A Salt-Horse Sailor

Captain Dingle

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All-Story Weekly, February 10, 1917

A sailor of the old days can't seem to fit into the modern navy and learn new ways.

THE iron had entered into the soul of Joe Biggs. Man and boy he had seen thirty years of hard service in the old navy—real service in the ships manned by horny-handed men, driven by stout canvas on sturdy spars, armed with heavy and ponderous muzzle-loading guns that fetched up on real gun-tackles when they recoiled, and needed real tars to man them.

His obstinate refusal to see the good in any new-fangled notion was the reason for Joe's continuance on the East Indies station. There, where there was still work for small auxiliary ships, cruising after Arab dhows whose owners persisted in waxing fat upon the traffic in slaves, or an occasional pirate, preying on the native coastwise shipping, the steam corvette Thrasher maintained a record for distance covered and service rendered that was quite out of proportion to her tiny coal bill.

Here Joe lorded it as boatswain over able seamen who knew their business. Smart seamanship was paramount in the Thrasher; from handling billowing stu'ns'ls in a zephyr to getting in the flying-jibboom and striking t'gallant masts and yards in a howling typhoon, every wrinkle was at Joe's finger-ends, and officers and crew realized it.

But with a change of commanders came a new order of things that transformed the bo'sun from a hearty old shell-back to a sour, surly, embittered malcontent. For stu'ns'ls were discarded in favor of steam; in place of sail-drill, soap and sand-and-canvas held sway in the Thrasher.

The telescopic smoke-stack was hoisted, and remained up; main and mizzen lower-masts were painted black so as to show no unsightly stains from the smoke. The long, graceful flying-jibboom was taken aboard for good and chopped up for the galley stove. Yards, braced rigidly square, and topmasts and t'gallant-masts, booms and gaff, were polished until the grain of the wood shone in golden splendor.

Every sail was punched and hammered and rolled, until it lay along its spar in faultless symmetry; and the sailmakers, instead of applying their art to cutting and fitting faultlessly setting sails, covered the rolled-up courses and topsails, t'gallants'ls and lofty royals with glossy, white-painted jackets that glistened like polished ivory on the gold of the spars.

Never a sail was set on the Thrasher. The shining blackness of her rigging and the immaculate polish of her spars were to be kept inviolate.

Joe's oldest shipmate could not remember him ever making use of the sailor's privilege to growl, as long as there was sailor's work for sailors. But he developed the habit now. His tough old heart was sorely tried when he ordered his smart topmen aloft, not with marline-spike and fid, not with serving-mallet and topmast-grease; but armed with scourers and polishers, eternal tar-pots and paint.

Still he had moments of ease from his stress; for Captain Bradley was a thorough officer, though a new-school man, and inaugurated a regime of efficiency that included ultrasmart gunnery. Here, at least, the old sea-dog could revel in his beloved gun-tackles, burtons, and pendants; for the new drill embraced dismounting and shifting guns, as well as serving and firing them.

But Joe's disgust at other things was too open to escape the notice of Authority. A temporary lull in the activities of slavers and Arab pirates gave Captain Bradley a chance he had long hoped for, and the Thrasher's course was laid for the nearest harbor possessing a naval dockyard.

The captain was a man of private means and considerable influence with the Powers that Be at home; and, while waiting for a higher command, he was determined to make his ship a synonym for smartness and efficiency if it cost him all his pay and half his income besides. He outlined his plans to the first lieutenant as the ship picked up the loom of Din Head and swung off for Bombay.

“I'll have these heavy useless spars stripped off the ship, Mr. Purdy.” he said. “Perhaps we can pick up three schooner topmasts in the yard: the Thrasher will look smarter with clean, slender topmasts than with all this maze of heavy tops and cumbersome yards; and steam faster, too. Steam's the thing in these days, sir, and I want to see the engine-room staff earn its pay even if I have to buy the coal myself.

“And very likely I can get a couple of the new breech-loading swivel guns. A couple of four-point-seven, hydraulic-jacketed rifles will do the work of our whole battery of eight-inch, muzzle-loading pop-bottles, and do it better.”

“I agree with you, sir,” rejoined the lieutenant readily. “And while you're about it you might apply to have the boatswain exchanged. His usefulness is gone now, and he's letting the whole ship's company know how he feels about the new order of things.

“He's too old to fall in with the modern conditions, and I'm afraid when he sees his beloved square rig sent down forever he'll breed discontent among the men. He's got a lot of influence with the men of his own day, and they are the best part of the crew.”

There was a reminiscent gleam in the skipper's eyes as he replied:

“No, I don't wish to lose Biggs. Joe was the smartest foretopman in my first ship; and every reefer aboard of her, if he was worth his salt, was a better sailor and became a better officer for Joe's teaching and example. How long has he been in this ship?”

“This is his third commission, sir. He's begged to stay out on this station because the Thrasher was still run on the old wind-jammer lines. His time's up in ten months, though. It can't make much difference to him now if he's transferred.”

“On the contrary, I think it will make a great difference,” said Captain Bradley decisively. “He's badly upset now at the changes we've made. When he sees those yards sent ashore he'll probably break out in some disagreeable way. With a new ship and strange officers that would mean his finish in the Service, and he'd most likely get kicked out and lose his pension. No. I'll handle him myself for the little while he's with us, Mr. Purdy, and I'll depend upon you to counteract any small foolishnesses he may be guilty of in the way of audible grumbling. As soon as we're refitted I expect to give all hands such a spell of profitable excitement as will keep even Biggs too busy to nurse a grouch.”

II.

 

A MONTH later the Thrasher steamed past Din Head again, bound up the Gulf, and Joe Biggs sat on the fore-bitts one dog-watch, smoking a reeking cutty-clay and staring moodily aloft at slender, naked masts. His gaze roved down and settled in a frown upon the new breech-loading bow-chaser on the forecastle.

“Gawd's trewth!” he muttered. He removed his short pipe and spat viciously. “No taykles—no kerridge—a bloomin' bore as you can't put yer fist into—and you shoots 'er orf like a perishin' pistol!”

The captain's regard for the old boatswain had been sorely tried before leaving the dockyard. During the operation of fitting the ship with her new rig Joe had stumbled through his work in a daze. The thought of his approaching honorable discharge, with accumulated savings, good-conduct money, and pension had enabled him to refrain from open rebellion. But the last straw was laid upon his endurance when his cherished old guns were slung out and replaced with four modern weapons similar to the one he now regarded with such contempt.

Then he had marched to the captain's cabin, brushing past the sentry and bowling over the steward in his black wrath, and demanded to know where the women were to be berthed.

“What women, Biggs?” the skipper had asked, with a keen, inquiring glance at the boatswain's glittering eyes. He tried to detect signs of aberration.

“What women? Whoy, th' bloomin' 'ousemaids and washerwomen, sir! I s'pose you're a goin' to send the A. B.'s ashore now, as there ain't nothink for sailormen to do, ain't you? Women '11 be cheaper, too, 'specially if you gits black 'uns, same as them as coals ship, sir.”

Then, without waiting for a reply, Joe had stormed out of the cabin again and had spent the rest of the day wondering why he was not sent for to be disrated.

And he had brooded over his lot ever since, until he was no fit companion for men, and his mind was bordering upon mild insanity.

In the first days out of port his black looks and sultry growls only caused his shipmates to grin; but then his manner took an abrupt twist that had the ship in an uproar in short order. Where, before, his orders to clean and scour and polish had been given with visible disgust, now his ardor was hotter if possible than his commander's.

He got Sails to make him a roomy canvas bag in which he stowed a plentiful supply of every kind of cleaning gear. Then, with the bag in hand, he stalked the decks, from orlop to upper deck, from “stow hammocks” to “lights out,” furiously berating every man he saw who was not scouring something.

Was a man smoking, the bo'sun clapped a wad of waste into his hand and commanded him to polish the brass hoops on the spit-kid, or “expectorating-tub,” as Joe insisted it be called now. The door of the skipper's cabin was of teak, painted white; Joe was discovered one noon digging five coats of white enamel from the wood with his knife and, when asked why, explained that he was looking for “some- 'at to polish.”

Captain Bradley tried hard to keep his temper while interviewing Joe; but the dour old bo'sun's uncompromising insolence tried him to the utmost limit. Joe was dismissed with a warning that repetition of such an escapade would be punished.

That evening he bribed the marine who increased his pay by performing barber's work for the crew to place his stool in full view of the quarter-deck; and when the officers came from dinner for their dogwatch smoke, and baldheaded old “Blue Lights,” the gunner, was being shaved, Joe, with all seriousness, went to work and briskly polished the irate gunner's shining pate with a wad of greasy bunting.

It was the last straw. Joe was “dipped” to seaman, and another and younger man shipped the cherished pipes in his place.

Ensued a period when only the skipper's deep regard for the old sea-dog prevented Joe being clapped in irons and disgraced for all time. The Thrasher cruised into the Persian Gulf, working a zig-zag traverse on information received from headquarters that Rasel Java was busy among the coffee dhows in the Ormaz Straits, and all hands found full measure of work in boarding and cutlas drill, and getting the hang of the new guns.

Through it all Joe Biggs performed his duties as a seaman with a sullen thoroughness; his cutlass guard shone with oil-and-brickdust scouring; when his new cleaning bag was taken from him he found means of stowing endless rags away in secret recesses of his clothes. And, hoping to bring the old fellow around to reason again, Captain Bradley had him stationed at the bow gun, thinking that the bustle of action would shake the foolish prejudices out of him.

But Joe had resolutely set his face against progress along the lines established in the Thrasher. He took his place in the gun-crew without a murmur; but one day when a shot was to be fired across the bows of a suspicious dhow, barely in range and sneaking into shoal waters where the corvette could not follow, Joe, before passing the shell into the breech, solemnly hauled out his cleaning-wad and insisted upon carefully polishing the projectile.

Besides losing that dhow, a wave of ridicule was started through the ship, much of it aimed at the regime of ultra-cleanliness that had taken the place of more sailorly duties, and the officers' comments forced the captain to take notice of it. He sent for Biggs, and after a solemn quarter of an hour's lecture Joe was dipped still further.

He was put under the orders of the captain of the hold, and ground out his soul in labor in the sand-tanks.

III.

WITHOUT Joe to lead them, the men speedily lost their sense of humor regarding the ship's routine. They, younger than he, saw things performed now that were impossible under the old system, better things. And the cumbersome “down funnel—up propeller!” of changing from steam to sail on the advent of a slant of fair wind, gave place to a steady rate of steaming that, slow as it was compared with newer types of ships than the Thrasher, nevertheless gave the ship's company a sight of more marauding dhows in a week than had previously been the case in a month.

That is, every man saw them except the ex-bo'sun. He nursed his sour moods in the depths of the hold, and, being out of sight, was temporarily out of mind; his officers, particularly the skipper, had plenty to think about without bothering about him so long as he was quiet.

But in the dog-watches Joe would smoke his short, black clay on the forecastle, his rugged chin sunk in his collar, his outraged eyes seeing visions of ghostly sails set on the naked spars and stays.

Nobody troubled him in these days. All hands seemed to realize that Joe was to be given every chance to complete his service with a clean ticket unless he himself made it impossible.

Matters stood thus when the Thrasher ran into a succession of violent rain-squalls that threshed the sea like small shot. And on the evening of a storm-darkened day she sighted a big dhow, piling on sail for Muscat.

In an interval in the rain-smother another dhow hove in sight, and it was apparent that dhow No. 1 was flying as hard as she could pelt from dhow No. 2. Any doubt was blown away as the report of a brass gun clanged over the troubled sea and a puff of smoke rolled up from the bow of the pursuing dhow.

It was the end of the monsoon season, and as the Thrasher swung around in chase she plunged her stem into a confused sea that shook her to the keelson rivets. The dhows were dead to windward, and many of Joe's old cronies took the opportunity to remark in his ear that the old square rig would be at a disadvantage now.

Joe removed his pipe the better to express his opinion of such turncoats. He remained in a stiff attitude, his pipe clutched in a horny paw, his grim mouth half open, his eyes gleaming with half-belief, as a rattling, crashing rumble volleyed up from the engine-room hatch, and the after-end of the ship was gripped in the convulsions of a racing shaft.

The Thrasher's auxiliary engines, with the two-bladed propeller that lowered and raised in a well, were not calculated for such continuous service as Captain Bradley had given them lately. The locking gear was weak from age; and now, when wanted most, saw fit to part company and drop the boss of the screw into the depths of the Gulf of Oman.

Now where's 'e at?” demanded Joe,

leering triumphantly at his mates. “'E'd give his bloomin' cocked 'at now fer three tawps'ls an' a jib. Ugh! A bloomin' tin-dish navy, that's wot it is! An' 'e's lorst another perishin' fat pirate right under 'is bleedin' beak!”

Seamen and petty officers alike stood helplessly by, and a swift interchange of messages flashed between bridge and engine-room. Then a murmur ran through the crew, and it reached Joe's ears.

“Wot!” he gasped, unbelieving. “'Im a goin' to fall back on sail ? Not 'im, by—”

Joe's wonderment was cut short. The new bo'sun's pipes shrilled fore and aft, and the bosun's mates bellowed:

“'Way—first and second cutters! Bear a hand!”

Joe's pipe fell from his hand and smashed on the deck, while thirty years of training condensed to an intense spark of loyalty to the traditions of his cherished profession, shone from under his shaggy brows. A sweeping curtain of hissing rain hid the scurrying dhows, but the frequent detonations of a brass chase-gun indicated to some degree their position.

Men ran to arms-racks, grabbing cutlas and rifle, and then fell in silently besides their appointed boats while the Thrasher plunged and wallowed heavily in the trough of the sea. With a rapidity that proved the new skipper to be as full of resource as an old-timer, trysails and staysails were roused up from the depleted sail-locker and set on the naked masts to hold the ship under control. The old bo'sun found himself irresistibly drawn to lend a hand, and when the word was passed to lower away the cutters he found himself, gun and cutlass in hand, among the first in the first boat.

Without a word his shipmates made way for him at his old post at the tiller; for many a hard-sailing piece of boat-work had established his almost uncanny skill in sailing a cutter in seas that might well keep a racing catboat-man in the club-house. And Joe, on his part, took his place as a matter of course, all his grievances gone by the board in the prospect of action with the old-style thrill.

“This suits yer better, don't it, Joe?” grinned one of his oldest cronies while they waited for the officer to take charge.

“Huh! Sailor's work. anyway,” growled Joe, seething with impatience. “Only 'ope th' 'ard knocks gits portioned out like the prizemoney—most of 'em to th' orficers, that's all!” he added surlily, as a figure dropped alertly beside him and gave the order to cast off.

Then Joe and all the cutter's crew ceased their chatter in astonishment: for the officer in command of the hazardous boat expedition was the skipper himself— Captain Bradley— who had flashed a quiet searching glance at the old bo'sun's eager face.

“No; stay where you are, Biggs,” he said, as Joe started to clamber forward. “See if you can show the way to the second cutter. You were a good sailor once.”

IV.

 

TWO minutes after leaving the ship's side she was lost in the steaming mist thrown up by the rain. Joe, in the first cutter, had used his long-tried seaman's sense in fixing the direction of the chase, and now, under two full lugs and small jib, he jammed his boat upon a wind and thrilled with anticipation like an old charger at sound of the bugle.

With the tumbling seas boiling in yellow, yeasty heads within a scant inch of the gunwale, the cutter buzzed along into the thick of the teeming rain, the second cutter hanging on to her quarter by dint of closely following old Joe's tactics of sailing.

Minutes sped, and a blanket of silence seemed to have fallen down over the sea, broken only by the insistent pouring of the straight rain. Faces registered doubt as a mile lengthened to two and neared three, with no sign nor sound of the chase.

A hail came down from the midshipman in the second cutter, asking if they had not gone adrift. Captain Bradley looked swiftly into Joe's face, as if in doubt himself. But the old sea-dog's grim visage was set like a teakwood figurehead, his jaw hard and uncompromising, his head bent slightly to one side in an attitude of intent listening.

The brass gun had not barked for a long while, and Joe's course was laid by instinct entirely. But his was no snap judgment; it was nurtured and matured in a school that was ever intolerant of error, demanding in a man efficiency or effacement. After a tense silence, when Captain Bradley began to show his impatience, Joe straightened up, gave the tiller a slight swing, and growled:

“Fore-sheet, there! Here they are. sir— both of 'em. Better git yer boarders ready.”

Still invisible, somewhere off to port sounded the creaking of coir cordage and the crashing grind of two hulls in contact. Shouts of rage and terror rang above all, and, as the cutters sheered in, the clash of weapons punctuated the other cries. And with a suddenness that startled, the rain-squall lightened, a bulky gray shape loomed out of the mist, and pirate and prey were in reach.

“Pirate and prize, too!” breathed the skipper, and in his enthusiasm clapped Joe familiarly on the shoulder. “Good work, bo'sun! Double prize-money for you!”

Then, standing erect, gripping his sword, he motioned to Joe to lay the boat alongside, and called away his boarding party.

“Up with you, lads!” called the captain. “There's promotion for the first man on her decks!”

The cutter swung alongside with a thrashing of sail as her canvas came down, and twelve husky flat-foots crouched for a spring at her low rail. The second cutter was surging up with a smother of bow-wave and a boatful of cheering seamen, and the pirates left the merchant dhow's terrified crew to attend to bigger game. They lined the bulwarks of their vessel, a scowling, spitting crew, armed with murderous, curved scimitars, disdaining the modern, unaccustomed rifles which they were seen to possess.

Captain Bradley leaped as the boat touched, getting a grip on the stock of the great wooden anchor at the bows of the pirate, and his men swarmed after him like monkeys, cutlasses clenched in steel jaws.

A villainous, one-eyed Arab, full six feet of malignity, sprang forward, aiming a cut at the skipper's hand: and Captain Bradley fell back with a curse of irritation at the loss of three useful fingers. He was caught as he fell by a pair of powerful arms, a rocklike chest heaved under the added weight, and he was hoisted bodily over the rail to the dhow's deck; and with him tumbled his ready aide. It was Joe's gruff voice that growled in his ear as he was helped to his feet:

“If that first on deck fer promotion goes, sir, I'm sorry I been such a blighted fool!”

Then the old-time, salt-horse sailor spat on his hands, took a grip on his cutlass, and planted himself solidly in front of the big Arab. What Joe didn't know about the finer points of sword-play would fill a big volume; he adhered too rigidly to the ancient and time-rusted manual exercises to ever shine as a brilliant swordsman; but his years of experience had given him a measure of cunning and more than a few tricks of his own which stood him in good stead now.

He thrilled with awakening reverence for his skipper when he saw him leading the attack aft, ignoring his hurt, and applied himself to his antagonist with keener relish because of it.

The big Arab came down on him with a whirling onslaught of his curved blade, which already dripped red from the guard, and Joe was forced to give ground, swearing luridly the while at the stiffness of his knee-joints.

Twice that gleaming scimitar swept in a whistling arc aimed at his neck. One slashing cut he avoided by nimbly ducking under it, and his own steel bit deep into the Arab's shoulder as he swung with the impetus of his own effort.

The second blow came in a swift, unexpected back-hand sweep, and Joe caught it on a poorly turned blade: he set his teeth savagely as his weapon snapped off half-way, leaving him with the guard and but a foot of steel to hold off his dark-skinned satanically grinning adversary.

Grimly refusing to shout for aid, Joe cast all on a desperate hazard. The Arab circled around him, deliberately playing with him before administering the coup de grace, and the sneering brown face was bent forward mockingly. With a swift, sturdy lunge, Joe charged swords fair at the grinning mouth, hoping with one thrust of his shortened blade to wipe off the smile for all time.

Lithe as a panther, the Arab flashed back; his scimitar flickered almost imperceptibly, and Joe felt a searing, ripping sensation run from collar-bone to ribs. He felt himself sagging as the blood poured from him, and saw above him the gleam of the scimitar raised high for a murderous down-stroke.

Dimly, too, he saw his shipmates standing by, with the skipper in front, and he sensed that they were being held back from interfering. Sounds of fighting were hushed on deck, and he knew the dhow was theirs. And, all as swiftly, the thought flashed upon him that forbidding his mates to jump in and help him was an act of supreme confidence in him, and not indifference to his fate. His situation seemed desperate, but fear found no room in his breast.

The impending death-stroke fell in a flash of light, fair at his crown; and Joe dropped to one knee. With the same motion his sword-arm stiffened upward, the broken blade held rigidly in a square “guard,” and swiftly as the descending stroke the edge of his own poor weapon moved forward and up, catching the Arab's sword-wrist in the full sweep of his blow.

A howl of pain rang in the ears of the bystanders, as the Arab's hand, with sword still clutched tightly in the fingers, clattered to the deck, and the man stood dazed, his life spurting from his wrist in thick jets.

Two seamen seized the pirate, another clapped a ligature around his wrist, and he was put into the cutter, to be taken aboard the Thrasher.

Captain Bradley bent over the old bo'sun. whose wound was bleeding profusely, but who sat dourlv upon the hatch, wrapping his hurt in oakum and his torn shirt in his own old-fashioned way, swearing all the while as only an old salt-horse sailor can swear without in any way meaning to be profane.

“Get aboard the cutter, Biggs.” said the skipper Gently. “Our sawbones can attend to that better than you. It looks as if you and I will be invalided out of the Service, Joe,” and he held up his mutilated hand.

“Yus, an' you'll be hinvalided wi' full rank an' 'onors, sir,” growled Joe, despondently rising. “An' me, wot 'll I git, arter thirty year o' sarvice? Whoy, a bloomin' Hay Bee's pension, wi' a bit hextra fer wounds, I s'pose.”

“You'll be all right, Joe,” replied the skipper, and his eyes looked fair into the I old seaman's. “You've redeemed yourself to-day. I'll see that you get your discharge according to your proper rating.”

Joe Biggs hesitated as he walked to the rail. He saw the prize-crew clambering back to the dhow, after getting their bags from the boats, and knew that with his proper rating he would be entrusted with the carrying into a prize port of the capture. His eyes shone with a half-hopeful, half-fearful light, and he asked the skipper:

“There ain't none o' these young 'uns I knows how to sail a dhow, sir. An' you ain't got nothink fer a old sailor to do in the Thrasher; th' boys is enough to h'ist them dinky little trys'ls. Can't I take this pirut in, sir? It'll about round out my time, an' I'd rather finish it out in sarvice than be hemptied out fer a bit of a scratch like I got.”

 

V.

THE Thrasher had swung off before the wind, which was fair across the Gulf for Karachi, and Captain Bradley and Mr. Purdy were watching the fading blur of the pirate dhow as night closed down.

“They don't make them in these days, Mr. Purdy,” the skipper was saying. “I could see the bone of his ribs in that sword cut! And there he was, calmly stuffing oakum into it and wrapping it in his shirt; and preferred to finish his time in service to being invalided for a scratch like that! Eh? New boatswain? Of course Biggs gets his old rating back; I'd rather lose the rest of my fingers than withhold it. You just tell the new man that he'll have to be disrated again until Joe's time is up, but that—tell him this quietly, mind— his pay will go on as boatswain just the same. I'll see to that.”

And Lieutenant Purdy grinned as he walked away and muttered:

“Brothers in arms! Bradley's one of the old salt-horse navy, too! But, then, he's not too old to learn new tricks.”