Gordon's face had cleared as the talk went on, and when Vandersee finished, he raised his eyes and met the gaze of all of them fearlessly, confident in his own recovery from a hateful bondage.
"May I ask if there is anything more against Leyden than opium running?" inquired Little quietly.
"No doubt you have heard there is," smiled Vandersee, but his smile was sad. "My Government want that business cleaned up, of course. I think Houten will be satisfied with your work, when it's finished, and I give him my report too; but there is another side to the business which is mine entirely, at least until it comes to a head, when you shall all share in the harvest. You know, don't you, Gordon?"
The big Hollander appeared sorely agitated, and his utter alteration of countenance sent a pang to Barry and Little. They ceased to wonder and decided to accept Vandersee without question, when Gordon quietly responded: "Yes, God knows I know! And when it's over, gentlemen, you'll hate yourselves for ever doubting!"
Vandersee folded away his map and then outlined the plan he had formed. While he spoke, Gordon shifted uneasily to the other side of the room, merely saying, though Little had not spoken:
"Don't look at me like that, Little. I'm clean now, if I wasn't when you first met me; please let that be my excuse for the present for anything I may have done to offend you or Houten, won't you?"
Little colored deeply and looked embarrassed. He found he had been staring rather inquisitively at the man he had come to supersede, and with his native courtesy and honesty he thrust his hand over the table to grip Gordon's. Neither man uttered another word; but Gordon's eyes unmistakably said, "Thank you."
Vandersee watched this little side play, pausing in his explanation, then resumed:
"You see, Captain, as long as your brigantine is blocking up the river for his schooner, Leyden is not likely to hang around here. And the trails over the island are so many and divergent that I believe all the men I have at my command can scarcely hope to track every one of his gang. Of course, we want him most; but every man of his crew is wanted, too, and unless the Barang is raised and moved, to give him hope of escape, I'm afraid he will prove slippery for sometime yet. One other thing is, that through his cunning and lies, the Mission folk here fully believe that Cornelius Houten is the rogue, and their reports to my Government are becoming quite harmful to our friend in Batavia.
"I might say here that Houten is on his way to us by now." An exclamation of fresh surprise from the skipper halted the big Hollander, and Gordon's face went livid again. Vandersee hastened to add: "Don't be alarmed, Gordon. You have suffered, and I give you my word that Houten fully understands everything." He turned to the rest: "I sent one of my runners to the coast with a cable to Houten the moment I knew surely that there was no gold in his river. I thought it best.
"Now, Captain Barry, how long will it take to raise your ship?"
"With Rolfe and Blunt and a full crew I can get her afloat in two tides, unless her leaks are bigger than her own and some extra pumps can check," the skipper replied confidently. "How's the mud here?"
"Mere slime. Pumps ought to suck it out. As for your mates and the crew, they are all living in the village. Plenty of huts there now, since most of the male natives have gone over to Leyden. Two tides then?"
"Plenty. What do you want me to do with her when she floats?"
"Take her downstream to that swampy creek I pointed out in coming up. I'll have some men clear away the grasses at the entrance, and she will float inside there easily. You can leave her there, hidden from the river, until one is almost abreast of her; and if luck favors us to the extent that Leyden falls into the trap, we can haul out quickly and get his vessel as she comes down, with all her crimes in evidence aboard of her."
"But suppose she slips us before I can get the Barang clear? What of Miss Sheldon then, if she's on board?"
"Once more I ask you to rest easy about that, Captain," Vandersee smiled back, and suddenly Jack Barry felt complete trust take hold of him. He nodded, without further question, and turned to Gordon. "How about you, Gordon? Want to lend a hand?"
"To raise your ship? Like a shot, skipper. And the harder the work you give me, the better I'll like it. I'm in need of hardening."
The river soon seethed with activity again. Bill Blunt came down from the village, leading the crew with great importance, for he was going to a job that would call forth all his exhaustive knowledge of the sailor's craft. Jerry Rolfe scouted for boats, and by half-ebb tide the Barang's wet decks were filled with men.
Rigging extra pumps occupied all the time until low water, and as the sluggish stream paused at slack, just before turning, every available hand in the ship ground away on brakes and chain pumps until the old brigantine gushed yellow water at every scupper. Barry, hanging over the hatch coaming, peered anxiously into the dark hold, hoping against hope that the pumps were gaining. The sight of swirling waters that surged upward from the sides and spread oilily over the lowering surface proved that the leaks were too serious to be completely checked, and it was necessary to do something else.
"Have to send divers over and try to plug those leaks," he announced and stared doubtfully at the panting crew. Gordon asked some questions of Rolfe, then stepped beside the skipper.
"You can see about where they are, can't you, Barry?" he asked, peering down at the foul water inside the ship.
"So far, yes. But they must be near water line, or the rascals could never have made 'em. Unluckily we can't raise her to her water line; and I hate to send men down into that slime. It might mean suffocation. Don't you smell the gas?"
"But why not outside?"
"Too smooth, Gordon. Inside there are stringers and frames to claw on to while feeling around; outside her skin is too slick for anything except a barnacle to grab hold of."
Gordon coolly flung off his jacket and kicked off his shoes. And little, at first not seeing the move, suddenly sprang to join him, throwing aside his own clothes with a whoop of joy.
"Gosh, Barry! Why didn't you say you needed a fish?"
The skipper grinned at him in spite of his uneasiness at letting men go down there and shrugged his shoulders resignedly.
"Go ahead, both of you. If Gordon's as much at home in the water as I've seen you, our job is done. Don't know how I forgot your mudlark proclivities, Little."
There was a glow of enthusiasm on Gordon's face as he followed Little over the hatch coaming, and Barry thrilled to see it. There was needed no better proof of the man's complete emancipation from the alcoholic curse that had made him a willing and pliable tool in Leyden's crooked schemes. For a moment the skipper watched the two men, not quite satisfied of their safety, ready in an instant to order them up or go after them himself, should they get into trouble. But he was soon reassured. First Little came up, snorted choking mud from his nostrils, inhaled a breath of clean air, and plunged down again. Gordon followed, and at the second plunge both reported having found a leak.
"Holes about an inch across, in groups of five in a space as big as a plate, skipper," gasped Little, resting before taking another dive farther forward. Gordon had found a similar leak; and another search discovered a series of such places running half the length of the ship.
"Holy smoke!" growled Barry in wonderment. "Must have had twenty water rats working on her to do that in such a short time. Rolfe must have been dreaming not to hear anything."
But Rolfe and Bill Blunt were away in the boats, picking up the upstream anchor which could not be hove in, simply because the ship could not be brought over it. And watching their arduous labor, Barry put aside his rising irritation and postponed the warm reproof he was bursting to hurl at them. Instead, he set men busily to work making plugs for the holes, and when the pumps were still for the moment he dropped into a canoe alongside and paddled down to join the boats.
"Got it, hey?" he remarked, nodding with approval as Blunt's boat hauled the great anchor dripping between his boat and Rolfe's, where the mate's crew made it fast, swinging on both gunwales by a baulk of timber laid across, ready to be either let go again, or taken under the brigantine's bows and hove up with the windlass.
"She sartainly sucks hard, sir," said Blunt, straightening his broad back and taking out a huge plug of tobacco. "If that there mud sticks to th' ship like it stuck to this yer mudhook, then we'll need sheer-legs to raise her, Cap'n."
"Saw a pile o' empty oil drums behind the stockade," rumbled Jerry Rolfe, avoiding the skipper's eye as if expecting to hear some scathing comment on the ship's situation.
"How many?" Bill Blunt demanded, without waiting for Barry to speak. "Be they big uns? Is ther' plenty of 'em? Holy Sailor! Beg pardon, Cap'n, but them's what we want, ain't they, now?"
"What can you do with them, Blunt? You'd need a thousand to raise the Barang a foot. And how will you fasten them? Can't get lines under the keel."
"Beg pardon, sir, fer a-shovin' in me oar," returned Bill, with a grotesque tug at his forelock. "I seen som'at o' the sort done once, though, an' if so be as you ses so, I'll do me best, sir."
"Oh, go ahead, Blunt. Go right ahead. I suppose whatever you do won't put her in any worse a pickle. No doubt she'll come up herself when the holes are plugged and the pumps get going again."
They pulled aboard the Barang, and while the boats were sent ashore to bring down all the empty drums, Bill Blunt assumed a comical air of study and thought out his plan. He first asked about the holes and what had been done with them. By this time the tide had risen a foot, and the plugs were almost ready to be driven in. Barry watched the old fellow with a grin, and when Bill began to count laboriously on his gnarled fingers, stepping from the bulwarks to the hatch and back again, peering over the side and down the hold, the skipper said with mock apology:
"I suppose you're wondering why we're going to drive in the plugs from inside, hey?"
"No, sir. I never wonders at what my skipper does. It's allus right. That's what you be skipper fer, I take it. No, sir. I sees as it ain't easy to drive plugs into holes as you can't reach, and them holes seems to be away below the mud outside. Course, some clever sharks as I knows on might say as you was wrong, and that the water outside 'ud drive them plugs back into the belly o' the wessel. But 'tain't so. No, sir." The ancient mariner maintained his bearlike pacing to and from the hatch, and his speech was astonishingly longwinded for him; still he kept on chattering, and presently Barry began to listen with real interest, and Little and Gordon, waiting for the plugs, stared at the sailor in awed admiration.
"No, sir," went on Bill, "them plugs has to be druv from inside; an' makin' free, genelmen, I'd make 'em twice as long as them you have ready."
"Twice as long?" snorted Barry. "D' you mean these are all useless?"
"P'raps not quite useless, Cap'n, but they ain't no blessed good, an' I bet my head on that. See, if you drives all them plugs well through her, and they sticks out good an' proper outside, it ain't so hard to grope around under the mud an' grab a holt on 'em. Then 'tain't very hard, genelmen, to paddle away a bit o' mud about each bunch o' plugs, an' when that's done, 'tis about all done. I'll lash a wire to them long plugs, and stretch her right along th' ship. That keeps them plugs in, don't it? an' it's some'at to hang short lines to, ain't it? Werry well then; say we has a hundred or two hundred short lines bent on to that wire, genelmen, an' on each short line is a hempty drum, bunged up tight—"
"And at dead low water next tide we fasten those drums down short, the tide 'll help raise her, hey?" finished Barry, persuaded that it might be done. "But how about the other side?"
"She don't matter, sir," the old fellow asserted. "We got plenty o' time afore next tide. Plenty o' time to cut fresh plugs an' git lines ready. Then when tide rises again, them drums 'll roll her over if they won't lift her. Ain't it easy then to get at them leaks? Better'n layin' her ashore somewheres fer caulking, if yuh don't know this yer river very well."
Barry needed but one minute to see how infinitely better was the old sailor's plan than the one he had formed himself. Merely to raise the vessel and then to lay her on the alongshore flats to stop the leaks, left a serious loophole for the swift escape of the schooner; but the simple scheme of Bill Blunt left the Barang in her blockading position until she was fit to move anywhere under her own sail power.
The river rose rapidly after half-tide, and it had reached full height by the time the fresh plugs were ready and the wire and short lines prepared. Evening fell, too, before the stream turned again, and the hands rested against the time when Gordon and Little could get down to driving in the plugs.
Then the work was resumed with feverish haste, for much small detail in the dim light took plenty of time. The old brigantine rang and rumbled to the thumps of hammers below, sometimes ringing clearly until the hammers struck beneath the water, then sounding dull and soggy as iron met wet wood. Over the side Blunt hung on to a line and felt for the outer ends of the plugs with his bare prehensile toes; then, lowering himself still more, he paddled industriously in the liquid mud until he had cleared a space around one bunch of plugs. Afterwards it was simply a matter of setting the crew to work right along the line, and long before the river reached its lowest level again, nimble fingers had firmly seized a strong wire rope to the long plugs stretching along more than a third of the ship's length.
Then came low water, and every man in the ship except Gordon and Little—too exhausted from their own submerged labors to be of much use for a while—went to work fastening the tight empty drums to the wire by their short lines, until the ship's side rumbled to the bobbing of the waters like an immense tom-tom.
"All right here, sir," reported Blunt from forward. "All right aft," echoed the mate, and Barry ordered all hands aboard.
"Now pump her!" he cried, and the muggy air of the night throbbed to the clank of the brakes.
The decks gushed with water that became more and more plain mud as the water lowered in the hold; the sounding rods showed the decrease inside to have at last overcome the outside rise; still Barry, looking anxiously overboard, saw no sign of the vessel rising herself. That mud held like Fate. Jerry Rolfe remained forward, in readiness to drive his watch to making sail or anchoring, should the ship actually float beyond expectations; Bill Blunt hung over the rail beside the skipper, and Little and Gordon joined them in silent wonder, neither of them quite clear about the results of this queer undertaking.
"Say, Barry," whispered Little, unable to keep quiet any longer, "if she rises as you expect, won't she float entirely? What's the necessity of all this drum business? The leaks are plugged, and she either floats or she don't, so far as I can see."
"Went up under sail on top o' high water, sir; slid through mud as is hardening like glue, an' she ain't got drift enough to suck clear," replied Blunt, taking the answer out of Barry's mouth. He had seen the skipper's increasing doubts and felt the need of speech to ease his own impatience. "If she rolls up wi' them drums, genelmen, she'll bust a hole fer herself, d' ye see?"
"There's a drum bust loose!" cried Rolfe from the foredeck.
The increasing strain had broken a small line, and the released drum popped to the surface, letting its fellows in the bunch come together under water with a hollow crash.
"Can't do anything but hold on," growled Barry, all but convinced that every drum would burst loose before that horrible mud let go. And so they watched, every eye, and still the pumps clanged and clattered; still their feet were sluiced with out-gushing liquid that was now merely slime. And then the first pump sucked—sucked hoarsely and throatily—and another, and another—yet the mud clung tenaciously to the vessel's keel and bilges.
"She rises! Th' bloomin' ol' lady rises!" roared Blunt, and Barry stared at him in disgust. No other ears had heard, no other eyes had seen, the signs that the old seaman had sensed above the sucking of the pumps.
"She rises, I tell ye!"
Then from the swirling water alongside, rising swiftly as the tide made, came a long, hollow sound like a Gargantuan boot being tugged out of a morass. The Barang moved, shivered, and heeled slightly; then came one tremendous, prolonged sucking sound, and she rolled lazily over until the drums floated high on the surface and rattled together like drums of victory.
"Guy out the booms to keep her down!" shouted Barry; "Rolfe! shift everything heavy over to that side, too. You, Blunt, get a boat away and carry out a kedge astern. When you're through, set a watch on deck and let the hands turn in. We can fix the leaks in a couple of hours in daylight at low water again. Thanks, Blunt! You're one real sailor, anyway."
Gordon took the canoe and went ashore to sleep after the work was finished; the Barang was the epitome of malodorous discomfort after her submersion, and even the crew preferred to coil up on deck rather than risk the dampness and possible intruding river life of the forecastle. Little looked at the departing canoe with humorous envy in his face, for he had not yet reached the point in sea-hardness where he preferred an uncomfortable bunk on board the ship to a comfortable couch ashore.
"Want to go with him?" queried Barry, shuddering himself at the prospect of a steamy wet night to be followed by a chilly damp dawn without a dry covering. "Call him back then."
"Not I!" retorted Little. "Think I'm no better a sailor than that, after all I've learnt? Shame on you, Jack Barry! Me, I eat oakum and drink tar, and if I can't sleep in water, I'll keep awake. Turn in, you poor old fish. I'll keep watch."
Barry went into the deckhouse, grinning, and the watch was set, leaving the brigantine to the silent night. Little curled up inside the deckhouse also, but shivering at the touch of sodden couches, he returned to the deck outside and fell to pacing back and forth in hope of adding to the fatigue earned in the hold. Tired he was—even to pain—but while his limbs would keep still when he lay down, his eyes refused to close, and every tiny sound from nearby waters or distant jungle hummed and burbled in his ears until his head was full of waking thoughts that absolutely prohibited sleep.
He gave up the struggle after a short while and determined to remain awake. The whimsical idea came to him that by so resolving he would surely drop asleep. But with the resolve came a wider wakefulness; and as the lagging moments crept by, he found a new interest in the vague and shadowy outline of the Padang at the wharf. The schooner was deserted to the eye, even in daylight. Certainly there were a few men aboard her, and a watchman never failed to oppose an attempt to mount the gangway, but visible activity had been absent from her vicinity for days. Now Little found himself watching her dark blurr with keen vision, and the feeling stole upon him that she was full of men.
There were no audible voices to convince him. Rather it was an indefinable murmur that rose from her decks, an aura of sound. Sight gave him no corroboration, although he went aloft halfway to the main crosstrees with the shrewd idea that by so doing he would secure a downward sight that must surely reveal a gleam in the skylight if any of her official crew were in the cabin.
He saw nothing, but Little was no longer a complete greenhorn. "Covered the skylight up, of course!" he muttered, and watched the schooner closer yet because of his decision.
At length, after an age of watching that made his eyes hot and weary, he caught a swift, almost fanciful, yet undoubted flash of light at a porthole in the quarter. It was the sort of flash that would be seen through an imperfectly curtained porthole of a stateroom if the door from the lighted saloon were quickly opened and shut.
"Cabin's occupied, that's sure!" decided Little and ran to wake Barry.
"Losing no time, are they?" muttered the skipper, waking in an instant with all his senses alert. He concluded that Leyden's men had watched the operation of raising the Barang, and everything was being held ready for a dash down the river the moment the raised vessel swung aside from the channel. Together the two friends peered at the schooner, striving to distinguish more than bare hints of sound or sight; then suddenly the hum ceased; not suddenly, either, but as if a crowd of men walked away, chattering as they went, and gradually passed beyond earshot.
"Say, Barry, isn't that a tiny streak o' light about where the forward stateroom porthole should be?" whispered Little presently.
"I don't see it—wait, get my night glasses from the companionway." The glasses rendered the schooner perfectly clear as to outline; they revealed a ship deserted to all outward sign; but they also revealed a slender streak of light where Little's keen eyes had detected it.
"You're right!" said Barry. "That's a light supposed to be covered by the curtains, and badly done or purposely foozled. I'm going over to look—see. Coming?"
"What d' ye suppose? Think Miss Sheldon may be there?"
"Just what I do think. And I'm going to find out. If she's there under restraint, I'm going to haul her out if it busts all Vandersee's plans higher than a kite. If she's there of her own free will, she can stay, and I'll wish her good luck of her choice. Here, give me a hand with this paint punt; it's the smallest thing that'll carry us."
A paint punt is a small, flat, square-ended raft with raised sides, used for floating around a ship's water line to renew the boot-topping paint. A single oar, used as a scull, a pair of oars, or a paddle, are all equally capable of navigating such a craft; and Barry and Little shoved off with a paddle apiece, sending the tiny float softly and easily across the river. They entered the patch of shadow cast by the schooner and dipped their paddles with greater caution. But no challenge greeted them; they pulled up under the overhanging stern of the vessel itself without obstruction.
And as they reached the side, the tiny streak of light above their heads vanished,—not as if suddenly curtained, but as if utterly extinguished.
"Here, look around for something to get up by," whispered Barry, hauling the punt along the side by digging his fingers into the above-water seams which the long sun-blistering had opened. The main rigging was the first available means of access, and the skipper clambered nimbly into the channels, making no more noise than a cat. He raised himself above the rail and peered down upon dark, mysterious decks, untouched by a single ray of relieving light. And his breath stopped painfully at the shadowy sight that struck upon his senses out of the darkness: silent, ghostlike shapes that moved as noiselessly as shadows themselves, vanishing over the open main hatchway,—two score even as he watched. And vague as it all was, he knew that they were no sailors, nor even Mission natives; their headdress and crouching gait betrayed them as natives from the interior.
Barry glared helplessly, fearing to move either way lest he make some noise that should attract these jungle-men to his own disaster; and again his popping eyes stretched wider, and all his muscles quivered, for out of the schooner's main cabin, by way of the main-deck doors, stepped a figure in white, a female figure, walking quickly across the deck to the gangway.
"It's Natalie!" breathed Barry, bewildered. He watched the girl until she topped the gangway and went down it, a vision of utter freedom and ease of mind. He dropped silently into the punt and startled Little with his news.
"Just visiting, hey?" remarked the salesman. "Seems to like his company, anyway. Suppose we'd better leave her to her own affairs."
"I suppose so," growled Barry forlornly. "Let's shove in under the wharf a minute, Little. I want to say something to her. She's going to the post, apparently, and here it is long past midnight."
"Go ahead," grunted Little. "Barry, if we ever come across one single man in this goose chase that isn't wrapped in mystery, I'll kiss him, by Hokey!"
They drew the punt under the wharf well astern of the schooner, wondering, with all those men on board, why the Padang kept so careless a watch. Barry climbed up a pile and walked swiftly in the direction of the stockade, to intercept Natalie, and soon he saw a white figure hurrying towards him. He stepped out with a greeting and an excuse, and for the second time in ten minutes received a shock that almost paralyzed speech.
The woman was not Natalie—it was Mrs. Goring—and her face showed confusion at meeting him.
"I beg your pardon—I thought you were Miss Sheldon," stammered the skipper, doffing his hat awkwardly.
"Did you really expect to meet Miss Sheldon at this hour of the night, here?" she returned. Her tone was sharp.
"No, but I was near the schooner, and thought I saw her come ashore. You know the last thing I heard of her was that she had vanished. It was natural that I should want to see her, wasn't it?"
"Oh, forgive me, Captain," the woman cried, and she was again the cheery friend. "I had forgotten that. Of course. Well, I'm sorry for your disappointment. But shouldn't you be on board your ship, Captain? I believe there is something about to move on that schooner."
It was perfectly plain that Mrs. Goring did not intend to be communicative regarding her own errand or business with the schooner. Barry felt that, and bit back the impatient speech that welled to his lips. Whatever this woman turned out to be in the end, it was certain that at present Barry was not in her complete confidence any more than he was in Vandersee's; and after all, his own affairs were solely concerned in his ship. But he knew, apparently, a detail that she did not.
"Let 'em start something, Mrs. Goring," he replied sourly. "They can do no more now than during the past week. My ship still lies across the channel, even though she is raised. She stays there, at least until ready to move in any direction."
"Oh, I wish I had known that an hour ago!" the woman cried. "Are you sure?"
"I am her skipper and should be sure," he retorted and continued: "Well, if you've left something undone, there's lots of time to repair the omission. From what I can see you have undisputed entry to the schooner. It's easy to go aboard again, isn't it?"
"Captain, you are very patient, but you have not yet learned to believe in your friends," she replied very softly and with a world of tenderness. "You are angry now, and really I can't blame you. But if it will ease your mind and prevent you worrying continually, I can tell you that Miss Sheldon is found—is not far away—and is safe. What I said about knowing of your situation an hour ago simply concerned Natalie's comfort, which might have been provided for more fully."
"Oh, I don't pretend any more to understand anything," Barry replied, "so must accept what you say without question. I might ask how it happens that you are so free of the Padang, but I won't. Live and learn—wait and see! Good night, Mrs. Goring."
"Good night, Captain," she cried back at him, and so utterly relieved was her tone that the skipper dropped down upon Little, swearing like a half-smothered coal heaver with hot irritation.
"What's biting you now?" grinned Little.
"Shove off and shut up!" retorted Barry and dug his paddle furiously into the river, careless of noise.
They reached the brigantine without having raised a sound from the schooner; but they saw no more lights aboard her, and the chill dawn broke and found all hands busy while yet the skipper wrestled with his bewilderment. Little kept away from him, until they met while taking a little food as the sun came up; then his bursting curiosity got the better of his restraint.
"Don't be so darned grumpy, Barry," he protested. "Didn't I share the trip? Ain't I entitled to know what happened?"
Barry grimly related his experience on the wharf, and as he spoke he detected a light in Little's wide eyes that grew from astonishment at his tale to unbelieving contempt for his own denseness. "What's the joke now?" he demanded bearishly.
"Gee-hos-o'-phat!" gasped Little. "D' ye mean to say you didn't tumble to it? Why, man alive, because you saw Mrs. Goring leaving the schooner at midnight, when you expected to see Miss Sheldon, that don't prove Miss Sheldon wasn't aboard there!"
"Hey, Rolfe!" the skipper roared, "keep an eye on that schooner and hurry up with those leaks! Stand by until I get back!"
In a couple of minutes Barry was in the punt and well away from the ship, paddling swiftly towards the wharf astern of the schooner. He tied up his tiny craft, ran along to the Padang's gangway, and mounted to her deck with arms swinging and fists tight, determined to meet any opposition with force.
And he found his entry ridiculously easy. A little brown man at the gangway grating stared at him with faint interest; another little brown man stepped aside for him at the main-deck doors to the cabin, and neither of them showed either concern or hostility. For a moment this very circumstance halted Barry, whose temper had not entirely burned up his shrewdness. He made the rest of his way to the saloon with caution, but without any more hesitation, and while his hand closed on the pistol in his pocket he kept it there. He listened for pattering feet, or closing doors; but no trap was sprung on him, and he entered the great saloon and was brought to an abrupt stand at sight of Miss Sheldon sitting calmly and comfortably at the table engaged on some trifle of feminine sewing.
"Good morning, Captain," she said brightly, rising and extending her hand. "This is an unexpected visit, isn't it?"
"I expect so," he returned, gazing hard into her smiling face. As her smile grew brighter, his own face darkened, until she began to look embarrassed at his boorish temper. "I want you to tell me, once for all, Miss Sheldon, that you are here of your own choice and free will," he blurted out. "If I'm uncivil or rude, excuse me. I can't feel any other way until I know this. Ever since you were reported missing, I pictured you in trouble, and I have been told not to worry about you. Do you think I could avoid worrying?"
He met her eyes with a troubled stare, and he gulped at the expression that had come into her face. She smiled at him still; and in the smile was a depth of kindness and great pity that illy matched her words.
"Two days ago I should have cared little whether any one worried or not, Captain," she said quietly. "Now I value your interest; yet I must tell you that I am here entirely of my free will and remain here of my own choice."
"And Leyden?" Barry choked it out.
"I have not seen him recently; but I hope to see him here very soon, Captain." Again that wonderful pity glowed in Natalie's eyes and made the puzzle more puzzling yet for Barry. Since he had first met her, he had never seen anything so flattering to himself in her face as this; yet it was utterly contrary to her expressed thoughts.
"And truly, I am glad to see you, Captain Barry," she added, "but for your own safety and my own comfort I must beg of you not to remain here. Every minute that you are away from your ship is vital to all of us."
"All of us? I dare say. But which of us?" he demanded. "I don't know a thing about this muddle of motives, but I do know that my ship and yourself are my two vital interests, Miss Sheldon. I will go immediately if you will prove to me that you are really at liberty; that you are a free agent and can leave this ship if you really want to. If that is so, I have no further concern with your affairs."
The girl stepped out on deck without a word, but in her glorious eyes beamed a light that Jack Barry would have given an eye to see with the other. She walked down the gangway, turned to await him, then smiled softly at him and said:
"There, Captain. Does that satisfy you? Let me tell you that I am comfortable, quite safe, and wholly desirous of your good success and happiness. Good-by now; I cannot keep you longer."
Jack Barry stumbled away towards the stockade like a man in a trance. Here was mystery piled on mystery. Natalie Sheldon, at liberty on board Leyden's schooner, happy and comfortable, yet being visited at midnight by Mrs. Goring, friend of Leyden's fiercest foe, and wishing the Barang's skipper success and happiness!
Barry plunged straight along for the stockade gate.
Inside the main hut the skipper burst upon a little tableau that sent him hastily back with apologies in place of the hot inquiries he had prepared. Gordon and Mrs. Goring were standing in the middle of the hut, and the man's arms were holding the woman closely, while her face, upturned to his, glowed with a love that irradiated the place. They started at the intrusion; then, recognizing their visitor, Gordon called to him.
"Don't run away, Barry. I'm coming on board with you."
"Yes, wait a moment, Captain," Mrs. Goring rejoined. "I have something for you."
Barry returned, doubting the good of anything that might be for him. But Mrs. Goring took something from the table and went to him, smiling.
"There, Captain," she said, proffering the thing she had picked up. "You may have it now."
Barry took from her the picture of Natalie Sheldon that had been stolen from his chronometer case on the voyage from Surabaya. He stared at it, then at the giver, and from one to the other in a daze.
"How did you get this?" he stammered helplessly.
"Oh, it came to me," she smiled. "You will know how, all in good time. But I can tell you why you lost it, if you care to know. It was stolen from you—as you stole it yourself, you know," she rippled—"but with different motives. You lost it in order that you might be kept hot in the service of its original."
"Then it worked! Have I ever cooled? It seems to me that I have been required to keep cold and hold off."
"Yes, Captain. Events have turned out rather differently from our expectations, but they are running smoothly now. You may safely have the picture. And I believe you will find little restraint upon your actions from now on."
The skipper gazed at the photograph for some time without speaking, then he laid it down on the table and said quietly:
"I don't want it now. If that picture ever takes a place in my cabin again, it will be placed there by Miss Sheldon. That is not very likely to happen. Thank you, just the same, Mrs. Goring, and if I never know how it was lost, it won't bother me much. I'll go aboard and move my ship down river. Coming, Gordon?"
Gordon embraced Mrs. Goring again and kissed her, totally unembarrassed by Barry's presence, then followed the skipper out and down to the wharf. As they paddled out to the ship, Barry eyed the schooner narrowly but saw nothing unusual aboard her. He wondered about all those silent figures he had seen entering her hold the night before; but somehow in the past hour he had lost much of his interest in Leyden's ship. He felt a growing desire to get away out of the river into the clean salt ocean.
The Barang's crew had made great progress with their work; and Rolfe hailed as they approached the side to say that the ship was ready to drop down at high water. Out in midstream Bill Blunt and a boat's crew were returning after laying out an anchor to a great coir-fiber hawser, springy and stout, and a glance at the shores showed rapidly rising water.
"Get a strain on the hawser and keep taking in," ordered Barry as soon as he got on deck. "Gordon, if you want to harden up, take a handspike and have a turn at the capstan. Where's Little, Rolfe?"
"Little?" Jerry Rolfe looked alarmed. "I haven't seen Mr. Little since you went ashore, sir."
"I seen him a-swimmin' over by the schooner, awhile agone," remarked Blunt, bringing the boat painter aft to make the boat fast astern. "I thought he wuz goin' arter you, sir."
Barry suddenly renewed his interest in the Padang. Smothering a curse at Little's meddlesomeness, he snatched up his glasses and focussed them on the schooner. There was nothing to be seen out of the ordinary; but as he looked, that indescribable hum arose from her deck, and it intensified to a snarl. Then a flying figure appeared at the schooner's rail, and Little leaped over and into the yellow river with a yell.
As he struck the water, a shower of missiles followed him, and throwing clubs and short spears whizzed around his ears. He came up from his plunge into the midst of potent death, and with something like the cheery yell with which he had greeted the alligators, he took in a great breath and dived again, coming up the next time halfway to the Barang. So with successive plunges he approached, and after the second discharge of missiles from the schooner, he was permitted to reach his ship in peace. He clambered aboard, grinning sheepishly, and Barry met him with no word of praise, congratulation, or censure, but with a wide-open stare of fresh amazement.
"Who are they?" the skipper gasped.
"Cannibals, I think," grinned Little. "Am I all here?"
The schooner's rails were bare of heads again; but while Little was being bombarded, all eyes had stared wonderingly at a line of tufted headdresses surmounting faces belonging to inland savages.
"They're what I saw last night, going into the hold," said Barry. "But they didn't bother me, Little. How did you stir 'em up?"
"I don't know. I clambered aboard, thinking to find you there. I just took a peep down the hatchway and must have interrupted some ceremony. There was a white man powwowing to 'em—no, it wasn't Leyden—and one of 'em grunted when he saw me, and the white chap sicced 'em after me. Gosh! but I'm getting all the joy out o' life!"
"I've got all I want for the present," growled Barry sourly. "Perhaps I'll feel better out of sight of this post and that schooner."
"Not going to quit, are you?" Little gasped, staring at his friend with horror. "Is this the bold Jack Barry I picked out on the dock fer a partner?"
"Quit nothing! I'm going to see this thing through, but I'll follow Vandersee from now on. I wouldn't bother that schooner again on my own account for all the gold that ever came out of Celebes. If Leyden starts something, I'll meet him; but for my personal part he is welcome to keep what he's got aboard there."
In mid-forenoon the Barang yielded to the strain on her hawser and slid into deep water. A faint breeze downstream filled her sails, and slowly she swept around the bend out of sight of the post. Barry had watched the pilotage coming up, and conned his ship down with the knowledge gained, bringing up abreast of the swampy creek pointed out by Vandersee shortly after the noon meal. He stared at the place in doubt for a moment, then cried out to Little with utter relief.
"This is the first time I've felt easy in weeks! See that? Vandersee said he'd have the entrance cleared. It's like magic. You could float a thousand-tonner in there now!"
Vandersee had kept his word. The creek, which had been hidden behind a maze of swamp grass when the Barang entered the river, now lay fair and open, and a boat sent in to sound reported water enough for her full-load draft. And as the vessel was slowly warped in, two great mooring posts were found in the shore at precisely the best place for her to lay. Still there was no visible sign of the big Hollander himself.
"Come on down to the entrance awhile," said Barry to Gordon and Little, when the vessel was moored. "There must be somebody or something to give us a lead. We were never sent down here just to lie idle, and unless Leyden means to carry his schooner to sea with those cannibals as crew, she can't be ready to leave yet."
"I expect you know as much as I do, Barry," put in Gordon, "but it might help if I mentioned that news came down from Van last night that his men had got the opium chaps in a semicircle and were driving them quickly towards the river."
"I understand you saw Miss Sheldon on the schooner, Captain," replied Gordon.
"Oh, do cut out the riddles!" snapped Barry. "Can't you answer a straight question either? What has Miss Sheldon got to do with Leyden being driven this way?"
"He is not being driven. He's too smart for that. He is coming down of his own free will and will come the sooner because Miss Sheldon has accepted guest's quarters in his ship."
Barry made no further remark but led the way back to the point where the main river rolled by in full sight. Both banks of the creek were rank with lush jungle; great, warped trees seemed to stagger, so gnarled were their trunks; while immense beards of moss depended from their hideous branches almost to the water. A sullen, ominous splash under the bank was sufficient warning against frivolous bathing.
They stood on a tiny patch of bare ground at the mouth of the creek and gazed far up and down the turbid stream, sending up its simmering steam under a hot sun, and evil with feverish reek. Little stood with his back to a lone tree in the bare patch of earth and pulled his hat over his eyes to shade them from the water's glare, and something touched him on the shoulder from above.
"Ouch!" he yelled, springing away in deadly fear of great serpents that roosted in such trees as that. He looked up, and his companions stared at him in amusement. And a long, lean, brown arm reached down, and in the skinny, black-nailed hand a stick was gripped,—a stick such as had once before been handed to Jerry Rolfe in the jungle.
"Big fella talk," came a thin voice from the tree limb. "Look-see. Me lookout."
Almost proof now against surprise, Barry took the stick and unrolled the leaf cover. It was a brief note, signed Vandersee, and read: "Leyden has learned my plans. He knows where you have laid your ship. Will attack you to-night with inland savages. Have no fear. I shall be close by. Halt Houten and take him on your ship."
Again that thin voice from the tree, and the long, skinny arm handed down a second stick, more bulky than the other.
"Gib to odder big fella. You no see. He for Missy Houten."
"Everything laid out like a stage set," chuckled Little. "We are surely horning in on the deep, deep stuff, skipper. I suppose Houten will drop in on us next, appearing out of a pink cloud, or something. Golly! Houten with cherub's wings riding down on a pink cloudlet!" he laughed outright. Cornelius Houten wasn't built for wings.
"Time enough when he comes, and it doesn't matter how," returned Barry. "Main thing is that at last there is something definite to do. Say—" he called into the tree—"suppose you see ship you tell me, hey? Suppose see big fella, allee same, hey?"
"Me here for dat, sar. You no bodder, Tuuan. I tell you."
The quiet, utterly unruffled, pipelike voice filled the three white men with confidence, and it was a new Jack Barry that led the way back to the ship and prepared her for defense against the promised attack. Little received the orders with his own matchless grin of boyish expectation; but Gordon's handsome face took on a look of serious purpose that gave deep thought to the skipper. And another surprise was in store for Barry, for Gordon suddenly gripped his hand, looked straight and hard into his eyes, and said with a depth of earnestness that thrilled:
"Here is to be the scene of such a retribution as will settle a dozen crimes in one. Now I can tell you, Barry, that your happiness is not lost, as you think. My own is so near that I must tell you this, for you have been such a good sport all through a maze of subterfuge that would easily have disgusted another man. Don't ask me more; but this much I tell you, so that you can make your plans with an easy mind."
"All right, Gordon," Barry laughed easily. "Thanks for the kind thought; but I have quit worrying over the future. At present I'm simply going to carry out orders and fight for my ship. I'll gladly find a good place for you if you'll tell me what you prefer—risk or safety."
"Safety? Say, Barry, I want to be placed, if possible, where I can do good work without getting popped off by some footling little arrow before the big game arrives. That's the only safety I want. I don't ask to be guarded even to secure that; but if I can keep on my feet until Vandersee comes, I'll die happy. That's how I feel."
"Vandersee? You mean Leyden, don't you?"
"Both. They'll get here together, skipper. Oh, I know."
"I see," returned Barry shortly, and set about his plans.
Bill Blunt was called into the consultation, for the old shellback had established his worth as a man of action. The Barang could muster sixteen men besides the skipper, mate, Little, Gordon, and Blunt,—twenty-one in all. And the surrounding land offered a vast and impenetrable concealment for foes from that side.
"An' that's whar she'll bust, genelmen," stated Blunt with decision. "Cos why? Y' see, I figgers as the only reason why they wants to bust us up at all in this yer crick is to stop up a-sailin' out an' ketchin' that schooner as she passes. Ain' that it, cap'n?"
"No doubt of it, Blunt."
"Well, then, if so be as it's inland savages as is to do it, they ain't werry fond o' water fightin', they ain't. Don't I know 'em? I tromped clear through their country afore the cap'n found me and I knows 'em like my own toes. Them ain't werry savage at that, gents. More 'n likely them is some o' Leyden's opium eaters, an' it'll take a hull dollop o' dope to make 'em fight at all—"
"By Heavens, I believe you've hit it!" Barry interrupted. "They can be set on us as the ship that has stopped their opium. And at the same time they may be left to fight until they drop, while Mr. Leyden is coolly getting away."
"He won't get away, Captain," put in Gordon quietly, "but your notion is right. It's exactly what Leyden is counting on, I'll wager a hat."
"Sure! That's why they are all on the schooner now!" cried Little. "Of course they chased me out, when I spied on 'em. Oh, Corks!"
"All right, then we'll haul out into the middle of the creek," decided Barry. "Rolfe, carry out a warp over there, and as soon as an alarm comes in, we'll haul her clear of the bank and fight 'em in the water. Blunt, rustle up all the arms and get plenty of rock ballast out of the hold too. Maybe we can save shells by dropping stones on 'em. Quieter, too."
Evening was drawing down when the preparations were completed, and an air of anxiety pervaded the decks; for the creek had become hushed and still, the jungle noises alone broke the stillness, and that medley of faint sound might easily conceal the whispering of a thousand men. Supper was eaten on deck, and Barry sent many an anxious glance towards the creek entrance, expecting at any moment to see the lookout approaching.
It was almost dark when at last he came running, and his thin voice piped: "Misser Houten he come, Tuuan. Come quick see!"
Barry leaped into his own boat, and she shot out of the creek into the river just as a big, seaworthy, fast launch hauled abreast. She was manned by half a dozen natives; but there was no mistaking that great, ungainly, shapeless figure in the stern, nor that immense, round, benevolent face that surmounted it. Barry sent his boat out to meet the launch, and Houten waved to his man to stop her. Then he suddenly recognized the skipper and stood up with incredible alertness.
"Hullo, Captain Barry," he rumbled, sticking out a hand like a ham. Barry slipped his message into it at the same instant as he grasped it, and swiftly followed his greeting with a statement of the Barang's situation. Meanwhile Houten read his message by the light of the setting sun.
"So!" he chuckled at length. "It is goot, Captain. I have a goot report about you, mine friendt. Come. We shall soon arrive at the big game, yes? Take you the wheel and guide us to your ship. It is long since we ate dinner. I am starved."
In this cool, matter-of-fact way did Cornelius Houten, the mammoth, benevolent human spider we saw for an instant in Batavia, accept a situation to which it had taken Jack Barry weeks to reconcile himself.
The launch slid alongside the brigantine, towing the rowboat, and Houten was landed on deck with much pulling and hauling that only evoked silent, shaky chuckles from his huge frame. Little met him and presented Gordon, then choked down a curse of self-censure for his thoughtlessness as he caught Barry's angry look. In the moment of greeting he had forgotten his own errand to the river; forgotten that it was a discredited Gordon he had been sent to find. But Cornelius Houten seemed to be of a kind with Vandersee in his uncanny knowledge of things. He simply gripped Gordon's reluctant hand and rumbled deeply, yet with a laugh running through the rumble: "Goot, Mister Gordon. I am glad to see you loog so well. I have heard aboudt you. It is goot. Now gif me some food in my hand and we shall see what dose leedle native mans will do mit us."
The darkness became black, and still the jungle gave out no sounds beyond its own. Houten walked the deck with Barry, his great paws full of cold food, chuckling and rumbling incessantly. His beady eyes roved keenly around the wall of darkness, his nose sniffed the air as if he could scent the presence of foes.
Yet nothing occurred for an hour after the light failed. The sentries around the rails kept trying all the lines to the shore, in hope of surprising some such method of attack. Barry and Little listened intently in expectation of hearing some signal from the lookout in the tree at the creek mouth. No sight, no sound. Then, swift as darting serpents, rivulets of flame ran over the water, and the entire creek soon blazed into hellish radiance. Shrieks and howls resounded on the shores, and a shower of arrows flew over the brightly illumined decks.
"Ach! I am a fool!" grunted Houten. An arrow stuck in his fat arm, pinching up an inch of his plenteous flesh. Coolly as he might pare his nails, he broke off the slender shaft, pulled out the head where it emerged from his skin, and held out his arm and handkerchief to Gordon, who expertly bound up the profusely bleeding but harmless flesh wound. Houten grumbled on: "All the time I schmell him—schmell dot stuff—und I know not enough to say it is oil! My own oil, I will bet, by der Great Horn Spoon! Me, I t'ink dot schmell was joongle, by Gott!"
"Haul in all lines!" roared Barry. "Rolfe, hustle up all the spare junk and sand. Lads, keep under cover until I call you out."
All around the ship the water glared with Satanic fires. The blazing oil roared and leaped hungrily at the Barang's tarred sides.
The order to take cover was given barely in time, for from every tree and bush along the creek flew showers of small arrows and throwing spears that whizzed and whirred over the crouching crew. And ever the flames leaped higher. From a source unseen, but cunningly selected to utilize wind and stream, fresh oil was poured on the water; the sides of the brigantine crackled and blistered with an overpowering stench of tar and oakum.
Seek as they might, their enemies remained invisible, and still the shower of missiles kept up its intensity until the decks rang and pattered with their falling, and left no space of a yard in area where a man might stand safely. Barry watched through a scupper port, trying to detect any one place from which arrows came thicker than elsewhere; and at last, when one after another his white companions had called to him about the precarious situation of launch and boat, he decided he had found it.
"Here, all hands," he ordered, and shoved his rifle out of the scupper. "Get an ax, Rolfe, and burst out a plank of the bulwarks." The ax was swung, and a plank crashed into splinters, leaving a narrow loophole, a foot wide and twelve feet long, through which the roaring flames darted viciously. "When I give the word, all aim at that tree—" he pointed out a round-headed, dwarfed clump of foliage that seemed to hiss with twanging bowstrings—"then fire all together. That's the next best thing to a riot gun I can think of." The crew crouched along the broken plank, every muzzle converged on to a patch of leafy concealment a fathom square, and the skipper barked:
Twenty rifles crashed in one tremendous discharge, and the tree ceased to vomit arrows as if suddenly capped with a vast extinguisher. But at the same moment the flames roared in through the broken bulwarks and drove every man away, scorched and singed. Houten handled his rifle expertly and unhurriedly, though his fat face and immense body streamed sweat at every pore, and his clothes were steaming with the fierce heat. Blood dripped from his injured arm, but gave him not the slightest concern. He said nothing, did not attempt to advise Barry, simply kept up his end as one man of the crew, as if the last thing on earth he worried about was the imminent destruction of thousands of guilders in property. And Barry gave him silent thanks, untrammelled in his command of the unequal fight. His own keen eyes told him the Barang was doomed; and any chance remaining for the crew hinged on that big launch alongside. He peered over the rail. The launch was smoking. Her line was almost burned through.
"Gordon and Little, follow me quickly," he cried, swiftly making his decision. "Rolfe, Blunt, haul in on that line—easy now, or you'll break it—and Mr. Houten, here's my cabin key. Take some men and get your gold dust out of the safe."
Houten's streaming face lighted in a fat smile, and he beamed his appreciation of Barry's thoughtfulness for his employer's interests under the terrible circumstances. The mate and Bill Blunt hauled cautiously on the launch painter until the big boat bumped alongside, her white paint blistered and blackened, her white canvas awning a tattered torch of smoldering rags. Then Barry sprang up, threw himself over the rail, and Little and Gordon followed in silence. A small brown man jumped after them and went directly to the launch's engine.
"Good man!" breathed Little, suddenly realizing that none of the others knew anything about a steam engine. He gasped and gazed in awe at a tongue of fire that snaked up the brigantine's side, twisted about the fore rigging and roared about the tall masts of pine.
The fires were banked. The native engineer opened them up and applied a small patent blower, while Barry and his companions crouched behind the engine casing and kept their guns popping until steam began to hiss. On board the ship the mates leaped from line to line, cutting adrift those that had withstood the fire, and soon the current took hold and moved her towards the entrance. Now that the creek was ablaze with light, it was seen that the entrance cut through Vandersee's agency was simply a channel scythed through the matted weeds and grasses, big enough to admit the vessel if the way remained unobstructed. But the creek's usually sluggish current was trebled in velocity by the outside siphon effect of the rapid river rushing past the narrow entrance. The matted grasses could be seen waving and writhing under the swift flow with a terrible suggestion of remorseless power in their stems should any unfortunate chance to be plunged among them.
Houten staggered on deck, followed by the men laden with the small, heavy canvas bags taken by Little from the post. He stood a moment, gazing abroad at the fiery expanse. He noted Barry's intention of towing the brigantine out, and now he asserted his authority as owner.
"Don't bodder for the ship, Captain Barry," he shouted. "Take eferybotty in dot launch to the odder side ouf the riffer. Neffer mind why. I schall tell you in goot time. Let the ship drift by herself where she will."
"Then get a move on, all hands!" shouted Barry. "This launch will be ablaze too in five minutes."
Gordon left their task of pouring water over the straining towline they had fastened around the red-hot brass bits and tore down the scraps of fiery canvas from overhead. From the brigantine men leaped into the smaller craft, kept in order and saved from panic by sturdy old Blunt's cool advice, backed up by his never-failing good humor. And when Rolfe and Houten and the old seaman alone remained, the launch was loaded to her utmost capacity and was on fire in a dozen places.
"Come on down with you!" roared Barry angrily, for the three men left were playing dignity, each seeking to be the last man to quit. "Blunt, Rolfe, take told of Mr. Houten and dump him in if he won't move."
"Here ye go then, sir, excusin' me," said Bill, seizing the huge Dutchman by an arm. Rolfe took the other one, the injured one, and Houten laughed shakily and shook loose rather than suffer from the mate's determined grip.
"Yoomp, with you den," he rumbled and mounted the rail. The others were with him, and as all three poised to jump, the foremast fell with a terrific smash, erupting sparks and flame, covering the decks and the water around with fragments of fiery splinters, charred blocks, and smoking serpents of rope.
"Oh, jump together!" Barry screamed, dancing on his own hot place and blowing on his hands which were in agony from contact with the metal wheel. The three leaped; and the launch's stern dipped perilously under the tremendous influx of weight; the flaming oil alongside licked ravenously at their smaller and nearer prey.
"Now keep your guns shooting!" was the skipper's final order, and he sent the launch straight for the entrance, while the unseen foes on the banks transferred their aim from the brigantine and made the forest ring with their howls of rage.
In the narrowed entrance, forced to scrape the matted grass by the eddying current, the launch soon resounded with the cries of wounded seamen. Barry kept his hands on the wheel by sheer force of will, for the little circle of brass scorched to the touch. The rifles burned the hands of the men who used them; native riflemen began to look piteously at their white leaders, afraid to slip fresh cartridges into smoking breeches. And the arrows fell thicker than ever, the smoke from the launch's furnace streamed away full of flame, the boat itself roared and crackled from the water line to the gunwale. But the oil thinned out as they sped; those rifles that kept shooting took heavier toll as the range closed, and Barry prayed that his hands would hold out. His white companions stood grimly to their guns, uttering no sound save to encourage and soothe the natives. Then a cartridge exploded in a man's hand, and the rifle was flung overboard with a howl of terror. Still another shell burst with the fierce heat, and panic threatened. Bill Blunt stopped it.
"Here ye go, then, Bullies!" he roared, flinging down his own gun. "Put 'em down, me sons, and git busy like me. Here's th' river close aboard, lads, an' in a minit ye'll all be freezin'."
Tearing off his jacket he dragged it in the river when he came to a spot bare of oil, then fell heartily to work beating down the fire along the gunwale. The seamen gained heart, once safely quit of their dangerous rifles, and followed the old fellow's lead, until the business of fire-fighting drove from their minds the fear of flying missiles from shoreward.
"Here iss the riffer, mine friendts," Houten rumbled at last, and the launch shot into the main stream, drawing thin threads of fire into her eddying wake, leaving behind her the flying death and the devouring blaze. Barry guided his craft straight over the river to the farther bank, seeking for relief to his burning eyes in the cool blackness of night. His hair and eyebrows were singed off close, his skin was a scorched torment; but a glance at his companions proved that others had suffered too, and he held on to his fast-cooling steering wheel while old Bill Blunt led a final attack on the clinging fire about the launch.
They shot into the shadow of the bank and looked back on a scene of terrific grandeur. As their faces cooled, and the air revived their dulled vitality, a deeper significance in the picture came home to them. For some minutes their brains could only grasp the fact that they had escaped the fire as well as their enemies' range; but a shaft of fire roared up through the trees, and the howl that responded hinted at the truth.
"Gee! They're getting roasted in their own fire!" gasped Little.
So it was. The jungle on all sides of the creek began to blaze, and the roar filled the river channel. At first only small patches of dead wood and leaves burned, but when great hanging masses of moss caught fire, the jungle drew the flames like a huge furnace, and in some of the trees a score of men were trapped.
"Poor devils! Dose mans are murdered by Leyden," growled Houten. "He shall pay, jah! It iss on his bill."
But despite the awful peril facing them, the little brown men over on the creek worked on as if with a definite aim beyond the mere destruction of a ship and the dispersing of her crew. Figures dancing in the firelight were feverishly busy about the creek entrance, towards which the blazing Barang was drifting, gathering speed with every fathom by which she drew nearer to the tremendously faster river stream outside. Gradually the surface oil about the vessel thinned out and died, as if the supply had been suddenly cut off. And the moment the water ceased to blaze, canoes shot out from the shore, and frantic little savages pushed and hauled at the bigger craft in obvious anxiety that she should not reach out beyond the entrance. They succeeded in pushing her on to the edge of the cleared channel, then the swift current gripped her, swung her broadside in the entrance against the matted grasses, and there she lay, heeling over slowly, burning away merrily above water, but safe to stay there in the opposing elements of fire and water whose contest must come to a climax when fire reached water line.
"There goes the old Barang, sir," groaned Barry, his thoughts on his ship as a good shipmaster's should be. "I could have saved her by towing her out and sinking her. No trouble at all to raise her again. Did it before, you know. Now she's gone."
"It iss better so," replied Houten. The amazing man was scanning the nearby shore and gave no glance to his ruined ship. The skipper stared at him blankly, meanwhile swabbing at his burns with oiled waste. "Yat, it iss better so, mine friendt. It wass not arranged like this, but it iss much better so, now ve haf lost no mans, after all. Schall ve put into dot schmall cove dere, captain? It vill hide us from the riffer, unt pretty soon our friendts vill be dere. The boat iss too full; unt dese mans need cool grass."
Barry picked out the cove indicated, immediately opposite the flaming creek, hidden from riverwards by an outflung, bush-capped hummock of earth. There the launch was moored, and the last trace of fire danger was beaten out with wet grasses and leafy branches. Of the entire party but five men had escaped unhurt, but none of the hurts were more serious than Houten's flesh wound unless the arrow that Gordon still carried neatly spiked between two ribs proved serious. But Bill Blunt thought not, and Houten produced his medical and surgical kit from the launch in order that Bill's assertion might be tested. The seamen soothed each other's burns, and those of them who had received arrow or spear wounds waited in fear for the result of Blunt's attentions to Gordon.
"Try an' laugh out loud, sir," muttered old Bill, as he snapped off the arrow stem and Gordon winced involuntarily. "I knows it pinches, but we got to fix up them natives too, an' them ain't werry brave, sir. Grin, won't ye?"
Gordon laughed, but his lip ran blood. The arrowhead was pulled through and out, and the cut bound together, and after that the seamen submitted to the same surgery like sheep. Blunt kept them quiet by subtle blarney, telling them they couldn't let white folks beat them out for stoicism.
In this manner the camp settled into quiet rest, food and water, spirits and fresh clothes coming from the fully equipped launch. Then came a cry from their lookout on the hummock crest, and they climbed up beside him. The man pointed silently back over the flat country beyond the tangle of the river margin, but nothing could be distinguished in the darkness.
"No look—lissen, sar!" chattered the sailor.
There was no sound save the rustling of grasses and the lapping of waters. Then, after a moment of hush, far away in the black void a shot rang out, followed by others in swift succession. Silence again, and more shots, nearer than before, and a solitary cry. The ensuing period of quiet was longer than the last; but when again rifle shots crashed out, they were so near that the watchers on the hummock could see and count the flashes.
"Seven, I counted," said Little. "What is it?"
"Cap'n, there's men right beside us, along th' bank," Bill Blunt reported. "They ain't natives, neither. More like them navy chaps."
"Better line out in case they're like those fellows who put you on the ant hills, Barry," said Gordon anxiously. "Of course, they may be right, but—"
"Haf no fears, mine friendts," rumbled. Houten, looming up like a hill in the blackness. "All dis iss planned. Dose mans beside us are real navy mans. I toldt you all iss vell. It iss mooch better dis vay."
"Then it must be Vandersee's big drive," exclaimed Barry, suddenly enlightened. "How about a little light to help him, hey, Houten?"
"Goot. Jah, make a fire, Captain."
Rolfe and some hands hastily built a huge bonfire of dry brushwood on the damp grass behind the hummock, and beaters were set to prevent the fire spreading out of hand. Then, as a match was set to it and little tongues of flame began to take hold, Barry lined out his men and waited for a clear sight of events. Shots now crashed out so near that the men firing could be seen in the intensifying light of the crackling fire; still no shot came back in answer. The steady, relentless pursuit drew near, and the fugitives began to whimper and howl in panic. They broke and drove blindly for the river, to meet the colossal bulk of Houten, silent, impassive, standing out like a mountain to bar their flight; and the Barang's men, lined beside him, joined the first of a line of cool, steady naval seamen whose end numbers were still beyond the lighted area.
"Throw down your guns, or we'll drop you!" cried Barry, and the flying fugitives halted in dismay while two white men, the leaders, cursed them venomously and bade them fight.
"Stop, Barry, don't fire!" came back the level, placid voice of Vandersee, and then the completeness of the spider's web could be distinguished. For from up river and down, the silent line of naval seamen drew near, herding the trapped fugitives into a circle that always narrowed in diameter. Then, as the cordon seemed complete beyond escape, the two white men broke into a desperate dash and plunged for the river.
With one impulse Little and Barry sprang out to intercept them; and even in his heat the skipper wondered why, now that the time had come, neither Gordon nor Vandersee was anxious to get his hands on Leyden. For that Leyden was one of those two plunging whites neither doubted.
But Rolfe's bonfire blazed higher, and every face and form stood clearly revealed. The skipper and Tom Little hurled themselves headlong at their quarry's legs and brought them down in a smashing football tackle, then, from their position on the ground, astride of their captives, they took in the surprising circle about them. Vandersee's red, smooth face shone in a beatific smile as he directed the seizing and securing of the trapped men. He had no apparent interest in the two whites,—and an interchange of scrutiny satisfied Barry and Little that neither of their men was Leyden. Instead of giving thought to the white captives, Vandersee merely left them in their captors' hands until their turn came to be tied up, and gave Barry still another amazing shock by stepping over to Houten and embracing him in full view of all hands. And big, emotionless Houten, with no change of demeanor, returned the embrace in kind.
Mysteriously the naval seamen and their captives disappeared down the river, yet leaving a vague impression of a line of keen-eyed sentries somewhere behind the mists of night. That was the impression always left upon Jack Barry by Vandersee of late: the feeling of eternal wakefulness, incessant vigil, sure and inevitable success. The old, original feeling came back, in short,—of a velvet-covered steel trap, yet there was now no fear of the trap in Barry's mind.
"Come, we have six hours to wait for the next arrival at our party," Vandersee smiled, now coming forward and greeting Gordon with special warmth. In spite of his determination to accept every situation without question since realizing how big a part Vandersee played, how small his own, Barry could not conceal his irritation at this fresh indication of his own inconsequence in the great game. Though always expecting it now, there was something that irked the skipper in this continual hint of events in motion in which he might or might not figure without having the slightest bearing on the inevitable result. And Houten saw and understood. He made room for Barry on his own blanket, and his deep rumbling voice droned in the skipper's ear, gradually soothing that harassed shipmaster until he subsided to the influence of the beneficent Goliath.
"Soon I shall tell you, Captain," said Houten. "Yoost now I say all iss vell, ja. Yoost now I am glad my Barang iss lost, mine friendt; eferything iss goot, unt dere iss to be no more accidents."
Barry settled down to rest, gazing thoughtfully across the silent river. The more distant reaches of the stream were still tinged redly with the fierce jungle fire that grew and spread back to the flat lands. There was some unfathomable influence that persuaded the skipper of the superfluity of keeping watch now Vandersee was there, but the influence could not tranquilize minds so utterly awakened as were those of the destroyed ship's company. Gordon was restless and edged ever nearer to the recumbent Vandersee; Little had fallen asleep but was obviously dreaming what the others were wakefully thinking. Beyond the circle of resting men Bill Blunt groaned away at an endless, tuneless ditty concerning "A sailorman as fell overboard in a gale, an' fell wi' a gal wi' a tail, an' got marri-e-d to a little marmaid an' wuz changed into a marman, an' never arterwards could he see th' use o' the seaboots he wore when he fell overboard, 'cos how could ye tell which boot 'ud fit a bloomin' flapper as wuz naither right, ner left, but 'twartships?"
One by one the seamen slept, until only the white men around the smoldering fire remained awake. Gordon peered continually into Vandersee's smiling face, and when he dropped his gaze for a moment and met Barry's bent full upon him, the two men saw in each other a fear that was emphatically not for themselves, but nevertheless would not quiet. It became too intense for concealment; the two big Hollanders detected it, and a nod passed from Houten to Vandersee.
"You two gentlemen are anxious," smiled Vandersee. "Perhaps we can dispense with a little of the mystery now, though even at this stage a small slip will ruin all. I can tell you this, however, that the fire over there that destroyed your ship, Captain, was unforeseen. My sentry, who gave you my messages, was killed by an arrow from over the creek; my men at the river saw his body floating down. Otherwise you would not have been in that peril from fire." Barry met his eye with a wry smile, as if to question whether it might not have been well to warn the shipmaster, instead of keeping him and his ship in the safe keeping of a little brown man in a tree. Vandersee explained: "I had lookouts from end to end of the river, Barry, on both sides, and above and below here. That is the strength of my net. But the killing of that one watchman was about the last thing to be expected. It was a slip of mine, of course; but to me that one man in particular was invisible and undetectable. But that is past, and all of you are here yet. You are worrying about the personal welfare of two ladies, I know."
Gordon's face darkened, and his lip was drawn between his teeth. The big Hollander regarded him very softly and went on: "Both are now on board the Padang—" Gordon choked down a curse, and apologized, and Vandersee ignored the interruption—"Aboard the Padang, both safe and well, and in no danger whatever. The schooner is due abreast here just after dawn; her master is due about the same time, in his own steam launch. He knows that Miss Sheldon is there; in fact she is practically in charge of his vessel, so infatuated is he at his imagined triumph in spite of you, Barry; but Mrs. Goring is there unknown to anybody except Miss Sheldon and ourselves, and solely to give Natalie the support of her presence and advice in what is going to be a very difficult situation for a young girl."
Barry kicked at Little, to awake him to listen, and asked:
"Say, Vandersee, that sort of thing's a habit with Mrs. Goring, isn't it?"
"Habit? Reassuring people, do you mean, Captain?"
"I mean sailing aboard of ships unknown to owners or skippers."
"Yes," put in Little, awake at last, "if she didn't arrive here in our ship, I'll eat what's left of her—the ship, I mean."
"She certainly didn't leave Java before us, and she was undoubtedly in this river as soon as we, and besides, there's a matter of a photo—" Barry was rattling on, and Vandersee stopped him.
"I see you smell the rat, Captain." Houten was shaking like a vast jelly with silent amusement. "I may as well tell you now that Mrs. Goring did come in your ship. It was vital that she get here to the station before Leyden, and unknown to him. I took care of her on the passage, and saw that she got ashore safely while we were docking. Yes, she is rather noted for doing unusual things, I think." The speaker glanced meaningly at Gordon, who flushed and turned away with glistening eyes.
"Then she did steal Miss Sheldon's picture from my room, hey?"
"Yes, she took it, and I believe she told you why, Captain, although she did not admit taking it at that time. Among our other necessities was that you arrive here deeply interested in Miss Sheldon, and that was considered the easiest way of keeping you piqued at Leyden. It was necessary that my own presence here remain unknown to Leyden, too, and right to this minute he doesn't know who is responsible for certain little mishaps that have befallen him. That was one reason why I shipped with you." Vandersee paused, gazed out at the silent, swift river, and said more seriously: "But why not let the event answer all questions, Barry? In a few hours the whole thing comes to a head, and there is not a chance on earth now for my plans to fail. Miss Sheldon will tell you what you want to know when you see her, and tell it far, far better than I can. If it will aid you to patience, though, I will assure you that Miss Sheldon is absolutely beyond Leyden's influence; free as the air, she knows everything now; Mrs. Goring is with her, and they know they are surrounded by friends too strong for Leyden to combat. Leyden is now making his way by a roundabout track to the stream where he left his steam launch, believing he has escaped my line. He intends to overtake the schooner here, lift the gold dust out of the Barang, and board his own schooner, which cleared direct from Surabaya for Europe."
"Europe!" Barry gasped at the slender margin standing between Natalie's safety and utter catastrophe. Here was a piece of cunning not expected even from Leyden. To clear for Europe meant, with Natalie on board—Barry could not think clearly. He stared at Vandersee like one fascinated.
"Snatch a little sleep, Captain. You too, Gordon," Vandersee advised. "We all need fresh heads and cool nerves in the morning. With all his crimes, Leyden is a clever rascal, and he must be taken alive!"
"Seems to me you'd better shoot him from as far off as your gun will carry," retorted Barry, still thinking of the extremely tiny slip necessary for the Padang to pick up her master and sail out into the vast ocean clear of pursuit. "Suppose he doesn't wait to loot the Barang?" he said. "Maybe he's heard that we have taken the dust out of her. He must be well posted on her situation since he's got as many men about him as you have, apparently."
"No, Captain," returned Vandersee, very softly. "He doesn't know that the dust is taken out. He doesn't know, yet, that your ship is burned. He simply expected his people to bottle her up in that creek and kill or drive you off. That was what he was assured would be the case by the chief of the savages he hired. Their own discovery of the oil may well upset all his schemes, although they were upset whether the oil was found or not."
"Oh, well, I won't think about it any more. Next thing you'll tell me that Houten knew all about this attack, and that he came up just in time to save us on a prearranged plan."
"Not exactly, but nearer right than you imagine," chuckled Houten. "I haf been in communication with Hendrik unt his mans effer since t'ree days ago, mine friendt. I pring opp mine launch as a part ouf a plan, unt it vas goot, ja? I toldt you it vas goot. Now schleep. I am heavy for schleep."
Barry dozed, and his last waking thought was of a spider-web of gigantic size, with two great, fat, laughing spiders in the midst. As his brain lost its power to register, the spiders changed into smiling, red, fat faces, and all about the web hung white men and brown who smiled back at the spiders and watched intently while flies were drawn by some power, unseen but irresistible, into the web. And the greatest fly, the fly that struggled, the fly that broke the web over and over, yet never once forced the fat red smiles from the fat red spiders, was Leyden.
Gray dawn was creeping up in the east when a soft shake awakened Barry, and he sat up to find the camp astir. During the last hour or two Vandersee had mustered his far-flung sentries, and now, besides the crew of the Barang and Houten's men, twenty sturdy naval seamen stood by, armed and alert.
"The schooner is in sight," Gordon told him. The Englishman was cool and emotionless now, in face of the approaching crisis in his affairs. Peering over the hummock, the Padang was dimly seen emerging out of the river mists, and as she drew near the devastated creek, sharp voices could be heard on her forecastle head directing the preparing of an anchor. But, leaving nothing to chance, Vandersee had manned Houten's big launch and she was ready, held by a single line; and as the schooner swung around the last bend and let her canvas shake, the big Hollander called Barry and Gordon.
"Come, friends," he said, "here is work for us all, and in particular for you."
They boarded the launch, and she swung out of the cove and headed out across the schooner's course. As they shot into sight, a cry of alarm pealed out from the Padang's quarterdeck, and an order halted work on the anchor. Vandersee replied with a sharper order that was punctuated by a rifle shot, and on the bank abreast appeared a file of sailors with rifles aimed at the schooner. The anchor was let go in a hurry, and the launch stormed alongside a hurriedly flung ladder, Vandersee starting to climb the moment his foot could reach a rung.
"Come up, Barry," he called, and the skipper followed, with Gordon and eight naval seamen after him. The schooner's crew, but a half of her full complement, stood in attitudes of bewilderment. They had expected a very simple, cut-and-dried halt, getaway, and reward; instead, here were intruders who forced obedience by mysteriously produced riflemen on the river shores. The Dutch sailors were businesslike in their acts now, and before the alarm had subsided, the schooner's men were lightly hand-tied and passed down to the launch. In their places remained the eight naval seamen, and Vandersee said, as he prepared to leave with his new prisoners:
"You are in command, Captain Barry. I shall remain alongside until you can get the anchor off the ground again, in order to give you a shove over near the creek. Then all I expect you to do is to make sure that once Leyden comes into our trap he does not get out by way of this schooner. Apart from that, you have little to do beyond comforting and reassuring two ladies whom I see aft."
Barry looked up from the waist, where they stood, and saw Miss Sheldon at the quarterdeck rail; and as he looked, Mrs. Goring joined her, winking with the sudden transition from the cabins into the vivid morning light. The seamen were already taking up the slack cable, and Barry stared at the big Hollander and Gordon, helpless for the moment from the shock they gave him. It was shock after shock for Barry. Here was Vandersee, smiling cherubically, taking Mrs. Goring into his great arms. He gently pressed her head back and kissed her warmly full on the lips, and she responded to his caress with glad submission. And there stood Gordon, looking on with no trace of jealousy; smiling rather, as if he enjoyed the spectacle of another man embracing the lady.
Barry looked helplessly at Miss Sheldon. Her face wore a smile which plainly said she approved the whole business. So Barry once more repressed his curiosity and gave the lady good morning.
"I'm so glad to see you again, Captain Barry," she responded, her cheeks very pink and her eyes sparkling, notwithstanding the impending crisis in her life. "This morning, at least, I can express my true sentiments."
"Which are?" Barry would have let all go to hear her reply to that query.
"A sincere hope for the eventual success of your expedition."
"Is that all?" Barry persisted, holding her hand and watching with a thrill the rich color that flooded her cheeks under his gaze.
"Pardon me, Captain," Vandersee interrupted, bringing relief to Natalie. "Pardon, but time is short. I am ready to give you a push over. Then anchor again, right across the creek mouth. If Leyden smells the trap, he will try to board the ship. If so, you will welcome him and make him secure." The big Hollander checked himself, then added, with an awful change of expression: "On your life, Barry, don't you dare to kill him. I want that man alive and sound!"
The big man had gone livid. He violently regained control of himself, stepped to the ladder to reenter the launch, and as he went he smiled softly at the women and said in adieu:
"Juliana, you will keep out of sight, of course, for a while. Miss Sheldon, we are depending on you to play an important little part. Don't forget, now. And if your heart fails you now, please let me know before I go. Upon you depends all."
"Have no fear for me," replied Natalie, paling slightly, but with a firm set of her round, dimpled chin. "I am fear-proof now I have such able protectors around me," and she smiled at Gordon and Barry.
The schooner was brought over near to the creek mouth, and when her anchor was again let go she swung to the stream almost parallel to the wreck of the Barang, and within a short biscuit-toss. The steam launch shot back to the cove and took up the men left there in Houten's charge; then she steamed over to the creek, landed Rolfe, Blunt, Little, and three seamen on the down-river bank of the creek, and swung back alongside the blackened hulk of the brigantine.
Barry intently watched the maneuvers of that launch, for, with Natalie beside him, and Gordon on deck by the companionway door talking quietly to Mrs. Goring concealed inside, the air seemed suddenly charged with portent. The wrecked Barang lay close by like a stranded, decayed monster on a desolate shore. She was black and jagged with burned stumps of timbers down to the water line; on her upper part, where decks had been, and houses, half-consumed beams supported planks that were charcoal rather than wood; part of the poop remained, with one side of the deckhouse-companion, and down under them, where they had fallen under their own weight through the burned planks, lay two great iron tanks that had contained the spare fresh-water supply, and it was their contents, discharged when they fell, that had quenched that part of the fire. Besides these trifles of salvage, the vessel was swept bare of all semblance to a ship, and the black, pointed stumps of masts and stanchions stuck up in awful desolation.
Into this black horror Vandersee waved six seamen, armed with rifles. He then gave some instructions to Houten, and the launch shoved off and entered the head of the creek, taking cover behind a great mass of charred weed and moss, whose dampness had prevented their utter incineration. Vandersee himself stood for a moment gazing down the river from the top of the remaining part of the deckhouse, then he turned to the Padang, waved a hand cheerily, and vanished inside the blackened shell of debris. Barry stared in surprise for an instant, for Vandersee's disappearance reminded him that six men were also there, hidden somewhere. All had vanished as utterly as if the ship were complete and built for purposes of concealment.
But looking in the direction in which Vandersee had waved, Barry saw farther down the main river yet another big steam pinnace, full of uniformed seamen. He just caught sight of her as she swept alongside the near bank, and a party of men poured out of her and started to double towards the creek. They too dipped out of sight the moment they left the bank, and the steamer backed off, turned, and followed the general example of concealment.
"Why, a rat couldn't get through this net!" exclaimed the skipper, addressing Natalie, who appeared not in the least surprised. And Gordon replied for her and for himself.
"That's the right word, Barry. Rat he is. We know all his evil cunning, and most of us have seen the rattish, yellow streak that runs clear through him. But you know what a rat will do? Well, you can expect this rat to try his best to run; but let him once see the ring completely around him, and he'll fight as a rat will fight."
Barry covertly watched Natalie while Leyden's rattish characteristics were under discussion. She showed no agitation; no sign of personal shame at having ever fallen to such a spell; but at that instant a shrill whistle sounded upstream, quite near, and she paled, then flushed hotly, and at last recovered her balance but with a trembling lip.
Then the sound of engines was heard, and on the still river brooded an atmosphere of imminent Fate. In the devastated creek no sound or sigh broke the barren stillness. The waters swirled and eddied around the entrance; the matted grasses and weed-stems writhed and twisted in the grip of the current like slimy, clutching fingers waiting for prey to clutch and hold to strangled death. For just one second a man's head appeared above a clump of blackened roots where Rolfe's party had landed. Barry saw it was the irrepressible Little bent on seeing the sights; then a great, gnarled hand shoved the head down, and all was barren again.
Now the oncoming launch came in sight; the same launch that had carried Leyden up the river, which Barry had lost track of on that dark night before he was taken and given to the ants; and she foamed straight down between the schooner and the creek with creaming bow-wave and flying funnel-sparks. Leyden was in the bows, jaunty and triumphant; but as he came near the schooner and saw nobody on her decks, his face clouded, and he waved to his engineer to stop. Then Barry, from his hastily taken hiding place, watched Natalie, curious about her part in this crisis.
Stepping over to the rail, she turned her smiling, morning-fresh face upon the launch and waved her hand airily at Leyden. All Barry's doubts resurged upon him. He felt choky, and red spots danced before his eyes. Then in a God-given instant of clarity he saw it all: saw Leyden's own doubts vanish, and the launch move on to the wreck; and he saw, too, that Natalie tottered and panted, still fighting bravely to maintain her attitude in sight of Leyden, yet in dire need of comfort the moment her friend could render it.
Leyden called back a clear, exultant greeting to the girl, and the next moment his launch ran alongside the Barang and her bowman made his boathook fast.
Natalie swayed and would have fallen had not Mrs. Goring run from her hiding place to catch and support her. Barry recalled Vandersee's express order that Mrs. Goring should not show herself prematurely, and he mentioned it softly. The elder woman smiled at him and replied:
"It matters nothing now, Captain. The trap is sprung."
Barry and Gordon looked again at the wreck, and the force of those quiet words was made apparent, for in that hushed, breathless moment Leyden sprang up and stood on the ruined deck of the Barang. His face was alight with greed, and as he turned and the sunlight played upon him, triumph flashed in his eyes. He stayed to signal another message of self-praise to Natalie, and then for the first time he saw Mrs. Goring on board his own vessel. The swift change in his aspect was terrible. Fury replaced the smooth satisfaction of a few seconds before, and he seemed on the point of springing into his launch again to visit his fury on the woman. But cupidity proved too strong. He turned again to enter the wrecked companionway, for somewhere beneath those shattered timbers lay, to his belief, fifteen bags of the gold dust that he had jeopardized his immortal soul to get.
His men alongside evinced lively signs of uneasiness in the silent, gruesome creek, and they held the launch off at the length of a boathook as if afraid of closer contact. Their eyes were raised to follow their master, and then it was that the watchers on the schooner saw Houten's launch slide out from her nook and, gathering speed, shoot swiftly over and run aboard the other launch. Leyden's men uttered one chorused, uncertain growl of alarm, then they found themselves under the rifles and bayonets of twice their number of capable, stolid Dutch sailors.
They were silenced; but the one sound they had made recalled Leyden in haste from the shattered companionway, startled and increasingly suspicious. He glared at the strange launch, almost on a level with himself, owing to the listing over of the brigantine and the burning down of her bulwarks; and he turned white with fear and passion at sight of Houten, big, imperturbable, motionless, gazing up at him with beady eyes glittering from out of his placid, fat face.
With the instinct and movements of the rat he had been compared to, Leyden flashed around as if to seek an outlet that need not be won over such a barrier as Houten. He sprang across the deck, and a cry of jubilation burst from his lips. There was no boat there; no foes to bar his way except the river. But at the next step he stopped in new fear; for from behind a burned stanchion, to which clung pieces of charred planking, peeped six inches of a rifle muzzle, and the cold round hole in the end was aimed at his heart.
Still no human being came into sight on that creepily weird wreck. Leyden took fright now with no pretence at concealing it; for at his ensuing move he came up to one of the great water tanks, and out of the manhole peered another cold blue tube, held unwaveringly at his head. He turned again, darting towards the stern; and here he was met full front by the cool, smiling, unarmed person of Vandersee, stepping out of the companionway and barring the way.
Then it was that Leyden realized to the full the strength and completeness of the trap that had snared him in the moment of his highest hopes. He screamed his rage at the unimpressed being before him and pulled a pistol from his pocket.
"So it's you, is it?" he shrieked. "The devil reward you for dogging me, you Dutch fool!" He brought up his pistol, aimed at Vandersee's body, and the onlookers on the schooner held their breath in fear. Barry tugged futilely at his own weapon; Mrs. Goring turned white; a gasp burst from all four. Then as if sent from the Gods of Justice a shot rang out, and Vandersee still stood. Those who had watched closely only saw Leyden's weapon fly from his hand simultaneously with a sharp jet of fire somewhere in the boat alongside; the report came a fraction of time later, and then, curling lazily up from Houten's great, ham-like hand, was a tiny wreath of smoke. The huge trader moved not an inch; his face altered not a bit; immovable as a statue, unruffled as the Sphinx, he still stared up at the wreck. Vandersee stood still, showing no surprise, nor apparently interested in the least in the little piece of clever gun-play that his big compatriot had accomplished. But Leyden now showed all the traits of the cornered rat. His pistol spun away from his numbed fingers, and dumbly he seemed to sense that it had been shot out of his grip by a snap bullet fired from Houten's hip. He saw no weapon, but Houten's hand could easily conceal such a trifle as a pistol. He wrung his tingling fingers once, then with a snarl that was more than a curse he sprang at Vandersee, snatching a hunting knife from his shirt as he sprang.