When the starboard ports turned gray with the light of morning we had given up. There was nothing to do but wait for something to happen, and all we could foresee was our doom in the vessel.
The sea had calmed, and Captain Riggs unscrewed one of the ports and looked out just as the sun popped up over the hills of the Philippine coast.
"Land!" shouted Captain Riggs, as he opened the port, and I climbed up on the bunks and opened a port for myself. "That's the Zambales coast of Luzon, and they have been making a good easting all night; but we are running north now—see that point ahead? It's really an island—the Little Sister, I am sure—and Dasol Bay lies to the north up the channel between the island and the mainland. He's running to get into that channel behind the island and scuttle her there—he knows his business."
In a few minutes the island stood clear of the coast, and I could make it out, low and green and fuzzy, with a rim of white sand running back to the fringe of the jungle and a ruffle of combers on the shingle. We could hear the boom of the waves ashore, beating at the base of the barren brown hills of the coast.
"He's well off the track of the steamers here," said Riggs, "but he won't delay much longer now, unless he can get in behind the island and then he can take his own time, because he can pick up a sail before he is sighted through the ends of the channel. That island caps a little bay, and he'll be snug as a bug in a rug to do his work. Let's have a look on deck and see what's up."
Rajah leaped out of his bunk, and, after looking around for a minute in confusion at his strange quarters, drank the water we had saved for him in the pannikin, and then put his face to a port-hole and surveyed the land.
I took the lead up the companion with the pistol ready, hoping that one of the pirates might be close to the tiny slit I had cut in the board and would offer a target. I applied my eye to the hole.
The Rev. Luther Meeker, still in his suit of duck and pongee shirt and battered pith helmet, just as I had seen him on the mole in Manila, was pacing the bridge in the calm, commanding way that marks the man accustomed to command. He was puffing contentedly at a cigar, and there was something amusing in the manner in which he cocked his head to one side to survey the sea and then the land with a critical eye.
From side to side he tramped, swinging on his heel at each end of the bridge like a grenadier sentry, and giving Petrak, who had the wheel, a stern look as he passed. Buckrow was at the port end of the bridge, with a glass to his eyes scanning the rim of the sea; but Meeker, or Thirkle, kept aloof from his men, and he might well have been an admiral on the bridge of his flagship—the Devil's Admiral, indeed!
"Take a look at them," I whispered to Riggs, and made way for him at the scuttle peephole.
"Blast him!" raged Riggs as he saw the scene on the bridge. "I never thought I would live to see the like of that!"
"But how does he keep her engines going? The fireroom crew must know what has happened," I said.
"What's left of 'em do," said Riggs. "He's likely got a few men below who think they will get a share of the loot if they keep up steam. Perhaps the Filipino chief is at his post keeping the chinkies going—leave that to the devil on the bridge—he knows his game."
He drew back into the companion, and I looked out again. I could see a pair of shoes sticking out past the donkey-engine, just abaft the foremast; but the machinery hid the man from me. Presently a strip of canvas fluttered in the breeze, and Long Jim stood up, with a sail-needle and a length of sail-twine in his teeth, and cut out a square of tarpaulin on the deck.
"Look at the cockney," I said to Riggs. "I can't make out what he is up to."
He studied the sailor for a minute, and then drew back and whispered:
"Sewing sacks to carry the gold away. They are getting ready to scuttle her. The starboard boats are hanging in the davits, ready to lower away when we are behind the island. There is a channel a mile wide in there, and deep soundings. He may find an anchorage until night and then get away in the dark, but I'm afraid he won't take that long, because he knows a coast-guard cutter is liable to spy him out. This coast is being watched pretty close by the navy and the Japs and the customs, because there is so much blockade-running."
"It may be that he is planning to maroon us on the island."
"That wouldn't be his way. The Devil's Admiral never leaves a man alive. Four men will get out of the Kut Sang, and you know who they are. He ain't the man to take a chance of meeting you or me, or even letting us tell about him. It's 'Dead men tell no tales' with him, you may be sure of that."
I took my turn at the little window, which was not wide enough to let the muzzle of my pistol through, or I would have fired upon them. They each wore a pair of pistols, big, black, long-barrelled weapons. Thirkle's were quite plain, for he swung them from a belt over his white jacket, as I could see when he approached the openings at each end of the bridge where the ladder-heads ended.
"It will take about an hour at this clip to have the island abeam," said Riggs, after he had gone below and looked through the ports. "They are driving her again. Likely he has an agreement with the black gang to stick to the fireroom; but whatever it is he won't keep his word. It's death for every man Jack of 'em when he has finished with 'em."
Long Jim was plying the needle again, and Buckrow and Thirkle were holding a conference at the wheel and studying a chart. I could see the red head of Petrak nodding to them as they submitted some point to him; but he kept his eyes ahead of the steamer, evidently steering for some point of land. Thirkle finally folded up the chart and tucked it in his pocket; and Buckrow took his post again at the port end of the bridge and studied the western horizon.
I saw a Chinese in blue nankeen come out of the starboard passage below the bridge and cautiously look up at the bridge. He did not see Long Jim, so intent was he on looking up; but when the cockney drew a pistol he screamed shrilly and fled into the passage, his long queue sticking out behind like an attenuated pennant, so swift was his flight.
Thirkle and Buckrow came down to the fore-deck and gathered the sacks which Long Jim had fashioned. Before they went down the 'tween-decks companion Thirkle looked forward toward the forecastle and hesitated a minute, as if he were in doubt about our being secure enough. But he went down after the others, and we heard hammering behind the bulkhead again.
Petrak remained at the wheel, a jaunty figure with a white canvas cap on his flaming head and one of Captain Riggs's best Manila cigars between his teeth. He managed the wheel with one hand, holding a pistol ready with the other, and looking the ship over from time to time.
"They are steering to pass in behind the island," said Riggs, as I went below. "It is about four miles ahead now, and they are at half steam again, because the reefs are bad in here—coral-banks and ledges running out from the mainland. When they get her in the lee of the island they'll make a quick job of her, and us, too."
"If I don't make a quick job of them with the pistol," I said.
"You keep three bullets—you'll need them when the green water is spilling in here," and he gave me a significant look.
Despair was upon him again, but I could not bring myself to feel that death awaited us. Weak and hungry and thirsty, life was still strong, and the desire to live, if only to have vengeance on Thirkle and his men, kept up my courage.
"There is some way out—some way we can get the upper hand. When the water comes in I'll be ready to give up, but not until then."
He smiled sadly and shrugged his shoulders, looking pityingly at Rajah, who was playing at some sort of a game with grains of rice in a pannikin. We went up the ladder again to see what the pirates were about, for it was quite still in the hold, and silence seemed more ominous than a telltale clatter.
Buckrow and Long Jim came up with a bulging sack slung in a rope. Thirkle gave them a hand up the ladder to the boat-deck, but he let them do the hard work.
Petrak slipped a lashing over the wheel and leaned over the bridge-rail, grinning down at them, and made some remark which caused Buckrow to laugh so inordinately that he dropped his end of the rope, and the sack fell on the head of the ladder. He pulled it up on the deck, and, thrusting his hand into his trousers-pocket, drew out a handful of gold coins and hurled them up at Petrak.
They struck the remnant of the storm-apron and rattled to the fore-deck, some of the glittering disks pelting Thirkle, who was halfway up the ladder. Petrak threw out his hand to catch the coins, and I saw that his wrists were still encircled by steel bands.
Thirkle reprimanded them, and Petrak went back to the wheel, and Buckrow and Long Jim hoisted the sack into the boat and stowed it. While Petrak held the spoke of the wheel with one hand, he rasped at the iron upon it with a file, cutting away the heavy manacle.
Riggs and I took turns at the scuttle, and saw Thirkle and Buckrow and Long Jim carry up a dozen or more sacks. Some were put in the second boat, farther aft and out of the range of our vision, hidden as it was from us by the corner of the superstructure.
During the time they were below we could hear them smashing the treasure-chests. While they were busy in the storeroom I hacked away at the scuttle-board, which was thick and of hard wood, well seasoned by continual wetting and drying in the tropic sun.
To make matters worse, I found that it was full of brass nails driven in from the outside, and Riggs told me some sailor had put a border of nails round the board and made a crude nameplate by spelling out the name of the vessel with nail-heads. The blade of my knife encountered these nails, and I made slow work of cutting a hole large enough to admit the muzzle of our pistol.
When they had all the gold up they stowed the boats with tinned goods and casks of water. Then they opened a bottle of wine and drank its contents, and Thirkle hurled it toward the forecastle, and it smashed on the iron plates within a few feet of us. Buckrow and Long Jim disappeared in the saloon after this, and Thirkle looked his chart over again and motioned to Petrak to alter the helm.
"He's heading her in for the strait," said Riggs. "He had better allow for that tide-rip that comes down through, or she'll have her head swung round at this speed before he knows where he is at."
The steamer seemed to be gradually losing headway, and the throbbing of her engines was becoming less pronounced. I observed, also, that the smoke from her funnel was beginning to hang over her and curl down upon the bridge. But, in spite of her slowing down, the musical ripple at her bow increased, and Riggs said it was due to the set of the current against us, which came through the channel very strong, as the island cut out a deep current and brought it to the surface of the sea in the narrow passage between the island and the mainland.
"It's a bad hole in there," he said. "He needs more speed to handle her right in there and—"
"Something is up!" I told him, as I saw Thirkle listen a second and step quickly to the engine-room telegraph and throw it over.
I could hear the sharp clang of the bell; but the next instant there was a terrific roar, and the superstructure began to vomit steam through the engine-room skylight just abaft the little wheel-house.
"The boilers!" yelled Riggs. "She's blowing off, and there is a steam-pipe gone, or somebody below has opened her whole insides up."
The Kut Sang was a white volcano amidships, and I saw Thirkle yelling frantically, and Buckrow and Long Jim appeared in the passage below and yelled to Thirkle, waving their arms, and then dashed up the ladder to the bridge.
Suddenly they started back and grouped themselves about Petrak at the wheel with drawn weapons, and the next instant I saw a half-dozen forms emerge from the welter of steam and dash at the pirates.
They were Chinese and Filipino stokers, but one of them seemed to be the leader, and he wore an engineer's cap and was stripped to the waist. I saw the puffs of smoke from the pistols of the four pirates—Petrak put his back to the wheel and fired over Thirkle's shoulder—but the awful racket of the steam-pipes drowned the reports.
Two of the Chinese fell at the first volley, and a third, evidently wounded, turned in his tracks and jumped over the rail. Another hacked viciously at Thirkle with a long knife, but he could not reach him. Thirkle stood with his feet wide apart, and his helmet on the back of his head and fired coolly and swiftly.
The Filipino in the engineer's cap dropped the iron bar with which he had advanced in the rush, and put both hands to his stomach, and stood within six feet of Thirkle, looking at him in a surprised way, and finally threw up his hands as if he had lost his balance and curled over backward to the deck.
A Filipino toppled over the bridge-rail and struck in a heap on the fore-deck, and lay still, but I could not tell whether it was the fall or a bullet that had killed him.
One Chinaman slid down the ladder-rail whirling like an acrobat in the air before he landed, and another followed him, but they were the two last, and Buckrow and Long Jim started after them. The first started for the forecastle and began to throw off the chains, standing between me and the deck, so that I could not see what was happening for a minute. He worked frantically, jabbering all the while, and, as I thought, calling to his companion.
He couldn't have been at work more than a minute, but to me it seemed an hour or more, and I prayed that he might succeed in opening the scuttle, and I wondered at his surprise if he should throw back the sliding-board and see me come out with upraised pistol.
But a pistol spoke close at hand, and the narrow slit in the board let in the sun again and I saw the Chinaman fall just outside. Buckrow and Long Jim were running back to the bridge. Thirkle yelled something to them and they nodded and went through the starboard passage.
The uproar of the escaping steam was dying out, and I told Riggs what I had witnessed. The Filipino in the cap was the chief engineer, and we knew that he had led a last sortie against the pirates, determined to die in a last effort to defeat them rather than be shot down or left to drown.
"Sally Ann!" said Riggs. "If that chinkie had cleared away the chains there we might have got out of here and put in a hand's work, too. He won't have steerage way on her—her engines have gone dead now. Feel her swing with that current?"
"They've started again," I said, feeling a tremor in the vessel.
"Here we go!" cried Riggs. "They've opened her sea-valves!"
We listened and stared at each other for a minute while the water sucked and gurgled and the Kut Sang began to vibrate from the flood pouring into her. Gradually her head began to swing to seaward away from the island, as the current caught her, and, as I looked out I saw Thirkle and Buckrow in the forward boat, lowering away.
"There they go!" I yelled, and we dashed below, hoping that we would have a shot at them as they got clear of the vessel, but, as the ship was swinging outward, and our ports were so far forward, we were kept swinging away from them, and all we had was a bare glimpse of the two boats pulling away from the ship, one of them being towed.
The island was close at hand, a half-mile or more, although it seemed almost within reach, but we lost sight of that in a minute as the head of the Kut Sang stood toward the open sea, and her stern began to settle.
"They had to get out of her when Pedro cut her engines out and lowered her boilers. It rushed their game, because he wanted to hide her in behind the island, but it won't make much difference now, Mr. Trenholm—hear that? She's filling rapidly."
We were drifting broadside in the current now, sweeping down the coast and sinking at the same time.
I ran up the companion and began to struggle with the scuttle-board again, hoping that the Chinaman who was seeking shelter from the pirates' bullets had made it possible for us to escape. The board was looser, and I slipped it to one side nearly an inch, and then it jammed again.
"Trenholm! Trenholm!" yelled Riggs frantically from below.
"What is it?" I called, hating to lose a second in my efforts to get the board free.
He did not answer, and I called to him again. Before the words were out of my mouth I was sprawling on all fours on the deck below.
WE PLAN AN EXPEDITION
I had been thrown down the companion by an appalling crash and a sudden lurch of the steamer as she careened to port. It seemed to me that the bottom plates were being ripped out of her and she was settling on her side with a succession of thumps which I took to be her last effort to keep afloat. The sea was almost to the open ports on the port side; and, as I tried to gain my feet on the tilted deck of the forecastle, I fell against the outboards of the line of bunks.
"She's aground!" screamed Captain Riggs at me. "She's gone smash flat into a bed of coral! See that green streak running away from us to seaward? That's a reef running out from the mainland and we've piled up on it, and if we don't slip off we're safe until it comes on to blow."
He ran to the starboard side and climbed the bunks to look through the ports there.
"It's all around us! Hear her settling? She's making a bed for herself in the coral-patch and she's not taking any more water. She's safe as a church, Mr. Trenholm. If the tide don't lift her off enough to pull her into deep water, or the current swing her, she'll hold until the sea comes up; but she's pretty deep and lays steady. She'll break up right here."
"That's small comfort for us," I said, nursing my bruises.
"They've gone in behind that point and made a landing," said Riggs, still looking through the port. "We'll be out of here in jig-time now. Where be my matches? Here! You and Rajah fish for water with these tins on a string, and wet down all these rags. Pull all the water in here you can."
He lit the slush-lamp again, and I wondered what he was about. I was not quite sure whether he knew of a way to get out of the forecastle, or had lost his reason. He was all bustle and business in a minute.
"I thought we wanted to keep the water out," I remarked.
"Stow that talk and obey orders," said Riggs sharply, digging grease out of the can of the lamp with his fingers and picking the wick to make it burn better. "Look lively now with that water and I'll show you a trick or two now that they've abandoned ship. I'll take a hand in this business myself."
"What's the plan?" I asked.
"Burn the cussed scuttle off a mite at a time. Grease a bit of the board and then hold the flame of the lamp on it, and, when it gets too lively, heave some water on and put it out and begin again. Haul a couple of barrels of water in here and spill it under the bunks so we can git at it with the pans if the fire starts to git away from us. Clap on, man; we need every minute now."
Rajah and I rigged them with strings and set to drawing water through the port-holes on the port side, which was not a hard job, for the swells came within a couple of feet of our hands as we held the tins outside. We filled sea-chests, the rubber crowns of a couple of old sou'westers, and dumped water through the slats of the tiers of bunks so that it lodged in the angle between the side of the ship and the deck.
While we were at this task Riggs was up in the scuttle, and from time to time we could hear the crackle of flames, and then the hissing of the water as he extinguished the burning planks. The thick smoke came down the companion and burned our eyes and nostrils as it escaped through the ports.
Riggs came down every few minutes to get a supply of water. He was black as a chimney-sweep, but he reported good progress and grinned at our discomfort from the smoke and heat.
Finally we heard Riggs hammering at the charred board with the belaying-pin.
"I've got it through!" he yelled to us from a smoking shower of black fragments of the board, and I ran up to him and saw the sun through the chains around the frame of the scuttle. The links were glowing with heat and we dashed water on them. In a short time we had wrenched them apart so Rajah could get through the strands. Then he threw off the bars of our prison, and Riggs and I gained the hot plates of the sloping fore-deck, crawling over the body of the dead Chinese, which we rolled into the sea.
"They are clean gone," said Riggs, crawling up to the starboard side and scanning the island and the channel. "They went in behind that point, and it's a good chance they'll be back if they see she's still afloat."
"Let them come," I said. "Are there any more weapons in the ship?"
"I've got a few guns stowed where even Thirkle couldn't find 'em, or at least Harris hid some away. Always afraid of mutiny, he was, and he got one with a vengeance, poor chap. It's my ticket to a penny whistle we'll find Thirkle and his men on the island."
"Then you'll go after them, captain?"
"Well, I'd rather guess so," he said vehemently. "I'm on fair ground now, and if they don't come back to burn the ship I'm the man to hunt them out of their holes ashore. But what I'm afraid of is they will hide the stuff and make for the mainland, or put off to the north in the boats to see if they can't be picked up by some steamer for the north coast.
"They'll report the Kut Sang lost, and Thirkle'll figure on getting back here before folks are suspicious. Of course the people who shipped that gold may smell a rat and keep tab on him, but he'll see that he gets clear. He'll report her foundered far from here—leave that to him. I doubt if he'll quit this place as long as he sees a foot of the Kut Sang above water. Are you game to go after him, Mr. Trenholm?"
"I'm with you to the end of the whole game—I want to see it played out now, win or lose."
"I knew you would. I suppose I've been a bit of an old woman, Mr. Trenholm, but I never looked for the likes of what was aboard last night. There I was, alone, you might say, blind as an owl on what was going on around me, and when things began to go bad they had you mixed in it so I took you for one of 'em. They had me flat aback for a time there—I didn't know my own name from Sally Ann's black cat. It looked like the whole ship was against me, and, when I saw Harris go, I was clean out of soundings."
I told him that he had realized the danger better than I did, and that I had not been hampered by the sense of responsibility or the possibility of disgrace.
"Oh, I lost my wits for a time there, and we can't get away from it—I was all fuddled, but I'll show ye I've got more fight in me than ye look for, if ye'll see me through with it."
"All or nothing," I said. "We'll give him a gamble for the whole pot now, and I think it's time they got a run for their money. In my way of thinking they have had it too easy."
"That's business," said Riggs. "Doggone my cats, but we'll give 'em some lead to go with the gold or my name ain't Riggs! We'll find out if this Devil's Admiral, or Thirkle, or the Rev. Luther Meeker, or whatever he calls himself, is so bad as he makes out to be—eh, Mr. Trenholm?"
We shook hands on the compact, lying there on the sizzling iron deck-plates that reflected the rays of the sun in shimmering heat-waves, making our exposed position intolerable after the thirst and smoke and hunger we had endured in the forecastle.
"Then that's settled, Mr. Trenholm. Now we'll have to step careful until I look up what's left of the weapons, and we can't know what traps they've laid for us about here. Come on, and keep close."
We scrambled along the port side, taking care of our footing, for the rail-chains were stripped off the stanchions, and with the deck at an awkward angle there was danger of slipping into the water. Captain Riggs led the way up the saloon-deck ladder and we entered the passage.
The captain and Rajah went to his cabin, the first door, and I ran aft to my stateroom, hoping to find my pistols. The room was ransacked and my bag empty and the pistols gone. Some of my garments were thrown into the passage, and I got a duck suit, a pair of deck-shoes, and a cap.
"Here are my guns," said Riggs. "Had 'em stowed down back of the chart-locker—three of 'em—and you'll find a canister of ammunition for that big gun of yours in Mr. Harris's room. That gives us two guns apiece, and I guess we can give 'em some lively times if we come across their bows again."
We belted on the weapons and hurried into the saloon, which we found a wreck. There were bundles of tinned meat on the table and a litter of ropes and bits of canvas. Bottles of mineral water had been hurled at the bulkheads and into the sideboard mirror. Curtains were torn down, table-covers gone, and the pivot-chairs smashed and the fragments piled in a corner, partly burned.
"They were going to fire her," said Riggs, "but that trouble with the black gang and the loss of steam made 'em change their minds. They were afraid the smoke would attract the attention of some passing ship. That's once Thirkle made a mistake—we never would have got out of her if he had left this fire going."
We gathered tins of biscuits and bottles of mineral water, and had a feast out of what the pirates had discarded. Rajah had his kris in the forecastle. While Captain Riggs and I enjoyed our cigars, Rajah went out on an exploring trip through staterooms and galley and in the bridge wheel-house.
"It's near noon now, Mr. Trenholm, and we ought to get away in an hour or so. The boats they left are smashed, but I can rig a raft with hatch-covers good enough to take us to the island.
"We'll take plenty of grub and water, and if they don't give us a fight from shore before we land, we can cache our supplies and take our time looking for that sweet gang. We'll keep out of sight as much as we can before we leave, and we might wait until dark, but I'm for getting off in jig-time, unless we see them coming back."
"I would like to see Thirkle and the others rowing out here," I said, having a mental vision of an ambuscade for them as they drew alongside in the boat.
"It's ten to one they will if they ain't too busy hiding the gold or having a fight over it. All I'm afraid of is they'll get away from us in their boats; but before they leave it's a sure thing they'll take a look at the Kut Sang to see if she's topside yet, and then come out to burn her—which means stand by to repel boarders for us.
"Likely they've got their eyes on us now, or on the ship, but we'll keep a sharp lookout, and if they come snooping back we'll blow 'em out of the water. If Thirkle sees the steamer ye can leave it to him to come back and see how we are and make a clean job of it. I'm not so sure he didn't plan that, anyway. Devil of a fine joke we'll make of it for him, if he does come out and thinks we're still cooped up in the fo'c'sle."
We set about the work of getting ready to leave the ship, keeping to the starboard side, which was low in the water and away from the island. Rajah was posted in the chart-room on the bridge with an old spy-glass Riggs dug up, and the black boy kept steady watch on the island and the channel, with an occasional turn to the open sea in the hope of raising a vessel.
The chronometers were gone, along with the other navigating instruments, the log-book, and manifests. The cabin clock was stopped at twelve, and Captain Riggs's watch, which had hung over his bunk, was missing.
We found two dead Chinese in the galley, bullet-splintered woodwork, dried blood, and empty shells and burned rice on the galley stove. The ship's carpenter had barricaded himself in his workshop, a little deck-house on the after-deck. The door was open, and we gathered that he had deserted his stronghold when he heard the water rushing into the hold, but whether he had been shot or drowned we had no way of knowing.
He had provided himself with a bucket of rice and bottles of water, evidently with the intention of preparing for a siege. Spent cartridges at the head of the stoke-hole ladder told of a desperate fight there, probably before the attack on the bridge by the engineer and his men.
But we wasted no time over these signs of what had happened during the night, simply observing them as we went over the vessel to see if any of the crew were in hiding, and seeking such things as might be of use in building the raft.
All the tools were carried forward, and I helped the captain get off the hatch-covers of the forehold, and he nailed them together with planks from the top of the cargo. In this way we made a rude catamaran some twenty feet long and five feet wide. A plank was put on its edge all around, making a low freeboard to hold our provisions and to serve as a protection against bullets in case the pirates should fire upon us while running ashore.
Life-lines were fastened to the sides, so we could take to the water in an emergency, and, with our bodies partially submerged, use our pistols to good advantage and offer poor targets. Captain Riggs seemed to foresee every possible danger, and went about his preparations to meet the pirates as calmly and methodically as if he were fitting out to go on a picnic.
Thirkle had taken every precaution to make the Kut Sang another mystery of the sea, without so much as a life-buoy being found with her name on it. We found the ring-buoys hacked to bits, especially that section of them which had the steamer's name painted on the side. The name painted on the two smashed boats had been ripped from their sterns, and everything that would float was locked securely in cabins or made fast.
Captain Riggs fashioned a sail out of a tarpaulin, and stepped a mast well forward, and with other things we took signal-pennants and a British ensign, and from the foremast of the Kut Sang he flew a signal of distress and a message in the international code about pirates or some such thing, so that, in case Thirkle should get away in the boat and be picked up, he would have a great deal of difficulty in explaining about himself if the same vessel should sight our coloured flags.
"Take a look and see that the boy ain't busy up there at a nap," said Riggs, and I mounted to the bridge, keeping well covered and to the seaward side of the chart-house. Rajah was wide awake, lying just inside the coaming of the chart-room door, chewing contentedly at his betel, and holding the spy-glass over the brass doorplate directed toward the island. He grinned at me as I entered through the door on the port side.
I took the glass and searched the horizon of the sea, but there was no sign of a sail or a smear of smoke; neither could I find any trace of the pirates on the island, which had a pile of volcanic rock rising out of its northern end. I sought for some sign of human habitation on the brown, bare hills of Luzon, baking in the sun, but that part of the coast was a wilderness, desolate and forbidding.
The Kut Sang was lying secure as if in a dock, sprawled out on the coral floor of the sea like some dead thing, her stern completely under water, and her port rail, almost to the break of the forecastle head, at the crests of the gentle swells. The island gave us a lee from the strong current, but at the first sign of heavy weather she would break up.
A school of small sharks scouted around her, and one big fellow, with his fin out of water like a trysail, loafed at a distance, as if sure of his prey. The combers purred on the shining stretches of beach, and the ripples of the current whispered at the side of the vessel, and in the peace that surrounded us Riggs's hammer made a terrific clatter.
"Keep a sharp lookout, Mr. Trenholm," he called up to me. "I've got a job for'ard which must be attended to now, and I'll call for you in a bit of a while."
He went down the forecastle ladder with his arms full of new canvas, and by the time I had finished another cigar he was up again, beckoning to us. I went below to him, and he took me into the forecastle, and I saw what I knew to be the body of Harris sewed up and ready for burial.
"I know he'd want to go into the sea, rather than be buried ashore or be left here, so I've done the best I could for him," said the captain. "We'll take him along to deeper water, and, if you don't mind, we'll drop him away from the cattle that have gone down hereabout, and nothing will ever disturb him. I'll say some sort of a prayer."
We carried the body up and got the catamaran over the side and stowed with food and water and cigars and such things as Riggs knew we would need if we had to make a camp on the island.
I also wrote out a brief account of what had befallen us since leaving Manila, closing with the explanation that we were going after the pirates. We left this message between the covers of an old book, and nailed to the saloon table, with chalk arrows drawn on the floor and about the ship pointing toward it. There any person who should board the vessel in our absence would find directions to come to our assistance.
But about the gold we said nothing, simply stating that there had been a mutiny and that pirates had looted the ship, and offering a reward of ten pounds to each man in the party who should come to our rescue, and a thousand pounds, or five thousand dollars, in general to the man who should direct the party to seek us—this to be claimed either by the master of the vessel or the owners of the vessel which furnished the expedition.
Before embarking we had a hasty meal and drank a toast to our success and the confusion of the Devil's Admiral and his men. We looked to our pistols and ammunition, and, thrilled with the prospect of battle, felt better than we had since the death of Trego.
As the ship was listed over so far, we had little trouble in getting the raft into the water. As it floated alongside I felt like giving a cheer, but as Captain Riggs had done most of the work and had gone about his tasks as dispassionately as if he were building a hencoop, I stifled my emotions and held her off while Riggs stepped aboard.
We caught the breeze from the land as soon as we cleared the steamer, and we rounded her bows and headed for the island, steering to pass the point of rocks which jutted out from the island into the channel. Riggs said that he would cut her in toward shore, or the coast of the mainland, before reaching the point, unless the pirates showed themselves.
"We'll make a northing up the channel," he said, "If they think we are getting away they may take after us in a boat, or fire from the shore; but if we show we are going to land they will keep hidden and take us by surprise. If we should head straight in now they would likely hide in the brush and pot-shot us as we land when we are in the surf; but you watch old Cap Riggs, and if we don't give this Devil's Admiral the fight of his life before this little party is wiped out, I'll go back on the farm in Maine. He can't come aboard me and perform like that without getting paid for it—Bloody Thirkle, Devil's Admiral, nor nobody else. You watch my smoke, young man."
The leg-o'-mutton sail pulled steadily and we slapped along through the water at a merry pace, with the water bubbling at the lee rail and the ripples frothing up through the seams in the planks. It was a wet craft, but we were in our bare feet, with our trousers rolled up.
Rajah was in the bow with his sarong twisted into a belt, and his black shoulders and arms bare to the sun, his head swathed in a turban made from a faded green port-curtain, giving him an outlandish aspect, reminding me of a pilgrim returning from Mecca.
"We've got Johnny Sharkee for an escort," said Riggs, pointing aft, and I saw the fin of the big man-eater cutting the water in our wake. "If he don't sheer off by the time we are ready to make a landing, we may have to give him a bullet or two, but I want to get in without any racket if I can."
We were soon in deep water, and Riggs made fast his tiller while he read a burial service out of a pocket-testament, and we dropped the body of Harris over the side. It was a brief enough ceremony, and I was inclined to believe that Captain Riggs made it altogether too much a matter of little account, until I saw there was a tear in his eye, and he hastily used the binoculars on the island.
"Put your helm to starboard," he directed. "I want to keep screened behind the point and gradually work in toward shore. Then we'll make a quick run for it in near the point, if they don't show by the time we have the inlet on this side of the rocks abeam. They probably went around the point, and we'll hunt for 'em on that side if we can make a safe landing."
We slopped along for another while, and slowly worked in until we had the beach less than five hundred yards away.
"Swing her for the open sea again," said Riggs. "I'll trim the sail, so if they are watching us they'll think we are making a board to run out. Keep low, all hands, and at the first shot drop to the deck and keep covered, and we'll manoeuvre out of reach until dark. If they press us, we'll let 'em get up close, so they'll think we have no weapons, and then we'll open up on 'em at close range and settle it."
The raft went about clumsily on the other tack and heeled over so that her port side was deep in the water, which afforded us good protection from the island. We kept close watch on the edge of the jungle, but nothing menaced us, although the tangle of brush and creepers might have been full of men and we little the wiser.
"Over with the helm now, but not too quick, and hold her steady when she stands for the land and don't get scared at a little surf. Keep her head on until she grounds, and then take to the water and rush ashore with some of the gear while I get the rigging down.
"See that you keep your pistols out of the water, and dump the gear in the brush. Rajah will hold her steady while we lighten her a bit, and then we'll drag her in with the swells."
The raft turned in a great circle and plunged for the rollers straight before the breeze. The captain cut away the stays just before she struck and we went into waist-deep water on a hard, sandy bottom. The heave of the incoming swells threatened to break her open in the middle as she swung broadside against the hard shingle.
We lost a few things which didn't matter much, but, as our matches and biscuits and spare ammunition were sealed in oil cans, along with salt and cigars, most of such stuff as broke loose floated ashore and we saved it. Our chief difficulty was in saving the small casks of water and the sack full of cooking utensils and camp tools.
I danced a lively jig as I ran into the burning sand, and Riggs had to laugh at me as I retreated out of it and put on my shoes while standing in the water, but he took the same precaution. When we had hidden our stores just inside the fringe of the jungle, we sank the raft close under the ledge of rocks by filling her with big stones; and, while we were busy at this work, Rajah went up on the point and concealed himself among the boulders in a position where he could get a view of the beach beyond.
We kept our pistols slung about our necks on shortened belts, and, whenever the opportunity offered, watched the beach and jungle. We were kept on the alert, for we could not shake off the disconcerting feeling that we were being watched from the brush by the pirates, getting ready to ambush us at their leisure the minute we relaxed our vigilance.
"Look at Rajah," I said to Riggs. "He looks like a big red and green and black lizard crouched up there in the rocks."
"That black boy is a big help," said Riggs. "The lad has more savvy than ye'd think. He seems to know just what to do in any emergency. And fight! A mad Arab that I shipped in Aden made for me one day in the Red Sea. I didn't mind the chap till he was 'most on me, and a bit more and he'd had me. Rajah got him with the kris.
"Lucky for Thirkle the boy had lost it last night when they had me going over the bows! He was after Thirkle then, when a sea come over and upset him, and away went his knife and—"
A pebble hit the water near us, and we looked up to see Rajah wildly waving his arms to us. He had spied something on the other side of the point.
THE PURSUIT ASHORE
Seizing our pistols we hurried ashore, and, when Rajah saw us coming, he turned his attention to the beach again and levelled the glass in the direction in which he had found danger.
The ledge was covered with loose fragments of soft volcanic stone, and Riggs and I had to be careful in making the ascent to the top of the ridge, for every time we sought a foothold we threatened to bring down an avalanche of debris, and, not knowing what Rajah had seen, or how close the pirates might be, we were afraid of giving the alarm with a crash of loosened rocks.
I gained the top first, and bracing myself between a couple of boulders, took a careful survey of the beach on the other side before crawling over to Rajah. The point was an angle in the shore, and the beach ran off sharply to the left, five hundred yards away.
The glare of the sun bothered me at first, and I thought the black boy had given us a scare for nothing, until I detected a movement in the fringe of the jungle close to where the shore line merged with the water of the channel. I watched it closely for a minute and made out the figure of a man moving cautiously.
Rajah wriggled himself over to me and I took the binoculars; and, when I had put them on the man in the distance, I saw Buckrow walking slowly in our direction with his head bent to the ground, as if searching for some object. He was so close in the glass that I could see the stripes in his cotton shirt and the buttons down the sides of his navy trousers.
"What is it?" gasped Riggs, breathing hard after his climb, and testing the rocks before he climbed up to where I was perched between two pinnacles of slatey stone.
"Can you see anything, Trenholm?"
"It's Buckrow. He's acting queerly, and I can't make out just what he is doing. Take a look and see if you can tell."
He took the glass and studied the pirate, who was loafing along in an aimless fashion, stopping every few steps to scan the hills of Luzon.
"He's taking bearings on that mountain-peak or some other beacon," said the captain. "He's got a small compass."
Without the glass I could see Buckrow get down on his knees in the sand and put something down before him. Then he stretched at full length, with his hands raised from his elbows to shade his eyes from the sun.
"He's taking sights on the big peak," said Riggs. "It looks to me as if they got a bearing on it from where they have stowed the gold, and Buckrow wants to get the same bearing from the beach and leave a marker as a middle point and a guide to where the treasure is concealed. The opposite reading of the compass from the bearing of the peak would be a leader to the cache. The bearing he takes, extended behind him, will run pretty near to where the gold is hidden. He's particular as a Swede skipper with that sight he's taking."
Finally, Buckrow crawled into the jungle again and disappeared. We waited for a quarter of an hour, keeping close watch on the beach, but we saw him no more.
"He made a little beacon with three stones," explained the captain. "I ain't sure just what it means, but Thirkle ain't the man to leave such work to Buckrow. You can bet Thirkle will know how to find the gold again without asking Buckrow for the bearings. There is some deviltry afoot, and my best guess is that the pirates ain't getting along none too well among themselves with that treasure.
"We'll have to scout along the beach and pick up their trail and run 'em down carefully. Anyway, I'm glad they are here, but we'll have to hustle along now or they'll be cutting out of this, and if they get the boats into the water, we'll have to let 'em go without a shot. That'll give us a hard job, because we'll have to take a chance of leaving the gold to get help and having them come back for it while we're gone."
We were well satisfied to know that the pirates were on the island and that we had found them before they were aware of our escape from the Kut Sang. Now we had a good opportunity to stalk them and give them a surprise.
We scrambled down from the burning rocks, and filled our pockets with extra ammunition and biscuits, and each took a small bottle of water. Our clothes were well dried, and, altogether, we found ourselves ready for battle.
"If we can crawl up on 'em while they are all together and turn loose with our pistols from cover, we've got 'em," said Riggs. "The three of us ought to lay them out before they know what's up."
"We ought to even the numbers before our pistols are empty," I said. "Two of them ought to drop at the first volley."
"It's no quarter, either, Mr. Trenholm, unless we have one of 'em, so he can't do any damage, and then we might give him a chance to live so he can hang. But they'll have no mercy on us if they get the upper hand."
"I'd like to take Thirkle back to Manila alive just to get at his history."
"I'd like to get Thirkle myself, Mr. Trenholm; but it's Thirkle we'll have to get first of all, if we can. He's more dangerous than all the others, and, as you're the best shot, keep plugging at him until you get him. But I'm afraid it ain't going to be so easy as we figure out.
"One thing is in our favour: they don't know we got out of the Kut Sang, and it's likely they've been so busy burying the gold they don't know the steamer is above water; but if they get a sight of her before we drop on 'em, then we'll have a pretty pickle on our hands."
The backbone of the point ran back into the jungle and we found it a hot and hard climb through the tangled vines and thick shrubbery. After we had reached the other side we crawled out on the beach and made a careful reconnaissance to the north.
We progressed slowly along the rim of sand, where the brush was sparse, allowing us to keep a good lookout ahead. We went along a few yards at a time, stepping out occasionally to reconnoitre the sand-reaches ahead. We found that the northern end of the island was higher than we supposed at first, a labyrinth of ravines sloping down to the sea.
"We ought to pick up the trail before long," said the captain. "We'll probably find the boats in some of these gullies where the water comes close up; but they couldn't very well cover their tracks if they pulled the boats out, and they wouldn't be minded to be so careful, not looking for anybody to be after them this early."
The captain and I kept close together, sneaking along with our pistols cocked, quiet as possible. Rajah brought up the rear, and in this formation we marched along, alert for danger. At times the rustle of a bush in the breeze put us on our guard, and we crouched down with muscles tense and pistols raised; or the flutter of a bird over our heads, or the shrilling of an insect, or the creak of a tree sounded an alarm which would delay us. But Rajah's sense of hearing was very keen, and whenever we stopped from such sounds he would grin at us and push on ahead. We trusted a great deal to his woodcraft, for he was at home in the jungle.
Riggs was a few yards ahead of me when I saw him stop abruptly and motion me forward with a gesture of caution. He pointed through the bushes, and as I crept up I saw a white patch through a tangle of green leaves.
"It's a boat," he whispered. "It's here they made their landing and we'll have to go slow now. Maybe Buckrow or some of the others are about, sleeping or keeping watch."
We crawled up carefully, letting Rajah go ahead to scout. We found both boats hidden in a patch of colgon grass, screened from the sea by a rank growth of vines and young bamboo. The boats were covered with freshly cut palm-leaves and a litter of dead, dry vines pulled from an uprooted tree. There was a little inlet running right up into the jungle, so the pirates had had little trouble in getting the boats ashore, using a block and tackle on a convenient cocoanut-palm.
The grass and bamboo thicket were well trampled, and we could see the marks in the moist ground where the sacks of gold had been piled. One of the sacks had evidently burst, for we picked up several gold coins in the mud, and found a sail-needle in a loop of twine where they had repaired the sack.
"Now," whispered Riggs, when we were sure none of the pirates was lurking about, "we'll take the plugs out of the boats and hide them and the oars, and take a look around to see where our lads have gone. It's no easy job to go very far with that gold, and they won't hurt themselves with work, knowing they have plenty of time and thinking there is nobody to be after them."
We took the oars and boat-plugs quite a distance away up the beach and buried them in the sand opposite a tree of peculiar formation, and then began to skirt the territory around the boats to pick up the trail of the pirates. We found where several bamboo poles had been cut close to the dry, rocky bed of an old stream, and the remnants of ropes.
"They cut these poles to pack the sacks away," said Riggs. "Their cache can't be far away and we'll have to work like cats now."
The old water-course led back into high ground through a canon, and there were unmistakable signs that the pirates had followed the waterway. Patches of sand where pools had formed during the rainy season were full of tracks in both directions, and we knew they had made several trips from the boats up the canon, and we set out upon the trail.
We let Rajah take the lead this time, for he had a way of getting through the overhanging branches silently, and his bare feet moved among the loose stones and sand with as little noise as a snake might make. Bent nearly double with his kris gripped in his right hand he kept in advance of us. We might easily have been taken for pirates ourselves as we skulked along, with our pistols raised, crawling under low bushes, dodging behind tree-trunks, and peering ahead into the dim places of the jungle.
In spite of the shade it was hot in that ravine. Labouring under the excitement of the man-hunt, and suffering from loss of sleep and the weariness of the siege we had undergone in the steamer, the heat weakened us.
The bed of the stream, full of dead twigs and loose stones, in places a succession of steps where there had been cascades in the torrential little river, was a hard road. It would have been hard enough to travel with no efforts at caution, but we were forced to pick every step, and keep bent low or fall flat to avoid a fall and racket.
Captain Riggs made hard going of it, and had to stop every few yards to regain his breath. Although he made no complaint, I suspected that his heart was troubling him, for he kept putting his free hand to his side, and when he got out of breath his face took on a purplish tint.
"I'm afraid I'll have to rest a bit," he whispered to me during one of these attacks. "I'll be all right in a little while, but I'm too old to keep up to the pace of you and the black boy there."
He crawled into the brush a few feet and lay down, and I saw he had about reached the limit of his efforts for the day. He was more exhausted than I had realized. We called Rajah back, and while Riggs was resting I went ahead a way, with the idea of watching for the pirates to return and preventing them from surprising us.
"Don't go too far or stay too long," cautioned the captain, as I set out. "We ought to keep close together, Mr. Trenholm, and fight together."
Assuring him that I had no intention of leaving him with Rajah, I went up the trail a few rods, and as I was about to turn back I saw a level stretch ahead, where the trail of the pirates led away from the bed of the stream into a patch of high, thick grass. Thirkle and his men had cut a narrow lane through this grass by trampling down the stalks, and my curiosity got the better of my caution, and I decided to explore a little farther.
Stooping low, I ran through this open space and gained the jungle on the other side and found myself near a ledge or low, rocky cliff that was so overgrown with rank weeds and vines and giant ferns it was hardly noticeable until I was close against the wall.
The cliffside was damp and green with mosses, and the ground was moist and springy. The cool of the place was grateful after the heat of our climb up the rocky bed of the creek, I was about to return and urge Captain Riggs to press on to this place when I heard the subdued murmur of voices away to the right and the swishing of foliage.
I was puzzled and alarmed to discover that the voices were in the direction I had come from, or back across the trail. Fearing that the pirates were returning to the boats by some short route which might take them to where Riggs was hidden, I ran through the grass lane again, and, finding that the persons I was stalking were still farther away, I left the trail and sneaked some twenty yards into the foliage, anxious to see who they were and what they were about.
They were making slow progress, seemingly going a few yards, and then stopping to talk in low tones, when they would go on again, and, by moving ahead while they were pushing through the brush and proceeding with caution while they stopped, I rapidly overtook them, although they were a good distance off the trail.
"Keep over to port," I heard Long Jim say. "Mind them brambles, or ye'll have the eyes of me bloomin' well knocked out! I'm all skinned about the neck from 'eavin' away at these poles. Drop it a bit, Red."
TWO THIEVES AND A FIGHT
There was a metallic thud as they let down a burden, which I knew must be a sack of gold. I lay quiet for a minute, and then began to wriggle through the brush to get a glimpse of them, and, in case it proved to be the camp, learn what might be the most advantageous method for our attack.
"My back is broke," I heard Petrak whine. "What with packin' the whole blasted cargo into the hills and this jaunt now. Why couldn't he leave it close to the beach, I want to know? Who wants to be packin' it out again some day like a coolie? Snug enough, I say, close down to the water, and who's to know? Think we was buryin' of it for Kingdom Come! Fine job he's makin' of it!"
"'E's no bloody monkey, Thirkle ain't," said Long Jim. "It's us that's the bloomink idiots! 'My last 'aul,' says 'e. 'Your last haul, 'ell!' says me to him. I tells him to mind the rest of us 'as a 'and in the gold as well as in the gittin' of it. Ye think 'e's goin' to let us in on this? Not Thirkle, Reddy.
"It's every bloody man for 'imself now, and the devil take the 'indmost, which he will, I say. Thought 'e'd 'ave the whole of it all to himself, did he? I knowed 'e'd give us dirt when it come to some big cut like this, and that's why I'm for gittin' mine and goin' on with it this wise. 'Eave up, Reddy, and skip for it."
I crawled up and peered through the bushes just as they were shouldering a bamboo pole from which was slung the sack of gold. They went on, and I followed them, confident that they would lead me to Thirkle's camp, although the direction of their march puzzled me; and I could make no sense of their complaints other than that they disliked the labour of transporting the gold.
As I fell in behind them, following almost in their tracks, I discovered that they were following no trail, but were making a new way to the beach. And when they came to where the going was easy they rushed ahead in such a panic that I suspected they were in flight from Thirkle, and when they began to argue over the direction they should take I realized that they were running away from Thirkle. They were stealing a sack of the gold and making for the boats to escape with it.
"Bear to port, I say!" said Long Jim. "Keep off the old road, or ye'll have the beggar after us. Keep to port if ye know what's good for us."
They let down their burden again, and I saw Long Jim stoop to peer back; but I was off on their flank again, and kept well concealed.
I was in a quandary now as to what to do. It might be better for us to let them escape, for then we would have only Thirkle and Buckrow to fight, and a sack of gold mattered but little. Yet I knew that they might take both boats; and then Captain Riggs and I and Rajah would be marooned on the island, except for the raft, which was not a fit craft to put to sea in.
We would be but little better off on the mainland, and it would be weeks, probably months, before we could be rescued by a vessel, or could reach a native town on the coast. I had a mind to fire on them; but I did not know where Thirkle was, and I was afraid of Captain Riggs getting lost if he set out in search of me on hearing the shots.
"Told ye that, did he?" asked Long Jim. "Told ye to do for me, hey?"
"That was the lay," said Petrak. "Told me he'd send ye down the trail with me, and to keep drawed up close to ye; and when I see my chance to hook a knife into ye, and be sure and make a clean job of it.
"But I'm no man for that, Jim. Mind when ye split a bob with me in Riccolo's boardin'-house in St. Paul's Square? I don't do for no man what split a bob with me, and we was shipmates before we ever knowed Thirkle; and we'll be shipmates again, Jim."
"With this 'ere?" asked Long Jim. "Ye think I'd look at a bloody ship short of bein' owner myself, when we get away with this sack of guineas? It's a pub for the two of us in Liverpool, down near the Regent Docks, like gentlemen, or I'm a beggar."
"Blow me if I didn't forget about the gold!" said Petrak, laughing. "But I meant it the way of shipmates, Jim: and that's why I couldn't do for no such as he said. 'Hook yer knife in him, quick and sharp, under the kidneys,' says Thirkle to me. He says he'll make a gent of me, being as there would be only himself and Bucky and me left. There'd be upwards of ten thousand pounds, man and man, share and share alike, and all the same.
"That's Thirkle for ye, Jim—that's Thirkle. It was all fine long as we didn't make no great hauls, just enough for a bit of a good time ashore; but now we're rich, and he wants to shut us honest chaps that helped get it out of the cup, up.
"I'll take this sack for mine and split fair with ye, Jim; and it's better than Thirkle would give the two of us, and I ain't savin' as how he wouldn't slit our throats in the bargain to get back again what little he give. We best give him a wide berth, and he'll do for Bucky, too; mind what I say."
"That 'e will," said Long Jim. "'E's thick with Bucky now, but mind yer eye when 'e gits Bucky close hauled goin' 'ome. Think Bucky'll ever find 'is way back to this place? Thirkle'll do for 'im—right ye are, Red—just as 'e'd done for the two of us, Red."
"Bucky was a good sort, too."
"We was all good sorts," said Jim. "We was all good sorts and fine men, Reddy, when the bloomink loot was coming and there was windpipes to slit, and 'e had to 'ave 'ands to do the work for 'im. Ye mind what he told me, Reddy?"
"What was it Thirkle told ye, Jim? I'd give a bob to know. Was it about me, Jim?"
"Tells me the same bloody thing 'e told ye," said Jim, shutting one eye and making a grimace to impress Petrak.
"What's that, Jim? I don't remember of what ye mean."
"Tells me to do for ye down the trail."
"The beggar!" said Petrak.
"Gawd strike me blind if 'e didn't! 'Take a walk for yerself down the trail with Petrak,' he says. 'Mind when ye get a chance and 'ook a knife in his kidneys, and do it neat and clean; and then there'll be only three of us to cut this pile 'ere three ways—me, Bucky, and yer own self, Jim.'
"That's what 'e said, Reddy; strike me blind! Like you did, I says I'll do it. Ye see his gyme? We'd do for each other in a fight, and so take the job off 's 'ands. Buckrow and 'im think it's done now; but 'e'll get Bucky at the last, too, or I'm a beggar.
"That's 'is gyme, Red—do for all of us and 'ave the gold all to 'imself—and no sailormen what know what 'e's been up to out 'ere coming around to tap on 'is window of a night when 'e's asleep and ask for the price of a drink, or 'e'll have the police down on 'im and tell Scotland Yard' e's the Devil's Hadmiral. He wants the pile to 'imself, and never a bit more does 'e care for the likes of us than for the throats we've cut for 'im for the gettin' of it all."
"Sure," said Reddy. "He wants it all for himself, to be a fine gentleman and a church member and have his tipple and fine eatin'. We better move on a bit now, Jim, or they'll be after us."
They shouldered the pole again and went on, and I followed them for a time, trying to estimate the position of Captain Riggs on the trail from where I was; but in the excitement of following Petrak and Long Jim I had lost my bearings.
Their course through the jungle had been devious and without much clearness as to a general direction, for first one would advise one way, and then the other another; and there were times when they had been compelled by the brush and gullies to go out of their way.
But I had a general idea that by turning sharply to the right I might come across the trail, and, even if it happened to be below where the captain and Rajah had stopped, I could soon come up with them.
There was nothing to gain by keeping after Reddy and Long Jim, now that I was sure they were running away from Thirkle's camp rather than toward it. I thought it would be much better to let them go than to fire upon them, and so either alarm Captain Riggs or warn Thirkle and Buckrow that there were others they had not counted upon on the island.
Even Petrak and Long Jim might not get away very easily when they found the oars and boat-plugs gone. I reasoned that if we could come upon Thirkle and Buckrow, and make short work of them, we might even overtake the pair of thieves and capture or kill them.
As we went along the jungle thinned, and we came into a forest where the trees were sparse and there was little underbrush; and, as there was an open space ahead, I concluded not to cross it, but to wait and see them go out of sight, and then try to pick up the trail. When they entered the clearing they dumped the sack and fell upon the ground, and as they lay looking in my direction there was nothing for me to do but drop behind a convenient shrub and wait for them to go on before I moved.
They lit cigars and fell to gossiping, evidently in some argument, for their gestures betrayed their vehemence, although I could not make out what they were saying. They continued the conversation until I lost my patience, and began to begrudge the time I was wasting to no advantage, while Captain Riggs was probably fretting about me, and might go away to search for me. I waited another ten minutes; but they showed no disposition to go on, and I stealthily began to draw out of the bushes.
We had come through a grove of wild hemp-trees, and, keeping the bush that had concealed me between me and the pirates, I crawled to one of these wide-spreading bunches of gigantic leaves drooping to the ground, and managed to get behind it. But as I rolled under the stalks a bird rose near me and screamed shrilly in long-drawn cries of alarm, and several of its young, hunting for cover, set up a racket in the dead leaves on the ground.
I lay still for a minute, hoping that the two pirates would not think anything amiss; but the mother bird wheeled above me, screaming and darting down, and I heard Petrak and Long Jim cursing and running toward me. I jumped up behind the tree, and, looking through the big leaves, saw them coming with drawn pistols.
"Blow me if it ain't the bally pressman!" said Long Jim, stopping within a hundred feet and peering through the tree. "That's Trenholm there, or I'm a Dutchman!"
"That's who it is," I called to them, cocking my pistol. "Come on and see what you get!"
"You're in the Kut Sang" said Petrak queerly, his knees shaking as if he had seen a ghost. "You're dead in the Kut Sang!"
"Have it your own way," I told him. "Maybe I am dead in the Kut Sang, along with Captain Riggs and the rest of them. For that very reason you had better not bother with me."
I kept my pistol resting in the hollow of a hemp-stalk, thinking it would be better not to let them know I had a weapon, for I knew they had no more relish for using their firearms than I did. If I showed the gun to them they would then keep in cover, and could attack me from two sides.
If I could keep it a short-range fight, I had the advantage as long as I held the tree against them, and they would not hesitate to expose themselves to my fire.
"What ye doin' of 'ere?" demanded Long Jim. "Where's the skipper and all the rest we left aboard?"
"That's for you to find out," I said. "You wouldn't shoot a helpless man, would you?"
"Not a bit of it," he grinned. "Come on out and 'ave a bit of a parley."
He let his pistol drop, and he and Petrak exchanged glances which betrayed their glee at having me in their power, as they thought.
"Go away and let me alone," I said, simulating fear of them. "I don't want to have anything to do with you. Leave me alone."
"Ye was a follerin' of us," said Long Jim. "Where the bloomink 'ell ye been? Ye seen Thirkle?"
"Where is Thirkle?"
"Where ye'll never clap eyes on 'im, ye can be bloody well sure of that. Cut round t'other side of 'im, Red, and we'll settle 'is 'ash!"
Petrak started off to the left of him to circle and get behind me, and Long Jim began to draw near, cocking his pistol again and raising it and leering at me.
"Don't ye turn about or move!" he said. "Turn yer 'ead and yer a dead 'un!"
He was within five yards of me, and I saw him making a signal to Petrak, who was approaching me from behind. I glanced back quickly and saw the little red-headed man stealing up on me with his knife on his hand.
I lifted the pistol, and saw Long Jim stop and open his mouth in surprise. I fired at the triangle of his naked breast where the shirt was unbuttoned from the neck. He curled over backward, as if broken in the middle, and fired his pistol straight up into the sky and then lay still.
THE GOLD AND THE PIRATES
Certain that Long Jim was dead, I turned on Petrak and presented my pistol at him. The little fiend was surveying me blankly, taken aback at the sudden shot. He stood within twenty paces of me, with his legs wide apart and his knees bent as if he were on the deck of a plunging vessel, dismay on his face and the blade he had intended for my back held limply before him.
I could see the butt of a big pistol hanging from his belt in a holster he had made from the top of an old shoe, but he made no motion to reach for it. The fingers of his left hand were twitching, splayed out as if from fear, and his mouth was open showing his yellow teeth.
"If you move I'll kill you!" I said, having a mind to take him and compel him to lead Riggs and me to Thirkle's camp.
"Don't shoot!" he whined. "Don't shoot! Where did ye git the gun, sir? We never knowed as how ye had it. Don't shoot, Mr. Trenhum! Ye mind how I took yer luggage aboard!"
"Where's Thirkle and Buckrow?" I demanded.
"Up there," he said, swinging his free hand in the direction we had come, and I saw the familiar crafty look come into his eyes.
"Quite a bit, sir; in a cut of a clift with the booty."
"Not far it ain't, Mr. Trenhum. Roundaboutish, but not far; and I'm thinkin' I might lead ye on to 'em, sir, if ye'd let me have the sack we had, sir. Ye done for Jim right enough, but that's my sack now."
"Throw down that knife and unbuckle your belt, and see that you don't reach for a pistol," I said.
There was something in his manner that led me to believe he had a trap for me; either he had seen Long Jim move, or thought Thirkle and Buckrow might come down upon us if he could keep me talking.
He dropped the knife, and as he reached for the buckle of the belt I turned my head in an involuntary movement to make sure that Long Jim had not recovered, an action bred by the suspicious manner of Petrak. The pirate was lying as he had fallen, with his arms over his head and his pistol a yard away; but the little red-headed man turned and ran in the flash of my eye. I fired at him as he scurried behind a sprawling hemp-tree, but missed; and he never stopped, and I stood and listened as he crashed through the brush.
It would have been senseless to pursue him. As he had kept on toward the beach, away from the direction of Thirkle's camp, I knew he was not going back to the others, and reasoned that he would hardly dare to return to Thirkle, who had probably missed the sack of gold, or would demand explanations which Petrak would have difficulty in giving.
I picked up the knife and went and looked at Long Jim. Seeing he was dead I took his pistols; but gave him scant attention, being afraid Thirkle or Buckrow might be about, investigating the sound of the shots. Petrak's estimates on the distance of their hiding-place had been rather vague.
I turned away to the west in the direction I felt sure the trail must be, and, when the ground was clear, ran as fast as I could. I made about half a mile in as straight a line as I could, and then began to worry; for, although the ground had sloped in front of me, I felt that I should have crossed the bed of the stream which was the trail we had followed.
I kept on, my face and hands scratched by prickly vines and my clothing torn by fighting through thickets, and a panic began to grow on me that I was lost, although I refused to admit it. I soon had to stop running from exhaustion, the torment of the heat and thirst; and the four big pistols dragged at my belt and the ammunition in my pockets began to hang heavy. I began to fear that darkness would come on before I could find the trail.
Despair began to get the upper hand, when I caught the dull boom of a pistol-shot, and it so startled me that I could not decide the direction it came from. I stopped to listen, afraid that Thirkle had found Captain Riggs and Rajah.
Soon there was another report, and then a third, and what puzzled me most was that they seemed to be just where I had come from. The echoes came back to me from the hills and died away in dismal reverberations in the jungle. It seemed to be some signal, but, whether from the captain or Thirkle, I had no way of knowing.
I was tempted to fire a shot in reply, but, deciding to wait for another, I turned in my tracks and started back, although not on the same trail I had come over, but to the right of it.
I blamed myself for leaving the captain, for I should have kept with him, no matter what happened. I had made a fine mess of my scouting trip, but found some excuse for myself in the fact that I did right in following Long Jim and Petrak, and had a good reason to believe that they were going to the pirate camp.
I tried to reason out the significance of the three shots I had heard. They might mean that Captain Riggs had fired on Thirkle, or that Thirkle had fired on him. In a kind of frenzy at my own helplessness I figured the various combinations of the three shots as I went along, but all the time I was in a frantic haste to find the trail.
Finally I found the dry bed of a little stream; but a careful search showed no signs of any person having been over it, and it seemed to me, in my upset sense of direction, that it should lead the other way. But, remembering that I had left the bed of the creek to follow Long Jim and Petrak, I came to the conclusion that the pirates had abandoned the creek, or had turned off from it to cache the gold.
I started down it, hoping that it was the one which would lead me to the captain. My courage was freshened, and, taking a slow trot jumping from stones to the hard sand, dodging over-hanging branches, and scrambling up on the banks to avoid creepers, I covered a great deal of ground in a short time. I kept close watch on the clear spaces for tracks, and carried my two pistols in the front of my belt, Long Jim's pair well behind.
I was running and jumping along in this way, as quietly as possible, when I heard a low, peculiar gruff growl. I stopped in my tracks and listened. Crawling into the bushes I rested on my knees with a pistol in each hand, my mouth wide open so as to breathe silently, for I was panting from my flight.
"Ye didn't look to Bucky for this, did ye?" I heard Buckrow say, so close at hand that, it startled me. There was no reply to his question, and after a few minutes I crawled toward him. I found myself in an outcrop of volcanic rock, and beyond the face of a sheer ledge. The soil was moist ten feet away from the bed of the stream, and bamboo and the thick, coarse colgon grass was as high as my shoulder.
Keeping well hidden in the bamboo and grass I crept to a high spot, and right under the edge of the cliff I saw Thirkle sitting on a sack of gold, with his hands across his knees, holding a piece of rope and gazing down at it as if in doubt what to do with it. His bare, bald head was bowed low.
Buckrow was lying in front of him, with his chin propped in his hands. He was smoking a cigar and looking at Thirkle. Behind them were piled the sacks of gold, close to a wide crack in the cliff, a sort of canon, wide enough for a man to enter, and overgrown at the top with brush and green fronds, for the cliffside was wet and dripping, and veiled with mosses.
"Got it in yer old skull that Bucky was a fool, hey?" said Buckrow, blowing a cloud of smoke at Thirkle. "Well, I'm Bad Buckrow, and I was Bad Buckrow afore ever I saw ye, and I had a bit of brains of my own afore ever I met up with ye, Thirkle. Ye can bear that in mind. See how ye come out when ye monkeyed with me. Them other two fools went off in the wood and plugged one another, but that ain't me, Thirkle. Yer sharp, Thirkle; ye always was a sharp one, but ye ain't sharp enough for Bucky, and it's me that's tellin' ye that."
Thirkle made no reply, but kept his head down, staring at the rope in his hands, as if he were considering some weighty problem.
"Wanted it all, hey?" went on Buckrow. "Think I'm goin' to put my neck in a rope for ye and then let ye hog it all, hey? Maybe ye can fool the others, but I'm Bad Buckrow, I am, and I don't let the like of you, Mr. Thirkle, hang nothin' on me—leastways, not so easy as ye looked for. Why, I had my eye on ye and every move ye made after ye sent Reddy and Jim away to slit one another's throats! Thought I'd fall for it, did ye? See what come of it? Ye see, don't ye? I'm Bad Buckrow."
Thirkle moved uneasily and cleared his throat, but did not lift his head or give any answer. But, when he put his head to one side and shook it, I saw a red patch on his scalp over his right ear, and a smear of blood down his cheek. Then I realized that the rope over his hands made him a prisoner, and that Buckrow had turned against him.
"Wanted to do for me too, did ye. I knew yer game, old boy! I saw them eyes of yours on me, and murder in 'em, and it's me ought to know when ye plan to cut a man down—I know Thirkle.
"Knew ye'd turn on me some day this way when we made it rich. The lot of it was small pickin', but here's half o' London under our feet to be split four ways; but ye wanted it all, and ye wanted us out of yer way so ye could sleep o' nights. Nice game it was. Fine gent ye'd be, with all of us dead here, and nobody to ever tell who Thirkle was, or about the Kut Sang, or the others.
"Get away in the boats, ye would, and come back some day for the gold and then cut it for London, prayin' yer way out of the country, and folks'd wonder what come of the Devil's Admiral and his crew when no more ships was lost the way we made 'em go."
"Don't worry me, Bucky," said Thirkle quietly.
"Don't worry of ye! Don't bother, Thirkle. Yer sharp, but yer good as dead now. It's me that'll be the fine gent and wear walkin'-about clothes, and have my drink and comfort, and nobody to split on me. I'll play yer own game, and leave ye here to rot. How like ye that, Thirkle?"
"Ye are on the wrong tack, Bucky," he said quietly, without lifting his head. "Dead on the wrong tack and shoal water ahead."
"Nasty weather ahead for you, Thirkle—never fret about Bucky."
"Dead on the wrong tack," repeated Thirkle, as if talking to himself. "I looked to you for better than this, and trusted you too. I wanted to play fair with ye, Bucky, because ye've got brains, which a man wouldn't think to hear ye now."
"Brains enough not to be cut down like a bullock by Thirkle, when the last comes to the last."
"Reddy and Jim were not fit men to trust with a heap of gold like this, Bucky, and it's you that knows the truth of what I say. They would have the whole thing cut open in a week once they got into some port with their pockets full of sovereigns and their skins full of rum, and their mouths full of babble in the public houses of their wealth and how smart they be.
"First we'd know Petrak would be telling how we took the Southern Cross and the Legaspi and the Kut Sang, best of all, and last. Now wouldn't that be the way with him once he got at the gin? Hey, Bucky?"
"He could be watched and his lip kept shut," said Buckrow.
"Would you want to trust yer neck to Petrak's close lip? Tell me that, Bucky. Could ye sleep with Petrak and his bragging, and Long Jim and his bragging, and the two of 'em whispering together, considering the friends they make when drunk. Why, Bucky, man! Long Jim would tell the whole tale to a barmaid for a smile, as he come near telling that girl in Malta, with the whole Mediterranean fleet ashore in Valetta.
"If it wasn't for me we'd been in a jam, what with the stories that were going the rounds about us then, and a P.O. out of the Implacable trying to chum with me. I wanted to play fair with ye, Bucky, because yer too smart to let the drink get the better of ye—but what's the use. I don't want to argue with ye. Go on and play it alone if ye think ye can."
"Well, right ye are," said Buckrow scornfully. "That's the true words ye speak now, Thirkle. Ye don't want to argue with me. Right-o—a man can't argue with cold steel—and what's more, ye won't, if I'm Bad Buckrow. I know ye've got a smooth lingo when ye get in a trap, but ye can't squirm out this time. I'll hold the weather of ye this commission, Thirkle."
"Ye'll never get away with it, Bucky. It takes more brains than ye've got to handle half a ton of gold. Not that ye ain't got the brains so much as ye don't know how to handle 'em. There's many a man foremast with more brains than his skipper, but that don't make him skipper."
"It don't take no skipper to handle cargo of this sort," said Buckrow.
"Ye can't do it alone, Bucky. How about coming back for it? What'll ye tell the crew that comes back with ye? Didn't I plan it all out to get it? I planned this job and made fair weather of it, didn't I?
"You and the others couldn't done it alone, you know that. Well, ye won't get away with it, ye can be sure of that. It isn't in ye, Bucky, to do the job. The hardest is to come yet, as ye'll see when ye go about getting this away all clear."
"Never ye fret about me, Thirkle. I turned a couple of tricks afore ever I crossed yer bows, lay to that. I ain't the dog of a sailor ye take me for. I was a gent once, and I'll be a gent again, and no thanks to ye, Thirkle. It don't take no brains to spend a guinea at a time, even if a man knows he has a house full of 'em, and I can be respectable, too, and take my drink alone in my own house."
"I'll grant ye are no fool, Bucky. It all looks nice and easy, but who took ye out of the gutter in Sarawak? Where would ye be to-day if it wasn't for Thirkle? Tell me that, Bucky?"
Buckrow puffed at his cigar a minute, and seemed to consider the matter before replying.
"I was down and out right enough then, Thirkle, but I ain't the kind to stay down long, Thirkle. What with fever and jail, and a bad cut in the hip, I was in a bad way, but no fault of mine, only my cussed luck. I've had my hard goin' in my life, and now I'm to take it snug."
"The hangman was around the corner that time in Sarawak, and close-hauled on a course that would fetch him alongside ye in no time," said Thirkle, looking up and smiling wearily.
"Never ye mind about the hangman, Mr. Thirkle! He was around the corner with ye, too, for that, and more than once. Ye mind Hong-Kong? Who saved ye from the hangman in Hong-Kong? I ask ye that. It was Bucky; but that had no stop on ye here when ye planned to do for me. I saved ye from the hangman, too, and now the score is even, and ye can't whine if I come yer own game on ye."
"I don't deny ye served me a turn in Hong-Kong, Bucky, and that's why I was to play fair and above board with ye here. Ye think ye know me, and who I am, and who I was, but ye don't, Bucky, and if ye did ye'd have more thought about what yer up to here. Thirkle I'm known as, and as Thirkle I'll die, and I'm rough in my ways and language because I have fallen into those ways with my men.
"When I'm a sailor I'm as sailors are, and when I'm a parson I know how to play it, but ye've never seen me as a fine gentleman. Maybe ye'd like to know who I was before I was Thirkle and got to be the Devil's Admiral, as they call me for the want of something better, seeing I have played my game careful and kept them all in the dark."
"It's naught to me who ye was or are, Thirkle. Ye can't oil me out of it with all yer fine talk—I'm to do for ye when I'm minded, and yer slick talk can't save ye."
Buckrow got up and slung a rope over his shoulders and began to make a sling so that he could balance a sack of gold on each end of it.
"I was an officer in the navy, Bucky," said Thirkle, with a sly grin.
"An officer!" exclaimed Buckrow, halting in his work.
"An officer in the navy with the queen's commission at my back and an admiral's flag ahead," said Thirkle, pleased with the impression he had made. "That's what, Bucky. Now ye see I was the lad to finish the job here in fine style. That's why I can get away with this gold, which you can't. I can show a wad of five-pound notes and not have Scotland Yard at my heels, or charter a ship and crew and go about it businesslike, and take my time at it.
"Nice job ye'll make of it, coming back here for this gold. You've got the whip hand now, and I'll let it go at that; but when they've got ye on the gallows, which they will, remember what Thirkle told ye, sitting here in the thick of it, which ye think ye'll spend for high life in London. Before ye ever get it to London ye'll find it's another tune ye'll play. Maybe ye think ye can fill a ship with gold and sail to the dockhead and lift it out and let it go at that—they'll take the gold and hang you, that's what.
"No doubt ye think the owners of this gold won't have a word to say when they find the Kut Sang overdue. Maybe ye think the looting of her was the easiest part of it; but ye'll find murder is easy, while keeping it quiet is another tale and another trick. Any man with a knife can go out and stab a man in the back, but he finds what comes after, the worst of it.
"It looks easy to ye because we got away with the Southern Cross and the Legaspi—but when ye mount the gallows ye'll see the best of old Thirkle's tricks was to keep his tracks clear and things running sweet. They'll take you and wring it all out of ye, the whole murderous story, and swing ye from a high place. Ye'll end on the gallows, Bucky."
"Never ye fret about the gallows. I'll get this gold away neat and clean if it takes me twenty years, and I'm the lad that can wait until the time is ripe."
"Maybe ye can," said Thirkle, "but all I want you to remember is that Thirkle said ye couldn't, and my words will come to ye when ye take those thirteen steps up to the rope. Just keep that in mind, Bucky."
Buckrow made no reply, but busied himself again with the sling, and as he got down on his knees with his back toward me, I decided that it was time that I took a hand in the proceedings. With Thirkle bound, I had nothing to fear from him, and I began to draw myself up from the ground, intending to get on one knee and then empty my pistol into Buckrow, who was not a dozen yards away.
If it had not been that there was a great deal of high, dry grass, that would crackle if I tried to run through it, I would have attempted to rush in on Buckrow and knock him senseless with the butt of a pistol. But as Thirkle sat facing in my direction, and there was little chance of getting to Buckrow before Thirkle would see me and give the alarm, or Buckrow hear me coming, I knew the only thing to do was to kill or wound Buckrow, even though I had to shoot him in the back. It seemed an unfair advantage, and nothing better than the act of an assassin; but I reasoned that Thirkle or Buckrow would have little mercy on me if I fell into their power.
So I arose cautiously, and, parting the grass before me, reached for my pistol.
THE ART OF THIRKLE
"So Jim's done for, ye say," said Buckrow. "Good job ye made of it coming back this way, and good job for me ye did, and the worse for Thirkle."
"Clean job all around, Bucky, and I'm back to have my cut of the pile," and then I was sure of dreaming, for that was the voice of Petrak, and it seemed to me that Petrak ought to be millions of miles away, although I could not quite settle in my mind just how it was, except that I knew it couldn't be Petrak speaking—I was dreaming it, and yet I couldn't be dreaming that awful pain in my head. I tried to open my eyes, but couldn't.
"Then the Kut Sang didn't go down at all," said Thirkle's voice. "Nice job you two will have getting clear of this place with the gold now. Our dear friend, Mr. Trenholm isn't alone, I'll bet a hat on that."
"Bet yer hat with the devil himself for all the good it will bring," growled Buckrow. "This ain't none of your affair, Mr. Thirkle, and I'll thank ye to pipe down and wait until we ask ye to talk."
"What's up now, Bucky?" asked Petrak. "What's wrong now, and what's wrong with Thirkle's head? Been up—"
"We got Thirkle, too, that's what. He tried to do for me and I sapped him, and there he is, nice as pie. Wanted it all, he did, Reddy. Don't he look calm and peaceful there, with his hands crossed like a dead one? That's Mr. Thirkle for ye, all nice and snug, so he can't cut a man's throat when a chap ain't minding of him. Tried it on me no sooner as ye and Long Jim was gone, and I give him what he come for."
"Blow me for a blind beggar!" said Petrak, and I opened my eyes and saw the three of them, Thirkle, facing me, and Buckrow and Petrak standing over me as I lay on my back on the damp ground.
"That's Mr. Buckrow," sneered Thirkle. "He wants it all, Reddy, and he'll play you the same when he gets it. He wants it all, and don't waste your time counting up the guineas ye'll have, because Buckrow will have 'em all, and you and I dead and gone under ground hereabouts."
"So Thirkle wanted to do for ye, hey, Bucky? Who looked for it? But he ought to knowed better as to come any smart tricks with ye, Bucky, and we're pals, ain't we, Bucky? Say we're pals if ye like and I'll do my part."
"Pals we be, Reddy, and never ye mind enough of what he says to put in yer eye. We can split the gold ourselves and leave Mr. Thirkle here with this friend of ours. Ye know I'll play fair with ye, Red—ye know that, don't ye?"
"Sure," said Petrak. "Here's my paw on it, Bucky, and good luck to us and long life and merry times. That's a heap of gold for two, Bucky."
"Shake for a square show," said Buckrow, and the two villains shook hands across my body. I had closed my eyes again, but peeped through partly opened lids as often as I dared.
"And how come ye done for Long Jim?" asked Buckrow, and Petrak moved uneasily and cleared his throat.
"Jim played nasty with me, Bucky. Never looked to him for it, but we was down the trail a bit and he ups and turns on me with a knife. Cussed if I knows what for, and I didn't have time to ask him particulars, but had to drill him, and drill him I did, as I'm no man to stand for knife-play, and as I was trotting myself back who should I come on but the writin' chap, here, stretched in the grass, so for a time I thought he had been stretched for good when up he pops and reaches for a gun, and I give him the butt fair behind of the ear.