Chapter XII. A Friend in the Forecastle
 

I slowly and regretfully opened my eyes, aroused perhaps by a trampling of feet on the deck above, to find myself lying in an upper bunk of the forecastle. I was partially covered by a ragged blanket, but for a few moments remained unable to comprehend the situation. Yet the vivid memory soon returned, stimulated no doubt by the continuous aching of my body where Estada had so brutally kicked me with his heavy boots. The first recollection of that assault brought with it a dull anger, strangely commingled with a thought of Dorothy Fairfax, and a sense of my own duty. The heavy rolling of the bark clearly evidenced that we were already at sea, and bucking against a high wind. Occasionally a monster wave broke over the cats-head, and struck thunderingly on the deck above me, the whole vessel trembling to the shock. Oilskins hung to the deck beams, swung here and there at strange angles, while the single slush lantern dangled back and forth like the pendulum of a clock.

It was a dark, dismal, smelly interior, amply large enough, but ill ventilated, and inexpressibly dirty. Every stench under heaven seemed to assail my nostrils, so compounded together, as to be separately indistinguishable, although that of stale bilge water strongly predominated. The only semblance of fresh air found entrance through the small, square scuttle hole, attainable by means of a short ladder, and staring up at this, I was able to perceive the light of day, although so little penetrated below, the swaying slush light alone served to illumine the place, and render its horrors visible. It was day then, and we were well out at sea. I must have been lying unconscious for several hours. In all probability, finding it impossible to arouse me, the brutes had finally left me alone, to either recover, or die, as fate willed. I rested back, feeling of the numerous bruises on my body, and touching gingerly the dried blood caked on my face. No very serious damage seemed to have been done, for I could move without great pain, although every muscle and tendon appeared to be strained and lacerated. My head had cleared also from its earlier sensation of dullness, the brain actively taking up its work. Clinching my teeth to keep back a groan, I succeeded in sitting upright, my head touching the upper deck, as I undertook to survey my surroundings. They were gloomy and dismal enough. The forecastle, in true Dutch style, had been built directly into the bows, so that the bunks, arranged three tiers high, formed a complete half circle. The single lantern, flickering and flaring as it swung constantly to the sharp pitching of the vessel, cast grotesque shadows, and failed entirely to penetrate the corners. The deck below me was littered with chests, sea boots, and odds and ends of clothing, while farther aft considerable water had found entrance through the scuttle hole, and was slushing back and forth as the bark rolled. About half the bunks seemed to be occupied, the figures of the sleeping men barely discernible, although their heavy breathing evidenced their presence, and added to the babel of sound. Every bolt and beam creaked and groaned in the ceaseless struggle with the sea.

The bunk in which I had awakened was situated almost at the apex of the half circle, so that I had a clear view of the wider open space. Those beneath me contained no occupants, nor, at first, could I distinguish any in the tier directly opposite. Evidently the watch off duty preferred to seek their rest as far away as possible from those waves pounding against the bow. However, as I sat there, staring about at this scene, and uncertain as to what my next move should be, there was a stir within the upper berth on my own level, and a moment later, an uplifted face appeared suddenly in the yellow flare of light. It was manifestly an English face at first glance, rosy of cheek, with chestnut beard, and light, tousled hair. A pair of humorous, gray eyes surveyed me silently, and then, apparently satisfied by the scrutiny, the owner sat up in the bunk, revealing powerful shoulders, and a round, bull neck.

"Ahoy, mate," he said pleasantly, endeavoring to speak low, the effort resembling the growl of a bear. "How do you feel--pretty sore?"

"Ache from head to foot," I answered, immediately feeling his friendliness. "But no harm done."

"I saw part of it. The damn black brute kicked savagely enough, but at that you're lucky; it's the Spanish style to use a knife. I've seen that cock slash a man into ribbons for nothing at all--just to show he was bad. Haines tells me your name is Gates, and that you are English."

"That's right; I shipped first out of Bristol."

"So did I, mate--twenty years ago though, and I never went back since. My name is Tom Watkins. Let's shake; there is quite a sprinkling of us Britishers aboard, and we ought to hang together."

He put out a big, hairy fist, and I gripped it heartily, decidedly liking the man as his eyes frankly met mine. He appeared honest and square, a fine type of the English seaman.

"Tom Watkins, you said. May I ask if you were out on the bow-sprit along with Haines last night?"

"Just afore the long-boat come in? Yes, we were there."

"Well, I was down below, hanging to the cable, and overheard you two talking together. Somehow, Watkins, you do not seem to me to fit in exactly with this gang of pirates; you don't look to be that sort. How long have you been with them?"

He glanced about warily, lowering his voice until it became a hoarse whisper.

"Three years, mate, and most of that time has been hell. I haven't even been ashore, but once, and that was on an island. These fellows don't put any trust in my kind, nor give them any chance to cut and run. Once in awhile a lad does get away, but most of them are caught; and those that are sure get their punishment. They never try it again. I've seen them staked out on the sand, and left to die; that ain't no nice thing to remember."

"But how did you come into it?" "Like most of the rest. I was second mate of the Ranger, a Glasgow brig. We loaded with sugar at Martinique, for London. These fellows overhauled us at daybreak about a hundred miles off the east end of Cuba. They had a swift schooner, and five guns, one a Long Tom. All we had to fight them with was about fifteen men, and two brass carronades. Our skipper was Scotch, and he put up some fight, but it wasn't any use. There was only three of us left alive when the pirates came aboard. One of these died two days later, and another was washed overboard and drowned down in the Gulf. I am all that is left of the Ranger."

"You saved your life by taking on?"

"Sanchez had the two of us, who were able to stand, back in his cabin. He put it to us straight. He said it was up to us whether we signed up, or walked the plank; and he didn't appear to care a damn which we chose. The cold-blooded devil meant it too, for he was raging mad at getting only five hundred pounds off the brig. Well, Jack and I looked at each other--and then we signed."

"And you say others of this crew have been obtained in the same manner?" I questioned, deeply interested, and perceiving in this a ray of hope.

"Not exactly--no, I wouldn't precisely say that. It's true, perhaps, that most of the Britishers were forced to join in about the same way I was, and there may be a Scandinavian, or two, with a few Dutch, to be counted in that list; but the most of these cusses are pirates from choice. It's their trade, and they like it. Sanchez only aims to keep hold of a few good men, because he has got to have sailors; but most of his crew are nothing but plain cut-throats."

"Where does he find them?"

"Where? Why the West Indies are full of such devils; been breeding them down there for two hundred years---Indians and half-breeds, niggers, Creoles, Portuguese, Spanish, and every damned mongrel you ever heard of. Sanchez himself is half French. The hell-hound who kicked you is a Portugee, and LeVere is more nigger than anything else. I'll bet there is a hundred rats on board this Namur right now who'd cut your throat for a sovereign, and never so much as think of it again."

"A hundred? Is there that many aboard?"

"A hundred an' thirty all told. Most o' 'em bunk amidships. They're not sailormen, but just cut-throats, an' sea wolves. Yer ought ter see 'em swarm out on deck, like hungry rats, when thar's a fight comin'. It's all they're good fer."

"Watkins," I said soberly, after a pause during which he spat on the dirty deck to thus better express his feelings "do you mean to say that in three years you've had no chance to escape? No opportunity to get away?"

"Not a chance, mate; no more will you. The only place I've put foot ashore has been Porto Grande, where we run in to refit. That's a worse hell than the ship itself."

"But Haines goes ashore; he was with Manuel's boat yesterday."

The big fellow laughed grimly.

"Bill rather likes the job, an' they know it. He's a boatswain, an' gets a big share of the swag. He's the only Britisher aboard who wouldn't cut and run in a minute; besides he's got a girl at Porto Grande."

"And that fellow Anderson who was with Estada?"

"The lowest kind of a Swede cur--he'll do more dirt than a Portugee. I know what yer thinkin' 'bout. I had them notions too when I fu'st come aboard--gettin' all the decent sort tergether, and takin' the vessel. 'Twon't work; thar ain't 'nough who wud risk it, and if thar wus, yer couldn't get 'em tergether. Sanchez is too damn smart fer thet. Every damn rat is a spy. I ain't hed no such talk as this afore in six months, Gates; the last time cost me twenty lashes at the mast-butt."

"Is there any chance of our being overheard now?"

"No; these near bunks are all empty, an' the damn noise drowns our voices. What'd yer have in your mind, mate?"

"Only this, Watkins. I've got to do something, and believe I can trust you. You are a square English seaman, probably the only one aboard I can repose confidence in. I don't blame you for sticking, for I suppose likely I'd do the same if I was in your case. But I ain't--it's not my life I'm thinking about, but that of a woman."

He stared at me across the narrow space separating our bunks, the shadows from the swinging lantern giving his features a strange expression.

"A woman! Hell, lad; not the one brought aboard last night?"

"Exactly; now listen--I'm going to tell you my story, and ask your help. Do you know what Estada went after in the long-boat?"

"Well, there's been plenty o' talk. The cook brought us some stories he heard aft, an' we knew we wus driftin' along the coast, waitin' fer Sanchez ter cum back. I suppose he'd got onto some English gold--in that chest they slung aboard, wasn't it?"

"Yes; that was the main object. My name is not Gates, at all, and I am not the man Mendez brought aboard drunk, and who was thrown over the rail by LeVere. That fellow was drowned."

"Well, by God!"

"I am Geoffry Carlyle, an English skipper. There has been a revolution in England, in which I became involved. When the attempt failed, I was taken prisoner and deported to America for twenty years servitude. I came over with a bunch of others on the same ship with Sanchez."

"The Romping Betsy?"

"Yes. There was a rich planter, and his niece also aboard. He was coming home with a chest of money--fifty thousand pounds--realized from a big sale of tobacco in London, and the young woman was returning from attending school in England. Sanchez was aboard to gain possession of both."

Watkins nodded, too deeply interested in the narrative to interrupt.

"He pretended to be of the Spanish nobility, an ex-naval officer, and tried all the way over to make love to this Dorothy Fairfax. He got along all right with the uncle, and was invited to visit him, but the girl was not so easy. He must have had it all planned out how he was to get the gold, Fairfax carried--that was what the Namur was waiting for--and when he found that the young woman could not be won by fair means, he decided to take her by force."

"It's not the first time for the black-hearted devil. But how did you happen to come along?"

"Fairfax bought me to run his sloop. Perhaps it was the girl who won him over. Anyhow this arrangement angered Sanchez, and we had words. You know the rest, or, at least, the main facts. Sanchez and the boat crew held rendezvous at the first landing up the Bay. It was prearranged, but it was my fortune to meet the Captain alone on shore in the dark, where we fought."

"It was you then who drove the knife in? God!" excitedly, "but I would give ten years for such a chance. Ay, and, they say, you came within an eighth of an inch of sending him to hell."

"I knew not where I struck; 'twas a death struggle in the dark. I thought him dead when I left him, and ran to warn the others. But for this I was too late. The moment I set foot on the sloop's deck it was to close in battle with the big negro."

"Cochose? He saw you then?"

"No, only as a shape. He can have no better memory of me, than I of him. We fought as demons, until his giant strength forced me over the rail. He has no knowledge that I ever rose again."

"And then--what?"

"Oblivion; nothing. Only what I saw in the return of the boat tells me what followed. I came back to consciousness in a small dory, afloat on the Bay, with but one thought in my mind--to save the girl. How? It was too late to return, even had I known the way; but I could come here, to this ship. So here I came."

"But how, in advance of those in the long-boat?"

"By cutting across the point; the coast to the north is a wide circle. Besides the discovery of Sanchez sorely wounded left the others without a leader. Fairfax and his niece together with the treasure, were in Travers' house, at top of the bluff. They had to carry out an attack there, which probably meant more fighting. What really happened there, of course, I do not know."

"It can be easily imagined," said Watkins soberly. "Estada has no mercy; he is a born devil. I have seen him kill just for the pleasure of it. With Sanchez to avenge he would be an unleashed demon. But it is not the fate of those men to consider now; it is what will befall this girl prisoner. You have no plan?"

"None; to become a member of the crew was my only thought. But I must act, if at all, before the Captain recovers. He would recognize me at sight. You will aid, advise me?"

The sailor sat silent; the former expression of humor in his face vanished.

"That is easier to ask, than answer, mate," he admitted finally. "I am an English seaman, and will do my duty, but, so far as I can see, there is no plan we can make. It is God who will save the girl, if she is to be saved. He may use us to that end, but it is wholly beyond our power to accomplish it alone. The only thing I can do is to sound out the men aboard, and learn just what we can expect of them if any opportunity to act comes. There are not more than a dozen at most to be relied upon."

"And my part?"

"Do nothing at present. Play your part, and keep quiet. If you can let her know of your presence aboard without discovery it might be best--for if she saw you suddenly, unprepared, she might say or do something to betray you. There are other reasons why it may be best for her to know she is not entirely deserted."

He leaned over, motioning me toward him, until his lips were at my ear.

"It may not prove as hopeless as it appears now," he whispered confidentially. "I helped carry Sanchez to his stateroom, and washed and dressed his wound. There is no surgeon aboard, but I have some skill in such matters. He has a bad cut, and is very weak from loss of blood. The question of our success hinges on Pedro Estada."

"What he will do, you mean?"

"Yes; this is a chance which I happen to know he has long been waiting for. The only question is, has he the nerve to act. I doubt if he has alone, but LeVere is with him, and that half-breed would cut the throat of his best friend. You understand?--the death of Sanchez would make Estada chief. The two men hate each other--why not? There was a plan before which failed; this time it may not fail."

"But," I interposed, "in that case what would the crew do?"

"Accept Estada, no doubt; at least the cut-throats would be with him, for he is of their sort. All they care for is blood and booty. But Sanchez's death would save you from discovery, and," his voice still lower, so that I barely distinguished the words, "in the confusion aboard, if we were ready, the Namur might be so disabled as to compel them to run her ashore for repairs. That would give you a chance. If once we reach Porto Grande there is no hope."

A marling-spike pounded on the scuttle, and Haines' voice roared down.

"Port watch! Hustle out bullies!"