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Buccaneers and Pirates of Our Coasts by  Frank R. Stockton

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THE PIRATE WHO COULD NOT SWIM

[49] WHEN the little fleet of Spanish vessels, including the one which had been captured by Bartholemy Portuguez and his men, were on their way to Campeachy, they met with very stormy weather so that they were separated, and the ship which contained Bartholemy and his companions arrived first at the port for which they were bound.

The captain, who had Bartholemy and the others in charge, did not know what an important capture he had made; he supposed that these pirates were ordinary buccaneers, and it appears that it was his intention to keep them as his own private prisoners, for, as they were all very able-bodied men, they would be extremely useful on a ship. But when his vessel was safely moored, and it became known in the town that he had a company of pirates on board, a great many people came from shore to see these savage men, who were probably looked upon [50] very much as if they were a menagerie of wild beasts brought from foreign lands.

Among the sightseers who came to the ship was a merchant of the town who had seen Bartholemy before, and who had heard of his various exploits. He therefore went to the captain of the vessel and informed him that he had on board one of the very worst pirates in the whole world, whose wicked deeds were well known in various parts of the West Indies, and who ought immediately to be delivered up to the civil authorities. This proposal, however, met with no favor from the Spanish captain, who had found Bartholemy a very quiet man, and could see that he was a very strong one, and he did not at all desire to give up such a valuable addition to his crew. But the merchant grew very angry, for he knew that Bartholemy had inflicted great injury on Spanish commerce, and as the captain would not listen to him, he went to the Governor of the town and reported the case. When this dignitary heard the story he immediately sent a party of officers to the ship, and commanded the captain to deliver the pirate leader into their charge. The other men were left where they were, but Bartholemy was taken away and confined in another ship. The merchant, who seemed to know a great deal about him, informed the authorities that this terrible pirate had been captured several times, but that he had [51] always managed to escape, and, therefore, he was put in irons, and preparations were made to execute him on the next day; for, from what he had heard, the Governor considered that this pirate was no better than a wild beast, and that he should be put to death without even the formality of a trial.

But there was a Spanish soldier on board the ship who seemed to have had some pity, or perhaps some admiration, for the daring pirate, and he thought that if he were to be hung the next day it was no more than right to let him know it, so that when he went in to take some food to Bartholemy he told him what was to happen.

Now this pirate captain was a man who always wanted to have a share in what was to happen, and he immediately racked his brain to find out what he could do in this case. He had never been in a more desperate situation, but he did not lose heart, and immediately set to work to free himself from his irons, which were probably very clumsy affairs. At last, caring little how much he scratched and tore his skin, he succeeded in getting rid of his fetters, and could move about as freely as a tiger in a cage. To get out of this cage was Bartholemy's first object. It would be comparatively easy, because in the course of time some one would come into the hold, and the athletic buccaneer thought that he could easily get the better of whoever might [52] open the hatch. But the next act in this truly melodramatic performance would be a great deal more difficult; for in order to escape from the ship it would be absolutely necessary for Bartholemy to swim to shore, and he did not know how to swim, which seems a strange failing in a hardy sailor with so many other nautical accomplishments. In the rough hold where he was shut up, our pirate, peering about, anxious and earnest, discovered two large earthen jars in which wine had been brought from Spain, and with these he determined to make a sort of life-preserver. He found some pieces of oiled cloth, which he tied tightly over the open mouths of the jars and fastened them with cords. He was satisfied that this unwieldy contrivance would support him in the water.

Among other things he had found in his rummagings about the hold was an old knife, and with this in his hand he now sat waiting for a good opportunity to attack his sentinel.

This came soon after nightfall. A man descended with a lantern to see that the prisoner was still secure,—let us hope that it was not the soldier who had kindly informed him of his fate,—and as soon as he was fairly in the hold Bartholemy sprang upon him. There was a fierce struggle, but the pirate was quick and powerful, and the sentinel was soon dead. Then, carrying [53] his two jars, Bartholemy climbed swiftly and noiselessly up the short ladder, came out on deck in the darkness, made a rush toward the side of the ship, and leaped overboard. For a moment he sank below the surface, but the two air-tight jars quickly rose and bore him up with them. There was a bustle on board the ship, there was some random firing of muskets in the direction of the splashing which the watch had heard, but none of the balls struck the pirate or his jars, and he soon floated out of sight and hearing. Kicking out with his legs, and paddling as well as he could with one hand while he held on to the jars with the other, he at last managed to reach the land, and ran as fast as he could into the dark woods beyond the town.

Bartholemy was now greatly in fear that, when his escape was discovered, he would be tracked by bloodhounds,—for these dogs were much used by the Spaniards in pursuing escaping slaves or prisoners,—and he therefore did not feel safe in immediately making his way along the coast, which was what he wished to do. If the hounds should get upon his trail, he was a lost man. The desperate pirate, therefore, determined to give the bloodhounds no chance to follow him, and for three days he remained in a marshy forest, in the dark recesses of which he could hide, and where the [54] water, which covered the ground, prevented the dogs from following his scent. He had nothing to eat except a few roots of water-plants, but he was accustomed to privation, and these kept him alive. Often he heard the hounds baying on the dry land adjoining the marsh, and sometimes he saw at night distant torches, which he was sure were carried by men who were hunting for him.

But at last the pursuit seemed to be given up; and hearing no more dogs and seeing no more flickering lights, Bartholemy left the marsh and set out on his long journey down the coast. The place he wished to reach was called Golpho Triste, which was forty leagues away, but where he had reason to suppose he would find some friends. When he came out from among the trees, he mounted a small hill and looked back upon the town. The public square was lighted, and there in the middle of it he saw the gallows which had been erected for his execution, and this sight, doubtless, animated him very much during the first part of his journey.

The terrible trials and hardships which Bartholemy experienced during his tramp along the coast were such as could have been endured only by one of the strongest and toughest of men. He had found in the marsh an old gourd, or calabash, which he had filled with fresh water,—for he could [55] expect nothing but sea-water during his journey, and as for solid food he had nothing but the raw shellfish which he found upon the rocks; but after a diet of roots, shellfish must have been a very agreeable change, and they gave him all the strength and vigor he needed. Very often he found streams and inlets which he was obliged to ford, and as he could see that they were always filled with alligators, the passage of them was not very pleasant. His method of getting across one of these narrow streams, was to hurl rocks into the water until he had frightened away the alligators immediately in front of him, and then, when he had made for himself what seemed to be a free passage, he would dash in and hurry across.

At other times great forests stretched down to the very coast, and through these he was obliged to make his way, although he could hear the roars and screams of wild beasts all about him. Any one who is afraid to go down into a dark cellar to get some apples from a barrel at the foot of the stairs, can have no idea of the sort of mind possessed by Bartholemy Portuguez. The animals might howl around him and glare at him with their shining eyes, and the alligators might lash the water into foam with their great tails, but he was bound for Golpho Triste and was not to be stopped on his way by anything alive.

[56] But at last he came to something not alive, which seemed to be an obstacle which would certainly get the better of him. This was a wide river, flowing through the inland country into the sea. He made his way up the shore of this river for a considerable distance, but it grew but little narrower, and he could see no chance of getting across. He could not swim and he had no wine-jars now with which to buoy himself up, and if he had been able to swim he would probably have been eaten up by alligators soon after he left the shore. But a man in his situation would not be likely to give up readily; he had done so much that he was ready to do more if he could only find out what to do.

Now a piece of good fortune happened to him, although to an ordinary traveller it might have been considered a matter of no importance whatever. On the edge of the shore, where it had floated down from some region higher up the river, Bartholemy perceived an old board, in which there were some long and heavy rusty nails. Greatly encouraged by this discovery the indefatigable traveller set about a work which resembled that of the old woman who wanted a needle, and who began to rub a crow-bar on a stone in order to reduce it to the proper size. Bartholemy carefully knocked all the nails out of the board, and then finding a large flat stone, he rubbed down one of [57] them until he had formed it into the shape of a rude knife blade, which he made as sharp as he could. Then with these tools he undertook the construction of a raft, working away like a beaver, and using the sharpened nails instead of his teeth. He cut down a number of small trees, and when he had enough of these slender trunks he bound them together with reeds and osiers, which he found on the river bank. So, after infinite labor and trial he constructed a raft which would bear him on the surface of the water. When he had launched this he got upon it, gathering up his legs so as to keep out of reach of the alligators, and with a long pole pushed himself off from shore. Sometimes paddling and sometimes pushing his pole against the bottom, he at last got across the river and took up his journey upon dry land.

But our pirate had not progressed very far upon the other side of the river before he met with a new difficulty of a very formidable character. This was a great forest of mangrove trees, which grow in muddy and watery places and which have many roots, some coming down form the branches, and some extending themselves in a hopeless tangle in the water and mud. It would have been impossible for even a stork to walk through this forest, but as there was no way of getting around it Bartholemy determined to go through it, even if he [58] could not walk. No athlete of the present day, no matter if he should be a most accomplished circus-man, could reasonably expect to perform the feat which this bold pirate successfully accomplished. For five or six leagues he went through that mangrove forest, never once setting his foot upon the ground,—by which is meant mud, water, and roots,—but swinging himself by his hands and arms, from branch to branch, as if he had been a great ape, only resting occasionally, drawing himself upon a stout limb where he might sit for a while and get his breath. If he had slipped while he was swinging from one limb to another and had gone down into the mire and roots beneath him, it is likely that he would never have been able to get out alive. But he made no slips. He might not have had the agility and grace of a trapeze performer, but his grasp was powerful and his arms were strong, and so he swung and clutched, and clutched and swung, until he had gone entirely through the forest and had come out on the open coast.


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