By A. Hyatt Verrill
Pedro had been reared on a lonely island in the Caribbean by his foster father, Don Ramon Ortega, who found him as a baby tied to a bit of washed up driftwood. He knew nothing of his real parents or nationality, and when his foster father died he sailed away to discover what he could about his origin, also to carry out an oath of vengeance against the buccaneers who had ruined the old Don. He fell in with an ex-pirate named “One-eared” Jake, who with a crew of ruffians helped him prey upon the freebooters themselves. Pedro was dubbed “Red Peter.” He had many bloody encounters with pirates and his fame spread. Then the governor of Barbados offered him a commission under the royal standard of England to continue his war on the buccaneers, and Peter accepted.
At the very time that Peter and Jake were conversing with the governor of Barbados, a very different and yet somewhat similar conference was taking place at a far distant spot. A conference that was destined to affect Peter’s fortunes greatly, and that, could he and Jake have been present, would have astonished them even more than had the governor’s proposition.
In a snug anchorage in a landlocked cove on the coast of a wooded island, a ship lay at rest. Along her dull-red sides, two score ports gave evidence of heavy armament. Her lofty, slender spars, with their neatly furled sails, towered above the nodding coconut palms upon the beach, and the flag that drooped listlessly from the mainmast truck showed a black bird in the center of a green square.
Upon the decks, roughly clad, fierce-visaged men lolled in the shade. On the beach a score more sung and roared boisterously beneath the palms, and drank often from a broached cask of brandy. And the cool woods rang and echoed to the shouts of others hunting wild pigs in the jungles.
No seaman of the times would have needed a second glance to have known the vessel for a pirate ship. And no member of the strange fraternity of reckless, unprincipled dare-devils known as the Brethren of the Main, would have needed a second glimpse of the drooping flag to have recognized the ship as the Adventure, the vessel of the famed and infamous Captain Starling, the man who, since Morgan’s day, had earned the well-merited reputation of being the most brutal and despicable of all the buccaneers. The man whose inhuman, treacherous ways had made him hated even by many of his fellow corsairs.
Entering the airy cabin with its handsome paneling, its leaded-glass window and great curved doors opening onto the quarter gallery, one might have thought oneself in the cabin of a passenger ship of the times, or in the captain’s quarters on a corvette. Upon the walls were racks of small arms, pistols, pikes, muskets and cutlasses. Two bronze carronades were concealed by tarpaulins thrown over them. An ornate swinging lamp of silver—looted from a Spanish church—hung from the deck timber overhead. Skins of deer and jaguar covered the floor. Upon a heavy carved buffet from some Don’s mansion stood a punch bowl, ewer and goblets of chased silver and gold—booty from Heaven knows where. And, a strange object indeed to attract a pirate’s fancy, a magnificent painting of the Annunciation covered half the bulkhead between the doorways leading to the deck.
A strange, romantic, weird tale that picture could have told could it have spoken. A story of a famed master’s studio in old Seville; of musty pawn-shops; of cloistered monasteries; of the adoration of naked heathen Indians; of massacres and slaughters; of a mud-built mission wherein it had hung for a space; of a place of honor in a great cathedral that rose above the ruins of a pagan temple reeking of human sacrifices; of the coming of the buccaneers; of awful deaths and of scenes it had witnessed in the cabin of a pirate ship.
But the sweet face of the Virgin had smiled through all as it now smiled down upon the three occupants of that cabin, three whose villainies were unexcelled by any she had smiled upon in the long years that stretched between the time when the great Spanish master had given the last touches to his canvas and the time when, having survived all, it hung within the cabin of the ship Adventure for the first time.
Of the three men now within the cabin the most conspicuous was Captain Starling. But think not for a moment that this black-hearted villain with the unsavoury reputation presented an appearance in keeping with his character. Rather was he quite in accord with the general atmosphere of comfort and luxury of the cabin—yes, not even an incongruous figure there, with the Virgin smiling down upon him. A somewhat paunchy man he was, a man of medium height, short rather than tall, with a round and ruddy face such as one sees on many a country squire in England; a face that spoke of good living with perhaps overmuch of rich food and wine. A countenance so shiny that it appeared not unlike an apple freshly polished, but whose jolly, benevolent, good-natured appearance was given the lie by thin, cruel lips, lowering, bushy brows and tiny, red-rimmed eyes of washed-out, faded gray that held the hard glint of ice in their depths.
Before him on the table a bottle of wine and a golden goblet were at his elbow, and, leaning back in his carven chair, he puffed thoughtfully at a long pipe. Upon his almost bald head was a black plush hat with canary-colored plume. His bare poll was the one thing Captain Starling was ashamed of and he invariably kept it covered, deluding himself into the belief that none knew of his affliction by fastening luxuriant curly—no doubt cut from some murdered man’s head—within the crown, so that they hung fascinatingly upon his shoulders. He was garbed in a somber black coat of brocaded silk with a ruffled linen shirt showing between the lapels. A maroon-velvet waistcoat, heavy with gold, was stretched to its capacity to cover his paunch. Dark-blue satin breeches reached to his knees, where they were open for the sake of coolness though normally they were secured by knots of yellow ribbon, and black silken stockings covered his stout bandy legs which ended in broad-toed shoes bearing huge silver buckles.
Any country squire or church warden might have been attired in much the same manner, and Captain Starling might have stepped ashore in any port of England or the American colonies, and might have wandered through the lanes and streets at will, without attracting a second glance or a word of comment as far as his garments or his personal appearance went. But he would have had the entire populace following after him, or peeping furtively from doorways, had he appeared with the accessories of his apparel that he wore in the cabin of the Adventure. For even in those rather turbulent and unsettled days neither country squires nor church wardens, not even strutting gallants or the Kings’s officers, were the walking arsenals that Captain Sterling appeared. Under his long-skirted coat and across his breast, like a bandolier, was a broad strap of soft leather fitted with loops through which were thrust three silver-mounted pistols. About his waist was a belt which served as a support for two more pistols, a heavy ten-inch dagger and a sheath knife and, dangling from both his left and right sides, and now resting upon the floor of the cabin, were heavy cutlasses.
It was evident that Captain Starling was not minded to be left without means of offense or defense in case of necessity, and it was equally evident that he was not one to be taken unawares or caught napping. Even now, though his face was calm and he was smoking as placidly as though danger was never in his mind, one hand, hidden by the table top, was grasping a pistol butt, and the loaded and primed weapon was at full cock ready for instant use. Indeed, Captain Starling’s motto was “Preparedness,” with a capital P, and this combined with his implicit belief—which was not far from wrong—that every one’s hand was raised against him, and that nobody was worthy of being trusted, had done much to preserve the notorious rascal’s life and enable him to escape unscathed from seemingly impossible impassés.
Entering the cabin from the deck one’s glance would of necessity have fallen upon Captain Starling, for being an old campaigner and a cautious man, he always seated himself where all approaches could be covered with his eyes or weapons, and where there was a solid rampart of stout oak at his back.
Facing him, and with their backs to the doors, one standing and the other seated at the opposite end of the table from Captain Starling, were the two other occupants of the Adventure’s cabin.
The former was short, wiry, brown as Moor and showed sharp yellow fangs between snarling lips. The other was tall and well built. A rather handsome though dissipated fellow whose mouth, as he talked, twisted to one side. Both were garbed in plain, soiled and rather ragged garments. Had any member of Peter’s company caught sight of the two, he would have been dumb with terror believing he had seen a pair or ghosts, for, as my reader has no doubt already guessed, the two within the cabin were no others than Silver Heels and Black Tom. Their presence there went far to prove the truth of Bart’s remark that the “devil would take care of his own,” and something of the same thought was in Captain Starling’s mind as he listened to Silver Heels’ story.
And yet, like many another matter which, to those unfamiliar with the details, seems incredible, the survival of the storm by these two scalawags was neither miraculous nor due in any way to the intervention of his satanic majesty.
Black Tom, as Peter had surmised, had stolen away and secreted himself, and, as soon as the search for him was over, had made his way to the lazarette where Silver Heels was confined. As he had half expected and had sincerely hoped, he found his crony was not nearly as badly hurt as Peter and the others had thought, but was, in fact, shaming, deeming this the easiest and safest means of avoiding unwelcome and embarrassing questions which it would be hard to answer. Instantly the two, being quite effectively squelched by Starboard-tack Jack’s opportune use of the carronade, began plotting escape. For neither one had the least hopes of being left unpunished for their part in the mutiny, and any punishment they might justly receive promised to be most unpleasant.
The least they could expect was to be marooned or set adrift in an open boat, and the chances were that a rope at the end of the yardarm, or a plank extending from the ship’s rail over the sea, would be far more probable route for them to follow into the future. Compared with any of these, escape, even in a small boat or by swimming, offered promise, and as Silver Heels had himself ordered the wherry left in the water and towed astern, his mind at once seized upon this as a means to his desired ends. But he and Black Tom both knew that to attempt to escape during daylight or even twilight would be suicidal, and that they must wait patiently until nightfall to put their plans to execution.
There was of course the chance that Peter or Jake might decide to end Silver Heels’ career before sundown. But Silver Heels was an excellent judge of human nature. He had made a special study of Peter’s character, and he felt reasonably sure that Peter had too high a sense of honor and was far too humane to kill or maroon an injured, or unconscious man. Hence, if he could but keep up his appearance of being unconscious or delirious all might go well; while Tom, now that the search for him had been abandoned, might remain quite safely hidden among the casks of wine and the cases of supplies in the dim, shadowy recesses of the lazarette.
That the wherry contained neither water nor food troubled the conspirators little. They could carry quite a little food and several bottles of wine with them when they left the ship, and Silver Heels had no expectation of being long at sea in the small boat. He was an excellent navigator and knew that within half a day’s row of the ship there was a small cay where coconuts, turtles and water could be found. While each moment, after the Sea Gull had been repaired and gotten under way, was taking him farther from this goal, still the ship was not traveling very rapidly and a few hours more or less would make little difference.
But when at last the sun had set and darkness fell with tropical swiftness upon the sea, and Black Tom commenced hauling in on the wherry’s painter while Silver Heels stood guard at the door, the two realized that Fate had taken a hand in their plans and that the safe and easy escape they had expected might prove a most hazardous and difficult undertaking. Although Peter and the others had been so deeply engrossed with other matters that they, with the exception of Jack, had failed to notice the signs of an approaching tempest, Black Tom, as he learned from the after port in the shelter of the poop and quarterly gallery, did not miss them. That a storm and a severe one was brewing was at once evident to his eyes long trained at sea, and as the wherry was brought under the high stern of the ship, and Silver Heels wormed his way through the narrow port and dropped into the craft, Tom whispered his fears to his crony. Silver Heels gave a hurried glance about, nodded affirmatively, and whispering for Tom to make haste, held the wherry in place while Tom dropped into the boat. With a single stroke of his knife Tom severed the painter and a moment later the Sea Gull was merely a fast-vanishing bulk of blackness in the black night.
“Yea, a storm’s coming,” vouchsafed Silver Heels, as Tom took to the oars, “but let it blow. We be free from that accursed red-head and younder one-eared ape.” Here he shook his fist at the spot where the Sea Gull had disappeared. “I have a plan in mind, Tom, as’ll make them pray Heaven they were adrift in a storm instead of where I’ll have them. Aye,” he continued as he, too, seized the oars, “’tis not the first blow we’ve been in, Tom, and belike it will not be the last. And now no more wasting breath in words but save it for pulling.”
But as the waves increased and the sky blackened and the greenish lightning grew nearer, Silver Heels became less confident. This was no ordinary squall, no short, passing tropical blow, but a hurricane or tempest. Through the wherry was a buoyant, seaworthy little crait, he well knew that she could never live through a real storm, and that the lives of Tom and himself depended upon getting beyond the track of the oncoming blow or reaching the cay before it broke in its full fury. But with all his faults Silver Heels was no coward, and he feared the sea less than anything else. And so, as the waves mounted higher and higher and their crests curled and broke in hissing foam, and lightning zigzagged across the lowering heavens, he and Black Tom pulled doggedly, steadily on, cunningly keeping their cockleshell of a craft head on to the combers and steering by the run of the seas. Then, as the first hot puffs of the coming gale reached them, Black Tom gave a glad cry as they soared skyward on the crest of an enormous wave.
“Ship!” he shouted, and turning quickly, Silver Heels caught a fleeting glimpse of a tiny light to starboard.
“Aye, a ship,” he panted, as the boat sank deep in the black hollow of the waves. “And belike the Sea Gull searching for us.”
Once again they rushed upward on a wave crest, and both stared into the night. And once more they saw that tiny light, this time much nearer.
“Nay, it be not she,” declared Tom, as again they dropped into the abyss between the seas. “Yon light be low for she.”
“Mayhap,” grunted Silver Heels, “an’ mayhap the Don’s ship.”
“Stab me if Don ben’t better nor this,” growled Tom. “They be at peace with England.”
Evidently Silver Heels, though he made no response to Tom’s remark, agreed with him, for, when once again they rose on a wave and saw vessel’s light close at hand, he shouted as lustily as his companion.
That they could be heard in the turmoil, or that their tiny bobbing craft could be sighted, were remote chances, and both knew that death was hovering over them. But the buccaneers were born gamblers ever taking long chances, always staking their lives on the games they played with Fate, and neither of the two despaired. Once more they swept into trough of the sea; once more they soared up, and then, above them loomed a black shape. A shearing bow lifted over them, there was a rending crash, a roaring of water and the two occupants of the wherry were struggling in the waves. Luckily for them the crew of the lugger had maintained a sharp lookout. They were seeking the shelter of the same cay Silver Heels had planned to reach, and in the black night the low-lying islet was invisible until very near. Hence, at the very instant of the collision, the men on the lugger had caught a glimpse of the wherry. It was too late to avoid running it down, but their hoarse shouts roused the others, ropes were thrown, and as the lugger swept past the splintered remnants of the little boat, Silver Heels and Tom grasped lines, and a moment later were hauled dripping, but unharmed, to the deck of the vessel.
It was a Dutch craft bound for Curacoa. Having safely weathered the storm in the lee of the cay, it resumed its voyage and eventually arrived at its destination bearing the two scalawags so opportunely or inopportunely—according to the point of view—rescued from the very jaws of death. Aboard the lugger the two had been treated well, and as the captain of the craft realized that he had in part been responsible for their plight by running down their wherry, he had shown them every consideration. But his responsibility ended when they stepped ashore at Curacao, and in the quaint Dutch island Silver Heels and Black Tom found themselves literally on their beam ends.
Dutch skippers of honest merchant ships looked a bit askance at the pair who, to experienced eyes, had a far from peaceful or honest appearance, despite the fact that Silver Heels told a glib story of being survivors of a trading ship which had foundered. There were no buccaneering vessels setting forth from Holland’s West Indian colony, and it went mightily against the stomachs of the two to fall to work as laborers or stevedores among the sweating blacks and half-breeds. And, as even stranded pirates must eat in order to live, and neither Silver Heels nor Black Tom possessed more than a few stray pieces of eight between them, the former was compelled by dire necessity to barter his silver-mounted shoes and his water-soaked finery for provender for himself and his crony. Reduced to abject poverty and actual want, clad in tattered, soiled rags, the two had at last found berths on a foul, ill-smelling fishing smack.
From this they had deserted at the first opportunity and after innumerable adventures and hardships which are of no interest to us and of no importance to this tale, they had found themselves on a little isle, feverishly and with alternate hopes and fears gazing seaward at an approaching sail. And when at last the ship was near and was evidently about to anchor off the beach, Silver Heels felt that his star was again in the ascendant, for he recognized the craft as the one above all others that he would have wished to see—the Adventure of Captain Starling.
His story—as far as his own and Tom’s adventures went—did not interest the redoubtable buccaneer in the least. But Silver Heels’ information regarding Peter and his activities caused the pudgy old pirate to give his closest attention to the tale. He had heard of the red-headed captain who had vanquished many a ship of the Brethren, but by some chance he had never sighted the Sea Gull—though nothing would have pleased him better. Quite naturally, too, he was curious to know why an Englishman with a crew of ex-buccaneers should prey upon the ships of the freebooters, but in this matter Silver Heels could do little to satisfy his curiosity.
The best he could do was to relate the entire story from the time he had first met One-eared Jake and Peter in the Rat Hole at Anegada to the time that he and Tom had left so precipitately in the wherry. And he was very careful not to mention the direct and true reasons for the departure of the two, or to dwell upon the events leading up to it or the part he had played in the mutiny. Instead, he spun a most likely yarn of having had a misunderstanding with Peter and his one-eared henchman over the career of the Sea Gull, and of having voluntarily deserted the ship with the express purpose of making his way to some buccaneers chieftain to whom he could divulge all he knew of Peter’s ways and plans.
No doubt Starling, who was far from being a fool and was thoroughly familiar with Silver Heels’ reputation, took the story with more than a grain of salt, but as a matter of fact he did not give a snap of his fingers as to how or why the two before him had left Peter. Both were out-and-out scalawags, he knew, but there was no doubt that they had served under Peter, and though Starling had a half-formed plan in his mind of stringing them up to his yardarm when they had finished their tale, as a reward for having taken part in Peter’s schemes, he abandoned this in favor of Silver Heels’ suggestions. This was a well-thought-up scheme to put an end to Peter’s career, and as Starling had no particular plans on foot for attacking Spanish towns, and as the Don’s ships seemed strangely scarce on the seas, the old fellow was not at all averse to varying the monotony of life by having a try at destroying the Sea Gull and evening up scores for the Brethren.
Thus it came about that while Peter was in conference with the governor of Barbados, and was receiving a commission as a British privateer to prey upon the pirates, Silver Heels was in conference with the greatest of pirate leaders and was receiving a commission as one of Starling’s officers in return for his services in running down and destroying Peter.
Oddly enough, too, just as Starling and Silver Heels’ thoughts and plans were all devoted to coming to grips with Peter, so Peter’s and Jake’s greatest desires were to meet the piratical captain against whom both held deadly hatred.
And as the Sea Gull, flying the British ensign, sailed forth from Carlisle Bay on her search for all piratical craft and the Adventure in particular, the ship of Captain Starling set sail from its snug haven off the cay with all on board on the alert for sight of a sail that would prove to be the Sea Gull.
It is a strange but well-known fact—at least to seamen—that, although the oceans are so vast that one may sail for days without sighting another ship, yet if vigilance be relaxed and a lookout be not maintained, collisions are almost sure to follow, while conversely, if a ship needs assistance or her company desire most urgently to sight another craft, the ocean my be searched in vain for days on end without so much as the flicker of a sail breaking the rim of the sea. And if the company desires to meet one particular ship among the hundreds that are plying the waters, the chances of meeting her are even more remote.
So, although the Caribbean is not such a vast body of water, yet both Starling and Peter knew that their chances of meeting were few, if both sailed aimlessly about. But neither had any intention of trusting thus blindly to luck. One-eared Jake, having sailed with Starling, knew the old rascal’s haunts and hiding places and his habits, and Silver Heels had equal knowledge of Peter’s movements and his favorite stopping places. But in mutual knowledge of the other’s ways Peter had one great advantage, although he was quite ignorant of the fact. Starling’s status had not been altered by Silver Heels’ arrival and he was still forced to put in at lairs or ports where his well-know pirate ship and her cut-throat crew would be safe and welcomed, whereas, unknown to Starling, Peter’s status had been completely changed, and under the protective folds of England’s flag he could drop anchor where and when he willed without fear of danger or of molestation.
Thus commenced a strange game of maritime puss in the corner, and for several months Peter sailed the Caribbean, routing many a pirate craft, carrying many a captive buccaneer and many a prize into British ports, and earning an enviable reputation as a daring and successful privateer without once sighting the Adventure. Often he had word of Starling. More than once the Sea Gull dropped anchor off some isle where the Adventure had swung to her moorings a few hours earlier, twice Peter bore down upon smoldering hulks whose survivors, struggling in the waves or lying wounded on the rapidly burning decks, babbled of Starling’s savagery and inhumanity and of looting and tortures by the villainous crew of the Adventure. Often, too, Starling cursed and raged as he learned that the Sea Gull had slipped from him unseen and unsuspected, and as he heard, as he soon did, that Peter was no longer a free lance but an accredited auxiliary of Britain’s naval forces, he raged and fumed and blasphemed the more and was still more anxious to bring the Sea Gull under his guns.
Then one day came word to Peter of a pirates’ lair established on an island off Belize. The news was given to him by a wretched, sun-dried, half-crazed wreck of humanity found marooned upon a barren bit of coral rock; a man left there by Starling to starve or die of thirst or go raving mad as punishment for some trivial offense. Fawning at Peter’s feet, half expecting swift death at the hands of his savior, he was only too anxious to tell all he knew to those on the Sea Gull. Finding he was not to be killed but was treated with humanity, he gladly offered to guide Peter to the freebooters’ lair and pilot the ship to a safe anchorage from which they could approach the settlement unseen, and without danger, from the rear. Jake, however, was a bit suspicious of the fellow’s honesty.
“Belike,” he declared, “he’ll be a-takin’ of us into some trap or wreckin’ of us on reef or rock. Mayhap ‘tis all a scheme of Starling’s for our undoin’.”
“Nay,” replied Peter. “He know not that we would come hither and no man would undergo the sufferings of this fellow for the sake of betraying us. Nay, Jake, I trust the rascal though he has been of Starling’s crew and no doubt richly merits hanging.”
And so, the wooded islet having been raised on the horizon, the Sea Gull stood away until night fell, when, bearing in toward the land once more, Peter relinquished the helm to the castaway. Straight toward the rocky shore he guided the ship until, loud in the ears of those aboard, came the boom of surf on rocks, the trill of insects, the calls of the night birds and the earthy smell of jungles. It seemed as though Jake’s words were to be borne out, as if the fellow intended to drive the plunging craft against the rocks. With bated breaths the men peered at the towering black cliffs and the dull white loom of breaking surf on jagged reefs, until the vessel rolled to the backwash of the breakers and her bowsprit seemed about to be splintered against the sheer rock walls. Then, with all his strength, the fellow bore down on the helm. The Sea Gull spun on her heel and shot into the wind, the roar of surf grew faint astern and, in utter amazement, Peter and his men found their ship floating safely, motionless, in Stygian blackness, with lofty forest-covered hills rising above the topmasts on every side.
But somewhat dazed, as they were, the crew ran nimbly enough to obey orders. Anchor was dropped, and following the rescued man’s directions, cables were run ashore and the Sea Gull moored to trees. Then, with Jake, Peter followed their strange guide into a boat, and through the impenetrable blackness the fellow pulled from the ship and with uncanny instinct guided the craft across the secret, landlocked harbor until the keel grated on a pebbly beach. In whispered tones he directed the others to follow and led the way upward along a narrow, winding trail through brush and forest. Panting and toiling, the three climbed the hill, until gaining the summit, the guide muttered a word of caution, and crouching, pressed on between the trunks of giant trees. At last he halted, and reaching his side, Peter and Jake found themselves at the verge of a precipice.
Below them lay a little valley between the hills. Lazy waves broke beyond it in a white thread upon a beach, and straggling along the shore and up the vale, were a score or more of huts and houses. Here and there lights twinkled from doorways and windows. The sounds of voices, rough songs, laughter, the tinkling of a guitar, floated upward to the watchers on the soft night air, and outlined in the faint luminosity of open doorways, or passing here and there among the buildings, Peter and Jake could see the forms of men.
“Blow me, but ‘tis a snug next,” rumbled Jake. “An’ fair easy to smoke the vermin out of it,” he added. “There be no way for they to get away, an’ a broadside from seaward’ll bring ‘em quick to terms, I’m thinkin’.”
“Nay, sir, ye be wrong,” declared their guide. “Upon the p’int yonder there be fort with great guns, an’ there be a way up atwixt these cliffs. At sight of ship offen the beach they’ll take to the bush, an’ ye’ll ne’er get one of ‘em. But with a score or two of men ye can strike ‘em from this side an’ cut ‘em down. The guns of the fort canna be trained inland, ye see.”
“Strike me but that were a merry scheme,” cried Jake approvingly. “An’ ye say as Starling comes to yon nest?”
“Aye,” affirmed the other, “but he be not in port now.”
Peter had been thinking rapidly. “Belike those in yonder nest may know aught of his movements,” he remarked. “Perchance, if we could make captives, we might learn much. But if we destroy yonder lair, belike Starling will be warned and come not hither.”
“Sink me, that be truth,” agreed Jake, “but how be we to take captives an’ we no take yonder nest?”
“Nay, you need not!” exclaimed the former member of Starling’s crew. “’Twould be fair easy for me to go yonder an’ spy a bit, an’ mayhap gain word of Starling—curse his black soul!”
“Sink me if he mightn’t,” growled Jake, “an’ ye might be a-givin’ of them word of us, an’ a-bringin’ the pack against the ship lyin’ in hell knows that kind of devil’s hole where ye brought her.”
“’Tis for cap’n to say,” said the fellow. “Give a dog a black name, ye know, sir! But I’m a-owin’ of me life to ye, cap’n, an’ if I’d have meant ye harm I could have wrecked the ship on yonder rocks an’ none to hinder. Aye,” he went on, “an’ mayhap ye think I’m takin’ no risk if I go a-spyin’ yonder. Faith, ‘tis well I be known to many, an’ if they see Dick Bones amid they, how be I goin’ to spin yarn of how I come there? Aye, an’ me a-sailin’ with Starling—blast him.”
“Ye mistrusted Dick afore, Jake,” said Peter, “and he proved true. ‘Tis in my mind to trust him yet more. I think not he will betray us. ‘Twill gain him naught and to be true to us will avail him much.”
“Thank ye, cap’n,” exclaimed Dick. “I’ll no be failin’ yer trust an’ ye can watch from here an’ ye’ll see all what goes on yonder.”
The next moment he had vanished in the shadows and not a sound betrayed his movements, while Peter and Jake peered through the night at the pirates’ lair beneath them.
Long minutes passed, an hour slipped by, and then, so suddenly and unexpectedly that the two jumped and Jake blurted out a surprised oath, a twig snapped behind them and Dick’s voice spoke from the darkness.
“’Tis good news I bring ye cap’n,” he whispered. “They be awaitin’ the Adventure. A piragua come in to-day with word as Starling’ll be a-visitin’ yon nest ere long.”
“Good news in truth!” exclaimed Peter, “and for a space, yonder lair will we leave in peach, and, like those within it, we will await Starling and his ship.”
“He’ll come from east’ard,” declared Dick, as he rose to lead the way back to the ship. “An’,” he continued, “ye can keep lookout at masthead, cap’n an’ sight her from yonder harbor where the Sea Gull lies snug an’ safe hid from the sea.”
Peter nodded. “No doubt ye know,” he replied, “but as yet I know not how lies the ship nor the safety of the harbor. Let day break ere I make plans.”
Unerringly Dick led the others to the boat. With almost uncanny skill he rowed from shore and ran the craft alongside the Sea Gull, and, well satisfied with their night’s work, Peter and Jake saw that all was snug and an armed watch was maintained and then retired to their cabins to await the dawn.
With the light of day those upon the Sea Gull gazed about in wonder. The ship was within a tiny landlocked basin. Hills rose to the sky on the landward side, a high rocky point barred them from the sea, and as they gazed at the narrow passage between the browning cliffs whence they had come they marvelled that any ship could come unscathed, and more than one member of the crew vowed Dick was in collusion with the devil himself or he never could have brought the Sea Gull to her anchorage in the total blackness of the night.
From her crosstrees a watch could be maintained upon the sea, as Dick had said, and at once Peter ordered men aloft and offered a reward of one hundred pieces of eight to the first who should sight the expected ship.
From the ocean the Sea Gull was invisible but Peter, fearing some one from the village might find the ship, posted a lookout on the hill above the settlement with armed sentries stationed beside the narrow pass, which, Dick assured him, was the only accessible means of leaving or entering the valley from the rear.
But the day passed without sight of sail and no one left the village by the narrow trail into the hills.
“’Twill be a passin’ fair chance if him or we wins,” muttered Jake as he and Peter paced the quarter deck that evening. “The Adventure mounts forty guns in broadsides with starn chasers an’ Long Toms an’ throws twice out weight of ball. Blow me, cap’n, I like not overmuch the merry time we’ll be havin’.”
“Faith, ye be not afraid!” exclaimed Peter, surprised to hear Jake express anything that remotely savored of cowardice or caution.
“Bones of Drake, did ye e’er see One-eared Jake scairt?” cried the other. “No, cap’n, I be no afraid an’ ye can lay to that, but I was a-thinkin’ at how Starling might have the best on it an’ ‘twould be fair pity an’ a cryin’ shame if ye did. Faith, an’ could we range alongside an’ board him ‘twould be easy enough, but ‘gain he throws a broadside into us an’ rakes us, like did the Frenchy we met, as ye’ll mind, we’d be helpless as a floating cask.”
"Yea, that is so," admitted Peter. "But I see ne way other than to make the attempt. We have taken others as strong as he and I have vowed to destroy him."
"Aye, an' others less strong as he has beaten of us off," growled the one-eared mate. "Faith, I'm not knowin but we'd be a-doin' better with yon old piragua of yourn, a-gettin' alongside like we was friendly an' a-bordin' afore shot was fired."
"Zounds, Jake, there be truth in your words!" cried Peter. "But," he added, "we have no piragua." Then, a sudden thought came to him and he slapped Jake on the back so soundly that the old fellow gasped.
"I have it!" he cried. "Did not Dick say that a piragua lay off yonder villains nest? 'Twould be easy to steal thither at night and take her. Then, in her, might we attack Starling and win alongside ere he suspected us, as you say."
"Blood an' powder, cap'n!" exclaimed Jake, "if it wouldna be a rare merry jest. But, nay," he added, "yonder fort might give the alarm to Starling, an' those ashore would be knowin' enemies were near when the piragua was tooken."
But Peter was enthusiastic, and once his mind was bent on an idea it was not easy for him to dismiss it. "Mayhap we could take village and fort, as well as piragua," he suggested. "Belike, there be not over many men in the place, and by surprise much may be accomplished."
Jake's blood was stirred at the thought of such a daring venture.
"We'll have word with Dick," he said and bawled for the fellow. "Blow me, if 'twouldna be a right merry lark, cap'n."
A moment later Dick appeared in answer to Jake's summons, and Starboard-tack Jack and old Bart also drew near, wondering what was afoot.
To Dick, Peter and Jake put the questions as to the garrison of the pirate's fort, number of guns it contained and approaches.
And his replies convinced Peter, and almost convinced Jake, that the wild scheme might be successfully carried out. The fort, he declared, contained but four guns and all these were trained to seaward. The garrison was never more than six men and often—and especially at night—only one man was left on guard, the others making merry in the village. The approaches consisted of a steep path leading upward from the village and an unused but passible way from the forest in the rear, the way used in building the fort from tree trunks hewn on the surrounding hills.
The pirates, in constructing the fort, had never dreamed of an attack by land, and no preparations had been made to protect themselves from that quarter, for with the Adventure in port, and in the snug berth now occupied by the Sea Gull, there was no danger, and at other times any vessel which approached the island would of necessity approach from the sea and within sight of the fort, for none but the buccaneers knew of the secret harbor or the trail to the rear of the settlement.
“Aye, it can be done,” agreed Dick, when Peter laid his plans before the others. “Though, stab me, if I’d thought on it. Aye, cap’n, with two score men ye could take the fort an’ village to one an’ the same time, I’m thinkin’.”
“Aye, that we could,” put in Jack who, dare-devil that he was, saw in the venture such an undertaking as he dearly loved.
“Scuttle me, yea,” mumbled Bart, nodding his ancient head. “Faith, didn’t Harry Morgan take Porto Bello an’ San Lorenzo? An’ Maracaibo an’ de’il knows what all? An’ ben’t we as good as Harry Morgan’s men an’ Cap’n Peter here a fitter man as Harry Morgan hisself? An’ what be this bit of tuppence-ha’penny fort an village of huts along of them places, I’m arskin’ of ye?”
“Stow it, ye old bag of bones,” laughed Jack. “Ye’ll stop aboard the ship at any rate. This be a feat for men, not wracks a’totterin’ at break of grave.”
Bart cackled. “Ye’ll be a better man at my time of life than ye be now, Jackie,” he croaked. “An’ ye’ll have a fair sight more brains in yer head as well. ‘Tis not ye, but cap’n as’ll be sayin’ who goes an’ who stops, I’m thinkin’.”
“Belay, both of ye,” ordered Jake. “Ye’re like a pair of old fishwomen in the market place a-arguin’.”
Thus admonished, the two relapsed into silence while Peter and Jake laid plans for the wild scheme of capturing the fort and the village that very night.
Every detail had been carefully considered and every possibility foreseen and provided for, when, under cover of darkness, Jake and Peter, with Dick as guide, landed from the boats with fifty heavily armed men at their backs and began climbing the trail toward the hilltop above the settlement.
All realized that surprise was the main thing, that if any of the villagers escaped they might warn Starling, and that unless absolute necessity arose they were not to use firearms for fear that the reports might reach those upon the Adventure in case she had approached within hearing since sundown. Dick had informed them that a number of small boats, small piraguas, rowboats and dugouts, were drawn up on the beach or anchored off the shore. To prevent any possibility of the inhabitants escaping in these, or in the large piragua whose capture was an important part of their plans, two boats, filled with armed men, had been sent around the island from the Sea Gull. These had been given full instructions and were in charge of Jack and Bart, who could not resist crowing over Jack at being trusted with such a responsibility. They were to keep close to land and in the shadow of the shore and were not to attack craft in the harbour unless the latter attempted to set sail.
At a prearranged signal from the fort that Peter had been successful they were to board and take the piragua, unless they heard firing, in which case they were instantly to set upon the piragua and were to seize and destroy all the other craft. Waiting until the two boats had been given sufficient time to round the island, Peter and his men divided into two parties, one under Jake starting down the trail toward the village, the other, with Peter in command, following Dick up the scarcely distinguishable pathway toward the fort on the headland. Much discussion had been devoted to a means by which the two parties would be certain to act in unison, for if either attacked prematurely it might upset all plans. At last it had been decided that the signal should be given from Peter’s party and should consist of the call of a night heron thrice repeated, and that Jake’s party, who would be first at their scene of action, should await the signal and then rush on the town, making prisoners of the inhabitants, only killing those who resisted, and being careful not to set fire to the flimsy huts of thatch and palm, for a glare of a conflagration would be seen far at sea.
Silently as ghosts, the two parties slipped through the dense shadows toward their goals. Reaching the level land of the valley and with his men ready and crouching amid the shrubbery at the outskirts of the village, Jake strained his ears to catch the expected signal.
Meanwhile, Peter and his men toiled cautiously up the hill, until at last, upon the cleared summit of the cliff, the burly square of the log fortress loomed against the starlit sky. All was silent, not a light showed, and Dick, at Peter’s orders, crept forward to reconnoitre. Presently he returned.
“There be men within,” he whispered. “Faith, I heard ‘em talkin’, but how many I know not. But there be none on guard, cap’n, an’ we can take ‘em fair easy, I’m thinkin’.”
Highly elated, Peter gave the word to advance, and, quavering through the night air, the call of the night hereon came from an unseen throat. Again and yet again it was repeated, and instantly the silence of the night was broken and pandemonium seemed let loose in village and in fort.
Like demons of the night the men dashed forward shouting and yelling. Terror-stricken, utterly surprised, not knowing what had happened or who was upon them, the inhabitants of the settlement rushed from doorways and fled shrieking. Some few grasped the nearest weapons and turned on their aggressors only to be cut down. Others fled to the beach, and hastily scrambling into boats, pulled frantically for the sea only to be captured by the waiting boats’ crew. And over the still water came sounds of strife; hoarse shouts and cries, the slither of steel, the thud of falling bodies, as the piragua was boarded by Jack and his men. Finding escape by sea cut off, the frenzied people turned back, dashing madly for the hills but only to fall into the hands of the ambushed men from the Sea Gull. Here and there a pistol flashed and a sharp report stabbed through the other sound, but few shots were fired, and, to the utter consternation and bewilderment of the buccaneers in the village, no gun thundered from their fort.
And no wonder. With a rush, Peter’s men had gained the fort. Over the logs and unguarded bastions they had swarmed, and as the dazed four on duty had rushed forth at the first sounds of trouble in the town and had stood blinking, blinded by their sudden emergence from their lighted room, they had fallen easy captives to the men from the Sea Gull and had been trussed and gagged before they could utter a cry or seize a weapon. Without loss of a man, with none wounded seriously by cutlass blows and cudgels, Peter and Jake were masters of the piragua and the lesser craft. Not a living soul had managed to escape, all who had not been killed or badly wounded were prisoners.
Peter’s victory had, figuratively speaking, placed a white elephant on his hands. The disposal of the prisoners was a serious problem, for there was no means of imprisoning them, and to place a sufficient guard of his men over the vanquished would seriously cripple his fighting force. Although he had planned to attack the expected Adventure in the captured piragua, still he had no mind to depend entirely upon this vessel; with the comparatively small force of men and small armament she could carry. His plan was to have the Sea Gull, with reinforcements, bear down upon the pirate ship as soon as the piragua had engaged her, and by attacking Starling on the opposite side, make victory certain.
And now, if he was forced to keep the villagers under guard—which was, he felt, essential in order to prevent warning of trouble from reaching Starling—he would be woefully short handed and his well-laid plans might be a dismal failure. Neither he nor Jake had though of this contingency, but the resourceful one-eared old fellow found a way out of the difficulty.
“Blow me, but there be the fort!” he cried. “Shut ‘em in there, cap’n, and leave Bart an’ a dozen men on guard. They’ll be safe as pickles in a cask.”
So, within the stout log fort, the captives were herded, and leaving Bart, grumbling a bit at being compelled to forego the excitement of battle, in charge of ten guards, Peter, with the remainder of his forces, retraced their way to the Sea Gull. The piragua proved to be a fairly large and well-found craft and carried two carronades, and as a quantity of ammunition and several light cannon had been found in the village, she was soon transformed into quite a formidable little warship without in any way reducing the armament of Peter’s ship.
Another day had dawned before these matters had been completed, and anxiously the lookouts swept the horizon, hoping to catch the flicker of a sail that might herald the Adventure’s approach. With her men on board and with cannons shotted and primed, the piragua lay moored at the entrance to the secret harbor, ready, the moment Starling’s ship was sighted, to set sail and slip to her accustomed anchorage before the settlement, for, as Jake had pointed out, it would allay all suspicion if those on the Adventure saw the craft lying off their village before she set out to meet the pirate ship. But hour after hour passed, the sun rose high, it passed the meridian, and not until it was slipping behind the forest-covered hills to the west, did the glad cry, “sail ho!” come from the watcher on the mainmast head.
Instantly all was excitement. Men leaped from where they had been lounging and seized weapons, and as Peter and Jake ran up the rigging, the crew swarmed after them, one and all made to catch a glimpse of the distant vessel.
Very rapidly she rose to view, racing straight toward the island with every sail straining to the humming trade wind. With eyes glued to glasses, Peter and Jake gazed at her.
“’Tis she!” declared Jake at last, banging his telescope shut with an oath. “The Adventure, cap’n, an’ ye can lay to that. Faith, I’d know her were she dismasted an’ a-sinkin’. Aye an’ a-comin’ with a bone in her teeth. Blow me, but he be a-drivin’ of her. Aye, a right merry time we’ll be havin’ within the hour.”
Hurrying down, Peter gave his final orders to Jake, who was to command the Sea Gull in the coming battle, and leaping into the waiting boat, was pulled rapidly to the piragua whose huge lateen sails were already spread.
Swiftly the craft slipped under the island’s shores around the point and dropped anchor off the deserted village before the sails of the approaching ship were visible to those on the piragua’s decks.
Meanwhile Jake had also been busy. Standing by the lines that moored the Sea Gull to the shore, men were stationed ready to slip the cables at a moment’s notice. Hawsers had been paid out forward and led to boats whose crews rested on their oars ready to give way and tow the ship to the open sea at Jake’s word. The sails had been loosened and sheeted home. Every cannon was double-shotted and primed, with matches ready to the gunners’ hands, and every man aboard stood at quarters with fire buckets, boarding pikes, grapples and arms within instant reach.
As the Adventure loomed plain upon the sea, a splendid sight with the sinking sun gilding her great bellying sails and glinting in shafts of fire from brass work and guns, a puff of white smoke floated from her bows, and to the anxious watchers on the Sea Gull and the piragua, came the far-off boom of a gun. Two seconds passed and then, in quick succession, two more tiny clouds drifted from the oncoming ship and two reports floated across the sea. It was a signal, a question, beyond a doubt—something Peter and Jake had not thought of, and no doubt prearranged and to be answered by some unknown signal from the fort.
Jake cursed and Peter was filled with anxiety and misgivings. Unless some reply and the right one, was given, Starling would surmise that all was not right, and surprise, and very possibly victory, would be out of the question. But it was too late to give orders to those in the fort to reply and a response, if wrong, would be as bad if not worse than none.
And then, to the utter amazement of Jake and Peter and the waiting men, a gun thundered out from the fortress followed by another and another. Then for a space silence, followed by the roar of a double explosion.
Old Bart was no fool. He had seen and heard the salute from the Adventure. As quickly as either Peter or Jake, he had realized the significance of the signal and the necessity of an answer, and, with cocked pistol in hand, he had dashed to the guardroom packed with captives.
Waving the weapon in their faces he had threatened them with death if the answering signal were not divulged.
“Ye murderin’ scum,” he cried. “Some of ye know it, an’ by the cross of St. George, ye’ll all go a-travelin’ to hell together ‘gain ye don’t give it me an’ give it quick. Aye, ye dogs, I’ll have ye an’ fort blowed to bits an’ I no have the signal ere I count me ten.”
Murder was in his old eyes. His toothless mouth leered hideously. His head was thrust forward and his bony finger trembled dangerously on the trigger of his pistol. No one doubted that he would carry out his threat, and scarcely five seconds passed before a burly ruffian, who had been taken at the fort, stepped from the huddled throng of prisoners.
“I’ll give it ye,” he growled. “’Tis two shots, a count of ten, an’ another.”
“Mayhap,” cackled Bart, “an’ mayhap ye lie like the dog ye be. But ‘gain ye lie ‘twill be the short life ye’ll be enjoyin’ of it. Ye’ll be beside me when I fire, an’ by blood o’ Morgan, ‘gain ye have lied I’ll lash yer carcass to the gun an’ fire it double shotted till ye roast with its heat and burst to bits with its roar.”
Clutching the fellow in one talonlike hand, and pressing the pistol to his temple with the other, Bart rushed the man to the parapet.
“So, ‘tis two shots, a count of ten an’ another?” he repeated, his fierce old face close to the other’s. “Aye, ‘twill be as ye say, an’ yer blood be on yer own han’s if ye lie.”
“Touch match to vent,” he ordered the man who stood at the loaded guns. “Two shots, an’ count of ten, an’ another.”
Wild-eyed, shaking, the fellow by this side screamed aloud. “Nay!” he shrieked, as in his mind he pictured the fearful death old Bart had threatened. “Nay, I mislead ye. ‘Tis three guns, a count of ten an’ two together. On the cross I swear it!”
“So ye lied,” growled Bart. “Well, belike ye be addin’ a second lie to the first, but there be time yet to make me promise good if ye be. An’, lie or not, ‘tis the signal goes, so there’s an end on it.”
White faced the terrified rascal waited while the guns roared out, and Bart and the others watched the approaching ship. But as her colors broke out at her peak and her course remained unchanged, all knew that the signal had been right. Somewhat reluctantly, Bart ordered the trembling prisoner taken to the guardroom.
And now, out of the harbor, sailed the piragua with Peter’s men, bristling with weapons, concealed in the capacious hold. And as if setting forth to welcome the Adventure and accompany her to her anchorage, the craft headed for the oncoming ship.
And as Starling’s vessel swept by the promontory and passed from view of the Sea Gull’s refuge, Jake shouted orders, cables were slipped, men bent to oars, and slowly but with ever-increasing headway, the ship moved across the still surface of the landlocked harbor and into the narrow waterway that led to the open sea. Then her sails caught the breeze. Hurriedly the toiling men coiled cables and retained their vessel; and as braces were manned and sheaves purled to the drag of brawny arms, the great yards swung, and heeling to the wind, the Sea Gull swept from under the land on the trail of her quarry.
Had the one-eared mate been in full view of what was taking place off the village he could not have timed his departure or his arrival on the scene of battle better. The piragua had reached within a cable’s length of the Adventure before those on Starling’s ship dreamed anything was amiss. And then it was too late. Nearing his safe and secret refuge, having given and received the signals, Starling had relaxed his vigilance and the Adventure was wholly unprepared for defense. The guns, though still loaded and primed, had their vents covered. Slow matches had been extinguished. Small arms had been placed in their racks, and the men had left their posts and had gathered about the rails, all gazing shoreward and with thoughts on the roistering in store for them.
So, as Peter’s craft ranged alongside, and Starling’s crew caught sight of the huddled swarm of men in her hold and of the red-headed stranger at the helm, wild shouts of alarm were raised, the men rushed hither and thither, gunners raced to their quarters, and orders, commands and curses were bawled in a confused, meaningless medley of sound.
Only one gun thundered forth, and the screeching chain shot swept harmlessly past the piragua’s mast as she grated against the planking of the Adventure and grappling irons were thrown. Shouting and yelling, paying no heed to the rain of lead from hastily aimed muskets and pistols, naked weapons in hand, Peter’s men swarmed over the pirate ship’s rails like two score wildcats. Slashing, shooting, stabbing, they gained the decks, fighting like demons, a perfect whirlwind of wild-faced, half-naked, battle-mad beings. But Starling’s men were no cowards. Taken completely by surprise as they had been, yet quickly they recovered and stoutly, valiantly they fought. Back and forth across the rapidly reddening decks the fight raged, as cutlasses clashed and pistols roared and the smoke hung like a pall above the struggling mass of human fiends.
Unnoted by the struggling men, the Sea Gull was baring down upon the scene, and before either side knew that she was near, the air reverberated with the thunder of a broadside and the Adventure reeled and shook as the round shot tore through stout oak planks and hurled guns from their carriages. To fire across the Adventure’s decks, to shoot away her yards and rigging, Jake knew would be as fatal to Peter and his men as to the enemy, and so, letting fly one broadside into the Adventure’s hull, he luffed alongside, and at the head of his horde of men, leaped onto the Adventure’s decks. Panic-stricken at this unexpected attack in their rear, utterly overwhelmed and overpowered, the remaining men of Starling’s crew threw down weapons and scuttled for cover.
But of all this Peter had seen nothing. As he had gained the Adventure’s deck his gaze had been turned aft, fixed upon the figure on the quarter deck—a stout, bandy-legged, round-faced figure in somber black coat—the man he had vowed to destroy; the man who for so long he had prayed he might meet.
Unheeding the struggling men about him, leaving his crew to fight as best they might, hurling himself like a catapult through the knots of pirates who strove to oppose him, Peter, with drawn sword, leaped aft and bounded up the ladder.
Above him, Starling’s pistol flashed and the bullet cut a lock of auburn from Peter’s head. Before the pirate chief could fire again, the avenger of Don Ramon was upon him with thrusting blade. Leaping back, Starling whipped out his weapons, and, with a cutlass grasped in either hand lowered his head, and bellowing like a mad bull, rushed, slashing madly, at Peter. An ordinary adversary would have gone down before that onslaught, would have had no chance against those two heavy, flashing, keen-edged swords. But Peter was no ordinary adversary. Skilled as he had been in the use of the sword under Don Ramon, he had become a hundred times more skilful through wielding sword in many a desperate conflict, and it is doubtful if his equal as a swordsman could have been found throughout the length and breadth of the Caribbean, or along the whole stretch of the Spanish Main.
And Starling was no expert swordsman. He was powerful, a veritable Hercules in strength, but his skill with the sword consisted wholly of an ability to hack and slash with both hands and to protect himself with a flashing circle of moving blades. Had either of the heavy weapons met Peter’s rapier fairly, the blade, despite the excellency of its Toledo steel, would have been snapped like a pipestem. But to Starling’s utter amazement his cutlasses fell neither upon the darting, lightening-swift slender tongue of steel or upon Peter’s head or body.
Springing from side to side, leaping forward, darting back, dodging, parrying, taking advantage of every opening in the other’s guard, Peter fought, utterly heedless of how the battle was going on the decks below, seeing only the scarlet face, the swinging blades before him; intent only on parry and thrust, on bringing down the man he had sworn to kill. A dozen times his rapier point had found its mark in Starling’s flesh and from wounds in arms, shoulders and cheeks, blood flowed over Starling’s garments and left red stains upon the deck. And grateful indeed was Peter for the heavy hilt of clumsy, hand-forged steel that old Don Ramon had wrought about the grip of the sword he had loved and used so well. A lighter guard would have been battered, hacked to bits, by the fearful crashing blows that fell upon it, but while Peter’s hand was numb and his wrist ached from the concussion of Starling’s strokes, yet the guard had withstood all and the ringing blows had scarcely dented the stout bars and heavy bell that protected Peter’s darting and flashing hand.
Strong as Starling was, his age, and the dissipated life he had led; were beginning to tell, while Peter, though tired and panting, was still fresh. He knew that before long Starling’s mad rushes must exhaust him, that his terrific blows must tire him, and that, could he but protect himself and avoid the deadly strokes of the other, it would be but a question of minutes before Starling’s onslaughts would be weaker and a quick thrust of the rapier would end the combat.
Meanwhile, the battle on the Adventure’s decks had ceased. The vanquished men, disarmed and under guard, were gathered forward. The victorious crew of the Sea Gull were binding up wounds or attending to their comrades’ hurts, and only the groans of the wounded and dying, the clash and slither of steel on steel and the hard-drawn breaths and paddling footsteps of the struggling captains broke the silence. Awed, fascinated, both vanquished and victors watched the duel upon the quarter deck. No one dared interfere, for to aim blow or shot at the swiftly moving, ever turning men was as likely to harm Peter as Starling. Swearing under his breath, filled with fears that Peter might fall, and ready at any instant to rush in and engage Starling, Jake had crawled up the ladder, and unseen by either of the combatants, crouched with drawn cutlass beside the rail, like a panther about to spring.
Never had he witnessed such a fight, and, anxious as he was for his captain’s safety, his heart beat fast and his blood ran hot with excitement at the thrill of such swordplay. With his pop eyes round, his mouth open, his face flushed, he watched, fascinated, almost forgetting that his master’s life was at stake. And as he watched, slowly it came to him that Starling was weakening and that, knowing he could not win in fair fight, the crafty rascal was planning to win the day by foul means. Gradually, almost imperceptibly he was forcing Peter toward the mizzenmast that, surrounded by a litter of coiled ropes, rose through the quarter deck. And Jake, ignorant of the finer points of swordsmanship though he was and, truth to tell, quite willing personally to win a fight through trickery or any other means, realized that in a moment more Peter would step among the cordage, that his feet would slip or become entangled and that, even if this failed, he would crash into the great shaft of wood if he attempted to spring back suddenly.
Scarcely a foot of bare deck now lay between him and loops of help, and cursing horribly, Jake leaped to his feet. Now, he decided, had come the time for action. With a yell, he swung his cutlass, and bounding forward, aimed a blow at Starling’s neck.
Had the blade fallen fairly, the pirate’s bullet head would most assuredly have rolled upon the deck, false curls and all. But Jake’s shout saved Starling from such a sudden and fitting end. Instinctively he ducked and gave a vicious back-handed sweep with one cutlass. Jake’s sword glanced from the other’s blade, and lopping off one of Starling’s ears, sank deep into the right shoulder.
With a clatter, Starling’s cutlass fell from his hand and the half-severed arm dropped useless at his side.
“Back!” shouted Peter, as Jake swung his cutlass to finish his work. “’Tis ‘twixt us. Interfere not.”
With an oath, Jake obeyed, his stroke was stayed in mid-air, and muttering he stood aside. But now the duel was more equal and Peter, having seen the trap, had darted aside and once more was fighting on the open deck. One-handed, Starling was no match for his red-headed adversary. Twice the Toledo blade shot out like a tongue of blue flame, and each time a blotch of crimson spread over the shirt of Starling’s breast. Blood dribbled from the pirate’s lips, his eyes rolled wildly, his breath rattled in this throat and yet he fought on. Then, as he aimed a terrific blow, the rapier darted forward. There was the slither of steel, a quick twist of Peter’s wrist, and the cutlass flew from Starling’s hand and struck, ringing on the deck a dozen feet away, where it vibrated briskly.
Swift as the stroke of a serpent Peter lunged, and through and through the body of Starling the keen blade passed, until the massive hilt all but touched his breast. With a cry of mingled rage and agony, the pirate lurched forward, and before Peter could withdraw his sword, the pirate’s fingers closed upon his throat. Choking, Peter wrenched himself free, while the locked fingers of the pirate, still clutching Peter’s collar, ripped his shirt from throat to waist. With a fearful cry, Starling staggered back, his eyes wide and staring, his face contorted, deadly, awful terror stamped upon his features, as raising his shaking hand, he pointed at Peter’s chest.
“Hell’s fiends!” he screamed as he reeled against the mast, and with head lolling horribly to one side, gazed with fast-glazing eyes at the tattooed marks on Peter’s breast.
“The sea gives up its dead! It is—it’s you my—” Crimson froth welled to his lips and a gurgling cough choked off his words.
Dumfounded and uncomprehending, Peter sprang forward, with Jake beside him, as the dying man slumped to the deck. Suddenly the pirate’s eyes opened, his nerveless shaking arm lifted. A fearful demoniacal grin widened his bloody, cruel lips.
“Aye,” he spluttered in half-intelligible, jerky words. “Aye, ‘tis ye, curse ye—and and—may it haunt ye to your death—ye’ve killed your own—”
With the leer frozen on his distorted features, his head dropped forward on his chest and his body sank limply to the deck.
Speechless, horror-stricken, his brain in a turmoil as the meaning of the slain pirate’s words dawned upon him, Peter stood motionless, torn with remorse, sorrow, shame and hopelessness.
“Blow me, but he do be uncommon dead,” ejaculated Jake, who felt that something must be said and could think of no other fitting remark.
“Dead,” groaned Peter. “Yea, and killed by mine own hand. Heaven have mercy, I have killed my own father.”
TO BE CONCLUDED.