Chapter III

It was growing dark already in the dense fir growth that covered the hillside, and when Jeremy suddenly stepped upon the moss at the brink of a deep spring, he had to catch a branch to keep from falling in. There was an opening in the trees above and enough light came through for him to see the white sand bubbling at the bottom.

At one edge the water lapped softly over the moss and trickled down the northern slope of the hill in a little rivulet, which had in the course of time shaped itself a deep, well-defined bed a yard or two across. Following this, the boy soon came out upon the grassy slope beside the sheep-pen. He looked in at the placid flock, brought a bucket of water from the little stream, and, not caring to light a lantern, ate his supper of bread and cheese outside the hut on the slope facing the bay. The night settled chill but without fog. The boy wrapped his heavy homespun cloak round him, snuggled close to Jock's hairy side, and in his lonesomeness fell back on counting the stars as they came out. First the great yellow planet in the west, then, high overhead, the sparkling white of what, had he known it, was Vega; and in a moment a dozen others were in view before he could number them--Regulus, Altair, Spica, and, low in the south, the angry fire of Antares.

For him they were unnamed, save for the peculiarities he discovered in each. In common with most boys he could trace the dipper and find the North Star, but he regrouped most of the constellations to suit himself, and was able to see the outline of a wolf or the head of an Indian that covered half the sky whenever he chose. He wondered what had become of Orion, whose brilliant galaxy of stars appeals to every boy's fancy. It had vanished since the spring. In it he had always recognized the form of a brig he had seen hove-to in Portsmouth Harbor--high poop, skyward-sticking bowsprit and ominous, even row of gun-ports where she carried her carronades--three on a side. How those black cannon-mouths had gaped at the small boy on the dock! He wondered--

"Boom...!" came a hollow sound that seemed to hang like mist in a long echo over the island. Before Jeremy could jump to his feet he heard the rumbling report a second time. He was all alert now, and thought rapidly. Those sounds--there came another even as he stood there--must be cannon-shots--nothing less. The ships he had seen from the hilltop were men-of-war, then. Could the French have sent a fleet? He did not know of any recent fighting. What could it mean?

Deep night had settled over the island, and the fir-woods looked very black and uninviting to Jeremy when he started up the hill once more.

As their shadow engulfed him, he was tempted to turn back--how he was to wish he had done so in the days that followed--but the hardy strain of adventure in his spirit kept his jaw set and his legs working steadily forward into the pitch-black undergrowth. Once or twice he stumbled over fallen logs or tripped in the rocks, but he held on upward till the trees thinned and he felt that the looming shape of the ledge was just in front. His heart seemed to beat almost as loudly as the cannonade while he felt his way up the broken stones.

Panting with excitement, he struggled to the top and threw himself forward to the southern edge.

A dull-gray, quiet sea met the dim line of the sky in the south. Halfway between land and horizon, perhaps a league distant, Jeremy saw two vague splotches of darkness. Then a sudden flame shot out from the smaller one, on the right. Seconds elapsed before his waiting ear heard the booming roar of the report. He looked for the bigger ship to answer in kind, but the next flash came from the right as before. This time he saw a bright sheet of fire go up from the vessel on the left, illuminating her spars and topsails. The sound of the cannon was drowned in an instant by a terrific explosion. Jeremy trembled on his rock. The ships were in darkness for a moment after that first great flare, and then, before another shot could be fired, little tongues of flame began to spread along the hull and rigging of the larger craft. Little by little the fire gained headway till the whole upper works were a single great torch. By its light the victorious vessel was plainly visible. She was a schooner-rigged sloop-of-war, of eighty or ninety tons' burden, tall-masted and with a great sweep of mainsail. Below her deck the muzzles of brass guns gleamed in the black ports. As the blazing ship drifted helplessly off to the east, the sloop came about, and, to Jeremy's amazement, made straight for the southern bay of the island. He lay as if glued to his rock, watching the stranger hold her course up the inlet and come head to wind within a dozen boat-lengths of the shore.