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   Chapter 13 WE PLAN AN EXPEDITION

The Devil's Admiral By Frederick Ferdinand Moore Characters: 24086

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


I had been thrown down the companion by an appalling crash and a sudden lurch of the steamer as she careened to port. It seemed to me that the bottom plates were being ripped out of her and she was settling on her side with a succession of thumps which I took to be her last effort to keep afloat. The sea was almost to the open ports on the port side; and, as I tried to gain my feet on the tilted deck of the forecastle, I fell against the outboards of the line of bunks.

"She's aground!" screamed Captain Riggs at me. "She's gone smash flat into a bed of coral! See that green streak running away from us to seaward? That's a reef running out from the mainland and we've piled up on it, and if we don't slip off we're safe until it comes on to blow."

He ran to the starboard side and climbed the bunks to look through the ports there.

"It's all around us! Hear her settling? She's making a bed for herself in the coral-patch and she's not taking any more water. She's safe as a church, Mr. Trenholm. If the tide don't lift her off enough to pull her into deep water, or the current swing her, she'll hold until the sea comes up; but she's pretty deep and lays steady. She'll break up right here."

"That's small comfort for us," I said, nursing my bruises.

"They've gone in behind that point and made a landing," said Riggs, still looking through the port. "We'll be out of here in jig-time now. Where be my matches? Here! You and Rajah fish for water with these tins on a string, and wet down all these rags. Pull all the water in here you can."

He lit the slush-lamp again, and I wondered what he was about. I was not quite sure whether he knew of a way to get out of the forecastle, or had lost his reason. He was all bustle and business in a minute.

"I thought we wanted to keep the water out," I remarked.

"Stow that talk and obey orders," said Riggs sharply, digging grease out of the can of the lamp with his fingers and picking the wick to make it burn better. "Look lively now with that water and I'll show you a trick or two now that they've abandoned ship. I'll take a hand in this business myself."

"What's the plan?" I asked.

"Burn the cussed scuttle off a mite at a time. Grease a bit of the board and then hold the flame of the lamp on it, and, when it gets too lively, heave some water on and put it out and begin again. Haul a couple of barrels of water in here and spill it under the bunks so we can git at it with the pans if the fire starts to git away from us. Clap on, man; we need every minute now."

Rajah and I rigged them with strings and set to drawing water through the port-holes on the port side, which was not a hard job, for the swells came within a couple of feet of our hands as we held the tins outside. We filled sea-chests, the rubber crowns of a couple of old sou'westers, and dumped water through the slats of the tiers of bunks so that it lodged in the angle between the side of the ship and the deck.

While we were at this task Riggs was up in the scuttle, and from time to time we could hear the crackle of flames, and then the hissing of the water as he extinguished the burning planks. The thick smoke came down the companion and burned our eyes and nostrils as it escaped through the ports.

Riggs came down every few minutes to get a supply of water. He was black as a chimney-sweep, but he reported good progress and grinned at our discomfort from the smoke and heat.

Finally we heard Riggs hammering at the charred board with the belaying-pin.

"I've got it through!" he yelled to us from a smoking shower of black fragments of the board, and I ran up to him and saw the sun through the chains around the frame of the scuttle. The links were glowing with heat and we dashed water on them. In a short time we had wrenched them apart so Rajah could get through the strands. Then he threw off the bars of our prison, and Riggs and I gained the hot plates of the sloping fore-deck, crawling over the body of the dead Chinese, which we rolled into the sea.

"They are clean gone," said Riggs, crawling up to the starboard side and scanning the island and the channel. "They went in behind that point, and it's a good chance they'll be back if they see she's still afloat."

"Let them come," I said. "Are there any more weapons in the ship?"

"I've got a few guns stowed where even Thirkle couldn't find 'em, or at least Harris hid some away. Always afraid of mutiny, he was, and he got one with a vengeance, poor chap. It's my ticket to a penny whistle we'll find Thirkle and his men on the island."

"Then you'll go after them, captain?"

"Well, I'd rather guess so," he said vehemently. "I'm on fair ground now, and if they don't come back to burn the ship I'm the man to hunt them out of their holes ashore. But what I'm afraid of is they will hide the stuff and make for the mainland, or put off to the north in the boats to see if they can't be picked up by some steamer for the north coast.

"They'll report the Kut Sang lost, and Thirkle'll figure on getting back here before folks are suspicious. Of course the people who shipped that gold may smell a rat and keep tab on him, but he'll see that he gets clear. He'll report her foundered far from here-leave that to him. I doubt if he'll quit this place as long as he sees a foot of the Kut Sang above water. Are you game to go after him, Mr. Trenholm?"

"I'm with you to the end of the whole game-I want to see it played out now, win or lose."

"I knew you would. I suppose I've been a bit of an old woman, Mr. Trenholm, but I never looked for the likes of what was aboard last night. There I was, alone, you might say, blind as an owl on what was going on around me, and when things began to go bad they had you mixed in it so I took you for one of 'em. They had me flat aback for a time there-I didn't know my own name from Sally Ann's black cat. It looked like the whole ship was against me, and, when I saw Harris go, I was clean out of soundings."

I told him that he had realized the danger better than I did, and that I had not been hampered by the sense of responsibility or the possibility of disgrace.

"Oh, I lost my wits for a time there, and we can't get away from it-I was all fuddled, but I'll show ye I've got more fight in me than ye look for, if ye'll see me through with it."

"All or nothing," I said. "We'll give him a gamble for the whole pot now, and I think it's time they got a run for their money. In my way of thinking they have had it too easy."

"That's business," said Riggs. "Doggone my cats, but we'll give 'em some lead to go with the gold or my name ain't Riggs! We'll find out if this Devil's Admiral, or Thirkle, or the Rev. Luther Meeker, or whatever he calls himself, is so bad as he makes out to be-eh, Mr. Trenholm?"

We shook hands on the compact, lying there on the sizzling iron deck-plates that reflected the rays of the sun in shimmering heat-waves, making our exposed position intolerable after the thirst and smoke and hunger we had endured in the forecastle.

"Then that's settled, Mr. Trenholm. Now we'll have to step careful until I look up what's left of the weapons, and we can't know what traps they've laid for us about here. Come on, and keep close."

We scrambled along the port side, taking care of our footing, for the rail-chains were stripped off the stanchions, and with the deck at an awkward angle there was danger of slipping into the water. Captain Riggs led the way up the saloon-deck ladder and we entered the passage.

The captain and Rajah went to his cabin, the first door, and I ran aft to my stateroom, hoping to find my pistols. The room was ransacked and my bag empty and the pistols gone. Some of my garments were thrown into the passage, and I got a duck suit, a pair of deck-shoes, and a cap.

"Here are my guns," said Riggs. "Had 'em stowed down back of the chart-locker-three of 'em-and you'll find a canister of ammunition for that big gun of yours in Mr. Harris's room. That gives us two guns apiece, and I guess we can give 'em some lively times if we come across their bows again."

We belted on the weapons and hurried into the saloon, which we found a wreck. There were bundles of tinned meat on the table and a litter of ropes and bits of canvas. Bottles of mineral water had been hurled at the bulkheads and into the sideboard mirror. Curtains were torn down, table-covers gone, and the pivot-chairs smashed and the fragments piled in a corner, partly burned.

"They were going to fire her," said Riggs, "but that trouble with the black gang and the loss of steam made 'em change their minds. They were afraid the smoke would attract the attention of some passing ship. That's once Thirkle made a mistake-we never would have got out of her if he had left this fire going."

We gathered tins of biscuits and bottles of mineral water, and had a feast out of what the pirates had discarded. Rajah had his kris in the forecastle. While Captain Riggs and I enjoyed our cigars, Rajah went out on an exploring trip through staterooms and galley and in the bridge wheel-house.

"It's near noon now, Mr. Trenholm, and we ought to get away in an hour or so. The boats they left are smashed, but I can rig a raft with hatch-covers good enough to take us to the island.

"We'll take plenty of grub and water, and if they don't give us a fight from shore before we land, we can cache our supplies and take our time looking for that sweet gang. We'll keep out of sight as much as we can before we leave, and we might wait until dark, but I'm for getting off in jig-time, unless we see them coming back."

"I would like to see Thirkle and the others rowing out here," I said, having a mental vision of an ambuscade for them as they drew alongside in the boat.

"It's ten to one they will if they ain't too busy hiding the gold or having a fight over it. All I'm afraid of is they'll get away from us in their boats; but before they leave it's a sure thing they'll take a look at the Kut Sang to see if she's topside yet, and then come out to burn her-which means stand by to repel boarders for us.

"Likely they've got their eyes on us now, or on the ship, but we'll keep a sharp lookout, and if they come snooping back we'll blow 'em out of the water. If Thirkle sees the steamer ye can leave it to him to come back and see how we are and make a clean job of it. I'm not so sure he didn't plan that, anyway. Devil of a fine joke we'll make of it for him, if he does come out and thinks we're still cooped up in the fo'c'sle."

We set about the work of getting ready to leave the ship, keeping to the starboard side, which was low in the water and away from the island. Rajah was posted in the chart-room on the bridge with an old spy-glass Riggs dug up, and the black boy kept steady watch on the island and the channel, with an occasional turn to the open sea in the hope of raising a vessel.

The chronometers were gone, along with the other navigating instruments, the log-book, and manifests. The cabin clock was stopped at twelve, and Captain Riggs's watch, which had hung over his bunk, was missing.

We found two dead Chinese in the galley, bullet-splintered woodwork, dried blood, and empty shells and burned rice on the galley stove. The ship's carpenter had barricaded himself in his workshop, a little deck-house on the after-deck. The door was open, and we gathered that he had deserted his stronghold when he heard the water rushing into the hold, but whether he had been shot or drowned we had no way of knowing.

He had provided himself with a bucket of rice and bottles of water, evidently with the intention of preparing for a siege. Spent cartridges at the head of the stoke-hole ladder told of a desperate fight there, probably before the attack on the bridge by the engineer and his men.

But we wasted no time over these signs of what had happened during the night, simply observing them as we went over the vessel to see if any of the crew we

re in hiding, and seeking such things as might be of use in building the raft.

All the tools were carried forward, and I helped the captain get off the hatch-covers of the forehold, and he nailed them together with planks from the top of the cargo. In this way we made a rude catamaran some twenty feet long and five feet wide. A plank was put on its edge all around, making a low freeboard to hold our provisions and to serve as a protection against bullets in case the pirates should fire upon us while running ashore.

Life-lines were fastened to the sides, so we could take to the water in an emergency, and, with our bodies partially submerged, use our pistols to good advantage and offer poor targets. Captain Riggs seemed to foresee every possible danger, and went about his preparations to meet the pirates as calmly and methodically as if he were fitting out to go on a picnic.

Thirkle had taken every precaution to make the Kut Sang another mystery of the sea, without so much as a life-buoy being found with her name on it. We found the ring-buoys hacked to bits, especially that section of them which had the steamer's name painted on the side. The name painted on the two smashed boats had been ripped from their sterns, and everything that would float was locked securely in cabins or made fast.

Captain Riggs fashioned a sail out of a tarpaulin, and stepped a mast well forward, and with other things we took signal-pennants and a British ensign, and from the foremast of the Kut Sang he flew a signal of distress and a message in the international code about pirates or some such thing, so that, in case Thirkle should get away in the boat and be picked up, he would have a great deal of difficulty in explaining about himself if the same vessel should sight our coloured flags.

"Take a look and see that the boy ain't busy up there at a nap," said Riggs, and I mounted to the bridge, keeping well covered and to the seaward side of the chart-house. Rajah was wide awake, lying just inside the coaming of the chart-room door, chewing contentedly at his betel, and holding the spy-glass over the brass doorplate directed toward the island. He grinned at me as I entered through the door on the port side.

I took the glass and searched the horizon of the sea, but there was no sign of a sail or a smear of smoke; neither could I find any trace of the pirates on the island, which had a pile of volcanic rock rising out of its northern end. I sought for some sign of human habitation on the brown, bare hills of Luzon, baking in the sun, but that part of the coast was a wilderness, desolate and forbidding.

The Kut Sang was lying secure as if in a dock, sprawled out on the coral floor of the sea like some dead thing, her stern completely under water, and her port rail, almost to the break of the forecastle head, at the crests of the gentle swells. The island gave us a lee from the strong current, but at the first sign of heavy weather she would break up.

A school of small sharks scouted around her, and one big fellow, with his fin out of water like a trysail, loafed at a distance, as if sure of his prey. The combers purred on the shining stretches of beach, and the ripples of the current whispered at the side of the vessel, and in the peace that surrounded us Riggs's hammer made a terrific clatter.

"Keep a sharp lookout, Mr. Trenholm," he called up to me. "I've got a job for'ard which must be attended to now, and I'll call for you in a bit of a while."

He went down the forecastle ladder with his arms full of new canvas, and by the time I had finished another cigar he was up again, beckoning to us. I went below to him, and he took me into the forecastle, and I saw what I knew to be the body of Harris sewed up and ready for burial.

"I know he'd want to go into the sea, rather than be buried ashore or be left here, so I've done the best I could for him," said the captain. "We'll take him along to deeper water, and, if you don't mind, we'll drop him away from the cattle that have gone down hereabout, and nothing will ever disturb him. I'll say some sort of a prayer."

We carried the body up and got the catamaran over the side and stowed with food and water and cigars and such things as Riggs knew we would need if we had to make a camp on the island.

I also wrote out a brief account of what had befallen us since leaving Manila, closing with the explanation that we were going after the pirates. We left this message between the covers of an old book, and nailed to the saloon table, with chalk arrows drawn on the floor and about the ship pointing toward it. There any person who should board the vessel in our absence would find directions to come to our assistance.

But about the gold we said nothing, simply stating that there had been a mutiny and that pirates had looted the ship, and offering a reward of ten pounds to each man in the party who should come to our rescue, and a thousand pounds, or five thousand dollars, in general to the man who should direct the party to seek us-this to be claimed either by the master of the vessel or the owners of the vessel which furnished the expedition.

Before embarking we had a hasty meal and drank a toast to our success and the confusion of the Devil's Admiral and his men. We looked to our pistols and ammunition, and, thrilled with the prospect of battle, felt better than we had since the death of Trego.

As the ship was listed over so far, we had little trouble in getting the raft into the water. As it floated alongside I felt like giving a cheer, but as Captain Riggs had done most of the work and had gone about his tasks as dispassionately as if he were building a hencoop, I stifled my emotions and held her off while Riggs stepped aboard.

We caught the breeze from the land as soon as we cleared the steamer, and we rounded her bows and headed for the island, steering to pass the point of rocks which jutted out from the island into the channel. Riggs said that he would cut her in toward shore, or the coast of the mainland, before reaching the point, unless the pirates showed themselves.

"We'll make a northing up the channel," he said, "If they think we are getting away they may take after us in a boat, or fire from the shore; but if we show we are going to land they will keep hidden and take us by surprise. If we should head straight in now they would likely hide in the brush and pot-shot us as we land when we are in the surf; but you watch old Cap Riggs, and if we don't give this Devil's Admiral the fight of his life before this little party is wiped out, I'll go back on the farm in Maine. He can't come aboard me and perform like that without getting paid for it-Bloody Thirkle, Devil's Admiral, nor nobody else. You watch my smoke, young man."

The leg-o'-mutton sail pulled steadily and we slapped along through the water at a merry pace, with the water bubbling at the lee rail and the ripples frothing up through the seams in the planks. It was a wet craft, but we were in our bare feet, with our trousers rolled up.

Rajah was in the bow with his sarong twisted into a belt, and his black shoulders and arms bare to the sun, his head swathed in a turban made from a faded green port-curtain, giving him an outlandish aspect, reminding me of a pilgrim returning from Mecca.

"We've got Johnny Sharkee for an escort," said Riggs, pointing aft, and I saw the fin of the big man-eater cutting the water in our wake. "If he don't sheer off by the time we are ready to make a landing, we may have to give him a bullet or two, but I want to get in without any racket if I can."

We were soon in deep water, and Riggs made fast his tiller while he read a burial service out of a pocket-testament, and we dropped the body of Harris over the side. It was a brief enough ceremony, and I was inclined to believe that Captain Riggs made it altogether too much a matter of little account, until I saw there was a tear in his eye, and he hastily used the binoculars on the island.

"Put your helm to starboard," he directed. "I want to keep screened behind the point and gradually work in toward shore. Then we'll make a quick run for it in near the point, if they don't show by the time we have the inlet on this side of the rocks abeam. They probably went around the point, and we'll hunt for 'em on that side if we can make a safe landing."

We slopped along for another while, and slowly worked in until we had the beach less than five hundred yards away.

"Swing her for the open sea again," said Riggs. "I'll trim the sail, so if they are watching us they'll think we are making a board to run out. Keep low, all hands, and at the first shot drop to the deck and keep covered, and we'll manoeuvre out of reach until dark. If they press us, we'll let 'em get up close, so they'll think we have no weapons, and then we'll open up on 'em at close range and settle it."

The raft went about clumsily on the other tack and heeled over so that her port side was deep in the water, which afforded us good protection from the island. We kept close watch on the edge of the jungle, but nothing menaced us, although the tangle of brush and creepers might have been full of men and we little the wiser.

"Over with the helm now, but not too quick, and hold her steady when she stands for the land and don't get scared at a little surf. Keep her head on until she grounds, and then take to the water and rush ashore with some of the gear while I get the rigging down.

"See that you keep your pistols out of the water, and dump the gear in the brush. Rajah will hold her steady while we lighten her a bit, and then we'll drag her in with the swells."

The raft turned in a great circle and plunged for the rollers straight before the breeze. The captain cut away the stays just before she struck and we went into waist-deep water on a hard, sandy bottom. The heave of the incoming swells threatened to break her open in the middle as she swung broadside against the hard shingle.

We lost a few things which didn't matter much, but, as our matches and biscuits and spare ammunition were sealed in oil cans, along with salt and cigars, most of such stuff as broke loose floated ashore and we saved it. Our chief difficulty was in saving the small casks of water and the sack full of cooking utensils and camp tools.

I danced a lively jig as I ran into the burning sand, and Riggs had to laugh at me as I retreated out of it and put on my shoes while standing in the water, but he took the same precaution. When we had hidden our stores just inside the fringe of the jungle, we sank the raft close under the ledge of rocks by filling her with big stones; and, while we were busy at this work, Rajah went up on the point and concealed himself among the boulders in a position where he could get a view of the beach beyond.

We kept our pistols slung about our necks on shortened belts, and, whenever the opportunity offered, watched the beach and jungle. We were kept on the alert, for we could not shake off the disconcerting feeling that we were being watched from the brush by the pirates, getting ready to ambush us at their leisure the minute we relaxed our vigilance.

"Look at Rajah," I said to Riggs. "He looks like a big red and green and black lizard crouched up there in the rocks."

"That black boy is a big help," said Riggs. "The lad has more savvy than ye'd think. He seems to know just what to do in any emergency. And fight! A mad Arab that I shipped in Aden made for me one day in the Red Sea. I didn't mind the chap till he was 'most on me, and a bit more and he'd had me. Rajah got him with the kris.

"Lucky for Thirkle the boy had lost it last night when they had me going over the bows! He was after Thirkle then, when a sea come over and upset him, and away went his knife and-"

A pebble hit the water near us, and we looked up to see Rajah wildly waving his arms to us. He had spied something on the other side of the point.

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