For Prey and Spoils - Frederick Ober

How a Fair Maiden was Rescued

We were as though in a beleaguered castle, or in a ship attacked on either side, for the pirates were coming toward us from the north and from the south. We descended on the north side of the island, toward the harbor to which the vessels under command of Morgan and Mansvelt were hastening and straining all their canvas. They had been gone during all the time I have covered in my narration—that is, since we had been left in peace.

Uneasy we felt, of course, at the prospect of their coming, not knowing what was now in store for us, but being sure it was to our disquieting. But, as Eli Herrick said, they would have other things than concern about us to take up their attention, and perhaps we would escape their observation for a while.

"And while they are engaged in unlading their craft," said he, "I am going to remove all my 'plunder' to the vacant hut next yours, so we can be within hail when the storm breaks, you know. You two lambs ain't able to take care of yourselves, and will eftsoon need my help.

And before we get to be near neighbors I want you both to practice calling me Eli for short. I can't stand being called 'Mister Eli Herrick,' as if I was an esquire or mate of a ship. So if you don't call me Eli, there'll be trouble 'twixt me and you. And I'm going to call you 'Hump' and the wee one 'Jack; ' so there's no use talking any more about it. Hump you are and Jack he is!"

Thus "Hump" I was, and John was "Jack," while, "for short," the Yankee boucanier would have it, he was ever after "Eli." It did not matter, of course, for the familiarity that breedeth contempt cometh not of the bestowal of names, but of the spirit.

However, let us not linger at these details. Suffice it that the pirates brought their vessels into the harbor, and no sooner were the sails furled and the anchors cast than over the rails swarmed a horde of "brethren "into the small boats, and some in their eagerness to get ashore even dropped into the water and swam. John and I watched them through the crevices in our hut, while, as for Eli, he busied himself at setting his house in order, paying no attention whatever to the recent arrivals, who spread over the beach, some, and others made for their habitations.

The last boatloads to come ashore were composed of a score or more of dejected individuals who seemed to be captives, as indeed they were: Spaniards who had been taken with the two strange galleons, that were by now being warped into the harbor. These poor wretches were bundled out of the boats and driven a ways up the sands, where they were told to remain, at peril of being shot if they moved away. And there they sat the rest of the day, scarce daring to move for fear of their captors; which showed that there had been a fearful time at the taking of their ships.

Eli went out to look the captives over, and when he returned reported that they were mostly common sailors, but that among them was a Spanish Don of high degree, who even then looked "as fierce as a meat axe," though his hands were tied behind him, and a beautiful young girl, perhaps his daughter; besides another woman, evidently of humbler birth, who was probably her maid. They all had been cast upon the sands as though they were bundles of old clothes and by no means entitled to any consideration.

"The galleon they were in," said Eli, "made a hard fight against both our vessels, and several of our men were killed before the brethren carried her by boarding; and both Morgan and Mounseer were so enraged that they put nearly all the crew to the sword, reserving these they brought to the island for the sport of shooting on the morrow. They would have killed them all then and there, but our pretty men protested that it wa'n't fair that those of us at home shouldn't have a share in the 'fun,' so the poor critters have been saved for shooting here on shore."

John and I expressed the horror we felt, and I began to have that creepy sensation at the roots of my hair, which I knew to be but the precursor to some deed of mine that I would not commit when in my normal state. In sooth, Eli noticed that my expression changed, and he seemed to divine instanter what it meant, for he said: "Ha, I see by thy face, friend Humphrey, that thou wouldst go out and fight the brethren, all, peradventure it might avail, and, indeed, that thou art nerved to die if needs be in defence of the defenceless. Am I right?"

"I don't know," I replied, absently, but clutching tightly my cutlass the while. "Truly a strange feeling possesses me. I seem to be clutched by a demon, in sooth, that moves me at its will. It must not be, Eli, this killing of those innocent people. We must prevent it, by whatever means in our power."

"We can't do it. Leastwise, we can't prevent the shooting of the men. But I tell you what I'm going to attempt, if you'll aid me, and that is the rescue of the women. It shan't be said of a Herrick that he allowed a woman to be shot down while he stood by alive. It would be impossible to save the whole lot, Hump, but perhaps we can cut out the women, if to-night is dark and we use discretion."

"Anything, Eli, so we do what in us lies. I would save them all if possible; and perhaps it may be yet. Are you sure they will be shot?"

"On the morrow, at sunrise, by Mounseer's orders. That's what old Jaques told me. He is one of the guards—the only one that's sober, in fact. He watches till midnight, when he is relieved, and the third watch is the one that is to do the shooting. That is, if all are not drunk; and it will be something unusual if they ain't.

"Heaven grant they may be," I ejaculated.

"May I be shot if they ain't!" retorted Eli, significantly.

"But what difference will it make? The brethren can't stay drunk all the time, now, can they? And when they sober up, whether it's to-morrow morning, or noon, or night, the capt'in's orders will be carried out, or he will know what's what! You know that, Hump."

"I fear me, yes. Then, Eli, what we do must be done between" the coming of dusk and midnight. The sooner the better, for as I am now I feel that my heart will burst for the strain that is on me."

"The lust of fighting, Hump; that's what 'tis. You just want to up and slay somebody. If it's a pirate, all right; but it has to be somebody. I wish a certain individooal that I used to know, the feller that scarred my back, may run up ag'inst you to-night, Hump. It would save me the trouble of killing him, that's all!"

"Don't, Eli, don't. Not for worlds would I have the stain of blood on my soul. But yet those poor people must be saved, even if perchance some blood be shed."

"Trust me for the planning of it. We won't do anything ha'sh to old Jaques, for I can fix him all right. He's an old crony of mine. But I tell you now it won't be a bit of use trying to free 'em all. There'll be a pretty how-de-do if we try it. So just leave it all to me and obey my orders to the letter. Hear?"

"Yes, I'll try to; but it is awful, just the thought of leaving even two or three of them to their fate!"

"Just so, just so; but we'll do the best we can. Let her go at that. But what's the lamb gawking at. Here's Jack drinking in every word we said, and not a word he says in reply. What say, lamb—will you fight, too? Speak up, my hearty. You never do say anything, anyway. Come, talk a little."

The boy shrank back abashed, for he was, in sooth, a timid youth. He came and put his arm around me; and I loved him the more for his timidity, together with his confidence in me, withal; but he said nothing then, only later whispered: "Don't leave me alone long, dear Humphrey, and don't run any too great risk."

"Tush, tush, sweetheart, wouldst have us abandon a fair maiden in distress? Hast no sisters of thine own, Jack? Truly I know thou hast one, and fair she is, too, on my word."

At these words of mine, which were cruel of premeditation—for I wished to nerve him to the task of assisting us—the tears sprang straightway to his eyes, but yet the words failed not of their mission.

"Go, then, thou and Eli," he said, "and the while I will pray that no harm befall. I will be brave, Humphrey, I will; but—but—"

"I know, sweetheart, I know. Thou wishest me clear of all blood-guiltiness. Heaven grant so it may eventuate. But I am in God's hands, Jack, dear. Whatsoever befalleth must be for the best. So rest thyself in mind while we are absent, and be ready to assist us swiftly if so be thou 'rt needed when we return."

"That I will, Humphrey, dear. I'll stand guard and watch the exit of the cave, peradventure thou'lt need quickly to enter."

"That you must, youngster," said Eli, speaking brusquely. "Now, Hump, let us take a bite and a snifter to strengthen us for the fray. Are the pistols primed and the cutlasses of keen edge? Well and good; now set forth the prog, for verily I feel an appetite. I am faim, as our friend Mounseer has a habit of saying. What, not eat, Hump? Guess you'll get used to a sniff of blood bymbye, when you're as old as I am and have been here as long. Makes you heartsick at the thought of it, hey? Well, don't blame you a bit. Felt the same way myself, not only once but many times. But now I'm hardened."

Had the occasion been less serious I might have smiled; but, truth to say, I was far from feeling light of heart, and took his manner seriously. So did Jack, I ween, and when a tear from his eye splashed on the back of Eli's hand, as he was attending upon his wants at our rude board, the Yankee laid aside his bluster and bravado at once. Leaping to his feet, he threw an arm around Jack's shoulders and pressed hint to his breast. "Don't cry, youngster," he said, huskily; "it'll come out all right. Just pray for us both, and—and keep your eye peeled. When you hear us coming, have the pit's opening clear and the torches ready for lighting. For there'll be no time to lose. Now I'll run out and take a survey," he continued, gently releasing the astonished lad, and snatching up a brace of pistols, which he pushed into his belt. "It's dark enough now for me to reconnowter without being seen, and if I find only old Jaques on guard the rest is easy. See this bottle, lads? It's filled with the wine of Xeres, which old Jaques loves as his life. Don't know why, I'm sure; I never took to it, nor to any other liquor but the fiery water. But no matter, it's dosed with something else that he don't know about, and warranted to put him to sleep in the wink of a bat's eye. Kinder mean trick to play on a crony, ain't it? But all's fair in a game of this sort. If I get the old man into trouble, I'll have to get him out, that's all. So-long. Wait here, Hump."

Eli slid out into the dusk, and Jack and I sat at the hut's mouth in dread suspense. The lad's head sank to my shoulder, and I will confess that my heart was filled with pain; but I said nothing, fearing that which might unnerve me for my part, and which I was ready to play, come what would. So it was with great relief that I heard my name whispered from the dark outside the hut, and knew Eli had returned.

"It's all right," said he, looming up large in the doorway. "Better 'n I had reckoned on, for what d' you s'pose? There ain't nary a boucanier in sight; and, more 'n that, all the Spanish sailors have been taken away t' other side the island, leaving the Don and the two women alone on the sands. Greatest luck in the world, sure's preachin'. Couldn't been done better if I'd arranged the whole thing myself.

"There ain't nothing to do now, Hump, except to march out with me and invite the Don and his friends into our cave. That's resky, I know, 'cause, of course, we'll be s'pected, and there'll be a mighty how-de-do. So, if you misdoubt the scheme, Hump, say so right now."

"No, no, let's get them out of harm's way and trust to luck," I responded. "Perhaps we can hold them in the cave till the men have gone, and then set them adrift in a boat for Cuba."

"Well, yes, p'raps. Come on, then. But keep quiet, for I ain't sure this mayn't be some sort of a trap sot a pu'pose to catch us."

We stole out stealthily to where the Spaniards were stretched on the sand, and, ascertaining that there was no one else in sight, quickly roused them from the stupor that their fatigue and fright had plunged them into. The old Don bristled up like a tiger-cat, as I touched him on the shoulder, and the serving woman let out a scream, which Eli quickly muffled with his hand over her mouth; but the maiden said not a word. She arose to an erect position, drew a mantilla about her head and shoulders, and, something seeming to assure her that we were friends, placed a hand in mine and allowed me to lead her away.

Fortunate was it for us that the old Don understood some few words of English, else we might have had a fight on our hands right there, unarmed as he was. But he knew what the word "friend" meant, as whispered in his ear, and went without a struggle; the more readily as we heard sounds as of a body of men approaching, confused shootings and the clash of arms.