“Squint-eyes,” cried Ralph fiercely.
“When you’ve done with that ‘ere young gentleman, Dobbs,” said Jem, with exquisite politeness, “I should like to ‘ave ‘im for a little bit to teach ‘im manners.”
“‘E don’t want to go,” said Dobbs, grinning, as Ralph clung to him. “He knows who’s kind to him.”
“Wait till I get a chance at you,” sobbed Ralph, as Jem took him away from Dobbs.
“Lord lumme,” said Jem, regarding him in astonishment. “Why, he’s actooaly cryin’. I’ve seen a good many pirates in my time, Bill, but this is a new sort.”
“Leave the boy alone,” said the cook, a fat, good-natured man. “Here, come ‘ere, old man. They don’t mean no ‘arm.”
Glad to escape, Ralph made his way over to the cook, grinding his teeth with shame as that worthy took him between his knees and mopped his eyes with something which he called a handkerchief.
“You’ll be all right,” he said kindly. “You’ll be as good a pirate as any of us before you’ve finished.”
“Wait till the first engagement, that’s all,” sobbed the boy. “If somebody don’t get shot in the back it won’t be my fault.”
The two seamen looked at each other. “That’s wot hurt my ‘and then,” said Dobbs slowly. “I thought it was a jack-knife.”
He reached over, and unceremoniously grabbing the boy by the collar, pulled him towards him, and drew a small cheap revolver from his pocket. “Look at that, Jem.”
“Take your fingers orf the blessed trigger and then I will,” said the other, somewhat sourly.
“I’ll pitch it overboard,” said Dobbs.
“Don’t be a fool, Bill,” said Smithers, pocketing it, “that’s worth a few pints o’ anybody’s money. Stand out o’ the way, Bill, the Pirit King wants to go on deck.”
Bill moved aside as the boy went to the ladder, and allowing him to get up four or five steps, did the rest for him with his shoulder. The boy reached the deck on all fours, and, regaining a more dignified position as soon as possible, went and leaned over the side, regarding with lofty contempt the busy drudges on wharf and river.
They sailed at midnight and brought up in the early dawn in Longreach, where a lighter loaded with barrels came alongside, and the boy smelt romance and mystery when he learnt that they contained powder. They took in ten tons, the lighter drifted away, the hatches were put on, and they started once more.
It was his first voyage, and he regarded with eager interest the craft passing up and down. He had made his peace with the seamen, and they regaled him with blood-curdling stories of their adventures, in the vain hope of horrifying him.
“‘E’s a beastly little rascal, that’s wot ‘e is,” said the indignant Bill, who had surprised himself by his powers of narration; “fancy larfin’ when I told ‘im of pitchin’ the baby to the sharks.”
“‘E’s all right, Bill,” said the cook softly. “Wait till you’ve got seven of ‘em.”
“What are you doing here, boy?” demanded the skipper, as Ralph, finding the seamen’s yarns somewhat lacking in interest, strolled aft with his hands in his pockets.
“Nothing,” said the boy, staring.
“Keep the other end o’ the ship,” said the skipper sharply, “an’ go an’ ‘elp the cook with the taters.”
Ralph hesitated, but a grin on the mate’s face decided him.
“I didn’t come here to peel potatoes,” he said loftily.
“Oh, indeed,” said the skipper politely; “an’ wot might you ‘ave come for, if it ain’t being too inquisitive?”
“To fight the enemy,” said Ralph shortly.
“Come ‘ere,” said the skipper.
The boy came slowly towards him.
“Now look ‘ere,” said the skipper, “I’m going to try and knock a little sense into that stupid ‘ed o’ yours. I’ve ‘eard all about your silly little games ashore. Your father said he couldn’t manage you, so I’m goin’ to have a try, and you’ll find I’m a very different sort o’ man to deal with to wot ‘e is. The idea o’ thinking this ship was a pirate. Why, a boy your age ought to know there ain’t such things nowadays.”