Where Angels Fear to Tread
by Morgan Robertson
"I have seen wicked men and fools, a great many of each; and I believe they both get paid in the end, but the fools first."
Robert Louis Stevenson.
The first man to climb the
side-ladder from the tug was the shipping-master, and after him came the crew he had shipped. They clustered at the rail, looking around and aloft with muttered profane comments, one to the other, while the shipping-master approached a gray-eyed giant who stood with a shorter but broader man at the poop-deck steps.
"Mr. Jackson—the mate here, I s'pose?" inquired the shipping-master. A nod answered him. "I've brought you a good crew," he continued; "we'll just tally 'em off, and then you can sign my receipt. The captain'll be down with the pilot this afternoon."
"I'm the mate—yes," said the giant; "but what dry-goods store did you raid for that crowd? Did the captain pick 'em out?"
"A delegation o' parsons," muttered the short, broad man, contemptuously.
"No, they're not parsons," said the shipping-master, as he turned to the man, the slightest trace of a smile on his seamy face. "You're Mr. Becker, the second mate, I take it; you'll find 'em all right, sir. They're sailors, and good ones, too. No, Mr. Jackson, the skipper didn't pick 'em—just asked me for sixteen good men, and there you are. Muster up to the capstan here, boys," he called, "and be counted."
As they grouped themselves amidships with their clothes-bags, the shipping-master beckoned the chief mate over to the rail.
"You see, Mr. Jackson," he said, with a backward glance at the men, "I've only played the regular dodge on 'em. They've all got the sailor's bug in their heads and want to go coasting; so I told 'em this was a coaster."
"So she is," answered the officer; "round the Horn to Callao is coasting. What more do they want?"
"Yes, but I said nothin' of Callao, and they were all three sheets i' the wind when they signed, so they didn't notice the articles. They expected a schooner, too, big enough for sixteen men; but I've just talked 'em out of that notion. They think, too, that they'll have a week in port to see if they like the craft; and to make 'em think it was easy to quit, I told 'em to sign nicknames—made 'em believe that a wrong name on the articles voided the contract."
"But it don't. They're here, and they'll stay—that is, if they know enough to man the windlass."
"Of course—of course. I'm just givin' you a pointer. You may have to run them a little at the start, but that's easy. Now we'll tally 'em off. Don't mind the names; they'll answer to 'em. You see, they're all townies, and bring their names from home."
The shipping-master drew a large paper from his pocket, and they approached the men at the capstan, where the short, broad second mate had been taking their individual measures with scowling eye.
It was a strange crew for the forecastle of an outward-bound, deep-water American ship. Mr. Jackson looked in vain for the heavy, foreign faces, the greasy canvas jackets and blanket trousers he was accustomed to see. Not that these men seemed to be landsmen—each carried in his face and bearing the indefinable something by which sailors of all races may distinguish each other at a glance from fishermen, tugmen, and deck-hands. They were all young men, and their intelligent faces—blemished more or less with marks of overnight dissipation—were as sunburnt as were those of the two mates; and where a hand could be seen, it showed as brown and tarry as that of the ablest able seaman. There were no chests among them, but the canvas clothes-bags were the genuine article, and they shouldered and handled them as only sailors can. Yet, aside from these externals, they gave no sign of being anything but well-paid, well-fed, self-respecting citizens, who would read the papers, discuss politics, raise families, and drink more than is good on pay-nights, to repent at church in the morning. The hands among them that were hidden were covered with well-fitting gloves—kid or dog-skin; all wore white shirts and fashionable neckwear; their shoes were polished; their hats were in style; and here and there, where an unbuttoned, silk-faced overcoat exposed the garments beneath, could be seen a gold watch-chain with tasteful charm.
"Now, boys," said the shipping-master, cheerily, as he unfolded the articles on the capstan-head, "answer, and step over to starboard as I read your names. Ready? Tosser Galvin."
"Here." A man carried his bag across the deck a short distance.
"Bigpig Monahan." Another—as large a man as the mate—answered and followed.
"Good God!" muttered the mate, as this man responded.
"Sinful Peck." An undersized man, with a cultivated blond mustache, lifted his hat politely to Mr. Jackson, disclosing a smooth, bald head, and passed over, smiling sweetly. Whatever his character, his name belied his appearance; for his face was cherubic in its innocence.
"Say," interrupted the mate, angrily, "what kind of a game is this, anyhow? Are these men sailors?"
"Yes, yes," answered the shipping-master, hurriedly; "you'll find 'em all right. And, Sinful," he added, as he frowned reprovingly at the last man named, "don't you get gay till my receipt's signed and I'm clear of you."
Mr. Jackson wondered, but subsided; and, each name bringing forth a response, the reader called off: "Seldom Helward, Shiner O'Toole, Senator Sands, Jump Black, Yampaw Gallagher, Sorry Welch, Yorker Jimson, General Lannigan, Turkey Twain, Gunner Meagher, Ghost O'Brien, and Poop-deck Cahill."
Then the astounded Mr. Jackson broke forth profanely. "I've been shipmates," he declared between oaths, "with freak names of all nations; but this gang beats me. Say, you," he called,—"you with the cro'-jack eye there,—what's that name you go by? Who are you?" He spoke to the large man who had answered to "Bigpig Monahan," and who suffered from a slight distortion of one eye; but the man, instead of civilly repeating his name, answered curtly and coolly:
"I'm the man that struck Billy Patterson."
Fully realizing that the mate who hesitates is lost, and earnestly resolved to rebuke this man as his insolence required, Mr. Jackson had secured a belaying-pin and almost reached him, when he found himself looking into the bore of a pistol held by the shipping-master.
"Now, stop this," said the latter, firmly; "stop it right here, Mr. Jackson. These men are under my care till you've signed my receipt. After that you can do as you like; but if you touch one of them before you sign, I'll have you up 'fore the commissioner. And you fellers," he said over his shoulder, "you keep still and be civil till I'm rid of you. I've used you well, got your berths, and charged you nothin'. All I wanted was to get Cappen Benson the right kind of a crew."
"Let's see that receipt," snarled the mate. "Put that gun up, too, or I'll show you one of my own. I'll tend to your good men when you get ashore." He glared at the quiescent Bigpig, and followed the shipping-master—who still held his pistol ready, however—over to the rail, where the receipt was produced and signed.
"Away you go, now," said the mate; "you and your gun. Get over the side."
The shipping-master did not answer until he had scrambled down to the waiting tug and around to the far side of her deck-house. There, ready to dodge, he looked up at the mate with a triumphant grin on his shrewd face, and called:
"Say, Mr. Jackson, 'member the old bark
ten years ago, and the ordinary seaman you triced up and skinned alive with a deck-scraper? D' you 'member, curse you? 'Member breakin' the same boy's arm with a heaver? You do, don't you? I'm him. 'Member me sayin' I'd get square?"
He stepped back to avoid the whirling belaying-pin sent by the mate, which, rebounding, only smashed a window in the pilot-house. Then, amid an exchange of blasphemous disapproval between Mr. Jackson and the tug captain, and derisive jeers from the shipping-master,—who also averred that Mr. Jackson ought to be shot, but was not worth hanging for,—the tug gathered in her lines and steamed away.
Wrathful of soul, Mr. Jackson turned to the men on the deck. They had changed their position; they were now close to the fife-rail at the mainmast, surrounding Bigpig Monahan (for by their names we must know them), who, with an injured expression of face, was shedding outer garments and voicing his opinion of Mr. Jackson, which the others answered by nods and encouraging words. He had dropped a pair of starched cuffs over a belaying-pin, and was rolling up his shirt-sleeve, showing an arm as large as a small man's leg, and the mate was just about to interrupt the discourse, when the second mate called his name. Turning, he beheld him beckoning violently from the cabin companionway, and joined him.
"Got your gun, Mr. Jackson?" asked the second officer, anxiously, as he drew him within the door. "I started for mine when the shippin'-master pulled. I can't make that crowd out; but they're lookin' for fight, that's plain. When you were at the rail they were sayin': 'Soak him, Bigpig.' 'Paste him, Bigpig.' 'Put a head on him.' They might be a lot o' prize-fighters."
Mr. Becker was not afraid; his position and duties forbade it. He was simply human, and confronted with a new problem.
"Don't care a rap what they are," answered the mate, who was sufficiently warmed up to welcome any problem. "They'll get fight enough. We'll overhaul their dunnage first for whisky and knives, then turn them to. Come on—I'm heeled."
They stepped out and advanced to the capstan amidships, each with a hand in his trousers pocket.
"Pile those bags against the capstan here, and go forrard," ordered the mate, in his most officer-like tone.
"Go to the devil," they answered. "What for?—they're our bags, not yours. Who in Sam Hill are you, anyhow? What are you? You talk like a p'liceman."
Before this irreverence could be replied to Bigpig Monahan advanced.
"Look here, old horse," he said; "I don't know whether you're captain or mate, or owner or cook; and I don't care, either. You had somethin' to say 'bout my eyes just now. Nature made my eyes, and I can't help how they look; but I don't allow any big bull-heads to make remarks 'bout 'em. You're spoilin' for somethin'. Put up your hands." He threw himself into an aggressive attitude, one mighty fist within six inches of Mr. Jackson's face.
"Go forrard," roared the officer, his gray eyes sparkling; "forrard, all o' you!"
"We'll settle this; then we'll go forrard. There'll be fair play; these men'll see to that. You'll only have me to handle. Put up."
Mr. Jackson did not "put up." He repeated again his order to go forward, and was struck on the nose—not a hard blow; just a preliminary tap, which started blood. He immediately drew his pistol and shot the man, who fell with a groan.
An expression of shock and horror over-spread every face among the crew, and they surged back, away from that murderous pistol. A momentary hesitance followed, then horror gave way to furious rage, and carnage began. Coats and vests were flung off, belaying-pins and capstan-bars seized; inarticulate, half-uttered imprecations punctuated by pistol reports drowned the storm of abuse with which the mates justified the shot, and two distinct bands of men swayed and zig-zagged about the deck, the center of each an officer fighting according to his lights—shooting as he could between blows of fists and clubs. Then the smoke of battle thinned, and two men with sore heads and bleeding faces retreated painfully and hurriedly to the cabin, followed by snarling maledictions and threats.
It was hardly a victory for either side. The pistols were empty and the fight taken out of the mates for a time; and on the deck lay three moaning men, while two others clung to the fife-rail, draining blood from limp, hanging arms. But eleven sound and angry men were left—and the officers had more ammunition. They entered their rooms, mopped their faces with wet towels, reloaded the firearms, pocketed the remaining cartridges, and returned to the deck, the mate carrying a small ensign.
"We'll run it up to the main, Becker," he said thickly,—for he suffered,—ignoring in his excitement the etiquette of the quarter-deck.
"Aye, aye," said the other, equally unmindful of his breeding. "Will we go for 'em again?" The problem had defined itself to Mr. Becker. These men would fight, but not shoot.
"No, no," answered the mate; "not unless they go for us and it's self-defense. They're not sailors—they don't know where they are. We don't want to get into trouble. Sailors don't act that way. We'll wait for the captain or the police." Which, interpreted, and plus the slight shade of anxiety showing in his disfigured face, meant that Mr. Jackson was confronted with a new phase of the problem: as to how much more unsafe it might be to shoot down, on the deck of a ship, men who did not know where they were, than to shoot down sailors who did. So, while the uninjured men were assisting the wounded five into the forecastle, the police flag was run up to the main-truck, and the two mates retired to the poop to wait and watch.
In a few moments the eleven men came aft in a body, empty-handed, however, and evidently with no present hostile intention: they had merely come for their clothes. But that dunnage had not been searched; and in it might be all sorts of dangerous weapons and equally dangerous whisky, the possession of which could bring an unpleasant solution to the problem. So Mr. Jackson and Mr. Becker leveled their pistols over the poop-rail, and the chief mate roared: "Let those things alone—let 'em alone, or we'll drop some more o' you."
The men halted, hesitated, and sullenly returned to the forecastle.
"Guess they've had enough," said Mr. Becker, jubilantly.
"Don't fool yourself. They're not used to blood-letting, that's all. If it wasn't for my wife and the kids I'd lower the dinghy and jump her; and it isn't them I'd run from, either. As it is, I've half a mind to haul down the flag, and let the old man settle it. Steward," he called to a mild-faced man who had been flitting from galley to cabin, unmindful of the disturbance, "go forrard and find out how bad those fellows are hurt. Don't say I sent you, though."
The steward obeyed, and returned with the information that two men had broken arms, two flesh-wounds in the legs, and one—the big man—suffered from a ragged hole through the shoulder. All were stretched out in bedless bunks, unwilling to move. He had been asked numerous questions by the others—as to where the ship was bound, who the men were who had shot them, why there was no bedding in the forecastle, the captain's whereabouts, and the possibility of getting ashore to swear out warrants. He had also been asked for bandages and hot water, which he requested permission to supply, as the wounded men were suffering greatly. This permission was refused, and the slight—very slight—nautical flavor to the queries, and the hopeful condition of the stricken ones, decided Mr. Jackson to leave the police flag at the masthead.
When dinner was served in the cabin, and Mr. Jackson sat down before a savory roast, leaving Mr. Becker on deck to watch, the steward imparted the additional information that the men forward expected to eat in the cabin.
"Hang it!" he mused; "they can't be sailor-men."
Then Mr. Becker reached his head down the skylight, and said: "Raisin' the devil with the cook, sir—dragged him out o' the galley into the forecastle."
"Are they coming aft?"
"All right. Watch out."
The mate went on eating, and the steward hurried forward to learn the fate of his assistant. He did not return until Mr. Jackson was about to leave the cabin. Then he came, with a wry face and disgust in his soul, complaining that he had been seized, hustled into the forecastle, and compelled, with the Chinese cook, to eat of the salt beef and pea-soup prepared for the men, which lay untouched by them. In spite of his aches and trouble of mind, Mr. Jackson was moved to a feeble grin.
"Takes a sailor or a hog to eat it, hey, Steward?" he said.
He relieved Mr. Becker, who ate his dinner hurriedly, as became a good second mate, and the two resumed their watch on the poop, noticing that the cook was jabbering Chinese protest in the galley, and that the men had climbed to the topgallant-forecastle—also watching, and occasionally waving futile signals to passing tugs or small sailing-craft. They, too, might have welcomed the police boat.
But, either because the
lay too far over on the Jersey flats for the flag to be noticed, or because harbor police share the fallibility of their shore brethren in being elsewhere when wanted, no shiny black steamer with blue-coated guard appeared to investigate the trouble, and it was well on toward three o'clock before a tug left the beaten track to the eastward and steamed over to the ship. The officers took her lines as she came alongside, and two men climbed the side-ladder—one, a Sandy Hook pilot, who need not be described; the other, the captain of the ship.
Captain Benson, in manner and appearance, was as superior to the smooth-shaven and manly-looking Mr. Jackson as the latter was to the misformed, hairy, and brutal second mate. With his fashionably cut clothing, steady blue eye, and refined features, he could have been taken for an easy-going club-man or educated army officer rather than the master of a working-craft. Yet there was no lack of seamanly decision in the leap he made from the rail to the deck, or in the tone of his voice as he demanded:
"What's the police flag up for, Mr. Jackson?"
"Mutiny, sir. They started in to lick me 'fore turning to, and we've shot five, but none of them fatally."
"Lower that flag—at once."
Mr. Becker obeyed this order, and as the flag fluttered down the captain received an account of the crew's misdoing from the mate. He stepped into his cabin, and returning with a double-barreled shot-gun, leaned it against the booby-hatch, and said quietly: "Call all hands aft who can come."
Mr. Jackson delivered the order in a roar, and the eleven men forward, who had been watching the newcomers from the forecastle-deck, straggled aft and clustered near the capstan, all of them hatless and coatless, shivering palpably in the keen December air. With no flinching of their eyes, they stared at Captain Benson and the pilot.
"Now, men," said the captain, "what's this trouble about? What's the matter?"
"Are you the captain here?" asked a red-haired, Roman-nosed man, as he stepped out of the group. "There's matter enough. We ship for a run down to Rio Janeiro and back in a big schooner; and here we're put aboard a square-rigged craft, that we don't know anything about, bound for Callao, and 'fore we're here ten minutes we're howled at and shot. Bigpig Monahan thinks he's goin' to die; he's bleedin'—they're all bleedin', like stuck pigs. Sorry Welch and Turkey Twain ha' got broken arms, and Jump Black and Ghost O'Brien got it in the legs and can't stand up. What kind o' work is this, anyhow?"
"That's perfectly right. You were shot for assaulting my officers. Do you call yourselves able seamen, and say you know nothing about square-rigged craft?"
"We're able seamen on the Lakes. We can get along in schooners. That's what we came down for."
Captain Benson's lips puckered, and he whistled softly. "The Lakes," he said—"lake sailors. What part of the Lakes?"
"Oswego. We're all union men."
The captain took a turn or two along the deck, then faced them, and said: "Men, I've been fooled as well as you. I would not have an Oswego sailor aboard my ship—much less a whole crew of them. You may know your work up there, but are almost useless here until you learn. Although I paid five dollars a man for you, I'd put you ashore and ship a new crew were it not for the fact that five wounded men going out of this ship requires explanations, which would delay my sailing and incur expense to my owners. However, I give you the choice—to go to sea, and learn your work under the mates, or go to jail as mutineers; for to protect my officers I must prosecute you all."
"S'pose we do neither?"
"You will probably be shot—to the last resisting man—either by us or the harbor police. You are up against the law."
They looked at each other with varying expressions on their faces; then one asked: "What about the bunks in the forecastle? There's no bedding."
"If you failed to bring your own, you will sleep on the bunk-boards without it."
"And that swill the Chinaman cooked at dinner-time—what about that?"
"You will get the allowance of provisions provided by law—no more. And you will eat it in the forecastle. Also, if you have neglected to bring pots, pans, and spoons, you will very likely eat it with your fingers. This is not a lake vessel, where sailors eat at the cabin table, with knives and forks. Decide this matter quickly."
The captain began pacing the deck, and the listening pilot stepped forward, and said kindly: "Take my advice, boys, and go along. You're in for it if you don't."
They thanked him with their eyes for the sympathy, conferred together for a few moments, then their spokesman called out: "We'll leave it to the fellers forrard, captain"; and forward they trooped. In five minutes they were back, with resolution in their faces.
"We'll go, captain," their leader said. "Bigpig can't be moved 'thout killin' him, and says if he lives he'll follow your mate to hell but he'll pay him back; and the others talk the same; and we'll stand by 'em—we'll square up this day's work."
Captain Benson brought his walk to a stop close to the shot-gun. "Very well, that is your declaration," he said, his voice dropping the conversational tone he had assumed, and taking on one more in accordance with his position; "now I will deliver mine. We sail at once for Callao and back to an American port of discharge. You know your wages—fourteen dollars a month. I am master of this ship, responsible to my owners and the law for the lives of all on board. And this responsibility includes the right to take the life of a mutineer. You have been such, but I waive the charge considering your ignorance of salt-water custom and your agreement to start anew. The law defines your allowance of food, but not your duties or your working- and sleeping-time. That is left to the discretion of your captain and officers. Precedent—the decision of the courts—has decided the privilege of a captain or officer to punish insolence or lack of respect from a sailor with a blow—of a fist or missile; but, understand me now, a return of the blow makes that man a mutineer, and his prompt killing is justified by the law of the land. Is this plain to you? You are here to answer and obey orders respectfully, adding the word 'sir' to each response; you are never to go to windward of an officer, or address him by name without the prefix 'Mr.'; and you are to work civilly and faithfully, resenting nothing said to you until you are discharged in an American port at the end of the voyage. A failure in this will bring you prompt punishment; and resentment of this punishment on your part will bring—death. Mr. Jackson," he concluded, turning to his first officer, "overhaul their dunnage, turn them to, and man the windlass."
A man—the bald-headed Sinful Peck—sprang forward; but his face was not cherubic now. His blue eyes blazed with emotion much in keeping with his sobriquet; and, raising his hand, the nervously crooking fingers of which made it almost a fist, he said, in a voice explosively strident:
"That's all right. That's
say. You've described the condition o' nigger slaves, not American voters. And I'll tell you one thing, right here—I'm a free-born citizen. I know my work, and can do it, without bein' cursed and abused; and if you or your mates rub my fur the wrong way I'm goin' to claw back; and if I'm shot, you want to shoot sure; for if you don't, I'll kill that man, if I have to lash my knife to a broom-handle, and prod him through his window when he's asleep."
But alas for Sinful Peck! He had barely finished his defiance when he fell like a log under the impact of the big mate's fist; then, while the pilot, turning his back on the painful scene, walked aft, nodding and shaking his head, and the captain's strong language and leveled shot-gun induced the men to an agitated acquiescence, the two officers kicked and stamped upon the little man until consciousness left him. Before he recovered he had been ironed to a stanchion in the 'tween-deck, and entered in the captain's official log for threatening life. And by this time the dunnage had been searched, a few sheath-knives tossed overboard, and the remaining ten men were moodily heaving in the chain.
And so, with a crippled crew of schooner sailors, the square-rigger
was towed to sea, smoldering rebellion in one end of her, the power of the law in the other—murder in the heart of every man on board.
Five months later the
lay at an outer mooring-buoy in Callao Roads, again ready for sea, but waiting. With her at the anchorage were representatives of most of the maritime nations. English ships and barks with painted ports and spider-web braces, high-sided, square-sterned American half-clippers, clumsy, square-bowed "Dutchmen," coasting-brigs of any nation, lumber-schooners from "'Frisco," hide-carriers from Valparaiso, pearl-boats and fishermen, and even a couple of homesick Malay proas from the west crowded the roadstead; for the guano trade was booming, and Callao prosperous. Nearly every type of craft known to sailors was there; but the postman and the policeman of the seas—the coastwise mail-steamer and the heavily sparred man-of-war—were conspicuously absent. The Pacific Mail boat would not arrive for a week, and the last cruiser had departed two days before.
Beyond the faint land- and sea-breeze, there was no wind nor promise of it for several days; and Captain Benson, though properly cleared at the custom-house for New York, was in no hurry, and had taken advantage of the delay to give a dinner to some captains with whom he had fraternized on shore. "I've a first-rate steward," he had told them, "and I'll treat you well; and I've the best-trained crew that ever went to sea. Come, all of you, and bring your first officers. I want to give you an object-lesson on the influence of matter over mind that you can't learn in the books."
So they came, at half-past eleven, in their own ships' dinghies, which were sent back with orders to return at nightfall—six big-fisted, more or less fat captains, and six big-fisted, beetle-browed, and embarrassed chief mates. As they climbed the gangway they were met and welcomed by Captain Benson, who led them to the poop, the only dry and clean part of the ship; for the
crew were holystoning the main-deck, and as this operation consists in grinding off the oiled surface of the planks with sandstone, the resulting slime of sand, oily wood-pulp, and salt water made walking unpleasant, as well as being very hard on polished shoe-leather. But in this filthy slime the men were on their knees, working the six-inch blocks of stone, technically called "bibles," back and forth with about the speed and motion of an energetic woman over a wash-board.
The mates also were working. With legs clad in long rubber boots, they filled buckets at the deck-pump and scattered water around where needed, occasionally throwing the whole bucketful at a doubtful spot on the deck to expose it to criticism. As the visitors lined up against the monkey-rail and looked down on the scene, Mr. Becker launched such a bucketful as only a second mate can—and a man who happened to be in the way was rolled over by the unexpected impact. He gasped a little louder than might have been necessary, and the wasting of the bucketful of water having forced Mr. Becker to make an extra trip to the pump, the officer was duly incensed.
"Get out o' the way, there," he bawled, eying the man sternly. "What are you gruntin' at? A little water won't hurt you—soap neither."
He went to the pump for more water, and the man crawled back to his holystone. It was Bigpig Monahan, hollow-eyed and thin, slow in his voluntary movements; minus his look of injury, too, as though he might have welcomed the bowling over as a momentary respite for his aching muscles.
Now and then, when the officers' faces were partly turned, a man would stop, rise erect on his knees, and bend backward. A man may work a holystone much longer and press it much harder on the deck for these occasional stretchings of contracted tissue; but the two mates chose to ignore this physiological fact, and a moment later, a little man, caught in the act by Mr. Jackson, was also rolled over on his back, not by a bucket of water, but by the boot of the mate, who uttered words suitable to the occasion, and held his hand in his pocket until the little man, grinning with rage, had resumed his work.
"There," said Captain Benson to his guests on the poop; "see that little devil! See him show his teeth! That is Mr. Sinful Peck. I've had him in irons with a broken head five times, and the log is full of him. I towed him over the stern running down the trades to take the cussedness out of him, and if he had not been born for higher things, he'd have drowned. He was absolutely unconquerable until I found him telling his beads one time in irons and took them away from him. Now to get an occasional chance at them he is fairly quiet."
"So this is your trained crew, is it, captain?" said a grizzled old skipper of the party. "What ails that fellow down in the scuppers with a prayer-book?" He pointed to a man who with one hand was rubbing a small holystone in a corner where a large one would not go.
"Ran foul of the big end of a handspike," answered Captain Benson, quietly; "he'll carry his arm in splints all the way home, I think. His name is Gunner Meagher. I don't know how they got their names, but they signed them and will answer to them. They are unique. Look at that outlaw down there by the bitts. That is Poop-deck Cahill. Looks like a prize-fighter, doesn't he? But the steward tells me that he was educated for the priesthood, and fell by the wayside. That one close to the hatch—the one with the red head and hang-dog jib—is Seldom Helward. He was shot off the cro'-jack yard; he fell into the lee clew of the cro'-jack, so we pulled him in."
"What did he do, captain?" asked the grizzled skipper.
"Threw a marlinespike at the mate."
"What made him throw it?"
"Never asked. I suppose he objected to something said to him."
"Ought to ha' killed him on the yard. Are they all of a kind?"
"Every man. Not one knew the ropes or his place when he shipped. They're schooner sailors from the Lakes, where the captain, if he is civil and respectful to his men, is as good as any of them. They started to clean us up the first day, but failed, and I went to sea with them. Since then, until lately, it has been war to the knife. I've set more bones, mended more heads, and plugged more shot-holes on this passage than ever before, and my officers have grown perceptibly thinner; but little by little, man by man, we've broken them in. Still, I admit, it was a job. Why, that same Seldom Helward I ironed and ran up on the fall of a main-buntline. We were rolling before a stiff breeze and sea, and he would swing six feet over each rail and bat against the mast in transit; but the dog stood it eight hours before he stopped cursing us. Then he was unconscious. When he came to in the forecastle, he was ready to begin again; but they stopped him. They're keeping a log, I learn, and are going to law. Every time a man gets thumped they enter the tragedy, and all sign their names."
Captain Benson smiled dignifiedly in answer to the outburst of laughter evoked by this, and the men below lifted their haggard, hopeless faces an instant, and looked at the party with eyes that were furtive—cat-like. The grinding of the stones prevented their hearing the talk, but they knew that they were being laughed at.
"Never knew a sailor yet," wheezed a portly and asthmatic captain, "who wasn't ready to sue the devil and try the court in hell when he's at sea. Trouble is, they never get past the first saloon."
"They got a little law here," resumed Captain Benson, quietly. "I put them all in the guardo. The consul advised it, and committed them for fear they might desert when we lay at the dock. When I took them out to run to the islands, they complained of being starved; and to tell the truth, they didn't throw their next meal overboard as usual. Nevertheless, a good four weeks' board-bill comes out of their wages. I don't think they'll have a big pay-day in New York: the natives cleaned out the forecastle in their absence, and they'll have to draw heavily on my slop-chest."
"That's where captains have the best of it," said one of the mates, jocularly—and presumptuously, to judge by his captain's frown; "we hammer 'em round and wear out their clothes, and it's the captain that sells 'em new ones."
"Captain," said the grizzled one, who had been scanning the crew intently, "I'd pay that crew off if I were you; you ought to ha' let 'em run, or worked 'em out and saved their pay. Look at 'em—look at the devils in their eyes. I notice your mates seldom turn their backs on 'em. I'd get rid of 'em."
"What! Just when we have them under control and useful? Oh, no! They know their work now, and I'd only have to ship a crowd of beach-combers and half-breeds at nearly double pay. Besides, gentlemen, we're just a little proud of this crew. They are lake sailors from Oswego, a little port on Lake Ontario. When I was young I sailed on the Lakes a season or two and became thoroughly acquainted with the aggressive self-respect of that breed. They would rather fight than eat. Their reputation in this regard prevents them getting berths in any but Oswego vessels, and even affects the policy of the nation. There's a fort at Oswego, and whenever a company of soldiers anywhere in the country become unmanageable—when their officers can't control them outside the guard-house—the War Department at Washington transfers them to Oswego for the tutelage they will get from the sailors. And they get it; they are well-behaved, well-licked soldiers when they leave. An Oswego sailor loves a row. He is possessed by the fighting spirit of a bulldog; he inherits it with his Irish sense of injury; he sucks it in with his mother's milk, and drinks it in with his whisky; and when no enemies are near, he will fight his friends. Pay them off? Not much. I've taken sixteen of those devils round the Horn, and I'll take them back. I'm proud of them. Just look at them," he concluded vivaciously, as he waved his hand at his men; "docile and obedient, down on their knees with bibles and prayer-books."
"And the name o' the Lord on their lips," grunted the adviser; "but not in prayer, I'll bet you."
"Hardly," laughed Captain Benson. "Come below, gentlemen; the steward is ready."
From lack of facilities the mild-faced and smiling steward could not serve that dinner with the style which it deserved. He would have liked, he explained, as they seated themselves, to bring it on in separate courses; but one and all disclaimed such frivolity. The dinner was there, and that was enough. And it was a splendid dinner. In front of Captain Benson, at the head of the table, stood a large tureen of smoking terrapin-stew; next to that a stuffed and baked freshly caught fish; and waiting their turn in the center of the spread, a couple of brace of wild geese from the inland lakes, brown and glistening, oyster-dressed and savory. Farther along was a steaming plum-pudding, overhead on a swinging tray a dozen bottles of wine, by the captain's elbow a decanter of yellow fluid, and before each man's plate a couple of glasses of different size.
"We'll start off with an appetizer, gentlemen," said the host, as he passed the decanter to his neighbor. "Here is some of the best Dutch courage ever distilled; try it."
The decanter went around, each filling his glass and holding it poised; then, when all were supplied, they drank to the grizzled old captain's toast: "A speedy and pleasant passage home for the
Almena, and further confusion to her misguided crew." The captain responded gracefully, and began serving the stew, which the steward took from him plate by plate, and passed around.
But, either because thirteen men had sat down to that table, or because the Fates were unusually freakish that day, it was destined that, beyond the initial glass of whisky, not a man present should partake of Captain Benson's dinner. On deck things had been happening, and just as the host had filled the last plate for himself, a wet, bedraggled, dirty little man, his tarry clothing splashed with the slime of the deck, his eyes flaming green, his face expanded to a smile of ferocity, appeared in the forward doorway, holding a cocked revolver which covered them all. Behind him in the passage were other men, equally unkempt, their eyes wide open with excitement and anticipation.
"Don't ye move," yelped the little man, "not a man. Keep yer hands out o' yer pockets. Put 'em over yer heads. That's it. You too, cappen."
They obeyed him (there was death in the green eyes and smile), all but one. Captain Benson sprang to his feet, with a hand in his breast pocket.
"You scoundrels!" he cried, as he drew forth a pistol. "Leave this——" The speech was stopped by a report, deafening in the closed-up space; and Captain Benson fell heavily, his pistol rattling on the floor.
"Hang me up, will ye?" growled another voice through the smoke.
In the after-door were more men, the red-haired Seldom Helward in the van, holding a smoking pistol. "Get the gun, one o' you fellows over there," he called.
A man stepped in and picked up the pistol, which he cocked.
"One by one," said Seldom, his voice rising to the pitch and timbre of a trumpet-blast, "you men walk out the forward companionway with your hands over your heads. Plug them, Sinful, if two move together, and shoot to kill."
Taken by surprise, the guests, resolute men though they were, obeyed the command. As each rose to his feet, he was first relieved of a bright revolver, which served to increase the moral front of the enemy, then led out to the booby-hatch, on which lay a newly broached coil of hambro-line and pile of thole-pins from the boatswain's locker. Here he was searched again for jack-knife or brass knuckles, bound with the hambro-line, gagged with a thole-pin, and marched forward, past the prostrate first mate, who lay quiet in the scuppers, and the erect but agonized second mate, gagged and bound to the fife-rail, to the port forecastle, where he was locked in with the Chinese cook, who, similarly treated, had preceded. The mild-faced steward, weeping now, as much from professional disappointment as from stronger emotion, was questioned sternly, and allowed his freedom on his promise not to "sing out" or make trouble. Captain Benson was examined, his injury diagnosed as brain-concussion, from the glancing bullet, more or less serious, and dragged out to the scuppers, where he was bound beside his unconscious first officer. Then, leaving them to live or die as their subconsciousness determined, the sixteen mutineers sacrilegiously reëntered the cabin and devoured the dinner. And the appetites they displayed—their healthy, hilarious enjoyment of the good things on the table—so affected the professional sense of the steward that he ceased his weeping, and even smiled as he waited on them.
When you have cursed, beaten, and kicked a slave for five months it is always advisable to watch him for a few seconds after you administer correction, to give him time to realize his condition. And when you have carried a revolver in the right-hand trousers pocket for five months it is advisable occasionally to inspect the cloth of the pocket to make sure that it is not wearing thin from the chafe of the muzzle. Mr. Jackson had ignored the first rule of conduct, Mr. Becker the second. Mr. Jackson had kicked Sinful Peck once too often; but not knowing that it was once too often, had immediately turned his back, and received thereat the sharp corner of a bible on his bump of inhabitiveness, which bump responded in its function; for Mr. Jackson showed no immediate desire to move from the place where he fell. Beyond binding, he received no further attention from the men. Mr. Becker, on his way to the lazarette in the stern for a bucket of sand to assist in the holystoning, had reached the head of the poop steps when this occurred; and turning at the sound of his superior's fall, had bounded to the main-deck without touching the steps, reaching for his pistol as he landed, only to pinion his fingers in a large hole in the pocket. Wildly he struggled to reclaim his weapon, down his trouser leg, held firmly to his knee by the tight rubber boot; but he could not reach it. His anxious face betrayed his predicament to the wakening men, and when he looked into Mr. Jackson's revolver, held by Sinful Peck, he submitted to being bound to the fife-rail and gagged with the end of the topgallant-sheet—a large rope, which just filled his mouth, and hurt. Then the firearm was recovered, and the descent upon the dinner-party quickly planned and carried out.
Have you ever seen a kennel of hunting-dogs released on a fine day after long confinement—how they bark and yelp, chasing one another, biting playfully, rolling and tumbling over and over in sheer joy and healthy appreciation of freedom? Without the vocal expression of emotion, the conduct of these men after that wine dinner was very similar to that of such emancipated dogs. They waltzed, boxed, wrestled, threw each other about the deck, turned handsprings and cartwheels,—those not too weak,—buffeted, kicked, and clubbed the suffering Mr. Becker, reviled and cursed the unconscious captain and chief officer, and when tired of this, as children and dogs of play, they turned to their captives for amusement. The second mate was taken from the fife-rail, with hands still bound, and led to the forecastle; the gags of all and the bonds of the cook were removed, and the forecastle dinner was brought from the galley. This they were invited to eat. There was a piece of salt beef, boiled a little longer than usual on account of the delay; it was black, brown, green, and iridescent in spots; it was slippery with ptomaïnes, filthy to the sight, stinking, and nauseating. There were potatoes, two years old, shriveled before boiling—hard and soggy, black, blue, and bitter after the process. And there was the usual "weevily hardtack" in the bread-barge.
Protest was useless. The unhappy captives surrounded that dinner on the forecastle floor (for there was neither table to sit at, nor chests, stools, or boxes to sit on, in the apartment), and, with hands behind their backs and disgust in their faces, masticated and swallowed the morsels which the Chinese cook put to their mouths, while their feelings were further outraged by the hilarity of the men at their backs, and their appetites occasionally jogged into activity by the impact on their heads of a tarry fist or pistol-butt. At last a portly captain began vomiting, and this being contagious, the meal ended; for even the stomachs of the sailors, overcharged as they were with the rich food and wine of the cabin table, were affected by the spectacle.
There were cool heads in that crowd of mutineers—men who thought of consequences: Poop-deck Cahill, square-faced and resolute, but thoughtful of eye and refined of speech; Seldom Helward, who had shot the captain—a man whose fiery hair, arching eyebrows, Roman nose, and explosive language indicated the daredevil, but whose intelligent though humorous eye and corrugated forehead gave certain signs of repressive study and thought; and Bigpig Monahan, already described. These three men went into session under the break of the poop, and came to the conclusion that the consul who had jailed them for nothing would hang them for this; then, calling the rest to the conference as a committee of the whole, they outlined and put to vote a proposition to make sail and go to sea, leaving the fate of their captives for later consideration—which was adopted unanimously and with much profanity, the central thought of the latter being an intention to "make 'em finish the holystonin' for the fun they had laughin' at us." Then Bigpig Monahan sneaked below and induced the steward to toss through the store-room dead-light every bottle of wine and liquor which the ship contained. "For Seldom and Poop-deck," he said to him, "are the only men in the gang fit to pick up navigation and git this ship into port again; but if they git their fill of it, it's all day with you, steward."
Six second mates on six American ships watched curiously, doubtingly, and at last anxiously, as sails were dropped and yards mastheaded on board the
Almena, and as she paid off from the mooring-buoy before the land-breeze and showed them her stern, sent six dinghies, which gave up the pursuit in a few minutes and mustered around the buoy, where a wastefully slipped shot of anchor-chain gave additional evidence that all was not right. But by the time the matter was reported to the authorities ashore, the
Almena, having caught the newly arrived southerly wind off the Peruvian coast, was hull down on the western horizon.
Four days later, one of the
boats, containing twelve men with sore heads, disfigured faces, and clothing ruined by oily wood-pulp,—ruined particularly about the knees of their trousers,—came wearily into the roadstead from the open sea, past the shipping, and up to the landing at the custom-house docks. From here the twelve proceeded to the American consul and entered bitter complaint of inhuman treatment received at the hands of sixteen mutinous sailors on board the
Almena—treatment so cruel that they had welcomed being turned adrift in an open boat; whereat, the consul, deploring the absence of man-of-war or steamer to send in pursuit, took their individual affidavits; and these he sent to San Francisco, from which point the account of the crime, described as piracy, spread to every newspaper in Christendom.
A Northeast gale off Hatteras: immense gray combers, five to the mile, charging shoreward, occasionally breaking, again lifting their heads too high in the effort, truncated as by a knife, and the liquid apex shattered to spray; an expanse of leaden sky showing between the rain-squalls, across which heavy background rushed the darker scud and storm-clouds; a passenger-steamer rolling helplessly in the trough, and a square-rigged vessel, hove to on the port tack, two miles to windward of the steamer, and drifting south toward the storm-center. This is the picture that the sea-birds saw at daybreak on a September morning, and could the sea-birds have spoken they might have told that the square-rigged craft carried a navigator who had learned that a whirling fury of storm-center was less to be feared than the deadly Diamond Shoals—the outlying guard of Cape Hatteras toward which that steamer was drifting, broadside on.
Clad in yellow oilskins and sou'wester, he stood by the after-companionway, intently examining through a pair of glasses the wallowing steamer to leeward, barely distinguishable in the half-light and driving spindrift. On the main-deck a half-dozen men paced up and down, sheltered by the weather rail; forward, two others walked the deck by the side of the forward house, but never allowed their march to extend past the after-corner; and at the wheel stood a little man who sheltered a cheerful face under the lee of a big coat-collar, and occasionally peeped out at the navigator.
"Poop-deck," he shouted above the noise of the wind, "take the wheel till I fire up."
"Thought I was exempt from steering," growled the other, good-humoredly, as he placed the glasses inside the companionway.
"You're getting too fat and sassy; steer a little."
Poop-deck relieved the little man, who descended the cabin stairs, and returned in a few moments, smoking a short pipe. He took the wheel, and Poop-deck again examined the steamer with the glasses.
"There goes his ensign, union down," he exclaimed; "he's in trouble. We'll show ours."
From a flag-locker inside the companionway he drew out the Stars and Stripes, which he ran up to the monkey-gaff. Then he looked again.
"Down goes his ensign; up goes the code pennant. He wants to signal. Come up here, boys," called Poop-deck; "give me a hand."
As the six men climbed the steps, he pulled out the corresponding code signal from the locker, and ran it up on the other part of the halyards as the ensign fluttered down. "Go down, one of you," he said, "and get the signal-book and shipping-list. He'll show his number next. Get ours ready—R. L. F. T."
While a man sprang below for the books named, the others hooked together the signal-flags forming the ship's number, and Poop-deck resumed the glasses.
"Q. T. F. N.," he exclaimed. "Look it up."
The books had arrived, and while one lowered and hoisted again the code signal, which was also the answering pennant, the others pored over the shipping-list.
of New York," they said.
The pennant came down, and the ship's number went up to the gaff.
"H. V.," called Poop-deck, as he scanned two flags now flying from the steamer's truck. "What does that say?"
"Damaged rudder—cannot steer," they answered.
"Pull down the number and show the answering pennant again," said Poop-deck; "and let me see that signal-book." He turned the leaves, studied a page for a moment, then said: "Run up H. V. R. That says, 'What do you want?' and that's the nearest thing to it."
These flags took the place of the answering pennant at the gaff-end, and again Poop-deck watched through the glasses, noting first the showing of the steamer's answering pennant, then the letters K. R. N.
"What does K. R. N. say?" he asked.
They turned the leaves, and answered: "I can tow you."
"Tow us? We're all right; we don't want a tow. He's crazy. How can he tow us when he can't steer?" exclaimed three or four together.
"He wants to tow us so that he
steer, you blasted fools," said Poop-deck. "He can keep head to sea and go where he likes with a big drag on his stern."
"That's so. Where's he bound—'you that has knowledge and eddication'?"
"Didn't say; but he's bound for the Diamond Shoals, and he'll fetch up in three hours, if we can't help him. He's close in."
"Tow-line's down the forepeak," said a man. "Couldn't get it up in an hour," said another. "Yes, we can," said a third. Then, all speaking at once, and each raising his voice to its limit, they argued excitedly: "Can't be done." "Coil it on the forecastle." "Yes, we can." "Too much sea." "Run down to wind'ard." "Line 'ud part, anyhow." "Float a barrel." "Shut up." "I tell you, we can." "Call the watch." "Seldom, yer daft." "Needn't get a boat over." "Hell ye can." "Call the boys." "All hands with heavin'-lines." "Can't back a topsail in this." "Go lay down." "Soak yer head, Seldom." "Hush." "Shut up." "Nothing
can't do." "Go to the devil." "I tell you, we can; do as I say, and we'll get a line to him, or get his."
The affirmative speaker, who had also uttered the last declaration, was Seldom Helward. "Put me in command," he yelled excitedly, "and do what I tell you, and we'll make fast to him."
"No captains here," growled one, while the rest eyed Seldom reprovingly.
"Well, there ought to be; you're all rattled, and don't know any more than to let thousands o' dollars slip past you. There's salvage down to looward."
"Yes, salvage. Big boat—full o' passengers and valuable cargo—shoals to looward of him—can't steer. You poor fools, what ails you?"
"Foller Seldom," vociferated the little man at the wheel; "foller Seldom, and ye'll wear stripes."
"Dry up, Sinful. Call the watch. It's near seven bells, anyhow. Let's hear what the rest say. Strike the bell."
The uproarious howl with which sailors call the watch below was delivered down the cabin stairs, and soon eight other men came up, rubbing their eyes and grumbling at the premature wakening, while another man came out of the forecastle and joined the two pacing the forward deck. Seldom Helward's proposition was discussed noisily in joint session on the poop, and finally accepted.
"We put you in charge, Seldom, against the rule," said Bigpig Monahan, sternly, "'cause we think you've some good scheme in your head; but if you haven't,—if you make a mess of things just to have a little fun bossin' us,—you'll hear from us. Go ahead, now. You're captain."
Seldom climbed to the top of the after-house, looked to windward, then to leeward at the rolling steamer, and called out:
"I want more beef at the wheel. Bigpig, take it; and you, Turkey, stand by with him. Get away from there, Sinful. Give her the upper maintopsail, the rest of you. Poop-deck, you stand by the signal-halyards. Ask him if he's got a tow-line ready."
Protesting angrily at the slight put upon him, Sinful Peck relinquished the wheel, and joined the rest on the main-deck, where they had hurried. Two men went aloft to loose the topsail, and the rest cleared away gear, while Poop-deck examined the signal-book.
"K. S. G. says, 'Have a tow-line ready.' That ought to do, Seldom," he called.
"Run it up," ordered the newly installed captain, "and watch his answer." Up went the signal, and as the men on the main-deck were manning the topsail-halyards, Poop-deck made out the answer: "V. K. C."
"That means 'All right,' Seldom," he said, after inspecting the book.
"Good enough; but we'll get our line ready, too. Get down and help 'em mast-head the yard first, then take 'em forrard and coil the tow-line abaft the windlass. Get all the heavin'-lines ready, too."
Poop-deck obeyed; and while the main-topsail-yard slowly arose to place under the efforts of the rest, Seldom himself ran up the answering pennant, and then the repetition of the steamer's last message: "All right." This was the final signal displayed between the two craft. Both signal-flags were lowered, and for a half-hour Seldom waited, until the others had lifted a nine-inch hawser from the forepeak and coiled it down. Then came his next orders in a continuous roar:
"Three hands aft to the spanker-sheet! Stand by to slack off and haul in! Man the braces for wearing ship, the rest o' you! Hard up the wheel! Check in port main and starboard cro'-jack braces! Shiver the topsail! Slack off that spanker!"
Before he had finished the men had reached their posts. The orders were obeyed. The ship paid off, staggered a little in the trough under the right-angle pressure of the gale, swung still farther, and steadied down to a long, rolling motion, dead before the wind, heading for the steamer. Yards were squared in, the spanker hauled aft, staysail trimmed to port, and all hands waited while the ship charged down the two miles of intervening sea.
"Handles like a yacht," muttered Seldom, as, with brow wrinkled and keen eye flashing above his hooked nose, he conned the steering from his place near the mizzenmast.
Three men separated themselves from the rest and came aft. They were those who had walked the forward deck. One was tall, broad-shouldered, and smooth-shaven, with a palpable limp; another, short, broad, and hairy, showed a lamentable absence of front teeth; and the third, a blue-eyed man, slight and graceful of movement, carried his arm in splints and sling. This last was in the van as they climbed the poop steps.
"I wish to protest," he said. "I am captain of this ship under the law. I protest against this insanity. No boat can live in this sea. No help can be given that steamer."
"And I bear witness to the protest," said the tall man. The short, hairy man might have spoken also, but had no time.
"Get off the poop," yelled Seldom. "Go forrard, where you belong." He stood close to the bucket-rack around the skylight. Seizing bucket after bucket, he launched them at his visitors, with the result that the big man was tumbled down the poop steps head first, while the other two followed, right side up, but hurriedly, and bearing some sore spots. Then the rest of the men set upon them, much as a pack of dogs would worry strange cats, and kicked and buffeted them forward.
There was no time for much amusement of this sort. Yards were braced to port, for the ship was careering down toward the steamer at a ten-knot rate; and soon black dots on her rail resolved into passengers waving hats and handkerchiefs, and black dots on the boat deck resolved into sailors standing by the end of a hawser which led up from the bitts below on the fantail. And the ship came down, until it might have seemed that Seldom's intention was to ram her. But not so; when a scant two lengths separated the two craft, he called out: "Hard down! Light up the staysail-sheet and stand by the forebraces!"
Around the ship came on the crest of a sea; she sank into the hollow behind, shipped a few dozen tons of water from the next comber, and then lay fairly steady, with her bow meeting the seas, and the huge steamer not a half-length away on the lee quarter. The fore-topmast-staysail was flattened, and Seldom closely scrutinized the drift and heave of the ship.
"How's your wheel, Bigpig?" he asked.
"Put it up a little; keep her in the trough."
He noted the effect on the ship of this change; then, as though satisfied, roared out: "Let your forebraces hang, forrard there! Stand by heavin'-lines fore and aft! Stand by to go ahead with that steamer when we have your line!" The last injunction, delivered through his hands, went down the wind like a thunder-clap, and the officers on the steamer's bridge, vainly trying to make themselves heard against the gale in the same manner, started perceptibly at the impact of sound, and one went to the engine-room speaking-tube.
Breast to breast the two vessels lifted and fell. At times it seemed that the ship was to be dropped bodily on the deck of the steamer; at others, her crew looked up a streaked slope of a hundred feet to where the other craft was poised at the crest. Then the steamer would drop, and the next sea would heave the ship toward her. But it was noticeable that every bound brought her nearer to the steamer, and also farther ahead, for her sails were doing their work.
"Kick ahead on board the steamer!" thundered Seldom from his eminence. "Go ahead! Start the wagon, or say your prayers, you blasted idiots!"
The engines were already turning; but it takes time to overcome three thousand tons of inertia, and before the steamer had forged ahead six feet the ship had lifted above her, and descended her black side with a grinding crash of wood against iron. Fore and main channels on the ship were carried away, leaving all lee rigging slack and useless; lower braces caught in the steamer's davit-cleats and snapped, but the sails, held by the weather braces, remained full, and the yards did not swing. The two craft separated with a roll and came together again with more scraping and snapping of rigging. Passengers left the rail, dived indoors, and took refuge on the opposite side, where falling blocks and small spars might not reach them. Another leap toward the steamer resulted in the ship's maintopgallantmast falling in a zigzag whirl, as the snapping gear aloft impeded it; and dropping athwart the steamer's funnel, it neatly sent the royal-yard with sail attached down the iron cylinder, where it soon blazed and helped the artificial draft in the stoke-hold. Next came the foretopgallantmast, which smashed a couple of boats. Then, as the round black stern of the steamer scraped the lee bow of the ship, jib-guys parted, and the jib-boom itself went, snapping at the bowsprit-cap, with the last bite the ship made at the steamer she was helping. But all through this riot of destruction—while passengers screamed and prayed, while officers on the steamer shouted and swore, and Seldom Helward, bellowing insanely, danced up and down on the ship's house, and the hail of wood and iron from aloft threatened their heads—men were passing the tow-line.
It was a seven-inch steel hawser with a Manila tail, which they had taken to the foretopsail-sheet bitts before the jib-boom had gone. Panting from their exertions, they watched it lift from the water as the steamer ahead paid out with a taut strain; then, though the crippled spars were in danger of falling and really needed their first attention, they ignored the fact and hurried aft, as one man, to attend to Seldom.
Encouraged by the objurgations of Bigpig and his assistant, who were steering now after the steamer, they called their late commander down from the house and deposed him in a concert of profane ridicule and abuse, to which he replied in kind. He was struck in the face by the small fist of Sinful Peck, and immediately knocked the little man down. Then he was knocked down himself by a larger fist, and, fighting bravely and viciously, became the object of fist-blows and kicks, until, in one of his whirling staggers along the deck, he passed close to the short, broad, hairy man, who yielded to the excitement of the moment and added a blow to Seldom's punishment. It was an unfortunate mistake; for he took Seldom's place, and the rain of fists and boots descended on him until he fell unconscious. Mr. Helward himself delivered the last quieting blow, and then stood over him with a lurid grin on his bleeding face.
"Got to put down mutiny though the heavens fall," he said painfully.
"Right you are, Seldom," answered one. "Here, Jackson, Benson—drag him forrard; and, Seldom," he added, reprovingly, "don't you ever try it again. Want to be captain, hey? You can't; you don't know enough. You couldn't command my wheelbarrow. Here's three days' work to clear up the muss you've made."
But in this they spoke more, and less, than the truth. The steamer, going slowly, and steering with a bridle from the tow-line to each quarter, kept the ship's canvas full until her crew had steadied the yards and furled it. They would then have rigged preventer-stays and shrouds on their shaky spars, had there been time; but there was not. An uncanny appearance of the sea to leeward indicated too close proximity to the shoals, while a blackening of the sky to windward told of probable increase of wind and sea. And the steamer waited no longer. With a preliminary blast of her whistle, she hung the weight of the ship on the starboard bridle, gave power to her engines, and rounded to, very slowly, head to sea, while the men on the ship, who had been carrying the end of the coiled hawser up the foretopmast rigging, dropped it and came down hurriedly.
Released from the wind-pressure on her strong side, which had somewhat steadied her, the ship now rolled more than she had done in the trough, and with every starboard roll were ominous creakings and grindings aloft. At last came a heavier lurch, and both crippled topmasts fell, taking with them the mizzentopgallantmast. Luckily, no one was hurt, and they disgustedly cut the wreck adrift, stayed the fore- and mainmasts with the hawser, and resigning themselves to a large subtraction from their salvage, went to a late breakfast—a savory meal of smoking fried ham and potatoes, hot cakes and coffee served to sixteen in the cabin, and an unsavory meal of "hardtack-hash," with an infusion of burnt bread-crust, pease, beans, and leather, handed, but not served, to three in the forecastle.
Three days later, with Sandy Hook lighthouse showing through the haze ahead, and nothing left of the gale but a rolling ground-swell, the steamer slowed down so that a pilot-boat's dinghy could put a man aboard each craft. And the one who climbed the ship's side was the pilot that had taken her to sea, outward bound, and sympathized with her crew. They surrounded him on the poop and asked for news, while the three men forward looked aft hungrily, as though they would have joined the meeting, but dared not. Instead of giving news, the pilot asked questions, which they answered.
"I knew you'd taken charge, boys," he said at length. "The whole world knows it, and every man-of-war on the Pacific stations has been looking for you. But they're only looking out there. What brings you round here, dismasted, towing into New York?"
"That's where the ship's bound—New York. We took her out; we bring her home. We don't want her—don't belong to us. We're law-abidin' men."
"Law-abiding men?" asked the amazed pilot.
"You bet. We're goin' to prosecute those dogs of ours forrard there to the last limit o' the law. We'll show 'em they can't starve and hammer and shoot free-born Americans just 'cause they've got guns in their pockets."
The pilot looked forward, nodded to one of the three, who beckoned to him, and asked:
"Who'd you elect captain?"
"Nobody," they roared. "We had enough o' captains. This ship's an unlimited democracy—everybody just as good as the next man; that is, all but the dogs. They sleep on the bunk-boards, do as they're told, and eat salt mule and dunderfunk—same as we did goin' out."
"Did they navigate for you? Did no one have charge of things?"
"Poop-deck picked up navigation, and we let him off steerin' and standin' lookout. Then Seldom, here, he wanted to be captain just once, and we let him—well, look at our spars."
"Poop-deck? Which is Poop-deck? Do you mean to say," asked the pilot when the navigator had been indicated to him, "that you brought this ship home on picked-up navigation?"
"Didn't know anything about it when we left Callao," answered the sailor, modestly. "The steward knew enough to wind the chronometer until I learned how. We made an offing and steered due south, while I studied the books and charts. It didn't take me long to learn how to take the sun. Then we blundered round the Horn somehow, and before long I could take chronometer sights for the longitude. Of course I know we went out in four months and used up five to get back; but a man can't learn the whole thing in one passage. We lost some time, too, chasing other ships and buying stores; the cabin grub gave out."
"You bought, I suppose, with Captain Benson's money."
"S'pose it was his. We found it in his desk. But we've kept account of every cent expended, and bought no grub too good for a white man to eat."
"What dismasted you?"
They explained the meeting with the steamer and Seldom's misdoing; then requested information about the salvage laws.
"Boys," said the pilot, "I'm sorry for you. I saw the start of this voyage, and you appear to be decent men. You'll get no salvage; you'll get no wages. You are mutineers and pirates, with no standing in court. Any salvage which the
has earned will be paid to her owners and to the three men whom you deprived of command. What you can get—the maximum, though I can't say how hard the judge will lay it on—is ten years in state's prison, and a fine of two thousand dollars each. We'll have to stop at quarantine. Take my advice: if you get a chance, lower the boats and skip."
They laughed at the advice. They were American citizens who respected the law. They had killed no one, robbed no one; their wages and salvage, independently of insurance liabilities, would pay for the stores bought, and the loss of the spars. They had no fear of any court of justice in the land; for they had only asserted their manhood and repressed inhuman brutality.
The pilot went forward, talked awhile with the three, and left them with joyous faces. An hour later he pointed out the
number flying from the masthead of the steamer.
"He's telling on you, boys," he said. "He knew you when you helped him, and used you, of course. Your reputation's pretty bad on the high seas. See that signal-station ashore there? Well, they're telegraphing now that the pirate
is coming in. You'll see a police boat at quarantine."
He was but partly right. Not only a police boat, but an outward-bound man-of-war and an incoming revenue cutter escorted the ship to quarantine, where the tow-line was cast off, and an anchor dropped. Then, in the persons of a scandalized health-officer, a naval captain, a revenue-marine lieutenant, and a purple-faced sergeant of the steamboat squad, the power of the law was rehabilitated on the
quarter-deck, and the strong hand of the law closed down on her unruly crew. With blank faces, they discarded—to shirts, trousers, and boots—the slop-chest clothing which belonged to the triumphant Captain Benson, and descended the side to the police boat, which immediately steamed away. Then a chuckling trio entered the ship's cabin, and ordered the steward to bring them something to eat.
Now, there is no record either in the reports for that year of the police department, or from any official babbling, or from later yarns spun by the sixteen prisoners, of what really occurred on the deck of that steamer while she was going up the bay. Newspapers of the time gave generous space to speculations written up on the facts discovered by reporters; but nothing was ever proved. The facts were few. A tug met the steamer in the Narrows about a quarter to twelve that morning, and her captain, on being questioned, declared that all seemed well with her. The prisoners were grouped forward, guarded by eight officers and a sergeant. A little after twelve o'clock a Battery boatman observed her coming, and hied him around to the police dock to have a look at the murderous pirates he had heard about, only to see her heading up the North River, past the Battery. A watchman on the elevator docks at Sixty-third Street observed her charging up the river a little later in the afternoon, wondered why, and spoke of it. The captain of the
Mary Powel, bound up, reported catching her abreast of Yonkers. He had whistled as he passed, and though no one was in sight, the salute was politely answered. At some time during the night, residents of Sing Sing were wakened by a sound of steam blowing off somewhere on the river; and in the morning a couple of fishermen, going out to their pond-nets in the early dawn, found the police boat grounded on the shoals. On boarding her they had released a pinioned, gagged, and hungry captain in the pilot-house, and an engineer, fireman, and two deck-hands, similarly limited, in the lamp-room. Hearing noises from below, they pried open the nailed doors of the dining-room staircase, and liberated a purple-faced sergeant and eight furious officers, who chased their deliverers into their skiff, and spoke sternly to the working-force.
Among the theories advanced was one, by the editor of a paper in a small Lake Ontario town, to the effect that it made little difference to an Oswego sailor whether he shipped as captain, mate, engineer, sailor, or fireman, and that the officers of the New York Harbor Patrol had only under-estimated the caliber of the men in their charge, leaving them unguarded while they went to dinner. But his paper and town were small and far away, he could not possibly know anything of the subject, and his opinion obtained little credence.
Years later, however, he attended, as guest, a meeting and dinner of the Shipmasters' and Pilots' Association of Cleveland, Ohio, when a resolution was adopted to petition the city for a harbor police service. Captain Monahan, Captain Helward, Captain Peck, and Captain Cahill, having spoken and voted in the negative, left their seats on the adoption of the proposition, reached a clear spot on the floor, shook hands silently, and then, forming a ring, danced around in a circle (the tails of their coats standing out in horizontal rigidity) until reproved by the chair.
And the editor knew why.