MoboReader > Literature > The Blood Ship

   Chapter 18 No.18

The Blood Ship By Norman Springer Characters: 21879

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


"Not so fast, my lad. I think I should like to look you over."

These were the words with which Captain Swope arrested my progress. He had permitted me to almost reach the ladder leading to the main deck, before he hailed. The cat and the mouse; aye, that was it! He must play with his prey. Such teasing gave him pleasure.

I stopped, of course, and turned, and faced him. Never did Captain Swope remind me more of a cat than that instant, when I met his glittering, pitiless eyes, and saw his smiling, red-lipped mouth, and listened to his soft, purring voice. I was his mouse, helpless, trapped. God's truth, I felt like one!

He looked me over slowly, from head to foot. The mate walked around behind me, and I knew the attack would come from that direction. Swope knew that I knew it; that is why he held my eyes to the front with his deliberate and insulting inspection. The cat and the mouse-he would enjoy my nervousness.

I think I disappointed him, for I tried hard to appear unconcerned. So, finally, he spoke again.

"What is your name?"

"Jack S-hreve, sir," I answered.

"Shreve? Now, what signboard did you rob? Shreve is a good name, too good for a foc'sle rat. Did you come by it honestly? Did you have a father by that name? I dare say not. A gutter product would not know his father, eh, my lad?"

There was no mistaking the deliberate intent of the insult, or its foul meaning. Despite my efforts, I felt the blood in my cheeks, and my fingers clenched of their own accord. I thought how white was Yankee Swope's neck, and how near, and how easily I could reach out and choke the vile words in his throat. I very nearly lost my temper-and with it, my life, and, I think, the other two lives, which I actually valued above my own.

The thing which saved me was the glimpse of a cold, speculative gleam in my tormentor's eyes. It was the mere shadow of an expression, but it acted like cold water upon my hot thoughts. I divined, suddenly, that something more than sport was behind the captain's insults. He wanted me to blow up in a great rage, and attack him, or the mate. I suddenly knew this was so, and the danger of my losing my temper was past.

I lowered my eyes, afraid their expression would betray my knowledge, and said submissively, "Yes, sir, I guess so, sir."

"I was told you had a long tongue, but you do not seem very glib this minute," Captain Swope went on. "You've taken a reef in it, eh, Shreve?"

I said, "Yes, sir."

"But you forgot to take a reef in it awhile back, didn't you?"

I knew he was referring to the shout that warned Newman. I did not venture a reply.

"So now you have put your tongue in gaskets," he commented, after a pause. "Too bad you didn't do it before. A long tongue is a very bad habit, my lad, and I do not allow my hands to have bad habits. I correct them-so!"

He struck me then, not a heavy, stunning blow, but a short-armed, slashing uppercut, which ripped the flesh of my cheek, and sent me stumbling backwards against the mate's body. I took that blow meekly, I took Fitzgibbon's harder blow meekly. I stood there and let the two of them pummel me, and knock me down and kick me, and I made no show of resistance. I buried my head in my arms, and drew up my knees, and let them work their will on me.

Oh, it was a cruel dressing down they gave me! My face became raw meat, my body a mass of shooting pains. I took it meekly. I tried to guard my vitals, and my addled, star-riddled wits clung to the one idea-"I must not lose my temper!"

I took my medicine. I did not lift a hand against them. I grovelled on the deck like a cur, and did not fight back.

It was hard to behave like that. It was the hardest thing I had ever done-keeping my temper, and taking that beating without show of resistance. I was a fighting animal; never before in my life had I tamely turned the other cheek. Long afterwards I came to realize that those few moments, during which I lay on the deck and felt their boots thud into my flesh, were educative moments of vital importance in my growth into manhood. I was learning self-control; it was being literally kicked into me. It was a lesson I needed, no doubt-but, oh, it was a bitter, bitter lesson.

They gave over their efforts, finally. I had not much wit left in me, but I heard the captain's voice, faintly, as though he were at a distance, instead of bending over me.

"There's no fight in this rat," he said. "Might as well boot him off the poop, Mister, and let him crawl into his hole. He's not dangerous, and the ship needs him as beef."

No sooner said than done. I had obligingly saved them the trouble of booting me very far, for I had been inching myself forward ever since the onslaught. When the captain spoke, I was almost at the head of the ladder to the main deck-an instant after he spoke, I was lying on the main deck at the foot of the poop ladder, and all the stars in the universe were dancing before my eyes.

I got dizzily to my hands and knees, and then to my feet, and staggered forward. Captain Swope's soft voice followed me.

"Next time reef your tongue before you open your mouth!" he called.

I made my way into the foc'sle, and my watchmates grabbed me, and swabbed and kneaded my hurts, and swore their sympathy. My injuries were not very severe-some nasty gashes about the head and face, and innumerable bruises upon the body. Fortunately I was in no way disabled. My bones were intact. I was in far better case, they told me, than poor Holy Joe. He was lying in his bunk unconscious, that very moment; he had a broken arm, and most of his teeth were gone.

I saw at once that the men were quite wild with rage and anxiety. From the sounds that came in the foc'sle door, I knew that the mate was hazing his men. Aye, he was going after them in the good old way, quite as if there had been no peaceful interlude. I did not have to see the mates' men to know their temper; I could tell from the temper of my own watch how the other watch felt.

It was a terrific shock to most of them, that sudden return of brutality. Aye, just in that I saw the devilish cunning of Captain Swope. He knew what the effect would be upon the minds of the men of slackening his hell-ship discipline, and then, when the habit of passive endurance was weakened, suddenly tightening the reins. He knew that then the bit would be well nigh unendurable. Oh, Swope had calculated shrewdly; he foresaw the effect not only of an outburst of promiscuous brutality, but of the arrest of Newman, and the beating up of Holy Joe.

I could see the effect at a glance. The stiffs were panicky. These valorous stiffs were glowering, really dangerous at last. The squareheads were hysterical with rage. The squareheads knew why Holy Joe had suffered-because of them, because of Nils. Because of Newman, too, but they did not guess that. Then, the knowledge that Newman was trapped was a heavy blow to sailors and stiffs alike. They had all, consciously or unconsciously, depended upon Newman's sane strength. With him taken from them they felt-every man-jack-that their backs were to the wall.

Just as soon as the blood was washed out of my eyes, and I could see my mates' faces, just as quickly as the ringing in my ears subsided, and I could hear their voices, I knew that the moment was past when the peace could be kept in that foc'sle. Perhaps Newman could have composed the crowd, but I doubt it. The captain had succeeded in driving them too far and too hard, in frightening them too much. He had won, I thought despairingly; he would get his mutiny.

For it was now the elemental instinct of self-preservation that swayed the men and determined their actions. Oh, there was plenty of sympathy for me, and for Holy Joe and Newman; there was rage on our account; but underlying the sympathy and rage was a very terrible fear. It was a fear of death, a fear that each man felt for himself. Self-preservation, that's it!

My shipmates, sailors and stiffs, had reached a point where they were afraid not to take some violent and illegal action against the men in command of the ship. Their long misuse, the wrongs and indignities each man had suffered, the fate of Nils, the events of the afternoon, had all culminated in the belief these men now had-good men and bad men both, remember!-that they must revolt, that they must kill the men aft before the men aft killed them! There were other factors at work, of course, greed for gold and lust of revenge, but this simple, primal fear for their own skins was the determining factor in the situation.

"By God, I never go on deck but I'm scared o' my life!" swore one of the stiffs, named Green. And he voiced the common feeling.

I was, of course, much concerned for the parson. I went into the port foc'sle to look at him-and he looked bad, lying there unconscious. The squareheads had washed his face, but had not ventured to touch his arm. His face was in a shocking state, and I feared his body might be broken, as was Nils' body. He was much worse off than I; for he had not my iron muscles, to withstand hard knocks, nor my skill in rough-and-tumble fighting, which had enabled me to protect the vital parts of my body.

"We'll have to get him aft, where the lady can attend to him-or else get her for'ard," I declared.

"No chance," answered Boston.

"If we take him aft dey ban kill him," asserted one of the squareheads.

"She can't come for'ard; she's locked in her room," said another.

"How do you know that?" I cried.

"Cockney says so. He was there when the skipper locked her in," said

Boston.

For an instant I forgot Holy Joe, and his evil plight.

"What yarn did that Cockney bring for'ard with him?" I demanded.

"Why, he was there when they got the Big 'Un," answered Blackie. "He was helpin' the steward break out a cask o' beef from the lazaret, when they brought Big 'Un into the cabin, cuffed up, and with the drop on him. He says the hen squawked, and the Old Man shut her in her room. Then they kicked him out on deck, so he wouldn't see too much o' what was goin' on. He says they put the Big 'Un down in the lazaret, and they're goin' to croak him sure, and if we got any guts we'll go aft tonight and turn him loose. That's what Cockney says."

Well, I let myself go, verbally. I said things about that Cockney, and I was only sorry Cockney was not there to hear them. I knew most of the hard words of three languages, and I used them all. Oh, it was a relief to give even verbal release to the ocean of hate and rage in my soul! I told the crowd what I thought of Cockney. Then I told them why. I told them what had really happened in the cabin, what Cockney really was.

They believed me. They knew me; they knew I would not lie in such a case, they could not help but sense the sincerity of my loathing. They knew Cockney, also. They knew he was the sort to spy

and perjure-a good many of them were that sort themselves!-and as soon as I paused for breath, this man and that began to recall certain suspicious acts of Cockney he had noticed. Aye, they believed me, and the curses heaped on Cockney's head were awful to the ear.

They had good reason to curse. My disclosure gave them a fresh fear. Consternation was in their faces and voices, especially in the faces and voices of the stiffs. I knew very well what frightened them. Cockney had been most violent and outspoken among those advocating mutiny, far more outspoken than the cautious Blackie or Boston, and the disaffected had naturally confided in him. I knew that every man in the crew who had expressed a willingness to revolt was known by name to Cockney (and without doubt to Yankee Swope) and these men now could not escape the feeling that they were marked men. If anything had been needed to settle the conviction of the foc'sle that mutiny was necessary, this unmasking of Cockney supplied the need.

I felt this, rather than thought it out. It was in the air, so to speak. At the moment, I was too much concerned for the little parson to reason coolly. Oh, I reasoned about it a little while later, not coolly perhaps, but certainly quickly, and leaped helter-skelter to a momentous decision. But just then I thought about Holy Joe.

I wanted to get his arm set, and his body examined. I, myself, was not competent to do either. The squarehead had spoken truth-it would be madness to carry the man aft for treatment; and I judged Cockney had spoken truly, too, when he said the lady was locked up. That agreed with what I, myself, had heard, I appealed to the crowd.

"We've got to get Holy Joe fixed up. Any of you know anything about bone setting? Who'll lend a hand?"

To my surprise, Boston volunteered. "I worked in a hospital once," he said.

He set to work immediately in an efficient, businesslike manner. I was astonished. His fingers were as deft-though not as gentle-as Newman's. I thought, as I tore a blanket into strips, under his direction, how characteristic it was of the fellow to let a hurt shipmate lie unattended when he possessed the skill to help him. Aye, that was the sort of scut Boston was!

"A clean break; no trick to set it," he announced, after examining the arm. Nor was it. We cut up a bunkboard for splints, used the blanket for bandages, and triced the injured member in short order. Boston was deft, but he didn't try to spare his patient any pain; when he snapped the ends of the bone together, Holy Joe came out of his swoon with a cry of agony.

He half raised himself, and looked at us. "Let there be no trouble, boys-for God's sake, no fighting!" he said. Then he fainted away again.

We undressed him, and Boston pronounced his ribs sound. Then we carried him into the starboard foc'sle, and placed him in my bunk, which had a comfortable mattress.

"Now you see what he got?" said Boston, wiping his hands on his greasy pants. "And you see what you got. And you know what happened to Big 'Un. Well, how about it, Shreve? Do you stand with us?"

"With the crowd, sink or swim-that's what we want to know?" added

Blackie.

I sized them up. Sailors and stiffs, they stood shoulder to shoulder. There was no longer a division in that crowd. And they looked to me to lead them.

I was thinking, desperately trying to discover a course that would help

Newman. So I tried to put the crowd off.

"You heard what Holy Joe said?" I asked.

"He's balmy-and besides what d'ye think a Holy Joe would say?" retorted Boston. "Now, here's the lay, Shreve-we got to put a stop to this sort o' work." He pointed to the bunk that held Holy Joe. "That means we got to take charge of this hooker," he went on. "All hands are agreed to it. But where do you stand-with us, or against us?"

I made my plea for peace, knowing beforehand it was useless. "How about Newman?" I said. "You know as well as I that the skipper is out to kill him. And I have Newman's word for it that the Old Man wants to kill the lady, too. He's just waiting for an excuse. That's why he's dressing us down this way, and hazing us raw-so we'll mutiny, and give him the excuse he needs. Can't you see that?"

"He'll croak 'em anyway-and maybe we can save them," retorted Boston.

"No, Lynch won't allow it," said I. "He's for Newman and the lady. The Old Man will not dare do it unless we give him the chance by attacking the cabin, because Lynch would testify against him at the Inquiry. The Old Man has logged Newman as a mutineer, and our going aft would make him out one. As it is, Lynch is standing up for him-and for us."

But this was too much for the crowd to swallow. Too many of them had felt the weight of the second mate's fist.

"Lynch for us? By God, when I have my knife in his gullet-then he'll be for us!" swore Blackie, and the chorus of approval which followed this statement showed what the rest thought.

"The last thing Newman said to me, when I relieved him," I went on, "was a command to prevent this trouble. He said his life, and hers, depended on our keeping quiet."

"And how about us, how about our lives?" demanded Boston. "That damned murderer aft is out to croak us, too, ain't he-all of us he can spare? Look what he's done already! No, by God, we're going to put a stop to it-and we want to know if you are with us?"

I tried sarcasm. "I suppose you'll end it by walking aft and letting them empty their shotguns into you! I suppose you'll chase them overboard, guns and all, with your cute little knives, and your belaying-pins! Good Lor', men, have you gone crazy? If I hadn't overheard Cockney, I suppose he'd have led you aft, and got half of you filled with shot. As it is, they know you are talking mutiny, and they will be expecting you. You can't surprise them-and what can you do against their guns?"

Blackie cursed Cockney in a way to curdle the blood. Then he made plain the fear that was driving the men.

"They know we are talking mutiny-yes, and what's more, they know who's talking mutiny."

"We got to do it now, guns or no guns-ain't that right, mates?" said the man, Green.

"And the money, too!" added Blackie, artfully. "Enough of it aft there to set us all up for gents."

Boston plucked me by the sleeve. "Me and Jack are goin' to have a few words private," says he to the rest. "He's with us-no fear-a feller like Jack Shreve stands by his mates. Come on, Jack."

I went with him willingly. I was anxious to hear what he had to say "private." I was even more anxious to get away from the crowd for a few moments, and think out some scheme whereby I could avert the impending catastrophe.

Boston led me up on the foc'sle head, and we sat down upon an anchor stock.

"We ain't such fools as you think, Blackie and me," he commenced abruptly. "We ain't goin' to face guns with knives-not us. But guns to guns-well, that's different now, ain't it?"

"What do you mean?" I demanded. "Have you got a gun?"

In answer, he lifted my hand and placed it over his dungaree jacket, I felt something hard, of irregular shape, beneath the thin cloth, the outline of a revolver.

"It ain't the only one," he assured me. "Two brace we came on board with-and we weren't drunk, you bet. We hid them safe before them fellers aft went through the dunnage. And Cockney didn't find out about them, either. They don't know aft that we're heeled. The rest o' the gang ain't acquainted with the fact yet, either. We'll let them know when the time comes."

He paused, and looked at me inquiringly. "Well?" I asked.

"Well!" he echoed. "Well, just this-a gang that has guts enough to face shotguns with sheath-knives is a pretty tough gang, ain't it? And it'll be a lot tougher when it finds out it has four guns of its own, and plenty o' shells. And it kind of evens up the chances, doesn't it?"

I was thinking fast. All chance to keep the peace was gone, I realized.

Unless--

"We ain't goin' to let them fellers slaughter us; don't you worry none about that," went on Boston. "This ain't the first gun-play me and Blackie has took part in, you bet! He's a dead shot, and I'm a good one. We got it all planned out, Blackie and me. We never intended going aft like the Cockney wanted us to. We're goin' to lay low, behind cover, and pick 'em off-the mates, and old Swope, too, if he shows his blasted head. Then, where will them sailmakers and carpenters be, with their boss gone? They'll be rattled, they'll be up Battle Creek, that's where they'll be. We can rush 'em then. And if a few of our fellers swaller lead-why, there'll be the fewer to share the swag."

"Newman-" I began.

"We'll do the best we can for Big 'Un," says Boston. "We need him. We'll try and get the Old Man first pop-and if we have decent luck plunkin' the mates, it'll be over so quick nobody can hurt Big 'Un."

I thought, and was silent.

"What's holdin' you back?" demanded Boston. "I know you ain't afraid. Look here, Shreve, you know you can't hold the crowd back. You and Blackie and me could all be against it, and still they'd go aft. They're goin' to get Swope before Swope gets more o' them. And if it's Big 'Un you're worryin' about-why, we got to do this to save him. Look here-let me give you a tip, if the Big 'Un hasn't: When Big 'Un come on board this ship he found out somethin' from the skipper's Moll that he wanted to find out, and now, if he gets ashore alive with what he found out, there'll be a sheriff's necktie party for Yankee Swope. That's what all this bloody business has been about. You can lay your last cent that Swope will get Big 'Un, if we don't get Swope."

"Boston, give me that gun," I said.

He took a look at my face, and smiled, satisfied. He drew the weapon from under his clothes, a long-barreled, heavy caliber service Colt's, and passed it to me. I thrust it out of sight, beneath my own waist-band.

"Now, I'm boss," I said. "I'll give the word."

His smile widened. This was what he wanted, as I well knew. Boston and Blackie could plan and instigate. But they could not lead that crowd. The sailors despised them, the stiffs hated and feared them second only to the afterguard. They needed me as leader. They flattered themselves, I dare say, that they could control me-or extinguish me when the time came.

For my part, I had made my decision. It was a desperate, a terrible decision. It was necessary that I pretend to fall in with Boston's plans if I were to execute my decision.

"When it gets dark, I am going aft-alone," I told him. "You and Blackie keep the crowd quiet, and forward of the house, until I return."

"What you goin' to do?" he asked.

"Make sure that Newman will be safe when we make the attack," I explained. "We must make sure of that-he's our navigator."

"That's so," he agreed. "But how'll you do it?"

"I'll kill Captain Swope," I said.

(← Keyboard shortcut) Previous Contents (Keyboard shortcut →)
 Novels To Read Online Free

Scan the QR code to download MoboReader app.

Back to Top

shares