A strange tale of a man hunt at sea and the detective who sleuthed in the stokehold
BERNARD J. FARMERMay11932
A strange tale of a man hunt at sea and the detective who sleuthed in the stokehold
BERNARD J. FARMER
CHIEF Engineer McWerter of the Monmouth County, was used to having queer characters ship as firemen Whenever a man jumps out of his normal routine for a taste of adventure or runs wild because a woman has jilted him, he seems to pick on a tramp’s stokehold as a starting-off point; and a doctor, a lawyer, a professor of philosophy—once even an undertaker who had distributed his business cards when he left the ship— had all served a turn on the boilers of the Monmouth County. But the queerest of all was Tansey. Yes, McWerter had known none queerer than Tansey.
To begin with, the man looked queer. His frame was gigantic, but he was so thin that the bones showed like knobs under the flesh whenever he moved. His face was the color of putty; and his eyes, pale blue ones, seemed continually on the point of starting out of his head with surprise. To offset this, he had a mouth like a trap and the largest hands McWerter had ever seen. They were hands you could choke a man to death with—murderer’s hands.
The first day out he had stared in helpless fascination at the port boiler, a shovel in his great hands, and the open grate door banging wildly.
McWerter came up and stood a moment watching him with Ditying contempt; then he spat. He could cram more expression into this simple action than the average man could into a dozen words.
Tansey turned. “Yes?”
“Are ye droonk or dreamin’, or what?”
Without answering, Tansey bent down, and, digging his shovel into the pile of coal, sent a load of it skeltering toward the grate. Most of it fell back again on to the stokehold floor.
McWerter took the shovel away and, with an expectoration between each motion, showed him how it should be done.
Tansey stood by like a child, nervously twisting and untwisting his great hands.
"I see now just how you want me to do it.”
The chief grunted and went on to the next incompetent, a quiet little man on the starboard boiler, as ordinary as Tansey was extraordinary. Simms, his name was.
When the chief had finished his second demonstration, Simms took him aside.
“May I have a word with you, sir?”
“See that big guy there with the queer dial?”
“What of him?”
“I’m after him.” Simms lowered his voice. “He’s done a murder. I can’t touch him till we get to Liverpool -I haven’t got a warrant—but I’d be obliged if you will let me off the ship quietlike first.”
McWerter scowled. He was a man whose life was bounded by ships and engines and he wanted no landsmen’s mix-ups in his stokehold.
“Blasted ’tec, are you?” he growled.
The little man nodded. “But don’t say a word. I’ll get him when the time comes—when the time comes.” He grinned and started to shovel coal with ferocious energy.
McWerter scowled again and glanced across the stokehold at Tansey. His putty-colored face, now streaked with coal dust, was glistening with perspiration, and his motions with a shovel were like those of a man poking meat through a cage to a wild beast.
“Don’t say a word,” came a whisper behind.
McWerter turned and glared.
“You may be a ’tec and he may be the greatest murderer unhung, but while you’re in my stokehold you’re firemen— and don’t you forget it !”
He spat an exclamation mark, then went into the engine room to write up the register.
Simms gazed after him a moment, then with a swift glance at Tansey, took up his shovel again.
Four hours on, eight off, four on, eight off—the routine
continued in a dead monotony while, at a meagre nine knots, the Monmouth County pitched and rolled her way across the Atlantic.
At the first sign of bad weather, three days out from the Straits of Belle Isle, Tansey was violently seasick, but he had to stand his watch. His agonies would have moved a heart of stone, but they didn’t move McWerter. Twenty years of keeping a tramp’s engines turning had taught him that only when a man was dead was he incapable of doing useful work on the boilers, so he kept Tansey at it, and the gaunt man became gaunter still.
Simms seemed to thrive. He soon attained the knack of maintaining his fire level and not banking it up in front; and between spells he would watch Tansey out of the corner of his eye. In the fo’c’sle they bunked next to each other, but they were never observed to speak; nor, in fact, did Tansey speak to anyone unless addressed first and then only in monosyllables.
Then one day when McWerter came down, he found a fight in progress in the stokehold. On the floor was a Galician fireman called Polak Joe, and kneeling on him with his great hands round his throat was Tansey. His caricature of a face was livid with rage, and but for the chief’s intervention he would have choked the life out of Joe.
“Stop it!” roared McWerter.
Tansey half turned his head. “He stole from my coat,” he grunted, and went on squeezing.
McWerter raised a spanner and rapped him on the back of the head. Tansey let go then and Joe rolled over in a heap.
“I won’t have no murders in my stokehold,” said McWerter, “if ye do commit ’em ashore.”
Tansey replaced something in his coat and hung it up where he could see it.
“Who says I commit them ashore?”
Simms had come down and was staring at Joe, who was feeling his throat and groaning. The chief looked at him without answering.
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Tansey just nodded. He went over to Joe and kicked him roughly.
“Who told you to feel in my pockets?” Joe pointed to Simms.
Tansey nodded again, and without a word took up his shovel and commenced firing up. After a moment’s interval Simms did the same.
When the four-to-eight watch came in. four hours later, Tansey and Simms went up the fiddley ladder together, and Tansey seemed to notice the little man for the first time. But he said nothing; he just stared. Simms grinned at him wickedly and ran up the ladder.
THE ninth day they ran into heavy seas.
and the engineers had to stand by the throttle all through the watch to check the racing of the engines as the screw pitched out. The Monmouth County was twentyeight years old, and sudden strains set up such a rattling and jangling that it seemed the engines would lift bodily from their bedplates.
Just before dawn, in the third's watch, there was a sharp ripping sound, like the tearing of calico, and the tail end of the propeller shaft sheared through. Before the third had time to shut down the engines jumped up to unheard-of revolutions and the low pressure main rod, weighing several tons, swung out with a crack and went clean through the ship’s side.
Water poured in like an avalanche. The third sent a man to call McWerter. then shouted to the others to close the bulkhead doors, but they rushed to the engine-room ladder and fought to get on deck.
Deliberately the third took up an oily spanner, spat on it and flung it. It caught the topmost man on the back of the head, bringing him down and the others with him. “Now close those doors!”
Sullenly the men went to obey. They could hear the water pounding on the engine-room floor, and a small tide was hissing through into the stokehold. Two of them broke out the handles and screwed down the dcx)rs on the bunker wall; the others dropped the great dcx)r over the propeller tunnel. McWerter came down then and, standing up to his knees in w'ater, surveyed the damage. The rod had swung up in a w'ide arc and cut through just above the water line on the w-eather side, so that every roll of the ship sent another deluge shooting dowm.
“Pump out the aft ballast tanks,” he ordered.
The tanks were pumped out and the stern lifted a little, then the other watches were called out. and with the aid of the firemen McWerter rigged up some quarter-inch steel plate from the stores and tried to plug the gash.
After three hours of sweating, straining work he succeeded in reducing the flow so that the pumps could cope with it, then the men were ordered to stand by for further orders.
Tansey and Simms sat dow n side by side. There was a trickle of blood on the side of
Tansey’s head where the plate had caught it when it slipped out of the slings. He dabbed at it with a piece of waste.
"Reckon she’s goin’.’’ said Simms, and grinned as if pleased at the thought.
Tansey made no answer. A dull booming roar sounded far overhead as McWerter opened the escape valves and released the steam, then came the order to draw fires. When this was done the men sat dowm again.
“We ought to get to the boats,” said Simms.
“You’ll stay where ye are,” said McWerter ferociously.
"What’ll we do, chief?” said another man.
McWerter cut a plug of tobacco. “They’re wirelessing for help; maybe we’ll get a tow.”
Then even as he spoke the ship gave a violent lurch. The broken half of the propeller shaft had slipped quietly out and the propeller with it, and w'ater came pouring down the tunnel, bursting in the bulkhead door.
“Man the hand pumps,” shouted McWerter.
But it was hopeless from the start; it was like emptying a bathtub with a teaspoon. Soon the firemen were waist-deep in w'ater, and still it came. McWerter spoke through the speaking tube to the bridge, then turned to the firemen.
“All right, lads, get on deck.”
A CONCERTED rush for the ladders. | and in front the great bulk of Tansey. Clinging to his waist was Simms, and it was difficult to see w'hether he was trying to prevent the big man from escaping or using him as a means of escape himself. As Tansey reached the first rung of the ladder and swmng himself up, Simms was lifted bodily into the air; then by a most amazing feat of strength Tansey hauled him up. rung by rung, while the others, half-crazed with terror, fought to get by.
When at last he reached the deck, the last boat was being lowered, packed to the gun’les. As it swung out from the side. Simms rushed forward and made futile attempts to get in. Tansey picked him up as if he w'ere a child and threw him in on top of two negroes, then calmly st(x>d aside and watched as the boat hit the water and pulled away.
McWerter came up and stood beside him. When the time came for the ship to go, he placed more reliance on a cork fender than a boat manned by half-mad firemen.
“Reckon you’re free from the ’tec now, ¡ son.”
"That little chap Simms that said you were a murderer.”
The big man took some papers from his ! coat and. wrapping them carefully in an ■ oilskin pouch, fastened them in his belt. !
“Guess I’ll have to sw-im for it,” he j explained.
McWerter half nodded. “The City of Bath is coming up, but we may go before she i gets here.”
Tansey peered at the boat pulling away in the distance. He could just discern the figure of Simms, working frantically at an oar.
“So he said I was a murderer!”
McWerter spat. “You would have murdered Polak Joe if I hadn't come down when I did.”
"Maybe but he was after my papers. They concern a woman who died two years ago.”
“And you killed her?”
“No. Simms did. I’ll get him some day if the sea doesn’t.” His face suddenly puckered up into a hundred wrinkles as if he were going to cry. and a rumbling chuckle came up from the depths of his being. “He’d a cool nerve, though, telling you he was a detective.”
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