The Last Cruise of the Spitfire/Chapter 14
SOME PLAIN FACTS.
My story took some time to tell. Once Lowell came near us, but he only heard Mr. Ranson say that the schooner was making first-class headway, and taking no interest in this he walked away.
"You are sure of all this?" asked the lawyer, after I had finished my narrative.
"Yes, sir; every word of it."
"Because it is a serious charge," he continued. "In olden times they would have hung a man for such an offense, and they might do so even now if any lives were lost through the going down of the ship."
"I don't know how he intends to sink the Spitfire. I suppose he can set fire to her or else bore holes in the bottom."
"It is a most atrocious plot. I am glad he intends to do nothing until after he has left the Down East coast. Wherever he makes a landing, at New Bedford or otherwise, I can have him stopped. But the evidence must be strong against him. Otherwise we will get ourselves into great trouble."
This was a new idea. I thought for a moment.
"If you only had some one to testify to your story," went on Mr. Ranson. "Of course I believe you, but we want evidence for the court."
"Wouldn't the evidence of a bogus cargo be enough?" I asked suddenly.
"True, it would. I never thought of that. But are you sure the cargo is bogus?"
"I think it is. One thing I know: it is insured for considerably more than its value."
"What does it consist of?"
"I don't know. I think I could find out from Dibble."
"The sailor who helped to save me?"
"It would be a good plan. But he may suspect you if he is in the plot."
"I am satisfied Dibble has nothing to do with it," was my ready answer. "I was going to tell him what I have told you."
"Oh, well, then it is all right. And I don't know but that it would be better to have help in case Captain Hannock attempts to do anything before we land."
"Just what I thought."
"Where is this Dibble?"
"He has just gone below. I will call him."
"Don't do that; it might excite suspicion. These men are undoubtedly on the watch. Talk to him in the forecastle. I will wait here until you return."
I agreed; and left at once. I found the old sailor sitting on a chest, mending some clothing.
"Say, Dibble, what kind of a cargo have we on board?" I asked.
He looked at me rather curiously.
"What makes you ask that question?"
"Because I wanted to know."
"Well," he replied slowly, "we're supposed to have fine furniture and crockery ware on board; but it's so packed up I didn't see any of it."
"Did you help load?"
"Oh, no; the longshoremen did everything. Kind of queer, too, for Captain Hannock generally gets all the work out of his men that he can."
"Then you didn't see any of the furniture or the crockery?"
"No. But what difference does it make? We sail just as well as if we had lumber or steam engines on board."
"It makes a great difference. Let me tell you something."
And taking a seat close beside him, I whispered the story I had told to Mr. Hanson.
"Phew! Smash the anchor, but that's a great scheme!" he exclaimed. "I've heard of such things being done, but never thought the captain was such a great rascal!"
"We're going to stop the game. Do you know if we could get a look at any part of the cargo?"
Tony Dibble thought for a moment.
"Just the thing!" he cried. "Come with me."
He rose and led the way to the end of the forecastle. Here there was a small door leading to a pantry.
"There is a trap-door in that pantry," explained the old sailor. "The old man doesn't know of it. Some of the boys made it on the last trip, when we were carrying a lot of provisions, and the captain tried to cut down the rations. He saved one way but lost a good deal the other;" and the old sailor laughed at the memory of the affair.
It was an easy matter to raise the trap-door. The distance to the cargo stowed below was but a few feet, and I dropped down.
"Shall I go with you or stand guard?" asked Dibble.
"Better stand guard," I replied. "If any one comes get them out of the forecastle the best way you can. Have you a chisel or something like it?" "Here is one, and a wooden mallet, too." He brought the articles forward. "Be careful how you make a noise."
"I will," was my reply. "But I haven't any light."
"Here's a bit of candle. Be careful and don't set anything afire."
Dibble handed the candle to me, and then closed the trap.
By the feeble rays of the light I crawled backward for quite a distance. Finally I came to a large packing-case marked:
S. & Co. Crockery. B132. Handle with Care.
The top lid of the case was well nailed on. But after a quarter of an hour's work I succeeded in loosening one half of it, and pulled it off.
There was a quantity of straw next to the lid. I scraped it aside, and then took a look at what was below. The packing-case was filled with nothing but common stones.
I had expected something of the kind, so I was not greatly astonished when I beheld the bogus crockery that filled the packing-case. I picked up several of the stones to make sure that I was not mistaken, and then restored them to their place, put the straw over the top, and nailed on the cover.
At first I thought to leave the place at once. But so far I had not been disturbed,, and so I made up my mind to continue the investigation, since it was once begun.
I took up my candle, and was not long in hunting up another packing-case. This was marked Furniture. I took off some of the boards, and soon brought to light a quantity of pretty fair kindling wood!
As soon as I had made sure of what the packingcase contained. I restored the wood to its original place and then began to nail down the cover, as I had done on the crockery case. I had just driven one of the nails home when a slight noise disturbed me.
Without any hesitation I ceased my labors and blew out the light. I was none too soon, for an instant later I heard Lowell's voice.
"I was almost certain I heard some one down here!" he exclaimed, as he came forward.
"Maybe it was rats," suggested another voice, which it was easy to recognize as belonging to Captain Hannock.
"I don't think so. We have nothing to attract them this trip.
"If I find any of the men down here I'll flog them," was the captain's savage comment; and it was easy to see that he meant what he said.
"It would go rough with us if any of them should discover what we were carrying," went on Lowell. "Paving stones and kindling wood!"
"Hush! Some one might hear you!"
The two men came close to where I was crouching. Indeed Lowell's foot came within a few inches of my arm, and for an instant I did not see how I could avoid being discovered. Then they passed on.
"Must have been mistaken, Lowell," said the captain. "Guess you're getting nervous."
And he gave a low laugh.
"Better be too careful than not careful enough," returned the boatswain, slightly disturbed at the slur. "I don't want to get caught at this job."
"Neither do I."
"They can send us to prison for it."
"So they can—if they catch us. But I don't intend they shall."
The two men carried a lantern, and they swung it over their heads, casting the rays as far as possible about them.
I was in a direct line of light, and for a second the captain caught sight of the top of my head as I moved behind the case.
"Ha! what's that?" he cried. "There's something behind the box!"
"Where?" asked Lowell.
"There," and Captain Hannock pointed in my direction.
I gave myself up for lost, and wondered what I should do when discovered.
"What was it like?"
"I—I don't know."
"Let's look," said the boatswain, and he moved towards me.
In another moment they would be upon me. What was I to do?