“There they come,” he said.
The sound had already reached Captain Barker’s ears. It was faint; doubtless the oars were muffled. The ship was rolling lazily; save for the creaking nothing was heard but the lapping of the ripples against the hull. So still was the night that the slightest sound must travel far, and the captain remarked in a whisper to Mr. Toley that he guessed the approaching boats to be at least six cables’ lengths distant.
Officers and men listened intently. The creaking grew no louder; on the contrary, it gradually became fainter, and at last died away. There was a long silence, broken only by what sounded like a low hail some considerable distance away.
“They’re musterin’ the boats,” said Bulger, with a chuckle. “I may be wrong, but I’ll bet my breeches they find they’ve overshot the mark. Now they’ll scatter and try to nose us out.”
Another hour of anxious suspense slowly passed, and still nothing had happened. Then suddenly a blue light flashed for a few moments on the blackness of the sea, answered almost instantaneously by a rocket from another quarter. It was clear that the boats, having signaled that the search had failed, had been recalled by the rocket to the fleet.
“By thunder, Mr. Toley, you’ve done the trick!” said the captain.
“I guess we don’t get our living by making mistakes—not in Salem, Massachusetts,” returned the first mate with his sad smile.
Through the night the watch was kept with more than ordinary vigilance, but nothing occurred to give Captain Barker anxiety. With morning light the enemy could be seen far astern.
About midday a light breeze sprang up from the northwest. The two Indiamen and the uninjured grab, being the first to catch it, gained a full mile before the Good Intent, under topgallant sails, studding sails, royal and driver, began to slip through the water at her best speed. But, as the previous day’s experience had proved, she was no match in sailing capacity for the pursuers. They gained on her steadily, and the grab had come almost within cannon range when the man at the masthead shouted:
“Sail ho! About a dozen sail ahead, sir!”
The captain spluttered out a round dozen oaths, and his dark face grew still darker. So many vessels in company must surely mean the king’s ships with a convoy. The French, so far as Captain Barker knew, had no such fleet in Indian waters, nor had the Dutch or Portuguese. If they were indeed British men-o’-war he would be caught between two fires, for there was not a doubt that they would support the Company’s vessels.
“We ought to be within twenty miles of the coast, Mr. Toley,” said Captain Barker.
“Ay, sir, and somewhere in the latitude of Gheria.”