Lonely O'Malley/Chapter 9

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CHAPTER IX

In which the Greyhound steps forth


IT was, of course, Lonely O'Malley who first carried the bacillus of piracy into the quiet homes of Chamboro. And it was his potent and artful planning which likewise led to the outfitting of the Greyhound.

But you never would have taken the Greyhound for a pirate ship. That is, so to speak, at first sight. She was so ponderous and patient-looking, so massive and meek of appearance!

Nor would you have dreamed that eleven scowling men lay aboard her betimes, armed to the teeth—seven scowling men who spoke ever and anon in hoarse whispers, as tradition demanded, and walked with a rolling gait, as brigand and pirate and outlaw have done since ship was first scuttled and traitor first hanged to a yardarm!

If some one, indeed, had even whispered to you that there was a pirate ship coasting up and down the placid waters of the river and Watterson's Creek, flying its skull and crossbones in the very face of the solemn old town of Chamboro, you would have pooh-poohed the idea, and even inwardly chortled a bit, for if ever there was a sober and staid and sleepily respectable old town it was Chamboro. And if ever there was a quiet and slumberous and unromantic stretch of water it was this same Watterson's Creek.

For some twenty circuitous miles it wound sleepily down through gardens and orchards and farm-lands, to join the even sleepier river, on which rafts of logs and strings of honest and hardworking scows, and even a bustling steamer or two, decorously came and went,—"An' not one o' them carryin' so much as a boardin'-net!" Piggie Brennan had exultingly noted. During midsummer the waters of the river were the alluring yellow of sweet stagnation, except, of course, at the bend just below the slaughter-house, where the upper town swimming-hole was. Here they were of a somewhat darker hue; but bless you, water is water the world over! And at one side of this swimming-hole there was a big old wide-rooted buttonwood, which was just the thing for diving; and on the other side was a priceless mine of blue clay, soft, oozy, irresistible. Yet the argosies that floated up and down those staid and unruffled waters, it must be confessed, were chiefly cargoes of brick and sand and limestone.

Even the Greyhound herself, in the days when she was still respectably known as the Maggie Watson and had no thought, indeed, of ever flying the skull and cross-bones at her masthead, had journeyed under many an ignominious burden of red brick and plastering-sand. But for two long years, before drifting into those dark and evil habits which were to prove such an unlooked-for disgrace to her old age, the Maggie Watson had lain abandoned, just under the railway bridge, with tadpoles and wrigglers disporting themselves between her battered decks, and Chamboro's one cab-driver calmly and impudently using her as a platform whereon to wash down, of a Sunday morning, his imperishable old four-wheeler. Here, for two years, she had been gazed on passively yet regretfully.

It was with the advent of Lonely that the beginning of the more aggressive policy coincided. Then, day by day, numerous horseshoe nails worked at the heavy iron padlock that kept her a prisoner beside the piles of the old bridge. Here she was examined, and talked over, and even belabored as to her chain-bound stern and pried at as to her ponderous bow. But still she clung tenaciously to her old mooring, while Chamboro's newly awakened dreams of piracy went unrealized.

But in what land, since boy drew breath, can piracy be kept down! It comes as implacably and mysteriously as the mumps or the measles. It 's an atavistic taint in the blood, a vagabondic diathesis—a regurgitation of savagery, innocently relieving our colic of civilization, and the sooner it breaks out and is over and done with the better!

And all of this brings me round to the pirates themselves. Yet who, indeed, would ever have suspected them! Who could ever have foretold that weak little Willie Steiner, who daily took a spoonful of emulsion for the jam that came in its wake, was to dig three good feet of the pirate cave in the creek bank, hidden away in the scrub willows, just above the Cemetery! And who would ever have dreamed that the chubby-faced little Pinkie Ball, with a burst of energy that brought rivers of sweat out of his fat young body, had carried fence-boards


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LITTLE PINKIE


all the way from the Wilsons' orchard for the boarding-in and shoring-up of this same cave, whose roof had previously shown a frequent tendency to collapse on the heads of the startled pirate band, whenever in solemn conclave assembled! Who would have imagined that Piggie Brennan, the hero of a hundred fights, now that he was daily to be taking his life in his hands, had secretly fallen to wearing sundry small gloves and bits of hair-ribbon under his copiously patched merino blouse! And how was the Rector of All Saints to understand the trepidation of his son Lionel Clarence, already destined for the ministry (in his mother's eyes) when three prolonged owl-hoots followed by two low whistles came mysteriously from without the Rectory window of an evening, and turned the pink-tinted quietness of the library into the gloom of a prison for one stifling and rebellious young heart! Or who was to explain to the rotund old Witherspoon, the town constable, just why he was no longer kept busy putting out smudges in vacant lots and bonfires under wharves, and why there were no more Indian massacres on the Common, and no more of those strange circus exhibitions, which had threatened the destruction by fire of not a few of the more commodious barns and stables of Chamboro!

From the day, however, that Captain Lonely O'Malley and Pud Jones first discovered that the Maggie Watson might be purchased for the sum of three dollars, cash down, a subtle change came over the youthful hearts of Chamboro. The immensity of that sum, it is true, staggered the boys not a little. The following afternoon it was talked over in the cave. The boy who was already destined for the ministry, but was known of late beyond the precincts of the Rectory as "Slugger," had thoughtfully brought with him an ample jar of his mother's last year's pickled peaches, and while regaling themselves on this delicacy the entire party thrashed the matter of the Maggie Watson out to the bitter end.

Pinkie Ball—most of whose pennies found their prompt way into Pratt's confectionery—saw no fun in wasting money on a pirate ship, when it ought to be taken by force of arms.

"Who ever heard of pirates buyin' a boat, anyway?" he demanded, contemptuously. "If we 're real pirates, why don't we go an' capture her?"

"Then s'posin' you go out and find something for us to capture!" answered the Captain, with the honor of his band to uphold.

"What 's the matter with buyin' her first," said Redney McWilliams, already elected First Mate, his utterance somewhat choked by an especially large and succulent peach, "and then givin' her away to old Sanderson, or somebody, and capturin' her back?"

The extremely aged gentleman to be thus honored, however, was so sickly and decrepit that it was a matter of history that his daughter cut up his meat for him; and the suggestion was discarded as unworthy able-bodied pirates.

"Well, there 's one thing," said Willie Steiner, through his pocket handkerchief; "I 'm sick o' this here cave. There 's nothin' funny about havin' a cold in the head all the time!"

"You were crazy enough to git her built!" scoffed the Captain.

"Well, but I 'd like to know where the fun is sleepin' in a cave when you 've got to have pains in your joints all the time!"

"And I don't see much use in a place that chokes you up with smoke every time you make a fire!" objected Piggie Brennan.

"And you 're not feelin' scart about bein' raided all the time, at sea—I mean out on the Crick!" said timorous Freddie Stevens. "Besides," he added, after a pause, "it does n't seem so much like stealin', when you come and take things with a ship!"

Freddie's conscience was troubling him because of a pound-cake which certain rats had made away with, from the second shelf in Mrs. Stevens's pantry.

"I think you 're making an uncommon pig of yourself over those peaches, Redney!" interposed the Preacher's son.

"You don't have to pay out good money for caves!" said Pinkie, sadly.

"It 's too muddy and dark in here all the time, anyway!" added Biff Perkins.

"You were n't all talkin' that way about three weeks ago!" said the Captain, as he strode back and forth, with one shoulder hunched up, and his arm over his chest.

And so they squabbled on until a vote was taken on the question, and even Pinkie swung round with the majority, and it was unanimously decided that the Maggie Watson should become the property of the gang. But from that day on, mind you, she was to be spoken of and known as the Greyhound, a compact which was duly sworn to and elaborately signed for, in blood, along with sundry other items also duly laid down with equally impressive ceremonies.

There was no time to be lost, they felt, for those halcyon days, the summer holidays, were already at hand. It was the season of blue skies and warm evenings and strange unrests, the season of lazy afternoons and disturbing dreams of far-off things, the season when a passion for water and roving is born, when the world is big and wonderful and echoing with alluring voices, when the touch of shoe-leather is an abomination to the foot, and a garden-hoe is a sordid emblem of slavery. It was the time when the fat old constable grew more watchful and wary, when river-booms were unchained, and orchards were ravaged, and when young vagabonds, not two years out of skirts, rebelled against the cruel bondage of home life, and were apt to make for the woods to be Indians.

But with the purchase of the Maggie Watson—there, it slipped out before I could stop it!—with the purchase of the Greyhound, all of these trivial things were forgotten, and a new and richer coloring tinted existence. For purchased she was, though just how, it would not do to question too closely. [1] It is only known that back yards and garrets and cellars were ransacked for bottles and rags and metals and bones, scoured and ransacked as they had never been scoured and ransacked before, that early vegetables were mysteriously peddled about the foreign parts of the town, that copper bottoms were deftly taken from boilers which had, indeed, merely been laid aside for repairs, and that even flatirons had been known to disappear as though by magic. Sunday pennies that should have gone to the clothing of the heathen were grimly held back. Bills were peddled, and errands were run with an alacrity never before discovered in the small boy of Chamboro. Pet rabbits and pigeons were sorrowfully bartered away,—three different times was the faithful Gilead sold and resold,—and at last it all ended in the transfer—under the greatest secrecy—of the Greyhound to her new owners. She was taken one quiet moonlight night from the shadows of the old railway bridge, and as silently poled up Watterson's Creek to a screening clump of willows, not more than an owl's hoot from the cave itself.


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SILENTLY FOLDED UP WATTERSON'S CREEK


That moonlight migration marked the Great Divide in the life of the Maggie Watson. Yet before she could become the Greyhound, great changes had to take place. Bulwarks had to be built up around her, as befitted a fighting craft. In her stern a cabin had to be constructed, and in doing this the Captain insisted that the rudder-stock be lengthened, so that while handling the tiller he should be able to stand grandiosely exalted on that little upper deck of the cabin roof.

These additions, it must be explained, gave to the Greyhound the ponderous stateliness of a Spanish galleon. The pirates later tried to do away with this impression of heaviness by the angle at which they set up the Greyhound's masts. But rake these two masts as devilishly and debonairly as they could, the old-time purveyor of brick and sand, naturally enough, refused to shake off her look of phlegmatic and even sullen ponderosity.

And when her first sailing test came about, she not only refused most stubbornly to respond to the tiller, but even in the fiercest gale of wind loomed slowly and solemnly onward, with the funereal stateliness of a coal barge. Still not despairing, her crew went lustily to work and rigged her up with oars, four on a side, somewhat after the fashion of a Venetian galleass. Once under way, and especially when the Captain and the First Mate assisted with poles from the stern, she moved at a surprisingly brisk rate of speed, although it did take a power of churning and straining to get her started.

"But won't she be a peach for rammin'!" cried her Captain, joyously, as he watched her loggy side crush an orange-crate against a boom-end.

It was only the pirates themselves who ever knew just what this transformation entailed. What sly dismantling of fences and chicken-coops! What purloining of screws and nails and scantlings and odds and ends of boards. What nail-bereft woodsheds that leaned awry; what fences that stood suddenly bare and skeleton-like; what sidewalks that tripped you up quite unexpectedly, because of an unwholesome absence of spikes; what soulless rending of good linen sheets for the making of sails, what strange disappearings of clothes-lines for the manufacture of rigging! And what sawing and hammering and pounding and blistering of hands and bruising of thumbs, before it was all brought about!

But even more momentous than all this was the arming and provisioning of the Greyhound. It was the latter undertaking that

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STANDING GRANDIOSELY EXALTED ON THAT LITTLE UPPER DECK

 
progressed so spasmodically, for the more appetizing the acquired delicacy, it seemed, the more mysteriously rapid its disappearance. The things that came to hand most readily were the very things least wanted. Freddie Stevens, for instance, found no apparent difficulty in supplying an unlimited amount of chow-chow and sweet pickle, but where were they to look for more substantial dishes with which to enjoy such delicious condiment?—though it must be admitted that three live chickens had squawked their last within the Greyhound's darkened cabin! An untried cook, however, had neglected to remove more than the feathers from the prize, with a result that they were nibbled at somewhat disdainfully, Piggie Brennan being the only member of the crew who could go in for them with any gusto.

A sort of Nemesis, indeed, seemed forever on the heels of those brave young pirates. If four custard pies mysteriously disappeared from a pantry window, they vanished with even greater mystery when once brought aboard the Greyhound. If there was a pound of gingerbread to be eaten, the Captain called in vain for men to man his ship. If there was so much as a jelly-roll in the provision chest, you were sure to find the voracious First Mate absent from his post. The final result was that both Captain and crew had to fall back on early harvest apples and an occasional mess of boiled potatoes, garnered from waterside gardens when the owners thereof were wrapt in sweetly unconscious slumber. When the apples were over-green, they were baked, or rather half-baked, in the old cook-stove whose three rusty joints of purloined stove-pipe protruded uncommonly like the muzzle of a six-inch gun from the port side of the Greyhound's cabin.

Not that this gallant ship did not carry arms more deadly! Every man who walked her decks was armed, if not with sling-shot and bow and arrow, at least with a key gun. If you have never used or known a key gun, of course you cannot understand just how deadly it is. 'T is made from an old key, hollow of shank, and the bigger the key the better. A touch-hole is supplied by filing through to the inner end of the hollow, a few grains of priming powder are sprinkled on this touch-hole, and when well filled and aimed, it has been known to hit a target six good paces off! Its one disadvantage, however, was the frequency, I might say the inevitability, with which it burned your fingers. Yet this did not shatter in the pirates that mystic love of firearms and powder which burns in the pagan breast of every young boy. To describe it, or to account for it, is impossible. Love of woman may come later; love of gold may eventually supplant it. But never can the most golden hair or the most golden hoard re-awaken that first, fierce, primal thrill which comes of beholding the smoke-stained grimness of a secretly acquired old rabbit-gun!

Besides his key gun, which swung from almost every pirate's belt, their arsenal could boast of two bullet-moulds, several feet of lead piping, a Flaubert rifle, out of order, an air-gun, six sling-shots, two hatchets, and three broken garden-rakes, which were to serve as boarding-irons, to say nothing of several bottles filled with gunpowder and rigged with dangerously swift-burning fuses of home manufacture. Most of this gunpowder, I may add, had been illicitly secured by Binney Pennyfather, whose father was a veteran duck-shooter; and had involved the disgorging of several hundred loaded cartridges,—a deed


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BACKED BY A MASKED AND SCOWLING MAN


for which Binney was doled out fit and proper punishment many months later. Nor must we overlook the brass cannon—gun and carriage weighing fully three pounds—even though sagely and securely spiked by a wise parent before it ever came into the possession of the pirates. It frowned down from the bow of the Greyhound in a manner most menacing, however, and more than one little girl had been known to turn pale when it was held threateningly against her palpitating bodice, backed by a masked and scowling man demanding if she had no more than those three apples in her pocket!

And, on the whole, the cup of happiness of our pirates would have been full to overflowing, but for one thing. And that was the sad fact that the Greyhound was given to leaking so ungallantly. They had nailed up her rents, they had plugged and caulked her cracks with oakum, and had ruined a dozen suits of clothes in painting her with pitch and tar and red lead. But still she leaked. All through her meteoric career in fact, she never knew what it meant to possess a tight bottom. Day and night, when afloat, a man had to be stationed at her pumps (secretly appropriated from the McWilliams's cistern); and many were the miseries and heartburnings this perpetual and irremediable failing gave rise to among her saddened crew.

Captain Lonely O'Malley stoutly maintained, however, that all pirate ships had to leak, especially after they 'd been scuttled three or four times!

 
To Annie Eliza
(Growing Somewhat Oldish)

Ah, Mistress Annie, though you throw
Each girlhood game away,
I see, alas, 't will come to pass
That other games you 'll play!

Now you 've outgrown your skipping-rope,
And your last lisp or two,
By sterner name will go this game
Your teens have given you!

('T will not be dolls and dishes, Dear,
For you, alack-aday.
So wise must grow that you 'll soon throw
Mere toys—and me—away!)

You 'll break each cup and tea-thing up,—
You 'll lose your taste for tarts,
And as you 've played with dishes, Dear,
Too soon you 'll play with hearts!

 


  1. How Lonely raised a goodly portion of this purchase money is, perhaps, worthy of passing note. He took a contract from Judge Eby to remove from a driveway several cords of field-stone—a task of many days for one boy alone. Lonely, however, having organized a fire brigade among the gang, built a good-sized bonfire in the nearby ditch,—and the zealous brigade, in feverish and determined attempts to smother this conflagration, seized on the nearest stones, and performed a week's work without even knowing it!