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   Chapter 15 No.15

The Blood Ship By Norman Springer Characters: 19389

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


The day following Nils' death was the most peaceful day we had had since leaving port.

There was less cursing and driving from the men aft, and less wrangling among ourselves. But it was a strange peace. An air of suspense lay upon the ship; we went around on tiptoe, so to speak. The quiet before the typhoon-aye, Nigger's phrase just about described it. We went around telling each other that the trouble had blown over, and nothing was going to happen, and all the time we were watching and waiting for something-we didn't know just what-to happen.

During the morning, Mister Fitzgibbon and his bullies came swaggering forward and into the port foc'sle. Now that was a moment that very nearly saw the calm broken; for an instant I was sure there would be a grand blow-up. For the mate was after Nils' belongings, his sea-chest. Even though it was the custom to take a dead man's gear aft, the squareheads resented the removal of Nils' effects. Especially did they resent Fitzgibbon's part in the removal. The lads in my watch crowded the door connecting the rooms, and the port watch men collected on deck and glowered in at the proceedings.

The muttered curses grew in volume. Oh, it looked like trouble, right enough--for just a moment. Now that I was enlightened as to the skipper's game, I could see what the mate was up to. He, who was largely responsible for Nils' death, had come forward upon this errand because he knew-or Swope knew-his presence would enrage Nils' mates. The Chinese steward, or the tradesmen alone, could have taken Nils' gear without raising a murmur from the squareheads, but quite naturally they would resent Fitzgibbon's pawing over the poor lad's treasures.

But Newman took the sting out of the mate's visit, Newman and Holy Joe, working separately, but with a common end in view. Oh, it was rich-but you must know the foc'sle mind to understand how rich we thought it was. It was nothing subtle, nothing above our heads. Newman made us laugh, at the mate's expense, and-presto!-impending tragedy was turned into farce.

Fitzgibbon, himself, was overhauling Nils' gear. The tradesmen stood idle and watchful, one near either door of the foc'sle. Out on deck, Holy Joe was busy; we could hear him urging his crowd to be quiet and peaceful. Newman pushed through our crowd until he was fairly into the port foc'sle, and there he stood, filling the doorway, and effectually blocking any attempt on the part of those behind him to rush the room.

Well, Newman looked down at the mate, and he commenced to chuckle very softly to himself. After a moment we began to chuckle too, every man-jack of us. We didn't laugh out loud-not one of us, except Newman, who had the nerve to laugh out loud at Blackjack Fitzgibbon-but, hidden behind the big fellow's back, we chuckled and snickered readily enough. And the butt of the joke was the mate, himself.

It was the mate's behavior. Anybody could see with half an eye that the fellow was looking for trouble. He expected trouble, and it made him nervous. He was determined he would be ready for it. So he kept one hand in his coat pocket, where he carried his gun, and tried with the other hand to cast adrift the lashings that held the chest to the bunk posts. It was a two-hand job, and he made slow work of it. But he wouldn't call one of his tradesmen to help him-that would have left a door unguarded, you see. Nor could he fix his attention upon the job; he kept twisting his ugly face this way and that way until his head looked as if it were on a pivot.

If Newman hadn't pointed it out, I doubt if any of us would have seen the humor of the scene. But Newman's chuckle forced it upon us. Mister Fitzgibbon did look ridiculous-fumbling blindly with the ropes, and at the same time trying to keep both ends of the foc'sle in sight at once.

"I'll lend you one of my hands, Mister," said Newman, suddenly.

The mate glanced at him, startled, but before he could open his mouth,

Newman stepped past the tradesman and bent over one end of the chest.

"It's neatly wrapped; the lad would have been a good sailorman,

Mister," he remarked as he undid the lashing.

The mate realized he was at a disadvantage. He glared vindictively at the big fellow, and snarled an oath in reply. Then he drew a knife, and committed the lubberly act of cutting through the lashing at his end of the chest. Newman had finished undoing the rope at his end, and now he stepped back into the doorway.

I've never been sure, but I think Newman did it purposely. The rope's end was spliced about the handle of the chest, and when he cast the rope loose, it trailed upon the floor. Newman left the bight turned about the bunk-post, and in such fashion that it would tighten into a clove-hitch.

Now that it was a case of our laughing at him, the mate was eager to get out of the foc'sle with as little loss of dignity as possible. He started to walk away, dragging Nils' chest after him. The clove-hitch checked him. He jerked, with all his strength, and his strength was enormous-there was a crack like a pistol shot as the bunk-post snapped, the chest leaped like a live thing at the man, and Fitzgibbon's heels flew out from under him. He landed upon his back, and the chest landed upon his stomach; and the wind went out of him with an explosive oof!

Oh, it was rich. Aye, it was the kind of joke the foc'sle could appreciate. We did appreciate it. We did not quite dare roar our laughter, but our chuckles would have shaken windows ashore. Even the tradesmen grinned-behind their hands-as they lifted the chest from off their boss, and him to his feet. He needed assistance, too; he had no wind for curses, and bent double nursing the injured spot while he grunted at the tradesmen to pick up the chest and carry it aft. He paid no attention to the rest of us, but as he hobbled out of the foc'sle in the wake of the others, he gave Newman a look of such malignant hatred that we all knew just where he placed the blame for the episode.

It did not bother Newman, that look. He was on deck at the mate's heels. Bravado, I thought at first, and I was close behind Newman, for I wanted to have a hand in any further fun. He followed the mate aft, at a respectful distance. Suddenly, I understood his action, for I saw how warily he was watching the hands, the port watch squareheads, particularly, who were bunched about the foredeck. Newman wasn't following the mate to make sport for us; he was seeing that the mate, and the tradesmen, got aft without trouble. He was seeing to it that no one on deck gave the bucko the excuse to start trouble that had been denied him in the foc'sle. Aye, Newman was a wise lad; he would not be caught napping.

Yet, despite his care, he nearly lost. Mister Fitzgibbon brushed past Cockney, who was standing alone by the forward end of the deck-house. He croaked something at the man, an oath, I thought. Cockney waited until he passed by, and then suddenly whipped out his knife and drew back his arm to throw it at the mate's back.

Newman might possibly have reached Cockney. But he did not try. Instead, he leaped in the other direction, a cat-like bound that took him over to the rail, as far away from Cockney as he could get. It was Holy Joe who spoiled Cockney's knife-play. He was standing behind Cockney, and, quick as Newman himself, he leaped forward and struck Cockney's arm. It spoiled the aim. The knife did not go in the mate's direction at all; it went flashing across the deck, and stuck quivering in the rail.

"You fool!" cried Holy Joe.

The mate wheeled about at that. Aye, and he had his pistol half out of his pocket as he turned. We could see by his face that he understood what had happened; indeed, he would have been blind not to have been able to read the meaning of the scene-Cockney still bent in the attitude of throwing, and the parson clutching his arm. I expected-we all expected-he would shoot Cockney. Surely, this was his chance, if he wanted trouble.

But he hardly glanced at the man. His eyes passed him by, and darted about until they spotted Newman lounging over there by the rail, with his hands in his pockets. I guess it was an unpleasant surprise to find Newman over there, just opposite to where he expected to find him. The knife was sticking in the rail close by Newman's shoulder; there could be no connecting it and Newman-indeed, Newman's own knife was in plain view, in its sheath.

Newman shook his head. "Not this time, Mister," says he.

The mate was stumped, and enraged. His face grew actually purple with his choked rage, as he glared at Newman. But he did not draw the gun free of his pocket; he had no excuse to offer Newman violence, and he did not deign to notice Cockney. He did not even seem to notice the naked knife. Slowly his hand opened, and the butt of the weapon dropped back into his pocket. Then he turned, and went aft.

I breathed again. So, I guess, did the others. When Fitzgibbon was beyond ear-shot, Cockney began to damn Holy Joe for spoiling his aim. But he didn't get very far with his tirade before Newman had him shouldered against the wall of the deck-house.

Cockney changed his tune then, and mighty quick. For Newman looked as he had looked that day in the Knitting Swede's; aye, there was death in his face.

"Ow, Gaw', 'ear me. Hi didn't mean no trouble!" Cockney bleated. "Hit was the nyme 'e called me. 'E myde me see red, that's wot."

"Would have been a damn good job if he'd landed!" cried Boston's voice. There was an emphatic chorus of approval of this sentiment from the hands, from squareheads and stiffs both. "We'd have been rid of one

o' them, anyhow!" piped up Blackie.

The backing gave Cockney heart. "Hi'd 'ave spliced 'is bleedin' 'eart but 'e spoiled me throw, the blarsted Bible shark, the--"

"That will do," said Newman quietly, and Cockney shut up.

"Cockney has the guts, anyway," says Boston.

"The bucko hain't; he backed down," says Blackie.

"That will do you," Newman threw over his shoulder, and they shut up.

"If I were sure-" said Newman to Cockney. He left the sentence unfinished, but he must have looked the rest for Cockney fell into a terrible funk.

"Ow, s' 'elp me, Hi didn't mean no trouble. Hit was the nyme 'e called-'e called me old mother hout o' 'er blinkin' nyme, that's wot! Hi didn't mean for to do it-but me temper-the wy the blighter's used us blokes-hand the nyme on top o' that--"

"Well, remember, if I thought for a moment-" broke in Newman.

I thought Cockney would flop at the big fellow's feet this time. But he recovered quickly enough when Newman turned away, without further words, and without offering to thump him. He slouched forward, and immediately became the hero of the hour with the gang. Aye; I was even a bit envious. It took a hard case to heave a knife at a bucko-even at his back.

"But why didn't he shoot Cockney?" I asked Newman. "Didn't he see him?"

The big man glanced at Holy Joe, and smiled. "Perhaps he didn't want to see him," he replied.

And I was so thick-headed I didn't understand. But it really was a peaceful day. After Nils' chest went aft, we might have been a comfortable family ship so little were we troubled by the afterguard. Lynch, of course, kept his watch busy while it was on deck, but he didn't haze; and Fitzgibbon all but forgot he had a watch. It was a queer rest. It got upon my nerves, this waiting for something-I didn't know what-to happen.

It carried over into the night, this unusual quiet. Aye, Captain Swope kept the deck that night in the first watch, as well as Fitzgibbon, and not a single man was damned or thumped. When we turned out for the middle watch, we found the port watch lads crowing that they had farmed away their hours on deck.

Well, we didn't farm, by a long shot. Trust Lynch to keep hands busy. It was rule number one with him. He sweated us up in the usual style, yet his manner was milder than usual and he didn't lay a finger on even the most lubberly of the stiffs. Aye, for the first time during the voyage-perhaps for the first time in the life of the ship-a full day passed in the Golden Bough and not a man felt the weight of a boot or a fist. It was an occasion, I can tell you!

Yet, for all of the afterguard's surprising gentleness, that mid-watch was a nightmare to me. Newman disappeared.

Ever since the night at the beginning of the voyage when Captain Swope tried to snap us off the yardarm, I made it a practice to stick close to the big fellow during the night watches. I owed him my life, and, anyway I was eager to give him the service of a friend, of a mate. I was always dreading that Swope would try again some dark night, and with better success. It is so easy to do things in the dark, you see; get a man separated from the watch, beyond the reach of friendly eyes, give him a crack on the head and a boost over the rail, and then what proof, what trace, have you? Just a line in the logbook, "Man lost overboard in the night." Aye, many a lad-and many an officer-has had just that happen to him.

So it was that in the night watches I became Newman's shadow. It was literally shoulder to shoulder with us, we handed the same lines, bent over the same jobs. Newman never mentioned it, never asked me to stick close, but I knew he welcomed the attention. He knew the danger of walking alone in the dark in that ship. Mister Lynch kept his word and never again sent either of us aloft at night. In fact, the second mate did more than that; from that night on, whenever Newman had a night wheel, Lynch stayed aft on the poop during the trick. Oh, there was no friendship between the two; I know that for certain. Lynch was an officer, and Newman just a hand. But he was a square man, and he was seeing to it that Newman got a square deal, at least in his watch. And, I guessed, the lady had something to do with Lynch's attitude. She was not friendless in the cabin, as I had discovered.

This night Newman had no wheel. Neither had I. During the first half of the watch we touched elbows. As usual, the second mate worked sail and kept us dancing a lively jig. He made work, Lynch did. He would walk along the deck and jerk each buntline in passing-and then order lads aloft to overhaul and stop the lines again. He would command a tug on this line, a pull on that; no sail was ever trimmed fine enough to suit him. Oh, aye, he was but following his nature and training; he could not bear being idle himself, and he knew that busy men don't brood themselves into trouble. And running a watch ragged was hell-ship style.

We were aft on a job-brailling in the spanker, I recall-when I missed Newman. An instant before we were together, we had handed the same line; suddenly he was gone from my side. At first I thought he had passed around to the other side of the mizzenmast, for we were coiling down gear that had been disarranged during the job, and I was not worried. But when the second mate ordered us forward to another job, my friend was not with the gang.

The second mate left one of his tradesmen aft, and during the remainder of the watch kept us forward of the waist of the ship. He drove us, kept us jumping, at perfectly useless jobs on the head sails. It was as plain as the nose on my face that he was purposely keeping us forward. Something was going on, aft there by the boat skids, by the break of the poop; it was a moonless night, but once or twice I saw shadows flitting about the main deck.

I was in a quandary. Something was going on aft-but what? Newman was missing. The bucko knew he was absent from the gang, he must have known. Yet he ignored his absence. Was it treachery? Was Newman in trouble? Had he and I been mistaken in our judgment of Bucko Lynch? Oh, I was tormented with fear-and with doubt. I wanted to gallop aft and lend him a hand, succor him, at least help him to put up a good fight. But I wasn't sure he was in trouble, that he would welcome my advertising his disappearance. Perhaps he was keeping a rendezvous, with the second mate's aid.

That was what the other lads thought. Oh, aye, they missed him too. But they didn't have wit enough to realize that Lynch also had sharp eyes; they thought Lynch didn't know Newman was gone. They thought it was a great joke, a score against the cabin. They thought Newman had boldly slipped away from work to meet the lady.

"The Big Un's queenin', b'gawd, right under the Old Man's nose!"

That's how Boston put it.

I did nothing. I made no break. Luckily. At seven bells, Lynch marshaled us aft again, to set the spanker this time. As we worked, Newman slipped into the group as quietly and unobtrusively as he had slipped out nearly two hours before. Coiling down gear, I discovered that the running part of the spanker vang was off the pin, and trailing over the side. It dropped down past the open and lighted porthole of one of the cabin berths. Whose berth? Well, I thought that Boston had the right of it. Newman had been "queenin'," with his feet in the ocean, so to speak.

But he had been up to something else, as well. As he and I walked forward, after the watch was relieved, we were overtaken by Lindquist, who was coming from the helm.

"Vat you ban doing mit da longboat to-night?" he asked Newman, curiously.

"Nothing, lad. You must have dreamed at your Sybeel-understand?" was

Newman's prompt reply.

It took a moment to filter into the squarehead's mind. But he got it.

"So-ja, it ban dream; I see noddings," he said.

"And you say nothing?"

"Ja, even to mineself I say noddings," promised Lindquist.

At the foc'sle door, Newman placed a detaining hand upon my shoulder and held me back.

"Was there much comment among the hands?" he asked.

I told him what Boston had said, and that it was the common opinion.

"That will do no harm," he remarked. "So long as they did not see, or guess-yes, it is a good blind."

I was a little resentful, and showed it. "You know I don't want you to tell me anything you don't want to tell me, but I think you might have dropped a hint In my ear. How was I to know that the greaser hadn't played a trick on you, and given you over to the Old Man? I don't know what game you're playing, and if you don't want to tell me I don't want to know-but I tell you I came pretty near spoiling it, whatever it is. I was on the verge of going aft and raising a row, just to find out what had become of you."

"Jack, it isn't my mistrust that keeps you in the dark," says he. "You know I trust you absolutely. But I cannot explain-others have that right. But, lad, I can tell you this-things are moving, aft there, and the sky is brighter for me-and for her. And, you must not worry about me if this should happen again, some other night. I shall be safe; don't come hunting me, it might ruin everything. You will know soon just what is happening. And you already know, Jack, how I count upon you-and she, too. If things should go wrong, if he outwits me, it is your head and arm I count upon to aid her."

"Anything, any time," was my eager response. "Oh, I want to help."

I found my hand being tightly squeezed in his, and there was a little catch in his voice. "A thick-and-thin friend, eh, Jack? I've learned something about friendship since I have known you."

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