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   Chapter 11 A COUNCIL OF WAR

The Devil's Admiral By Frederick Ferdinand Moore Characters: 16089

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04

"We are dead men," repeated Riggs, smiling grimly. "We'll never see another day. This slick devil will be back in Manila or up the China coast, praying his way out of the country with the gold cached somewhere to wait until he comes for it. He can take enough of it with him to buy a schooner-part of it is in Bank of England notes-but the Rev. Luther Meeker will never be heard from again, because he sailed in the Kut Sang."

"He won't!" I raged, testing the weight of the belaying-pin. "I'll batter my way out of here and take him by the throat if it's the last act of my life! If you won't fight, I will!"

I braced my feet on the plunging deck of the forecastle and shook my head like a maddened animal. The seas outside assailed our bows, and their fury thrilled me, and seemed a part of my desire to slay. I tore off my jacket and started for the scuttle with the belaying-pin gripped in my hand, bent on battering down the barrier which kept us from the upper deck.

"Not that," said Riggs, seizing me. "You'll have them down upon us, or they'll turn the firehose down the scuttle and drown us like rats. I've broken too many mutinies, Mr. Trenholm. You can't do that."

"But let's do something," I pleaded. "We might as well be planning something as to be sitting here weeping over what has happened."

We stopped to listen as the hammering between decks grew louder. The pirates were smashing the chests that held the gold, and to us in our prison the noise of their work was ominous-as if they were building a gallows and we were condemned men.

"They've got it," said Riggs. "When they've stowed the boats with it they'll open her sea-valves, and down we'll go. If there was a chance in the world, Mr. Trenholm, I'd fight; but, being a landsman, you don't understand how these things work out. They are probably driving her toward the coast now-we've been making an easting, as I can tell from her roll, and, as they'll be well off the steamer-lanes by daylight, they may wait until they can see where they will make their landing.

"But, if we give them trouble, they'll make sure of putting us out of the way before they abandon ship. Take it calm, and we may see a way out of it; but there is nothing to gain by opening the fight again, fixed as we are."

"It's a dismal outlook," I confessed, impressed by his coolness in spite of his surrender to the situation.

"You may be right, but if you will put your wits to work you may see a way."

"If I had any cartridges-"

"Cartridges! Have you a pistol?"

He drew a heavy revolver from his pocket and dropped the empty cylinder into his palm, and I gave a roar of joy at the sight of it, for I knew that it would take the bullets I had found in Harris's pocket.

"A forty-four! Here! These will fit!" and I plucked a handful of the precious cartridges which were suddenly transformed from so much useless lead and powder into deadly missiles which might yet save our lives and the ship.

"Our luck has turned!" I cried, slapping him on the back and putting six of the greasy slugs into the cylinder and snapping it back into position.

"We can fight them now, captain. Only let me get sight on one of those murderers and I'll drill him-Thirkle and Buckrow and the whole lot of 'em!"

"You won't get the chance," he said. "They are too wise to come prowling around if there is a chance of getting a bullet, and they won't bother their heads with us now-it's the gold they want-there they go again."

There was a shot on deck, and then we heard heavy shoes pounding over the deck and a wild yell over our heads as a man got a bullet or jumped into the sea.

I ran up the companion to the scuttle-hood and listened, and, with the pistol ready, tried to make out what was going on. I could hear Thirkle calling to Petrak, and then the screaming of Chinese, shots in rapid succession, and the patter of bare feet scampering on the iron deck-plates.

In a few minutes the battle seemed to be transferred to the superstructure and the after-deck, and from then until the ports of the forecastle became gray disks in the false dawn there was scarcely a quarter of an hour that was not marked by a pistol-shot or the death-cry of a victim. We knew it was a ruthless slaughter, and that Thirkle was working out the ancient creed that dead men tell no tales.

I lingered in the scuttle, and tried my luck on it with the broken knife, hoping that I might cut an aperture which would admit the muzzle of the pistol, or my hand, so that I might grasp the chains on the outside and pull them free. After an hour or more of labour I managed to split away a small piece of board, but in the dim light from the swaying slush-lamp I made slow progress.

In my cramped position I had to hold fast with one hand, and, swaying with the motion of the ship, work away splinters from the thick panel which moved from right to left in an iron groove. The scuttle was built on an iron frame, securely bolted to the deck, and I knew it could resist any attempt we might make to break it off by working in the narrow companion, which was not wide enough for two men.

It was weary work, for the smoke below sought an outlet up the passage and made my eyes ache; the wind that whirled through the cracks of the hood brought spray with it and the water dripped constantly, and the thunder of an occasional sea as it swept the forecastle-head made such a dreadful noise that I was sure each visitation meant that we were overwhelmed.

Captain Riggs crawled up to where I was, and asked me if I had solved the problem of getting out.

"I don't guess you'll make much of a job of it," he whispered. "It's an even bet they've got a ton of chain lashed over the hood; and, if ye dug through the wood, ye'd need a file after that. Come on down and have a bite. I found a sack of old sea-biscuit and a bottle of water stowed in one of the spare bunks."

I went below with him, and we made a sorry meal of mouldy biscuit that had been in the forecastle a year or more; and shared the water, which was satisfying-even though warm, greasy, and unpalatable. Rajah had gone to sleep in an upper bunk, and we ate in silence for a few minutes.

I was on the verge of despair as I saw that Riggs had given up, in spite of my efforts to hearten him. After the stories he had been telling that very evening about mutinies and wrecks and fights against odds, it seemed unbelievable that he should submit so tamely to Thirkle and his men. As he sat opposite me on the sea-chest and ate mechanically of the broken bits of biscuits, I observed him closely, and it seemed that he had aged twenty years in the last few hours.

His hair seemed whiter, his face grayer, the lines in his cheeks and forehead deeper, and his chin and jaw had lost their firm set which proved him a commander of men. As I considered all these things and saw the pity of it I forgot his age and was angered. I was bound to make him do something-put my youth and strength and hopefulness and fighting spirit with his experience and knowledge of ships and find a way out.

I determined to make him do something, anything, rather than mope and whine, even if I had to threaten him with his own pistol, which I had taken from him without so much as asking him for it. He didn't want it, anyway.

"Now, Captain Riggs," I began, "I know you have been a fighter all your life, and I know you can suggest something better than-"

"That's right," he broke in, raising his hand to stop me. "I've lived too long, and my fighting days are over. My years have come upon me all at once, and they are a burden-too much of a burden to bear and fight, too. I am weary from fighting. I'm older than I thought I was. I have been in these waters too long, and these latitudes take the mettle out of a man when he has reached my age.

"I never felt it as I do now, and I guess the owners knew it, and that's why I didn't get one of their new boats. But this ain't my fault, Mr. Trenholm. Don't you see it ain't my fa

ult? I should have known what was aboard, and then I could have been prepared. As it is, this thing is too big for me now, and I'm ready to strike my colours. It's my honour that frets me now."

"Your honour! It wouldn't be the first ship that's been lost, captain, even if it is the first one you have lost, and-"

"I know what you are thinking of, boy. You think I'm afraid. Well, I'm ready to die-that's nothing. If I thought I could save you and Rajah here, I'd do it-it is my duty. I've been in harder places than this, and I was a hard man to handle; and I've had my battles and mutinies and worse, some of 'em before ye were born, lad. They all weigh me down now, and it's not what's ahead of me that's fretting me now; but what's after me-the things they'll say, some of 'em who don't know me well. Don't you see, they'll think I made off with the gold?"

I hadn't considered the case in that light; but now I saw that he was worrying of what would be said, while I was thinking only of my life-he considered that he would lose life and honour; and, as he still had his New England conscience, honour weighed deeper in his scales. I felt ashamed that I had planned to make his last hours harder.

"I know how it will go," he said. "It's been done and told of before, and the master is always blamed; and this is no decent end for me. I'm known from Saddle Rocks to Kennebunkport as a brave man and a capable master, even if old.

"I stayed out here because I had a good billet with the Red Funnel people up to the time the Japs bought their ships. Then I took the Kut Sang, only for a year it was to be; but I held on longer, waiting to get a big ship to take back home, and then quit.

"My boy is a lawyer in Bangor-and smart, too-and I've got a daughter a schoolma'am in Boston, and they've both been begging me to come home; but somehow I hated to go back since my wife died.

"Mr. Trenholm, I don't want to bother you with all this now; but it's no decent end for me, I say. All the men scattered over the globe to-day, some that went as boys with me, will have to hear old man Riggs turned pirate at the last and scuttled his own ship. That's how it will go, boy, and you can't understand. Fight! I'd walk into hell in my bare feet, with never a thought of the way back, if I could die with an honest name-but this ain't no way for me to go, along with a passel o' gold!"

"Then, if you are concerned about what will be said of the mystery of the loss of the Kut Sang, there must be a way to let the world know of our end and the fate that overtook the ship, and at the same time a chance of making trouble for our Mr. Thirkle after we are gone."

"What do you mean?" he asked.

"Some message," I said, more to find something to interest him and brighten him. "The story of the Kut Sang and the Rev. Luther Meeker, Thirkle, the Devil's Admiral, or whatever he is called, should be told; and, as it is my business to deal in information, I can write it all down, and we will seal it in this bottle and set it adrift. How's that, captain?"

"A good scheme," he said, smiling at me. "The very thing, Mr. Trenholm. I have some papers and envelopes here in my jacket, and a stub of pencil for the log-book, and while you are at your writing I'll fashion a stopper for the bottle and a buoy."

We poured out the last of the water in a pannikin and kept it for Rajah, and I ripped open a couple of envelopes and set to work on them with a stub of pencil, while Captain Riggs took my knife and began to whittle a piece of board.

I put down briefly but clearly the story of how the Rev. Luther Meeker, and Buckrow, Long Jim, and Petrak came aboard the Kut Sang, giving their descriptions as well as I could remember. Then I told of the killing of Trego, and all that had happened aboard the steamer, and about the gold and the plight we were in, "skeletonizing" the narrative, much as if it were to be filed as a news-cable.

Then I put down the names and addresses of my relatives, and those of Captain Riggs. It was a queer job, writing one's own obituary in the forecastle of the old Kut Sang, putting down the names of streets in Boston and Bangor and San Francisco, and making our wills-which we did when we found the space at our disposal getting scant, although I had little enough to give or bequeath, chiefly a pair of Chinese jingals and a good pair of riding-boots with silver spurs.

It took a deal of time, for I wrote in the smallest possible characters, and was careful to make them legible-no small task, considering that the vessel was still rolling and pitching, although it grew calmer toward morning.

We did not have any method of measuring the time, for no bells were struck-at least, none that we heard-and Captain Riggs did not have his watch with him, for he had not been back to his cabin from the time I saw him leave it with Harris to explore the mysterious cargo in the storeroom.

As I wrote I was hammering my brains for some solution of the problem before us; for, although I took pains to make the story complete, I was hoping that Captain Riggs would finally hit upon some scheme which would release us from the forecastle and give an opportunity to do battle with our captors.

I took a measure of pride in writing the story, too, for I knew there was a good chance that it might be my last, and I had visions of it being printed in the newspapers some day.

"I'll cut a little pennant from Rajah's sarong," said Riggs with a grin, and he reached up to the sleeping boy and hacked off a bit of his skirtlike garb. "We'll make a fancy job of it, Mr. Trenholm, while we're at it. The backs of those sheets, with the stamps and postmarks and the address to me, will be good proof that it is not a hoax.

"Folks don't put much stock in bottles washed up by the sea these days, and we'll have to offer a reward for having it forwarded, say to my son, and then he'll be sure. I guess he'd give a hundred dollars to know what become of his old daddy-and the girl, too. Put that in, Mr. Trenholm."

"And I'll put in as a sort of P.S. that Captain Riggs intends to make a fight for his ship as soon as he has signed this," I said.

"You better not put that in," he said wearily. "It ain't so, and I'm something of a churchman, even if it was only to please the wife. I'm no hypocrite, and I don't want to have anything in that sounds like a brag. Just sign it and let it go at that."

"No, I'll put that in," I insisted, looking at him seriously. "I won't have them say after getting this that you gave up and took your fate too easily, which they might. You have been a fighter all your life, and I know you don't intend to quit now.

"Here is what I'll say: 'Captain Riggs wishes it understood that, after setting this message adrift, he and Trenholm and Rajah determined to die fighting rather than go to their doom at the pleasure of Thirkle and his men. As this is launched upon the waters of the China Sea, the whole story is not told, and we are confident that the Devil's Admiral and some of his men will yet die.'"

"Oh, that sounds like a boy, Mr. Trenholm-you better leave it out."

"No, sir. This is my story, and you will please sign it now for what it is worth."

"It isn't the truth," he demurred.

"But it is," I said; and he signed it, and I knew that he was taking new hope.

He unscrewed one of the ports to leeward, and, although we let much water into the forecastle, he threw the bottle out at an opportune moment, and then slammed the port shut again.

"Mr. Trenholm," he said, as he climbed down from the top bunk, dripping and smiling, "I guess you were right about what you wrote there last-I calculate that there's a bit of a fight left in Captain Riggs yet, although I don't for the life of me see what chance I've got of fighting anybody. But, if you're ready to try, I'm ready to see what can be done."

"I knew it, captain!" I cried, taking his hand, "If you'll do the planning I'll do the work, and we'll beat them yet."

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