Salute to Adventurers by John Buchan - HTML preview

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8. Red Ringan


Once at Edinburgh College I had read the Latin tale of Apuleius, and the beginning stuck in my memory: "Thraciam ex negotio petebam"--"I was starting off for Thrace on business." That was my case now. I was about to plunge into a wild world for no more startling causes than that I was a trader who wanted to save my pocket. It is to those who seek only peace and a quiet life that adventures fall; the homely merchant, jogging with his pack train, finds the enchanted forest and the sleeping princess; and Saul, busily searching for his father's asses, stumbles upon a kingdom.

 "What seek ye with Ringan?" Mercer asked, when we had sat down inside with locked doors.

 "The man's name is Ninian Campbell," I said, somewhat puzzled.

"Well, it's the same thing. What did they teach you at Lesmahagow if ye don't know that Ringan is the Scots for Ninian? Lord bless me, laddie, don't tell me ye've never heard of Red Ringan?"

To be sure I had; I had heard of little else for a twelvemonth. In every tavern in Virginia, when men talked of the Free Companions, it was the name of Red Ringan that came first to their tongues. I had been too occupied by my own affairs to listen just then to fireside tales, but I could not help hearing of this man's exploits. He was a kind of leader of the buccaneers, and by all accounts no miscreant like Cosh, but a mirthful fellow, striking hard when need be, but at other times merciful and jovial. Now I set little store by your pirate heroes. They are for lads and silly girls and sots in an ale-house, and a merchant can have no kindness for those who are the foes of his trade. So when I heard that the man I sought was this notorious buccaneer I showed my alarm by dropping my jaw.

Mercer laughed. "I'll not conceal from you that you take a certain risk in going to Ringan. Ye need not tell me your business, but it should be a grave one to take you down to the Carolina keys. There's time to draw back, if ye want; but you've brought me the master word, and I'm bound to set you on the road. Just one word to ye, Mr. Garvald. Keep a stout face whatever you see, for Ringan has a weakness for a bold man. Be here the morn at sunrise, and if ye're wise bring no weapon. I'll see to the boat and the provisioning."

I was at the water-side next day at cock-crow, while the mist was still low on the river. Mercer was busy putting food and a keg of water into a light sloop, and a tall Indian was aboard redding out the sails. My travels had given me some knowledge of the red tribes, and I spoke a little of their language, but this man was of a type not often seen in the Virginian lowlands. He was very tall, with a skin clear and polished like bronze, and, unlike the ordinary savage, his breast was unmarked, and his hair unadorned. He was naked to the waist, and below wore long leather breeches, dyed red, and fringed with squirrels' tails. In his wampum belt were stuck a brace of knives and a tomahawk. It seemed he knew me, for as I approached he stood up to his full height and put his hands on his forehead. "Brother," he said, and his grave eyes looked steadily into mine.

Then I remembered. Some months before I had been riding back the road from Green Springs, and in a dark, woody place had come across an Indian sore beset by three of the white scum which infested the river-side. What the quarrel was I know not, but I liked little the villainous look of the three, and I liked much the clean, lithe figure of their opponent. So I rode my horse among them, and laid on to them with the butt of my whip. They had their knives out, but I managed to disarm the one who attacked me, and my horse upset a second, while the Indian, who had no weapon but a stave, cracked the head of the last. I got nothing worse than a black eye, but the man I had rescued bled from some ugly cuts which I had much ado stanching. He shook hands with me gravely when I had done, and vanished into the thicket. He was a Seneca Indian, and I wondered what one of that house was doing in the Tidewater.

Mercer told me his name. "Shalah will take you to the man you ken. Do whatever he tells you, Mr. Garvald, for this is a job in which you're nothing but a bairn." We pushed off, the Indian taking the oars, and in five minutes James Town was lost in the haze.

On the Surrey shore we picked up a breeze, and with the ebbing tide made good speed down the estuary. Shalah the Indian had the tiller, and I sat luxuriously in the bows, smoking my cob pipe, and wondering what the next week held in store for me. The night before I had had qualms about the whole business, but the air of morning has a trick of firing my blood, and I believe I had forgotten the errand which was taking me to the Carolina shores. It was enough that I was going into a new land and new company. Last night I had thought with disfavour of Red Ringan the buccaneer; that morning I thought only of Ninian Campbell, with whom I had forgathered on a Glasgow landing.

My own thoughts kept me silent, and the Indian never opened his mouth. Like a statue he crouched by the tiller, with his sombre eyes looking to the sea. That night, when we had rounded Cape Henry in fine weather, we ran the sloop into a little bay below a headland, and made camp for the night beside a stream of cold water. Next morning it blew hard from the north, and in a driving rain we crept down the Carolina coast. One incident of the day I remember. I took in a reef or two, and adjusted the sheets, for this was a game I knew and loved. The Indian watched me closely, and made a sign to me to take the helm. He had guessed that I knew more than himself about the handling of a boat in wind, and since we were in an open sea, where his guidance was not needed, he preferred to trust the thing to me. I liked the trait in him, for I take it to be a mark of a wise man that he knows what he can do, and is not ashamed to admit what he cannot.

That evening we had a cold bed; but the storm blew out in the night, and the next day the sun was as hot as summer, and the wind a point to the east. Shalah once again was steersman, for we were inside some very ugly reefs, which I took to be the beginning of the Carolina keys. On shore forests straggled down to the sea, so that sometimes they almost had their feet in the surf; but now and then would come an open, grassy space running far inland. These were, the great savannahs where herds of wild cattle and deer roamed, and where the Free Companions came to fill their larders. It was a wilder land than the Tidewater, for only once did we see a human dwelling. Far remote on the savannahs I could pick out twirls of smoke rising into the blue weather, the signs of Indian hunting fires. Shalah began now to look for landmarks, and to take bearings of a sort. Among the maze of creeks and shallow bays which opened on the land side it needed an Indian to pick out a track.

The sun had all but set when, with a grunt of satisfaction, he swung round the tiller and headed shorewards. Before me in the twilight I saw only a wooded bluff which, as we approached, divided itself into two. Presently a channel appeared, a narrow thing about as broad as a cable's length, into which the wind carried us. Here it was very dark, the high sides with their gloomy trees showing at the top a thin line of reddening sky. Shalah hugged the starboard shore, and as the screen of the forest caught the wind it weakened and weakened till it died away, and we moved only with the ingoing tide. I had never been in so eery a place. It was full of the sharp smell of pine trees, and as I sniffed the air I caught the savour of wood smoke. Men were somewhere ahead of us in the gloom.

Shalah ran the sloop into a little creek so overgrown with vines that we had to lie flat on the thwarts to enter. Then, putting his mouth to my ear, he spoke for the first time since we had left James Town. "It is hard to approach the Master, and my brother must follow me close as the panther follows the deer. Where Shalah puts his foot let my brother put his also. Come."

He stepped from the boat to the hill-side, and with incredible speed and stillness began to ascend. His long, soft strides were made without noise or effort, whether the ground were moss, or a tangle of vines, or loose stones, or the trunks of fallen trees, I had prided myself on my hill-craft, but beside the Indian I was a blundering child, I might have made shift to travel as fast, but it was the silence of his progress that staggered me, I plunged, and slipped, and sprawled, and my heart was bursting before the ascent ceased, and we stole to the left along the hill shoulder.

Presently came a gap in the trees, and I looked down in the last greyness of dusk on a strange and beautiful sight. The channel led to a landlocked pool, maybe a mile around, and this was as full of shipping as a town's harbour. The water was but a pit of darkness, but I could make out the masts rising into the half light, and I counted more than twenty vessels in that port. No light was shown, and the whole place was quiet as a grave.

We entered a wood of small hemlocks, and I felt rather than saw the ground slope in front of us. About two hundred feet above the water the glen of a little stream shaped itself into a flat cup, which was invisible from below, and girdled on three sides by dark forest. Here we walked more freely, till we came to the lip of the cup, and there, not twenty paces below me, I saw a wonderful sight. The hollow was lit with the glow of a dozen fires, round which men clustered. Some were busy boucanning meat for ship's food, some were cooking supper, some sprawled in idleness, and smoked or diced. The night had now grown very black around us, and we were well protected, for the men in the glow had their eyes dazed, and could not spy into the darkness. We came very close above them, so that I could hear their talk. The smell of roasting meat pricked my hunger, and I realized that the salt air had given me a noble thirst. They were common seamen from the pirate vessels, and, as far as I could judge, they had no officer among them. I remarked their fierce, dark faces, and the long knives with which they slashed and trimmed the flesh for their boucanning.

Shalah touched my hand, and I followed him into the wood. We climbed again, and from the tinkle of the stream on my left I judged that we were ascending to a higher shelf in the glen. The Indian moved very carefully, as noiseless as the flight of an owl, and I marvelled at the gift. In after days I was to become something of a woodsman, and track as swiftly and silently as any man of my upbringing. But I never mastered the Indian art by which the foot descending in the darkness on something that will crackle checks before the noise is made. I could do it by day, when I could see what was on the ground, but in the dark the thing was beyond me. It is an instinct like a wild thing's, and possible only to those who have gone all their days light-shod in the forest.

Suddenly the slope and the trees ceased, and a new glare burst on our eyes. This second shelf was smaller than the first, and as I blinked at the light I saw that it held about a score of men. Torches made of pine boughs dipped in tar blazed at the four corners of the assembly, and in the middle on a boulder a man was sitting. He was speaking loudly, and with passion, but I could not make him out. Once more Shalah put his mouth to my ear, with a swift motion like a snake, and whispered, "The Master."

We crawled flat on our bellies round the edge of the cup. The trees had gone, and the only cover was the long grass and the low sumach bushes. We moved a foot at a time, and once the Indian turned in his tracks and crawled to the left almost into the open. My sense of smell, as sharp almost as a dog's, told me that horses were picketed in the grass in front of us. Our road took us within, hearing of the speaker, and though I dared not raise my head, I could hear the soft Highland voice of my friend. He seemed now to be speaking humorously, for a laugh came from the hearers.

Once at the crossing of a little brook, I pulled a stone into the water, and we instantly lay as still as death. But men preoccupied with their own concerns do not keep anxious watch, and our precautions were needless. Presently we had come to the far side of the shelf abreast of the boulder on which he sat who seemed to be the chief figure. Now I could raise my head, and what I saw made my eyes dazzle.

Red Ringan sat on a stone with a naked cutlass across his knees. In front stood a man, the most evil-looking figure that I had ever beheld. He was short but very sturdily built, and wore a fine laced coat not made for him, which hung to his knees, and was stretched tight at the armpits. He had a heavy pale face, without hair on it. His teeth had gone, all but two buck-teeth which stuck out at each corner of his mouth, giving him the look of a tusker. I could see his lips moving uneasily in the glare of the pine boughs, and his eyes darted about the company as if seeking countenance.

Ringan was speaking very gravely, with his eyes shining like sword points. The others were every make and manner of fellow, from well-shaped and well-clad gentlemen to loutish seamen in leather jerkins. Some of the faces were stained dark with passion and crime, some had the air of wild boys, and some the hard sobriety of traders. But one and all were held by the dancing eyes of the man that spoke.

 "What is the judgment," he was saying, "of the Free Companions? By the old custom of the Western Seas I call upon you, gentlemen all, for your decision."

 Then I gathered that the evil-faced fellow had offended against some one of their lawless laws, and was on his trial.

 No one spoke for a moment, and then one grizzled seaman raised his hand, "The dice must judge," he said. "He must throw for his life against the six."

Another exclaimed against this. "Old wives' folly," he cried, with an oath. "Let Cosh go his ways, and swear to amend them. The Brethren of the Coast cannot be too nice in these little matters. We are not pursy justices or mooning girls."

But he had no support. The verdict was for the dice, and a seaman brought Ringan a little ivory box, which he held out to the prisoner. The latter took it with shaking hand, as if he did not know how to use it.

 "You will cast thrice," said Ringan. "Two even throws, and you are free."

 The man fumbled a little and then cast. It fell a four.

 A second time he threw, and the dice lay five.

In that wild place, in the black heart of night, the terror of the thing fell on my soul. The savage faces, the deadly purpose in Ringan's eyes, the fumbling miscreant before him, were all heavy with horror. I had no doubt that Cosh was worthy of death, but this cold and merciless treatment froze my reason. I watched with starting eyes the last throw, and I could not hear Ringan declare it. But I saw by the look on Cosh's face what it had been.

 "It is your privilege to choose your manner of death and to name your successor," I heard Ringan say.

But Cosh did not need the invitation. Now that his case was desperate, the courage in him revived. He was fully armed, and in a second he had drawn a knife and leaped for Ringan's throat.

 Perhaps he expected it, perhaps he had learned the art of the wild beast so that his body was answerable to his swiftest wish. I do not know, but I saw Cosh's knife crash on the stone and splinter, while Ringan stood by his side.

 "You have answered my question," he said quietly. "Draw your cutlass, man. You have maybe one chance in ten thousand for your life."

 I shut my eyes as I heard the steel clash. Then very soon came silence. I looked again, and saw Ringan wiping his blade on a bunch of grass, and a body lying before him.

He was speaking--speaking, I suppose, about the successor to the dead man, whom two negroes had promptly removed. Suddenly at my shoulder Shalah gave the hoot of an owl, followed at a second's interval by a second and a third. I suppose it was some signal agreed with Ringan, but at the time I thought the man had gone mad.

I was not very sane myself. What I had seen had sent a cold grue through me, for I had never before seen a man die violently, and the circumstances of the place and hour made the thing a thousandfold more awful. I had a black fright on me at that whole company of merciless men, and especially at Ringan, whose word was law to them. Now the worst effect of fear is that it obscures good judgment, and makes a man in desperation do deeds of a foolhardiness from which at other times he would shrink. All I remembered in that moment was that I had to reach Ringan, and that Mercer had told me that the safest plan was to show a bold front. I never remembered that I had also been bidden to follow Shalah, nor did I reflect that a secret conclave of pirates was no occasion to choose for my meeting. With a sudden impulse I forced myself to my feet, and stalked, or rather shambled, into the light.

 "Ninian," I cried, "Ninian Campbell! I'm here to claim your promise."

The whole company turned on me, and I was gripped by a dozen hands and flung on the ground. Ringan came forward to look, but there was no recognition in his eyes. Some one cried out, "A spy!" and there was a fierce murmur of voices, which were meaningless to me, for fear had got me again, and I had neither ears nor voice. Dimly it seemed that he gave some order, and I was trussed up with ropes. Then I was conscious of being carried out of the glare of torches into the cool darkness. Presently I was laid in some kind of log-house, carpeted with fir boughs, for the needles tickled my face.

 Bit by bit my senses came back to me, and I caught hold of my vagrant courage.

A big negro in seaman's clothes with a scarlet sash round his middle was squatted on the floor watching me by the light of a ship's lantern. He had a friendly, foolish face, and I remember yet how he rolled his eyeballs.

 "I won't run away," I said, "so you might slacken these ropes and let me breathe easy." Apparently he was an accommodating gaoler, for he did as I wished.

 "And give me a drink," I said, "for my tongue's like a stick."

He mixed me a pannikin of rum and water. Perhaps he hocussed it, or maybe 'twas only the effect of spirits on a weary body; but three minutes after I had drunk I was in a heavy sleep.