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Frederick A. Ober

The Brethren of the Sea

The placid sea that washed the coast of Haiti was alive with small boats, such as in the olden time gave to the buccaneers the name of "fleibotiers," or freebooters, from the Dutch "fleibotes." They seemed to be pushing out from a beautiful bay about two leagues across from our isle; but, of a sudden, as a puff of smoke shot up from the woods ashore, they turned them again to land, as if the conflict they had been engaged in was about to be resumed. We had lingered to note this much, and seeing it Eli Herrick burst out laughing.

"It was a false alarm," he said, "and the rascals are not yet coming back. Let us sit down here beneath this huge tree, where we can command a view of all that happens over there, and while you have before you the scene of some of the boucaniers' bloodiest battles, I will relate what I know of our famous forerunners. For we are ourselves boucaniers, you know, whether of our choice or perforce; so those who founded the brotherhood are surely of interest to us.

"I told you how the boucaniers came to fortify here and how they got their name, but of their rash exploits I have as yet said naught. Right over there, on those smiling slopes of Haiti, they first gained the name of 'boucaniers,' for there is where they went to hunt wild hogs and cattle and where they 'boucanned' their flesh. The island swarmed with animals which had run wild after escaping from the Spaniards, who were the first settlers on that island. Up in the hills, but far, far out of sight, is their old city of Santiago, which they founded soon after discovering the island, and named in honor of their great war-saint, Tiago, or James; and over on the south coast is the capital city, Santo Domingo, founded, they tell me, by Bartholomew, a brother of Chris. Columbus. Howsomever, the Spaniards have been there more than one hundred and seventy years, and though they now hold but a tithe of what they once possessed, having shrunk into their cities' walls, like a turtle within its shell, owing to our depredations, they still hold the forts and strongest places.

"The boucaniers, then, were the hunters on land, but they were in partnership with the hunters by sea., who were called fleibotiers, or freebooters, and all together were joined into one great band known as the Brethren of the Sea. When the men of one class grew tired of murdering or hunting, as the case might be, they would get a change by adopting the other pursuit, so there was no real distinction between the two, after all. I have been a boucanier, and also a fleibotier, but of the two I much prefer the wild life of the woods.

"Who was the first freebooter? Well, that is hard to tell; but old Stumpy told me that they called him Pierre le Grand, or Peter the Great, and he was a native of Normandy in France—"

"Who was old Stumpy?"

"Now, friends, if you keep interrupting me I sha'n't get on with my story before our brethren over there return; and that means there won't be any time at all, perhaps, to tell it. But, I will say old Stumpy is a pirate with a wooden leg, a great crony of mine, who is probably the oldest boucanier in the world—that is to say, in Tortuga. He is pensioned off on account of his record and his wounds, received in past battles, and lives in a little hut on the east side, down near unto the sea. Now, don't ask me how he lost his leg, nor anything else to interrupt, for some time I will take you over to see him, and you can get it all from him. But let me warn you he ain't a pretty man to look at, nor a nice one to listen to, either. He is chipped up almost into little bits, has lost an eye, an ear, a piece of his nose, three or four fingers, and two toes off of the only leg he's got left!

"Now, as I was about to say, the very first boucanier who made a great name for himself was Peter the Great, and he was a frog-eater from Normandy who drifted out here somehow or other, and was always cruising about a-looking for trouble. He was a fleibotier, and went about with a band of cutthroats just as bad as he was.

"Well, one time they had been out so long that all their dried beef was eaten up and their water nearly gone; in fact, they were in a desprit case, when, just in the nick of time, along comes a big three-decker galleon, one of the king of Spain's treasure-ships, and what does Peter the Great do but resolve to take it. And he in his little bit of a fleibote, too just think of that! Oh, he was a corker, he was; don't care a bit if he was a frog-eater. Well, his men they backed him up, for they were that desprit they would have tackled anything alive, I guess, and so they run alongside the three-decker and hailed her. Their fleibote was so small the men on the galleon hadn't taken no notice of her at all, and when the watch reported to the capt'in that there was a bit of a boat below hailing the ship, he said with a laugh: 'Oh, h'ist 'em aboard;' and darned if they didn't throw Peter a rope and take him in tow. It was about dusk at that time, and them on deck, being so high up above the water, couldn't see what was happening below, and the next thing they knew they didn't know nothing, so to speak: for what does Pete and the other pirates do but each one takes a cutlass between his teeth, jams his belt full of pistols, and climbs up the ship's side like monkeys up a cocoanut tree.

"Su'prised? You just bet they were—them Dagos on deck—and before they rallied Pete and his gang was onto 'm, cut and slash, bangitybang, until they had laid out every mother's son in sight. Then they made for the cabin, where the high muckamuck of the galleon, Senor Don Something-or-Other, was a-playing cards (monte, prob'ly) and drinking wine to the king's taste. Pell-mell down the cabin steps tumbled Pete, and his crew close behind him, cutlasses atween their teeth and a pistol in each hand, and they didn't say nothing, but just stood there with the noble Don and his friends under cover.

"'Caramba carambola, Santa Maria purissima,' etcetery, etcetery, spluttered the noble Don, looking up from his cards. 'What's this, all hell emptied itself into my ship?'

"'That's about the size of it,' replied Pete the Great—and he was well named, too, I vum—'That's about the size of it, and this here's the devil himself come to call you down'—or words to that effect.

"Well, blame me if all them Don Dagos didn't crawl, and the upshot of it was the great galleon, with its belly full of silver ingots from the mines of Peru, on the way to fill the King of Spain's treasury at Seville, became the prize of Peter the Great. He knew a gentleman when he saw him, Pete did, and he said to the noble Don and his friends, says he: 'There ain't nothing mean about me, there ain't, and I'm going to swap my ship for yourn. Fair exchange is no rob'ry, and I ain't no robber, so I'll put you and your officers into the fleibote and take charge of this here galleon.' Which he did, though, of course, the noble Don and the rest kicked like goats.

"But what's the good? They were bundled into the fleibote, with water and provisions enough to last 'em to Cuby—which was only a day's sail off—and Peter and his gallant crew brought the galleon into port. Yes, brought her into our little harbor there, right where that vessel of yourn lays now.

"But he didn't stay there, Peter didn't. He was of the sort that knowed when he had enough, Pete was, and he soon set sail for France, where Stumpy says he set himself up for a gentleman, and is there now, for aught that I know.

"It happened that the King of France and the King of Spain were at odds, and so Peter's little game was winked at and called a mighty cute sort of privateering; whereas, if bigwigs hadn't been at odds, it would have been called piracy, and Peter might have adorned the end of a rope at a yardarm aboard a. man-of-war.

"There's all the difference imagin'ble in a name, you know. It don't matter how many men you kill, s' long 's you do it under the right name. But now you just bear in mind that there ain't no war between England and Spain right now, and if we kill any Jack Spaniards, and are taken by a king's ship, we're mighty likely to hang for it, short meter, by gum!

"Was Stumpy with 'em, and if so why didn't he cut stick and go to France with Peter? Yes, he was, but inasmuch as that was where he lost his leg and had one of his eyes put out, he wa'n't in a fit condition to leave. He just had to stay, and see Pete walk off with the yellow boys. And that's gen'r'lly the case: the master gets the treasure and the common sailor gets the whacks and bruises.

"Any more pirates do anything after that? Well, I should say so. There was more 'n you could shake a stick at in a week of Sundays, and, what's more, they're at it still, just as farce as ever. Now, there was a one they called Bart. Portugues, Stumpy told me, because he come from Portugal. It ain't often that a dog'll eat dog; but this Portuguese Dago one time run across a Spanish Dago, and licked him clean out of his boots, so to speak.

"He had a fleitbote with four little guns in it and a crew of thirty men, and was cruising on the south coast of Cuby, when he run up ag'inst a big Spaniard of twenty guns and seventy men. He couldn't get away, so he up and gives battle, with the result that he took the big feller, after losing half his men; but he didn't care for that. His prize had about a hundred thousand pieces of eight aboard and a cargo of a hundred and twenty thousand cocoanuts.

"He tossed his captives and the cocoanuts overboard and set sail for Tortuga, but was unfort'nit enough to run into a fleet of Spanish ships and was taken red-handed. He and all his crew were made prisoners; but instead of hanging 'em on the spot, as they ought to have done, the Dons set sail for Campeche, in order to have the execution legal like—or most likely to give their friends ashore a share in the fun—and so Bart Portugues stabbed the sentry that was set on him, leaped overboard and somehow escaped. At all events, Stumpy says he didn't get drownded; but wa'n't no good after that, not being able to get any following, and so died a fugitive, after all his daring.

"Then there was Pierre Francois, who, with a small boat and about the same number of men that Peter the Great had, attacked the pearl fleet off the Spanish Main. This fleet was guarded by a man-of-war, but Francois sought out the ship having the richest cargo of pearls, valued at more than fifty thousand pieces of eight, and would have made off with her if her mainmast hadn't gone by the board in a gale of wind. As he had scuttled his own vessel, there he was, at the man-of-war's mercy, which bore down upon him and recaptured his prize. But somehow the boucanier made terms with the Spanish vice-admiral and got off scot free, only losing two ships by the venture, his own and the one he had taken.

"Who do I s'pose was the very wust pirate that ever lived here? Well, that's a hard question to answer, I vum. They're all bad enough, just you fix that in your noddles; but p'raps there wa'n't no wusser pirate ever breathed than Roche Braziliano. That's what the Spaniards called him, the Brazilian Rock, because he was hard as a, rock and had lived in Brazil.

"And how he did hate the Spaniards, to be sure! Why, he terrorized the whole caboodle of 'em all the way from the Gulf of Paria to Darien. And no wonder, either, for one time he caught a lot of Spaniards and roasted 'em alive on spits before open fires in the forest. And all because they wouldn't, or couldn't, tell him where their droves of hogs were kept.

"Ah, he sacked lots of cities on the Main and he gained a lot of treasure; but he squandered it all in riotous living. Why, he didn't think nothing of coming here and throwing away more 'n ten thousand pieces of eight in a single night of drunken revelry. He would order all the puncheons of rum and casks of wine rolled out on the beach, then have their heads knocked in, and what he and his cutthroats couldn't drink they throwed away. Ah, it was sinful, the way he got his money and the way he squandered it. And his life went the same way. So far as I know, he never got punished for his sins—leastwise not in this world—unless dying the death of a drunkard was the punishment, which is mighty likely.

"But there was one man who could beat him all holler in deeds of blood, and he, I know, received his reward in kind. That was Francis Lolonois, another frog-eater, and the was perhaps the bloodiest cutthroat that ever walked in shoe-leather. Stumpy says he was with him when he made his first captures, some small Spanish vessels. The governor of the island they had sailed from sent a war frigate after him, and that made Lolonois so mad that he turned to and captured that same vessel, though it was four times as big as his craft and five times as well manned. And he didn't stop with the taking of the frigate, but he cut off the head of every man on it but one, and him he sent to the gov'nor with the message that he was soon coming to cut his off, too. I don't know whether he did it or not; but if he didn't he took it out of other miserable Spaniards, for he never let any person escape, but beheaded or hanged all his prisoners—and he prob'ly captured hundreds, some say thousands.

"He must have taken half a dozen Spanish cities, I s'pose, and made millions out of his prizes. Why, in his expedition against Maracaibo he got confessions from the leading citizens by torture as to where they had concealed their treasures, and when he come away he not only left a wake of blood behind, but brought more 'n three hundred thousand pieces of eight, besides silver plate and jewels equal to as much more.

"But I'm glad to say this pirate got his reward at last, and it was just the one he deserved, too, as I look at it. On his very next v'yage, when he was repeating his game in Nicaragua, he and his crew were set upon by Indians and tortured, as they had tortured hundreds of others. Lolonois was torn limb from limb, and each arm and leg was burned in his sight while he was still alive. That was an awful fate, but he brought it on himself, sure.

"Makes you shudder; don't it? Well, I don't blame you a bit. I used to shiver myself when Stumpy first told me these tales; but we get sorter used to 'em after awhile.

They may say what they like about the boucaniers, but there's one thing certain: they ain't any of 'em afraid of resking their lives. I don't like 'em, but I must say they ain't any of 'em cowards.

"What you say? You hope there wa'n't any more. Bless your innercent faces, I hain't begun to tell you yet of 'em all. Why, there's old Jaques Michel, he was with Lolonois at Maracaibo, and one of the wust ones there, too, and he's here to-day. He was wounded in the hip, but, though he got hurt, he has the reputation of being tol'ably humane.

"Strange, ain't it? He won't hurt a fly, yet he'll go off on a trip where he's sure of shedding human blood without saying a word. I must take you over to see old Jaques some time. In fact, they's a lot of int'resting people on this island that you ought to know. There's Mister Morgan, for example. He's a jolly lark—he is. Nobody knows how he raised himself to his present place, right up even with Capt'in Mansvelt; but there he is, and there ain't persons lacking who say he's bound to be our real leader before long.

"What, you've seen him? Well, I don't care; you ain't seen a great sight. He was born a farmer's boy, they say, and now he's a sailor he ain't nothing but a big, overgrown lout. And then there's Mounseer Mansvelt himself; you know all about him. Ag'in, there was Illiger, another frog-eater; Van Horne, the Dutchman, and 'Terror' Johnson, the Britisher; three of a kind, but all of different country; so there ain't much to boast of. I will say, though, that there ain't never been any Yankee boucanier except me, that I know of, and I ain't one through any fault of mine.

"But the Brethren are really on their way back now, and so we'd better be gettin' down. And look there—over to west'ard—blamed if Morgan and Mansvelt ain't coming back, too, all sail set and headed licketty-split for the harbor. Let's get down before they land, for they may want to see us, you know, and when them critters send for us there ain't but one thing to do, and that is to go mighty sudden."

So we went down to the beach, John and I in a daze at having heard so much of so many disreputable neighbors, but not doubting the truth of the report in the least.