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   Chapter 14 HELL'S HATCHES OFF

Hell's Hatches By Lewis R. Freeman Characters: 24020

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


That may give some hint of the state of mind of Australians when, waiting on the tip-toe of expectancy for word of the next dashing act of their hero, they received a message of quite another tenor. It was the Sydney Herald man who sent the message that swept the country like the blast of a hurricane. He wired just the bare facts and no more. His imagination, even his reasoning faculties, as he confessed in a later dispatch, were numbed for the moment, temporarily paralyzed by the staggering shock of the horror he had looked upon.

"The Hon. Hartley Allen was found at an early hour this morning" (ran the telegram) "bound, gagged and lashed to the wheel of the schooner Cora Andrews, which has been aground for some time at a lonely spot on the beach of Cleveland Bay, several miles north of Townsville. Allen, who was taken to the General Hospital as soon as he was brought back to town, is a raving maniac and not expected to live out the day. From information in the hands of the police, there is no doubt that the worse-than-assassin was the ex-convict, 'Squid' Saunders, recently released from jail and deported to the Solomons through Allen's generous efforts on his behalf. He is known to have escaped from his northbound steamer at Cairns, stolen a fishing sloop, and is believed to have headed back to Townsville to carry out the dastardly act his disordered brain has evidently nursed for years. As the police seem likely to yield to the popular pressure to employ bloodhounds in running down the fugitive, his capture is probably the matter of but a few hours."

It was a fairly sane, reasonable-reading dispatch, that. None but a man who had felt his blood turn to ice-water at the sight the Herald man had looked upon that morning could appreciate how much credit he deserved for stating the facts so coherently. For myself, at the moment the launch brought us back from the Cora and put us ashore at the landing, I would have been incapable of writing my own name correctly. There was only one thing I could do-nay, would have had to try to do if the world had been disintegrating beneath my feet-and I did it. That is why so much of the next thirty-six hours is a blank in my mind.

* * *

It was on a Saturday that Allen had made his spectacular killing in winning the Planters' Handicap, and on Sunday afternoon, to escape the importunities of Townsville generally and the correspondents in particular, he had ridden up to pay me a visit at my hillside bungalow. I had missed the race (through another appointment for a sitting with Rona, which, like the others, she had failed to keep), and so took the occasion to get some account of it at first-hand from Allen. He was in high spirits over his success, but rather inclined to be put out with the impulsive Oakes for breaking down in church that morning and proclaiming to all and sundry the real source of the thirty-five hundred and odd pounds that had fallen at his feet like manna from the skies. What had come nearest to flooring Melanesia's leading bad man, I think, was that the missionary had publicly announced his intention of naming the new medical mission at Suva after the donor!

Allen also, somewhat to my surprise, was not averse to speaking of the "Squid" Saunders episode. "The only redeeming thing about the old ruffian," he observed, "is his affection for that girl of his-the red-haired one, I mean-the black-and-tans don't signify. Rather a remarkable girl, that one, Whitney. She was one of the kind that must either soar to the high places or wallow in the low ones, and I've been sorrier than I can tell that I was slated to-well, not to start her winging for the heights exactly. I really wasn't a lot to blame in the matter, but-that isn't either here or there. Old 'Squid' thinks I was, and will go on thinking so till his dying day-or mine. I tried to get the old reprobate to call it quits when I shipped him off the other day. Do you think he would? No fear. Not the 'Squid.' Indeed, considering the bother I had wangling him out of serving that Kalgoorlie sentence of his, he was rather nasty. He asked me if I was trying to buy him off for fear he'd get me in the end. There wasn't much I could say to that under the circumstances, so I just let him go. Now the purser of the Nawarika wires me from Cooktown to say that the 'Squid' slipped ashore at Cairns and failed to show up again before sailing time. Purser says he still has the hundred quid I gave him to slip Saunders when they put him off in the Solomons. I have turned the wire over to the police, but have asked them to sit tight unless Saunders shows up in this section again. I hate to drag the old fire-eater into a new mess, especially after all the trouble I had getting him out of the old one. So I hope he won't be fool enough to come mooching south again. Don't suppose he will, but-I'll be keeping an eye lifting just the same against the loom of a vitriol bomb on the weather skyline."

Allen tapped his coat significantly at those last words, and that reminded him that there were two or three little things about "pocket-gunnery" he wanted me to coach him up on. Nailing a foot-square of discarded canvas to the swelling bole of a bottle tree down by the stream, we put in a half-hour of "by-and-large" practice at it. Allen, thanks to his natural gift for judging distance and angle, proved a very apt pupil.

By way of return for his gunnery lesson, "Slant" volunteered to show me a few tricks of knife-throwing, in which he was reputed to have no equal in the Islands. "I'm about as much of a walking arsenal as you were the time you waited for me at the Australia, Whitney," he said with a grin, as he produced a broad-bladed dagger from a sheath slung unobtrusively on his right hip. "This knife, by the way," he went on, tilting it lightly across his forefinger, "is balanced especially for throwing. They are made in Lisbon, mostly for export to Brazil I understand, where they seem to go in for that kind of stunt a good bit. I bought it from the skipper of a Portuguese gunboat at Deli, who also taught me the principles of chucking it. First and last, I've had a lot of sport out of practising with it, and have an idea I would have an even break with the Capitano himself when my hand's in. I was very grateful to old 'Squid' for handing it back to me the other day. I only hope he won't be forcing me to pass it on to him again."

Allen's skill with the wicked-bladed facon was decidedly impressive. If anything, he was a shade more accurate in planting the point of it than I was with a bullet from my pocket. Little luck as I had in throwing it, I was quite as fascinated with the appearance and "feel" of the formidable weapon as Allen had been with my target revolver in Sydney. "I trust you won't have to part with it again, to Saunders or anyone else," I said as I handed it back to him.

Before he mounted for his ride back to town, I mentioned to Allen that Rona had left me in the lurch again the day before, and intimated that, unless she began to show more interest in the picture, I would have to consider packing up and going back to Sydney. As a matter of fact, the girl's perversity had already been responsible for effectually dampening down my first flush of enthusiasm, and I began seriously to doubt my ability to make a success of the picture when the way was clear to work at it. Allen begged me not to be discouraged, and assured me again that he would look up Rona himself on the morrow and see if he couldn't get some line on what she was sulking about. He also said he would see if the quarantine people couldn't be prodded along to get at the job of disinfecting the Cora.

Rona still failed to show up on the following day, and in the evening I was unable to get 'phone connection with Allen's bungalow in an endeavour to learn if he had seen her. Dr. Butler, whom I got on the wire at the Quarantine Station, said that Allen had rung them up that morning, urging them to get a move on with the Cora. They had told him that they were planning to send a squad off before the end of the week. As word had just come to them, however, that men were seen climbing over the schooner that afternoon, they had decided to clean up the job in the morning. As long as the ship remained in her present condition, he said, she would continue a possible spreader of disease. She should have been attended to before. If I cared to go off with them, he added, he would pick me up at the landing at eight o'clock. I thanked him and told him I would be glad of the chance to look things over before going to work.

I drove down early in the morning, taking Ranga with me on the chance that Allen and Rona might care to go off and plan a tentative grouping. A black boy cutting weeds with a sickle in front of Allen's bungalow told me that "white marster stop townside" for the night and had not yet returned. At the Mission I found Oakes a good deal perturbed. The day before, he said, Allen had called just after lunch, talked with Rona a few minutes, and then borrowed Yusuf and gone off for a ride. He had not returned at dusk, but during the night the horse, dangling a broken bridle rein, had come galloping back to his stable. The missionary was fearful the rider had been thrown and stunned, and had been lying all night on the road. He had sent out boys to search soon after daylight. He was not sanguine of an early report from them, as Allen on his rides always avoided the metalled main highways to save his horse's feet. No, Yusuf's knees showed no signs of his having stumbled. He was as sure-footed as a goat and as gentle as a kitten. Not in the least given to shying or bolting. Besides, the colt wasn't foaled that could unseat Hartley Allen. Of course, he must have struck his head against a low-hanging limb in galloping some bush path, but that was unlikely. Hartley had his wits too much on the alert to be caught like that. He was beginning to be just a bit suspicious of foul play. Had I heard that "Squid" Saunders had left his steamer at Cairns and was believed to have sailed south in a stolen fishing-boat? He was just about to call up the Police Station and tell them of Allen's disappearance when I came.

Rona had been off on one of her long walks the previous afternoon, Oakes said in answer to my inquiry, and was not yet up. He had spoken with her through her window, just after Yusuf came back, in the hope that she might be able to give him some hint of the road Allen had taken. The latter had not mentioned where he was going, she said. She herself had been "away inland"-Oakes had encountered her on his weekly round through the plantation villages. She was a tireless walker, and very restless-altogether a strange character. I did not disturb the girl, as I reckoned there was no use in taking her off to the schooner until Allen was along to talk our plans over.

It would have seemed that this word of Allen's disappearance, taken in conjunction with the fact that men had been seen on the wreck of the Cora the previous day, might have given me just a shade of preparation for what I saw as I followed Butler and the Herald man over the schooner's side an hour later. But it was not so, probably because my mental faculties were at their dullest at so (for me) unwontedly early an hour. If the news had come to me in the afternoon, possibly I would have traced some connection between the two events, and so have been at least slightly braced and stiffened for the coming shock. As it was, I bumped into it all unset, and the staggering impact of it came near to bowling me over.

It had been Dr. Butler's theory, propounded as the launch put away from the landing, that the figures descried on the Cora the afternoon before were those of blacks or coolies, attracted to the hulk by the hope of loot. As a matter of fact, he said, they would doubtless have made quite a haul, as nothing but the ship's papers had been taken ashore on th

e day of her arrival. Considerable "trade" and all of the personal effects of her former officers had been left for removal after disinfection.

As we came out into the bay the coast to the northward began to open up, and presently the wreck of the Cora, heeled sharply to port with the foremast over the bows, became visible against the deep green of the mangroves a couple of miles distant. Butler studied the hulk closely through his glasses as we closed it.

"Looks as though I had another guess coming," he remarked finally, lowering the binoculars with a puzzled air. "Someone aboard her now. Seems to be jiggering the wheel. Can't be a pirate stunt, can it? Wouldn't be possible to drop a petrol engine into her, block up the hole and get off to the Islands on the quiet? But of course not. That's a drydock job-'count of the propeller and shaft."

At a quarter of a mile he raised his glasses again. "Chap at the wheel's the only man in sight," he reported. "He don't seem to have spotted us yet. Must be deaf, not to hear the explosions of our exhaust. Ah, perhaps that accounts for it! He's an old cove-big shock of white hair. 'Bout time he was getting his helmet on, though, with this sun beginning to bore into the back of his neck. Ahoy, there!..."

But there was no reply. The lone white-haired figure was still jiggering at the wheel when the launch, nosing in cautiously in the up-boil of reversed propellers, slid past the Cora's stern and the loom of her counter cut it off from our view.

A moss-shiny Jacob's Ladder hung over the starboard side amidships, where a section of the "nigger-wire" had been cut away, doubtless when the labour-recruits were disembarked. Butler climbed up first, then the Herald man (who had come off on the Doctor's invitation to see the ship made famous by the great exploit of the Hon. Hartley Allen), and then myself. Butler lingered at the ladder for a few moments, giving orders to his men about bringing the disinfecting paraphernalia aboard; so it was given to the newspaper man to be the first to go aft and discover that the moving, gibbering white-haired wretch lashed to the wheel of the schooner represented the sum total of the mental and physical remnants of the man whose doings he had been detailed to chronicle.

The horrified reporter uttered no sound-simply froze and stood rooted to the deck in amazed consternation. It was as though the basilisk stare of the maniac's eyes had turned the flesh and blood of his rangy frame to stone. When he stirred finally, it was to tip-toe softly back two or three paces to where I, in turn, had frozen in my tracks. It was his hand on my shoulder and his white face thrust close to mine that broke my own trance. Then the both of us must have retreated another step or two, until we bumped into Butler, similarly petrified with horror.

I am almost certain that not one of the three of us made any outcry, or even uttered a word, so paralyzing was the effect of the apparition at the wheel. The first sound I definitely recall as breaking in upon those muffled mowings from the cockpit was a booming gasp as Ranga's mighty chest sucked in a lungful of air, and then the big Malay's quiet "'Scuse me, Tuan," as he started to shove past between me and the deckhouse.

The yellow giant had seen too many men, white and black, lose their minds and their lives on that reeking old schooner to let the snapping of one more brain, or the parting of one more life-line, ruffle unduly his solid Oriental composure. He had been fond of Allen, however, and I could see that he was shaken, though not, like the rest of us, unnerved. There was a rumble of concern and anxiety even in that respectful "'Scuse me, Tuan," as he started to push past the blockade the cowering forms of three lesser men had made in the narrow passage.

Ranga's steadiness was good for the rest of us. Butler checked the Malay with upraised hand and, muttering something about his duty as a doctor, started aft, the Herald man and I pushing in his wake. If it had been possible for the fear-distorted features of the wreck of "Slant" Allen to express extremer terror, that heightened degree was registered when Butler extended his opened clasp-knife to begin severing the lashings. I have no wish to attempt to describe that hell-haunted face. Indeed, there will be scant need of my doing so, for there can be few readers of this record who are not already familiar with its tortured lineaments. It seared itself into my brain with a white heat of intensity that left no room for any other image. At the moment it seemed as though it must be blazoned there as long as my body was quick with the spark of life, or at least until my reason recoiled at the horror of it and tottered from its throne. A little later, when the dread face itself had been hidden from my sight, a light seemed suddenly to flash out in the distance, and in groping toward it I found relief.

The ghastly shadow of the Hon. Hartley Allen was standing wedged in between the wheel and the binnacle-stand, his wrists lashed to the spokes of the former and a maze of tangled line binding his knees to the latter. The lashing was a length cut from the taffrail-log-line, another piece of which had been used to secure a gag of wadded oakum. The only wound visible (save for the wrists chafed through to the white cords of their tendons in his desperate tuggings to tear free) was a half-inch-wide incision on the right inner side of the neck, evidently made by the point of a knife pressed in close to the swell of the jugular vein. As this cut was hardly more than a deep prick, it seemed probable that the knife had been used, not to inflict injury, but rather to compel the victim to remain quiet while he was being secured.

As the wrist lashings fell away, Allen lurched savagely forward with a throaty "g-rrr" and did his best to claw Butler's throat with his fingers. His strength was spent by his night-long struggles, however, and Ranga easily smothered the attack in the crook of his interposed arm. The removal of the gag did not, as might have been expected from the way the chest had been labouring, release a frantic scream. The passages of the throat, although the neck revealed no evidences of having been choked-recently, that is,-appeared to be swollen almost shut. The windpipe would carry air to the lungs, but every effort to expel it violently seemed to clap a sort of automatic muffler on the vocal chords.

Allen collapsed limply into Ranga's arms when his leg lashings had been cut, but he would not swoon. The dread of the damned continued to stream from his staring and unbelievably dilated eyes; those hoarse heavings of throat-throttled shrieks continued to issue from his gaping mouth; every time a hand or foot was freed, he continued to strike or kick with it to the limit of his pitifully drained strength.

Butler said that the only hope of saving the man's mind, and probably his life as well, was to rush him to the hospital and put him under an opiate as quickly as possible. Ranga picked up the tortured body carefully, as he might have handled a struggling kitten, and passed it down to the launch. Butler had the forethought to have us all sprayed with the disinfectant before we went over the side, so as to minimize the chances of our carrying off any plague germs.

Just as the launch was about to shove off, Ranga begged the coxswain to hold on for a moment, and went clambering back up the latter. He ran aft, picked up something from the deck, and came back tucking his little Malay flute into the waistband of his dungarees. He had dropped it in the cockpit, he explained.

About all I can recall of the run back to the landing was the interminable number of times the Herald man insisted on telling us that he had been talking to Hartley Allen all the while the latter had been shifting into his jockey togs for the Planters' Handicap, and of how Butler, each time, replied: "And he slept in my pajamas all the time he was in quarantine." Possibly I said equally trivial things; but I don't recall them. I was conscious of a great pity for the plight of the man for whom I had come to have a genuine liking, and a dull sort of wonder as to how the tragedy might have happened and who was responsible for it. But the haunting horror of that fear-stricken face hung like a curtain in front of my mind, dimming or blanking everything behind it.

At Butler's suggestion, he-with Ranga to help-took a carriage at the landing and drove direct to the hospital with Allen, while the Herald man and I went in my trap to the Police Station to report to the Chief. The latter had recently come to his present job from Charters Towers, where he had made something of a name for himself by breaking up a gang of outlaws who had long been doing pretty much as they pleased in that rough and ready bonanza town. He was a chap of great determination, energy and courage, but of little subtlety-rather the type of a Western American sheriff than a city police chief. I had met him at the Club two or three times, and liked him for his steady eye and open straightforwardness.

The Chief was a little impatient at the Herald man's repetitions of the togs-shifting episode, and possibly also of my own wooden silence; but he got to the salient facts readily, and was no less forward with his deductions therefrom.

"'Squid' Saunders beyond a doubt," he pronounced decisively. "His sloop was sighted twice between here and Cairns, the last time only fifty miles to the north'ard. He could have landed night before last easy. Any of the lagoons running back into the Caradarra Swamp would hide his sloop. That would have given him all day yesterday to scout for Allen. Why the schooner I don't quite twig. But the 'Squid' was always adding devilish little embroideries to his jobs, and leaving a man to rot on a plague ship has all of his ear-marks. Never mind, I've had two launches patrolling the north coast for him since yesterday morning. He must have landed before they got there. But they'll nab him if he pulls out with the sloop again, and if he doesn't, I'll nab him. I hate to do it with a white man, but I'm going to put Rawdon's 'nigger-chasers' on his trail. I've got 'Squid's' old suit of clothes-the one he threw away when Allen bought him a new outfit-stowed away here, and I fancy a sniff of it will be enough to put them on the scent with. If I don't miss my guess, Mr. 'Squid' Saunders will be enjoying our bed and board again before another twenty-four hours has gone by."

The Chief dropped his professional manner for a few moments as we arose to go. "Allen was a good friend of yours, Mr. Whitney," he said, laying a kindly grip on my shoulder. "I don't wonder that you're a bit dazed by the thing. Rather puts a damper on the picture, I'm afraid. Going up the hill now, are you? Good-a bit of a rest will steady you no end. Ring up this evening and we'll give you the news. It won't be long before we have our man."

The Herald man, with the Chief's approval, rushed off to the telegraph office to dispatch his wire. I drove round to the hospital to pick up Ranga and inquire for news of Allen. Butler came down to see me in the reception-room and reported that it had taken an astonishing quantity of morphine to have any effect upon the patient, but that he was at last beginning to grow quieter. His heart action was very irregular and there was no saying yet what turn things might take. He asked me to let Ranga remain at the hospital for a day or two. They were short of orderlies as a consequence of the smallpox epidemic, and the big Malay was a very useful attendant on account of his strength, quietness and good sense. As they were trying to avoid the necessity of putting Allen in a strait-jacket, they wanted someone in the room able to handle him if he became violent again on coming out from his opiate. I told him to keep Ranga as long as he was needed.

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