When Greek Meets Greek by Morgan Robertson

Story type: Literature

“Thrice is he armed that hath his quarrel just.”

“But 4 times he who gits hiz blo’ in fust.”

Captain William Belchior was more than a martinet. He was known as “Bucko” Belchior in every port where the English language is spoken, having earned this prefix by the earnest readiness with which, in his days as second and chief mate, he would whirl belaying-pins, heavers, and handspikes about the decks, and by his success in knocking down, tricing up, and working up sailors who displeased him. With a blow of his fist he had broken the jaw of a man helplessly ironed in the ‘tween-deck, and on the same voyage, armed with a simple belaying-pin, had sprung alone into a circle of brandishing sheath-knives and quelled a mutiny. He was short, broad, beetle-browed, and gray-eyed, of undoubted courage, but with the quality of sympathy left out of his nature.

During the ten years in which he had been in command, he was relieved of much of the executive work that had made him famous when he stood watch, but was always ready to justify his reputation as a “bucko” should friction with the crew occur past the power of his officers to cope with. His ship, the Wilmington, a skysail-yard clipper, was rated by sailormen as the “hottest” craft under the American flag, and Captain Belchior himself was spoken of by consuls and commissioners, far and near, as a man peculiarly unfortunate in his selection of men; for never a passage ended but he was complainant against one or more heavily ironed and badly used-up members of his crew.

His officers were, in the language of one of these defendants, “o’ the same breed o’ dorg.” No others could or would sign with him. His crews were invariably put on board in the stream or at anchorage–never at the dock. Drunk when coerced by the boarding-masters into signing the ship’s articles, kept drunk until delivery, they were driven or hoisted up the side like animals–some in a stupor from drink or drugs, some tied hand and foot, struggling and cursing with returning reason.

Equipped thus, the Wilmington, bound for Melbourne, discharged her tug and pilot off Sandy Hook one summer morning, and, with a fresh quartering wind and raising sea, headed for the southeast. The day was spent in getting her sail on, and in the “licking into shape” of the men as fast as they recovered their senses. Oaths and missiles flew about the deck, knock-downs were frequent, and by eight bells in the evening, when the two mates chose the watches,–much as boys choose sides in a ball game,–the sailors were well convinced that their masters lived aft.

Three men, long-haired fellows, sprawling on the main-hatch, helpless from seasickness, were left to the last in the choosing and then hustled into the light from the near-by galley door to be examined. They had been dragged from the forecastle at the mate’s call for “all hands.”

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“Call yourselves able seamen, I suppose,” he said with an oath, as he glared into their woebegone faces.

“No, pard,” said the tallest and oldest of the three, in a weak voice. “We’re not seamen; we don’t know how we got here, neither.”

The mate’s answer was a fist-blow under the ear that sent the man headlong into the scuppers, where he lay quiet.

“Say ‘sir’ when you speak to me, you bandy-legged farmers,” he snarled, glowering hard at the other two, as they leaned against the water-tank. “I’m pard to none of ye.”

They made him no answer, and he turned away in contempt. “Mr. Tomm,” he called, “want these Ethiopians in your watch?”

“No, sir,” said the second mate; “I don’t want ’em. They’re no more use ‘an a spare pump.”

“I’ll make ’em useful ‘fore I’m done with ’em. Go forrard, you three. Get the bile out o’ yer gizzards ‘fore mornin’, ‘f ye value yer good looks.” He delivered a vicious kick at each of the two standing men, bawled out, “Relieve the wheel an’ lookout–that’ll do the watch,” and went aft, while the crew assisted the seasick men to the forecastle and into three bedless bunks–bedless, because sailors must furnish their own, and these men had been shanghaied.

The wind died away during the night, and they awoke in the morning with their seasickness gone and appetites ravenous. Somber and ominous was their bearing as they silently ate of the breakfast in the forecastle and stepped out on deck with the rest in answer to the mate’s roar: “All hands spread dunnage.” Having no dunnage but what they wore, they drew off toward the windlass and conferred together while chests and bags were dragged out on deck and overhauled by the officers for whisky and sheath-knives. What they found of the former they pocketed, and of the latter, tossed overboard.

“Where are the canal-drivers?” demanded the chief mate, as he raised his head from the last chest. “Where are our seasick gentlemen, who sleep all night–what–what—-” he added in a stutter of surprise.

He was looking down three eight-inch barrels of three heavy Colt revolvers, cocked, and held by three scowling, sunburnt men, each of whom was tucking with disengaged left hand the corner of a shirt into a waistband, around which was strapped a belt full of cartridges.

“Hands up!” snapped the tall man; “hands up, every one of ye! Up with ’em–over yer heads. That’s right!” The pistols wandered around the heads of the crowd, and every hand was elevated.

“What’s this? What d’ ye mean? Put them pistols down. Give ’em up. Lay aft, there, some o’ ye, and call the captain,” blustered the mate, with his hands held high.

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Not a man stirred to obey. The scowling faces looked deadly in earnest.

“Right about, face!” commanded the tall man. “March, every man–back to the other end o’ the boat. Laramie, take the other side and round up anybody ye see. Now, gentlemen, hurry.”

Away went the protesting procession, and, joined by the carpenter, sail-maker, donkey-man, and cook, “rounded up” from their sanctums by the man called Laramie, it had reached the main-hatch before the captain, pacing the quarter-deck, was aware of the disturbance. With Captain Belchior to think was to act. Springing to the cabin skylight, he shouted: “Steward, bring up my pistols. Bear a hand. Lower your weapons, you scoundrels; this is rank mutiny.”

A pistol spoke, and the captain’s hat left his head. “There goes your hat,” said a voice; “now for a button.” Another bullet sped, which cut from his coat the button nearest his heart. “Come down from there–come down,” said the voice he had heard. “Next shot goes home. Start while I count three. One–two—-” Captain Belchior descended the steps. “Hands up, same as the rest.” Up went the captain’s hands; such marksmanship was beyond his philosophy. “‘Pache,” went on the speaker, “go up there and get the guns he wanted.” The steward, with two bright revolvers in his hands, was met at the companion-hatch by a man with but one; but that one was so big, and the hand which held it was so steady, that it was no matter of surprise that he obeyed the terse command, “Fork over, handles first.” The captain’s nickel-plated pistols went into the pockets of ‘Pache’s coat, and the white-faced steward, poked in the back by the muzzle of that big firearm, marched to the main-deck and joined the others.

“Go down that place, ‘Pache, and chase out any one else ye find,” called the leader from behind the crowd. “Bring ’em all down here.”

‘Pache descended, and reappeared with a frightened cabin-boy, whom, with the man at the wheel, he drove before him to the steps. There was no wind, and the ship could spare the helmsman.

“Now, then, gentlemen,” said the tall leader, “I reckon we’re all here. Keep yer hands up. We’ll have a powwow. ‘Pache, stay up there, and you, Laramie, cover ’em from behind. Plug the first man that moves.”

He mounted the steps to the quarter-deck, and, as he replaced empty shells with cartridges, looked down on them with a serene smile on his not ill-looking face. His voice, except when raised in accents of command, had in it the musical, drawling, plaintive tone so peculiar to the native Texan–and so deceptive. The other two, younger and rougher men, looked, as they glanced at their victims through the sights of the pistols, as though they longed for the word of permission to riddle the ship’s company with bullets.

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“You’ll pay for this, you infernal cut-throats,” spluttered the captain. “This is piracy.”

“Don’t call any names now,” said the tall man; “‘t ain’t healthy. We don’t want to hurt ye, but I tell ye seriously, ye never were nearer death than ye are now. It’s a risky thing, and a foolish thing, too, gentlemen, to steal three American citizens with guns under their shirts, and take ’em so far from land as this. Hangin”s the fit and proper punishment for hoss-stealin’, but man-stealin”s so great a crime that I’m not right sure what the punishment is. Now, we don’t know much ’bout boats and ropes,–though we can tie a hangman’s knot when necessary,–but we do know somethin’ ’bout guns and human natur’–here, you, come ‘way from that fence.”

The captain was edging toward a belaying-pin; but he noticed that the speaker’s voice had lost its plaintiveness, and three tubes were looking at him. He drew inboard, and the leader resumed:

“Now, fust thing, who’s foreman o’ this outfit? Who’s boss?”

“I’m captain here.”

“You are? You are not. I’m captain. Get up on that shanty.” The small house over the mizzen-hatch was indicated, and Captain Belchior climbed it. The tubes were still looking at him.

“Now, you, there, you man who hit me last night when I was sick, who are you, and what?”

“Mate, d—- you.”

“Up with you, and don’t cuss. You did a cowardly thing, pardner–an unmanly thing–low down and or’nary. You don’t deserve to live any longer; but my darter, back East at school, thinks I’ve killed enough men for one lifetime, and mebbe she’s right–mebbe she’s right. Anyhow, she don’t like it, and that lets you out–though I won’t answer for ‘Pache and Laramie when my back’s turned. You kicked ’em both. But I’ll just return the blow.” The mate had but straightened up on top of the hatch-house when the terrible pistol spat out another red tongue, and his yell followed the report, as he clapped his hand to the ear through which the bullet had torn.

“Hands up, there!” thundered the shooter, and the mate obeyed, while a stream of blood ran down inside his shirt-collar.

“Any more bosses here?”

The second mate did not respond; but ‘Pache’s pistol sought him out, and under its influence, and his guttural, “I know you; get up,” he followed his superiors.

“Any more?”

A manly-looking fellow stepped out of the group, and said: “You’ve got the captain and two mates. I’m bo’s’n here, and yonder’s my mate. We’re next, but we’re not bosses in the way o’ bein’ responsible for anything that has happened or might happen to you. We b’long forrard. There’s no call to shoot at the crew, for there’s not a man among ’em but what ‘ud be glad to see you get ashore, and get there himself.”

“Silence, bo’s’n,” bawled the captain. But the voice of authority seemed pitifully ludicrous and incongruous, coupled with the captain’s position and attitude, and every face on the deck wore a grin. The leader noticed the silent merriment, and said:

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“Laramie, I reckon these men’ll stand. You can come up here. I’m gettin’ ‘long in years, and kind o’ steadyin’ down, but I s’pose you and ‘Pache want some fun. Start yer whistle and turn loose.”

Up the steps bounded Laramie, and, with a ringing whoop as a prelude, began whistling a clear, musical trill, while ‘Pache, growling out, “Dance, dance, ye white-livered coyotes,” sent a bullet through the outer edge of the chief mate’s boot-heel.

“Dance,” repeated Laramie between bars of the music. Crack, crack, went the pistols, while bullets rattled around the feet of the men on the hatch, and Laramie’s whistle rose and fell on the soft morning air.

The sun, who has looked on many scandalous sights, looked on this, and hid his face under a cloud, refusing to witness. For never before had the ethics of shipboard life been so outrageously violated. A squat captain and two six-foot officers, nearly black in the face from rage and exertion, with hands clasped over their heads, hopped and skipped around a narrow stage to the accompaniment of pistol reports harmoniously disposed among the notes of a whistled tune, while bullets grazed their feet, and an unkempt, disfigured, and sore-headed crew looked on and chuckled. When the mate, weak from loss of blood, fell and rolled to the deck, the leader stopped the entertainment.

“Now, gentlemen,” he said in his serious voice, “I’m called Pecos Tom, and I’ve had considerable experience in my time, but this is my fust with human creatur’s so weak and thoughtless that they’ll drug and steal three men without takin’ their guns away from them. And so, on ‘count o’ this shiftless improvidence, I reckon this boat will have to turn round and go back.”

They bound them, rolled and kicked the two mates to the rail, lifted the captain to his feet, and then the leader said significantly:

“Give the right and proper order to yer men to turn this boat round.”

With his face working convulsively, Captain Belchior glanced at his captors, at his eager, waiting crew, at the wheel without a helmsman, at a darkening of the water on the starboard bow to the southward, up aloft, and back again at the three frowning muzzles so close to his head.

“One hand to the wheel! Square in main and cro’-jack yards!” he called. He was conquered.

With a hurrah which indicated the sincerity of these orders, the crew sprang to obey them, and with foreyards braced to starboard and head-sheets flat, the ship Wilmington paid off, wore around, and bringing the young breeze on the port quarter, steadied down to a course for Sandy Hook, which the captain, with hands released, but still under the influence of those threatening pistols, worked out from the mate’s dead-reckoning. Then he was pinioned again, but allowed to pace the deck and watch his ship, while the two officers were kept under the rail, sometimes stepped upon or kicked, and often admonished on the evil of their ways.

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Early passengers on the East River ferryboats were treated to a novel sight next morning, which they appreciated according to their nautical knowledge. A lofty ship, with sky-sails and royals hanging in the buntlines, and jibs tailing ahead like flags, was charging up the harbor before a humming southerly breeze, followed by an elbowing crowd of puffing, whistling, snub-nosed tugs. It was noticeable that whenever a fresh tug arrived alongside, little white clouds left her quarter-deck, and that tug suddenly sheered off to take a position in the parade astern. Abreast of Governor’s Island, topgallant-halyards were let go, as were those of the jibs; but no cluing up or hauling down was done, nor were any men seen on her forecastle-deck getting ready lines or ground-tackle. She passed the Battery and up the East River, craft of all kinds getting out of her way,–for it was obvious that something was wrong with her,–until, rounding slowly to a starboard wheel, with canvas rattling and running-gear in bights, she headed straight for a slip partly filled with canal-boats. Now her topsail-halyards were let go, and three heavy yards came down by the run, breaking across the caps; and amid a grinding, creaking, and crashing of riven timbers, and a deafening din of applauding tug whistles, she plowed her way into the nest of canal-boats and came to a stop.

Then was a hejira. Down her black sides by ropes and chain-plates, to the wrecked and sinking canal-boats,–some with bags or chests, some without,–came eager men, who climbed to the dock, and answering no questions of the gathering crowd of dock-loungers, scattered into the side-streets. Then three other men appeared on the rail, who shook their fists, and swore, and shouted for the police, calling particularly for the apprehension of three dark-faced, long-haired fellows with big hats.

In the light of later developments it is known that the police responded, and with the assistance of boarding-house runners gathered in that day nearly all of this derelict crew,–even to the cautious boatswain,–who were promptly and severely punished for mutiny and desertion. But the later developments failed to show that the three dark-faced men were ever seen again.

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