull far up by the bits. Bonnet was by the fore hatch, sword in hand, as was his custom during an action. Looking coolly at the splintered bulwark forward, then back at the enemy, he gave the sharp "Ready a starboard broadside!" to the waiting gunners. He allowed them time to have their matches alight, then "Fire!" rang his clear voice. The deck leaped under the boys' feet. The long, thunderous bellow of the battery jarred out over the sea. Even as they looked the enemy's maingaff, shot away at the jaws, dangled loose from the peak halyards, and her broad sail crumpled, puffing out awkwardly in the breeze.

At the same time a wide rent in her side above the waterline gaped black as she topped a wave. The gunners' cheer as they saw their handiwork rose to a deafening yell, taken up by all hands, when, a moment later, the British colors came fluttering down aboard the other ship.

Herriot ordered the improvised spinnaker and the flying-jib taken in, then brought the buccaneer sloop around and came up beside the newly captured prize. All the pirates were behind the bulwarks with muskets loaded, prepared for any treachery that might be intended. However, as they ranged alongside, the hostile crew lined up on their deck, sullen but unarmed, and the Captain, a big, gray-bearded man, held up a piece of white cloth in token of surrender. Bonnet hailed him, asking his name.

"Captain Peter Manewaring of the sloop Francis, Philadelphia for Charles Town," answered the coasting skipper.

"And I am Captain Thomas, in command of the sloop Royal James," Bonnet gave him in return. "You will set your men to carrying over into my ship all the powder you have aboard. As soon as we are fast alongside I shall be pleased to entertain you in the cabin."

The sails were run down on both sloops and their hulls were quickly lashed together with ropes. Herriot superintended the operation of transferring a half-dozen kegs of powder, some casks of wine and the best food in the coaster's larder to the hold of the black schooner. The cargo of the Francis was a varied one, but not by any means a poor prize. She carried some grain in bags forward, a great number of bolts of cloth, chiefly woollens, and other things of divers sorts, including some fine mahogany chairs and tables newly brought from England. The wine was merely incidental, but proved very acceptable to the ever-thirsty buccaneers.

That night, with the nine men of the Francis's crew lying in irons on the ballast, they drank deep to their victory, and once more Jeremy and Bob fell asleep to the rough half-harmony of their bellowings.