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Frederick A. Ober

The Oldest Buccaneer Alive

The cavern I had so fortuitously discovered was evidently unoccupied, save by the bats and vampires that circled by the thousand o'erhead, the whirr of their wings, like to the sound of the sea, being at first disturbing. Whether or no there were other occupants I could not then ascertain, having to husband my candle for my return. It was enough for me, however, that this fine chamber was apparently vacant, and I was overjoyed at its discovery. Hither John and I could retreat, perchance, if sore pressed by foes, and I resolved to commence at once the collecting of ship's provisions, arms, ammunition and articles of comfort, and store them away in this cave. That would be for a would give the whole the appearance of a bed. Abjuring the hammock, thenceforth John reclined upon the couch; though the former was still swung o'erhead for use upon occasions. The flat stone was removed to one side, so that there should be free entrance afforded on emergencies, but a plank covering was put in its place, lest some suspicious dog might sniff beneath the bed and discover the pit. The island, by the way, swarmed with wild dogs, which were not by any means pleasant beasts to meet, especially in the night. Those dogs that still clung to their masters were scarcely less wild than the others, and were exceedingly acute, so we feared them with good cause.

A sea-chest, very heavy and cumbersome, was drawn up on the side next the door, and thus fended off observation of what was beneath the bed, while the usual litter of such a hut was enough to divert attention from the other side.

No objection was made to my getting ashore all the provisions I wanted from the vessel, nor while comparatively easy, so long as the pirates did not dislodge us from our hut or send us off on a cruise, for they had such o'er-abundance already stored in the island that they had not e'en given a thought to the provisions we had brought here aboard the "Nancy."

It did not take me long to make the return trip to the hut, and there, as soon as I had made the circuit outside and ascertained that there were no listeners, I communicated all the facts to John. And his eyes did dance and his exclamations were most joyous, as he learned of our treasure. "Oh, that we could go thither at once!" he exclaimed, again and again. "But no, we must be most careful."

"That in sooth must we," I cautioned him. "And the first thing is to so arrange the things within our hut as to conceal the opening withal." We did this by making a rude framework like a bedstead upon four legs about two feet high, and over which we cast palm leaves and dried seaweed, covering them with such clothing as were my packages inspected, so that in the course of the next week or so I had smuggled to the hut, and thence to the cave in the cliffs, many muskets, pistols and cutlasses, besides great store of powder, bullets, flints and fuses.

The floor of the cave, as I soon found, was covered with dry earth, and there was no dampness at all within; whatever we carried there would be in no danger of spoiling from that cause. It was exceeding difficult to transport all these things, and in addition many sacks of salted provisions, cassava bread such as the Indians make, and articles of clothing, through the narrow passageway; but at last I had accomplished it almost unaided, and, the time now having arrived when John could both stand and walk, I took him to view our snuggery. I chose high noon, as usual, when everybody else was asleep; and yet I dared not venture to stay long, fearing some one might yet be prowling about and by chance enter the hut while we were away.

It was worth all my toil to see the pleasure of the lad at his first glimpse of the great cavern, which for his benefit I illumined with the light of a torch. As the light gleamed on walls and pillars of crystal limestone, he uttered a cry of delight, for the picture was of surpassing beauty. And his joy was great, also, at sight of the various contrivances for comfort, especially the couches, and the vast store of provisions.

The light that shone through the seaward window was strong enough to illumine the cave without artificial aid, so I extinguished the torch and we sat awhile in silence, hand clasped in hand, looking out upon the sea. That window seat was to be a hallowed spot to me and to him, afterward whence he was to watch for my coming, and many a day and night in vain. It commanded a view of the whole harbor and far into the offing, so that we frequently had knowledge of a vessel's approach before those below us on the shore were aware of it.

When John and I emerged from the pit, and were just about to crawl from out beneath the cot that covered its mouth, we received a shock that sent the blood tingling through our veins. For there in the doorway of the hut stood an old man, whistling softly to himself and gazing out to sea. He seemed not to see us, but we knew well that his indifference was feigned, for he had too shrewd a face to be unaware that we had just popped out of a hole beneath the bed. But he gave no sign that he had seen, other than his mere presence there, which was in itself disturbing, of course.

"Hello, youngsters," he exclaimed in greeting, when we had finally risen from our recumbent position and stood erect, at the side of the bed opposite the door. "Thought I'd call to make friends with you, and, finding nobody to home, just waited till you come back. That's right, wa'n't it? I'm an old residenter here in Tortuga, and you, I take it, are newcomers."

We hardly knew how to meet him at first, we were so abashed at being discovered, and afraid withal that he might betray us. But as he pulled out a jackknife from his pocket and began whittling most unconcernedly a piece of soft wood, in a manner that could not but put us at our ease, we quickly recovered our composure. We urged him to sit down, or swing in the hammock, as he might elect to do, but he preferred standing up to sitting, "if it's all the same to you," he remarked. "Kinder lonely here, ain't it?" was his next question.

We assured him that it was, and then, there being something very friendly in his appearance, we made no bones of entering freely into conversation with him, for which we were soon well rewarded, in sooth. He was about sixty years old, he told us, but his appearance betokened twenty years more, his face was so seamed with wrinkles; one eye was gone and a piece of one ear, and his nose had been broken. He was short and stout, and to his left limb, which had been cut off at the knee, was strapped a wooden leg.

"I'm a Yankee," he said, after we had settled down for a talk, "and you fellers, if I'm not mistaken, are Britishers." We told him we were, and he nodded his head sagaciously. "Thought so. In fact, knew it. Could have told by the cut of your jibs. And, then ag'in, I've heard something about your coming here, too. Guess I have, and the fight you put up for my brother buccaneers. It was a good one, too, and I don't mind telling you so to your faces. Couldn't have done better myself, if I do say it. And, ag'in, I don't mind telling you that I'm mighty glad you laid out a lot of them rascals, no matter if they were shipmates of mine, so to speak. They deserved all they got, and more, too, and, Mister Gilbert, I would like to shake your flipper. Shake, old man! By gum, it feels good to git an honest feller by the hand once more. It does, and no mistake. It's more'n twenty year since I've taken an honest man by the hand; for, let me tell you now, there ain't another one on this island! That's a fact, sure 's my name's Eli Herrick. Let me shake the youngster's hand, too. What's the matter with him, anyway? He looks kinder peakid."

"Oh, one of your buccaneer friends was rough with him," I explained, "and he got a cut that may lay him up for a long time yet."

"And I wouldn't have been alive to-day if it hadn't been for Humphrey," exclaimed John, eagerly. "He saved my life."

"He did, hey? Well, it was mighty good of him; but I don't know 's he did you any great favor, though, if you've got to spend it here in Tortuga. Howsomever, while there's life there's hope, and though I have been here more'n twenty year without seeing a chance to get away, seems to me we three ought to think up some sort of a scheme to outwit these varmints. Don't you think so?"

John and I looked at each other without speaking, each asking with his eyes if this new-comer could be trusted. There was such a frank air about him that we could not but think so, and at last I said: "But where could we go, even if we could get away?"

"Trust that to me, boys," answered the Yankee. "But I see you don't quite trust me yet; do you? No, don't say you do, for I don't expect it of you yit. There ain't no reason why you should trust me—that's a fact; but you'll have to take me that way, anyhow. And while we're about it, guess you might's well tell me what you've got stowed away under that cot there. Lucky for you it wasn't some of the gang that come here while you were out of sight, for I expect it might get you into trouble with old Morgan. He's always prying round a peeking into things that ain't none of his business, and if he wa'n't away, he and Mansvelt, on one of their piratical expeditions, guess you'd look purty nice; now, wouldn't you?"

I saw there was nothing to do but make a clean breast of it, and tell him about the cave, into which, after we had assured ourselves that no one was coming, I took him on a hasty trip.

He was penetrated with admiration, and exclaimed again and again: "Ah, this is just the place I've been looking for ever sence I got here. Now we will circumvent the whole lot of 'em; see if we don't. Just give us time enough, and we'll not only git away, but blame me if we don't take half their treasure with us; hey?"

"But, would that be right?" I inquired when he said this.

"Right, you gooney; of course, it would. Right enough, if only we can get the treasure; and I know where there's more'n a million pounds' worth this very minute, stowed away up there in the cliffs. Right? Well, that makes me laugh! Whose treasure is it, hey? It ain't theirn, and, if we can get it, it's as much ours as 't is theirn. If we have it, perhaps some time we can return some of it to the rightful owners; though as to that, guess most of 'em are dead, killed while defending their prop'ty. The fact is, I've seen some of 'em murdered in cold blood, right before my eyes, and had to stand by and help do it, too, or pretend to, else I'd have got my throat cut quicker 'n a wink."

So it was settled before the visitor left us that we should make the cavern a repository of all sorts of things that might be useful to us in the future, including as much of the pirates' treasure as we could lay our hands on. Our Yankee friend was determined on this, and he had his way, despite my scruples. It really seemed to me like taking that which belonged to another, as I mentioned to him.

"Yes, so it does," he assented; "but the question is to find out who that other is! It's as likely to be you or me as anyone else; ain't it? The plunder these scoundrels have gathered together here comes from every p'int of the compass: some of it from Spanish galleons sailing up from the Isthmus, some from other treasure ships from Mexico bound for Spain, some from English ships, some from French and some from Dutch; some again from the sacking of cities on the Main. Now, whose plunder is it, think you? Is it these pirates' plunder more 'n yours or mine, prithee? No, forsooth, it now belongs to him with the keenest wit or strongest arm. And if our wits more than match their arms, it belongs to us! Now, that's logic, as my old grandsire was wont to say. It's the logic of might makes right!"

It turned out on further conversation that our friend was an American sailor, a Yankee fisherman, as he was used to proudly say, who could turn his hand to anything, "and do it as well as the next one." Born on a seaside farm and nurtured as much on the sea as on land, he was a queer compound of independence and shrewd wit. He had been used, he said, to look out for himself from the time he could walk, and before he was my age he was aboard a fisherman as cook's assistant. At sixteen, taking a winter cruise to the West Indies, he was overhauled by the buccaneers and sold into slavery—as will further appear.

"But they hadn't killed me, and, mark my word, I'll see the last mother's son of 'em hanged yet to some yardarm or other. For my father was a soldier as well as a sailor, and he and I fit with Gen'ral Pepperell before the walls of Louisburg."

"And mine," said I, "was in the army of King Charles at Naseby."

"And my father," piped in John, "was in Cromwell's gallant army."