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   Chapter 9 A FIGHT IN THE DARK

The Devil's Admiral By Frederick Ferdinand Moore Characters: 21672

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


Dazed for a minute by the discovery that Meeker had been lurking in the passage while I was listening to Captain Riggs and Harris in the storeroom, I leaned against the companionway and fingered the shell crucifix, wondering how near Meeker had come to making an end of me. Of course, the finding of the crucifix down there, and the man who ran up the ladder when surprised by Riggs, meant nothing else but that Meeker had been below either before or after I followed the ship's officers down.

The fact that he was between me and the companionway was proof enough that he had come after I had taken my position at the keyhole of the storeroom, but if I was inclined to make theories and draw conclusions about Meeker, there were other things going on to distract my attention.

There was much shouting and running on deck, and, before going up, I listened in the hopes of learning what was taking place, but the roar of the sea, the throb of the engines, and the thumping of my own heart prevented me from making any sense of the tumult above. I had a fear that Riggs had discovered that I was missing from my room, and that he had found Meeker likewise absent from his quarters.

No matter what had come about, I was in peril as long as I remained where I was, both from Riggs and Harris and from Meeker and his assassins. And no matter which side won above, whether Meeker was taken, or Riggs and Harris killed, I would be regarded as an enemy by the victors. The best thing for me to do was to surrender to Riggs at once, and secure my pistols that I might get into the fight with him against Meeker and his henchmen.

That seemed to be an easy solution of my troubles until I considered that Riggs and Harris were certain that I was the most dangerous man on board. Before I could say a word I might be seized and ironed, if not shot on sight. Perhaps the wiser course would be to get to my room and barricade myself until affairs were more settled, or until we had the light of day and I could know with whom I was dealing.

With one hand on the rail of the ladder and the other clutching the crucifix, I debated with myself about what I should do, while above me I could hear Riggs and Harris yelling to one another, although I could not make out what they were saying. I heard Harris say something about "the parson," and there were shouts from the bridge, and all hands seemed to be running over the main-deck like madmen.

I started up the ladder, bent upon learning what was happening and watching my chance to slip back to my room through the darkness. Before I had gone three steps I was halted by a terrific noise between decks in the direction of the storeroom. Several heavy blows were struck in rapid succession against a bulkhead, followed by a rending crash and splintering timbers. An iron bar rang on the deck-plates as it was thrown down, and there was a rattle of chains.

Going down the ladder again, I crouched in a corner, for I was sure that the racket below would attract the attention of Riggs and Harris, and that they would be down to investigate. I would have wagered that some one had broken into the storeroom containing the mysterious cargo.

Whispers reached my ears from the end of the passage, and then I heard

Petrak yell in his fretful, whining way:

"Hold it down, Bucky! Hold it down, ye beggar! It's my bleedin' hand ye got, will ye mind?"

"Dry up about the paw," said a voice. "Lucky for ye it's not yer neck in a rope. Can't break the chain, can I, 'thout givin' ye a twist, ye fool! There it is now-right aft and on deck, Red, and follow me close! We'll git 'em off right enough when ye git above decks. What's matter if yer flippers are clear?"

Something rushed toward me in the dark, and again I heard the musical tinkle that made me think of chain-armour. I pressed my body against the boarding to be clear of the ladder, and made out the figure of a man, crouched down and feeling his way along the passage. He stumbled up the ladder, and then I heard Petrak close behind him, panting and cursing, and the broken chains on his hands rasping along the bulkhead.

"Wait for me, can't ye? Bucky, wait for me! Stop a bit and give me a hand up-"

"Oh, come along and stow the gab," called Buckrow from the head of the companion, but in suppressed tones. "Keep yer lip shut, the afterguards are on deck here and I don't know where Thirkle is. Slip along and give us a hand with a knife or a gun. Looks like we'll settle the business quick now."

Petrak went up the ladder, his progress over each iron step plain to me by the jingle of the chains dangling from his wrists, and before I had settled in my mind what had happened the pair of them were gone. Buckrow had rescued the little red-headed man from the ship's brig.

I crawled up the ladder, still holding the crucifix, for it was the only thing in the form of a weapon I possessed, and the manner in which I gripped it improvised it into a hilted dagger, although I remember keeping it more for evidence against Meeker than for any other purpose. If the sly rascal was still making a fool of Riggs, or denied that he had been below, I felt that his crucifix would be proof against him which he could not deny.

When I emerged from the hood of the companionway I found a high wind was drenching the deck with spray and everything was black and wet and slippery. The vessel was labouring, and, although there was nothing that could be called a storm, she was bucking into head-swells that rattled her from stem to stern, and the gusts of wind whipped the tips of the waves across her fore-deck spitefully and without warning.

There were probably twenty feet of open well-deck between me and the foot of the ladder leading to the saloon-deck, and, then, I had the dark passageway to traverse for another thirty or forty feet aft before I could gain my room.

I braced myself between the hood of the companion and a thrumming ventilator and listened for some hostile sound. I was conscious of dim forms all about me, although I could not see them, and I felt as if I had blundered into a desperate game of hide-and-seek.

Thrusting my hands before me into the darkness, I stumbled toward the ladder. As I was about to grasp it I encountered a wet jacket, and the next instant I found myself gripped in a pair of arms. The fingers of my enemy shut on the light fabric of my pajama-jacket. I struck at him with the point of the crucifix and landed a glancing blow in his face, for the knuckles of my hand brushed his jaw.

The sharp edge must have cut him, for he uttered a stifled groan, and as he recoiled from me, partly from my blow and partly as the result of a deep roll of the vessel, I wriggled out of my jacket and ran forward. In my flight I bumped into ventilators, stumbled over a hatch-coaming and pulled myself along the swaying rail-chains toward the bow of the vessel. In the scuffle I had lost the crucifix, but I had also escaped from the man who had grabbed me, and, while I was in a panic and did not know where I was going, I hoped to be able to regain the ladder on the port side and get back to my room once I had thrown my assailant off my track.

I reached the break of the forecastle head, but did not go into the bows, because I knew I could not hope to escape from them if I did not keep open some means of retreat. I halted at the closed scuttle of the forecastle, for from there I could have my choice of getting aft again along either rail. I clung to the wooden hood, naked to the waist, and swept continually by the spindrift from the seas which met the vessel.

As my eyes grew more accustomed to the darkness I could distinguish the outlines of the machinery on deck, the foremast and the companionway forward of the superstructure. I could make out the bridge and the funnel well enough to see a figure moving over the rim of the storm-apron. The vessel rolled and the side-lights threw red and green glares over the sea on either side.

As I stood there waiting for some sound which might tell me the position of the mysterious man who had attacked me, eight bells was struck on the bridge, and I knew it was midnight. I expected that there would be some answer from the bows, as there should be a man on lookout there, and the faint double notes of the bell in the wheel-house should have been repeated from the ship's bell near to where I stood.

I had about decided to make another sortie toward the ladder, when I heard a commotion on the bridge, and then a yell as a man might give who had been stricken suddenly with death. It chilled my blood, for I knew that another blow had been struck which took another life on board the Kut Sang, and I realized that the striking of the bells had been a sort of signal for the assassin.

After a minute I heard Harris bawl: "The Dutchman has been killed! Ho, cap'n-the Dutchman has been knifed on the bridge!"

"The devil and all ye say!" shouted Captain Riggs from the fore-deck, and I heard him clamber up the ladder and knew it must have been he who grabbed me as I was about to gain the upper deck.

"Who was it, Mr. Harris? What in God's name is this, Mr. Harris? Mutiny?

Is this mutiny aboard me?" He was mounting to the bridge.

"They got the Dutchman," repeated Harris. "They done for him-he's dead as a red mackerel!"

"It's mutiny, Mr. Harris," said the captain.

"Ye know cussed well what it is," shouted Harris, as loudly as though

Captain Riggs were still below. "I come up to take the watch and find the

Dutchman hangin' over the port ladder bleedin' like a dead goose! More

work of yer fine passengers, that's what it is, and ye know why."

A lantern flickered above the storm-apron and then swung in the break of the bridge-rail at the ladder-head, and I saw Harris moving something which hung limply as he dragged it behind the canvas.

There was a wrathful conference as the two of them inspected the body of the second mate, and as I watched I saw a lancelike tongue of fire, outside the halo of light cast up from the lantern, followed by the report of a pistol shot, which reached my ears after I had seen the flash, for the wind checked the sound.

On top of this came a ripping, rending noise and the figure of a man swung to the lower deck, carrying with him a portion of the storm-apron, which volleyed in the wind for a minute and then was swept away as he let go of it.

"There they go!" bellowed Harris. "Come on, cap'n, we'll git the hounds now," and he led the captain down the bridge-ladder, Riggs still carrying the lantern, which swung crazily as he dropped three steps at a time.

"W'ere the bloody 'ell be ye, Bucky?" called a voice which I knew to be that of Long Jim. "W'ere be ye, I s'y! Ye missed 'im, ye fool. Missed 'im dead. Jol

ly nice mess ye made of it! Were be ye, Bucky?"

"Shut yer bloomin' face," growled Buckrow. "What if I did miss him? It was you that spoiled my aim, falling against the lashings as ye did, so the blasted thing carried away with me and like to mashed my head. What, with a fall like that. Dropped my gun, too, and it's broke or jammed."

"Likewise I couldn't 'elp it," said Long Jim. "Caught my blasted foot in a lashin'-rotten sailcloth, that, Bucky. Make a stand of it 'ere as they come on an' we'll git the two of 'em, Bucky."

"My gun is jammed, I say," said Buckrow. "Come on below for now and find

Thirkle and Red. We'll get another gun."

They were coming toward me all the time, and behind them were Captain Riggs, still with his lantern, and Harris, uttering terrible threats of vengeance.

"Throw that cussed light away," said Harris. "Throw it away, cap'n, or they'll wing us sure. Cuss it all, cap'n, they'll blow yer head off if ye pack that 'round with ye. Throw it, can't ye?"

"I can't see!" wailed Riggs, who seemed to be confused. "I can't see,

Harris."

"'Course ye can't see with it shinin' in yer eyes! Throw it away, will ye? Here-now keep after me."

Harris wrenched the lantern from Riggs's hand and hurled it into the sea, and, as the briny spume closed over it, it went out with a spiteful, protesting hiss.

"'Ere's w'ere we bloody well get the two of 'em," said Long Jim, who was within a dozen paces of me. "Give 'em the knives as they come along in the black, Bucky."

"No knife-play for me with Harris-he's got a gun," said Buckrow. "Come along below, Jim, and let 'em go for now. Quick, or the mate'll have ye. Thirkle said he'd have the fo'c's'le by now. He run the chinks out, him and Petrak. Scuttled 'em aft. Come below."

"Not till Mr. Mate 'as this in 'is ribs," said Long Jim.

"Ye fool-here they be, on us, and Harris with a couple of guns. Run for it, Jim, I tell ye," and Buckrow rose up out of the dark within reach of my hand and thrust back the slide of the forecastle-hood and swung below.

Long Jim came after him, chuckling with the joy of battle. I wanted to do something, to have some hand in the fight, to capture one of the murderers, and so prove to Riggs that I was not in league with them. This impulse to aid the captain's side of the fight came to me swiftly, and I put it into action at once by jumping directly in Long Jim's path at the head of the forecastle ladder. I planned to grab his arms and hurl him back, yelling at the same time to Harris not to shoot, that it was I, Trenholm, and that I was holding Long Jim.

It was a foolish enough thing to do, for in the excitement of the minute Harris would have undoubtedly shot me and Long Jim, too, and with good reason, for he would have suspected a trap if I had asked him to hold his fire and approach us in the dark.

As it happened, Long Jim was throwing himself forward in a sort of dive beneath the hood of the scuttle, just as I thrust my body against the opening. His shoulder caught me in the stomach, and my head and feet flew out and we grabbed each other and went tumbling down the old wooden companion together and rolled into the black forecastle.

"Blime me, I thought ye was down afore me, Bucky," gasped Long Jim, recovering himself and stumbling over me. I rolled to one side and found myself under a bunk.

"I was down," said Buckrow. "What ye trying to do-make a Punch and Judy show of yerself? Ye come down like a lubberly farmer, and then blame it on me. What made ye tumble like that?"

"I thought ye was down."

"I was down-well clear of ye and waiting for ye."

"Then how come ye under my bleedin' feet. Mind yer eye now, or the two of 'em'll be down on us. That mate is a bad un, I tell ye, Bucky-bad as the nigger in the Southern Cross. No end of trouble with him, if ye remember as I do."

"Aw, stow the gab," whispered Buckrow, "We're working now. Mind what yer about. I've got another gun from Thirkle."

"Thirkle here?" asked Long Jim. "W'ere be ye, Thirkle?"

"Standing by," was the whispered reply. "Shoot if they come down, but keep still a minute. Fire up before they have a chance to drop on you, and stand clear, with the gun around the bulkhead at that side, while I let go at them from this side."

"Below thar!" called Harris down the scuttle. "All hands on deck and look lively, or I'll make a tailor's dummy of the last up."

"Don't say a word, but let him have it when he gets well down," whispered the man who had been addressed as Thirkle, which mystified me.

"Below thar! I want the man as killed the Dutchman! All hands up and one at a time, or I'll let daylight through ye all. Hear me below?"

"Don't say a word," cautioned Thirkle.

Riggs and Harris were talking together, but we could not make out what they were saying. I lay under the bunk at the very feet of Buckrow, dazed and bruised from my fall, yet keenly aware of the situation and strangely cool, thrilled and fascinated with the drama being played about me.

I knew that I had small chance of escaping with my life if my presence should be discovered by the men who lay in wait for Harris and the captain; but it was not fear which kept me an auditor when I might well have been an actor to good purpose. I desired to see what would be the end of the act, and, far from being terrorized as I should have been, I enjoyed the invisible scene. It was not that I was unmindful of the danger, but that I was surprised at myself for feeling no fear.

"I'll give all hands a minute to get up, and if they ain't, I'll be down," thundered Harris. "I know yer down thar, Buckrow, along with Jim and the red chap, and I know yer game. If I have to go down I'll kill a couple of ye, lay to that; so ye can come up and save yer necks, or take yer chances if I go below."

"Pass him some insolence," said Thirkle. "We've got to get out of here. Give him lip, Buckrow, so he'll come down, or he'll batten down on us until morning, and ye know what that means."

"What ye want of me?" called Buckrow.

"Ye stabbed the Dutchman, ye murderin' hound," said Harris. "Ye know what

I want ye for well enough, and if ye don't come up I'll see that Jim and

Petrak swing with ye."

"I didn't kill nobody," said Buckrow. "Ye want to blame it on me, don't ye, ye big monkey."

"It was you that stabbed him and then took a shot at me. I know ye,

Buckrow, and I'll have the life of ye if ye don't come up."

"Petrak was the one what killed the mate," said Buckrow. "It was Petrak done for the Dutchman, sir. I ain't no murderer, sir, Mr. Harris, but a sailorman what does his duty as he sees it, sir."

"Come on deck then and we'll see about that," said Harris, who seemed to think that Buckrow's play of fear of him was genuine.

"Come down and get me. Ye don't dare come down, ye big bucko. I know the likes of ye! Come down and get me, if ye dare."

"Is this mutiny? I'll have the lot of ye hanged! I don't stand for no such business aboard me," cried Captain Riggs, and the trio below stifled their laughter.

"Naow let me handle this, cap'n," we heard Harris say. "I'll go down and break this myself. This ain't no time to argue 'bout mutinies; this ain't."

"Give him a dirty insult, Bucky," whispered Thirkle. "Give it to him hard or the old master will argue him out of coming down."

"Come down, ye swine! Come down ye low-born coward and take me if ye can. That's what I say to ye. It's me, Buckrow, foremast hand that's talkin' to the mate of the Kut Sang, who's a dog."

This brought a cry of rage from Harris, and we heard him enter the scuttle, while Captain Riggs begged him not to go down.

"Stay up here, Mr. Harris, and let the murdering dogs stay there. We'll fix 'em fast enough when day comes."

"Leggo me, cap'n! I say I'll break that spawn's neck! Let me down!"

"I can't let you risk your life this way, Mr. Harris. I can't, I say. Where will I have officers if ye get hurt down there? Let 'em stop for now."

"Leggo my arm!" shrieked Harris. "Cap'n, if ye don't leggo my arm I can't say what I'll do. I never let no man talk to me like that!"

"But, Mr. Harris! Ye know what it means! Ye know I can't work the ship!

Ye know what's below and what they want! Mr. Harris! Mr. Harris!"

"Now, will ye let go?" demanded Harris, and then he crashed down the wooden ladder. The forecastle was illumined by a flash, and Buckrow's pistol boomed, and then a second flash on the other side of the forecastle showed me the face of the Rev. Luther Meeker at the entrance to the forecastle behind a pistol which had sent a second bullet at the mate. And the Rev. Luther Meeker was the man who had been addressed as Thirkle, and who seemed to be in command of the others.

Something rolled into the smoke-laden hole and sprawled on the planks near me, and I could hear it gasping and choking.

"Leggo my coat, cap'n. Leggo my coat!" said the form, and I knew it was Harris wounded to death. In a minute he was still, and then the scuttle above rattled peremptorily.

"Mr. Harris! Be ye hurt, Mr. Harris? Oh, Mr. Harris!"

"We got him all right," whispered Buckrow. "That settles Mr. Matey, well and good. Hey, Thirkle?"

"Good, clean job," replied Thirkle. "Good, clean job, Bucky, and smart as could be the way you drew him down. See what you can do with the skipper now."

"Anything wrong, Mr. Harris?" called the captain from the scuttle. "Good Lord! ain't I to have no officers? What's to become of my ship with such a crew aboard me? Sally Ann! Sally Ann!"

"Come on down, cap'n," said a voice startlingly like Harris's. It was Meeker, or Thirkle, as his men called him, imitating the high-pitched nasal twang of the dead mate.

"That you, Harris?" cried Riggs hopefully. "What's the matter, Mr.

Harris?"

"I hurt myself, cap'n. Come on down," pleaded Thirkle in a constrained voice like a man in pain. "I done for Buckrow, but I hurt my ribs. Why don't ye come down? I can't navigate this way-I'm hurt."

"Who was my mate in the Jennie Lee?" demanded Riggs. "Tell me that, Mr.

Harris, and I'll come down, and not before."

"We'll have to go up and get him," whispered Thirkle. "He's too wise an old crab to be caught that way. I'll take the lead, Bucky, and Long Jim last, and we've got the ship. We can let the fire-room chinks and the nigger go until morning. We'll take the bridge and keep the old tub going until day and then pick out a good place to drop her when we've got what we want. Petrak's got the wheel now, and we can do for the chinks, come day. Blessed if I know what has become of Trenholm, but we'll find him in time and attend to him proper. Remember: make for the bridge once we've got the skipper. Quick now!"

The three of them sneaked up the companionway.

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