Chapter IV

One of the first things a backwoods boy learns is that it pays to mind your own business, after you know what the other fellow is going to do. Jeremy had been threshing his brain for a solution to the scene he had just witnessed. Whether the crew of the strange sloop, just then effecting a landing in small boats, were friends or enemies it was impossible to guess. Jeremy feared for the sheep. Fresh meat would be welcome to any average ship's crew, and the lad had no doubt that they would use no scruple in dealing with a youngster of his age. He must know who they were and whether they intended crossing the island. There was no feeling of mere adventure in his heart now. It was purely sense of duty that drove his trembling legs down the hillside. He shivered miserably in the night air and felt for his pistol-butt, which gave him scant comfort.

The ridge, which has already been described, bore in a southerly direction from the base of the ledge, and sloped steeply to the head of the southern inlet. High above the arm of the bay, where the sloop was now moored, and scarcely a quarter of a mile from the shore, the ridge projected in a rough granite crag like a bent knee. Jeremy had a very fair plan of all this in his mind, for his trained woodsman's eye had that afternoon noted every landmark and photographed it. He followed this mental map as he stumbled through the trees. It seemed a long time, perhaps twenty or thirty minutes, before he came out, stifling the sound of his gasping breath, and crouched for a minute on the bare stone to get his wind. Then he crawled forward along the rough cliff top, feeling his way with his hands. Soon he heard a distant shout. A faint glow of light shone over the edge of the crag. As he drew near, he saw, on the beach below, a great fire of driftwood and some score or more of men gathered in the circle of light. The distance was too great for him to tell much about their faces, but Jeremy was sure that no English or Colonial sloop-of-war would be manned by such a motley company. Their clothes varied from the sea-boots and sailor's jerkin of the average mariner to slashed leather breeches of antique cut and red cloth skirts reaching from the girdle to the knees. Some of the group wore three-cornered hats, others seamen's caps of rough wool, and here and there a face grimaced from beneath a twisted rag rakishly askew. Everywhere about them the fire gleamed on small-arms of one kind or another. Nearly every man carried a wicked-looking hanger at his side and most had one or two pistols tucked into waistband or holster.

This desperate gang was in a constant commotion. Even as Jeremy watched, a half dozen men were rolling a barrel up the beach. Wild howls greeted its appearance and as it was hustled into the circle of bright light, those who had been dancing, quarreling and throwing dice on the other side of the fire fell over each other to join the mob that surrounded it. The leaping flames threw a weird, uncertain brilliance upon the scene that made Jeremy blink his eyes to be sure that it was real. With every moment he had become more certain what manner of men these were.

His lips moved to shape a single terrible word--"Pirates!"

The buccaneers were much talked of in those days, and though the New England ports were less troubled, because better guarded, than those farther south, there had been many sea-rovers hanged in Boston within Jeremy's memory.

As if to clinch the argument a dozen of the ruffians swung their cannikins of rum in the air and began to shout a song at the top of their lungs. All the words that reached Jeremy were oaths except one phrase at the end of the refrain, repeated so often that he began to make out the sense of it. "Walk the bloody beggars all below!" it seemed to be--or "overboard"--he could not tell which. Either seemed bad enough to the boy just then and he turned to crawl homeward, with a sick feeling at the pit of his stomach.

His way led straight back across the ridge to the spring and thence down to the shelter on the north shore. He made the best speed he was able through the woods until he reached the height of land near the middle of the island. He had crashed along caring only to reach the sheep-pen and home, but as he stood for a moment to get his breath and his bearings, the westerly breeze brought him a sound of voices on the ridge close by. He prayed fervently that the wind which had warned him had served also to carry away the sound of his progress. Cowering against a tree, he stood perfectly still while the voices--there seemed to be two--came nearer and nearer. One was a very deep, rough bass that laughed hoarsely between speeches. The other voice was of a totally different sort, with a cool, even tone, and a rather precise way of clipping the words.

"See here, David," Jeremy understood the latter to say, "It's for you to remember those bearings, not me. You're the sailor here. Give them again now!"

"Huh!" grunted Big Voice, "two hunder' an' ten north to a sharp rock; three-score an' five northeast by east to an oak tree in a gully; two an' thirty north to a fir tree blazed on the south; five north an' there you are!" He ended in a chuckle as if pleased by the accuracy of his figures.

"Ay, well enough," the other responded, "but it must be wrong, for here's the blazed tree and no spring by it."

Close below, Jeremy saw their lantern flash and a moment later the two men were in full view striding among the trees. As he had almost expected from their voices, one was a tremendous, bearded fellow in sea-boots and jerkin and with a villainous turban over one eye, while his companion was a lean, smooth-shaven man, dressed in a fine buff coat, well-fitting breeches and hose, and shoes with gleaming buckles.

They must have passed within ten feet of the terrified Jeremy while the tossing lantern, swung from the hairy fist of the man called David, shone all too distinctly upon the boy's huddled shape. When they were gone by he allowed himself a sigh of relief, and shifted his weight from one foot to the other. A twig broke loudly and both men stopped and listened. "'Twas nought!" growled David. The other man paid no attention to him other than to say, "Hold you the lantern here!" and advanced straight toward Jeremy's tree. The boy froze against it, immovable, but it was of no avail.

"Aha," said the lean man, quietly, and gripped the lad's arm with his hand. As he dragged him into the light, his companion came up, staring with astonishment. A moment he was speechless, then began ripping out oath after oath under his breath. "How," he asked at length, "did the blarsted whelp come here?" The smaller man, who had been looking keenly into Jeremy's face, suddenly addressed him: "Here you, speak up! Do you live here?" he cried. "Ay," said the boy, beginning to get a grip on his thoughts.

"How long has there been a settlement here? There was none last Autumn," continued the well-dressed man. Jeremy had recovered his wits and reasoned quickly. He had little chance of escape for the present, while he must at all costs keep the sheep safe. So he lied manfully, praying the while to be forgiven.

"'Tis a new colony," he mumbled, "a great new colony from Boston town. There be three ships of forty guns each in the north harbor, and they be watching for pirates in these parts," he finished.

"Boy!" growled the bearded man, seizing Jeremy's wrist and twisting it horribly. "Boy! Are you telling the truth?" With face white and set and knees trembling from the pain, the lad nodded and kept his voice steady as he groaned an "Ay!"

The two men looked at each other, scowling. The giant broke silence. "We'd best haul out now, Cap'n," he said.

"And so I believe," the other replied, "But the water-casks are empty. Here!" as he turned to Jeremy, "show us the spring." It was not far away and the boy found it without trouble.

"Now, Dave Herriot," said the Captain, "stay you here with the light, that we may return hither the easier. Boy, come with me. Make no fuss, either, or 'twill be the worse for you." And so saying he walked quickly back toward the southern shore, holding the stumbling Jeremy's wrist in a grip of iron.

Crashing down the hill through the brush, the lad had scant time or will for observing things about him, but as they crossed a gully he saw, or fancied he saw, on the knee-shaped crag above, the slouched figure of a buccaneer silhouetted against the sky. It was not the bearded giant called Herriot, but another, Jeremy was sure. He had no time for conjectures, for they plunged into the thicket and birch limbs whipped him across the face.