The Black Buccaneer by Stephen W Meader
When they woke it was to the regular heave and lurch of a sailing vessel in motion, and Jeremy, looking out the port, beheld the crisp, sparkling blue of open sea.
There were two suits of every-day clothes upon the cabin bench and into these the boys climbed, impatient to get out on deck. The ship was the big merchantman, Indian Queen, though Bob, used as he was to her appearance, would hardly have known her in her new guise. Long lines of black cannon grimly faced the open ports along either side. The rail had been built up solidly to a height of about six feet, so that the main deck was now a typical gun deck, open overhead. Her regular crew of seasoned mariners was augmented by as many more longshoremen, all good men, picked for their courage and hand-to-hand fighting ability.
Job, who acted as second mate and was in full charge of the gun crews, took the boys proudly from one big carronade to another, explaining each improvement which his experience or ingenuity had devised. His chief pride was the long nine-pounder in the bows. She was a swivel gun set on bearings so finely adjusted and well-greased that one man could aim her. Job patted her shiny brass rump lovingly as he looked across the blue swells ahead. He could hardly wait for the hour when he should set a match to her breach.
Clarke Curtis joined the group a few minutes later, and they went together to the main cabin. Bob's father, Mr. Ghent, the Captain, and Job Howland settled themselves comfortably over long pipes and glasses of port, and prepared to hear the boys' story. Jeremy, bashful in such fine company, was persuaded to recount his adventures from the time Job had gone over the side till the kidnapped Delaware boy had come aboard. Then Bob took up the tale and told with much spirit of the storm, the trip up the Chesapeake and the subsequent pursuit of the Francis off the Capes. From this point on the two lads told the story together, eagerly interrupting each other to put in some incident forgotten for the moment. When they came to the discovery of Pharaoh Daggs' chart, Job sat up with a jerk. "I always thought he knew!" he exclaimed. "Jeremy, lad, could ye draw me a picture of what 'twas like?" The boy readily consented, and given a piece of paper, proceeded to set down, from his memory of the outline and from the general measurements he had taken, a very fair copy of the original. The ex-buccaneer leaned over him as he drew, and shook his head doubtfully as the work went on. "No," he said when the boy had finished, "I can't recall such a bay just this minute. An' as there was nothin' on it to tell where it might be, I don't know as there's anything for us to do. Like as not it's on some little island as isn't set down, so 'twould be scant use to look over the ship's charts. Still, I'll try it." A half-day of poring over the maps produced no result. There were bays large and small that resembled the one Jeremy had drawn, but none closely enough to warrant the belief that it was the same. "Well," remarked Job as he put away the charts, "Daggs'll never live to reach his bay. He'll swing on Charles Town Dock, an' I mistake not." But in that saying at least the ex-pirate proved himself no prophet.
The light wind held and the Indian Queen made reasonable speed down the coast for nearly two days. Then, after drifting under short sail all night, she made in with the dawn, past the small island which nearly a century and a half later was to be the scene of a great war's beginning, crept up against the tide till noon and anchored off the thriving port of Charles Town. Mr. Curtis and Job went ashore in the cutter, as soon as all was snug aboard. On landing they went directly to the Governor's house.
Governor Johnson was at home and gladly welcomed the Delaware merchant, who was an old acquaintance of his. When they had been shown into a large room where the official business of the colony was transacted, Mr. Curtis proceeded at once to the point of his visit. He learned that the messenger from Delaware had arrived and his plea for aid had been duly considered. Johnson was troubled at having no better answer for his friend, but said that the treasury of the southern colony had not yet recovered from the strain put upon it four years before at the time of the Indian massacres. He believed that he had no right at this time to spend the public funds in fitting out a fleet, unless it was to avenge an injury done some member of the colony. His honest distress at being unable to assist was so obvious that neither the merchant nor his chief gunner felt like urging their claim for help.
Mr. Curtis told of the rescue of the two boys, much to the discomfort of the blushing Job, and they rose to take their departure, feeling no ill will toward the Governor for his inability to help them. As they started to go out of the room, a loud insistent knock was heard. "Come in," said Johnson, and immediately the door was opened to admit a short, well-built gentleman, very much flushed as to the face, and whose eyes fairly shot forth sparks. He was followed by two other men, dressed in rough clothes that seemed to have seen recent hard usage. The leader advanced with rapid steps. "Look'e here, Governor," he said, "those confounded pirates are at us again. Here's two of my men----"
"Gently, Colonel Rhett," interrupted the Governor, his eyes twinkling. "Allow me to introduce Mr. Clarke Curtis of Delaware and his friend, Mr. Howland. I believe your business and theirs will fall very easily into one track. Pray be seated, gentlemen."
The Colonel shot a keen glance at these new acquaintances and, when the four had taken chairs around the table, began again more calmly to tell his story. A fishing smack, one of a half-dozen open boats belonging to him, had been cruising along the coast to the eastward the week before, and when about forty miles west of Cape Fear had sighted a large black sloop under great spread of sail, bearing down upon her. The two men in the shallop put about and made for shore as fast as they could, using oars and canvas alike, but when they were still half a mile out they saw that the pursuing ship flew a black pirate flag. When, a few moments after, a round shot came dangerously close to their stern, they leaped over the side without more ado and succeeded in swimming ashore, glad to come out of the adventure with whole skins. After a perilous journey of many leagues overland, they had just arrived in Charles Town and reported the affair to Rhett, their employer. "So you see," said the Colonel in conclusion, "we're in for another siege of the kind we had with Blackbeard unless we take some quick action on this."
Johnson sat thoughtful for a moment. "Let me put the matter up to you exactly as it now stands," he finally said. "There is a little money in the treasury. But to buy and fit out properly three ships would drain us almost as dry as we were in 1715. Would you have me do that, Rhett?" The Colonel shook his head. "No," he replied, "you must not." Then after looking at the floor for a moment he stood up with quick decision. "See here," he said, "we can get enough volunteers to do this whole business or my name's not William Rhett." Mr. Curtis thrust out a big hand. "My ship Indian Queen, twenty-one guns, is in the harbor, ready for sea. She's at your service," he smiled. The Colonel gripped his hand delightedly. "Done," he cried, "and now let's see what other commanders we can recruit. Will you give me a commission, Governor?" And receiving an affirmative reply, he led the way down to the docks.
Colonel Rhett was a well-known figure in Charles Town. He owned a large plantation a few miles inland, and conducted a fish warehouse as well. Among tobacco growers, townsmen and sea-captains alike he was widely acquainted and respected as much as any man in the colony. His courage and skill as a soldier were proverbial, for he had been a leader in the suppression of the Indian uprising. Certainly no man in the Carolinas was better fitted for the task which he had in hand. For two days he and his friends from the Queen fairly lived on the wharves, and before sunset of the second he had secured the services of two sloops, the Henry, Captain John Masters, and the Sea Nymph, Captain Fayrer Hall. Neither ship was equipped for fighting, but by using cannon from the town defences and borrowing some half-dozen pieces from the heavily-armed Indian Queen, a complement of eight guns for each sloop was made up.
On September 15th the three ships, in war trim and carrying in their combined crews nearly 200 men, crossed the Charles Town bar. Just before they sailed news had come in that the notorious pirate, Charles Vane, had passed to the south with a prize, and Rhett's first course was laid along the coast in that direction. Two or three days of search in the creeks and inlets failed to reveal any sign of the buccaneer, however, and much to the relief of the impatient Mr. Curtis, they put about for Cape Fear on the eighteenth. The progress of the fleet up the coast was slow. Constant rumors of pirates were received, and every hiding place on the shore was examined as they went along.
Bob and Jeremy, wild with suppressed excitement, could hardly brook this delay, for, as they warned the officers of the expedition repeatedly, there was every reason to expect that Bonnet would leave the river soon, if he had not gone already. For this reason the Indian Queen went on in advance of the others and patrolled the waters off the headland for four days, until Rhett should come up.
On the evening of the twenty-sixth he made his appearance and as there was still light they decided to enter the river-mouth. The tide was just past flood. Rhett's flagship, the Henry, nosed in first over the bar and was followed by the Sea Nymph. The great, deep-draughted Queen advanced to within a few lengths of the entrance, but the soundings showed that even there she had only a fathom or two to spare, and would certainly come to grief if she adventured further. As it was, even the lighter sloops ran aground fifteen minutes later and were not launched again till nearly dawn. Captain Ghent had anchored the big ship as close in as he dared and she sat bow-on to the channel-mouth. Her two consorts were in plain sight a few hundred yards inside. Rhett came back during the night in a small boat and held a council of war with Curtis, Ghent and Job Howland. He reported that a party of pirates in longboats had come down river during the evening to reconnoitre, but had beat a retreat as soon as they had seen the Henry's guns.
It was decided about half the crew of the Queen should be added to the force of men on the two sloops, while the big vessel herself was forced to be content with standing guard off the entrance. This was a bitter blow not only to Mr. Curtis, but to Job and the boys, who had looked forward to the battle with zest.
Bob and Jeremy had been ordered to bed about midnight, but they rose before light, in their excitement, and sunrise found them in the bows with Job, watching the long point of sand behind which they knew the pirates lay. Preparations had been made aboard the Henry and Sea Nymph for an immediate advance up the river. Hardly had the first slant beams of sunlight struck upon Rhett's deck before the crew were lustily pulling at the main halyards and winding in the anchor chain.
But even before the two Carolina sloops were under way there was an excited chorus of "Here he comes!" and above the dune at the bend of the river, appeared the headsails of the Royal James. Bonnet had weighed his chances and decided for a running fight. The pirate ship cleared the point, nearly a mile away, and came flying down, every inch of canvas drawing in the stiff offshore breeze. It seemed for a moment as if she might get safely past the Carolinians and out to sea, with the Queen as her only antagonist. Probably Bonnet had counted on the unexpectedness of his maneuver to accomplish this result. But if so, he had left out of his reckoning the character of William Rhett. That gentleman hesitated not an instant, but headed upstream directly toward the enemy. Fortunately, he had two good skippers in Masters and Hall, for the good Colonel himself knew little of sailing. Thanks to these lieutenants, the two attacking sloops were let off the wind at exactly the right time, and filled away down the river close together off the pirate's starboard bow. Bonnet raced up abeam, firing broadsides as fast as his men could load, and his cannonade was answered in kind from the Henry. She and the Sea Nymph began to veer over to port, forcing the black sloop closer and closer to shore, but the buccaneer Captain refused to take in an inch of sail. His course was all but justified. The speedy craft which he commanded gained on her foes hand over hand till, when only a few hundred yards from the narrow mouth of the estuary, she led them both by her own length.
From the deck of the Queen Jeremy and Bob could pick out the big form of Herriot at the tiller. Just as the Royal James passed into the lead, they saw him swing mightily on the long steering-beam while at the same instant the main sheet was hauled in. It was prettily done. The pirate went hard over to starboard, kicking up a wave of spray as she slewed. She sprang away from under the bows of the Henry with only inches to spare, for the bowsprit of Rhett's sloop tore the edge of her mainsail in passing. The fierce cheer that rose from the deck of the black buccaneer was drowned in a jarring crash. She had eluded her foe only to run, ten seconds later, upon a submerged sand bar. It was now the Carolinians' turn to cheer, though it soon appeared that they might better have saved their breath for other purposes. The Henry, unable to check her speed, ran straight ahead, and hardly a minute after her enemy's mishap was hard aground twenty yards away. Both sloops lay careened to starboard, so that the whole deck of the Henry offered a fair target for Bonnet's musketry, while the Royal James's port side was thrown up, a stout defence against the small-arm fire of Rhett's men. Owing to the slant of their decks it was impossible to train the cannon of either ship.
The Sea Nymph, meanwhile, in an effort to cut off the course of the pirate, had put over straight for the channel mouth, and before she could come about her bows also were fast in the sand, and she lay stern toward the other two, but out of musket-shot, unable to take a hand in the hot fight that followed. Had either the Henry's crew or the buccaneers been able to send a proper broadside from their position, it seems that they must surely have blown their foe out of water, though we need, of course, to make allowance for the comparative feebleness of their ordnance in contrast to that of the present day.
The stranding of the three vessels had occupied so short a time that the little group of witnesses high up in the bow of the Indian Queen had not yet exchanged a word. Clinging to the rail, open-mouthed, they had seen the pirate make her bold dash across the bows of her pursuers, only to strike the bar in her instant of triumph, then following with the quickness of events in a dream, the grounding first of the Henry, afterwards of the Nymph.
Nor was there an appreciable pause in the spectacle, for the pirates, who had been shooting steadily during the race down river, wasted no time in trying to get off the bar, but raked their nearby adversaries' deck with a withering fire. Rhett's crew tumbled into the scuppers, where they were under the partial cover of the bulwark, but many were killed, even before they could reach this shelter, and living and dead rolled down together, as in a ghastly comedy.