Chapter XIX. Laying the Trap
 

Our first job was executed much more easily than I had anticipated. We caught Manuel sound asleep, and LeVere had sinewy hands at his throat before the fellow could grasp a weapon, or even clearly comprehend the nature of the attack. The narrowness of the stateroom prevented my taking much part in the affair, but the mulatto needed no help, as he dragged the cursing Spaniard from his bunk to the deck and throttled him savagely. Indeed he would have killed the fellow had I not interfered and twisted his hands loose, leaving Estevan barely conscious. A blanket ripped into strips served to bind him securely enough for the present, but I thought it best to lock the door, and keep the key in my own pocket. LeVere would have knifed him even as he lay there helpless, but for my threat and insistence. Once back in the cabin my eyes distinguished the frightened face of the steward peering forth at us from out the dark of the passage leading forward.

"Come here, Gunsaules," I said sternly. "Step lively, lad; there's nothing for you to fear."

"Yes, Senor--yes," and; he crept forth from his partial cover, glancing fearfully from face to face as he advanced.

"Senor Estada has been killed during the night, and we have just captured his murderer," I explained hastily. "There is reason to believe this act was part of a conspiracy to seize the ship."

"By Senor Manuel?" his eyes staring at me from out a white face.

"Yes, in connection with those fellows amidships. Does that passage lead to their quarters?"

"It did once, Senor, but now there is a closed door. The Captain Sanchez had it so arranged to prevent the men from coming aft."

"What kind of a door?"

"Of oak, studded with iron, not only locked, but barred on this side."

"You have no key?"

"No, Senor; there are but two--one for the Captain and the other for him who commands the buccaneers."

"Manuel?"

"Si, Senor."

I stood there a moment silent, considering this information, and rapidly arranging in mind our future operations. The only way the mutineers could reach the cabin then would be from the deck, descending through the companion. So long as they remained unaware of the capture of Manuel there was little danger of their taking such action. My faith in Gunsaules was not great, yet the probability was that he would remain loyal to whichever party held the upper hand. That was ever the way with these men.

"Very well, steward," I said. "You go on about your work as though nothing had happened. If any word of this affair gets to the crew, or to those fellows forward, I'll hold you responsible. Understand that!"

"Si, Senor."

"You are not to leave this cabin without my permission, nor speak to anyone. LeVere."

The mulatto faced me respectfully enough, and I had a feeling he would obey orders, largely because he dare not rebel.

"Si, Senor."

"They will be wondering why you are not on deck. It will be better for you to take charge of the watch at once, and keep the men busy. Relieve Watkins at the wheel and send the man down to me. He can choose the fellows who will stick better than you could, and then can circulate among them without arousing suspicion. Send him down at once quietly."

He disappeared through the companion, while Gunsaules vanished within the storeroom, where I could hear him rummaging noisily about. I sat down to wait the appearance of Watkins, satisfied that matters were already safely in my control. That the English sailor would cooperate, I had no doubt, and as to LeVere, he had already gone too far to openly play the traitor. It was full daylight now, and evidently a bright morning, although the swell of the sea remained heavy, and I judged there must be a strong wind. Watkins, muffled to the ears in a heavy jacket, and with cap pulled down so I could scarcely see his face, shuffled down the steps. He whipped off the cap and stood waiting.

"The officer of the deck sent me here, sir."

"I asked for you; did LeVere tell you why?"

"No sir; only that I was to come at once and quietly." I put my hand on his shoulder. "Tom," I said soberly, but so low I felt sure even Gunsaules would not overhear, "we are in the same boat, and understand each other. The chance has come for both of us, if we play the cards right. Listen while I tell you the situation, and what I plan doing."

I told it briefly, wasting no words, yet relating every fact, even including my visit and conversation with Dorothy, and the throwing of the body through the after port. He listened eagerly, but without interruption until the end.

"What do you make of it?" I asked, irritated by his silence.

"About what you do, sir. I knew there was something of the kind going on--some of the men forward are in on it. You've got the ring-leader."

"Manuel, you mean. Who did he count on for help in the forecastle?"

"Cochose, and a handful of others, niggers and Spaniards, mostly. They even tried out one or two white men. That's how I heard of it, through Jack Jones, but they never told him enough to make the plan clear. However, with what you've just said I've got a pretty fair understanding. They meant to pull the affair off either today or tonight. What sorter lookin' chap was the fellow you knocked out, sir?"

"I scarcely saw his face--a half-breed I should say; rather short, but stout, with long hair."

"Jose; he is the one Manuel would choose for such a job. But why he got into the girl's room is more than I know. However, if he is dead, and Manuel a prisoner, it gives us a fair chance, sir. It leaves those fellows amidships without a leader. A dozen good men on deck might do the business."

"But are there a dozen aboard to be trusted?"

He hesitated, running the names over in his mind, evidently weighing each one carefully.

"Well, yes sir. I rather think there are," he said finally. "It won't do for to make any mistake here, but I'm pretty sure of these fellows. I'd say that in both watches there's maybe fourteen to be relied on. There's one or two others in the starboard watch who are likely enough all right, but I don't get to see them alone much."

"Who do you pick out?"

"In my watch there's Jones, Harwood and Simms, either English or Welsh. They're all right. Then there's a nigger named Sam; Schmitt, a Dutchman, with his partner, whose name I don't know, and two Frenchies, Ravel and Pierre. That makes eight, nine counting myself. Then in the starboard watch I'd pick out Jim Carter and Joe Cole, two Swedes, Carlson and Ole Hallin, and another nigger. Then there are a couple of Finns who ought to be with us, but I can't talk their lingo. That would give us sixteen out of thirty, and it's quite likely some of the others would take a hand with us, if they thought it was safe. I have'nt any use though, sir, for Francois LeVere. There ain't a worse scamp aboard."

"I know that," I admitted, "but he had to be used. It was through him that Estada's murder was discovered. But he is safe enough for the present, for he made the attack on Manuel, and so will not dare go back on us. His life is in the balance. But wait, Tom; don't breathe in his ear our real purpose; I've convinced him that we mean to keep in the trade, dividing the treasure aboard, and sailing the bark to Porto Grande."

"Oh, so that's the game? And what is my part now?"

"This is my watch below, and it will be best for me to keep off the deck until all is prepared. Besides I am afraid to leave the cabin unguarded. There is no knowing what Gunsaules might do. You sound these men and get them together; wake up the ones in the starboard watch you feel sure are all right, and have them slip quietly on deck. LeVere will understand what you are up to, and will make no objection. As soon as you have everything ready, let me know."

"We are none of us armed, sir."

"That is what I was coming to. When you are sure of your men, and have them on deck, I'll get LeVere to send them all aft on some pretext or other. I'll think up a way to do this without creating any suspicion. Then we'll get these arms in the rack here, and be ready for business--the rest will be done in a hurry. You have it all clear?"

"Yes, sir."

"Then I'll wait here for your report."

At the very best Watkins could scarcely perform the task assigned him in less than an hour. No doubt there were those on his list whom he would have to approach with great caution, while there was always danger that some word might be dropped to awaken suspicion. The success or failure of our effort depended entirely upon taking these fellows by complete surprise. If it came to an open fight our cause was hopeless, for that would mean fourteen or fifteen men unarmed, pitted against over a hundred, thoroughly equipped and trained fighters. To be sure these were at present, without a leader, yet their force alone was sufficient to overcome us, and some one among them would doubtless assume leadership in an emergency. Only by confining them below, with hatches battened down, and a carronade trained upon them, would we be safe.

I sat where I could watch the stairs, and the entire forward part of the cabin. Gunsaules lowered the table, and began preparing the morning meal. He glanced at me each time he passed, but ventured on no questioning, although it was quite evident the fellow was nearly bursting from curiosity. I lit my pipe, endeavoring to appear entirely at ease, as I turned over and over again in mind every detail of the contemplated action. With each review the result seemed more certainly assured, and my courage revived. Except for some accident, or act of treachery, I could perceive no reason why my plan should not work perfectly. It was evident that LeVere was endeavoring to keep the watch on deck busy. I could hear his voice frequently, calling out orders and occasionally singling out some man for a special task. A slushing of water proved that the deck amidships was being washed down, and twice, at least, men were sent aloft to make some change in the spread of canvas.

I stepped across into my stateroom to gain a glimpse out through the port. Narrow as the vista was it yet revealed a beautiful sea view, the waves running high, but in long billows, with bright sunshine glowing along their crests, the hollows a deep purple. Above the sky was a pale blue, with scarcely a fleeting cloud visible, and the bark was sailing free, laying well over to the fresh breeze, evidently carrying all the spread of canvas possible. As I returned to the cabin, Gunsaules awaited me to announce breakfast.

"What already?"

"It is six-thirty, Senor. Those were my orders."

"Very well; I suppose Estada and Manuel usually eat first?"

"Si, Senor."

"That leaves me alone; suppose you rap on the lady's door yonder, and ask if she will join me. Say your message is from Senor Gates."

She came forth immediately fully dressed, but bearing herself with reserve. On my part I made no effort at greeting, not certain as to what eyes might be observing us through the deck light above, or, for the matter of that, unwilling to face the curiosity of the watchful steward.

"I had you called," I explained, "because of a disinclination to eat entirely alone. You were evidently awake?"

"Yes; I have not undressed. I felt no desire to sleep, although, no doubt I dozed. The call to breakfast was quite welcome."

She seated herself opposite me, and we spoke of the weather while Gunsaules served with some skill. He was still hovering about, but my anxiety to enjoy a word with her alone caused me to send him on a task elsewhere.

"Has Captain Sanchez been attended to yet?" I asked sharply. "No; then see to him at once. I have reason to believe he is alone this morning, and will need you. Yes, we can get along very nicely."

We waited until he disappeared within the after stateroom, bearing a tray; then her eyes suddenly lifted to mine, filled with questioning.

"Tell me what has happened?" She breathed eagerly. "I heard the noise of a struggle out here, and voices conversing. Why are you alone?"

I leaned over to speak in as low a tone as possible.

"I can only explain very briefly. The man who came into your room last night had just murdered Estada. LeVere and I found the mate's body at daylight. His killing was part of a plot by Manuel, and the buccaneers quartered amidships, to seize the bark. We have Manuel already prisoner and are preparing to gain possession of the boat ourselves."

"Who are planning? You have found friends on board?"

"I have made LeVere believe his only safety lies in assisting me. I told you about Watkins and the other men forward. He has picked out a dozen, or so, in whom he has confidence, English sailors mostly and is sounding them out. I expect him back with a report at any minute."

"And then what?" her excitement visible in her eyes. "What can a dozen men do?"

"Our main weapon is surprise of course. By acting quickly we can gain control of the deck. If Watkins' estimate is correct, nine out of the port watch now on duty will be with us. If he can add to these five or six from the starboard watch below this will make a total, not counting LeVere and myself, of fifteen. There would be only five left to oppose us on deck and probably two of these would be on watch aloft. Once we gain control of the deck we can lock the others below, and negotiate with them at our leisure. The plan looks to me quite possible."

She sat silently gazing at me across the table, seemingly failing to quite comprehend, her parted lips trembling to an unasked question. Before she could frame this in words, the door to the companion opened, and Watkins descended the stairs. At sight of her he whipped off his cap, and stood motionless, fumbling it awkwardly in his hands.

"You may speak freely," I said. "This is the young lady I told you about, and of course she is with us. Only talk low, as the steward is in the stateroom yonder."

"Yes sir," using a hoarse whisper, and fastening his gaze on me. "It's all right, sir."

"They are with us! How many?"

"Eight sure from my watch, sir. Harwood is in the fore-top and couldn't be seen, but I'll answer for his bein' all right. There was only four I could get word to in the forcastle, but there's others there who'll give us help soon as they know what's goin' on."

"That makes twelve of the men, fifteen of us altogether. Are the four from the starboard watch on deck?"

He nodded, clutching and unclutching his hands nervously, scarcely able to restrain himself.