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He approached me with a confidence that proclaimed the new leader. A brace of Colt's revolvers swung from his belt, the tatters of his blood-stained garments hung about him.
"Well, here we are," he remarked.
I nodded, waiting for what he had to disclose.
"And lucky for you that you're here at all, say I," he continued. "And now that you're here, w'at are you going to do? That's the question--w'at are you going to do?" He cocked his head sidewise and looked at me speculatively as a cat might look at a rather large mouse. "We been a little rough," he went on after a moment, "and some folks is strait-laced. There might be trouble. And you know a heap too much."
"What do you want of me?" I demanded.
"It's just this," he returned briskly. "If you'll lay us our course to San Salvador, we'll let you go as one of us and no questions asked."
"If not?" I inquired.
He shrugged his shoulders. "I leave it to you."
"There's always the sea," I suggested.
"And it's deep," he agreed.
We looked out to the horizon in a diplomatic silence. I did not know whether to be angry, amused, or alarmed that the man estimated my cleverness so slightly. Why, the hook was barely concealed, and the bait of the coarsest. That I would go safe to a sight of San Salvador I did not doubt: that I would never enter the harbour I was absolutely certain. The choice offered me was practically whether I preferred being thrown overboard now or several hundred miles to southeastward.
I thought rapidly. It might be possible to announce a daily false reckoning to the crew, to sail the ship within rowing distance of some coast; and then to escape while the men believed themselves many hundred miles at sea. It would take nice calculation to prevent suspicion, but as it was the only chance I resolved upon it immediately.
"That's all very well," I said firmly, "but you can't get anywhere without me, and I'm not going to put in two years and then keep my mouth shut for nothing. I want a share in the swag--an even share with the rest of you."
"Oh, that'll be all right," he cried; "you can have it."
If anything was needed to convince me of the man's sinister intentions, this too ready acquiescence would have been enough. I knew him too well. If he had had the slightest intention of permitting me to go free, he would have bargained.
The Nigger called us to mess. We ate in the after cabin. The chest was locked and the men had as yet been unable to break into it. Pulz professed some skill in locksmithing and promised to experiment later. After mess we went on deck again. The island had dropped down to the horizon and showed as a brilliant glow under a dark canopy. I leaned over the rail looking at it. Below me the extra dory bumped along. The idea came to me that if I could escape that night, I could row back to Percy Darrow. The two of us could make shift to live on fish and shellfish and mutton. The plan rapidly defined itself in my brain. From the remains of the Golden Horn we could construct some kind of a craft in which to run free to the summer trades. Thus we might in time reach some one or another of the Sandwich Islands, whence a passing trader could take us back to civilisation. There were many elements of uncertainty in the scheme, but it seemed to me less desperate than trusting to the caprices of these men, especially since they now had free access to the liquor stores.
While I leaned over the rail engrossed in these thoughts, one of the black thunder clouds that had been gathering and dissipating over the island during the entire afternoon suddenly glowed overhead with a strange white incandescence startlingly akin to Darrow's so-called "devil fires." Strangely enough, this illumination, unlike the volcanic glows, appeared to be cast on the clouds from without rather than shot through them from within, as were the other volcanic emanations. At the same instant I experienced a sharp interior revulsion of some sort, most briefly momentary, but of a character that shook me from head to toe.
I had no time to analyse these various impressions, however, for my attention was almost instantly distracted. From the cabin came the sound of a sharp fall, then a man cried out, and on the heels of it Pulz darted from the cabin, screaming horribly. We were all on deck, and as the little man rushed toward the stern Handy Solomon twisted him deftly from his feet.
"My God, mate, what is it?" he cried, as he pinned the sufferer to the deck.
But Pulz could not answer. He shivered, stiffened, and lay rigid, his eyes rolled back.
"Fits," remarked Thrackles impatiently.
The excitement died. Rum was forced between the victim's lips. After a little he recovered, but could tell us nothing of his seizure.
After the dishes had been swept aside from supper, Handy Solomon announced a second attempt to open the chest.
"Pancho, here, says he's been a mechanic," said he. "I right well know he's been a housebreaker. So he's got the sabe for the job, and you can kiss the Book on that."
Perdosa, with a grin, leaned over the cover from behind and began to pick away at the lock with a long, crooked wire. The others drew close about. I slipped nearer the door, imagining that in their riveted interest I saw my opportunity. To my surprise I caught a glimpse of legs disappearing up the companion. I took stock. Pulz had gone on deck.
This surprised me, for I should have thought every man interested enough in the supposed treasure to wish to be present at its uncovering; and it annoyed me still more--the success of my plan demanded a clear deck. However, there was nothing for it now but to trust that Pulz had wished to visit the forecastle, and that I might find the afterworks empty.
I paused at the foot of the companion and looked back. A breathlessness of excitement held the pirates in a vise. From above, the hanging lamp threw strong shadows across their faces, bringing out the deep lines, accentuating the dominant passions. With their rags and blood, their unshaven faces, their firearms, their filth, they showed in violent antithesis to the immaculate white of Old Scrubs's cabin, its glittering brass, and its shining leather. I darted up the steps.
The contrast of the starry night with the glare of the cabin lamp dazzled my eyes. I stood stock still for a moment, during which the only sounds audible were the singing of the winds through the rigging, the wash of the sea, and the small, sharp click of Perdosa's instrument as he worked at the chest.
Presently I could see better. I looked forward and aft for Pulz, but could see nothing of him, and had just about concluded that he had gone forward when I happened to glance aloft. There, to my astonishment, I made him out, huddled in silhouette against the stars, close to the main truck. What he was doing there I could not imagine. However, I did not have time to bother my head about him, further than to rejoice that he could not obstruct me.
I should very much have liked to get hold of a rifle and ammunition, or at least to lay in biscuit and water, but for this there was no time. It was not absolutely essential. The dull glow of the island was still visible. I had my pillar of fire and smoke to guide me.
Without further delay I jerked loose the painter and drew the extra dory alongside.
I had proceeded just so far in my movements, when the most extraordinary thing happened. I shall try to tell you of it as accurately as possible, and in the exact order of its occurrence. First a long, straight shaft of white light shot straight up through the cabin roof to a great height. It shone through the wooden planks as an ordinary light shines through glass. By contrast the surrounding blackness was thrown into a deeper shade, and yet the shaft itself was so brilliant as almost to scotch the sight. Curiously enough, it was defined accurately, being exactly in shape like one of the rectangular tin air-shafts you see so often in city hotels. At the instant of its appearance, the wind fell quite calm.
Almost immediately the rectangle on the roof through which the light made its passage began to splay out, like lighted oil, although the column retained still the integrity of its outline. The fire, if such it could be called, ran with incredible rapidity along the seams between the planks, forward and aft, until the entire deck was sketched like a pyrotechnic display in thin, vivid lines of incandescence. From each of these lines then the fire began again to spread, as though soaking through the planks.
All took place practically in an instant of time. I had no opportunity to move nor to cry out; indeed, my perceptions were inadequate to the task of mere observation. Up to now there had been no sound. The wind had fallen; the waters passed unnoticed. A stillness of death seemed to have descended on the ship. It was broken by a sharp double report, one as of the fall of a metallic substance, the other caused by the body of Pulz, which, shaken loose from the truck by a heavy roll, smashed against the rail of the ship and splashed overboard. Someone cried out sharply. An instant later the entire crew struggled out from the companionway, rushed in grim silence to the side of the vessel, and threw themselves into the sea.
My own ideas were somewhat confused. The fire had practically enveloped the ship. I thought to feel it; and yet my skin was cool to the touch. The ship's outlines became blurred. A dizziness overtook me; and then all at once a great desire seized and shook my very soul. I cannot tell you the vehemence of this desire. It was a madness; nothing could stand in the way of its gratification. Whatever happened, I must have water. It was not thirst, nor yet a purpose to allay the very real physical burning of which I was now dimly conscious; but a craving for the liquid itself as something apart from and unconnected with anything else. Without hesitation, and as though it were the most natural thing in the world, I vaulted the rail to cast myself into the ocean. I dimly remember a last flying impression of a furnace of light, then a great shock thudded through me, and I lost consciousness.
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