For Prey and Spoils - Frederick Ober

How We Beheaded the Hydra

Well had it been for some of those maniacal men if they had but let the fiery water alone, for when the fumes had mounted to their heads the rashest of them conceived a plan to destroy all that were on board our vessel. I need not say that we had been attracted by the noises and the bedevilments ashore, for nothing else could we do but gather at the rail and watch the goings on in silence and amaze. It did not occur to us, however, that there might be a termination to the revel immediately disastrous to ourselves until I noted some of the pirates gathering in a group apart from the main body, who were mostly lying on the sands. These were, to be sure, unsteady on their legs; but the more unsteady they became the more they seemed possessed by fierce desire to carry out the promptings of their evil minds.

It did not astound me at all to see among them my friend of the duel fight, nor to see him point at our vessel now and again most menacingly; nor yet again that he soon formed a nucleus for a body of men that all at once started on a run for the shore. They tumbled into a long boat that was drawn up on, the sands, and while some pushed it off afloat others took their places at the oars. They were not so drunk that they had not precautioned to take with them their cutlasses and some few their arquebuses. Indeed, they never even slept without these arms either strapped about them or within reach; and it were perhaps superfluous to say that they were armed to the teeth. A few strokes of the oars brought their boat alongside, when it became evident what was their intention—namely, to carry the vessel by boarding and perhaps murder us all in cold blood.

But, methinks, we should have well deserved our fate had we been idle all this time and allowed them to take us unawares. As soon as the groups had begun to collect my uncle said to me in a low tone: "Son Humphrey, there is mischief brewing; go thou to the mate and tell him to call all hands on deck—if they are not already up—and arm them, every man and boy."

This was the first direct speech he had had with me since our estrangement; but a common danger caused us to come together, at least temporarily, and there was no difference of opinion now. By the time the pirates had brought their boat under the "Nancy's" quarter every one of our crew was crouched behind the bulwarks, each with an arm of some sort in his grasp, and each resolved to sell his life, if need be, dearly.

Whatever may be said of our foes, it cannot be told that they were in any sort cowards, though, in sooth, some of them may have had what our sailors satirically called "Dutch courage" from imbibing of the ardent water. They hesitated not in climbing up the side of the vessel, each man with a cutlass between his teeth and a pistol in his belt. Their base intention was evident enough, but my uncle would not take any mean advantage, nevertheless, and as the head of the first man appeared above the rail he hailed and demanded the meaning of this visit.

The pirate spluttered something between a curse and a threat—his speech greatly distorted on account of the blade between his lips—and my uncle then hailed again, this time with temper, saying that the first man that came over the rail would be killed instanter. So there was no mistake as to his meaning then, and, if the object of the pirates was misinterpreted, they had opportunity for retreat. It cannot be said of us that we took any mean advantage of the foe, but, when it became only too evident what the real intention was, we no longer hesitated in our attack.

With one mighty sweep my uncle lopped off the head of the pirate who first appeared in sight, and it fell into the water, with his cutlass still clenched in his teeth: a most grewsome sight, that distorted countenance with the blade across it as it was lapped by the waves ere it disappeared beneath them! So fierce was this man's nature, so determined, that his clenched hands held to the ropes he had grasped for a full minute, I should think, before the headless trunk to which they were attached finally plunged after the gory, ghastly head.

I was gazing straight into his face ere it all happened, and was for a moment transfixed with horror to the spot on which I stood. But for a moment only, for the time had come for action. Despite this rude rebuff, the man's companions came swarming over the rail—how I know not., but they came, one after the other—until some half score of them had dropped to the decks and were fighting back to back.

I had no stomach for the battle at first; nor, indeed, ever had I desire to fight with any one; but here was I forced again, despite my inclination, to defend my life in dire extremity. There was no time for thought, however; action was the cry. My companions were already at it, hammer and tongs, as the saying is, and if we would win we should be obliged to fight to the utmost. So at it I went, firing my pistol at the foremost man that came at me, and then throwing the weapon—there being no time to reload—into the face of the next one. Shifting, then, my cutlass from left hand to right, I sprang into the thick of it—to my shame, perhaps, be it said, with increasing joy—and laid about me on all sides without discrimination.

[Illustration] from For Prey and Spoils by Frederick Ober


There was no individual foe to fight, only one great hydra-headed monster to cut and whack at, which seemed then the chief end of my being. I remember that, in the midst of it all, I recalled the fabled Hydra of Greek history, and imagined myself another Hercules. Such vagaries do possess one when he is in straits, even showing that the mind and body are two independent things, quite apart and dual in their nature.

Do not imagine that I would arrogate to myself all the glories of this fight, because I was but one unit in a dozen, each one doing as much as I, perhaps more than I was doing. But I am sure each man and boy of our crew felt the same: that his existence was at stake, and though a short time before life did not seem worth a purchase, still it should be sold most dearly.

Short-sighted human beings that we were. Granted we won a victory, what then? Still were we captives of pirates, even if we slew all then opposed to us. It were of a verity, a labor of Hercules with his hundred-headed monster. But we were not then speculating as to our future: the living present was straight in front of us.

We fought, then, as fiends, though I later may have indulged in speculation as a philosopher, I was callous to what hurt I caused the monsters, and the more the blood flowed the more exasperated I became, whether it were blood of friend or foe. A spasm of horror convulsed me as a burly pirate cut down our cook's assistant, a mere boy, with blue eyes and flaxen hair, a frail form, but with a spirit big enough to fill the frame of man. In an instant I pictured his mother's grief when she should know—if ever—what had befallen her darling; his sister's despair, his father's impotent rage; for he was a not distant neighbor of my family at home, and, like myself, had come on this voyage as for a pleasure trip.

One vast, complex emotion swept through me, and I dashed myself against the man who had done the deed as if he, and he only, were in front of me. Here, at last, was the monster, and I hacked at him with cutlass until he, too, seemed to realize that there was no other foe than the stripling in front of him. He withdrew his blade, all reeking with the blood of that fair boy, and turned upon me with a howl like that of a wolf. I laughed at him as he made for me, so crazed was I with the exultation born of combat. I no longer had a life to lose—only a cause to defend. By some chance I secured a position astride the body of the boy, as he lay there motionless upon the bloody deck, and the resolve that possessed me was that not all the world of furies should move me from that spot.

Well, why tell of what happened after that? Does not the fact that I am alive to write of the adventure prove that I survived? The others? Ah, well, the half of us were slain, and nearly all, including my uncle, were most sorely wounded. It was miraculous, perhaps, that I, almost alone, escaped without a cut; but so it was.

Did I slay the man who cut down the boy? It must have been, but I have no recollection of it. I remember his onslaught, that he bore heavily upon me, breathing his fetid breath in my face, and that I thrust him back, hacking at him with utmost loathing. And after he had fallen—for he soon had plunged heavily forward amongst the heap of slain—I found myself still standing over the body of the boy. Well it was for me that the fight that moment ceased, for as I stooped to raise the poor fellow from the deck I presented a most fair mark for a foe. But, though I realized it not, the horrid din still ringing in my ears—the shouts, oaths, clash and swish of cutlasses, and the crash of pistol-shots—the combat had really ceased.

We had won, that was apparent, if one had life left to observe, for a few of us were still standing, while of the foe not one was on his legs. Whether we had killed all, or some made their escape, I did not ask, nor did I care, for I was absorbed in the youth I had rescued. I raised him from the deck and bore him gently to a coil of rope near the rail, where he could half recline and the better discharge the blood that welled up through his mouth. For he was living—to my joy I noted that—though weak and unconscious from the loss of blood.

Then was I overcome with anguish at sight of this fair lad sore smitten there. For the first time my tears began to fall. Think me not craven or faint-hearted; but, indeed, the strain of the fight had told on me. Perhaps it was not cowardly to weep, after all, for my tears were forced by the sight of another's sufferings. At all events, I wept, and, while still blinded by my tears, stumbled upon a recumbent figure, as I rose to go for water with which to bathe the lad's face.

It was my uncle, prostrate, his face all bloody, his right hand pressed against his breast. Then my heart gave a great leap, and I was smitten with a pang more acute than I had ever felt. Remorse, as well as anguish, seized upon me then, for in a moment I realized how resentful I had felt toward him, and now it might be too late to crave his pardon! I knelt and placed my ear to his heart. It still beat, and he was still alive, thank God!

I ran to the water cask, filled the nearest vessel and hastened back to my patients twain. I washed the blood from their faces, forced a little water between the lips of each, and had the happiness to see them open their eyes. The boy recovered first to that extent, then my uncle; but neither spake for a while, for the blood that filled their throats.

As I was kneeling between them, striving to stanch the flow of blood from their wounds, first working upon one and then upon the other, I noted finally a look of strained intensity in my uncle's eyes, and glancing upward saw the figure of a buccaneer standing over me. He was evidently a new arrival, at all events some one who had not taken part in the fight.

The moon was at the full, and everything was clearly visible. Rising to an erect posture, I turned an enquiring gaze upon the intruder, then resumed the work which he had interrupted, as he said nothing, and my labor was important.

The man was tall and broad-shouldered, his form being burly rather than athletic or well knit; his face was dark and strong, with black and piercing eyes, a hooked nose, and small mustachios adorning his upper lip. His hair was black and abundant, flowing over the collar of his doublet. His dress was richer than that of the average buccaneer, denoting somewhat of authority, which indeed his manner confirmed. That he was somebody high in command I did not doubt; neither did I care. For the die had been cast, the fight fought out, and if we were still in the pirates' hands—as undoubtedly we were—what use to borrow trouble?

"Well, my lad," spake the buccaneer, at last, "you seem to have had a busy time. What has happened?"

"Happened?" I repeated, vexed beyond measure at this foolish question. "Oh, nothing, of course. Go ask those dead men on the deck."

"Hoity, toity, but you are a cool one. Know you not who I am?"

"No, nor care. But get hence; these friends need my attentions."

"Zounds! I've a mind to run you through. Know, then, I am Morgan!"

"And what then?" I answered, impatiently. "I am Gilbert, an Englishman and an honest one; which I trow is more than you can say."

The buccaneer frowned darkly, as I could see, for I was again erect and the moon shone full upon his face. He rattled his sword in its scabbard, as though he would draw it on me, but thought better of it, and turned away, gnawing at his mustachios savagely.