Sea Scamps/In the Whaleboat
IN THE WHALEBOAT
BOLES and Brown probably swear to this day I that it was all my fault that our little schooner got hung up to dry on the reef off Mongir Island. I guess that's right enough, but it has sometimes struck me as kind of funny that whenever anything went wrong it was sure to be my fault, but if a thing turned out rights and we happened to make a pot of money, it was all owing to the foresight of the other fellow. I noticed that they were ready enough to heave up when I pointed out the difference in the profits of a few bales of hemp from Mindanao, and the little schooner's belly full of copra.
Boles hung back a little at first, because it was just at the breaking up of the monsoon, but it didn't need a four-inch hawser to take the strain of him, and as for little Brown, why he towed along as easy as an empty casco.
As luck would have it, we no sooner got well off the east coast of Luzon that we caught one of those whirling-dervish cyclones that spin around on a pivot and go ahead like blazes at the same time. The description of those things in the "Law of Storms" always reminded me somehow of the wheels of a sulky; most of the motion is in a circle, but that doesn't prevent them from getting over the ground.
We ran at first, as it seemed to be going our way, but by-and-bye it got so dusty that Boles decided to heave her to. We would have made it all right, but just as we put our helm down to round up our jib down-haul jammed in the block, and before we could get her off again a big brute of a comber whipped the rudder out of her like a coon-cat might snatch the tail out of a hen, and after that it was all up.
Fourteen hours later the poor little packet was lying with a broken back across the reef off Mongir Island, and we were sitting on the hot sand above high-water mark, breathing in the stink of the seaweed, and cussing at our luck until the kick of our curses knocked us flat on our backs and we went to sleep. We needed sleep, too, I tell you, because for the last twenty-four hours we had been working the pump-handle like the President at a White House reception.
The island turned out to be a regular stamping ground for castaways. In the early part of the same gale that drove us there, a little barky had bounced up on the reef, and there had crawled out of her the scurviest outfit of sea scamps that I ever clapped eyes on. I never knew just what they were in business hours—pirates, most likely. First, they told us that they were whalers; but there was too much of the spars of their vessel sticking up out of the surf to swallow with that lie. Then they said that they were traders, and a few minutes later they forgot all about it and claimed to be pearlers.
Brown has told about how we came to fall foul of each other, and about how I undertook to straighten out the mess. My plan was really simple enough, and would have worked out all right if I'd only used a little common sense. Of course it was plain when they came down the beach that night that they were looking for trouble, and after I had fired them out of our camp I was mightily unsatisfied with the layout; not only because it was plain that they wanted to get square with us for having put two of their shipmates out of commission, but also because I saw the Portugee's snaky eyes coil around the corners of our money box. I wouldn't have cared even then if it hadn't been for the girl, but I hated to think of what might happen to her if that bunch of sea scavengers ever got the under hold of us.
Boles and I had quite an argument about it, and I must say that I was real put out at his pig-headedness; but I suppose that that was where his British blood stuck out. When I found that nothing short of a Morton purchase would ever start him, I did what seemed to me to be the only thing. I just took my gun and went down the beach, and held up those sea-going hoboes and made them mend their boat. I got the drop on four of them; but the worst of the lot, the Portugee, managed to slip away. I'm not sure whether I hit him or not.
That night Brown stood guard over my shanghaied crew of criminals, wreckers, black-birders, or whatever else they were, while I got in a good ten hours' sleep. The next day I piled them into the boat, jumped aboard myself, and we hit the brine, laying a course for the next inhabited island, which was only about a hundred miles away. It was my idea to get hold of some sort of a packet when we got there, and go back after the others, and I took money enough with me to do it.
There were four of them, and they were beauties of their kind—and each one of a different kind at that. I doubt if one of them had a mother and father of the same race—or of any one race, for that matter. I just sized them up at the start as dangerous animals that I must watch the whole time until we reached the next island, which I hoped to do in about twenty-four hours, as we left with a fresh breeze coming in on our starboard quarter.
If the worst came to the worst, I intended to make the scoundrels get out the sweeps and pull, for I knew that if I went to sleep I should never wake again.
Poor little Brown cried when he said good-bye to me as I stepped into the boat and entrenched myself in the stern with the rifle across my knees. Boles waved to me from up the beach, but he couldn't leave the girl long enough to come down and shake hands. No doubt that was all right enough, as she was out of her head with fever, and throwing herself all over the place. I did think that he might have got Brown to sit by her for a second, and I must say that it sort of got under my ribs, for while no one knows better than I that Boles has his failings, at the same time we had been shipmates for almost a year, and were pretty good friends, when we weren't having some sort of an argument in which Boles showed more than his usual British pig-headedness. I'll just bet that if that girl had been a native woman, or old and ugly instead of the finely built, heavy-maned beauty that she was in spite of her hardships, he would have trusted her to Brown long enough to wish me luck.
That's always the way. Just when you get to sort of like a man, some red-headed girl comes along and—but never mind all that!
Our boat, which was only a small whaleboat, was old and pretty well battered, but she had been a good one in her day, and was built on fine sailing lines. She carried the regular whaleboat rig, which gave her all the sail she wanted, light as she was, with only five men aboard her, and no dunnage to speak of. I had purposely taken only one day's rations, so that the brutes with me would be in as much of a hurry to make the trip as I was. It seemed to me that I had taken every precaution, as the glass was high when we left, and the breeze showed every sign of freshening as the day wore on. There was one thing, however, that I had not calculated on; that was the proverbial cunning of the full-blooded mongrel.
As soon as we were fairly under way, I gave them a little notion of the kind of a race that we were entered for, and what they might expect if they were losers. I don't say that I would have carried out the programme to the letter—but they didn't know that. They did know that we had already done for two of their shipmates, for what reasons they could only guess, and not guess very close at that. One of them had already felt the weight of my fist, with 190 pounds of lean New England meat behind it, and I calculated that that would last for twenty-four hours.
"Now then," said I, when we had got clear of the outer line of surf and they had stepped the masts, and shaken the sails out of the clew-lines, this old box is bound for the next island, about one hundred miles away, and if we don't sight it by daylight there'll be three or four funerals in this one coffin— savvy? I know damn well ye'd like nothing better than to stave my conch with one of those stretchers under your feet, and that's just what I'm here to prevent. I don't trust ye, and if one of ye so much as makes a shady move, he'll lighten ship pronto! Moreover, we've grub and water for one day, and it's a long way to the next road-house. I'm the only one that knows where the island bears, so if by any chance I was to take sick and croak, the rest of ye'd be in bad shape. When we strike the beach, you can take your boat and go to hell—only be careful to wait until we do strike the beach. Now you can go to sleep, or smoke, or say your prayers; only just hang on to your jaw-tackle, and save your wind for a white-ash breeze if this one drops—savvy?"
One—the dago I called him—gave an assenting whine. The others turned their backs and lit their pipes.
It wasn't a cheerful yachting party, but as we left the long green sea-miles under our stem, I felt my spirits rising like the glass after the gale is over.
Two of the scoundrels up forward got down under the thwarts and went to sleep, as I thought. That was where I made my mistake. If I had had the sense that the Lord gave a jack rabbit I would have kept them where I could have had my eye on them, so they would have had no chance to cook up any deviltry; but I didn't, and the swash and ripple under our bows as we scudded along drowned their whispers.
Later, to make things worse, I played right into their hands. The breeze had dropped with the sun, so I had them clew up the sails, unstep the masts, and lower them down on to the thwarts. You can bet I watched them close enough while they were doing this, and they were careful, too, for they knew that if a man accidentally stepped over the after thwart into the cockpit, he would step overboard the next second.
One of the scoundrels who had been asleep up in the bow was a giant. I expect that his father had probably been a deep-chested bosun on some British ship of the line. His mother might have been anything from an Aleutian Islander to a Terre del Fuegan. I called him aft to stroke, as he had the weight, and seemed to know how to handle an oar. He came with an eagerness that I put down to the magazine rifle across my knee. I didn't know that he'd had his low animal cunning to bear on the problem of how to get that billet all the afternoon.
My bullies settled down to their work with a long, steady swing that it did me good to feel, for mine was a billet to get on a man's nerves after the darkness falls, and through the long mysterious night.
Pipe after pipe I filled, and hour after hour I listened to the suck of the sweeps in the sea, and the chunk-a-chunk in the row-locks, until finally the idea seemed to creep into my brain—as crazy ideas will to a man at night in an open boat with no land in sight—that this was eternity, and that through all time we were to pull away in long changeless strokes, over that black, silent water.
Twice I gave them "oars" to rest a bit, and take a bite and a mouthful of water—for an engine won't run on no fuel—and once I had all hands shift sides. Never a word they spoke, but swung away with such good will that I began to feel myself relax a bit in my hardness to them, and wonder if, perhaps, there wasn't a spark of good somewhere beneath their rough shells after all.
Toward two in the morning I began to think that the island could not be far away, for it seemed to me that we must have rapped off at least eighty knots in our day's sail, and since dark, when the breeze dropped, we had been pulling at a three-knot clip. So I told them to take it easy and daylight would see us off the island.
Then I spelled them for a while, letting two pull while the other two caught a nap. And then, at length, the east began to glow, and one by one the stars grew pale. I strained my eyes ahead, and I'll never forget the sinking feeling of those few minutes, when suddenly with a flash of crimson the sun shot up in a cloudless sky, and showed no land in sight.
For a moment I was clean staggered, for the island was a high one, and should have been seen thirty miles away. Then I thought of the cursed currents that suck through those treacherous seas, and wondered how far we could be out of our course. The men seemed as eager as I was, and the bow man was standing on his thwart, studying the sky-line ahead. But nothing came of it, and he turned and looked at me expectantly, as did the others.
Then the trap was sprung. The stroke oar suddenly rose to his feet and pointed over the starboard quarter.
"Land-O," he growled.
I swung around in the stem, with a quick tug at my heart. The next moment a great bulk crashed down on me, and two paws like a gorilla's fastened on my throat. Something flashed in the air—the sun rushed to the zenith at one leap—and then the light went out.
I wasn't adrift very long. The next thing that reminded me of my troubles was the nasty feeling of my arms and legs being asleep. I woke to find myself flat on my face in the bottom of the boat, with my arms lashed to a forward, and my feet to an after thwart, so that my back was bent like a swung hammock. Someone, sitting right over my amidships section, was giving a lecture, and once in a while would drive his words home by landing the toe of his boot against my ribs.
"Vy tr-r-row him oudt?" said a voice that I recognised as belonging to the Scandinavian misfit. "I dhink ve mide mage 'im r-r-row."
"I soy, as we knocks him in 'is bloomin' 'ead, an' chucks 'is bleedin' karkis in the —— hocean. 'E aint no good to we. Wot's the use in keepin' uv 'im?"
"Dutchy right-a. Make-a de Yankee pig-hog pull-a de boat. Suppose he no pull-a?—knock-a de face back!"
This last was from a swarthy little beggar whom I had slated as some sort of a Polynesian, but from the purring malignity of his voice, which I heard now for the first time, I calculated that he must be of the greaser species. For a few minutes there was an argument that was a whole course in deep-sea dialect, but ft3 the majority were in favour of seeing me do a trick at the oars, while they sat around and encouraged me by a few ingenious devices of their own, my serious-minded friend was overruled, and finally, with an oath, he whipped out his knife and made a slash at the lanyard around my ankles. Incidentally, the knife bit quite a way into my leg, but I seemed to be the only one that noticed it.
The Scandinavian cut the lashing that bound my hands to the thwart. This freed me, but what with the numbness of my limbs and the thump that I had got on the head, I was, for the time being, paralyzed.
"Come oudt!" says he; "vat's de madder ohf you? You dond vish to vor-r-rk, you——" He got a good fistful of my hair and began to drag me out from under the thwarts. The dago was doing the mahout act along my back with the point of his knife. I've got some of the scars yet.
"Ye lide a gime course, ye sweep," growled the big bruiser, as he reached for the back of my neck and helped to haul me out. "Yon's yer bleedin' island, but cuss me if you ever land there, ye scut, without ye beach there wen ye're a bloomin' floater!"
"Take-a de oar—'n both-a han'—give-a-way—so—so."
They had got me sitting on the second thwart, and the dago shoved one of the big, heavy sweeps into each hand. The Scandinavian had thrown another lashing around my ankles and made it fast through one of the limbers, and not satisfied with that he passed another around my waist. The dago was trying to get up a forced draught by jabbing me in the ribs with the hilt of his knife.
At first I was as stiff as a two-year-old the day after his first run, and I came in for more mauling than I've had to take in all the rest of my life put together, but the pulling was the best thing I could have done to get my hinges in working order, and pretty soon I could feel the strength coming back, and the blood beginning to circulate again.
When they found that their prodding was interfering with my form they quit abusing me, especially as they happened to notice that the chesty brute was getting outside of all the grub in the boat. They wrangled over this for a while like a pack of chow dogs, and when there wasn't any left to wrangle over, one by one they dropped off to sleep.
The island lay right abeam of us when I was bowled over, but was hidden in a light haze on the horizon. As I twisted my head around to look at it, I could see that it was a long pull to get there, but that didn't bother me any—my only worry was about getting there at all.
I'm a pretty hopeful sort of a man as a rule, but when I came to overhaul the layout I couldn't help but own that Jordan Knapp had just about swung to the end of his scope, and was pretty apt to come up with a round turn at 'most any second. The whole thing was so plumb discouraging that I wasn't as cut up about it as I would have been if I'd seemed to have even the ghost of a hundred-to-one shot. It wasn't that I minded going so much, although that was bad enough, God knows, but it was the thought of being put out of business by such an all-fired bunch of worm-eaten corby-crows. I did hope that Boles would never come to hear of it; it seemed so sort of humiliating. It reminded me of a story I heard once of a fellow who was engineer on the Boston Flyer. He was walking across the yard to go home one night, just after he got in, and was hit and killed by the slow freight. When the boys picked him up he was almost gone, and was just getting himself together to say some beautiful words, but as he looked up he happened to catch sight of the freight engineer, whom he knew. That settled it, and his closing remarks were chiefly cuss words.
This all sounds very funny now, but then it was mighty aggravating. The crew, being pretty well used up from pulling all night long, had dropped off to sleep one by one, but the hairy bruiser in the sternsheets lolled back against the tiller, and once in a while would give me a grin that put me in mind of a colt with his ears back; it was so full of cussedness. There was still a great blue swelling over his eye where I had planted my fist two days before, and once in a while he would rub it gently, and look 'first at me, then over the side.
Whether it was to trick me into bringing things to a head or not, I am sure I don't know, but pretty soon he pretended to be asleep. I was watching him out of the tail of my eye, pulling away evenly all the while, and at the same time overhauling my brain as a machinist goes over his running gear with a hammer, looking for a flaw. The difference was that I found some flaw at every rap. Then suddenly, just as I was about to give it up in disgust, and was making up my mind to try to take what was coming, the way a captured Malay pirate takes the Chinese New Year, my heart gave a leap into my throat that almost strangled me. Dead astern and hull down over the horizon, I sighted a sail!
Up to this time I had been more disgusted than scared, on the same principle, I suppose, that a murderer is a heap more frightened on trial in the dock than he is in his cell with the death-watch set, after he's convicted. It's hope more than anything else that sets a man's knees to shaking. From the moment that I sighted that sail all of my feelings changed, and for the first time in my life I knew what the real sickening fear of death was like.
Of course I managed not to let on that I'd sighted anything, and pretty soon the devil in the stern dozed off again, and this time I think that he was really asleep for a few minutes, for he woke up suddenly with a quick start, and the way that his hand flew out to the rifle at his side, as well as the startled look that he threw my way, gave him dead away. I pretended not to notice it, but swung away at the sweeps, and directly his eyes closed again. But somehow I suspicioned that this nap was all a fake. Now and then I looked past him as indifferently as I could, and saw that the vessel 'way astern was bringing a fresh breeze. Pretty soon the dark blue patch showed distinctly on the thin edge of the horizon.
After that first pang of hopefulness my heart sank again bit by bit, just as the lead-line crawls slowly over the side where the water is very deep. I knew that the breeze was bound to reach us while the vessel was still a long way off, even supposing that her course would have brought her close aboard us, and, at the first puff, my hand would be played out. Besides this, there was the chance of one of them waking up and casting a weather eye along the sky-line; but still they slept, and soon I was able to raise the hull of the vessel, which appeared to be an island schooner—but the blue, dimpling water had filled half the distance between us.
The watchdog in the stern was evidently asleep again, for an uncomfortable-sounding gurgle was coming from his hairy throat with every slow breath,—evidently the genuine article this time—and suddenly, from the sheer knowledge that for the moment no one's eye was on me, a thought shot across my brain like the flash of a meteor through the black night.
Behind me, right within the reach of my arm, the Scandinavian was caulked off, and I could see the hilt of his knife sticking out under the skirt of his dirty cotton jumper. It didn't seem possible that I could slip it out, cut my lashings, and clamber aft over all that crowd in time to reach the big fellow before he woke; still if I failed there was still a chance to put up a bit of a fight, and although it would be an uphill game it was a sight better than being butchered in cold blood. If I did miscue, at any rate I could peg out with my dander up.
Softly dropping the oars I half turned on the thwart and, reaching behind me, fumbled gently at the waist of the sleeping man. My fingers found the hilt of the knife by instinct, and with an easy tug it slipped from the sheath and quick as a flash I twisted back, shoved it under my thigh, and swung forward on the sweeps again, but my touch had roused him and with a sleepy grunt he dug his knuckles into his eyes and yawned with a creak like a rusty gate. The others stirred a bit and the helmsman woke with another start.
Then my heart stood still, for the Scandinavian suddenly straightened himself, shaded his eyes with his hand, and took a long look astern. The man in the stern, curious from the intentness of his gaze, twisted around and looked over his shoulder. I slipped the knife from under my thigh, and with two quick slashes cut the ropes around my feet and waist. Almost at the same moment the Scandinavian bellowed "Sail-O," and the others sprang to their feet. But the helmsman swung round, fixed his wicked eyes on me, and softly reached for his rifle.
My time had come. With a yell I sprang suddenly to my feet, and, swinging with all my strength, landed my fist on the side of the Scandinavian's jaw, knocking him clean across the gunnle. The sudden list of the boat threw the others to the same side, and before they could right themselves I leaped square on to the gunnle and clung there, while the green water came pouring into the boat. The next moment we were all struggling in the sea.
Of course, I was the only one expecting it, and besides, the others were sort of logy and thick with sleep. Quick as a cat, when I found myself in the water, I gripped the stem of the boat and swung myself up across her. Once astride the keel I reached down, grabbed up one of the long oars, and, swinging it slantwise, brought it down on the ugly head of the thug that tried to shoot me, who was struggling alongside. He gasped once, then sank, and I sat and watched the bubbles coming up and waited for him to rise again and give me a chance for another crack.
All at once, most likely from the sudden reaction that came of knowing that the trumps were in my hands, all of the fight oozed out of me. It would have been dead easy for me to have finished off the others one by one, and they knew it, and there was something sort of pitiful in the scared faces that they turned up at me. A little way off from the boat the old squarehead was swimming for all he was worth, his shoulders humped up like a box-turtle. He was a poor swimmer, and his strokes were getting shorter and quicker and his breath came like a grampus when he breaks.
"Grab the side if you want," I yelled; "I'll not harm ye; but as you love your life, don't try to climb up!"
I doubted that he'd ever reach the boat, but he made it and clung there, eyeing me like a bear in a trap. Then we waited in silence.
Soon the edge of the breeze struck me, and behind it came the schooner, tripping along like a girl going to market. Straight down they came, and soon I knew that we were sighted from her decks, for she shifted her course a bit and bore down directly at us.
When close aboard she luffed into the wind, and in a minute over went a surfboat and came bouncing along the rising sea. Then, as she drew near, I knew that I was safe, for in the stern sat O'Connel, whom I had met in Manila not long before we started for the islands.
An hour later, in the cabin of the schooner, I told the whole story over a stiff glass of grog. Although Captain McCree was a good sort enough, I could not persuade him to go back for Boles and the others, as the weather had changed, the glass was falling, and it was at the breaking up of the monsoon. So I did not press it, knowing that my mates were well found in grub, and that I could soon get them taken off.
The schooner was bound for Pulo Anna, and when we reached there I left her and not long after sailed by another vessel for Yap. On the way we touched at the island, but the others had gone.