Chapter XVIII
 

At ten minutes to four Mr. Uhl, the second assistant, a man of some thirty years and ordinarily possessed of a disposition as placid as that of a little Jersey heifer, ordered one of his firemen to go and call the watch to relieve them. Mr. Reardon, his monkey wrench firmly grasped in his right hand, knew that at exactly ten minutes to four Mr. Uhl would issue that order--so he was on the spot to receive the fireman as the latter came leisurely up the greasy steel stairway. As the fellow emerged on deck he paused to wipe his heated brow with a sweat rag and draw in a welcome breath of cool fresh air. He did not succeed in getting his lungs quite full, however, for Michael J. Murphy, lurking beside the door, thrust the barrel of his gun in the fireman's ribs, effectually curtailing the process of respiration practically at once. From the other side of the door the chief engineer stepped out and wagged his bludgeon under the fireman's nose.

"Ach!" Mr. Reardon coughed, and grimaced pleasantly. "Schmierkase und Sauerkraut, ye big shtiff! Vat wilse du haben, eh? Zwei bier? Damn the weather, as Misther Schultz would say."

He laid his finger on his lips, enjoining silence; then with the same finger he pointed sternly onward, and the fireman took the hint. In the clear space aft the house and next to the funnel Mr. Reardon bound and gagged him and laid him tenderly on his back to await developments.

"Now thin, Michael," he said to the skipper, "lave us go back an' see can we catch another. At four o'clock, whin this lad fails to return, Misther Uhl, the omadhaun, will sind up another man to see what the divil ails the firrst man."

And it was even so. This time it was the oiler.

At five minutes after four a coal passer came up the stairs, and he was swearing at the delay in being relieved. Something told Mr. Reardon this fellow would make trouble, so without warning he hit the coal passer a light rap "to take the conceit out av him." Two minutes later the coal passer had joined his fellows beside the funnel.

At a quarter after four Mr. Uhl scratched his head and said something very explosive in German. He started up the stairs, got halfway up--and came down. It had occurred to him very suddenly that three men had already gone up the stairs and had failed to return. He called a fireman and gave him some very explicit orders in German; whereupon the man disappeared in the shaft alley. Five minutes later he returned, pop-eyed with excitement and the bearer of a tale that caused Mr. Uhl to arch his blond eyebrows and murmur dazedly "So?"

Ten minutes passed. Mr. Reardon glanced interrogatively at Michael J. Murphy. "I think the divils are suspicious," he whispered. "We should have had another be now. Have a care now, Michael. Whin they come they come wit' a rush an'--"

A pistol shot echoed through the ship. It came up from forward. Three more followed in rapid succession--a scream--a shout!

"May the divil damn me!" Terence Reardon cried in a horrified voice. "I clane forgot the little companion hatch at the ind av the shaft alley. They've crawled down the shaft alley an' up on deck at the very sterrn av the ship!"

He dashed aft towards the spot where his prisoners were laid out close to the funnel. As he turned the corner of the house he observed that the electric lamp which he had so carefully screwed out of its socket had been screwed in again, and by its light Terence beheld no less a person than Mr. Uhl cutting the halyards that bound the oiler. The fireman had already been cut loose, but the potent effects of Terence Reardon's blow with the wrench still remained; though conscious, the man was unfit for combat. The coal passer, evidently the first man to be rescued by Mr. Uhl, was standing by.

"Gower that, ye divils!" Mr. Reardon shrieked, and charged, swinging his monkey wrench with all his horsepower. He missed his first stroke at Mr. Uhl, who very deftly stabbed him high up on the hip for his carelessness; then the chief swung again, and Mr. Uhl was out of the fight.

Not so the big coal passer, however. He planted in Terence Reardon's face as pretty a left and right--hay-makers both--as one could hope to see anywhere outside a prize-ring; whereupon the chief took the count with great abruptness. The fireman reached for the monkey wrench--and at that instant the weak, pale-faced skipper lurched around the corner of the house and his automatic commenced to bark.

It was not a time for sentiment. Michael J. Murphy glanced once at Terence Reardon's bloody, upturned face, and the glazed eyes thrilled him with horror. The chief engineer was dead! That meant that Michael J. Murphy would soon be dead, too. Well, they had fought a good fight and lost, so nothing now remained for him to do save slaughter as many of the enemy as possible and go to his accounting like a gentleman.

He turned his back on the heap of bloody, prostrate men, stepped over a little rivulet of gore that ran rapidly toward the scupper as the ship heeled to port, then hesitated and started back as she heeled to starboard. He was vaguely conscious that Mr. Uhl had shut down his engines before coming on deck and that in consequence the ship had lost headway and was beginning to wallow. In his weak state her plunging caused him to stagger like a drunken man. As he crossed to the port side of the ship and gazed down the deck he noticed that the incandescent lamps had all been screwed back in their sockets, and by their brilliant light he beheld one of the firemen in the act of removing the scantling from before the first assistant's door. Just as the door swung open the captain fired, but evidently missed, for the man sprang nimbly into the state-room for safety.

If the great European War has proved nothing else to date, it has demonstrated one comforting thing about the German people: one does not grow impatient waiting for them to carry the fight to him. The fireman had no sooner entered the first assistant's state-room than the first assistant came out. He was wearing his pajamas and a piece of young artillery, and without the slightest embarrassment he commenced shooting at Michael J. Murphy, who, not to be outdone in politeness while he could stand and see, promptly returned the compliment.

The first assistant's first shot nipped a neat little crescent out of Mike Murphy's large red right ear; his second ripped clean through the inside of the skipper's left leg.

"High and then low," was the thought that capered through Mike Murphy's brain. "God grant he don't get me through the middle! That's what comes of fast shooting--so I guess I'll go slow."

The electric lamp over his head was shattered and the fragments scattered round him as he leaned against the corner of the house and took careful aim at the first assistant, who missed his next shot by a whisker and died in his tracks with two cartridges still in his gun.

Dazedly Michael J. Murphy advanced along the deck, stepped over the body and entered the state-room. In the corner the fireman crouched, hands uplifted in token of surrender, so the skipper closed the door and shored it up again with the scantling. Mechanically he picked up the first assistant's huge revolver, broke it, removed the cartridges and threw them overboard. Then he slipped a clip of seven cartridges into his automatic and staggered round to Mr. Henckel's state room.

The door was open. The bird had flown.

Michael J. Murphy went in and sat down on Mr. Henckel's settee, for he was very weak and dizzy; and at least nobody could shoot at him in there. "Come, come, Michael," he croaked, "no going out this voyage. You have work ahead of you. Pull yourself together and let us count noses. Now then, there were two firemen, two coal passers, one oiler and Mr. Uhl on watch. Terence killed Mr. Uhl with the monkey wrench, I killed the big coal passer, I think I killed the oiler, and one fireman was out of the scrap from the beginning. Then I killed the first assistant and locked the other fireman in his room. That leaves Mr. Henckel and a coal passer to be reckoned with. Now there was some shooting up forward and somebody was hit. That means Riggins shot somebody or somebody shot Riggins. The second mate probably went forward to let the men out of the forecastle, while the fireman went aft to let the engine-room gang out of the sterncastle. They haven't had time to do it yet; they'll have to pry those rings out of the door with a crowbar. I'll go aft and drive the fireman forward; when I have them bunched I'll argue with them."

He arrived at the break of the house and looked down on the deck aft. The lights had been turned on and a man was just raising a short crowbar to attack the door, from behind which came shouts and cries of anger and consternation.

Mike Murphy rested his automatic on the deck rail and fired twice at the man in front of the sterncastle door. The fellow fled at once dashing along the deck, zigzag fashion, to distract the skipper's aim, and disappeared in the dark entrance to the starboard alleyway. So Michael J. Murphy slid down the companion and followed into the alleyway, firing two shots for luck as he came.

Scarcely had he disappeared into the murk amidships when Terence Reardon rolled groggily down the companion after him. Terence had no means of ascertaining which alleyway the skipper had charged into--and he did not care. Blind with fury he lurched into the port alleyway; in consequence of which the fugitive, fleeing ahead of the captain down the starboard alleyway and thinking to turn down the port alleyway and double back to complete his labors at the sterncastle door, bumped squarely into the chief engineer.

Mr. Reardon said no word, but wrapped his arms round the man and held the latter close to his breast.

Thus for a moment they stood, gripping each other, each wondering whether the other was friend or foe.

Then Mr. Reardon decided that even if his nose was bloody he could not possibly be mistaken in the odor of a fireman just come off watch. He had lost his monkey wrench in the melee on the upper deck--the defunct Mr. Uhl having fallen upon it, thereby obscuring it from Mr. Reardon's very much befogged vision, but his soul was still undaunted, for Mr. Reardon, in common with most chief engineers still in their prime, firmly believed that he could trounce any fireman he saw fit to employ. He bit suddenly into the fireman's cheek just where the flesh droops in a fold over the lower jaw, and was fortunate enough to secure a grip that bade fair to hold; then he crooked his leg at the back of his opponent's and slowly shoved the fellow's head backward. They came down together, Mr. Reardon on top, content for once to hold his man helpless--and rest--while his enemy's shrieks of pain and rage resounded through the ink-black alleyway.

Michael J. Murphy heard that uproar and halted. After listening a few seconds he came to the conclusion that a German was in deep distress, and that hence it was no part of his business to interfere. Besides, he had business of his own to attend to. He could hear a chain rattling up forward, and while it was too dark to see who or what was doing the rattling, he found Mr. Henckel guilty on mere suspicion, and fired at the sound; whereupon somebody said "Ach, Gott!" in tones of deep disgust, two little flashes of fire cut the dark, and two bullets whispered of death as they flew harmlessly down the alleyway.

Instantly Mike Murphy returned the salute, firing at the other's flashes; then he fell to the deck and rolled over into the scupper to escape the return fire, which was not slow in coming.

"I wonder where the devil he got that gun," was Murphy's comment. "Mr. Uhl must have had it in his pocket and lent it to him."

There was profound silence within the forecastle, and pending the destruction of his attacker Mr. Henckel judged it imprudent to make any further attempts at a delivery. He required time to formulate a plan of attack, and in the interim he desired shelter. Mike Murphy heard the patter of feet, the patter ceasing almost as soon as it commenced--and he smiled grimly.

"He's hiding," the captain soliloquized. "Now, where would I take shelter if I were in his fix? Why, back of the hatch-coaming, of course--or the winch." He had a sudden inspiration and called aloud:

"Riggins! Riggins! Answer me, Riggins. This is Captain Murphy calling you."

"'Ere, sir," came the voice of Riggins from the pilot-house above. The voice was very weak.

"Climb out of the pilot-house, Riggins, to the bridge, turn on the searchlight and bend it down here on the deck till I get a shot at this scoundrel. Don't be afraid of him, Riggins. It's Henckel and he can't shoot for beans. Get the light fair on him and keep it on him; it'll blind him and he won't be able to shoot you."

"The dirty dawg!" snarled Riggins wearily. "'E come up on the bridge a while--ago--an' I drove 'im off--but 'e plugged me, sir--through the guts, sir--an' me a married man! Wot in 'ell'll my ol' woman--say--"

And that was the last word Riggins ever spoke. True, he managed to crawl out of the pilot-house and up the short companion to the bridge; he reached the searchlight, and while Mr. Henckel and Mike Murphy swapped shots below him he turned on the switch.

"Bend it on the deck, Riggins. On the deck, my bully, on the deck," Mike Murphy pleaded as the great beam of white light shot skyward and remained there; nor could all of Murphy's pleading induce Riggins to bend it on the deck, for Riggins was lying dead beside the searchlight, while ten miles away an officer on the flying bridge of H.M.S. Panther watched that finger of light pointing and beckoning with each roll of the ship.

"Something awf'lly queer, what?" he commented when reporting it to his superior.

"Rather," the superior replied laconically. "It can't be the Dresden and neither is it one of ours. We'll skip over and have a look at her, Reggie, my son."