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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesMystery - Part Two. The Brass Bound Chest - Chapter 12. "Old Scrubs" Comes Ashore
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Mystery - Part Two. The Brass Bound Chest - Chapter 12. 'Old Scrubs' Comes Ashore Post by :Bruce_McCormick Category :Long Stories Author :Samuel Hopkins Adams Date :May 2012 Read :2442

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Mystery - Part Two. The Brass Bound Chest - Chapter 12. "Old Scrubs" Comes Ashore


The inevitable happened. One noon Pulz looked up from his labour of pulling the whiskers from the evil-smelling masks.

"How many of these damn things we got?" he inquired.

"About three hunder' and fifty," Thrackles replied.

"Well, we've got enough for me. I'm sick of this job. It stinks."

They looked at each other. I could see the disgust rising in their eyes, the reek of rotten blubber expanding their nostrils. With one accord they cast aside the masks.

"It ain't such a hell of a fortune," growled Pulz, his evil little white face thrust forward. "There's other things worth all the seal trimmin's of the islands."

"Diamon's," gloomed the Nigger.

"You've hit it, Doctor," cut in Solomon.

There we were again, back to the old difficulty, only worse. Idleness descended on us again. We grew touchy on little things, as a misplaced plate, a shortage of firewood, too deep a draught at the nearly empty bucket. The noise of bickering became as constant as the noise of the surf. If we valued peace, we kept our mouths shut. The way a man spat, or ate, or slept, or even breathed became a cause of irritation to every other member of the company. We stood the outrage as long as we could; then we objected in a wild and ridiculous explosion which communicated its heat to the object of our wrath. Then there was a fight. It needed only liquor to complete the deplorable state of affairs.

Gradually the smaller things came to worry us more and more. A certain harmless singer of the cricket or perhaps of the tree-toad variety used to chirp his innocent note a short distance from our cabin. For all I know he had done so from the moment of our installation, but I had never noticed him before. Now I caught myself listening for his irregular recurrence with every nerve on the quiver. If he delayed by ever so little, it was an agony; yet when he did pipe up, his feeble strain struck to my heart cold and paralysing like a dagger. And with every advancing minute of the night I became broader awake, more tense, fairly sweating with nervousness. One night--good God, was it only last week? ... it seems ages ago, another existence ... a state cut off from this by the wonder of a transmigration, at least ... Last week!

I did not sleep at all. The moon had risen, had mounted the heavens, and now was sailing overhead. By the fretwork of its radiance through the chinks of our rudely-built cabin I had marked off the hours. A thunderstorm rumbled and flashed, hull down over the horizon. It was many miles distant, and yet I do not doubt that its electrical influence had dried the moisture of our equanimity, leaving us rattling husks for the winds of destiny to play upon. Certainly I can remember no other time, in a rather wide experience, when I have felt myself more on edge, more choked with the restless, purposeless nervous energy that leaves a man's tongue parched and his eyes staring. And still that infernal cricket, or whatever it was, chirped.

I had thought myself alone in my vigil, but when finally I could stand it no longer, and kicked aside my covering with an oath of protest, I was surprised to hear it echoed from all about me.

"Damn that cricket!" I cried.

And the dead shadows stirred from the bunks, and the hollow-eyed victims of insomnia crept out to curse their tormentor. We organised an expedition to hunt him down. It was ridiculous enough, six strong men prowling for the life of one poor little insect. We did not find him, however, though we succeeded in silencing him. But no sooner were we back in our bunks than he began it again, and such was the turmoil of our nerves that day found us sitting wan about a fire, hugging our knees.

We were so genuinely emptied, not so much by the cricket as by the two years of fermentation, that not one of us stirred toward breakfast, in fact not one of us moved from the listless attitude in which day found him, until after nine o'clock. Then we pulled ourselves together and cooked coffee and salt horse. As a significant fact, the Nigger left the dishes unwashed, and no one cared.

Handy Solomon finally shook himself and arose.

"I'm sick of this," said he, "I'm goin' seal-hunting."

They arose without a word. They were sick of it, too, sick to death. We were a silent, gloomy crew indeed as we thrust the surf boat afloat, clambered in, and shipped the oars. No one spoke a word; no one had a comment to make, even when we saw the rookery slide into the water while we were still fifty yards from the beach. We pulled back slowly along the coast. Beyond the rock we made out the entrance to the dry cave.

"There's seal in there," cried Handy Solomon, "lots of 'em!"

He thrust the rudder over, and we headed for the cave. No one expressed an opinion.

As it was again high tide, we rowed in to the steep shore inside the cave's mouth and beached the boat. The place was full of seals; we could hear them bellowing.

"Two of you stand here," shouted Handy Solomon, "and take them as they go out. We'll go in and scare 'em down to you."

"They'll run over us," screamed Pulz.

"No, they won't. You can dodge up the sides when they go by."

This was indeed well possible, so we gripped our clubs and ventured into the darkness.

We advanced four abreast, for the cave was wide enough for that. As we penetrated, the bellowing and barking became more deafening. It was impossible to see anything, although we _felt an indistinguishable tumbling mass receding before our footsteps. Thrackles swore violently as he stumbled over a laggard. With uncanny abruptness the black wall of darkness in front of us was alive with fiery eyeballs. The seals had reached the end of the cave and had turned toward us. We, too, stopped, a little uncertain as to how to proceed.

The first plan had been to get behind the band and to drive it slowly toward the entrance to the cave. This was now seen to be impossible. The cavern was too narrow; its sides at this point too steep, and the animals too thickly congested. Our eyes, becoming accustomed to the twilight, now began to make out dimly the individual bodies of the seals and the general configuration of the rocks. One big boulder lay directly in our path, like an island in the shale of the cave's floor. Perdosa stepped to the top of it for a better look. The men attempted to communicate their ideas of what was to be done, but could not make themselves heard above the uproar. I could see their faces contorting with the fury of being baffled. A big bull made a dash to get by; all the herd flippered after him. If he had won past they would have followed as obstinately as sheep, and nothing could have stopped them, but the big bull went down beneath the clubs. Thrackles hit the animal two vindictive blows after it had succumbed.

This settled the revolt, and we stood as before. Pulz and Handy Solomon tried to converse by signs, but evidently failed, for their faces showed angry in the twilight. Perdosa, on his rock, rolled and lit a cigarette. Thrackles paced to and fro, and the Nigger leaned on his club, farther down the cave. They had been left at the entrance, but now in lack of results had joined their companions.

Now Thrackles approached and screamed himself black trying to impart some plan. He failed; but stooped and picked up a stone and threw it into the mass of seals. The others understood. A shower of stones followed. The animals milled like cattle, bellowed the louder, but would not face their tormentors. Finally an old cow flopped by in a panic. I thought they would have let her go, but she died a little beyond the bull. No more followed, although the men threw stones as fast and hard as they were able. Their faces were livid with anger, like that of an evil-tempered man with an obstinate horse.

Suddenly Handy Solomon put his head down, and with a roar distinctly audible even above the din that filled the cave, charged directly into the herd. I saw the beasts cringe before him; I saw his club rising and falling indiscriminately; and then the whole back of the cave seemed to rise and come at us.

This was no chance of sport now, but a struggle for very life. We realised that once down there would be no hope, for while the seals were more anxious to escape than to fight, we knew that their jaws were powerful. There was no time to pick and choose. We hit out with all the strength and quickness we possessed. It was like a bad dream, like struggling with an elusive hydra-headed monster, knee high, invulnerable. We hit, but without apparent effect. New heads rose, the press behind increased. We gave ground. We staggered, struggling desperately to keep our feet.

How long this lasted I cannot tell. It seemed hours. I know my arms became leaden from swinging my club; my eyes were full of sweat; my breath gasped. A sharp pain in my knee nearly doubled me to the ground and yet I remember clamping to the thought that I must keep my feet, keep my feet at any cost. Then all at once I recalled the fact that I was armed. I jerked out the short-barrelled Colt's 45 and turned it loose in their faces.

Whether the flash and detonation frightened them; whether Perdosa, still clinging to his rock, managed to turn their attention by his flanking efforts, or whether, quite simply, the wall of dead finally turned them back, I do not know, but with one accord they gave over the attempt.

I looked at once for Handy Solomon, and was surprised to see him still alive, standing upright on a ledge the other side of the herd. His clothing was literally torn to shreds, and he was covered with blood. But in this plight he was not alone, for when I turned toward my companions they, too, were tattered, torn, and gory. We were a dreadful crew, standing there in the half-light, our chests heaving, our rags dripping red.

For perhaps ten seconds no one moved. Then with a yell of demoniac rage my companions clambered over the rampart of dead seals and attacked the herd.

The seals were now cowed and defenceless. It was a slaughter, and the most debauching and brutal I have ever known. I had hit out with the rest when it had been a question of defence, but from this I turned aside in a sick loathing. The men seemed possessed of devils, and of their unnatural energy. Perdosa cast aside the club and took to his natural weapon, the knife.

I can see him yet rolling over and over embracing a big cow, his head jammed in an ecstasy of ferocity between the animal's front flippers, his legs clasped to hold her body, only his right arm rising and falling as he plunged his knife again and again. She struggled, turning him over and under, wept great tears, and fairly whined with terror and pain. Finally she was still, and Perdosa staggered to his feet, only to stare about him drunkenly for a moment before throwing himself with a screech on another victim.

The Nigger alone did not jump into the turmoil. He stood just down the cave, his club ready. Occasionally a disorganised rush to escape would be made. The Nigger's lips snarled, and with a truly mad enjoyment he beat the poor animals back.

I pressed against the wall horrified, fascinated, unable either to interfere or to leave. A close, sticky smell took possession of the air. After a little a tiny stream, growing each moment, began to flow past my feet. It sought its channel daintily, as streamlets do, feeling among the stones in eddies, quiet pools, miniature falls, and rapids. For the moment I did not realise what it could be. Then the light caught it down where the Nigger waited, and I saw it was red.

At first the racket of the seals was overpowering. Now, gradually, it was losing volume. I began to hear the blasphemies, ferocious cries, screams of anger hurled against the cave walls by the men. The thick, sticky smell grew stronger; the light seemed to grow dimmer, as though it could not burn in that fetid air. A seal came and looked up at me, big tears rolling from her eyes; then she flippered aimlessly away, out of her poor wits with terror. The sight finished me. I staggered down the length of the black tunnel to the boat.

After a long interval a little three months' pup waddled down to the water's edge, caught sight of me, and with a squeal of fright dived far. Poor little devil! I would not have hurt him for worlds. As far as I know this was the only survivor of all that herd.

The men soon appeared, one by one, tired, sleepy-eyed, glutted, walking in a cat-like trance of satiety. They were blood and tatters from head to foot, and from drying red masks peered their bloodshot eyes. Not a word said they, but tumbled into the boat, pushed off, and in a moment we were floating in the full sunshine again. We rowed home in an abstraction. For the moment Berserker rage had burned itself out. Handy Solomon continually wetted his lips, like an animal licking its chops. Thrackles stared into space through eyes drugged with killing. No one spoke.

We landed in the cove, and were surprised to find it in shadow. The afternoon was far advanced. Over the hill we dragged ourselves, and down to the spring. There the men threw themselves flat and drank in great gulps until they could drink no more. We built a fire, but the Nigger refused to cook.

"Someone else turn," he growled, "I cook aboard ship."

Perdosa, who had hewed the fuel, at once became angry.

"I cut heem de wood!" he said, "I do my share; eef I cut heem de wood you mus' cook heem de grub!"

But the Nigger shook his head, and Perdosa went into an ecstasy of rage. He kicked the fire to pieces; he scattered the unburned wood up and down the beach; he even threw some of it into the sea.

"Eef you no cook heem de grub, you no hab my wood!" he shrieked, with enough oaths to sink his soul.

Finally Pulz interfered.

"Here you damn foreigners," said he, "quit it! Let up, I say! We got to eat. You let that wood alone, or you'll pick it up again!"

Perdosa sprang at him with a screech. Pulz was small but nimble, and understood rough and tumble fighting. He met Perdosa's rush with two swift blows--a short arm jab and an upper-cut. Then they clinched, and in a moment were rolling over and over just beyond the wash of the surf.

The row waked the Nigger from his sullen abstraction. He seemed to come to himself with a start; his eye fell surprisedly on the combatants, then lit up with an unholy joy. He drew his knife and crept down on the fighters. It was too good an opportunity to pay off the Mexican.

But Thrackles interfered sharply.

"Come off!" he commanded. "None o' that!"

"Go to hell!" growled the Nigger.

A great rage fell on them all, blind and terrible, like that leading to the slaughter of the seals. They fought indiscriminately, hitting at each other with fists and knives. It was difficult to tell who was against whom. The sound of heavy breathing, dull blows, the tear of cloth; and grunts of punishment received; the swirl of the sand, the heave of struggling bodies, all riveted my attention, so that I did not see Captain Ezra Selover until he stood almost at my elbow. "Stop!" he shrieked in his high, falsetto voice.

And would you believe it, even through the blood haze of their combat the men heard him, and heeded. They drew reluctantly apart, got to their feet, stood looking at him through reeking brows half submissive and half defiant. The bull-headed Thrackles even took a half step forward, but froze in his tracks when Old Scrubs looked at him.

"I hire you men to fight when I tell you to, and only then," said the captain sternly. "What does this mean?"

He menaced them one after another with his eyes, and one after another they quailed. All their plottings, their threats, their dangerousness dissipated like mist before the command of this one resolute man. These pirates who had seemed so dreadful to me, now were nothing more than cringing schoolboys before their master.

And then suddenly to my horror I, watching closely, saw the captain's eye turn blank. I am sure the men must have felt the change, though certainly they were too far away to see it, for they shifted by ever so little from their first frozen attitude. The captain's hand sought his pocket, and they froze again, but instead of the expected revolver, he produced a half-full brandy bottle.

The change in his eyes had crept into his features. They had turned foolishly amiable, vacant, confiding.

"'llo boys," said he appealingly, "you good fellowsh, ain't you? Have a drink. 'S good stuff. Good ol' bottl'," he lurched, caught himself, and advanced toward them, still with the empty smile.

They stared at him for ten seconds, quite at a loss. Then:

"By God, he's drunk!" Handy Solomon breathed, scarcely louder than a whisper.

There was no other signal given. They sprang as with a single impulse. One instant I saw clear against the waning daylight the bulky, foolish-swaying form of Captain Selover: the next it had disappeared, carried down and obliterated by the rush of attacking bodies. Knives gleamed ruddy in the sunset. There was no struggle. I heard a deep groan. Then the murderers rose slowly to their feet.

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