Chapter V
 

The events of that night made a terribly clear impression on the mind of the young New Englander. Years afterward he would wake with a shiver, imagining that the relentless hand of the pirate captain was again dragging him toward an unknown fate. It must have been the darkness and the sudden unexpectedness of it all that frightened him, for as soon as they came down the rocks into the flaring firelight he was able to control himself once more. The wild carouse was still in progress among the crew. Fierce faces, with unkempt beards and cruel lips, leered redly from above hairy, naked chests. Eyes, lit from within by liquor and from without by the dancing flames, gleamed below black brows. Many of the men wore earrings and metal bands about the knots of their pig-tails, while silver pistol-butts flashed everywhere.

As the Captain strode into the center of this group, the swinging chorus fell away to a single drunken voice which kept on uncertainly from behind the rum-barrel.

"Silence!" said the Captain sharply. The voice dwindled and ceased. All was quiet about the fire. "Men," went on Jeremy's captor, "clear heads, all, for this is no time for drinking. We have found this boy upon the hill, who tells of a fleet of armed ships not above a league from here. We must set sail within an hour and be out of reach before dawn. Every man now take a water-keg and follow me. You, Job Howland, keep the boy and the watch here on the beach."

Fresh commotion broke out as he finished. "Ay, ay, Captain Bonnet!" came in a broken chorus, as the crew, partially sobered by the words, hurried to the long-boat, where a line of small kegs lay in the sand. A moment later they were gone, plowing up the hillside. Jeremy stood where he had been left. A tall, slack-jointed pirate in the most picturesque attire strolled over to the boy's side and looked him up and down with a roguish grin. Under his cloak Jeremy had on fringed leather breeches and tunic such as most of the northern colonists wore. The pirate, seeing the rough moccasins and deerskin trousers, burst into a roar. "Ho, ho, young woodcock, and how do ye like the company of Major Stede Bonnet's rovers?"

The lad said nothing, shut his jaw hard and looked the big buccaneer squarely in the face. There was no fear in his expression. The man nodded and chuckled approvingly. "That's pluck, boy, that's pluck," said he. "We'll clip the young cock's shank-feathers, and maybe make a pirate of him yet." He stooped over to feel the buckskin fringe on Jeremy's leg. The boy's hand went into his shirt like a flash. He had pulled out the pistol and cocked it, when he felt both legs snatched from under him.

His head hit the ground hard and he lay dazed for a second or two. When he regained his senses, Job Howland stood astride of him coolly tucking the pistol into his own waist-band. "Ay," said Job, "ye'll be a fine buccaneer, only ye should have struck with the butt. I heard the click." The pirate seemed to hold no grudge for what had occurred and sat down beside Jeremy in a friendly fashion.

"Free tradin' ain't what it was," he confided. "When Billy Kidd cleared for the southern seas twenty years agone, they say he had papers from the king himself, and no man-of-war dared come anigh him." He swore gently and reminiscently as he went on to detail the recent severities of the Massachusetts government and the insecurity of buccaneers about the Virginia capes. "They do say, tho', as Cap'n Edward Teach, that they call Blackbeard, is plumb thick with all the magistrates and planters in Carolina, an' sails the seas as safe as if he had a fleet of twenty ships," said Job. "We sailed along with him for a spell last year, but him an' the old man couldn't make shift to agree. Ye see this Blackbeard is so used to havin' his own way he wanted to run Stede Bonnet, too. That made Stede boilin', but we was undermanned just then and had to bide our time to cut loose.

"Cap'n Bonnet, ye see, is short on seamanship but long in his sword arm. Don't ye never anger him. He's terrible to watch when he's raised. Dave Herriot sails the ship mostly, but when we sight a big merchantman with maybe a long nine or two aboard, then's when Stede Bonnet comes on deck. That Frenchman we sunk tonight, blast her bloody spars"--here the lank pirate interrupted himself to curse his luck, and continued--"probably loaded with sugar and Jamaica rum from Martinique and headed up for the French provinces. Well, we'll never know--that's sure!" He paused, bit off the end of a rope of black tobacco and meditatively surveyed the boy. "I'm from New England myself," said he after a time. "Sailed honest out of Providence Port when I was a bit bigger nor you. Then when I was growed and an able seaman on a Virginia bark in the African trade, along comes Cap'n Ben Hornygold, the great rover of those days and picks us up. Twelve of the likeliest he takes on his ship, the rest he maroons somewhere south of the Cubas, and sends our bark into Charles Town under a prize crew. So I took to buccaneering, and I must own I've always found it a fine occupation--not to say that it's made me rich--maybe it might if I'd kept all my sharin's."

This life-history, delivered almost in one breath, had caused Howland an immense amount of trouble with his quid of tobacco, which nearly choked him as he finished. Except for the sound of his vast expectorations, the pair on the beach were quiet for what seemed to Jeremy a long while. Then on the rocks above was heard the clatter of shoes and the bumping of kegs. Job rose, grasping the hand of his charge, and they went to meet the returning sailors.

To the young woodsman, utterly unused to the ways of the sea, the next half-hour was a bewildering mle of hurrying, sweating toil, with low-spoken orders and half-caught oaths and the glimmer of a dying fire over all the scene. He was rowed to the sloop with the first boatload and there Job Howland set him to work passing water-kegs into the hold. He had had no rest in over twenty hours and his whole body ached as the last barrel bumped through the hatch. All the crew were aboard and a knot of swaying bodies turned the windlass to the rhythm of a muttered chanty. The chain creaked and rattled over the bits till the dripping anchor came out of water and was swung inboard. The mainsail and foresail went up with a bang, as a dozen stalwart pirates manned the halyards.

Dave Herriot stood at the helm, abaft the cabin companion, and his bull voice roared the orders as he swung her head over and the breeze steadied in the tall sails.

"Look alive there, mates!" he bellowed. "Stand by now to set the main jib!" Like most of the pirate sloops-of-war, Stede Bonnet's Revenge was schooner-rigged. She carried fore and main top-sails of the old, square style, and her long main boom and immense spread of jib gave her a tremendous sail area for her tonnage. The breeze had held steadily since sundown and was, if anything, rising a little. Short seas slapped and gurgled at the forefoot with a pleasant sound. Jeremy, desperately tired, had dropped by the mast, scarcely caring what happened to him. The sloop slid out past the dark headlands, and heeled to leeward with a satisfied grunt of her cordage that came gently to the boy's ears. His head sank to the deck and he slept dreamlessly.