Lonely O'Malley/Chapter 10
In which certain Pirates are unexpectedly pursued
IT was a sultry, close day in July, and even old Cap'n Sands, who had seen the sun beat down on Chamboro, on and off, for some seventy long years, could recollect no hotter weather. "Leastaways, Henery," he qualified, "fer this time o' the year!"
In this old Cap'n Steiner, mopping his brow with slightly palsied hand, was not inclined to agree. There was a day in Seventy-Nine, he held, that had seemed a sight hotter to him—the Sunday week after the sawmill was burned and Bill Rankin's wife was taken with a stroke on the Market Square, and the whole town said it was a touch o' sun.
"Well, right here suits me well 'nough!" said old Cap'n Sands, placidly. He was the more corpulent of the two, and he fanned himself languidly with his well-worn panama hat.
They were seated in the shade of the maples on the Common, that stretch of open green between Watterson's Creek and the river, gazing ruminatively down the sweep of shimmering yellow water toward the far-off freedom of the Great Lakes—the wider seas they had braved and known for so many years. Indeed, forty summers before, they had both had a hand in the planting of the very trees under which they sat dreaming autumnly of old times and old friends.
This had long been their favorite seat, under the useless old cannon, just at the point of the Common, from which no craft creeping up or down the river could escape their sharp old eyes. And they knew every craft that sailed those waters, from dug-out to excursion steamer, and had known some of them for half a century.
When, therefore, Cap'n Steiner's eye wandered up the glazed and mercury-like surface of Watterson's Creek that hot morning, and beheld an utterly unknown craft creeping down towards the river, he drew Cap'n Sands's startled attention to that fact, and together the two old cronies hobbled down to the dilapidated Common Wharf, and leaning on their sticks, looked anxiously out at this strange vessel, each with his keen eyes shaded by a slightly unsteady hand.
"Kin you recollect that craft, Silas?" asked Cap'n Sands.
KIN YOU RECOLLECT THAT CRAFT, SILAS
"Seems to lie uncommon low in the water!" commented Cap'n Steiner. "No, Henery, I can't say as I 've seen her a-fore!"
She swept still closer. Then, against the glare of the sun, they made out high on the roof of her cabin the armed and befeathered form of the Captain, with his tiller firmly in his hand, his feet planted well apart.
A minute later they caught the glitter of the brass cannon in her bow. Near by paced the First Mate, every now and then sweeping the horizon with his glass, surreptitiously munching at a ginger-snap.
Then the two startled old captains made out eight small boys—eight small boys tugging and pulling at eight unwieldly and strangely shaped sweep-oars. Their faces were red and wet, and their mouths were oddly puckered up. Beside them, as though prepared for instant use, unmistakably lay firearms and boarding-irons.
As the strange ship drew still closer the two silent watchers made out a dashing turkey-feather in the hat of each member of the crew. They also discerned that the Captain's face wore a dark and unchanging scowl, and that his voice was unnecessarily hoarse as he called out his word of command.
The two old captains exchanged glances.
"Hail 'em, Henery!" said Cap'n Steiner, shaking a bit.
Cap'n Sands raised his hand to his mouth, and let forth an old-time bellow.
"Ship a-hoy! What ship is that?"
Eight startled oars hung poised in the air. There was a hurried consultation on board. Two heads in particular tried to hide themselves behind the bulwarks. Was it right for pirates to say just who and what they were?
"Why, bless my soul! If that ain't my Sarah's boy! My young grandson, sir, and look at him! And his mother 'tarnally sayin' he's too delicate in the chest to pick the potato-bugs off'n the vines!"
It was Cap'n Steiner who spoke, blinking down at his weakling offspring with startled eyes. Cap'n Sands himself suddenly grew serious of face, and with his stick pointed out a certain small boy with a very red face, who dropped his oar for a moment to wipe a very moist forehead with a partly rolled-up gingham shirt-sleeve.
"Why, I 'm an old sinner if there ain't Charlie Ball's boy! And Charlie jus' sayin' over to Rankin's how that boy o' his was born tired!"
"An' on sech a day!" exploded the other old seaman, overcome.
Before they had recovered from their shock the Greyhound slipped silently and mysteriously away, as all pirate ships should, no matter how flattering such salutations may seem, coming as they did from the oldest sea-dog in all Chamboro.
Cap'n Steiner stood leaning on his cane, gazing after them pensively. Cap'n Sands at first showed signs of becoming suddenly apoplectic, growing purplish about the gills and shaking with some silent and concealed emotion as he pounded his stick on the planks of the old dock. Then he swore softly, many times, and looked in the wake of the disappearing vessel. A pensive shadow flitted across his leonine old eyes.
"Henery, as I 'm an old sinner, them be pirates—out an' out pirates!"
And again mirth overcame him, and he struggled with a tendency to choke, and wagged his head helplessly from side to side. Then he stopped and mopped his brow.
"And sech a day, Henery, sech a day!"
And still again the old stick smote the planks as his eye followed the gyrations of eight unwieldy sweep-oars, silhouetted against the glaring shimmer of the water.
The two old men slowly climbed the bank once more, puffing back to their seats under the shade of the maples.
"Pirates they be, Silas!" assented the other, almost sorrowfully. "Armed to th' teeth, an' a-lookin' for something to capture!"
He gazed regretfully after the odd little black craft. A leaf or two, untimely withered, drifted lazily down from the green boughs above their heads.
"Mind them days, Silas? Mind them days, when we was up to such jinks?" he asked, musingly.
"He-he-he! Do I mind em, Henery; do I mind 'em? Well, now, I guess I ain't forgittin' them doin's! An' d' you mind the time we captured little Katie Wilson, and were a-goin' to hold her for ransom? He-he-he!"
"That was a powerful energetic wallopin' old man Wilson was a-givin' us for it, too!"
There was a silence, and a song-sparrow sang thinly from one of the far-off maples.
"D' you mind, Silas, what a purty girl Katie was, them days?"
Cap'n Sands's hands were under the tail of his alpaca coat, and he sneezed boisterously.
"Yes, an uncommon purty girl, Katie! An' dead this twenty years, Henery, dead this twenty years!"
"You come and cut me out there, you old dog! Mind how she got mifty, 'bout my sayin' she was a purty poor-lookin' captive and ought to spruce up and wash some o' that taffy off'n her face!
"Mind, too, how she got just a leetle scart, first, when we captured her and were a-tellin' her she was goin' to be held for ransom? And what a power o' bawlin' she did a-fore we started feedin' her on horehound taffy?"
"Dead this twenty odd years, Silas!" repeated the other, reminiscently.
"That's so—that's so!" said Cap'n Steiner, softly, listening to the distant song-sparrow. "A purty girl, Katie!"
The two old heads wagged together, silently.
"Them were great days, Silas!"
Silas was thinking of certain things lost in the maze of old memories, and did not answer.
Then he looked down at the river once more,—the river that ran with so many memories for him, and the expression of his wrinkled old face changed again.
He leaned closer to his companion, and whispered something in his ear,—something at which Cap'n Sands chuckled and shook, even while wagging his head disapprovingly.
"Ain't we just a leetle on in years for them sort o' jinks, Silas?" he asked, in mild dissent.
For answer he was given a playful dig in the ribs.
"Tut! tut! What's an odd year or two? It 'd limber us up a bit, Henery!"
"Mebbe!" said the other, weakly.
"Think we ain't spry enough?"
"I ain't known a bed of sickness this twenty-eight years past, Silas Steiner!" retorted the other. Cap'n Steiner, what with his rheumatism and his mid-winter bronchitis, could make no such boast. But his spirit was indomitable.
"Then let 's git after them young rapscallions!"
"A purt-e-e-ee hot day, ain't it, Silas?" was the other's last feeble objection, as Cap'n Steiner linked an arm through his own and the two hobbled hastily and yet secretively across the Common, and with numerous sly diggings of ribs and holding of sides crept down Thames Street.
Once inside Cap'n Steiner's front gate, they circled cautiously through the shadowy orchard, like two guilty children, dodging from tree to tree and finding it no easy matter to sneak past the coldly inquisitive eye of Miss Arabella, busy gathering a mess of butter-beans for the Widow Starbottle, from the Captain's trim little garden.
Just at the foot of this garden, which sloped gently down to the river's edge, the old Captain kept that one stanch and trusty friend, his rowboat. Year after year it remained a vivid and spotless green, painted twice a season by his own scrupulous hand. Just why it was called the Katie Wilson, however, none of the younger generation of Chamboro ever knew. That was a thing of many years ago, an echo of old and far-off affairs, unknown to the busy adventurers of a ruthless present.
They only knew that it was in this rowboat that the cheery old Captain, every Sunday afternoon when the weather was fine, made his way for a laborious mile and a half up the river, to Colonel Taylor's place, where the two old-timers sat in the summer-house and partook smackingly of a bottle of the Colonel's well-aged port wine, reputed to have mellowed in a carefully guarded cellar since the time the Taylor family first came out to the New World.
On his little landing-wharf, of two spotlessly painted planks, Cap'n Steiner took off and folded up very neatly his white alpaca coat. This he tucked away carefully in the bow of the boat, and beside it placed even more carefully that ponderous old muzzle-loader from which more than one Chamboro youth of predatory tendencies had tasted the bitter sting of rock-salt, mostly about early apple-time,—and especially when the Captain's graft of Brandywine Pears on his Strawberry Reds showed the right degree of succulence.
Then, with not a little caution, and some stiffness of limb, Cap'n Sands stepped into the Katie Wilson and dropped, perhaps a little unexpectedly, down into her comfortable wicker-backed stern seat.
"There we be!" cried Cap'n Steiner, leaping nimbly aboard. But the Katie Wilson was unused to such unlooked for agility. She careened and dipped, and for a critical moment held the old Captain balanced on his toes, apparently undecided whether to dive headlong into the water, or drop rather shamefaced down into his seat. Once comfortably settled, however, the green boat was pushed stealthily off from shore, and with a face that might almost be said to wear a scowl of dark and resolute purpose old Cap'n Sands gave a word or two of command, pulled the little tiller-cord, and swung their craft round in pursuit of that undreaming demon of the deep, the Greyhound!
"The young limbs—he-he, we'll show 'em, eh, Silas!" he chuckled as he watched the steady and regular rise and fall of the other's neatly painted little green oars. "We'll show 'em, egad!"
A Grown-Up's Toast
Here 's to each Girl of Long Ago,
Once loved, and lost, alack,
Just big enough, or bad enough,
To love a beggar back!
I toast the True Love, and the Last,
The Saintliest, and the Worst:
But here 's to Her, across the years,
We kissed and loved the first!