The Mate of the “Sea-Horse”

He stalked in behind the captain of the _Caliban_ to the desk in the
consul’s office at Key West, where the clerk signed on the men. His
six feet three inches of solid frame almost filled the doorway as he
entered, and he scowled sourly at the group already there. His black
face was lined and wrinkled and bore traces of a debauch, but in spite
of his sinister expression his eyes told of a good-natured steadiness
of temper. The bloodshot whites and heavy lids told plainly that he
was a diver, and his peculiar accent, giant frame and general muscular
development proclaimed him a Fortune Islander, a Conch of the Great
Bahama Bank.

“Nationality?” droned the clerk, in a dull monotone, as he came forward.

“American,” he answered, distinctly.

The captain looked at him.

“Where from?” droned the clerk, filling in the blank.

“Jacksonville,” he answered, in a deep tone, fixing his eyes upon the
man’s face.

The clerk smiled a little, but said nothing. It was not his business to
argue, and he knew the weakness of the reefer. He had signed the giant
on to more than six different vessels within the past two years and
each time he had solemnly sworn he was a native of a different country
from the last one named. He had now become a citizen of the United
States, having reserved this honor for the seventh and last time to
sign.

The age of the giant fluctuated. Once he had had an indistinct
remembrance of being about twenty-five; now he had leaped suddenly to
forty. Something had evidently made him feel aged, and the clerk was
amused, for he felt that it must indeed have been a heavy debauch to
produce such an effect.

The Islander, or rather the American now, glanced uneasily at the
ship’s papers. He was signing on for a cruise in a yacht, and the
United States articles with their red spread-eagle upon their edges
attracted his attention. He could not read the announcement of the
government “whack,” or ration, as prescribed by law, and he had
heretofore signed without looking. Now the papers interested him, and
he bade the clerk read them. His voice was low and gentle, but it had
nothing except command in each word, and this annoyed the clerk. He
read slowly and with bad grace, looking up now and then at the captain,
who stood waiting for his man and giving a glance which told plainly
that here was a pirate who would probably make no end of trouble
aboard his ship. But men like the Conch were extremely rare and he
would have him, so he waited impatiently while the clerk read and the
rest listened, hearing probably for the first time in their lives the
contents of a set of articles which they had always treated with the
high disdain existent in all sailors. When the clerk finished, the
giant took the pen in his fingers and scrawled “Bahama Bill” in large,
wabbly letters to his place on the list as second mate for a voyage to
some port north of New York, three months and discharge.

“S’pose you write William Haskins under that?” said the clerk, sourly.
The giant growled out something, but did as told. Then the papers were
finished.

The captain led the crew down to the vessel, the mainsail was hoisted,
and as the anchor broke clear and the head-sails were run up, the
little gun upon her quarter crashed a salute which echoed and reechoed
over the quiet harbour. Then the _Caliban_ stood out into the Gulf
Stream and was off, leaving the loafing Cubans and listless Conches
upon the docks, gazing after her over the heaving blue surface streaked
and darkened by the breath of the trade-wind.

The _Caliban_ was a well-appointed yacht, and her master was a
yacht-captain. That is, he was not a navigator, but simply a Norwegian
sailor who had had the address to impress the owner favourably, and
consequently, there being no examination for a license necessary, the
owner had placed him in command in the usual manner. The chief mate
was a square-head like the master, the owner allowing the captain the
choice of officers, retaining only the cook and steward as his own
protégés for the comfort of the cabin. Under a schooner rig, the
vessel had cruised through the West Indian waters, and had lost her
second mate and crew the day she touched at Key West, the party making
the “pier-head” jump the day after being paid off. In disgust, the
owner left her and took passage for the fashionable hotel at Miami,
leaving his captain to find a crew and follow as soon as possible.

The morning of the second day out, the yacht swung around Cape Florida,
and stood into Biscayne Bay, rounding to on the edge of the channel
near the large and fashionable hotel, and dropping her hook, the rattle
of her anchor-chain was drowned in the crash of her six-pounder. The
captain went ashore in full uniform, and the first officer turned in,
leaving the second mate in charge leaning easily upon the rail and
gazing after the vanishing form in gold braid.

The uniform of the second mate was a misfit. There were no clothes
among the slops that would fit his frame, but he gloried in a cap with
braid stuck rakishly on his head, and while his legs were incased in
white ducks rolled to the knees, his huge torso was covered by no more
than a course linen shirt. This he wore split up the back and open in
front, and he was comfortably indifferent to the excellent ventilation
it afforded.

It was early in the morning and few people were stirring near the great
hotel. The captain disappeared in the direction of the town, and while
the second mate gazed, he saw a boat pulling rapidly toward him from
the hotel dock.

Soon a man, rowed by a boy, came alongside.

“Is the owner aboard?” he asked, nervously.

“No, sah,” said Bill, squinting at him.

“Who’s in command?” he inquired.

“Me, sah.”

“Well, don’t fire that gun again. You scare all the invalids in the
hotel. We can’t have our people frightened this way.”

“She goes agin at eight bells,” drawled Bill. “Have to raise de colours
by him. If you don’t like dat little gun, jest please move yer shack.”

“Don’t you dare to talk to me like that! Do you know who I am?” bawled
the man, standing up.

“Naw, I don’t know yer–an’ de wust is, yo’ clean forgot me. Now don’t
yo’ git too noisy, Peter Snooks, er whatever yer name is–ef yer do,
I’ll set on yer. If yer don’t like de noise, move yo’ shack. I ain’t
got no orders to pull de hook.”

The man swore and threatened, but the second mate smiled
good-naturedly, until the man rowed away vowing vengeance.

“That’s the dockmaster, sir,” said a sailor standing near. “He’ll make
a lot o’ trouble–I know him.”

“Fergit him,” said the second mate, in a low tone, but in a manner
which closed the incident.

At eight bells the gun crashed a salute, and, either by chance or
otherwise, it pointed directly at the windows of the huge edifice
filled with the rich Northern guests. The glass fairly rattled with the
shock.

The day wore on without incident, until the captain came aboard, a bit
the worse for liquor and with the news that the owner had left for St.
Augustine, leaving orders for the yacht to follow.

It was quiet, and the schooner rode at anchor in a bay of pond-like
smoothness. The men lounged about the decks or gazed over the side at
the bottom, which could be seen through the clear water. They would
stand out at sunrise, but the captain told no one of this intention,
and those ashore expected her to be a fixture of a week or more. The
sun went down in a bank to the westward and the semi-tropical night
came dark and quiet upon the sea.

Through the deepening gloom, a shadow came stealing around the wooded
point of Cape Florida. With her mainsail well off to the gentle
southerly breeze, the wrecking-sloop _Sea-Horse_ slipped noiselessly
through the water, swinging around the channel buoy and standing like
a black phantom for the mouth of the Miami. She came without a sound,
not even a ripple gurgling from her forefoot; and not a ray of light
showed either from her rigging or from her cabin-house. At the wheel,
a figure stood silent in the night, a slight turn of the spokes now
and then being the only movement to show that the image was that of a
man steering. Strung along the deck-house and rail lay six other human
forms, but they were as quiet as though made of wood. Not even the
glow of a pipe relieved the silent gloom. The wrecker drew near the
yacht. The man at the wheel leaned slightly forward over the spokes
and peered long and searchingly at her from under the main-boom. Then
she drifted past, and as she did so eight bells struck, sounding clear
and musical from the forecastle. In the glare from her anchor-light, a
giant form showed upon the yacht’s forecastle-head–the black second
mate, who was taking a look at the anchor-cable before settling himself
for a smoke. The wrecker passed and disappeared around the point, and
the second mate of the _Caliban_ stretched himself along the heel of
the bowsprit and watched the distant loom of the keys whence the low,
murmuring snore of the surf sounded. Two bells struck and aroused him
for a moment. The man on lookout asked permission to go below for a bit
of tobacco, and then after he had watched his figure vanish down the
hatchway, the mate turned toward the shore where the lights sparkled
over the bay.

A slight rippling sound attracted his attention, and he looked over
the side. It sounded like a large fish of some kind making its way
clumsily along near the surface. The black water flared in places,
and a continuous flashing of phosphorus shone along the cheek of the
bow when the tide was shoved aside. Something dark showed at a little
distance, but it passed astern and the rippling sound died away.
Haskins, who was half-fish from habit and as watchful as a shark, went
to the taffrail and leaned over. The water seemed like ink in the
gloom, but he scanned it steadily and patiently. Nothing showed upon
the dark surface, and he smoked for half an hour, until his usually
alert senses began to wander. He was getting sleepy. Then the rippling
sound began again on the offshore side. He remained quiet and listened.
This time the rippling sounded like a fish going against the current,
and the glare of the disturbed water showed now and again as the body
approached. Suddenly it seemed as if the creature passed under the
yacht’s bottom. The rippling died away, and the second mate stepped to
the side to see if it would rise again. Nothing showed in the blackness
under her counter, but from down there came a peculiar scraping sound.
It continued, and he peered over to see the cause. The raking stopped
instantly. He remained quiet and it began again, a peculiar scraping as
though something were scratching against the vessel’s bilge.

Suddenly a sound of heavy breathing came from the water. Haskins
started, drew himself down upon the rail and listened intently. Yes, he
recognized it now, distinctly. It was the breathing of a man.

While he lay upon the rail listening, he was thinking rapidly. There
were few men who would swim out in the bay at night, and there was none
who would swim out there without some sinister object. He thought of
the dockmaster and his talk of revenge, but he knew the dockmaster was
not a diver. There could be only one or two men on the Florida Reefs
for wrecking, and these men were among the crew of the _Sea-Horse_, the
sloop in which he had been mate for the past season. Then he remembered
a phantom-like shadow which had drifted past in the earlier hours of
the evening, and he was satisfied he knew his man. It was the captain
of the wrecking-sloop, and his object was plain to the diver. It was an
old game, a game he had indulged in many times himself in the days gone
by. He knew the long, desperate swims through the dangerous waters of
West Indian and Florida reefs; the fierce struggle alongside to hold
the body silent in a tideway while with hook and bar the wrecker worked
at the oakum in the seams just a strake or two below the water-line;
then the inrushing flood and settling ship, and daylight finding a
panic-stricken captain and mutinous and half-dead crew with swollen
arms and aching backs from a night’s hopeless work at the pump-brakes.
He could picture the approaching wrecking-sloop, with her apparently
amazed crew and the vulture-like descent upon the soon-abandoned
vessel whose only damage was really the working out of several pounds
of oakum from seams which were manifestly improperly calked. Then the
investigation and salvage, for even when the marks showed plain of
either bar or hook, there was never the slightest evidence against the
wrecker.

Bahama Bill knew the game well, and he smiled a little as he listened.
Then he took off his cap with the gold braid and laid it upon the deck,
and leaned far out over the side. Suddenly, through the darkness, he
made out a face looking up at him from the water. There was nothing
said. He recognized the captain of the _Sea-Horse_, and he knew him
to be a man who seldom wasted words. There was only the long, hard
scrutiny, the study of man’s mind by man; each trying to fathom the
other’s thought, for the sudden resolve which always comes quickly to
men of action.

While they gazed, a sudden noise from aft attracted attention. It was
the surly mutterings of the drunken yacht-captain, who had come on
deck for a breath of air. The sight of him annoyed the second mate.
It caused a revulsion of feeling within him he could not understand.
The responsibility of his position became apparent for the first time.
Among his kind the rigid law of superiority and control had always
obtained while afloat. Ashore it was different. There restraint was
cast to the winds, and he had often been one of the wildest and most
dangerous men in the seamen’s resorts between Key West and Panama.
Here the sight of the drunken captain made him quiet and thoughtful.
Whatever relations he had intended should exist between himself and
the wrecker, it was now plain to him that he was an officer holding
a responsible position. It came to him suddenly at the sight of the
incapable commander. He would maintain his dignity and responsibility.

This feeling was upon him before he was half aware of it, and he turned
again to the man overside.

“Get away quick,” he said, in a low tone.

The wrecker knew his meaning, and his resolve was taken. He would
follow the game out. He had swum a full half-mile, and the stake he was
playing for was high.

“It’s a half share if you keep your mouth shut,” said the wrecker. “I
thought you had some sense.”

“De dock-marshal tol’ yo’ I was heah,” said Bill, “but he forgot to
tell yo’ I ain’t de mate o’ de _Sea-Horse_. Yo’ clean side-stepped dat.”

“If anything happens to me, the boys know you are aboard. Your friend
the dockmaster saw to that. They burnt a nigger to the stake last
week,” said the wrecker, meaningly.

“Yo’ better go ashore, Cap’n. I ain’t de mate o’ de _Sea-Horse_.” His
tone was low and measured, and it left no further room for argument.

The tipsy yacht-master had gone below again, gurgling the words of a
ribald song. He had seen nothing. The deck was deserted by all save the
second mate.

“Swim out,” said Bill, decisively.

“Well, I’ll rest a minute first,” said the wrecker. He made his way
forward and climbed upon the bobstay, the second mate going on the
forecastle to watch him. The man on the lookout had not come from below
yet, and the wrecker noticed it. He was furious at his former mate, and
his hand felt instinctively for the knife in his belt. The Conch dared
not hurt him, for the crew of the _Sea-Horse_ would surely make him pay
the penalty if he did. A call to the men aboard would put an end to
wrecking operations, but the giant disdained any help. He would settle
the matter quietly, as was best, and the men of the wrecking-sloop
would have no real cause for revenge. The second mate had no desire to
make unnecessary trouble for himself. He would have to return some day
for the reckoning.

The legs of the wrecker shone white below his trunks, and were in sharp
contrast against the black water in which they were half submerged. The
man was thinking quickly, and waiting a few seconds before making the
desperate attack with his knife. Once rid of the mate, all would be
clear for action. Haskins knew his man and suspected something, but he
sat silent upon the knightheads and waited.

Suddenly he saw a long flaming streak in the water. The man on the
bobstay swore furiously. There was a great splash, a hoarse cry, and
the second mate was forward alone.

It was all so sudden, he had hardly time to realize its meaning. Then,
as the man who had gone below rushed up, he seized his sheathed knife
and plunged into the blackness ahead. A thrashing of the water to
starboard located the wrecker, who had been seized by a dog-shark and
was cutting and struggling wildly for liberty. His white legs, lying
motionless and half submerged, had tempted the fish to strike. In
motion and under water, the danger had been slight. Now the scavenger,
who was about five feet long, had seized hold, and with its natural
bulldog tenacity was pulling the wrecker steadily seaward in spite
of his struggles. He had used his knife freely, for the fish made
no attempt to draw him under. The small shark of the reef, for some
reason, fights upon the surface, sinking only after all resistance is
over. It was to this peculiarity that the wrecker owed his life.

The big mate, Haskins, knew what had happened. He knew also the
chances, and he drove ahead through the black water, leaving a flaming
wake behind. The man on lookout, thinking the black giant had gone mad,
dived below with the news that he had plunged overboard and committed
suicide. At first, Haskins could only make out a slight disturbance
in the water, which was rapidly moving toward the entrance. Then, as
his eyes, long used to sea-water, made out the dark lump which was his
former captain’s head, he half rose from the sea and with tremendous
overhand strokes fairly lifted himself forward, his knife grasped with
point in front. In a few moments he was up with the fracas. The wrecker
saw him coming, and called out. He seized him, and then all three went
below the surface with the force of the fish’s tug.

Reaching along the wrecker’s leg, Haskins drove his knife with force
just behind the shark’s jaw-socket. The blow abated the scavenger’s
zeal, and they arose to the surface. A second lunge and the fish let
go and disappeared. Then the wrecker’s body relaxed, and Haskins was
swimming upon the quiet surface of the bay, holding the sinking head
above water.

Far away, the dark outlines of Virginia Key showed, a low black lump
on the horizon. Beyond it, the dull snore of the surf came over the
water. A good hundred yards against the tide, the anchor-light of the
yacht shone. It would be almost impossible to drag the insensible man
to her, even should he dare. There was only one way out of the scrape,
and Haskins with resolute mind saw it and began the struggle at once.
He headed for the mouth of the river, where he knew the _Sea-Horse_ lay
waiting, just behind the point.

On through the blackness he swam. The first mile seemed endless, and
still the lifeless form of the wrecker dragged helplessly in his wake.
Another, and his teeth were shut like a vise and his breath was panting
loudly over the quiet water. He turned the point, and saw the loom of
the _Sea-Horse_ as she rose at anchor beyond the shadow of the trees
upon the banks.

Suddenly a man hailed in a low tone. The mate made no answer, but
headed for the bobstays and grasped them. Then he rested. Half an hour
later, the captain of the wrecker came to in his bunk and viewed his
bandaged leg. A lamp burned dimly in the cabin, and he made out the
form of the black mate lying in a bunk, snoring loudly. Several of the
crew were sitting around waiting until he could give the details of
the affair, and now they crowded forward. The plot was a failure owing
to Haskins. He told of the huge mate’s interference and of the stroke
of the dog-shark. Then they burst forth with imprecations so loud
that Haskins awoke. Knives glinted in the dim light and a half-dozen
sinister faces formed a crescent above him, but he was very tired. He
gazed for nearly a minute through half-closed lids at the threatening
men. He thought he heard the captain calling weakly for the men to let
him alone. What he had done for him was not entirely lost. Then he
gave a snort of contempt and turned his back to them and slept.

Even the boldest held back. The conscious power of the man and his
disdain for them all were too much even for the most desperate. They
drew away sullenly and listened to their captain, and then as his
words, whispered low, began to have effect, they left the cuddy.
Silently they hoisted the mainsail and carefully drew in fathom after
fathom of the cable. The jib was hoisted and the _Sea-Horse_ stood out
and passed like a dark shadow from the harbour. As the sun rose and
gave colour to the sea, the deep blue of the wind-broken surface told
of the Gulf Stream. The land had disappeared astern.

In the early morning, the yacht-master put sail on the _Caliban_ and
stood out for New York. He had a full crew lacking a second mate,
and they carried the story North how they had shipped a black giant
who had gone mad during the night and plunged to his death over the
knightheads.

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