Captain Keighley's Men

Captain Keighley's Men  (1905) 
by Harvey J. O'Higgins

From The Century Magazine, Jan 1905

That the issue of any of them might endanger his career had been possible; that it might end his life had never seriously occurred to him. And the Adam's apple in his throat worked like a feed-pump gone dry as he swallowed and swallowed this fear.




THE foreman of the "forward-hold gang" of freight-handlers still maintains that the fire in the cargo-room of the Flamisch started in a clay pipe, in the "heel 'f a longshoreman's cutty." "Don't I know that smell?" he said. "Man alive, I c'u'd tell it wit' my snoot cut off. I c'u'd taste it. I c'u'd so." The steamship's officers have described the same fire to the newspaper men as "a case of spontaneous combustion," and the newspapers have so reported it to the public. But when the fire-boat Manhattan, then just two weeks in commission, slid under the starboard quarter of the big Flamisch, Captain Keighley looked up to see scowling down on him, over the steamship's bulwarks, the dark face of a man whom he had helped to discharge from the service of the fire department one week before. And the presence of that man was at that moment as ominous to him as it subsequently became significant.

Captain Keighley was standing on the cement roof of the Manhattan's wheel-house, beside a monitor nozle that could drive a hole through a warehouse wall with a stream as stiff as a steel bar. The fact that he stood in that place of command, by virtue of his own cunning, in the face of intrigue in the department and treachery in his own crew, did not show in the look which he lifted to his enemy overhead. At most, he showed only a cool reliance on the streams of the Manhattan to cope with any mischief which there might be in hand; for she had a battery of four sets of duplex pumps that could force out of her pipes as much water in a minute as twenty shore engines in a spouting row, and he was eager for a proper fire on which to test her powers.

"Cotton in the forrud hold!" the longshoremen bawled at him from the deck of the Flamisch. "Cotton afire! Cotton afire!"

The Manhattan swept into the slip, riding the ridges of her own swell, her keel all but naked amidships, and reversed with a suddenness that shook her to the stack. Captain Keighley struck at the whistle-rope and blew for tugs.

"Get a lighter alongside," he ordered his lieutenant, "an' wet down the cotton as I send her out. Tell the men to couple up two lines. Get the cotton-spray."

It is the way of the expert in handling such cotton fires to extinguish the worst of the flames in the hold and then to hook out the smoldering bales, hoist them to the open air, lower them to a lighter, and play on them there, separately and at ease. Captain Keighley, in pursuing that plan, gathered quickly into a squad all the men of his company who were "Brownies," as the members of the new "benevolent association" of the fire department were called; and these men he ordered up scaling-ladders to the deck of the Flamisch with two lines of hose. He left in charge of the Manhattan his lieutenant, Moore, who was the "financial secretary" of those same "Brownies"; and he went himself to take charge of operations in the burning hold of the Flamisch.

By so doing, he kept all the disaffected men of his company under his own eye, and he left their leader behind them in charge of the men who did not need to be watched.

Lieutenant Moore understood the tactics and smiled sourly. There was another man who smiled, but to more purpose. He was the longshoreman who had been scowling at Captain Keighley over the rail. And five minutes later, independently, unexpectedly, and from no known cause whatever, a blaze burst out in the cotton on the pier.

Now the pier-house, though covered with corrugated sheet-iron, was wooden, its beams sifted over with the fine dust of innumerable cargoes of grain and flour, and its whole length unprotected by a single hose-hydrant or fire-extinguisher. The result was a spread of flames so sudden that before the freight-handlers had ceased running and shouting for buckets, the fire had leaped into the roof timbers of the shed and begun to sing there busily; and the longshoreman who had smiled at Captain Keighley's tactics was in such danger that he barely escaped from the end of the pier by diving into the slip.

At first Lieutenant Moore was not quick to seize his opportunity; he remained stubbornly aboard the Manhattan, waiting for further orders. But when the shouts on the burning pier drew him to the deck of the Flamisch, he found that Captain Keighley and his men were still deep in the hold with the steamship's crew; and then he understood, foresaw, and made ready.

"Fine management," he grumbled, "to go down there an' leave a blaze like this behind him! Get another line up here, you men!" The men obeyed with alacrity, but by the time they got water, they had only a squirt-gun stream to use against the fire that was developing. Unfortunately, they could not see the extent of that fire; and Lieutenant Moore, grumbling and complaining, did not appreciate the fact that in the flames which began to strike out from the windows of the pier-house through the smoke there was more than the disgrace of Captain Keighley for blundering in his conduct of the attack.

Deuce of a fine captain he was! If it was n't for the shore companies, now, that part of the water-front would get singed!

The sparks began to blow over on the Flamisch. He ran back to order up another line of hose, and called to the men on the Manhattan to train a stream from the monitor nozle over the deck of the Flamisch to the roof of the pier-buildings. He was promptly obeyed; but the stream was so strong that when it was raised to clear the bulwarks of the Flamisch it shot over the pier, and there was nothing to be done but to train it still higher, to let the water drop on the buildings, sprinkling them instead of tearing them to pieces.

Fire caught the awnings of the Flamisch; the firemen drenched them. A puff of blaze reached her house-work; they fought it off. Moore ordered here, cursed and complained there, and ran around futilely; and, at last, realizing what a fire he was at such close quarters with, he cried out frantically to cast off the hawsers and tow the Flamisch to midstream. There was no one left on the pier to cast off. The firemen had to get their axes and chop through the wire ropes. The steel strands resisted long enough to complete the disaster, and when the last thread parted under the ax-blade, the current still held the Flamisch hard against the wharf.

A stewardess ran out from the cabins, screaming that the after house-work was afire.

The whole catastrophe had developed so quickly that the thought uppermost in Lieutenant Moore's mind was still that first one of Captain Keighley's disgrace; and when he lost his head and began to shout at the men, like an officer in the panic of a retreat, it was abuse of Captain Keighley that he shouted.

"What the —— did he want to go down in the hold for, with a fire like this up here? He 's a of a fine captain, he is! He 's a —— of a captain!"

One of the pipemen, without turning his head, growled under his helmet: "Why did n't you haul her out of here long ago?"

"Why don't she come out now?" Moore cried. "That 's why I did n't. 'Cause she won't! That's why! 'Cause she can't!"

The tugs, whistling and panting around her, got their lines on the after bitts and pulled and shouldered and struggled noisily. But by the time they got her under way, the crew of the Flamisch, alarmed by the screams of the stewardess, were diving overboard with their clothes smoking, and Lieutenant Moore's men were retiring from a blaze that seemed to spit back their streams on them in spurts of steam. Moore ordered one of them to go below decks and warn Captain Keighley and the squad in the hold. The man glanced at his fellows, and they shook their heads. They were all partizans of the captain; they had been chafing under Moore's attacks on him, and they were contemptuous of the lieutenant for the way he had handled the pier-house blaze. Moreover, there were only four of them to two lines of hose; the one unnecessary man there, as they saw the situation, was Moore. Let him go himself.

The lieutenant repeated his orders. The man sulkily remained where he was. And what with "Brownies" and "anti-Brownies," the influence of the fire commissioner and the influence of the chief, the party of Captain Keighley and the followers of Lieutenant Moore, discipline on the Manhattan had come to such a pass that Moore had no redress against a subordinate who refused to obey his orders.

"All right," he threatened; "I 'll see to you, too!" and turned to run for the hatch.

The men shrugged their shoulders and laughed. The Manhattan, trying to bring its monitor to bear on the burning woodwork of the Flamisch, shot a terrific stream, roaring and threshing, over their heads. One of them said: "That darn fool 'll be sweepin' us off here in a minute. We 'd better get inside out o' this an' help in there."

They retreated aft for shelter, dragging their hose, and left the forward deck to the flames that were blown over the Flamisch in a steady breeze.


Meanwhile, Lieutenant Moore had found Captain Keighley and the "Brownies," with their two lines, working busily in the choke of cotton smoke, playing one pipe on the heart of the fire and with the other sprinkling the steaming bales about it. And Captain Keighley, with his helmet awry on his head and a smile of contempt slanting his mouth, feeling the Manhattan's eight pumps behind him, was playing with that fire as a matador plays with a bull. The screeches of the stewardess and the flight of the ship's crew had not alarmed him. He was used to the sight of blind fright; he saw the flames before him confined and beaten back; and he knew that for any fire that might develop behind him, the Manhattan was a park of cannon drawn up in reserve. He did not consider that the 'Manhattan, drawn up under the high side of the Flamisch, was a park of cannon in a hole in the ground.

Lieutenant Moore, explaining in the manner of a man with a grievance, took a valuable minute to make the situation plain. He made it plainer than he knew. Keighley narrowed his old eyes and nodded. "Back out, boys!" he called. "Leave yer lines. We 'll pick 'em up from the deck."

The men dropped the squirming hose and climbed up the ladders; and as soon as they passed the orlop deck it was evident that they were in a trap. Flames were blowing across the hatch above them, as if the very air had suddenly become inflammable and taken, fire from the fierce heat of the July sun. Captain Keighley led up the ladder until he was almost at the top, and then dropped down, singed and satisfied. There was no escape by that way.

"We 'll have to go aft between decks," he said.

An officer of the Flamisch, who had remained with them fighting the fire, replied in broken English that the forward hold was shut off from the after part of the boat by two "boolkheads" and a "cross-bunker."

Captain Keighley said: "Here, you know yer own boat. Take us out o' here."

The German shook his big, blond head, thought a moment, shook it again, and then made a pass with his hand and nodded. He dropped down the ladder, past the burning cotton, and they followed him, scorched, to the deep hold. He groped his way aft, beside the first pile of grain-sacks, to the partition of steel plates which makes the after wall of the cargo-room, and there he stopped. They heard him beating on the plates with the dull blows of a fat fist. One of the firemen passed him a belt-hatchet. He rang it on the bulkhead. There was no answer. Captain Keighley seized it and rapped like a miner signaling for aid.

The German said resignedly: "He haf gone."

But he was not gone. There was an answering tap from the other side of the metal, a bolt squeaked and grated, and then the bulkhead door swung back on the empty bunker and the faint glow of a furnace in the stoke-hole.

They crawled through the narrow opening into an atmosphere that was cool by comparison with that of the burning cargo-room, and they drew long breaths of relief there, looking around the well of steel at the bottom of which they stood, waiting for the two stokers to screw the bolts of the door in place again. The officer took a little tin lamp—the shape of a miniature watering-pot with a flame in the spout—and held it to give light on the work. One of the stokers looked back over his shoulder, surprised at this condescension. The officer said nothing till both doors were fast. Then he growled at them gutturally, and on the word they dropped their tools and ran, with the whole party at their heels, between hot boilers, through dark furnace-rooms, between more boilers, through the doors of other bulkheads, and finally into the grated galleries of the engine-room, where they found two engineers still standing before their levers, waiting for further orders from the bridge.

Now Captain Keighley, thus far, had moved with a certain swift calmness, speaking in a low voice, and using his eyes, as he used his hands, deliberately, without any darting glances or quick turns. Hut when he looked up the railed ladders that rose from tier to tier of machinery in the engine-room, he heard a sound above him which he had not expected, and he started up those ladders at the double quick. The crackle of the fire grew louder as he climbed. He heard cries and shouting in the cabins. He smelt smoke again. A puff of heat swirled down on him in a fierce blast. And when he reached the sliding door that gave on the deck, the passage-way was filled with flames.

He stepped back from the rush of the four firemen who had refused to obey Lieutenant Moore and who were caught here in the burning house-work. And then, grasping the greasy railing of the ladder, he slid down after them on the "Brownies" who had been following him up. "Get further aft!" he cried.

They dropped into the engine-room as lightly as they would have dropped down the sliding-poles of their "house," and they called to the German officer to show them another stairway farther aft. That officer did not need to be told what they had found above them. He jumped down among the dynamos, stumbled past the ice-engine, dived through the open door of the shaft-tunnel, and swinging himself to the ladder that went up the inside of a ventilator shaft, he led them up that narrow flue hand over hand.

They were not half-way up it before they met what they had met above the engine-room—a suffocating heat and smother. The firemen heard the German growling and coughing above them, as big and clumsy as a bear that is being smoked out of a hollow tree. Captain Keighley caught up to him and shouted to him to go on. He answered nothing intelligible and tried to back down. Keighley ordered him to hold fast, and went up over him like a cat.

The others waited, head to heels. "Can't make it," they heard the captain call at last. "Back down, men! Back down!"

They went down to the shaft-tunnel without a word. "We got to wait here till they get that blaze out," he said curtly. "She 's afire up there from end to end. I 've shut the ventilator cover to keep out the smoke. We 'll be better down below here till they get some water on her."

They were in a corridor of steel plates, seven feet high, five feet wide, and more than thirty feet long. From end to end of it, the big shaft that spins the starboard propeller lay, shining like a steel python, stretched and bound in its bearings. At one end was the wall through which the shaft passed out to the after-peak and the screw; at the other was the entrance from the engine-room, already blue with smoke; above them was the throat of the closed ventilator. They were in a metal vault, far below the surface of the river, with every avenue of escape cut off by the fire above them.

Captain Keighley leaned back against the shaft and took off his helmet.

The men stood waiting. They had depended on him to show them the way out of the danger into which he had led them. One of the "Brownies" demanded: "How are we goin' to get up?"

"Well," Keighley said contemptuously, "I 'm not keepin' yuh, am I? Get up any way yuh like."


The words were Captain Keighley's challenge—a challenge to one of those combats of mind against mind by which the trained leader, turning on his rebellious followers, seems to use the hand of chance and circumstance to whip them into line—a challenge that struck the men before him with a little instinctive start that passed over the group like a shudder.

They stared at him. Some of them were pale, with lips parted. One of the captain's own faction had an odd expression of hurt surprise and reproach. Another was frowning. The man who had spoken said angrily: "You brought us down here. Why the —— don't yuh take us up?"

The captain smiled. He was clean-shaven, lean-cheeked, thin-lipped, and his smile was not sweet; for he knew that he had been beaten by the fire, and he knew that he could have been so beaten only because of the treachery of his lieutenant and the "Brownies."

"Moore," he said, "take yer friends back to the Manhattan. It 's goin' to be cooler out there."

The lieutenant blinked at him. It was the first time Keighley had ever openly shown his quiet understanding of the intrigues among the crew, and the change in his manner was a sufficient menace without the sarcastic implication of his words. What that implication was, Moore was trying not to let himself consider. Fires had been to him what battles are to the general who has political ambitions. That the issue of any of them might endanger his career had been possible; that it might end his life had never seriously occurred to him. And the Adam's apple in his throat worked like a feed-pump gone dry as he swallowed and swallowed this fear.

The men looked at him, and it was evident that he was in no condition to think for them. They looked at the captain, and Keighley's hard eyes were glittering as they shifted down the line from face to face.

"I saw yer frien' Doherty on deck," he said. "I guess yer benev'lent association had something to do with this business, eh?"

They did not answer.

"Well," he said, "I hope it 's good fer it. It 's goin' to be a heavy call on the treasurer—five of yuh in a bunch."

That was more than they could bear. The man who had acted as their spokesman turned with an oath and ran out to the engine-room. The others broke and followed him, and Captain Keighley remained alone with his lieutenant.

Now the old captain had been a fireman since the days when the Sunday fights between the volunteer hose companies in Philadelphia had been "the only mode of public worship on the Sabbath" there. When those fights had culminated in riot, bloodshed, and the burning of churches, he had come to New York, and run with the "goose-necks" and defied the "leather-heads" until the paid brigade was formed and he took service with it. He had been living among men and politicians ever since; and to the natural cunning of the north of Ireland "sharp-nose" he had added a cynical experience that filled him to the full with the sort of wisdom which comes of such a life. Lieutenant Moore had been so simple to him that the "boy's" attempts to supplant him, with the aid of the chief and the "Brownies," had amused him like a game. He looked at Moore now with an almost kindly contempt and pity.

"You youngsters in the department," he said, "yuh 're great politicians. But what yuh don't know about a fire 's enough to keep yuh from tryin' lo play tricks wih one—er it ought to be."

Moore stared at him stupidly.

"Yuh 're goin' to get yer fingers burned now. An' it serves yuh —— well right."

Moore turned away from him in a daze, and stumbled out to the engine-room; and Captain Keighley, having watched him go, proceeded to examine the shaft-tunnel at his leisure. He found nothing but a ball of cotton waste, which he stuffed into his pocket. Then he leaned back calmly and waited for his crew to return.

They were standing in the thickening smoke of the engine-room, waiting for nothing with the quietness of disgusted despair. Sparks were beginning to fall through the gratings. Little splashes of hot water sprinkled down on them. They looked up at the reflection of the flames that were purring overhead. They spoke in low voices to one another, and every now and then a man who had gone forward toward the stoke-hole or been down on his face crawling below the machinery came back to them from a vain attempt to find a safer spot, and made a gesture of despair. A young German stoker was biting his lips and whining like a frightened animal. No one spoke to Moore.

The last slow pulse of the engines stopped, the electric lights died out, and the glare of the fire reddened the shining metal of columns, cylinders, and piston-rods. No one moved. They watched, as if fascinated, the approach of this blind horror that seemed to be fighting its way down to them through the bars of the gratings, snarling.

At last an engineer joined them with a lamp from the stoke-hole, and they followed him irresolutely back to the dark shaft-tunnel. He passed them all through, and slid over the steel door until there was only a narrow aperture left unclosed. He squeezed himself through that slit, and then with hammer and chisel drove the door home until the opening was merely a crack wide enough to admit the finger-ends. They plugged that crack with their coats and woolen shirts. He put the lamp on top of a shaft-bearing. They sat down on the floor of the tunnel, with their backs against the plates of the after hold. Captain Keighley stood beside the shaft.

"Don't do that," he said to one of the firemen who had begun to strip. "Yuh 'll want all yuh can get between you an' the metal as soon 's that after cargo gets goin'."

The man grumbled: "We 'll be sittin' on top of a red-hot stove in a minute."

Captain Keighley replied: "Yuh can go outside an' sit in one, if yuh want to."

Lieutenant Moore took a quivering breath through dry nostrils, and shut his teeth on the trembling of his jaws. He could hear a low murmur from the fire that was roaring above them. The little lamp flared dully on the bearing. For the rest, there was nothing but darkness and silence and the heat that choked.

"Well?" Captain Keighley said.

No one answered.

"I guess yuh got what yuh been workin' fer, ain't yuh? Yuh got me into trouble. Yuh been tryin' hard enough to push me into a hole ever since I broke Doherty."

"Look here, sir," one of the men spoke up, "we 're all in this together. There 's no use jawin'."

"That 's right," another added plaintively.

Captain Keighley leaned forward eagerly. "Now," he said—"nowyuh 're talkin'. If yuh 'd been all together from the first, we would n't be here, d' yuh see? I got to run my company my own way. An' when you try to interfere with me, here 's where we get."

Several of the men answered: "'T wasn't our fault." They looked at the lieutenant, who had dropped his head and was gazing, empty-eyed, at his feet.

"No," the captain said suavely; "that 's right, too. An' it was n't mine, either. I never had anything against you boys, an' never did anything against yuh."

No one spoke until one of the men asked weakly: "Can't yuh get us out, sir?"

"Yes," he said—"yes. If yuh live long enough, an' I do, I 'll get yuh all out—ev'ry man Jack of yuh that 's breathin'. An' I won't leave here myself until I do. We got to wait here until that fire burns down, that 's all."

The young German had begun to sob. Lieutenant Moore opened his parched lips to speak, but his tongue, swollen and dry, like a piece of flannel in his mouth, was too thick to turn a word.

The sound of the flames rose suddenly to a muffled grumble. Captain Keighley said: "Here 's some cotton waste I hunted up. Pull a wad off to plug yer noses, an' put some in yer mouths. We 'll be breathin' scorch in a minute."

He tore off a greasy ball and passed the roll to Moore. It traveled down the line from hand to hand, as if for a sign of union and peace among them, like a pax.

"Now," he ordered, "get away from the sides of that cargo-room. Lay yerselves out flat 's yuh can."

They obeyed him meekly.

"That 's right," he said. "Stay there now. It 's goin' to be so hot in here, some of yuh 'll be goin' off yer heads. Yuh don't want to do that. Yuh want to hang on, understand? Keep still an' hang on. And if yuh feel yerself goin' looney, get a hold of the floor, anyway, an' don't let go. See?"

He took u]) the engineer's hammer, stepped down to the door, and put his back against it. "I 'll brain any man that tries to open this before I give the word," he said.

The men lay quiet, some flat on their backs, staring glassily at the steel beams overhead, panting with convulsive chests; some on their faces, with their heads on their arms, gagged and stifling; some drawn up in strained and twisted attitudes, as if in pain. There was a long silence. In their swollen eyeballs sudden lights darted and burst. Above the noise of the blood in their ears they heard a sound of moaning, and did not know it was themselves who moaned. A choked voice struggled in the first wanderings of delirium.

"Steady, there! Steady!" Captain Keighley said. He was standing up, his arms crossed, his face drenched with perspiration, the figure of authority in absolute and unquestioned command at last.

He was still standing there when the lamp burned low, flickered, and went out.


What followed in that shaft-tunnel there is no one who can tell. The men themselves were never able to remember any more than a convalescent can remember of the delirium of his fever. For eight hours they were compelled to endure the blistering, choking, maddening heat of a metal oven; and those who kept their wits the longest recall a scene too horrible to be described.

How, finally, when the fire had burned down, they made their way forward from the tunnel, through the engine-room and the stoke-holes, to an empty bunker; how they climbed the ladders to a coal-port, and found the steel shutter of it open; who led them, or how he knew the way—all this is as unknown to any of them as if it were a dream that had been forgotten when they woke. But this is certain: At nightfall, when the Flamisch—beached on the Jersey mud-flats, with her paint peeled off her sides, her funnel blackened, her upper works a skeleton of blistered metal—lay like a smoking fire-log, gray, and hot, and steaming where the streams of tugs and fire-boats struck her, the battalion chief in charge of the Manhattan heard a noise of hammering that seemed to come from the Flamisch's ashen sides, and thought it was the sound of a pump set going by some crazy accident of the fire. He was sheltering himself behind the wheel-house from the radiated heat of the smoldering hulk. At a shout from a fire-man on the other side of the boat, he ran out to the bows. "I saw a light," the man said. "There!"

The spark of a lantern was swinging from side to side amidships. They howled excitedly: "Hi! Hi! Hullo! All right! All right! Hol' on!"

"Turn the spray on the deck here," the battalion chief ordered. "Half speed ahead. There 's some one alive on her. Gawd!"

The heat, as they crept in, dried their eyes till they were blinded by a gush of tears. Blurred by these, the light swung big in the darkness. "Who is it? Who is it?" they called.

A weak hail answered them. The dripping fender of hemp on the nose of the Manhattan touched the side of the Flamisch and hissed on the hot metal in a cloud of steam. Erect in the bows, drenched with the spray of the hose, the chief cried in a voice of suffocation: "Jump!"

From the coal-port above him a half-naked figure squirmed out, hung kicking, and fell into his arms. Another and another followed, the chief and his men catching them as they came, and shouting encouragement through the steam that rose on all sides with the smell of blistered paint. Some came head first, at the risk of their lives. One, in the struggle at the narrow opening, was thrown into the water and had to be dragged out with a boat-hook. Others fell on their feet, and throwing themselves on the deck with hoarse cries, began to roll around in the spray. Lieutenant Moore came down unconscious, stiff and contorted, and lay still; and Captain Keighley, falling beside him, crawled, with his mouth open, to the nozle of the hose. "All off!" he gasped. "Start—start yer water. Water!"

And that was the end of the dissensions among Captain Keighley's men. They forgot the tortures of their eight hours in the shaft-tunnel; they never forgot the fear and respect with which he had inspired them there. His manner toward them continued the same as it had been before the fire on the Flamisch, but they had learned what might hide behind it; and, old, cold, and silent, he commanded them, thereafter, almost with his eyes—from Lieutenant Moore, who never remained alone in their office with him, down to the latest "probationer" on trial with the Manhattan and awed by the awkward reverence of the crew.


This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1926.

The author died in 1929, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 80 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.