Chapter XXII. The Crew Decides
 

Except that many of the men remained armed there was no suggestion of violence visible, no reminder of the fact that we were mutineers. But for the gleaming carronade trained on the main hatch, and the small group of gunners clustered about it, the scene was peaceable enough, resembling the deck of some merchant ship. The bark held steadily to her course, with practically every inch of canvas set, the wind steady, and only a single hand at the wheel. LeVere stood motionless at the poop rail, staring down, as though scarcely realizing what had transpired on board, and some way his very attitude and expression of face aroused within me a doubt of the man, a determination to put him to the test. Evidently he had held aloof and cautiously refrained from taking even the slightest part in our activities. The men themselves were mostly forward, grouped together and still excitedly discussing the situation. That all among them were not satisfied was indicated by their gestures, and the fact that Watkins, and others of the more loyal, were passing from group to group combating their arguments. Plainly enough I must have a heart-to-heart talk with the fellows, outlining a plan of escape, and leaving them to imagine their choice in the matter would be followed. But, in the meanwhile action of some sort would be most apt to overcome their dissatisfaction and prevent discussion.

The sky overhead was a pale blue, the sun shining, but as through a slight haze, while a heavy cloud of vapor obscured the western horizon. Although this promised fog rather than storm, yet the sea had a heavy swell and I accepted this threat of a change in weather to employ the men in reducing sail. It pleased me to note how swiftly they responded to the sound of my voice.

"Stand by to reef topsails," I shouted. "We're all one watch now. Go at it lively, lads, and when the job is over we'll eat, and decide together what's our next move. Two of you will be enough to guard the hatch and you Carter, go into the cabin and relieve the girl there. Keep your eyes open. I'll be down presently. Aloft with you and see how quick a job you can make of it."

Watkins led the way up the main-mast ratlines, and Cole was first into the fore shrouds, the others following eagerly. I watched them lay out on the yards and was heartened to hear the fellows sing as they worked, the canvas melting away as if by magic. Only three men remained in sight on the main deck, the two guarding the closed hatch, and one watching the open scuttle leading into the deserted forecastle. Back and forth in the galley the cook and his assistant passed the open door and Carter had disappeared through the companion. I climbed the ladder to where LeVere stood on the poop, but carefully ignored his presence, my gaze on the scene aloft. Twice I gave orders, changing the steering direction slightly, and commanding the lower sails reefed. The mulatto scowling, joined me at the rail.

"Main-top there!" I called sharply. "Anything to report?"

"No, sir; all haze off the port quarter, and nothing showing to starboard."

"Keep a lookout; let the others lay down."

LeVere fronted me.

"What's all this about?" he asked. "That's no storm cloud yonder."

"There is always danger in fog," I answered coldly, "and besides there is no use carrying on until we know where we are bound. My purpose is to keep the men busy, and then talk the situation over with them. Have you any criticism of this plan, Senor LeVere?"

He hesitated, but his eyes were narrowed, and ugly.

"You'll do as you please, but you told me we sailed for Porto Grande. Was that a lie?"

"Not necessarily," and I smiled grimly. "Although I should not have hesitated to tell one under the circumstances. I mean to leave that decision to the men themselves. It is their lives that are in danger."

"That damn scum! half of them are English and French. All they want is to get away; they will never go back to Porto Grande without you make them."

"How make them?"

"By false observations; there is no navigator forward. It is a trick easy enough to play with a little nerve. I would never have taken part in this mutiny if I had supposed you meant to play into the hands of the men."

"It is very little part you took Senor LeVere, judging from what I saw. You seemed quite content to stand aft here and look on. However you are in it just as deeply as I am, and are going to play the game out with me to the end. Do you understand that?"

"What you mean, Senor--play it out?"

"Go on with the rest of us; take your chance with the men and do your duty. I am captain here, and I know how to handle insubordination. The first sign of treachery on your part, will send you below with those others. I don't trust you, and all I want is an excuse to put you out of the way--so be careful what you do."

I turned and walked away from him toward the forward rail. The men were still aloft but coming in from off the yards. Below me in the door of the companion, stood Dorothy, her eyes peering curiously about the deserted deck. She glanced up, and saw me, the whole expression of her face changing.

"May I come up there?" she asked.

"Certainly; let me help you. Stand here beside me, and you can see all that is being done. That's all, lads; breakfast is ready; lay down all except the lookout."

We watched while they streamed down the ratlines and gathered forward of the galley, squatting in groups on the deck. To all appearances the fellows had not a care in the world, or any thought of the stirring scenes just passed through. The girl's hand touched my sleeve, and I turned and looked into her face.

"A happy-go-lucky lot," I said pleasantly. "Real sailormen. As long as they are fed and housed why worry about tomorrow. I'll put this job up to them presently."

"The sailor who came into the cabin told me about your fight with the negro; you were not hurt?"

"Oh, I did not escape entirely free, but received no serious injury. It is not to be thought about now, with all the work ahead."

"The ship is safely in your hands?"

"I can hardly affirm that, Miss Dorothy. The vessel is in our control, and the worst of the gang secured below. I have confidence in the loyalty of only a very few of these fellows, and the others will have to be watched day and night as long as we remain afloat. Those are desperate men locked below, and are bound to make some effort to free themselves. If there is any treachery on deck it may lead to their release."

"You were talking with Senor LeVere; I overheard a word or two. He is not with you willingly?"

"No," and I swept the deck seeking him, fearful what I said might be overheard. "I distrust him more than any of the others. Those men forward are seamen, and will abide by their mates. Moreover they are accustomed to taking orders, and doing what they are told. I believe I can handle them, with what help I have. But the mulatto is different. He belongs with the worst element on board, and only joined us from fear of being killed just as Estada was. He has no heart in this job, and would accept any chance to square himself with those cut-throats below. I'll have trouble with him before we are done, but prefer to catch the man red-handed."

"But what do you mean to do next?" she asked anxiously. "There cannot be a moment of safety with those horrible creatures aboard."

"True; yet with the material I am dealing with, I dare not venture too far. Probably in that bunch forward there are men guilty of every crime in the calendar; as depraved as any we have below. They have joined us for various reasons, but would desert and become ugly in an instant, if they suspected we might turn them over to the authorities. There is only one safe course for me to pursue under these conditions; let them decide by vote what should be done."

"What do you imagine such a vote will show?"

"That the vessel be beached on some remote coast, all the spoils aboard divided, and then the crew permitted to go where they please. There will be some who may prefer continuing the cruise before destroying the bark, but I believe there are enough fairly honest fellows among them eager to escape this sort of life, to control."

"But the wretches below? Surely you would not leave them to drown?"

"No; they would have to be released with the others, after the division had been made."

"That would leave us at their mercy?"

"Yes," I whispered, "if we waited until that time. I do not propose taking any such chance. Here is my plan, and it seems the only feasible one left us. We are helpless if these men revolt, and they certainly will unless given their own way. I have no doubt but what their decision will be practically as I have outlined. Very well, I will acquiesce in it cheerfully enough to arouse no suspicion. I am the only navigator on board; the only one with any knowledge even of where we are. Not even LeVere could check up on me. The night the vessel is to be beached Watkins and Carter, with one or two they select, will get off in a small boat, carefully provisioned, and thus make our own landing. We'll not worry about what fate awaits the others."

Her eyes sought mine anxiously, full of questioning.

"You are confident of being able to accomplish this without detection?"

"Yes; we can choose the right moment. With not men enough on deck to prevent our lowering a boat, and a dark night, the escape will not prove difficult. No one aboard except myself will know where we are."

"Have you considered Captain Sanchez?"

"Why no," in surprise, "he is helpless below, badly wounded."

"Not so badly as you suppose," she said swiftly. "He is able to be up and about his stateroom. I heard him moving, and I believe the steward has told him what has occurred on board, and endeavored to bear a message from him to those men amidships."

"You believe this? What did you do?"

"I held my pistol to his head and locked him in the pantry. He is there now, with the sailor you sent on guard. That is what I came on deck to tell you."

"But Sanchez! You saw nothing of him?"

"No; but there was certainly movement in his room after the man Gunsaules came out. I went over to the door and listened, but there was no way for me to lock him in. Surely it must have been him moving, as he was alone there."

I stood silent, my eyes first on the forward deck, and then sweeping about the horizon. The view by then was very narrow, the gathering clouds of mist so dense as to obscure everything, leaving a mere gray trail of sea revealed, scarcely a hundred yards in extent in any direction. I hardly perceived even this as my thought centered on this new peril. Yet why should I hold it a peril? The ending of it was in my hands, I need not await action, or permit him opportunity. The warning had come in ample time. Sanchez was still in my power, separated from his followers, incapable of doing us any serious harm. All that was needed for me to do was to keep him in close confinement. We were surely not far from the coast; twenty-four hours, perhaps twelve, would suffice, to make our escape from this cursed ship possible. I must get an observation so as to know our exact position; after that the course would be figured definitely, and I would then know the time required. My eyes again sought her face.

"He is a danger, of course, but not a serious one," I said confidently. "It is safe enough to leave him undisturbed at present with Cole on guard. The first thing I need do is to satisfy those men. I'll attend to that now, and then see to the proper securing of Sanchez."

"Shall I remain here?"

"You told the man Cole what you heard?"

"Yes, I explained everything to him before I came on deck."

"Then you are not needed in the cabin. He is a reliable man. Remain here with LeVere while I go forward, and watch that he does not attempt to go below."

The fellows had not finished mess, but I felt the danger of further delay, and talked to them as they sat on deck, explaining briefly the entire situation, and the causes leading up to the mutiny. I dealt with the matter in plain terms, making no apparent effort to influence them, yet forcibly compelling each individual to realize what would be the result of our recapture. They listened earnestly, asking an occasional question, and passing comments back and forth freely among themselves.

I shall never forget that scene, the decks already wet with fog, which swirled about us in an impenetrable cloud of vapor, utterly blotting out the sea, and even rendering our faces strange and indistinct. The foremast disappeared at the lower fore-yard, while aft of the cook's galley the bark was entirely invisible. We rolled heavily in the swell of the heaving water, barely retaining steerage-way, the closely reefed sails aloft flapping against the masts, the straining deck beams creaking noisily to every roll of the vessel. The sailors stared up at me, rough dressed and hairy, yet not a bad-looking lot as sailors go, but with here and there a face to be distrusted. I sent Watkins to the cabin for a roll of charts, and spreading these out, endeavored as well as I could, to make clear our probable position and the nearest point of land. This was largely guesswork, but I approximated distances and made the situation fairly clear. When I had completed the explanation, and stood before them awaiting decision, it was Haines who acted as their spokesman.

"This yere is Cape Howarth?" he asked, a grimy thumb on the point indicated. "An' yer say it's 'bout a hundred and fifty miles west?"

"Yes, about that."

"An' thar's no settlement?"

"Some colonists fifty miles north is all." "That's 'bout right." He turned to the others. "Say mates, this is how I figure. We can't go on no long cruise with all those bloody rats in the hold. They're bound ter find some way out if we give 'em time 'nough. Fer as I'm concerned, I'm fer dividin' up whut we've got, and ter hell with piratin'. What 'er yer say, mates? Shall we run the ol' hooker ashore, an' leave her thar, while we tramp the coast? We're just a ship-wrecked crew."

"What 'bout them fellers down below?"

"Ter hell with 'em! Let 'em take keer o' 'emselves. Thet's the way they'd treat us."

"He's bloody well right, mates," said a loud voice heartily. "There's plenty o' swag aboard ter give us all a fist full. I'm fer a division, an gettin' out with our lives--what say yer?"

There was a chorus of approval sufficient in volume to satisfy me, and I accepted this as a decision.

"All right, lads," I said briefly. "In my judgment your choice is a wise one. I'll have an observation as soon as the fog clears and we'll head in for the Cape."

"When do we divide the swag?"

"Fifty miles off the coast. That's fair enough, isn't it? And my share goes to you."

There was a straggling cheer, but I broke it up with a sharp order.

"Now stand by for work, all of you. Watkins and Carter I want you aft."