Chapter XXIII
 

There were brave days aboard the Queen as she voyaged up the coast--days of sun and light winds when the boys sat lazily in the blue shadow of the sails, looking off through half-closed eyes toward the faint line of shore that appeared and disappeared to leeward; or listened to Job's long tales of adventure up and down the high seas; or fished with hand-lines over the taffrail, happy if they pulled up even a goggle-eyed flounder. Twice they ran into fog, and on those days, when the wet dripped dismally off the shrouds and the watch on deck sang mournful airs in the gray gloom, the two lads settled into big chairs in the cabin, beneath a mighty brass oil-lamp, and while Bob sat bemused over Captain Dampier's Voyages, Jeremy fought Apollyon with that good knight Christian, in "Pilgrim's Progress." But best of all were the days of howling fair weather, when sky and sea were deep blue and the wind boomed over out of the west, and the scattered flecks of white cloud raced with the flying spray below. Then all hands would stand by to slack a sheet here or reef a sail there, and Ghent, who was a bold sailor, would take the kicking tiller with Job's help, and keep the big ship on her course, the last possible foot of canvas straining at the yardarms. High along the weather rail, with the wind screaming in their ears or down in the lee scuppers where the white-shot green passed close below with a roar and a rush, the boys would cling, yelling aloud their exultation. It was more than the risk, more than the dizzy movement that made them happy. With every hour of that strong wind they were ten knots farther north.

So they sailed; and one morning when the mist cleared, Mr. Curtis led both boys to the port rail to show them where the green head of Cape Henlopen stood, abeam. There was moisture in the corners of his eyes as he pointed to it. "Thank God, Bob, my lad, you're here to see the Delaware again!" he said huskily.

Up the blue bay they cruised in the fine October weather and came in due time--a very long time it seemed to some aboard--to the roadstead opposite New Castle port. There was a boat over almost before the anchor was dropped and a picked crew rowed the Curtises, Job and Jeremy ashore as fast as they dared without breaking oars. They drew up across the swirling tidewater to the foot of a long pier. It was black with people who cheered continually, and somewhere above the town a cannon was fired in salute, but all Bob saw was a slender figure in white at the pier-edge and all he heard was a woman's happy crying. A message to his mother telling of his safety had been sent from Charles Town three weeks before, and there she was to welcome him. There was a ladder further in along the pier, but before they reached it some one had thrown a rope and Bob swarmed up hand over hand. Jeremy, stricken with a sudden shyness, watched the happy, tearful scene that followed from the boat below.

Women had had small part in his own life. Since his mother's death he had known a few in the frontier settlements, and they had been good to him in a friendly way, but this ecstatic mother-love was new and it made him feel awkward and lonely.

It seemed that all Delaware colony must be at the waterfront. Every soul in the little town and men from miles around had turned out to welcome the returning vessel, for the news of Bonnet's defeat had been brought in, days before, by a Carolina coaster. There was bunting over doorways and cheering in the streets as the Governor's coach with the party of honor drove up the main thoroughfare to the Curtis house.

When they were within and the laughing crowds had dispersed, Bob's mother came to Jeremy, put her hands on his shoulders and looked long into his face. She was a frail slip of a woman, dark like her son, with a sensitive mouth and big, black eyes full of courage. Jeremy flushed a slow scarlet under her gaze, but his eyes never flinched as he returned it.

"A fine boy," she said, at length, "and my own boy's good friend!" Then she smiled tenderly and kissed him on the forehead. Jeremy was then and there won over. All women were angels of light to him from that moment.

That night, alone in the white wilderness of his first four-poster, the poor New England boy missed his mother very hard, more perhaps than he had ever missed her before. He fell asleep on a pillow that was wet in spots--and he was not ashamed.

In the days that followed nothing in Delaware Colony was too good for the young heroes. Jeremy could never understand just why they were heroes, but was forced to give up trying to explain the matter to an admiring populace. As for Bob, he gleefully accepted all the glory that was offered and at last persuaded Jeremy to take the affair as philosophically as himself. They were in a fair way to be spoiled, but fortunately there was enough sense of humor between them to bring them off safe from the head-patting gentlemen and tearfully rapturous ladies who gathered at the brick house of afternoons.

Perhaps the thing that really saved them from the effects of too much petting was the trip up the Brandywine to the Curtis plantation. It was a fine ride of thirty miles and the trail led through woods just turning red and yellow with the autumn frosts. Jeremy, though he had been on a horse only half a dozen times in his life, was a natural athlete and without fear. He was quick to learn and imitated Bob's erect carriage and easy seat so well that long before they had reached their journey's end he backed his tall roan like an old-timer. With Job it was a different matter. He was all sailor, and though the times demanded that every man who travelled cross-country must do it in the saddle, the lank New Englander would have ridden a gale any day in preference to a steed. Even Jeremy could afford to laugh at the sorry figure his big friend made.

The trail they followed was no more than a rough cutting, eight or ten feet wide, running through the forest. Here and there paths branched off to right or left and up one of these Bob turned at noon. It led them over a wooded hill, then down a long slope into the valley of a stream. "John Cantwell's plantation. We'll stop here for a bite to eat," explained the boy. By the water side, in a wide clearing, was a group of log huts and farther along, a square house built of rough gray stone.

They rode up to the wide door which looked down upon the river. In answer to Bob's hail a colored boy in a red jacket ran out to take the horses' heads and four black and white fox terriers tore round the corner barking a chorus of welcome. Bob jumped down with a laughing, "Ah there, Rufus!" to the horse-boy, and proceeded to roll the excited little dogs on their backs. As Jeremy and Job dismounted, a big man in sober gray came to the doorway. His strong, kindly face broke into a smile as he caught sight of his visitors. "Well, Bob, I'm mightily glad to see thee back, lad! We got news from the town only yesterday." He strode down the steps and took the boy's hand in a hearty grip, then greeted the others, as Bob introduced them. Jeremy marvelled much at the cut of the man's coat, which was without a collar, and at his continual use of the plain thee and thy. But there was a direct simplicity about all his ways, and a gentleness in his eyes that won the boy to him instantly.

One moment only he wandered at John Cantwell. In the next he had forgotten everything about him and stood open-mouthed, gazing at the square doorway. In the sun-lit frame of it had appeared a little girl of twelve. She was dressed demurely in gray, set off with a bit of white kerchief. Her long skirt hid her toes and her hands were folded most properly. But above this sober stalk bloomed the fairest face that Jeremy had ever seen. She had merry hazel eyes, a straight little nose and a firm little chin. Her plain bonnet had fallen back from her head and the brown curls that strayed recklessly about her cheeks seemed to catch all the sunbeams in Delaware.

For a very little time she stood, and then the pursed red mouth could be controlled no longer. She opened it in a whoop of joy and catching up her skirts ran to smother Bob in a great hug. Next moment Jeremy, still in a daze, was bowing over her hand, as he had learned to do at New Castle. She dropped him a little curtsey and turned to meet Job.

Betty Cantwell and her father were Quakers from the Penn Colony to the north, Bob had time to tell Jeremy as they entered. That accounted for the staid simplicity of their dress and their quaint form of speech--the plain language, as it was called. Jeremy had heard of the Quakers, though in New England they were much persecuted for their beliefs by the Puritans. Here, apparently, people not only allowed them to live, but liked and honored them as well. He prayed fervently that Betty might never chance to visit Boston town. Yet already he half hoped that she would. Of course, he would have grown bigger by then, and would carry a sword and how he would prick the thin legs of the first grim deacon who dared so much as to speak to her! These imaginings were put to rout at the dining-room door by the delicious savor of roast turkey. One of the black farmhands had shot the great bird the day before, and the three travellers had arrived just at the fortunate moment when it was to be carved.

It was a dinner never to be forgotten. The twenty miles they had ridden through the crisp air would have given them an appetite, even had they not been normally good trenchermen, and there were fine white potatoes and yams that accompanied the turkey, not to mention some jelly which Betty admitted having made herself, "with cook's help." Bob joyfully attacked his heaped-up plate and ate with relish every minute that he was not talking. Jeremy could say not a word, for opposite him was Betty and in her presence he felt very large and awkward. His hands troubled him. Indeed, had it been a possibility, he would have eaten his turkey without raising them above the table edge. As it was, he felt himself blush every time a vast red fist came in evidence. Yet he succeeded in making a good meal and would not have been elsewhere for all Solomon Brig's gold. Perhaps Job, who was neither talkative nor under the spell of a lady's eyes, wielded the best knife and fork of the three.

Dinner over, and Bob's story finished, they were taken to see the stable and the broad tilled fields by the river bank, where corn stood shocked among the stubble. Afternoon came and soon it was time for them to start. There were laughing farewells and a promise that they would stop on the return trip, and before Jeremy could come back to earth the gloom of the forest shut in above their heads once more. They put the horses to a canter as soon as the ridge was cleared, for there were still ten miles to go and the light was waning. Jeremy was very much at home in the woods, but the chill, sombre depths that appeared and reappeared on either hand seemed to warn him to be prepared. He reached to the saddlebow, undid the flap of the pistol holster, and made sure that his weapon was loaded, then put it back, reassured. The footing was bad, and they had to go more slowly for a while. Then Bob, in the lead, came to a more open space where light and ground alike favored better speed. He spurred his horse to a gallop and had turned to call to the others, when suddenly the animal he rode gave a snort of fear and stopped with braced forefeet. Bob, caught off his guard, went over the horse's head with a lurch and fell sprawling on the ground in front. Then he gave a scream, for not two feet away he saw the short, cruel head of a coiled rattlesnake.

Jeremy, riding close behind, pulled up beside the other horse and threw himself off. Even as he touched the ground a sharp whirr met his ear and he saw the fat, still body and vibrating tail of the snake. He wrenched the pistol from the holster, took the quickest aim of his life and pulled the trigger. After the shot apparently nothing had changed. The whirr of the rattle went on for a second or two, then gradually subsided. Bob lay white-faced, and still as death. Jeremy drew a step closer and then gave a choked cry of relief. The snake's smooth, diamond-marked body remained coiled for the spring. Its lithe forepart was thrust forward from the top coil and the venemous, blunt head--but the head was no more. Jeremy's ball had taken it short off.

Bob was unhurt, but badly shaken and frightened, and they followed the trail slowly through the dusk. Then just as the shadows that obscured their way were turning to the deep dark of night a small light became visible straight ahead. They pushed on and soon were luxuriously stretched before a log fire in the Curtis plantation house, while Mrs. Robbins, the overseer's wife, poured them a cup of hot tea.

When bedtime came, Bob came over to Jeremy and gave him a long grip of the hand, but said never a word. There was no need of words, for the New England boy knew that his chum would never be quite happy till he could repay his act in kind. Yet he could not tell Bob that the shooting of a snake was but a small return for the gift of a vision of one of heaven's angels. Each felt himself the other's debtor as they got into the great feather bed side by side.