"May have been accidental. Anyway, better take my lead as long as you're doubtful. Rolfe is looking after him now, and we'll keep him in view between us. But my advice is, show him that we trust him. Won't do to anticipate trouble by making enemies."
They walked on until the stockade opened to view through the jungle, and they turned into a narrow track leading to a strong gate ridiculously disproportionate to the strength of the stockade. Artillery might have battered in vain at the gate: one might force the walls with the gunner's ramrod. As they swung around the last twisting angle of the path, a flutter of white contrasted with the dark greenery for an instant, then came the sound of a gate crashing shut, and the vision vanished.
"Another gate," remarked Barry, stepping up to the main gate and hammering on it with a piece of rock. "Was that a white woman? You saw it, didn't you?"
"Looked like the fair Mrs. Goring," replied Little, staring in the direction where the glimpse of white had been seen. "It may have been one of the Mission folks, though. How about the gate? This wasn't where the frock came out."
"This is the great main gate Houten told us about. He said it faced sou'west by west and had a green skull on top, didn't he?"
"Sure thing! And there's the green head all right." Little whooped with delight at the touch of old-time ghastliness. "And I forgot for the moment you are a 'Heave-ho-me-Bully-Boy sailor!' able to spot a place from afar off by the direction of the sun at midnight. Gee! This is regular stuff, Barry. Mystery, secret gates, skull and crossbones, and nobody home! Knock again."
Little heaved with all his strength at a huge boulder, intent upon gaining entry. Barry coolly placed his foot on the stone, hauled Little away, and fell to work with his knife on the wattles which bound together the bamboos of the stockade. Then the gate was opened suddenly, and a yellow dwarf with jagged teeth that chattered bade the visitors enter.
"Gordon Tuuan he see you. Come." The custodian of the gate turned and dog-trotted up to a large, low building. One rambling, cane-walled hut filled most of the space inside the stockade, and under the same wide, leaf-thatched roof were all the departments of the post. A few small native huts were scattered along the fence, but apparently Gordon believed in working and living as nearly as possible in the same spot. Their guide brought Barry and Little to the main hut, ushered them into a dim, screened veranda and disappeared, leaving them blinking in semi-darkness.
"Come in!" invited an unseen host in a high-pitched, quavering voice.
"Come in! Where?" echoed Barry, his hearty sea-bellow shaking the flimsy structure. "If that's Gordon, come out, or have the civility to remember that we haven't got bat's eyes. We're from Batavia, Houten, and—"
"All right, old chaps, all right. Sorry to keep you waiting. Wasn't expecting you so soon. I'll be out right away."
On the heels of the announcement came the clink of glass and a shuffle of chairs. Then softly slippered feet shambled out of the darkness, and Gordon stood revealed as well as the light would allow.
Little and the skipper felt a burning curiosity as to the man they were sent to deal with, and pity was the feeling that entered Barry's breast now they were face to face. The trader had the frame of an athlete and a head and face that must in years gone by have caused many a flutter in feminine hearts: But now the eyes were bleary and sunken from alcohol, the high forehead was hidden under a mat of dirty, nondescript hair that was once undoubtedly a glorious tawny blond. The wide shoulders stooped, the back bent forward from the waist, and the hands, yet retaining hints of care, trembled at the ends of bony, jerky arms. And, in the half-light of the veranda, the sodden features smirked and grinned, scowled and leered, with an incessant twitching at the corners of the mouth that showed teeth still white.
"From Houten, you say? Come in. I'll get you a drink."
Gordon led the way inside, stepping among the littered furniture with the instinct of a cat. He shouted an order, unintelligible to his visitors, and an entire side of the hut was raised, admitting the strong, pouring sunlight.
"What does Houten want now?" he asked, his hands writhing nervously. "I sent him the last lot of dust with the last lot of trade. Didn't he get it?"
"Yes, some of it," returned Barry, scrutinizing the nervous wreck puttering about the stained table, muddling with bottle and glasses. "That's why we're here, because he only got some of it. No, no drink, thanks; and it won't be a bad notion if you leave it alone for a while, until we settle our business. Why, man, you look ready to tumble into your wooden suit right now!"
"That's all right, old chap," grinned Gordon, pouring out a strong peg of Hollands and gulping it down like water. "I've had a shock to-day; that's all that's wrong with me. I can talk business with you all right."
"So we gave you a shock, hey?" chuckled Little knowingly.
"You?" An undercurrent of contempt marked Gordon's tone.
"No, you didn't shock me a bit, old fellow. Not many men can. It was a—er—a lady." The voice broke into a grating laugh.
"Who? What? Was it Mrs.—" burst out Little incautiously.
"Mr. Little!" Gordon snarled, his teeth showing viciously, "you forget yourself, I think. Remember you're in a gentleman's house, even though that house is only a hut and the gentleman's infernally drunk. That part of my business concerns neither you nor Houten."
"Sorry," Little apologized awkwardly, blushing like a girl. "I ought—"
"That's all right," broke in Barry shortly. "Mr. Gordon will understand that. At present we can't talk much business. The atmosphere doesn't seem right. Come, Little, we'll get back to the ship, and perhaps Gordon will come aboard to dinner to-morrow, eh, Gordon?"
"Certainly, Captain, thanks. I'll be glad to eat at a white man's table again," cried the trader, obviously relieved at the departure of his guests. "What time?"
"Well, say about noon; then we can talk business for an hour. By the way, can you direct me to the Mission?"
"Just behind the stockade, Captain. Not a hundred yards away. But you can't see it for trees until you get there. Won't find anybody there now, though; it's the time of day when all the men are out teaching, and the women are visiting the huts to teach the mothers to look after the kids."
Barry concealed his disappointment and departed for the ship. Little was silent, too; he was trying to gather up the threads of the connection between Mrs. Goring, the missing seaman, and the trader. He wasn't sure the threads led anywhere; but Barry discouraged conversation, and the volatile ex-salesman could not exist without either talking, surmising, or planning things. So they arrived in silence at the wharf, and neither raised his head to notice their whereabouts until Little tumbled over the Barang's breast line. Then both looked up. Simultaneously they glanced up at the poop; they darted questioning glances at each other as Vandersee broke from a group and ran to the rail to meet them, his ruddy face alight with a redoubled glow.
"Now what has he got to do with Mrs. Goring!" muttered Little. The wonder was lost on Barry, for that worthy mariner had seen something which effectually obliterated all thought of Mrs. Goring from his mind.
"It's the little Mission lady!" he breathed reverently, looking past Mrs. Goring and straight into the sparkling eyes of a very human looking, merrily smiling girl in plain Mission print. He was abruptly awakened to the proprieties by Vandersee stepping forward and introducing him.
"Captain Barry, Mrs. Goring wants you to meet Miss Natalie Sheldon, of the Mission. You've met Mrs. Goring, I think."
Barry acknowledged the introduction awkwardly; he felt himself flaming to the roots of his hair, unable to control his tongue or his eyes. For many days he had dreamed of this moment. Now it was here, he felt he was making an ass of himself, and that Little was grinning at him for his clumsy behavior. The amused salesman jogged his ribs and brought him back to earth. He advanced with extended hand to the smiling young Mission worker, and in an instant he was transported into a world where she and he alone mattered; the other people, the ship, the stagnant stream, all went out of his ken like things that were not.
"How do you do, Captain Barry," the girl greeted him, flushing under his unwavering gaze, yet amused at it.
"Miss Sheldon, I have wondered if it were possible that you could be like your picture—and you are," he returned with true sailorly bluntness. He had no knowledge of the usages of society in such first meetings; he only knew that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line, and that was his course now. He suddenly became aware that the girl was regarding him curiously, and she asked in manifest surprise:
"My picture? Why, where have you seen my picture, Captain?"
In a flash Barry realized the difficulty of the question. Perhaps later he would feel at liberty to explain; but now no words that he was acquainted with could possibly explain without requiring further explanations to supplement them. Yet he could not think of letting go this chance of basking in the sunshine of his realized dream. He met Miss Sheldon's query with a warm smile and took her by the elbow.
"I saw one in Java, Miss Sheldon," he said. "And ever since I have doubted the existence of an original anything like it. But you are; the picture doesn't do you justice. Let me show you my ship," he concluded, urging her towards the ladder away from the rest.
To Barry it seemed that fifteen minutes sped like one. He never remembered, afterwards, whether he showed Miss Sheldon the ship, or not, or at least, how much of it. He only knew that he trod on air, and his ears were thrilled with music, that his blood leaped and tingled with the warm personality and rippling laughter of this pretty Mission lady. He suddenly found himself back on the poop by her side, and his foot stumbled on the top step because his eyes would not leave her piquant face. And together they rejoined the others, surprising upon two faces, at least, something that was not expected to be seen.
Little stood by Mrs. Goring's side, frankly enjoying the spectacle of Barry's captivity. He glanced smilingly at Miss Sheldon, and Barry saw the rich color mount swiftly to the girl's throat and cheeks. But it was between Vandersee and Mrs. Goring that the tableau centered. The big second mate stood behind Little and looked sharply into the big, dark eyes of Mrs. Goring over the salesman's shoulder. And she, on her part, returned the gaze with interest that was nevertheless gone in a flash, to give way to a returning expression of polite indifference.
But in that passing flash, Barry caught the unspoken message that leaped from eye to eye. It was as plain as if those two people had said, one to the other:
"Right into our hands! Barry's caught, and the rest is clear!"
The situation threatened to become strained, for Barry showed signs of questioning his second mate. The visitors were Vandersee's, and that able officer turned the circumstance to good use. Politely, yet insistently, he drew Mrs. Goring to the gangway; she in turn called Miss Sheldon, and before Barry could prevent their going, they had stepped ashore and departed in different directions.
As they separated, Mrs. Goring spoke to the girl and then hurried away with a cordial hand-wave and a very softened smile. The girl stared after her for a moment, as if not understanding that which she said, then slowly turned to follow her own path. But in turning, she paused almost imperceptibly to flash another look at the ship; and Barry caught it, levelled full at himself.
Wonder, doubt, unbelief were in that look. The pretty round chin was firm and hard, and in the expressive eyes the light was shot with specks of flinty coldness. But doubt predominated. Miss Sheldon resumed her way, and as if in final endeavor to learn the answer to a puzzling question, she looked back over her shoulder at Mrs. Goring. That lady, too, looked back at that instant, and again Barry caught a flashed message.
Mrs. Goring's face was alight with emotions—gratification, love, hope—and the greatest of these was hope.
Little overhauled his instructions from Houten early next morning and by breakfast time was ready to get down to business with Barry. The day dawned muggy and windless; one of the native seamen in a commandeered canoe paddled up from his observation point near the river mouth to report and get his relief. There was no sign of Leyden's schooner, nor did the day promise a wind that could possibly bring her in.
The mate left the table early and relieved Vandersee, who went into his cabin before sitting down, leaving Barry and Little alone for a moment.
"What d 'ye think of Mrs. Goring, and—oh, everything, old scout," Little began. "You saw her face last night. Is she stuck on you, or me, think? Or why the interchange of cryptic eyes between her and little Miss Mission?"
"Drop the josh, Little," Barry retorted, none too well pleased at the subject. "How in blazes can she be stuck on either of us, when we only saw her once before yesterday? As for cryptic glances, I'm not very good at puzzles."
"Oh, all right, sobersides. But have you figured out how the lady got here, and why?"
"No. I don't propose to clutter my head with stuff that does not concern my business here, Little. We're here to check up on Gordon and call Leyden's hand when he arrives. That's plenty for two ordinary men. The why and wherefore of mysterious women has nothing to do with me."
"We-ell," Little drawled, lazily lighting a cheroot, "anything you say suits me, but I'll tell you my idea right now: That Goring woman came here in this blessed brigantine, Barry!"
Barry stared at his companion in open amazement. Amazement slowly changed to mild scorn, and a sarcastic opinion of such an idea was on his lips when Vandersee emerged from his berth, dressed to go ashore, and halted the expression of it.
"The first part of my contract is completed, Captain Barry," the second mate said respectfully. He smiled at Little and laid an open letter before the skipper. "This will explain, sir."
Barry stared at the man for a moment, then frowningly perused the note. It was in the heavy hand of Cornelius Houten, written on the trader's business stationery. In brief, it was authority for Vandersee to leave the ship, if he so desired, immediately he had docked her at the post, and to rejoin her one day before she was ready to leave. Houten emphasized the point that Vandersee enjoyed his utter confidence, and anything he wanted that the ship afforded was to be at his service. Houten desired Barry to understand that his absolute command of the Barang was in no way interfered with: simply that Vandersee was engaged on a definite and separate mission for the house, but had agreed to act on the passage as second mate and to pilot the ship up the river.
"You know the contents?" Barry queried, peering up at the big man beside him.
"Well? Anything you want?"
"Not much, Captain. Simply permission to go at once and to take a box of ammunition specially placed on board for my Luger automatic pistol. I shall send a boy each morning with any news that should interest you and to receive any information you care to give me regarding the future sailing of the ship."
"All right, Vandersee. You may go. Going on a still hunt after the gold dust I'm supposed to unearth, hey?"
"No, sir. I'm not meddling with your affairs in the least. My business is entirely apart from yours, though our paths may cross to our mutual advantage. And I wish to say, Captain Barry and Mr. Little, that I am anxious for your success; far more so than you can possibly imagine. We have much in common, which I cannot speak of now. But if you need me in any tussle that may develop, I shall be at hand. I shall not be more than an hour's run distant, and if you want me at a time when my boy is not available just say to the dwarf at the stockade gate: 'The Dog Bites!' and I shall be with you quickly. But I ask you not to turn in that message until you feel you cannot handle things without me."
Vandersee departed, leaving behind him an impression of subtle power and iron determination. Little looked thoughtful for a space. He fumbled with his inside coat pocket, withdrew his hand, hesitated, then went back to the pocket again, while Barry stared moodily up through the skylight, listening to the sound of the second mate's retreating footsteps.
"Mystery, and more of it!" the skipper muttered at last. He regarded Little whimsically and surmised aloud: "Next thing, I suppose you'll flash a document that deposes me and puts the cook in charge."
"Hardly that, Barry, but I've got a paper," replied Little, coloring deeply. He produced the cause of his embarrassment from the inside pocket. "I wasn't to play this until Gordon was present," he said. "But since Houten apparently keeps hold of all the strings, even at this distance, I'd better lay all my cards on the table," and he handed the letter to Barry.
The skipper glanced through the note perfunctorily, then some part of it riveted his notice, and he read the rest avidly. Like Vandersee's letter, it was brief and comprehensive. It authorized Little to supersede Gordon at the trading station, if in his opinion the situation seemed to warrant such a course. And, as in the Hollander's orders, Little's letter concluded with the definite statement that Barry was not in any degree less captain of the ship and commander-in-chief of the expedition. In the last recourse, every man who had sailed in the ship from Surabaya was to hold himself at the skipper's orders.
The two friends regarded each other intently when the letter was laid down, Little almost shamefacedly, the skipper as if on the border line of a disgusted withdrawal from the involved business. Presently Little ventured:
"Sorry Houten thought it necessary to make all this mystery, Barry; and if you say so, I'll relinquish any powers this letter gives me to you. We should have no secrets between us; I've simply carried out my employer's orders. It isn't my wish."
"Don't fuss yourself," retorted Barry grimly. "I don't blame you. Just don't fancy sailing under sealed orders, that's all. I've got my own instructions, and I'll carry 'em out, never fear. But I hate to feel that just when things get tight, somebody may flash another bit of paper on me and tell me I mustn't shoot, because the green man with the pink eyes is in charge of that department, or something."
"I can assure you there are no other letters of authority, Barry," stated Little definitely.
"All right, then. Since I'm still in command of this fine ship, I'll stop the order for Gordon's lunch. Come on. We'll go to him and thrash the thing out at once," announced Barry, rising.
At the station they found a pitiful wreck. Gordon was cold sober, and it was as if all his vital fluid had evaporated. His face was ghastly, his nerves utterly out of control, and his tongue stumbled as though it were hung by the middle with both ends at odds. Yet for all his shocking physical condition, something in the wastrel Englishman appealed to Barry as no part of the man had done the previous evening. Something hinted at a long deeply buried spirit struggling for release, and Gordon's speech, if stumbling, at least strove to be serious.
"Glad you came, skipper," he greeted them, with a contorted smile that puckered his face and made plainer the hideous inroads of a life's dissipation. "Shan't be able to keep that luncheon engagement."
The trembling fingers pushed a heap of papers and books over to Barry and immediately resumed the task of filling a battered portmanteau with crumpled clothes.
"We came to talk business, Gordon. For God's sake, take a drink and steady yourself, man!" Barry jerked out, a great pity for the hopeless wreck coming over him. Gordon affected the sailor like a fine ship broken and disintegrating on a devilish reef.
"Thanks, old chap. I'm all right. Business? I'm as capable now as I'll ever be. Come to chuck me out, haven't you? Go ahead. There are the records, stock lists, and the rest of the mess. Help yourself."
An inquiring glance and a nodded assent passed between Barry and Little, and the latter gathered up the records, pushing Houten's letter over to Gordon as his authority.
"Don't know how you heard of it, Gordon, but that will verify your supposition. You're not fired, y' know, unless you want to be—at least, not yet. Simply superseded during the period of the stay of a certain Mr. Leyden."
The Englishman dropped the packed bag with a bang and gripped the table to steady himself.
"Go on, Mr. Little, don't mind me," he muttered, groping for the bag again. "I'm a little off color to-day. Ought not to chuck up the booze so suddenly, I suppose. But I'll survive it. Go on."
"Only one thing I want explained," said Little slowly. "The rest can be gathered from your books, I understand." The ex-salesman looked straight into Gordon's furtive eyes and uttered his words very distinctly. "How much of Houten's gold dust have you sent to Leyden? And where is the accumulated result of the past six months of washing?"
Gordon's mouth twitched at the corners, imparting to his face the expression of a partially decayed skull. The breath whistled from his tightly drawn lips, while he fought with his nerveless legs for support. At last he mastered himself and stood upright, for the moment seeming to expand and straighten into something approximating a clean, complete man.
"What Leyden has had can't be brought back," he said. "But you'll find in that leather book—last entry, made this morning—the sum due to me from Houten up to the end of this month. You'll find it entered in the credit side of the trade account. If I'm permitted to remain here after you've cleaned up, a similar sum will go down in the same column until what Leyden had is paid for. The rest of the dust is packed in bags. It was all ready for Leyden to call for. You get it now. The gargoyle-faced dwarf at the gate will show you where it is. Now, if that's all, I'll thank you both to get to blazes out of here and let me finish packing. I'm still trader here until I pass out."
"Where are you going, Mr. Gordon?" asked Barry civilly. He was more and more drawn to this self-wrecked human being, so obviously once a gentleman. "There's a cabin aboard my ship, if you care to use it."
"It's none of your damned business where I'm going!" Gordon snarled, with grinning teeth. Then his face softened, and he added: "Much obliged for the invitation, though, skipper. I'm a beast. But please remember that I'm a drunken beast trying to become a sober beast. Will you please go now?"
"So long," Barry gave him shortly, and walked out. Little followed, calling back: "Better take that cabin, Gordon. Hotels must be pretty rotten here, hey? No? Well, so long, and good luck."
They passed out by the big gate and caught sight of the brown dwarf on the parapet of the stockade. Pausing a moment, they debated whether to immediately demand the gold bags or to go first to the ship and get men to carry them on board. Barry peered dubiously at the entrance to a narrow trail winding about the stockade and disappearing into the thick, odorous jungle. Then he glanced at the sky and the tree tops. The sun told him it was yet far from noon; the foliage sleepily indicated the prolonged absence of a breeze.
"Leyden can't get up to-day, Little," he decided. "Go and tell Rolfe to give you the men you need. Take the dust aboard and lock it in the safe. It's your job, anyhow. I'm going to hunt up the Mission."
For a moment the Imp of Mischief prompted Little to perilous speech. He caught Barry's glittering eye in time and merely replied: "Aye, aye, sir. Don't forget what you told me: with man, woman, or missionary, keep your gun butt handy. That bush looks shivery. Be good and look after yourself."
He swung off down the wharf path, and Barry stepped into the side trail. The sailor had not covered twenty feet, shivering involuntarily at the uncanny hush of the jungle, when he heard a faint rustling behind him. Before he could turn, a queer whirr whistled in the air, followed swiftly by a hollow thudding sound as of an ax biting into a rotten log. Then an unearthly shriek rang out that chilled his blood.
Just in time he leaped aside and avoided a flying creese that shot from the outflung brown hand of a fallen Malay. And, sticking in the man's naked back, between the shoulder blades, was the haft of a heavy throwing-knife similar to that which had so narrowly missed his own head on board the Barang.
He savagely stirred the dead man with his foot and rolled the body over, face up. The next instant his shout recalled Little at a run.
"Look, Little! Know this fellow?" he uttered.
"Mindjee—the missing sailor!" gasped Little, wide-eyed.
"Wait," snapped Barry. He plucked out the knife and ran back to the gate, still plainly in sight. On the parapet, in his old place, the brown dwarf squatted, expressionless as the Sphinx.
"Here, Johnny, you throw this?" Barry demanded, holding up the knife.
"Me t'row, all right. Give it." The skinny brown paw reached down for the weapon. All interest had apparently departed for the gatekeeper with the return of his knife. Barry was not so easily satisfied.
"That won't do for me," he persisted. "Did you mean to hit that Malay, or did you just miss me, hey? Where did you get this sticker, anyhow? I've seen it before. Talk quick, now!"
"You savvee dat fella got creese? All right. I send um knife, eh? Big fella man give it knife to me. You no bodder, Tuuan. You no kill, eh? Give it knife. I want um." The clawlike hand reached down insistently. "I tell you no bodder. I Gordon man. Gordon he Houten man. You Houten man too, eh? An' Houten he all right fine fella. You no 'fraid, Tuuan. Give it dat knife."
Barry hesitated, not clear as to the man's meaning. He stared curiously at the stained blade in his hand, then passed it up with a shudder. He rejoined Little in silence, and they walked to the ship together, the Mission visit shelved for the time being. Arriving on board, Barry went to his cabin, made a swift examination, and burst out upon Little.
"I've got the big fellow!" he shouted. "That knife is the same one, Little. Vandersee is the big fellow, and he stole that knife out of my room. What the devil is the meaning of this ruddy mess? Mindjee hove that knife at me first. He was Leyden's man, beyond doubt. He gets his knife back in the gizzard, and that wipes out one score. What next? What about Gordon? How did he get his information so soon? Begad! I'm at a loose end, Little."
"Foggy to me, too, skipper," returned the other thoughtfully. "One sure thing, though, is that some sweet little cherubs are looking after us, and that death's-head at the gate is a good Joss, apparently. I'll go and get the gold bags, Barry, then I'd better take up quarters at the post. What d' ye think?"
"Go ahead, son. And pick out say four men to stay there with you. The fun seems to have started. Pack your guns, too. I'll clear out the safe before you get back."
The sun had passed meridian when Little returned, his men carrying fifteen small, heavy canvas bags. The dust was duly entered in a brand new book, after being roughly weighed on the cook's scales. Then the ship's company went to dinner, while the mate remained on deck until Barry could relieve him, for they stood watch and watch now, since Vandersee's departure.
The meal was but half finished when a shout was followed by running feet on the deck overhead. Rolfe burst into the saloon without ceremony and reported:
"Schooner coming up, sir! Just rounding the last reach. Got some sort of launch alongside, towing her. She'll be up in fifteen minutes."
Little sprang up, his animated face aglow. This was the moment he had dreamed of ever since setting foot aboard the Barang. Barry acknowledged the report but remained seated. He remarked:
"All right, Rolfe. Don't show fight. Keep six men on deck and have them in easy reach of their arms. I'll be up in a minute. You, Little, sit down and finish your meal. It may be long enough before you get another regular lunch. When you're through eating, hike up to the post. You'll find that gatekeeper worth asking, if you need advice."
After Little had gone, Barry tried to map out his plans, and the deeper he got into the matter, the less sure he felt. The measures he had ordered seemed, on cool reflection, to be the very measures likely to defeat his ends. For beyond doubt Leyden had not made this voyage without a definite object in view; he had been to the trading post surreptitiously, often before, knew the country around, probably knew the precise location of the gold-bearing sands, and was intimate with Gordon. Knowing Houten's clear title to the trading concession, he was scarcely likely to bring his vessel up the river on an avowed piratical errand; and there was, too, the matter more important to Barry of Leyden's ambitions with regard to the Mission worker.
"Won't be any fight of my starting," decided the skipper, preparing to relieve the mate. "Any fuss that's started, he'll start. I'll go up to the Mission. I'll get there this time and beat him to it."
That Mission visit had been too long delayed already. He waited no longer than to give the mate time to eat lunch. Then, repeating the order to keep a keen watch on the schooner's people and to permit none of them on board the Barang, he stepped ashore.
"If anybody tries to come on board, Rolfe, tell 'em I'm ashore and won't be back until evening."
Then he struck off through the huddled village and took to the bush path which Gordon had told him led to the Mission. Bamboo thickets alternated with patches of lush jungle, and life seethed in both. The chirruping chafe of bamboo shoots were so many voices that hummed in harmony with the cries of birds and the chattering of monkeys. In among the tall, golden stems, short-statured brown ghosts moved, sarong clad; little people whose eyes gazed at the intruder with soft inquisitiveness as he strode sturdily forward. And a patch of gorgeous jungle was entered to the whisk and flirt of graceful heads and slim, swift legs, all the visible signs revealed by herds of startled deer.
Barry noticed each passing thing of life with a start, for his steps kept time and rhythm with his thoughts, which ever flew back to the original of the photograph he had stolen and lost. His one brief meeting with Miss Sheldon in the flesh had enabled him to judge the status of the photographer, and the artist was placed very low in the scale of his craft. The living original of that picture could never be done justice to on a photographic plate, in the skipper's opinion.
"This is no place for such a woman," he soliloquized. Then the hotel scene in Surabaya recurred to him, and his teeth clicked sharply. "And such a flower shan't wither in filthy paws like Leyden's!" he spoke aloud.
He trudged on, wondering if he had lost his way, for as yet there was no indication of a clearing or any cultivation that must surely mark the habitation of white people in a foreign land. As he gazed around at the matted verdure, his ears caught a strange sound which was yet not utterly strange. It was a roaring, throaty voice, such as is only developed in the stress of storm and thundering canvas. It was raised in raucous song:
'Arf a ton o' white paint, 'arf a ton o' black, 'Arf a ton o' 'nammellers, an' paint pots in th' rack. Ship's a bloomin' paint shop, a sailor's got no show; So sink th' blarsted Navy, an' ol' Admiral Furbelow!
The song was cut off abruptly as the singer tore through a mat of vines and stepped out right in front of Barry.
"Ahoy! And who 'm you in this fine black man's country?"
The man stood on widespread, deeply bowed legs, quizzically regarding Barry. Then a pair of sea-blue eyes twinkled, and a salt-toughened face wrinkled in a grin.
"Holystones an' sujee! You 'm a sailorman, ain't you? Is there a real ship in this river o' mud at last? Not one o' them bamboo an' string-tied proas, or sich?"
Barry returned the fellow's quizzical gaze, and in spite of his recent thoughts, he had to grin. Partially clad in the remnants of a navy working rig—tattered canvas jumper and wide trousers—the man looked the embodiment of one of Neptune's hoariest veterans. Where the skin showed through his rags it was tattooed blue and red in the numerous designs beloved of old-time seamen. A great ship sailed turbulently across his massive chest, her sails and rigging blackened ludicrously by the mat of close-curled hair that flourished on the human background. The rising sun of Japan blazed above her trucks, on the wearer's treelike neck; weird serpents and smoke-breathing dragons writhed about his arms from wrist to shoulder, and a red star on the back of one gnarled hand kept watch and watch with a blue star on its opposite member. Barry chuckled audibly as, in a casual flourish, one great arm was half turned, showing the comparative white of the underarm upon which was blazoned a pair of gory hearts in collision, impaled on a harpoon apparently. Around this work of art a flamboyant motto announced to the world: "I love Polly."
"Ah, them's the follies o' youth," the tattered salt remarked sagely, noting Barry's attention. "Never have none o' that junk stuck into yer, Mister, leastways, not no woman's tallies."
"Wuss ner that. Why, I thought a lot o' that 'ere gal. Bought her a mangle when I stopped wi' her on leave once, so's she could do wi'out my 'arf-pay and wouldn't have to run up no bills wi' the meat an' bread pirates. Then I j'ined my ship, an' when I come home again she's sloped wi' a bloomin' leather-necked Marine wot used to peel orf his ruddy tunic an' turn th' mangle for her! Don't have 'em tattooed, Mister. Paint 'em on while yer with 'em, same's I do, then you kin wash 'em orf when you feels like a change."
"Good stuff," agreed Barry, interest in the queer old fellow in some degree modifying his impatience. "But what about a ship? Want to ship out of here?"
"That's me. I clumb down th' cable out of a man-o'-fight, all on 'count o' th' paint an' scrape an' polish of a new Old Man we got. Walked on th' bleedin' hoof, too, from Macassar to here, an' cadged at th' Missions an' stole from th' traders, an' slept wi' the niggers fer more'n a month, waitin' fer th' blessed ship they all said was due. That's me, Mister. Anything a-doin' in your craft?"
Barry considered for a moment and concluded that he could do with such a recruit. In any case he was strongly attracted to the man from a strictly human point of view. He took out a pocket pad and pencil, and replied, while he scribbled:
"I'll ship you. What's your name?"
"Then, here—" handing him a hastily scrawled note to the mate—"take this aboard the Barang, and the mate will fix you up. Look out you don't get shot going aboard. Show your note at the gangway. And be sure you get the Barang, not the Padang—my ship's the brigantine."
"Your ship? Be you skipper then, sir? Beg pardon; didn't know," and the gnarled right hand snatched at the scanty forelock and the sturdy body bent awkwardly in exaggerated salute. Then a twinkle shone in the keen blue eyes, and Bill Blunt grinned: "Shootin', d' ye say, sir? Ain't goin' to tell me fun's afoot, be ye? 'T would be too good!"
"Quite likely, Blunt. But you get aboard. If you get on the right side of the mate, perhaps I'll make you acting second mate when I come back." This apparently hasty half-promise was made with good reason. Barry saw a possible acquisition in the typical old sailor and made the partial promise as the best and quickest means of discovering what the man had in him. If good, he would prove himself in hope of the reward; if worthless, Rolfe could be depended on to find it out. He put a question as the man started off: "Tell me how far is the Mission?"
"Just through that bamboo thicket, Cap'n. Ain't twenty fathom away. That's it," he sang out, as Barry thrust aside the close-standing stems.
The skipper entered the thicket, and the closing stems shut out the roaring song with which Bill Blunt struck off for the ship. Almost before he was aware of the proximity of any habitation, he stumbled out of the brake into a neat, prosperous garden, surrounding a cluster of clean frame huts all under one immense galvanized-iron roof. A small number of natives worked desultorily among the plants, and farther off a stooping figure in a white dress and wide sunbonnet straightened up at the skipper's approach.
Barry blushed like a big boy and halted, for the lifted sunbonnet revealed the piquant face of Natalie Sheldon, and her white teeth gleamed in a rippling smile as she recognized her visitor.
"Welcome, Captain Barry," she cried, stepping into the path and approaching him. "I'm afraid I can't be very hospitable, for all our men folks are busy in the village. I have to make a visit myself, but I shall be glad to have your company if you care to come."
Big Jack Barry, the man who remained cold and unruffled in vital physical crises, met this second encounter with a very unformidable girl in different manner from the first. His mouth opened to reply and remained open; his eyes burned with the up-rushing flood that suffused his bronzed face, and the roots of his hair tingled to the blush. Then he realized that he was staring rudely at Miss Sheldon and had not yet responded to her greeting. He discovered, too, that the brim of his hat was suffering grievous damage in the grip of his nervously twisting fingers, and that the sun was beating on his bare head intensely.
"Thanks, Miss Sheldon," he stammered at length. "I'll be glad to come with you if I may." Then, his hat replaced on his head, he found two awkward great hands at liberty, with nothing whatever to do with them. "Can I carry something for you?" he asked, more at ease in the prospect of some physical employment.
"Oh, will you? I shall be glad if you'll carry a basket. It will save taking one of the boys, and I'd really rather not take one, as it happens."
She went into the main hut of the Mission and presently returned with a big cane basket, covered with fresh leaves, which she gave to Barry. She herself carried a smaller bundle that might contain cloth or other soft material.
"Come, then," she said, leading the way into the bush by another path. "I've got a patient, Captain, one of Mr. Leyden's men, you know. A white man, broken down by the awful loneliness."
"Leyden's man?" blurted Barry. "Why, surely nobody's come ashore from his vessel yet? He only came up the river an hour ago."
"Oh, this time, yes, Captain. But Mr. Leyden has been here many times, you know. We know him very well, indeed. We do whatever we can for him, for, you know, he has helped me—us—in many ways."
Something in her speech drew the skipper's gaze to her animated face. Something he saw there brought a fleeting scowl to his own. There was no shred of doubt at that moment that Leyden had made considerable progress in intimacy with the Mission people. Miss Sheldon's speech and expression were such that Barry would have given an eye or a hand for the same.
"You see, we hoped Mr. Leyden would arrive much sooner, Captain," the girl went on, striding freely along the narrow path which bent towards the upper reaches of the river. "We thought your ship was his, and that induced my visit last evening. The extra suspense played havoc with Mr. Gordon, for—"
"Gordon! He's no man of Leyden's, Miss Sheldon! He's my own employer's man, if you mean Gordon from the trading post. I wondered at his attitude when we superseded him temporarily."
The girl darted a swift glance at Barry and suddenly cut short the chat. She went ahead, giving no reply to the skipper's outburst, and he followed dumbly, wondering what new piece of trickery was to be revealed when Gordon's sudden illness was investigated. For fifteen minutes he followed in the girl's wake, attempting to reopen conversation and receiving brief replies; and gradually his irritation and puzzlement passed; he was fascinated by the easy grace of the girl; every step he took was as a rivet hammered into the armor of his determination to scuttle Leyden's ark of success at the earliest possible moment.
His mind was set on means to that end when he at length looked ahead and discovered that the girl had vanished. In a dozen steps he came to a still narrower path leading riverwards, and here she was awaiting him.
"I'll take the basket now, Captain. Will you wait for me here?" she said, looking into his face with a cool and plain hint that his further attendance would be inconvenient.
"I may as well come right along," he returned, holding on to the basket. "I know Gordon. I'm sorry he's ill. I'd like to see him."
"It will not be convenient, Captain Barry," she insisted firmly. "Mr. Gordon is too ill to see strangers. This cannot be the Gordon you know. He is a friend of Mr. Leyden. Please wait for me here."
"Now what the devil have I struck!" Barry grumbled, when the girl had swept out of sight. The swish of her cotton dress could be followed through the canes and lantanas, and the impulse was upon him to ignore her command and plunge after her.
"Gordon a friend of Leyden!" he soliloquized, restraining his impulse while he puzzled the problem out. "That's no mystery; suspense knocked him out when I got here first. That's no puzzle either. But how in thunder did Leyden get so solid with the little lady? That's my riddle."
The tangle was too involved for the sailor's matter-of-fact mind. He obeyed his first impulse and dived ahead into the narrow path, bound to see Gordon himself and thrash out the matter with him in front of Miss Sheldon.
He parted the cane thicket, and immediately all about him began the rustle and subtle movement of living things in concealment. He recalled in a flash that something very like this had preceded that whirring through the air, and that thud into flesh that had announced the attempt on himself and the death of Mindjee, back at the stockade gate. But no tangible obstacle fell in his way this time. It was a voice, sounding ghostly in the whispering canes, from an invisible yet very close speaker.
"You no go, sar. Go back. Fren' for you say it."
"Now by James, that's enough!" swore the sailor, leaping straight in the direction of the voice. "Come out here and let's see who's running this Pepper's Ghost hoodle!" With the challenge he pulled his pistol.
He found nothing and nobody. But from the spot he had just vacated came the same voice again.
"You no shoot, sar. You shoot fren's, dat's all. Go back."
"I go back when I see what this humbug means. I'll shoot man or animal that runs across my bows!"
Barry stumbled forward, and again the subtle rustling surrounded him, but no voice now. The sound seemed to vibrate and run before him, yet faster than he could travel afoot. Then, so suddenly that it startled him, he came alongside a stout tree, and other voices sounded,—voices of white people. For the moment he was at a loss; then the truth flashed upon him and he looked up into the umbrageous foliage of the tree.
Above his head almost—he was still in the shade of the cane brake—he discerned the platform of a rough tree-dwelling from which depended a vine-stem ladder, steadied by pegs driven into the ground at the base of the trunk. And, peering over the rim of the platform, like a sailor looking over the edge of a ship's spreading top, he saw Miss Sheldon, displeasure clouding her face. Another face was at the Mission girl's shoulder, and impatience was the most prominent emotion on it. Barry had time to recognize Mrs. Goring in that second apparition; then swift and silent as a cobra's attack he was taken from behind.
No word was spoken. Arms like steel bands smothered his limbs; his pistol hand was snatched back irresistibly, yet, he noticed even then, with no violence, and the weapon was taken from his powerless fingers. A piece of coarse cloth was flung over his head; vicelike hands gripped his ankles; he was borne with no apparent effort from the spot.
After a brief initial struggle, Barry resigned himself to his captors perforce. Where he was bound for was beyond conjecture; he only heard, faintly through his hood, the cheeping and rustling of the canes; bush tendrils swept along his body and told him that he was being carried through the trackless part of the jungle. His journey was short. In ten minutes he was laid on the ground, still with no word from his captors, and in two long breaths no sound remained near him except the voices of the foliage. He lay still a moment, wondering what his fate was to be; then, involuntarily, he moved in his bonds, and found they were loose; he was unfettered.
Hurling aside the muffling cloth, he started to his feet, and the grass bands fell from his arms and legs. He was in a dense grove, and his first thought was to hurl himself headlong into the bush in the frenzied hope of overtaking the men who had left him there. His foot struck a hard object, and he looked down. There was his automatic pistol, intact, but the precaution had been taken of slipping out the cartridge clip. He picked both up, reloaded the weapon, and pondered.
"Sure thing they don't want me around there!" was the whimsical thought foremost in his mind. "Don't want to damage me, either. But they leave me in a blind alley of the jungle to dig my own way out!"
As he cooled off, his senses resumed their normal alertness, and the ripple of running water regaled his ears. He tore through the jungle in that direction and burst out upon the river bank. Looking up and down stream, he stifled an exclamation of surprise; for, not a hundred yards away, down stream, stood the rickety old wharf, and alongside lay his ship, while at his feet a dugout canoe squatted nose-up on the muddy foreshore of the river. Just astern of his own ship the Padang had hauled in, and a knot of excited men, white and native, were milling about the Barang's gangway.
"Time you got aboard, Barry!" he muttered and shoved the canoe off.
Barry reached the wharf, tied his canoe to a pile, and arrived at his own gangway to find Leyden at bay. Rolfe's sturdy figure barred the ladder; Bill Blunt grinned happily over the rail, tapping the wood playfully with the biggest iron belaying pin the ship afforded; while natives on deck and on the wharf looked on full of curiosity considerably tempered with apprehension.
Leyden's face was deathly white with rage, and his right hand had gone to a hip pocket; but it remained there under the persuasion of a little round hole in the end of a cold blue tube displayed carelessly by the mate. Leyden caught sight of Barry as he came up and started violently, then forced a smile.
"Why, are you Captain Barry?" he stammered. Whatever his knowledge of Houten's plans might be, it apparently had not included the association of the Barang's skipper with the rude sailor who had upset him on the hotel veranda in Surabaya. If he harbored resentment for that affair, he concealed it now and tried to assume an expression of relief.
"I'm glad you've come," he explained, with a sour smile that was meant to be pleasant. "Your mate is oversuspicious. He refuses to allow me on board."
"Quite right, too," growled Barry, openly glaring his dislike for Leyden. "My orders. I expect them to be carried out. You can have no business with my ship, anyhow."
"You're not very cordial, are you?" Leyden smiled back. "I wanted to inquire about one of my men who ran from me in Surabaya. I believe he joined you. My skipper said a brigantine came in for an hour or so about the time the man disappeared, and this is the only brigantine that's been in the port in months."
Barry's keen eyes bored into Leyden so coldly and fixedly that, studied as he was in worldly encounters, that gentleman shifted uneasily on his feet. The Barang's skipper knew well enough about that missing man, and also where he had gone to. He knew, also, that it was not in Surabaya that he entered the brigantine, but in far subtler manner, as a legitimate, signed-on seaman in Batavia. There was still a patch in the mainsail, a little more than man-high, to recall the man; somewhere near the stockade gate the insects and ground vermin were at that moment industriously engaged in stripping a skeleton which might have interested Leyden. But the blunt sailor, simple and straightforward though he was, was endowed with sufficient elementary cunning to cope with Leyden in that worthy's present state of irritation.
"No strangers in my ship, Mr. Leyden," he said. "Try another tack. Sorry I can't stay to talk with you; I'm busy." He mounted the gangway without a further glance at Leyden, leaving that gentleman staring up after him with tight lips drawn back from grinning teeth and a quivering of the arm which was bent back to the hip pocket.
"Don't try it!" warned Rolfe, edging aside as Barry passed him.
"Shove orf, me son," added Bill Blunt and squinted along his belaying pin straight at Leyden.
"Oh, leave the man alone!" growled Barry angrily. "You weren't put here to start something. So long as he stays off the ship, I don't expect you to stir him up."
"Barry, just one moment," cried Leyden, and his face had assumed a smirk of contempt. Barry turned without replying. "I'd be thankful if you'd tell your pirates to leave this theatrical stuff until it's called for," Leyden laughed. "I've been trying for five minutes to get my tobacco pouch out of my pocket, and every time I move a finger one of your bold desperadoes wiggles a gun at me, and the other buccaneer draws a bead on my unoffending head with that ferocious pin."
Barry stared hard at the fellow, and as he saw the utter change that had come over Leyden, a tiny shiver ran rippling up his spine. All Leyden's anger and irritation had gone; the crafty, calculating man of the world peered out through glittering eyes; if Barry had entertained any foolish notions of the man's mettle before, they were dissipated now. Yes, there was no doubt of it. Leyden was laughing at him.
"Nobody's stopping you getting your pouch," Barry blurted hotly. He preferred taking a beating at any time, if necessary, to being laughed at. "The whole wharf is open to you. But I advise you to move along a bit before pulling that pouch. My men don't like the smell of Dutch tobacco."
To Rolfe he said: "Leave Blunt here and come below. I want to speak to you. Wait though," he suggested, "Blunt hasn't signed on yet. How does he suit you?"
Bill Blunt's ears twitched with anxiety until the mate replied: "Good man, sir! Darn glad to have him. Coolest hand I ever saw—and a sailor."
"Good. Stay here. I'll bring up the Articles and sign him on here. Then he can stand gangway watch with you. I don't want to leave the gangway without a white man on it so long as that craft lies ahead of us."
Bill Blunt entered into the company of the Barang and took up his post at the gangway with a roaring sea-song rumbling in his mossy throat. Some of his stout, devil-may-care spirit had gone into the native crew, and there was less of furtiveness and more of confident satisfaction with their job as the little brown men listened to the jovial harmony of their new white shipmate.
Rolfe followed the skipper below, and at the table Barry told him as much of the day's events as seemed vital. Regarding the Mission, it was merely mentioned as being in some manner connected with Leyden's obvious familiarity in the trading station.
"He's gone off that way now, sir," remarked the mate. "I noticed him beating up for the path as you brought up the Articles." Rolfe halted suddenly at the sound of grinding teeth and stared at the skipper in wonderment. But Barry cast off the spasm of rage and went along with business.
"Now, Rolfe, you know what we're here for as well as I do. Much has happened that I didn't expect, but the main thing remains. On or near this stream gold is being taken out that belongs to my employer. It's getting into other pockets. And the man who owns those pockets knows more about the location of these gold sands than either I or Houten, and what's more, Gordon has been running this post not exactly on the level.
"So long as that schooner lies there, I want her looked after. So you and Blunt stay aboard with half the hands and watch for funny business. But first, before I start up river, run up to Mr. Little and get an inventory of his spare men and arms. Spares, mind: those he can do without for a few days. Hurry back."
Jerry Rolfe started without comment. That was his conception of duty. He had scarcely reached the deck when he was recalled. Barry could not erase from his mind that picture of Leyden, at that moment perhaps enjoying an intimate chat with Natalie Sheldon. And the more he thought of it,—the thought swept through his mind in a flash—the hotter he became, and he no longer restrained the impulse to follow, though the folly and possible danger of it was clear to him.
"Rolfe!" he shouted. "Never mind. I'll go to the post myself. Stay here and get together all our own spares. You know them better than I do."
The mate received this new order as complacently as the first. It suited him better. In that steaming, reeking river station he was more at home about his ship than tramping through an odorous village on shore business.
Barry hustled up to the post and found Little deep in a stock-taking revel, as enthusiastic as a boy in his new sphere. The typewriter-sailor was more at home here than on board the ship, in utter contrast to Rolfe; and Barry grinned perforce at the formidable armament he had strapped about his body. He looked the part of a fiction trader, with pen behind his ear, big cheroot in his teeth, and two mighty revolvers in holsters at his waist.
"Ship ahoy, me tarry shellback!" he shouted as Barry entered. "Snug as a bug already. Everything's fine—first-chop, except the station hands. Can't find where they're working, Barry, though the pay sheet shows fifty or more taking wages from Houten. But what's the trouble? You look as solemn as that crocodile you plunked on the beezer as he was investigating my free-lunch department."
"Nothing's the matter," replied Barry shortly. "It's about the hands I want to see you. How many men, with guns, can you spare me for a few days? I'm going up river."
"Whoopee!" yelled Little, dancing. "Up river? Me too. Say, we can take—"
"We nothing, Little. You stay right here. I want about six good men, that's all, to join up with one watch from the ship."
"Oh, say now, that ain't fair, Barry. There's nothing to keep me here now the dust's aboard. Besides, Vandersee was here, half an hour ago, and mentioned the same thing. Said it as if he knew what he was talking about, too. Told me to tell you he was in reach of us all the time, and that we might safely leave the station."
"Vandersee here?" cried Barry. "I'd give something rich to know exactly what piece he plays in this band!"
"Same here, Barry. But never mind him. I feel safe about him. I'll come, hey? How about it?"
Barry considered awhile, his forehead deeply wrinkled and his eyes aglitter. Soon he brightened, and, "Just as you say," he replied. "Get those six men. If you can't find them yourself, ask the gateman for them. Get 'em to the ship as soon as you can. I've got a little business to attend to yet."
He left Little in ecstasies and tramped down the path and around the stockade. Scarcely directing his steps, he walked towards the Mission, knowing no reason except impulse. And he travelled swiftly, coming to the cane-brake dividing the post from the Mission before he was well aware of his progress. Here he was brought to an abrupt halt by nearby voices, and he could not possibly avoid hearing some of the conversation.
The voices were those of Mrs. Goring and Leyden, and anger was the keynote of the discussion.
"I tell you, Juliana, I won't stand this hounding!" Leyden was saying. "Remember you are not in Batavia now; and if you drive me to extremes, this jungle can hide a secret."
"I fear neither the jungle nor you any more," Mrs. Goring returned, and Barry shivered at the intensity of her voice. "As for hounding you, I warned you. I came here to prevent this, your latest piece of rascality, and I'll do it. You might as well go back to Java."
"I suppose so," retorted Leyden sneeringly. "You've no doubt spread your lies to good effect already, eh! Do you expect to be believed against my word? You are foolish. I stand too high here for you to harm me."
"Stand high, fall deep," laughed the woman. "No, I have spread neither lies nor truth about you—yet. I can do that—"
"Not yet, eh? Then, by the Lord Harry, you shall not!" cried Leyden, and there was a crackling of underbrush as he made a forward movement. Barry peered through the thicket, ready to leap to the aid of Mrs. Goring; but he saw his help was not needed and drew back.
The word was sharp as a pistol shot, and Leyden was brought to a halt by the menacing muzzle of a small automatic pistol in Mrs. Goring's firm, tremorless hand.
"Don't move a pace farther. I know you only too well, Mr. Leyden. The day has long gone by when I could be fooled by you. My advice is that you go back to your ship and to Java. There is nothing here for you. Your schemes have all gone awry."
"Then your tale has been told! Vixen!"
"Vixen, perhaps," and a low, mellow laugh accompanied the acceptance of the epithet. "At least you will find me one, if you persist. I have not mentioned your name to any one, yet. But I tell you now that each day you stay in Celebes adds to the weight about your neck that shall finally drag you down. There is one stronger than I keeping your account, and, have no false hopes, it will be paid in full. I warn you to go because of what I once thought you. Be wise in time and go."
"Yes, I'll go,—to the Mission and find out what lies you have spread. For I don't believe you have let that chance slip, no matter what you tell me." Leyden's tone was truculent; yet he respected the warning of that small, steady pistol. "It is you who should take warning and go, Juliana. For as sure as you cross my plans, you shall suffer."
"I can suffer no more," returned the woman bitterly. "As for the Mission, I can save you the trouble, for there is nobody there. You had better go and see Gordon. He'd like to talk to you, now that he has sobered."
"Yes, Gordon!" snarled Leyden. "Another of your pretty tricks. Where is Gordon? He's not at the post. I tried to enter there and was refused admittance."
"Naturally. It isn't your post, you know. But as you've tried, that too will be wasted time, won't it? So you'd better go to your ship, as I suggested at first." Mrs. Goring suddenly closed the interview by walking away from Leyden, keeping her face towards him, however, and retaining firm hold on her pistol. She almost brushed Barry as she passed, and as she glided swiftly and lightly along the Mission path, Leyden swung away with a curse in the opposite direction.
Barry hesitated for a few seconds; he wanted to go to the Mission, too; but he believed Mrs. Goring had spoken truly when she said there was nobody there, and the only other place he could imagine where Miss Sheldon might be was at the tree-dwelling. To that secret bower he hurried, to be again halted by warnings from unseen guardians in the jungle fastnesses. This time he did not press his intention to penetrate, but stepped back until the whispering warnings were no longer heard and there waited, hoping that patience might be rewarded.
It was. In a little while he heard some one coming along the path and stepped out of the snug couch of leaves he had made for himself and suddenly confronted the Mission girl. She started back in fright, then laughed in confusion as she recognized him. She bore two empty baskets, and Barry reached out for them.
"May I carry them?" he asked simply.
"Surely, Captain Barry. But you startled me. I was not expecting to meet anybody here."
"Perhaps better me than others," replied Barry cryptically. "How is Gordon, Miss Sheldon?"
"He is improving," the girl replied, and her eyes narrowed as she gazed quizzically at him. "But what is the riddle about better you than others? I don't understand."
"Never mind," smiled Barry. "It doesn't really matter, since I was the lucky one, does it? But have you discovered whose man Gordon is, after all?"
"Why, no, Captain. It isn't necessary, I think. Mr. Gordon has always been accepted by my fellow workers as Mr. Leyden's man, and we have known Mr. Leyden a long time. We don't know you so well, you must admit."
"That's very true, Miss Sheldon. But I hope you will know me better before long," replied Barry, flushing at the implied doubt as to his own bona fides. He remembered, in time to avoid a bad break, that it was no part of his business in Houten's interests to show his credentials to Mission folks, no matter how devoutly he desired to place himself on a secure footing with them. His visit was entirely on Houten's account, and anything else was a side issue. So instead of blurting out an offer to produce his credentials, he remarked quietly:
"If you will ask Mrs. Goring, she will tell you better than I can."
"Mrs. Goring?" echoed the girl. "Why, I don't know her any better than I know you, Captain Barry. Why should I ask her to disavow something that needs no disavowal?"
"Don't know her?" queried Barry, astonished. He had thought Mrs. Goring an old acquaintance at least, if not actually a friend.
"No. We never saw her until the day your ship arrived. She brought a letter, though, from mutual friends in Batavia, so we have accepted her gladly. She has proved a wonderful nurse, too. Mr. Gordon could not be better cared for by mother, wife, or sweetheart."
Miss Sheldon's face softened with the thought. She irradiated the spirit of Christian helpfulness while praising Mrs. Goring's work for Gordon, and Barry uneasily realized that his persistence in casting doubts on Leyden was likely to prove detrimental to himself. The feeling intensified when the girl added with enthusiasm: "So you see, Captain, Mrs. Goring is far too busy to be bothered with inquisitive questions about a gentleman whom she probably has never heard of."
"Oh, yes, she has heard of Leyden, Miss Sheldon," Barry burst out unguardedly. "Not only heard of him, but knows him better than you do!"
The girl stared at him in amazement. Then slowly the rich color mounted to her fair cheeks, and her eyes glowed with something as near anger as such a woman could feel.
"If Mrs. Goring had known, she would certainly have told me," she said. "She has not said one word to suggest there is any truth in the very strange story you have tried to impress on me, Captain Barry. I can only think that you are mistaken."
With which charitable remark, having come to the branch of the Mission path, Natalie Sheldon held out her hands for the baskets and dismissed the skipper.
"Thank you. I can manage now," she said, smiling rather pityingly at him. "I hope you will find your mistake before you offend Mr. Leyden."
"If I do, I'll let you know quickly," he retorted, nettled to discover how very solid Leyden had made himself. "Meanwhile, I can only offer my services in any way you may need them, Miss Sheldon, and suggest that you make a confidante of Mrs. Goring. Good-by."
He left her gazing after him curiously and strode down the path towards the wharf. And as he entered the last narrow track in the labyrinthine bush, one of his native crew broke through the canes and told him:
"Masser Rolfe he say come quick, sar! Schooner boats he go up ribber chop-chop. He got many many men."
If, in the events already narrated, Barry has showed an unaccountable indecision, it must be remembered that he was a simple seaman, straight and clean, unused to subterfuge and trickery. When action was afoot, he knew what to do; while waiting for action on the part of his adversary, he was at a disadvantage. But the fact made for increased vigilance, and with the news that the Padang's people were starting something moving, he cast everything except his own counter move from his mind.
It was late afternoon when he finally looked over the situation and had to make a prompt decision. Rolfe, ably seconded by sturdy Bill Blunt, had collected a party of spare men and arms for the river trip, which, supplemented by Little and his five perplexed station hands, gave the skipper a very full crew for his largest boat, a lugger-rigged longboat.
"Has the schooner's boat started?" Barry asked, scanning the yellow stream that flowed greasily past and bore no sign of life or floating craft.
"Yes, sir," replied the mate. "She went up just after I sent the messenger to you. Leyden wasn't in her, though, so I sent a couple of men up the bank, to keep her in view and give you the direction as you picked them up."
"Then call away the boat!" snapped Barry. "If that fellow sneaks up some creek, we'll pass him surely in the dusk, and—"
"Oh, he won't do that, Barry," interjected Little. "I got at least this from Gordon's records, that the gold-bearing sands are on the main stream."
"Were the men armed?" asked the skipper.
"Not that I could see, sir. That looked queer to me," said Rolfe. "And that steam launch started so fast—"
"Steam launch! Here, Little, get your men into the boat. I don't know what this all means, but I don't trust Leyden, after what I saw and heard to-day." Barry leaped below to his cabin and gathered up a few necessaries for the boat trip, then returned on a run and entered the longboat.
"Give way!" he ordered, and the oars flashed in rhythm, driving the boat out into midstream where she could set her sails free from the blanketing influence of the jungle-clad shore.
"Good luck, sir!" growled Blunt, gazing down at the boat with sorrow in his jovial face. "Ain't no chance o' coming wi' yer, I suppose?"
"No, Blunt. Stay here. You'll get your share of the fun if the dog bites!" Barry called back with a short laugh.
"Then all as I hopes is that he bites, sir!" and the old salt walked away from the rail, unable longer to stand the pang of seeing that boat go adventuring.
The longboat slipped along under her big lugs almost as swiftly as a launch could travel; the power craft would derive the fuller advantage from her engine when the twisting of the river put the sailboat on a beat. The stream quickly narrowed and shoaled when the post had been left astern, and in one place ran swiftly through a high-banked gorge that cut off the breeze and brought out oars again. Here the first watchman was picked up, standing on the high crest beside a tree and calling attention by a shrill whistle.
"How long since the launch passed?" queried the skipper, when the man came aboard.
"S-sh! She no go far, sar," replied the man, with a gesture of caution. "She right dar, 'longside dat big bush," and he indicated an outjutting clump of dense jungle that stood on the right bank a hundred yards ahead.
Barry and Little peered through the gathering dusk in vain for sight of her; without slanting clear across the river, it was impossible to see past that point. After a very brief moment of thought, the skipper waved silently to the oarsmen and headed the boat back to the place whence the watchman had just come.
"Come, Little," he said quietly, "we'll go and see what's afoot. She's no doubt waiting to pick up Leyden, and he hasn't stayed behind without reason."
Like silent shapes they stole through the jungle, creeping along to the end and crest of the outflung point. Here, or rather beyond, the river widened out again, and the trees on both banks were farther apart, admitting more of the waning light to the muddy flats alongshore; and snug under the very roots of the matted bush lay the schooner's launch, steam swirling about the brass smokestack, the fire glowing redly as the engineer put in a stick of wood. All else was quiet; no sound came from the crew, though they could be plainly seen crouching on the locker seats and thwarts, some smoking, some dozing.
"Looks innocent enough," remarked Little, a little chagrined. He had expected to plunge straight into lurid encounters and felt an almost irresistible impulse to draw two revolvers, let loose a yell of defiance, and shoot up that tantalizingly peaceful steamboat.
"Hm! Looks!" Barry grunted. "Maybe is, too; but I have my doubts. Keep still, and we'll soon see. At least we're upsides with the chase."
The darkness dropped down suddenly once the sun had set, and myriads of fireflies gathered like star-dust to match the galaxy overhead. The pipes of the smokers in both boats glowed brighter; but neither was in sight of the other, though from the crest where Barry and Little waited both were visible. All around the silent watchers the jungle voices whispered and crooned. In the trees above them monkeys chattered at the unheard-of intrusion of boats and men on the privacy of their sleeping places. A belated deer thrust his head through a thicket and gazed foolishly at Little's astonished face, then, with a whisk and flirt, he bounded back into the bush, sending twigs and leaves flying in his alarm.
The noise served to arouse Barry, for his senses had been lulled by the dark soft night voices, and he had been dreaming again. He sprang alert in a moment at the deer's sudden commotion, and now his keen ear caught another, harsher sound; the sound of booted feet approaching.
"Here's some white man!" he whispered, drawing Little back into hiding, for that ardent young man was yet staring open-eyed after the vanished deer.
"Leyden!" breathed Little, and a voice from the as yet unseen stranger bore out his guess. Leyden came to the river bank without any attempt at caution. He sent earth and rushes scattering beneath his feet, and he hailed his boat's crew in a voice that carried clear over the river.
"Start her up, lads," he cried, stepping down the bank where two men waited to hand him into the launch. "Give her all she'll carry, engineer. The luck's right with us!"
The launch broke into sudden bustle, and sparks flew from the smokestack. The crew chattered freely and much merriment was mixed in the chatter. But the thing that shocked Barry, and gave even the unthinking Little cause for reflection, was Leyden's tone. If ever utter and complete triumph and exaltation were expressed in man's voice, they were ringing then in every word the man uttered.
No particular word was spoken to give excuse for the feeling in the skipper's breast; but in every note and syllable Leyden uttered, even the bare order to cast off lines, there was jubilation and mirth. And mirth, in a man like Leyden, meant mischief, according to Jack Barry's ideas. When, after the launch floated away from the bank, the man actually began to sing a cheerful little song about ripe pomegranates and passion flowers, Barry's teeth had all but loosened themselves through sheer grinding rage.
"Get aboard!" he growled into Little's ear, plunging down towards the longboat. "If only that rat would give me a chance to peep along sights at him!"
The lugsails were useless until the gorge was passed; and in the narrowed river the current swept down with doubled velocity, making the stout oars crack as the seamen bent their backs to offset it. And when at last the wider stream was entered, and the sails began to draw, the launch had passed out of sight; only the distant and diminishing chug of her propeller gave indication that she was ahead. With gathering speed as the night breeze gained strength, the boat sailed on, and until she had suddenly to haul up at a square bend in the river, she equalled the chase in speed. But then, tacking close inshore to get a long board for the next bend, she suddenly grounded, silently, easily, with an absence of shock or grating that told only too plainly of sticky, fast-holding mud.
"Confound such a ditch!" swore Barry irritably. "Why in thunder didn't that fat swab of a Houten tell me what the river was like! Overboard, every man," he ordered, with swift decision. "Over, and lighten her. Shove her into midstream, and we'll row it out."
"Alligators!" Little whispered, much as he might have said "Skittles."
"Damn the alligators!" retorted Barry, and set the example by leaping into the turbid river.
Little struck the water almost with the same splash, and the boat's crew started to clamber over the sides, shamed into obedience. Barry stayed where he had jumped, and the position of his head could only be determined by the volley of disgusted anathema that pealed from his lips.
"Don't jump deep, men!" he cried. "You'll stick up to the neck in this filth! Fall flat on the water and swim with the boat."
"Sure, like me," chimed in Little, seizing the gunwale and striking out with strong leg strokes. The seamen joined their efforts, and with twelve expert swimmers thrusting the boat forward, the skipper was dragged out of the tenacious mud with a loud sucking sound.
"Pull, confound you!" Barry panted, all but torn in two. "Another like that—Oh, blazes! There's my other shoe gone!"
Before the great splash which followed his release had died out, from the near bank came the "plop plop!" of heavy bodies dropping into the water. Little swam around the seamen and surged up alongside the skipper, whispering into his ear so that none other could hear: "'Gators, skipper!"
"Kick out harder!" breathed back Barry, and thrashed the water violently to drown the noises from shorewards that told of a great number of those inquisitive reptiles cruising to investigate the commotion in their river. It was impossible to keep the men long in ignorance of their danger, for as the boat crept into deeper water, their swimming made less noise, and the approaching saurians' progress was easier marked.
"All aboard!" cried Barry at last, feeling, but never hinting that he felt, a hard, nuzzling snout brush by his leg. "Hurry, men, the breeze is shifting."
The breeze was not shifting, but in the swirl of water at his side he heard the sudden sob of fear that told him the man beside him had realized that something else than current ripples was about him.
Little sensed the peril, too, and like the fearless swimmer he had proved himself, he let go his hold on the boat and started in a close, loud-thrashing circle to round in the seamen who were trying with the clumsiness of fright to climb aboard. Barry, far less able swimmer, started around in the opposite direction; and between them they gave a hand here, darted off to drive away an alligator there, and got all aboard but one man. And this man, panic-stricken, strove alone to climb over the stern. His legs and feet were sucked in under the boat, and he hung by the elbows, unable to move a hand to get farther, and powerless through fear to let go for a fresh grip.
"Let go, man!" shouted Barry, coming up on one side as Little ranged up on the other. "Let go and get hold along the gunwale. Here, Little, tear him loose; the man's crazed!"
The seaman suddenly let go, and a shriek pealed from his throat. He disappeared from between Barry and Little with a swift downward plunge that almost took them as well; and the tremendous commotion in the water told only too plainly what agency had taken the man. And, as if in echo to the man's shriek, a second shrill whistle from the bank indicated the presence of the other watchman.
"Come, we can't help him, Little," gasped Barry. "Save your own legs, man."
"Poor devil! But I guess you're right," muttered Little, and helped by willing hands they clambered over the gunwale and fell panting into the bottom of the boat.
They got sail on the longboat and stood straight up midstream, the oars driving her until she reached the next bend, where her altered course brought the wind to a sailing point. And in response to shouted orders, the man on the bank kept pace with them, until deeper water permitted the boat to edge in and take him on board.
"Where's the launch now?" queried the skipper. The river had become as dark as a pocket. From ten fathoms out both shores were merged in one black smudge.
"He go fast, sar, long time gone," replied the man, and his teeth chattered with excitement, for he had heard his shipmate's death cry.
"Gone long time!" echoed Barry angrily. "Then what are you doing here? Why didn't you follow farther?"
"No can do, sar. 'Nother ribber join here, sar."
Investigation verified this. The man had been halted by a broad tributary stream, and fear had prevented him from swimming over. And he was not sure, either, whether the launch had gone straight up the main stream or taken the tributary. She had stolen along past him without lights, he said, and he could not follow her definitely by hearing. But the fact of her falling into silence warned Barry that she was nearing some destination or halting place, for she had left her last stop noisily enough.
"Better keep to the river and make for the sands," suggested Little. "He's sure to go there."
"I suppose he is," returned Barry, in puzzlement. "But which is the main river? I can't make it out in this coal pocket."
"Think we'd better tie up and wait until daylight, or the moon rises?"
"The only thing to do," grunted Barry. "And that means nearly daylight. There's no moon until morning."
The sails were lowered, and the boat poled cautiously into the bank. She slid over viscid slime that scarcely impeded her and came to rest against the twisted roots of a malodorous tree from which drooped heavy, damp masses of moss, felt, but unseen. Barry gave orders to stretch a sail for an awning, sensing a heavy dew before darkness lifted; and setting a watch fore and aft, he bade the crew snatch what sleep they might.
And silence had hardly settled over the boat when the underbrush crackled above them, and a quiet voice called out:
"Given us the slip, Captain, hey?"
Following the soft query, a huge bulk dropped nimbly and expertly down by an overhanging vine, and Vandersee sat on the stern boards beside Barry.
The big Hollander's sudden and unperturbed appearance in the boat seemed to cast a soothing spell upon the rattled nerves of the native crew. The night was yet too dark to distinguish faces; but every man in the boat, from Barry himself down to the greenest hand, knew from intimate association that soft, musical voice. Vandersee lit a black cheroot, passed some around, and remarked impartially to Little and the skipper:
"Our task will be finished sooner than I expected."
Such apparent coolness and breezy optimism at a moment when things looked to be at a dead end made Barry gasp in renewed amazement at this unfathomable second mate, who was so obviously something infinitely more than a second mate.
"Sooner?" he echoed sharply. "You've got cat's eyes, haven't you, Vandersee?"
"Not exactly, sir." The reply was enwrapped within a low chuckle. "I have fairly good eyes, though, and a very good equipment of the other senses."
"Then for the love of Moses Malachi, don't talk in riddles!" snapped Barry. Little leaned forward, fascinated by the small circle of Vandersee's florid face illumined by the glowing tip of his cheroot.
"Excuse me, Captain Barry," smiled back the Hollander. "I am forgetting that you have been tied to ship's business and have not had my opportunities. I mean, by the task being finished sooner, that Leyden has cast aside all subtleties and is going straight for his mark in spite of you. There is little to do now except to go out openly for him and get him. He has this evening finally persuaded Miss Sheldon, I believe, to accompany him when his schooner leaves—"
"What!" shouted Barry, springing up to the imminent peril of the boat.
"Sh-h," warned Vandersee respectfully yet irresistibly pulling the skipper down. "Sh-h! Nothing is to be gained by anger. Will you take my assurance that Miss Sheldon is at present in even better hands than your own? Oh, I know something of your mind, Captain. I have similar hopes and expectations for you with regard to the little Mission lady. And I can put you easy in your mind. Miss Sheldon is not for Leyden. Nor is any other woman in this world. That is all I can tell you now; but I swear it."
Barry sat silent for some moments, cooling off before he would trust himself to speak. And the influence of Vandersee spread over all like a beneficent spirit, instilling calmness and confidence where a short time before had been bewilderment.
"But you admit yourself he has slipped us, Vandersee," said Barry at length.
"For the moment, yes. But you may be sure Leyden is still in the river, and you are between him and his ship. That is one fact that makes the thing simple. I came down merely to tell you that he has struck, and that in spite of him Miss Sheldon's situation need not worry you, Captain. I felt that you would be easier for the knowledge."
"Then you know where he's flown to?" Little queried, breaking a long silence during which he had sat motionless, staring up at the vague outlines of the Hollander's face.
"Not precisely, Mr. Little, but near enough to give Captain Barry a useful hint. For one thing, he's at this moment picking up arms, which he left his ship without for purposes of policy regarding the feelings of his friends at the Mission."
"Oh, cut it short," interjected Barry impatiently. "I admit your greater knowledge in this, Vandersee. What shall I do? Wait here for daylight, then try back after him?"
"Wait for daylight, yes. But instead of trying back, my advice is that you proceed straight up the river and find Mr. Houten's gold sands, Captain. I have other work, not connected in any way with gold dust, but our paths must surely meet shortly. When I told you that I was always in reach of a message delivered to the gateman I meant just that. I shall be within reach of you, too, wherever you are; and so long as you have left orders regarding that message with Mr. Rolfe, we shall all come out right. If I may presume to remind you, your first duty is to clear up the mystery of those gold deposits for Mr. Houten. Until that is done our tasks lie apart somewhat. But the moment you have satisfied yourself and Mr. Little on that score, I shall call on you for assistance in my own work, if you care to render it. It is not obligatory on you, though."
"All right," returned Barry; "then since you appear to hold all the trump cards perhaps you can give me a hint where this gold washing is done, for all Little has found out is that it's somewhere on the main river."
"Yes, Captain. If you hug the left bank all the way you'll find water enough, and there is no baffling stream on that side to give you uncertainty. You can't miss it. You'll find Houten's men working there, and it's only twenty miles up from here. Is there anything else?"
"No, unless I repeat that I'd like to know more about the side issues of this thing, for I'm darned if I like this blind alley work."
Barry's tone was disgruntled, and even the volatile spirit of Little had lost its bubbling quality with the night's mystery and darkness. Vandersee laughed softly, pleasantly, and replied:
"Sorry I can't give you more light just now. It would injure my own plans, which, as I have told you, are apart from yours at present but will merge very soon. One thing, though, if you intend waiting for daylight it would be better to shift over to the other side of the river before you tie up. Now I'll go, gentlemen, for I hear one of my boys with news. Good luck to you."
Nobody had heard a sound, save the indescribable night voices of the jungle and the rippling of the black waters; yet the big Hollander's ears had heard something different, and as he spoke he swung his huge bulk out of the boat and up the bank by the vines that had served him in coming, disappearing from sight and sound swiftly and silently as a great cat. Little and Barry leaned towards each other, seeking to discern features and expressions. It was hopeless in the blackness, but Barry's feelings were revealed in his tone.
"Stow this awning!" he growled, rising to his feet and furiously casting off the stern line. "Little, if you need sleep, catch it now. I'll wait no longer for the answer to this riddle." Then to the crew he barked: "Cast off for'ard; shove off, bow; step the masts and make sail!"
Again the boat moved smoothly through the water, the near bank faded into the general smudge of night, and she stood over until the farther shore appeared like a darker patch on a dark screen. Then two seamen with keen eyes were told off to keep the bank in view, and they alone served as guides for the blind course.
For hours they stemmed the stream, brushing overhanging vines and mosses with their masts at times; then a great round moon peeped over the tangled trees and shed a ribbon of vivid light upon the river, ever intensifying and widening until the surrounding country stood revealed to them as clearly as in noontime.
Little sat beside the skipper, wide-eyed and alert as himself, and now they could see something of the windings of the stream. Barry's chart had shown the river only as far as navigation was possible for vessels coming up from the sea, and that stopped at a very short distance above the trading post. Here, a few miles beyond the point where they had left Vandersee, the banks trended ever in a wide sweep, reach after reach, until, allowing for the moon's hourly passage, something in her position proved to Barry what he had for some time begun to suspect.
"Say, Little," he remarked, "we've sailed or rowed almost twenty miles now, and be darned if I don't think we're within five miles of the post yet!"
"Anything's likely to me, Barry," returned Little carelessly. "If you said we'd gone the other way and would sight Surabaya in fifteen minutes, I'd believe you, old sailor. This darkness and light, racket and hush, mud flats and moss on the masts, all in one evening, has got me flummuxed. But I've got one little thought myself," he added dreamily.
"Ye Gods!" ejaculated Barry sarcastically. "What?"
"Oh, just whether Leyden knows Vandersee's here or not."
"I suppose so. The Mission folks and Mrs. Goring know it, don't they? And everybody knows more about this affair than you or I, don't they?"
"I don't know," drawled Little, and without another word he pulled his hat over his eyes, snuggled down, and gave Barry his answer in the shape of a soft, prolonged snore.
The moon sailed overhead and dipped with dimming luster behind a ridge of jungle giants whose upper branches were waking into life. Monkeys and parrots with higher, keener vision than that of the boatmen heralded the gray light breaking low down in the east, and with the swiftness of the moon's coming, dawn turned the black of the river to gray, then to yellow.
But now the yellowness was clear and transparent, different altogether from the muddy foulness of the lower reaches. And the country around lost the density of matted jungle and undulated in a succession of grassy stretches through which cropped great round hummocks of sandy hills. The stream narrowed to a swift running gorge between two such hummocks, then suddenly widened out to five times the width, and the water rippled over sandy shoals that barred further progress in the loaded boat. Barry searched the scene eagerly, bringing the boat to the wind to arrest her way; then suddenly he awoke Little with a shake.
"Come to life, man, we're here!" he said.
Little sat up, rubbing his eyes in confusion at the total change in his surroundings, for he had not opened them once since falling asleep. To be there meant to him that he had arrived among gold dust and romance, and he sought as eagerly as Barry for signs of their arrival. He was disappointed, frankly and utterly.
"Gosh, Barry, this can't be it!" he gasped. "Why, man, where are the red shirts and the faro joints?"
To the eye Houten's gold sands offered little of allure. On both shores the river seemed exactly as other rivers, except for a small cluster of ramshackle grass huts under a clump of dwarf trees and a rough raft of logs tied with grass ropes to a stake set in the bed of the river itself. Of life there was none visible; but as oars rattled in the boat to swing her inshore, a sleepy native emerged from one of the huts, and his swift cry brought a score of his fellows to stare at the intruders.
"Don't look like El Dorado, at that!" grunted Barry, steering inshore and running the boat up on the sand.
"El Dorado? The gold washers look more like collar washers to me!" retorted Little disgustedly. "And is this what I gave up a decent drumming round for? Gosh!"
Profiting by early lessons, Barry warned his men to keep a sharp lookout. He divided them into two watches, bidding them to cook some food for all hands against his return, and giving permission for them to rest or sleep if they wished to, so long as half of them remained awake. Then followed by Little in abashed silence, he went up to the huts and announced his mission.
"Gol' dust, sar? No catchum here," was the response in a chorus.
"No catchum, hey? Very quick I make catchum," retorted Barry grimly. The little brown men stared at each other and then at the white men, some grinning openly, others shifting uneasily under the skipper's scrutiny.
"This is Cornelius Houten's gold camp, ain't it?" put in Little, addressing a man who seemed to be pushed forward by his fellows.
"Ho yis, sar, dis Misser Houten's camp," the man replied, "but he no got gol' dust here. I don' know what Misser Gordon send us here for, sar," he concluded, with a grin of enlightenment.
"Don't know, hey?" burst out Barry, shoving the man aside and entering the biggest of the huts. "Keep your eye on these chaps, Little," he cried. "If they budge a finger don't wait. Shoot."
There was no shooting. Barry found himself in a squalid interior, containing all the discomforts of native bachelordom with no compensating comforts. Remnants of food and dilapidated sleeping mats strewed the dirty floor. But the thing that sent the skipper outside on the run was the sight of a heap of gold-washing implements piled in a corner and bearing no evidence of more than very casual usage. Anything approaching the appearance of an active gold camp escaped his eye, and his eye was unwontedly keen.
"Little, bring up half the boat crew!" he ordered, rejoining his friend outside. "Have 'em bring their guns quickly. And bring all the small rope there is. There's some queer business here."
The skipper drew out his own pistol, huddled the wondering natives into a bunch, and kept them under his muzzle. When his sailors arrived, he lined out every man clear of the huts, compared their number with the figure on Little's list brought from the post, and then pulled out the spokesman by the ear, holding his pistol to the man's head. The boat crew held their rifles threateningly.
"What's up, Barry?" demanded Little, in a mental fog.
"Shut up!" snorted the skipper and turned to his captive. Giving the man's ear a twist, he demanded:
"What's your game here? Speak up, or I'll shoot you!"
The man squirmed uneasily, scared out of most of his wits; but in his fright he retained some sense, and what was better, some loyalty.
"No game, sar," he cried. "Me Misser Houten's man. We all Misser Houten's man, sar. I tell you true; dere is no gol' dust here. Suppose you want to steal gol' dust, some other place, maybe. Here no gottit."
"Steal? Why—Oh dammit, Little!" Barry exclaimed, "the fellow thinks we've come to rob Houten. Show him your letter, or whatever it is. Better yet, let one of the hands tell him who we are. I'll never make him understand."
The bona fides of the party established, the atmosphere was cleared to the extent of faces smiling where faces had looked frightened before; but no other answer could be got from the gold washers.
"We been here many weeks—months, sar—but no gol' dust got. Very soon we all go back; no got food no more; nobody come here. Misser Gordon tell us stop along here until he say come back. Many days we wash sand in de river, but no gol', sar, no, sar."
Barry was nonplussed. He glared at Little, seeking inspiration from a man as dumbfounded as himself. Little grinned sheepishly back at him and remarked:
"I expected this, Barry. It didn't seem right, somehow, for me to ever find honest-to-gosh gold sands. All my adventures have proved dreams. This is about right."
"Right! Then sleep on it. It isn't right to me, by a jugful, Little. Here!" he called one of his crew. "Bring that rope, and I'll see whether these fellows are playing straight with us."
One by one the sailor passed down the line of natives, tying each man securely until only the spokesman remained free. This man Barry turned towards the hut, and said to him:
"If you speak truth, you're all right. Lie, and you're all wrong, my lad. Take the gear you want for washing and get out into the river. Go right to it, if you want to save your skin. Let me see if there's gold or not there." He turned to the rest and told them: "You'll all have a chance. The man who brings me dust is free. The others—" he finished with a suggestive gesture that they could not misunderstand.