Chapter XXXI

There was a bustle of action aboard the sloop when the boys swarmed up her side. One chanty was being sung up forward, where half a dozen sturdy seamen were heaving at the capstan bars, and another was going amidships as the throat of the long main gaff went to the top. Captain Job stood on the afterdeck, constantly shouting new orders. His big voice made itself heard above the singing, the groan of tackle-blocks and the crash of the canvas, flapping in the northwest wind.

It was a clear, sunny day, with a bite of approaching winter in the air, and the boys were glad to button their jackets tight and move into the lee of the after-house.

"Here, lads," Job cried, "there's work for you, too. Take a run below, Jeremy, and bring up an armload of cutlasses. See if any of those muskets need cleaning, Tom."

Jeremy scurried down the companion ladder, and forward along the starboard gun deck to the rack of small arms near the fo'c's'le hatch. Jeremy was pleased to see that the sloop carried a full complement of ten broadside guns, beside a long brass cannon in the bows. In fact, she was armed like a regular man-o'-war. The tubs were filled and neat little piles of round-shot and cannister stood beside each gun. The Tiger, he thought, was likely to give a good account of herself if she could come to grips with the buccaneers.

Stepping on deck once more, his arms piled with hangers, Jeremy found that the sloop had already cleared the bay on her starboard tack and was just coming about to make a long reach of it to port. The pirate sail was no longer in sight in the west, but as several islands filled the horizon in that direction, it seemed likely that she had passed beyond them.

Jeremy approached the Captain. "How far ahead do you think they are?" he asked.

"When we sighted 'em, they were about four sea-miles to the westward," answered Job. "If they're making ordinary sailing, they've gained close to three more, since then. But if they're carrying much canvas it may be more. We shan't come near them before dark, at any rate."

He cast an eye aloft as he spoke, and Jeremy's gaze followed. The Tiger was carrying topsails and both jibs, with a single reef in her fore and main sails. She was scudding along at a great rate with the whitecaps racing by, close below the lee gunports. Jeremy whistled with delight. He had seen Stede Bonnet crowd canvas once or twice, but never in so good a cause.

The wind held from the northwest, gaining in strength rather than decreasing, and the sloop, heeled far to port, sped along close-hauled on a west-sou'west course.

After three-quarters of an hour of this kind of sailing they were close to the group of islands, and sighting a passage to the northward, swung over on the other tack. A rough beat to starboard brought them into the gap. Though they crossed a grim, black shoal at the narrowest part, Job did not shorten sail, but steered straight on as fast as the wind would take him. And at length they came clear of the headland and saw a great stretch of open sea to the southwestward with a faint, white dot of sail at its farthest edge.

At the sight a hearty cheer went up from the seamen, clustered along the port rail. A lean, wind-browned man with keen black eyes came aft to the tiller where Jeremy and Tom stood with the Captain. It was Isaiah Hawkes, Job's first mate, himself a Maine coast man. "It's all clear sailin' ahead, sir," he said. "No more reefs or islands 'twixt this an' Cape Cod, if they follow the course they're on."

The Tiger hung with fluttering canvas in the wind's eye for a second or two, then settled away on the port tack with a bang of her main boom.

"Here, Isaiah, take the tiller," said Job, at length. "Hold her as she is--two points to windward of the other sloop. You'll want to set an extra lookout tonight," he continued. "We shan't be able to keep 'em in sight at this distance, if they've sighted us, which most likely they have. I'm going up to have a look at 'Long Poll' now."

Accompanied by the two boys, he made his way along the steeply canted deck of the plunging schooner to the breach of the swivel-gun at the bow.

"Ever seen this gal afore, Jeremy?" asked Job, shouting to make himself heard above the hiss and thunder of the water under the forefoot. "She's the old gun we had aboard the Queen. Stede Bonnet never had a piece like this. Cast in Bristol, she was, in '94. There's the letters that tells it." And he patted the bright breach lovingly, sighting along the brazen barrel, and swinging the nose from right to left till he brought the gun to bear squarely on the white speck that was the pirate sloop, still hull-down in the sea ahead. "Come morning, Polly, my gal," he chuckled, "we'll let you talk to 'em."

As he spoke, the fiery disk of the sun was slipping into the ocean across the starboard bow. With sunset the breeze lightened perceptibly, and Job ordered the reefs shaken out of the fore and mainsails and an extra jib set. Then he and the boys, who, although they had quarters aft, had been assigned to the port watch, went below and turned in.