Chapter XXIII. The Prisoners Escape
 

The two men followed me silently as far as the companion, where we paused a moment staring blindly about us into the fog. Even the guard at the main hatch was invisible.

"This can scarcely last long," I remarked, "but there may be a storm brewing."

"I don't think so, sir," one of the men answered civilly. "I've run in to these yere mists afore 'long this coast; it's liable ter be all clear 'fore the sun goes down."

"Well we'll make the ship safe first Carter, you are an able seaman?"

"Yes, sir."

"Guard this after deck until Watkins and I come back. Under no circumstances permit LeVere to enter the cabin. You understand?"

He grinned appreciatively.

"That nigger ain't likely ter get by me, sir; I'd just like for ter take one whack at him."

"Don't be rough, if you can help it. As far as I know now he is with us, and ranks second officer. My only orders are--see that he remains on deck while we are below."

"Ay, ay, sir; he'll stay thar." With the door closed, we were plunged into a darkness which rendered the interior invisible. I wondered dimly why the man on guard had not lighted the swinging lantern but before I could call out to the fellow, Watkins whispered.

"What's up? Anything wrong in here?"

"Not that I know of, but the young lady reported Sanchez moving about in his stateroom and I think it safer to see to him at once."

"It's blacker than hell down thar."

"Yes; I don't understand it--wait here a minute until I strike a light."

I stumbled over something on the deck, as I groped forward, but with mind centered on the one object, did not pause until I had located the lantern. It blazed up brightly enough, its yellow flame illuminating the cabin, and the first thing I saw was the outstretched figure of the sailor almost between my feet. I sprang back, giving utterance to a cry, which brought Watkins to me, and the two of us stared at the grewsome object and then about into the wavering shadows. There was nothing to see but the dead man, lying on his face motionless, blood still oozing from an ugly knife wound in his back. We needed to ask no questions, imagine nothing--the overturned chair, the stricken sailor told the whole story. He had been treacherously stuck from behind, the blade driven home by a strong hand, and was dead before he fell to the deck. It had been silent, vengeful murder, and the assassin had left no trace. Who could it have been? Not Gunsaules surely--the steward lacked both nerve and strength for such a deed. Then there was but one to suspect--Silva Sanchez! I stood there dumb, gazing at the dead man, realizing all this dimly, yet conscious only of thankfulness that the victim had not been Dorothy Fairfax.

"He's dead, sir," growled Watkins, turning the fellow over with his foot, until the ghastly face stared up at the deck beams overhead. "Stabbed to the heart frum behind. Look a yere--that wus sum slash. Who, the hell do yer suppose did it?"

"That is ours to find out. The deed has just been done, for blood is still flowing. Let him alone Watkins and come with me--the murderer can't be far off."

I flung open the pantry door, but one glance inside told me that Gunsaules had vanished. On the deck lay the strands of rope with which he had been secured---they had been severed by a sharp knife, the ends discolored with blood stains. I held these out to Watkins.

"Cut since the murder," I said harshly, "and by the same knife."

"Who was in here, sir."

"The steward, Gunsaules. He didn't do the job, but I believe I know who did. We'll try the port stateroom aft. Stand by; there's likely to be two of them."

The door was unlocked and opened noiselessly, but I took no chances, thinking this possibly a ruse. Gloomy as the interior appeared in the weird light with banks of fog driving against the ports, a single swift glance convinced me it was deserted. There was no place for a man to hide, yet I could not convince myself of its emptiness until I peered into the disarranged bunk, and surveyed every shadowed corner. Watkins watched me curiously, turning his head occasionally to stare out into the lighted cabin behind. The situation baffled me completely--that Sanchez had done the deed, informed by the steward of what was occurring on board and rendered desperate by that report, was clear enough in my mind; but what had become of the man? He could not have escaped overboard, as the ports were screwed down, and his appearance on the open deck above would have surely been observed. His place of concealment must remain aft in the cabin, and if so, he must be discovered by immediate search. I ordered Watkins to take the lantern from the rack and follow me from stateroom to stateroom. We began with Dorothy's, finding none of them locked until we came to where Manuel was held prisoner. All were empty and in disorder, while bending my ear to the locked door, I could distinguish the heavy breathing of its inmate, the fellow was evidently sound asleep.

"What do you make of it, Tom?" I asked, facing him in the dim halo of light.

"Well, sir," scratching his head with his disengaged hand, "Thar ain't but two more places ter look--the cuss is either in the lazaret, er' else hidin' in the passage forward; more likely the last."

"Why not the lazaret?"

"Cause thar wouldn't be no object fer him to go thar. He dudn't get out agin with the kiver shut down. The thing he'd most likely try fer wud be ter release them lads amidships--that'd give him a gang o' bullies ter fight with. My idea is, sir, he thought he'd have time ter git the bulkhead door open, before anybody cum below--he an' the steward, who'd know what the tools wus. That wus the scheme, only we busted in too quick. That whar they both are--skulkin' back in them shadows."

He fitted the smoking lantern back onto the shelf to have his hands free for action, and drew a cutlass out of the arm rack, running one leatherly thumb along the blade to test its sharpness. His eyes sought mine questioningly.

"Probably your guess is the right one," I said soberly. "We'll give it a trial, and should need no help to handle the two of them."

The deck under our feet was fairly steady, the vessel having barely steerage-way, rolling slightly to the heave of the sea. No sound readied us from above, and the silence of the cabin was profound. Indeed the stillness irritated me with its mystery, rendered me reckless to penetrate its meaning. Murder had been committed for a purpose--it was the first step in an effort to retake the ship. If we were to retain our advantage there was no time to be lost; we were pitted now against Silva Sanchez, and he was a leader not to be despised or temporized with; no cowardly, brainless fool.

The passage leading forward was wide enough to permit of our advancing together and for a few steps the light dribbled in past us, quite sufficient for guidance, although our shadows were somewhat confusing. There were closed doors on either side, evidently locked, as they refused to yield to the hand. I took these to be storerooms, possibly containing spoils of the voyage, but gave them little other thought, my whole interest centered on the intense blackness ahead. I had been down this tunnel once before, and knew the bulkhead was not far away, but the few steps necessary plunged us into profound blackness, through which we advanced cautiously with outstretched hands. No slightest sound warned of danger and I was already convinced in my own mind that the refugees were not hiding there, when it happened. Within an instant we were fighting for our lives, fronted not by two men, but by a score, who flung themselves cursing upon us. Their very numbers and the narrowness of the passage was our only salvation. At first our resistance was blind enough, guided only by the senses of touch and sound. We could see nothing of our antagonists, although their fierce rush hurled us backward. I fired into the mass, as Watkins slashed madly with his cutlass, both managing in some way to keep our feet. Hands gripped for us, a bedlam of oaths splitting the air; yet, even in that moment of pandemonium, I was quick to realize the fellows were weaponless, seeking only to reach and crush us with bare hands. The same discovery must have come to the mind of the sailor, for he yelled it out defiantly, every stroke of his blade drawing blood. I joined him, striking with the butt of the pistol, feeling within me the strength of ten men, yet the very weight of them thrust us remorselessly back. We killed and wounded, the curses of hate changed into sharp cries of agony, but those behind pressed the advance forward, and we were inevitably swept back into the light of the cabin lamp.

Then I saw faces, hideous in the glare, demonical in their expression of hatred--a mass of them, unrecognizable, largely of a wild, half-Indian type, with here and there a bearded white. Nor were they all bare-handed; in many a grip flashed a knife, and directly fronting me, with a meat cleaver uplifted to strike, Sanchez yelled his orders. Ignoring all others I leaped straight at him, crying to Watkins as I sprang.

"Back lad; dash out that light; I'll hold these devils here a minute!"

I did---God knows how! It was like no fighting ever I had done before, a mad, furious melee, amid which I lost all consciousness of action, all guidance of thought, struggling as a wild brute, with all the reckless strength of insanity. It is a dim, vague recollection; I am sure I felled Sanchez with one blow of my pistol-butt, stretching him apparently lifeless at my feet; in some way that deadly cleaver came into my hands and I trod on his body, swinging the sharp blade with all my might into those scowling faces. They gave sullenly backward; they had to, yelping and snarling like a pack of wolves, hacking at me with their short knives. I was cut again and again, but scarcely knew it. I stood on quivering flesh, driving my weapon from right to left, crazed with blood, and seeking only to kill. I saw faces crushed in, arms severed, men reeling before me in terror, the sudden spurting of blood from ghastly wounds. Oaths mingled with cries of agony and shouts of hate. Then in an instant the light was dashed out and all was darkness.

It was as though my brain snapped back into ascendency. I was no longer a raging fury, mad with the desire to kill, but cool-headed, planning escape. Before a hand could reach me in restraint, I sprang backward and ran. In the darkness of the cabin I collided with the table, and fell sprawling over a stool. The noise guided pursuit, yet, wedged together as those fellows still were in the narrow passage, fighting each other in the black gloom, gave me every advantage and so unhalted, I stumbled up the stairs leading to the companion. The vague glimmer of daylight showing through the glass, revealed the presence of Watkins. I heard him dash the door wide open, call to those on deck, and then saw him wheel about to again confront the devils plunging blindly forward toward us through the dark cabin. We could hold them here for a time at least, yet I had the sense to know that this check would prove only temporary. They outnumbered us ten to one, and would arm themselves from the rack. Yet the greater danger lay in the loyalty of my own men. A dozen of us might hold these stairs against assault, but treachery would leave us helpless. And the very thickness of the fog without invited to treachery. If one among them, and there were many capable of such an act, should steal below forward, and force open the door from the forecastle, we would be crushed between two waves of men, and left utterly helpless. I saw the whole situation vividly, and as quickly chose the only course to pursue, the one hope remaining.

"Here lads," I called sharply back over my shoulder, "five or six of you are enough to hold back this scum. Watkins!"

"Ay, sir."

"Bend down here--now listen. Get the boats ready--two will be enough--and be lively about it. We'll hold these fellows until you report. You know the lads to be trusted. Put two of them at the forecastle scuttle, and then rout everybody out from below. Who is here now?"

"Name yerselves, bunkies--I can't see yer."

"Simmes."

"Schmitt."

"Ravel DeLasser."

"Carter."

"Jacob Johansen."

"Sam."

"That's enough; you lads remain here with me. Have Harwood watch LeVere, while the rest of you get out the boats."

"How many, sir?"

"The two quarter-boats will hold us all. Knock out the plugs in the others--and Watkins!"

"Ay, ay, sir."

"See that Miss Fairfax is placed safely in the after-boat, and then stand by. Send me word the moment all is ready. That's all--we're going to be busy here presently."

I had glimpse of the thick fog without as he pushed through the door, and of a scarcely distinguishable group of men on the deck. Those about me could only be located by their restless movements. I stepped down one stair conscious of increasing movement below, the meat cleaver still gripped in my hands.

"Any of you armed with cutlasses?"

"Oui, M'Sieur, Ravel DeLasser."

"Stand here, to right of me, now another at my left. Who are you?" "Jim Carter, sir."

"Good; now strike hard, lads, and you others be ready."

"What's up, sir?" asked a gruff voice. "Has they busted out from between decks?"

"That's what's happened. The cabin is full of 'em, and it is your life and mine in the balance. If we can get away in this fog they'll never find us, but we've got to hold them here until the boats are ready."

"Is it Sanchez?"

"It was Sanchez, but I killed him. That is where we've still got them huskies, without a leader."

"But they've got arms."

"Only hand weapons," broke in Carter contemptuously. "We're as good as they are--thar ain't no powder."

"Sure of that?"

"Course I am. I cleaned up that rack two days ago. There's ball in the bandoliers, but no powder. I wus goin' ter break open a cask, but Estada put me at another job."

"Then that leaves us on even footing, lads, we ought to be equal to them with the cold steel--can any of you see below?"