For Prey and Spoils - Frederick Ober

The Revenge of the Lake-Dwellers

The smoke was so thick about the galleon that for a brief space it gave us shelter; but the glare of the burning ships soon lit up the sea, and it was not long, that we could avail of the friendly darkness. Immediately our boat came out into the light it was the target of many a musquet, the balls from which splashed the sea around the boat, pattered against the gunwales, and a few whistled past close to our ears. One bullet, in sooth, struck the breast-plate of my cuirass with such force that, had I not had it on, I should certainly have received a severe wound, perchance a fatal one. Picking up the spent bullet, which dropped to the bottom of the boat, I showed it to the senorita, at the same time telling her that I probably owed my life to her thoughtfulness in providing me with the coat of mail. She smiled thereat, and said significantly that, judging from the appearance of the cuirass, that bullet was not the first one it had stopped. And certes, when I came to examine it closely, I found the marks made by near a dozen bullets, some of which had surely passed through my body had I not been so well protected. Eli's breastplate, also, bore many indentations, showing indubitably how fiercely we had been assailed and of what service our good armor had been to us. For which we duly thanked the senorita, who blushed so prettily that one might have thought her discovered in a fault, instead of doing a kindness to her friends.

It was by the grace of God, indeed, that we had not been killed, so great had been the odds against us; but we were spared to come out of the fight practically unscathed. And, moreover, though our boat became the target for a. still brisker fire of musquetry, we passed through the fiery furnace uninjured in the least, but not, it must be confessed without some trepidation on the part of the ladies. Eli, Jaques and myself were all too busy at the oars and at the helm to pay much attention to aught else than the steering clear of the enemy. For by now all the buccaneers had closed in about the burning ships, like ravening wolves around a deer wounded to the death, yet which was still at bay and had some fight left in him. The most of them were far too busily engaged in watching their chances for boarding the Spaniards, in cutting off the fleeing crews, shooting the poor wretches in the water as they cast themselves from their flaming vessels into the sea—to search beyond the wall of fire for other possible prey. So we slipped past the last ship of the cordon and headed for the shore of the lake nearest to us then, which was the western shore, where, Eli said, was safety, could we but gain the landing-place.

[Illustration] from For Prey and Spoils by Frederick Ober


"There is a colony of Lake-dwelling Indians thereabouts," said Eli, "who have their huts over the water and are friendly to the Spaniards, but not to the buccaneers. If we can but make their settlement, methinks we are safe; and, moreover, if I can but find my old friend, the chief of the Lake-dwellers, I trow we shall eke wreak our revenge, for though these Indians are generally men of peace and prone to hold aloof from war, at the same time they are most valiant fighters when their blood is up. Trust me to do all possible to get it up, and have it stay there until we have 'enamost repaired our losses."

Knowing well the lay of the land, dark though it was beyond the wall of fire, Eli soon proved the verity of his assertion, for after we had rowed for little more than an hour we came suddenly upon the colony he spake of. Simultaneously with our arrival within sight of the settlement, as the huts rose ghost-like from the water, there was a great noise as if the heavens were rended. Looking fearsomely back, we saw vast sheets of flame shooting skyward, and knew at once that some of the ships' powder magazines had been blown up. The glare from the flames was such that, though we were full three miles from the ships, the lake on every side of us was illumined as by the sun at noonday, and revealed our boat to the Indians, who, some with musquets and others with bows and arrows, were watching from the platforms of their huts. Excited as they were by the vast noise of the battle and the sight of blazing ships, the Indians were on the alert, and at first glimpse of us let fly a cloud of arrows and shot off their musquets. Fortunately for us, their aim was bad, though their intentions were good—that is, to shoot us. But we got within hail, and, by the greatest good fortune, Eli's old friend the chief being one of the party on the platform that had saluted us so rudely, we were soon at parley with the red-skinned salvages. At first, to be sure, the chief was loath to allow us to come near the settlement; but finally Eli convinced him we were friends, and at last he recognized the voice of his erstwhile acquaintance; though it had been years since last they met. Then he allowed us to row up to the hut, on the platform of which he and his crew were perched, and saluted us with a guttural grunt of satisfaction which he no doubt intended for a welcome.

Arrived at the hut, we found no means of ingress save a pole or trunk of a small tree, notched with holes for the placing of the feet, like a rude ladder such as is used in the mines of Mexico and of Peru. This pole was slippery from being long in the water, and as no one but a barefooted Indian could climb it with any degree of skill, we had great difficulty in ascending to the hut's platform, even after our boat was drawn alongside and made fast.

But the Indian chief reached down a hand for the ladies to take hold of, and while Eli and old Jaques held the boat firm I helped the senora and the senorita to climb the precarious ladder. The huts, as I have said, were built on platforms of poles over water that was about thigh-deep, and there was no land nearer than the shore of the lake, half a mile or more distant, except a small garden spot that was made by enclosing a space with logs and filling it with earth, and this was about twenty yards square—a fragment of earth like an island rescued from the waters of the lake.

Having helped us up to the platform, the chief stood aside and motioned us to enter the hut, which was made entirely of thatch of palm leaves, sides and roof, and with a layer of small poles for a floor. We could look through the cracks between the poles and see the water of the lake beneath the hut, which gave us at first a feeling of insecurity, though in reality the floor was strong enough. In the centre of the hut was a space covered with beaten clay, and here a fire was smouldering, with a huge iron pot above it containing a medley stew of some sort for the Indians' delectation. Hammocks were swung from each corner of the hut, and in these, at the Indian's motion, we half sat, half reclined, while his wives prepared for us some refreshment.

Although this chief of the Lake-dwellers possessed the impassive exterior of the Indians in general—that is, he was stolid and usually slow of speech—there seemed to be something on his mind he would fain have relieved, and he soon evinced a great curiosity as to the fight that was going on between the pirates and the Spaniards. We told him all we knew, Eli, as usual, acting as spokesman, and as we proceeded with our narration, detailing to him the cruelties of the buccaneers and the relation in which we stood to them, as well as the danger to us of ever allowing them to get us again into their clutches, his swarthy countenance became livid with suppressed rage or other excitement akin to that passion. He said little, but, after we had concluded (the repast his women had been preparing being now ready), he motioned us to partake, and then, begging us to excuse him, backed out of the open doorway, and, sliding down the notched pole to the water, entered a canoe dug from out a log, and disappeared in the darkness.

"Wonder what he's up to?" said Eli, with an air of mystery, nodding his head toward the door through which the chief had disappeared. "Something or other disturbed him powerfully. Shouldn't wonder but he's off to call a gathering of the tribe. P'raps he scents plunder off there in the lake and is going to try to get his share of it. If that's so don't blame him a bit, I vum.

"But here's the vittels. In that air pot there's a stew made of all sorts of veg'tables, with a bit of meat here and there, and that other thing that looks something like a turtle, only longer 'n he is broad, is an armadiller, what they call here a 'cachicama.' And it's good, too; so, ladies, you 'd better take some of the armadiller, if you want to be interduced to the sweetest meat in the world. The varmint 's cooked in his own shell—that's what makes him look so queer. But don't be afraid, for the meat 's tender and wholesome."

The ladies needed considerable urging to induce them to partake of the armadillo; and I myself will confess to some qualms at the prospect of eating thereof—for I had never before seen the creature, either live or dead, though I was told it inhabited the isle of Tortuga, where it was so prized, however, as a delicacy, that none but the chiefs of the buccaneers were allowed to eat of it. But we were all nearly famished, and, notwithstanding the repulsive appearance of the big and black iron pot (which looked as if it might have arrived with that doughty explorer, Americus de Vespucci, who first discovered these Lake-dwellers, and had been in service almost ever since without cleansing), we overcame our repugnance and ate of the meal prepared by the Indian women with somewhat even of gusto. After it was over the Indian women passed around dried leaves of the weed known as tobacco, and, all the men save myself producing their pipes, and filling them up, soon wreaths of fragrant smoke were passing through the thatch of the roof. The ladies lay back in their hammocks, and, overcome with fatigue and the exciting scenes they had passed through, eftsoon fell into slumber, seeing which we men were glad, for they needed such refreshment full sore.

Eli and Jaques and myself were prone to sleep, but we dared not, for at any moment the chief might return, and we all agreed that it was incumbent upon us to be vigilant, even though we had no good known cause to distrust the people whose hospitality we had sought.

"This is a good time," remarked Eli, between the puffing at his pipe and the exhaling from his mouth of the smoke produced therefrom, "a good time, friend Jaques, for you to give us a short account of what happened while you were away, and Hump and I were left behind in Porto Bello."

"Certainement,"  answered Jaques, "but zey was so mooch happen zat it to take me all ze remaindair of ze night to remark it, frien' Eli."

"That may be," rejoined Eli, "but you can't have so much time as that. Cut your speech as short as you can; make your lingo straight as you can, with all the English you can remember and as little French as possible, and heave ahead."

And this is the gist of the story—not in poor old Jaques' "lingo"—for it would take too long in the telling—but as rendered into English by the reader's friend and humble servant, Humphrey Gilbert, none other than the writer of these adventures. It seems that after the fort had been stormed and the garrison put to the sword—(and as well all the inoffensive inhabitants of Porto Bello, including the maidens who had assisted so unwillingly in the scaling of the walls)—the pirates sacked the city of all the remaining valuables they could find and hastily departed. They at first, to be sure, essayed the capture of the church in which we had taken refuge, and—as the reader will recall—set fire to the roof, and, as they thought, utterly destroyed us. This was done at Morgan's instigation and against the inclination of Mansvelt, who would fain have sailed away and left us to such fate as we might find.

This last act but added fuel to the flame of hatred for each other that raged in their hearts, and when the fleet was well clear of the harbor of Porto Bello they could contain themselves no longer. Just which one began the quarrel old Jaques could not tell, being engaged in his duties, and, as a common sailor, not having cognizance of what was going on in the castle and the cabin. But it was told him by one of the men who was engaged in waiting on the chiefs that Morgan, being in the cabin with Mansvelt, began to reproach him with having encouraged me in the matter of the fight when I came near to causing his death by strangulation. He said that he would yet have my blood and put me to the torture; but Mansvelt taunted him with my probable escape and reminded him that he had yet to catch me first. At which Morgan swore a most fearful oath that he would surely catch me, were I still alive, and make such an example of me that my end should be a warning to all buccaneers who dared disobey, and particularly maltreat their superiors.

Mansvelt then reminded Morgan that there were two meanings to the word "superior," and again taunted his lieutenant with being by far my inferior when it came to matters to be settled by sword or feat of arms. At this, said old Jaques, Morgan became beside himself with rage, and made as if to draw his sword and cut down Mansvelt on the spot. In sooth, he did so, for the latter, seeing what was coming, made haste to draw his own weapon from the scabbard and defend himself. But before he could do so Morgan ran him through the heart, and he fell forward across the table which was between them, and died before any one could raise him up.

And thus it was that, though indirectly (as I have said nearer the beginning of these adventures), I, Humphrey Gilbert, was the cause of Mansvelt's death by sword in the hand of our arch enemy, Henry Morgan. There was no mystery about Mansvelt's death (as certain who have made mention of it would have appear), but it was the result of a feud between him and Morgan, and came about in a manner very natural to one engaged in his nefarious calling.

I cannot but confess to a feeling of horror at the occurrence, and—though may God forgive me for questioning his decrees—it would have been in a measure gratifying had I but learned that it was Morgan who had fallen and not Mansvelt.

Immediately after the occurrence Morgan gave orders to throw the body of the late admiral overboard, after which he called the men aft and announced from the castle poop that he was now the admiral of the fleet, and they were to obey his orders. They, of course, said nothing, though many of them were sullen enough, in sooth; for, as compared with their present commander, Mansvelt was tender and compassionate. But might makes right with the buccaneers, and, as Morgan had the command, they could not but fain obey him. His first command was to about ship and seek out Maracaibo, for he had long had the sacking of this rich city in mind, remembering the spoils that Lolonois gained therefrom in his raid of years before.

Arrived at Maracaibo, the buccaneers had exceeded even the cruelties of Lolonois, for they put all the leading citizens whom they could capture to the torture; they burst out their brains by twisting cords about their heads; had boiled some of them in oil; had tortured some others by the rack—in fact, had used all their devilish ingenuity for the purpose of compelling the people of Maracaibo to reveal the hiding-places of their treasures. They had been so far successful in this that Morgan was enriched by millions of pounds' worth of treasure, and, just as the Spanish fleet appeared, he was about departing for Tortuga with it all. Fortune had favored him, together with the using of the fire-raft, and the pest we knew.

Old Jaques had only just concluded his narration by the break of dawn, and, ere he had ended, the Indian chief had slipped quietly in and requested him to tell it in Spanish that he might understand it. This Jaques did, and, as he concluded, the chief broke forth: "Some of my people were in Maracaibo and were tortured, too, and it is for the sake of them that I now demand revenge!"