The Black Buccaneer by Stephen W Meader
The boys, intent upon this awful scene, turned as a shout from Job Howland swelled above the uproar. The big gunner was at the breach of his swivel-gun, ramrod in hand. The little group scattered to one side or the other, leaving an open space at the bow rail. At the same moment Job put in his powder, a heavy charge, ramming it home quickly, but with all care. On top of the wadding went the round-shot, which was in its turn hammered down under the powerful strokes of the ramrod. Maneuvering the well-balanced breech with both hands, the tall Yankee trained his cannon upon the pirate sloop; allowed for distance, raising the muzzle an inch or more; nosed the wind and glanced at the foremast pennons; then swung his piece a fraction of an inch to windward.
At last with a shout of "'Ware fire!" he sprang back and laid his match to the touch-hole. There was a spurt of flame as the long nine roared above the staccato bark of the musketry. Then they saw a section of the pirate's upper rail leap clear of her deck and fall overside. "Too high," said Job shortly, though Ghent and Curtis had cheered at the shot, for the distance was a good half-mile. Job worked feverishly at his reloading, helped by others of the Queen's gun crews. Again the charge was a stout one, but this time the gunner laid his muzzle pointblank at the top of the rail, allowing only for wind. Once more he fired. Just short of the Royal James went up a little tower of spray. Job said not a word, but set his great angular jaws and went about his work with all the speed he had.
"Look," said Jeremy to Bob, in a sudden burst of understanding, "the tide's rising. See how it runs in past our bows. In another five minutes one of those boats will be afloat. Watch how the James rocks up and down already! If she gets off first, it'll go hard with Rhett, for Bonnet'll let off a broadside as soon as his guns are level. That's why Job's trying so hard to put a hole in her."
Almost as he spoke the report of the third shot rolled out. The buccaneer sloop jumped sharply, like a spurred horse. In her side, just at the water line, a black streak had suddenly appeared. The waves of the incoming tide no longer swayed her buoyantly, for she wallowed on the bar like a log. The effect of the shot, though it could be seen from the Sea Nymph, where it was greeted with cheers, was still unknown aboard the Henry. In the wash of water as the tide rolled in, Rhett's sloop stood almost on an even keel. The remnant of his crew appeared to have taken heart, for a brisk fire now answered that of the buccaneers. Suddenly a triumphant shouting began aboard the stranded flagship, soon answered in increasing volume from her two consorts. The Henry was moving slowly off the bar.
On the black sloop there was a silence as of death. Stede Bonnet, late gentleman of the island of Barbadoes, honorably discharged as major from the army of his Majesty, since turned sea-rover for no apparent cause, and now one of the most notorious plunderers of the coast, faced his last fight. Outnumbered nearly ten to one, his ship a stranded hulk, his cannon useless, surely he read his doom. His men read it and turned sullenly to haul down the tattered rag of black that still hung from the masthead. But a last blaze of the old mad courage flared up in the Captain, as he faced them, dishevelled and bloody, from behind cocked pistols. Above the tumult of the fusillade his voice, usually so clear, rose hoarse with anger. "I'll scatter the deck with the brains of any man who will not fight to the end!" he cried.
For a second the issue was in doubt. In another instant the iron spell he held over his men must have won them back. Herriot was already running to his side. But before he reached his chief a louder cheer from the attacking sloops made him turn. The black "Roger" fluttered downward to the deck.
One of the captive sailors from the Francis, fearing to be taken for a pirate if it came to deck-fighting, had crept up behind the mast and cut the flag halyards. The men's hearts fell with the falling ensign and they stood irresolute while the Henry went up alongside. There was now water enough for her to come close aboard and when she stood at a boat's length distant, Colonel Rhett appeared at the rail. He pointed to the muzzles of four loaded cannon aboard his sloop and told Bonnet that he would proceed to blow him into the air if he did not surrender in one minute's time. There was little parley. The pirate captain's flare of resistance had burned out and pale and strangely shaken he handed over his sword and submitted to the disarming of his men.
It was now well along in the morning. The prisoners whom Rhett had taken were rowed out in small boats across the bar and put aboard the Indian Queen. One by one they were hauled over the side and placed below in chains. Job, Jeremy and Bob stood at a little distance and counted those who had been captured. Now and then they were greeted by an ugly look and a curse as some old shipmate recognized them. Last of all, Major Bonnet passed, haggard and unkempt, his head bowed in shame.
"Thirty-five in all," finished Job. "Guess our old and handsome friend, Pharaoh Daggs must have got his gruel in that fight. Well, if ever man deserved to die a violent death, it's him. I'd like to make sure, though. Want to go over to the James with me?" Both boys welcomed the opportunity and as the longboat was just then starting back, they were soon aboard the battered pirate, so recently their home. Three or four dead men lay on the canted deck, for no effort had been made as yet to clean the ship. Bob and Jeremy had no stomach for looking at the corpses of their erstwhile companions and turned rather to explore the cabin and fo'c's'le, leaving Job to hunt for the body of their old enemy.
In the long bunkroom some water had entered with the rising tide and they found the lower side a miniature lake. In the semi-darkness, seamen's chests floated past like houses in a flood. One of the big boxes was open, half its contents trailing after it. Something familiar about the brass-bound cover and the blue cloth that hung over the side made Jeremy start. "Daggs' chest!" he exclaimed and reached forward, pulling it up on the dry planking. The two boys delved into the damp rubbish it held. There were a few clothes, a rusty pistol, an able seaman's certificate crumpled and torn almost beyond recognition. The sack of money and the chart were gone. After searching in dark corners of the fo'c's'le and fishing in the pool of leakage without discovering what they sought, the boys returned to the box. "Odd," said Jeremy at length. "Every other chest is locked fast. Why should he have opened his?" This seemed unanswerable. They returned to the deck, to find Job peering into the green water overside. "The body's not here," said the big seaman, "unless he fell over the rail or was thrown over. I'm looking to see if it's down there." The sand shone clean and white through the shallow water on every side. No trace of the buccaneer was to be seen. Jeremy told of finding the open chest. "Hm," mused Job, "looks like he'd got away, though he may be dead; I'd like to know for sure. Still," he added, his face clearing, "chances are we'll never see nor hear of him again." And putting the man with the broken nose out of their thoughts, they rejoined their friends on the big merchantman.
Just before nightfall the Carolina sloops, which had made an expedition up the river, returned with Bonnet's two prizes in tow. They had been abandoned in the effort to escape, and Rhett had launched them without difficulty. A great sound of hammering filled the air above the desert lagoon for two days. The old Revenge, now so rechristened since she had fallen into honest hands, had to be floated, for there was still service in her shattered black hull. A hundred men toiled on and around her, and in a remarkably short time a jury patch was made in her gaping side and her hold pumped dry. Then crews were picked to man the three captured sloops, and the flotilla was ready to return triumphant. On the morning when they stood out to sea, the twelve men of Rhett's party who had been killed in action were buried with military honors, saluted by the cannon of the fleet.
A voyage of three days, unmarred by any accident, brought the victorious squadron into Charles Town harbor. Joy knew no bounds among the merchants and seamen along the docks. Indeed, the rejoicing spread through the town to the tune of church bells and the whole colony was soon made aware of Rhett's victory.
When the buccaneers had been taken ashore under a heavy guard and locked up in the public watchhouse, Mr. Curtis and Bob, with Job and Jeremy, went ashore to stretch their legs. It was a fine, fall day, warm as midsummer to Jeremy's way of thinking. The docks were fascinatingly full of merchandise. Great hogsheads of molasses and rum from Jamaica, set ashore from newly arrived ships, shouldered for room with baled cotton and boxes of tobacco ready to be loaded. There was a smell of spices and hot tar where the sun beat down on the white decks and tall spars of the shipping. Negroes, hitherto almost unknown to the Yankee boy, handled bales and barrels on the wharves, their gleaming black bodies naked to the waist.
Planters from the fertile country behind the town rode in with their attendant black boys, and gathered at the coffee-houses on King Charles Street. It was to one of these, the "Scarlet Fish," that the bluff Delaware man took his protégés for dinner.
The place was resplendent with polished deal and shining pewter. Curtains of brightly colored stuff hung at the high square windows, and on the side where the sun entered, pots of flowers stood in the broad window-shelves. There were gay groups of men at the tables, and talk of the pirates was going everywhere over the Madeira and chocolate. It seemed the news of Job's gunnery had been spread by Rhett's men, for some of the diners recognized and pointed to him. A pretty barmaid, with dimples in her elbows, curtsied low as she set down his cup. "Oh, yes, Captain Howland!" she answered as he gave his order, blushed a deep pink and ran to the kitchen. Whereupon Job, quite overcome, vowed that the ladies of Carolina were the fairest in the world, and Mr. Curtis roared heartily, saying that "Captain Howland" it should be, and that before many months, if he knew a good seadog.
As they sat and sipped their coffee after a meal that reflected glory upon the cook of the "Scarlet Fish," Colonel Rhett came in and made his way to their table through a hurly-burly of back-slappings and "Bravos." As soon as he was able to sit down in peace, he drew Mr. Curtis a little aside to talk in private. The two boys were content to watch the changing scene and listen to the hearty badinage of the fashionable young blades about the tables. It was, you must remember, Jeremy's first experience of luxury, unless the good, clean quarters and wholesome meals aboard the Queen could be so called. He had never read any book except the Bible, had never seen more than a half-dozen pictures in his life. From these and from the conversation of backwoodsmen and, more recently, of pirates, he had been forced to form all his conceptions of the world outside of his own experience. It is a tribute to his clean traditions and sturdy self-reliance that he sat unabashed, pleased with the color, the gayety, the richness, but able still to distinguish the fine things from the sham, the honest things from those which only appeared honest--to feel a thrill of pride in his father's hard, rough-hewn life and his own.
Colonel Rhett's conference with Mr. Curtis being over, the score was paid and the party took their triumphal way to the door, Job turning his sunburned face once or twice to glance regretfully after the dimpled barmaid.
That afternoon they were taken to the Governor's house, where Job and each of the boys told the story of their experiences in Bonnet's company. These stories were sworn to as affidavits and kept for use in the coming trial of the pirate crew. It was a special dispensation of the Governor's which allowed them to give their evidence in this form instead of waiting in Charles Town for the court to sit, and needless to say they were heartily glad of it. The formalities over, Governor Johnson led the party into the adjoining room. He motioned them to sit down and faced them with a smile. "Now, my lads," said he, "the spoil taken on the Royal James has been divided, and though, as you may guess, it had to go a long way, there's a share left for each of you." Jeremy and Bob stared at each other and at their friends. The benign smiles of Mr. Curtis, Colonel Rhett and Job showed that they had known beforehand of this surprise. The Governor was holding out a small leather sack in each hand. "Here, catch," he laughed, and the two astonished lads automatically did as they were bid. In each purse there was something over twenty guineas in gold. Before they had found words to thank the Governor he laughed again merrily. "Never mind a speech of acceptance," said he. "Colonel Rhett, here, has something else for you."
"Yes," replied the Colonel. "You see, there was a deal of junk in the Captain's cabin that comes to me as Admiral of the expedition. I'd be much pleased if you two lads would each pick out anything that pleases you, as a personal gift from myself and Stede Bonnet." As he spoke, he took the cloth cover from a table which stood at one side. On it the boys saw a shining array of small arms, some glass and silver decanters and a pile of books. The Colonel motioned Bob forward. "Here you are, lad, take your choice," he said. Bob stepped to the table and glanced over the weapons eagerly. He finally selected a silver-mounted pistol with the great pirate's name engraved on the butt, and went with pride to show it to his father.
It was Jeremy's turn. He had no hesitation. From the moment he had heard the offer his shining eyes had been fastened upon one object, and now he went straight to the table and picked up the biggest and thickest of the heap of books, a great leather-bound volume--Bunyan's "Pilgrim's Progress." It is not the least inexplicable fact in the career of the terrible Stede Bonnet that he was a constant reader of such books as this and the "Paradise Lost" of Milton. Bunyan's great allegory had come at last into a place where it could do more good than in the cabin bookshelf of a ten-gun buccaneer. Jeremy, poor lad, uneducated save for the rude lessons of his father and the training of the open, had longed for books ever since he could remember. He had affected a gruff scorn when Bob had spoken from his well-schooled knowledge, but inwardly it had been his sole ground for jealousy of the Delaware boy. That ponderous leather book was read many times and thoroughly in after years, and it became the foundation of such a library as was not often met with in the colonies. Job gave the lad an understanding smile and a pat on the back, for Jeremy had told him of his passion for an education.
The four grown men drank each other's health and separated with many hearty handclasps. An hour later the Queen's anchor was up and she was moving out to sea upon the tide, cheered vigorously from the docks and saluted by every vessel she passed. The warm September dusk settled over the ocean. A soft land breeze rustled in the shrouds, and the great sails filled with a gentle flapping. Slowly the tall ship bowed herself to the northeast and settled away on her course contentedly, while the water ran with a smooth murmur beneath her forefoot. Jeremy, lying wide-eyed in his bunk, where a single star shone through the open port, thought it the sweetest sound he had ever heard. He was homeward bound at last.