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   Chapter 16 A SUDDEN VISITOR

Hell's Hatches By Lewis R. Freeman Characters: 40369

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


As a rider reins in his stumbling horse, so did I rein in my stumbling nerves. It was now or never, I told myself. If those final touches were not given before I stirred from my tracks, they would never be given. I closed my eyes and my ears-not with my hands but by a sheer effort of will-and then, inch by inch, as though I were dragging it by the throat, brought the phantom prototype back and forced it to merge with the face on the canvas. The tip of my brush flashed twice, thrice. Then I relaxed the tentacles of my will, and as the phantom face, receding, blurred to blankness, it left behind, where a wisp of green-smeared camel's hair had touched the canvas, an expression of hell-haunted terror streaming from the unnaturally dilated eyes of the completed picture-face.

I was breathing heavily, like a coolie who throws down his back-breaking burden at the end of a hard climb, when I tossed aside my brush and palette, but no wretch of a human pack-mule ever knew the depth of relief that was mine. A carrier could only experience the physical satisfaction of feeling his back was freed of a load: mine was the spiritual ecstasy of knocking off the shackles that had threatened to bind my soul. And now I was free to rush to the arms of the "Green Lady"! No more need of rationing my absinthe. I spilled the remaining contents of the bottle at my elbow in the bowl of half-melted cracked ice, and wolfed it greedily over the tilted brim.

"Ple-ese, Whit-nee, I have the great hur-ree." Again came the click-clack of the imprisoned latch and the thud of a knee or shoulder against the door.

"One moment, Rona!" Steadied and alert, I set down the emptied bowl, threw a hastily-snatched couch-cover over the canvas so that the space upon which I had worked was hidden, and stepped to the door. Already I felt the exaltation and relief of having banished the dread phantom. And the picture face on the canvas-how easy it was to blot out! The hanging corner of an old steamer-rug....

Rona pushed in eagerly as I swung back the door, Suey relaxing his restraining grip and backing away noiselessly at my reassuring nod. All the old verve showed in the girl's high-flung head and flashing eye. Sullenness, depression, sadness alike were gone, replaced by an air of eagerness, of suppressed excitement. She was still wearing the baggy holakau the lady missionaries had wished upon her, but with it-looped over her breasts and under her shoulders sarong-fashion-was the peacock shawl, outlining softly the lithe curves of shoulder and hip and flowing clingingly in folds of amber and scintillant opalescence below her knees.

"Whit-nee, I come to make the good-bye," she gushed cooingly, catching her breath. "Tonight I take boat go Seengapo. Whit-nee, I come here to tell you I ver-ree sor-ree I make you troubl' 'bout the pick-yur. I tella you lie, Whit-nee. I cannot-make-the pick-yur. Bel-la, he say-"

At that instant a strange thing happened. Two or three times since she entered the room, Rona's eyes, as though drawn there irresistibly, had wandered from mine to what could have appeared to her no more than a corner of plaid rug hanging over a broad blank of tightly stretched canvas. She had done this again as she started to speak, and it was a slight widening of her eyes that caused me to turn and follow her glance. The hastily-flung rug was slowly slipping back off the easel. The fringed corner hanging down in front was rising. Possibly a draught from the open door had started the movement, or perhaps the swishing blows a wind-lashed tree was dealing the side of the house. Whatever was the cause, the effect was that of an invisible hand slowly drawing up a curtain.

Rona's tongue framed the sentence that was in her mind, but the words came brokenly as her puzzled wonderment increased. As her double-syllabled rendition of Bell's name fell from her lips the accelerating slide of the curtain quickened to a run, and, with a flirt of green fringe, the masking corner disappeared over the top of the frame. The Face-"Slant" Allen's hell-haunted face, tortured and terrible-glared out at her from the broad white field of the canvas.

There was sheer amazement in the down-drop of the girl's lean jaw and a suggestion of terror in the gasp with which she filled her deflated lungs. But the piercing "ey-yu" with which that air was forced out again was a battle-cry. Fortunately, I was standing a couple of paces nearer the canvas than was she; but even with that handicap in my favour it was a near squeak. I caught the gleam of a flashing blade and a quick grab sunk my crooked fingers deep into the flesh of a thrusting arm. Hurling the arrested figure back toward the door, I stooped and picked up a knife-that beautifully balanced Portuguese throwing-knife that Allen and I had been flinging at the swelling bole of the big bottle-tree the previous Sunday. To this day I do not know whether Rona thought she was attacking a reincarnation or a ghost, or was only bent on destroying an uncannily life-like portrait that awakened savage memories.

I swished the fallen rug from under the easel and rehung it-evenly this time-before turning to confront Rona, where she was readjusting-with raised elbows and twinkling thumbs-the hitch of the peacock shawl in the opposite corner of the room. She had scrambled to her feet again, but gave no sign of returning to the attack. Her eyes were snapping with anger and excitement, but I did not have the feeling that she entertained any especial personal resentment against me for the rough handling I had given her.

"So it was you after all," I said slowly, fingering the tapering blade of the tell-tale knife.

Her lips moved as though in reply, but if she said anything coherent it was drowned in the roar of a sudden gust of wind that buffetted the bungalow at that moment. I turned to the girl again after closing the north windows. Her eyes were fixed on vacancy now, and her head, with the clean-cut chin slightly elevated, was turned sideways in an attitude of listening. As the banging of the trees died down my own duller tympana registered a new vibration-and yet not quite new-something that I had heard very recently. Ah, now I had it! The baying of a hound, very near and very eager. A red-hot scent beyond doubt, I told myself. But why were Rawdon's "nigger-chasers" running at that hour, and into the teeth of a rising hurricane? There was questioning in both our glances as the girl's eyes met mine, but in hers certainly no hint of fear.

Before either of us spoke a firm, quick step sounded from the back of the house, and a moment later, following a light tap on the door, Ranga entered from my bedroom. If he was surprised at Rona's presence, or at her somewhat dishevelled appearance, he gave no sign of it. Nor was there about me-now that I was holding the knife behind my back-anything to suggest to the Malay that he had stumbled upon a situation in the least out of the normal.

Tuan "Slant" was sleeping heavily, he said, and so he had snatched the opportunity to come up for some of his own Borneo tobacco and a change of clothes. They had nothing in the hospital large enough for him. Tuan "Slant" was growing stronger in body, but-he finished by tapping his temple and shaking his head dubiously.

A heavier broadside of the gathering storm shook the house again, this time sending a shudder through its stout frame and wringing a vibrant ping from the tautened "hurricane cables" that guyed its windward corners. Out of the heart of that blast came the bell-mouthed baying of the nearing hound. He was still sounding his clear bugle notes as he swung in through the gate from the road, but down the driveway, with the incense of the burning trail conjuring visions of an imminent quarry in his brain, he began tearing his throat with harsh, savage yelps of eagerness. I was looking for his charge to come against the closed front door, but a sudden shower of claw-spurned gravel rat-a-tat-ing against the glass of the French windows told that he had wheeled in his tracks and was circling to the rear of the house. A yell and a clatter of saucepans from the kitchen, a scramble of slipping claws upon the hardwood floor of the back hallway, and in from the open door of my bedroom-drooling-fanged, bloody-eyed and bloody-minded-came dashing that black bolt of canine fury, closing on his cornered quarry for the death-grapple.

Ranga, on entering, had moved a step or two aside from the door, a survival doubtless of his training at sea, where an idle man blocking a companionway or a ladder is liable to be taught manners by a rap on the head. Rona was still in the corner to which I had hurled her. I was at the opposite corner, near the big canvas and twenty feet or more from the girl. The flying hound tried to check himself at the doorway, but the polished floor gave him no grip for his claws. Down on his haunches, with forefeet poked rigidly ahead, he slid the full width of the room, tobogganing on a smooth-running Samoan mat for the last half of the distance.

With the certainty of Rona's guilt fixed in my mind by her possession of Allen's knife, I had no doubt, from the moment the hound's baying indicated it had turned into the clearing, that it was hot on her trail. But even so, the brute's entry by the bedroom door had been so unexpected and so swift that I had not stirred from my tracks to the girl's defence when the snarling animal, shooting across the room, brought up against the wall close beside her. Even Ranga, leaping forward instantly as he had, was scarcely past the middle of the floor when the beast regained its balance and bearings almost at the girl's feet. Drawing back into the angle of the walls and crouching low like a cornered cat, Rona awaited the attack, while Ranga, barehanded, and I with the throwing-knife rushed in to her aid. Without an instant's hesitation, the savage beast spun to a full right-about and, brushing the girl's advanced knee as though it was no more than the piano stool, launched itself full at the throat of the yellow man.

Ranga's counter was swift, sure and terrible. He might have been fighting bloodhounds barehanded from childhood, for all the surprise and dismay he showed at the sudden attack. Where my own instinct (if I had not tried to side-step the charge completely) would have been to grapple for the brute's throat from beneath, he simply struck-or rather grabbed-down from above. The impact crushed the snarling beast to the floor, but when Ranga raised his arm again he was gripping his struggling canine adversary by the scruff of the neck. Or rather, I thought it was the scruff. In reality his grip was a bit more inclusive.

Holding the floundering black form at arm's length with no more effort than if it had been a terrier, Ranga suddenly tightened his hold. I saw the hound's red-lidded eyes grow slant and elongated like a Chinaman's as the skin of its scalp was drawn backward in the relentless vise closing from behind; then a grinding snick cut short an unearthly scream of pain, and the hound was dangling limp and lifeless with a crumpled spine at the end of a gibbet of knotted yellow muscle. Ranga tossed lightly aside what a moment before had been a flying bolt of wrath, and where the great head doubled under against a flowered chintz window-curtain I saw the sprawling outline of a tooth-torn ear, doubtless the scar of a fight with a luckier ending.

In its strangely terrible tenseness, the electrically charged silence that succeeded has no parallel in my experience. Not a word was spoken. The only sound was the banging of the wind-wrenched trees against the house and the nearing mutter of the thunder in the north. The significance of the fact that it was Ranga the dog had been trailing was lost upon neither Rona nor me, nor yet upon the big Malay himself. The latter met my questioning glance steadily for a moment, but it was the girl's piercing stare of fierce concentration that drew and held his troubled black eyes. While one might have counted fifty those two stood and (as I have since understood) communed with eye and mind. It was a sudden thunder-clap that broke the connection and checked the interflow of thought. Ranga had not winced at the blinding flash and close-following crash, but Rona's higher strung nerves fluttered for an instant, and the wire was down. But Ranga's words indicated that the message was about complete.

"Yes, I did it, Tuan," he said quietly, turning toward me as though answering my unspoken question. "It had to be, Tuan, and-yes, I did it."

It was not until afterwards I recalled that it was to Rona I addressed my protest. "But 'Slant' swore to me that he did not kill Bell; that he was in no way responsible for his death, first or last."

A spasm of passion twisted the girl's face to the seeming of an ape's as she caught the drift of my words, and her reply was almost a scream. "Not ke-el Bel-la? 'Slan' do worse than ke-el. He-"

The chorus of the leashed pack that checked her words came from so close at hand that it made itself heard above the now unbroken roar of the storm. There was the clang of shod hoofs on a metalled road, too, and I thought I could distinguish the shouts of men. The hunt was closing in for the kill.

"I think I go now, Tuan. I like the better to fight outside." Ranga's voice was as quiet and controlled as when he had told me the news from the hospital a few minutes before; but there was the lust of battle in his flashing eyes, eagerness for action in the quick heave of his chest.

There was no time to debate and decide the question as to who had committed the outrage upon Hartley Allen, or of what justification there might have been for it. One thing only was clear to me, and that was that I was not going to throw either Rona or Ranga to the dogs-no, nor to the law either-if there was any way of avoiding it. My mind-as was always the case when I had fasted long and drunk absinthe sparingly-worked with lightning swiftness.

"Don't fight unless you have to," I said, stepping closer to Ranga as the wind and thunder threatened to drown my voice. "Follow down the stream over the falls. Jump won't hurt you-plenty of water at the bottom. That'll throw off the dogs. Then follow the path by the flume down to the sea. The rain'll kill your trail for the dogs. It ought to be starting any minute now. Wait for me on the pier by the old sugar mill. I'll come for you in a boat as soon as I can."

Baring his teeth in a quick grin of comprehension, the big fellow wheeled and started for the front door. I caught his arm and checked him just in time. "This way!" I shouted. "Through my bedroom window. Beat it! Lekas!"

Again that intelligent tooth-flash of understanding. Ranga's foreshortened bulk was making a blurred blot against the blue-green lightning flash playing across the rear bedroom window as I turned to answer a heavy banging at the front door. Everything considered, I have always felt that I got away fairly well with the situation with which I now found myself confronted. It was Harpool, the Chief of Police, who staggered into the room, bracing back against the push of the still rising wind. The flutter of the lightning revealed two or three horses in the driveway, and three or four men following a bunch of howling dogs around the corner of the house.

I was on the point of opening up at the Chief with a facetious sally about the way he was sending his hounds around to frighten my lady visitors, when I chanced to glance to the corner where Rona had been, and lo-I had no lady visitor! The girl was gone, but whether under the couch or out of one of the windows I could not guess. So I only gaped rather stupidly and said nothing, leaving the Chief to open the attack. I was glad the face on the canvas was covered, and only wished there had been time to throw something over the crumpled remnants of the big black-and-tan.

"I am quite satisfied it isn't you we want, Mr. Whitney," Harpool began, with a shade of embarrassment, I thought. "But the fact remains that Rawdon's hounds have followed a live scent straight to this house, and I have every reason to believe they are on the trail of the man who tied up Hartley Allen. Perhaps you can explain-"

"I think I can," I cut in, anxious to gain time for the fugitive, but realizing that no end would be served by trying to conceal his identity. "You're right that it was a hot scent. Just a few degrees too hot for your canine deputy there in the corner. It's the end of his trail, I'm afraid."

The Chief strode over to the limp corpse and turned it with his foot. "Who killed this hound?" he demanded angrily, regarding me suspiciously for the first time.

"Not I, Chief," I replied jauntily; "but can't you guess? You can see for yourself that he hasn't been shot-or clubbed-or poisoned. Well, then-look at that neck. Do you know of more than one man in these parts capable of snapping a bloodhound's spine between his thumb and forefinger?" (I added that little thumb-and-forefinger touch with malice aforethought, for I wanted to impress upon Harpool-for whatever it might be worth-that it was no old broken-down of a "Squid" Saunders that he was going to try to run to earth out there in the darkness.)

The Chief's honest eyes opened with amazement as the answer dawned upon him. "You don't mean the big Malay?" he ejaculated incredulously. "Why, he has been tending Allen like a sister for two days. Everyone in the hospital has been speaking about his devotion."

"No other," I answered. "Ranga came up from the hospital less than half an hour ago to get a shift of togs. Five minutes later that hound came tearing in through the back entrance and flew at his throat-right here in my studio. You see the result. That fellow can drop a horse with his fist-a dog is no more than a flea to him."

"I can hardly believe it," said the Chief, shaking his head; "but the fact remains that if the hound went for him, he's our man. I hope we won't have to shoot him.... But Rawdon will never stand by and see his dogs pinched out like that. This fellow was his best hound by a mile. Drive him crazy when he finds it's been dished. Gawd, that neck might have been run over by a steam tram! What in hell-"

A bedlam of howls and yells and savage oaths rising from the rear of the house at this juncture broke in upon the Chief and caused him to bolt on the double through the door of the corridor leading to the kitchen. The unearthly racket, with the rattle of pistol shots spattering through it, made me certain that Ranga had run afoul of the hunt at his first jump. Shuddering at the thought of the terrible fight that must ensue, I pushed on after Harpool, reaching the further end of the corridor just in time to catch his reeling form as he staggered back from a bullet that had burned his scalp the instant he opened the kitchen door. Astride the sill of a kicked-in window sat old Rawdon, his bearded face distorted with fury and pain, coughing, sneezing, cursing, and firing impartially at all parts of the long, low room. Under the sink, almost at Rawdon's feet but quite out of pistol range, crouched Suey, blinking blandly and rubbing his almond eyes. He it was who was the author of an unpremeditated diversion which was the only thing in the world that prevented Ranga being nabbed at the outset.

The late black-and-tan, in following Ranga's trail, had entered the kitchen by snapping his way through the light screen door. To prevent his lines being thus penetrated a second time, the foxy Celestial, when he heard the main pack rallying to the attack, closed and bolted the heavy outside door of his domain and, with a little surprise packet in his hand, took station beside the little swinging window above the sink. Waiting with true Oriental restraint till the clamouring enemy was compactly bunched upon the porch outside, Suey gently raised the screen and emptied the contents of a can of red pepper into their midst. The paprika appeared to have been pretty fairly divided between three of the mo

st oncoming of the dogs and their equally forward master. The hounds quit for the night, then and there, but the old bushranger's fighting spirit urged him on to make the best stand he could with his automatic. Considering the way he was being racked with coughs and sneezes, and that he only blazed away at the creak of an opening door his streaming eyes could not locate, his shot that welcomed the Chief was by no means uncreditable. It cut a neat furrow through Harpool's stubby pompadour and even drew a drop or two of blood.

The Chief's fervent swearing stayed Rawdon's murderous hand just as he had finished fumbling a fresh clip of cartridges into his emptied "thirty-eight" and was about to start fusillading anew. Roaring mad as he was, his first thought was for the dogs. "Get a wet rag round the muzzles o' Dingo an' Jackaroo 'fore you let 'em inter this 'ell 'ole," he growled between sneezes. "Our bloke's somew'ere in this 'ere 'ouse," he went on, laving his smarting eyes at the water-tap of the sink above Suey's jack-knifed form. "Don't let 'im slope by the front door, Chief, now we've got 'im in 'is 'ole."

"Sloped already," snapped Harpool laconically, adding that most of the sloping had been done while Rawdon was setting his dogs on a "bally Chink cook." In a few terse sentences the Chief explained the way things stood, giving it as his opinion that their man would be trying to follow the stream right across the plantation and down through the belt of bush to the mangrove swamps. The loss of the big black-and-tan was so great a calamity for the old bushranger that it had the effect of sobering rather than further exciting him. His red rage burned white and flamed inwardly rather than outwardly. "I'll know 'ow to even up for 'im killin' Starlight w'en I gets that bloody wombat in a patch o' dry bush. Nice bit o' a torch that greasy 'ulk o' 'im'll make. Come along! We'll 'ave a better chance o' makin' a quick bag if we get 'im in sight 'fore the rain starts."

There were still left two dogs with undamaged "noses." Fearful that these, if they took the bridle-path down the right side of the creek, might pick up Ranga's trail where he would have left the stream at the pool, I made bold to suggest a plan calculated to carry them wide of that danger point. "Why don't you ford here," I said, "and push straight across the plantation to the end of the big loop the stream makes round the nigger village? Your man will be all of an hour making that point if he wades by the stream. You can make it through the cane in twenty minutes and be waiting there to bag him."

The Chief was inclined to favour the plan-until Rawdon cut in sarcastically with: "An' wot's to pervent the bloody bloke's givin' us the slip a 'undred times 'tween 'ere an' there? One hound down each side o' the stream-that's the only way to be sure o' clappin' our 'ooks inter 'im."

That was sound reasoning of course-from Rawdon's standpoint,-and I didn't dare urge my plan any further. Ten minutes later, when a sudden eager baying came down the wind from the direction of the waterfall, I felt sure my worst fears were realized. It was, therefore, with only the faintest hopes of success, that I pulled myself together to take the first step in making good my promise to pick up Ranga at the pier of the old sugar mill.

The priceless Suey had crawled out from under the sink as the sounds of the hunt grew faint, and turned to tidying the kitchen as though cleaning up after a pack of bloodhounds was just a pleasant little incidental of the day's work. When I ordered him to get me out a fresh bottle of absinthe he did not even forget the cracked ice. I told him I should probably be away for most of the night, and that if Rona showed up in the interim to see that she was made comfortable till my return. "All lightee girl-ee. Otha fell-ee too much peppa can have," he said decisively. I told him to do what he liked to Rawdon, but to give the Chief a shake-down if he asked for it.

Quaffing a couple of glasses of raw absinthe, I filled a flask, pulled on a pair of riding-boots and a raincoat, and pushed out onto the veranda. The wind had not increased greatly in force, but the lightning and thunder were flashing and crashing almost simultaneously overhead, and the first big drops of rain were beginning to spatter. The moon was hidden behind a dense pall of black cloud, so that it was by the incessant flicker of the lightning that I sized up the three saddle-horses tied at the side of the driveway and picked the rangy waler of the Chief as the likeliest rough-weather beast. I had no compunction to taking him, as the bunch would be breaking away anyhow as soon as the sagging bottom of the cloud overhead dropped its contents on them. I preferred not to have my own saddle-horse left standing in the town if it could be avoided. There would be enough tell-tale posts on the course I was going to try to negotiate without deliberately planting another one.

The cane fields in the valley were glistening with the opening volleys of the rain as I spurred across the clearing, stabbing the night with silver gleams in the lightning flashes as the bayonets of massed troops throw off the rays of the sun. The wind was behind me as far as the main road; then side-on, but broken by the wall of the thick-growing trees. I put the waler at top speed, anxious to cover all the distance possible while the footing was good. I was halfway to town before the storm let go in real earnest, and from then on it was about as much of a swim as a ride, especially after the hillsides began to spill off on the lower levels. My mount was a sensible beast, evidently no stranger to tropical cloudbursts. He took the initiative readily when I ceased to urge him, and kept plugging right on through the storm at a good steady business-like jog. Nothing but my good fortune in getting a jump on the rain prevented my going out in this first lap of my race, as all of the four bridges I had to cross must have washed away within a very few minutes from the time I put them behind me. Indeed, one of the two horses I had left in the driveway, after both had broken away as I had anticipated, was drowned in trying to flounder through an open crossing.

The worst of the terrific downpour was over as I rode into the town, but the wind-as was to be expected-was blowing with increased force. Everyone had been driven indoors by the rain, so that it was in an empty street I dismounted and left my horse, knowing that he would be pawing at his own stable door within a very few minutes. The rest of the way to the landing I covered on foot. As I had feared, the creek was empty of launches. I would have to see what could be done at the Burns, Phillip offices, which, busy with manifests and other odds and ends of business incident to an imminent steamer sailing, were still lighted up. It was an alternative I was very reluctant to resort to, as I had been hoping that my visit to Captain Tancred might be managed on the quiet. Just as I turned to go a red light, bobbing past the outer end of the jetty, caught the tail of my eye, and, on the off chance that it might be a craft I could hire, I held on at the steps. Smartly handled in the nasty cross-lop, a small but powerful steam launch bumped in alongside the landing stage.

"Can I get you to take me off to the Mambare?" I demanded of the uniformed youth who came bounding up the steps.

"Glad to do it, sir. This is her launch," was the cheery reply. "Just in for clearance papers. Be back in a jiffy. Climb aboard and make yourself comfy in the cabin." Then, as an apparent afterthought: "You're sailing with us, aren't you? Can't take off visitors at this hour. No way to get back. Getting under way at midnight." He had so little doubt that I was a belated passenger, perhaps delayed by the rain, that my nod was quite sufficient to reassure him. Five minutes later we were shoving off for the run back to the line of lights where the Mambare tugged at her moorings.

The sea was white with foam outside the jetties, but with waves and wind almost dead astern the sturdy little launch made very comfortable weather of it. It was by no means as bad as it had been coming in, said the young officer, who turned out to be a freight clerk. As the gangway was already raised and the launch had to come in anyway, we remained aboard her and were hoisted right up and swung in to the chocks on the Mambare's boat-deck. My companion hurried at once to his office to go over his pouch of papers, while I, locating it without asking anyone for directions, went forward to the Captain's cabin under the bridge.

The faint shadow of constraint on Captain Tancred's face as I entered disappeared the instant his ready mind divined I had come to him for help. "So they're after ye at last, lad," he said, sympathy and satisfaction queerly blended in his deep voice. "Weel, noo, tell me a' aboot it. I ken we'll be findin' a way oot for ye."

I told him all that he needed to know as quickly as possible, making a point, however, of omitting to state that the man I wanted him to smuggle away to the Islands had confessed to committing the outrage upon Hartley Allen. "Slant" was an old friend of "Choppy's," and I felt sure that the latter, far from being a witting party to helping the man who had attacked him escape from justice, would undoubtedly lend every aid to placing him where he would receive his just deserts. Luckily, the quixotic old Scot was not a man to ask searching questions. He was plainly disappointed that it was not I who was fleeing the law, but there was ready consolation in the fact that a friend of mine, in very sore straits, might be saved from being torn to pieces by a pack of bloodhounds if he was picked up at a certain point on the north coast before morning.

We located the cove of the old sugar mill on the chart without difficulty, and in his bulky volume of "Sailing Directions" found the comforting assurance that it afforded especially good shelter in a northerly blow. There was no surf, it was stated, and the shore was almost steep-to. This was all in our favour. He was sailing at midnight, the Captain said. The hurricane was central over the New Hebrides, so it was only the tail of it flirting across the Great Barrier-nothing he would dream of sticking in harbour for. Doubtless he would be able to find an excuse to heave-to off the cove, while I piloted the launch in to get our man. Then, if I didn't care to return and take a pleasure voyage with him to Insulinde and the Straits, I could drop off and make the best of my way home.

The Captain had just finished telling me how he had made a point of bringing his old launch crew with him from the Utupua-"the lads I use for speshul wark, ye ken"-when the freight clerk who had brought me off entered the cabin with a number of papers and letters. On the top of the pile was a red envelope marked "Rush." "Choppy" tore the letter open at once. The up-flop of his grizzled side-burns at the sudden flexing of the jaw muscles at their roots gave me warning of the coming jolt.

"We'll nae be gettin' under wa' the nicht, Ryerson," he said quietly to the freight clerk. "Will ye be sae guid as to bid the Chief an' the Mate to step this wa'. Mair carga the morrow," he added by way of explanation. To the Chief Engineer, when he came, the Captain merely countermanded an order for steam on the capstan at seven bells, and warned him to keep the pressure in the boilers high for fear the steamer might part a mooring cable if the wind increased. The Mate he ordered to be ready to handle a consignment of silver bullion and ingot copper that would come in a tug from the Moresby as soon as she arrived from the south in the morning. He also told him to have the crew of the steam launch called away at once, so as to put "yon gentleman" ashore as quickly as possible. If the Mate was lively about it, "Choppy" suggested, he might find that the fires of the launch had not yet been drawn from her trip to the landing. If so, that would save time in getting up steam.

Not until all of this was ordered did he turn to me with: "The de'il's ain luck, lad. Nae gettin' awa' afore eight bells, noon, the morrow. Shipment frae Broken Hill catchin' up wi' us in the Moresby."

"That means that the game's up and you're sending me back because there's no hope of doing anything?" I asked in dismay.

"Nae, nae, lad," he soothed. "No' so fast. Just a wee bit o' a shift o' program, that's a'. True I'm sendin' ye ashore in the launch, but when she comes back I'm hopin' tae find oor mon in yer place. Do ye ken noo wha' I'm drivin' at?"

"Do you mean to send the launch all the way round from here?" I demanded in astonishment; "and then to keep him aboard here in the harbour for ten or twelve hours before you sail? Isn't that asking for trouble both ways? Even if the launch stands up against the gale outside, aren't you done for if they come off from town and make a search of the steamer?"

Old "Choppy's" blue eyes twinkled merrily at the latter suggestion. The police never did seem to have any luck in searching his ships, he laughed. As for the launch-it was new, its engine was unusually powerful, and it would have "Pisco" at the wheel. "Pisco," he explained, was a Chilean who had been with him for years, and had never been known to fail at a pinch. He thought that combination ought to win out. I didn't mind a bit of slap-banging off the point, did I? That settled it. If he was willing to risk his own launch and his own career to save my friend, it was not for me to hang back. Fifteen minutes later we had been lowered over the side and were rounding under the Mambare's fine clipper bows into the teeth of the gusty norther. It had been agreed that I should pilot "Pisco" to the rendezvous and deliver my man into his care. "Choppy" undertook to do the rest.

What the hard-bit old sea-dog had characterized as a "bit o' slap-banging" off the point proved to be a frontal attack upon as ruffianly a bunch of headseas as it was ever my lot to face in anything smaller than a ninety-ton schooner. Stoutly built and over-engined as she was, the launch was quite equal to the task of driving her nose through the waves, but-not being built for submarine service-proved a dismal failure at getting rid of the solid green water that deluged her as a consequence. Knot by knot, cursing fluently in picturesque roto Spanish the while, "Pisco" rang down the engine, until finally the pugnacious little craft ceased tunnelling the bases of the seas and contented herself with boring neat round holes in their curling crests. By this method she shipped no more water than her scuppers could put back where it came from. The only fear now was that enough spray might splash down her squat funnel to quench the fires, and to minimize the chances of this, the resourceful "Pisco" made the lookout stand so that his broad chest would receive and deflect the heaviest rushes of the threatening flood. Fortunately, the distance to be run head-on to the seas was comparatively short. Once round the point the alteration of course brought the wind and the waves on the starboard beam, and though she now just about rolled her side-lights under, it was fairly quiet going compared to the buffeting outside.

I gave "Pisco" his course for the first leg in by the lights of the big sugar central, and then, as we opened up the inner bay, gave him a bearing on the notch-barely guessable against the overcast west-where the old cartroad grade pierced the brow of the cliff. The clouds were racing overhead and the baffling cross-gusts on the surface would have made it bad business for a sailing craft. But for a launch the task was a comparatively simple one. The loom of the old mill was discernible against the darker opacity of the cliff at a couple of hundred yards, and the right-angling lines of the pier at half that distance. As the latter was sure to have been built of the eternally-lasting jarra, I knew that it would be as solid and serviceable as the day it was abandoned.

I had not thought it best to risk dampening Captain Tancred's enthusiasm by confessing that I thought it was a good ten-to-one against my man's turning up at the rendezvous. Indeed, I could see no grounds whatever for hoping that Ranga had shaken the pursuit-already at his heels-and won through to the appointed place. Nothing short of a miracle could have compassed it, I told myself. It was on the off chance that the miracle had been wrought that I was keeping my promise.

"'Bout half a point to sta'boa'd, Tuan. Way nuf now! Steady!" That deep rumbling voice from the darkness was a welcome surprise. "Pisco," heeding the quiet directions, brought his launch alongside the broad solid flight of steps as neatly as he would have laid her up to the Mambare's gangway in broad daylight.

Ranga was coming down the steps-with a slowness which I attributed to the fact that they were probably very slippery-when I heard a thud on the deck behind me, such a sound as a heavy, soft bundle thrown down from above might have made in striking. A second or two later there was an ejaculation of astonishment somewhere aft, probably from "Pisco," I thought, as the words were Spanish. I did not try to puzzle out the purport of them at the moment, as my attention was occupied with Ranga, who seemed to be hesitating at the last moment about coming aboard. Twice or thrice he drew back his foot from the rail, as though uncertain of his balance. And when the great bulk of him finally did surge forward, it was with a lurch that took all my strength to check it and prevent his reeling on across the narrow bow and over the other side. He steadied himself slowly, with a great intake of breath. "Sorry-make trouble,-Tuan. Now-I go aft."

"I am leaving you here, Ranga," I said quickly, for I was getting nervous about a movement of lights I had observed along the flume in the rear of the big sugar mill. "Captain Tancred will look after you on the steamer, and put you off wherever you want to go. He also has some money for you. Good luck!"

The big fellow took a long shuddering breath, and when he spoke it was as though he had rallied himself from a spell of faintness by sheer force of will. "Some day, Tuan-I pay you back-for all you do. So long." He turned with painful deliberation and started to edge along aft. I was a bit surprised that he had not grasped my extended hand, but could not be sure that he had been aware of it in the dark. It did not occur to me until afterwards that he had not used his own hands on the rail of the stairway in descending, and that he had seemed to shoulder his way back to the cockpit rather than to grope. I waited until his swaying shoulders ceased to blot the blinking of the phosphorescent seas astern, and then swung off to the stairs.

"All clear!" I called softly to "Pisco," as I felt the solid step underfoot. "Shove off when you're ready. Buena fortuna!"

It was doubtless "Pisco's" ejaculation in Spanish a few moments before, lurking in the back of my mind, that prompted me to speed the spirited coxswain in his own tongue. On the heels of that "Buena fortuna!" the words he had spoken flashed up in my memory. "Cristo! Porqué la muchacha?" It could hardly have been a sarcastic dig at Ranga's hesitancy in stepping aboard, I reflected as I mounted the slippery-astonishingly slippery-steps. He would not have expressed it quite that way in that case. A sudden slip in a slimy patch at the head of the steps put an end to conjecture for the moment, and when I regained my feet the answer was written across the cabin doorway of the turning launch. The lamp inside had-purposely-been turned very low, and the blurred silhouette of the figure that came groping out to where Ranga had collapsed on a cockpit transom might easily have been that of any one of old "Choppy's" true and tried launch crew. But wet amber silk reflects a deal of light, and there was only one peacock shawl in the world-or in that neck of the world at least.

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