It is impossible now to determine whether Gallows Key took its name from the events I am about to relate or bore it already previously among seafaring men. Jeremy Pitt in his log gives no hint, and the miniature island is not now to be identified with precision. All that we know positively, and this from Pitt’s log of the Arabella, is that it forms part of the group known as the Albuquerque Keys, lying in 12° northern latitude and 85° western longitude, some sixty miles north–west of Porto Bello.
It is little more than a barren rock, frequented only by sea–birds and the turtles that come to deposit their eggs in the golden sand of the reef–enclosed lagoon on its eastern side. This strip of beach shelves rapidly to a depth of some sixty fathoms, and the entrance to the lagoon is by a gap of not more than twenty yards in the rocky amphitheatre which goes to form it.
Into this secure if desolate haven sailed Captain Easterling one April day of the year 1688 in his thirty–gun frigate the Avenger, followed by the two ships that made up his fleet: the Hermes, a frigate of twenty–six guns, commanded by Roger Galloway, and the Valiant, a brigantine carrying twenty, in charge of Crosby Pike, who once had sailed with Captain Blood and was realizing his mistake in making a change of admiral.
You will remember this scoundrel Easterling, how once he had tried a fall with Peter Blood, when Blood was on the very threshold of his career as a buccaneer, and how, as a consequence, Easterling’s ship had been blown from under him and himself swept from the seas.
But laboriously, with the patience and tenacity found in bad men as in good, Easterling had won back to his old position, and was afloat once more and in greater strength than ever before upon the Caribbean.
He was, in Peter Blood’s own words, just a filthy pirate, a ruthless, bloodthirsty robber, without a spark even of that honour which is said to prevail among thieves. His followers made up a lawless mob, of mixed nationalities, subject to no discipline and obeying no rules save those which concerned the division of their spoils. They practised no discrimination in their piracy. They would attack an English or Dutch merchantman as readily as a Spanish galleon, and deal out the same ruthless brutality to the one as to the other.
Now, despite his ill–repute even among buccaneers, he had succeeded in luring away from Blood’s following the resolute Crosby Pike, with his twenty–gun ship and well–disciplined crew of a hundred and thirty men. The lure had been that old story of Morgan’s treasure with which Easterling once had unsuccessfully attempted to beguile Blood.
Again he told that hoary tale of how he had sailed with Henry Morgan and had been with him at the sack of Panama; how — as was well known — on the return march across the isthmus there had been all but mutiny among Morgan’s followers on a suspicion that the booty divided among them was very far from being all the booty taken; how it was murmured that Morgan had secretly abstracted a great portion for himself; how Morgan, becoming alarmed lest a mutinous search of his personal baggage should reveal the truth of the rumour, had taken Easterling into his confidence and sought his aid in what he was to do. Between them they had buried that treasure — a treasure of pearls and precious stones of the fabulous value of at least half a million pieces of eight — at a spot on the banks of the Chagres River. They were to return to unearth it later when opportunity should serve. Morgan, however, swept by destiny along other profitable pursuits, was still postponing his return when death overtook him. Easterling had never returned because never before had he commanded the necessary force for the penetration of Spanish territory, or the necessary strength of ships for the safe conveyance of the treasure once it was reclaimed.
Such had been the tale to which Blood had scorned to lend an ear but to which Pike succumbed, in spite of Blood’s warning against joining forces with so unscrupulous a rogue and his freely expressed conviction that no such treasure existed.
Pitying Pike for his credulity, Blood bore him no resentment for his defection, and feared rather than hoped that the sequel would punish him sufficiently.
Blood himself at this time had been planning an expedition to Darien. But since Easterling’s activities on the isthmus might put the Spaniards on the alert, he found it prudent to postpone the business. His fleet, consisting in those days of five stout ships, scattered and went a–roving without definite objective. This was at the beginning of April, and it was concerted that they should reassemble at Mosquito Keys, at the end of May, when the expedition to Darien could be considered anew.
The Arabella, going south by the Windward Passage, and then east along the southern coast of Hispaniola, came, some twenty miles beyond Cape Tiburon, upon an English merchantman in a foundering condition. She was kept precariously afloat so long as the sea was calm by the shifting of her guns and all other heavy gear to larboard, so as to keep above water the gaping wounds in her starboard quarter. Her broken spars and fractured mainmast told an eloquent tale, and Blood imagined that Spaniards had been at work. He discovered instead, when he went to her assistance, that she had yesterday been attacked and plundered by Easterling, who had put half her crew to the sword and brutally killed her captain for not having struck his colours when summoned to do so.
The Arabella towed her within ten miles of Port Royal, and daring to go no nearer, lest she should draw down upon herself the Jamaica Squadron, left her there to complete alone what little remained of the voyage to safety.
That done, however, the Arabella did not sail east again, but headed south for the Main. To Pitt, his shipmaster, Blood explained his motives.
«We’ll be keeping an eye on this blackguard Easterling, so we will, Jerry, and maybe more than an eye.»
And south they sailed, since that was the way Easterling had gone. To the tale of his treasure, Blood, as we know, attached no faith. He regarded it as an invention to gull such credulous fellows as Pike into association. In this, however, he was presently to be proven wrong.
Creeping down the Mosquito Coast, he found a snug anchorage in a cove of one of the numerous islands in the Lagoon of Chiriqui. There for the moment he elected to lie concealed, and thence he watched the operations of Easterling, twenty miles away, through the eyes of friendly Mosquito Indians whom he employed as scouts. From these he learned that Easterling had cast anchor a little to westward of the mouth of the Chagres, that he had landed a force of three hundred and fifty men, and that he was penetrating with them into the isthmus. From his knowledge of Easterling’s total strength, Blood computed that hardly more than a hundred men had been left behind to guard the waiting ships.
Whilst waiting in his turn, Blood took his ease. On a cane day–bed set under an improvised awning on the poop (for the weather was growing hot) the buccaneer found sufficient adventure for his spirit in the verse of Horace and the prose of Suetonius. When physical activity was desired, he would swim in the clear, jade–green waters of the lagoon, or, landing on the palm–fringed shore of that uninhabited island, he would take a hand with his men in the capture of turtle, or in the hewing of wood to provide the fuel for the boucan fires in which their succulent flesh was being cured.
Meanwhile his Indians brought him news, first of a skirmish between Easterling’s men and a party of Spaniards who evidently had got wind of the presence on Darien of the buccaneers. Then came word that Easterling was marching back to the coast; a couple of days later he was informed of another encounter between Easterling and a Spanish force, in which the buccaneers had suffered severely, although in the end they had beaten off the attack. Lastly came news of yet a third engagement, and this was brought, together with other precious details, by one who had taken part in it.
He was one of Pike’s men, a hard–bitten old adventurer, who had given up logwood–cutting to take to the sea. His name was Cunley, and he had been rendered helpless by a gunshot wound in the thigh and left by Easterling’s retreating force to die where he had fallen. Overlooked by the Spaniards, he had dragged himself into the scrub for shelter and thus into the hands of the watchful Indians. They had handled him tenderly, so that he should survive to tell his tale to Captain Blood, and they had quieted his alarms with assertions in their broken Spanish that it was to Don Pedro Sangre that he was being conveyed.
Tenderly they hoisted the crippled fellow aboard the Arabella, where Blood’s first care was to employ his surgeon’s skill to dress the hideous festering wound. Thereafter, in the ward–room, converted for the moment into a sick bay, Cunley told in bitterness the tale of the adventure.
Morgan’s treasure was real enough. The buccaneers were bearing it back to the waiting ships, and in value it exceeded all that Easterling had represented. But it was being dearly bought — most dearly by Pike’s contingent, whence the bitterness investing Cunley’s tale. Going and coming they had been harassed by Spaniards and once by a party of hostile Indians. Further, they had been reduced by fever and sickness on that difficult march through a miasmic country where mosquitoes had almost eaten them alive. Of the three hundred and fifty men who had left the ships, Cunley computed that after the last engagement, in which he had been wounded, not more than two hundred remained alive. But the ugly fact was that not more than twenty of these men were Pike’s. Yet Pike had brought ashore by Easterling’s orders the heaviest of the three contingents, landing a hundred and thirty men, and leaving a bare score to guard the Valiant, whilst fifty men at least had been left on each of the other ships.
Easterling had so contrived that Pike’s contingent was ever in the van, so that it had borne the brunt of every attack the buccaneers had suffered. It was not to be supposed that Pike had submitted to this without remonstrances. Protests had grown increasingly bitter as the ill continued. But Easterling, backed by his earlier associate, Roger Galloway, who commanded the Hermes, had browbeaten Pike into submission, whilst the ruffianly followers of those two captains, by preponderance of numbers remaining at comparatively full strength, had easily imposed their will upon the dwindling force of the Valiant. If all her present survivors got back to the ship, the Valiant could now muster a crew of barely forty hands, whilst the other two combined a strength of nearly three hundred men.
«Ye see, Captain,» Cunley concluded grimly, «how this Easterling has used us. As the monkey used the cat. And now him and Galloway — them two black–hearted bastards — is in such strength that Crosby Pike dursn’t say a word o’ protest. It was a black day for all of us, Captain, when the Valiant left your fleet to join that blackguard Easterling’s, treasure or no treasure.»
«Treasure or no treasure,» Captain Blood repeated. «And I’m thinking that for Captain Pike no treasure it will prove.»
He rose from his chair by the sick man’s bed, tall, graceful and vigorous in his black small clothes, silver–broidered waistcoat and full white cambric sleeves. His coat of black and silver he had discarded before commencing his surgical ministrations. He waved away the white–clad negro who attended with bowl and lint and forceps, and, alone with Cunley, he paced to the wardroom ports and back. His long supple fingers toyed thoughtfully with the curls of his black periwig; his eyes, blue as sapphires, were now as hard.
«I thought that Pike would prove a minnow in the jaws of Easterling. It but remains for Easterling to swallow him, and faith, it’s what he’ll be doing.»
«Ye’ve said it, Captain. It’s plaguey little o’ that treasure me and my mates o’ the Valiant or Captain Pike himself ‘ll ever see. The thirty that’s left of us ‘ll be lucky if they gets away alive. That’s my faith, Captain.»
«And mine, bedad,» said Captain Blood. But his mouth was grim.
«Can ye do nothing for the honour of the Brethren of the Coast and for the sake o’ justice, Captain?»
«It’s thinking of it, I am. If the fleet were with me I’d sail in this minute and take a hand. But with just this one ship…» He broke off and shrugged. «The odds are a trifle heavy. But I’ll watch, and I’ll consider.»
Cunley’s opinion that it was a black day for the Valiant when she joined Easterling’s fleet was now being shared by every survivor of her crew, and by none more fully than by Captain Pike himself. He had become. apprehensive of the final issue of the adventure, and his apprehensions received the fullest confirmation on the morrow of their sailing from the Chagres, when they came to anchorage in that lagoon of Gallows Key to which I have alluded.
Easterling’s Avenger led the way into that diminutive circular harbour, and anchored nearest to the shore. Next came the Hermes. The Valiant, now bringing up the rear, was compelled, for lack of room within, to anchor in the narrow roadstead. Thus again Pike was given the most vulnerable station in the event of attack — a station in which his ship must act as a shield for the others.
Trenam, Pike’s sturdy young Cornish lieutenant, who from the outset had been against association with Easterling, perceiving the object of this disposition, was not ashamed to urge Pike to take up anchor and be off in the night, abandoning Easterling and the treasure before worse befell them. But Pike, as obstinate as he was courageous, repudiated this for a coward counsel.
«By God!» he swore. «It’s what Easterling desires! We’ve earned our share of that treasure, and we’re not sailing without it.»
But the practical Trenam, shook his fair head. «That will be as Easterling chooses. He’s got the strength to enforce his will, and the will to play the rogue, or I’m a fool else.»
Pike silenced him by making oath that he was not afraid of twenty Easterlings.
And his air was as truculent when next morning, in response to a signal from the flagship, he went aboard the Avenger.
He was awaited in the cabin not only by Easterling, arrayed in tawdry splendour, but by Galloway, who favoured the loose leather breeches and cotton shirt that made up the habitual garb of a boucan–hunter. Easterling was massively built and swarthy — a man still young, with fine eyes and a full black beard, behind which, when he laughed, there was a flash of strong white teeth. Galloway, squat and broad, was not apelike in build, with his long arms and short powerful legs, but oddly apelike in countenance, out of which two bright little wicked eyes sparkled under a shallow wrinkled brow.
They received Captain Pike with every show of friendliness, sate him down at the greasy table, poured rum for him and pledged him, whereafter Easterling came promptly to business.
«We’ve sent for ye, Captain Pike, because at present we’re carrying, as it were, all our eggs in one basket. This treasure,» and he waved a hand in the direction of the chests containing it, «is best divided without more ado, so that each of us can go about his business.»
Pike took heart at this promising beginning. «Ye mean to break up the fleet, then?» said he indifferently.
«Why not, since the job’s done? Roger here and me has decided to quit piracy. We’re for home with the fortune we’ve made. I’ll belike turn farmer somewhere in Devon.» He laughed.
Pike smiled, but offered no comment. He was not at any time a man of many words, as his long, dour, weatherbeaten face announced.
Easterling cleared his throat and resumed. «Me and Roger’s been considering that some change in the provisions o’ the articles would be only fair. They do run that one–third of what’s left over after I’ve taken my fifth goes to each of the three ships.»
«Ay, that’s how they run, and that’s fair enough for me,» said Pike.
«That’s not our opinion, Roger’s and mine, now that we comes to think it over.»
Pike opened his mouth to answer, but Easterling, giving him no time, ran on:
«Roger and me don’t see as you should take a third to share among thirty men, while we share each of us the same among a hundred and fifty.»
Captain Pike was swept by sudden passion. «Was, that why ye saw to it that my men were always put where the Spaniards could kill them until we’re reduced to less than a quarter of our strength at the outset?»
Easterling’s black brows met above eyes that were suddenly malevolent.
«Now what the devil do you mean by that, Captain Pike, if you please?»
«It’s an imputation,» said Galloway dryly. «A nasty imputation.»
«No imputation at all,» said Pike. «It’s a fact.»
«A fact, eh?» Easterling was smiling, and the lean, tough, resolute Pike grew uneasy under that smile. Galloway’s bright little ape’s eyes were considering him oddly. The very air of that untidy, evil–smelling cabin became charged with menace. Pike had a vision of brutalities witnessed in the course of his association with Easterling, wanton, unnecessary brutalities springing from the sheer lust of cruelty. He recalled words in which Captain Blood had warned him against association with a man whom he described as treacherous and foul by nature. If he had hugged a doubt of the deliberate calculation by which is own men had been sacrificed on Darien, that doubt was now dispelled.
He was as a sleepwalker who awakens suddenly to find himself on the edge of a precipice into which another step must have projected him. The instinct of self–preservation made him recoil from an attitude of truculence which might lead to his being pistolled on the spot. He pushed back the hair from his moist brow and commanded himself to answer in level tones.
«What I mean is that if my men have been reduced, they’ve suffered this in the common cause. They will consider it unfair to break the articles on any such grounds.»
He argued on. He reminded Easterling of the practice of matelotage among buccaneers, whereby every man enters into a partnership with another in which the two make common cause and under which each is the other’s heir. In this alone lay reason why many of his men who were to inherit should feel defrauded by any change in the articles.
Easterling’s evil grin gave way again to a scowl. «What’s it to me what any of your mangy followers may feel? I’m admiral of this fleet, and my word is law.»
«So it is,» said Pike. «And your word is in the articles under which we sailed with you.»
«To hell with the articles!» roared Captain Easterling.
He rose and stood over Pike, towering and menacing, his head almost touching the ceiling of the cabin. He spoke deliberately. «I’m telling you things is changed since we signed them articles. What I says is more nor any articles, and what I says is that the Valiant can have a tenth share of the plunder. Ye’d be wise to take it, remembering the saying that who tries to grasp too much ends by holding nothing.»
Pike stared up at him with fallen jaw. He had turned pale from the stress of the conflict within him between rage and prudence.
«By God, Easterling…» He broke off abruptly.
Easterling scowled down upon him. «Continue,» he commanded. «Finish what ye has to say.»
Pike shrugged despondently. «Ye know I dursn’t accept your offer. Ye know my men would tear me in pieces if I did so without consulting them.»
«Then away with you to consult them. I’ve a mind to slit your pimpish ears so that they may see what happens to them as gets pert with Captain Easterling. You may tell your scum that if they has the impudence to refuse my offer they needn’t trouble to send you here again. They can up anchor and be off to Hell. Remind ’em of what I says: that who tries to grasp too much ends by holding nothing. Away with you, Captain Pike, with that message.»
Not until he was back aboard his own ship did Captain Pike release the rage from which he all but bursted. And the sound of it, the tale he told in the ship’s waist with the survivors of his crew about him, aroused in his violent followers a rage to match his own. Trenam added fuel to the flames by the views he expressed.
«If the swine means to break faith is it likely he’ll stop half–way? Depend on it, if we accept this tenth, he’ll find a pretext to cheat us of all. Captain Blood was in the right. We should never ha’ put our trust in that son of a dog.»
One of the hands spoke up, voicing the feelings of all. «But since we’ve put it, we’ve got to see he keeps it.»
Pike, who was leaning by now to Trenam’s despondent view of their case, waited for the chorus of angry approval to subside.
«Will you tell me how we are to do it? We are some forty men against three hundred. A twenty–gun brig against two frigates with fifty guns of heavier weight between them.»
This gave them pause until another bold one spoke. «He says a tenth or naught. Our answer is a third or naught. There’s honour among buccaneers, and we hold him to his pledge, to the articles upon which the dirty thief enlisted us.»
As one man the crew supported him. «Go you back with that answer, Captain.»
«And if he refuses?»
It was Trenam who now thought he held the answer.
«There’s ways of compelling him. Tell him we’ll raise the whole Brotherhood of the Coast against him. Captain Blood will see that we have justice. Captain Blood’s none so fond of him, as he well knows. Remind him of that, Captain. Go you back and tell him.»
It was a powerful card to play. Pike realized this: yet he confessed that he did not relish the task of playing it. But his men turned upon him with up–braidings. It was he who had persuaded them to follow Easterling. It was he who had not known how to make a stand against Easterling’s encroachments from the outset. They had done their part. It was for him to see to it that they were not cheated of their pay.
So back from the Valiant at her anchorage in the very neck of the harbour went Captain Pike in the cockboat to convey his men’s answer to Captain Easterling, and to hoist the bogey of Captain Blood and the Brethren of the Coast, upon which he depended now for his own safety.
The interview took place in the waist of the Avenger before an audience of her crew and in the presence of Captain Galloway, who was still aboard her. It was short and violent.
When Captain Pike had stated that his men insisted upon the fulfilment of the terms of the articles, Easterling laughed. His crew laughed with him; some there were who cheered Pike ironically.
«If that’s their last word, my man,» said Easterling, «they can up anchor and away to the devil. I’ve no more to say to them.»
«It’ll be the worse for you, Captain, if they go,» said Pike steadily.
«D’ye threaten, by God!» The man’s great bulk seemed to swell with rage.
«I warn you, Captain.»
«You warn me? Warn me of what?»
«That the Brethren of the Coast, the whole buccaneering fraternity, will be raised against you for this breach of faith.»
«Breach of faith!» Easterling’s voice soared in pitch. «Breach of faith, ye bastard scum! D’ye dare stand before my face and say that to me?» He plucked a pistol from his belt. «Be off this ship at once, and tell your blackguards that if the Valiant is still there by noon I’ll blow her out of the water. Away with you.»
Pike, choking with indignation, and made bold by it, played his master card.
«Very well,» said he. «You’ll have Captain Blood to deal with for this.»
Pike had reckoned upon intimidating, but neither upon the extent to which his words would achieve it, nor the blind fury that follows panic in such natures as that of the man with whom he dealt.
«Captain Blood?» Easterling spoke through his teeth, his great face purple. «You’ll go whining to Captain Blood, will you? Go whine in Hell, then.»
And on the word, at point–blank range, he shot Pike through the head.
The buccaneers standing about them recoiled in momentary horror as the man’s body went backwards across the hatch coaming. Easterling jeered coarsely at their squeamishness. Galloway looked on, his little eyes glittering, his face inscrutable.
«Take up that carrion.» Easterling pointed with his still smoking pistol. «Hang it from the yard–arm. Let it serve as a warning to those swine on the Valiant of what happens to them as gets pert with Captain Easterling.»
A long–drawn cry, in which anger, fear and pity were all blended, went up from the deck of Pike’s ship when her crew, crowding the larboard bulwarks, perceived through the rigging of the Hermes, the limp body of their captain swinging from the yardarm of the Avenger. So intent were these men that they paid no heed to the two long Indian canoes that came alongside to starboard, or even to the tall gentleman in black and silver who stepped from the accommodation ladder to the deck behind them. Not until his crisp dry voice rang out were they aware of him.
«I arrive a trifle late, it seems.»
They turned and beheld him on the hatch–coaming, his left hand on the pummel of his rapier, his face in the shadow of his broad plumed hat, his eyes hard and cold with anger. Asking themselves how he came there, they stared at him as if he were an apparition, mystified, incredulous, doubting their vision.
At last young Trenam sprang towards him, his eyes blazing with excitement in his grey face. «Captain Blood! Is it indeed you? But how — ?»
Captain Blood quieted him by a wave of the long supple hand emerging from the foam of lace at his wrist. «I’ve never been far from you ever since you landed on Darien. I know your case, and this is no more than I foresaw. But I had hoped to avert it.»
«You’ll call a reckoning from that treacherous dog?»
«To be sure I will, and at once. That hideous gesture demands an instant answer.» His voice was as grim as his countenance. «You have men here to lay the guns. Get them below at once.»
The Valiant had been swinging with the first of the gentle ebb when Blood stepped aboard; she stood now. In the line of the channel, so that the operation of opening the gun–ports could not be discerned from the other ships.
«The guns?» gasped Trenam. «But, Captain, we’re in no case to fight. We’ve neither the men nor the metal.»
«Enough for what’s to do. Men and guns are not all that count in these affairs. Easterling gave you this station so that you should cover the other ships.» Blood uttered a short stern laugh. «He shall learn the strategic disadvantages of it, so he shall. Get your gun crew below.» Then he gave other orders briskly. «Eight of you to man the longboat. There are two canoes astern well–manned to assist you warp your ship broadside when the time comes. The ebbing tide will help you. Send aloft every man you can spare, to loose sail once we’re out of the channel. Bestir, Trenam! Bestir!»
He dived below to the main deck, where the gun crew was already at work clearing the guns for action. He stimulated the men by his words and manner, and received unquestioning obedience from them; for, without understanding what might be afoot, they were stirred almost to enthusiasm by their confidence in him and their assurance that he would avenge upon Easterling their captain’s murder and their own wrongs.
When all was ready and the matches glowing he went on deck again.
The two canoes manned by Mosquito Indians and the Valiant’s longboat were astern under her counter and invisible to those aboard the other two ships. Towing–ropes had been attached, and the men waited for the word of command.
At Blood’s suggestion Trenam, did not wait to take up anchor, but slipped his cable, and the oarsmen bent to their task of warping the ship round. Labours which would not in themselves have sufficed were made easy by the ebb, and slowly the brigantine began to swing broadside across the channel. Already Blood was below again, directing the hands that manned the starboard guns. Five of these were to be concentrated on the rudder of the Hermes, the other five were to sweep her shrouds.
As the Valiant swung about and the warping operations became apparent to the men on the other ships it was assumed by them that, panic–stricken by the fate of their captain, the crew of the brigantine had resolved on flight. From the decks of the Hermes a derisive valedictory cheer rang out. But scarcely had it died away, and just as it was being taken up by the Avenger, it was answered by the roar of ten guns at point–blank range.
The Hermes rocked and shuddered under the impact of that unexpected broadside, and the fierce outcries of her men were mingled with the hoarse voices of the startled sea–birds that rose to circle in alarm.
Blood was on deck again almost before the reverberations had rolled away. He peered through the rising cloud of smoke and smiled. The rudder of the Hermes had been shattered, her mainmast was broken and hung precariously suspended in her shrouds, whilst a rent showed in the bulwarks of her forecastle.
«And now?» quoth Trenam in uneasy excitement.
Blood looked round. They were moving steadily if slowly down the short channel, and were already almost in the open sea. A steady breeze was blowing from the north. «Crowd on sail, and let her run before the wind.»
«They’ll follow,» said the young mariner. «Why, so I trust. But not yet awhile. Take a look at their plight.»
It was only the that Trenam understood precisely what Blood had done. With her broken rudder and shattered mainmast, the Hermes, whilst being herself unmanageable, was blocking the way and making it impossible for the raging Easterling to get past her and attack the Valiant.
Trenam perceived and admired, but was still far from easy. «If you’ve invited pursuit, it’s true that you’ve certainly delayed it. But it will surely come, and we shall be as surely sunk when it does. It’s just what that devil Easterling desires.»
«Indeed, and I hope so; and, anyway, I’ve quickened those same desires of his.»
They had picked up the crew of the longboat, whilst the Indian canoes could be seen making off to the north along the reef. The Valiant was now running before the wind and Gallows Key was dropping swiftly astern. All hands were on deck. From the pooprail, where he leaned beside Trenam, Blood spoke to the man at the whipstaff below.
«Put up the helm. We go about.» Perceiving Trenam’s alarm, he smiled. «Quiet you. Have faith in me, and man the larboard guns. They’ll not yet have disentagled themselves, and we’ll give them a salute in passing. Faith now, ye may trust me. It’s by no means the first action I’ve fought, and I know the fool I’m engaging. It won’t have occurred to him that we might have the impudence to return, and I’ll wager your share of Morgan’s treasure that he won’t have so much as opened his ports as yet.»
It fell out as he foretold. When they ran in, close–hauled, they saw that the Hermes had only just been warped aside to give passage to the Avenger, which with sprit–sail, sweeps, and the ebb to assist her, was crawling towards the channel.
Easterling must have rubbed his eyes at this reappearance of the Valiant, which he was imagining in full flight; he must have ground his strong white teeth when she hung there an instant with slatting sails and poured a broadside athwart his decks before going off again on a north–easterly tack. He replied in haste and ineffectively with his chasers, and whilst the mess made by the Valiant’s guns was being cleared up, he settled down vindictively to a pursuit which must end in the sinking of the audacious brigantine with every hand aboard.
The Valiant was perhaps a mile away to the northeast when Trenam beheld the Avenger emerge from the narrow roadstead and take the open sea to come ploughing after them with crowded yards. It was a dismaying vision. He turned to Captain Blood.
«And now, Captain? What remains?»
«To go about again,» was the surprising answer. «Bid the helmsman steer for the northernmost point of the Key yonder.»
«That will bring us within range.»
«No matter. We’ll run the gauntlet of his fire. At need we can round the point. But I’ve a notion the need will not present itself.»
They went about, and ran in once more, Blood scanning the rocky coast of the island the while through the telescope. Trenam stood fretful at his elbow.
«What do you look for, Captain?» he wondered with faint hope.
«My Indian friends. They’ve made good speed. They’ve gone. All should be well.»
To Trenam it seemed that things would be anything but well. The Avenger had veered a point nearer to the wind, so as to shorten the work of intercepting them. From her forward ports a gun boomed, and a round shot flung up the spray half a cable’s length astern of the Valiant.
«He’s getting the range,» said Blood indifferently.
«Aye,» agreed Trenam with bitter dryness. «We’ve let you have your way unquestioned, Captain. But what’s to be the end?»
«I fancy it’s coming yonder under full sail,» said Captain Blood, and he pointed with the telescope.
Round the northern point of Gallows Key came a great red–hulled ship under a mountain of canvas that gleamed like snow in the noontide sunshine. Veering south as she appeared, she swept majestically on before the wind, a thing of beauty and of power, from gilded beak–head to lofty poop–lantern. She was abeam of the Valiant between the brigantine and island, before the dumbfounded Trenam found his voice, and before the voices of the crew were raised to cheer and cheer again.
Pale with excitement, his eyes sparkling, Trenam swung to Captain Blood. «The Arabella!»
Blood smiled upon him quizzically. «To be sure ye supposed I swam here, or crossed the ocean in a canoe; or may be ye thought I wanted to be chased by Easterling just for the fun of running away and the joy of being drowned at the end of it. Ye hadn’t thought about these things maybe. Neither, had Easterling. But he’s thinking about them now, so he is. Thinking hard, I dare swear.»
But Easterling was doing nothing of the kind. His wits were paralysed. In the madness of despair, seeing himself beset by that formidable ship, which, moreover, had the weather gauge of him, he attempted to run for shelter back to the harbour from which he had been lured. Once there, with the guns of the Hermes to support his own, he might have held the narrow roadstead against all comers. But he should have known that he would never be allowed to reach it. When he ignored the shot athwart his bows, summoning him to strike his colours, a broadside of twenty heavy guns crashed into his exposed flank, and wrought such damage in it that he was bereft of even the satisfaction of replying. The Arabella, well handled by old Wolverstone, who was in command of her, went promptly about, and at still closer range poured in a second broadside to complete the business. Hard hit between wind and water, the Avenger was seen to be settling down by the head.
A sound like a wail arose from the deck of the Valiant. It startled Blood.
«What is it? What do they cry?»
«The treasure!» Trenam answered him. «Morgan’s treasure!»
Blood frowned. «Faith, Wolverstone must ha’ forgotten it in his fury.» Then the frown cleared. He sighed and shrugged. «Ah well! It’s gone now, so it has. Bad cess to it.»
The Arabella hove to and lowered her boats to pick up the survivors struggling in the water. Easterling, lacking the courage to drown, was amongst them, and by Blood’s direction he was brought aboard the Valiant. Thus was the iron driven deep into his soul. But deeper still was it to be driven when he stepped on to the deck of Pike’s ship to find himself confronting Captain Blood. It had been no bogey, then, with which Pike’s last words had threatened him. He recoiled as if at last, and for once in his life, afraid. The dark eyes smouldered in his grey face with the mingled fury and terror to be seen in those of a trapped animal.
«So it was you!» he ejaculated.
«If ye mean it was I who took Pike’s place when ye murdered him, ye’re right. Ye’d had done better to have been honest with him. There’s a maxim ye should have learnt at school, that honesty is the best policy. Though perhaps ye never were at school. But there’s another maxim of which I made you a present years ago and which they tell me that ye’re fond of quoting: Who seeks to grasp too much ends by holding nothing.»
He waited for a reply, but none came. Easterling, his great bulk sagging, glowered at him silently with those dark feral eyes.
Blood sighed, and moved towards the head of the accommodation ladder.
«Ye’re no affair of mine. I leave ye to these men you have wronged, and whose leader you have murdered. It is for them to judge you.»
He went down to the boat that had brought Easterling aboard, and so back to the Arabella, his task accomplished, and his long duel with Easterling at last concluded.
An hour later the Arabella and the Valiant were running south together. Gallows Key was falling rapidly astern, and Galloway and his crew aboard the crippled Hermes imprisoned in the lagoon were left to conjecture what had happened outside and to extricate themselves as best they could from their own difficulties.