Swords of the Red Brotherhood/Chapter 6
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Chapter 6: The Plunder of the Dead
|Chapter 7: Men of the Woods→|
Francoise came down the stair and paused at the sight of Count Henri seated at the table, turning the broken chain about in his hands. The fortress stood strangely quiet in the noonday heat. Voices of people within the stockade sounded subdued, muffled. The same drowsy stillness reigned on the beach outside where the rival crews lay in armed suspicion, separated by a few hundred yards of bare sand. Far out in the bay the War-Hawk lay with a handful of men aboard her, ready to snatch her out of reach at the slightest indication of treachery. The ship was Harston's trump card, his best guarantee against the trickery of his associates.
Vulmea had plotted shrewdly to eliminate the chances of an ambush in the forest by either party, but as far as Francoise could see he had failed utterly to safe-guard himself against the treachery of his companions. He had disappeared into the woods, leading the two captains and their thirty men, and the girl was positive she would never see him alive again.
Presently she spoke, and her voice was strained and harsh.
"When they have the treasure they will kill Vulmea. What then? Are we to go aboard the ship! Can we trust Harston?"
Henri shook his head absently.
"Villiers whispered his plan to me. He will see that night overtakes the treasure-party so they are forced to camp in the forest. He will find a way to kill the Englishmen in their sleep. Then he and his men will come stealthily on to the beach. Just before dawn I will send some of my fishermen secretly from the fort to swim out and seize the ship. Neither Harston nor Vulmea thought of that. Villiers will come out of the forest, and with our united forces we will destroy the pirates camped on the beach. Then we will sail in the War-Hawk with all the treasure."
"And what of me?" she asked with dry lips.
"I have promised you to Villiers," he answered harshly, and without the slightest touch of sympathy. "But for my promise he would not take us off."
He lifted the chain so it caught the gleam of the sun, slanting through a window. "I must have dropped it on the sand," he muttered. "He found it-"
"You did not drop it on the sand," said Francoise, in a voice as devoid of mercy as his own; her soul seemed turned to stone. "You tore it from your throat last night when you flogged Tina. I saw it gleaming on the floor before I left the hall."
He looked up, his face grey with a terrible fear.
She laughed bitterly, sensing the mute question in his dilated eyes.
"Yes! The black man! He was here! He must have found the chain on the floor. I saw him, padding along the upper hallway."
He sank back in his chair, the chain slipping from his nerveless hands.
"In the manor!" he whispered. "In spite of guards and bolted doors! I can no more guard against him than I can escape him! Then it was no dream--that clawing at my door last night! At my door!" he shrieked, tearing at the lace upon his collar as though it strangled him. "God curse him!"
The paroxysm passed, leaving him faint and trembling.
"I understand," he panted, "the bolts on my chamber door balked even him. So he destroyed the ship upon which I might have escaped him, and he slew that wretched savage and left my chain upon him, to bring down the vengeance of his people on me. They have seen that chain upon my neck many a time."
"Who is this black man?" asked Francoise, fear crawling along her spine.
"A juju-man of the Slave Coast," he whispered, staring at her with weird eyes that seemed to look through her and far beyond to some dim doom.
"I built my wealth on human flesh. When I was younger my ships plied between the Slave Coast and the West Indies, supplying black men to the Spanish plantations. My partner was a black wizard of a coasttribe. He captured the slaves with his warriors, and I delivered them to the Indies. I was evil in those days, but he was ten times more evil. If ever a man sold -his soul to the Devil, he was that man. Even now in nightmares I am haunted by the sights I saw in his village when the moon hung red in the jungle trees, and the drums bellowed, and human victims screamed on the altars of his heathen gods.
"In the end I tricked him out of his share of the trade, and sold him to the Spaniards who chained him to a galley's oar. He swore an awful vengeance upon me, but I laughed, for I believed not even he could escape the fate to which I had delivered him.
"As the years passed, however, I could not forget him, and would wake sometimes in fright, his threat ringing in my ears. I told myself that he was dead, long ago, under the lashes of the Spaniards. Then one day there came to me word that a strange black man, with the scars of galley-chains on his wrists, had come to France and was seeking me.
"He knew me by another name, in the old days, but I knew he would trace me out. In haste I sold my lands and put to sea, as you know. With a whole world between us, I thought I would be safe. But he has tracked me down and he is lurking out there, like a coiled cobra."
"What do you mean, 'He destroyed the ship'?' asked Francoise uneasily.
"The wizards of the Slave Coast have the power of raising tempests!" whispered the Count, from grey lips. "Witchcraft!"
Francoise shuddered. That sudden tempest, she knew, had been but a freak of chance; no man could summon a storm at will. And a savage raised in the blackness of a West Coast jungle might be able to enter a fortress guarded by armed men, when there was a mist to blur their sight. This grim stranger was only a man of flesh and blood. But she shivered, remembering a drum that droned exultantly above the whine of the storm-
Henri's weird eyes lit palely as he gazed beyond the tapestried walls to far, invisible horizons.
"I'll trick him yet," he whispered. "Let him delay to strike this night-dawn will find me with a ship under my heels and again I'll cast an ocean between me and his vengeance."
Vulmea stopped short. Behind him the seamen halted, in two compact clumps. They were following an old Indian path which led due east, and the beach was no longer visible.
"What are you stopping for?" demanded Harston suspiciously.
Somebody's on the trail ahead of us," growled Vulmea. "Somebody in boots. His spoor's not more than an hour old. Did either of you swine send a man ahead of us for any reason?"
Both captains loudly disclaimed any such act, glaring at each other with mutual disbelief. Vulmea shook his head disgustedly and strode on, and the seamen rolled after him. Men of the sea, accustomed to the wide expanses of blue water, they were ill at ease with the green mysterious walls of trees and vines hemming them in. The path wound and twisted until most of them lost all sense of direction.
"Damned peculiar things going on around here," growled Vulmea. "If Henri didn't hang up that Indian's head, who did? They'll believe he did, anyway. That's an insult. When his tribe learns about it, there'll be hell to pay. I hope we're out of these woods before they take the warpath."
When the trail veered northward Vulmea left it, and began threading his way through the dense trees in a southeasterly direction. Harston glanced uneasily at Villiers. This might force a change in their plans. Within a few hundred feet from the path both were hopelessly lost.
Suspicions of many kinds were gnawing both men when they suddenly emerged from the thick woods and saw just ahead of them a gaunt crag that jutted up from the forest floor. A dim path leading out of the woods from the east ran among a cluster of boulders and wound up the crag on a ladder of stony shelves to a flat ledge near the summit.
"That trail is the one I followed, running from the Indians," said Vulmea, halting. "It leads up to a cave behind that ledge. In that cave are the bodies of da Verrazano and his men, and the treasure. But a word before we go up after it: if you kill me here, you'll never find your way back to the trail. I know how helpless you all are in the deep woods. Of course the beach lies due west, but if you have to make your way through the tangled woods, burdened with the plunder, it'll take you days instead of hours. I don't think these woods will be very safe for white men when the Indians learn about that head in the tree."
He laughed at the ghastly, mirthless smiles with which they greeted his recognition of their secret intentions. And he also comprehended the thought that sprang in the mind of each: let the Irishman secure the loot for them, and lead them back to the trail before they killed him.
"Three of us are enough to lug the loot down from the cave," he said.
Harston laughed sardonically.
"Do you think I'm fool enough to go tip there alone with you and Villiers? My boatswain comes with me!" He designated a brawny, hard-faced giant, naked to his belt, with gold hoops in his ears, and a crimson scarf knotted about his head.
"And my executioner comes with me!" growled Villiers. He beckoned a lean sea-thief with a face like a parchmentcovered skull, who carried a great scimitar naked over his bony shoulder.
Vulmea shrugged his shoulders. "Very well. Follow me."
They were close on his heels as he strode up the winding path. They crowded him close as he passed through the cleft in the wall behind the ledge, and their breath sucked in greedily as he called their attention to the iron-bound chests on either side of the short tunnel.
"A rich cargo there," he said carelessly. "Garments, weapons, ornaments. But the real treasure lies beyond that door."
He pushed it partly open and drew aside to let his companions look through.
They looked into a wide cavern, lit vaguely by a blue glow that shimmered through it smoky mist-like haze. A great ebon table stood in the midst of the cavern, and in a carved chair with a high back and broad arms sat a giant figure, fabulous and fantastic-there sat Giovanni da Verrazano, his great head sunk on his bosom, one shrivelled hand still gripping a jeweled goblet; da Verrazano. in his plumed hat, his gilt-embroidered coat with jeweled buttons that winked in the blue flame, his flaring boots and gold-worked baldric that upheld a jewel-hilted sword in a golden sheath.
And ranging the board, each with his chin resting on his lace-bedecked breast, sat the eleven buccaneers. The blue fire played weirdly on them, as it played like a nimbus of frozen fire about the heap of curiously-cut gems which shone in the center of the table- the jewels of the Montezumas! The stones whose value was greater than the value of all the rest of the known gems in the world put together!
The faces of the pirates showed pallid in the blue glow.
"Go in and take them," invited Vulmea, and Harston and Villiers crowded past him, jostling one another in their haste. Their followers were treading on their heels. Villiers kicked the door wide open-and halted with one foot on the threshold at the sight of a figure on the floor, previously hidden by the partly-closed door. It was a man, prone and contorted, head drawn back between his shoulders, white face twisted in a grin of mortal agony, clawed fingers gripping his own throat.
"Gallot!" ejaculated Villiers. "What-!" With sudden suspicion he thrust his head into the bluish mist that filled the inner cavern. And he choked and screamed: "There is death in the smoke!"
Even as he screamed, Vulmea hurled his weight against the four men bunched in the doorway, sending them staggering-but not headlong into the cavern as he had planned. They were recoiling at the sight of the dead man and the realization of the trap, and his violent impact, while it threw them off their feet, yet failed of the result he desired. Harston and Villiers sprawled half over the threshold on their knees, the boatswain tumbling over their legs, and the executioner caromed against the wall. Before Vulmea could follow up his intention of kicking the fallen men into the cavern and holding the door against them until the poisonous mist did its deadly work, he had to turn and defend himself against the frothing onslaught of the executioner.
The Frenchman missed a tremendous swipe with his headsman's sword as the Irishman ducked, and the great blade banged against the stone wall, scattering blue sparks. The next instant his skull-faced head rolled on the cavern floor under the bite of Vulmea's cutlass.
In the split seconds this action had consumed, the boatswain regained his feet and fell on the Irishman, raining blows with a cutlass. Blade met blade with a ring of steel that was deafening in the narrow tunnel. The two captains rolled back across the threshold, gagging and purple in the face, too near strangled to shout, and Vulmea redoubled his efforts, striving to dispose of his antagonist so he could cut down his rivals before they could recover from the effects of the poison. The boatswain was driven backward, dripping blood at each step, and he began desperately to bellow for his mates. But before Vulmea could deal the final stroke, the two chiefs, gasping but murderous, came at him with swords in their hands, croaking for their men.
Vulmea bounded back and leaped out onto the ledge, fearing to be trapped by the men coming in response to their captains' yells.
These were not coming as fast as he expected, however. They heard the muffled shouts issuing from the cavern, but no man dared start up the path for fear of a sword in the back. Each band faced the other tensely, grasping weapons but incapable of decision, and when they saw Vulmea bound out on the ledge, they merely gaped. While they stood with their matches smoldering he ran up the ladder of handholds niched in the rock and threw himself prone on the summit of the crag, out of their sight.
The captains stormed out on the ledge and their men, seeing their leaders were not at sword-strokes, ceased menacing each other and gaped in greater bewilderment.
"Dog!" screamed Villiers. "You planned to poison us! Traitor!"
Vulmea mocked them from above.
"What did you expect? You two were planning to cut my throat as soon as I got the plunder for you. If it hadn't been for that fool Gallot I'd have trapped the four of you and explained to your men how you rushed in heedless to your doom!"
"And you'd have taken my ship and all the loot!" frothed Harston.
"Aye! And the pick of both crews! It was Gallot's footprints I saw on the trail. I wonder how the fool learned of this cave."
"If we hadn't seen his body we'd have walked into that death-trap," muttered Villiers, his dark face still ashy. "That blue smoke was like unseen fingers crushing my throat."
"Well, what are you going to do'?" their tormentor yelled sardonically.
"What are we going to do?" asked Villiers of Harston.
"You can't get the jewels," Vulmea assured them with satisfaction from his aerie. "That mist will strangle you. It nearly got me, when I stepped in there. Listen and I'll tell you a tale the Indians tell in their lodges when the fires burn low! Once, long ago, twelve strange men came out of the sea and found a cave and heaped it with gold and gems. But while they sat drinking and singing, the earth shook and smoke came out of the earth and strangled them. Thereafter the tribes all shunned the spot as haunted and accursed by evil spirits.
"When I crawled in there to escape the Indians, I realized that the old legend was true, and referred to da Verrazano. An earthquake must have cracked the rock floor of the cavern they'd fortified, and he and his buccaneers were overcome as they sat at wine by the poisonous fumes of gases welling up from some vent in the earth. Death guards their loot!"
Harston peered into the tunnel mouth.
"The mist is drifting out into the tunnel," he growled, "but it dissipates itself in the open air. Damn Vulmea! Let's climb up after him."
"Do you think any man on earth could climb those handholds against his sword?" snarled Villiers. "We'll have the men up here, and set some to watch and shoot him if he shows himself. He had some plan of getting those jewels, and if he could get them, so can we. We'll tie a hook to a rope, cast it about the leg of that table and drag it, jewels and all, out onto the ledge."
"Well thought, Guillaume!" came down Vulmea's mocking voice. "Just what I had in mind. But how will you find your way back to the path? It'll be dark before you reach the beach, if you have to feel your way through the woods, and I'll follow you and kill you one by one m the dark."
"It's no empty boast," muttered Harston. "He is like an Indian for stealth. If he hunts us back through the forest, few of us will live to see the beach."
"Then we'll kill him here," gritted Villiers. "Some of us will shoot at him while the rest climb the crag. Listen! Why does he laugh?"
"To hear dead men making plots!" came Vulmea's grimly amused voice.
"Heed him not," scowled Villiers, and lifting his voice, he shouted for the men below to join him and Harston on the ledge.
As the sailors started up the slanting trail, there sounded a hum like that of an angry bee, ending in a sharp thud. A buccaneer gasped and sank to his knees, clutching the shaft that quivered in his breast. A yell of alarm went up from his companions.
"What's the matter?" yelled Harston.
"Indians!" bawled a pirate, and went down with an arrow in his neck.
"Take cover, you fools!" shrieked Villiers. From his vantage point he glimpsed painted figures moving in the bushes. One of the men on the winding path fell back dying. The rest scrambled hastily down among the rocks about the foot of the crag. Arrows flickered from the bushes, splintering on the boulders. The men on the ledge lay prone.
"We're trapped!" Harston's face was pale. Bold enough with a deck under his feet, this silent, savage warfare shook his nerves.
"Vulmea said they feared this crag," said Villiers. "When night falls the men must climb up here. The Indians won't rush us on the ledge."
"That's true!" mocked Vulmea. "They won't climb the crag. They'll merely surround it and keep you here until you starve."
"Make a truce with him," muttered Harston. "If any man can get us out of this, he can. Time enough to cut his throat later." Lifting his voice he called: "Vulmea, let's forget our feud. You're in this as much as we are."
"How do you figure that?" retorted the Irishman. "When it's dark I can climb down the other side of this crag and crawl through the line the Indians have thrown around this hill. They'll never see me. I can return to the fort and report you all slain by the savages--which will shortly be the truth!"
Harston and Villiers stared at each other in pallid silence.
"But I'm not going to do that!" Vulmea roared. "Not because I have any love for you dogs, but because a white man doesn't leave white men, even his enemies, to be butchered by red savages."
The Irishman's tousled black head appeared over the crest of the crag.
"Listen! There's only a small band down there. I saw them sneaking through the brush when I laughed, awhile ago. I believe a big war-party is heading in our direction, and those are a group of fleet-footed young braves sent ahead of it to cut us off from the beach.
"They're all on the west side of the crag. I'm going down on the east side and work around behind them. Meanwhile, you crawl down the path and join your men among the rocks. When you hear me yell, rush the trees."
"What of the treasure?"
"To hell with it! We'll be lucky if we get out of here with our scalps."
The black-maned head vanished. They listened for sounds to indicate that Vulmea had crawled to the almost sheer eastern wall and was working his way down, but they heard nothing. Nor did any sound come from the forest. No more arrows broke against the rocks where the sailors were hidden, but all knew that fierce black eyes were watching with murderous patience. Gingerly Harston, Villiers and the boatswain started down the winding path. They were halfway down when the shafts began to whisper around them. The boatswain groaned and toppled down the slope, shot through the heart. Arrows splintered on the wall about the captains as they tumbled in frantic haste down the steep trail. They reached the foot in a scrambling rush and lay panting among the rocks.
"Is this more of Vulmea's trickery?" wondered Villiers profanely.
"We can trust him in this matter," asserted Harston. "There's a racial principle involved here. He'll help us against the Indians, even though he plans to murder us himself. Hark!"
A blood-freezing yell knifed the silence. It came from the woods to the west, and simultaneously an object arched out of the trees, struck the ground and rolled bouncingly toward the rocks-a severed human head, the hideously painted face frozen in a death-snarl.
"Vulmea's signal!" roared Harston, and the desperate pirates rose like a wave from the rocks and rushed headlong toward the woods.
Arrows whirred out of the bushes, but their flight was hurried and erratic. Only three men fell. Then the wild men of the sea plunged through the fringe of foliage and fell on the naked painted figures that rose out of the gloom before them. There was a murderous instant of panting, hand to hand ferocity, cutlasses beating down war-axes, booted feet trampling naked bodies, and then bare feet were rattling through the bushes in headlong flight as the survivors of that brief carnage quit the field, leaving seven still, painted figures stretched on the bloodstained leaves that littered the earth. Further back in the thickets sounded a thrashing and heaving, and then it ceased and Vulmea strode into view, his hat gone, his coat torn, his cutlass dripping in his hand.
"What now?" panted Villiers. He knew the charge had succeeded only because Vulmea's unexpected attack on the rear of the Indians had demoralized the painted men, and prevented them from melting back before the rush.
They let their dead lie where they had fallen, and crowded close at his heels as he trotted through the trees. Alone they would have sweated and blundered among the thickets for hours before they found the trail that led to the beach-if they had ever found it. Vulmea led them as unerringly as if he had been following an open road, and the rovers shouted with hysterical relief as they burst suddenly upon the trail that ran westward.
"Fool!" Vulmea clapped a hand on the shoulder of a pirate who started to break into a run, and hurled him back among his companions. "You'd burst your heart within a thousand yards. We're miles from the beach. Take an easy gait. We may have to sprint the last mile. Save some of your wind for it. Come on, now."
He set off down the trail at a steady jog-trot, and the seamen followed him, suiting their pace to his.
The sun was touching the waves of the western ocean. Tina stood at the window from which Francoise had watched the storm.
"The sunset turns the ocean to blood," she said. "The ship's sail is a white fleck on the crimson waters. The woods are already darkening."
"What of the seamen on the beach?" asked Francoise languidly. She reclined on a couch, her eyes closed, her hands clasped behind her head.
"Both camps are preparing their supper," answered Tina. "They are gathering driftwood and building fires. I can hear them shouting to one another--what's that?"
The sudden tenseness in the girl's tone brought Francoise upright on her couch. Tina gripped the window sill and her face was white.
"Listen! A howling, far off, like many wolves!"
"Wolves?" Francoise sprang up, fear clutching her heart. "Wolves do not hunt in packs at this time of the year!"
"Look!" shrilled the girl. "Men are running out of the forest!"
In an instant Francoise was beside her, staring wide-eyed at the figures, small in the distance, streaming out of the woods.
"The sailors!" she gasped. "Empty handed! I see Villiers- Harston
"Where is Vulmea?" whispered the girl.
Francoise shook her head.
"Listen! Oh, listen!" whimpered the child, clinging to her.
All in the fort could hear it now--- a vast ululation of mad blood-lust, rising from the depths of the dark forest.
That sound spurred on the panting men reeling toward the stockade.
"They're almost at our heels!" gasped Harston, his face a drawn mask of muscular exhaustion. "My ship--"
"She's too far out for us to reach," panted Villiers. "Make for the fort. See, the men camped on the beach have seen us!" He waved his arms in breathless pantomime, but the men on the strand had already recognized the significance of that wild howling in the forest. They abandoned their fires and cooking-pots and fled for the stockade gate. They were pouring through it as the fugitives from the forest rounded the south angle and reeled into the gate, half dead from exhaustion. The gate was slammed with frenzied haste, and men swarmed up the firing ledge.
Francoise confronted Villiers.
"Where is Black Vulmea"'
The buccaneer jerked a thumb toward the blackening woods. His chest heaved, and sweat poured down his face. "Their scouts were at our heels before we gained the beach. He paused to slay a few and give us time to get away."
He staggered away to take his place on the wall, whither Harston had already mounted. Henri stood there, a somber, cloak-wrapped figure, aloof and silent. He was like a man bewitched.
"Look!" yelped a pirate above the howling of the yet unseen horde.
A man emerged from the forest and raced fleetly toward the fort.
Villiers grinned wolfishly.
"We're safe in the stockade. We know where the treasure is. No reason why we shouldn't put a bullet through him now."
"Wait!" Harston caught his arm. "We'll need his sword! Look!"
Behind the fleeing Irishman a wild horde burst from the forest, howling as they ran-naked savages, hundreds and hundreds of them. Their arrows rained about the fugitive. A few strides more and Vulmea reached the eastern wall of the stockade, bounded high, seized the points of the palisades and heaved himself up and over, his cutlass in his teeth. Arrows thudded venomously into the logs where his body had just been. His resplendent coat was gone, his white silk shirt torn and bloodstained.
"Stop them!" he roared as his feet hit the ground inside. "if they get on the wall we're done for!"
Seamen, soldiers and henchmen responded instantly and a storm of bullets tore into the oncoming horde.
Vulmea saw Francoise, with Tina clinging to her hand, and his language was picturesque.
"Get into the manor," he commanded. "Their arrows will arch over the wall-what did I tell you?" A shaft cut into the earth at Francoise's feet and quivered like a serpent-head. Vulmea caught up a musket and leaped to the firing-ledge. "Some of you dogs prepare torches!" he roared, above the rising clamor of battle. "We can't fight them in the dark!"
The sun had sunk in a welter of blood; out in the bay the men about the ship had cut the anchor chain and the War-Hawk was rapidly receding on the crimson horizon.