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   Chapter 17 No.17

The Blood Ship By Norman Springer Characters: 16824

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05

The lady brought Newman bad news. As I afterwards learned, the steward overheard a conversation between the captain and the mate, and reported it to her, and she immediately risked her masquerade forward to carry the tale to Newman.

During the morning Newman said to me, "Watch your step to-day, Jack.

Trouble brewing."

I watched my step, but not until the middle of the afternoon watch, when I went aft to relieve Newman at the wheel, did I see any indications of a coming breach of the afterguard's own peace. I sensed it then, before I saw it. Aye, as soon as I stepped upon the poop I smelled the old air. The very carriage of the officers said that the old times were back again.

Newman gave me the course. I repeated it aloud, as is the custom.

Then he whispered, hurriedly.

"I think he intends to lock me up. Help Deakin keep peace for'ard.

Remember, lad, my life-and hers-may depend upon it."

He started forward. I wanted to call after him, run after him, ask him a score of questions and directions.

But I was chained to my task. I dare not leave the wheel. Neither dare I call out. For Captain Swope had appeared on deck. He stood lounging against the companion hatch, staring aft, in our direction. Bucko Fitzgibbon stood by his side. They had suddenly appeared from below as the helm was changing hands.

Aye, and as soon as I clapped eyes upon them I knew that at last hell was about to bubble over. They had thrown off the masks of meekness that so ill fitted them. Fitzgibbon was truculence personified. The expression in Swope's face when he looked at Newman was so terrible it might almost of itself make a lad stop breathing-an expression of gloating, pitiless, triumphant cruelty.

Lynch, in charge of the deck, stood apart from the others, but he too was looking aft, not at me, but at Newman. There was something in his bearing also which declared plainly that some ugly thing was about to happen.

Yet Newman was permitted to pass the companion hatch without interference. In fact, the pair turned their backs to him. I had, for an instant, the wild hope that Newman was mistaken in his fears. But only for an instant. Because, when Newman neared the forward end of the poop, the two tradesmen of the port watch suddenly popped up from the ladder and confronted him. Sails carried a sawed-off shotgun in the crook of his arm, and Chips had a pair of handcuffs dangling in his grasp.

Newman stopped short. Who would not, with the muzzle of a shotgun carelessly pointed at his breast? No order to halt was needed.

Suddenly I saw through the skipper's game. Aye, and the devilish craft of it horrified me, and wrung a cry of warning from my throat. For when Newman halted, Swope and Fitzgibbon turned towards him, and, while Swope continued to lounge against the hatch, the mate closed in behind Newman, and I saw a revolver in his hand. At the same time, the man with the shotgun said something to Newman, something that angered the big fellow, I could tell from the way his shoulders humped and his body tensed. Squarely behind him stood the mate.

Oh, it was a clever murder Yankee Swope had planned, a safe murder! If Newman made any motion that could be interpreted as resisting arrest, and was shot in the back and killed-why, the officer who shot him was performing his duty, and an unruly sailor had received his deserts! That is the way the log would put it, and that is the way folks ashore would look at it.

The second mate saw through the scheme, also. I am sure he had no previous knowledge of it, for an expression of surprise and consternation showed in his face, and he threw up his arm in a warning gesture. But it was I who warned Newman. I sang out lustily,

"Look out-behind you!"

Newman looked behind him. He threw back his head and laughed. It amused him to see the mate standing there so sheepishly, with his pistol in his hand. But I did not laugh, for Yankee Swope was staring at me, and there was fury in his face. God's truth, my hair stood up, and my toes crawled in their boots! Oh, I knew I had let myself in for it with that warning shout.

But if Newman laughed, he did not venture to move. He, too, saw through the skipper's plan, and by his action promptly defeated it. He laughed, but he also elevated his hands above his head to show his unarmed condition and his pacific intent. Then, ignoring the mate, he spoke to Captain Swope.

"Am I to consider myself under arrest, Captain?"

Swope turned his face to the speaker, and glad I was to be free of his gaze. He was a furious man that moment; I could see him biting his lips, and clenching and unclenching his hands from excess of anger. Yet he answered Newman in a soft, even voice, and in the same half-bantering vein the big fellow had used. He was a strong man, was Swope; he could control his temper when he thought it necessary.

"Yes, my man, you may consider yourself under arrest!" he said.

"Then you will notice I offer no resistance," added Newman. "I am unarmed, and eager to obey all legal commands of my captain. Shall I lower my arms, and permit this gentleman to fasten the irons upon my wrists?"

"No less eager to break into limbo, than to break out of it-eh?" commented the captain. "Yes, I grant you permission to be handcuffed-but not that way!-turn around, and place your hands together behind your back."

Newman promptly complied with the directions, and the carpenter stepped forward and slipped on the cuffs.

"Lock those irons tightly, Connolly," Swope directed the tradesman. "We have to deal with a desperate man, a tricky man, a damned jail-bird, Connolly. Squeeze those irons down upon his wrists. It doesn't matter if they pinch him."

From where I stood I could not see, but I could imagine the steel rings biting cruelly into my friend's flesh. I felt a rage against the captain which overcame the sick fear of what he might do to me. But my rage was impotent; it could not help Newman.

Mister Lynch tried to help him; and by his action indicated plainly what was his position in the matter of the arrest. He crossed the deck, and examined the prisoner's wrists.

"These irons are too tight, and will torture the man," he said to the captain. "In my judgment, sir, it is not necessary to secure him in this fashion."

"In my judgment it is," was Swope's bland response. Then he added, "And now, Mister Fitzgibbon, and you, Mister Lynch-if you will escort this mutinous scoundrel below to the cabin, I'll see that this affair is properly entered in the logbook, and then we will put him in a place where he cannot work further mischief. Connolly, you and your mate may go for'ard."

A moment later I was alone on the poop. So quickly and quietly had the affair been managed that none of the watch on deck seemed to be aware of it. They were busied about the fore part of the ship at the various jobs Lynch had set them to. But the tradesmen of the watch were not in sight, and I had no doubt they were forewarned, and had joined the port watch tradesmen before the cabin, to guard against any possible trouble.

I wondered what to do. Do something, I felt I must. If I sang out and informed the watch, the afterguard would reach me and squelch my voice long before my mates could lay aft. And indeed, laying aft in a body was what the crew must not do. That would be trouble, mutiny perhaps, and Newman's injunction was to keep the peace.

I could do nothing to help my friend. But I felt I must do something. The cabin skylights were open, for it was tropic weather, and a murmur of voices ascended through the opening. I could not distinguish words, but I felt I must know what they were saying to Newman, or about him. So I took a chance. I slipped the wheel into the becket, and crept to the edge of the skylights.

I could peek into only a narrow section of the saloon, for I did not dare shove my face into the opening. They would have seen me. But I could hear every voice, every word, and my ears gave me an accurate picture of the scene below.

The first voice I heard was the voice of one of my foc'sle mates, and he was giving testimony against Newman.

"'E was in the syl-locker mykin' hup to 'er," the speaker said, "an' tellin' as 'ow 'e'd lead the crew arft, and kill the hofficers, and tyke charge 'imself. That's wot 'e says, s' 'elp me!"

"Ah, yes, he was making up

to her, eh? And plotting mutiny? And my wife lent herself to such a scheme, did she?" This came in Swope's voice, soft, purring, the very tone an insult. "So my wife was in the sail-locker with this convict, and he was making up to her? Well, well!"

"You know that creature is lying, Angus!" broke in another voice. Aye, and I very nearly gave myself away by craning my head to see the speaker. For this was the lady's voice, hot with anger and resentment and loathing. "You know very well why I met Roy in the sail-locker; you know very well we were planning to avoid bloodshed, not cause it."

"What are you doing here?" exclaimed the captain, with a savage edge to his words. "This is a man's business, madam! Return to your room at once. Mister Fitzgibbon, take her to her room!"

There was the sound of movement below. A chair scraped. Then Lynch's voice rang out sharply, "Stop that, Fitz!" The lady's voice said, "You need not touch me, I am going." A second later she spoke again, from a different point, and I judged her to be in the doorway of her stateroom. "You, at least, Mister Lynch, will bear witness that I deny these charges against myself and against-against him. They are lies. This spy is lying, my husband is lying. I know the truth. Do you hear me, Angus? I know the truth, and you cannot silence me with lies!" A door closed.

"Now we will continue our examination," said Captain Swope.

Just then I heard a faint slatting of canvas aloft. I sped for the wheel, and when, an instant later, the tradesman, Morton, poked his head above the level of the poop, and looked aft, I had the ship steady again. Morton's head disappeared, and after waiting a few moments to make sure he did not intend coming up on the poop, I returned to the skylight.

My precious shipmate was talking again. "Hi 'eard 'im sy in the

Knitting Swede's 'ow 'e was shipping in this ship just to ryse 'ell."

"He said that, did he?" commented Captain Swope. "Now what have you to say to that, Newman?"

For the first time I heard my friend's voice. His words were cool, contemptuous. Aye, they heartened me; they told me he was far from being defeated.

"The rat lies, of course, as all of you know."

"And you say that Newman has persistently endeavored to stir up the crew to acts of disobedience and violence?" continued the captain.

"Yes, sir," was the answer. "'E would sy as 'ow there was a lot o' money in the lazaret, and if we would follow 'im arft 'e would give hit to us."

"Now I know that is a lie," broke in Lynch. The second mate's voice was also contemptuous, but not cool; I could tell he was excited and angry. "I've watched this crowd, Captain; I know them like I know the back of my hand. This man, Newman, is the best sailor for'ard, and the strongest influence for peace. He, and the little Holy Joe the crimp gave us, prevented a riot the night the boy died. I know this fellow is lying, Captain!"

"That will do, Mister Lynch," exclaimed Swope. "I did not ask your opinion in this matter. I would suggest, sir, that it is your watch on deck, and the ship may need your attention."

"Very good, sir," retorted Lynch. "But I wish to tell you this, Captain-I know this man is innocent of these charges, and I will not be a party to your action against him."

"Have a care, sir; I am captain of this vessel," cried Swope.

"I recognize your authority, but that does not alter my stand in this case," said Lynch.

"That will do, sir; go on deck!" was the captain's command.

I was at the wheel, and the ship was on her course, when the second mate appeared. Oh, but he was in a towering rage! He stamped the deck like a full watch. He sang out to me, "Damn your eye, man, watch your wheel; the wake is like a snake's track!" I answered meekly, "Yes, sir," and held her nose true. He looked at me sharply, and I knew that he guessed what I had been up to. But he said nothing more; instead, he stormed for'ard, and worked out his rage among the stiffs.

I overheard no more of the proceedings in the cabin, for I did not dare leave the wheel while Mister Lynch was on deck. But I was easier in my mind concerning Newman's fate, for what I had overheard convinced me the big fellow stood in no immediate danger of his life. That Swope meant to kill, I had not the least doubt-Newman, himself, said as much-but the time was not ripe for that act.

So I occupied myself with thoughts about the traitor in the crew. At that moment Captain Swope was not the only man on board with murder in his heart! My fingers pressed the spokes as though they had hold of the Cockney's throat.

I cursed myself for a stupid fool not to have known Cockney was the spy. I should have known. He was that sort, a bully and a boot-licker by turns. In the foc'sle he was more violent than any other in his denunciation of the buckos; on deck he cringed before them. He had always fawned upon Newman, but I suspected he hated my friend, because of what happened in the Knitting Swede's. But I had not suspected him of treachery to his foc'sle mates, because he was an old sailor and a good one, and there were plenty of stiffs on board more fitted, I thought, for spy's work. But Cockney was the man. I could not mistake his voice for another's. He was even now down below bearing false witness against my friend.

I watched the deck closely, and pretty soon I saw Cockney go forward. So I knew that the farcical examination of Newman was ended, and that he was probably locked up with the rats in the lazaret. I promised myself I would have a heart-to-heart talk with Cockney just as soon as eight bells released me from the wheel.

But when eight bells did go, I had something else to think about.

Indeed, yes! My own skin, no less.

All hands were mustered aft when the port watch came on deck. This was unusual, a break in routine, for it was not customary to call the crew aft at the close of the day watches. Moreover, the men were herded aft by the tradesmen, who were armed. Mister Lynch came up on the poop, and was obviously taking no part in the proceedings. Oh, it was the end of the easy times, and all hands knew it.

When the men were collected by the main mast, the little parson was plucked out of the crowd and ushered into the cabin, where the skipper and the mate awaited him. Aye, that was the reason for the muster; Holy Joe must be punished for his defiance of Fitzgibbon. Five minutes after he entered the cabin, he was thrown out upon the deck, bruised, bleeding and unconscious, and his mates were told to pick him up and carry him forward.

The Old Man and the mate appeared on the poop immediately afterwards. The instant I clapped eyes upon Swope, I knew that my turn was next. I saw it in his eyes, in his face and carriage. He looked and behaved just as he had that day he attacked Nils. He looked at me with a bright, cruel glare; he smiled, and licked his lips with his tongue. Oh, I was frightened; worse, I felt sick and weak. And I felt anger, too; aye, there was rising in me a wild and murderous rage, which, if I let it go, would, I knew, master both fear and caution. I kept repeating to myself during the few minutes of grace allowed me, "I must not lose my temper, I must not lose my temper." For if I did lose my temper, and defy my masters with fist and tongue, I knew I should be beaten until I was physically disabled, perhaps fatally disabled. And then who would hold the crew in check, who would labor to save Newman?

The Cockney came aft to relieve the wheel. There was a smirk on his face, and a swagger in his walk, as he came along the lee side of the poop. I noticed him leer confidentially at the mate, as he passed that worthy. That Cockney thought himself a very clever fellow, no doubt, having been taken into the confidence of the ship's masters, having been assigned to do their secret dirty work. It was all I could do to keep from flying at his throat, when he came within reach of my arms.

He murmured some hypocritical words as he stepped into my place. He was a good dissembler.

"My heye, but poor 'Oly Joe caught it," says he. "They bloomin' near skinned 'im alive. They 'arve Newman in the lazaret. Blimme, Shreve, we got to do somethink abaht it!"

The answer he got was a grunt. My mind and eyes were on the officers.

I started forward, saying to myself, "I must not lose my temper."

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