Wolves of the Sea by Randall Parrish
Chapter XXXI. The Boat Attack
He waited for us just without the companion, but my eyes caught nothing unusual as I emerged into the daylight. I could barely see amidships, but thus far the deck was clear, and on either side hung the impenetrable bank of cloud, leaving sea and sky invisible. Simmes was at the wheel, with no other member of the crew in sight.
"What is it, Watkins? Where are the men?"
"Forrard, sir, a hangin' over the starboard rail. Thar's somethin' cursedly strange a happenin' in that damn fog. Harwood was the first ter hear the clatter ov en oar slippin' in a rowlock. I thought the feller wus crazy, till I heerd sumthin' also, an' then, sir, while we wus still a listenin' we both caught sound ov a Spanish oath, spoke as plain as if the buck was aboard."
"You saw nothing?"
"Not so much as a shadder, sir."
"A lost boat, likely--ship-wrecked sailors adrift in the fog; perhaps our other quarter-boat. No one hailed them?"
"No, sir; I told the men ter keep still till I called you. It might be a cuttin'-out party; this ain't no coast fer any honest sailors ter be huggin' up to, an' I didn't like that feller talkin' Spanish."
"But if their purpose is to take us by surprise," I said, "they'd be more cautious about it."
"Maybe they didn't know how near they was. 'Tain't likely they kin see us much better 'n we kin see them. The sea's got an ugly swell to it, an' the feller likely cussed afore he thought. Enyhow it wa' n't my place ter hail 'em."
"All right; where are they?"
"Straight off the starboard quarter, sir."
The crew were all gathered there, staring out into the mist, whispering to each other. Even they were indistinct, their faces unrecognizable, until I pressed my way in among them. I brought up beside Harwood.
"Hear anything more?"
"Not yet, sir," peering about to make sure of who spoke, "but there's a boat out yonder; I'll swear to that."
"How far away when you heard them?"
"Not mor'n fifty fathoms, an' maybe not that--the voice sounded clearest."
We may have been clinging there, a minute or two, breathlessly listening, our hands tensely gripping the rail. My coming had silenced the others, and we waited motionless, the stillness so intense I could hear the lapping of waves against the side, and the slight creak of a rope aloft. Then a voice spoke directly in front of me out from the dense fog, a peculiar, penetrating voice, carrying farther than the owner probably thought, and distinctly audible.
"Try the port oar, Pedro; we must have missed the damn ship."
I straightened up as though struck, my eyes seeking those of Harwood, who stared back at me, his mouth wide open in astonishment.
"You heard that?" I whispered. "Do you know who spoke?"
"By God, do I? Dead, or alive, sir, it was Manuel Estevan."
"Ay; no other, and alive enough no doubt. Lads, come close to me, and listen--they must not hear us out there. By some devil's trick the Namur has followed our course, or else yonder are a part of his crew cast away. They clearly know of us--perhaps had a glimpse through some rift in the cloud--and are seeking to board with a boat party. 'Tis not likely those devils know who we are; probably take us for a merchant ship becalmed in the fog, and liable to become an easy prey, if they can only slip up on us unseen. How are you, bullies? Ready to battle your old mates?"
"Those were no mates o' ours, sir," said Watkins indignantly. "They are half-breed mongrels, and no sailors; Estevan is a hell-hound, an' so far as my voice goes, I'd rather die on this deck than ever agin be a bloody pirate. Is that the right word, lads?"
The others grumbled assent, but their muttered words had in them a ring of sincerity, and their faces exhibited no cowardice. Harwood alone asked a question.
"I'm fer fightin', sir," he said grimly, "but what'll we use? Them lads ain't comin' aboard bare-handed, but damn if I've seed a weapon on this hooker."
"Dar's three knives, an' a meat cleaver in der galley, sah," chimed in Sam.
"We'll do well enough; some of you have your sheath knives yet, and the rest can use belaying pins, and capstan bars. The point is to not let them get aboard, and, if there is only one boat, we will be pretty even-handed. Pick up what you can, and man this rail--quietly now, hearties, and keep your eyes open."
It proved a longer wait than I expected. The fog gave us no glimpse of the surrounding water, and not another sound enabled us to locate the approaching boat. I felt convinced we had not been overheard, as no one had spoken above a whisper, and the men aboard had been noiseless in their movements about deck, I had compelled Dorothy to remain on the port side of the cabin, removed from all danger, and the only upright figure in sight was the man at the wheel. The rest of us crouched along the starboard rail, peering out into the mist, and listening for the slightest sound. They were a motley crew, armed with every conceivable sort of knife or war club, but sturdy fellows, ready and willing enough to give a good account of themselves. Watkins was forward, swallowed up in the smother of mist, but Schmitt held a place next me, a huge, ungainly figure in the dull light. So still it was I began to doubt having heard the voice at all--could it have been imagination? But no; that was impossible, for the sound had reached all of us alike. Somewhere out yonder, that boat was creeping along silently, seeking blindly through the fog to reach our side unobserved--those Wolves of the Sea had the scent.
I do not know how long the suspense lasted, but, I have never felt a greater strain on my nerves. Every deeper shadow increased the tension, imagination playing strange tricks, as I stared fixedly into the void, and trembled at the slightest sound. Once I was sure I heard the splash of an oar, but no one on deck spoke, and I remained silent. The faint creaking of a rope aloft caused my heart to thump, and when a loosened edge of canvas slapped the mast in a sudden breath of air, it sounded to me like a burst of thunder. Where were the fellows? Had they abandoned their search, confused by the fog; or were they still stealthily seeking to locate our position? Could there be more than one boat, and if not what force of men might such a boat contain? These questions never left me, and were alike unanswerable. Unable to withstand inaction any longer I arose to my feet, thinking to pass down the line with a word of encouragement to each man. A glance upward told me the heavy mist was passing, driven away by a light breeze from the south. Through the thick curtain which still clung to the deck, I could perceive the upper spars, already tipped with sunlight, and edges of reefed canvas flapping in the wind. The schooner felt the impulse, the bow swinging sharply to port, and I turned and took a few steps aft, thinking to gauge our progress by the wake astern. I was abaft the cabin on the port side when Dorothy called my name--a sudden accent of terror in her voice.
The alarm was sounded none too soon. Either fortune, or skill had served those demons well. Gliding silently through the obscuring cloud, hanging in dense folds of vapor to the water surface, propelled and guided by a single oar, used cautiously as a paddle, they had succeeded in circling the stern of the Santa Marie, unseen and unheard by anyone aboard. Not even the girl, unconscious of the possibility of approaching danger from that quarter, her attention diverted elsewhere, had her slightest suspicion aroused as they glided noiselessly alongside, and made fast beneath the protection of the after-chains. One by one, moving like snakes, the devils passed inboard to where they could survey the seemingly deserted deck. Some slight noise awoke her to their presence, yet, even as she shrieked the sudden alarm, a hand was at her throat, and she was struggling desperately in the merciless grip of a half-naked Indian.
Yet at that they were too late, the advantage of surprise had failed them. A half dozen had reached the deck, leaping from the rail, the others below clambering after their leaders, when with a rush, we met them. It was a fierce, mad fight, fist and club pitted against knife and cutlass, but the defenders knowing well the odds against them, angered by the plight of the girl, realizing that death would be the reward of defeat, struck like demons incarnate, crushing their astounded antagonists back against the bulwark. I doubt if the struggle lasted two minutes, and my memory of the scene is but a series of flashes. I heard the blows, the oaths, the cries of pain, the dull thud of wood against bone, the sharp clang of steel in contact, the shuffling of feet on the deck, the splash of bodies hurled overboard. These sounds mingle in my mind with the flash of weapons, the glare of infuriated eyes, the dark, savage faces. Yet it was all confusion, uproar, mingling of bodies, and hoarse shouts. Each man fought for himself, in his own way. I thought only of her, and leaped straight for her assailant with bare hands, smashing recklessly through the hasty guard of his cutlass, ignorant that he had even struck me, and gripped the copper devil by hair and throat. I knew she fell to the deck, beneath our feet, but I had my work cut out for me. He was a hell-hound, slippery as an eel in his half nakedness, strong as an ox, and fighting like a fiend. But for that first lucky grip I doubt my killing him, yet I had him foul, my grip unbreakable, as I jerked and forced his neck back against the rail, until it cracked, the swarthy body sliding inert to the deck. Whirling to assist the others, assured of the fellow's helplessness, I found no need. Except for bodies here and there the deck was clear, men were struggling in the chains; two below in the boat were endeavoring to cast off, and Schmitt, with Estevan helpless in his arms, staggered to the side, and flung the shrieking Spanish cur overboard out into the dark water. I heard the splash as he fell, the single cry his lips gave, but he never again appeared above the surface. Above the bedlam Watkins roared out an order.
"That's it, bullies! that's it! Now let her drop! We'll send them to hell where they belong. Good shot; she landed!"
It was the hank of a spare anchor, balanced for an instant on the rail, then sent crashing down through the frail bottom of the boat beneath. The wreck drifted away into the fog, the two miserable occupants clinging desperately to the gunwales. I lifted Dorothy to her feet, and she clung to me unsteadily, her face yet white.
"Is it all over? Have they been driven off?"
"Yes, there is nothing more to fear from them. Were you injured?" "Not--not seriously; he hurt me terribly, but made no attempt to use his cutlass. I--I guess I was more frightened than anything else. Is--is the man dead?"
"If not, he might as well be," I answered, glancing at the body; but not caring to explain. "It was no time for mercy when I got to him. Watkins."
"Ay, ay, sir."
"Have you figured up results?"
"Not fully, sir; two of our men are cut rather badly, and Cole hasn't come too yet from a smart rap on the head."
"None got away?"
He grinned cheerfully.
"Not 'less they swum; thar's six dead ones aboard. Four took ter the water, mostly because they hed too. The only livin' one o' the bunch is thet nigger 'longside the wheel, an' nuthin' but a thick skull saved him."
"Then there were eleven in the party. What do you suppose has become of the others aboard the Namur?"
He shook his head, puzzled by the question.
"I dunno, sir; they might be a waitin' out there in the fog. Perhaps the nigger cud tell you."
I crossed over to where the fellow sat on a grating, his head in his hands, the girl still clinging to my sleeve, as though fearful of being left alone. The man was a repulsive brute, his face stained with blood, dripping from a cut across his low forehead. He looked up sullenly at our approach, but made no effort to rise.
"What's your name, my man?" I asked in Spanish.
"Jose Mendez, Senor." "You were aboard the Namur?"
He growled out an answer which I interpreted to signify assent, but Watkins lost his temper.
"Look yere, you black villain," he roared, driving the lesson home with his boot "don't be a playin' possum yer. Stand up an' answer Mister Carlyle, or yer'll git a worse clip than I give yer afore. Whar is the bloody bark?"
"Pounding her heart out on the rocks yonder," he said more civilly, "unless she's slid off, an' gone down."
"Hell, I ain't sure--what's west frum here?"
"Off our port quarter."
"Then that's 'bout where she is--maybe a mile, er so."
"What about the crew?"
"They got away in the boats, an' likely mostly are ashore. We were in the last boat launched, an' headed out so far ter get 'round a ledge o' rocks, we got lost in the fog. Then the mist sorter opened, an' give us a glimpse o' yer topsails. Manuel was for boarding you right away, and the rest of us talked it over, and thought it would be all right. We didn't expect no fight, once we got aboard."
"Expected to find something easy, of course? Perhaps it would have been if you fellows in the boat had held your tongues. By any chance, do you know now who we are?"
He rolled his eyes toward Watkins, and then at Schmitt engaged in some job across the deck.
"Those two used to be on the Namur," he said, his tone again sullen. "Are you the fellers who locked us in between decks?"
"We are the ones, Jose. You were up against fighting men when you came in over our rail. What is it you see out there, Harwood?"
The seaman, who was standing with hollowed hands shading his eyes, staring forth into the swirling drapery of fog, turned at my call, and pointed excitedly.
"There's a bark aground yonder, sir; and by God, it looks like the Namur!"
Even as I crossed the deck to his side, eagerly searching the direction indicated, the wreaths of obscuring mist seemed to divide, as though swept apart by some mighty hand, and there in the full glow of the sun, a picture in a frame, lay the wrecked vessel. Others saw it as I did, and a chorus of voices gave vent to recognition.
"Damned if it ain't the old hooker!"
"She got what was coming to her all right, mates."
"Maybe that ain't hell, bullies! And she's lousy with treasure!"
"Come here, Sam! That's the last of the Namur."