Chapter XXXII

Jeremy, stumbling on deck at eight bells, pulled his seaman's greatcoat up about his ears, for the breeze came cold. He worked his way forward along the high weather rail and took up his lookout station on the starboard bow.

Overhead the midnight sky burned bright with stars that seemed to flicker like candle-flames in the wind. A half-grown moon rode down the west and threw a faint radiance across the heaving seas. It was blowing harder now. The wind boomed loud in the taut stays and the rising waves broke smashingly over the bow at times, forcing the foremast hands to cling like monkeys to the rail and rigging.

Captain Job, with Tom to help him, stood grimly at the thrashing tiller and drove the sloop southwestward at a terrific gait. The sails had been single-reefed again during the mate's watch, but with the wind still freshening the staunch little craft was carrying an enormous amount of canvas. Job Howland was a sailor of the breed that was to reach its climax a hundred years later in the captains of the great Yankee clippers--men who broke sailing records and captured the world's trade because they dared to walk their tall ships, full-canvassed, past the heavy foreign merchantmen that rolled under triple reefs in half a gale of wind.

One by one the hours of the watch went by. Jeremy, drenched and shivering, but thrilling to the excitement of the chase, stuck to his post at the rail beside the long bow gun. His eyes were fixed constantly on the sea ahead and abeam, while his thoughts, racing on, followed the pirate schooner close.

How was Bob to be gotten off alive, he wondered, for he had come to believe that his chum was aboard the fleeing craft. If it came to a running fight, their cannonade might sink her, in which case the boy would be drowned along with his captors. And there were other things that could happen. Jeremy groaned aloud as he thought of the fate that Pharaoh Daggs had once so nearly meted out to him. He felt again the bite of the hemp at his wrists, and saw that pitiless gleam in the strange light eyes of the pirate. Would Daggs try to settle his long score against the boys by some unheard-of brutality?

A sudden hail cut in upon his thoughts. "Sail ho!" the lookout on the other side had cried.

"Where away?" came Job's deep shout.

"Three points on the port bow," answered the seaman, "an' not above a league off!"

Jeremy, straining his eyes into the night, made out the dim patch of sail ahead.

"How's she headed?" called the Captain again. "Is she still on her port tack, or running before the wind?"

"Still beating up to the west!" the sailor replied.

"Good," cried Job. "They think they can outsail us. Keep her in sight and sing out if you see her fall off the wind!"

Half an hour later the watch was changed and Jeremy scrambled into his warm bunk for a few hours more sleep.

It was broad daylight when he and Tom reached the deck once more and went eagerly forward to join the little knot of seamen in the bows. All eyes were turned toward the horizon, ahead, where the sails of the fleeing schooner loomed gray in the morning haze.

The wind which had shifted a little to the north was still blowing stiffly, heeling both sloops over at a sharp angle. The Tiger had gained somewhat during the morning watch, but the pirates had now evidently become desperate and put on all the sail their craft would carry, so that the two vessels sped on, league after league, without apparent change of position.

Job, who had now taken the tiller again, called to Jeremy after a while. "Here, lad," he said, when the boy reached the poop, "lend me a hand with this kicker."

Jeremy laid hold with a will, and found that it took almost all his strength, along with that of the powerful Captain, to hold the schooner on her course. At times, when a big beam sea caught her, she would yaw fearfully, falling off several points, and could only be brought back to windward by jamming the thrashing rudder hard over.

"We lose headway when she does that, don't we, Job?" panted the boy after one such effort. "And I reckon we couldn't lash the beam fast to keep her this way, could we? No, I see, it has to be free so as to move all the time. Still----"

As he staggered to and fro at the end of the tiller, the boy thought rapidly. Finally he recommenced: "Job--this may sound foolish to you--but why couldn't we lash her on both sides, and yet give her play--look--this way! Rig a little pulley here and one here----" He indicated places on the deck, close to the rail on either quarter. "Then reeve a line from the tiller-end through each one, and bring it back with three or four turns around a windlass drum, a little way for'ard, there. Then you could keep hold of the arms of the windlass, and only let the tiller move as much as you needed to, either way----"

"By the Great Bull Whale," Job laughed, as he grasped the boy's plan, "I wonder if that wouldn't work! Jeremy, boy, we'll find out, anyhow. Braisted!" he called to the ship's carpenter, "up with some lumber and a good stout line and a pair of spare blocks if you've got them. Lively, now!"

In a jiffy the carpenter had tumbled the tackle out on the deck, and under the direction of Job, began to rig it according to Jeremy's scheme. It was a matter of a few moments only, once he caught the idea. When at length the final stout knot had been tied, Job, still keeping his mighty clutch on the tiller beam, motioned to Jeremy to take hold of the windlass. The boy jumped forward eagerly and seized two of the rude spokes that radiated horizontally from the hub. The position was an awkward one, but with a slight pull he found that he could swing the windlass rapidly in either direction.

"Avast there--avast!" came Job's bass bellow, and looking over his shoulder, Jeremy saw the big skipper flung from side to side in spite of himself as the windlass was turned. The seamen who had gathered to watch were roaring with laughter, and Job himself was chuckling as he let go the tiller and hurried to Jeremy's side. Taking a grip on the spokes, he spun them back and forth once or twice, to feel how the vessel answered her helm under this new contraption, and in a moment had it working handsomely. He was using the first ship's steering-wheel.

The sloop, which had yawed and lost some headway during this interlude, now struck her stride again, and drove along with her nose held steady, a full half-point closer to the wind than had been possible before. Job perceived this and loosed one hand long enough to strike Jeremy a mighty blow on the back.

"She works, boy!" he cried. "And at this gait we'll catch them before noon!"

Indeed, the crew had already noticed the difference in their sailing, and were lining the bows, waving their caps in the air and yelling with excitement as they watched the distance between the two craft slowly shorten.

An hour passed, and the gunners were sent below to make ready their pieces, for the lead of the pirate sloop had been cut to a bare mile.

Job had turned the wheel over to Hawkes, and now, with three picked men to help him, was ramming home a heavy charge of powder in the long "nine." On top of it he drove down the round-shot, then bent above the swivel-breach, swinging it back and forth as he brought the cannon's muzzle to bear on the topsails of the pirate schooner, whose black hull was now plainly visible. He sniffed the wind and measured the distance with his eye. When his calculations were complete he turned and held up his hand in signal to the helmsman. As the swivel allowed movement only from side to side, he must depend on the cant of the deck for his elevation. Holding the long gunner's match lighted in his hand, he waited for the exact second when the schooner's bow was lifted on a wave and swinging in the right direction, then touched the powder train. There was a hiss and flare, and at the end of a second or two a terrific roar as the charge was fired. The smoke was blown clear almost instantly, and every one leaned forward, watching the sea ahead with tense eagerness. At length a column of white spray lifted, a scant hundred yards astern of the other sloop. The crew cheered, for it was a splendid shot at that distance and in a seaway. The sky was thickening to windward, and it grew harder momentarily to see objects at a distance. Job was already at work, superintending the swabbing-out of the gun and reloading with his own hands. There was a long moment while he waited for a favorable chance, then "Long Poll" shook the deck once more with the crash of her discharge. This time the shot fell just ahead and to windward of the enemy--so close that the spray blew back into the rigging.

Job had bracketed his target, but the mist-clouds that were sweeping past rendered his task a difficult one. Grimly but with swift certainty of movement he went about his preparations for a third attempt.

Suddenly there was a shout from Jeremy, who had climbed into the forestays for a better view. "Look there!" he cried. "They're lowering a boat. There's something white in it, like a flag of truce!"

In the lee of the pirate vessel a small boat could be seen tossing crazily in the heavy seas. Job, who had called for his spyglass, looked long and earnestly at the tiny craft.

"There's but one man in it," he announced at length, "and he's showing a bit of something white, as Jeremy says. Here, lad, you've the best eyes on the sloop, see if you can make out more."

The boy focussed the glass on the little boat, which was now drifting rapidly to the southeast, already nearly opposite their bows. The figure in it stood up, waving frantic arms to one side and the other.

"It's Bob!" Jeremy almost screamed. "That's a signal we used to have when we were hunting. It means 'Come here!'"

He had hardly finished speaking when--"Port your helm!" roared Job. "All hands stand by to slack the fore and main sheets!"

The Tiger fell off the wind with a lurch and spun away to leeward, bowing into the running seas.

Five minutes later they hauled Bob, drenched and dripping, to the deck.