Chapter XX
 

It had been about the beginning of September when the pirate fleet had sighted the live oaks on the bars of the Cape Fear River. To Bob and Jeremy those first days were uneventful but hardly pleasant. Through the long still afternoons a pitiless sun blazed into every corner of the deck. Wide flats and hot-looking white dunes stretched away on either hand. Only the line of woods half a mile distant offered a suggestion of green coolness. When the sun had set the fo'c's'le held the heat like a baker's oven. One long, tossing night of it sufficed for the two boys, and after that they sought a corner of the deck away from the snoring seamen and lying down on the bare planks, contrived to sleep in reasonable comfort.

The days were spent in hard work for the most part. A good deal of washing and cleaning had to be done aboard all three vessels, and as labor requiring no special skill, it fell frequently to the lot of Jeremy and Bob. It was small matter to them whether they toiled or were idle, for the blistering sun allowed no respite and it seemed preferable to sweat over something useful than over nothing at all.

On the third day after the return of the James from her foraging trip, Jeremy, who had been scraping and tarring ropes for hours on end, straightened his back with a discontented grunt and looked away to the edge of the woods, his eyebrows puckered in a frown. "Bob," he said in a voice too low for any of their shipmates to hear, "Bob, I'm going to run away if something doesn't happen soon."

"You'll be shot, like as not," answered the Delaware boy.

"Well, shot let it be," he replied doggedly. "If I'm to stay aboard here all my life, I'd rather be shot. It looks like the best chance we've had, right now. Will you come tonight?"

Bob thought for a moment. "I'm not afraid of their catching us," he finally said. "It's the Indians, after we're into the woods. You say you know the Indians and trust them as long as they are treated right. That may be true of the ones you've known, but these Tuscaroras are different. They don't talk the same language, and those words you learned would mayhap go for curses down here. I don't think we ought to try it."

Jeremy admitted that his previous acquaintance stood for nothing, but argued, from the fact that Bonnet had been trying to frighten them, that he had probably exaggerated the danger. Finally, not wishing to leave his friend if he could help it, he agreed to abandon the plan for the present.

They worked at the rope-tarring till suppertime, then rose wearily, stretching, and went for their salt-horse and biscuit. When the coarse rations were eaten, it was nearly sunset. Jeremy watched the sluggish water glide by below the canted rail, till at last small quivering blurs of light, the reflections of stars, began to gleam in the ripples. A faint breeze, sprung up with the coming of night, blew across the sweltering lagoon. Bob, tired out, fell asleep, his head pillowed on the deck. The pirates, some below in the bunks, some stretched on the planking, lay like dead men. After the hard labor of the day even the regular watch slumbered undisturbed. Jeremy's thoughts went drifting off into half-dreams as the soft black water lulled him with its unending whisper. His head nodded. He raised it, striving, he knew not why, to keep awake. The gentle water-sounds crept in again, soothing his drowsy ears. He was close to sleep--so close that another moment would have taken him across the border. But in that little time the sharp double cry of a heron, flying high over the lagoon, cut the night air and startled the boy broad awake.

As he stared off over the dim whiteness of the bars, his senses astretch for a repetition of that weird call, there was a faint splashing in the water close to the sloop. One of the starpools was blotted out in blackness at the instant he turned to look over the rail. The boy's heart seemed to be beating against the roof of his mouth. Thoughts of alligators crossed his mind, for he had heard of them from the pirates who had plied in southern waters. As quietly as he could, he moved to the rail and stood staring over, his eyes bulging into the dark and his breath coming short and fast. For perhaps a minute there was no sight nor sound but the lapping water of the lagoon. Then he became aware of a whiteness drifting close, and heard a familiar voice whispering his name. "Jeremy--Jeremy--it's Job!" said the white blotch. It bumped softly along the side, and at last the boy could see the homely features of his old friend, pale through the gloom. There was a loose rope-end dragging over the side, and Job's hand feeling along the woodwork came in contact with it.

"Better not try to come aboard," whispered Jeremy. "They're all on deck here. Can you take us off?"

There was silence for an instant as Job felt for a hold in one of the gun ports. Then he raised himself till his head was level with the deck.

"Is the other lad there?" he asked.

"Ay," replied Jeremy. "He's here but he will have to be wakened."

"Go to him and take his hand. Begin squeezing soft-like, and press harder till he opens his eyes. Don't startle him," was Job's admonition.

The boy did as he was bid. A gentle grip on the Delaware lad's palm brought him to his senses. Jeremy was whispering in a cool, steady undertone, "Bob, that's the lad--wake up, Bob--don't say a word--sh!--easy there--are you awake?" When he was rewarded by a nod of comprehension, he told his comrade of Job's presence and the chance they had to escape. Bob understood in a moment. They returned to the rail and first one, then the other let himself quietly down, holding to the rope. Jeremy slipped into the water last.

Luckily they could both swim, though the sloop was so near the beach that swimming was hardly necessary. The tall ex-pirate crawled out upon the sand in the lead and they followed him quickly over a dune and across another creek. They were now far enough away for their flight to be unheard and Job began to run, the boys close behind him. They made a good mile to the south before he allowed his panting runaways to stop for breath. There in the reeds beside a narrow estuary, they came upon a small dinghy, pulled up. The seaman ran the boat into the water, bundled the boys into the bottom astern, and was quickly pulling down stream along the sharp windings of the creek.

When they had put three miles of sand and water behind them, Job rested on his oars to catch his breath. His voice came through the hot dark, pantingly. "Lucky you stood up an' came to the rail the way you did, lad," he said. "I didn't know just how I was to reach you. When you came to the side I could see it was a boy, an' knew things was all right. Well--we'd best be gettin' on--no tellin' how soon they may find you're gone." Once more the big Yankee bowed his back to the task in hand and a silence fell, broken only by the faint sound of the muffled oars and the swirl of water along the sides. Not even the thrill of the escape could keep the two tired boys awake, and it was nearly an hour later that they were roused by voices calling at no great distance. A tall black mass on which showed a single moving light rose out of the gloom ahead. The hail was repeated. "Oh, there, Job Howland--boat ahoy! What luck?" "All's well," replied Job, and ran in under the ship's counter. A line was let down and as soon as the skiff was made fast Bob and Jeremy and their deliverer scrambled up to the open port.

There was shouting and a moving to and fro of lanterns, as they were ushered into the cabin, and suddenly a tall man, half-clad, burst through the door at the farther end. He had the tattered form of Bob Curtis in his arms in an instant, and great boy though he was, the Delaware lad hugged his father ecstatically and wept.

Job and Jeremy, pleased as they were to see this reunion, were hardly comfortable in its presence and made a vain attempt to withdraw gracefully. The merchant was after them before they could reach the door. "Here, Howland," he cried, holding to Bob with one hand and seizing the ex-pirate's arm with the other. "Don't you try to leave yet. Gad, man, this is the happiest hour I've had in years. I owe you so much that it can't be put in figures. And this tall lad is Jeremy that you've told me of. Look at the sunburn on the pair of 'em--pretty desperate characters to have aboard, I'm afraid!"

His roar of laughter was joined by the other three, as he showed the way to a couple of roomy berths, built in at the end of the cabin. The two boys were left, after a final boisterous "Good-night," and proceeded to make themselves snug between the linen sheets. Jeremy had never slept in such luxury in his whole life, and moved gingerly for fear of hurting something. At last their exhilaration subsided enough for the rescued lads to go to sleep once more. Jeremy's last thought was a half-mournful one as he wondered how long it must be before he, too, could throw himself against the broad homespun wall of his father's breast.