THE DESERTERS

“Ah! Here you are,” said Ben, who had moved up as close to the galley as
he could get. “You have come to hear how I got aboard this craft,
haven’t you?”

“Where did you get your pipe?” asked Bob, seeing that Ben was puffing
industriously at a well-blackened briar-root which Bob had never seen
him use before.

“I got it of one of the sailors,” said Ben. “Say, Joe Lufkin didn’t
bring you aboard here in broad daylight?”

“No, he did not,” replied Bob, indignantly. “He waited until after dark,
and then knocked me down.”

“Well, he brought me off here before noon,” said Ben, who got so angry
when he spoke of the circumstance that it was all he could do to make
himself understood. “He knocked me down in daylight and brought me
here.”

“Why, how did that come? I didn’t suppose there was a man in the world
that could do that to you.”

“He did it, and he did it as slick as grease, too,” said Ben, pulling
off his hat and digging his fingers into his hair. “Oh, don’t I wish I
could see that man now!”

With this introduction Ben went on and told the story of his capture.
There wasn’t much to tell, of course, for he did not remember a thing
after he permitted Joe to come close to him. The next thing he knew he
was in the bunk in the forecastle, with an aching head and a stomach
that was parched for water.

“I’ve got over that now, and I am all right again,” said Ben. “I only
wish I was sitting on my own porch.”

“That man must have a power of muscle,” said Bob, who was astonished at
the ease with which Ben had been captured. “But I don’t know but he made
a prisoner of me just as easy. I was standing just inside of the gate
looking for you, and he said there was something he wanted to speak with
me about, and when I turned to lead him to the porch, that was all I
knew. I wonder what Hank will say when he knows what his father has been
guilty of?”

“We don’t care for Hank,” said Ben, hotly. “His father has been guilty
of murder in the first degree, and we’ll jug him for that. But first I
must have the opportunity of pounding him. I’ll prove to him that Ben
Watson ain’t the easy man to get away with that he supposed.”

“I don’t know that we can arrest him for murder in the first degree,”
began Bob, smiling when he thought of such a thing.

“I’d like to know if he wasn’t guilty of murder when he sent us off
here?” said Ben. “How did he know but that the mates would knock us
overboard if they got half a chance? How did he know but that they would
haze us until we would be glad to go to Davy Jones’s locker? I tell you
one thing, Bob, the mates ain’t half so bad as folks allow. I believe we
will be treated all right as long as we do our duty. The mates are down
on anything that looks like sojering, but they will do fair if we only
jump when we hear the word. They have a crew of sailor-men here, and
they know it.”

“Why, then, you ain’t going to desert?” said Bob.

“Yes, I am, if you will go; but if you won’t, I won’t. Let me tell you:
This vessel has a miscellaneous cargo aboard, and is bound on a trading
voyage among the islands of the South Pacific. When we strike one of
those islands we’ll skip.”

“That’s me. I wish we were there to-night.”

“Don’t the darky treat you all right?”

“Yes; but I am not used to being ordered around by such a fellow as that
second mate. But still I have got to take what is in store for me.”

“That’s sensible. Do whatever you are ordered, and don’t make any fuss
about it. I will put myself out to give you an insight into your duties,
and, as we belong to the same watch, I will promise to be on hand
whenever I can to assist in any work you may have to do. I’ll keep you
out of the hands of the mate.”

“By the way, Ben, have you any clothes for your bunk?”

“I have,” replied the old sailor. “I got them of some of the men, and I
guess I shall have to go to them to get a change of duds, for there is
no slop-chest aboard.”

“I got some of the cook. I wonder what my father would say if he knew
where I am? I promised that I would never go to sea, and here I am, a
sailor in spite of myself.”

“Your father didn’t know that you had some enemies at home who would
help you go to sea,” said Ben. “If he had, he might have told you to
look out for them.”

If time and space would permit we might tell of many interesting and
some thrilling events which happened during the next few months, all of
which Bob witnessed, and in several of which he was the principal actor;
but when one reads a story of the sea it is like telling it over again.
The sailors were treated on this voyage no worse than they were on any
other voyage they ever made—not even during the hurricane off the
Mauritius, when a belaying-pin from the mate’s hand and a sailor
disappeared at the same time and were never heard of afterward. It was
an accident, and the second mate so reported it; but such “accidents”
did not happen every day, and Bob, who saw the whole proceeding, was
anxious to get out of the power of such a man. But such incidents as
these must be hurried over, because they have no bearing on our story.
It will be enough to say that the J. W. Smart passed the Cape, went
safely through the hurricane of which we have spoken, and a few days
later made her first stop at a small, uninhabited island, to refill the
water-casks, which the captain had emptied to lighten the ship during
the gale.

It was night when they got there, and Bob and old Ben, who stood the
first anchor watch, seriously discussed something they had often talked
of during the voyage—desertion. They did not decide upon anything
definite that night, but Ben promised to think it over and be ready on
the following morning with a plan that would surely succeed. This
assurance enabled Bob to carry to bed with him a lighter heart than he
had known for many a day.

“Doctor, I’m going off now,” said he, as he met his friend and ally in
the galley. The negro had often talked to him of desertion, and
sometimes, when Bob thought it too hard to undertake, he had always gone
to work to cheer him up.

“‘Fore de land!” he exclaimed, rolling the whites of his eyes up in
delight. “But I ain’t seed you get in de boat yet.”

“No, but I am going to get in one when it is called away.”

“Yes; but do you know what de mate will say to you when he sees you in
that boat? He say: ‘Here, you boy, you can’t pull an oar alongside of
them big fellers. You get out and let a white man get in dar.’ Yes, sir,
dat’s what he will say to you. My only trouble is that he will want you
to help me, an’ won’t let you go off.”

Early the next morning, after a hasty breakfast had been disposed of,
the order was given to hoist out the water-casks, and while it was being
obeyed Ben found opportunity to whisper some instructions to Bob.

“As soon as the casks are in the water a boat will be called away to tow
them up the creek,” said Ben, “and you and I must be two of the crew.
While the casks are being filled we’ll watch our chance and slip away,
one at a time, and hide in the bushes until the ship sails.”

“And what will we do then?” asked Bob. “Stay here on the island and
starve to death? I see no signs of inhabitants.”

“Neither do I; but I would rather starve ashore than be sent overboard
by a belaying-pin, as that fellow was served off the Mauritius. No one
has said a word to me, but I know we are not the only ones who think of
deserting. Be sure you make one of that boat’s crew.”

The first mate, who was superintending the operation of getting the
casks into the water, very soon became aware that he had a boy there
whom he had not seen very often during the voyage. He was an easy-going
fellow, very different from the second mate, who went about trying to
find fault with the men, and pretty soon he called out to Bob:

“Here, boy, don’t you belong in the galley?”

“Yes, sir,” promptly replied Bob, releasing his hold upon the rope and
stepping up in front of the mate.

“If you please, sar, I can get along widout him,” said the cook,
stepping up and pulling his topknot. “De boy hasn’t been to sea so long
before, an’ he’s anxious to get ashore an’ stretch his legs.”

The mate said no more, and Bob returned to his work of hoisting out the
casks.

“Bully for the first mate,” he said to himself. “If the second mate had
spoken to me he would have sent me into the galley, sure. Now, if I can
get into the boat I’m all right.”

At the end of two hours the last cask had been hoisted from the hold,
and while it was being lowered into the water Bob and Ben, anticipating
the next order, began to overhaul the cutter’s falls; and when the mate
told the crew to lay aft and lower away, they sprang in, one at the bow
and the other at the stern, to unhook the falls when she touched the
water. As Ben had expected, almost every hand volunteered when a crew
was called for to man the cutter—so many that the mate was obliged to
order some of them back, and Ben felt not a little alarmed lest one of
the brawny fellows should be ordered to take Bob’s place, and the latter
be compelled to remain on board. But nothing of the kind happened. The
captain kept a sharp eye on him as the boat was being rowed around the
vessel to the long line of water-casks, but seeing that he knew how to
handle an oar he allowed him to keep his place.

Bob had always plumed himself on being a good and enduring oarsman, but
on this occasion his powers were tested to the utmost. The sun was
broiling hot even at that early hour; the tow was a heavy one, and the
officer in charge of the boat was constantly urging the crew to greater
exertions, now and then casting his eyes over his shoulder toward a bank
of clouds that was slowly rising above the horizon. Bob was seaman
enough to know that those clouds might prove friends to him and Ben.
There was wind in them, and when it came the ship would be obliged to
put to sea or run the risk of being dashed on a lee shore.

After following the windings of the creek for a mile or more, the mate
drew up alongside the bank and the work of filling the casks began. It
was brackish water, as Bob found when he came to taste of it, but it
would do them until they reached a place where they could get better.
The officer had doubtless been instructed by his superior to keep a
sharp eye on the men while they were thus engaged; at any rate, he did
so, stationing himself on the bank above them, where he could see all
their movements. Bob’s heart sank within him as the work progressed
without any signs of decreasing watchfulness on the part of the officer,
and he had almost made up his mind that he had to go back on board the
ship and abandon all idea of going home, when, as he happened to cast
his eye toward the upper end of the line, where Ben had been at work, he
was surprised to find that he was not in sight. He had found opportunity
to slip away unobserved.

[Illustration: THE ESCAPE.]

“By George! Ben has made it,” said he, and his heart beat like a
trip-hammer. “Now, what is the reason I am not as sharp as Ben? I am
going to try it. That officer can’t any more than shoot at me, and I
will bet he don’t hit me if I once get inside the bushes.”

At that moment the officer was engaged in rating some of his men for
what he called their “lubberly way of doing business,” and his back was
turned toward Bob. It was now or never. Hastily dropping his bucket, the
boy ran quickly along the water’s edge until a projecting root hid him
from the sight of the mate, and then crawling up the bank he plunged
into the woods. The tropical vegetation was so dense that he could
scarcely work his way through it; but he made the best progress he
could, unmindful of the heavy falls and severe scratches he received,
and heedless of the other dangers he might run into. All he thought of
was Ben’s order to get as far away from the creek as possible. He might
have saved himself a deal of unnecessary work if he had only known it,
for no search was made for him. Of course the officer very soon
discovered that he and Ben were gone, but he said nothing about it,
knowing that if he sent his men into the woods to hunt them up he would
lose every one of them. He simply redoubled his vigilance and hastened
the work of filling the casks, in response to a warning gun from the
ship; and when it was done he made fast to his tow and started down the
creek.

Bob remained in his concealment nearly an hour, listening for sound of
pursuit, and hardly daring to move for fear of guiding his enemies to
his hiding-place, and then, believing that all danger was passed, made
the best of his way back to the creek. When he emerged from the woods he
saw the old sailor sitting on the bank, waiting for him.

“Oh, Ben, we’ve done it, haven’t we?” exclaimed Bob, who was so excited
that he could hardly speak plainly. “I couldn’t feel any better if I was
sailing into Clifton harbor.”

“Well, I tell you, I would feel ‘nough sight better than I do now,” said
Ben. “Where are we going to get something to eat?”

“I am sure I don’t know. I left all that for you to attend to.”

“Oh, you did, did you? Well, I have got news for you. Just around the
bend above here lies a little trading-vessel, and I propose we go up and
see if we can ship on her.”

“You don’t say! That’s the best piece of news you have had for me in a
long while,” said Bob. “And what if our own ship comes back?”

“Do you suppose that a ship is a-going to waste time in picking up two
discontented hands who have deserted her?” exclaimed Ben. “Them fellows
that are left will have to look out for a belaying-pin now. But there’s
no danger of the Smart coming back. We’re going to have a worse blow
than we have had yet, so far, and if the ship isn’t wrecked she’ll be a
long ways from here to-morrow. Let’s go and see what they can do for us.
I declare I am almost afraid to go with you.”

“Why, how is that?” asked Bob, in surprise.




“You said if you could feel the solid ground under your feet, such as
you used to be accustomed to at home, you would be yourself again,” said
Ben. “But you don’t look a bit different now from what you did aboard
the ship.”

“That will wear off after a while, Ben,” answered Bob. “Come on, and let
us see what they can do for us.”

Ben slowly arose to his feet and walked up the creek, and Bob followed
close at his heels. In a few minutes they came within sight of the
vessel of which the old sailor had spoken. She was riding at anchor, and
her crew was engaged in hoisting a water-cask on board. There were but
three white men on her deck, and the rest were all—

“Negroes, by George!” said Bob, in disgust.

“No, they ain’t. They are Malays,” replied the old sailor. “You had
better be careful how you talk to them or they’ll knock you flat. I wish
that second mate had this crew to deal with.”

“Why do you?”

“‘Cause he’d be a little careful how he handles them, that’s why. If he
got on the rampage and tried to knock them around they would turn on him
and throw him overboard. We don’t want to hail the vessel while the crew
is busy, so we will sit down here, and I’ll tell you something about
them.”

Bob and the old sailor accordingly seated themselves on the bank, and
the latter proceeded to relate short scraps of his own experience, which
were of great interest to Bob, as they in some measure prepared him for
the thrilling events that were so soon to follow. Among other things,
Ben told his young companion that the majority of vessels trading among
those islands employed Malays for foremast hands. They were good
sailors, and civil and orderly enough when well treated, but they were
ready to use their knives on the slightest provocation; and, moreover,
they had laws and customs of their own which everybody must respect,
from the cabin-boy up to the master. Besides the three white officers
who managed the vessel, the Malays had officers of their own, called the
first and second tindals, whose duties corresponded to the work of first
and second mates. Did the officer on watch desire to shorten sail or
change the course of the vessel, he gave the necessary order, not to the
men direct, but to the tindal who was on watch with him, and who saw
that the work was executed. When punishment was found to be
necessary—and that happened nearly every day—the white officers did not
inflict it themselves, but described the offense to the tindals, who
dealt with the culprit as they saw fit. Sometimes the offender was
flogged until he could scarcely move, and sometimes he was treated with
mysterious indignities, which no one but himself and companions could
understand. If the officers ever so far forgot themselves as to take the
management of affairs into their own hands, a mutiny was the certain
result.

“I tell you, a fellow has to keep his wits about him,” said Bob.

“You’re right he does,” said Ben, in conclusion. “These traders are
mostly all Englishmen, and that’s one thing I don’t like about this
vessel. But it’s go there or stay here, and which had you rather do?”

“Let us go aboard the vessel,” said Bob. “We can’t be much worse off
there than we are here on shore, for these woods look as though they
might be full of wild animals. You will be near enough to tell me if I
do anything out of the way. This is a queer way of getting back to
Clifton, ain’t it?”

“Well, you are going there, all the same,” said Ben. “We shall probably
sail for Singapore, and that is right on our way home. We can’t get
there afoot, can we?”

“I should like to know if I am ever going to find my father.”

“Why, of course you are going to find him. He is somewhere among these
islands, and I’ll bet anything on it. He wasn’t drowned.”

This was the way the old sailor always talked to Bob when he could
exchange a word with him in private, and it did much to encourage him.
He kept a close watch of the vessel while he talked, and when, at the
end of a quarter of an hour, the cask was hoisted and stowed away, Ben
waved his hat and shouted:

“Schooner ahoy!”

“Ay! ay!” came the answer, in gruff tones.

“We want to ship. Will you take us on board?”

“Who are you?”

“We belong to the American ship J. W. Smart, who came in here after
water. She had to make an offing, and went away in such a hurry that she
left us behind.”

The officers of the schooner could see no reason to doubt this story.
They had come in there for water themselves, and if they had not run so
far up the creek would also have been obliged to haul off shore to
escape the wind that was already howling through the trees. They held a
short consultation, and presently their boat was manned by two of the
Malays, who came over and took Bob and Ben on board the schooner. Bob
took a good look at the Malays, and told himself that he really wished
he was back aboard the Smart.