Chapter VIII
 

As the pirate sloop raced southward under full sail, the form of the other ship became steadily plainer. She was a brig, high-pooped, and tall-masted, and apparently deeply laden. Major Bonnet, who had come up at the first warning, seemed his old cool self as he conned the enemy through a spyglass. Jeremy had been detailed as a sort of errand boy, and as he stood at the Captain's side he heard him speaking to Herriot.

"She's British, right enough," he was saying. "I can make out her flag; but how many guns, 'tis harder to tell. She sees us now, I think, for they seem to be shaking out a topsail.... Ah, now I can see the sun shine on her broadside--two ... three ... five in the lower port tier, and three more above--sixteen in all. 'Twill be a fight, it seems!"

Aboard the Royal James the men were slaving like ants, preparing for the battle. Every man knew his duties. The gunners and swabbers were putting their cannon in fettle below decks. Others were rolling out round-shot from the hold and storing powder in iron-cased lockers behind the guns. Great tubs of sea water were placed conveniently in the 'tween-decks and blankets were put to soak for use in case of fire. Buckets of vinegar water for swabbing the guns were laid handy. In the galley the cook made hot grog. Cutlasses were looked after, pistols cleaned and loaded and muskets set out for close firing. Jeremy was sent hither and thither on every imaginable mission, a tremendous excitement running in his veins.

The sloop gained rapidly on her prey, hauling over to windward as she sailed, and when the two ships were almost within cannon range, Stede Bonnet with his own hand bent the "Jolly Roger" to the lanyard and sent the great black flag with its skull and crossbones to fly from the masthead. The grog was served out. No man would have believed that the roaring, rollicking gang of cutthroats who tossed off their liquor in cheers and ribald laughter was identical with the grumbling, sour-faced crew of twenty hours before. As they finished, something came skipping over the water astern and the first echoing report followed close. The cannonade was on.

A loud yell of defiance swept the length of the Royal James as the men went to their posts. The gun decks ran along both sides of the sloop a few feet above the water line. They were like alleyways beneath the main deck, barely wide enough to admit the passage of a man or a keg of powder behind the gun-carriages. These latter were not fixed to the planking as afterward became the fashion, but ran on trucks and were kept in their places by rope tackles. In action, the recoil had to be taken up by men who held the ends of these ropes, rove through pulleys in the vessel's side. Despite their efforts the gun would sometimes leap back against the bulkhead hard enough to shatter it. As the charge for each reloading had to be carried sometimes half the length of the ship by hand, it is easy to see that the men who served the guns needed some strength and agility in getting past the jumping carriages.

Jeremy was sent below to help the gunners, as the shot from the merchantman continued to scream by. Job Howland was a gunner on the port side and the boy naturally lent his services to the one man aboard that he could call his friend. There was much bustle in the alley behind the closed ports but surprisingly little confusion was apparent. The discipline seemed better than at any time since the boy had been brought aboard the black sloop.

Job was ramming the wad home on the charge of powder in his bow gun. The other four guns in the port deck were being loaded at the same time, three men tending each one.

"Here, lad," sang out Job, as he put the single iron shot in at the muzzle, "take one o' the wet blankets out o' yon tub an' stand by to fight sparks." Jeremy did as he was bid, then got out of the way as the ports were flung open and the guns run forward, with their evil bronze noses thrust out into the sunlight.

The sloop, running swiftly with the wind abeam, had now drawn abreast of her unwieldy adversary. The merchant captain, apparently, finding himself out-speeded and being unable to spare his gun crews to trim sails, had put the head of his ship into the wind, where she stood, with canvas flapping, her bows offering a steady mark to the pirate.

"Ready a port broadside!" came Bonnet's ringing order, and then--"Fire!" Job Howland's blazing match went to the touch-hole at the word and his six-pounder, roaring merrily, jumped back two good feet against the straining ropes of the tackle. Instantly the next gun spoke and the next and so on, all five in a space of a bare ten seconds. Had they been fired simultaneously they might have shaken the ship to pieces. Jeremy was half-deafened, and his whole body was jarred. Thick black smoke hung in the alleyway, for the ports had been closed in order to reload in greater safety. The boy felt the deck heel to starboard under him and thought at first that a shot had caught them under the waterline, but when he was sent above to find out whether the broadside had taken effect, he found that the sloop had come about and was already driving north still to windward of the enemy. Bonnet was giving his gunners more time to load by running back and forth and using his batteries alternately. Herriot had the tiller and in response to Jeremy's question he pointed to the fluttering rags of the brig's foresail and the smoke that issued from a splintered hole under her bow chains.

Below in the gun deck the buccaneers, sweating by their pieces, heard the news with cheers. The sloop shook to the jarring report of the starboard battery a moment later, and hardly had it ceased when she came about on the other tack. "Hurrah," cried Job's mates, "we'll show him this time! Wind an' water--wind an' water!"

The open traps showed the green seas swirling past close below, and off across the swells the tall side of the merchantman swaying in the trough of the waves. "Ready!" came the order and every gunner jumped to the breach, match in hand. Before the command came to fire there was a crash of splintering wood and a long, intermittent roar came over the water. The brig had taken advantage of her falling off the wind to deliver a broadside in her own turn. Stede Bonnet's voice, cool as ever, gave the order and four guns answered the brig's discharge. The crew of the middle cannon lay on the deck in a pitiable state, two killed outright and the gunner bleeding from a great splinter wound in the head. A shot had entered to one side of the port, tearing the planking to bits and after striking down the two gun-servers, had passed into the fo'c's'le. Jeremy jumped forward with his blanket in time to stamp out a blaze where the firing-match had been dropped, and with the help of one of the pirates dragged the wounded man to his berth. Almost every shot of the last volley had done damage aboard the brig. Her freeboard, twice as high as that of the sloop, had offered a target which for expert gunners was hard to miss. Jagged openings showed all along her side, and as she rose on a swell, Job shouted, "See there! She's leakin' now. 'Twas my last shot did that--right on her waterline!"

"All hands on deck to board her!" came a shout, almost at the same instant. Jeremy hurrying up with the rest found the sloop bearing down straight before the wind, and only a dozen boat's lengths from the enemy.

A wild whoop went up among the pirates. Every man had seized on a musket and was crouching behind the rail. Bonnet alone stood on the open deck, his buff coat blowing open and his hand resting lightly on his sword. An occasional cannon shot screamed overhead or splashed away astern. Apparently the brig's batteries were too greatly damaged and her crew too badly shot up to offer an effective bombardment. She was drifting helplessly under tattered ribbons of canvas and the Royal James, whose sails had suffered far less, bore down upon her opponent with the swoop of a hawk.

As she drew close aboard a scattered fusillade of small arms broke out from the brig's poop, wounding one man, a Portuguese, but for the most part striking harmlessly against the bulwark. The buccaneers held their fire till they were scarce a boat's length distant. Then at the order they swept the ship with a withering musket volley. The brig was down by the head and lay almost bow on so that her deck was exposed to Bonnet's marksmen. Herriot brought his sloop about like a flash and almost before Jeremy realized what was toward, the ships had bumped together side by side, and the howling mob of pirates was swarming over the enemy's rail. Job Howland and another man took great boat-hooks, with which they grappled the brig's ports and kept the two vessels from drifting apart. Jeremy was alone upon the sloop's deck. He put the thickness of the mast between him and the hail of bullets and peered fearfully out at the terrible scene above.

The crew of the brig had been too much disorganized to repel the boarders as well as they might, and the entire horde of wild barbarians had scrambled to her deck, where a perfect inferno now held sway. The air seemed full of flying cutlasses that produced an incessant hiss and clangor. Pistols banged deafeningly at close quarters and there was the constant undertone of groans, cries and bellowed oaths. Above the din came the terrible, clear voice of Stede Bonnet, urging on his seadogs. He had become a different man from the moment his foot touched the merchantman's deck. From the cool commander he had changed to a devil incarnate, with face distorted, eyes aflame, and a sword that hacked and stabbed with the swift ferocity of lightning. Jeremy saw him, fighting single-handed with three men. His long sword played in and out, to the right and to the left with a turn and a flash, then, whirling swiftly, pinned a man who had run up behind. Bonnet's feet moved quickly, shifting ground as stealthily as a cat's and in a second he had leaped to a safer position with his back to the after-house. Two of his opponents were down, and the third fighting wearily and without confidence, when a huge, flaxen-haired man burst from the hatch to the deck and swung his broad cutlass to such effect that the battling groups in his path gave way to either side. The burly form of Dave Herriot opposed the new enemy and as the two giants squared off, sword ringing on sword, more than one wounded sailor raised himself to a better position, grinning with the Anglo-Saxon's unquenchable love of a fair fight. Herriot was no mean swordsman of the rough and ready seaman's type and had a great physique as well, but his previous labors--he had been the first man on board and had already accounted for a fair share of the defenders--had rendered him slow and arm-weary. The ready parrying, blade to blade, ceased suddenly as his foot slipped backward in a pool of blood. The blond seaman seized his advantage and swung a slicing blow that glanced off Herriot's forehead, and felled the huge buccaneer to the deck where he lay stunned, the quick red staining his head-cloth. As the blond-haired man stepped forward to finish the business, a long, keen, straight blade interposed, caught his cutlass in an upward parry and at the same time pinked him painfully in the arm.

Jumping back the seaman found himself faced by the pitiless eyes of Stede Bonnet, who had killed his last opponent and run in to save his mate's life. That quick, darting sword baffled the sailor. Swing and hack as he might, his blows were caught in midair and fell away harmless, while always the relentless point drove him back and back. Forced to the rail, he stood his ground desperately, pale and glistening with the sweat of a man in the fear of death. Then his sword flew up, the pirate captain stabbed him through the throat and with a dying gasp the limp body fell backward into the sea.

Meanwhile the pirates had steadily gained ground in the hand to hand struggle and now a bare half-dozen brave fellows held on, fighting singly or in pairs, back to back. The brig's captain, wounded in several places and seeing his crew in a fair way to be annihilated, flung up a tired arm and cried for quarter. Almost at once the fighting ceased and half the combatants, utterly exhausted, sank down among their dead and wounded fellows. The deck was a long shambles, red from the bits to the poop.

While the hands of the prisoners were being bound, Bonnet and all of his men not otherwise employed hurried below to search for loot. The man who had held the boat-hook astern left this task and greedily clambered up the brig's side lest he should miss his chance at the booty. Job alone stuck to his post, and motioned Jeremy to stay where he was. Cheers and yells of joy rang from the after-hold of the merchantman where the pirates had evidently discovered the ship's store of wine.

After a few moments Pharaoh Daggs thrust his scarred face out of the companion, and with a fierce roar of laughter waved a black bottle above his head. The others followed, drinking and babbling curses, and last of all Stede Bonnet, pale, dishevelled, mad with blood and liquor, stood bareheaded by the hatch. He raised his hand in a gesture of silence and all the hubbub ceased. "We have beaten them!" he cried between twitching lips. "I Captain Thomas, the chiefest of all the pirates, and my bully-boys of the Royal James! We'll show 'em all! We'll show 'em all! Blackbeard and all the rest! He, he, he!" and his voice trailed off in crazy laughter. The men of the crew stood about him on the brig's deck dumbfounded by his words. Jeremy could hardly breathe in his surprise. Suddenly he gave a start and would have cried out but that Job Howland's hand closed his mouth. A swiftly widening lane of water separated the sloop from her late enemy.