Chapter XIX
 

The fair weather held and for several days the little fleet cruised west by south, then southerly when they had picked up the Virginia Capes. The pirate crew, in spite of their impatience to divide the cumbersome booty they had helped to win, kept in a fairly good temper. Hopes were high and quarrels were quickly put aside with a "Take it easy, boys--wait till the sharin's over." Bob and Jeremy got off with a minimum of hard words and might have considered their lot almost agreeable but for one incident. The whippings which were a regular part of boys' lives aboard ship in those days, had always been administered by George Dunkin. As bo's'n, it was not only his right but his duty to lay in with a rope's end occasionally. He was one of the fairest men in Bonnet's company and Jeremy had never felt any great injustice in the treatment Dunkin had accorded him. Since his lieutenancy aboard the prize-sloop, however, the bo's'n had necessarily ceased to be the executive of punishment, and when Monday, recognized on all the seas as whipping day, came around, there was a very secret hope in Jeremy's heart that the office would be forgotten. As for Bob, he had so far escaped the lash, it being understood that he was not an ordinary ship's boy. As the day wore on, the Yankee lad remained as inconspicuous as possible, and began to think that he was safe. About mid-afternoon, however, a gang of buccaneers, working at the rent in the bows which still gave trouble, shouted for a bucket of drinking water. Bob had been snoozing in the shade of the sail, and when he was roused at last, took his own time in carrying out the order. When he appeared finally, there was a good deal of swearing in the air. Daggs reached out and jerked the boy into the center of the group, his light eyes agleam under scowling brows. "See here, you little runt," he hissed, "don't think because the Cap'n's savin' you to kill later, that you're the bloomin' mate of this ship! Come here to the capstan, now!" Before Bob was aware of what they meant to do, the angry sailors had slung him over a capstan bar and tied his hands and feet to a ring in the deck. After the clothes had been pulled off his back, there was an interval while the pirates quarrelled over who should do the whipping. Daggs demanded the right and finally prevailed by threatening the instant disemboweling of his rivals. Bob was trembling and white, not from fear but because of the indignity of the punishment. The scarred executioner spat on his hands, took the heavy rope and squared his feet. "Shiver away, you cowardly pup," said he, grinning at one side of his twisted mouth. Then with a vicious whirl of his arm he brought the hard hemp down on the boy's naked shoulders--once, twice, three times--the lad lost count. At last he nearly lost consciousness under the torturing fire of the blows. When the buccaneer ceased for lack of breath his victim hung limp and twitching over the wooden bar. Long welts that were beginning to drip red crossed and recrossed his back. "Now, where's that other whelp?" panted Daggs. Somebody went below and dragged Jeremy to light. The boy was brought up to the crowd at the capstan. He took one look at Bob's pitiful, set stare and the red drops on the deck, then turned blazing to face the man with the broken nose.

"You great coward!" he cried. The man was staggered for an instant. Then his rage boiled up and the tanned skin of his neck turned the color of old mahogany. "I'll kill the boy," he whispered hoarsely and drew back his heavy rope for a swing at Jeremy's head.

"Daggs"--a voice cut the air from close by his side. "Daggs, who made you bo's'n of this sloop?"

The man whirled and nearly fell over, for Stede Bonnet was at his elbow. "One more thing of this kind aboard, and I'll maroon you," said the Captain sharply, and added, "Gray, put this man in irons and see that he gets only bread and water for five days!" Then he turned on his heel and went back to the cabin. So once more Jeremy's life was saved by the Captain's whim. He half carried, half supported his chum to their bunk and after rubbing his back with grease, begged from the galley, nursed him the rest of the day. By the following afternoon the Delaware lad had recovered his spirits and although he was still too sore and stiff to go on deck, had no trouble in eating the food Jeremy brought him. The absence of Daggs made life assume a happier outlook and it was not long before the boy was as right as ever.

August was nearly past. To the boys, who knew little of the geography of the coast and nothing of Bonnet's plans, it was something of a surprise when the man at the tiller of the James, which was in the lead, swung her head over to landward one morning. Low shores, with a white line of sand beneath the vivid dark green of trees, ran along the western horizon. As the sloop ran in, the boys expected to see the broad opening of some bay but there was still no visible variation of the coast line. No town was to be seen, nor even a single hut, when they were close in. The trees were live-oaks, Bob said, though Jeremy had never seen one to know it before.

The Royal James and her consorts held a slow course along the shore for several hours. The strip of sand was gradually widening and in places stretched inland for a mile in dunes and hillocks, traversed by little tidewater creeks. At last there showed a narrow inlet between two dunes, and Bonnet, who had now taken the helm, headed the sloop cautiously for this opening. One of the men constantly heaved the lead and cried the soundings as the ship progressed. The pirate chief kept to the left of the channel and finally passed through into a wide lagoon, with a scant fathom to spare at the shallowest place. The Fortune entered without difficulty, but the deeply-laden Francis grounded midway in and had to wait several hours for the tide to float her.

Listening to the talk of the crew, Bob heard them say they had come into the mouth of the Cape Fear River in Carolina. From what he knew of the nearby coast he believed that it was a very wild region, almost unsettled, and that there would be slight chance of getting to safety, even if they were able to effect an escape. This fear seemed justified later in the day, when Bonnet said to one of his men that there was no need of shackling the boys as had been done in the Chesapeake. Turning so that they could hear, he added, "Too many Indians in these woods for the lads to try to leave the ship." Jeremy, who had seen enough of both pirates and Indians to last him a lifetime, remarked to his friend that personally he would risk his neck with one as soon as the other, but Bob had heard terrible stories of the red men's cruelty and did not agree with him. "We'd best stay aboard and wait for a better chance," he argued.

All three of the sloops were leaky and needed a thorough overhauling in various ways. As soon as the Francis was off the bar, therefore, they proceeded up the estuary for a distance of nearly two miles and secured their vessels in shallow water, where they could be careened at low tide.

Next morning and for many hot days thereafter the pirates and their prisoners toiled hard at the refitting of the ships. Lumber was not easy to come by in that desolate region and when they had used up all their spare planking, Bonnet took the Royal James out over the bar to hunt for the wherewithal to do his patching. After a cruise of a day and a night to the southward they sighted a small fishing shallop which they quickly overtook, and captured without a fight. The two men in the shallop jumped overboard and swam ashore when they saw the black flag, and Bonnet was too much occupied in getting the prize back to the river-mouth to give chase. It was an unfortunate thing for him that he did not do so, but of that presently. The shallop was run into the river-mouth and broken up the next day. With the fresh supply of lumber thus secured, the work of repair went forward undelayed, and within a few weeks the sloops were almost ready for sea again.