THE STEEL CLAW
During the next few days the crew discussed our destination. Discipline, while maintained strictly, was not conventional. During the dog watches, often, every man aboard would be below, for at that period Captain Selover loved to take the wheel in person, a thick cigar between his lips, the dingy checked shirt wide open to expose his hairy chest to the breeze. In the twilight of the forecastle we had some great sea-lawyer’s talks—I say “We,” though I took little part in them. Generally I lay across my bunk smoking my pipe while Handy Solomon held forth, his speech punctuated by surly speculations from the Nigger, with hesitating deep-sea wisdom from the hairy Thrackles, or with voluminous bursts of fractured English from Perdosa. Pulz had nothing to offer, but watched from his pale green eyes. The light shifted and wavered from one to the other as the ship swayed: garments swung; the empty berths yawned cavernous. I could imagine the forecastle filled with the desperate men who had beaten off the Oyama. The story is told that they had swept the gunboat’s decks with her own rapid-fires, turned in.
No one knew where we were going, nor why. The doctor puzzled them, and the quantity of his belongings.
“It ain’t pearls,” said Handy Solomon. “You can kiss the Book on that, for we ain’t a diver among us. It ain’t Chinks, for we are cruising sou’-sou’-west. Likely it’s trade,—trade down in the Islands.”
We were all below. The captain himself had the wheel. Discipline, while strict, was not conventional.
“Contrabandista,” muttered the Mexican, “for dat he geev us double pay.”
“We don’t get her for nothing,” agreed Thrackles. “Double pay and duff on Wednesday generally means get your head broke.”
“No trade,” said the Nigger gloomily.
They turned to him with one accord.
“Why not?” demanded Pulz, breaking his silence.
“No trade,” repeated the Nigger.
“Ain’t you got a reason, Doctor?” asked Handy Solomon.
“No trade,” insisted the Nigger.
An uneasy silence fell. I could not but observe
that the others held the
Nigger’s statements in a respect not due them as mere opinions.
Subsequently I understood a little more of the reputation he possessed.
He was believed to see things hidden, as their phrase went.
Nobody said anything for some time; nobody stirred, except that Handy Solomon, his steel claw removed from its socket, whittled and tested, screwed and turned, trying to fix the hook so that, in accordance with the advice of Percy Darrow, it would turn either way.
“What is it, then, Doctor?” he asked softly at last.
“Gold,” said the Nigger shortly. “Gold—treasure.”
“That’s what I said at first!” cried Handy Solomon triumphantly. It was extraordinary, the unquestioning and entire faith with which they accepted as gospel fact the negro’s dictum.