THE ENGINE stopped; and, climbing the steps to look forward, Denman saw the bridge deserted, and the whole ten surrounding an equal number of strong boxes, stamped and burned with official-looking letters and numbers. Farther along were the provision; and a peep astern showed Denman the drifting boats.
The big Gigantia had disappeared in the haze that hid the whole horizon; but up in the western sky was a portent—a black silhouette of irregular out-line, that grew larger as he looked.
It was a monoplane—an advance scout of a scout boat—and Denman recognized the government model. It seemed to have sighted the destroyer, for it came straight on with a rush, circled overhead, and turned back.
There was no signal made; and, as it dwindled away in the west, Denman’s attention was attracted to the men surrounding the boxes; only Munson was still watching the receding monoplane. But the rest were busy. With hammers and cold chisels from the engine room they were opening the boxes of treasure.
“Did any one see that fellow before?” demanded Munson, pointing to the spot in the sky.
A few looked, and the others answered with oaths and commands: “Forget it! Open the boxes! Let’s have a look at the stuff!”
But Munson spoke again. “Forsythe, how about the big fellow’s wireless? We didn’t disable it. He has sent the news already. What do you think?”
“Oh, shut up!” answered Forsythe, irately. “I didn’t think of it. Neither did any one. What of it? Nothing afloat can catch us. Open the box. Let’s have a look, and we’ll beat it for Africa.”
“I tell you,” vociferated Munson, “that you’d better start now—at full speed, too. That’s a scout, and the mother boat isn’t far away.”
“Will you shut up, or will I shut you up?” shouted Forsythe.
“You’ll not shut me up,” retorted Munson. “You’re the biggest fool in this bunch, in spite of your bluff. Why don’t you go ahead and get out o’ this neighborhood?”
A box cover yielded at this juncture, and Forsythe did not immediately answer. Instead, with Munson himself, and Billings the cook—insanely emitting whoops and yelps as he danced around for a peep—he joined the others in tearing out excelsior from the box. Then the bare contents came to view.
“Lead!” howled Riley, as he stood erect, heaving a few men back with his shoulders. “Lead it is, if I know wan metal from another.”
“Open them all,” roared Forsythe. “Get the axes—pinch bars—anything.”
“Start your engine!” yelled Munson; but he was not listened to.
With every implement that they could lay their hands on they attacked the remaining boxes; and, as each in turn disclosed its contents, there went up howls of disappointment and rage. “Lead!” they shouted at last. “All lead! Was this job put up for us?”
“No,” yelled Munson, “not for us. Every steamer carrying bullion also carries lead in the same kind of boxes. I’ve read of it many a time. It’s a safeguard against piracy. We’ve been fooled—that’s all.”
Forsythe answered profanely and as coherently as his rage and excitement would permit.
Munson replied by holding his fist under Forsythe’s nose.
“Get up on the bridge,” he said. “And you, Riley, to your engines.”
Riley obeyed the call of the exigency; but Forsythe resisted. He struck Munson’s fist away, but received it immediately full in the face. Staggering back, he pulled his revolver; and, before Munson could meet this new antagonism, he aimed and fired. Munson lurched headlong, and lay still.
Then an uproar began. The others charged on Forsythe, who retreated, with his weapon at arm’s length. He held them off until, at his command, all but one had placed his pistol back in the scabbard. The dilatory one was old Kelly; and him Forsythe shot through the heart. Then the pistols were redrawn, and the shooting became general.
How Forsythe, single-handed against the eight remaining men, won in that gun fight can only be explained by the fact that the eight were too wildly excited to aim, or leave each other free to attempt aiming; while Forsythe, a single target, only needed to shoot at the compact body of men to make a hit.
It ended soon with Hawkes, Davis, and Daniels writhing on the deck, and Forsythe hiding, uninjured, behind the forward funnel; while Riley, King, and Dwyer, the three engineers, were retreating into their engine room.
“Now, if you’ve had enough,” shouted Forsythe, “start the engine when I give you the bells.” Then he mounted to the bridge and took the wheel.
But, though the starting of the engines at full speed indicated that the engineers had had enough, there was one man left who had not. It was Billings, who danced around the dead and the wounded, shrieking and laughing with the emotions of his disordered brain. But he did not fire on Forsythe, and seemed to have forgotten the animus of the recent friction.
He drifted aft, muttering to himself, until suddenly he stopped, and fixed his eyes on Denman, who, with gritting teeth, had watched the deadly fracas at the companion.
“I told you so. I told you so,” rang out the crazed voice of Billings. “A woman aboard ship—a woman aboard ship. Always makes trouble. There, take it!”
He pulled his revolver and fired; and Denman, stupefied with the unexpected horror of it all, did not know that Florrie had crept up beside him in the companion until he heard her scream in conjunction with the whiz of the bullet through her hair. Then Denman awoke.
After assuring himself of the girl’s safety, and pushing her down the companion, he drew his revolver; and, taking careful aim, executed Billings with the cold calmness of a hangman.
A bullet, nearly coincident with the report of a pistol, came from the bridge; and there was Forsythe, with one hand on the wheel, facing aft and taking second aim at him.
Denman accepted the challenge, and stepped boldly out of the companion. They emptied their revolvers, but neither did damage; and, as Forsythe reloaded, Denman cast a momentary glance at a black spot in the southern sky.
Hurriedly sweeping the upper horizon, he saw still another to the east; while out of the haze in the northwest was emerging a scout cruiser; no doubt the “mother” of the first monoplane. She was but two miles away, and soon began spitting shot and shell, which plowed up the water perilously near.
“You’re caught, Forsythe,” called out Denman, pointing to the south and east. “Will you surrender before we’re sunk or killed?”
Forsythe’s answer was another shot.
“Florrie,” called Denman down the companion, “hand me your gun and pass up the tablecloth; then get down that hatch out of the way. We’re being fired at.”
She obeyed him; and, with Forsythe’s bullets whistling around his head, he hoisted the flag of truce and surrender to the flagstaff. But just a moment too late. A shell entered the boat amidships and exploded in her vitals, sending up through the engine-room hatch a cloud of smoke and white steam, while fragments of the shell punctured the deck from below. But there were no cries of pain or calls for help from the three men in the engine room.
Forsythe left the bridge. Breathing vengeance and raging like a madman, he rushed aft.
“I’ll see you go first!” he shrieked. He fired again and again as he came; then, realizing that he had but one bullet left in his pistol, he halted at the galley hatch, took careful aim, and pulled the trigger for the last time.
There are tricks of the fighting trade taught to naval officers that are not included in the curriculum at Annapolis. Denman, his loaded revolver hanging in his right hand at his side, had waited for this final shot. Like a duelist he watched, not his opponent’s hand, but his eye; and, the moment that eye gave him the unconcealable signal to the trigger finger, he ducked his head, and the bullet sped above.
“Now, Forsythe,” he said, as he covered the chagrined marksman, “you should have aimed lower and to the right—but that’s all past now. This boat is practically captured, and I’m not going to kill you; for, even though it would not be murder, there is no excuse in my conscience for it. Whether the boat sinks or not, we will be taken off in time, for that fellow over yonder is coming, and has ceased firing. But before you are out of my hands I want to settle an old score with you—one dating from our boyhood, which you’ll perhaps remember. Toss that gun forward and step aft a bit.”
Forsythe, his face working convulsively, obeyed him.
“Florrie!” called Denman down the hatch. “Come up now. We’re all right.”
She came, white in the face, and stood beside him.
“Off with your coat, Forsythe, and stand up to me. We’ll finish that old fight. Here, girl, hold this gun.”
Florrie took the pistol, and the two men discarded their jackets and faced each other.
There is hardly need of describing in detail the fist fight that followed. It was like all such, where one man is slightly the superior of the other in skill, strength, and agility.
In this case that one was Denman; and, though again and again he felt the weight of Forsythe’s fist, and reeled to the deck occasionally, he gradually tired out his heavier, though weaker, adversary; and at last, with the whole weight of his body behind it, dealt a crashing blow on Forsythe’s chin.
Denman’s old-time foe staggered backward and fell face upward. He rolled his head to the right and to the left a few times, then sank into unconsciousness.
Denman looked down on him, waiting for a movement, but none came. Forsythe had been knocked out, and for the last time. Florrie’s scream aroused Denman.
“Is the boat sinking, Billie?”
He looked, and sprang for a life-buoy, which he slipped over Florrie’s head. The bow of the boat was flush with the water, which was lapping at the now quiet bodies of the dead and wounded men forward. He secured another life-buoy for himself; and, as he donned the cork ring, a hail came from abeam.
“Jump!” it said. “Jump, or you’ll be carried down with the wash.”
The big scout ship was but a few lengths away, and a boat full of armed men was approaching.
Hand in hand they leaped into the sea; and Denman, towing the girl by the becket of her life-buoy, paid no attention to the sinking hull until satisfied that they were safe from the suction.
When he looked, the bow was under water, the stern rising in the air, higher and higher, until a third of the after body was exposed; then it slid silently, but for the bursting of huge air bubbles, out of sight in the depths.
About a year later, Lieutenant Denman received a letter with a Paris postmark, which he opened in the presence of his wife. In it was a draft on a Boston bank, made out to his order.
“Good!” he exclaimed, as he glanced down the letter. “Listen, Florrie, here’s something that pleases me as much as my exoneration by the Board of Inquiry.” Then he read to her the letter:
“DEAR SIR: Inasmuch as you threw two life-buoys over for us you may be glad, even at this late period, to know that we got them. The fight stopped when we hit the water, and since then Sampson and myself have been chums. I saw both buoys thrown and held Sampson up while I swam with him to the first; then, from the top of a sea, I saw the other, and, getting it, returned to him. We were picked up by a fisherman next day, but you will not mind, sir, if I do not tell you where we landed, or how we got here, or where we’ll be when this letter reaches you. We will not be here, and never again in the United States. Yet we want to thank you for giving us a chance for our lives.
“We read in the Paris Herald of your hearing before the Board of Inquiry, and the story you told of the mess Forsythe made of things, and the final sinking of the boat. Of course we were sorry for them, for they were our mates; but they ought not to have gone back on Casey, even though they saw fit to leave Sampson and me behind. And, thinking this way, we are glad that you licked Forsythe, even at the last minute.
“We inclose a draft for five hundred and fifty dollars, which we would like you to cash, and pay the captain, whose name we do not know, the money we took from his desk. We hope that what is left will square up for the clothes and money we took from your room. You see, as we did not give Casey but a little of the money, and it came in mighty handy for us two when we got ashore, it seems that we are obligated to return it. I will only say, to conclude, that we got it honestly.
“Sampson joins with me in our best respects to Miss Fleming and yourself.
“Oh, I’m glad, Billie!” she exclaimed. “They are honest men, after all.”
“Honest men?” repeated Denman, quizzically. “Yet they stole a fine destroyer from Uncle Sam!”
“I don’t care,” she said, stoutly. “I’m glad they were saved. And, Billie boy”—her hands were on his shoulders—“if they hadn’t stolen that fine destroyer, I wouldn’t be here to-day looking into your eyes.”
And Billie, gathering her into his arms, let it go at that.