Chapter XXI. In Full Possession
 

A roar of delight mingled with the negro's snarl of rage at this action. For an instant the fellow appeared too completely surprised for movement, although an angry oath burst from his lips, and the grin of derision faded from his face. I knew sailors, and felt that these men would not differ greatly from the occupants of other forecastles on the seven seas. They would welcome a fight like this and their immediate sympathy would be with me for starting it. More than that, this black bully, ruling over them by brute force, could be no favorite. They might fear him, but with that fear would be mingled hate, and a delight in his downfall.

The respite was short, yet in that instant, although I cannot recall removing watchful eyes from the negro's face, I received an impression of my surroundings never to be erased from memory. The grim picture arises before me now, distinct in every detail, the gloomy interior, the deck, foul, littered with sea boots, and discarded clothing, and the great beams overhead blackened by smoke. The rays of the swinging slush lantern barely illuminated the central space, the rows of bunks beyond remaining mere shadows, yet this dim, yellowish light, fell full upon the excited, half circle of men who were roaring about the negro, and had already pressed him forward until he stood confronting me, his grin of derision changed into a scowl of hate. They were a rough, wild lot, bearded and uncombed, ranging in color from the intense black of Central Africa to the blond of Scandinavia, half naked some, their voices mingling in a dozen tongues, their eyes gleaming with savagery. They impressed me as animals of the jungle, thirsting for blood, and I knew the man who came victorious from this struggle would be their leader. The thought stiffened my muscles, and strengthened my determination to win.

I know not whether Cochose lunged forward of his own volition, or was pressed on from behind, yet suddenly he was within reach of me, and the battle was on. It was short and fierce, his object evidently being to crush me in his giant grip, mine to oppose science to strength, and avoid his bear-hug. We swayed back and forth to the sharp pitching of the ship, barely able to keep our feet, sparring for some advantage. Once he would have had me, but for a lunge of the vessel which sent him sprawling on hands and knees; yet, before I could recover, the man was up again, furious with anger. This time, he sprang straight at me, uttering a growl of rage, determined to smash me to the deck by the very power of his onslaught. But I side-stepped him, getting in two swift blows, which rocked his head, and tore open one cheek, from which blood trickled. Yet he kept his feet, blindly gripping for me, driven almost crazy by the pain of my last blow, and the jeers of his mates.

I evaded his clutch by leaping aside, but the space was far too small to permit these tactics to carry long, and finally he had me. Yet, even as he seemingly crushed the very breath out of me, his giant strength met with a resistance which increased his fury. Already the fellow had lost his head, but I fought coolly, putting my skill against brute force, every wrestler's trick I knew flashing into my brain. Breathless, my flesh scraped and bruised, I wriggled partly free, and tripped him, his great body striking the deck with a thud. I fell with him, dragged down by his desperate grip, but was first upon my feet, saluted by a roar of delight from the lips of those crowding about us. As he staggered up also, cursing fiercely, his lips drawn back in a snarl, his brutal face, that of a wild animal, I struck him again, a blow which would have ended the game, had not my foot slipped on the reeling deck. As it was it drove him to his knees, groggy, and with one eye half closed, yet with strength enough left to regain his feet as soon as I. This time he charged me like a wild bull, froth whitening his lips, scarcely appearing human in the yellow light. In mad rage he forgot all caution, all pretense at defense, his one thought to reach me with his hands, and throttle me into lifeless pulp. Here was where skill and coolness won. I fought him back, driving blow on blow through his guard, sidestepping his mad rushes, landing again and again on his body. Twice I got in over his heart, and at last, found the chance I sought, and sent a right jab straight to the chin. All the force of one hundred and eighty pounds was behind the clinched fist, and the negro went down as though floored by a poleaxe. Once weakly he endeavored to rise, but this time I used my left, and he never stirred again, lying there with no sign of life except the quivering of the huge body. Assured that he was down and out, I stood above him, gazing into the ring of excited faces.

"That's one attended to," I said shortly. "Now is there any more of you who would like to fight this out?"

There was no answer although the ring widened under the threat of my eyes, and I met sullen faces here and there. I was in no mood to take chances.

"Carlson," I said, glancing back at him. "You know all these men?"

"Yes, sir."

"Pick out those you can trust, and have them stand over there to the right. Call them out by name; be lively now."

They stepped forth eagerly enough, and ranged themselves before the bunks, the faces mostly those of northern Europe, although a negro or two was among them. As the Swede ceased calling, six or seven yet remained clustered in front of me, a motley lot, one of them an Indian, the others mostly half-breeds. I glanced from face to face inquiringly.

"How about it, you?" I asked. "Are there any more of you fellows who take a chance with us? This is my last offer?"

"What's the game?" asked a sullen voice in English, and a bearded fellow burned black, pushed his way to the front. I had not noted his presence before, but instantly recognized his character.

"Are you English?"

"No; I used ter be Scotch; now I'm damned if I know what I am. One flag is as good as another ter me--only I want to know what sorter game I'm playin' in. Who the hell are yer? An' whar'd yer cum frum?"

"I am an English seaman," I answered shortly, "and how I came aboard makes no difference. Right now I am the only navigator on the Namur."

"What's happened ter Estada?"

"He's dead--knifed last night by one of the buccaneers. Manuel Estevan had a hand in the business, and he's safely locked in a stateroom aft. Captain Sanchez is wounded and helpless, and those cut-throats amidships are battened down below hatches. LeVere and I are the officers left, and we control the deck. We had to fight it out, or likely it would be our turn next."

"Yer mean those fellers were aimin' ter take the ship?"

"Exactly that; now where are you lads? With Manuel and his bunch of pirates? Or with us?"

"What er yer going ter do with us, an' this ship? That's the fu'st question."

I had not decided that even in my own mind, but the answer came promptly enough, as my eyes swept the faces fronting me.

"What's your name?"

"Ben MacClintock."

"Well, MacClintock. I am going to leave that to the crew. As soon as we have all secure, I'll have every man on deck, and then we'll talk it over. That's fair enough isn't it?"

"It looks fair. Come on, mates; I'm fer the Englishman."

Only one followed him, however, a sheep-faced boy; the others remained sullen, and defiant. Likely enough they failed to understand what had been said, but I had no further time to waste in explanations. I glanced up at Carter's face framed in the scuttle hole.

"Your guard there?"

"Ay, ay, sir."

"Pass these men up and take them forward with the others. Turn them over to Watkins. Then come back here, and report to me."

"Ay, ay, sir."

They went up the ladder one by one, and disappeared onto the deck above, the majority cheerful enough, although a few of the faces were scowling darkly as they passed me. Carlson and I watched the others, the Swede still retaining his pistol in hand, until Carter stuck his head once again through the opening.

"All safe, sir--they was like lambs."

"Very well; stand by to help. Now you lads, lift this black brute and shove him up to where they can get hold above. Step lively unless you want trouble. Show them the way Carlson."

It was some heavy job, but they finally hoisted the unconscious form up the ladder and forced it through the hole onto the deck. At my stern command the others also crawled forth into the sunlight, where Carlson and I followed them, leaving the forecastle deserted. I felt that I must dispose of these fellows before attempting anything else, and scarcely took time to glance about. They were huddled in a little bunch around the outstretched body of Cochose, helpless from lack of leadership.

"Pick up the negro; yes, you fellows. Now aft with him--all of you." We halted at the main hatch, and I had the cover slipped to one side, the armed sailors gathering close about the edge, as I peered down. It was a scene of pandemonium, revealed in the yellow flame of slush lanterns, a group of white faces showing clearly, as the prisoners below struggled forward, gesticulating and shouting. The glow of light glistened on a variety of weapons, but I dare not send men below, into the midst of those shrieking devils to disarm them. Nor was I greatly afraid of the result at present. They must still be in total ignorance of what had occurred on board, and why the hatch had been fastened down. Indeed this was plainly evidenced by their cries and threats. They were leaderless, confused, unable to determine what to attempt. While they remained in that condition they could not greatly endanger my plan. Later, with a body of armed seamen behind me, I would compel the surrender of weapons, but now I must hold them as they were, quarreling among themselves, and take time to strengthen my authority on deck. With this in mind, ignoring their mad roaring, and the threat of leveled guns, I stared down at the infuriated faces, until the clamor ceased sufficiently to let my voice be heard. I used Spanish, my lack of facility in that tongue rendering my speech slow. The instant silence proved my words understood.

"What are you men trying to do, frighten me? You might as well stop that. This opening is lined with guns, and if one of you fire a shot we'll pour lead into you. More than that; if you attempt to climb out, you'll meet a hot reception. There is a brass carronade trained on the hatch to sweep you to kingdom come. So listen!"

Several voices shouted up inquiries, but one, shrill and insistent, rose clearly above the others.

"What's happening? What yer going to do with us?"

I thought I located the questioner among the jumbled mass below, and with my eyes on him, answered for all his mates.

"We are in control of the ship," I called back, "and mean to keep it. The old officers are either dead or prisoners. What we do with you will depend on your actions, but we're ready to kill if necessary. If you keep quiet down there, and obey orders, you'll be fed, and treated decently enough. Pass up your arms."

There was no movement, only a glare of hostile eyes, an indistinguishable growl of voices.

"Kneel down, lads and cover those fellows," I ordered sternly drawing my own pistol. "Now you below there, this is my last word. I'll count ten, and you'll either pass up those weapons or we'll pour our fire into you. If your miserable lives are worth anything to you, the quicker you move the better. Take aim, boys."

There was a moment of deathly silence, except for my counting and the heavy breathing of the trapped prisoners. One man uttered a curse, and the jam of figures at the foot of the ladder endeavored to work back out of range, yet, before I had spoken the word eight, guns were held aloft, and poked up within reach, and at this sign of surrender even the most desperate lost heart and joined the more cowardly. It was a strange collection of weapons stacked on the deck--guns, cutlasses, knives and pistols of every description, relics of many a foray, some apparently very old. Probably all had not been delivered, yet there was such a pile, I felt no further fear of the few pieces remaining hidden. It was not my intention that the villains should have the slightest chance to use the weapons, so when the stream finally ceased, I asked no questions, although I gave no orders to the guard to withdraw. I had the fellows cowed, and meant to keep them so.

"That's all, is it? Very well--now you men at the foot of the ladder take care of this big nigger we're sending down; no, he is not dead, only stunned. Let him have a bucket of water, and he'll be all right. Now stand aside while a few of your friends join you; they'll tell you what's up. Make room there?"

We passed the forecastle scum down one after the other, and as the last of these merged into the scarcely distinguishable mass below, I gave vent to a sigh of relief, and straightened up, with pistol still grasped in my hand. They were now bunched together, all of them, and confined where they would prove the least possible danger. Desperate and reckless as many of them were, we had them now safely in our own hands--disarmed and imprisoned within narrow limits. To be sure they might wreck the bark by fire, or otherwise, but that would only peril their own lives, and, no matter how willing some might be to accept this hazard of fortune, there would be more to oppose the proposition--forcibly, if necessary. For them to escape the only means was through treachery, and against that possibility I must guard. I knew little of the men who had responded to my call, and chosen me as leader. Some among them I could trust, but others were merely with me while I retained power--would desert at the first doubt. I must rely on the judgment of Watkins as to whom among them I could safely depend upon, and suspicion and watch the rest. It was no pleasant position, yet success thus far had come so easily the knowledge was no discouragement.

"When we goin' ter be fed?" yelled a voice from below.

"Presently," I answered. "As soon as the cook has it ready. Shove the hatch cover back into place, lads--yes it will be safer fastened down; they'll get air enough through treachery, and against that possibility I must caged."

Satisfied that every precaution had been taken, and ignoring the indignant roar of voices which greeted this order, I watched the men shift the heavy hatch cover into place, and then permitted my eyes to survey the deck, as I hastily considered our next action.