Chapter XX. The Deck is Ours
 

I had the next step carefully outlined in my own mind, and yet I hesitated a moment, glancing into the two faces before me, with a sudden realization of what the contemplated action would mean to all of us, if by any chance it should fail of success. Our lives certainly hung in the balance, for these fiends would show no mercy, if once they gained power to strike back. Yet how could we fail? Only through treachery, or some unforseen accident. And, moreover, it was too late for retreat. The one chance, desperate as it appeared, must be taken. I managed to speak cheerfully, putting a ring of confidence into my voice.

"Then the sooner we act the better. Watkins have LeVere order these men aft. Let him say that Senor Estada wishes them to break out some stores in the lazaret. That will create no suspicion. They need be here only long enough for us to distribute these arms among them, and for me to speak a word of instruction to them. Are you ready?"

"Ay, ay, sir."

As he vanished, I turned to the girl, who had arisen to her feet, one hand grasping the edge of the table to balance herself against the pitching of the deck.

"It is a desperate chance, is it not?" She questioned anxiously. "Yes," I admitted. "Fifteen of us against a hundred and fifteen, but worth taking and such an opportunity may never occur again. I believe the plan will work; its greatest weakness is, I do not know the men on whom I must rely. If there should be a traitor among them we are done for. I mean to work so fast no one man will be able to spread the news."

"But have I no part? Is there no way in which I can help?"

"You have your pistol?"

"Yes."

"Then remain here. I shall have to go on deck with the men, and will not dare leave them a moment until the ship is absolutely secure. Manuel is locked in that stateroom, but must not be communicated with by anyone. I hardly believe Gunsaules will attempt anything, but it is not safe to trust him alone. It will be your part to see that the fellow neither enters that passage leading amidships, nor approaches this door. Keep him in sight. You can do this?"

"Of course I can."

"Then you will do most valuable service, and save us a man. Wait here now until I see how securely this passage forward is closed."

It was as described to me--a heavy oaken door, nail studded, not only locked, but held firmly in place by a stout iron bar. There was not the faintest possibility of any entrance aft, except through assistance from this side. As I returned to the cabin, Gunsaules came out of the Captain's room and crossed the deck. At sight of me he stopped instantly, holding his tray in front of him.

"Gunsaules," I said, wasting no words, "you are to remain in this cabin until I give the word. The lady here has a pistol, and orders to shoot if you attempt to either enter this passage, or approach the door of Manuel's stateroom."

"Yes, Senor," his face like chalk, and his eyes rolling.

"How did you find Sanchez?"

"Sitting up in his bunk, Senor, and able to eat."

"Does he know what is occurring on board?"

"No, Senor. He questioned me, but I only told him everything was all right, so far."

In my heart I believed the fellow deliberately lied, but there was no opportunity to question him further, for at that moment the door of the companion opened and a miscellaneous group of men thronged down the stairs. They were a rough hairy lot, here and there a sturdy English countenance meeting my gaze, but the faces were largely foreign, with those of two negroes conspicuous. I felt my heart beat furiously at sight of such poor material, and yet many a ship's crew appeared worse. The fellows grouped themselves awkwardly behind Watkins.

"Twelve here, sir; I couldn't get Harwood down from the fore-top."

"And there are others below who will join us?"

"Yes sir; six more I count on."

"Which means lads, that with Harwood, Senor LeVere, and myself, we'll total twenty-one in this shindy. Now I'll tell you what is up. Watkins gave you some of it no doubt, but a word from me will make it clearer. I'm no pirate; I'm an English sailor, shanghied on board. Estada named me first officer because I understand navigation."

I stopped speaking, staring at one of the faces before me; all at once it appeared familiar.

"What is your name, my man?"

"Jim Carter, sir."

"You were in the crew of the Sinbad, three years ago?"

"I was that, Mister Carlyle," he answered grinning. "I know'd you the minute I cum down yere."

"Then that is all I need say on that line. Here's one of your mates, lads, who will vouch for me. Now, as I've been told, you are all of you in the same boat--you are prisoners on board, cowed by those mongrel devils amidships. Do you understand what I say?"

"If ye'd put it in Spanish, sir," said Carter respectfully, "an' talk kinder slow, they'd most ov 'em catch the meanin'. That's 'bout all the lingo we've heard lately."

"Very well; now listen closely, all of you. Luck has given us a chance to make a break, and get away. Captain Sanchez is wounded and helpless. Pedro Estada is dead, and I've got Manuel locked in that stateroom. His cut-throats are all below, and now all we've got to do is clap on the hatch and keep them there."

"What 'bout the nigger on watch?" broke in Jones hoarsely. "I'd like ter crook him, by God."

"He's with us so far. I'll answer for him. Now, what I want to know is are you fellows with me?"

Watkins answered up promptly; then Carter; the others joining in with less heartiness, the different accents revealing their nationalities. I knew sailors well enough to feel assured they would follow their leaders once the game started.

"That's good enough; now we've got to hit hard and quick, lads. There are six men on deck who are not with us. Watkins will take care of them with those fellows I don't assign to other work. Jones, you and Carter make straight for the forecastle and don't let anyone come up the scuttle. One of you had better drop down below, and prevent any of those lads from unbarring the door leading amidships. Who is the best for that job?"

"Let Carlson do it. He belongs to the starboard watch."

"All right--Carlson it is then. You Frenchmen, and the two negroes, your part will be to ship the main hatch. Do a quick job, and clamp it down tight. Do you all understand just what you are to do?"

The responses satisfied me.

"I'll come down to you, Carlson, as soon as we have the deck. It ought not to take more than five minutes to handle those lads, and slew around a carronade. Now don't be afraid to hit hard. Watkins, you and Carter hand out the cutlasses from the rack; you boys will handle those better than firearms. Good; now are you all ready?"

There was a low murmur of voices, the faces watching me showing their increasing excitement and eagerness. Our little talk had served to arouse their confidence in my leadership, and with gleaming weapons in their hands they became self-reliant volunteers. Once turned loose my greatest difficulty might be to restrain them, rather than urge them on. Revenge for past wrongs was in each heart, and they welcomed a chance to strike and kill.

I whispered a parting word of admonition into the ear of Dorothy, receiving in return a glance from her eyes, which gave a new throb to my heart; then straightened up, and pistol in hand, pushed my way through the throng of sailors to the foot of the stairs.

"Follow me, lads," I said quietly, "and every man do the particular thing assigned him. Don't pay any attention to your mates--do your part, and then wait for orders. Come on now."

We emerged through the companion, and I stepped aside as the others rushed by. There was no shout, no cheer, the fellows seeming to realize the desperate nature of their work, and the importance of surprise. They were outnumbered five to one, and their only hope of success lay in rendering their opponents helpless before they could rally to a defense. All the pent-up hate of years was in their hearts, blazed madly in their eyes; they were tigers leaping at the throat of their prey, yet sane enough to comprehend even in their blood-rage that they must act together. It was over so quickly I scarcely saw it all; my memory now is of a clear sky, a deck almost deserted, its brass work glowing in the sun, the white sails above bellowing out to the pressure of a strong wind, and the blue sea, crested with white, stretching about us in desolate grandeur. LeVere stared down over the poop rail, behind him the motionless figure of the wheelsman, his hands gripping the spokes, while across the open deck the speeding mutineers leaped to their several posts, with bare cutlasses shining in the sun. And they did their work. My eyes swept from group to group--the four toiling at the cover of the main hatch; the fellows racing toward the forecastle; and Watkins' squad driving straight into the grouped watch beyond the foremast. It was smartly done; Watkins had taken no cutlass, but went in with both fists, asking no questions, but battering right and left, his men surging after, with steel blades flaming in the sunlight. The astounded watch, cursing and fighting grimly, held for a moment, and then went staggering back against the port rail, unable to stem the rush, and roaring for mercy. I had view of Carlson dropping recklessly down the forecastle scuttle, and then sprang forward myself to give a hand to the four wrestling with the main hatch. Together we dragged it into position, forcing relentlessly back as we did so, a dozen struggling figures frantically endeavoring to reach the deck. Shots were fired, the bullets whistling through the opening, the flare lighting up the black depths below, revealing vaguely a mass of frantic men staring up, and cursing us fiercely in a dozen languages; but, in spite of them, we clamped the hatch down tight, and locked it securely into place with an iron bar. Even through this cover the sound of smothered yells reached our ears, mingled with blows of gun-butts, as the fellows vainly endeavored to break out from their prison. The negro Sam grinned from ear to ear, executing a jig, as he flashed his cutlass above his head.

"Stay here, all four of you," I commanded sharply. "This job is well done. Now let me see about the others."

Watkins needed no help; he had his party rounded up, and in complete control, the fellows begging for mercy, as they crouched before the cutlasses of their assailants. To my orders they were driven into the cook's galley and a guard stationed at the door. Then I turned to the more serious work confronting me in the forecastle. What lay before me in facing the members of the starboard watch it was impossible to conceive, but they had to be sorted out, and it was my task. We must have men enough to sail the bark, and if I was to command them, I must first of all prove my courage and enforce authority. The whole success of our effort depended on this.

"What's going on below?" I asked.

"Cursin' mostly," answered Carter, peering down through a slight uptilting of the scuttle. "They don't just know what's happening yet, but the big nigger seems ter be raisin' hell. Carlson is a holdin' him back with his cutlass."

"Open up and let me down."

I fell, rather than clambered along the rungs of the ladder, coming to my feet on deck in the midst of a group of angry men, who had Carlson pinned against the bulkhead. The light was so poor I could scarcely see their faces; a babel of voices greeted me, and more than one hand gripped me fiercely as the excited owner yelped a demand to know what in hell we were up to. I roughly cleared a space, aided by Carlson's cutlass, and fronted them defiantly. Towering above them all, his black apelike face, distorted with rage, I distinguished the giant Cochose, his immense hands grasping a wooden bar ripped from a bunk. Plainly enough he was the leader, the one man whose ascendency I must crush, and I meant to do it, then and there. This was no job I could turn over to others; if I was to rule, this black brute must be conquered at the very start, conquered by my own hands, and in the presence of his mates. Here, in this black forecastle, we must fight it out, breast to breast, as savagely as beasts of the jungle, to the bitter end. I made the resolve, with teeth clenched, and every muscle throbbing with eagerness.

"Stand back there lads," I said sternly, my eyes searching their faces, and with pistol poised threateningly. "Give us room. I'll explain all that has happened presently, but first I am going to lick that black brute within an inch of his life. Step out of there, Cochose."

He came grinning widely, balancing the heavy club in his hands.

"You mean me, sah? You all think yer kin lick me?"

"Yes, I think so; I'll try it anyway. Here Carlson, take this pistol and sheath knife. If anyone interferes shoot him. All I ask is fair play. Drop that club, Cochose, and throw away your knife. You and I will fight this out with bare hands."

His dull brain worked slowly, and he stared at me, his eyes ugly, his grin becoming savage with a display of teeth. His silence and lack of response, awoke a growl from the impatient circle of men behind. One fellow kicked the club out of his hand contemptuously, and another plucked the knife from his belt.

"You big skulker," the latter said, with an oath of derision, "go on, and fight! What in hell are you afraid of?"

"What for Ah fight this white man? Ah don't even know who he is."

"Then I'll tell you. Estada is dead; Manuel is a prisoner. I'm in command of this bark, and I am going to give you a lesson for the benefit of the crew. You are a big, boasting cur! I heard what you said when I came down, and now I'll make you prove it. You other fellows stand back--I'll make this beast fight."

I took two steps forward, my advance so swift and unexpected, the big negro had not even time in which to throw up an arm in defense. With open hand I struck him squarely across the face, an insulting, stinging blow.