FORSYTHE and Daniels ran forward, while Billings, the cook off watch, followed from the galley hatch, and Casey came up from the wireless room. Each asked questions, but nobody answered at once. There were eight bound men lying upon the deck, and these must first be released, which was soon done.
Denman, lying prone with a small pool of blood near his head, was next examined, and pronounced alive—he was breathing, but dazed and shocked; for a large-caliber bullet glancing upon the skull has somewhat the same effect as the blow of a cudgel. He opened his eyes as the men examined them, and dimly heard what they said.
“Now,” said Forsythe, when these preliminaries were concluded, “here we are, miles at sea, with short store of oil, according to Riley, and a short store of grub, according to Daniels. What’s to be done? Hey? The man who has bossed us so far hasn’t seen this, and is now down in the wardroom—knocked out by this brass-buttoned dudeling. What are you going to do, hey?”
Forsythe flourished his pistols dramatically, and glared unspeakable things at the “dudeling” on the deck.
“Well, Forsythe,” said old Kelly, the gunner’s mate, “you’ve pretended to be a navigator. What do you say?”
“I say this,” declared Forsythe: “I’m not a navigator, but I can be. But I want it understood. There has got to be a leader—a commander. If you fellows agree, I’ll master the navigation and take this boat to the African coast. But I want no half-way work; I want my orders to go, just as I give them. Do you agree? You’ve gone wrong under Jenkins. Take your choice.”
“You’re right, Forsythe,” said Casey, the wireless man of the starboard watch. “Jenkins is too easy—too careless. Take the job, I say.”
“Do you all agree?” yelled Forsythe wildly in his excitement.
“Yes, yes,” they acclaimed. “Take charge, and get us out o’ these seas. Who wants to be locked up?”
“All right,” said Forsythe. “Then I’m the commander. Lift that baby down to the skipper’s room with the sick woman, and let them nurse each other. Lift Jenkins out of the wardroom, and stow him in a forecastle bunk. Riley, nurse your engines and save oil, but keep the dynamo going for the wireless; and you, Casey, have you got that message cooked up?”
“I have. All I want is the latitude and longitude to send it from.”
“I’ll give it to you soon. Get busy, now, and do your share. I must study a little.”
The meeting adjourned. Denman, still dazed and with a splitting headache, was assisted aft and below to the spare berth in the captain’s quarters, where he sank into unconsciousness with the moaning of the stricken woman in his ears.
Casey went down to his partner and his instruments; Riley and King, with their confrères of the other watch, went down to the engines to “nurse them”; and Forsythe, after Jenkins had been lifted out of the wardroom and forward to a forecastle bunk, searched the bookshelves and the desks of the officers, and, finding what he wanted, went forward to study.
He was apt; he was a high-school graduate who only needed to apply himself to produce results. And Forsythe produced them. As he had promised, he took a meridian observation that day, and in half an hour announced the latitude—thirty-five degrees forty minutes north.
“Now, Casey,” he called, after he had looked at a track chart. “Got your fake message ready?”
“Only this,” answered Casey, scanning a piece of paper. “Listen:
“Stolen destroyer bound north. Latitude so and so, longitude so and so.”
“That’ll do, or anything like it. Send it from latitude forty north, fifty-five west. That’s up close to the corner of the Lanes, and if it’s caught up it’ll keep ’em busy up there for a while.”
“What’s our longitude?”
“Don’t know, and won’t until I learn the method. But just north of us is the west-to-east track of outbound low-power steamers, which, I take it, means tramps and tankers. Well, we’ll have good use for a tanker.”
“You mean we’re to hold up one for oil?”
“Of course, and for grub if we need it.”
“Have pirates got anything on us, now?” asked Forsythe. “What are we? Mutineers, convicts, strong-arm men, thieves—or just simply pirates. Off the deck with you, Casey, and keep your wires hot. Forty north, forty-five west for a while, then we’ll have it farther north.”
Casey jotted down the figures, and departed to the wireless room, where, at intervals through the day he sent out into the ether the radiating waves, which, if picked up within fifty miles by a craft beyond the horizon, might be relayed on.
The success of the scheme could not be learned by any tangible signs, but for the next few days, while the boat lay with quiet engines and Forsythe studied navigation, they remarked that they were not pursued or noticed by passing craft.
And as the boat, with dead engines, rolled lazily in the long Atlantic swell, while the men—all but Forsythe, the two cooks, and the two wireless experts—lolled lazily about the deck, the three invalids of the ship’s company were convalescing in different degrees.
Jenkins, dumb and wheezy, lay prone in a forecastle bunk, trying to wonder how it happened. His mental faculties, though apprising him that he was alive, would hardly carry him to the point of wonder; for wonder predicates imagination, and what little Jenkins was born with had been shocked out of him.
Still he struggled, and puzzled and guessed, weakly, as to what had happened to him, and when a committee from the loungers above visited him, and asked what struck him, he could only point suggestively to his throat, and wag his head. He could not even whisper; and so they left him, pondering upon the profanely expressed opinion of old Kelly that it was a “visitation from God.”
The committee went aft to the skipper’s quarters, and here loud talk and profanity ceased; for there was a woman below, and, while these fellows were not gentlemen—as the term is understood—they were men—bad men, but men.
On the way down the stairs, Kelly struck, bare-handed, his watch mate Hawkes for expressing an interest in the good looks of the woman; and Sampson, a giant, like his namesake, smote old Kelly, hip and thigh, for qualifying his strictures on the comment of Hawkes.
Thus corrected and enjoined, with caps in hand, they approached the open door of the starboard room, where lay the injured woman in a berth, fully clothed in her now dried garments, and her face still hidden in Denman’s bandage.
“Excuse me, madam,” said Sampson, the present chairman of the committee, “can we do anything for you?”
“I cannot see you,” she answered, faintly. “I do not know where I am, nor what will happen to me. But I am in need of attention. One man was kind to me, but he has not returned. Who are you—you men?”
“We’re the crew of the boat,” answered Sampson, awkwardly. “The skipper’s forward, and I guess the man that was kind to you is our prisoner. He’s not on the job now, but—what can we do?”
“Tell me where I am, and where I am going. What boat is this? Who are you?”
“Well, madam,” broke in old Kelly, “we’re a crowd o’ jail-breakers that stole a torpedo-boat destroyer, and put to sea. We got you off a burned and sinking yacht, and you’re here with us; but I’m blessed if I know what we’ll do with you. Our necks are in the halter, so to speak—or rather, our hands and ankles are in irons for life, if we’re caught. You’ve got to make the best of it until we get caught, and if we don’t, you’ve got to make the best of it, too. Lots o’ young men among us, and you’re no spring chicken, by the looks o’ you.”
Old Kelly went down before a fist blow from Hawkes, who thus strove to rehabilitate himself in the good opinion of his mates, and Hawkes went backward from a blow from Sampson, who, as yet unsullied from unworthy thought, held his position as peacemaker and moralist. And while they were recovering from the excitement, Denman, with blood on his face from the wound in his scalp, appeared among them.
“Are you fellows utterly devoid of manhood and self-respect,” he said, sternly, “that you appear before the door of a sickroom and bait a woman who cannot defend herself even by speech? Shame upon you! You have crippled me, but I am recovering. If you cannot aid this woman, leave her to me. She is burned, scalded, disfigured—she hardly knows her name, or where she came from. You have saved her from the wreck, and have since neglected her. Men, you are jailbirds as you say, but you are American seamen. If you cannot help her, leave her. Do not insult her. I am helpless; if I had power I would decree further relief from the medicine-chest. But I am a prisoner—restricted.”
Sampson squared his big shoulders. “On deck with you fellows—all of you. Git—quick!”
They filed up the companion, leaving Sampson looking at Denman.
“Lieutenant,” he said, “you take care o’ this poor woman, and if any one interferes, notify me. I’m as big a man as Jenkins, who’s knocked out, and a bigger man than Forsythe, who’s now in command. But we’re fair—understand? We’re fair—the most of us.”
“Yes, yes,” answered Denman, as he staggered back to a transom seat.
“Want anything yourself?” asked Sampson, as he noted the supine figure of Denman. “You’re still Lieutenant Denman, of the navy—understand?”
“No, I do not. Leave me alone.”
Sampson followed his mates.
Denman sat a few moments, nursing his aching head and trying to adjust himself to conditions. And as he sat there, he felt a hand on his shoulder and heard a weak voice saying:
“Are you Lieutenant Denman—Billie Denman?”
He looked up. The bandaged face of the woman was above him. Out of the folds of the bandage looked two serious, gray eyes; and he knew them.
“Florrie!” he said, in a choke. “Is this you—grown up? Florrie Fleming! How—why—what brings you here?”
“I started on the trip, Billie,” she said, calmly, “with father on a friend’s yacht bound for the Bermudas. We caught fire, and I was the only one saved, it seems; but how are you here, subordinate to these men? And you are injured, Billie—you are bleeding! What has happened?”
“The finger of Fate, Florrie, or the act of God,” answered Denman, with a painful smile. “We must have the conceit taken out of us on occasions, you know. Forsythe, my schoolmate, is in command of this crowd of jail-breakers and pirates.”
“Forsythe—your conqueror?” She receded a step. “I had—Do you know, Mr. Denman, that you were my hero when I was a child, and that I never forgave Jack Forsythe? I had hoped to hear—”
“Oh, I know,” he interrupted, hotly, while his head throbbed anew with the surge of emotion. “I know what you and the whole town expected. But—well, I knocked him down on deck a short time back, and the knockdown stands; but they would not allow a finish. Then he shot me when I was not looking.”
“I am glad,” she answered, simply, “for your sake, and perhaps for my own, for I, too, it seems, am in his power.”
He answered her as he could, incoherently and meaninglessly, but she went to her room and closed the door.