THE BOAT was now charging due east at full speed, out into the broad Atlantic, and, as the full light of the day spread over the sea, a few specks and trails of smoke astern showed themselves; but whether or not they were pursuing craft that had crept close in the darkness while they were making steam could not be determined; for they soon sank beneath the horizon.
Assured of immediate safety, Jenkins now stationed his crew. Forsythe was a seaman; he and Hawkes, Davis, and Kelly, the gunner’s mate, would comprise the deck force. Riley, Sampson, King, and Dwyer, all machinists, would attend to the engine and boilers. Casey and Munson, the two wireless operators, would attend to their department, while Daniels and Billings, the cook and steward, would cook and serve the meals.
There would be no officers, Jenkins declared. All were to stand watch, and work faithfully and amicably for the common good; and all disputes were to be referred to him. To this they agreed, for, though many there were of higher comparative rating in the navy, Jenkins had a strong voice, a dominating personality, and a heavy fist.
But Jenkins had his limitations, as came out during the confab. He could not navigate; he had been an expert pilot of Boston Bay before joining the navy, but in the open sea he was as helpless as any.
“However,” he said, in extenuation, “we only need to sail about southeast to reach the African coast, and when we hit it we’ll know it.” So the course was changed, and soon they sat down to their breakfast; such a meal as they had not tasted in years—wardroom “grub,” every mouthful.
Denman was invited, and, as he was a prisoner on parole, was not too dignified to accept, though he took no part in the hilarious conversation. But neither did Forsythe.
Denman went to his room, locked up his private papers, and surrendered his revolver to Jenkins, who declined it; he then put it with his papers and returned to the deck, seating himself in a deck chair on the quarter. The watch below had gone down, and those on deck, under Jenkins, who stood no watch, busied themselves in the necessary cleaning up of decks and stowing below of the fenders the boat had worn at the dock.
Forsythe had gone below, and Denman was somewhat glad in his heart to be free of him until he had settled his mind in regard to his attitude toward him.
Manifestly he, a prisoner on parole, could not seek a conflict with him. On the contrary, should Forsythe seek it, by word or deed, he could not meet him without breaking his parole, which would bring him close confinement.
Then, too, that prospective fight and vindication before Miss Florrie and his townsmen seemed of very small importance compared with the exigency at hand—the stealing by jail-breakers of the navy’s best destroyer and one of its officers.
His duty was to circumvent those fellows, and return the boat to the government. To accomplish this he must be tactful and diplomatic, deferring action until the time should come when he could safely ask to be released from parole; and with regard to this he was glad that Forsythe, though as evil-eyed as before, and with an additional truculent expression of the face, had thus far shown him no incivility. He was glad, too, because in his heart there were no revengeful thoughts about Forsythe—nothing but thoughts of a duty to himself that had been sadly neglected.
Thus tranquilized, he lit a cigar and looked around the horizon.
A speck to the north caught his eye, and as he watched, it became a spot, then a tangible silhouette—a battle-ship, though of what country he could not determine.
It was heading on a course that would intercept their own, and in a short time, at the speed they were making, the destroyer would be within range of her heavy guns, one shell from which could break the frail craft in two.
Jenkins and his crowd were busy, the man at the wheel was steering by compass and looking ahead, and it was the wireless operator on watch—Casey—who rushed on deck, looked at the battle-ship, and shouted to Jenkins.
“Don’t you see that fellow?” he yelled, excitedly. “I heard him before I saw him. He asked: ‘What ship is that?’”
Jenkins looked to the north, just in time to see a tongue of red dart from a casemate port; then, as the bark of the gun came down the wind, a spurt of water lifted from the sea about a hundred yards ahead.
“Port your wheel—hard over,” yelled Jenkins, running forward. The destroyer swung to the southward, showing her stern to the battle-ship, and increasing her speed as the engine-room staff nursed the oil feed and the turbines. Black smoke—unconsumed carbon that even the blowers could not ignite—belched up from the four short funnels, and partly hid her from the battle-ship’s view.
But, obscure though she was, she could not quite hide herself in her smoke nor could her speed carry her faster than the twelve-inch shells that now came plowing through the air. They fell close, to starboard and to port, and a few came perilously near to the stern; but none hit or exploded, and soon they were out of range and the firing ceased, the battle-ship heading to the west.
Jenkins came aft, and looked sternly at Denman, still smoking his cigar.
“Did you see that fellow before we did?” he asked.
“I did,” answered Denman, returning his stare.
“Why didn’t you sing out? If we’re sunk, you drown, too, don’t you?”
“You forget, Captain Jenkins, that I accepted my parole on condition that I should neither interfere with you nor assist you.”
“But your life—don’t you value that?”
“Not under some conditions. If I cannot emerge from this adventure with credit and honor intact, I prefer death. Do you understand?”
Jenkins’ face worked visibly, as anger left it and wondering doubt appeared. Then his countenance cleared, and he smiled.
“You’re right, sir. I understand now. But you know what we mean to do, don’t you? Make the African coast and scatter. You can stand for that, can’t you?”
“Not unless I have to. But you will not reach the coast. You will be hunted down and caught before then.”
Jenkins’ face clouded again. “And what part will you play if that comes?” he asked.
“No part, active or resistant, unless first released from parole. But if I ask for that release, it will be at a time when I am in greater danger than now, I promise you that.”
“Very well, sir. Ask for it when you like.” And Jenkins went forward.
The course to the southeast was resumed, but in half an hour two other specks on the southern horizon resolved into scout cruisers heading their way, and they turned to the east, still rushing at full speed.
They soon dropped the scouts, however, but were again driven to the north by a second battle-ship that shelled their vicinity for an hour before they got out of range.
It was somewhat discouraging; but, as darkness closed down, they once more headed their course, and all night they charged along at forty knots, with lights extinguished, but with every man’s eyes searching the darkened horizon for other lights. They dodged a few, but daylight brought to view three cruisers ahead and to port that showed unmistakable hostility in the shape of screaming shells and solid shot.
Again they charged to the north, and it was mid-day before the cruisers were dropped. They were French, as all knew by their build.
Though there was no one navigating the boat, Denman, in view of future need of it, took upon himself the winding of the chronometers; and the days went on, Casey and Munson reporting messages sent from shore to ship; battle-ships, cruisers, scouts, and destroyers appearing and disappearing, and their craft racing around the Atlantic like a hunted fox.
Jenkins did his best to keep track of the various courses; but, not skilled at “traverse,” grew bewildered at last, and frankly intimated that he did not know where they were.