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   Chapter 12 No.12

The Blood Ship By Norman Springer Characters: 21190

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


I went below after that watch with the thought of mutiny stirring in the back of my mind. But in the back, not the front, mind you. For mutiny on a ship is a dreadful business, as I, a sailor, well knew. A neck-stretching business! Yet there the thought was, and it stuck, and pecked ever more insistently at my consciousness as the days passed.

Of course, I was wild with rage at Swope's attempt. And I was anxious on Newman's account. You see, I looked upon him as my chum, and-had he not saved my life, up there, on the yard? It is true, there were none of the usual manifestations of foc'sle friendship between us; we did not swap tobacco, and yarns, and oaths. Newman did not permit such intimacy; always he was a man apart, a marked man. But, from the very first, the man's personality dominated me, and, after that night on the yardarm, I felt a passionate loyalty to him. He was not insensible to my friendliness, I knew; he welcomed it, and found comfort in it.

If he had come to me that night, or afterwards, with a scheme for taking the ship, I should have joined in straightway, no matter how harebrained it might seem. But, of course, he did no such thing. Indeed, he never mentioned the incident to me, after we left the deck that night. For all of him, it might never have happened. And, you may be sure, I did not intrude upon his reserve with queries, or reminiscence.

Nor did the rest of the watch approach him. Rather did they avoid him, as a dangerous person. With that thought of rebellion in my mind, I watched my watchmates that night with more tolerance than my eyes had yet shown them. I wanted to judge what stuff was in them.

The stiffs whispered together and eyed us furtively. I did not like the stuff I saw in them. Rough, lawless, held obedient only by fear, the scum of the beach-I did not like to imagine them sweeping along the decks with restraint cast aside, and passions unleashed. The squareheads were a different kind. Good men and sailors, here, but men whose habit of life was submission. Yet, I saw they were gravely disturbed by what had taken place on deck. No wonder. I knew their minds. "Who is safe in this ship?" they thought. "Who, now, may go aloft feeling secure he will reach the deck again, alive and unhurt?" Those squareheads had proof of the mate's temper in the person of their young landsman, lying broken in his bunk. Now, they had proof of the skipper's temper.

My eyes met those of Boston and Blackie, eyeing me speculatively, and the contact brought my musing to a sharp turn. What did Boston and Blackie think of it? I could tell from their bearing that, for some reason, they were pleased. I thought of them as fighting material-and did not relish the thought. Fighters, yes, but foul fighters. I did not like to think of being leagued with them in an enterprise. And what was this "rich lay" they spoke of? What was this game they were willing I should enter? Did they, too, think mutiny?

These thoughts plagued me for days, and I found no answer, or peace of mind. Hell was preparing in that ship, I felt it in my bones; and we were getting enough hell already, with drive, drive, drive, from dawn to dawn. Yet, there were rifts in the clouds.

For one thing, Lynch quieted my mind of the fear that the Old Man would again get Newman aloft at night, and attempt his life with better success. The very next day, Lynch came to the foretop, where Newman and I were working on the rigging. He examined the work, and then said, abruptly, to Newman,

"I had nothing to do with that affair last night."

"I know you had not," answered Newman.

"I give you warning-he intends to get you," continued the second mate. "But he'll not get you that way in my watch. From now on, you need not go aloft after dark."

"Thank you, sir," said Newman.

"You need not," was the response. "I'm not doing this for your sake.

Well-you understand. And make no mistake, my man, as to my position;

I am a ship's officer, and if trouble comes it will find me doing my

duty by my captain's side."

"There will be no trouble if I can prevent it, sir," was Newman's reply.

"Then you have your work cut out for you. You-understand?"

"Yes, I understand," said Newman.

I watched Mister Lynch leap nimbly to the deck, and go striding aft, a fine figure of a man. "Why, he's on the square!" I exclaimed.

"Yes, he is not like the others," said Newman. "She says his heart is clean."

She says! Well, it was hardly news to me. I was sure he was in communication with her. He always made it a point to meet Wong, the steward, when the latter came forward to the galley. And there were times in the night watches below when his bunk was empty. He was a great hand for pacing the deck in lonely meditation, and for stowing himself away and brooding alone in odd corners. We did not spy upon him, or force ourselves upon him, you may be sure. Not upon Newman.

The lady was, we understood, forbidden by the Old Man to come forward. The daily visits to our dogs' kennel, dispensing cheer and mercy, and for which she was famous the world around, were to be denied us this voyage. Because of Newman's presence. We missed the visits; they would have brightened the cruel days. But I don't think any man felt resentful against Newman. Our sympathies were all with the lady, and the lady's feelings, we knew, were all with Newman. So it was upon Yankee Swope's unheeding head we rained our black curses.

The lady was doing what she could to aid us. She held, every morning, a levee in the cabin for the lame and sick, all who could drag themselves aft, and tended them skillfully. But this did not help the bedridden ones. It did not help young Nils.

But nothing could have helped Nils. The bucko had done his work too well. Not once did the boy rally; daily and visibly his life ebbed.

You must understand the callous indifference of the afterguard to realize its effect upon the foc'sle. The boy lay dying for weeks, and not once did the Captain come forward to look at him. Medicines and opiates were sent forward by the lady, but, though they eased the chap, they were powerless to salvage his wrecked body. Newman said Nils' ribs were sticking into his lungs.

Lindquist went aft to ask permission to move the boy to the cabin, where the lady could nurse him. Swope blackguarded the man, and Fitzgibbon kicked him forward. Lynch ignored the very existence of Nils--the lad was not of his watch, and the whole matter was none of his business. But Mister Fitz came into the port foc'sle every day, to make sure Nils could not stand on his feet and turn to; and on deck he would sing out to his watch that Nils' fate was the fate of each man did he not move livelier. "Jump, you rats! I'll put you all in your bunks!" he would tell them.

The sight of their young landsman in agony stirred the berserk in the squareheads of the crew. It made them ripe for revolt, drove them to lawless acts, as their shanghaiing and the brutality of the officers could not have done.

These squareheads were no strangers to each other. They were all friends and old shipmates. The Knitting Swede had crimped them all out of a Norwegian bark, plied them with drink, and put them on board the Golden Bough after he had promised to find them a high-waged coasting ship.

Young Nils was a sort of mascot in this crowd. He was making his first deep-water voyage under their protection and guidance. Most of them were his townsmen; they had known him from babyhood. As Lindquist said to me, his blue eyes filled with pain and rage, "I know his mudder. When Nils ban so high, I yump him by mine knee." So it was that rage over the pitiful fate of their dear friend fanned into flame a spark of rebellion in the squarehead's disciplined souls, and caused them, eventually, to leap the barriers of race and caste prejudice and make common cause with the stiffs.

Now, I do not wish to idealize those stiffs. No use saying they were honest workingmen kidnaped to sea. They were not. They were just what the mates called them-dogs, scum, vile sweeps of jail and boozing-ken. With the single exception of the shanghaied parson, there was not a decent man in the lot. Bums and crooks, all.

These men had lived violent, lawless lives ashore. Here, at sea, the mates hammered the fear of the Lord and the Law into them. This was well and good. But the mates hammered too hard. They aimed to cow the stiffs, and cow them they did. But the stiffs' fear of the afterguard became so great they were like cornered rats. They came below after a watch on deck with fresh marks upon their faces and bodies, and heard little Nils moaning in his pain. And each man said to himself, "I may be the next to get what the little squarehead got."

Misery loves company, so these stiffs naturally drew close together.

Their common hatred and fear of the afterguard fused them into a unit.

By the time we were a month at sea, the stiffs, like the squareheads,

were in a most dangerous temper, and ripe for any deviltry.

This common state of mind grew beneath my eyes, but at first I did not see significance in it. A mutinous state of mind is a normal state of mind in a hell-ship's foc'sle.

But a mutiny was incubating in that ship. There were men forward who were vitally interested in bringing trouble to a head, in causing an outbreak of violence, in fomenting an uprising of the slaves. One day, my eyes were opened to their game.

For weeks I noticed Blackie and Boston circulating among the men during the dog-watches. They were great whisperers, a secretive pair, and they never spoke their minds outright before the crowd. I paid them little attention, for I did not like them, and felt no interest in what I thought was their gossip. It never occurred to me they were industriously fanning the spark of revolt, suggesting revenge to the squareheads, and tickling the rascally imagination of the stiffs with hints of golden loot.

So far my rule as cock of the foc'sle had been unchallenged. All hands had accepted my will in foc'sle matters willingly enough, and I had been careful not to hector. As number one man, it was my place to see that the men stood their "peggy"-that is, they took their regular turn about at getting the food at meal time, and cleaning up the foc'sle.

It came Boston's peggy day. He didn't like it a bit. He thought himself too good for such menial tasks, and suggested that Shorty, the smallest and weakest of the stiffs, be made permanent peggy. I vetoed this as unfair, and Bosto

n went about the work, but sullenly.

Next day was Blackie's peggy, as he well knew. When we came below at noon, he made no move to fetch the grub from the galley.

"How about dinner, Blackie?" I demanded.

"Well-how about it?" he replied. "I'm no servant girl! Get your own grub!"

All hands looked at me, expectantly. This was open defiance, and they wanted to see what the cock would do about it. There was only one thing I could do, and I did it gladly.

I took that chesty stiff by the throat, and squeezed until his eyes popped. Then I carried him out on deck and stuck his head in the wash-deck tub, to cool his ardor; the whole watch following us as interested spectators.

"Well, Blackie, how about dinner?" I asked, when I released my grip.

In answer, he backed quickly away from me, spluttering oaths and salt water. I watched him warily, for his affair with the second mate had shown him to be a knife wielder, and I had no wish to be stabbed. True enough, he jerked out his sheath knife.

"Stop that, you fool!" came Boston's voice, from behind me. "Do you want to crab the whole game?"

Those words had an astonishing effect upon Blackie. His bellicose attitude vanished abruptly, he stopped cursing, and his knife went back into its sheath.

"That dinner, Blackie," I insisted.

"Sure-I'll get it," he answered submissively.

But I wasn't satisfied with my victory. Of course, I was confident I could have knocked him out as handily as Bucko Lynch, himself, but I knew it was not fear of me, but obedience to Boston's words that caused Blackie to give in so readily.

Those words bothered me. "Do you want to crab the whole game?" Now what the deuce did Boston mean? What game were these two worthies up to? Undoubtedly, it was that "rich lay" they had spoken to Newman about. But what had I to do with it? How could I crab their game? I began to think there was something besides loose talk in these hints of revenge and loot the pair were dropping in the foc'sle.

I guess Boston knew my suspicions must be aroused, and thought it time to sound my sentiments. Also, as it turned out, he wanted to pump me regarding Newman. I was Newman's one close friend, and Boston must have thought I knew something of the big man's intentions.

Anyway, after supper that evening, as I was sitting on the forehatch, whittling away at a model of the Golden Bough I was making, Boston came and sat down beside me.

"Should think you'd be so fed up with this hooker, you wouldn't want any model of her," he remarked, by way of opening a conversation.

"She's a bonny ship," I told him. "It is not the ship, it is the men in her. You'll never see a better craft than the Golden Bough, Boston."

"Faugh!" he snorted, and followed with a blistering curse. "Blast your pretty ships! I'd like to see this old hooker go on the rocks, by God I would! Well-maybe I will see her finish, eh?"

I glanced at him sidewise, and discovered he was likewise regarding me, with the lids drawn over his pale eyes till they were mere slits. I didn't like Boston's eyes. For that matter, I didn't like anything about Boston. But I was interested; I sensed this was no idle talk. There was something behind the words.

"Small chance of your seeing her finish," I said. "As well found a ship as there is afloat-and you may call the Old Man and his buckos what you will, but they are sailormen."

"I've heard of ships sinking in storms," says he.

"You talk like the stiff you are," I scoffed. "Show me the weather that will drown the Golden Bough, with good sailors aft! Besides, Boston, we're not likely to have any bad weather, for which you can say a prayer of thanks, for you stiffs would catch it if we did pick up a decent blow."

"Why not?" he asked.

"It's a fair weather passage," I explained. "These trades will blow us clean across one hundred and eighty, into the sou'west monsoon, and with luck that'll carry us into the China Sea. Of course, there is always the chance of meeting a hurricane this side, or a typhoon on the other side. You'll squeal if we do, I bet!"

Says he, "Well, now how about running on a rock? We'll be going among islands, hey? These South Sea Islands?"

"Forget it," I replied. "We'll not sight the beach this side of the Orient, unless the Old Man makes a landfall of Guam. We are running along sixteen north, and that takes us south of the Sandwich group, and north of the Marshalls and Carolines."

"Well, now, I guess the Big 'Un has been showing you his map, hey?"

"What's that to you?" I said, shortly.

"Nothing. Nothing at all," he answered, hurriedly.

In truth, I was surprised and nettled. I hadn't got the point of Boston's questions, and I hadn't supposed he was watching Newman and me so sharply.

For Boston had it right, I had been looking at the Big 'Un's "map." Newman had a fine, large scale chart of the Pacific in his bag, and this he brought out every day, and traced upon it the progress of the voyage. He got the ship's position either from the steward, or from the lady, I did not know which.

I had been privileged to see the chart, but I knew that none other had ventured to approach when it was spread out on Newman's bunk. Newman had traced the ship's probable course clear to Hong Kong, for my benefit, and explained to me the problems of the passage. He did not speak like a man merely guessing, but with authority, like a man who had sailed his own ship over this course. I absorbed the information greedily, but did not venture to inquire how he was so positive about Yankee Swope's sailing plans. Somehow, I knew he was correct.

It pricked my conceit to discover that Boston was aware Newman had fathered the information that was falling from my lips.

"Say, how long before we reach Hong Kong?" went on Boston.

"You had better ask Newman, himself," I retorted.

"Now don't get mad, Jack," he said humbly. "You know I didn't mean nothing. Guess you sabe as much about sailing as the Big 'Un, anyway."

"Well, this is a fast ship-none faster," I told him, mollified by his flattery. "Say seventy days, at the outside, from 'Frisco to Hong Kong. Probably sixty days would be nearer to it."

At that he burst out cursing, and consigned the ship and all her afterguard to the Evil One. "My God, another month of this hell!" he cried. "Will you stand it, Shreve?"

"Sure. We'll all stand it. What else to do?" I replied.

"What else!" said he. His voice was suddenly crafty. "Well, now, Shreve, didn't it ever strike you as how we're blasted fools to let those fellows aft knock us about? There are thirty of us, and two of them!"

"More than that," I warned him. "You forget Captain Swope, and the tradesmen. There are seven of them, aft, all armed, and of a fighting breed. You are hinting at a silly business, Boston."

"Oh, I don't know," he persisted. "Thirty to seven ain't so bad. And they haven't all the arms-we got our knives, ain't we? And maybe other things, too."

"Forget it," said I. "Don't imagine for a minute these stiffs will face guns. You and your mate might, but as for the rest of the gang-why, Lynch could clean them up single-handed. Better stow that kind of talk. It's dangerous. You have the law against you, and it's a neck-stretching affair."

"The law?" he echoed. "What do you think that gang cares for the law? Mighty few laws they ain't broke in their time! And they may be stiffs, right enough, but they'll fight-for money!"

"Dare say," I remarked, sarcastically. "And I suppose you'll hire them with your bags of gold, which you probably have stowed under your bunk?"

"Well, now, maybe I'd just have to promise them something," he said. He glanced around, then leaned towards me and lowered his voice to a whisper. "Shreve, there are a hundred thousand dollars in hard cash aft there in the cabin!"

"What's that?" I exclaimed.

"Yes," he said. "I know. You bet I know. Blackie and me knew before ever we come on board this cursed hooker. The Swede didn't shanghai us, you bet!"

"Oh, stow that sort of guff, Boston," I told him. "Maybe the Swede didn't shanghai you; but if he didn't, it was because you and your mate were willing to ship with the devil himself in order to get out of the country."

My words touched his temper, as I thought they would. "You seem to know a lot more than I know myself," he sneered. Before I could answer, he regained control of his tongue, and continued with oily suavity. "I guess the Big 'Un has been talking to you? Hasn't he? I guess maybe he's told you that Blackie and me are two men who can take a chance without weakening? Say, Jack, what has the Big 'Un been saying to you about us? I want particular to know."

"He hasn't said a blessed word about you," I answered, truthfully.

Boston cursed, and favored me with an evil squint; then he hid the look behind a forced laugh. "Well, If you don't want to tell me, I guess you don't have to," he remarked. "It don't hurt me and Blackie none, whatever the Big 'Un says. And say, Jack, you and us ought to be good friends. Blackie and me know that you're a good man, the kind that'll take a chance, and keep his word. Well, we're the same. There are only a few of us in this end of the ship that have any backbone to speak of, and we ought to stick together. There's pay-dirt in this ship if we only play the game right."

"What do you mean?" I wanted to know.

But Boston concluded he had said almost enough for once. He rapped his pipe against the hatch-combing to dislodge the dottle, and got to his feet. I thought he was going to leave me without replying to my query, but after he had taken a step or two he spoke over his shoulder, softly.

"That's true what I said about the money, Jack. It's there, just waiting for a few lads of nerve to come and take it."

"If that talk gets aft, the Old Man will have you thumped into a jelly, just as an example to the other stiffs," I warned him.

He gave the devil's cackle that passed with him for a laugh, and stepping close to my side, spoke directly into my ear.

"Who is going to take the talk aft? Not you. Blackie and me know that Jack Shreve ain't a snitch. Not the Big 'Un. You can tell him what I said if you like. You can tell him something more. Blackie and me think there is a snitch in this gang, and the Big 'Un had better keep his eyes peeled for a double-cross. You tell him that. You tell him to ask Nigger about it."

"What do you mean?" I cried.

His answer was a mysterious shake of the head, and he disappeared into the foc'sle.

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