Percy F. (Percy Francis) Westerman.

Three short stories from 'THE CAPTAIN' volume XXVII online

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on board."

"I don't mind if you don't, only - - "

"Only what?"

"I wish we were a little further off. I don't know why, but the fact
remains that I do."

The powder-hulk, whose name and description appear in the Navy List,
under the list of hulks available for harbour service, as _Bikanir_,
4th rate, 2,720 tons, hulk, floating powder magazine, R.N. Ordnance
Depot Sandborough.

She was one of five vessels built of teak in Bombay. Shorn of her
tapering masts, "housed in," and painted a bright red, she lay moored
in upper Sandborough Creek. Day and night a red flag fluttered in the
breeze, and day and night reliefs of two water-policemen belonging to
the Metropolitan Police, keep watch and ward over the highly
explosive cargo, the ignition of which would mean the total
destruction of every vessel and building within two miles of her, and
immense damage done to the town and dockyard of Sandborough. Apart
from the deadly monotony of an eight hour watch the two ship-keepers
whose duty compels them to be on board from ten at night till six in
the morning have a most uncomfortable time. Without lights or fires
they have to exist - keeping a sharp look-out for possible danger,
while they have instructions to make use of their revolvers if
suspicious characters come within a certain distance of the floating
magazine.

Should a fire break out, the ship-keepers have a few patent
extinguishers and an obsolete manual pump. While one man has to do
his best with these appliances, the other has to take a boat and row
off to a smaller hulk. Here are kept lanterns, rockets, and matches.
Three red lanterns displayed are the signal that a conflagration has
broken out, but the regulations say nothing as to what is likely to
occur between the discovery of the flames and the completion of the
lengthy task of procuring and exhibiting the danger-lamps.

Within a quarter of an hour from the time they let go the anchor, the
_Spray_ was snugged down, the riding-lamp was hoisted to the
fore-stay, and the crew turned into the small but comfortable cabin
for supper.

At about a quarter to ten the two lads - both of them were eighteen
years of age - heard the shrill blast of a steam-whistle above the
howling of the wind.

"There's the police-launch taking the reliefs," said Jack. "Let's
turn out and have a look at the poor bounders."

"All right," assented Harry, but as he gained the well, he turned and
exclaimed hurriedly, "Look sharp - hand me that light. Our
riding-lamp's blown out, and the launch is bearing down straight for
us."

It was an anxious moment, but to the lads' relief the red and green
steaming lights of the launch changed to red alone, and the craft
swept past the yacht at less than five yards distance.

"Good night, sergeant," shouted Harry, as the glare from the boat's
furnace lit up the rugged features of the coxswain. Both lads knew
the man well, for the _Spray_ was a frequent visitor to Sandborough
Harbour.

"Good night, sir," replied the sergeant. "Where's your riding light?
We - - "

The remainder of the sentence was lost in the howling breeze.

"Bring that riding-light down. I never knew the thing to play me this
trick before," exclaimed Harry.

But with unaccountable obstinacy the lamp refused to burn.

"We must stand by till the launch returns," said Jack. "After that I
don't think there will be any more traffic till morning. Besides we
are close in to the edge of the mud."

Some minutes later the police-launch with the relieved men passed,
and was lost to sight in the darkness. The hulk, too, was invisible
in the blackness of the night. Except for the distant arc-lamps in
Sandborough Dockyard, where men were working in successive shifts
upon a battle-ship now nearing completion, the _Spray_ was surrounded
by a veil of impenetrable night.

"We may as well turn in," remarked Harry, "especially as we have to
be up early if we are to catch the young flood."

"Going to leave the lamp in the cabin?"

"No, what for? It's rotten having to sleep with a light swinging to
and fro three feet above your head."

Ere long Harry was sleeping soundly, but Jack lay awake upon his
narrow bunk. Though used to the lap of the water against the yacht's
side and the mournful moaning of the wind through the rigging, there
was something - which he could not explain - that drove slumber from
him. Even the ticking of the clock seemed to add to his inexplicable
feeling of uneasiness.

Presently he heard the sound of oars; not good lusty strokes, but
cautious, half-hearted pulls. The dip of the blades was just audible
above the noise of the wind, but the usual sound of creaking of
tholes or rowlocks was absent. Whoever it was rowing at this time of
the night, they were up to no good, thought Jack, because the oars
were muffled.

"Perhaps it's some beachcombers coming to sneak some of the yacht's
gear," he muttered. "I'll rouse Harry." But ere he could make up his
mind to do so the sound of the dipping blades grew fainter and
fainter. No doubt the yacht, showing no light, had been unnoticed in
the darkness.

"I'm hanged if I can stand this any longer," exclaimed the sleepless
youth. "I'll turn out and have a look round."

Fumbling in the darkness he found an oilskin coat with a sou'wester
stuffed into one of the pockets. After a tough struggle with the
refractory coat, which had stuck together in many places, Jack
managed to scramble into the obstinate yet serviceable garment. Well
it was that he did so, for on gaining the well he found that a light
driving rain was falling.

"Might just as well stick it," he continued, and sheltering behind
the after bulkhead of the cabin he looked into the darkness. He tried
to locate the powder-hulk. Her approximate position he knew, but
there was no visible sign of the storehouse of potential energy.

A thousand tons of cordite. The words seemed to revolve in his mind
with persistent frequency. One pound of cordite, under pressure,
would blow a man to smithereens; there are 2,240 pounds in a ton; in
a thousand tons - -

"Whatever is the matter with my nerves to-night?" he exclaimed. "They
seem all on edge. To-morrow I'll - - "

Suddenly a lurid red flash, quickly followed by a second, pierced the
darkness. A brief instant later and two muffled reports, just audible
above the now strong gale reached his ears. They were revolver shots,
and they came from the powder-hulk.




II


"WAKE up, old man!" exclaimed Jack, darting into the cabin and
shaking his comrade.

"What's up?" asked Harry, awake in a moment.

"There's something up on board the powder hulk. They're firing."

Harry deliberately struck a match, lit the cabin lamp, then looked
his chum squarely in the face. But Jack, blinking in the light,
seemed too genuinely excited to play a practical joke; besides, his
streaming oilskins showed that he had been outside for some
considerable time.

"What do you think is the matter?"

"Goodness knows; but - rather a strange thing - a boat passed us some
time ago."

"Why strange?"

"She was rowing with muffled oars."

"Oh! We may as well go and have a look at the hulk. Are you game?"

"Yes," replied Jack simply. His sense of uneasiness had now entirely
left him, and beyond a tingling sensation in his throat he felt
fairly calm and collected.

"Cast off the painter, then," ordered Harry, as he completed his
hasty toilet. "I may as well take my revolver, though it's not up to
much."

The _Spray_, like many other small yachts, carried a revolver, for
use in case of emergency. As the skipper remarked, you might have the
weapon on board for a lifetime and never require it. On the other
hand, you might find it useful for summoning assistance. This
particular pistol had seen its day. It was an old-fashioned
percussion-capped Colt, taking nearly five minutes to load. Its owner
habitually kept one chamber, upon which the hammer rested, empty;
three were loaded with powder only, the remaining two had cylindrical
bullets in addition to the charge. If the weapon did not miss
fire - which was more than possible - it could be relied upon to make a
deafening row, if nothing else.

Thrusting the revolver into the pocket of his thick pea-jacket,
whence its muzzle projected a good two inches, Armitage jumped into
the stern-sheets of the nine-foot dinghy. Jack shipped the oars and
pushed off in the direction of the invisible hulk.

It was a strong pull, for the light cockleshell had to make headway
against a strong wind and tide, but Standish stuck to his task and
"kept his eyes in the boat," guided only by the direction of his
companion's extended hand.

"Steady now," cautioned Harry, as the bare outlines of the _Bikanir_
began to loom up in the darkness. "We're out of the tide here."

"And a thundering good job too," muttered Jack, pausing for one
instant to wipe the raindrops from his face.

Rowing with the utmost possible silence he brought the dinghy under
the stern of the hulk. Here, sheltered from the wind, the lads held
on to a massive mooring-chain, and waited.

Beyond the shrieking and hissing of the wind as it eddied past the
old two-decker, there was nothing to be heard. The hulk seemed a
silent as the tomb.

"I believe you're mistaken," whispered Armitage; "perhaps those
fellows you heard in the boat were wild-fowling by night."

"That won't do," replied Standish. "Firing is prohibited within the
limits of the Dockyard Port of Sandborough, and this part lies well
within the boundary. Come on - let's pull round to the gangway, only,
if we're challenged, we must reply pretty promptly, or the
consequences might be awkward."

As the two lads approached the wooden ladder they found that there
were _two_ boats made fast to the gangway. This looked suspicious,
for the watch-keepers were allowed one only, for the purpose of
communicating with the lamp-boat in case of emergency.

"That's not a government boat," whispered Armitage pointing to the
outside one, a kind known as a wherry. The boat was now within arm's
length, and taking hold of the gunwale, Harry peered into the
mysterious craft.

With a stifled exclamation he released his hold with a strong shove,
and the dinghy immediately drifted down stream.

"Pull in under the stern again," whispered Armitage excitedly.

"What is it?" demanded Standish.

"There are two dead men lying on the bottom-boards of that boat."

"Then the police have shot them. Those were the two shots I heard."

"Do you think so?" asked Harry. "It's the other way about, I fancy.
If the water-police had fired the shots they would have signalled for
assistance as soon as possible. No, Jack; I'm afraid it's like this.
Some rascals have shot the two watchmen and are up to some villainy."

"Perhaps they are not dead after all."

"May not be," assented Harry. "Come on; I've got over the shock now.
We'll see what's to be done."

Curiously enough both lads had no thought of rowing off to the
nearest ship for assistance. The fact that two unfortunate beings
might perhaps be badly injured, and in want of immediate aid urged
them to renew their investigations.


[Illustration: As their boat rubbed sides with the mysterious craft,
the boys saw two motionless figures lying on the bottom-boards.
Armitage clambered in, and cautiously touched the form nearest to
him. "They're the water-police!" he cried]


Once more the two boats rubbed sides. Standish held on while his
comrade clambered softly into the larger craft, and bent over the two
motionless forms lying on the bottom-boards.

They were the water-police. Armitage could distinguish the peaked cap
of one of the men. As he cautiously touched the form nearest to him
the man writhed. He was bound and gagged.

"Steady there!" whispered Harry. "I'm Armitage. You know - the fellow
in the yacht."

The man nodded his head in assent; and his rescuer, now satisfied
that he would not receive a blow from the brawny fist of the
policeman, deftly removed the gag and severed the man's bonds.

"Be careful with my mate, sir," said the first policeman. "He's been
plugged."

The second watchman was quite conscious, and when released, Armitage
found that the man had been shot through the left arm. The wound was
caused by a small-bore automatic pistol, and had cut so clean a hole
that there was very little bleeding.

In a few words the first man, whose name was Smith, whispered the
story of what had occurred. Five men had boarded the _Bikanir_, and
unperceived had gained the upper deck. Attracted by the voices of the
watchmen, who were conversing under the poop-deck, the rogues made a
sudden attack upon the unprepared ship-keepers. Smith was thrown on
his back, without a struggle, but Adams, the other man, drew his
revolver to fire at his assailants. Ere he could take aim he was shot
through the left arm, and the sudden sting of the bullet caused him
to press the trigger of his weapon and send the charge into the air.
A sharp tap on the head knocked all power of resistance out of Adams,
and the two men, bound and gagged, were placed in the boat alongside.

"Hadn't we better row you ashore?" said Armitage.

"Won't do," replied Adams grimly. "This wound of mine isn't anything
to speak of. We've made a mistake in getting taken unawares, but the
Force don't recognise mistakes. Come along, Tom - let's tackle the
fellows."

"I'm game," replied Smith, "Blest if the silly fools ain't left me my
revolver!" Sure enough, the weapon was still in the man's holster.
"Look here, gents, if I was you I would clear off as fast as you can.
There's no knowing what them chaps are up to with the magazine."

"Not I," replied Armitage quickly. "I've a revolver with me - not much
of a one - but it may come in handy. How about you, Jack?"

Standish thought of the thousand tons of cordite, but in quite a
different way from what he had done in the night. He meant to do his
best to save the stuff from doing incalculable harm to life and
property.

"I'm with you," he replied.

"Then the sooner we tackle the job the better," continued Smith.
"Those cowardly brutes may look over the side at any moment, although
it's precious dark down here."

Revolver in hand Smith crept softly up the ladder; Armitage, who had
turned the chamber of his weapon so that one of the loaded charges
would be fired first, followed at his heels; while Standish and the
wounded policeman brought up the rear.

Unobserved they gained the entry-port. The five rascals were bending
over the main hatchway, beneath which the explosives are stored. The
stout padlock and securing bars were rapidly giving way under the
persuasion of a file and a couple of crowbars.

"Make your way aft," whispered Smith, "We'll pepper 'em from there."

Just as the hatch-cover was burst open the four made a dash for the
shelter of the poop-deck. Standish tripped over a ring-bolt and fell
headlong, but Smith turned, picked him up as easily as if he were a
mere child, and dragged him under cover, to the accompaniment of a
regular fusillade of shots from the automatic pistols of the five
determined villains.

"What are you afraid of?" shouted one of the men in a guttural voice,
for some of the desperadoes were running forward. "Come with me and
settle them properly. They have no pistols."

With that the men stopped their flight, hung together for a few
seconds, then advanced, firing wildly as they did so.

Fortunately the poop deck was barricaded off by a 5 in. oak bulkhead,
sheathed with steel, that extended down to the hold, thus completely
isolating the magazine from the after part of the ship.

Revolver in hand Tom Smith waited, but Armitage, in his inexperience,
was not so cautious. Raising his weapon he fired into the cluster of
advancing men. The revolver _did_ go off this time, with a lurid
tongue of flame and a livid report that completely out-voiced the
sharp crack of the automatic pistols. But the bullet found no human
billet. It had the result of causing the attackers to turn tail and
make precipitately for the shelter of the fo'c'sle.

"Pity you didn't reserve your fire, sir," said the policeman
reprovingly. "We might have bagged a couple of them at the least."

"I'm sorry," replied Harry.

"Maybe someone ashore will hear the report," continued Smith. "It was
like a small cannon going off."

"I'm afraid not," said Jack. "I could only just hear the sound of the
first shots, and we are lying less than three hundred yards off. The
wind is so high."

"Then perhaps they'll see the flashes," added the man optimistically.
"At any rate, we can keep the brutes from tampering with the
magazine. They won't dare come aft since they know we've firearms,
the white-livered skunks!" Then came a lull. The desperadoes lay
still within their defences, while their antagonists kept on the _qui
vive_ ready to open fire at the first sign of renewed activity on the
part of their foes.

"We've trapped them!" exclaimed Armitage, who was busily engaged in
breaking out bullets from the policeman's cartridges and ramming them
into the chambers of his revolver. "It will be daylight in an hour."

"The relief boat doesn't turn up till six," observed Adams. "I reckon
they won't wait till then. They will make a bolt for it."

"We'll cut off their retreat then," added his comrade. "Look here,
sir," addressing Standish. "Do you think you could manage to pull off
to the light-boat and get the lanterns and the rockets?"

"I'll have a shot at it," replied Jack, although he did not relish
the idea of making his way across the upper deck to the gangway and
being the target for five automatic pistols.

"No, not that way," exclaimed Smith hurriedly, as Jack prepared to
make a dash across the danger zone. "Can you swim? Good. Slip your
things off and I'll lower you from the stern gallery. You can then
swim to your boat and row off for the gear."

"Look here," exclaimed Standish as he was divesting himself of his
clothing. "I wonder if I could tow the other two boats with our
dinghy? Then the rascals' retreat would be fairly cut off."

"Not against this wind, even though the tide has turned," replied
Smith. "You'd find yourself blown half way up to Flapperham in a
brace of shakes. But I'll tell you what. There's plenty of rope on
board. You might run off a line to the light-boat, and haul the other
boats off to her. When you get to your dinghy pull up under the stern
and I'll drop a coil down to you."

"Now I'm ready," announced Jack.

"Bill," exclaimed the policeman, addressing his comrade. "Hang on to
my pistol for half a shake, while I lower this gent. How's your arm?"

"Fairly nippy, but it's of no consequence, being my left," replied
the man. "When you've been shot through the stomach with a Mauser
bullet and through the forearm with a soft-nosed bullet like I have,
a little scratch like this don't signify."

It was horribly cold, being lowered feet foremost into the water.
Jack would have much preferred to take a header, but once fairly in
the chilliness vanished, and he struck out for the gangway, keeping
close to the barnacled side of the towering hulk.

Clambering into the dinghy, he rowed to the stern of the _Bikanir_
and took the coil of rope on board. The execution of his plan
necessitated a double journey; first to the light-boat, then to the
two boats tied to the gangway; then back to the light-boat, to which
he hauled the sole means of the desperadoes' escape. This done he
took the three red lanterns, half a dozen rockets, and a box of
matches, and returned to the powder hulk.

"Now what's to be done with the dinghy?" he exclaimed, after he had
fastened the procured articles to a rope and sent up to Armitage who
was ready to receive them. "We can't leave her made fast here, and we
don't want to turn her adrift."

"Throw up your painter and make fast the rope to the after
ring-bolt - we'll haul her up to the stern-gallery," replied Harry.
"Look sharp; they're going to send up a rocket and then the fun will
commence. The lanterns are already lighted."

"I thought the fun commenced a long time ago," remarked Standish as
he swarmed up the rope and gained the stern-walk.

"Now then, sir, stand by for a rush," continued Smith, gripping his
revolver resolutely, as Adams struck a match and held it to the
touch-paper of the rocket.

_Swish!_ With a rush and a roar the rocket soared skywards, and,
bursting, gave out a brilliant blue light that threw the deck of the
hulk into strong relief.

It was like disturbing a nest of wasps. The five men emerged from the
fo'c'sle. Four of them ran blindly for the gangway. Smith's revolver
cracked, and one pitched forward on the deck, jerked his limbs once
or twice and then lay still. This time the shot failed to stop the
rush. The policeman fired again while Armitage, cocking and
discharging his antiquated weapon as fast as the could, joined in the
attempt to repulse the rush. But, apparently unscathed, the three
gained the entry-port and disappeared down the ladder.

"Bad luck to 'em!" exclaimed Smith as he ejected the smoking
cylinders from his weapon. "They've got to choose now between death
by drowning or penal servitude for life. I - - "

"Look out," yelled Standish, in accents of alarm.

The fifth man had, unperceived by the defenders, retraced his steps
to the fo'c's'le, and now, with a hissing fuse in his hand, was
creeping stealthily towards the partly covered main hatch.

"Wing him, or he'll blow the ship to atoms," shouted Smith, as he
feverishly thrust fresh cartridges into his revolver. But Armitage
had fired his last shot.

The miscreant, knowing by the policeman's shout that he was
discovered, bounded over the remaining distance betwixt him and the
gaping hold. Then with one foot upon the coaming he raised the
lighted fuse. _Bang! Bang!_ Smith's revolver kicked t w i c e i n
q u i c k succession.

"Got him, by George!" exclaimed the policeman, and the man staggered
and clapped his hand to his chest.

But the exclamation of exultation was changed to one of horror as the
desperate scoundrel, still grasping the spluttering fuse, lurched
forward and disappeared down the hold.




III


[Illustration: Realising he was discovered, the miscreant bounded
over the remaining distance between him and the powder hold, and
raised the lighted fuse.]


FOR fully thirty seconds the policeman and the lads remained rooted
to the spot, gazing with horror-stricken faces at the gaping
hatchway. The momentary expectation of the explosion - the swift
upward blaze of fiery light; the awful concussion, the disintegration
of the hulk, was pictured under fearfully realistic conditions. A
swift death, yet terrible to contemplate.

Even as they waited they saw the fuse, fanned into flame by its
flight, had ignited a part of the hold, and a dull glare was playing
upon the sides of the coamings. Yet the explosion had not taken
place.

Smith was the first to find his voice.

"Perhaps the fire has fallen clear of the cordite," he gasped. "Man
the pump; it's our one chance."

The hose of this relic of years past was fortunately already
connected, and the two lads frantically turned the heavy crank while
the policeman directed the muzzle. Meanwhile Adams had remembered the
extincteurs; but in his excitement he threw them down the hold
without attempting to unscrew the patent heads, and this means of
fighting the flames was absolutely wasted.

But a few revolutions of the pump resulted in a steady flow of water.
The flames turned to smoke, and in a few minutes the danger was
passed.

But now the tardy assistance was at hand. Steam-launches and pinnaces
from the ships in harbour tore pell-mell towards the signals of
distress. Bluejackets, scorning the risk they ran, swarmed up the
decks of the _Bikanir_. Additional hoses were brought into action,
and in less than a quarter of an hour the hold was flooded.

Daylight was now breaking. Jack, pale-faced and breathless, pointed
to where the _Spray_ was now plainly visible, riding to the
flood-tide.

"Let's scoot," said he. "I've had enough of this to last me a
lifetime."

"Smith," exclaimed Armitage, "we're off. Mind, we don't want to be
dragged into this business."

"Very good, sir, and thank'ee for what you've done," replied the man,
earnestly. "I'll tell my mate to keep his mouth shut as far as you
are concerned."

Half an hour later the _Spray_, with her exhausted crew, was beating
up channel towards Flapperham.

* * * * *

Strange to relate, it afterwards transpired that there was not a
pound of explosive on the hulk. A week previously the ordnance people


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Online LibraryPercy F. (Percy Francis) WestermanThree short stories from 'THE CAPTAIN' volume XXVII → online text (page 3 of 4)