DESPITE threatening weather, every tide counted in the race for California and gold, so that with the last of the cargo stowed, the brig Hannah stood out on the afternoon ebb while the hatches were still being battened down.
Hampton, hard at work below, saw nothing of the ceremonial departure. The brig's crew was a miserable lot, since most of the good seamen had already gone to the golden land; they were a bad mixture of city boys, Liverpool packet rats, and farmers, with not four good men in the lot. As Hampton labored to get the last of the provisions stowed, he was dimly aware of cheers and speeches and songs from the wharf above, heard the familiar chorus of “Susannah” ringing out to improvised words, and came scrambling up to the deck to find the ship standing out, the canvas shaking out, and all hands aloft except his own gang at the hatches. Now the last of the cheers from poop and wharf gave place to the hoisting chanty that Job Warlock started, and on which the packet rats and others fell in with a will:
“Oh, fare you well, I wish you well,
Good-by, fare you well! Good-by, fare you well!
Fare you well, my pretty young gal,
Hurray, my boys, we're outward bound!
“Our anchor's weighed and our sails are set
Good-by, fare you well! Good-by, fare you well!
The girls are leaving, we leave with regret,
''Hurray, my boys, we're outward bound!”
Hampton saw nothing of the Barneses, for he had to jump from the hatches to his station at the mainmast, relieving the chief mate of this job and giving his attention to the canvas. The afternoon was dark, with snow in the air and gray scud in the sky. All the Beverly Panama Gold Company were crowded aft, still waving last farewells to the despair of the second officer, who tried in vain to make himself heard at his station above the din. At length Hampton started the haul-away, and all hands joined in roaring out the words as the yards were braced home:
“Once I had an Irish gal, and she was fat and lazy,
Away, haul away, Oh haul away together!
But now I got a nigger one, she nearly drives me crazy,
Away, haul away, Oh haul away jo!”
No sooner was everything belayed than the captain, a peppery old Beverly salt, emerged from the cheering, waving crowd of gold-seekers and came forward, driving all hands with him.
“All hands, all hands!” pierced his stentorian voice. “Pick watches, mister—hey there, mister! Wake up for'ard! Weather coming along fast, mister!”
The mate hastily abandoned the forecastle to Hampton and joined the skipper and the men. Caustic comments on the appearance of the hands were exchanged as the watches were picked, then the captain sent his starboard watch to get the gold company and their baggage stowed, and left the deck to the mate. Hampton had a glimpse of Nelly Barnes, standing with the other three women passengers, before they went below, as soon as the bar was crossed and the roll called.
Within half an hour only six of the company remained on deck, and these lined the rail together with most of the crew, for the Hannah was pitching and rolling in a choppy head sea and the wind was shrieking out of the northwest. By the time the pilot was dropped and Baker's Island left behind, snow was in the air and the wind was howling and shifting. All hands were called, sail was taken in to lower topsails and forestaysail, and when the wind settled in the north the reefed foresail was set and she began to scud madly in the gale. The only one of all the gold company who remained on deck was James Day, and he did not approach Hampton.
During the next two days, in fact, Hampton saw very little of the passengers, for the gale drove down unceasing and the few sea men aboard had their hands full. Job Warlock had gone into the starboard watch and the two friends had scant opportunity to glimpse each other. It was a wild time, huge seas battering the old brig, and the officers attempting nothing beyond getting some Scotchmen rigged to keep the rigging from chafing. Then, on the third day out, when the blow had moderated to a brisk gale and things were a bit settled down, came that which Dick Hampton had both hoped and feared. He had just turned over the deck to the second mate and started forward, when at the after companion he came face to face with Nelly Barnes as she emerged from the ladder-way. She was coming on deck, alone.
Her hand flew to her throat and she stared blankly at him, all amazed, and the flush that leaped into her face died away in pallor.
“It's not you—it can't be!” she exclaimed softly.
Hampton doffed his tarpaulin hat and stood smiling at her.
“But it is, Nelly, it is!” he cried, and as her hand came out to meet his, all restraint suddenly burst within him, and eager words rushed to his lips. “Did you think I could leave you so easily, Nelly? Dear girl—dear heart—I had to be with you, to watch over you——”
He stammered and fell silent as he held her hand. Under his eyes and words, her pale face crimsoned again in its frame of brown hair, and in her wide hazel eyes he read only too surely the answer to his impulsive utterance.
“I'm glad, Dick, I'm glad!” she said simply, in that low, rich voice which so reached into his heart and soul. “Oh, Dick, I've cried to think of that morning at the cross-roads—I never thought to see you again! And now to see you here seems like a miracle—but my father, my father! What will he say?” Sudden fright leaped into her face. “Dick, he mustn't see you—it will be terrible! You know how he feels——”
Hampton laughed and closed his fingers more tightly over hers.
“We're at sea, Nelly, and what can he do? Make the best of it. He won't let you see much of me, but don't worry. I'll be close at hand, dear heart; I'm to leave the brig at Chagres and go along with the company. You don't know or dream what's ahead, but I know——”
Just then two officers of the gold company appeared behind Nelly Barnes; old Eliphalat Nickerson, the president, and with him spruce Adam Johnson, the secretary. Both of them knew Hampton and greeted him with surprize and satisfaction, and after the handshaking he exchanged one look with Nelly and then went his way forward. Recollection of his own impulsive words left him tingling, for now he knew that his secret was no longer a secret, and that Nelly Barnes had welcomed him with all her heart.
That very morning the bosun tumbled down the ladder into the forepeak and broke his leg, and Job Warlock was put in his place. Since the bosun stood no regular watch but all watches, snatching time off when he could, this threw the two friends together at times. That afternoon when Hampton had the deck, Job Warlock came up to him and touched forelock with a grin.
“Bless me, what's come over ye, Dick? There I be, forgetting all proper respect! Beg pardon, sir. What an unholy old packet she is, and a crew o' greenhorns! What makes ye look so wondrous joyful, eh?”
“Reason enough, Job!” Hampton laughed cheerfully.
“Aye, the lass i' the brown hair, eh?” said Job shrewdly. “I noted her, and a fine lass she is. Well, journey's end makes lovers' meetings, they say, but we're not at Chagres yet, mark it well! Tomorrow will be a fine day, and then ye'll hear things go popping down below——”
“Belay and stand by,” said Hampton suddenly, looking down the deck. “Here's the —— to pay now, Job. Stand by.”
He saw Eliphalat Nickerson approaching, and beside him, still rather sickly in looks but grim and harsh as ever, Jed Barnes. Among the many gold seekers who were now on deck, Hampton saw nothing of Nelly, and was glad. Jed Barnes came on with determination in his manner, while old Nickerson pulled at his whiskers and looked confoundedly ill at ease. Straight up to Hampton they came, and Jed Barnes fastened upon him a narrow-eyed regard of suspicious hatred.
“So you're here, are ye?” he spat out. “Mighty slick galoot, ain't ye? I know why you're trailin' after me, Dick Hampton, and I warn ye here and now that I'll have none of it. Any of your antics around me or Nelly, and I'll give ye a larruping! Understand? Not a word to her, ye graceless whelp, ye runagate, ye no-account rascal, or I'll lay a stick over your shoulders! You leave our company at Chagres, understand?”
Hampton looked at him and laughed.
“Jed, you're an old fool. I could break you with one hand—and will do it yet, if you don't watch your eye. D'you think I care a tinker's dam for you or your threats? Not a bit. I'll marry Nelly, and if you don't like it you can lump it. For the rest, you're talking to a ship's officer before members of the crew. One more word out of you and you go in irons. One word!”
Jed Barnes gasped with fury, and would have spoken not one but many words—save that old Nickerson dragged him away by main force. Warlock, looking after them, rolled his quid from cheek to cheek and then grinned.
“There go two prime fools, and another two-score like 'em aboard! D'ye know that they've got all their hard cash with 'em? Aye, every cent. Some keep it in their pockets, but more ha' pooled it in a strongbox, and that box is in the keeping of our friend Day. At Chagres he'll jump ship with it. Heap good work, as the Injun said when he rubbed his belly.”
Hampton frowned over this item of news.
“So? I doubt your prophecy, friend Job. True, Day may not accompany us all across to Panama, but he'll be there with the strongbox. Though I don't like him, I don't figure him as any petty rascally thief. Still, we'll see.”
“And bless me if I take a notion to your godly New Englanders, any of 'em! What's this ugly old stone-face got against you?”
“He doesn't like seamen,” said Hampton, and smiled.
“But his daughter does, eh? A fine lass. Bless me if I can't read the end of this trail! Howsomever, I'll go with 'ee to the parson's door, Dick, and then to Glasgow packets.”
The news of what had passed between Hampton and Jed Barnes speedily ran through the ship, gaining much in the telling, so that by evening both the crew and the staggering but slowly recuperating gold seekers were half-convinced that the two men had fought that morning. Though he saw her down the deck once or twice, Hampton had no further speech with Nelly Barnes all day; at the same time, he began to realize that the gossip must be hard for her to bear, since it filled all the ship and was swift to create dissension. His brother officers and many of the Beverly men who knew him, were warm to back his love-match; but the older men among the gold seekers, all of them hard-headed New Englanders of some position and means, were as swift to back up harsh Jed Barnes.
Thus stood matters when, next morning, Hampton found the warm sunlight, a steady wind, and a running sea aiding the Hannah on her passage. All hands were about, high good spirits were in evidence, and the morning opened briskly to popping of rifles as the younger men opened fire on porpoises or shot at marks. After breakfast, however, the skylarking was halted and the company officers assembled the gold-seekers on the maindeck for prayers and divine service. Then, after calling the roll, a meeting of the officers within ten minutes was announced, to be held in the main cabin, and the decks were once more flooded with laughing, eager men who indulged in sports and feats of strength amid the new banging of rifles and drift of powder reek down the wind.
Hampton, off duty and enjoying a pipe near the scuttle butt, was looking on when he heard his name and turned. Approaching him was the trim and dandified secretary of the company, Adam Johnson, with Nelly Barnes on his arm.
“Er—ahem, sir! Morning to you,” said Johnson affably. “I was asked to tell you, Mr. Hampton, that Mr. Barnes would like the pleasure of your company for a few moments. He is in his cabin below—Number Three of the after cabins, sir. A fine day, eh?”
“Very,” said Hampton, and found Nelly's hand in his for a moment. Then he realized what had just been said, and looked at Johnson with a slight hardening of his eyes. “What's that? Jed Barnes wants to see me? Then let him come——”
The pleading look of the girl checked his words, and Adam Johnson chuckled.
“Upon my word, sir, I think you'd do well to obey the summons! We must all be friends aboard; it won't do to reach the gold fields with dissension in our midst. United we stand, divided we fall—an excellent axiom for our company, sir! I may drop the word in your ear that I've had a talk with Mr. Barnes, and I think you'd find it to your interest to see him.”
“Indeed, Dick, Mr. Johnson is a very good friend! If you'll only be a little patient with father——”
Hampton laughed, and clapped the spruce Johnson on the shoulder.
“My compliments to you, sir, and thanks! Indeed, I'll go to the slaughter as patience personified, I assure you! Quite right, Nelly; I'd do more than this for one smile from you, and you may depend on it I'll meet your father half-way in the effort to get along peaceably.”
With her smile to reward him, Dick Hampton started aft. He was both astonished and highly gratified by this occurrence; Adam Johnson he knew for an honest, forthright man and a good friend. How Jed Barnes had been prevailed upon was a mystery, but no doubt several of the gold company had argued him into some appearance of decency.
“For Nelly's sake I'll do more than my part,” resolved Hampton, as he came to the ladder and started below. “Perhaps the old curmudgeon has been made to see reason after all, though I doubt it. He'll probably make certain terms with me—no doubt has been forced into it for the sake of general harmony aboard.”
Glancing into the main cabin, where old Eliphalat Nickerson and one or two other officers were stuffing their pipes in readiness for the meeting, he turned into the passage and paused at the door of number three cabin, ordinarily occupied by the third mate. He knocked, but had no response. He knocked again, more loudly, since all the stern timbers were creaking and groaning, and feet were pounding the deck overhead, but still there was no answer. With that, he tried the door, found it unlocked, and stepped into the little cabin.
For a moment he was absolutely paralyzed with horror at the sight which greeted him.
Jed Barnes, clothing in wild disarray, lay on the floor beside the bunk, feebly gripping the blankets and trying to pull himself up. From his torn shirt erupted a slowly welling stream of blood, and the haft of a knife stood out from his breast. He had been stabbed, not once but several times, and the agony of death was in his wrinkled face. A sobbing cry burst from him.
“Help! Help, ye rascal——”
Hampton sprang forward, leaned to help him—and Barnes died in his arms, murdered.