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   Chapter 11 No.11

The Blood Ship By Norman Springer Characters: 10680

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


Captain Swope did not emerge from the cabin that day, nor the next day, nor the next. But we obtained plain confirmation of the lady's word he was drinking, when, every morning the Chinese cabin boy brought empty bottles out on deck and heaved them overboard. Whereat, all the thirsty souls forward clicked their tongues and swore.

But this interim, during which Yankee Swope stayed below, and moped and drank, was, you may be sure, no peaceful period for the foc'sle. The Golden Bough's mates could be trusted to hustle the crowd whether or not the skipper's eyes were upon them. There was bloody, knock-about work with belaying pin and knuckles, while the ship settled down into deep sea form, and the mob of stiffs learned to keep out of its own way and hand the right rope when yelled at.

Since leaving port, the Golden Bough had been standing a southerly course, on a port tack. Now, on the third day, the wind hauled around aft, and came on us from the nor'east, as a freshening gale. We squared away, and went booming down before it, true clipper style. By nightfall it was blowing hard, and the kites were doused.

The night came down black as coal tar, with an overcast sky, and lightning playing through the cloud in frequent, blinding flashes. My watch had the deck from eight to twelve, and Mister Lynch (and his satellites, Chips and Sails) kept us hustling fore and aft, sweating sheets, and taking a heave at this and that.

Few watches in my life stand out so sharply in my memory. And it was not the near tragedy that concluded it that so impressed my mind; it was the sailing. For Lynch was cracking on, and there was no faint-hearted skipper interfering with his game. Indeed, had Swope been on deck before the hour when he did come up, I do not think he would have protested. This reckless sailing was what made half the fame of the Golden Bough. It was said that Yankee Swope sailed around Cape Stiff with padlocks on his topsail sheets! And this night we showed the gale the full spread of her three t'gan's'ls, and the ship raced before the wind like a frightened stag.

Oh, I had seen sailing before. I had been in smart ships, had run my Easting down in southern waters more than once, had made the eastern passage of the Western Ocean with the winter storm on my back the whole distance. But this night was my introduction to the clipper style, where the officers banked fifty per cent on their seamanship, to avert disaster, and fifty per cent on blind chance that the top hamper would stand the strain. An incautious system? Aye, but cautious men did not sail those ships.

It was so dark we had to feel our way about the decks. I could not see the upper canvas, but I could imagine it standing out like curved sheet iron. Every moment I expected to hear the explosion of rent canvas, or the rattle of falling gear on the deck. Not I alone thought so, for once when Chips and Sails went to windward of me, I heard Sails bawl to his companion,

"He'll have the spars about our ears before the hour is out!"

"Not he," responded Chips. "Trust Lynch and his luck!"

True enough. The hour passed, and another, and Lynch still carried on without mishap. Indeed, the wind had moderated a bit.

Throughout the watch I kept close by Newman's side. That warning, to look behind me in the dark, had by no means escaped my mind. When we came on deck, Newman said to me, "A good night for a bad job, Jack! Keep your eyes open!" Small advice on such a night, when a man could not have seen his own mother, stood she two feet distant!

That warning had puzzled me, and I did not dare question Newman concerning it. He was not the kind of man one could question. But what was likely to lurk in the dark? "Death," said he. Did that mean he feared a stealthy assassination, a knife thrust from the dark? Did he think that Captain Swope was planning the cold-blooded murder of an able seaman?

There was the question. In one way, it opposed my reason. Of course, this was a hell-ship, and murder might very well take place on board. But that the captain should deliberately plot the removal of a foc'sle hand! Able seamen were not of such importance in a hell-ship.

Yet Newman was more than a foremast hand. God knew who he was, or what his business in the ship, but it was plain he was Swope's enemy, and there was a private feud between them. His mere appearance had caused the Old Man to run below, and remain hidden for three days! . . . There was the lady. She was Newman's friend. She knew the Old Man's moods, and she was positive about it. The warning was doubtless well founded, I concluded. And Newman was my friend, my chum for the voyage, I hoped. If there were danger for him in the dark, it were well his friend stayed handy by. So, throughout that black watch, I stuck as close as possible to his elbow.

Six bells went when the watch was forward at a job. Suddenly, down the wind, came a dear, musical hail, from aft.

"Ahoy-Mister!"

"B'Gawd, the Old Man's on deck!" ejaculated Lynch to his assistants.

Then he bellowed aft, "Yes, sir?"

"Reef t'gan's'l's, Mister!" came the command.

"Eh!" blankly exclaimed Lynch. "Now, what is he up to?" But he yelled back his acknowledgment, "Reef t'gan's'ls, sir!"

When the sails were clewed up, Newman and I were ordered aloft o

n the mizzen. The stiffs were useless aloft on such a night, and the fore and main were given the handful of squareheads and the two tradesmen.

When we jumped for the sheer pole we passed within a foot of a figure lounging across the rail at the poop break, and we knew it was Swope. There had been no word from him since the initial order.

It was so dark we did not see his face. As we swung up into the mizzen rigging, Newman shouted words in my ear that I knew the wind carried to the captain.

"The devil is abroad, Jack, and there is hell to pay!"

And when we had gained the yardarm, he added, "It is coming, Jack; one hand for yourself and one for the ship!"

But he did not act upon the advice himself. No more did I. Indeed, one needs both arms and a stout back to pass reef points. We leaned into the work, put our united brawn into it, and progressed briskly. All the while I stared beneath me, into the whistling, inky void, trying to discern that spot on the deck below, where the braces that held this yard steady were made fast. I felt this lofty spot was no healthful abiding place for Newman and me. I had a premonition of what was coming!

Yet, when it did come, I was caught unawares. I felt the wood I leaned on draw suddenly away from me. There came a jerk that nigh snapped my neck. My feet left the foot rope, and I was falling, head foremost, into the blackness. They said I screamed loudly. I was not conscious I opened my mouth.

It is strange, the trick a thing like that can play with one's senses. I seemed to be falling for moments, an immeasurable distance. Actually, the whole thing occurred in about a second's space, and my feet just about cleared the yardarm when Newman's grip fastened upon my ankle.

My face was buried in the smothering folds of the threshing sail; then Newman had drawn me up until my body balanced on the yard. A second later my feet were again on the foot rope, and my hands fastened for dear life to the jackstay.

I was conscious of using my voice then. Aye-but I swore! "By heaven, he let go the port brace!" I yelled to Newman.

For answer, Newman grabbed me around the waist, just as a fork of lightning zigzagged through the sky. For the briefest instant, the ship stood out in a bright light. Far below us, on the deck, we saw Captain Swope standing, looking up at us. Then blackness again. I felt myself for a second time jerked clear of my foothold-to immediately wrap my limbs about a wire rope. For Newman had leaped for a backstay, as the yard swung close, and carried me with him.

For a moment we hung there, one above the other, then we commenced to slide to the deck. Mister Lynch's voice came booming up to us, and we saw the light of a lantern bobbing about. A moment later we clattered off the poop, on to the main deck.

A group was bunched together in the lee of the cabin, Captain Swope, and Lynch and the tradesmen. Lynch carried the lighted hurricane lamp that hung handy in a sheltered nook during the night. Forward, a respectful distance, the stiffs of the watch made a vague blot in the gloom. As, we came down the poop ladder a voice I recognized as Boston's called to us from this last group, "He tried to get you, Big 'Un!" So I knew that the lightning flash had revealed to the watch what it had revealed to us.

"The brace was slipped," said Newman to Lynch.

"I know," replied the second mate, shortly. There was contempt in his voice, and I knew, when I looked at his grim, disdainful face, that he had had no hand in the affair. Bucko Lynch might kill a man in what he considered the line of duty, but snapping men off a yardarm was not his style. But I also knew that he was an officer of an American ship, and would consider it his duty to back up his captain no matter what villainy the latter attempted.

Swope smiled sweetly at us. One might think that a man, even a ship's autocrat, when detected in an attempt at cold-blooded murder, would make some specious explanation of his act. Not Swope. No hypocritical contrition showed in the face the lantern lighted; rather, a cool, pitiless inhumanity that squeezed my bowels, even while rage surged within me.

We had understood that Swope was drunk for the past three days, but the smiling features showed no mark of his dissipation. Neither did he exhibit any of the fear he had shown at Newman's sudden appearance the other afternoon. It was plain that Captain Swope had taken heartening counsel with himself regarding the danger he might incur from Newman's presence on board. Whatever was the mysterious feud between the two, Swope had the upper hand. He rested secure in the knowledge of his power as captain, in his knowledge of Newman's helplessness as a mere foremast hand.

And so he smiled, and said musingly, and distinctly, to Newman, "A miss is as good as a mile, eh? But it is a long passage!" The cool insolence of it! God's truth, it chilled me, this careless confession of the deed, and threat of what the future held. And then, as though to remove the last possible doubt in our minds that the slipping of the brace was an accident, that the whole job of striking sail was but a pretext to get Newman aloft, Swope turned to the second mate.

"I think she'll stand it, Mister," he said. "You may as well shake out the t'gan's'l's again!"

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