Wolves of the Sea by Randall Parrish
Chapter X. On the Deck of the Namur
It was here that fortune favored me, strengthening my decision, and yielding a fresh courage to persevere. The pounding of the seas against the bow rendered other sounds, for the moment, unnoticeable, while the current swept so strongly against my submerged body as to compel me to cling tightly to the swaying rope to prevent being overcome. Close as I was the bark appeared scarcely more than a dense shadow swaying above me, without special form, and unrevealed by the slightest gleam of light, merely a vast bulk, towering between sea and sky. Forking out, however, directly over where I clung desperately to the wet hawser, my eyes were able to trace the bow-sprit, a massive bit of timber, with ropes faintly traced against the sky, the rather loosely furled jib flapping ragged edges in the gusts of wind. Suddenly, as I stared upward, I became aware that two men were working their way out along the foot-ropes, and, as they reached a point almost directly over my head, became busily engaged in tightening the gaskets to better secure the loosening sail. The foot of one slipped, and he hung dangling, giving vent to a stiff English oath before he succeeded in hauling himself back to safety, The other indulged in a chuckling laugh, yet was careful not to speak loudly.
"Had one drink too many, Tom?" he asked. "That will pay yer fer finishin' the bottle, an' never givin' me another sup."
The other growled, evidently not in any too good humor after his mishap.
"You, hell! Yer bed the fu'st ov it. Thar's no sorter luck yer don't git yer fair share of, Bill Haines--trust yer fer thet. What I ain't got straight yet, is whar thet stuff cum from so easy. Thet wus the real thing."
Haines laughed again, working carelessly. As the men advanced along the spar I could distinguish their forms more clearly.
"That wus part o' the luck, Tom," he acknowledged, his accent that of a cockney. "Did yer git eyes on thet new feller Manuel Estevan brought back with him in the boat?"
"The one you and Jose carried aboard?"
"He's the lad. Thar wa'n't nuthin' the matter with the cove, 'cept he wus dead drunk, an' he hed a bottle o' rum stowed away in every pocket. But Manuel, he never knew thet. It wus just 'bout dark when he cum staggerin' down ter the boat. We wus waitin' on the beach fer Estevan, an' three fellers he hed taken along with him inter town, ter cum back--the nigger, Jose, an' me--when this yere chap hove 'longside. He never hailed us, ner nuthin'; just clim over inter the boat, an' lay down. 'Whar ye aimin' ter go, friend?' ses I, but by then the cove wus dead asleep. I shook him, an' kicked him, but it wa'n't no use; so we just left him lie thar fer Manuel ter say whut wus ter be done with him. Only Jose he went thru his pockets, an' found three bottles o' rum. We took a few drinks, an' hid whut wus left in the boat locker."
"So that's how yer got it! Who wus the party?"
"Thet's mor'n I'll ever tell yer. I never got no sight o' him, 'cept in the dark. 'Bout all I know is he wus white, an' likely a sailor, judgin' frum the feel o' his hands. Maybe he thought that wus his boat he'd stumbled inter--thar wus quite a few 'long the beach. Enyhow, when Manuel got back, he just took a look at him in the dark, an' then told us to haul the lad forrard out o' the way, an' fetch him along. So we pulled out with the feller cuddled up in the bow. He was drunk all right."
"I never seed nuthin' more of him after he was hauled aboard," commented Tom, as the other ceased speaking. "Whut become o' the lad?"
"Him? Oh, Jose an' me carried him inter the for'cassel, an' shoved him inter a berth ter sleep off his liquor. Thet wus the last I ever see, er hear o' him fer 'bout six hours. I'd fergot all 'bout the feller--er wud have, if it hadn't been fer the rum. Manuel went off in the long-boat with Estada, an' when my watch went below, I stowed myself away back o' the bow gun fer a few drinks. I hadn't been thar mor'n ten minutes, when this yere feller must a woke up in the for'cassel sum crazy. He cum a chargin' out on deck, whoopin' like an Indian, wavin' a knife in his hand, intendin' fer ter raise hell. I cudn't see then who the lad wus, but it must o' been him, fer when I went down later he wusn't whar we'd put him. Well, it happened thet the fu'st feller he run up against wus LeVere, who wus cumin' forrard fer sumthin', an' fer about a minute thar was one hell ov a fight. Maybe LeVere didn't know et onct just whut hed happened, but he wusn't almighty long finding out his job, an' the way he started in fer ter man-handle the cuss, wus worth seein'. It was so damn dark thar by the foremast I couldn't tell whut did happen, but it wus fists mostly, till the mate drove the poor devil, cussin' like mad, over agin the rail, an' then heaved him out inter the water 'longside. I heerd the feller splash when he struck, but he never let out no yell."
"What did LeVere do?"
"Him? Hell, he didn't do nuthin'. Just stared down over the rail a bit, an' then cum back, rubbin' his hands. Never even asked who the feller wus. Thar ain't nuthin' kin skeer that black brute."
"By God--no! He ain't got no human in him. It's hell when English sailormen has got ter take orders frum a damned nigger, an' be knocked 'round if they don't jump when he barks. He's goin' ter get a knife in his ribs sum day."
"Maybe he is; but yer better hold yer tongue, Tom. Sanchez don't stand fer thet talk, an' he's back o' LeVere. Let's go in; them gaskets will hold all right now--cum 'long."
The two vaguely distinguishable figures disappeared, clambering awkwardly over the rail, and as instantly vanishing into the blackness of the bark's deck. An unsecured bit of canvas continued to flap noisily above me, and the constant surge of water pounded against the bow, but I could perceive now clearly the character I was destined to assume when once safely aboard the Namur. Such an assumption would involve but slight danger of discovery. It was as though a miracle had opened the way, revealed to me by the unconscious lips of these two half-drunken, gossiping sailors. The story told fitted my necessities exactly. Had I planned the circumstances myself, nothing could have been better prearranged. No one on board had seen the missing man by daylight; if an impression of his features remained in any individual mind, it must be extremely vague, and valueless. Bill's conviction that the man was English, and probably a sailor, was the most definite, and he had had greater opportunity closely to observe the stranger than anyone else. LeVere had obtained no more than a glimpse of his opponent, during their struggle in the dark, and while fighting for his life. Surely it would be easy enough to obscure any faint impression thus acquired. And the fellow had been heartlessly flung overboard; was believed to have sunk without a struggle, too drunk to save himself; was scarcely given another thought. Yet no one knew positively that this was so, because no one cared. The death of the lad had simply been taken for granted, when LeVere failed to see his body rise again to the surface. Yet it was quite within the realm of possibility for the fellow to come up once more in that darkness, beyond LeVere's range of vision, and even to have remained afloat, buoyed up by clinging to the anchor hawser, until strong enough to return on board. At least there was no one aboard the Namur able to deny that this had been done.
Satisfied by this reasoning of being able to pass myself off as the dead man, with small danger of detection, and likewise assured--so far at least as eyes and ears testified--that none of the crew were grouped on the forecastle, to be attracted by my movements, I began, slowly and cautiously, to drag myself up the taut hawser, hoping thus to attain a position from which to gain hand-hold on the rail, and thus attain the deck unseen. While my explanation might suffice, I greatly preferred having to present it only as a last resort. I would much rather slip quietly aboard, and mingle unnoticed with the crew for the next few hours, than be haled at once before LeVere, and endure his scrutiny and possible violence. The fellow was evidently a brute, and a hard master. Seemingly I had chosen a fortunate moment for my effort; no one heeded the little noise I made, and, when I finally topped the rail, and was able to look inboard, it was to discover a deserted fore deck, with the watch all engaged at some task amidships. There was no gleam of light, but I could hear the patter of feet, and imagined seeing dim moving figures. A rather high-pitched voice was giving orders, and enough of his words reached me to convince that other men were aloft on the main yard. Believing my best policy would be to join those busied on deck, just as though I belonged among them, I crept down the forecastle ladder, and worked my way aft beneath the black shadow of the port rail, until able thus to drift unnoticed into a group tailing on to a mainsail halliard. The fellow next to me, without releasing his grip, turned his head and stared, but without discerning my features.
"Whar the hell did yer cum' frum?" he growled, and I as instantly recognized Bill Haines. "Been sojerin', have yer? Well, now, damn yer eyes! lay too an' pull."
Before I could attempt an answer, a tall figure loomed up before us, the same high-pitched voice I had noticed previously calling out sharply:
"There, that's enough, men! Now make fast. We can head the old girl out from here in a jiffy, if it really begins to blow. Jose, you stand by at the wheel, in case you're needed; some of the rest ship the capstan bars, and remain near for a call."
Discipline on board must have been somewhat lax, or else Haines held some minor official position which gave him unusual privilege, for, while the others instantly separated to carry out these orders, he remained motionless, confronting the man I supposed to be the mulatto, LeVere. My own position was such I could not press past the two without attracting attention.
"What are ye swingin' the yards fer, enyhow?" asked the sailor insolently. "Just fer exercise?"
The other, who already had started to turn away, stopped, and took a step backward toward his questioner.
"Because I am a sailor, Haines," he replied angrily. "Anyhow it is none of your business; I was left in command here. Those clouds don't look good to me; there is going to be a blow before morning."
"Then it's yer intention ter work out'er this yere berth?"
"It's my intention to be ready, if it becomes necessary. There is no regular officer left aboard, but, just the same, I am not going to let this bark pile up on those rocks yonder. We'll hang on here for another half hour, maybe, and then, if the long-boat don't show up, we'll work further off shore until daylight. That's sensible, isn't it?"
Haines growled something, inaudible to me, but evidently accepted as an assent, and LeVere, still in no good humor from the questioning, wheeled sharply about to go forward. This movement placed him face to face with me.
"What are you loafing here for?" he burst forth, no doubt glad to thus vent his anger on someone. "Who the hell are you?"
"Joe Gates, sir," I answered quickly, mouthing the first name which came to my lips.
"Gates--Joe Gates?" peering savagely into my face, but unable to distinguish the features. "I never heard of anybody on board by that name. Who is the fellow, Haines?"
The Englishman gripped me by the sleeve to whirl me about, but as his fingers touched the soaked cloth of my jacket, he burst forth with an oath.
"By God! but he's wet enough to be the same lad you chucked overboard an hour ago. Damn me, I believe he is. Say, mate, are you the gay buck we hauled aboard drunk, and dumped inter the for'cassel?"
"I dunno, sir," I answered dumbly, believing it best not to remember too much. "I couldn't even tell yer whut ship this is, ner how I signed on. Last I seem ter remember I wus ashore frum the schooner Caroline; but this yere is a bark."
Haines laughed, already convinced of my identity, and considering it a good joke.
"Well, my buck, I'll tell yer whar yer are, an' likewise how yer got yere," he chuckled. "I wus one of a party frum this hooker ashore 'bout dusk, when yer hove in sight 'bout as drunk as a sailorman kin get. Fact is yer wus so soused yer stumbled inter the wrong boat, and went ter sleep. We're allers ready fer ter take on a new hand er two, so we just let yer lie thar, an' brought yer aboard. 'Bout an hour ago yer must a had a touch o' tremens, fer, all at onct yer cum chargin' out on deck, an' tried ter knife LeVere, an' he flung yer overboard. We sorter figured thet yer went down, an' never cum up agin."
LeVere broke in with a savage snarl.
"What's all that? Do you mean, Haines, that this is the same damned scamp who tried to stick me?"
"No doubt of it. But he never knew what he was dloin'--he wus crazy as a loon. There's nuthin' fer yer ter fuss over now. Tell us about it, Gates--the bath must have sobered yer up?"
I watched LeVere, but he remained motionless, a mere shadow.
"I suppose it must have been thet, sir," I confessed respectfully, "if things happened as you say they did. I haven't any memory o' tryin' ter slash nobody. Leastwise I seemed ter know whut I wus about when I cum up. I don't remember how I got ther; furst I knew I wus slushin' 'round in the water, a tryin' ter keep afloat. It wus so blame dark I cudn't see nuthin', but sumhow I got grip on a hawser, an' hung on till I got back 'nough strength ter clime on board. I knew this wa'n't my ship, so I just lay quiet awhile, figurin' out whar I wus."
"Yer English?" "Born in Bristol, sir, but I wus workin' on the Caroline--she's a Colony schooner, in the fish trade."
"At sea since I wus twelve. What's this yere bark--Dutch, ain't she?"
"Once upon a time; just now we are flying whatever flag cumes handy. We ain't got no prejudice in flags."
"Is thet a gun forrard, covered with taupalin?"
"Yes, an' yer might find another aft, if yer looked fer it. Mor'n thet, we know how ter use 'em. Now see here, Gates; thar's no reason why we should beat about the bush--fact is we're sea rovers."
"Sea rovers--pirates, sir?"
"Bah! what's a name! We take what we want; it's our trade, that's all. No worse than many another. The question is, are yer goin' ter take a chance 'long with us? It's the only life, lad--plenty of fun, the best of liquor and pretty girls, with a share in all the swag."
"What is the name of this bark?"
"The Namur--sailed out o' Rotterdam till we took her."
"Whut wus yer in when ye took her?"
"The Vengeance, a three-masted schooner, the fastest thing afloat. She's south in West India waters."
"Who's the captain?"
"Gawd! Sanchez--not--not 'Black Sanchez?'"
"That's him; so yer've heerd o' 'Black Sanchez?' Well, we're sailin' 'long with him, all right, mate, an' yer ought ter know whut thet means fer a good man."
I hesitated, yet only long enough to leave the impression I sought to make on them both.
"Likely thar ain't no sailor but whut has heerd o' him," I said slowly. "Enyhow, I sure have. I can't say thet I have any special hankerin' after bein' a pirate, an' I never aimed ter be one; but, seem' as how I am yere on this bark, an' can't easy get away, it don't look like thar wus much choice, does it?"
LeVere appeared amused in his way, which was not a pleasant one.
"Oh, yes, friend, there is choice enough. Bill, here, had exactly the same choice when he first came--hey, Bill? Remember how you signed on, after we took you off the Albatross? This is how it stands, Gates--either go forrard quietly yerself, er the both of us will kick you there. We never give an order twice on the Namur. That will be enough talk. If you do your work, all right; and if you don't, then look out, my man--there will be plenty of hell waiting for you. Go on, now."
It was a curt dismissal, coupled with a plain threat, easy to understand. I obeyed the order gladly enough, slinking away into the black shadows forward, realizing my good fortune, and seeking some spot where I could be alone. The result was all that I could have hoped for; my position on board was assured; my story had been accepted without awakening the slightest suspicion; and it was perfectly clear that no one on board the Namur possessed the slightest memory of the personal appearance of the poor fellow who had been thrown overboard, and drowned. Even Haines believed me to be the man. Of course I should be watched to some extent for a few days, my willingness to serve noted, and my ability as a seaman put to the test; but in this I had nothing to fear. I could play the assumed character with little danger of any mishap. The only remaining peril of discovery would come with the return of the absent boat, and the necessity of my encountering the giant negro. Yet I was convinced even this would not prove serious. If Cochose had glimpsed my features at all during the course of our desperate struggle on the deck of the sloop, the impression made on his mind must have been merely momentary; and, besides, he would never once conceive it possible that the same man could have reached the bark ahead of his return. Even if such a suspicion dawned, I was now in a position to positively establish my arrival aboard the Namur early the evening previous, and before their expedition had departed.
I felt so safe, and so content with my success thus far, as to already believe thoroughly in the final result of my mission. This confidence developed almost into sheer recklessness. There were some difficulties ahead, to be sure. I remained sane enough to recognize these, yet I had already conquered easily, what at first had appeared insurmountable, and, in consequence of this good luck, these others yet to be met, seemed far less serious. The same happy fortune which had opened the way for me to board the Namur must also intervene to aid me in solving future problems. Mine was the philosophy of a sailor, to whom peril was but a part of life. All I seemed to require now was a sufficiency of courage and faith--the opportunity would be given. In this spirit of aroused hope, I continued to stare out into the black night, watchfully, the shrouded deck behind me silent, and seemingly deserted, except for the steady tramp from rail to rail of LeVere, keeping his lonely watch aft. The crew had disappeared, lying down no doubt in corners out of the wind. And this wind was certainly rising, already attaining a force to be reckoned with, for the boom of waves hurled against the bows of the laboring bark, was steadily becoming more noticeable, while overhead the ropes sang dismally. I wondered that LeVere hung on so long in his perilous position, although, in spite of the increased strain, the anchor still clung firmly. Quite probably he had received stern orders not to shift from his present position until the boat returned, yet surely his judgment as a competent seaman, left in command, must make him aware of the threatening danger. He would never wreck his vessel merely because he had been instructed to remain at that particular spot. It seemed to me that no hawser ever made could long withstand the terrific strain of our tugging, as the struggling bark rose and fell in the grip of the sea. To him must have come the same conviction, for suddenly his high-pitched voice sang out from the poop:
"Stand by, forrard, to lower the starboard anchor; move lively, men. Everything ready, Haines?"
"All clear, sir. Come on the jump, bullies!"
"Then let go smartly. Watch that you don't get the line fouled. Aloft there! Anything in sight, Cavere?"
From high up on the fore-top yard, the answer, blown by the wind, came down in broken English:
"Non, M'sieur; I see nottings."
"Well, don't go to sleep; keep both eyes open!"
I had already joined the watch forward, aware only of the numerous dim, and shapeless figures about me, busily employed in straightening out the kinks in the heavy cable. The number of men on deck was evidence of a large crew, there being many more than were necessary for the work to be done. Most of them appeared to be able seamen, and Haines drove them mercilessly, cursing them for lubbers, and twice kicking viciously at a stooping form. There was no talking, only the growl of an occasional oath, the slapping of the hawser on deck, and the sharp orders of Haines. Then the great rope began to slip swiftly through the hawse hole, and we heard the sharp splash as the iron flukes struck the water, and sank. Almost at that same instant the voice of Cavere rang out from the mast-head:
"A sail, M'sieur--a sail!"
"Off ze port quarter. I make eet to be ze leetle boat--she just round ze point"