"I have a special for you this morning," she announced, "which will make your mouth water."
Mr. Dupont smacked his lips with boyish enthusiasm. "What is it?" he inquired.
"Corn-fed mackerel from the new Service Market which opened yesterday."
Mr. Dupont raised his eyebrows inquiringly, and the girl explained:
"A lot of service men have started a fish stall in a corner of the old California Market around the block from here. They just put in a few yesterday but from the way they sold out, I'd say they'd need the whole building before long. Our manager got around just in time to pick up the last of yesterday's catch. I saved one of them for you."
While the girl attended to his order, the resident manager of Winfield & Camby turned his attention to his paper. When the waitress returned with the crisply browned fish, she was obliged to speak twice before she was able to gain Mr. Dupont's attention.
Hovering about his chair, she watched her patron nibble at the carefully-prepared delicacy with his eyes fixed intently upon his newspaper. The dimples disappeared quickly from the girl's face as she noted that the mackerel were growing cold. Then she turned from the table with a sigh. Men did not care what they ate as long as they had their paper.
Mr. Dupont finished his perusal of the news and shoved back his chair, leaving the special scarcely tasted.
"That was fine," he ejaculated. "Wish I had time to finish it. But I have a number of things to 'tend to before going to the office. By the way, where did you say that new market was located?"
He rose as he spoke and as the waitress again gave him the location of the building he sought, he pressed a substantial tip into her hand and hurried to the street. At the entrance to the California Market, he mingled with the throng and elbowed his way through the crowd which packed a corner of the big building. Then he adjusted his nose-glasses and peered over their heads.
Behind a rudely constructed counter of rough boards three smiling young men were endeavoring to satisfy the demands made upon them for the rapidly disappearing contents of a number of fish-boxes behind the counter. All about them were hastily scrawled signs which the public read with interest.
WE HAVE DECLARED WAR ON THE HIGH COST OF LIVING.—FRESH FISH AT FIFTY PER CENT. OFF.—WE ARE DEALING DIRECT WITH THE PEOPLE.—SHOOT SQUARE WITH US AND WE WILL SHOOT SQUARE WITH YOU.
While Mr. Dupont read, another sign made its appearance.
"SOLD OUT. COME AGAIN."
Winfield & Camby's office force were surprised to find the manager on the job when they reached the salesrooms.
"Send me Mr. Black."
Mr. Dupont's orders were crisp and the publicity man hurried to obey his bidding.
"Bring me those clippings on that Legonia Fish Cannery stuff, Black. Also the ads in to-day's papers. Have you read that story of the mix-up between the Americans and the alien fishermen at Diablo Island?"
Black admitted he had not.
"Get The Times and read it," snapped the manager. "Come alive, Black, and as soon as Dalton comes in, tell him I want to see him right away."
* * * * *
It was high noon at Cavalan when the Pelican reentered the harbor after cruising in the open sea to pick up any words that might come from McCoy over the radio. Gregory watched the progress of the Pelican from the deck of the Albatross.
"Looks as if they'd picked up something at last," he observed. "Hope it's from the fleet, saying they arrived at the cannery all right."
"They've hardly had time to make it yet," objected Dickie Lang. "I wouldn't expect to hear from them at Legonia for at least two hours."
The wireless operator appeared on deck as the Pelican drew abreast of the Albatross. "Message for Mr. Gregory," he shouted.
Gregory took the paper and glanced eagerly at the message. It was from McCoy and it read:
Rock here with attachment papers to tie us up pending payment of claim bought by him from Canners' Supply Company. We have until four o'clock to answer. Wire what to do.
Gregory glanced at his watch as he handed the message to Dickie Lang. Jumping to the deck of the Pelican he found Tom Howard.
"Tom," he said, "I want you to put to sea at once. Travel a straight course for Legonia and keep the radio going all the time. We'll be alongside in the Richard. Give us the answer you get over the radio by megaphone. Perhaps then it won't be necessary for us to go all the way over. But if it should be, we've got to get there before four o'clock."
Turning to the radio man, he dictated a message to Farnsworth setting forth the situation and instructing the attorney to take whatever steps were advisable to stay the attachment. The message was to be forwarded to Farnsworth from the cannery. It would give the lawyer time to act if he got busy at once.
Returning to the Albatross, Gregory went over his plans with Dickie Lang.
"I'm going, too," the girl announced. "You are all in. It will be no fun driving the Richard to-day. If you do have to go across, you haven't much chance of making it on time in weather like this. Especially if we have to lag along with the Pelican."
"I know it," Gregory answered. "But I'm not figuring we'll have to go very far. But if we do have to go all the way we've got to be at Legonia before four o'clock. We've beaten Mascola but we'll lose all we've gained if we don't beat Rock."
Hawkins sensed that something important was taking place and straightway determined to accompany the party. A few minutes later the Richard and the Pelican rounded the tip of San Anselmo and headed into the storm. Then Hawkins' professional curiosity got the better of him.
"What's the big idea?" he asked.
Gregory explained, concluding optimistically: "I'm not worrying much. Farnsworth can fix things up all right. Then we'll go back to Cavalan."
"If he doesn't you can put up a bond for double the amount of the claim," Hawkins advised. "That will stay the attachment until you can raise the cash. You'd have to get it in person though—and before four o'clock."
He looked at his watch.
"You'll have to go some to do that," he said. "If you could cut loose from the Pelican it would be a cinch, but of course you've got to wait until you get an answer to your message."
For some time the two boats fought their way through the rising waves. Then the fishing-boat signaled the Richard to draw closer. Gregory listened intently for the words of the man with the megaphone as he appeared on the Pelican's deck. The operator's message came faintly to them above the roar of the wind.
Mr. Farnsworth left his office at noon to-day on motor trip to country. Not expected to return until Monday. Little hope of reaching him to-night but will keep trying.
Hawkins swore softly at the intelligence. It was one-thirty already. Not much chance of reaching Legonia in time to accomplish much to-day.
"Tell McCoy I'll be at the cannery before four o'clock."
Dickie flashed a glance at the clock on the Richard's dash at Gregory's words. Every minute was going to count. It was up to the speed-boat to show what she could do. Opening the cut-out, the girl began to get the speed-craft under way. With a roar which drowned out the wind, the Richard mounted to the white-capped swells and raced for the mainland. There was only one chance in a hundred of making it on time. She set her lips grimly and gripped the wheel. If it was only one in a thousand, she'd take it—for Kenneth Gregory.
THE VALUE OF PUBLICITY
"What time is it?"
Gregory huddled to the floor of the cockpit and drew out his watch. "Two-thirty," he shouted above the frenzied snapping of the open exhaust.
Dickie hurled the Richard into a mounting wall of green water which tottered above them. Then she cried through set lips: "Just about half-way. We're over the worst of it though. The nearer we get to shore the better time we'll make. We're sure going to need it too."
Gregory nodded absent-mindedly. His mind was filled with the problem of what he was going to do if he did arrive at Legonia on time. Dickie had made a wonderful run thus far, had handled the Richard masterfully against wind and wave, had more than done her part. Soon her work would be done. Then his would begin. And what was he going to do?
The sum to be raised would have once seemed trifling. What would twelve hundred dollars have amounted to three months ago? Now, it looked like a million. There was no chance of raising it to-day. He must secure a bond.
Rock had played his hand well. The bank president had hit in some way upon a plan of injuring him while he was away. And Rock could injure him. A tie-up at such a time would rob him of all he had gained by beating Mascola at El Diablo. The fishing fleet were loaded to the gunwales with albacore. The fish must be worked up at once. A loss of even twenty-four hours would render them worthless.
Gregory reflected bitterly that he had other creditors. Had Rock obtained other due and unpaid accounts? Even if such were not the case, the shutting down of his plant might be the signal for other wholesalers to launch a similar attack upon his credit. He realized sharply that he was accomplishing nothing. Merely thinking in circles. Hawkins had suggested putting up a bond. The newspaperman was doubtless familiar with the procedure. Perhaps it could be effected if they arrived early enough to arrange the matter. He turned to his friend for enlightenment.
"How long would it take for me to get a bond?" he asked.
Hawkins' usually cheery countenance clouded, as he replied:
"Not long, if you could find a surety company agent in his office. But the trouble is this is Saturday. I didn't think of it until you got that wire from your attorney. It's a legal holiday for the courts and it's hard to find anybody around you want." Hawkins' frown grew blacker as he continued: "Then there's another thing. You've got to have the judge approve the bond, granting you're lucky enough to get it. And looking for a judge on Saturday afternoon is like looking for the proverbial needle."
Hawkins placed a hand wearily over his eyes and lapsed into silence.
* * * * *
Jack McCoy was at his wit's end. The fishing fleet from Diablo had just arrived, loaded with albacore. The captains reported a rough trip all the way over. They had seen or heard nothing from Gregory since leaving Cavalan. McCoy paced up and down the dock while he superintended the unloading of the fish. What a haul they had made! But what good would it do them? The whole plant would be tied up in less than an hour.
He jerked out his watch and looked at it again. It was seven minutes after three. Walking to the bay-side, he shaded his eyes with his hand and gazed anxiously in the direction of the inlet. Granting that Gregory arrived within the next half-hour, what could he possibly accomplish in so short a time? All McCoy's efforts to confer with Rock had been fruitless. The bank president could not be located and had left but one word.
He would be at the cannery at four o'clock.
* * * * *
The low-lying clouds which hung about the entrance to Crescent Bay rifted sullenly and exposed the ragged line of rocks which made up the jetty.
"Right on the dot," Dickie Lang exclaimed. "I was afraid maybe I was too far down. What time is it now?"
"Three-thirty," Gregory answered. "We ought to dock in ten minutes."
"We'll be there in five unless I run into something going down the harbor."
"Stop at the municipal dock first," Gregory instructed her. "I'm going to run ashore and try to get a bond. Then we'll go on to the cannery."
Hawkins roused himself from his lethargy as they sped down the bay.
"I can help you some," he announced. "I can go on your bond. I own at least three times the amount of the claim in real estate in this county. That will save us some time. We can get a blank form from a notary and have him fill it out. Then all we've got to do is to find the judge."
"Doesn't Rock have to put up a bond, too?" Gregory asked. "He's trying his best to damage me. Haven't I any come-back?"
"Don't bank on Rock's bond," Hawkins answered. "He has to put one up, but it's pretty liable to be 'straw.' Fellows like him generally have a strangle-hold on a little place like this and they are pretty sure of their ground before they shoot. The chances are Rock's in the clear with a 'dummy' or else his property is all under cover. I'm going to make it my business to look the old fellow up and see how he's fixed. Men like him don't do anything without a motive. I'm going to try to find out what Rock is up to."
At the municipal docks Gregory and Hawkins debarked hastily and ran down the main street of the town. Contrary to the newspaperman's fears they were successful in finding a young notary in his office. Stimulated by the promise of an extra fee, the man made out the papers in record time.
"Where can we find the local judge?" Gregory asked quickly.
The notary shook his head.
"Hard telling," he answered. "He went out a while ago with Mr. Rock and one of the real estate men in this office to look at a piece of property. Haven't seen Joe back since so I suppose they're still out."
When Gregory arrived at the cannery it lacked ten minutes of being four o'clock. Hurrying to the office the party from the Richard encountered McCoy talking with a well-dressed stranger.
"Here's Mr. Gregory now," exclaimed the house-manager running over to meet his employer. "What luck?" he whispered.
A glance at Gregory's face, however, was all McCoy needed to answer his question. The boss had failed to stay the attachment. The plant would be shut down and all the fish from Diablo would rot on the docks.
The visitor stepped forward with a smile and introduced himself. "I'm Mr. Dalton, of Winfield & Camby," he said pleasantly. "I kind of stole a march on you people to-day. Came down to inspect at the firm's request and found you all so busy that I just sneaked into your warehouse and went to work without saying anything to anybody." He smiled, as he added: "We kind of like to do that. With a new firm especially. It prevents them 'stacking' on us."
"Have you finished your inspection?"
Gregory put the question with suppressed eagerness.
Dalton nodded. "Yes," he answered. "I'm well enough satisfied. Your stuff is fully up to par. Perhaps a little better than some standards. If you are willing to hold to your schedule of prices which you gave Mr. Dupont I'm ready to tie up with you right now."
A gleam of hope flashed to Gregory's eye.
"Isn't it customary to make a part payment when the contract is signed?" he asked.
Dalton smiled and shook his head.
"Ten dollars is enough," he answered.
Gregory's eyes were fixed earnestly on the representative from Winfield & Camby.
"Listen, Mr. Dalton," he said. "I've got to have twelve hundred and thirty-five dollars by four o'clock or I'll lose thousands. I've got fifteen boats outside loaded to the water-line with albacore besides all the canned stuff on the floor. I own the building, machinery and twenty-five fishing-boats. There's not a dollar against any part of it. I guess you've looked me up already and you know I'm telling the truth. If you give me an advance of twelve hundred and thirty-five dollars I'll close right now and pay you any interest you want. But I've got to have the money right now."
Dalton jerked out his watch.
"Hardly time," he answered. "Even if Dupont would O.K. it, which I doubt."
Gregory was already at the telephone.
"I'll get him for you. Can you let me have the money if he says it's all right?"
As Dalton nodded in affirmation, Gregory's eye fell upon the open watch upon the desk. It lacked five minutes of four o'clock.
* * * * *
Mr. Dupont was seated in his private office puffing contentedly at a long panatella when the door opened and the publicity man entered.
"What's new, Black? Anything?"
Black smiled and dropped into a chair.
"Nothing new," he said. "It's getting to be an old story. Every evening paper in the city copied that fellow Hawkins' yarn in The Times about the sea fight at Diablo Island. Why, that man Gregory has enough free publicity to elect him to Congress. And he's advertising on the strength of it, like a department store. I was around to his service market a few minutes ago and people were fighting to get within shouting distance of the counter. I'd say he was a mighty good bet right now, Dupont. That stuff has the town all lit up. If his output is anywhere near up to standard I'd say it would be good business to tie him up and beat the others to it."
As Mr. Dupont was about to speak, the telephone bell interrupted.
"Yes," he answered. "On the phone. Hello, Dalton.—What's that?—Yes, I get you.—How's the stuff?—It is, eh? How's that?—I see.—What do you think?—You would?—All right, Dalton. Sure, go ahead. Drop in at the apartments when you get back. I want to have a look at that contract."
Mr. Dalton hung up the instrument and faced about. "You win," he exclaimed. "Caught the old man just right. He'd have given me a month's vacation on full pay if I'd have had the nerve to have asked for it." He wrote the check hurriedly as he spoke and passed it over to Gregory with the words: "And now, don't forget that you still have the contract to sign."
Gregory took the check with shaking fingers, at a loss for words to express fittingly his appreciation of the favor.
A moment later the door opened and Silvanus Rock entered with two strangers. The financier was on time. In another few seconds the hands of the watch would be pointing to four o'clock. Rock's beady eyes opened wider as he took in the occupants of the room.
"I regret that circumstances have forced upon me a very unpleasant duty," he began, but Gregory cut him short.
"They haven't," he said. "You guessed wrong this time, Mr. Rock. You've come for your money. Here it is."
Endorsing the check, he passed it over.
Silvanus Rock's fat fingers closed about the check and his small eyes glinted. For a moment his heavy jaw sagged and the flabby flesh gathered in rolls and pressed tightly against his white collar. At length he found his voice. "This check is not certified," he exclaimed hotly. "I refuse to take it."
"I guess that check isn't worrying you much, Mr. Rock," he said easily. "We're both pretty well acquainted with Winfield & Camby's reputation and between you and me, I hardly think they would relish any inference like that coming from a man in your position here."
Rock gulped, as he recognized the representative of the big jobbers. Still he hesitated, rolling the check nervously in his fingers.
Then Hawkins pressed forward.
"Don't urge him to take that check, Cap, if he doesn't want to," he drawled. "In fact I think it would make a much better story if he turned it down in the presence of all these witnesses."
Rock confronted Hawkins angrily. "Who are you?" he demanded.
Hawkins introduced himself with a happy smile. "I've been wanting to meet you for some time, Mr. Rock," he said. "I'm with the Port Angeles Daily Times. Since coming to Legonia I have become much interested in the local fishing situation. As yet there are several things I'm not quite clear on. I believe you could enlighten me. What about an interview?"
Rock's face purpled, then grew white. His beady eyes shifted nervously from one person to another, and focused at last on Kenneth Gregory.
"I'll take the check," he said thickly in a voice that shook with emotion.
* * * * *
It was some time later when the business of the day came to a satisfactory close. Winfield & Camby's representative had departed with his signed contract which McCoy had designated as a "gilt-edge proposition." The fish were all unloaded and the night-shift had already started to work on them. The events of the past two days were beginning to bear fruit.
Mascola had been beaten. Rock had been beaten. The sea itself had been beaten by Dickie Lang and the Richard. All of these things had been gone over again and again. Weak from the reaction of the continued strain under which they had labored, the quartette of principals in the cannery drama slouched deep in their chairs and conversation began to lag.
Then Dickie Lang broke the silence.
"We've all forgotten to eat," she exclaimed. "If you'll all come up to the house I know Aunt Mary will do her best for you."
Gregory, Hawkins and McCoy accepted the invitation in unison. As they followed the girl out, Gregory observed to McCoy:
"I can't understand why Winfield & Camby faced about so suddenly. Why, they saved our lives. Who would have thought it?"
"I would," Hawkins cut in. "Anybody would who stopped to think." He slapped Gregory affectionately on the shoulder. "Didn't I tell you, Cap, that I'd have old Dupont eating out of your hand in less than a week?" he challenged. "Old leather-face has an ear to the ground. He's heard the rumble of my thunder and he wants to get to cover."
His face lighted with enthusiasm as he went on: "Just wait until the lightning begins to play around some of these birds. Then you'll see them scamper. I'm going to the city to-morrow to have a talk with the C.E. and I've just got a sneaking hunch that I'm going to start something."
TO SOLVE THE MYSTERY
The days that followed the return of the victorious cannery fleet from El Diablo were filled with sunshine for Kenneth Gregory. The effect of Mascola's defeat was far-reaching, and, magnified by Hawkins' publicity, gave to the Legonia Fish Cannery a place of prominence in the public eye.
Taking immediate advantage of the growing popular interest, Winfield & Camby entered into an extensive advertising campaign on behalf of Gregory's product. The brands of the local firm were flaunted on the bill-boards of a dozen western agencies. Whole states were placarded. Newspapers featured the cooperative enterprise of the service men and commented upon it in glowing terms. A current-news company took several hundred feet of film illustrative of the industry and the signal victory achieved by the Americans over the alien fishermen.
Basking in the reflected lime-light, the Service Market caught on like "wild-fire" and taxed the fishermen to their utmost to supply the ever-increasing demand for the fresh product.
Gregory's bank balance began to mount. The financial sky was unclouded. Success loomed bright upon the horizon.
In the hey-day of prosperity, no one noticed the faint clouds which crept upward from the sky-line. Storm-signals fluttered feebly and were passed by unheeded. Then Mr. Dupont, of Winfield & Camby, sounded the warning.
"You're not getting enough fish," he exclaimed on one of his periodical visits to Legonia. "I'm building up a demand for your product which is fast becoming national. The way things are going now, you will not be able to supply it. Then I'll be out of pocket for my advertising. I'm cutting into your surplus every day. In two weeks you'll be down to bed-rock. What are you going to do about it?"
As Gregory considered the question, Mr. Dupont answered for him: "You've got to have more boats. If you haven't the money to tie up in them right now, I'll back you and take a mortgage on your plant. I'm willing to stick by you and back you to the limit. But you've got to furnish the goods."
Gregory made up his mind quickly. Dupont was right. Things were coming his way with a rush. What was the use of losing all he had gained by pursuing a policy of playing safe and "shooting nickels"? Men who made fortunes on the sea had to take chances. It grayed their hair and seamed their faces with premature lines. But that was part of the game,—the toll which the sea demanded.
"All right," he said. "Let's get down to business. I'll go back to the city with you and we'll fix things up. I know of some boats I can lease while Barrows is building the others. Let's go."
From the arrival of the new craft which went to make up the greater cannery fleet, misfortune stalked grimly in its wake. Fishing was universally poor. The boats were forced to cruise wide areas in order to supply fish enough for the cannery and Service Market. Areas which placed them beyond reach of the radio and gave Mascola his chance. The Italian struck without warning. Angered by the loss of his prestige, strengthened by his augmented fleet, he began to hector the extreme outposts beyond reach of the wireless.
Then ensued a long period of stormy weather. Owing to new and inexperienced crews and the increasing interference of Mascola's men, a number of Gregory's vessels were wrecked on the island shores and salvaged with great difficulty and expense. With the extended radius of his operations, overhead expenses mounted perceptibly, cutting down profits and adding to the multiplying worries of the young cannery-owner in countless ways.
At the close of one particularly trying day he sat alone in the cannery office and stared moodily at a wireless despatch which lay on the desk before him. It came from Diablo and reported the arrival of a portion of his fleet off the Hell-Hole.
The message was phrased in the most optimistic terms. Fish appeared to be plentiful. The weather was fine, the sea smooth. There was no sign of interference from any quarter.
Yet the worried lines which creased Gregory's forehead deepened. It had been that way often of late at devil island. No matter how clear the sky appeared, the shadow of El Diablo bulked dark and sinister across the sunlit horizon. Something would happen out there to-night. He felt sure of it. He should have gone with the fleet. But how could he? He was far down the coast with the new boats when they left.
Diablo, he realized sharply, was getting on his nerves. Were the obstacles which he had encountered about the island due to something more than a mere defense of good fishing grounds? It was not the first time he had asked himself the question. There was something wrong at El Diablo. He could not shake off the feeling. As he sat down to wait for the evil tidings he felt sure would come, he took up an unopened letter from Hawkins which had been on his desk two days. A part of the letter caused him to read it the second time.
"So I got to nosing around and incidentally tumbled on to something which I think may be of interest to you. Would it surprise you to know that Mascola does not own a single fishing-boat? It did me, though I might have known it if I had remembered the federal statute which prohibits any but American-owned fishing vessels from operating in American waters.
"Rock and Bandrist own the alien fleet. Mascola, you see, is an alien. Bandrist apparently is not. I wish by the way you'd tell me all you can of that bird. I'm looking up Silvanus myself. I'm on the trail of a pretty good story, Cap, if it works out all right. Shouldn't be surprised if I might not drop in on you any time. If I do, I'll want a boat to go over to Diablo. Keep this all under your hat. It isn't censored."
For some time Gregory stared at Hawkins' letter. The information gleaned from its contents shed a new light upon El Diablo. Bandrist and Rock were in cahoots. Both were interested in keeping him away from Diablo. Something was wrong on the island. It was Mascola's job to keep strange craft from going there to find out. With the words strange craft, his mind flashed to a new tangent. To his half-closed eyes came a vision of a long gray hull, running dark, gliding through the water toward them like a destructive shadow. Bronson had said it looked like the Gray Ghost. What was the Gray Ghost? Where did she clear from? And what was her purpose in putting in in the dark to Hell-Hole?
The questions multiplied with the smoke-wreaths and in the blue haze which enveloped him, Kenneth Gregory beheld his vague and intangible suspicions gradually crystallizing into three fundamental hypotheses: Something crooked was being pulled off at Diablo. Rock and Bandrist were back of it. The isolation of the island was threatened by the increasing activities of the American fleet in that vicinity. Mascola's opportunity was only a means to an end.
Gregory's frown deepened. What Rock and Bandrist were doing at Diablo concerned him in itself, not at all. In so far as it related to Mascola's interference, however, it was all-important. Mascola was the one man who stood between him and his cherished dreams. If Rock and Bandrist were behind Mascola, as he imagined, would it not be pursuing a "cart before horse" policy to continue his expensive militant opposition to the Italian? Why not fathom the motive which lay behind Mascola's action? If Diablo held a secret, the guarding of which threatened his business existence, why should he not as an American citizen take the initiative and——
His meditations were disturbed by a soft tap on the office door. Dickie Lang entered.
"I knew I'd find you here," she said. "Smoking yourself to death and worrying gray. I've come to take you outside for a while. You'll be sick if you go on like this. Forget for a while and come with me. The boys are having a mussel-bake on the beach and they've sent for you. If you have ever eaten kelp-baked mussels you'll not wait to be urged. The grunion should run to-night too, and I want you to see them."
Gregory drew his fingers through his tousled hair and shook his head. "I'm sorry," he said. "But I can't go. I'm waiting for a radio from Diablo."
"Bosh!" the girl interrupted. "It won't take one of the boys five minutes to bring you the message if it comes while you're gone." She came closer and placed a hand on his arm. "Please come," she said. "Just to please me."
Gregory had no alternative. Leaving word with one of the night men to send him any radio despatch at once, he followed Dickie to the beach, where the service men sat cross-legged about a blazing fire of drift-wood. Gregory sank to the sand beside the dark mound of dampened kelp and watched the operations of the chef as he busied himself in removing the heavy pieces of canvas which covered the sea-grass.
"It's nature's fireless-cooker," explained the girl as she took her place beside him. "You can cook most anything in an oven like that if you know how. It's simple enough too. All you have to do is to scoop out a hole in the sand and line it with rocks to hold in the heat. Then build your fire and let it burn for a couple of hours to get a good bed of coals. Cover them with a thin layer of damp kelp and put in the potatoes. Another layer of sea-weed, then the roasting-ears. After that come the fish, wrapped in paper. Then the mussels, clams or anything else you want. When you get them all in, cover the whole thing with a lot of heavy kelp and batten it down with a big piece of canvas. The whole trick is knowing just when to open the oven. Nothing can burn so it's better to leave it too long than to try to hurry things."
Gregory took the tin-plate, piled high with its smoking delicacies, and leisurely freed a succulent mussel from its shell. As he placed it in his mouth his eyes lit up with genuine pleasure and the anxious lines slowly disappeared from his face.
"What do you think of them?"
He could only gasp his appreciation. Dickie smiled at the rapidly disappearing contents of his plate. He looked like a new man already. Nothing like a mussel-bake in the open air to make people forget their troubles.
About the dying drift-wood fire, the service men drew closer together and began to sing.
"There's a long, long trail a-winding Into the land of my dreams."
As their voices rose above the dull boom of the surf, Gregory's thoughts turned to the words of the song. The trail had been long. How long and how devious, he had never quite before realized. Perhaps it was because he was tired and the firelight made him think. The "land of his dreams" was still far ahead. Blocked from his vision for the time being by an intangible something which lay like a dark shadow across the path.
"Over there. Over there."
He started and looked involuntarily toward the phosphorescent line of breakers. Over there? Once it had meant France. Now it came to him with a new meaning. Beyond the gleaming waves he fancied he could see the jagged shore-line of El Diablo.
"And we won't come back, Till it's over, over there."
Gregory's eyes narrowed. When "it was over, over there," perhaps it would be over everywhere. Then, and only then, would he reach "the land of his dreams." He looked guiltily at Dickie Lang and was glad that she could not read his thoughts concerning the end of the long trail.
"What were you thinking of, just then? I never saw you look like that before."
It was the eternal feminine speaking.
Gregory shook his head. "I never did look like that before," he said. "Because I never thought quite that far. Some day perhaps I'll tell you what I was thinking."
The moon, which had shyly appeared over the low brown hills, grew bolder and mingled its rays with those of the fire in crowding back the shadows. Then a shout came from the water.
The singing ceased abruptly and the service men scrambled to their feet and raced down the beach.
Dickie made haste to follow.
"Come on," she cried to Gregory. "And I'll show you the sight of your life."
Following the girl to the wet sands, Gregory was amazed at the spectacle. The silver waves were alive with glistening fish. Borne high on the crest of the tumbling breakers, they surged to the beach by thousands and lay quivering like quick-silver, stranded in the sand by the back-wash. With a deafening shout men scrambled to the water's edge and scooped them up in their hands. Dickie rushed to the water and returned with a small fish, somewhat resembling a sardine.
"Grunion," she announced. "They come up at certain seasons of the year to spawn. There are only three places on the coast south of the Golden Gate where they run. For three or four nights now while the tide is high and the moon full they'll be swept up on this beach and left to lay their eggs in the wet sand. If you get closer you can see them standing on their tails. You'll never believe it unless you do see it. You've got to work fast to get them for they hop along the beach only for a second. Then the next breaker takes them out."
Handing him one of the little fish, she continued: "Take him up to the fire and look at him. Against a good light you can see clear though them. If you had a skillet hot on the coals and threw in a handful of grunion you could never have a finer dish. But they won't hardly keep over night. For that reason they are good for nothing, commercially."
She paused abruptly and listened. "I thought I heard some one calling," she said.
Turning about they saw three men standing by the fire.
"Maybe it's some word from the boys," Gregory exclaimed. "Let's go and see."
At the fireside they came upon Hawkins with two strangers, whom he introduced as brothers of his craft. Drawing Gregory aside while Dickie conversed with Slade and Billings, he said:
"Listen, Cap. I want a boat and a man to run it who knows Diablo from the water-line up. I'm on the trail of the biggest kind of a scoop. I can't give you all the dope but I can tell you a few things that will open your eyes."
The two men drew farther into the shadows and conferred in low-pitched voices, broken now and then by Gregory's muttered exclamations. While they talked one of the night men from the cannery hurried on to the scene.
"Message for Mr. Gregory," he called.
Gregory took the message and drew nearer the coals. In the red glow of the fire, he read:
From: Launch Snipe
At Sea. Five miles off Hell-Hole.
Got into fight with Mascola about an hour ago. His boats drove ours from island. His men drunk and armed with shotguns. Some of boys pretty well filled up. Curlew lagged with engine trouble and was cut in two off Hell-Hole Isthmus. Sunk in five minutes by some big boat, running dark. Albatross picked up crew. All saved. Wire what to do. Twelve boats here. Others at Cavalan for repairs.
Dickie's eyes shone angrily at the message. "Damn them!" she cried. "They got my Curlew." Grasping Gregory's arm, she exclaimed: "There's a bunch of the fleet off San Anselmo on the mainland side. There's some more a few miles down the coast from Cavalan. They can all make Diablo in two hours if you wire them right away. We can go over in the Richard and round them up and smash Mascola's whole fleet. What if they have shotguns? We have rifles. Come on. What are you waiting for?"
Dickie Lang was breathless. Her cheeks glowed. Her eyes were shining.
Gregory shook his head slowly and looked at Hawkins.
"The Gray Ghost ran the Curlew down about an hour ago off the Hell-Hole Isthmus," he said.
The two strangers drew closer and listened intently to the news while Dickie chafed at Gregory's failure to get under way.
"That means we've got to be off," exclaimed one of the men. "How about going over in that speed-boat of yours?"
Gregory nodded. "That's what I was figuring on," he said. "I'm going to send a radio to all my boats within a thirty-mile radius of the island to reinforce the fleet and mix it with Mascola off the Hell-Hole Isthmus on the north side. While they're busy on that side, it will leave us a clear field on the other."
Dickie's eyes opened wide at his words. As they moved away together in the direction of the cannery, she cried: "I don't understand at all. Aren't you going to help the boys out?"
Gregory shook his head and the grim lines tightened about his mouth.
"No," he answered. "Not this time. That is what Rock, Bandrist and Mascola think I am going to do. But I'm going to fool them. There's something back of all this that we can only guess at now. Diablo has a secret our fathers died to learn. I'm sure of it now. To-night I'm going to find out what it is."
THE ISLAND'S PRISONER
Diablo was steeped in moonlight. For miles about the sea gleamed like a mirror. The grim mountains which guarded the shore were robed in saffron and checkered with black by the dark shadows of the towering peaks as they fell athwart the hillsides and mingled with the darkness which hugged the canyons.
From a small cave high up on a rocky canyon wall the figure of a man emerged and crept silently into the shadows. Picking his way with great caution along a winding sheep-trail, he reached the summit of the hill and looked about. The damp sea air fanned his long hair and caused him to look in the direction of the fleecy white clouds which were creeping upward from the horizon. Soon there would be fog. Then he could continue on his way to the brackish spring on the bluff-side overlooking the south shore. From there it was only a stone's throw to the beach where the mussels and abalones clung so thickly to the rocks.
The thought of the raw shellfish sickened him. For days he had had nothing else to eat. Shrinking closer into the shadows of the sage and cactus, he waited for the fog. Then he could go on on his nightly journey. How many months had he been a prisoner on El Diablo? He had lost all track of time. But what did it matter? Soon he would be dead. For warm food and a drink of pure water he would almost give himself up now.
Borne on the fog-wind came cries and shouts from the other side of the island. Perhaps help was coming at last. But no, it was only the fishermen fighting among themselves off the Hell-Hole. He had heard them many times before across the narrow isthmus. They would only go away as they had always done and leave him to starve. The faint pulsing of a motor launch directed his attention to the sea.
In the paling moonlight, a gray blot clouded the water, moved slowly among the rocks and merged with the shadows. It was the same boat he had seen so often in the past. Always it came to the island at night, running dark. Once in the bright moonlight he had seen men land on the rocks and walk up the beach to a large cave which extended far into the cliff. As he had huddled closer into the scant shadows of the rock-mottled ledge, other men had come down the trail from the island and he had been forced to slide into the chilling waters of a grass-grown pool to escape detection. Mother of God, it had been a narrow escape.
The fog thickened and he continued on his way to the spring. Creeping noiselessly through the brush he reached the trail which led downward to the beach. Then he stopped and listened. The soft grating of a muted chain caused him to drop lower in the grass and draw back. Silently he retraced his steps until he reached the cover of the heavier brush which fringed the hillside.
The strange vessel was dropping anchor again in the little cove. He dared not run the risk of going farther down the trail. There were mussels and abalones around the next point. He would get them. By that time perhaps the men would be gone and he could return by the spring. The fog settled close about him, blinding his eyes and clinging to his shivering body. For a moment he stopped and sucked thirstily at the wet grass. Then he crawled on.
* * * * *
Planing high on the glistening waves, the Richard sped onward across the moonlit sea in the direction of El Diablo. At the wheel, Kenneth Gregory strove to concentrate his mind upon the quest which lay before him. But another thought obtruded with ever recurring frequency. Why had he permitted Dickie Lang to accompany the party to the island? There would be danger. There was always danger at El Diablo. Landing upon the island would be an added risk if Hawkins' suspicions had any grounds for fact. The girl's threat that she would withdraw her support from the cannery if not permitted to go with the expedition, was only a bluff: Why had he not remained firm? He knew the answer. There was a look in the girl's eyes which he could not withstand. Something in her voice which left him powerless to refuse as she had said:
"Our fathers were not afraid. They died in one boat to learn Diablo's secret. We've fought together from the start. Don't leave me at the finish." She might have added: "If they get you, they might as well get me too."
But her eyes told him that. Well, it was too late now to change his mind. The girl was here and it was up to him to leave her in a place of safety if such could be found upon the island. While Hawkins conferred with his two friends, Gregory laid his plans.
He would leave Dickie with the Richard. She had her automatic and a rifle. They would lay in close to shore on the south shore, opposite the Hell-Hole. The island was narrowest there and it was generally in that vicinity that things had happened oftenest in the past. That was where the Gray Ghost put in, the place too where his father and Bill Lang had met their death. With the fishing fleet fighting Mascola's boats on the north side the opposite shore of the island might not be held in such rigid surveillance.
His thoughts turned again to the girl by his side. The rock-shadowed coves would afford a fair anchorage for the Richard, even on such a night as this. There Dickie could see without being seen. Should danger threaten while the landing party were ashore, she must put to sea. He must make that perfectly clear to her at once.
As he expected, he encountered stubborn resistance from Dickie Lang. If there was anything to be found out, she wanted to be there to see it. She was not afraid. She could shoot as well as a bunch of newspapermen. What was the idea of leaving her clear out of it? Gregory smiled at her slurring reference to Hawkins' two friends. Then he reflected that what the girl did not know concerning the real object of the mission to Diablo would cause her no worry. Until the party landed at least, he was in command of the expedition. And orders must be obeyed.
"You'll have to do as I say," he concluded. "Whether you like it or not."
Dickie's lip curled and she turned her head away to hide her face. "All right," she answered. "I'll stay on the Richard." To herself, she added: "But I'll use my own judgment when it comes to running away."
* * * * *
In the silence of the fog the prisoner of El Diablo crept warily on. Deep ravines laced his path and yawned close about the trail. A misstep would hurl him to the bottom of the rock-lined gorge which was swallowed up in the mists at his feet. Suddenly he stopped and threw himself to full length on the ground. Far above him the solid whiteness of the fog wall was broken by irregular flashes of blue. To his ears came the sound of snapping spluttering flames.
Covering his head with his arms, he crossed himself. The devil was speaking from the hilltop. On two other occasions he had heard the crackling of the flames near the old sheep-herder's shack on the crest of the hill. He had taken the wrong trail. Had gone too far. Worming his way down the path he fled from the flashes of blue light.
For some time he retraced his steps in silence, thanking his saints that the devil had spoken to warn him from the spot. Then the soft breathing of a motor-launch caused him to stop and listen. He was again at the bluff-side. Soon he would reach the rocks. The echoes of the motor-boat died suddenly away and he groped his way to the edge of the cliff and scrambled down the trail.
* * * * *
"You'd better take her now. The fog's getting pretty thick and I don't know the shore-line along here."
Dickie Lang took the wheel.
"I don't know it any too well myself," she admitted. "We'll have to go mighty slow and feel our way along."
Throttling to quarter-speed they skirted the south shore of the island and nosed their way along the coast. At length the girl suggested a halt.
"We ought to be nearly up to the Hell-Hole Isthmus by now," she whispered. "On the beach along here there should be a lot of tide-water caves if we're where I think. Around the next point is the goose-neck. We'd better go ashore and have a look. We may be too far down already."
"I'll take Hawkins and Slade and row ashore," he said. "Billings can stay with you on the launch."
Dickie's objections were quickly overruled and the canvas-wrapped anchor chain was lowered into the water while the dory was pulled alongside.
"Look along the base of the cliff for the caves," cautioned the girl in a low voice. "And watch out for your oars. Keep them in the water and be sure the wrappings fit tight in the locks."
Gregory nodded and took his place in the skiff.
"We'll be back in five minutes," he said. Then he shoved the dory out into the fog.
* * * * *
From the ledge of rock which bordered the cove, the half-starved man pulled the razor-backed mussels from the sea-grass and broke them open with his pocket-knife. For some time he ate rapidly. Then he ceased pulling at the shellfish and listened. A boat was coming to anchor in the cove. He could hear the soft slip of the chain through the chaulks. Perhaps they would land on the beach. Then he would be trapped on the ledge until they had gone.
Picking his way over the barnacled rocks he started for the beach. As he climbed from the ledge, he stopped suddenly and clung to the rocks. On the beach at his feet, and only a few feet away, he heard the pebbles grate beneath the bow of a boat. The men were already landing. Staring into the opaque wall of white, he saw it clouded by three dark blots. Followed the rattle of stones, the soft crunch of the sand dying slowly away into silence. The men had gone on up the beach.
The man who clung to the rocks climbed noiselessly to the sand, his brain burning with one great idea. While the visitors were gone from the place he would steal their boat. In the fog no one could find him. He could row about the island and be picked up at sea in the morning by some fishing-boat. The great chance had come to him at last.
Perhaps the men had left another to guard the boat. The thought caused him to draw his pocket-knife. Grasping it tightly in his shaking fingers, he crawled silently over the wet sand, feeling for the sides of the dory with his extended arm.
Hope danced brightly before his eyes as he touched the boat. Weakened by hunger, he rubbed his shriveled limbs and tottered to his feet, waving his knife. Then he chuckled aloud. There was no one in the boat.
Throwing the knife upon one of the seats, he leaped again to the sand and began to shove. Mother of God, he had no strength. The bottom grated noisily on the pebbles. Then the dory slid into the water. Laughing to himself, he threw his body over the rail and felt about for the oars.
Men were running down the beach. He had not a second to lose. His hand closed upon the oars. He was saved. Tugging feebly at the heavy sweeps, he drew them through the water with all his might and the dory moved slowly forward. Again his weakened muscles responded to the fevered call of his brain. Suddenly he felt the dory strike a heavy object ahead. Thrown half from his seat by the impact he dropped an oar, regained it on the instant and pushed the skiff away from the launch as hands reached out to grasp it. Then he heard the low murmur of voices from the motor-boat. As he headed close in to the rocks he felt the stern of the dory dip sharply.
* * * * *
Gregory whirled at the sharp rattle of oars and raced down the beach in the direction of the dory. Some one was meddling with their boat. When he reached the place where they had left the skiff, he found it gone. From the waters of the little cove came the creak of oar-locks. Plunging into the water, Gregory swam rapidly in the direction of the launch. Whoever had taken the boat was heading straight for the Richard.
A sharp bump sounded close ahead and Gregory redoubled his efforts to reach the side of the launch. Then he narrowly escaped being run down by the small boat which had turned and was heading in for the rocks. Grasping the stern of the dory as it moved by him, he hung for a moment while he regained his wind, striving vainly to ascertain how many passengers the skiff carried.
Suddenly he noticed that the oars no longer disturbed the water and the skiff had lost its way. Then he heard the sound of shuffling footsteps coming toward the stern. Releasing his hold, he swam along the side and caught the bow, dragged his body from the water and tumbled into the boat. The same instant a heavy oar crashed against the seat close to his head and a dark figure flung itself upon him.
It was but the work of a moment for Gregory to overpower the thief of the small boat and bind him with the dory's painter. The man had fought desperately only for a moment, then collapsed, and gibbering with fear had allowed himself to be bound without a struggle.
Turning the skiff about, Gregory started for the launch. Had the man landed others on the Richard? Surely he had reached the speed-boat and had put about. Was he bent only upon stealing the boat or was he only one of many who would be down upon them any minute?
Arriving alongside the Richard Dickie hailed him softly.
"Some fellow tried to steal our boat," he explained to the girl. "If you'll get Billings to help me get him aboard I'll go back and pick up the boys."
Dickie's companion in the launch assisted him in lifting the prisoner to the Richard's darkened cockpit where he lay huddled in a heap.
As Gregory rowed away in the direction of the shore, Billings veiled an electric torch and allowed its tiny ray to fall full upon the face of the quivering prisoner.
"A greaser," he whispered to the girl. "Look. He's scared to death."
Dickie looked quickly at the crumpled little figure. Then she fell on her knees close beside the man and peered intently into his shriveled face. For an instant she remained motionless staring into the face of the trembling captive.
"My God!" she whispered. "It's Mexican Joe."
"You have seen nothing of the speed-boat from Legonia?"
Mascola shook his head in answer to the question and reached for the bottle which stood on the table in Bandrist's ranch-house.
Bandrist jerked it away. "Cut that out," he said sternly. "You've had enough. To-night you have work to do. You must keep sober."
Mascola scowled, glaring angrily at the islander as he went on:
"Mr. Gregory left Legonia at ten-thirty with his speed-boat. There were five in the launch. Four men and Miss Lang."
Mascola drew in his breath sharply.
"That damned Lang girl," he began. "She is a——"
Bandrist slid from his chair with a quick movement which carried him wriggling about the table.
"Keep your tongue still," he gritted as he towered over the Italian. "You talk too much."
Mascola started from his chair, but there was a look in Bandrist's eyes which made him drop back. A sneering smile played about the Italian's lips but he said nothing. If Bandrist was a fool about a woman, what was that to him? He could not afford to quarrel with the islander. Not yet.
"How did Peters know they were coming here?" he asked after a moment.
"He didn't," Bandrist answered shortly. "But it is only natural that they should come here. Their boats have been fishing along the north shore of the island. Your men failed to drive them off."
"My men did drive them off," he contradicted hotly. "Only a few minutes ago they returned with other boats. I will drive those off too."
Bandrist smiled insultingly.
"Why don't you do it?" he challenged. "To-night is a time I must have something more than talk. I want you to go down and join your fleet at once, keep a close watch and if the speed-boat does not arrive within a half-hour, let me know immediately."
Mascola made no move to obey.
"Gonzolez is laying in at the goose-neck," he said. "I sent Rossi round to join him. The Fuor d'Italia lies in the little cove beyond."
Bandrist's blue eyes flashed. "I can tend to that," he exclaimed. "You do what you're told and quit meddling with my business."
"It's my business too," Mascola retorted doggedly. "Gonzolez is becoming angry at the delay. He will wait no longer."
Bandrist walked slowly to the window and stared out into the fog. When he faced about an automatic shone dully in his hand.
"Do as I tell you," he ordered quietly. "And do it quick."
Mascola's face purpled. Still he made no move to do Bandrist's bidding. "Don't forget," he said thickly, "that there are others who know besides you and me. If anything happens to me at Diablo there is one who will tell what he knows. I have seen to that."
Bandrist's fingers tightened on the revolver. Then he slowly replaced it in his pocket. The Italian might only be bluffing, but it was best to take no unnecessary chances. Mastering his anger at Mascola's insubordination, Bandrist walked again to the table.
"Perhaps you are right," he said pleasantly. "Let us go on to the goose-neck."
* * * * *
When Gregory returned to the Richard with Slade and Hawkins he found Dickie Lang huddled close beside the crumpled figure of his captive. The girl was sobbing softly as she listened to the whispered words of the little Mexican.
Feeling his way to her side, he placed an arm about her, and drawing her away from the other man, waited for her to speak. Then she explained in a voice shaken by tears.
"It's Mexican Joe. He was with our fathers on the Gull. No one knew it at Legonia. He went out with them at midnight and reached Diablo a little before daybreak. They left him on the launch while they went ashore. He saw them murdered on the beach. The launch was run down a few minutes later. Joe was thrown overboard. He struck his head on the rocks. When he came to, he heard them searching for him but he hid in the sea-grass and escaped to the other side of the island. He's been living there ever since in a cave in the hills. It was he who stole the gun and provisions from the Petrel."
Gregory held the girl close as she told the Mexican's story. For an instant tears dimmed his eyes, then melted away before the white-hot heat of the blood-lust which surged into his heart. His father had been murdered at El Diablo. By whom? He put the question.
The girl's fingers tightened on his arm and she placed her lips close to his ear.
"A number of men overpowered them on the beach and drowned them. Mascola was with them."
Gregory's jaws locked and the muscles of his body grew tense. Mascola had murdered his father and Bill Lang. Releasing the girl, he hurried over to the three men who were talking to the Mexican and grasped Hawkins by the arm.
"What are we waiting for?" he cried. "While you're talking the man may get away."
"Just a minute, Cap," Hawkins remonstrated. "Things are coming along fine. Billings and Slade are learning a lot from the Mex. As soon as they get him filled up with those sandwiches he's going to show us the wireless tower and the cove where the Gray Ghost put in to-night. He says there's a cave close by where he saw——"
Gregory shook off his restraining arm.
"What is all that to me?" he flashed. "Don't you know that Mascola murdered my father? Let the men go where they will. I'm going after Mascola."
Hawkins started at Gregory's words.
"I didn't know, Cap," he muttered blankly. For a brief instant he strove to express his sympathy for his friend. Then he gave it up. "Brace up, old man," he said at last. "Take a grip on yourself. You can't do anything over here alone. Before morning we'll have the whole gang rounded up and Mascola with them. I guess the boys are ready to go now."
Gregory shivered in his wet clothes and Hawkins pressed his slicker upon him. While the men took their places in the skiff Gregory found Dickie Lang. The girl came into his outstretched arms and clung close to him in the darkness.
"Take me with you," she pleaded. "Don't leave me here. I can't stand it."
He released her gently and shook his head.
"No, dearest," he said softly. "If you were with us I might be afraid. And I can't afford to be afraid to-night. Stay close and keep under cover. If the fog lifts, pull the anchor and drift in to the shadow of the rocks."
"Why don't you tell me what you are going to do?" the girl asked. "You know that——"
Gregory drew her closer.
"I'm going to get Mascola," he answered in a whisper. Then his voice changed suddenly. "And if I don't come back," he went on. "You'll know now that I love you."
For an instant his lips met hers. Then he climbed over the coaming and joined the men in the dory. Dickie listened to the soft creak of the oar-locks until the sound was no longer audible.
Mascola had killed her father and Richard Gregory. His son had gone to bring the Italian to justice. But what could five men do on the island against the hordes of Bandrist and Mascola? Who were the mysterious strangers who had accompanied them from Legonia? The questions crowded close upon one another as they raced through her brain. Then her mind surrendered to a single thought,—a thought which warmed her heart and took possession of her being.
"You'll know now that I love you."
She whispered the words softly through lips which were still warm with the memory of Gregory's kiss. Hope surged into her heart. God was good. Breathing a prayer for the safety of the man she loved, she caught up her rifle and sat down to wait.
* * * * *
The men from the launch landed silently on the beach and hid the skiff among the rocks. Then they followed the Mexican up the trail. Crawling through the brush, they halted at length at their guide's direction.
"From the top of the hill," he whispered, "the devil speaks."
Billings caught the Mexican by the arm.
"Come," he said. "Lead the way and the devil will speak no longer."
When the sheep-herder's shack loomed across their path, Slade commanded a halt. Then he gave orders to surround the building. As the men drew near the cabin the door opened suddenly and a man stepped out. Before he could close the door, Slade and Hawkins were upon him. Gregory and Billings darted for the open doorway as the light disappeared from within. From the fog-shrouded cabin came the sound of muffled blows, the quick breathing of men, the rasp of feet upon the creaking floor. A choking cry died away into silence. Silence broken after a moment by a sharp click. Then another. Slade relighted the lamp and turned to examine the two white-faced men who lay handcuffed on the floor.
"Look like 'snowbirds,'" he said. "The two of them haven't the strength of one healthy cat."
Passing the men over to Billings with instructions to search them, he walked to the radio switch-board and examined it carefully.
"They've got a regular set just the same," he said half-admiringly. "They could reach Encinitas with this one all right."
Seating himself on a stool by the board he placed his hand on the key.
"I'm going to try to get the Bennington," he said.
Billings nodded. "She ought to be close along shore by now," he answered. "If they left when they said they would."
While the search went on the radio spluttered spasmodically. Finding nothing of value on the persons of his captives, Billings bared the arms of the two men and scrutinized the flesh intently in the yellow lamplight.
"Snowbirds," he announced. "One of them's punctured up one side and down the other. Other's not so bad. Good business I'd say for them to get hold of a couple of fellows like these. They're about the only ones they could get to stick in a God-forsaken hole like this and keep their mouths shut."
He rose as he spoke and began to move slowly about the room.
"Tell the Mexican to keep a good lookout outside," he instructed Hawkins. "Then you and your friend can help me go through the shack."
Gregory assisted mechanically in the search but with little interest. The sooner they were through the sooner they would go down to the cove where the Gray Ghost lay at anchor. Then he would find Mascola. A muttered exclamation from Hawkins caused him to look up quickly.
The newspaperman was handing Billings a cigar-shaped capsule half filled with a coarse white powder.
"What's this, Jack?" he asked. "Looks like sugar. Found it in the grub-locker."
Billings poured the contents of the capsule into the palm of his hand. For a moment he scrutinized it intently. "That's the stuff we're looking for," he said quietly. "Though I never saw it in a package like that before."
Slade held up a hand for silence and pulled his head-set closer about his ears. For a moment his attention was held by the instrument. Then his hand again sought the key. When the sputtering of the radio had died away he announced:
"Got the Bennington. She's about a mile off the goose-neck. They're going to land in the next cove. The Gray Ghost's at anchor now off the isthmus cove. Mascola's speed-boat passed them in the fog about an hour ago. He's lying in somewhere farther down."
He rose as he spoke and began to wreck the radio set.
"Tie those fellows up good, Jack," he instructed Billings. "We don't want to be bothered with them down below. We've got to be on our way. The boys will be there by the time we get down the hill. What's that you've got there?"
Billings extended the capsule and Slade examined it curiously.
"Queer package," he said. "But it's the straight dope."
Hawkins' eyes shone with excitement as he crowded closer to Slade. "What is it, Tom?" he asked.
"Heroin," answered Slade quickly. "A refined product of opium. Never saw it put up like this before though. When we hit the beach maybe we'll learn the idea."
Beckoning Gregory to his side, Slade took from his pocket a deputy shield of the United States Customs and pinned it on the young man's vest.
"For your own protection," he explained. Then he added: "You must act entirely under my orders from now on, Mr. Gregory. Do only what I tell you. Nothing more. You have been in the service of the government before. You know what it means."
A few moments later the four men followed the Mexican down the trail leading to the goose-neck.
Under orders. Do only what I tell you. Nothing more. The words echoed in Gregory's mind. Slade did not understand. Mascola was to the revenue man only one of many. A man to be arrested and tried. Perhaps acquitted on a mere technicality of law or a perjured alibi. Slade did not know the Italian. Had Dickie Lang not said that Mascola laughed at the courts? Gregory's jaw set tighter as he descended the trail. To-night, orders or no orders, he would bring Mascola to justice by the law of the sea.
THE FIGHT IN THE CAVE
With the sands of the sea-beach gritting beneath their feet, Slade ordered a halt and conferred with the Mexican. Then he whispered to Billings: "This is the isthmus bay where I told the men to land. I know where I am now all right. Around the next point is the goose-neck. The cave Joe speaks of is at the far end of the cove. It has two entrances, one from the bluff and one from the beach. Jack Smith's been in it. I'm going to send him ahead. Take a look for the landing boats down by the water."
Billings disappeared on the instant and a moment later rejoined his chief.
"Everything's O.K.," he announced. "The men have landed and are standing by for instructions."
"Tell them to carry the dingeys clear of the tide and join me here," Slade directed. "Send one boat back to the Bennington and have the skipper move her around to the goose-neck in ten minutes. Tell him to nail anything that's at anchor in the cove."
Billings returned in a few minutes accompanied by the men from the revenue cutter. Silently they grouped themselves about their chief and waited for instructions.
Gregory crowded closer and listened while Slade gave the men their orders. The deputies were to be divided. A few of the best trained men, familiar with the local topography, were to scout on in advance, entering the cave from the bluff-side. The others were to move along the beach, surround the main entrance and cut off escape to the water. All were to challenge once. Then shoot to kill.
Slade selected his men carefully. When he came to Gregory he said: "Stay with the main body on the beach."
It was in Gregory's mind to argue. Slade was throwing him into the discard. What chance would he have of finding Mascola at the main entrance to the cave? The leader of the advance was already marshaling his men about him.
Gregory found Hawkins and the two men walked away from the others, whispering together. Hawkins returned alone. When the advance party had left Slade checked up the men who remained.
"I'm a man short," he announced. "What became of Mr. Gregory? I told him to stay here."
Hawkins shook his head blankly when questioned concerning the sudden disappearance of his friend. Gregory might have misunderstood. It was not like him to disobey orders. In any case Slade need not worry. His ex-captain was used to scouting and had received many citations during the war for crossing the enemy's lines. Gregory would be a help to the advance if he had gone with them, Hawkins stoutly maintained. Then he lied earnestly: "He knows that cave like a book."
Joining the men detailed to enter the cave in advance, when they reached the top of the bluff, Gregory reported to the officer in charge.
"Mr. Slade sent me to join you," he said. "I brought him over from Legonia in my launch."
Jack Smith hesitated. "All right," he muttered after a moment. "Slade's the boss. Take off that slicker. It'll catch on the brush. Follow after the others and stay close. Don't do anything until I tell you."
His manner was curt and plainly showed that he was not pleased with the latest addition to the party. But Kenneth Gregory cared little for that. If the Gray Ghost was at the goose-neck, the chances were that Mascola would be in the cave. And Mascola must be given no chance to escape.
As he followed after the others down the winding sheep-trail, before Gregory's eyes flashed a vision of his father's battered face staring up at him from the canvas bundle on the hatch. Then came the memory of Mascola's insolent look of triumph when he had first beheld Richard Gregory's son on the wharf at Legonia. Why had he not seen and understood before this?
But then, he had had no proof. He reflected bitterly that he had no proof now. Only a Mexican's unsupported word that Mascola had stood by while his father and Bill Lang were murdered by his men. That was not enough. Mascola might be convicted of smuggling but he would go clear on the charge of murder.
Gregory shook his head slowly in the darkness. No, Mascola would not go clear. He would choke a confession from the Italian with his own hands. Somewhere below him in the fog, a girl waited for him to bring back her father's murderer. The girl he loved, had always loved, but had never known it before to-night. If he failed, he could never face Dickie Lang again. But he would not fail.
His thoughts were interrupted by the sound of sharp scuffling ahead. Rushing down the trail he came upon the deputies struggling with two men in the bottom of a small ravine. As he assisted the revenue men in securing their captives, he heard Smith whisper: "Down the gulch, men. Take it easy. It's steep. Stay with these fellows, Joe."
The air which sucked through the ravine grew colder as they descended. Then the dank atmosphere became strongly permeated with the odor of fish. Gregory felt a hand upon his arm.
"Go last," Smith ordered. "Watch the others. Do what they do. No more."
Foot by foot, the men wormed their way over the dry sticks which choked the entrance to the cave. Then Smith ordered a halt.
Leaving a half dozen men at the entrance he instructed them: "Watch this outlet. When you hear a shot inside, light the signal flares and throw them inside. Then you can see anybody that tries to get by you. They're going to do the same thing at the main entrance." Beckoning Gregory and the two remaining deputies to his side, he said: "We'll go on into the cave. Keep close behind me. When I give the signal by calling on them to give themselves up, each one of you pick a man and hang to him. They haven't a chance of getting out with both entrances lit up and guarded. Come on."
The carpet of dried sea-grass thrown up by the high tides, deadened their footsteps as they crawled into the cave. For an instant they crept on through the darkness. Then a twist in the pathway brought a faint gleam of light ahead. Smith flattened to the kelp and wriggled nearer with the two men behind him following close. Gregory was the last to reach the surface of a table-like ledge of rock which ribbed their path and projected outward over the cavern. Crawling abreast of the deputies, he raised slowly to his elbow and looked down.
The floor of the cave lay only a few feet below, faintly discernible in the yellow light which issued from a hooded lantern. Gregory's eyes searched the grotesque shadows which fell athwart the rocky floor.
Were there no men in the cave?
For an instant no sound broke the stillness. Then, from the darkness beyond the lantern, came the shuffling of footsteps and three fishermen stepped out into the circle of light and dropped to their knees on the rocky floor.
Gregory's eyes opened wider. The cavern floor was literally covered with fish. As he sought to fathom the strange actions of the fishermen as they passed silently up and down the long rows of albacore, the silence was broken by an angry snarl and the figure of another man leaped out from the shadow. Rushing upon one of the fishermen, he shook him roughly by the arm. Then the rays of the lantern fell upon his face.
Gregory's automatic was in his hand as he caught sight of Mascola. Holding the weapon close against his coat to muffle the click of the hammer, he cocked the revolver and shoved it forward over the ledge. For an instant the muzzle wavered, then drew steadily upward until the sights were in line with Mascola's waistband. What an easy shot it was. He couldn't miss. What was the matter with his trigger finger? His arm slowly relaxed. He couldn't shoot the man from the dark.
He'd shoot you quick enough.
I know he would, but——
He murdered your father. He didn't give him a chance, did he?
There was logic in that. The arm which held the automatic stiffened. The eyes which glinted over the sights, grew hard, then closed to blot out the hated visage. When they opened again, the temptation had passed and Mascola was walking again to the shadow.
From the ledge above the cave a bright ray of light followed the figure of the Italian. Mascola leaped to cover behind a huge rock.
The same instant the roar of a pistol shot deafened Gregory's ear. As Smith fired into the air to give the signal to the men without, he cried: "Hands up, men. You're prisoners of the United States."
The flash-light fell from the deputy's hand as an answering shot echoed from the darkness across the cave. Smith rolled to his side. "Nail 'em," he gasped, and tumbled from the ledge.
Gregory slid from the rocks and stumbled to the fish-covered floor of the cavern. The light from the lantern was suddenly extinguished. Dropping to his knee, he shot at the flash of a gun ahead. Dimly to his ears came the shouts of the posse fighting their way into the cave. Soon the vaulted walls reverberated with the rattle of firearms and the darkness was faintly illumined by the light of the signal flares burning at the entrances.
Brought into bold relief by the weird glow from the sputtering candles, a number of darting figures could be seen leaping to cover behind the rocks. From the shadows came bright jets of flame. Bullets whined through the cavern, clipping the walls and rattling the pebbles to the stone floor. Flattening his body against the slimy fish, Gregory wriggled foot by foot in the direction of the big rock which sheltered Mascola.
* * * * *
The game was up. Bandrist emptied his revolver in the direction of the advancing deputies and drew cautiously away from Mascola. The Fuor d'Italia lay at anchor in the cove beyond the goose-neck. The tunnel-like passage, which only himself knew, would lead him to the beach. While the Italian delayed the attacking party would be his chance to take to the boat. In the fog he could make his escape. By daybreak he could make the Mexican coast. Then he would be safe. Of Mascola he thought but little, save as a means to an end. It would serve the Italian right.
Mascola faced about a few minutes later to find himself fighting alone. Then he heard the rattle of loose stones dropping from the cavern wall. Bandrist was leaving him. The Italian's blood warmed at the islander's treachery. Did Bandrist think he was the only one who knew the way out? His anger mounted as he climbed the wall and wormed his way through the narrow opening. So Bandrist thought to give him the slip, did he? Well, he'd show him.
When Bandrist reached the end of the tunnel he crawled out into the fog and listened intently. Some one was following from the cave. Jamming a fresh clip into his automatic he waited. Then he silently replaced his revolver. A shot would only draw pursuit. Perhaps there were men already guarding the secret exit. Huddling close to the cavern tunnel he waited for the figure of the man behind him to emerge.
When Mascola reached the end of the tunnel he felt himself grasped roughly by the arm and twisted to the rocks. Bandrist recovered his wits quickly when he recognized the Italian.
"Quiet," he whispered. "You were a long time coming. There may be men on the beach already. Where is your boat?"
Mascola nodded his head in the direction of the beach.
"My skiff lies close to rocks by the point," he said. "The launch is close by."
Bandrist fingered his automatic nervously.
"We can wait no longer," he said.
As he spoke he began to crawl forward toward the water.
* * * * *
The blue light from the signal flares flickered about the rock behind which Mascola had gone into hiding. Gregory reached the shadow, revolver in hand. Raising his body to his elbow, he leaned forward and looked up. The space which lay between the rock and the cavern wall was empty. He was on his feet in an instant. Mascola had escaped. That much was clear. But how? Surely not through the main entrance to the beach. He would have no chance that way. The sound of the tumult at the mouth of the cavern told him that. Neither could the Italian have taken the other passage. He would have seen him as he passed.
He searched the floor carefully for a possible hiding-place which would shelter the man he sought. Then he raised his eyes to the cave wall. It was lined with irregular niches, some of which might be large enough to hide the body of a man. In the faint glow from the signal flares, he climbed slowly upward until he felt a cool rush of air fan his cheek. The air was heavy with fog; laden with the breath of the sea. The cavern held still another entrance.
Forcing his body through a cleft in the rocks from whence the breeze came, he found himself in a tunnel-like passage. The dry sticks snapped beneath his feet as he felt his way through the impenetrable darkness, stopping at intervals to listen.
That Mascola had preceded him only a few minutes before, he felt reasonably certain. By the time he reached the end of the passage the Italian might have gained a place of safety. Why had he not jumped from the ledge at first sight of his father's murderer? By now it would all be over. His thoughts turned quickly to Dickie Lang. Perhaps the Gray Ghost might have come upon the Richard's anchorage in the cove adjoining the goose-neck. Perhaps the speed-boat had been run down. Would the girl do as she was told and stay on the launch?
His mind a prey to conflicting thoughts and emotions, Gregory crawled on through the darkness.
* * * * *
When Bandrist and Mascola reached the Fuor d'Italia, the Italian kicked the dory adrift as the two men climbed aboard. "Pull the hook," he cried, "while I start the motor."
"No," Bandrist whispered. "You'd be a fool to do that. The cave was filled with revenue men. That means there's a cutter lying in around here somewhere. Perhaps at the goose-neck. She would spot you in a minute with her search. We must row the launch around the next point at least."
Mascola growled his resentment at Bandrist's air of authority. Nevertheless he saw the wisdom of the suggestion and hastily brought out the long ash oars and fastened them in the brass locks. Bandrist pulled the anchor and took his place at one of the sweeps. For some moments the two men rowed silently into the fog. Then the islander ceased his labor at the oar abruptly.
"Head out," he whispered. "There's a launch ahead."
Mascola's eyes sought to pierce the fog where the dim outline of a motor-boat loomed dark across their course. Then he swung the Fuor d'Italia about and skirting the point rowed doggedly away from the darkened stranger.
The Italian's ugly temper was not bettered by the physical exercise. There was no need to row the launch as far as this. If Bandrist was going with him, he must learn he was to be only a passenger. The Fuor d'Italia did not belong to Rock and the islander. She was his own property. He would run her where he pleased and as he pleased. As he labored, he formulated his plans.
He would head straight for the Mexican line, keeping well out to escape the patrol off San Juan. Daybreak would put him in the little lagoon beyond Encinitas. There he would be among friends. He reflected suddenly that he had but little money. American gold in Lower California would buy much. Without it, even his friends would give him but scant comfort. Bandrist, he remembered, never trusted his money to banks, but paid his bills in yellow gold which he carried in the coin belt about his waist.
The observation gave Mascola comfort. Bandrist had enough for them both. He would see that he received his share.
He ceased rowing.
"Far enough," he muttered.
Bandrist's reply was sharp and decisive.
"Your exhaust can be heard for miles," he said. "The wind is blowing in our faces. We must keep at the oars. Then they will think us still on the island. If you start the motor now you'll bring pursuit."
Mascola's hatred of Bandrist increased with the quiet tone of command with which the islander spoke.
"There is no boat that can catch mine with this lead," he bragged.
"Mr. Gregory's boat is faster than yours for one," Bandrist disputed quietly. "The new revenue cutters are faster for others. Why are you a fool?"
A hot argument began on the instant between the two men. An argument which ended by Bandrist's knocking Mascola to the cockpit.
Mascola lay where he fell for a moment, dazed by the blow. Bandrist was not rowing he noticed. Without doubt he had him covered with his revolver. Fuming with impotent rage, the Italian growled: "Well, you're the boss. It's up to you."
As he struggled to his feet he made up his mind to get square with the islander. Again resuming his oars, he rowed steadily until Bandrist gave the order to start the motor.
The Fuor d'Italia leaped forward and the cool sea air fanned Mascola's flaming face. Settling quietly into his seat he turned his attention to the wheel.
He could afford to wait, but only a little longer.
* * * * *
Dickie Lang grasped her rifle tighter and leaned over the rail as she heard the soft dip of oars. Then her hold on the gun relaxed. Perhaps it was Gregory returning to the launch.
A glance into the gloom to starboard caused her to drop silently into the cockpit. Resting the rifle on the coaming she covered the approaching boat and waited in silence. To her ears came the low murmur of men's voices. Then the oncoming craft veered sharply and faded from view. For some time the girl crouched upon the floor of the launch. At length the silence of the night was broken by the far-off pulsing of a high-speed motor.
She jumped to her feet, her eyes glowing with excitement. Even at the distance she could not be deceived. There was only one other craft about with an exhaust like that.
Mascola was fleeing from Diablo in the Fuor d'Italia.
She sprang to the hood and began pulling on the anchor-chain. Then she stopped suddenly. The man she loved was still on the island. Perhaps he had been wounded. Maybe killed. And in the meantime, Mascola was escaping. For an instant love and hate fought for possession of the heart of Dickie Lang. Then the chain slipped through her fingers and the anchor dropped again to the bottom. Silently she returned to the wheel and sat down to wait. It was the hardest part of all to play. And it always fell to a woman.
* * * * *
When Gregory reached the end of the tunnel he could hear the shouts of men and the rapid discharge of firearms from around the point. He must be in the cove adjoining the goose-neck. Crawling rapidly through the brush he gained the beach. Then he stopped and listened. Mascola had evidently taken to the water.
A sudden fear gripped his heart at the thought and sent him racing down the beach in the direction of the Richard's dory. His fears for the girl's safety abated as he found the dory undisturbed among the rocks. Shoving it into the water he rowed hastily for the launch. As the skiff scraped the Richard's side, he sprang aboard and caught the girl in his arms. For an instant love alone dominated his heart.
"Mascola escaped in the Fuor d'Italia."
Dickie's words recalled Gregory to his purpose. The next instant he was pulling at the chain.
"I'll take you around the point to the cutter," he called to her as he worked. "You'll be safe there until——"
"No." The girl's answer was spoken with a determination there was no gainsaying. "I'm going with you," she said in a low voice. "There were two men in the launch."
BENEATH THE WATERS
As the Richard cleared the point and plunged into trough of the swell, a thin column of light filtered through the fog astern and traveled slowly over the gray water.
Gregory put the wheel over and began to zigzag as he remembered that the Bennington was lying in at the goose-neck. At the distance the revenue cutter would be unable to distinguish friend from foe and would take no chances.
"Stay down," he called to Dickie. "It's the search from the Bennington. They may shoot."
The light moved shoreward as he spoke, carefully searching the rocks which fringed the coast. Gregory threw the wheel in the opposite direction and struck out at a tangent toward the sea. His speed would soon carry him beyond rifle range. Kicking open the cut-out, he advanced the throttle. The Richard shook with the sudden burst of power, then began to plane.
Gregory kept his eyes on the moving rays as he held the launch on her seaward tack. The light was moving nearer, but its beams were paling. The cutter evidently had not moved from her anchorage. Doubtless she would be kept fully occupied at the goose-neck. The next instant the fog-wall ahead dripped in the rays of the searchlight.
Gregory's hand flashed to the spark as his foot released the throttle. The angry roar of the speed-boat died away on the instant and the hull dropped sullenly. Putting about, he started shoreward at right angles to his former course.
The whine of machine-gun bullets sounded over his head to the starboard. Then the leaden hail was drowned by the bark of the open exhaust.
He had done the right thing that time. To have tried to dodge at speed would have turned the Richard over. Now he was safe for a few seconds at least he reflected, as he watched the light traveling over his former course.
As the rays again bent shoreward he saw a long point projecting out into the sea. Beyond the jutting promontory he would be safe. Running a course which would carry him clear of the point by a narrow margin he settled low in his seat and dashed forward.
The fog-dimmed light hovered about the point as the Richard plunged boldly into the focus of its dripping beams. As the launch veered to make the turn, the waters astern were splashed by the steel pellets from the Bennington's machine-gun. Then the gunner of the revenue cutter began to raise his sights. Splinters flew from the Richard's stern. The coaming was riddled as the deadly hail moved toward the bow.
The gunner on the Bennington ceased grinding as the launch disappeared behind the point.
"I could have got that bird in one more second," he muttered ruefully. "If the old man would let us move, we can get him yet."
Gregory threw off the power and hurdled the seat.
"Are you hurt?" he called to Dickie as he hurried toward the stern.
Dickie Lang was not hurt. Only cut by a flying splinter. It was nothing. The girl made her way forward.
"Let me take her until we clear the coast," she said. "You gave me the shivers the way you grazed that reef off China Point."
As they inclined their ears into the gray mist which enveloped them, they caught the murmur of the Fuor d'Italia's exhaust.
Gregory surrendered the wheel.
The girl listened to the rapid-fire pulsations of the boat ahead.
"He's headed out to sea," she said. "And we're going to have to drive to catch him with this lead."
Her words were drowned in the thunder of the Richard's motor and the speed-launch bounded away to overtake her hated rival.
* * * * *
"The fog is lifting. Soon it will be clear. We must watch closely for pursuit."
Mascola grunted a reply to Bandrist's observations. Weather conditions meant very little to him at the present moment. His mind was occupied with matters of far more importance.
It would be well to know just where Bandrist stood concerning a division of his money before they went farther. Now would be a good time to find out. He made the suggestion at once that the islander grant him an advance of funds until such time as he could obtain his money from Legonia and Port Angeles.
"I have no money to spare," Bandrist answered curtly. "You are foolish not to have been better prepared. Our business is one which should have taught you that. You will have a hard time now to get your money from the States."
An angry retort welled to Mascola's lips but he choked it back. Bandrist was speaking again.
"Here is one hundred dollars. You are welcome to that. But no more."
Mascola's eyes flashed at the smallness of the sum. A hundred dollars would be next to nothing, even in Mexico. Bandrist, he felt sure, possessed money in plenty. If there was not enough for two, there would be plenty for one.
Mascola made up his mind quickly. He would be the one. He had given Bandrist his chance. The islander had tried twice to-night to give him the double-cross. Would do it again if he got the chance. But Bandrist would have no more chances. Reaching out his hand, Mascola took the gold with muttered words of thanks. Then his fingers sought the switch and the noise of the motor died suddenly into silence.
Mascola turned quickly in his seat and looked over the stern. At the same time his right hand sought his dagger.
Bandrist twisted about, his eyes searching the gray waters astern.
"I don't," he began. But his words ended in a choking gasp.
Mascola's knife had found its mark and the Italian's fingers were tearing at Bandrist's throat.
The islander struggled to reach his gun, but he felt his strength leaving him. The moonlight shimmered before his eyes, mingled with gray splashes of fog. A sharp pain laced his side. His mouth opened and he fought hard for air. Heavy darkness began to settle about him. From the far-off spaces he heard the sound of rapid breathing. Or was it the faint pulsing of a motor-launch? Then the murmur grew fainter until it trailed away into silence. Mascola pulled the islander roughly from the seat and dragged him along the floor of the cockpit. Then he sprang to the wheel and started the motor. There was no time now to get the money. The fog was lifting. And there was a boat following.
* * * * *
Clear of the Diablo reefs, Gregory took the wheel and plunged the Richard into the shifting wall of fog. Mile after mile he traversed in silence, stopping at intervals to listen to the faint pulsing of the boat ahead. At length the gray canopy lifted slowly from the water and he caught the outline of the Richard's broad hood rising staunchly above him in the gloom. He smiled grimly at the sight. The motor had not missed a shot since leaving the island. And they were overhauling the Fuor d'Italia.
He threw the switch again as his eye caught the gleam of the moonlight ahead. For some moments he listened intently. But only the soft slap of the waves against the hull of the launch disturbed the stillness.
Mascola had escaped him; had noted the clearing and heard the sound of pursuit; had doubled back into the fog bank. Anguish took possession of his heart at the thought as he reached for the switch. But neither Gregory nor Dickie Lang heard the rasp of the starting mechanism. The sound was swallowed up in a deafening roar which came from the moonlit waters ahead.
"Straight ahead," the girl shouted. "I see him."
Gregory had already thrown in the clutch. In a swirl of white water the Richard raised her head proudly, and snorting angry defiance, raced across the intervening waves which separated her from her primordial enemy. Gregory saw the Fuor d'Italia leap forward in the moonlight, noted that the craft had already changed direction and was heading off at a tangent, a course which would bring Mascola under cover of the fog bank.
Veering as sharply as her speed would permit, the Richard dipped like a gull and sped on to intercept the Fuor d'Italia. The shifting bank of blinding mist hung uncertainly above the shimmering waters less than half a mile ahead, dead ahead for Mascola, off Gregory's starboard quarter. For the Italian it meant safety. To his pursuer it spelled defeat.
The Richard was gaining. Gregory measured the distance with a calculating eye. He was going to head the Italian off.
"Swing her to port. Catch him on the beam."
Acting at once upon Dickie's advice, Gregory saw the wisdom of it at once. His angling course would have put him into the fog before the Fuor d'Italia reached it. Now he would catch Mascola broadside, full on the beam. Or at least at an angle which would drive the heavier hull through the lighter one.
With seaman's instinct, Mascola sensed rather than saw the Richard's change of course. If he tried to make the fog he would be cut in two. If he deviated a hair's breadth at that speed he'd turn turtle. There was only one thing he could do.
He reached his decision in a whirl of the propeller.
Dickie Lang knew his answer.
"Hard a port. Throw your switch."
The words tumbled from her lips in a piercing shriek. Gregory obeyed on the second, thinking the girl had lost her reason. The Richard dipped with a swerve which threw him violently against the coaming. As he felt the heavy hull sinking down into the water he saw that the Fuor d'Italia had ceased to plane and was settling sluggishly.
A snarl of disappointment burst from Mascola's lips as he saw the Richard did not flash across his bow. A snarl, which changed quickly to a cry of rage as he noted that the two hulls were drifting sullenly toward each other. Robbed of his way, he could not escape. The Richard was already brushing the Fuor d'Italia's rail.
In a frenzy of mingled fear and rage, Mascola whipped out his dagger and leaped to the cockpit to battle with the hurtling figure that sprang from the other boat as the two hulls scraped. Gregory caught Mascola's knife arm and twisted it backward, crowding the Italian to the rail. For an instant the two men were locked in a swaying, bone-racking embrace. Then Mascola felt the oak coaming pressing hard against his knees. He was being shoved over the rail by the fury of the heavier man.
Struggling in desperation, there came a gleam of hope. In the water Gregory's superior weight would not count. Strength would not count so much, without the weight. But a knife would count. Jerking his body backward, he lunged downward into the sea, dragging his antagonist with him.
As Gregory and Mascola fell to the water, Dickie Lang drew her automatic and covering the cockpit of the Fuor d'Italia with her flash-light, peered cautiously over the rail. Upon the floor of the launch sprawled the figure of a man. His face was turned away from her. The gray linoleum was dyed red with his blood. As she watched him, his extended fingers twitched convulsively. He was still breathing. But that was all. Seizing the rail of the Fuor d'Italia she began to work the Richard around the hull of the other craft. She dared not start the motor. The propeller might cut the men in the water to shreds. Reaching the stern of Mascola's launch she directed the rays of her light into the rippling waves.
Gregory tightened his hold on Mascola's wrist as the waters closed over his head. The Italian struggled fiercely to free his right arm as he felt his body sinking deeper into the water. Then he noticed that his antagonist had freed his legs and was moving them slowly upward to his stomach.
Locking his knees about Mascola's waist-line in a scissors-grip, Gregory began to squeeze. Lashing the water with his feet the Italian jerked his head backward and forced it against Gregory's chin. Then he freed his left arm and the fingers slid upward to his enemy's throat.
Under the steady pressure of the sturdy legs about his waist Mascola felt his strength going from him. With bursting lungs he tore at the corded muscles of Gregory's throat. But his fingers had but little power. Sharp pains seared his eyeballs. A deadly numbness was creeping over his entire body. Then he felt the hand which held his knife arm twist the wrist and forced it inward to his body.
Mascola writhed in terror. By a powerful effort he squirmed sidewise and checked the onward course of the knife as it came nearer to his side. The exertion sent the blood pounding to his temples, left him weak with nausea. For an instant his hold on Gregory's throat relaxed. Then his fingers dug viciously into the flesh as he felt his wrist being crowded closer to his body.
The point of the dagger was scratching at his shirt. In another second it would be piercing his side. Mascola knew that the blade was sharp. The Italian released his grip on Gregory's throat. With a convulsive shudder he dropped his knife. He was beaten. At the mercy of his enemy. Better take chances with the courts than sure death at the hand of Kenneth Gregory.
Gregory felt the muscles of the Italian relax in a token of submission. For an instant his heart rebelled at the turn of the battle in his favor. Why not strangle Mascola beneath the surface? Who would ever know? The Italian had shown his father no mercy.
Why didn't Mascola fight like a man?
Gregory's fingers reached the Italian's throat. The law of the sea knew no mercy.
* * * * *
A feeling of utter helplessness seized Dickie Lang as she stared into the moonlit waters. The man she loved was battling for his life beneath the surface of the shimmering waves. And she could do nothing.
"God bring him up safe." She repeated the words again and again. Then a new fear assailed her.
Kenneth Gregory would never give up. If he came up at all there would be blood upon his hands. Justifiable blood. An eye for an eye. And yet, as the seconds trailed endlessly by, the girl was surprised to find herself amending her prayer.
"Bring him up safe—and clean."
She uttered a choking cry as the bright rays of her light fell upon Kenneth Gregory's head. He was swimming slowly toward the launch, dragging Mascola after him.
"Hold his wrists."
She noted the lifeless tone of Gregory's voice as she made haste to comply with the order. Saw the fingers of the two men clutch the rail while they waited for strength to pull their bodies from the water.
Kenneth Gregory pulled himself weakly over the coaming. In silence he assisted the girl in dragging Mascola from the water. Huddling on the driver's seat of the Richard, the Italian leaned against the dash, fighting for breath. Gregory stumbled backward and sank to the floor of the cockpit, covering his face with his hands.
"I—failed," he gasped. "I had a chance.—But I passed it up.—I couldn't do it."
Dickie fell to her knees beside him and threw her arms about his neck. "You're a man," she whispered, "One in a million." Then her lips found his.
Mascola watched the two shadows blend into one. Silhouetted in the bright moonlight, he leaned against the coaming, his lips curved in a sneering smile.
From the darkened cockpit of the Fuor d'Italia came a bright jet of flame. Then another. Before the echoes of the two shots had died away Mascola's body slid from the seat and fell in a heap upon the floor.