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   Chapter 17 DOWN THE FLUME

Hell's Hatches By Lewis R. Freeman Characters: 21875

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


The lights had disappeared from the flume as I turned to go, and, rather than take the chance of another fall, I decided to use my small electric torch in finding a solid footing. The lacquered crimson reflection of the fluttering disc of light instantly revealed the cause of the slipperiness I had encountered. The whole end of the pier was criss-crossed with thick trails of blood, with great spreading pools here and there where, whoever shed it, had stood or sat. The blood on my hands and raincoat, where they had come in contact with Ranga's reeling frame, proved beyond a doubt that he was badly hurt. That explained his unsteadiness on his feet, and also the fact that he had avoided shaking hands with me. Very likely, indeed, his hands were unfit to use. Tired to the verge of exhaustion though I was, my blood leaped at the thought of the battle royal the splendid fellow must have fought-and won. I was expecting to come upon traces of the fight at any moment as I picked my way in past the ruined mill to the foot of the old grade leading to the top of the cliff.

As I left the planking of the pier behind two sets of footprints appeared in the wet, firm earth of the path at the side of the road. Both were made by bare feet, but the larger ones-plainly Ranga's-were broken and irregular, and saturated with blood. There could be no doubt that his feet, like his hands, were frightfully torn. The small prints pressed very close to the side of the large, indicating that Rona was either supporting the wounded giant or being supported by him. From the fact that the smaller impressions were deeply indented, I figured that the former was the case-that she was helping him. The girl, evidently, was not badly hurt-perhaps not at all.

Where the path I was following joined the bridle-road at the brink of the cliff, the trail of blood turned off down the foot of the flume toward the big sugar mill. The battle royal must have been fought somewhere in the depths of the dense tropical growth that filled the rocky fissure in the cliff followed by the flume. What grim secret the black hole held would have to wait for the coming day to reveal. My way home led in the opposite direction, and there was some question in my mind as to whether or not I had the strength for the full course.

Fortunately for me the flume had been built along ridges and high ground, so that the trail following it had not been exposed to heavy flooding in the torrential rains of the early evening. I found it hard and firm underfoot for the most part, and by no means hard to follow without resorting to my electric torch. It would have been very easy going had I not been so nearly all in, but even as it was, by using my absinthe sparingly as I had done while painting, I managed to keep plugging steadily on toward home.

At one time something very near a panic seized me for a while, when the thought flashed through my mind that the great quantity of Ranga's blood soaked up by my boots and my clothes would undoubtedly leave a trail that Rawdon's hounds, should they chance to nose into it, would be quite justified in mistaking for that of the Malay himself. Even if I succeeded in holding the beasts off with my revolver, my presence there, and in such a state, would call for a lot of explaining. If the Chief once became suspicious, I told myself, it would undoubtedly upset my plans to get Ranga away, to say nothing of involving both myself and Captain Tancred in a serious scrape. I was in a miserable state of funk until the cheering thought entered my head that Ranga had probably killed not only the dogs, but probably Rawdon and the Chief as well. That reflection reassured me immensely, and, buoyed in mind and body, I trudged on confidently to the foot of the waterfall.

I had noticed from time to time along the way that the flume, in its less inclined stretches, was overflowing its sides. The reason for this became evident when I reached the intake, at the side of the pool under the falls, where I discovered that the gate, usually only partly raised, was wide open. A flow of more than double the normal was rushing out of the rain-swollen stream and into the flume.

I was too tired to speculate upon how this might have happened. It was touch-and-go with my tottering knees all the way up the steep, slippery path to the top of the cliff; but, with three or four breathing spells and the last of my absinthe, I managed it, and came out at last upon the greensward rimming the bathing-pool under my bedroom window. It was comparatively quiet here, now that the roar of the falls was deadened by distance, which was doubtless the reason that I heard for the first time a racket from the other side of the plantation that must have been going on right along. It was rather a lucky thing that I did hear that noise before I turned in. Had I not done so, it is hardly likely that it would have occurred to me that it might be a wise precaution to remove my boots before entering the house, and then to strip off and burn carefully in the kitchen range everything that I had been wearing. It was all I could do to keep awake until the irksome job was over, but, since it was evident from the ki-yi-ing and cursing that was floating down the wind that Ranga had not made a clean sweep of Rawdon and his pack, I reckoned that it well might be the means of preventing unpleasant complications.

My arduous climb up from the old sugar mill had served a useful purpose in one respect. The hard physical exercise had sweated the poison of the absinthe out of my system and relaxed the near-to-breaking tension my nerves had been under for thirty-six hours. I fell into a good normal hard-workingman's sleep the moment the mosquito-net closed behind me. And the best of it was that, when a pandemonium outside awakened me a little after sun-up, I tumbled out upon my feet in full possession of all my faculties. This was a mighty fortunate circumstance, for the rather delicate situation with which I was confronted called for something better on my shoulders than the usual "absinthe-holdover" head.

Harpool and Rawdon, it appeared, had experienced a beastly night. Losing a hot scent that had been picked up at the foot of the waterfall immediately after leaving the bungalow, they had been forced to take refuge in one of the labour villages during the deluge. Dragged out by the bloodthirsty Rawdon before the rain had ceased to fall, they had spent the night "working" the fringes of the bush in the hope of stumbling upon the trail of the elusive fugitive. The net result of this was the drowning of two more hounds and the driving of the baffled bushranger to the verge of distraction. Returning, dead beat, in the early dawn, they had encountered, at the intake of the flume, a scent so strong that even the paprika-dosed noses of Suey's victims followed it readily. Swarming up the cliff in full cry, the hunt came on to whirl in a mad war dance round the bungalow and put a period to my morning slumbers.

The maniacal Rawdon was the worst difficulty, and I honestly believe that only the Chief's restraining presence saved me from the necessity of winging him with a revolver bullet to prevent his setting fire to the bungalow. That "bloody wombat" had dodged him once from that shack and he wasn't going to take chances on its happening again. The Chief and I finally induced him to leave his "ring of death" intact round the bungalow and come in and search for himself. That gave me a chance for a quiet word with Harpool, whom I did not want to have push on to town for fear he would start a search that might extend to the Mambare. Indeed, he admitted he was afraid that his man might have doubled back to Townsville and got off to the Singapore boat, which had doubtless sailed at midnight. He had lost a badly-wanted counterfeiter a fortnight ago that way. The skippers never seemed very keen to co-operate in a search of their ships. Too many little smuggling games of their own probably.

I suggested to Harpool that he have a bath, a change of clothes-my togs were about his size-and a snack of early breakfast. Afterwards-since his horse was gone-I would drive him down in my trap. In the meantime he could ring up the Police Station and give any orders he thought desirable by 'phone. (This latter suggestion I made in full knowledge of the fact that the line must be down for over a mile. I had seen myself where uprooted trees were responsible for wide hiatuses.) If it was in any way possible without arousing his suspicions, it was my intention to detain Harpool until I was sure the Mambare had sailed.

The Chief fell in with my suggestion readily, and felt so much bucked up after a bath and a couple of whiskies-and-soda that he did not appear seriously upset when the telephone turned an irresponsive ear to him. Like the straightforward gentleman he was, he accepted at once my assurance that Ranga had not entered the house again, and took no hand in Rawdon's wild scrimmages, which carried him from cellar to garret with no other result than the brushing of a bit more of the bloom off "Honeymoon Bungalow" with the soles of his hobnailed boots. Madder than ever after his vain search, he surlily refused my invitation to remain for a cup of the coffee that his Chink friend of the night before was already preparing in the kitchen, and slogged off down the road, followed by three draggled hounds and two cursing helpers. I was a good deal cheered by the thought that it was unlikely that any of them would be getting through to town, without swimming, for another twelve hours at least.

Before he left Rawdon turned over to the Chief the little piece of red rag he had been using to put the dogs on the scent with. It was at this time that Harpool told me of "Squid" Saunders' suggestion, and of the visit to the schooner in search of a clue. I did not tell him that I recognized the rag as one which Ranga had used to wrap his little Malay flute in, and that it had undoubtedly been left there the morning the big fellow helped carry Hartley Allen to the quarantine launch. It was interesting, however, to know that Ranga was absolutely guiltless of the outrage to which he had confessed. I thought I could just conceive how a well-guarded passion for the girl might have prompted that chivalrous attempt to shield her from suspicion; but why had Rona herself committed the ghastly crime?-and how? It was many months before I was to have an answer to those questions, and they came from the lips of the last person from whom I could have expected them.

Direct and straightforward as ever, Harpool was visibly impressed by my suggestion that Ranga had probably remained hidden near the fall until the pursuit had passed, and after returning to the bungalow and finding it dark, had retraced his steps and adopted the desperate expedient of trying to escape the do

gs by riding down the flume. That reminded him that they had found the gate of the intake closed when they first reached it, and that it had occurred to him at the time that the fugitive might have done this so that he could walk down the bottom of the flume without risk of being carried away by the water. This would account for the patch of scent the hounds found at that point. The Chief said that he was for pushing along the path by the flume, but that Rawdon scouted his theory, insisting that their man had jumped back into the water and gone on wading downstream. The hound-master had carried his point, but, to be on the safe side, they had ratcheted up the gate to its full aperture and turned a stream down the flume heavy enough, he was afraid, almost to carry the sugar mill into the sea. And that reminded me (though, obviously, I could not speak of it) that I had not heard the roar of the mill's machinery when I paused at the brow of the cliff. There was no doubt it was hung up for some reason. Was it possible that Ranga had made his escape after coasting right down into the crushing gear? But of course not. He would never have been able to get away unpursued, even if he had survived.

I welcomed for two reasons Harpool's suggestion that we ride down the flume and investigate as soon as breakfast was over. It would keep him away from town until the Mambare had sailed for one thing, and, for another, it would give me a chance to fathom the mystery that lay at the end of that trail of blood leading down into the rift in the cliff. It seemed probable to me that both Rona and Ranga, after the former had overtaken him-probably at the foot of the fall-had started down the flume on foot. Whether there would be any indications of what had befallen when the water overtook them remained to be seen.

The gate was still wide open when we rode along beside the intake, but halfway down to the coast we met a man from the mill who said that he was going up to shut the flow off so that a break near the lower end could be repaired. The wires were down from the storm, he said, making it impossible to 'phone directions to the plantation office. The break was a bit of a mystery, he added. Flume opened right out. There were indications that some large animal-perhaps a bullock-had been carried down-probably washed in at the upper end while the stream was at flood. Funny part of it was, though, that there was no trace to be found of the bullock below the break. Must have been washed right on into the sea.

Harpool pushed on eagerly after hearing that significant piece of news, and we reached the head of the first steep pitch at the top of the cliff some minutes before the water had ceased to flow. As I did not care to have the Chief discover the trail of blood leading down to the sea for a while yet, I proposed that we tie our horses here and walk down the top of the flume on a narrow board that evidently had been placed there for the use of workmen when repairs were necessary. It proved ticklish going-both on account of the incline and the elevation,-but nothing to trouble seriously a man with a sure foot and a steady head. Harpool, who was up first, led the way, I following closely.

If the power of the flying bolt of water in the bottom of the flume had been impressive on the occasion of my first visit, it was a vast deal more so now, both on account of the greatly increased volume of flow and because of my certain knowledge that a human being-perhaps two of them-had gone down that chute, where I had been assured that a team of bullocks could not hold a man-and survived.

The foot-wide board on which we were walking was nailed to the left side of the flume. The top of the right side was a rough line of unplaned two-inch pine planks. Harpool had only taken a step or two when he brought up short with an exclamation of surprise and horror. "Look at that top board on the other side!" he shouted; "raw, red meat all the way from here right out of sight round the bend at the bottom!"

I looked, shuddered, shuffled my feet uncertainly, and brought my staring eyes back to the precarious footing. "Push on!" I implored quaveringly; "my head's beginning to swim as it is."

The roar of violently falling water came to my ears as we rounded the bend at the lower end of the steep incline, and just ahead was the break. The whole right or seaward side of the flume had opened out and the flood was pouring to the rocks below in a spreading forty-feet-high cataract. The ghastly smear along the top ran on unbroken, right out to the end of a loose plank, which was kicking spasmodically under the impulse of the released stream of water shooting under it. The Chief, pointing to a ragged fragment of bloody cuticle, wedged in a joint of the line of boards on which we were standing, delivered himself of what I believe was his only approximately correct diagnosis of any feature of the whole affair.

"The fact that piece of skin and toe-nail were torn off on this side of the flume directly opposite the bulge," he said, "would seem to indicate that the brake our man made of his right arm flung over the top plank of the other side must have finally brought him to a stop here. Then he must have doubled up crosswise of the flume, with his feet against the place where that skin is torn off and his back against the end of that plank that is sprung loose. When he straightened out that great rack of bone and muscle of his something had to give way, and it seems to have been the flume. Probably the force of the water, where his body deflected it against the side, was of some help; but it must have come jolly near to staving in his ribs where it drove into him at right angles."

"Perhaps it did," I said. "We can't tell till we find him." I was not anxious to hurry up the search by any means; but I felt that it would be better to move on to a place where I could grow dizzy without the risk of plunging forty feet onto a pile of broken rocks. The Chief, with ready consideration, hastened forward, and my faintness passed quickly when I felt the solid floor of the crushing level of the mill beneath my feet.

It appeared that they had knocked off early the previous evening for want of cane. At the time, the superintendent said, he thought the flume had been carried away by flood water. He had only evolved the bullock theory when he went out at daylight and found the blood and meat smeared along the planks. The bullock must have got wedged in finally, he thought, and the water had piled up behind it and sprung out the side. They had not found the carcass yet, but, as there was a very sharp slope down to an in-reaching neck of the cove, it was not impossible that the rush of water had rolled it right on into the sea. Neither Harpool nor myself thought it worth while to ask him if he had found any bullock's hair among the "meat."

Going down through the silent mill to reach a lower level before doubling back to the foot of the flume, a weird sort of sputtery peeping caught my ear while we were traversing the boiling-room. Something vaguely familiar in the sound caused me to trace it to its source behind one of the big vats. The virtuoso proved to be a lanky Australian sugar-boiler, whiling away the idle hour blowing across the holes in a queer little bamboo flute. One of the blacks had found it in the last run of the bagasse-the crushed cane-a while ago, he explained. Someone must have dropped it in the flume. Funny thing that it had been so slightly crushed in coming through the rollers. He gave it to me readily when I told him that I was a collector of primitive musical instruments. Said he had a much better one-made in Germany and all bound with brass-in his home in Maryborough. I took it on the off chance that I might some day be able to give it back to Ranga. I knew how greatly he was attached to it, and, since flutes like that were only made in one little pile-built village on the coast of Ambon, how hard a time he would have to replace it.

I played up the superintendent's "washed-into-the-sea" theory for the Chief's benefit as long as I could, but finally he circled round and hit the double trail of footprints that led down to the end of the old pier. The idea that Ranga had ridden the flume alone was so firmly rooted in his mind however, that he agreed at once with my suggestion that the smaller prints must have been made by an idle boy from the hung-up mill, who had perhaps trailed the blood on his own account, in the hope of getting the bullock meat. As I myself had made a point of keeping on the grass to the side of the path, my trail of the night was not discovered.

"The poor devil must have thrown himself over here and been finished by the sharks and 'gators," Harpool shouted up to me from where, at the foot of the steps of the old pier, he stood beside the black-filmed pool that had drained from Ranga's wounds as he steadied himself for a few moments before lurching over to the bow of the launch. The Chief also said something more about coming back with a boat next day and searching the beach for anything that might remain. I didn't follow him very closely, for, just at that moment, a trim clipper bow slid out past the end of the southern point. Knowing a certain old brass-cylindered spy-glass would be training landward from the bridge that followed, I opened and closed my arms swiftly in a surreptitious wave of farewell. Good old "Choppy" must have been standing very close to the whistle-cord, for his reply came instantly. The wind carried the toots that must have sprung from the heart of two woolly steam-puffs in the opposite direction, but I caught the message just the same. "All's well!" was what old "Choppy" signalled in answer to my wave. His "puff-puff" talk was a deal easier to understand than his English.

I was no longer in Australia when the Mambare returned from her maiden voyage to Singapore, so her skipper's report came to me in Paris by letter. He had put both of my friends ashore in Macassar, he said, safe, sound and comfortably heeled for "siller." He had become much attached to both of them in the course of the voyage, and couldn't thank me enough for putting him in the way of giving them a bit of a lift. He trusted I wouldn't fail to command him whenever another opportunity of the kind presented itself.

The night that I sent Rona and Ranga off from the pier of the old sugar mill in the Mambare's launch marked the beginning of one of the strangest and most picturesque friendships the Islands ever knew; picturesque in the striking background the strongest and most terribly-scarred man in the South Pacific made for the hauntingly appealing beauty of the most interesting woman, and strange-more than passing strange-in that there was none who could say that their relations were ever other than those of mistress and servant.

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