The words of the chief startled us somewhat, despite the already harrowing scenes we had passed through of late, but his swarthy face, with its deep-set eyes gleaming like coals of fire in the light of the coming dawn, was yet more startling. We looked at him in some wonder, but no man durst ask him what he meant. At last he spoke, in explanation of his meaning.
"Ye know," he said, "that some of my people were done to death by torture there in Maracaibo, whither they had gone on a peaceful mission. For we are people of peace and raise our hands against no man unless first he setteth upon us with bad intent. Then we strike and have no mercy; for though we are people of peace, and full many a century have dwelt here above the water, in order that we might trespass upon no man's territory, and might live unmolested with our wives and children, yet we are strong and revengeful. Listen now, men who have come here across the sea—ye came to me and I received you gladly, because were ye not my friends? Yea, and with the old man, the Norte Americano, I have had blood friendship these many moons. Now, listen, yet again to what I say: I have been around to all the dwellings within my colony, and I have warned all the strong men and the sturdy women to prepare themselves to assail those bloody bucaniers this coming night. Ah, ye start, ye are amazed, to think that my people dare thus. Is it not so? Yea, but believe me, we will prevail over those men of blood, and, moreover, ye shall sail away in their own vessel, even the galleon that, as you say, they have taken from the Spaniard. I and my people have no love for the Spaniards; but at least they have not molested us for many years; while the bucaniers have applied the torture; they have killed some of my tribe. On their heads be the blood they have shed, and with interest manifold. I have done."
And of a truth he had, as he said, done speaking, for we could get no word from him thereafter for many an hour. He had wrought himself up to the fury of speech, as it were, which with such a nature as his required great effort, and having delivered himself he closed his mouth and remained silent, because, forsooth, he had nothing more to say. But he replied to our questions, though in monosyllables only and reluctantly.
During the ensuing day there was great stir among the Lake-Dwellers. The huts swarmed forth Indians big and small, like the pouring out of bees from a hive, and there was such a gathering of canoes hollowed out from trees as never in the world was the like seen before, I ween. Within the huts there was a sharpening of weapons—of rusty swords that had been brought to this country by the first conquistadores; of spears with triangular heads, of arrows made of fish-bones and others with obsidian points; all which were poisoned with the wurrari from the interior of Guiana where the Carib Indians dwell. This poison is a deadly one, and once entereth it into the veins of a man nothing on earth can save him from the terrible death that followeth hard after the wounding with one of these arrows.
Through the long, hot day there went on great preparation, and as the shadows lengthened along the lake, and the sun dipped toward the horizon, all the Indians dwelling here seemed to be ready for the fray. Ready, yea, and desperately eager, withal.
The women and girls among the Indians had been as busy as the men, getting ready store of provisions, of the which all partook with avidity, especially of their fermented beer, which they said would give them great strength for the space of the twenty-four hours next ensuing. Acting upon the advice of the chief, we too partook of food and drink, and slept through the heated portion of the day, and by night were refreshed and strengthened. It was a sight the like of which never had I looked upon before—that gathering together of the canoes, each canoe filled with red warriors, naked to the waist, painted in stripes of yellow and black and vermilion, with an effect of hideous oramentation. They seemed more as devils than as men, and for the time being perhaps they may be so called, for they all were in a state of suppressed phrenzy that showed in their excited gestures, in their hoarse, guttural cries, and above all in their gleaming eyes. Perhaps there were half a thousand of them there assembled, and it was with no small degree of pride that the chief regarded his children—as he called the warriors. He turned to us for approval, and we gave him praise without stint; but still we could not but feel that even this large number of half-naked warriors was insufficient to encompass our designs and wrest from the buccaneers their ships, or at least one of them.
We would fain have left the ladies here in the hut to rest, the while we were engaged in the expedition; but not only was the chief averse to our doing so, explaining that his entire settlement, including even all the women and children, would accompany the war canoes, leaving the colony without an inhabitant, but the ladies themselves entered energetic protest. So, perforce, they went along, though at the rear end of the procession, and in a boat with some of the Indian women and children. It was in accord with the plan of the chief that all this was arranged, and more wise arrangement could not have been made—as the sequel proved, and shortly, too. Night fell, at last, and, moving with the precision of a fleet that had been drilled by the best of British admirals, the flotilla started for the scene of operations. All through the day a pillar of smoke had proclaimed the location of the ships, and the Indian scouts sent out by the chief had from time to time made us aware of the buccaneer's movements. In the main, the scouts reported, they had remained just where they had gained the victory of the night before, repairing damages and sacking the dismantled galleons. They had also been engaged in more bloody work than that—some of them having hung and quartered and tossed overboard for the sharks to eat many of the hapless prisoners. We learned, amongst other things, that the buccaneers who had taken the galleon we had escaped from had hung the rudder, extinguished the flames of the night before, and prepared the ship for a voyage. Also, that all, or nearly all, the Maracaibo treasure had been taken to the galleon, which, together with that she held before, would make a pretty prize for whomsoever might recapture her. When this was explained to the chief, he said he would concentrate all his efforts upon the galleon, and once in his possession she should be turned over to us, to go whithersoever we cared, and so long as he and his men had their revenge they would ask for nothing more, only the small boats, the surplus guns, swords, cutlasses, etc., which we might perchance take from the enemy. He had the whole affair so well planned that we could not but wonder, and he felt so positive of victory that we could not feel otherwise than confident ourselves.
Thus it was with the feeling that our battle was already half won that we set forth for the fleet. In short, we arrived in its vicinity about an hour before midnight. Silently, in accordance with the orders previously issued by the chief, the war canoes formed a double circle around the galleon, which we had singled out for attack. Smaller and smaller grew the circle, nearer and nearer drew we to the ship, until the canoes formed almost a solid wall about her. In fact, so well had the plan been made that they enclosed the galleon as with a floating wall of hollow logs or trees, but all these logs were swarming with red Indians, ready at the word to leap up the sides of the ship and upon her deck.
Suddenly, without a warning, there darted from out the portholes of the ship a circling sheet of flame, and the water just beyond the canoes was churned into whirlpools and cataracts of foam, where the iron missiles intended for us had struck. The chief chuckled, in his peculiar guttural, for what had happened was just as he had expected and prepared for. That is, he had allowed the canoes to be discovered at the moment he intended, and no sooner. Then, as they were so near that the guns on shipboard could not be sufficiently depressed to hit them with their missiles, we had really drawn the fire of the enemy without encountering any harm.
At the low-spoken word of command, up leaped the Indians, attacking the sides of the ship, to which they clung like barnacles, and entering the portholes, as well as swarming over the bulwarks. There were so many of them that the buccaneers were actually overwhelmed, and though they stood to their arms like the brave men they really were, and fought to the last gasp, each man of them, it was all of no avail. The fight was short but fierce. I will not enter into the details of it; suffice that at last there came an end to it, and we remained masters of the ship. Of the buccaneers, some of them formerly our comrades, there was no man left alive on the ship, for the chief of the Lake-Dwellers heeded not our entreaties to be merciful, and either killed all he and his men encountered or drove them into the sea. It was all done so quickly that, almost before we were well aware of the fact, the decks were cleared and the Indians were victorious. No credit to Eli, Jaques and myself, either, for though we were all three burning to take part, the Indians were ahead of us, and that night taught us a lesson in the art of war. I never before saw a ship's deck so quickly cleared of all living opponents, nor so thickly strewn with dead and wounded men silently dispatched. Our red allies uttered hardly a sound, except to grunt as they sent home their thrusts of spear or shot a poisoned arrow to its mark. Not many of them were killed, either, so fierce and rapid was their onslaught; but of the enemy more were laid low than I care to think about. Still, they had brought their fate upon themselves, and deserved no other.
When all was over, the chief sent back a scout canoe to carry the tidings to the women, who were lingering behind at an appointed rendezvous, and in an hour or so they came up, silently and swiftly, each canoe paddled by a brawny female; and they, too, as their fathers, brothers and husbands had done but a little while before, swarmed upon the ship and scattered all over it in search of spoil. A hundred lights gleamed here and there—on deck, in the cabin and forecastle and in the hold—and in a short time the busy people were collected at the bulwarks, each man, woman and child laden with what seemed in their sight most valuable. Clothing and trinkets, jewelry, and especially swords, cutlasses, musquets, arquebuses and pistols, were the articles they prized most; but though we directed their attention to the bags and boxes of silver, tons of which, seemingly, were stored in the hold and in the treasure tanks, they would have none of it.
"No, no," said the old chief, as we told him to reward himself and his people for their work. "No, no; we no want silver. We have had revenge; that is enough. Take the ship and its treasure and swiftly make away. Already the pirate chief and his men are awake, and soon they will be here, unless ye sail quickly out of the lake into the open sea. Even then he will be at your heels. I have detailed twelve of my men to go with ye. They are good sailors; they know how to manage a galleon like this. They want to see the world. Take them with ye; but some time send them back safe and sound. Already they are at their posts; some have cut the cable, some are loosing the sails. Adieu, amigos; we thank ye for helping us to take our revenge!"
As he concluded this extraordinary speech he uttered a word of command, and over the ship's sides slid his people, laden as they were, dropping into their canoes like machines, so perfectly did they obey him and so smoothly did they work. Before we had scarce time to thank him for his aid he himself had leaped the bulwark and was off, leaving us staring at each other in amaze.
"By gum!" said Eli, rubbing his eyes with the back of one hand, "ain't he a nectarino? With a few men like him, Hump, my hearty, we could sweep the Caribbean Sea and have the commerce of nations at our mercy. He ought to be a buccaneer, and, if he only knew his power, methinks he would become a leader of the Brethren. Say you not so?"
"Perchance," I answered, dreamily, myself somewhat dazed by events which had succeeded in such swift succession. But it is well he does not care to be more than he is: a mere leader of red men and chief of his little colony. Let us haste to assure ourselves that our ladies are safe and then speed away, as he cautioned us, for the open sea."
I found the senorita and the senora safe in the great cabin, where they had been placed by the Indian women who had them in charge, and watched over by a comely maiden, tawny-hued as to complexion, with lips red as pomegranates and eyes like those of a fawn. The welcome they gave me was more than warm, judged by the cold standard of my countrymen, for they had scarcely seen us since we left the Lake-Dwellers' settlement, and knew not whether we were, alive or dead. Both the senora and the senorita threw themselves into my arms, and , laughed and cried, so that I knew not what to do.
What could I do, forsooth, but endure their embraces like a stoic; though far from feeling like one, I ween, with tears of joy gathering in my eyes and my heart beating hard at the thought of being the recipient of such a greeting. They seemed to regard me as the hero of the occasion; though, in sooth, I could not allow them to remain in that opinion, but as soon as possible informed them of our common indebtedness to the Indian chief. I felt constrained, also, to tell them of the necessity for immediate action, if we were to escape the clutches of Morgan and the other buccaneers, since there was a great stir on their ships, and no doubt they were already preparing to pursue us.
They promptly released me at this, though the senorita seemed loath to allow me to go again on deck; saying no word, indeed, but regarding me most pleadingly with her shining eyes. Eli and old Jaques had retired at the first onslaught, deeming discretion the better part of valor, perhaps, and I found them awaiting me on deck. Methought they might taunt me, perchance, and I was steeling myself to meet them manfully; but the only sentence uttered was by Eli, and that was enigmatical. "Ali," he said, with a sigh that seemed to me not feigned, "ah, it is a royal thing to be young. Nobody cares for you and me, Jaques; we 're old."
"Oui," answered Jaques, sadly; "but we cannot be young two times"—meaning a second time.
No more words were passed, for action, not speech, was now demanded of us. The galleon was now, thanks to the able manner in which the Indians handled her, ploughing through the water gallantly. The buccaneers had evidently made all necessary repairs and everything was shipshape, save that the decks were encumbered with such dead bodies of the foe as the Indians had not thrown overboard. There was nothing to do but cast those that remained after the others, and this occupation kept us busy for a while.
The night was pitchy dark, but the Indians evidently understood the course to take, being water-born and in their native element. And well it was, for not a long time passed ere the bustle on the buccaneers' ships increased to a roar; out of the darkness flashed the flame from a gun, and a cannon ball came skipping along in our wake. It was well aimed, but fell short; though not so another that was sent right after it, which passed through the cabin windows with a great noise of smashing glass and buried itself in one of the stanchions.
Shrieks from below informed us that the ladies were awake to their peril; but what could we do but keep right on, trusting to luck and our good ship's speed for escape? Nothing, in sooth; but still we were not inactive. Jaques and Eli, finding the Long Tom—as the cannon mounted on the castle aft was called—to be loaded, aimed it carefully at the point where the last flash had appeared and applied the match.