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CHAPTER XII

In which the Biter is somewhat bitten


THE pirates of Watterson's Creek sat about the deck of the Greyhound, moodily flinging apple-cores into the stream. Their last ounce of mullein-leaf and Indian tobacco had been smoked away. A spirit of unrest had crept over the idle and impatient crew, as they waited the return of Pinkie Ball. That worthy had volunteered to purloin from an unsuspecting mother's sewing-room a whole rattan rocking-chair, which, carefully unwoven and cut up, ought to supply the crew of the Greyhound with smoking-material for at least a week to come.

The pirates had been on an extended and enervating cruise of several hours, up the river, and were now anchored in midstream, as a precautionary measure against sudden attack, just above the shadow of the old railway bridge. A long and wavering line of cores, punctuated here and there by malignantly pale watermelon rinds, drifted slowly down with the languid current, and attested to the success of their raid on Farmer Quinn's apple orchard.

But still the pirates were unhappy. The Greyhound had not proved a success; and the rainbow tints had gone out of their piratical dreams. For a week eight sad-eyed small boys had been limping and crawling about Chamboro with the bent backs and the halting gait of octogenarians.

"The trouble with this old thing is," said Redney McWilliams, with considerable disgust, "she ain't got no speed!"

He spat through his teeth deliberately, on one of those little piles of sand which lay heaped upon the deck, with great forethought, against the time when the Greyhound's timbers might become slippery with blood.

"Rowin' ain't such fun, either!" added Biff Perkins, looking pensively at the water-blisters on his hands.

The Captain was deep in thought. That fact you could tell by the way his arms were folded across his chest, and by the unusually heavy scowl that darkened his freckled brow.

"Men," he said, presently, striding back and forth while he spoke, "men, we 've got to have a engine for this ship!"

Eight oar-wielding galley-slaves sat up and gazed at one another in open-mouthed amazement. Of course; an engine was just the thing! Why had n't some one thought of it before? But doubts began to suggest themselves.

"Then we can have an awning put up," continued the Captain, airily, "and just sit there in the shade and go steamin' around and capture whatever we like. Then I guess we won't be hearin' so much about water-blisters and sore hands and all that stuff!"

Lonely had tried in vain, weeks before, to instill Spartan views into his crew. He had eloquently advised that they all harden themselves, first by sleeping on broken bricks, then by drinking only muddy water, and by eating things uncooked as often as possible.

"An' we could have a whistle, too, could n't we?" piped up little Binney Pennyfather, the youngest of the crew.

"Cert!" said the Captain.

"And could make a swell after us, like the Lone Star!"

"Course!" said the Captain.

That the Greyhound could ever leave a swell behind her was too much for the credulity of her labor-worn crew.

"Huh! that 's all nice enough, talkin' big that way! But where 's the engine comin' from?" demanded Billie Steiner.

"Where 'd these apples come from?" asked his laconic Captain.

"Off apple-trees," growled Billie. Then a spirit of gentle sarcasm crept over him. "Any of you fellows seen any steam-engines growin' on apple-trees up your way?"

Billie, together with the First Mate, had partaken, somewhat too generously of unripe watermelon, and a dolorous stomach-ache tended to make him rather fretful.

"You ain't fit to be on a pirate ship!" said his worthy Captain.

"I wish I was n't!" retorted Billie.

"So do I," said the First Mate, dejectedly, as he returned from a fruitless inspection of the provision-chest.

"If there was something to eat about a steam-engine, I guess Piggie 'd be barkin' on the other side of the fence!" commented Pud Jones.

The only reply to this was an apple-core that stirred the turkey-feather stuck bristlingly in Pud's pirate hat.

As the Captain strode perplexedly back and forth across his deck a familiar sound smote on his ears. He clambered up on his cabin roof, and peered down into the shimmering river-distance, with a face illumined.

It was the Lone Star, Chamboro's one permanent steamer, coughing and churning and wheezing upstream, with a small raft of logs at her heels.

And at the sight of her every member of that crew understood just what his Captain's thoughts had been! The Greyhound had found an enemy worthy of her mettle.

There was something intoxicating in the thought of ever taking a prize so ponderous. Yet every man on the Greyhound knew there was no other craft propelled by steam in those waters,—with the exception, of course, of the great excursion steamer that came up the river twice every week. But the excursion steamer, for the time being, at any rate, was out of the question.

"Golly, Lonely!" said Pud Jones, fascinated and yet overawed at the thought, "ain't she a pretty big steamer for us kids to talk about capturin'?"

The pirate Captain looked down at the Lone Star contemptuously.

"We 've got to have her, men!" he said, relentlessly.

They saw the wheelsman push off from her in a punt, and scull about picking up loose logs, where his boom had disjointed.

This left only old Brown, the engineer, on board. Having rounded up his logs, the wheelsman sculled back to the tug, where the engineer stooped down over the gunwale and handed him a tin pail. Then he sculled briskly ashore, and disappeared through the doorway of Allen's Saloon.

Such a chance was too much for the Napoleonic soul of Captain Lonely O'Malley. He climbed down from his cabin, and with a determined hitch at his trousers stalked forward.

"Every man who 's for capturin' the Lone Star, this side!" he said, coldly, yet challengingly.

There was a moment of hesitation and doubt, followed by a murmur of questioning admiration. Then one by one the entire crew of the Greyhound came over and stood exultingly beside their Captain. No pirate likes to be called a coward. But—well, they were in for it now, anyway.

Old Brown, the engineer of the Lone Star, was eating his frugal lunch from a wicker basket, on the starboard side of his little propeller,—as one might plainly see from the cant of her deck, for the worthy engineer was very fat. He was waiting, somewhat impatiently, for the return of the wheelsman and the tin pail. Then suddenly he thought he heard the creak of oars out in the river near by.

Without so much as rising from his seat, he twisted his head around the back corner of his smoke-stained little cabin.

As he thus exposed himself to the enemy, a flat-headed arrow, most carefully aimed, whistled past his right ear. And he beheld, at the same moment, a sight that almost made his honest blue eyes pop out.

For crawling up to him, right under the shadow of the Lone Star, was a long black ship flying a skull and cross-bones,—a ship with eleven scowling men on her carefully sanded deck.

Old Brown, in fact, held a piece of cold boiled mutton in his hand, which he was in the very act of conveying to his mouth. Instead of this, he let it drop unnoticed on the deck floor of the Lone Star. For what man is going to be altogether self-possessed when he sees no less than seven key guns leveled at him?

"Stand by there an' surrender," cried a shrill and threatening young voice, "or we 'll blow you out of the water!"

The corpulent old engineer said nothing, but still looked at them with dazed and popping eyes. The next moment the teeth of the pirates' boarding-irons had fastened like wolf-fangs on the bulwarks of the helpless Lone Star.

It took but a second for the Captain, followed by his crew, to scramble aboard their prize.

"I told you it was easy enough," said the Captain, sotto voce over his shoulder, "if you only take 'em unexpected!"

The pirates found it impossible to repress a cheer of victory, as they swarmed down the deck of the enemy.

It was then that the fat old engineer slowly wiped his mouth, and as slowly said something, under his breath, which ought not to be repeated. Lonely, at the moment, was hurriedly inspecting his new engine room. Then he turned to the enemy himself.

"Of course you 're captured?" he announced calmly, yet mercilessly.

"Yes, you 're captured!" cried the delirious pirate crew, surrounding him.

"Sure!" said the engineer, meekly, brushing the crumbs from his oily trousers-legs.

"Men, take possession!"

Then Captain O'Malley turned to the engineer once more, his forgotten gallantry coming back to him just in time.

"I 'm sorry, of course, but I guess we 'll have to take you in tow! They always do, you know!"

"Sure!" answered the engineer again, stretching himself with a fine assumption of unconcern, which even the pirate Captain could see through.

"Here, First Mate, swing the Greyhound round aft, while I throw you a line!"

The only line in sight was twenty feet or so of logging-chain. It was too much for the strength of the pirate Captain.

"Give you a hand, Cap'n?" mildly inquired the engineer, lighting up his pipe as he came forward.

"Thanks, yes," responded the pirate chief, with a loftiness of tone that all but took the old engineer's breath away.

"Keep an eye out, men, for treach'ry!" came the shrill cry of their leader, as he ordered his crew once more on board their ship.

But the warning was uncalled for, and somewhat regretted when once it was uttered, for with his own hand the resigned old engineer slipped the chain through the iron-cased hawse-hole of the Greyhound and made his tug fast to her stern.

As he climbed languidly on board again the wheelsman appeared, smoking a bilious-hued cheroot.

"What 's all this here monkey work mean?" he demanded angrily.

"Shh, Bill!" the engineer cried, holding up
 
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YOU 'LL BE CAPTURED! CALLED THE DELIRIOUS PIRATE CREW

 
a warning finger. "We 're captured man, can't you see?"

Then he said something to the wheelsman which the pirates on board the Greyhound could not hear. But they saw the wheelsman nod his head, slowly and dejectedly. He, too, they hoped, was going to take his medicine like a man.

Then the wheelsman went forward, still wagging his head, and slipped his bow-line off the pile to which he had tied. The next minute the pirates heard the sharp "cling-cling" of the engine-room signal-bell.

"Now you 've got us, boys, go ahead!"

It was the old engineer speaking, with his oily head stuck out of his little blackened doorway.

Even as he spoke his hand went up to the lever, and a moment later the screw of the Lone Star was threshing the water and she was swinging briskly out to midstream.

The pirate crew stood in petrified amazement. Then they came slowly to their senses, and tried in vain to cast off the chain that held them. In vain they wielded their hatchets on the heavy links of iron. In vain the Captain argued for the prompt and efficient sinking of the Greyhound. In vain they exhausted their ammunition on the paintless and imperturbable stern-boards of their captor.

Right down through the heart of Chamboro, where men and women and children, standing on the bridges, and docks, and river-banks, beheld and laughed at their ignominious helplessness, right down past Ellis's Brick Yard and the upper Lime Kiln they were towed, three good miles from their anchorage.

"Now, row back, you thievin' young rowdies! Row back, and mebbe that 'll sweat some o' these gay pirit notions out o' you!"

And the Lone Star cast off, and bustled unconcernedly down about her own private business, whistling a final brazen taunt as she rounded a shadowy bend and disappeared from sight.

 

Forbidden Ground

When we were young, and small, and bad,
We mostly spent our time in
Our neighbors' orchards, though we had
Our own fruit-trees to climb in;
We knew 'twas wrong, and so were glad:
That fact, sir, lay the crime in!

To do the thing that's wrong seems Law,
Law we, and Adam, found it!
The chamber Bluebeard's wife ne'er saw.
Oh, how she longed to sound it!
And how life's colts eat buckwheat straw
With eight-railed fences round it!

Those dreams for which we search and bleed
Are things of untold blisses;
The love we always want and need
Is the love one loses, misses;
The dearest lips are those, indeed.
That never knew our kisses!