Tuesday, 15 September 2009
Red Peter Part1
By A. Hyatt Verrill
From Sea Stories Magazine Volume XIII FEBRUARY, 1927 Number 6.
Digital capture by Doug Frizzle September 2009.
A thrilling tale of the buccaneers who roamed the Caribbean to prey upon the galleons of Spain, and of the brave deeds of "Red Peter" who set himself to curb their ruthless depredations.
DON RAMON ORTEGA was dying. Very old and frail and weak he looked, propped among the coarse pillows on his rawhide bed. His gaunt, brown hands, long, bony fingers and thin, scrawny neck appeared pallid under their coat of tan. His keen eyes, beneath their bushy brows, held a vacant, far-away look—as if seeking to peer into the beyond he was soon to enter. But his voice, as he spoke, was as deep and as resonant as ever.
"Pedro mio," he said, addressing the huge-limbed youth who was seated dejectedly by the old don's bedside, "the time approaches when I breathe my last. Nay, grieve not for that. Death will be welcome and I have no regrets. Rather, rejoice that my soul may soon find rest, and listen well to my last words, for much will they mean to you. Ever have you thought me your father; but now the time comes when I must speak the truth and tell you that you are not my son. Nay, start not, Pedro. Years ago you came to me, a tiny thing lashed fast to a bit of wreckage cast upon the shores of this island by the sea.
"At first, as I saw you, my hands clenched and my mind told me to strangle your tiny throat, for your hair was ruddy, like unto the accursed British, and your eyes were blue. Then the thought came to me that among those of my own race are many both red-haired and blue-eyed, and that, perchance, you too were of Spanish blood and a victim of the thrice-cursed buccaneers. So, great pity and love took the place of hatred and anger, and tenderly I cared for the waif that fate —or the Blessed Virgin—had sent to my lonely island. And, never knowing of a surety whether your mother tongue was Castilian or English or perchance French, I taught you all three. Though, like as not, my knowledge and understanding of them, aside from my own Castilian, is poor indeed. Yet will the knowledge you have be a help to you when, after my passing, you go forth to face the world and to seek your own people. Nay, do not interrupt me, Pedro mio. There be naught upon this islet to hold you, once my old bones are laid at rest. And, as surely as the soldier crabs find their way from mountain to sea and back, so, sooner or later, will you, too, find the spot where you were born. But to go on:
"Much of my life you know; yet, of my former wealth and station I have never spoken. But know now, Pedro, that in my youth my riches were great and even his majesty the king thought it not beneath his dignity to grasp my hand, while the Donna Maria, with whom I wed, was the daughter of a grandee. Then came the accursed English, the devil-born buccaneers, to rob, torture and murder, and at one blow I lost all—wife, honor, fortune and freedom, and became a slave; a butt for curses, blows and jests, until, hoping rather for death than for freedom, I plunged into the kindly sea.
"But death was not to be my lot and upon the shores of this tiny isle I dragged myself to safety, a free man, but bereft of all that life holds worth while. But life struggles ever to fight death, Pedro mio, and I lived —though Heaven knows how—until you also came to this bit of land, and together we have labored and lived on. Mayhap, Pedro, you will find such matters as I have taught you of some avail in the world. The skill with the sword will never come amiss, as long as there be fights and wars and struggles amongst men. And to read is no mean accomplishment. And I give thanks to Heaven that I were able to write, that I could thus teach you to do the same. But otherwise I leave you little.
"There is the boat, Pedro, and little more; no wealth of gold or of fine raiment, not even a fine sword, though the blade I salvaged from the sea and fitted with hilt at my own forge, is of good Toledo make—and with less trusty blades many men have won fame and fortune.
"So, after I am gone and you have placed me in the spot beneath the palms —wherever I was wont to tell you I desired to lie—take you the boat and the sword and what few things you desire, and go forth into the world of men and struggles, from which, for so many long years, I have hidden myself. To remain here would be scarcely better than a sin, Pedro. You are young and strong and quick of wit and with more learning than many a viceroy, to say naught of your skill with the sword which—though as I myself taught you to parry and thrust, and make many intricate passes, I should not boast of— is greater than many a veteran's of the wars, and you are uncommon skilled as a sailor as well.
"The world needs brave, strong men, ready blades and good seamen, Pedro— whether you throw your lot with the accursed English, the mincing French or us dons—so bide you not here after I have passed. A few doubloons and pieces of eight you will find—those that we saved from the pockets of the dead seaman and from our sales of fish and hides—and the piragua should bring as many more—little enough, but better than none, for to go forth into the world without money is even worse than to go without a sword. What befalls you then will be but the will of Heaven, and what the future holds for you, none may say—and but one pledge I ask of you, Pedro: Be you of Spanish blood or of British, I would have your oath that ever your hand shall be against these sons of Satan, the buccaneers, and more especially that monster—the Captain Starling—who led those who robbed me of all, as I have said.
"Aye," he continued, as Pedro lifted the crucifix from the dying man's side and swore to obey his wishes: "Now may I die the more easily, even though the padres tell us 'tis a sin to leave life with hatred or vengeance in our hearts."
For a few moments the old don lay silent; only his eyes and his aimlessly moving fingers, picking at the bed coverings, showing that a spark of life yet lingered in the fever-racked, sinewy frame. Then, as if there were nothing more to be said—or as though he had lived only to complete his story and to pledge the youth to vengeance—Don Ramon closed his eyes and breathed his last, as peacefully as though falling into a restful slumber.
For a long time Pedro sat beside the bed, unable to realize that the only father he had ever known was no more. Then, convinced at last that Don Ramon had truly died, he drew the coarse cotton coverlet over the bearded face and bowed his head in sorrow. But his grief was in part assuaged by the fact that he knew—as the old don had said —that he should rejoice rather than lament. For Don Ramon had prayed most fervently for death, as for long weeks he had lain, helpless and tortured with jungle fever, and now at last he had found the peace and surcease from suffering that he had sought.
So, rising, he stepped softly to the doorway of the tiny hut, and in the glow of the setting sun made his way to that little hillock under the swaying palms that, years before, the old Spaniard had chosen as his final resting place. It was a depressing task—this digging of a grave in the soft, sandy soil—but not until his shovel grated on the coral rock itself did Pedro cease his labors. Tenderly as a mother bearing her babe, the red-haired youth carried the mortal remnant of Don Ramon through the moonlight to the newly made grave, and as gently he lowered the emaciated body to its bed of coral rock. Then, kneeling beside the grave, Pedro prayed, and placing the tiny crucifix upon the dead man's breast, he shoveled back the sand, and until day dawned, remained, with bared head beside the mound.
But as the sun rose in tropic splendor from the Caribbean, Pedro stood up and walked slowly, with bowed head, to the tiny hut. Very lonely the place seemed without the old don, and as the youth busied himself about the task of cooking a simple breakfast, his thoughts were filled with the strange tale he had heard from the lips of the dying man.
Never before had it occurred to him to leave the island whereon he and Don Ramon had dwelt for so many years. There had been no call from the outside world, no desire to leave the lovely Caribbean paradise and seek the company of his fellow men. Indeed, the very thought would have dismayed him, for he was contented. In Don Ramon he had a friend, father and comrade in one. There was ever plenty to eat, occupations to keep his strong muscles busy; and when tools, clothing or other articles were required a few pieces of eight could always be obtained by carrying a load of fish or hides to the settlements upon the mainland, two days' sail across the sparkling blue sea.
Visitors had seldom come to the isle. Now and then a chance fishing boat or some piragua or bark, trading among the islands, would anchor and its captain and crew would come ashore for a few hours. Occasionally a larger vessel would heave to and send a boat ashore for water or fresh meat and vegetables, but the island was well out of the beaten tracks of shipping and even the dreaded buccaneers saw nothing in it to attract them. An old man with a tiny farm and a small piragua, and with a youth for sole companion, promised neither loot nor merrymaking, and even when the corsairs were in need of supplies there were far too many better spots at which to rob and help themselves. So, through the long years since Don Ramon Ortega had won his freedom from the pirates and by a whim of fate had drawn himself upon the island, his peace had never been disturbed and Pedro had grown to look upon it as his only home.
But now all was changed. Don Ramon had gone, there was no one to bear him company and the dying man's revelations had aroused his youthful curiosity and had filled him with strange desires and longings.
Who was he, he wondered, as he ate his early morning meal and pondered on the past. Was he Spanish, French, English—perchance even Dutch? Did his parents still live? Would he ever find them, ever learn what fate had befallen them, why or how he had been cast adrift, lashed to a bit of wreckage? He racked his brains, striving to fathom the mystery, trying to recall some vague memory that seemed to linger in the back of his mind, a dreamlike, hazy remembrance of a bearded man, a fair-skinned woman and a ship. But was it really a memory or the figment of a dream? Pedro could not be sure and he wondered if, when he had first been cast upon the beach and had been found by Don Ramon, he had not worn something, some garment, some trinket, that might identify him later. Strange, the old man had said nothing of this, but then, even had there been such things, with his mind concentrated on his story, and being on the verge of death, he might have forgotten to mention them.
Perchance, thought Pedro, there had been something, some clew, and if so no doubt it would be in the old chest that Ramon had salvaged from a wreck and in which he kept his few valuable possessions—the coins of gold and silver, tools, fishhooks and books. As he rose, preparing to search the chest, he remembered the mark upon his own breast—the faint blue tattooing that had often aroused his childish curiosity and about which old Don Ramon had always been so reticent. Might that not be a clew to his birth? Just what it was Pedro himself could not say, for it was a somewhat blurred and intricate design and, by bending his head and straining his eyes he could barely catch a distorted view of the lower portion of the tattooing, and such a utensil as a mirror did not exist upon the island.
But the next moment, Pedro cast all such ideas and hopes aside. Surely, had the tattooing meant anything, Don Ramon would have mentioned it! Yes, if it had been upon his skin when he had been washed ashore the old man would have called attention to it as he told of the foundling's arrival. No, doubtless the don had tattooed the design upon the skin himself—for what purpose Pedro could not guess—and afterward, being ashamed to admit it, had ever refused to discuss the matter or had managed to evade the boy's queries.
So putting all thoughts of the matter from his mind, Pedro stooped over the battered old chest, opened the heavy lid, whose salt-corroded hinges creaked dolefully, and busied himself with its contents. It did not take long. Within the wooden box were Don Ramon's stained, thumbed, worm-eaten books— all saved from the sea or purchased for a few centavos from the shops in the distant town; a number of fishhooks, buttons and other household necessities; an ink horn, quills and parchment; a bag containing the half dozen doubloons taken from the pockets of a drowned seaman years before; another bag of irregularly cut "cross money" and worn pieces of eight, the result of sales of fish and hides; a few tools— hammers, saws, ax heads, nails and what not; some heavy but serviceable shoes; a few trinkets, sea shells and a silver buckle, evidently picked up on the beach; a wooden shuttle for making nets; a gourd of powder and another of slugs; a few spare flints for a gunlock; and a cumbersome pistol.
Pedro looked them all over. The fishhooks and tools were of some value and might be useful. The books he would keep as he loved them dearly. The money was, in his eyes, riches, and the powder and shot were essentials. The pistol attracted him, but a cursory examination convinced him that it too had been salvaged from the sea and that the corrosion on its lock and barrel rendered it useless as a weapon. But it was a handsome thing, its butt decorated with mother of pearl, silver, and a few dull gems, and Pedro decided that it would be well to take it and that somewhere it might be worth a few pieces of eight. So, finding that there was really nothing in the chest that he wished to leave behind, and reasoning that the chest was as good a receptacle as any in which to transport his belongings, he replaced the various articles and rose, with a sigh of disappointment, no wiser than before.
That he would leave the island he regarded as a matter of course. In the first place, he had promised—sworn upon the cross—to do so at the request of the dying man. There was nothing left to stay for and, moreover, he was so thrilled with the thought of adventure and the idea of searching for his own people that he was anxious to set forth as soon as possible.
Accordingly, he busied himself preparing for this most important step in his life. To be sure he might have placed his chest aboard the piragua, hoisted sail and departed at once. But Pedro was a sensible chap, a youth with brains to match his brawn, and he had spent his life on an island where his existence depended upon foresight and patient work. He realized that haste meant waste in such an undertaking as he had in mind—though his undertaking was still hazy and indefinite, even if its purpose were clear—and he had no intention of leaving his island home improperly equipped for any adventure that might ensue.
There was food to be prepared, vegetables to be garnered, meat to be buccaned, coconuts to be gathered. Then, the piragua must be put in good condition, her cordage spliced and overhauled, her sails mended and her leaks calked. To accomplish all this single-handed took time, and a week had passed since old Don Ramon had been laid at rest before Pedro saw everything accomplished and carried the old sea chest to the waiting piragua, moored in a sheltered cove. This and the ancient long-barreled, cumbersome musket, the few garments and cooking utensils, flint, steel and tinder and his food supplies were all that the youthful adventurer was to take. But no, there was one thing more. There was the sword, the weapon Don Ramon had mentioned, and which, in an age when most misunderstandings between men or nations were settled with cold steel, was, in a way, the most important thing of all. As the sword played an important part in Pedro's life and subsequent adventures, it may be well to digress a bit and describe the weapon more precisely.
Whence the blade had originally come Pedro did not know and Don Ramon had not seen fit to state. He had said that it was a truly good Toledo blade and Pedro—knowing the old don had been a gallant, a hidalgo and a soldier—trusted Ramon's judgment in that matter. Indeed, as he examined the sword and tested its temper and suppleness he realized that it was most uncommonly good steel—little as he knew of swords or steel. The blue sheen of its surface—for Don Ramon had ever kept the blade keen, bright and polished —fascinated him. It reminded him of the scales of a serpent in the sun, as it had always, and he remembered how, as Don Ramon had shown him how to thrust and parry and strike, the darting blade had seemed endowed with life and venom, like a snake also.
And almost as supple and mobile as a serpent was the blade, as he bent it in his strong brown hands, forcing the tip around until it met the hilt, and laughing at the hissing, ringing sound as he released his grasp and the blade sprung back, all a-quiver. Along it ran a much involved and intricate design of gold inlay, beautiful craftsmanship—though it is to be feared that Pedro could not appreciate its artistry—and there the beauty of the wondrous thing ended and stern utility began. For at the base of the blade—forged no one could say how many years before at some master armorer's forge in old Toledo—was a hilt as crude and as clumsy as the blade itself was beautiful and perfect. Don Ramon may have been a wondrous swordsman—as indeed he had been in his day—he had been a scholar, a most rare thing for those days, a grandee of Spain, a rich man, but he had been no craftsman, no mechanic. What he had known of arts and crafts, of the use of tools and of manual labor, had been acquired in hard schools—as a slave of the buccaneers and by dint of necessity in his island exile—and it is little less than a miracle that the once proud grandee, whose hands had never known toil nor stain nor callous, should have been able to produce anything by dint of his own labors.
But with the simple tools—with the surface of a rock for anvil; bits of iron from wreckage and a homemade bellows— the old don had managed to fashion a hilt for his Toledo blade. Why the sword had come to him without a hilt, no doubt would have formed a tale in itself, but it is no part of this story; for when our tale begins Don Ramon's had ended and the dead tell no tales. And so we cannot surmise as to the history of the blade or delve into the causes or the reasons for it being hilt-less, but must content ourselves with the facts as we find them when Pedro, about to set forth from his island home, made his last trip to the hut and stood for a space with the naked sword in his hands.
The hilt, as has been said, was most crudely fashioned, but though it lacked all trace of beauty, proportion or art, yet it was none the less serviceable. And though any one could have seen that it had been made by one who was not accustomed to the armorer's trade, yet any one also could have seen at a glance that it had been fashioned by one whose knowledge of swords and the needs of swordsmen was most profound. The grip, of hard native wood, was roughly whittled to shape and about it ran a guard of heavy iron, roughly, clumsily ornamented with little dents and notches cut into the unevenly hammered surface. Above this, at the base of the blade, was a huge, bell-shaped, or rather bowl-shaped guard, also showing the marks of Don Ramon's hammer, and decorated—almost pathetically—with rudely graved scrolls and lines. Below this was a truly massive bar with rounded knobs at either end, while at the very extremity of the hilt, was an immense, solid iron boss.
Grasping that rudely cut hilt of palm wood, one's hand was as safe from an opponent's blows as though encased in a gauntlet of steel. No sword, no, not even a battle-ax, could have sheared through that thick guard of bell and bar. And as Pedro held the weapon in his hand, and hefted it and tried its balance, he smiled.
"Per Dios," he muttered to himself, "I know not which end of the sword is the more dangerous. One might wield it either as blade or mace."
Then, slipping it into its rough scabbard of untanned cowhide, and buckling it around his waist, Pedro cast one final look about the hut. Stopping only to kneel beside the grassy mound under the palms and to breathe a prayer, he leaped aboard his piragua, pushed the craft from shore and, hoisting the great lateen sail, bade farewell to the island and to Don Ramon.
Like the discoverers of old, Pedro was sailing into an unknown sea and bound for unknown lands. He had not the remotest idea of his destination, did not know what or where it was, or even if it were there, all of which may sound most contradictory and amazing, but is quite simple and perfectly true. Pedro was bound on a voyage of discovery— or at least he hoped for discoveries— as to his origin and people, and he was fully aware that he could not hope to discover anything in the sleepy little Spanish settlement on the mainland, which was the only town, the only spot, he had ever seen, aside from his island. Often he had been there, either alone or with Don Ramon, and he reasoned, with excellent logic, that had he been wafted from there Don Ramon would have known it years before. He felt quite sure that he had come from much farther away and the old Spaniard's words —that the boy might be British, or a victim of the buccaneers—had somehow impressed Pedro more than anything else.
The old don had held a lifelong racial hatred of all things English and, with good cause, of the buccaneers in particular. But Pedro had neither like nor dislike for the English—aside from what he had absorbed from Don Ramon —and, moreover, he had no idea who the English were nor what they were like. He rather imagined them as inhuman beings—possibly with horns, hoofs and forked tails, like the weird engravings of Satan in Don Ramon's book—and he was quite sure that the buccaneers at any rate must be terrifying monsters.
And not having learned the meaning of fear; having no particular hatred of any race or men, and being possessed of a great curiosity and a love of adventure, in addition to his desire to discover who he was, Pedro had made up his mind to search in the most likely fields first. As Don Ramon had pointed out, Pedro's ruddy complexion and red hair hinted of British or at least Anglo-Saxon ancestry, for while there were red-headed Spaniards they were the exceptions rather than the rule, and so Pedro deemed that the chances of his being British were better than otherwise. Moreover, had he not sworn to harass the buccaneers, and in particular to hunt down and punish Captain Starling—the most ruthless and infamous of them all? So what more natural than to head for British domains?
Unfortunately, however, Pedro had no more idea of where the English were to be found than he had of their appearance, their ways or their characteristics. But he remembered on one occasion hearing a chance visitor to the island speaking with Don Ramon about the British islands in the north and so, as the island's shores grew dim and hazy in his wake, he trimmed sail, shifted helm and headed his swift piragua straight for the north.
How far he had to sail ere sighting land, what land he would find, who would be there, he cculd not even guess; but with the sublime confidence of youth and perfect faith in his ability to make port eventually, he sailed blithely on for hour after hour. All through the day the sea stretched unbroken to the horizon on every hand. Throughout the starlit night he sailed and dozed and saw no sign of land, and when day dawned the rim of the Caribbean still swept in a vast unbroken circle. Still Pedro was not troubled. He did not realize he was in any danger, the sea held no terrors for him, and he was not really surprised at not seeing land, for he had somehow assumed that the spot he wished to reach was an incalculable distance from his island.
Before noon, however, a dim cloudlike shape took form upon the horizon to the east, and heading toward it, Pedro rapidly drew near.
It was a lovely spot, far larger than the island where Pedro had lived; luxuriant, wooded and mountainous. But to Pedro's disappointment, there was no sign of either inhabitants or settlement. Perchance, he thought, there were men on some more distant part of the coast, and so, close inshore, he cruised along, searching the endless greenery for clearing or house, until, rounding a point of rock, a quiet bay was disclosed; a cove bordered by gleaming sand above which waved nodding palms. And under the palms—houses.
Whether the men whose boats were drawn upon the beach were Spanish, English, Dutch or French, Pedro could not know, and he cared little. That they were not Indians he was positive, and, running his piragua ashore, he moored her securely and turned toward the nearest house. Already, the inhabitants had seen him, and with suspicious glances and uncertain manner, had gathered in a little group. They were a rough-looking lot, half clad in patched and ragged garments, and several held heavy muskets ready for emergencies, while others grasped cutlasses or bush-knives in their hands.
Pedro smiled as he saw them, for there was humor in the situation—a dozen brawny men half fearful of a single youth. But the natives were taking no chances. Visitors to their island were few, and the arrival of a stranger, who bore a sword at his side and a pistol in his belt, might portend almost anything. The fear of the buccaneers was ever uppermost in their minds, and the red-headed, armed fellow who sprang ashore from a piragua might, for all they knew, be a buccaneer, while the fact that he appeared alone meant nothing. How could they be sure that a dozen more corsairs were not crouching out of sight in the craft?
As Pedro drew near, one of the group called to him, and instantly Pedro realized that the fellow was speaking in an unknown tongue. It was neither Spanish, French nor English, and so he reasoned it must be Dutch. But Don Ramon's accomplishments had not included a knowledge of that language and Pedro was at a loss.
Possibly, he thought, the men might know some language other than their own, and so he replied in Spanish which came the most readily to his tongue. Scowls of hatred and suspicion swept over the faces of the strangers, and, so Pedro thought, they grasped their weapons a bit more threateningly. But they made no reply, no sign that his words were understood, and so he repeated his greeting in French. This time a look of comprehension swept over the faces of the others, and a big, rawboned, tawny-headed fellow answered in broken French, asking Pedro whence he came, who he was and what he desired.
In a few words the youth explained that he had come from his island home, that he was seeking information of his parents and was searching for an English settlement.
At this the villagers seemed vastly relieved, and their spokesman, with something of cordiality in his tones, welcomed Pedro and informed him that the village was a Swedish settlement. The nearest English island, he added, was many miles distant, but within a day's sail was another island of Sweden where, no doubt, many Englishmen could be found.
Who, or what manner of men Swedes might be, was a mystery to Pedro. He had always thought the world peopled by only four races of white men, Spanish, French, English and Dutch, and yet here, at the very first spot he had reached he had found men who were none of these and who spoke a fifth language that he had never heard of.
He was a bit amazed at his discovery, and had a curious sense of thrill. In short he felt very much like any other explorer or discoverer who finds a strange and unknown race of men, and he was greatly pleased to think that he had voyaged so far into the strange places of the world, that he should have reached an island where even the people were of a race which Don Ramon, with all his worldly wisdom and experience, had never mentioned, if, indeed, he had known of their existence. However, such sensations and thoughts made little impression upon Pedro at the time. The people, despite their race, were friendly. They spoke French and could thus converse, and he plied them with questions about the British and French islands. More, they even knew at first hand of the buccaneers, and as Pedro's quest was as much to find the freebooters and fulfill his pledge to Don Ramon as to search for his own people, he greedily absorbed all the information which the Swedes vouchsafed regarding the filibusters.
"They be of both French and British blood," his informant declared. "And nest together in many a spot. Perchance, at St. Barts, you may find them —though why you desire to, instead of striving to avoid the villains, is a mystery—for ofttimes they visit that isle in their wanderings."
"But do they not fall upon the denizens of that island you call St. Barts?" asked Pedro, who imagined the freebooters sworn enemies of all mankind.
"Nay," replied the other. "Rather are they welcomed, for they spend many a doubloon and countless pieces of eight in their roisterings ashore. But," he added, "you tell a strange tale, and to my mind, your chance of success is as great among the French as among the English. Aye, you may be of Dutch or even Swedish or yet of Danish blood."
Surprises were coming fast to Pedro. His new acquaintance was referring to still another race of white men. For aught he knew, there might be still others and for the first time he began to realize what a hopeless task he had before him. But the news that he was nearing the haunts of the buccaneers, and settlements where there were both English and French, encouraged him and having refreshed and rested himself he once more set sail, heading for St. Barts according to the directions of the Swedish settlers on the mountainous bit of land.
Without adventure, Pedro sailed onward until he saw the outlines of other islands rising from the sea before him, and heading for that which he deemed to be St. Barts, he presently distinguished the buildings of a town rising above the turquoise water and with a good-sized fleet of vessels anchored off the shore. But as he neared the land the wind fell, and the sun had sunk below the rim of the sea and night was falling before he gained the harbor. From the town, came the sounds of laughter, song and revelry. Lights twinkled and flickered here and there, and as Pedro moored his piragua and stepped ashore he felt that he must have reached a metropolis, for never had he seen so many houses, such large buildings nor so many craft at one time.
Just how he should proceed, now he had arrived at his destination, he did not know, for this was a matter he had not planned. There were plenty of men about still more were within the buildings he judged from the sounds of mirth that echoed through the quiet, ill-lit streets, and as Pedro now and then caught a word or phrase he realized they were speaking French. This rather surprised him for his Swedish friends had told him St. Barts was an island of their nation and he had expected to hear the Swedish tongue— though he had been told nearly all upon St. Barts spoke French.
So, dismissing the matter as of small importance and of passing interest, Pedro strolled along, attracting no particular attention in a town where men of every race and trade and station came and went and where every man bore weapons at his side. And as he walked along the roughly paved and narrow street, Pedro was cudgeling his brains as to his next step. At first he was minded to address the first man he met. But, he bethought himself, what should he say? To stop a stranger and inquire as to the direction of some definite spot, or to ask an ordinary question, was a simple matter, but how would it be to halt a passer-by and ask: "Who are my people?" or, "Am I of your race?"—or some similar query? Even with his slender knowledge of the world and of men Pedro decided this would never do. His mind told him it would appear ridiculous, that the man addressed would no doubt think him either crazy or drunk, and that he must find some better method of carrying out his search.
And he felt woefully out of place and lonesome. Though in a good-sized town full of his fellow men, yet Pedro was more alone than ever he had been upon his island, with only Don Ramon for company. All were strangers. None gave him more than a passing glance, and for the first time in his life he felt ill at ease and self-conscious of his rough, uncouth garments so different from the finery of passing gallants and swaggering loiterers he met. To be sure, near the water front, he had seen many more illy clad than himself— sailors, laborers and fishermen—but now, at some distance from the quay, few were visible who were not garbed in bright-hued clothes of silk or velvet and all looked askance at the shock-headed, loose-limbed, awkward lad in rusty leather and coarse cotton.
And as he became conscious of his personal appearance, so too he began to lose confidence in himself and unconsciously he slunk into the shadows and turned into less frequented byways, until without realizing or knowing it, he was in a district where the few pedestrians were almost as roughly garbed as himself. Suddenly from ahead a shout rang out, a crash, yells, curses and sharp cries.
Instantly all else was forgotten and Pedro's senses were on the qui vive. Something was amiss, there was trouble, a fight. The next instant a struggling, writhing mass of figures half stumbled from a doorway, surging back and forth, fighting, shouting, in a confused medley of uproar in the dark street.
Then Pedro caught the sound of words he understood.
"Help!" rang above the tumult in a hoarse, half-choking voice. Then: "Dogs! Scum! Cowards! Take ye that—and that! Think ye—"
Pedro waited to hear no more. The words were English and with a wave of hot blood surging through him, urged on without reason, without knowing why, but drawn by an irresistible impulse, Pedro dashed ahead, shouting encouragement and unconsciously drawing sword and pistol as he ran.
Who the combatants were, who was in the right or wrong, he neither knew nor cared. He had heard English words, he was in search of Englishmen, some one needed help, and though the words had been followed by resounding blows and groans—which to a more experienced man might have gone far to prove that he who had called for aid was still quite able to take care of himself—Pedro's one thought was to answer that cry for help.
At the sound of his clumping footsteps on the cobbles and his cries, the struggling men, or at least some of them, turned to see a long-limbed form speeding toward them, a shock of fiery red hair flowing over his shoulders, a naked sword waving in one hand and a pistol in the other. The apparition was as disconcerting as it was unexpected. Here were reinforcements from an unlooked-for quarter and though they were ten to one they were having their hands full with the one and a second of his ilk was more than they bargained for. Hoarse cries of dismay arose from their throats, several turned and scurried out of sight, but others were too slow or were too fully occupied in protecting themselves from their first combatant to break away in time. The next instant Pedro was upon them. Forgotten were all Don Ramon's masterly lessons in gentlemanly swordplay. The shimmering blade rose and fell more after the fashion of an ax than a sword, the useless pistol descended with sickening thuds. Heavy cowhide boots kicked right and left, and with shrieks of pain, groans of anguish and yells of terror those of the ruffians still able to use their legs fled for their lives, leaving Pedro panting and victorious amid a circle of prostrate dead and wounded men, while beside him stood the fellow whose cries had brought him into the melee.
"Sink me, but ye be handy with fightin'!" cried the latter as he gulped in deep breaths with heaving chest and the air whistled through his nostrils. "By the blood of Drake, ye boarded the scum right merrily, lad! Dogs that they be," here he kicked a huddled, limp form contemptuously. "A full dozen of the dogs fallin' afoul me hawse to slit me throat and steal the few pieces of eight of a honest seaman."
Pedro stared at the man in amazement. Never had he seen a more villainous-looking rascal and he vaguely wondered if, after all, he had not thrown his lot with the wrong side of the quarrel. Short and immensely broad, with long arms reaching almost to his knees and bulging with huge muscles, the man whom he had saved so opportunely showed evidence of gigantic strength. Upon his broad shoulders—for the neck was so short and stout it seemed to be lacking—sat a bullet-shaped head adorned with a countenance without a redeeming feature. The leathery cheeks were hidden under a coarse stubble of dark beard, the mouth was wide, and showed gaping holes where teeth had been, as the thin lips drew back in a leering grin. The eyes protruded and held a fishy stare; the nose was as curved and heavy as a parrot's beak and across one high cheek bone ran a livid scar marking some terrific blow which had severed the ear close to the head leaving a horrible purple patch of skin and a round black hole, half hidden under the greasy, unkempt, grizzled hair.
So fascinated by the fellow was Pedro that he had not spoken a word and the ugly rascal before him seemed to read his thoughts.
"No beauty, ye'll be sayin'," he cried good-naturedly and with a hoarse chuckle. "An' at that ye'll be thinkin' gospel truth—blow me if ye won't. Aye, but beauty's but skin deep, cap'n, an' ye can lay to that. An' thank ye kindly, lad, for heavin' to at the proper time an' a-layin' of them swabs aboard. Sink me, but 'One-eared Jake' would ha' been done for, if ye hadn't. But mayhap ye're not understandin' of my lingo. Be ye Frenchie or Dutch or mayhap English, lad?"
"That I cannot say," replied Pedro, shaking his head and finding voice at last. "But I speak English, and truly am I rejoiced that to help you I came upon this scene."
The other burst into a loud guffaw. "Blow me, but 'tis strange English ye do be speakin'," he cried. "An' ye cannot say who ye be! By the bones of Drake, 'tis a man of mystery ye be. But be ye Frenchie or Dutch or English 'tis all the same to me, gain ye wield sword an' pistol so handily. Aye, an' here's me hand on it."
As he spoke, he thrust out an immense, hairy paw, and Pedro, scarcely knowing why he did so, grasped it.
Then with a sudden change of tone, the other continued: "Sink me, but we cannot be abidin' here, lad. The Frenchies'll be on us. Come, cap'n, we'll steer a course for a safe harbor."
Leaping across the fallen men, the fellow hurried, with swinging gait, along the street with Pedro by his side, while from far behind them came shouts and the hurrying tramp of men.
"None too soon," remarked the fellow, as the two caught the sounds of their pursuers. "But a stern chase is ever a long chase, ye know. But, blow me if I knows of spot to cast anchor where they'll not dig us out. A curse on all Frenchies, says I—they be too much the breed of the dons to suit me."
Pedro gasped. Evidently his companion had no liking for either Spaniard or Frenchman, and this came as something of a surprise, for it had never occurred to Pedro that the dons' hatred of the British was fully equaled by the latter's detestation of the dons. And what would the fellow say when he found that the youth who had saved his life bore a Spanish name and might be Spanish? And why should he so dislike the French when the French and English were supposedly friends? It was all a puzzle, but events had crowded thick and fast during the past few minutes, and Pedro had other and more important matters to occupy his mind than to solve riddles of racial hatred.
Although, as the seaman—for he was evidently such—had said, a stern chase is a long chase, still the sounds of oncoming forces were growing louder in the rear, and a refuge must be found. Pedro of course knew nothing of the city, and his companion had admitted that he, too, was at a loss.
They were now running, turning corners, darting through dim alleys, but ever drawing nearer the harbor, and an idea came to Pedro.
"Methinks I know a safe spot wherein we may abide," he panted.
"Blow me, but I knowed ye was one for to sign articles with," cried the other. "Set yer course, cap'n, an' I'll follow in yer wake. But where be ye bound for, may I ask?"
"The harbor," replied Pedro as he took the lead. "I have a boat there and in her we may push from the land."
"Bless us!" exclaimed the sailor, halting for an instant in surprise. "The lad has a boat! Ye be cap'n in truth. Blow me, but I be a lucky dog, tumbling from yon tavern door to tumble into a snug berth along of ye."
A moment later, they were in sight of the water and Pedro quickly led the way to the piragua. Leaping on board, they pushed off just as the mob of angry pursuers appeared around a corner of the street they had traversed.
"Howl, ye curs!" shouted the ill-favored seaman, shaking his huge fist. "An' much good may it do ye. Had I half a dozen good lads to hand I'd teach ye a merry lesson in manners."
Before the land breeze, and with Pedro pulling at a long oar, the piragua slipped rapidly into the darkness, and the shore and the baffled men became merely deeper shadows, while the shouts and curses came faintly across the tranquil water. There was no danger of further pursuit, and Pedro had no mind to put to sea. He had reached the island after a long and weary sail, he had not learned a single thing that he desired, and he did not propose to leave until he had at least made an effort to accomplish his dual purpose. So, a few hundred yards from shore, he dropped anchor and the piragua came to rest.
"A fine tidy craft ye have, cap'n," remarked the stranger as he lent a hand to make the craft snug. "A fine, handy bit of a ship in truth. An' where, might ye be headin' for, may I arsk an' it please ye?"
"I had but just arrived," replied Pedro. "I came hither to St. Barts in search of mine people and to seek tidings of the buccaneers—the thrice accursed, as Don Ramon was wont to call them—and of one Captain Starling more particularly."
The sailor was guffawing with merriment. "By the cross of St. George," he cried. "Ye came hither to St. Barts, did ye? Zounds, but 'tis a rare joke that! St. Barts in truth—faith, but ye be a rare navigator, cap'n! Blow me, but ye be all aback an' driftin', lad. This isle be not St. Barts—'tis St. Martins, cap'n—St. Martins of the blarsted Frenchies—curse 'em."
Pedro was gaping. "Then—then this isle is other than St. Barts?" he queried. "You say it is St. Martins— a French settlement?"
"Aye, none other," the seaman assured him, controlling his merriment. "An' most amazin' luck for One-eared Jake, that ye went astray an' made it, cap'n. An' so ye be searchin' for the buccaneers, eh? An' ye be damnin' of 'em an' speakin' of a don. Faith, ye may be right—I misdoubt not they be accursed—but 'tis a fine, handy craft ye have, swift an' stanch, I'd be sayin'."
"Yea, I think the piragua good," assented Pedro. " ‘Twas in my mind that I might sell her for a goodly sum. I have but little in the way of money for my purpose."
"Sell her!" cried the seaman in dismay. "Sink me, but ye be a rare queer fish, cap'n. An' ye need pieces of eight to jingle in your pockets, there be better ways of winnin' of 'em than sellin' the craft for a beggarly price to thievin' Frenchies. Why, cap'n, with a few handy lads of me choosin' ye could set sail a-rovin' an' take many a prize. Faith, yes—Pierre le Grande and many another won fortunes with worser ships than this be."
"You mean turn buccaneer?" queried Pedro, with a note of horror in his tones. "Nay, I be no pirate. I have set forth to wreak vengeance on the corsairs, not to join with them. I fear me you are no honest-minded fellow."
The sailor roared as though he thought Pedro's speech the greatest of jokes. "Blow me, but ye do be a queer un," he cried. "Aye, there be many who'd misdoubt One-eared Jake's honesty, but that's as it may be, cap'n. An' ye saved me life an' I be not one to forget a favor. Faith, I be bound to ye, cap'n—a life for a life, says I—an' 'tis all the same to me if ye go piratin' or after vengeance as ye call it. Sink me, cap'n, but' there be a fine yarn ye can spin, I'm thinkin'. Mayhap, an' ye tell it, we can be settin' of a clearer course."
And as Pedro told his tale the ugly seaman's pop eyes opened still wider, and he listened attentively, now and then nodding his shaggy head, but never interrupting.
"By the bones of Drake!" he cried, banging down his great fist as Pedro ended. "Don or not, yon foster father of yourn were a man—sink me if he weren't. An' so ye know not be ye don or Englishman, or even Dutch or Frenchie! 'Sblood, but 'tis a rare tale, an' ye a-settin' course for devil knows where, a-seekin' word of them as lost ye years agone! An' to think ye be a-searchin' for the buccaneers—them as did for the old don—and for Cap'n Starling! Blow me for a sojer, but that be a rare jest, cap'n. But ye saved me life, lad—that's certain, an' One-eared Jake's life be yourn. Aye, 'tis little difference to me if I be huntin' of prizes an' slittin' throats along of the Brethren or a-robbin' of them an' a-slittin' their gullets along of ye, cap'n. Aye, lad!" he cried with sudden excitement and leaping up. "I have it—ye have a fine, speedy craft. Give me the word and I'll find ye a crew and we'll go a-piratin' of the pirates! What say ye, cap'n? Bless us, but 'twill be a rare, merry cruise!"
Pedro was too amazed to speak for a space. His knowledge of English was none too good. The wild sailor spoke a dialect quite distinct from the precise language Don Ramon had taught, and matters had been moving so swiftly that he had had hard work to follow the seaman's rapid-fire conversation and understand his surprising proposition. But there were some things that he could grasp. The man he had saved had most evidently decided to attach himself to Pedro, regardless of the latter's ideas, and it was also most obvious that he was a rough-and-ready chap to whom any adventure was welcome and whose ideas of honesty, as usually accepted, were most rudimentary. Because Pedro had put in an appearance so opportunely, and had saved him from the French cutthroats, the fellow considered that his life was at the youth's disposal and while Pedro had not thought of acquiring a comrade or servitor and had never planned to seek aid on his adventures, still, he realized that the ill-favored sailor would, in some ways, be a most valuable acquisition.
His suggestion that they should turn buccaneers was unthinkable, but his other suggestion that they should sail forth in the piragua to prey upon the filibusters, rather appealed to Pedro. He had never thought very clearly upon how he was to carry out his promise to Don Ramon and wreak vengeance upon the corsairs. In fact, he had not formed any plan, beyond reaching some spot where there were English and there disposing of his boat and with the proceeds setting out to learn his identity and to avenge the old don's wrongs.
He was a keen-witted lad, however, and at his first discovery that the world was large and peopled by many kinds of men, and at his first sight of St. Martins, he had realized how greatly he had been mistaken in his ideas of the world and the magnitude of his undertaking. He had read "Don Quixote," and rather likened himself to that whimsical character; but here was a new aspect of the case to be considered. The seaman had seemed quite confident that, with the piragua and a crew of his own selection, they might turn successful pirates, and if so, then would it not be equally possible to prey upon the buccaneers? But Pedro was by no means a fool, despite the limitations of his knowledge and experience. He knew nothing of the pop-eyed sailor and he had a suspicion that, after the fellow had obtained a crew and had placed the men upon the piragua, they might decide that he, Pedro, was quite superfluous, and, after disposing of him, set forth on their own account as pirates.
Judging from appearances, such a procedure on the stranger's part was quite likely to occur, and, had Pedro known more of his new acquaintance, he would have had even greater misgivings regarding the matter. Still, one must take risks at times, and Pedro had supreme confidence in himself.
Moreover, he had a feeling that the one-eared sailor owed him a debt of gratitude and was really sincere. If he really had an intimate knowledge of the buccaneers and the ports of the world, then he would be an invaluable addition. But Pedro was still a bit skeptical as to the wisdom of acquiring additional companions.
"Think you we could not do much with the piragua by ourselves?" he asked. "I have no wealth with which to pay a crew. And men work not for nothing, unless they owe much to him who employs them."
The sailor slapped his thigh and guffawed. "Blood and bones!" he cried. "Ye do be queer, cap'n. Why, lad, think ye the buccaneers pay them as ships along with 'em? Faith, 'tis no prey no pay, an' 'twould be by the same kind of articles as them I'd choose would ship along of us. Leave it to One-eared Jake, cap'n. Say the word an' we'll have as rare as crew as'd make even L'Ollonais smile. Aye, trust me for that, lad. Blood an' powder, cap'n, methinks ye know not who ye be talk-in' with."
"Nay, I do not," admitted Pedro. "I judge ye to be a seaman and that you have some knowledge of the buccaneers and their haunts and ways."
"Some knowledge!" roared the other. "Aye, some knowledge in truth. Sink me, cap'n, but ye do come from afar if ye never heard of One-eared Jake, the buccaneer."
Pedro started and drew back slightly. The man was a buccaneer—one of the thrice-accursed villains whom he had sworn to destroy. His hand strayed toward the hilt of his sword and he was half minded to draw the blade and run the fellow through then and there, and thus wipe out a portion of the score he had to pay. The other had noted Pedro's look of surprise, and he did not miss the motion of Pedro's hand. But he made no hostile or defensive movement. Instead, he grinned wickedly and a chuckle rumbled in his hairy-throat.
"Aye, I be a bloody buccaneer," he declared. "One of the accursed pirates as the old don put it, lad. But ye have no need to fear me, cap'n. I have grudge as great as yourn 'gainst the Brethren. And thrice more for Cap'n Starling—curse his black soul! Nay, cap'n, say the word an' I'll jine ye with a fine rare crew an' we'll go cruisin' for prizes amongst the ships of the Brethren. Blow me, but 'twould be rare sport—boardin' of buccaneers an' a-slittin' of their throats, an' a-takin' of loot what they've robbed from the dons, sink me if it won't. An' it can be done, lad," he added, leaning forward and speaking earnestly. "Ever, after a raid, they be fair middlin' drunk an' careless-like. Why, blow me, at Porto Bello a dozen men could have took 'em all and made off with all the loot. An' 'twas the same at Panama an' Maracaibo. Aye, cap'n, an' 'tis as rare a deed as never's been done yet. Aye, 'twill fill our pockets with good gold an' wipe out scores at the same stroke. What say, cap'n, will ye give the word? 'Tis for ye to say, lad. The piragua's yourn an' I'm at your sarvice. I be no fine-spoken gentleman like yourself, an' no navigator nor cap'n. But I be a fightin' man an' can swing cutlass or fire pistol along of the best on 'em, an' ye can lay to that. Aye, ye'll no' find One-eared Jake wantin' in a fight nor in sarvice."
Pedro's mind was already made up. He was learning, acquiring a knowledge of the world, and an insight into human character, very rapidly. He could see that if the buccaneer really held a grudge against the other pirates, and against Starling in particular, then, with his aid, and with a crew of fellow villains in his swift piragua, he might do great damage to the buccaneers. But, on the other hand, there was his desire to learn of his own identity and which, somehow to his mind, seemed even of greater importance than fulfilling his oath to Don Ramon. The don was dead and his vengeance might wait, it would do him no good now, whereas Pedro was very much alive and was obsessed with a desire to know more of his ancestry and nationality, which was quite natural and exactly as any other youth with a mysterious past, would have felt.
Something of this he tried to explain to Jake, and the rascal listened attentively, now and then nodding his head in assent.
"Aye.” he remarked, as Pedro ended. "Aye, cap'n, I be no a-blamin' of ye for wishin' to know who ye be. But, think ye, can ye go cruisin' hither an' yon, arskin' tother an' which who ye be? Not without runnin' afoul of head winds an' bad weather, as ye might say. Why, blow me, ye'd be needin' of silver to travel about, an' for coverin' of yer-self with clothes an' fillin' yer belly with food. An' where, might I arsk, would ye be gettin' at? Ye have no trade, an', gain ye had an' stopped to one spot an' worked, how'd ye find aught ye wish for to know? Nay, money first, cap'n—that's me motter. Money's what makes life smooth an' easy, an' ye can lay to that lad. An' how know ye that ye mightn't find what ye seek, a-cruisin' after the buccaneers? Faith, ye said as how the don thought like as not ye was cast adrift from a prize taken by the Brethren. Mayhap then, an' we take a few of them an' tickle their toes with fire an' trice 'em up by the thumbs, or maybe rack 'em a bit, they'll be after tellin' ye some'at of who ye be. Sink me, but that's a fine, rare idea, cap'n."
This was something Pedro had not thought of. It was indeed possible, as Jake had said, that news of his own origin might be secured among the buccaneers. And no doubt, on their proposed expedition, he and Jake would visit many out-of-the-way spots. Wherever they landed questions could be asked. But, most important of all, was Jake's reminder that it required money to travel and prosecute the search, together with the fact that he knew no method of earning a livelihood. Convinced that the buccaneer's proposition was the only solution of his problems, he hesitated no longer.
"So be it, then," he said. "Get the men, Jake, and lose not overmuch time. But how shall we acquire arms and provender? I have but a few doubloons, and I fear you have not more for your own needs."
"Spoken like a man, cap'n," cried the other, leaping to his feet. "I knowed ye for a rare fine cap'n the minute I clapped eyes onto ye. Blood an' powder! 'twill be a red an' smokin' wake we'll be leavin' astern of us. An' as for arms an' suchlike, leave that to me, cap'n. Leave it to One-eared Jake."
TO BE CONTINUED.
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- As an armed forces brat, we lived in Rockcliff (Ottawa), Namao (Edmonton), Southport (Portage La Prairie), Manitoba, and Dad retired to St. Margaret's Bay, NS.
Working with the Federal Govenment for 25 years, Canadian Hydrographic Service, mostly. Now married to Gail Kelly, with two grown children, Luke and Denyse. Retired to my woodlot at Stillwater Lake, NS, on the rainy days I study the life and work of A. Hyatt Verrill 1871-1954.