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THE
MAROONER

A COMPLETE
NOVELETTE

Author of "The Sign of the Skull," "The Bully," etc.


CHAPTER I

EL CAY DE LOS QUATROS HOMBRES


Like herrings cured in sun and wind
The four lie side by side,
Dry as a husk of coco-rind
Above the creaming tide.
Buccaneer Ballades.

"TURTLER TOM" was the man who discovered them and gave name to the islet. He had beached his sloop in the leeward lagoon the better to calk a leaking seam and found them lying on the sand just above tide reach, the desiccated rinds of what had once been human beings, mummified, distorted husks of shriveled skin and flesh and bone, their bleaching skulls wisped with hair, a few discolored rags flapping about the pitiful remnants.

What tortures had forerun the giving up of their ghosts on this arid shoal that thrust itself above the blue Bermudan waters, Tom could well imagine. There was no water on the cay, no shade, no growth but scanty herbage and brown palmetto scrub that survived between the rains by some miracle. He looked for identification traces in the shreds of personal belongings and found none.

"Dead of hunger and of thirst," Tom said to his Carib sailor. "What brought them here? There is no wreckage."

Then his foot kicked up an object buried in the sand and wind-drift. He stooped and picked it up.

It was a boarding-pistol of unusual design. Forged of the same strip to which the trigger-guard was attached and deep-set in the wooden frame of the barrel was a heavy blade, machete-shaped, sickle-curving, a formidable weapon for close quarters after the discharge of the pan-primed powder and bullet, a thing designed by the genius of deviltry.

Turtler Tom had seen this pattern before though it was rare those days, the recent invention of a buccaneer scourge of the Caribbean. His moody eyes gleamed as he hefted the cunningly balanced weapon by its carved grip.

"Marooned, poor devils! Marooned by 'Long Tom' Pugh!" he exclaimed. "One of his bullies dropped it from his belt, likely, and it got shuffled under the sand. Come, Tampi, we'll bury what's left of 'em."

Turtler Tom bore the news of his grisly find with him back to Providence and to Port Royal and all along his devious water wanderings but the score of Long Tom Pugh was a long one and los quatros hombres lay beneath the weather-fluted sands on the cay that bore their name as only epitaph, unrecognized though doubtless not unmourned.


CHAPTER II

THE MERCY OF LONG TOM PUGH


THE chase had been a long one and Long Tom Pugh raged like a thwarted devil. From dawn until a scant half-hour of sunset Pugh's schooner had trailed the other, both vessels tacking on long reaches with canvas set until their tall masts bent like whips and their lee rails were gutters of foam.

Foot by foot Pugh's Scourge had overhauled the fugitive until the weapon from which Pugh got his name, the "Long Tom" couched in the bows, had found first its range and then its target, so that now the trader lay wallowing in the choppy seas off the tiny cay, hull riddled, foremast gone, its decks a clutter of rope and canvas that served as shrouds to rive of its crew that the last charge of partridge had dismembered and disemboweled. Three men stood near the stern, weary, blood-stained, helpless, yet defiant, watching Pugh's longboat crowded with his bullies dance over the water to take them off.

"A murrain on the luck!" said Pugh. "A stinking shell-pedler! And I thought it a gold-carrier from the Plate! And we short of powder. But they'll pay for it, the dogs!"

He cupped his hands and bellowed across the crisp waves.

"Bring 'em away and let her sink, blast her. The wind's ashift."

The hair upon Pugh's broad and naked chest was black save where a streak of white marked where a cutlas slash had sliced his brisket, but the hair of his head and of his long beard was dyed a rusty purple as if it were stained with dried blood. His fierce face, deep-tanned, deep-scored, was split by a great, bony nose like the beak of a macaw with nostrils that were narrow slitted and twitched as he watched the progress of his boat. One black eye had Pugh and one of hazel and from both of them the devil looked out as it leaned on elbows across the sill of his brain, never free from the fume of liquor and never seemingly affected by it.

He was bare to his belt that was studded with pistols tucked into a gaudy over-sash and to which swung a hanger in a leather scabbard. Wide pantaloons were thrust into wider sea-boots of leather and he stood with his legs wide apart and his furry hands upon his hips. Almost alone of all his crew of forty ruffians who overcrowded the capacity of the Scourge, Pugh wore no earrings. The lobe of one brown ear lopped in twain where some desperate foe had torn away the ornament. His teeth were naturally divided and Pugh had filed them in the manner of the Madagascar savages, the better to characterize his evil countenance.

The sun dropped rapidly and the sinking schooner swashed about in water that was incarnadined with the sunset. Nine of Pugh's bullies were in the longboat, now returning with the three prisoners, forty-odd watched at the rail or made ready for the tack to come, for the fickle day's-end wind was setting them down to the shoals that outribbed from the cay.

The three men were set aboard, their arms pinioned behind their backs and shoved aft to where Pugh stood agrin. They were of varying age and stature and one was bald save for a fringe of hair. But there seemed some link of related features common to all of them and they looked Pugh fairly in the face though the blood was running into the eyes of one of them from a scalp-wound.

"So," said Pugh. "Ye thought to out-sail the Scourge in that coffin-box of yours?"

The bald man answered.

"We could not fight. We had no weapons to match yours."

"Then ye would have fought, priest-face? Eh? Ye would have fought with Pugh?"

"I'll fight with ye now, an ye let one arm free," answered the other composedly.

Pugh's face grew purple with a rush of choleric blood. He whipped a pistol from his belt and leveled it, the hammer slowly cocking to the pull of his finger. Then he lowered the weapon.

"Sink ye for a bragging fool," he said. "But I will not kill in cold blood. I must remember my vow. I am a merciful man. Yet ye crow well. What is your name?"

"We be three Graemes."

Pugh glanced to where the yellow lettering on the pitching stern of the wallowing vessel showed the name Three Brothers and nodded.

"Of Nassau? Turtlers?"

"Aye. Our port is Nassau but we are Carolinans."

"So? What know ye of the schooner Belle Isle bound from the River Plate. She should be hereabouts. Speak up."

"Naught. Nor would I tell ye an' I did."

"Say ye so? Look ye, Graeme, I am a merciful man. And ye are a fool to be stubborn standing on the edge of trouble. It is in my mind that ye are lying. So, I give ye another chance. Tell me what ye know of the Belle Isle and join my crew. We can find room for all of ye and a full share apiece if ye come willingly?"

Silence hung for a few seconds.

"No? Still stubborn? Then we but waste time, brethren three. Into the boat with them!" Pugh ordered as a stronger gust set the Scourge to shivering where she swung in the eye of the wind, uneasy and restive, her keen bows pawing the waves. "Give them the usual provender and set them on the cay."

For the first time something like anxiety showed in the faces of the trio.

"Ye would not maroon us on yon cay?" said the eldest Graeme. "'Tis waterless. Man, 'twill be worse than murder. It means——"

"A fig for what it means," said Pugh. "Ye will shortly find that out. And I am a merciful man, Graeme. I am sending meat and drink."

The brothers exchanged glances. It was as if they nodded acquiescence with their eyes. The bald-headed one spoke.

"Then may God curse ye for a murderer and a coward, Long Tom Pugh!" he said. "May ye come at your end to linger till your tongue grows to the roof of your mouth and your belly shrivels. May your soul shred out into the darkness and whine in the winds for mercy."

He suddenly shot out neck and head and spat full in the buccaneer's face.

Pugh turned livid and his eyes became points of fire. He snatched the scarlet bandanna from the head of one of his crew and wiped his face and beard, then flung the gaudy silk overboard where the wind snatched at it and whirled it far astern.

"Ye are a cunning knave, Graeme," he said and his voice held hate and breathed it as an iron holds heat. "I would that I had time to handle ye aright. Yet, before ye die, ye will wish a hundred times that I had shot ye as ye would have me do. Over with them! Ye will find company ashore, Graeme. Ask the four I left there a while ago to play hosts to ye."

"And speed back," he called to the quartermaster in the stern of the longboat. "These are tricky waters. Ah, look at that!"

The foundering schooner had taken her last sudden plunge and disappeared, but her maintop spar protruded from the water, warning of a shoal toward which wind and sea were slowly backing the Scourge.

"We'll pick ye up outside!" roared Pugh. "Let her come up! Pay off there! Starboard tack!"

He leaped to the wheel, active as a tiger for all his bulk, and laid a guiding-hand to the spokes to aid the helmsman. The lithe schooner gathered way and hurled herself ahead as she caught the wind in the shallow hollows of her sails, close-hauled, fighting free from the threatening reefs and bars. The longboat sped to the shore, tumbling out the three Graemes, hurling after them two kegs, one of which fell short and swashed about in the tide fringe till two of them retrieved it.

The boat went racing back after the Scourge as, clear of shoals, it once more hung in the wind. The bullies clambered aboard and left the longboat, riding to a line, to lunge after the schooner like a leaping dog after its master. Then the sun fell below the horizon and darkness jumped up from its ambush beyond the rim of the sea.

Presently a spark of light appeared on the leeward side of the cay and grew to a crackling radiance as the crisp palmetto fans flared up. About the fire squatted the three brothers, their faces grim in the ruddy glow as they took counsel.

"I would not care so much, save for Margaret," said Will Graeme, the youngest of the three. "The babe was to come this week. I had thought to be at home." And a spasm contracted his features.

"Take heart, lad," said John Graeme, the bald-headed. "We will win through. Aye, and settle accounts with Long Tom Pugh. The rains are not so far off. A month at most. We can eke out. We will. Fret not, Will, the child will be born ere she begins to worry over ye. But we must go carefully. Just keep the life in us till the rains come or we sight some ship. Mayhap we'll get enough from the wreck to build some sort of craft."

"The current swings about the cay," said Alec Graeme. "There was no driftwood on the beach. And we were chased by the Scourge far off the travel lanes. Ye heard what Pugh said about company? How he left four here? This is Quatros Hombres Cay where Turtler Tom buried them that Pugh marooned."

"Yet we will win through," said John Graeme. "I'll handle the rations. Alec, see if the water-keg is full. We can do without tonight."

"'Tis but a double anker," grumbled Alec Graeme as he rolled the keg closer to the fire and John Graeme did the same with the barrel of meat. "Now may the flesh rot on his bones while he lives in anguish!" cried Alec passionately. "This is no water anker! 'Tis brandy! And the other bully beef! The lying, grinning devil with his talk of mercy! Brandy and salted meat and the rains a month away!"


CHAPTER III

THE INN AT PORTO BELLO


Oh, sing me a song of a rover,
A tale of the Spanish Main,
Of a buccaneer Jiving in clover,
And drink to the jolly refrain.

Ho, yo ho, as black as a crow
Is the flag the bullies sail under;
To Long Tom Pugh and his rollicking crew
And the roar of his carronades' thunder.

Ho, yo ho, for the swing of the surge,
Show me a schooner as swift as the Scourge.
Gallant and free are the men of the sea
Who sail under Long Tom, the Wonder

THEY beat out the time of the tune with their rummers and mugs on the scarred tables while their crimson faces loomed through the blue haze of the tobacco-smoky, low-ceilinged room like sun-dogs through a mist. The song ended and Pugh tossed a couple of gold pieces to the singer who spun them with a flick of thumb and finger and roared for more liquor.

There were twenty rowdy, blousy wenches, mustees most of them, bred of full whites and quadroons, olive-skinned and flushed with their portions of the tankards thrust upon them by the pirates who shared them, each woman with either arm about a buccaneer, ogling, cajoling for a dividend of the freely spent, lightly gained gold. Presently the wail of violins joined in a pulse-quickening hornpipe. There was a scuffle for partners, half-jovial, half-ugly, and a score of couples thrust back chairs and tables and swung and lurched upon the sand-gritted floor.

Long Tom Pugh and his bullies were in Porto Bello. There were no hovering king's ships to annoy and the town was theirs, as long as their gold lasted. Pugh did not dance. He sat apart with the quartermaster of the Scourge and his mate, and chief gunner, his evil face seamed in a smile that split his henna-stained whiskers.

"I'm done," said the quartermaster, glowering at the dice he had just cast. "I'm clean as a whistle, curse the bones. There's the devil's own luck in them!"

"There should be," answered Pugh as he scooped in the stake. "They are shaped from the thigh-bone of the man 'Roaring' Raines left to guard his treasure-chest when he buried it on Ransom Cay. Raines buried it and I found it with the skeleton of the poor devil he took ashore to do the digging sprawled atop of the chest. Raines didn't figure on the shifting dunes.

"We got hold of a member of his crew and persuaded him to tell which cay Raines chose to leave the loot on. He told us what he knew and luck did the rest. The wind had blown the sand and there was the hand of Raines' grave-digger sticking up like a sign-post, beckoning us to come and get even with Roaring Dick. And my bo'sun shaped me the dice. Try your own, man. Come, you've a ring there I fancy. I'll stake a gold doubloon against it."

The quartermaster hesitated, then drew the ring from his finger. It was of crude workmanship, fashioned to form a snake of gold with a flawed emerald set in the flat of the head and two diamond chips for the eyes.

"I'll set it against five and no less," he said.

"Three and no more," answered Pugh and piled the stake. A minute later and he stuck it on his own hairy digit.

The quartermaster smothered his resentful oath in his tankard.

"Where did ye loot the ring?" asked Pugh, twisting it about. "I do not recollect seeing it in the sharing."

"I got it from a wench," lied the quartermaster.

He had taken it from the finger of Will Graeme when he had bound his arms behind him. And in this, he, the chosen representative of the crew in the division of spoils, had cheated. But the lie passed.

"She gave it ye for your handsome face, I suppose," said Pugh and the others at the table laughed, for the quartermaster's face was pox-pitted so that his features seemed to have crumbled.

"A winner's jests come easy," he growled and the look he gave Pugh was murderous.

The scrape of the fiddles and the shuffling of feet ended and once more the sweating servers scurried about replenishing the empty mugs. A fight over a girl broke out in a corner and the mustee ran squealing from the grappling men.

"Bring 'em out in the open," bawled Pugh.

With all the blood-lust in them flaming from the liquor they had swigged, a dozen men hustled out the combatants to the open space between the tables.

"Take away their knives," ordered Pugh. "I'll lose no good men for the sake of a worthless wench. A doubloon to the winner!"

Left to themselves the two pirates, roaring like bulls, rushed at each other swinging arms like flails, locked, swayed and fell together to the floor. One got astride of the other and gripped his throat while the under man's knees played a tattoo against his back and he squirmed like a seal. The topmost lost his balance and they rolled over and apart to scramble to their feet amid the yells of their comrades.

There was no science to it and much comedy, for one was squat and bow-legged and the other lanky and gangling. But the latter bashed the short one in the face with a straight left so that his nose seemed to split like a rotten pear and the blood spurted. The squat man bellowed, grabbed his long opponent about the buttocks and sent him hurtling over his shoulder to smash against the table-leg with his head.

The unsound support splintered at the impact and the table pitched forward with all its contents while the room echoed with ribald laughter. The lanky man lay stunned and was hauled out by his feet to have a tankard of ale dashed in his face as the victor advanced to Pugh for his doubloon. A door had opened in the rear and a girl came in whose appearance drew the swift attention of those nearest to her, halting their jesting and buffoonery to a silence that rapidly spread so that she advanced in a strained quietude to the center of the sanded space where she stood for a moment before she gave a nod to the fiddlers and began to dance.

She danced like a reed in the wind, swaying with infinite grace of posture, her feet scarce leaving a circle less than that of an ordinary platter. She was tall and lissom, though full-busted and she looked like a half-opened flower, fresh, unsmirched with paint and holding an air of aloofness that was eery.

Her dark gray eyes, almost violet at times in the uncertain lights, seemed to gaze far beyond the tavern walls, she danced as one might dance at will on the sea-sands, as a nymph might dance, strangely incongruous in that assembly of gross-passioned men, unconscious of her surroundings. Her golden hair was coiffed in classic simplicity and her sable draperies were at odd variance with the tawdry gauds of the mustees who viewed her with palpable disfavor yet shared the silent concentration of the buccaneers.

The air the fiddlers played was soft and low, a crooning rhythm that sounded like the murmur of surf after a storm or a breeze playing amid young birches. And, as she danced, to the masterful, masterless men about her, came visions of Spring woods where hyacinths and primrose clustered, of brooks winding amid lush sedges, all set in the far-off days of their own innocence.

The rhythm changed and she floated 'round the room, light as thistle-down or a foam-bell, her eyes passing over the rough, seamed faces with no hint that she regarded them as indices of humanity, hypnotizing them by the sheer beauty of her dance. Then she snapped her fingers to the players and they swung their bows to a wild tarantelle. The violet eyes became black, sudden roses flashed out on her cheeks, her posturing became of the flesh rather than the spirit, provocative, yet so infinitely graceful that it still held the audience in thrall though their heads swayed to the increasing lilt and their pulses pounded.

She was no longer a foam bell, but a curling wave that leaped, upcurving, cresting to the very feet and then swept back in furious eddies that bewildered with their whirl.

A fiddle-string snapped. She stopped, ivory arms flung back, audacious, challenging, as a shower of coins fell upon the floor and one of the pirates, snatching a tambourine from his quondam consort, gathered up the gold and humbly offered it to her as she courtesied low before Long Tom Pugh, whose eyes were ablaze and whose beaked nose showed its ridge of bone as the nostrils twitched and dilated and the great chest lifted and fell.


HE ROSE, sweeping the table aside and, in one great stride, reached and raised her, crushing her to him while his bearded lips sought hers. Then he drew back with an oath as she twisted free and stood, less, at bay than ready for attack, a dagger she had drawn from between her breasts flashing in her hand, her eyes holding Pugh's while one of his great paws fumbled at his beard where blood was oozing its way through the mat of hair just beneath the line of his chin.

All breaths were held, sensing the verge of tragedy. But Pugh, still fumbling at his beard, slowly retreated until his other hand, back-stretched, felt the edge of the table he had pushed aside. His eyes, no longer blazing, but ablink, were fixed on those of the dancer and, as he leaned against the support, he shivered.

"She is a witch," he muttered. "Look at her eyes. They are not human! By God, she missed my jugular by an inch! She would have let the life out of me!"

And still the room hung on the scene, marveling to see Pugh so strangely tamed yet conscious of the weird power of the woman. Pugh's hand fetched up against a rummer and tightened about it. He lifted it and drained the raw caña it contained. As he set it down the dancer's gaze suddenly fastened on the ring he had won from the quartermaster.

She seemed to stiffen in a sinuous pose, while the arm that held the dagger glided like a white-skinned snake, back in an almost imperceptible movement that presaged a lightning thrust. It came, but only to sheath the knife between her breasts once more, and she laughed.

"Know ye not ye must not touch me?" she asked, and her voice, clear as a bell, seemed to come from afar off like the sound of a distant chime. "Ye must not touch me, for I am Death," she said. "I am the White Death and this dress is the shroud of Love." Her eyes, absolutely fearless, burned in their absolute belief of what she spoke to Pugh's brain and to all in that still silent room. The light in them was uncanny, as if the soul no longer reigned behind them in its seat, they were lambent with the high glaze of madness. And they held Pugh as a snake charms a bird.

"You are Death?" he muttered. She nodded.

"But you need not fear me yet," she said. "I have not harmed you. Only warned you. Did I not dance for you? And you sought to take me. Know ye not that it is Death who comes for you?"

She advanced her hand and the great bulk of Pugh cowered. He crossed himself and many of his men did likewise.

"Where got ye that coiling ring about your finger?" she asked.

He took it off and offered it to her.

"Take it," he said. "Take it and go."

"There is blood on it," she answered. Pugh looked shudderingly at the circlet and laid it on the table, not realizing it was his own gore from the ringers that' had pressed his neck that stained it.

"It is yours," he said shortly. "Take it."

"Nay, I have not yet earned it. Nor have ye told me its history. Surely it has a history? Mayhap it was a love-pledge once upon a time? Tell me. Then I will sing for ye and so I shall have earned it."

"I know naught of it," said Pugh. "I won it but now from him."

He nodded at the quartermaster and the woman's eyes scrutinized the pitted face for an instant.

"Ye shall tell me presently," she said, and smiled.

And with her smile the dread that had stiffened the face of the quartermaster passed and he grinned at her with yellow teeth. The witch had turned siren and his vicious blood responded.

"I'll spin the yarn," he said. "I am not so timid as others." And he glanced sneeringly at Pugh who had sat down and was shading his eyes with his hand.

"No?" she asked. "Then why do ye make the holy symbol?" For the pirate's bundled fingers still touched his tunic above his heart. "He who woos Death does not always win. Yet Death is kind."

She stepped back and commenced to sing.

Where lies he now?
Lost love of mine;
His marble brow
Is creased with brine,
His lips caressed
Are chill and gray;
How warm they pressed
The other day.
His body swings
To shifting tide,
No twilight brings
Him to his bride.
Yet do I know
Our tender vow
Shall ever bind,
As then, so now.
When fails my breath,
When life grows dim,
I'll thank grim Death
For finding him.

It was a dirge that changed into a pæan of joy. While she sang there was not a soul-calloused sea-rover, not a hardened drab but sighed to the memory or the lost hope of love, tender, gallant and enduring, not one but thrilled to the credence of the last triumphant lines. In a spell they sat as she took the ring and glided from the room, the tambourine with its golden offerings untouched.

Then Pugh shook off the mood that compassed him.

"Go, bring her back," he ordered. "Fiend take me, but I'll teach the jade. I'll take her, aye, and break her till she sighs for death. Rot me, up and after her, I say."

No one moved till the quartermaster, with a contemptuous look at Pugh, got up.

"I'll find her," he said. "But I'll not promise to bring her back."

Pugh started up, coughed and set a swift hand to his mouth. The stab had pierced through to his throat and his mouth had filled with blood as his anger quickened its flow. And the quartermaster, catching up the tambourine as he went, vanished into the night outside.

The tavern-keeper came hurrying with a bowl of water and a pannikin of rough salt. Pugh swallowed his own blood and waved him aside.

"'Tis no hemorrhage, fool!" he said. "Only a scratch. Unless," he added, half to himself, and his ruddy face paled, "the, witch poisoned it."

"Best let me fetch a leech," said the tavern-keeper. "Indeed I know little of the wench, save she is a bit mad. She comes from Nassau, some say. She has an infant. She lost her man at sea and it crazed her. But this is hearsay. She has danced here and elsewhere and sings among the sailors, seeking news of her man. Yet she seems not to know her own name. And she was ever harmless until now."

"I have a leech of my own," said Pugh. "If the fool is sober? So, Folsom, here ye are. Take a look at this slit the she-devil put in me. Where is the quartermaster?"

"Gone after the witch," said the discredited medico, who had joined the outlaws of the Scourge.

"May she slash his weasand agape," said Pugh. "We would be well rid of both of them. What think ye of the wound?"

"I think 'tis clean. Some ointment and a stitch, maybe——"

"Then come off to the schooner. Lads, we sail on the flood close after dawn. I have news of a gold-ship. And," he added as he left the tavern with the leech, "if she bewitches the quartermaster we'll sail without him, He is too solid with the men now, for my liking."

As they went down the beach the chorus broke out again behind them, muffled by the closing door:

Ho, yo ho, as black as a crow,
Is the flag we bullies sail under,
To Long Tom Pugh and his rollicking crew
{{em|1And the roar of our carronades' thunder.


CHAPTER IV

MARGARET GRAEME


IT IS hard to say if Margaret Graeme was mad. Perhaps it was merely the passing fever of a brain fit by the exaltation of one great concentration of purpose, bred of a mating love and hope—the finding of her man. Will Graeme had promised to be back for the birth of their son; no ordinary circumstance would have held him.

Now he was two months overdue and for six weeks she had been seeking news of him, bending her will to the best ways and means of cajoling sailormen, the use of her beauty, of her voice and of her grace, so used as to keep herself inviolate for Will. So had grown in her a wondrous cunning coupled to her gifts of dance and song that had bubbled up within the sweet fountain of her body in the happy days of love and mating.

She had thought of the boucaniers. There were other perils of the deep, but it was not yet the season of hurricanes, and the Three Brothers was a stanch and speedy craft, while Alec and John and Will formed a trio of mariners who were innate masters of the sea rather than doomed to be its playthings. In her six weeks of flitting from port to port she had heard more than once of Quatros Hombres Cay and the way of Long Tom Pugh and others of his calling.

Earlier pirates had been different, men big in a crude way, moved by fits of cruelty or generosity as the mood swayed them. Sometimes they would kill, kill for the sheer joy of blood-letting, drunk with the fight, the reek of powder and the drive of blade or point through elastic flesh and stubborn bone. And again they would give some gallant foe his ship after they had glutted their fancies from the cargo, or send the survivors adrift in an open boat to take their chance of landing after having sworn them not to inform.

But Pugh and his ilk took no chances. They were marooners, leaving their victims on desert cays to perish, destroying all witnesses, yet styling themselves merciful.

And Margaret's grief-shocked brain had determined that buccaneers had taken her Will and his brothers. True, the Three Brothers' hull held nothing worth the rifling but she had the heels of the trading fleet and the pirates were apt at changing to a faster or sounder vessel than their own. On these lines Margaret had hidden her identity, asking rather than leading up to information, listening, piecing together, charming her crews and selecting by her woman's wits the natural chiefs among them.

Even the child came second. With her on her wanderings went a coal-black West Indian negress, a giantess in size and strength, a child in loyalty and admiration of her golden-haired mistress, who played nurse to the infant and guardian to the mother.

Margaret knew, when she left the tavern, that the pox-pitted quartermaster would follow her. It was the compelling urge of her sex, grown to its utmost power in the hothouse of her love, that called to such rough spirits yet held their coarseness in check by the purity of her own spirit's flame. She was a Circe and she bent men's passions and wills as one might weave osiers to a basket.

As the quartermaster, the hot blood flooding his brain to one mad desire that was only tempered by a certain dread, emerged, tambourine in hand, its golden coins jingling slightly on the taut parchment, out from the heated tavern into the quiet night, he saw, between the interlacing shadows of the palms upon the shell road, silver where the moon lustered it, the figure of the dancer, vague, uncertain, almost ghostly in the checkered light that shifted with the play of the land wind in the plumes of coco-palms. She had a mantilla about her head, but he caught the gleam of her eyes as she glanced his way, and marked the play of her beckoning hand.

Involuntarily he crossed himself, then swore at his own weakness with a crude sea-oath and followed her in his lurching deck-gait. Followed, for she glided ahead without ever looking back, on beyond the clustering houses of the port, on to where a path led through the sea-bush. She went fast, and the quartermaster, his heart pounding a devil's jig against the cage of his ribs, lunged after, striving in vain to gain without breaking into a run, from which the same latent, tugging fear at the back of his inflamed brain prevented him.

They came into a scanty clearing where a mud cabin stood and a little stream flowed from the hills and spent itself in the sand. An owl hooted and the quartermaster checked his pace at the omen. It might be the witch's familiar. But he was a slow-witted man, save in the practise of his calling, and the strength of his body and the triumph of a hundred personal skirmishes had endowed him with a sturdy belief in his own prowess that built up a dogged courage born of the flesh rather than the mind. His purpose once set, he would hold to it. And he followed.

Lights glowed suddenly in the two visible windows of the little cabin and he saw the door open as the woman reached the threshold and, turning for the first time, drew aside her mantilla, showed him the witching oval of her face with its gleaming eyes and, with the tiniest beckon of her head, passed in.

There was but one room in the low-roofed place. By the light of two brass lamps burning whale-oil, he saw that it was empty, saw too, that the only other door, at the back, was barred on the inside. There was little furniture. A low bed stood behind a screen and, near the pillows he saw what seemed a small bundle underneath the coverlet.

Who then had opened the door or lit the lamps? He felt the hair rising at the nape of his neck and the incipient goose-quills lifting down his spine. His hands tapped the pistol butts in his belt and the handles of his dirks and the swift wish came to him that he had a silver witch-bullet in the muzzle of one of the former.


BUT the woman had turned and, radiantly alluring, pointed to a rough chair in which he sat, even while he felt little cold beads break out upon his brow beneath his headkerchief. A slight draft caused him to slightly turn his head and roll his eyeballs toward the door through which he had just entered. It was slowly closing of its own volition. The dancer was holding out a pewter mug toward him.

"It is caña," she said. "I will pledge you first."

She sipped a little and swallowed it. He could see the moisture of the liquor on her crimson lips and he took the mug and drained it. The ardent stuff fired him, his eyes became bloodshot and he leaned toward her, swaying a trifle like an amorous bear. God, but she was beautiful! White—and tender and sweet! But some tingling touch of restraint still thralled him.

"What if I should take you, mistress?" he uttered in a deep guttural.

She surveyed him unafraid with her shining eyes. They held a hint of amusement.

"You would be dead long before the dawn," she said, and the utter conviction of her voice hammered home to him the feeling that she spoke sooth.

"Did I not tell you I was Death?" she almost crooned. "I could kill you in a hundred ways, so very easily. They say I am a witch. You think so as you sit there. Wouldst see my familiar? Look at the window."

Swiftly she lowered the wicks of the two lamps till they barely showed. The moonlight came in at one window and made a wedge-path to where the quartermaster sat. The path began some two feet from the window where the shadow of the wall below the sill ended. It was very white and luminous, squared off by the woodwork of the panes.

Slowly a blotch began to eclipse its brightness. A drumming noise commenced and quickened as the blotch enlarged and the pulse of the mariner beat faster until it seemed as if the sound were that of the blood flowing through his own veins. Then, suddenly, a face leered in at the window.

The face of a demon, livid, emitting a pale lambency that set off a great, grinning mouth set with pointed tusks between which lolled the tip of a lusting tongue, staring eyeballs floating in white circles, wide nostrils eagerly agape and crisp hair that seemed alive with mysterious lights. The skin was black, like that of a devil from the pit, and it appeared fungused with the phosphorescence of decay. It blotted out the moonlight and shone by its own radiance.

Santa Maria! This dancer was no woman! She was a ghoul, a succubus! The quartermaster snatched a pistol from his belt and pulled trigger. By some mischance the powder had fallen from the pan and it missed fire. But his brain gave no such ordinary explanation. The face was still there. And, by the living God! A snake was twining through the tresses! He flung himself at the door that opened outward. It was of solid hardwood and it resisted his heavy thrust as if it had been of iron.

Behind him the dancer laughed. He turned, sweat clammy on him, at bay, fumbling for a knife. The lamps were turned up again, the face had gone.

"Sit down," she said. "Since ye can not go, sit down. I mean ye no harm."

"No harm? Then why——"

"So ye should not harm yourself by trying to harm me. Take more caña."

She handed him a fresh measure and took a pipe from a stand, filled it and handed it to him with a paper spill that she had lighted above the flame of her lamp. Half-mechanically he drank the liquor and accepted the pipe, sitting down once more.

"Are ye human or what?" he asked, gaining false courage from the caña and the homely elements of her hospitality. "Or have ye tricked me? By the wounds of God's Son, that head cast a shadow on the floor. 'Twas no spirit!"

He half rose.

"Wouldst try another pistol at it?" she asked smiling. "Or will ye go outside and seek it. The door is open now. Or closed, as I will. But I am flesh and blood. See."

She took his rough hand in her smooth one and set it on the warm satin of her forearm. The beast in him leaped to the front. He sprang up, coarse mouth open, eyes crimsoning, his clutching hands apart.

"Sit down," she said, and her voice rang like the crack of a trainer's whip. "If ye would win me ye must woo me. Sit down!"

His half-befuddled brain obeyed the dominance of her will and he crouched rather than sat, as an unwilling brute going through a disliked performance.

She had said "if." Would she come willingly to him? Would she play an obedient, eager beauty to his beast? If only she would take her eyes off his. She might be human, but those eyes were not. They made him blink as they had made Pugh blink. Yet she had preferred him to Pugh. Why not? He was the better man for all his ravaged face. Some day. . . .

"Ye are a brave man," she was saying. "Ye have done brave things and ye will do braver, with my aid. Come, ye were going to tell me about this ring."

There may have been some subtle herb steeped in the caña. The negress, voodoo-worshiper, who had so ably backed her mistress by her startling apparition, her sooty face smeared with match-phosphorus, firefiies in her wool, a harmless snake looped in the kinks, knew many secrets.

It was not the first time she had raised a devil to her mistress' conjuring, using such simple but not necessarily transparent means as in the present case when she had lit the lamps and swung the door at sight of Margaret's approach backed by a sailor-gaited man. Then, descending through the cellar-trap, kept covered by a grass rug, she had emerged by the outer hatch to play her demoniac rô1e and set a prop against the entrance door as she and her mistress had planned for such emergency.

And it was small wonder that, with the setting, the suggestion and eery atmosphere that environed Margaret, the quarter-master, knowing nothing of the existence of her sooty slave, had deemed the apparition supernatural.

Perhaps Margaret Graeme's stress of will gave her hypnotic power. The quarter-master gazed upon the dull emerald and the twinkling eyes of the golden snake and felt his own will melting into a desire to serve. If she was Circe, he was Caliban.

He had meant to lie about the ring, to spin some yarn redounding to his own prowess, but his words came aside from his own volition and he spoke the truth.

"There were three of them left, all brothers," he said. "We chased them all day, thinking them a gold-ship from the Plate, for there was one due in that neighborhood. The schooner was fast. We overhauled it at sunset and we sank it. We killed all the crew, for'ard and amidships, with a round of partridge. The Three Brothers it was called. Their name was Graeme.

"We brought them aboard in the longboat. I bound the youngest of them and I took this ring from his finger as I made it fast. One was bald and he mocked Pugh, who sent us ashore with them. We left them with a keg of salt-horse and an anker of brandy. 'Pugh's provender,' we call it. They are dead now and you have the ring."

"Where did ye land them. Where?"

"Nay, I know not. I told ye we chased them all day. We took no sun that noon. Nor did I check our bearings in the log for Pugh and I were at outs and I bunked for'ard for a week before. And since. Somewhere to the southeast of the Wind'ard Isles."


HE HAD told all he knew. In the longboat he had not heard Pugh mention the four men set ashore at a time when he himself had been ashore at Skull Cay, their own headquarters, recovering from fever and a bad shot-wound. Nor did Pugh himself know that Turtler Tom had found the shriveled men and styled the islet Quatros Hombres.

Margaret repressed a sigh. She was balked of the pith of what she sought even while she heard what caused her heart to leap. For Will was still alive—she was strangely confident of that. He had been on a barren cay for eight weeks, nearly nine, for the quartermaster had said Sunday, and the babe was born on Thursday night. Nine weeks with the food that was an aggravation rather than sustaining, the rains had not yet come though they were overdue, but she was sure that her Will, her gallant, strong, loving Will, would win through. As her love had made her do wonders so his would help him to a miraculous preservation. Then there were John, the canny, and Alec, the capable. Oh, it was impossible to think of them perishing!

So now she bent her wits to locating the cay. "Somewhere southeast of the Windward Islands" was like saying "somewhere in the haystack lies the needle." There were hundreds of cays—no man yet knew how many cays, since the charts were acknowledged vague—humping themselves above the waves, just awash, arid isles of the ocean desert.

But Pugh knew. And Pugh must tell. Pugh would be more difficult. He was not as plastic as his quartermaster, quicker-witted, more—due to his imagination—of a beast when aroused. Margaret swiftly made up her mind to ply the quarter-master of all he knew of Pugh, his rendezvous, his habits, his next intentions. This she would take to the king's ship—there was one expected soon at Providence, and she would make her bargain. News of how to capture Pugh in exchange for information to be dragged from the pirate as to the whereabouts of the cay on which he had set the Graemes. She might go farther and ask for passage on the king's ship.

Yet this course—and she reasoned so swiftly that the quartermaster knew naught of her mental process—was uncertain. Pugh might be killed in the fight. And the Scourge had outsailed many a king's ship. She must have two strings to her bow. The quartermaster was her surest method. Later would come the ultimate revenge if aught really happened to her Will.

While the shuttle of her mind shot nimbly through the warp and woof of her brain, weaving in bright strands of hope, the land-wind swept down from the hills in a sudden rush, bringing with it the swift patter of rain. Her heart leaped. It was a sign—a sign that before many hours the season's fall would be mercifully drenching that scorched cay where Will fought off death.

She turned to the quartermaster.

"It is a pretty ring," she said. "I am sorry it has no stranger history or that we do not know it. Thank you."

"Thank me not. Thank Pugh, or, rather, thank no one. You paid for it with your dancing. God, it was like the swaying of the seaweed in the lagoon pools when the tide shifts and all the colored fish swim in and out. And that last. It was a flame! See, I forgot the gold they gave ye."

He took up the tambourine with its jingling coins from the table.

"I need it not," she said. "Take it. Ye can use it."

Open-mouthed, he goggled at her insistence, then pouched the gold.

"Ye care not for money?" he said incredulously.

"Not for coins. They pass through a thousand hands a hundred times a year. They are counters in the game. I like jewels. I love jewels!"

She sighed, and looked at him with deliberate languishment.

"I have seen rare ones, aye, and owned them," he boasted. "I will get ye jewels that have adorned princesses, jewels from sacred shrines, jewels from the hilts of chieftain's swords. I will outweigh thee with jewels. Why, look ye, once——"

"Go on," she said. "Tell me of yourself, brave man."

There is no flattery so subtle as that of Desdemona's gift. All the world loves a ready listener, and the quartermaster talked until his own experience, his own limited invention, and what he remembered of the yarns of others were combined in his Ulyssean tale. Ever and anon the wind would rise to a gale with spit and slap of rain that passed unnoticed by the teller. At last he paused and emptied the mug she had kept replenished.

"I knew you for an adventurous man and a brave one, Simon Hart," she said, for he had told her his name. "You have told me your past. Give me your hand. I will read ye the future."

Then from his horny palm she conjured a vision of success, tinged with suggestions to her own end that so accorded with Simon Hart's self-estimation that it knit his will to achieve these things. She read and leavened his jealousy of Pugh, of any master, she cajoled him and held out hints of reward until he swore by all the gods of sea and land that she was a marvel and that he would prove her so.

"The men are with me," he boasted. "Pugh is puffed up with pride and has forgot his fellowship. They are tired of seeing him with the lion's share and, with their smaller measure, only harsh words. He would forbid them the freedom of the cabin, he would curb their shore liberty, he calls no conferences, he gives only half an ear to what I set before him.

"The wind blows my way now. And when we have given him the black spot, when he is deposed and I rule and reap a harvest of the Caribbean, wilt come with me to Skull Cay and queen it? I will build you a house and bring you mustee slaves, white slaves and black, and I will be the chiefest of them. I will make Pugh your servant. I will humble him as I will elevate thee. Wilt come?"

"Come back to me soon and tell me ye have done these things. We will reap the harvest later. Prove to me you are a better man than Pugh. Bring him to me or me to him——"

"What want ye of Pugh?" he asked with sudden suspicion.

"I hate him. He tried to kiss my lips. He would have taken me by force. I could have killed him but I would rather see you break him and then give him to me. See, the lamps are wan. The day breaks."

Simon Hart leaped to his feet and looked through the rain-streaked window at the graying east.

"We sail on the flood," he said. "Pugh would go without me. Farewell!"

He would have embraced her roughly, but she eluded him, and a hint of struggling rose stained the sky above the hills and flushed the room.

"Farewell," he cried again and left the cabin, running heavily across the clearing. Margaret watched him with eyes from which the glaze of fever had lifted to show exaltation struggling with weariness and saw him plunge into the bush path with a hasty wave to her. Then she turned back into the cabin and leaned above the small bundle on the bed behind the screen.

"Babe, babe," she breathed softly. "Your father, whom ye have never seen and who has never seen your little straight limbs and his own image in your eyes and shape, is coming home again."

And the pattering, saving rains told the beads of her prayers.

When the great negress came softly in she found Margaret Graeme asleep on her knees beside the bed, continuing her grateful petitions in her dreams.


CHAPTER V

FOX AND HOUNDS


FOR the third time the Scourge, with mutiny mounting in the hearts of her crew, headed up for Skull Cay, Pugh's rendezvous in the delta of the River Plate. For the third time the chagrined lookout in the top saw through his glass the king's ship in the offing, visible to him by her higher spars and canvas. Behind them, outdistanced for the time, more by luck than speed, for the Scourge's bottom was fast gathering a drag of weed, Pugh knew the Thetis, sloop-of-war, was following relentlessly.

Somewhere below the sea rim her consort was cruising. And they were all after the Scourge. The hunt for Pugh was on, and these three indomitable, untiring gazehounds of the sea had viewed him and never had one of them, or two, failed to loom on the horizon at nightfall and again at dawn.

Once, after a gale that blotted sea and sky, a frigate had shown so close to them in the swift clearance that the bullies of the Scourge could see from their deck the yellow hull with its blue top-works and the scarlet gun-ports that opened eagerly to belch a broadside that came skipping and scattering across the waves. Pugh had run for it, outmetaled by this frigate of the fourth-class but not outsailed. Then the sloop-of-war had appeared, heading them off, and Pugh and his bullies fought a smashing encounter.

The sloop had them inshore and the frigate was plowing along far astern, so that there was nothing for Pugh to do but run the gantlet of the sloop's broadside until he could forge ahead on his superior speed. This the Scourge had finally accomplished, but not until showering round-shot had taken toll of the crew and damaged the gear so that Pugh had to fish his fore-topmast. Five bullies went overboard to the ground sharks, seven still tossed and groaned in the stuffy cock-pit, their jagged wounds attended by the leech with the rough surgery of those times.

Their best suit of sails had been sadly rent by the iron hail and they had been given no time to patch, only to change foresail and two of the jibs for extra canvas, well worn and none too sound. Altogether they were in evil case. Their bottom was fouling rapidly so that already they could note the difference of speed and answer to the helm. Their water was low and beginning to smell musty. Worst of all, the powder was running short.

They had made but a brief stay at Porto Bello on account of the tip given Pugh by the tavern-keeper concerning the gold-ship and they had been unable to buy munitions there. They had missed the gold-ship, or the tip had been false, the men were tired and lacked sleep, the grog was none too plentiful and Simon Hart assiduously encouraged the idea that it was all the fault of Pugh, that the captain's luck had gone, that he had had his day and that the passing of the "black spot" was in order. Such whisperings went about without any knowing who started them.

Pugh sensed the trouble, sensed too that the quartermaster was the brewer and cursed the day that he had taken among his crew a man who knew navigation. So far the common peril kept the snake of rebellion coiled and only sleepily resentful. Once out of it, Pugh determined that Simon Hart must die, in such fashion that the crew should not suspect Pugh of the deed. And Hart read the wish and the will in Pugh's demeanor so that the two went warily, watching each the other.

It was the continuous presence of one or other of the king's ships in the Plata Gulf that gave Pugh greatest uneasiness. True, he might, at nightfall, slip into one of the many mouths of the Plate and work his way through the labyrinth of creeks, but it was vital to refit and careen and to reach the stores and powder in the magazines at Skull Cay, but it seemed evident that the enemy knew of the existence and location of that rendezvous.

Some one had blabbed, Pugh knew not whom. There were moments when Simon Hart wondered if the dancing witch had played him false, but he could see no reason for such vindictiveness toward himself and her hate of Pugh he set down to a woman's whimsy, a flare-up that would die as swiftly as it had flamed. Nor did it curb his ultimate ambition to displace Pugh and see himself as a master buccaneer, a swaggering, colorful figure to be sung of ashore and at sea.

Meanwhile they were in jeopardy. They were closer to the land and to their haven than the frigate, but the Scourge lay in a belt of alternate calm and sudden, forceless catspaws that sent the schooner surging forward for a little footage, then died away to leave her with slapping canvas and jerking rigging as she pitched on the groundswell. But the frigate was coming in on a full breeze. All her courses were set and studdingsails had been spread in her captain's eagerness to head off the chase.

On she came, lifting higher and higher until they could see the gleam of her wet side, its airy roll as it lifted, and the creaming rush at her bows. And still the sharp line of the wind, dark against the sluggish shore waters, showed sharp and clear and steady, two miles seaward of the Scourge. Presently the frigate ran out of the breeze, her studdingsails hung idle, course after course wrinkled from their bellied fulness and the crew began to take in some of the useless kites. Under her own impetus she glided into the calm belt that girdled the schooner and lay there heaving to the swell.

Pugh looked at the distant land and at the haze that hid the crests of the range. He looked at the sky that was a blue flame and he looked at the sea about him, a sea of greenish brass. He looked at his crew and at Simon Hart and gritted his teeth as he walked his quarterdeck.

"May their souls crisp in hell!" he muttered, and the oath included king's men and his own.

He was trapped. He had less than thirty able men and presently boats would drop over from the king's ship, filled with fighting men, two at least to his one, and they would come swinging over the swell with the bosun's pipe of "boarders away" still ringing in their ears. His men, if they could be called his, would fight hard and well, but there would be no spirit in them, only the sullen, desperate courage of the cornered pirate while the king's men would swarm over and through the nettings with cheers.

He leveled his glass. Already tiny figures were swarming at the davits of the frigate. Pugh snapped the telescope shut.

"Lay aft here, all hands," he roared. "Men, we're in a tight box. See to it they don't nail the lid down on us. The devil's own luck is in the weather, and, hear me all, I'll serve a mass to Satan an he'll but send us enough wind to slide by that frigate! We've got to beat off their boarding-party. So up double-nettings and fight like the devil's own. Gunner, I'll lay Long Tom myself. Double-shot your carronades. Use partridge and canister. Lively, all of ye, or ye'll be squirming on hell's griddles in an hour."

Pugh went forward and saw to the loading of his long bow-chaser, one hand fondly on the sleek metal skin of his barking serpent while he hung over the breech, watching the foremost boat from the frigate as it came up on the long surges of the ground-swells and hung on the crests for a moment, the oars of the men dipping in rhythmic man-of-war sweep, making the four craft that had been dispatched against them look like water beetles, straddling on top of, rather than in, the water.


LITTLE specks of white light broke out from the weapons of the fighters, soon the pirates could see the gay colors of the uniforms, the figures of the officers in the stern sheets, urging their rowers on in the gallant race for the honor of being first aboard the chase. They could see the spurts of foam from the quick, even catch of the ash blades, working with toy-like precision. The little flotilla split apart, they were going to attack on both sides.

The pirates worked like fiends, raising a double-net above the rail, piling up their ammunition, setting handy pike and double-ax and pistol and musket. Many were armed with Pugh's special boarding pistols, he himself carried a variety of small arms in his belt and slung from a sash that ran across his bare and matted chest.

Every man was nude to the waist, belts were taut and kerchiefs wrapped tight about their brows and each man's face was grim for the encounter. Swabs stood beside the inhauls of the carronades and buckets of water ready to cool the heated metal. By the foremast they were taking turns at a grindstone, edging their cutlases afresh and the sparks shone orange in the sun before they died.

And still Pugh waited, calculating the range and the lift of the water before he fired. He was the master-gunner of them all, and their only hope lay in smashing at least one boat, no easy mark as it raced on. The leading cutter poised on the rounded summit of a swell and Pugh, squinting through the sight, dipped the glowing linstock to the powdered touch-hole. The Long-Tom roared and white smoke cauliflowered up from the muzzle in the still air. Pugh, peering through the screen, saw the shot souse into the sea beside the boat, shearing off the blades of the port oars and throwing the crew into temporary confusion.

"Jump to it, —— ye, jump!" he yelled, lending his strength to the inhaul of the gun, seizing the swab himself and plying it dexterously.

The charge was set and rammed home with almost incredible swiftness and Pugh's hawk eyes fiercely sighted the mark. The missile plumped fairly into the cutter, fragments flew and the sea was dotted with the black forms of struggling men, survivors of the deadly aim.

The second boat swung in to the rescue and Pugh laughed.

"A taste of our metal they didn't relish," he crowed. "We'll try 'em again."

But his next shot ricocheted harmlessly past the target and a puff of white smoke from the bows of the frigate, followed by a hollow boom, sounded the recall.

"Done! They're done, the snivelling hounds!" cried Pugh.

"No, by God, the wind is coming!" He had seen the flattened royals and sky-sails on the distant frigate puff and fall to puff again while a line of foam showed faint at her bows. The boats had turned with the men they had rescued from the wreck of the cutter and were speeding back. Twice more the Long-Tom roared without a hit.

Seaward the sky had suddenly darkened, wind pouring out of gathering clouds as from a bellows, the swift riffle of it all about the frigate now and reaching toward the Scourge. The king's men had to get aboard, which equalized to some extent the fact that the schooner was last to get the breeze. A fine haze had veiled the sky and tarnished the sun, a moan came out of the source of the wind, a hurricane was forward. It was not a Plate pampero, but a true sea-gale.

"A black mass to thee, Satan!" shouted Pugh. "We'll beat 'em yet!"

The sudden unleashed gale grew in intensity. Aboard the frigate they were shortening sail as she rushed on toward the Scourge. But now the schooner had caught the breeze and was fleeing northward, the wind abeam, the sweet fines of her entry slicing the long rollers that had replaced the heave of the swell. The heavier frigate heeled, her bows deep to the catheads, her masts abend. A faint sound, like a pistol shot, came to the Scourge and an unfurled royal flew from the frigate like a bird. Yet her superior canvas, while it held, smashed her through the seas faster than the Scourge, which trailed a beard of weed along her keel, and she held the windward gage.

The frigate did not fire. The distance was still extreme for her range and the pitch and toss of chaser and chased made targetry a waste of powder. But her canvas held in the bolt-ropes, the lighter sails having been furled before the full fury of the gale broke, and she gained, little by little. A drenching area of rain from an overswollen cloud passed between the two ships, hurrying to gain the shore with the remnants of its load and for a minute or so blotted out all view.

Following it came a gusty squall and the wounded topmast of the Scourge smashed at the cross-trees. Still the frigate gained and now a long headland loomed up, barring the way. The schooner could not clear it, but Pugh held on to his tack until the last moment before he ordered—

"'Bout ship!"

The pirates hauled madly on the sheets as the Scourge spun on her keel and clawed a frantic way seaward into the face of the gale with the king's ship, plunging like a bull, coming fast up. As the schooner crossed her bows the frigate yawed and fire spurted from her dripping sides. Round shot screeched through the rigging above the voice of the storm, round shot gouged the Scourge's planks and tore away her rail, round shot slugged into her side-planks as she rose to the roll of the sea. Peak and throat halyards of the mainsail were torn away as the blocks came smashing down, the canvas drooped like the broken wing of a bird and the schooner fell off in the trough.

Two men swarmed aloft with repair tackle, but as she rose to the pitch of the great waves another volley came and men dropped groaning while Pugh cursed at their impotence.

"Satan take me, but send rain," he bawled as he stood at the wheel astride the headless helmsman who had fallen at his feet in the last discharge.

Above them an ebon cloud was rived with lightning, and from the gash a blinding torrent fell, hiding sea and sky, battering the deck and hissing in the scuppers, striving to flatten the rearing waves that ran and leaped uncontrolled as the hurricane reached its height.

The mainsail, reefed close, rose again, and the stricken schooner gained headway. Pugh could not see the frigate for the storm and darkness, but he knew she too must have tacked to avoid the cape and was now using every effort to combat the gale. Out to sea they fought, foot by foot, under the inky pall of the sky, while the thunder pealed and the rain thudded down. Once only as a blue javelin split the clouds from the zenith did Pugh catch a glimpse of the laboring frigate.

Hour after hour they beat out until they had struggled through to the skirts of the tempest, and at sunset sailed a troubled but subsiding sea without sail in sight or fall of land.


CHAPTER VI

REPRISAL


AT MIDNIGHT Pugh sat alone in his cabin. Neither his lieutenant, Folsom, the leech, nor Simon Hart, who slept in tiny cubbyholes that opened from the main cabin, had come aft since they had run out of the storm. All three were forward with the men, and though Pugh had closed transom and door against the sound, he was conscious of snatches of song and drunken shouting in the bows.

For the first time he had lost control of his men. They had refused to clean ship after they had run out of the gale, and Pugh, swallowing his black wrath, had let the matter go under Simon Hart's smiling excuse that the hands were dogtired.

It presaged trouble; Pugh realized that very plainly. He was not the man to brook tamely the taking away of his authority and a place forward among the hands with his share the same as the least among them. He could hardly believe that he had dropped the whip and lost the power over his bullies. They were all brainless—save Simon Hart. Left to themselves they knew naught but to drink, sing or listen to bragging, evil yarns. They never thought. A story-spinner could hold them, any one with initiative could get an audience, the last thought placed in their heads was the prime one, and Simon Hart, the crafty devil, had worked upon them as a modeler would handle clay until they were all of his pattern. With Hart out of the way, he, Pugh, could bring them 'round again.

And he walked the cabin pondering the best way of disposing of Simon Hart. He might challenge him or start a quarrel? The medico came down the companionway and sank down unbidden on a chair at the table beneath the gimbaled lamp. His face was drawn and his tired eyes were set in black caverns.

"'Ranting Dick' has gone," he said. "Bates and Willett will go out with the dawn. I may pull Ames through, but he'll lack a leg. And Bartlet is in evil case."

Pugh scowled. Of all the crew Bates and Ranting Dick might have been depended upon to stand with him against the rest.

"Stop your croaking," he said angrily, then changed his note. "Nay Folsom, I meant it not. Ye need somewhat to bring back your own blood. Art white as a corpse. Mix yourself a rummer of grog. Mix one for me."

The leech looked craftily at Pugh as he mixed gin, water and the juice of limes with sugar into a cold toddy. There was malice in his eyes.

"There's trouble for'ard," he essayed tentatively, and as Pugh did not forbid him, went on.

"The men say that Pugh's luck has broken, that ye have given your soul to Satan and that ye are accursed. They have held a council and they have voted to slip ye the spot."

He squealed suddenly like a rabbit when it feels the fetters bite, and his glass fell from his palsied hands as Pugh clutched him about the throat and shook him clear of the floor.

"So, they will slip me the spot, will they? And they have sent ye sneaking aft to deliver it. You dog, you drug-pounding, treacherous dog. Ye dare to come to me and tell me I am to be deposed?"

He flung the doctor from him with a crash and the leech landed in a huddle upon his hands and knees.

"Nay, I bring nothing. I—I voted against it. I came to warn ye. They will slip ye the spot in the morning. I tell ye some wanted to see ye walk the plank but I would none of it."

"Aye, ye persuaded Simon Hart to mercy, I doubt not," said Pugh grimly. "Get up, man, and finish your grog. Mix more. Now listen. Where are your drugs? In Hart's cabin?"

"Yes."

"Have ye enough to mix a sleeping draft for the quartermaster, have ye enough to mix one so deep for Hart that he will wake up in hell? Listen, Folsom, do this for me and we will win through yet. We'll slip through this cordon, we'll repair ship and sneak back to Porto Bello or some other port and refit. We'll get more bullies to replace our dead and you, Folsom, shall be my right-hand man. A double share for ye in all. We'll set up another rendezvous and ye shall have a house there of your own, a house for your loot and your women. What say ye?

"It must be a cunning drug or that devil Hart will note it in his liquor. And one that acts swiftly. With him down I will drive the rest of them until they beg for me to forgive them. Have ye such a drug, Folsom? Look ye," he clapped the leech upon the back. "I have gold and jewels here aboard the Scourge. I'll share the gold with ye and give ye the pick of the jewels. Gems to win a woman's favor with, Folsom, gold to buy it."

"Where is it?" asked Folsom, still with the malice cold in his eyes, though now it was tinged with greed.

"There is a false bottom to the locker in my room cabin below floor-level. Slip for'ard and take the drug, put it in Hart's drink and then come back to me. Art game for it?"

The leech nodded and pushed Pugh's second toddy toward him.

"Ye'll pledge me your word?" he asked.

Pugh picked up the rummer and gulped down its contents.

"I'll play fair with ye," he said. Suddenly his face contracted, his mouth drew back in a snarl, and he set an uncertain hand to his head, looking at Folsom through a thickening haze. His voice came in a husky growl that choked in his dry throat as his staring eyes began to glaze.

"Double-dealing knave, I'll——"

He lurched heavily against the table and groaned as Folsom watched him with fascinated gaze. Then Pugh squared himself with a mighty effort and stood erect, a dirk in his hand.

"Drug me, would ye? I'll slit thy weasand!"

Folsom made a sudden dive for the companionway, but Pugh towered between him and escape. With the dose that the leech had mixed in the second toddy it seemed incredible that the pirate chief could keep his senses. He dodged behind the table and Pugh came toward him with a certain grim dexterity, wedging him in a corner of the main cabin behind the table and reaching for him, his head nodding as if with the palsy, dry lips apart, eyes protruding with the effort of the will back of them.

Pugh's fingers closed, twisting the medico's cravat, and dragged him across the table, turning him on his back, wind and speech cut off, weak and limp from semi-suffocation, gaze goggling at the blade that descended in inexorable jerks that marked the failing coordinations of Pugh's mind and body, descended until its sharp edge broke the skin and gashed flesh and windpipe while the air from Folsom's lungs rushed whistling out with his escaping soul, his half-severed head fell back across the table's edge, and Pugh, groping toward the sealed companionway, bolted and barred it before he slumped and lay inert.


PUGH came back to consciousness with a frightful, pounding pain in his head, a searing almost unendurable torment. His mouth was foul and dry, when, with an effort, he opened his gummy eyes the vertical rays. of the sun glared into them and added torture to the pulsating agony of his brain.

He was lying in the bottom of a small boat, his bulk wedged and crumpled between the thwarts. The boat floated on even keel in a dead calm. There were little sucking noises at the bow that sounded to him like drum-strokes. Along the thwarts lay a mast with its sail wrapped about it, together with two oars. In the stern were two kegs and a baling pannikin.

Pugh managed to get one arm across his face to shade the furnace of the sun. Slowly recollection came back to him in disjointed fragments as it had registered. He remembered the drugging and the killing of Folsom—that was a deed well deserved and well done—then the breaking of the skylight, the battering down of a door, with himself rising and fighting like a man in his sleep. He remembered the taunting face of Simon Hart, then he had fired at it and missed, but had hit some one, for a face back of Hart had changed from a triumphant grin to a mask of pain. Some one had struck him on the head from behind—and that had been the end.

And they had not killed him. Why? He lifted his head and exquisite agony spread from a spot above his right ear until it surged like a white flame through his consciousness. The blow must have laid bare his brain. He feared to touch the place. It seemed to him he would feel the pulsing matter oozing at the contact. As an egg when the shell is broken but the membrane holds intact and dimly shows the yolk. That was how his head must be and the sun was frying his brains! Yet he could use them. He was still alive! It was the remnant of the cursed drug that bound him. Presently he would get up, make an effort, plan the future.

He lapsed again. When he revived he lay in shadow. The sky was a bowl of jade above him and the boat was moving, tossing to one side and another unevenly as if in the jobble of a tide-rip. The pain in his brain was less, the vitality seemed to have come back to him somewhat, though he was terribly cramped and terribly weak, so that the best he could do was to crawl and twist himself to a huddle in the stern close to the two kegs.

There was no wind, no tide-rip, no motion on the placid sea of peacock-blue.

Blunt muzzles reared above the surface, gray forms rubbed against the planks like great cats that arch and scrape their backs while waiting to be fed. The boat swayed and swerved as the sharks forged under the keel and lifted it. There were two score of them or more, silently, persistently striving to upset the thing that kept from them the food they sensed and craved.

It was cooler. It had rained yesterday, tomorrow it would likely rain again, since the rains were fairly started. But meantime, with his partial revival, there came a craving for food and water, principally for water. Pugh knew what was in the kegs beside him before he made certain of it. They had given him "Pugh's Provender," the same brandy and salt-meat he had devised for those he had marooned. If he could only strike land somewhere and find puddles and pools of yesterday's downpour. He seemed partly paralyzed from the drug, and he hitched himself up with elbows and hands to a higher position.

Far to the south he thought he glimpsed the blue phantom of a sail. That would be the Scourge. There must have been a breeze when they had put him overboard. Pugh prayed that one of the king's ships might come up and demolish the schooner and hang Simon Hart to the yardarm, kicking and jerking like an impaled crab.

The sun dropped and evening swiftly fled before night. Pugh could no longer quite control his mind. He was still afraid to touch the wound he had received. It must have been from belaying pin or marinspike, he thought, and he held the belief that only a thin integument lay between his brain and the air. Once let that be pierced and he would die.

All night gray sharks trailed with the boat, muzzling, nudging each other in a ghastly cortège. Sooner or later what was in the boat would come to them. Sooner—or later. Once Pugh thought he heard the boom of guns across the watery sounding-board, but he could not be sure.

Soon after that he began to see shapes, seated on thwart and gunwales, some with their dried arms folded and their desiccated bodies in the water. There were others who grinned at him from the bows. Folsom, the leech, with his severed throat, and Simon Hart! Good—if that was Simon's ghost Simon was dead and he, Pugh, was still alive, very weak, but alive! And therefore still the better man.

The shapes were those of men and women. Vaguely he remembered some of them. He had marooned them. There was one phantom of a girl with great black eyes. She had died by her own hand—after. . . . And there were the four men he had left on the cay. He had left three there just recently. Where were they?

Ah, there—there on the next thwart! One was bald-headed. Priest-face he had called him.

The boat began to slide along in the grip of some mysterious current, for there was no breeze, no veil in the sky to herald rain. Water! There it was, a hidden stream running underneath the keel. And he too weak to dig for it. Once he had seen a man with divining rods. . . .

Dawn rushed up and the phantoms disappeared. The boat rocked. The gray shapes were breaking water now. Pugh essayed to pick up an oar and batted feebly at the snouts that showed. The boat swerved. They were trying to capsize it. The boat moved on, grounded and now the blood-beat in his brain grew louder. It was surf breaking on low land. Pugh craned his head painfully. He was being carried fast by flood and current to a sandy beach dotted with gray shrubs.

Land! And somewhere in some rock crevice there must be water. The boat bumped, dragged, lifted and bumped on again. A swell tilted the stern and swept the boat on to strand it on the shore. The gray shapes were cheated, left behind in deeper water. He was ashore.

Somehow he got out and collapsed on the wet sand. Then some vital spark brightened and he began to crawl mechanically up the slope. There were no rocks about that his bleary eyes could see, but there were marks that showed that turtles had been there. How fresh the trail he could not tell. He could no longer reason, his moves were instinctive. Some low mounds loomed ahead. They should be where the turtles had covered their eggs. He clawed with painful effort and unearthed a grinning skull.

He tried to scramble from the place and bones grasped at him from the loosened sand. With a prodigious effort he got to his knees and so to tottering feet. Out of the palmetto scrub three grisly figures came toward him, ragged, thin—one of them had a bald head. The others. . . .

Pugh turned and lurched down the slope. He was blind and dizzy, his brain afire. He could not see his boat, and staggered on with outspread arms, pursued by the phantoms. He heard the lap of water. It was the old swimming-pool! He would dive and escape. There was a gap behind an old root. Waist-deep he splashed into the lagoon, scooping up the salt sea and thinking it nectar. Then he struck the verge of a tide-swept gulf and plunged forward.

A gray shape, followed swiftly by another and yet another, rose, swirled and lunged. There was a commotion under the surface that sent long ripples diverging on the top, ripples stained with crimson that rapidly dissolved to streamers of pink.


"'TWAS Pugh himself!" cried Alec Graeme. "The sharks have got him!"

"He has left his boat," said Will Graeme hoarsely. "He has left his boat! See, there are mast and sail. Come Alec, come John. We've won through. Margaret!"

He fell to his knees on the sand in thankfulness, and his brothers dragged up the boat.

"We'll broach the kegs and clean them," said Alec. "It is clouding for rain. With these and the two others filled with water we can essay the trip."

Will Graeme came up.

"We start now," he said fiercely.

Alec set an arm about his shoulders.

"Tonight, lad," he said. "'Tis an uncertain trip. Pray God there be stars to set our course."


CHAPTER VII

THE END OF THE CHASE


IN THE gray of the dawn Captain Thorne of his Majesty's sloop-of-war Thetis chuckled as he picked up the pirate schooner that he had fought at long range as they drifted through the starlit, almost breezeless night. Now the wind strengthened with the dawn, the canvas filled and they bore down upon the Scourge.

It was the end of the long chase. The schooner sailed but sluggishly compared with the sloop, and while her stern-chaser fired intermittently, the aim was bad and the shot fell short.

"They are saving on the charges. Powder's low," he said to his lieutenant. "We've got them now, Blair."

The woman standing by the rail moved over to him. Her sleepless eyes were brilliant. Captain Thorne nodded to her.

"We'll have them inside of an hour, Mrs. Graeme," he said kindly. "Thanks, in great measure to you."

"Pugh must know the island where he left them. You'll get it from him, Captain."

"Aye, we'll persuade him to tell all he knows." As she moved back to the rail where she had watched ever since the first shot had been fired Thorne added in an undertone to his junior. "If we get him alive. We'll keep bargain with her and seek the island, but they can hardly be alive for all her faith. Look—look at their flag! They are surrendering."

The black flag of the pirate was fluttering down its halyards. Then it stopped and through his glass Captain Thorne noted a commotion on her decks. A figure broke from a mob of men and fled down a hatchway. But the flag came on down to the deck.

"Cease firing!" ordered Thorne.

Suddenly the schooner seemed to split apart as a gush of black smoke rushed up from her amidships. A dull roar came over the water and the smoke spread above a flash of red while fragments of spars fell slowly. There was a momentary vision of the stern and bow of the schooner plunging beneath the waves and then, as the smoke drifted off before the wind, a few blackened scraps of floating timber, a struggling speck or two that vanished and the career of the Scourge was ended. Simon Hart, cheating the gallows, had broken through his spirit-crushed men and fired the remnants of the magazine.

Margaret Graeme, pale-faced, gazed horror-struck at the spot where the Scourge had vanished. Now the last hope of finding Will was surely gone. Slowly, with hanging head, she went below to the cabin Thorne had assigned her, where the negress sat with the babe.

She was still there, sick, despairing, when a cry came from the mast-head.

Hardly discernible, a black dot showed against the salmon of the sunset sky. The Thetis shifted course and soon the dot became a boat making steady headway to the northwest under a lug sail. Closer and closer the sloop came toward the tiny craft until all aboard could see three men in the stern and then a waving cloth.

"Mrs. Graeme, a miracle has happened," said Captain Thorne. "Your husband and his brothers are alongside."

Margaret rose with shining eyes.

"An answer to prayer is not a miracle, Captain Thorne," she said. And, with her babe in her arms, she went on deck.

"There must have been a hurricane somewhere," said Alec Graeme, "the kind that comes before the rains arrive. Probably it destroyed the growth on some isle, and it's to be hoped there were none living on it, but the drift brought the uprooted palms to us and scattered five of them along the beach. Two more we got by wading off the point. Seven in all, close to two hundred nuts, with nigh to half a pint of life-saving liquor in each of them. That saved us. Sheer luck, I call it."

"Plus sheer pluck," said Captain Thorne.

But Margaret Graeme, safe in her husband's wasted arms, knew otherwise.