CHAPTER XVI

THE NIGHT ATTACK

    The captain and I were in the wheelhouse when the attack came.  It must have been an hour past midnight of a gentle starry night, without the faintest breath of wind in the air.  Ever since dark the vibration of the propeller had ceased.
     No doubt the charge was intended for a surprise, but we had half a minute of warning.  Dimly I could make out figures moving tiptoe at the head of the stairway.  Three times I flashed a lantern in signal to our friends.  Almost simultaneously came the rush along the deck.
     This time they took cover as they advanced, scattering like a covey of young quail.  One dropped behind a boat here, another there.  Some crouched close to the deckhouse.  Bullets sang about our ears from invisible foes.
     It looked as if their intention was to pick us off without exposing themselves.  The thing could be done too.  For a rifle ball would tear through the flimsy woodwork of our shelter as if it had been paper.
     "We've got to get out of here," I told my friend.
     "Confound it, yes.  But where shall we go?"
     "What's that?  Listen, Sam."
     From below and to the left of us there came a sound as of some one moving.  We could hear stealthy voices in animated whisper.
     "I see their game," Blythe murmured in my ear.   "Those fellows on deck are to keep us busy pot-shotting us while the rest climb up from below and close with us when we're not looking."
     A bullet zipped through a window and left a little round hole.   It must have passed between our heads.
     "Hot work," said the Englishman coolly, putting down his rifle and taking up a revolver and a cutlas.  "We'd better sally out and have a look at the gentlemen who are climbing up the stanchions.  You take that side and I'll take this."
     We were not a moment too soon.  As I peered over the bridge rail an outstretched hand was reaching for a hold.  Instantly it was withdrawn.   The moonlight poured like a spotlight on the uplifted face of the sailor Neidlinger.  Never have I seen a look more expressive of stupid, baffled surprise.   His mouth was open, his eyes popping.  But when I made a motion to aim my revolver he slid down the stanchion with a rush, knocking over the fellow supporting him from below.
     I paid no more attention to him, for the feet of those who had been shooting at us were already scurrying forward.
     "Blythe," I called in warning.
     But the captain was engaged with a mutineer who had climbed up in the way Neidlinger had attempted.  A second man—and I saw in an instant that it was Caine—was astride the rail on his way to support the first.  Half way over he had stopped to take a shot at Sam.
     I fired from my hip without waiting to take aim.  It was the luckiest shot of my life.  The boatswain's shoulders sagged, his fingers relaxed so that the weapon clattered on the floor, and slowly his figure swayed outward.  There was no grip to his knees.  He toppled overboard, head first.  I heard the plop as his body dived into the sea.
     Blythe cut down his man at the same instant.
     "Back to the wheelhouse," I shouted.
     We were barely in time.  They came crowding in on us pell-mell.  We had already switched off the light.  Now the lantern was dashed to pieces by trampling heels.
     I was flung back against the wheel and the revolver knocked from my hand.  Sinewy fingers gripped my throat and forced me down until I thought my back would break.  Close to my ear a gun exploded.  The pressure on my jugular relaxed instantly.  The body of my opponent sand slowly to the floor and lay there limp.
     I took a long breath, leaped across the prostrate figure, and flung myself upon another.  We struggled.  I became aware that we had the room to ourselves.  The others were fighting outside.
     The vessel had fallen into the trough of the waves.  In one of its lurches the moon flooded the place with light.
     "Sam!" I cried, and he "Jack!"
     In the darkness we had mistaken each other for the enemy.
Catching up a cutlas I followed him into the open.  Our friends had come and gone again.  To say that they were going would be more accurate.  For they were now in full flight, the pack of wolves in chase.
     A few moments earlier and we might have saved the day.  Now we could only pursue the pursuers.
     Blythe leaped down the steps, revolver in hand.  I followed, but my foot caught on a body lying at the foot of the ladder.  A hand caught my coat.
     "Gimme a lift, partner," asked a voice.
     You, Tom?" I cried, helping him up.  "Hurt, are you?"
     "Knocked in the head.  A bit groggy.  That's all."
     The delay made me a witness rather than an actor in the dénouement.  Our friends had disappeared within the saloon and slammed the door.   The foremost mutineer reached it, tried the handle, and threw his weight against the panels.  The others came to his assistance.  A revolver shot through the door dropped one of them.  The others fell back at once.
     They met Blythe.  A stoker swung a cutlas and rushed for him.  Full in the forehead a bullet from the captain's revolver crashed into his brain.  Like a football tackler the body plunged forward to Sam's feet.
     For a moment nobody moved or spoke.  Then,
     "My God!" groaned Henry Fleming.
     I cannot account for it.  These men had been brave enough in the thick of the fight while facing numbers not so very inferior to their own.  But now, standing there three to one, it seemed as if some wave of horror sickened them at sight of the lifeless body plunging along the deck.
     They stood there with eyes distended, while Blythe, grimly erect, faced them as motionless as a statue.
     "Gawd, I've 'ad enough," the cook gasped, and got his fat bulk to the stairway with incredible swiftness.
     The others were at his heel, fighting for the first chance down.
     A bullet clipped the deck in front of me.  I looked up hastily to see Bothwell's malevolent face in the wheel-house window.
     "Turn about, Mr. Sedgwick," he jeered, and let fly again.
     Half dragging him with me, I got Yeager into the shadow.
     "Got a revolver?" I whispered.
     "Yes."  He felt for it in the darkness.   "Damn!  I must 'a dropped it when Bothwell hit me over the coconut."
     "Are you good for a run to the saloon?  He'll pick us off just as soon as the moon comes out from behind that cloud."
     A bullet took a splinter from the rail beside me.
     "We'd better toddle," agreed the cattleman.   "Go ahead."
     I scudded for safety, Yeager at my heals.  We reached the door of the saloon just as the captain did.
     "Let us in.  Captain Blythe and friends," I cried, hammering on a panel.
     Some one unlocked the door.  It was Dugan.
     "You here?" I exclaimed.
     "Yes, sir.  I heard the shooting and came up just in time to lock the door on Mack.  Think I wounded him through the door afterward, sir."
     "Any of our men short?" Blythe asked quickly, glancing around with the keen, quiet eye of a soldier.
     Alderson spoke up.
     "Fleming cut Blue down as we tried to force the stops, sir."
     "Killed him, you think?"
     "No doubt of it, sir."
     "Any more lost?"
     We did not notice it till a few minutes later, but little Jimmie Welch was missing.  None of us was seriously wounded in the scrimmage, though nearly all had marks to show.  Even Philips had a testimonial of valor in the form of a badly swollen eye.
     "They've suffered more than we have.  Check up, my men.   Mack, dead or badly wounded, shot by Dugan.  Can you name any, Alderson?"
     "Only Sutton, sir, that you killed out here.  There was a man lying on the bridge when we got there.  Don't know who, sir."
     "Tot Dennis," answered Blythe, who had cut him down at the same time when I disposed of the boatswain.
     I mentioned Caine.
     "Didn't you finish another in the wheel-house, Jack?"
     "I didn't.  You did."
     The captain shook his head.
     "You're wrong about that.  Must have been you."
     This puzzled me at the time, but we learned later that the man—he turned out to be the stoker Billie Blue had dirked in the first fight—had been killed by an unexpected ally who joined us later.
     "Counting Mack, they've lost five to our one," Sam summed up.
     "Hope they've got a bellyful by this time," I said bitterly.
     "They've won the wheel—for the present.  But that's unimportant.  Bothwell can't hold it.  We'll starve him out.   Practically it's our fight."
     What our captain said was quite true.  Even if Bothwell could have solved the food problem and the question of sleep, he dared not leave his allies too long alone for fear they might make terms and surrender.
     For we had beaten them again.  They had left now only seven men (not counting Mack), at least two of whom were wounded.  This was exactly the same number that we had.  Whereas the odds had been against us, now they were very much in our favor when one considered morale and quality.
     At Blythe's words we raised a cheer.  I have heard heartier ones, for we were pretty badly battered up.  But that cheer—so we heard later—put the final touch to the depression of the mutineers.
     "Mr. Sedgwick, will you kindly step down-stairs and notify the ladies that the day is ours?  Get me some water, Morgan, and I'll take a look at Mr. Yeager's head.  Philips, find Jimmie.  Alderson, will you keep guard for the present?  You'd better get back to bed, Dugan.  I want to say that each one of you deserves a medal.  If the treasure is ever found I promise, on behalf of Miss Wallace, that every honest man shall share in it."
     At this there was a second cheer and we scattered to obey orders.
     When I knocked on the door of Miss Wallace's stateroom a shaky voice answered.
     "Who is there?"
     "It is I—Sedgwick."
     The door opened.  Evelyn, very pale was standing before me with a little revolver in her hand.  She wore a kind of kimono of some gray stuff, loose about the beautifully modeled throat, in which just now a pulse was beating fast.   Sandals were on her feet, and from beneath the gown her toes peeped.
     "What is it?  Tell me," she breathed in a whisper, her finger on her lips.
     I judged that her aunt had slept through the  noise of the firing.
     "They attacked us on the bridge again.  We had the best of it."
     "Is anybody—hurt?" she asked tremulously.
     "Five of them have been killed or badly wounded.  We lost Billie Blue, poor fellow."
     "Dead?" her white lips framed.
     "I'm afraid so."
     "Nobody else?"
     I hesitated.
     "Little Jimmie is missing.  We are afraid—"
     Tears filled her eyes and brimmed over.
     "Poor Jimmie!"
     "I'll not swear that the back of my eyes did not scorch with hot tears too.  I thought of the likable little Arab, red-headed, freckled and homely, and I blamed myself bitterly that I had ever let him rejoin us at Lost Angeles.
     "He wouldn't have come if it hadn't been for me.  I asked you to let," the young woman reproached herself.
     "It isn't your fault.  You meant it for the best."
     Of a sudden she turned half from me and leaned against the door-jamb, covering her face with her hands.  He was sobbing very softly.
     I put my arm across her shoulders and petted her awkwardly.   Presently she crowded back the sobs and whispered brokenly, not to me, but as a relief to her surcharged feelings.
     "This dreadful ship of death!  This dreadful ship!   Why did I ever lead true men to their deaths for that wicked treasure?"
     I do not know how it happened, but in her wretchedness the girl swayed toward me every so slightly.  My arms went round her protectingly.  For an instant her body came to me in sweet surrender, the soft curves of her supple figure relaxed in weariness.  Then she pushed me from her gently.
     "Not now—not now."
     I faced a closed door, but as I went up the companionway with elastic heels my heart sang jubilantly.