OUT OF THE COCKATOO’S cabin staggered Black Terence Vulmea, pipe in one hand and flagon in the other. He stood with booted legs wide, teetering slightly to the gentle lift of the lofty poop. He was bareheaded and his shirt was open, revealing his broad hairy chest. He emptied the flagon and tossed it over the side with a gusty sigh of satisfaction, then directed his somewhat blurred gaze on the deck below. From poop ladder to forecastle it was littered by sprawling figures. The ship smelt like a brewery. Empty barrels, with their heads stove in, stood or rolled between the prostrate forms. Vulmea was the only man on his feet. From galley-boy to first mate the rest of the ship’s company lay senseless after a debauch that had lasted a whole night long. There was not even a man at the helm.
But it was lashed securely and in that placid sea no hand was needed on the wheel. The breeze was light but steady. Land was a thin blue line to the east. A stainless blue sky held a sun whose heat had not yet become fierce. Vulmea blinked indulgently down upon the sprawled figures of his crew, and glanced idly over the larboard side. He grunted incredulously and batted his eyes. A ship loomed where he had expected to see only naked ocean stretching to the skyline. She was little more than a hundred yards away, and was bearing down swiftly on the Cockatoo, obviously with the intention of laying her alongside. She was tall and square-rigged, her white canvas flashing dazzlingly in the sun. From the maintruck the flag of England whipped red against the blue. Her bulwarks were lined with tense figures, bristling with boarding-pikes and grappling irons, and through her open ports the astounded pirate glimpsed the glow of the burning matches the gunners held ready.
“All hands to battle-quarters!” yelled Vulmea confusedly. Reverberant snores answered the summons. All hands remained as they were.
“Wake up, you lousy dogs!” roared their captain. “Up, curse you! A king’s ship is at our throats!”
His only response came in the form of staccato commands from the frigate’s deck, barking across the narrowing strip of blue water.
Cursing luridly he lurched in a reeling run across the poop to the swivel-gun which stood at the head of the larboard ladder. Seizing this he swung it about until its muzzle bore full on the bulwark of the approaching frigate. Objects wavered dizzily before his bloodshot eyes, but he squinted along its barrel as if he were aiming a musket.
“Strike your colors, you damned pirate!” came a hail from the trim figure that trod the warship’s poop, sword in hand.
“Go to hell!” roared Vulmea, and knocked the glowing coals of his pipe into the vent of the gun-breech. The falcon crashed, smoke puffed out in a white cloud, and the double handful of musket balls with which the gun had been charged mowed a ghastly lane through the boarding party clustered along the frigate’s bulwark. Like a clap of thunder came the answering broadside and a storm of metal raked the Cockatoo’s decks, turning them into a red shambles.
Sails ripped, ropes parted, timbers splintered, and blood and brains mingled with the pools of liquor spilt on the decks. A round shot as big as a man’s head smashed into the falcon, ripping it loose from the swivel and dashing it against the man who had fired it. The impact knocked him backward headlong across the poop where his head hit the rail with a crack that was too much even for an Irish skull. Black Vulmea sagged senseless to the boards. He was as deaf to the triumphant shouts and the stamp of victorious feet on his red-streaming decks as were his men who had gone from the sleep of drunkenness to the black sleep of death without knowing what had hit them.
Captain John Wentyard, of his Majesty’s frigate the Redoubtable, sipped his wine delicately and set down the glass with a gesture that in another man would have smacked of affectation. Wentyard was a tall man, with a narrow, pale face, colorless eyes, and a prominent nose. His costume was almost sober in comparison with the glitter of his officers who sat in respectful silence about the mahogany table in the main cabin.
“Bring in the prisoner,” he ordered, and there was a glint of satisfaction in his cold eyes.
They brought in Black Vulmea, between four brawny sailors, his hands manacled before him and a chain on his ankles that was just long enough to allow him to walk without tripping. Blood was clotted in the pirate’s thick black hair. His shirt was in tatters, revealing a torso bronzed by the sun and rippling with great muscles. Through the stern-windows, he could see the topmasts of the Cockatoo, just sinking out of sight. That close-range broadside had robbed the frigate of a prize. His conquerors were before him and there was no mercy in their stares, but Vulmea did not seem at all abashed or intimidated. He met the stern eyes of the officers with a level gaze that reflected only a sardonic amusement. Wentyard frowned. He preferred that his captives cringe before him. It made him feel more like Justice personified, looking unemotionally down from a great height on the sufferings of the evil.
“You are Black Vulmea, the notorious pirate?”
“I’m Vulmea,” was the laconic answer.
“I suppose you will say, as do all these rogues,” sneered Wentyard, “that you hold a commission from the Governor of Tortuga? These privateer commissions from the French mean nothing to his Majesty. You—”
“Save your breath, fish-eyes!” Vulmea grinned hardly. “I hold no commission from anybody. I’m not one of your accursed swashbucklers who hide behind the name of buccaneer. I’m a pirate, and I’ve plundered English ships as well as Spanish—and be damned to you, heron-beak!”
The officers gasped at this effrontery, and Wentyard smiled a ghastly, mirthless smile, white with the anger he held in rein.
“You know that I have the authority to hang you out of hand?” he reminded the other.
“I know,” answered the pirate softly. “It won’t be the first time you’ve hanged me, John Wentyard.”
“What?” The Englishman stared.
A flame grew in Vulmea’s blue eyes and his voice changed subtly in tone and inflection; the brogue thickened almost imperceptibly.
“On the Galway coast it was, years ago, captain. You were a young officer then, scarce more than a boy—but with all your ruthlessness fully developed. There were some wholesale evictions, with the military to see the job was done, and the Irish were mad enough to make a fight of it—poor, ragged, half-starved peasants, fighting with sticks against full-armed English soldiers and sailors. After the massacre and the usual hangings, a boy crept into a thicket to watch—a lad of ten, who didn’t even know what it was all about. You spied him, John Wentyard, and had your dogs drag him forth and string him up alongside the kicking bodies of the others. ‘He’s Irish,’ you said as they heaved him aloft. ‘Little snakes grow into big ones.’ I was that boy. I’ve looked forward to this meeting, you English dog!”
Vulmea still smiled, but the veins knotted in his temples and the great muscles stood out distinctly on his manacled arms. Ironed and guarded though the pirate was, Wentyard involuntarily drew back, daunted by the stark and naked hate that blazed from those savage eyes.
“How did you escape your just deserts?” he asked coldly, recovering his poise.
Vulmea laughed shortly.
“Some of the peasants escaped the massacre and were hiding in the thickets. As soon as you left they came out, and not being civilized, cultured Englishmen, but only poor, savage Irishry, they cut me down along with the others, and found there was still a bit of life in me. We Gaels are hard to kill, as you Britons have learned to your cost.”
“You fell into our hands easily enough this time,” observed Wentyard.
Vulmea grinned. His eyes were grimly amused now, but the glint of murderous hate still lurked in their deeps.
“Who’d have thought to meet a king’s ship in these western seas? It’s been weeks since we sighted a sail of any kind, save for the carrack we took yesterday, with a cargo of wine bound for Panama from Valparaiso. It’s not the time of year for rich prizes. When the lads wanted a drinking bout, who was I to deny them? We drew out of the lanes the Spaniards mostly follow, and thought we had the ocean to ourselves. I’d been sleeping in my cabin for some hours before I came on deck to smoke a pipe or so, and saw you about to board us without firing a shot.”
“You killed seven of my men,” harshly accused Wentyard.
“And you killed all of mine,” retorted Vulmea. “Poor devils, they’ll wake up in hell without knowing how they got there.”
He grinned again, fiercely. His toes dug hard against the floor, unnoticed by the men who gripped him on either side. The blood was rioting through his veins, and the berserk feel of his great strength was upon him. He knew he could, in a sudden, volcanic explosion of power, tear free from the men who held him, clear the space between him and his enemy with one bound, despite his chains, and crush Wentyard’s skull with a smashing swing of his manacled fists. That he himself would die an instant later mattered not at all. In that moment he felt neither fears nor regrets—only a reckless, ferocious exultation and a cruel contempt for these stupid Englishmen about him. He laughed in their faces, joying in the knowledge that they did not know why he laughed. So they thought to chain the tiger, did they? Little they guessed of the devastating fury that lurked in his catlike thews.
He began filling his great chest, drawing in his breath slowly, imperceptibly, as his calves knotted and the muscles of his arms grew hard. Then Wentyard spoke again.
“I will not be overstepping my authority if I hang you within the hour. In any event you hang, either from my yardarm or from a gibbet on the Port Royal wharves. But life is sweet, even to rogues like you, who notoriously cling to every moment granted them by outraged society. It would gain you a few more months of life if I were to take you back to Jamaica to be sentenced by the governor. This I might be persuaded to do, on one condition.”
“What’s that?” Vulmea’s tensed muscles did not relax; imperceptibly he began to settle into a semi-crouch.
“That you tell me the whereabouts of the pirate, Van Raven.”
In that instant, while his knotted muscles went pliant again, Vulmea unerringly gauged and appraised the man who faced him, and changed his plan. He straightened and smiled.
“And why the Dutchman, Wentyard?” he asked softly. “Why not Tranicos, or Villiers, or McVeigh, or a dozen others more destructive to English trade than Van Raven? Is it because of the treasure he took from the Spanish plate-fleet? Aye, the king would like well to set his hands on that hoard, and there’s a rich prize would go to the captain lucky or bold enough to find Van Raven and plunder him. Is that why you came all the way around the Horn, John Wentyard?”
“We are at peace with Spain,” answered Wentyard acidly. “As for the purposes of an officer in his Majesty’s navy, they are not for you to question.”
Vulmea laughed at him, the blue flame in his eyes.
“Once I sank a king’s cruiser off Hispaniola,” he, said. “Damn you and your prating of ‘His Majesty’! Your English king is no more to me than so much rotten driftwood. Van Raven? He’s a bird of passage. Who knows where he sails? But if it’s treasure you want, I can show you a hoard that would make the Dutchman’s loot look like a peat-pool beside the Caribbean Sea!”
A pale spark seemed to snap from Wentyard’s colorless eyes, and his officers leaned forward tensely. Vulmea grinned hardly. He knew the credulity of navy men, which they shared with landsmen and honest mariners, in regard to pirates and plunder. Every seaman not himself a rover, believed that every buccaneer had knowledge of vast hidden wealth. The loot the men of the Red Brotherhood took from the Spaniards, rich enough as it was, was magnified a thousand times in the telling, and rumor made every swaggering sea-rat the guardian of a treasure-trove.
Coolly plumbing the avarice of Wentyard’s hard soul, Vulmea said: “Ten days’ sail from here there’s a nameless bay on the coast of Ecuador. Four years ago Dick Harston, the English pirate and I anchored there, in quest of a hoard of ancient jewels called the Fangs of Satan. An Indian swore he had found them, hidden in a ruined temple in an uninhabited jungle a day’s march inland, but superstitious fear of the old gods kept him from helping himself. But he was willing to guide us there.
“We marched inland with both crews, for neither of us trusted the other. To make a long tale short, we found the ruins of an old city, and beneath an ancient, broken altar, we found the jewels—rubies, diamonds, emeralds, sapphires, bloodstones, big as hen eggs, making a quivering flame of fire about the crumbling old shrine!”
The flame grew in Wentyard’s eyes. His white fingers knotted about the slender stem of his wine glass.
“The sight of them was enough to madden a man,” Vulmea continued, watching the captain narrowly. “We camped there for the night, and, one way or another, we fell out over the division of the spoil, though there was enough to make every man of us rich for life. We came to blows, though, and whilst we fought among ourselves, there came a scout running with word that a Spanish fleet had come into the bay, driven our ships away, and sent five hundred men ashore to pursue us. By Satan, they were on us before the scout ceased the telling! One of my men snatched the plunder away and hid it in the old temple, and we scattered, each band for itself. There was no time to take the plunder. We barely got away with our naked lives. Eventually I, with most of my crew, made my way back to the coast and was picked up by my ship which came slinking back after escaping from the Spaniards.
“Harston gained his ship with a handful of men, after skirmishing all the way with the Spaniards who chased him instead of us, and later was slain by savages on the coast of California.
“The Dons harried me all the way around the Horn, and I never had an opportunity to go back after the loot—until this voyage. It was there I was going when you overhauled me. The treasure’s still there. Promise me my life and I’ll take you to it.”
“That is impossible,” snapped Wentyard. “The best I can promise you is trial before the governor of Jamaica.”
“Well,” said Vulmea, “Maybe the governor might be more lenient than you. And much may happen between here and Jamaica.”
Wentyard did not reply, but spread a map on the broad table.
“Where is this bay?”
Vulmea indicated a certain spot on the coast. The sailors released their grip on his arms while he marked it, and Wentyard’s head was within reach, but the Irishman’s plans were changed, and they included a chance for life—desperate, but nevertheless a chance.
“Very well. Take him below.”
Vulmea went out with his guards, and Wentyard sneered coldly.
“A gentleman of his Majesty’s navy is not bound by a promise to such a rogue as he. Once the treasure is aboard the Redoubtable, gentlemen, I promise you he shall swing from a yardarm.”
Ten days later the anchors rattled down in the nameless bay Vulmea had described.