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Complete story taken from The Skipper No. 5 - October 4th 1930.

The crew with 38 hands, but only 2 eyes!



Digger Brown only made two bumps when he left the S.S. Kiwi—once when he hit the gangway halfway down, the second time when he landed on the hard quay. Digger had tramped all the way from Broken Hills to Sydney to try and find a boat on which he could work his way to Auckland, in New Zealand. When he asked aboard the Kiwi, due to leave that evening on the thousand mile trip, if they wanted an extra hand, Captain Caird had simply grabbed him by the collar and slung him to the quay. “I’m not carrying sundowners!” he roared. “Get out of this you rat! If I find you aboard here again I’ll break your neck!” Digger rolled over on the hard stones and sat up bruised, breathless, and angry. He was an easy going fellow, but this brutal treatment had roused his rage. “You rotten gorilla!” he blared. “What is the idea, anyway?” “Get!” yelled Captain Caird. Digger scrambled to his feet and headed for the gangway. His wild rush was checked by an old seaman who was squatting below splicing a rope. He shook his grey head sadly and peered at the youngster over his steel rimmed glasses. “Keep off it,” he advised in a hoarse whisper. “There ain’t a nastier customer in the Pacific ports than Cap’n Caird. Don’t go and provoke him, sonny.” Digger grunted. The old salt was quite sincere in his advice, and he realised it would be silly to pit his hunger worn body against the powerful giant above. At the same time he couldn’t take the treatment lying down. On the spur of the moment he grabbed up a lump of coal and slung it at the master of the Kiwi. The aim was true and Captain Caird staggered when he received it full on the back of the neck. His howl of rage stopped all work aboard the ship. He charged down the gangway like a lunatic. Digger didn’t wait for anything else. He turned and ran for it up the jetty, dodging in and out of a pile of cargo still to be taken aboard. It was stiff going, and Digger, his belt taken to the last notch but one, could not keep up the pace. He dodged round the side of a big steel tank and diver like a rabbit through the manhole in its side. He chuckled breathlessly as he slipped the cover into place. “Dashed if I’m going to stay out there and be kicked into the ocean. Phew! It was a slice of luck I didn’t get fixed aboard that hooker.”

He curled himself up and waited patiently for the excitement to pass. Captain Caird would never think of looking for him in the tank, and when it was dark he would be able to slip away. Digger was very tired, and with his head on his arm went off to sleep. He jerked into wakefulness some time later with the sensation he was riding in a lift. The big tank was swaying strangely, and he heard the whirr of a winch busy outside. In a flash he realised what had happened—the tank was being slung aboard some boat. He tried to lift the cover from the manhole to shout a warning to the workers. The derrick was already lowering the load, and Digger had visions of being buried under a ship’s cargo. He hammered madly on the sides of the tank when he found the cover was too stiff to swing back. This sudden movement upset the balance, and a derrick slipped out of place. The big tank hurtled down twenty feet or more, landing with a terrific crash. Digger was flung about like a dice in a box. Stunned by the shock of the fall he heard nothing of the yells and curses of the stevedores who had narrowly missed being knocked over by the tank. It was a long time before Digger showed signs of life. He eased his cramped limbs and slowly opened his eyes to the pitch black interior of his prison. His head was ringing like a bell, and when he put his hands to it he felt the caked blood from an ugly cut. He had been pretty badly knocked about by the fall. There was hardly any breathable air in the tank. Gulping and coking, he fumbled for the cover of the manhole, his heart in his mouth for fear it was covered by cargo. He was conscious of a curious swaying motion, and listened hard for the sound of the ship’s engines. All was still aboard. Digger gave another thrust and the rusty cover at last swung back. Air filtered into the tank, and a curious odour of acid which set him off in a fit of sneezing. The young fellow checked the fit with difficulty. If he was heard on the deck and discovered, he would be treated as a stowaway, and nobody would believe his story of how he had been slung aboard in the tank. Digger fumbled his way through the piles of cargo, pausing every now and then in bewilderment as the vessel pitched and rolled. She could not be in Sydney harbour, yet her engines were certainly not working. “Gosh, I could eat my boots!” he breathed. Many days had passed since Digger had eaten a good meal. He had been hungry when he entered the tank. Now he stumbled and almost fainted for sheer lack of food. He had reached the limit of endurance. Wherever he was he had to make his presence known and get help. He fumbled over the surface of a bulkhead until he found a hatch and put all his failing strength into sliding it back. A narrow iron tunnel stretched beyond, ending in a vertical ladder leading to a partly opened fanlight on the deck. Digger sobbed with sheer weakness as he hauled himself up rung by rung. He crawled out into blinding sunshine and collapsed limply behind a hatch cover. It was some time before he lifted his head and looked round.

The ship was at sea. With engines shut off she tossed to and fro with the waves. “Funny!” muttered Digger. Curiosity was stronger than hunger for the moment, and he peered down the long deck towards the bridge. Digger failed to notice whether there was anybody up there, for his horrified gaze fixed on a lifebelt nearby, and he felt the hair at the base of his scalp bristle when he read the name. He was aboard the S.S. Kiwi! Digger’s pulses raced as he dropped back into cover. By a stroke of bad luck he had landed on the ship of Captain Caird, and what would happen when the big seaman found him he didn’t care to imagine. Digger was on the point of moving when he heard footsteps. Somebody was stumbling unsteadily towards his end of the ship, and he heard the man’s growling curses as he tripped over an obstacle. Again he looked up. A figure loomed a few yards away—Captain Caird himself! There was something very strange about the way the big seaman was walking. He moved his feet slowly, with great caution, stopping now and then to feel some obstacle with his toe and making a fumbling passage round it. There was an ugly cut on his face and blood had caked on the shoulder of his white tunic. The big mouth was twisted into an expression of fear. Digger crouched helplessly. Caird would pass within a few feet of him and would certainly see him. It would be no good running. The trouble had to be faced. Quite calmly Digger rose to his feet and faced the seaman. Words of explanation were already forming when Caird turned a little to one side and headed for the rail. He had looked directly at the stowaway but there was no hint of recognition in his staring eyes. When he banged against a winch, cursed weakly, began to feel round carefully before moving again, Digger understood. Captain Caird was blind!


Digger stared in horror as the seaman reached the side and hung there with his face turned to the breeze. The dreadfully still atmosphere of the Kiwi spoke of tragedy. He began to back down the deck with his eyes fixed on the blind captain. What had happened? Why had Caird suddenly lost the power of sight? Digger reached the after end of the ship, bumping into a man who was leaning against the companion to the bridge. He was the first mate, but made no movement when Digger drew back hastily, hands lifted to ward off the blow he thought must come. There was the same look in the eyes as there had been in those of Captain Caird. The mate was also blind. Digger saw two seamen crouching on the cover of the after hatch. One of them was staring up blankly at the sky. The other had covered his face with his hands and was muttering to himself in a high-pitched voice. “Blind! Blind! Blind!” “Can’t yer stop that?” snarled the other man, turning clumsily. “You ain’t the only bloke. Shut up!” He struck out viciously with his fist, missed by a foot and fell against his muttering mate. They gripped each other and began to wrestle in a hideous fumbling sort of way. The officer nearby made no attempt to stop them. Digger hesitated. He did not know what to do, for he was too bewildered by his frightful discovery of the tragedy on board the Kiwi. As he stood there a third seaman staggered out of the foc’sle and began to grope his way with the aid of a stick towards the fighting pair. He was Old Dan, who had stopped Digger from rushing aboard the ship after Caird had flung him down the gangway. The steel-rimmed glasses were still balanced on the tip of his nose. Old Dan moved carefully, patiently, without any haste. Reaching the sailors he pushed his stick in between them. “Stop that now,” he said calmly. “We ain’t going to do no good fighting each other. Stow it now.” The pair stopped obediently, and Old Dan continued his fumbling passage up the deck. His shaking hand closed on Digger’s arm, and for a moment he felt over the stowaway’s ragged clothes in bewilderment. “You’ve been knocking yourself about, matey,” he said at last. “That’s silly now. Just go and sit down. We can’t do nothing.” Dan gripped the old man by the shoulders and swung him round. He gulped when he looked into the black eyes and patient face. “Listen,” he said crisply. “I’m not blind! I dunno what’s happened aboard this hooker, but I’ve been down in a tank in the hold and have only just got out. D’you remember the fellow who tried to get a job at Sydney? That’s me.” Old Dan stared incredulously for a moment. “You the young chap Caird slung off? You been down below and ain’t blind? Lumme, it fair takes my breath away. Don’t you know you’re the only chap aboard who can see?” “I know that now,” shuddered Digger. “How did it happen?” “The cargo,” growled the seaman. “We were carrying chemicals to Auckland, and some of the stuff got broken. I don’t know much about these things, but some gas formed in the middle watch last night and we all went blind!” Digger gasped. It was a simple explanation to the mystery of the Kiwi, and he realised his own escape was due to the fact that he was sealed up in the tank.

He remembered the acid fumes which had made him sneeze when he first crawled out. The breezes had cleared the ship of the worst part of the gas and no more was being generated. The damage had been done, however. He was on a ship of blind men. “We’re helpless,” whimpered Old Dan. “Nobody can work the engines or steer a course. The wireless operator went off his head and wrecked the stuff. There won’t be another ship coming this way for weeks.” Digger patted him on the shoulders. “I’ve got a good pair of eyes and they’ve got to serve for everybody,” he said. “I’m going to tell Caird.” “He’ll kill you!” panted Old Dan. “He’s been like a bear with a sore head ever since you heaved that coal at him, and now he’s crazy.” Digger set his lips grimly. The danger had to be faced and the captain told there was somebody aboard who could see. If the crew had to stay for many days in their present helpless condition they would go mad. He went forward to where Caird was still leaning over the side. The big man’s mouth was working queerly, and he muttered to himself. As Digger came near he swung round. “Who in thunder’s that?” he roared. “I’ve come to tell you I got on board your ship by accident and am not blind,” said Digger. “If you tell me what to do I’ll try to set a course for port. We’ll double back to Sydney.” Caird laughed queerly. “I know that voice,” he muttered. “You’re the sundowner who heaved that coal at me. Aboard my ship, eh? Not blind? I’ll make you blind!” He gave a wild laugh and plunged forward. Digger side-stepped and stared in horror as the seaman tripped and sprawled on his face. Old Dan had been right. The tragedy had driven Caird crazy. The skipper of the Kiwi staggered to his feet, clumsily dabbing at a fresh cut on his face. Some strange instinct gave him the direction where Digger was standing, and again he dived forward. The stowaway was standing close to the rail and the skipper’s mad jump carried him over the side. There was a mighty splash as Captain Caird hit the water far below.


Digger clung to the rail staring down at the bobbing head of the blind skipper. Lifted by the waves the Kiwi was drifting away. His blind crew were powerless to help him. He caught Old Dan by the arm. “Take charge,” he rapped. “I’m going over the side.” He scrambled down the Jacob’s ladder to the water, and struck out in the direction of the struggling man, who seemed in too much of a panic to swim. The risk was tremendous, for the mad skipper could easily drown him. Apart from that the Kiwi was tailing away. Digger was relying upon the level headedness of Old Dan for a boat to be launched as he had ordered. When he was within a few yards of Caird he trod water and began to talk soothingly. The blind man grabbed frantically in his direction. It was obvious he was in no condition to listen to reason. Digger did some quick thinking. The only way to save the skipper was to make him helpless. He swam quietly round behind the man, and a few powerful strokes brought him on top. Digger clutched Caird by the hair, pushed his head under the water and held it there. Although Caird struggled furiously he could not turn to tackle the young fellow. Gradually his efforts grew weaker, and when Digger finally dragged him up he floated limply. The Kiwi was a good distance away, and for one awful moment Digger feared he was going to be left in the middle of the ocean. Then he saw a boat lowering slowly to the water and sighed with relief. Old Dan was carrying out his orders. The boat came down steeply at the stern, collecting a lot of water before she was on a proper keel. Figures slid down the ropes and cast off. The blind sailors pushed off, Old Dan standing at the helm. When Digger shouted, he headed his charge in the direction of the pair in the water. He was steering only by sound, and the craft moved in a series of curious zig-zags before she came near. The crew were silent and sullen. It had taken all Old Dan’s persuasive powers to make them row away from the ship, for they had no idea if they would succeed in finding her again. The boat drifted on and Digger lugged the body of Caird to the side. Several hands groped down and hauled him aboard clumsily. Digger pulled himself up and took the tiller from Old Dan’s hands. “If you want to be saved you’ve got to work for me,” he said briefly. “I can’t run the ship all on my own, but I can direct you. I’m going to see those fires banked up, I’m going to see those engines started, and then I’m going to head back to Sydney!” He spoke cheerfully although realising the difficulties ahead. Digger didn’t know the first thing about navigation and had never steered a course by a compass before in his life. When they reached the ship he helped to haul Caird aboard, and then guided the blind seamen as they fumbled for the ladder. He supervised the removal of the captain to his cabin and then dived briskly below to the engine room. There was a head of steam but the fires were low and the stokers lounged round listlessly. Weak and hungry though he was, Digger gathered his energies to drive them back to the fireplate. There were ugly murmurs when he forced the long shovels into their hands and opened the doors of the furnaces. “Bank ‘em up!” he ordered. “We’ll soon be back in Sydney!” “What’s the good? We’re blind,” growled one of them. “It’ll pass,” said Digger cheerfully.

He was not strong enough to lift a shovel himself, but guided the stokers as they fumbled for the furnaces. The job was long and painful, the blind men colliding with each other and snarling like mad beasts as they fed the fires. When Digger judged enough fuel had been put on he climbed back to the engines and examined the controls. The chief engineer sat on the iron bridge with his head in his hands and gave no answer to his questions. Digger caught him by the shoulders and shook him. “You’re going to set these engines at half speed ahead,” he rapped. “I’m going to save this ship.” He guided the man’s hands as he fumbled for the throttle control. There was a low rumble as the giant piston rods began to move. The Kiwi was moving again under her own steam. Digger climbed wearily to the deck and finding Old Dan led him to the bridge. He listened keenly while the seaman explained patiently how to plot the course and head back for Sydney. Three times the old fellow had to repeat the directions until Digger got the hang of it. Dan was the only man of the blind crew who really kept his senses. Once the course was fixed, Digger took the abandoned wheel and swung the Kiwi round, studying the compass and heading in the right direction. They were over forty hours out from Sydney and would take much longer to get back. Lashing the wheel Digger left the bridge for the galley. The blind crew had eaten nothing since the disaster and the cook, a negro, was in no condition to fix a meal. Digger had more work to do. He got the fire going and prepared a stew and cocoa, eating ravenously as he cooked. The smell of the food brought the men fumbling down the deck. Some of them were looking hopeful when he pushed the bowls of soup into their hands. They ran into squally weather, and he climbed wearily back to the bridge and unlashed the wheel. He was almost dropping with fatigue, but he held the Kiwi to her course, a pale thin-faced young fellow whose eyes alone could save eighteen blind men from madness and death. All night he stayed on the bridge, Old Dan crouched by his side and telling him to steer through the choppy seas. With the dawn he lashed the wheel and descended to the stoke hole to force the stokers to their work. Again he had the job of feeding eighteen hungry men. The blind ship pounded on. Time was lost to Digger, and when at last his staring eyes spotted the Australian coast ahead he found no elation. He was past everything except the will to keep on. Sixty hours after taking charge he ran the Kiwi on her last ounce of steam into quarantine ground off Sydney Harbour. “We’re here,” he told Old Dan. Then he clutched at the lanyard of the siren and the thin wail was the last thing he heard. His knees gave under him, and he dropped weakly to the deck.

When he opened his eyes—the eyes which had saved the Kiwi—he stared up at a clean white ceiling and lofty windows covered with green blinds. His hand felt the smooth surface of a sheet. He turned his head and found he was in a small white cot set amongst many others. The cot on the right was occupied by Old Dan, who was sleeping with a peaceful smile on his furrowed, weather-beaten face. Digger sighed with relief when he realised the gallant seaman was safe. He turned his head to the left, and stared directly into the dark face of Captain Caird. The master of the Kiwi was awake and the blank look had gone from his eyes. They seemed to gleam with recognition as he stared back at Digger. He sat up. “Hey, you!” “Gosh!” gasped Digger. He remembered the coal he had slung at Caird in the harbour. He remembered the terrifying fight aboard the boat and the struggle in the water. Digger saw the man was beginning to throw the sheet off him and scramble out of bed. The next moment he had slipped out himself and was running madly down the ward with the giant lumbering after him. “Come back!” roared Caird. Digger wasn’t stopping to talk. He wanted to put as many miles as possible between himself and the bullying seaman. There was that question of being a stowaway which he couldn’t explain satisfactorily. Digger ran. There was a window open nearby, and he dived out of it into the hospital grounds. His hair lifted when he saw Caird was after him. Digger was so weary and weak he stumbled as he ran. Realising it was hopeless to escape he turned and lifted his fists. “Keep back you bloomin’ gorilla!” he panted. Caird stopped and gaped. “Keep back, son?” he spluttered. “Well now, ain’t that the limit! All I wanted to do was to apologise for going off my head and attacking you. Old Dan’s told me about it and I’m real ashamed!” “You—you’re not going to kill me?” stuttered Digger. Caird’s mighty hand closed on his. “You sundowner!” he growled. “Don’t you realise you’re a hero? You sailed the Kiwi all on her own. You brought eighteen blind men back to Sydney for medical treatment just in time. The doctors have already put us right and we can all see again. As for you—” He swung Digger up in his arms and headed back for the hospital. “As for you, you’re coming back to your friends!” Captain Caird finished.

© D. C. Thomson & Co Ltd

Vic Whittle 2007