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THE SCREAMING SKULL

By J. ALLAN DUNN

The King's Pardon had been offered to the Buccaneers, and now the King's
ships were out to make the everlasting frontier of the seas safe for all. But
Swayne and his men scorned the one and laughed at the other even as the
hunters closed in upon them
.

OUTRANGING the lighter guns of the Gauntlet, from the start of the fight the skillfully manoeuvered King's ship had been raking the pirate brigantine with a steady fire from a Long Tom mounted in her bows. For three hours they fought, manoeuvering in the smart breeze in the early evening of a glorious day, the crisp seas blue as indigo, yeasty with spin-drift, the smoke of the guns soaring up in puffs like balloons as they were swiftly served by men naked to the waist, wet with sweat, grimed with powder and splashed with blood.

King's man and pirate alike wore bright kerchiefs bound about their brows, but the buccaneers aboard the Gauntlet displayed gaudy silken sashes, velvet breeches and high bucket- topped seaboots of leather, whereas the tars trod the sanded decks bare-footed.

Now less than a cable's length away, now nearer half a mile, tacking and veering, striving for the better position, for a rake of the other's deck, the bright red flashes of fire showed belching from the barking dogs of war as pirate's brigantine or the King's corvette rose to the crest of a rolling wave and swift gunners set tow to touch-hole. White splinters flew from the black sides that rose gleaming, varnished with the brine.

The flush-decked corvette, frigate-rigged, was handled with as much precision as the overmanned brigantine, and Swayne cursed as he saw that her captain meant to take full advantage of his heavier metals and repeatedly managed a range where the buccaneer's shot plumped short into the sea.

But at sunset the corvette came down, leaping before a quartering breeze, flinging the seas away magnificently to leeward, buoyant as a cork, her canvas snowy white, the red flag flaming in challenge to Swayne's sable banner, keen to make a finish. The sun hung in the west in a growing confusion of purple cloud and wheeling rays of crimson vapor, wheeling over a background of troubled gold. The clouds overhead were silver- white as pearl on their eastern sides, amber and amethyst toward the west. The two ships, filled with men who longed to be at the death-grapple, to decide the supremacy of law or piracy, seemed inconsequential as they fled on the lifting surface of a sea purple as the skin of grapes.

Swayne strutted in confidence on his quarterdeck, togged out in all the glory that delighted his heart: vermilion, gold-laced coat with a blue sash of silk across it, a wide belt, velvet breeches thrust into boots of Spanish leather, plumes in his hat above his hair that hung below the wide collar, long mustachios fiercely curled, a scar across a nose that bridged out like a prow to his strong face.

Hardly less brave of attire and demeanor was Hoyle, his lieutenant, though his face scowled the more from its pockpittedness than Swayne's from its scar. Hoyle worked the ship, following Swayne's orders. Skinner, the quartermaster, chosen representative of the crew, a check on the captain to a certain extent, stood beside Swayne, his green eyes, flecked with brown spots, watching the corvette, unblinking to the increasing glory of the sunset behind her.

Long of arm and bowed of leg was Skinner, strong and active as a cat. He wore short breeches of striped canvas and a shirt of black silk that fluttered open at his hairy chest. His legs below the knees were bare to the horny soles of the splay feet. A fo'c'stle man was Skinner, though rating counted little in this sea brotherhood. He had pistols and a cutlass that swung unsheathed against the hard muscles of his calf, its edge keen as a razor, keen as the two long dirks in his belt.

Swayne roared an order and Skinner looked at him in a surprise that blended with delight.

"You'll let 'em board?" he shouted above the rush of the wind in the rigging, the seethe of the sea and the reports of the stern-chaser that ceased as the helm was put up and the men rushed to the braces.

"We'll meet 'em half way and let the losers go to hell! But we'll set a hurdle or two for 'em to jump. Nettings there. Pikes and cutlasses!"

By the prevailing laws of the Brethren of the Sea, Swayne had the absolute right of determination in all questions concerning fighting, chasing or being chased. In all other matters whatsoever the captain was governed by a majority. His decisions were subject to a later vote if the majority seemed to consider him in the wrong, but here there was no dissenting voice; the pirates believed themselves unmatched at close quarters. The battering from the corvette had enraged them, the pannikins of rum from the broached cask amidships had inflamed their natural deviltry, and they yelled in unison when they saw Swayne meant to come to grips.

AXES and pikes and cutlasses were set handy while they worked frantically to stretch the bulwark nettings. On came the King's ship, her men bunched in three groups, some on the yard- arms, some with grappling irons ready to fling aboard. The dazzle of the sunset was in the eyes of the buccaneers but they were used to such matters and they bellowed a brazen defiance as the two ships closed.

Pikes thrust at men, impaling them; axes swung through soft flesh and splintering bone; pistols were fired point-blank, searing and singeing where the bullets entered. Men poured into the brigantine, swarming the nettings actively as baboons, their sharp steel between their teeth, silent but grim as the outlaws of the sea jabbed and struck at them. Men dropped from the yards; there came clash and grate of steel against steel. The grunt of men hard pressed, the groans of the wounded, oaths, yells sounded while the sunset filled the hollows of the waves with blood that mocked the gore that ran on the slippery decks of the Gauntlet as men rolled into the scuppers, clutching at each other's wrists and throats, stabbing, slashing.

In the south a squall gathered, hovering while the fight gained fury. Swayne marked it from the corners of his eyes, his lips set, his nostrils wide for better breath as he lunged and parried with his Spanish blade against the onslaught of the corvette's first lieutenant, an old sea-dog with a wrist of steel and the cunning of a master of fence.

Swayne swiftly calculated the chances of victory or defeat, fearing the latter, even for himself in his present issue. He was wounded in the leg by a bullet from the corvette's foretop and at his best he was no match for this man who changed his style of fence at will, who had learned in the schools of France and Italy and Spain and practised them all in bloody battle.

There was no quarter. Every man pirate of them would be hanged at Gallows' Point, Port Royal, if they were taken alive. It had been a mistake to let the King's men board. Slowly but surely they were driving the buccaneers back. Hoyle was down, cleft from shoulder to the middle of his chest by a gigantic seaman whom Swayne himself had spitted the next instant. Skinner was back to the rail, with three or four comrades, fighting like maddened cats against odds.

Swayne shouted for a rally, tried to lead it, and left an opening that was instantly entered by the point of the imperturbable Englishman. The blade ran through his chest and lungs. Swayne stood for a moment with disbelieving amazement in his eyes as the other withdrew his sword and gave him a little nod. His own hilt was suddenly too heavy for his nerveless grasp; his voice failed him; he coughed and fell with a gush of blood from his lips.

The loss of a commander may make for despair of two kinds, the one generated by loss of hope that scatters courage and stays all effort, the other that produces a furious struggle against impending doom. Skinner broke through the cordon that had hemmed him in, hewing a way for himself with his reeking cutlass, his fierce face aflame, filled with the valor of desperation. "It's over with 'em, lads, or Port Royal for us all!" his great voice roared.

The rally sent the corvette's boarders back to their own deck, cursed at by their officers for cowards, smarting and stiff with wounds, almost spent with the fury of the onslaught, the pirates in little better shape. In the lull the gunner of the Gauntlet appeared with case-boxes he had swiftly manufactured during the boarding flurry. They were filled with powder, small shot, slugs and scraps of lead and iron, a sputtering quickmatch in the mouth of each of them as they were flung by lusty arms wherever men grouped aboard the King's ship.

The grenades exploded with frightful execution, scattering their rending contents far and wide. The officers of the corvette jumped to bring order out of the confusion, and lead another charge with fresh men who had not yet been in hand-to- hand conflict. The pirates seized the brief respite to catch their laboring breaths. Swayne was borne down to his cabin; Hoyle left in his own blood — dead.

Then the squall swept down, ravening, fierce and fast, veiling the sunset, darkening sea and sky with its pall. The ships had lain bow-and-stern; now the Gauntlet flung into the wind to meet the corvette as she came down it. But the gale came from another quarter. It flung itself upon both vessels, setting the corvette aback as it stormed over its bows, driving the Gauntlet ahead as the pirates cut the grappling ropes, glad to see the chance to avoid the mustering boarders, maddened by the bursting of the grenades.

One last battery from the corvette's guns roared out before they were clear, splintering and shattering their quarter. As they rolled to the great waves that enveloped them, leaping and ravening at them out of the roaring blackness, wallowing and plunging before the squall that at once saved them and threatened momentarily to set them on their beam-ends, the carpenter set up a cry for men to start the pumps. The muzzles of the King's ship had been depressed for that farewell broad-side, the cold shot had gone lunging through between wind and water and, with every plunge into the streaking gulfs, water gushed in.

SKINNER was a seaman, every ugly, efficient inch of him, in all but navigation. And now they had an open sea ahead, to the best of his belief. ...

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