Chapter XI. The Return of the Boat
 

Receiving no other orders, the moment all was secure, the crew eager to welcome back the boat party, and learn the news, hurried over to the port rail. Beyond doubt most of those aboard realized that this had been an expedition of some importance, the culmination of their long wait on the coast, part of some scheme of their chief, in the spoils of which they expected to share. It was for this end they had been inactive for weeks, hiding and skulking along shore; now they hoped to reap their reward in gold and silver, and then be permitted to return to the wilder, more adventurous life they loved on the high seas. Moreover this boat approaching through the darkness was bringing back their leader, and however else they might feel toward him, the reckless daring, and audacious resourcefulness of Sanchez meant success. These fellows, the scum of the seven seas, whom he had gathered about him, might hate and fear, yet were glad to follow. They had learned on many a bloody deck the merit of their chief, and in their way were loyal to him.

I was made to comprehend all this by the low, muttered utterances of those crowding near me, spoken in nearly every language of the world. Much I could not even translate, yet enough reached my ears to convince me of the temper of the crew--their feverish eagerness to be again at sea, under command of a captain whom they both hated and feared, yet whom they would follow to the very gates of hell. Even as they cursed him with hot oaths, in memory of some act of discipline, there came into their voices a tinge of admiration, which furnished me an accurate etching of the man. They knew him, these hell-hounds of the sea, and from out their mouths I knew him also for what he was--a cruel, cold-blooded monster, yet a genius in crime, and a natural leader of such men as these. Black Sanchez! All the unspeakable horror which in the past had clung to that name came back again to haunt me; I seemed to hear once more the tales of men who had escaped from his grip alive; to see again the scenes they had witnessed. It could not seem possible that I was actually upon one of his ships, in the very midst of his wild crew. I listened to their comments, their expectations, with swiftly beating heart. I alone knew what that boat was bringing. And when it arrived, and they knew also, what would these sea wolves say? What would they do? What would be the result when the dead body of their leader came up over the rail?

For a few moments we could perceive nothing through the black night. The clouds were rolling low, thickened by vapor, and the increasing wind had already beaten the waves into crests of foam. We could hear them crash against the stout sides of the bark, which leaped to their impetus, yet was held in helpless captivity by the two anchors. The deck under foot tossed dizzily, the bare masts swaying above, while our ears could distinguish the sullen roar of breakers tumbling up on the sand just astern. Overhead ropes rattled noisily, the sound mingling with the flapping ends of loosened sails beating against the yards. LeVere shouted an order, and a sudden flare was lighted amidships, the circle of flame illumining a part of the deck, and spreading out over the wild expanse of water. The seaman holding the blazing torch aloft, and thrusting it forth across the rail, took on the appearance of a black statue, as motionless as though carved from ebony, while in the gleam the various groups of men became visible, lined up along the port bulwarks, all staring in the one direction, eagerly seeking a first glimpse of the approaching craft.

Scarcely had a minute elapsed before it came sweeping into the radius of light--at first a dim, spectral shadow, scarcely to be recognized; then, almost as suddenly, revealed in all its details--a boat of size, flying toward us under a lug sail, standing out hard as a board, keeling well over, and topping the sea swells like a bird on wing. 'Twas a beautiful sight as the craft came sweeping on before the full weight of the wind, out from that background of gloom into the yellow glare of the torch, circling widely so as to more safely approach the bark's quarter. LeVere called for men to stand by, the fellows rushing past me to their stations, but, in the fascination of the moment, I failed to move. I could do nothing but stare out across the intervening water, with eyes fastened on that swiftly approaching boat. I must see. I must know the message it brought; what story it held of the tragedy. At first I could only barely distinguish the figures of those aboard, yet these gradually assumed recognizable form, and finally the faces also became dimly visible. Manuel held the tiller, with Estada seated beside him, leaning forward, and gesticulating with one hand, as he directed the course. I had never seen these two, yet I knew them beyond a doubt. Mendez and Anderson (at least I supposed these to be the two) were poised at the sail halliards, ready to let the straining sheet down at a run, while Cochose crouched low in the bow, his black hand uplifted, gripping a coil of rope. Their faces were all turned forward, lighted by the flare from our deck, and I felt a shudder of fear run over me--no expression on any countenance spoke of defeat; even the ugly features of the negro beamed with delight.

But was that all? Was that all? Surely not, yet the boat had to leap forward, and then turn broadside too, as it swept aft toward the main chains, before I succeeded in seeing what remained partially concealed between the thwarts in its bottom. Forward of the single mast was stowed the chest, which Travers' slaves had borne with such care up the bluff; while in the open space between the helmsman and the two sailors were stretched two motionless bodies. LeVere, gripping a stay-rope, and leaning well out, hailed in Spanish.

"Ahoy, the boat--there is not too much sea? You can make it?"

"Ay!" came back Estada's voice, swept aside by the wind, yet still audible. "Stand by to fend us off. Call all hands, and break anchor as soon as we are aboard."

"Very well, sir. Where is Captain Sanchez?"

Estada pointed downward in swift, expressive gesture.

"Here at my feet--badly hurt, but will recover. Send two men down to help when we make fast. Now, Cochose--let go of your rope; watch out above!"

I stood, gripping hard at the rail, and staring down at the scene below, as the men in the boat made fast. I felt paralyzed, and helpless, unable to move. I had no business to remain there; every prospect of security depended on my joining the crew, but it was not in my power to desert my position. I could hear the hurrying feet of the watch tramping across the deck in response to LeVere's orders; the heavy pounding of a marling-spike on the forecastle hatch, as Haines called for all hands. I was aware that men were already mounting the ratlines, and laying out on the upper yards to make sail, while the capstan bars began rattling. Yet only one thought gripped me--Sanchez was not dead! I had believed he was; I had staked all on his death as a certainty. But instead, the man was lying there in the boat, helpless at present, sorely wounded perhaps, yet still alive. Estada even said he would surely recover. And that other body? That of Dorothy Fairfax, without doubt, yet certainly not lifeless. Those fellows would surely never bring back to the Namur the useless, dead form of one of their victims. That was unthinkable, impossible. If their prisoner was the girl--and who else could it be?--she remained alive, helplessly bound to prevent either struggle, or outcry, and destined to a fate far worse than death.

This revelation struck me like a blow. I had anticipated the possible capture of the young woman, but not the return of Sanchez. His living overthrew all my plans. There was no hope in the narrow confines of the ship for me to remain long out of his sight, once he became able again to reach the deck. And he would instantly recognize me in any guise. Every hope of rescue had vanished, every faith that I could be of aid. My own life hung in the balance--nay, rather, my doom was already sealed. There, seemingly was but one chance for escape left--that was to drop silently overboard, amid the confusion of getting under way, and make the desperate attempt to reach shore unseen before the crew could lift anchor, and set sail. This possibility came to me, yet I continued to cling there, dazed and helpless, staring dully down, lacking both physical and mental energy to put the wild scheme into execution. God, no! that would be the craven act of a coward. Better far to stay, and kill, or even be killed, than to be forever cursed by my own conscience. The fellow might die; some fatal accident befall the Namur; why a hundred things might occur before Sanchez was capable of resuming command, or could attempt any serious injury to Dorothy.

The fellows sent down from the main chains to the boat brought the injured Captain up first. This required the services of three men, his body hanging limp between them, his upturned face showing ghastly in the flaming of the torch thrust out over the rail. To every appearance it was apparently a corpse they handled, except for their tenderness, and a single groan to which the white lips gave utterance, when one of the bearers slipped, wrenching the wounded body with a sharp pang of pain. Once safely on deck, the three bore him across to the after cabin, in which a swinging lantern had been lighted, and was by then burning brightly, and disappeared down the steps. My eyes followed every movement, as I forgot for the instant the boat and its occupants still tossing alongside on the waters below. As I turned back, awakened by some cry, I saw that Estada had already swung himself up into the chains, while Anderson and Mendez were lifting the girl to her feet, and rather roughly urging her forward. Her hands and limbs had been set free, but she swayed back and forth in the grasp of the two men, as though unable to support herself alone, her face upturned into the flare of light, as she gazed in terror at the black side of the bark towering above. Her eyes reflected all the unutterable horror which for the moment dominated her mind, while her loosened hair, disarranged by struggle, only served to intensify the pallor of her face. Yet in spite of this evident despair, there was still strength and defiance in the firm closing of her lips, and her efforts to stand alone, uncontaminated by the touch of the sailors' hands.

"Hustle her along lively, boys," shouted back Estada coarsely. "If she won't move, give her a shove. Then tie her up again, and take the turn of a rope 'round her. What do you think this is--a queen's reception? Move lively, Senorita," in mock sarcasm.

Her gaze settled on him, where he hung far out, grasping a backstay, watching the movements below, and her slender form straightened as by the acquisition of new strength.

"If these creatures will take their hands off me," she said, using their tongue without a tremor in the clear voice. "I can easily go up alone. What is it you are so afraid of--a woman?"

The expression of Estada's face promised an outburst of profanity, but, instead of giving it utterance, he lifted his cap in a sudden pretense at gallantry.

"Your pardon, Senorita," he said in a tone of humble mockery. "If you have come to your senses at last, it is well. No one can be happier than I. Leave her alone, men. Now, my beauty, I am taking you at your own word--a step, and then the protection of my hand. We welcome you, as a guest aboard."

A moment and she had attained the deck. Where she stood I could no longer see her face, yet she remained there silent and motionless, rather stiffly erect as she faced him. Frightened, and helpless as she was, yet her very posture seemed to express the detestation she felt for the man. But Estada, apparently pleased with his performance thus far, chose to continue playing the fool.

"Thanks, Senorita--thanks," he began softly, and again bowing before her, cap in hand. "We greet you with due honor aboard the Namur--"

"Enough of that, you coward, you murderer," she broke in coldly. "Do not touch nor speak to me."

She turned her back on him, thus coming face to face with LeVere, who stood enjoying the scene, a wide grin on his dark face, revealing a row of white teeth under a jet-black moustache.

"You, sir--you are an officer?"

"I have charge of the deck."

"Then where am I to go?"

The mulatto, surprised by the sudden question, glanced inquiringly toward Estada, who had already completely lost his sense of humor.

"Go!" the latter growled. "Where is she to go? Why send the wench below. I'll see to her later, and teach her who is the master here. She will not queen it long on these decks, I warrant you. Off with her now, but be back quickly." He leaned out over the rail, sending his gruff voice below. "Send up that chest, you men--careful now not to let it drop overboard. Yes, that's better. Hook on the boat, Manuel, and let her drag; we must get out of here in a hurry. All ready, aloft?"

"Ay, ay, sir."

"Then sheet home; how is it forrard?"

"Both anchors apeak, sir."

"Smartly done--hard down with your helm there! That's it; now let her play off slowly."

He must have caught sight of me through the gloom, for he strode furiously forward, giving utterance to a bristling Spanish oath. All the savage brutality of his nature had been brought to the surface by Dorothy's stinging words, and he sought now some fit opportunity to give it vent. Before I could move, he had gripped me by the collar, and swung me about, so that the light streaming out from the cabin fell directly on my face.

"What the devil are you doing, loafing aft here?" he demanded roughly, staring into my eyes. "Didn't you hear the orders, you damned shirker? I've seen you hanging about for ten minutes, never lifting a hand. Who the hell are you anyhow--the captain?"

"Joe Gates, sir."

"Gates--another damned Englishman! How did you ever get aboard here?"

It was the returning LeVere who made explanation before I could reply.

"Manuel brought him on board last night. Picked him up drunk ashore."

Estada's ugly eyes roved from face to face, as though he failed to fully comprehend.

"Well, does he imagine he is going to be a passenger? Why hasn't he been taught his place before this? It's about time, LeVere, for this drunken sailor to be given a lesson to last him for awhile; and, by God, if you won't do it, I will. Step over here, Gates."

I took the necessary step forward, and faced him, expecting the rabid tongue lashing, which I rather felt I deserved.

"Now, my man, do you know what this bark is?"

"I think so, sir--Mister LeVere explained that to me."

"Oh, he did? Well, he must have failed to make clear the fact that we enforce discipline aboard. The next time you neglect to jump at an order, you are going to taste the cat. You understand me? You speak Spanish?"

"Yes, sir; I lived two years in Cuba."

"I see; well now, do you happen to have any idea who I am?"

"No, sir--only that you are one of the officers."

"Then I will enforce the information on your mind so that you are not liable to forget; also the fact that hereafter you are to jump when I speak. I am the first officer, and in command at present. Pedro Estada is my name. Now, you damned English whelp, remember that!"

Before I even suspected what was coming, his unexpected action as swift as the leap of a poised tiger, he struck me fairly between the eyes with the butt of a pistol, and I went down sprawling onto the deck. For a moment I seemed, in spite of the viciousness of the blow, to retain a spark of consciousness, for I knew he kicked me savagely with his heavy sea boots; I felt the pain, and even heard the words, and curses, accompanying each brutal stroke.

"You drunken dog! You whelp of a sea wolf! You English cur! Take that--damn you! And that! You'll not forget me for awhile, That's it--squirm, I like to see it. When you wake up again, you'll remember Pedro Estada, How did that feel, you grunting pig? Here, LeVere, Manuel, throw this sot into the forecastle. Curse you, here is one more to jog your memory."

The heavy, iron-shod boot landed full in my face, and every sensation left me as I sank limply back, bloody and unconscious.