HE SLEPT soundly, and as he slept the wind blew up from the east, driving the mosquitoes to cover and bringing with it a damp, impenetrable fog that sank down over the navy yard and hid sentry from sentry, compelling them to count their steps as they paced.
They were scattered through the yard, at various important points, one at the gangway of each ship at the docks, others at corners and entrances to the different walks that traversed the green lawn, and others under the walls of the huge naval prison.
One of these, whose walk extended from corner to corner, heard something, and paused often to listen intently, his eyes peering around into the fog. But the sound was not repeated while he listened—only as his footfalls sounded soggily on the damp path were they punctuated by this still, small sound, that he could not localize or remember.
If asked, he might have likened it to the rustling of paper, or the sound of a cat’s claws digging into a carpet.
But at last it ceased, and he went back and forth many times without hearing it; then, when about half-way from corner to corner, a heavy body came down from above, landing on his head and shoulders and bearing him to earth, while his rifle was knocked from his hand and big fingers clutched his throat.
He struggled and endeavored to call out. But the grip on his throat was too strong, and finally he quieted, his last flicker of consciousness cognizing other dropping bodies and the muttered and whispered words of men.
So much for this sentry.
“I know the way,” whispered the garroter, and a few gathered around him. “We’ll make a bee line for the dock and avoid ’em. Then, if we can’t find a boat, we’ll swim for it. It’s the only way.”
“Right,” whispered another; “fall in here, behind Jenkins—all of you.”
The whispered word was passed along, and in single file the dark-brown bodies, each marked on knee and elbow with a white number, followed the leader, Jenkins. He led them across the green, around corners where sentries were not, and down to the dock where lay the destroyer.
Here was a sentry, pacing up and down; but so still was their approach that he did not see them until they were right upon him.
“Who goes—” he started, but the challenge was caught in his throat. He, too, was choked until consciousness almost left him; then the stricture was relaxed while they questioned him.
“Got a boat around here?” hissed Jenkins in his ear. “Whisper—don’t speak.”
“No,” gasped the sentry, unable to speak louder had he dared.
“How many men are aboard the destroyer?” was asked.
“None now. Crew joins in the morning.”
“Nobody on board, you say? Lie quiet. If you raise a row, I’ll drop you overboard. Come here, you fellows.”
They closed about him, thirteen in all, and listened to his project. He was a pilot of the bay. How many machinists were there in the party? Four claimed the rating.
“Right enough,” said Jenkins. “We’ll run her out. She’s oil fuel, as I understand. You can fire up in ten minutes, can’t you? Good. Come on. Wait, though.”
Jenkins, with his grip of steel, was equal to the task of tearing a strip from his brown prison jacket, and with this he securely gagged the poor sentry. Another strip from another jacket bound his hands behind him, and still another secured him to a mooring cleat, face upward. This done, they silently filed aboard, and spread about through the interior. The sentry had spoken truly, they agreed, when they mustered together. There was no one on board, and the machinists reported plenty of oil fuel.
Soon the fires were lighted, and the indicator began to move, as the boilers made steam. They did not wait for full pressure. Jenkins had spread out a chart in the pilot-house, and when the engines could turn over he gave the word. Lines were taken in except a spring to back on; then this was cast off, and the long, slim hull moved almost silently away from the dock.
Jenkins steered by the light of a match held over the compass until there was steam enough to turn the dynamos, then the electrics were turned on in the pilot-house, engine room, and side-light boxes—by which time the dock was out of sight in the fog, and they dared speak in articulate words. Their language was profane but joyous, and their congratulations hearty and sincere.
A table knife is an innocent and innocuous weapon, but two table knives are not, for one can be used against the other so skillfully as to form a fairly good hack saw, with which prison bars may be sawed. The sawing of steel bars was the sound that the sentry had heard mingling with his footfalls.
Jenkins, at the wheel, called to the crowd. “Take the wheel, one of you,” he ordered. “I’ve just rounded the corner. Keep her sou’east, half south for a mile. I’ll be here, then. I want to rig the log over the stern.”
The man answered, and Jenkins departed with the boat’s patent log. Down in the engine and boiler rooms were the four machinists—engineers, they would be called in merchant steamers—and under their efforts the engines turned faster, while a growing bow wave spread from each side of the sharp stem.
The fog was still thick, so thick that the fan-shaped beams from the side lights could not pierce it as far as the bow, and the forward funnel was barely visible—a magnified black stump.
Jenkins was back among them soon, remarking that she was making twenty knots already. Then he slowed down, ordered the lead hove, each side, and ringing full speed, quietly took the wheel, changing the course again to east, quarter north, and ordering a man aloft to keep a lookout in the thinner fog for lights ahead.
In a few minutes the man reported—a fixed white light four points off the starboard bow, and a little later a fixed white-and-red flashlight two points off the port bow.
“Good,” grunted Jenkins. “I know just where I am. Come down from aloft,” he called, “and watch out for buoys. I’m going out the South and Hypocrite Channels.”
Then a dull boom rang out from astern, followed by another and another, and Jenkins laughed.
“They’ve found that sentry,” he said, “and have telephoned Fort Independence; but it’s no good. They’ve only got salute guns. We passed that fort twenty minutes ago.”
“Any others?” they asked.
“Fort Warren, down on the Narrows. That’s why I’m going out through the Hypocrite. Keep your eyes peeled for buoys, you ginks, and keep those leads going.”
Calm and imperturbable, a huge, square-faced giant of a man, Jenkins naturally assumed the leadership of this band of jail-breakers. The light from the binnacle illuminated a countenance of rugged yet symmetrical features, stamped with prison pallor, but also stamped with a stronger imprint of refinement. A man palpably out of place, no doubt. A square peg in a round hole; a man with every natural attribute of a master of men. Some act of rage or passion, perhaps, some non-adjustment to an unjust environment, had sent him to the naval prison, to escape and become a pirate; for that was the legal status of all.
Soon the wind shifted and the fog cleared to seaward, but still held its impenetrable wall between them and the town. Then they turned on both searchlights, and saw buoys ahead, to starboard and port.
Jenkins boasted a little. “I’ve run these channels for years,” he said, “and I know them as I know the old backyard at home. Hello, what’s up?”
A man had run to the pilot-house door in great excitement.
“An officer aboard,” he whispered. “I was down looking for grub, and saw him. He’s been asleep.”
“Take the wheel,” said Jenkins, calmly. “Keep her as she goes, and leave that black buoy to starboard.” Then he stepped out on deck.