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Frederick A. Ober

Better to Die A-Fighting than be Hanged

When the Long Tom roared out its salute to the buccaneer ships certes there was a disturbance in their direction, for the ball that sped their way raked one of them fore and aft. This circumstance did not, however, deter them from following after us, and soon we led the van of as pretty a flock of sea-birds as the stars of night e'er shone upon. We led the van, say I, but not by a distance so great as to give us much comfort.

Our Indian sailors ran over the ship and scampered up and down the rigging like monkeys, or rather like good-natured demons, and were the best seafarers we had ever known. "By my sooth," said Eli to old Jaques, and with me a-standing by, "by my sooth, but these red salvages surpass by far any lubber of a buccaneer my eyes e'er sat upon. I 'gin to hope we may yet escape, my friends."

"Oui, oui,"  assented old Jaques, readily, "zey is ze diable pour  zis work. Eef we make ze aiscape it will be onlee by ze aid of ze sauvages, pour  ze sheep (ship) she ees no so mooch fastair zan ze boucanier."

"Fact, for true," muttered Eli, shifting his glance astern and then aloft at our bellying sails. "Seems t' me if we can't give 'em the slip, somehow, we 're goners, sure 's preaching, for we can't possibly beat 'em by straight sailing. That's plain 's the nose on my face. Here, you!" he called out to the head man of the Lake-Dwellers, as he darted by on the Tun. Then he put the question to him. "Is there a side channel we can slip into and baffle our pursuers?" Rather, he uttered it not aloud, but by dumb show made the salvage understand his meaning, by merely jerking his thumb over his shoulder and wig wagging his head. The Indian understood him well, and at once spread out his hand deprecatingly, as if to say there was none such. Then he swept the sea with a comprehensive wave of his arms, to indicate that the chase was to be a stern chase and to the bitter end. Then he placed both his hands on Eli's shoulders, and, wheeling him about—for he was at that time looking forward—conducted him to the big gun, patted it approvingly and pointed at the lights of our pursuers, shining through the gloom of night. Having done all this, he smiled meaningly into the old buccaneer's eyes, turned on his naked heel and disappeared. It was all done like a flash, or like a succession of flashes, and without uttering a word; but we understood.

"By the big horn spoon!" ejaculated Eli, admiringly. "Ain't he jest the all-firedest skipper that you ever see? He didn't lose a second, did he? But he showed us as plain as daylight that there wa'n't nothing to do but draw a straight streak for Tortuga, and that while he and his men sailed the ship we must defend it.

"And we will, too, by the jumping, green-eyed grasshopper! What we here for but to fight, I 'd like to know? What else can we do but fight? Nothing, and we know it. But it's a blamed sight better for us to die a-fighting than be hanged at the yardarm, ain't it? For that's jest what it amounts to if we 're taken, sure 's preaching. That is, if there's anything left of us after they 've done with the torture—the rack and the thumb-screws, the slow fire, the pine splinters, and such like. 'T ain't nice to think of, but that's jest what awaits us if we allow ourselves to be took."

"Ver' well; zen we not allow it, non," said Jaques, nodding his head emphatically.

"We may be taken," I added, "but not alive."

"Not alive!" echoed Jaques and Eli. Then we loaded up the big gun, lighted the slow-match and stood ready to fire it when best occasion offered. There were other guns, of course: culverins and demi-culverins in the broadside batteries, but we could not fire them without broaching to or falling off, and hence losing precious time. So upon the Long Torn depended our salvation, perchance we were in danger of being overhauled. All through the remainder of the night we stood by the gun, taking watch and watch, one off at a time for sleep and two on.

The dawn of morning found us in the Caribbean Sea and heading a northerly course for the isle of Tortuga. A short gunshot astern was the foremost of our three pursuers, with the second and the third close after her. We knew, from the dogged manner in which they held their course, so persistently and silently, without e'er losing a moment to essay a shot at us, that the master of each vessel had instructions to take us alive, and for what purpose—to be tortured, to wit—we knew full well.

Shortly after daylight broke, the senorita came on deck, and made directly for the gun where I was standing. I saw her not, for at that moment occurred the chance for which I had been watching since the dawning, viz., the foremost vessel yawed widely from her course, with the slant of her bows presenting a most fair mark for my aim. I could scarce refrain from shouting for joy, as I ran my eye over the breech of my gun and applied the match to the vent. And the big iron ball went straight for the mark, striking the doomed ship well 'twixt wind and water. It must have loosened some planks, I trove, for there seemed to be an immediate inrush of water. The vessel shivered like a whale struck by a lance, and eftsoon was down by the head and evidently a-sinking, with immense confusion manifest on board.

"Hit her that time! She's a goner, sure 's fighting!" shouted Eli, who had been asleep under the taffrail, and was awakened by the shot. "That's give us a chance to leave 'em all hull down before this day is ended, and by evening of the next we ought to sight Tortuga."

Turning around, I met the senorita's gaze fixed full upon me, and in her great black eyes such soulful admiration that my cheeks went hot and red with the blood that rushed into them. Were there no other reward than her praise, I would have gone through flood and fire to win that praise.

"Nobly done, friend Humphrey," she said, extending her hand. "Another shot like that and I shall feel quite sure of seeing my dear kin again."

"That you shall do, I trust, and soon, what-e'er betide," I answered. "See, our noble sailors have every sail set and drawing, and look at the wake of foam behind our rudder."

"Yes, and look at the pirate ship you shot at," she rejoined. "Truly, the waves all but break over her; only the castle top is clear of them. Ah, that too is plunging under. Yes, and the masts careen. Look! Look quickly, for the ship is about to plunge into its ocean grave!"

And it was even so. Hardly had she finished ere the sea had closed over the vessel.

"But two now are left," she said. "Will those pursue us?"

"Till the death," I answered, looking at her steadily.

"And will they catch us?"

"I do not know, but tow not."

"But if they catch us, Humphrey. If they do?"

She clutched me by the sleeve. Her eyes dilated. I saw in them the look that once before I beheld when she made me promise to kill her rather than allow her to be taken by the pirates.

"They must not; they shall not!" I exclaimed, passionately. "Rather than that we will drive our vessel under water and all go down together; we will scuttle and sink her before their very eyes."

"That will do, friend Humphrey. Better that than be taken. But not till the last moment, though. I do so want to see my papa and my sister."

"And you shall," I answered her, "if it lies in us to accomplish it."

"I am content, clear friend," she replied most sweetly, as if I had promised her a gift already within my grasp. "I know that you and these good men will do all that lies within the power of men to do."

And, sooth, so did we. Suffice it that the third afternoon we sighted the cliffs of Tortuga, and at the same time the two remaining pirate ships also hove in view, still keeping in our wake and still determined to make us prisoners. Now, Eli and old Jaques and I had talked it over seriously, and made resolve to touch in at Tortuga, e'en had we to risk our very lives for it. But how to do it, and how to apprise our friends there in waiting of our coming and have them ready, was the problem. Every hour, yea, every moment, was now most precious, for not long would it take the pirate vessels to overhaul us, sailing as they were.

I then recalled that at parting I had said to John, half jestingly as it were, "Perchance I can escape these pirates, I will return in my own ship and take thee off to our own country; but thou must be ready."

"And what shall be the signal?" he queried, fully believing me capable of any adventure, be it never so great. It must be remembered that it was at the setting out of the expedition for Porto Bello that we had this conversation, and nothing in the world seemed less likely than that I should ever return in my own ship, scarce indeed return at all. Yet here I was, if not in my own ship, at least in one that was under my command. And I then recalled that I had said: "John, keep thine ears open for three signal guns, at minute intervals, and when thou hearest them haste thee to the shore with all thy belongings, for I shall then be off the harbor, and perchance there may be an enemy in pursuit, and no time to waste."

And it was agreed that we would chance it on John's recalling this pact between us and fire the guns, peradventure he would heed the signal and haste from the cave to the harbor, where we might take him, and whomsoever might be with him, on the voyage with as small delay as possible. And so we did. We fired three culverins of the starboard battery, at minute intervals, as we rounded the point and sighted the opening to the harbor. But, reader, our hearts were in our throats, as it were, for fear he would not hear, or, hearing, heed not the signal; for the pirate vessels were in full chase, and no great distance separated us by this. To sail into the harbor would be to entrap ourselves for the pirates' pleasure, for of a verity there would not be time to pick up our passengers and sail out again. This was why our hearts were in our throats as we made the entrance to the channel and swept the shore with our telescopic glasses, hoping we might see our friends. No one was in sight upon the strand. All was desolate, apparently, and our hearts sank as we turned and gazed each into the others' faces. But suddenly an Indian on the watch at the masthead shouted out: "Un buque, un buque!"—"A boat, a boat!" And there it was, in the centre of the harbor, having been hidden from our view by a protruding coral reef, and in the boat—ah, yes, who were those in the boat? They might be friends, they might be enemies; but there were four, just the number of our friends whom we had left in the cave. And the senorita's eyes, sharpened perchance by love, saw that two of them were those she was so longing for to behold, and cried out, and threw her arms around my shoulders, where her lovely head sank for the space of a moment, so overcome was she with joy and a-trembling with the shock of it.

So we stood off and on at the harbor mouth, and eventually the boat came up with us. We cast them a rope, drew them aboard without much ado, and after them their boat, in sooth, and then shook out our sails and sped away again. This delay, short as it was, had enabled the pirate vessels to gain the channel entrance, or quite near to it, so there seemed a fight on our hands at once. But we had a heart for it now, for we had on board the ones for whom we had risked so much, and one-half the battle was won. Yet was our cruise barely begun, for there was nothing for it now but to undertake the long voyage for Spain.

"Espana! Espana!"  shouted the sailors—"to Spain, to Spain"—as the galleon swung around and leaped forward on her course. But there lay the enemy, right in the road—to wit, the pirate vessels, one each side the channel—and Spain yet thousands of miles away!

"Drive her straight ahead," shouted Eli to the helmsman, and, though he may not have understood the language, the Indian knew just what was wanted. The galleon went lumbering through the channel midway, deviating no whit.

"Man the batteries!" yelled Eli, and most of us, including two of the new arrivals and three of the crew, ranged ourselves on each side the ship. The culverins were not large and they were old, but they were loaded to the muzzle, and we resolved to give the pirates some parting shots, e'en went we down to the bottom of the sea immediately after. Each of us held a lighted match, and at the word, "Starboard battery," from Eli, out spake the culverins most bravely, their roar being followed by the crashing of timbers as the shots went home. The larboard battery followed, with the same result; but by now the enemy found his tongue and came barking back at us, evidently resolved that the chance for capturing us was a fleeting one, and to sink us was the only recourse now. Both pirate vessels plied their guns most rapidly and the galleon was well peppered; but there were no casualties among our crew. As we drew ahead and brought our stern gun to bear we gave them better than they sent, and so held them in check until quite out of range.

"Guess they won't foller us any further," said Eli, watching the splashes in the water astern, growing less frequent and further eft' at each report. "'Them fellers know when they've had enough, and they ain't hankering for any more, jest let me tell you, Hump. Go aft now and greet your friends; for sooth, you hain't even said a word to John or the Don, let alone the lovely senoritas."


We cast them a rope.

So I sought the castle-cabin, where I found the Don and John had recently preceded me, and there had my reward, yea, and much more, in the way of thanks than I was entitled to. Events had pressed upon us so quickly at the coming aboard of our friends that I had not had a chance to speak to any one of them, but now that the great peril was passed there was ample time for conversation, had we been so minded. John rushed into my arms at once I appeared in the cabin, forestalling the Don, who was not to be thus outdone and embraced us both. Then he took me by the hand and led me in front of his daughters, who were yet locked in each other's arms and bestowing mutual caresses.

It mattereth not what the Don said nor what the senoritas said and did, for in the excess of their gratitude they ascribed to me their salvation from the pirates; though I protested that but for Eli and old Jaques all my efforts might have come to naught. It was Eli who planned and Jaques and I who but assisted, and I was fain to go in search of my friends to have them share the honors with me—which they flatly refused to do.

We hain't done nothing more 'n our duty," declared Eli, and Jaques assented with a "Oui, zat is all, eet was a plaisir to die for ze charming ladies, and vet we not have zat plaisir. Zey owe us nozings."

Still, the Don and his daughters were not to be appeased by our protestations. They insisted that we should go with them to their castle at Ronda and stay there with them for at least a year; but Eli and Jaques declared this to be impossible, for they had the ship and the Indian sailors to care for. Arrived at the white-walled city of Cadiz, however—which port we made in due season, thanks to the Indians, who sailed the galleon with their wonted skill—John and I finally assented to accompany the Del Mars to their castle. First, however, we had to arrange with the Lake-Dwellers to stay by the galleon until the salvages on it were adjusted, the king's fifth of the treasure exacted, and all claims paid. After the aforesaid king's fifth—as it was called—of the treasure aboard was taken out there remained a goodly sum represented by perhaps two hundred thousand pounds, which fell due to myself, John, Eli and Jaques, as virtually the salvors of the ship and contents. This we agreed to divide equally, after paying to the Indians what share they might demand—they having saved the ship—leaving to each of us not less than thirty thousand pounds apiece.

I had almost forgotten to mention what John confided to me: to wit, that he and the Don had amused themselves during our absence on the Porto Bello expedition, in searching out the hiding-places of the buccaneers' treasure on the island of Tortuga, and had accumulated, probably, to the value of at least two million pounds, which they had secreted in the cave. Before leaving Tortuga, even in the haste of departure, which allowed them scarce time to gather a few essential things together, John had bethought himself to close and conceal the exit from the cave, so that it was as good as sealed up, against the time when we might, perchance, return and break it open.

"And, Humphrey, we will some time return for that treasure, will we not?" John frequently plead with me. To which I answered full oft, "In God's time." And in sooth we did return, a year later, in the galleon, which the Court of Claims adjudged to belong to us by right of capture; and, by the aid of the Indian sailors, made a most successful voyage, full of wonderful adventures. We found the treasure in the cave, of a verity, and we found other things; but not to be narrated here, as I feel this my story should be nearing its end.

Suffice it that, after the court at Cadiz had released our ship and declared us true friends of Spain and entitled to high rewards for our services against her enemies, the buccaneers, John and I set off with the Del Mars for their castle, which is situate at Ronda, in the erstwhile Moorish country of Spain, amid the crags and hills.

And it is here, after many years, in my room in the high tower of the castle, that I have indited this my narrative of strange adventures whilst I was perforce a buccaneer. There be, doubtless, many defects in it, since my hand is not given to the setting down of what my brain conceives, and if at times I have been rambling and disjointed in my narrative, dear reader (perchance there ever be one), kindly ascribe it to the proper cause; viz.: the writer's lack of skill.

I would fain have treated more at length of my dear brother by adoption, John, and detail whatever Happened to him while he had that wearisome waiting in the cave; but it hath so fallen out that the story hath shaped itself as it is herewith given, and I cannot change it without much painful overhauling. It seemeth to me a curious happening that we were thrown together, as we were, into the company of those men of blood, the buccaneers, and obliged to pass through scenes foreign to any we would have chosen,—to recall which, e'en now, causeth me to shudder at the recollection. But, whate'er betide me in the future, I know that both past and fixture are the ordering of God, who, in. His wise foreknowledge, maketh man an instrument for the shaping of His plans.