Chapter XXVII
 

It was the savory smell of cooking hominy and the sizzle of broiling fish that woke Jeremy next morning. He drew a breath of pure ecstasy, rolled over and began pummelling the inert form of Bob, who had shared his blanket on an improvised bed in the cabin. The Delaware boy opened an eye, closed it again with carefully assumed drowsiness, and the next instant leaped like a joyful wildcat on his tormentor. There was a beautiful tussle that was only broken off by Tom's announcement of breakfast.

Opposite the stone fireplace was a table of hewn planks at which Bob, with Jeremy, Tom and their father, were soon seated. The latter had bruised his knee several days before, but was now sufficiently recovered to walk about with the aid of a stick.

"Father," said Jeremy between mouthfuls, "I want to see that cove again, where the pirates landed. If we may take the fowling-piece, Bob and I'll go across the island, after we've bade good-by to Captain Ghent."

"Ay, lad," Amos Swan replied, "you'll find the cove just as they left it. An I mistake not, the place where their fire was is still black upon the beach, and the rum-barrels are lying up among the driftwood. 'Twas there we found them--on the second day. Ah, Jeremy, lad--little we thought then we'd see you back safe and strong, and that so soon!"

The white frost of the November morning was still gleaming on the grass when the two boys went out. Against the cloudless sky the spires of the dark fir trees were cut in clean silhouette. From the Indian Queen, lying off shore, came the creak of blocks and sheaves as the yards were trimmed, and soon, her anchor catted home, she filled gracefully away to the northward, while the Captain waved a cheery farewell from the poop. He was bound up the coast for Halifax, and was to pick Bob up on his return voyage, a month later.

When they had watched the ship's white sails disappear behind the eastern headland, the boys started up the hill behind the cabin. They carried a lunch of bread and dried fish in a leather pouch and across Jeremy's shoulder was one of his father's guns. Bob was armed with the silver-mounted pistol from Stede Bonnet's arsenal.

It was a glorious morning for a trip of exploration and the hearts of both lads were high as they clambered out on the warm bare rock that crowned the island.

"Isn't it just as fine as I told you?" Jeremy cried. "Look--those blue mountains yonder must be twenty leagues away. And you can hardly count the islands in this great bay! Off there to the south is where I saw the Revenge for the first time--just a speck on the sea, she was!"

Bob, who had never seen the view from a really high hill before, stood open-mouthed as he looked about him. Suddenly he grasped Jeremy's arm.

"See!" he exclaimed, "down there--isn't that smoke?" He was pointing toward the low, swampy region in the southwestern part of the island. Jeremy watched intently, but there was nothing to disturb the morning calm of sky and shore.

"That's queer," Bob said at last, with a puzzled look. "I could take an oath I saw just the faintest wisp of smoke over there. But I must have been mistaken."

"Well," laughed Jeremy, "we'll soon make sure, for that's not far from where we're going."

They scrambled down, and following the ridge, turned south toward the lower bay at about the point where Jeremy had been discovered by Dave Herriot and the pirate Captain.

Dodging through the tangle of undergrowth and driftwood, they soon emerged on the loose sand above the beach. As Amos Swan had said, the rains had not yet washed away the black embers of the great bonfire, and near by lay a barrel with staves caved in. Looking at the scene, Jeremy almost fancied he could hear again the wild chorus of that drunken crew, most of whom had now gone to their last accounting.

"What say we walk down the shore a way?" suggested Bob. "There might be a duck or two in that reedy cove below here." And Jeremy, glad to quit the place, led off briskly westward along the sand.

Soon they came to the entrance of a narrow, winding tide-creek that ran back till it was hidden from sight in the tall reeds. Just as they reached the place, a large flock of sandpeeps flew over with soft whistling, and lighting on the beach, scurried along in a dense company, offering an easy target. Bob, who was carrying the gun, brought it quickly to his shoulder and was about to fire when Jeremy stopped him with a low "S-s-s-s-t!"

Bob turned, following the direction of Jeremy's outstretched arm, and for a second both boys stood as if petrified, gazing up the tide-creek toward the interior of the island. About a quarter of a mile away, above the reeds, which grew in rank profusion to a man's height or higher, they saw a pair of slender masts, canted far over.

"A ship!" whispered Bob. "Deserted, though, most likely."

"No," Jeremy answered, "I don't think it. Her cordage would have slacked off more and she wouldn't look so trim. Bob, wasn't it near here you saw that smoke?"

"Jiminy!" said Bob, "so it was! Right over in the marsh, close to those spars. It's some vessel that's put in here to careen. Wonder where her crew can be?"

"That's what looks so queer to me," the other boy replied. "They're keeping out of sight mighty careful. Men from any honest ship would have been all over the island the first day ashore. I don't like the look of it. Let's get back and tell father. Maybe we can find out who it is, afterwards."

Bob argued at first for an immediate reconnaissance, but when Jeremy pointed out the fact that if the strangers were undesirable they would surely have a guard hidden in the reeds up the creek, he accepted the more discreet plan.

They made their way quietly, but with as much haste as possible back along the shore, past the remnant of the fire, and up the hill into the thick woods.

Just as they crossed the ridge and began to see the glint of the northern inlet through the trees, Jeremy paused with a sudden exclamation.

"Here's the spring," he said, "and look at the sign above it. I never saw that before, for it was dark when I was up here. I almost fell in."

The spring itself was nearly invisible to one coming from this direction, but stuck in the fork of a tree, beside it, was a weathered old piece of ship's planking on which had been rudely cut the single word WATTER.

"Some Captain who used to fill his casks here must have put it up so that the spring would be easier to find," Bob suggested. But Jeremy, striding ahead, was thinking hard and did not answer.

Amos Swan heard their news with a grave face. No ship but the Queen had touched at the island for several months to his knowledge, he said. He agreed with the boys that the secrecy of the thing looked suspicious. When Tom came in for the noon meal, his father told him of the discovery and they both decided to bring the sheep in at once, and make preparations for possible trouble.

Tom, armed, and accompanied by the boys, set out soon after dinner for the western end of the island, two miles from the shack. It was there that the flock was accustomed to graze, shepherded by the wise dog, Jock. Their way led along the rocky northern slope, where the sheep had already worn well-defined paths among the scrubby grass and juniper patches, then up across a steep knoll and through a belt of fir and hemlock. When at length they came out from among the trees, the pasture lay before them. There in a hollow a hundred yards away the flock was huddled. Jock became aware of their approach at that instant and lifted his head in a short, choking bark. He started toward them, but before he had taken a dozen steps they could see that he was limping painfully. Running forward, Jeremy knelt beside the big collie, then turned with a movement of sudden dismay and called to his comrades. He had seen the broad splotch of vivid red stained the dog's white breast. Examination showed a deep clean cut in the fur of the neck, from which the blood still flowed sluggishly. But in spite of his weakness and the pain he evidently suffered, Jock could hardly wait to lead his masters back to the flock. Hurrying on with him they crossed a little rise of ground and came upon the sheep which were crowded close to one another, panting in abject terror.

"Twenty-six--twenty-eight--yes, twenty-eight and that's all!" Tom said. "There are two of them missing!"

Jock had limped on some twenty yards further and now stood beside a juniper bush, shivering with eagerness.

Following him thither, the boys found him sniffing at a blood-soaked patch of grass. The ground for several feet around was cut up as if in some sort of struggle. A few shreds of bloody wool, caught in the junipers, told their own story.

A man--probably several men--had been on the spot not two hours before and had killed two of the sheep. They had not succeeded in this without a fight, in which the gallant old dog had been stabbed with a seaman's dirk or some other sharp weapon.

Bob, scouting onward a short distance, found the deep boot-tracks of two men in a wet place between some rocks. They were headed south-eastward--straight toward the reedy swamp where the boys had seen the top-masts of the strange vessel! The crew--whoever they might be--had decided to leave no further doubt of their intentions. They had opened hostilities and to them had fallen first blood.

With serious faces and guns held ready for an attack the three lads turned toward home, driving the scared flock before them. Old Jock, stiff and limping from his wound, brought up the rear. They reached the inlet at last, but it was sunset when the last sheep was inside the stockade and the cabin door was barred.

That night the wind changed, and the cold gray blanket of a Penobscot Bay fog shut down over the island.