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   Chapter 8 No.8

The Blood Ship By Norman Springer Characters: 9056

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


A man apart Newman was. We instinctively recognized that fact from the beginning. When we had gained the foc'sle, the rage in our hearts found expression in bitter cursing of our luck, the Swede, the ship and the officers. But Newman did not curse, nor did we expect him to. We sensed that he was glad he was at sea in the Golden Bough, that he was there for some peculiar purpose of his own. He was, of course, the dominant personality in the foc'sle, indeed, in the ship. But, strangely enough, we did not look to him for leadership. We regarded him curiously, and with awe and some fear, but we did not look to him to lead the watch. We felt he was not one of us. His business on the ship was not our business, his aim not our aim.

Because of this aloofness of Newman, I suddenly found myself occupying the proud position of cock of the starboard watch. A foc'sle must have its leading spirit, and the cockship is a position much coveted and eagerly striven for in most ships, decided only after combat between the fighting men of the crew. But the Golden Bough had an extraordinary crew. The majority of the men in my watch were just stiffs, who possessed neither the experience nor desire to contest for leadership. The few seamen, besides myself and Newman, were squareheads, quiet peasants of Scandinavia and Germany, who felt lost and unhappy without somebody always at hand to order them about.

So, within half an hour after going below for that first time, I found myself giving orders to men and being obeyed. They were the first orders I had ever given, and, oh, they were sweet in my mouth! Think of it, my last ship I had been ordered about by the foc'sle cock. I had gone to the galley at command and fetched the watch's food. Now, scant days after, I, a fledgling able seaman, was lording it over the foc'sle of the hottest ship on the high seas, and ordering another man to go after the supper. And he went. I think I grew an inch during that dog-watch; I know my voice gained a mature note it lacked before.

I was a true son of the foc'sle, you must understand, with the habits and outlook of a barbarian. This leadership I so casually assumed may appear a petty thing, but it was actually the greatest thing that happened to me since birth. This little savage authority I commenced to exercise over my companions by virtue of the threat of my fists, was my first taste of power. It awakened in me the driving instinct, the desire to lead, and eventually placed me in command of ships; it also gave me my first sense of responsibility, without which there can be no leadership.

During the supper, and after, I found myself watching and studying my companions. For I feared that my youth might later cause someone to question my cockship, and I meant to fight for it in that event. But my scrutiny satisfied my natural confidence. There was no man in my watch I could not handle in either a rough-and-tumble or stand-up go, I thought, with the exception of Newman. He would not interfere with me-his interest lay aft, in the cabin, not in the foc'sle. In the port watch were two fighting men, my eyes had told me, the Cockney and the Nigger. If they disputed my will in foc'sle affairs, I was still confident I should prove the best man. I felt my tenure of office was secure, and that new, delicious feeling of power quite effaced, for the moment, the memory of the day, and reconciled me to the ship.

This scrutiny I gave my companions was the first chance I had to fairly size them up, and I afterwards discovered that my first impressions of them, individually and collectively, were quite correct.

We were, as you know, thirty men before the mast, fifteen to a watch. More than half of the thirty were of that class known to sailors as "stiffs." This is, they were greenhorns masquerading on the articles as able seamen. And such stiffs! The Knitting Swede must have combed the jails, and stews, and boozing kens of all San Francisco to assemble that unsavory mob.

In my watch, Newman, myself, and four square-heads could be called seamen. But the squareheads knew not a dozen words of English between them. The other nine were stiffs, various kinds of stiffs, broken men all, with the weaknesses of dissolute living stamped upon their inefficient faces.

Except two men. These two were stiffs right enough, and their faces were evil, God knows, but they plainly were not to be classed as weaklings. I noticed them particularly that first watch below because they sat apart from the

wrangling, cursing gang, and whispered to each other, and stared at Newman, who was lying in his bunk.

They were medium sized men, as pallid of face as Newman, himself, and their faces gave one the impression of both slyness and force. A grim looking pair; I should not have cared to run afoul of them on the Barbary Coast after midnight. I already knew the names they called each other-the only names I ever knew them by-"Boston," for the blond fellow with the bridge of his nose flattened, and "Blackie" for the other, a chap as swarthy as a dago, with long, oily black hair, and eyes too close together.

Even as I watched, they seemed to arrive at some decision in their whispered conversation. Blackie got up from the bench and crossed over to Newman's bunk. The latter was lying with his face to the wall. Blackie placed his hand upon Newman's shoulder, leaned over, and whispered into his ear.

I saw Newman straighten out his long body. For an instant he lay tense, then he slowly turned his head and faced the man who leaned over him. On his face was the same expression of deadly menace he had shown the Cockney, back in the Swede's barroom.

Blackie could not withstand that deadly gaze. He backed hurriedly away, and sat down beside his mate. Then Newman spoke in low, measured tones, and at the first word the babel of noise stopped in the foc'sle, and all hands watched his lips with bated breath.

"I play a lone hand," he addressed the pair. "You will keep your mouths shut, and work, and play none of your deviltries in this ship unless I give the word. Otherwise-" The great scar on his forehead was blue and twitching, and his voice was deadly earnest. He did a thing so expressive it made me shudder. He lifted his hand, and carelessly placed his forefinger on the outer side of his bunk, and when he lifted it, two of the myriad cockroaches that infested the foc'sle were mashed fiat on the board.

Blackie's face set sullenly, and the angry blood darkened his cheeks. Boston wriggled uneasily on his seat, and cleared his throat as though about to speak. But, at the instant, Lynch's booming voice came into the foc'sle, calling the watch on deck, and putting an abrupt end to the scene.

There was an immediate scramble for the exit to the deck. Aye, the mates had put the fear of the Lord-and themselves-into us, and we were all eager to show how willing we were! But I heard Fitzgibbon without, as well as Lynch, and, from the gossip I had heard at the Swede's, I suspected the foc'sle was about to be introduced to the orthodox hell-ship manner of turning to the watch. Both mates would meet us coming up, and the first man on deck would get a clout for not being sooner, and the last man a boot for being a laggard.

So I held back, and allowed another the honor of being first through the door.

This honor was seized by none other than Blackie. I suppose he was anxious to escape from Newman's disturbing gaze; anyhow, at the second mate's first summons, he bounded from the bench, and tumbled through the door. I followed immediately after, and saw my suspicions confirmed.

Mister Fitz was holding a lantern, and Mister Lynch had his hands free for business. He met Blackie's egress with a careless jab of his fist that up-ended the unfortunate stiff, and the injunction, "Hearty, now, you swabs! Lay aft!"

I quickly sidestepped out of the second mate's range, in case he should aim a blow at me, and started to obey the command to lay aft. But I had taken but a step when I was arrested by Blackie's action.

Instead of adopting the sensible course of meekness under insult, Blackie rebounded from the deck and flew at Lynch. In the light cast by Mister Fitz's lantern, I saw the gleam of a knife blade in Blackie's hand. I suppose the anger that Newman's words had raised exploded beneath Lynch's blow, and caused his mad rashness.

But Bully Lynch made nothing of the assault. "Ah, would you!" I heard him say as Blackie closed with him, and then the knife-hand went up in the air, and the weapon fell upon the deck. "I'll teach you!" said Lynch, and he commenced to shower blows upon the man. Blackie screamed curses, and fought back futilely. Lynch commented in a monotone with each of his thudding blows, "Take that-that-that." Soon he knocked Blackie cold, across the forehatch. Then he turned to us who were clustered outside the foc'sle door, watching. "Aft, with you! Jumping, it is, now!"

Aft, we went, and jumping, too, with the mate's laugh in our ears.

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