Ward himself was no lover of a fight, but he saw now that starvation might stare them in the face with their food gone, and everything be lost with the loss of the girl. For food and money a much more cowardly man than Bender Ward would fight to the death.
Up the face of the cliff they hurried, expecting momentarily to be either challenged or fired upon by those above them. Divine and his party looked down with mixed emotions upon those who were ascending in so threatening a manner. They found themselves truly between the devil and the deep sea.
Ward and his men were halfway up the cliff, yet Divine had made no move to repel them. He glanced timorously toward the dark forest behind from which he momentarily expected to see the savage, snarling faces of the head-hunters appear.
"Surrender! You swabs," called Ward from below, "or we'll string the last mother's son of you to the yardarm."
For reply Blanco hurled a heavy fragment of rock at the assaulters. It grazed perilously close to Ward, against whom Blanco cherished a keen hatred. Instantly Ward's revolver barked, the bullet whistling close by Divine's head. L. Cortwrite Divine, cotillion leader, ducked behind Theriere's breastwork, where he lay sprawled upon his belly, trembling in terror.
Bony Sawyer and Red Sanders followed the example of their commander. Blanco and Wison alone made any attempt to repel the assault. The big Negro ran to Divine's side and snatched the terror-stricken man's revolver from his belt. Then turning he fired at Ward. The bullet, missing its intended victim, pierced the heart of a sailor directly behind him, and as the man crumpled to the ground, rolling down the steep declivity, his fellows sought cover.
Wison followed up the advantage with a shower of well-aimed missiles, and then hostilities ceased temporarily.
"Have they gone?" queried Divine, with trembling lips, noticing the quiet that followed the shot.
"Gone nothin', yo big cowahd," replied Blanco. "Do yo done suppose dat two men is a-gwine to stan' off five? Ef yo white-livered skunks 'ud git up an' fight we might have a chanct. I'se a good min' to cut out yo cowahdly heart fer yo, das wot I has—a-lyin' der on yo belly settin' dat kin' o' example to yo men!"
Divine's terror had placed him beyond the reach of contumely or reproach.
"What's the use of fighting them?" he whimpered. "We should never have left them. It's all the fault of that fool Theriere. What can we do against the savages of this awful island if we divide our forces? They will pick us off a few at a time just as they picked off Miller and Swenson, Theriere and Byrne. We ought to tell Ward about it, and call this foolish battle off."
"Now you're talkin'," cried Bony Sawyer. "I'm not a-goin' to squat up here any longer with my friends a-shootin' at me from below an' a lot of wild heathen creeping down on me from above to cut off my bloomin' head."
"Same here!" chimed in Red Sanders.
Blanco looked toward Wison. For his own part the Negro would not have been averse to returning to the fold could the thing be accomplished without danger of reprisal on the part of Skipper Simms and Ward; but he knew the men so well that he feared to trust them even should they seemingly acquiesce to any such proposal. On the other hand, he reasoned, it would be as much to their advantage to have the deserters return to them as it would to the deserters themselves, for when they had heard the story told by Red Sanders and Wison of the murder of the others of the party they too would realize the necessity for maintaining the strength of the little company to its fullest.
"I don't see that we're goin' to gain nothin' by fightin' 'em," said Wison. "There ain't nothin' in it any more nohow for nobody since the girl's gorn. Let's chuck it, an' see wot terms we can make with Squint Eye."
"Well," grumbled the Negro, "I can't fight 'em alone; What yo doin' dere, Bony?"
During the conversation Bony Sawyer had been busy with a stick and a piece of rag, and now as he turned toward his companions once more they saw that he had rigged a white flag of surrender. None interfered as he raised it above the edge of the breastwork.
Immediately there was a hail from below. It was Ward's voice.
"Surrenderin', eh? Comin' to your senses, are you?" he shouted.
Divine, feeling that immediate danger from bullets was past, raised his head above the edge of the earthwork.
"We have something to communicate, Mr. Ward," he called.
"Spit it out, then; I'm a-listenin'," called back the mate.
"Miss Harding, Mr. Theriere, Byrne, Miller, and Swenson have been captured and killed by native head-hunters," said Divine.
Ward's eyes went wide, and he blew out his cheeks in surprise. Then his face went black with an angry scowl.
"You see what you done now, you blitherin' fools, you!" he cried, "with your funny business? You gone an' killed the goose what laid the golden eggs. Thought you'd get it all, didn't you? and now nobody won't get nothin', unless it is the halter. Nice lot o' numbskulls you be, an' whimperin' 'round now expectin' of us to take you back—well, I reckon not, not on your measly lives," and with that he raised his revolver to fire again at Divine.
The society man toppled over backward into the pit behind the breastwork before Ward had a chance to pull the trigger.
"Hol' on there mate!" cried Bony Sawyer; "there ain't no call now fer gettin' excited. Wait until you hear all we gotta say. You can't blame us pore sailormen. It was this here fool dude and that scoundrel Theriere that put us up to it. They told us that you an' Skipper Simms was a-fixin' to double-cross us all an' leave us here to starve on this Gawd-forsaken islan'. Theriere said that he was with you when you planned it. That you wanted to git rid o' as many of us as you could so that you'd have more of the ransom to divide. So all we done was in self-defense, as it were.
"Why not let bygones be bygones, an' all of us join forces ag'in' these murderin' heathen? There won't be any too many of us at best—Red an' Wison seen more'n two thousan' of the man-eatin' devils. They're a-creepin' up on us from behin' right this minute, an' you can lay to that; an' the chances are that they got some special kind o' route into that there cove, an' maybe they're a-watchin' of you right now!"
Ward turned an apprehensive glance to either side. There was logic in Bony's proposal. They couldn't spare a man now. Later he could punish the offenders at his leisure—when he didn't need them any further.
"Will you swear on the Book to do your duty by Skipper Simms an' me if we take you back?" asked Ward.
"You bet," answered Bony Sawyer.
The others nodded their heads, and Divine sprang up and started down toward Ward.
"Hol' on you!" commanded the mate. "This here arrangement don' include you—it's jes' between Skipper Simms an' his sailors. You're a rank outsider, an' you butts in an' starts a mutiny. Ef you come back you gotta stand trial fer that—see?"
"You better duck, mister," advised Red Sanders; "they'll hang you sure."
Divine went white. To face trial before two such men as Simms and Ward meant death, of that he was positive. To flee into the forest meant death, almost equally certain, and much more horrible. The man went to his knees, lifting supplicating hands to the mate.
"For God's sake, Mr. Ward," he cried, "be merciful. I was led into this by Theriere. He lied to me just as he did to the men. You can't kill me—it would be murder—they'd hang you for it."
"We'll hang for this muss you got us into anyway, if we're ever caught," growled the mate. "Ef you hadn't a-carried the girl off to be murdered we might have had enough ransom money to have got clear some way, but now you gone and cooked the whole goose fer the lot of us."
"You can collect ransom on me," cried Divine, clutching at a straw. "I'll pay a hundred thousand myself the day you set me down in a civilized port, safe and free."
Ward laughed in his face.
"You ain't got a cent, you four-flusher," he cried. "Clinker put us next to that long before we sailed from Frisco."
"Clinker lies," cried Divine. "He doesn't know anything about it—I'm rich."
"Wot's de use ob chewin' de rag 'bout all dis," cried Blanco, seeing where he might square himself with Ward and Simms easily. "Does yo' take back all us sailormen, Mr. Ward, an' promise not t' punish none o' us, ef we swear to stick by yo' all in de future?"
"Yes," replied the mate.
Blanco took a step toward Divine.
"Den yo come along too as a prisoner, white man," and the burly black grasped Divine by the scruff of the neck and forced him before him down the steep trail toward the cove, and so the mutineers returned to the command of Skipper Simms, and L. Cortwrite Divine went with them as a prisoner, charged with a crime the punishment for which has been death since men sailed the seas.
CHAPTER XI. THE VILLAGE OF YOKA
FOR several minutes Barbara Harding lay where she had collapsed after the keen short sword of the daimio had freed her from the menace of his lust.
She was in a half-stupor that took cognizance only of a freezing terror and exhaustion. Presently, however, she became aware of her contact with the corpse beside her, and with a stifled cry she shrank away from it.
Slowly the girl regained her self-control and with it came the realization of the extremity of her danger. She rose to a sitting posture and turned her wide eyes toward the doorway to the adjoining room—the women and children seemed yet wrapped in slumber. It was evident that the man's scream had not disturbed them.
Barbara gained her feet and moved softly to the doorway. She wondered if she could cross the intervening space to the outer exit without detection. Once in the open she could flee to the jungle, and then there was a chance at least that she might find her way to the coast and Theriere.
She gripped the short sword which she still held, and took a step into the larger room. One of the women turned and half roused from sleep. The girl shrank back into the darkness of the chamber she had just quitted. The woman sat up and looked around. Then she rose and threw some sticks upon the fire that burned at one side of the dwelling. She crossed to a shelf and took down a cooking utensil. Barbara saw that she was about to commence the preparation of breakfast.
All hope of escape was thus ended, and the girl cautiously closed the door between the two rooms. Then she felt about the smaller apartment for some heavy object with which to barricade herself; but her search was fruitless. Finally she bethought herself of the corpse. That would hold the door against the accident of a child or dog pushing it open—it would be better than nothing, but could she bring herself to touch the loathsome thing?
The instinct of self-preservation will work wonders even with a frail and delicate woman. Barbara Harding steeled herself to the task, and after several moments of effort she succeeded in rolling the dead man against the door. The scraping sound of the body as she dragged it into position had sent cold shivers running up her spine.
She had removed the man's long sword and armor before attempting to move him, and now she crouched beside the corpse with both the swords beside her—she would sell her life dearly. Theriere's words came back to her now as they had when she was struggling in the water after the wreck of the Halfmoon: "but, by George, I intend to go down fighting." Well, she could do no less.
She could hear the movement of several persons in the next room now. The voices of women and children came to her distinctly. Many of the words were Japanese, but others were of a tongue with which she was not familiar.
Presently her own chamber began to lighten. She looked over her shoulder and saw the first faint rays of dawn showing through a small aperture near the roof and at the opposite end of the room. She rose and moved quickly toward it. By standing on tiptoe and pulling herself up a trifle with her hands upon the sill she was able to raise her eyes above the bottom of the window frame.
Beyond she saw the forest, not a hundred yards away; but when she attempted to crawl through the opening she discovered to her chagrin that it was too small to permit the passage of her body. And then there came a knocking on the door she had just quitted, and a woman's voice calling her lord and master to his morning meal.
Barbara ran quickly across the chamber to the door, the long sword raised above her head in both hands. Again the woman knocked, this time much louder, and raised her voice as she called again upon Oda Yorimoto to come out.
The girl within was panic-stricken. What should she do? With but a little respite she might enlarge the window sufficiently to permit her to escape into the forest, but the woman at the door evidently would not be denied. Suddenly an inspiration came to her. It was a forlorn hope, but well worth putting to the test.
"Hush!" she hissed through the closed door. "Oda Yorimoto sleeps. It is his wish that he be not disturbed."
For a moment there was silence beyond the door, and then the woman grunted, and Barbara heard her turn back, muttering to herself. The girl breathed a deep sigh of relief—she had received a brief reprieve from death.
Again she turned to the window, where, with the short sword, she commenced her labor of enlarging it to permit the passage of her body. The work was necessarily slow because of the fact that it must proceed with utter noiselessness.
For an hour she worked, and then again came an interruption at the door. This time it was a man.
"Oda Yorimoto still sleeps," whispered the girl. "Go away and do not disturb him. He will be very angry if you awaken him."
But the man would not be put off so easily as had the woman. He still insisted.
"The daimio has ordered that there shall be a great hunt today for the heads of the sei-yo-jin who have landed upon Yoka," persisted the man. "He will be angry indeed if we do not call him in time to accomplish the task today. Let me speak with him, woman. I do not believe that Oda Yorimoto still sleeps. Why should I believe one of the sei-yo-jin? It may be that you have bewitched the daimio," and with that he pushed against the door.
The corpse gave a little, and the man glued his eyes to the aperture. Barbara held the sword behind her, and with her shoulder against the door attempted to reclose it.
"Go away!" she cried. "I shall be killed if you awaken Oda Yorimoto, and, if you enter, you, too, shall be killed."
The man stepped back from the door, and Barbara could hear him in low converse with some of the women of the household. A moment later he returned, and without a word of warning threw his whole weight against the portal. The corpse slipped back enough to permit the entrance of the man's body, and as he stumbled into the room the long sword of the Lord of Yoka fell full and keen across the back of his brown neck.
Without a sound he lunged to the floor, dead; but the women without had caught a fleeting glimpse of what had taken place within the little chamber, even before Barbara Harding could slam the door again, and with shrieks of rage and fright they rushed into the main street of the village shouting at the tops of their voices that Oda Yorimoto and Hawa Nisho had been slain by the woman of the sei-yo-jin.
Instantly, the village swarmed with samurai, women, children, and dogs. They rushed toward the hut of Oda Yorimoto, filling the outer chamber where they jabbered excitedly for several minutes, the warriors attempting to obtain a coherent story from the moaning women of the daimio's household.
Barbara Harding crouched close to the door, listening. She knew that the crucial moment was at hand; that there were at best but a few moments for her to live. A silent prayer rose from her parted lips. She placed the sharp point of Oda Yorimoto's short sword against her breast, and waited—waited for the coming of the men from the room beyond, snatching a few brief seconds from eternity ere she drove the weapon into her heart.
Theriere plunged through the jungle at a run for several minutes before he caught sight of the mucker.
"Are you still on the trail?" he called to the man before him.
"Sure," replied Byrne. "It's dead easy. They must o' been at least a dozen of 'em. Even a mutt like me couldn't miss it."
"We want to go carefully, Byrne," cautioned Theriere. "I've had experience with these fellows before, and I can tell you that you never know when one of 'em is near you till you feel a spear in your back, unless you're almighty watchful. We've got to make all the haste we can, of course, but it won't help Miss Harding any if we rush into an ambush and get our heads lopped off."
Byrne saw the wisdom of his companion's advice and tried to profit by it; but something which seemed to dominate him today carried him ahead at reckless, breakneck speed—the flight of an eagle would have been all too slow to meet the requirements of his unaccountable haste.
Once he found himself wondering why he was risking his life to avenge or rescue this girl whom he hated so. He tried to think that it was for the ransom—yes, that was it, the ransom. If he found her alive, and rescued her he should claim the lion's share of the booty.
Theriere too wondered why Byrne, of all the other men upon the Halfmoon the last that he should have expected to risk a thing for the sake of Miss Harding, should be the foremost in pursuit of her captors.
"I wonder how far behind Sanders and Wison are," he remarked to Byrne after they had been on the trail for the better part of an hour. "Hadn't we better wait for them to catch up with us? Four can do a whole lot more than two."
"Not wen Billy Byrne's one of de two," replied the mucker, and continued doggedly along the trail.
Another half-hour brought them suddenly in sight of a native village, and Billy Byrne was for dashing straight into the center of it and "cleaning it up," as he put it, but Theriere put his foot down firmly on that proposition, and finally Byrne saw that the other was right.
"The trail leads straight toward that place," said Theriere, "so I suppose here is where they brought her, but which of the huts she's in now we ought to try to determine before we make any attempt to rescue her. Well, by George! Now what do you think of that?"
"Tink o' wot?" asked the mucker. "Wot's eatin' yeh?"
"See those three men down there in the village, Byrne?" asked the Frenchman. "They're no more aboriginal headhunters than I am—they're Japs, man. There must be something wrong with our trailing, for it's as certain as fate itself that Japs are not head-hunters."
"There ain't been nothin' fony about our trailin', bo," insisted Byrne, "an' whether Japs are bean collectors or not here's where de ginks dat copped de doll hiked fer, an if dey ain't dere now it's because dey went t'rough an' out de odder side, see."
"Hush, Byrne," whispered Theriere. "Drop down behind this bush. Someone is coming along this other trail to the right of us," and as he spoke he dragged the mucker down beside him.
For a moment they crouched, breathless and expectant, and then the slim figure of an almost nude boy emerged from the foliage close beside and entered the trail toward the village. Upon his head he bore a bundle of firewood.
When he was directly opposite the watchers Theriere sprang suddenly upon him, clapping a silencing hand over the boy's mouth. In Japanese he whispered a command for silence.
"We shall not harm you if you keep still," he said, "and answer our questions truthfully. What village is that?"
"It is the chief city of Oda Yorimoto, Lord of Yoka," replied the youth. "I am Oda Iseka, his son."
"And the large hut in the center of the village street is the palace of Oda Yorimoto?" guessed Theriere shrewdly.
The Frenchman was not unversed in the ways of orientals, and he guessed also that if the white girl were still alive in the village she would be in no other hut than that of the most powerful chief; but he wished to verify his deductions if possible. He knew that a direct question as to the whereabouts of the girl would call forth either a clever oriental evasion or an equally clever oriental lie.
"Does Oda Yorimoto intend slaying the white woman that was brought to his house last night?" asked Theriere.
"How should the son know the intentions of his father?" replied the boy.
"Is she still alive?" continued Theriere.
"How should I know, who was asleep when she was brought, and only heard the womenfolk this morning whispering that Oda Yorimoto had brought home a new woman the night before."
"Could you not see her with your own eyes?" asked Theriere.
"My eyes cannot pass through the door of the little room behind, in which they still were when I left to gather firewood a half hour since," retorted the youth.
"Wot's de Chink sayin'?" asked Billy Byrne, impatient of the conversation, no word of which was intelligible to him.
"He says, in substance," replied Theriere, with a grin, "that Miss Harding is still alive, and in the back room of that largest hut in the center of the village street; but," and his face clouded, "Oda Yorimoto, the chief of the tribe, is with her."
The mucker sprang to his feet with an oath, and would have bolted for the village had not Theriere laid a detaining hand upon his shoulder.
"It is too late, my friend," he said sadly, "to make haste now. We may, if we are cautious, be able to save her life, and later, possibly, avenge her wrong. Let us act coolly, and after some manner of plan, so that we may work together, and not throw our lives away uselessly. The chance is that neither of us will come out of that village alive, but we must minimize that chance to the utmost if we are to serve Miss Harding."
"Well, wot's de word?" asked the mucker, for he saw that Theriere was right.
"The jungle approaches the village most closely on the opposite side—the side in rear of the chief's hut," pointed out Theriere. "We must circle about until we can reach that point undetected, then we may formulate further plans from what our observations there develop."
"An' dis?" Byrne shoved a thumb at Oda Iseka.
"We'll take him with us—it wouldn't be safe to let him go now."
"Why not croak him?" suggested Byrne.
"Not unless we have to," replied Theriere; "he's just a boy—we'll doubtless have all the killing we want among the men before we get out of this."
"I never did have no use fer Chinks," said the mucker, as though in extenuation of his suggestion that they murder the youth. For some unaccountable reason he had felt a sudden compunction because of his thoughtless remark. What in the world was coming over him, he wondered. He'd be wearing white pants and playing lawn tennis presently if he continued to grow much softer and more unmanly.
So the three set out through the jungle, following a trail which led around to the north of the village. Theriere walked ahead with the boy's arm in his grasp. Byrne followed closely behind. They reached their destination in the rear of Oda Yorimoto's "palace" without interruption or detection. Here they reconnoitered through the thick foliage.
"Dere's a little winder in de back of de house," said Byrne. "Dat must be where dem guys cooped up de little broiler."
"Yes," said Theriere, "it would be in the back room which the boy described. First let's tie and gag this young heathen, and then we can proceed to business without fear of alarm from him," and the Frenchman stripped a long, grass rope from about the waist of his prisoner, with which he was securely trussed up, a piece of his loin cloth being forced into his mouth as a gag, and secured there by another strip, torn from the same garment, which was passed around the back of the boy's head.
"Rather uncomfortable, I imagine," commented Theriere; "but not particularly painful or dangerous—and now to business!"
"I'm goin' to make a break fer dat winder," announced the mucker, "and youse squat here in de tall grass wid yer gat an' pick off any fresh guys dat get gay in back here. Den, if I need youse you can come a-runnin' an' open up all over de shop wid de artillery, or if I gets de lizzie outen de jug an' de Chinks push me too clost youse'll be here where yeh can pick 'em off easy-like."
"You'll be taking all the risk that way, Byrne," objected Theriere, "and that's not fair."
"One o' us is pretty sure to get hurted," explained the mucker in defense of his plan, "an, if it's a croak it's a lot better dat it be me than youse, fer the girl wouldn't be crazy about bein' lef' alone wid me—she ain't got no use fer the likes o' me. Now youse are her kin, an' so youse stay here w'ere yeh can help her after I git her out—I don't want nothing to do wid her anyhow. She gives me a swift pain, and," he added as though it were an after-thought, "I ain't got no use fer dat ransom eider—youse can have dat, too."
"Hold on, Byrne," cried Theriere; "I have something to say, too. I do not see how I can expect you to believe me; but under the circumstances, when one of us and maybe both are pretty sure to die before the day is much older, it wouldn't be worth while lying. I do not want that damned ransom any more, either. I only want to do what I can to right the wrong that I have helped to perpetrate against Miss Harding. I—I—Byrne, I love her. I shall never tell her so, for I am not the sort of man a decent girl would care to marry; but I did want the chance to make a clean breast to her of all my connection with the whole dirty business, and get her forgiveness if I could; but first I wanted to prove my repentance by helping her to civilization in safety, and delivering her to her friends without the payment of a cent of money. I may never be able to do that now; but if I die in the attempt, and you don't, I wish that you would tell her what I have just told you. Paint me as black as you can—you couldn't commence to make me as black as I have been—but let her know that for love of her I turned white at the last minute. Byrne, she is the best girl that you or I ever saw—we're not fit to breathe the same air that she breathes. Now you can see why I should like to go first."
"I t'ought youse was soft on her," replied the mucker, "an' dat's de reason w'y youse otter not go first; but wot's de use o' chewin', les flip a coin to see w'ich goes an w'ich stays—got one?"
Theriere felt in his trousers' pocket, fishing out a dime.
"Heads, you go; tails, I go," he said and spun the silver piece in the air, catching it in the flat of his open palm.
"It's heads," said the mucker, grinning. "Gee! Wot's de racket?"
Both men turned toward the village, where a jabbering mob of half-caste Japanese had suddenly appeared in the streets, hurrying toward the hut of Oda Yorimoto.
"Somepin doin', eh?" said the mucker. "Well, here goes—s'long!" And he broke from the cover of the jungle and dashed across the clearing toward the rear of Oda Yorimoto's hut.
CHAPTER XII. THE FIGHT IN THE PALACE
BARBARA HARDING heard the samurai in the room beyond her prison advancing toward the door that separated them from her. She pressed the point of the daimio's sword close to her heart. A heavy knock fell upon the door and at the same instant the girl was startled by a noise behind her—a noise at the little window at the far end of the room.
Turning to face this new danger, she was startled into a little cry of surprise to see the head and shoulders of the mucker framed in the broken square of the half-demolished window.
The girl did not know whether to feel renewed hope or utter despair. She could not forget the heroism of her rescue by this brutal fellow when the Halfmoon had gone to pieces the day before, nor could she banish from her mind his threats of violence toward her, or his brutal treatment of Mallory and Theriere. And the question arose in her mind as to whether she would be any better off in his power than in the clutches of the savage samurai.
Billy Byrne had heard the knock upon the door before which the girl knelt. He had seen the corpses of the dead men at her feet. He had observed the telltale position of the sword which the girl held to her breast and he had read much of the story of the impending tragedy at a glance.
"Cheer up, kid!" he whispered. "I'll be wid youse in a minute, an' Theriere's out here too, to help youse if I can't do it alone."
The girl turned toward the door again.
"Wait," she cried to the samurai upon the other side, "until I move the dead men, then you may come in, their bodies bar the door now."
All that kept the warriors out was the fear that possibly Oda Yorimoto might not be dead after all, and that should they force their way into the room without his permission some of them would suffer for their temerity. Naturally none of them was keen to lose his head for nothing, but the moment that the girl spoke of the dead "men" they knew that Oda Yorimoto had been slain, too, and with one accord they rushed the little door.
The girl threw all her weight against her side, while the dead men, each to the extent of his own weight, aided the woman who had killed them in her effort to repulse their fellows; and behind the three Billy Byrne kicked and tore at the mud wall about the window in a frantic effort to enlarge the aperture sufficiently to permit his huge bulk to pass through into the little room.
The mucker won to the girl's side first, and snatching Oda Yorimoto's long sword from the floor he threw his great weight against the door, and commanded the girl to make for the window and escape to the forest as quickly as she could.
"Theriere is waiting dere," he said. "He will see youse de moment yeh reach de window, and den youse will be safe."
"But you!" cried the girl. "What of you?"
"Never yeh mind me," commanded Billy Byrne. "Youse jes' do as I tells yeh, see? Now, beat it," and he gave her a rough shove toward the window.
And then, between the combined efforts of the samurai upon one side and Billy Byrne of Kelly's gang upon the other the frail door burst from its rotten hinges and fell to one side.
The first of the samurai into the little room was cleft from crown to breast bone with the keen edge of the sword of the Lord of Yoka wielded by the mighty arm of the mucker. The second took the count with a left hook to the jaw, and then all that could crowd through the little door swarmed upon the husky bruiser from Grand Avenue.
Barbara Harding took one look at the carnage behind her and then sprang to the window. At a short distance she saw the jungle and at its edge what she was sure was the figure of a man crouching in the long grass.
"Mr. Theriere!" she cried. "Quick! They are killing Byrne," and then she turned back into the room, and with the short sword which she still grasped in her hand sprang to the side of the mucker who was offering his life to save her.
Byrne cast a horrified glance at the figure fighting by his side.
"Fer de love o' Mike! Beat it!" he cried. "Duck! Git out o' here!"
But the girl only smiled up bravely into his face and kept her place beside him. The mucker tried to push her behind him with one hand while he fought with the other, but she drew away from him to come up again a little farther from him.
The samurai were pushing them closely now. Three men at a time were reaching for the mucker with their long swords. He was bleeding from numerous wounds, but at his feet lay two dead warriors, while a third crawled away with a mortal wound in his abdomen.
Barbara Harding devoted her energies to thrusting and cutting at those who tried to press past the mucker, that they might take him from behind. The battle could not last long, so unequal were the odds. She saw the room beyond filled with surging warriors all trying to force their way within reach of the great white man who battled like some demigod of old in the close, dark, evil warren of the daimio.
She shot a side glance at the man. He was wonderful! The fire of battle had transformed him. No longer was he the sullen, sulky, hulking brute she had first known upon the Halfmoon. Instead, huge, muscular, alert, he towered above his pygmy antagonists, his gray eyes gleaming, a half-smile upon his strong lips.
She saw the long sword, wielded awkwardly in his unaccustomed hands, beat down the weapons of his skilled foemen by the very ferocity of its hurtling attack. She saw it pass through a man's shoulder, cleaving bone and muscle as if they had been cheese, until it stopped two-thirds across its victim's body, cutting him almost in two.
She saw a samurai leap past her champion's guard in an attempt to close upon him with a dagger, and when she had rushed forward to thwart the fellow's design she had seen Byrne swing his mighty left to the warrior's face with a blow that might well have felled an ox. Then another leaped into closer quarters and she saw Byrne at the same instant bury his sword in the body of a dark-visaged devil who looked more Malay than Jap, and as the stricken man fell she saw the hilt of the mucker's blade wrenched from his grip by the dead body of his foe. The samurai who had closed upon Byrne at that instant found his enemy unarmed, and with a howl of delight he struck full at the broad chest with his long, thin dagger.
But Billy Byrne was not to be dispatched so easily. With his left forearm he struck up the hand that wielded the menacing blade, and then catching the fellow by the shoulder swung him around, grasped him about the waist and lifting him above his head hurled him full in the faces of the swordsmen who were pressing through the narrow doorway.
Almost simultaneously a spear shot through a tiny opening in the ranks before Billy Byrne, and with a little gasp of dismay the huge fellow pitched forward upon his face. At the same instant a shot rang out behind Barbara Harding, and Theriere leaped past her to stand across the body of the fallen mucker.
With the sound of the shot a samurai sank to the floor, dead, and the others, unaccustomed to firearms, drew back in dismay. Again Theriere fired point-blank into the crowded room, and this time two men fell, struck by the same bullet. Once more the warriors retreated, and with an exultant yell Theriere followed up his advantage by charging menacingly upon them. They stood for a moment, then wavered, turned and fled from the hut.
When Theriere turned back toward Barbara Harding he found her kneeling beside the mucker.
"Is he dead?" asked the Frenchman.
"No. Can we lift him together and get him through that window?"
"It is the only way," replied Theriere, "and we must try it."
They seized upon the huge body and dragged it to the far end of the room, but despite their best efforts the two were not able to lift the great, inert mass of flesh and bone and muscle and pass it through the tiny opening.
"What shall we do?" cried Theriere.
"We must stay here with him," replied Barbara Harding. "I could never desert the man who has fought so noble a fight for me while a breath of life remained in him."
"Nor I," he said; "but you—he has given his life to save yours. Should you render his sacrifice of no avail now?"
"I cannot go alone," she answered simply, "and I know that you will not leave him. There is no other way—we must stay."
At this juncture the mucker opened his eyes.
"Who hit me?" he murmured. "Jes' show me de big stiff." Theriere could not repress a smile. Barbara Harding again knelt beside the man.
"No one hit you, Mr. Byrne," she said. "You were struck by a spear and are badly wounded."
Billy Byrne opened his eyes a little wider, turning them until they rested on the beautiful face of the girl so close to his.
"MR. Byrne!" he ejaculated in disgust. "Forget it. Wot do youse tink I am, one of dose paper-collar dudes?"
Then he sat up. Blood was flowing from a wound in his chest, saturating his shirt, and running slowly to the earth floor. There were two flesh wounds upon his head—one above the right eye and the other extending entirely across the left cheek from below the eye to the lobe of the ear—but these he had received earlier in the fracas. From crown to heel the man was a mass of blood. Through his crimson mask he looked at the pile of bodies in the far end of the room, and a broad grin cracked the dried blood about his mouth.
"Wot we done to dem Chinks was sure a plenty, kiddo," he remarked to Miss Harding, and then he came to his feet, seemingly as strong as ever, shaking himself like a great bull. "But I guess it's lucky youse butted in when you did, old pot," he added, turning toward Theriere; "dey jest about had me down fer de long count."
Barbara Harding was looking at the man in wide-eyed amazement. A moment before she had been expecting him, momentarily, to breathe his last—now he was standing before her talking as unconcernedly as though he had not received a scratch—he seemed totally unaware of his wounds. At least he was entirely indifferent to them.
"You're pretty badly hurt, old man," said Theriere. "Do you feel able to make the attempt to get to the jungle? The Japs will be back in a moment."
"Sure!" cried Billy Byrne. "Come ahead," and he sprang for the window. "Pass de kid up to me. Quick! Dey're comin' from in back."
Theriere lifted Barbara Harding to the mucker who drew her through the opening. Then Billy extended a hand to the Frenchman, and a moment later the three stood together outside the hut.
A dozen samurai were running toward them from around the end of the "Palace." The jungle lay a hundred yards across the clearing. There was no time to be lost.
"You go first with Miss Harding," cried Theriere. "I'll cover our retreat with my revolver, following close behind you."
The mucker caught the girl in his arms, throwing her across his shoulder. The blood from his wounds smeared her hands and clothing.
"Hang tight, kiddo," he cried, and started at a brisk trot toward the forest.
Theriere kept close behind the two, reserving his fire until it could be effectively delivered. With savage yells the samurai leaped after their escaping quarry. The natives all carried the long, sharp spears of the aboriginal head-hunters. Their swords swung in their harness, and their ancient armor clanked as they ran.
It was a strange, weird picture that the oddly contrasted party presented as they raced across the clearing of this forgotten isle toward a jungle as primitive as when "the evening and the morning were the third day." An American girl of the highest social caste borne in the arms of that most vicious of all social pariahs—the criminal mucker of the slums of a great city—and defending them with drawn revolver, a French count and soldier of fortune, while in their wake streamed a yelling pack of half-caste demons clothed in the habiliments of sixteenth century Japan, and wielding the barbarous spears of the savage head-hunting aborigines whose fierce blood coursed in their veins with that of the descendants of Taka-mi-musu-bi-no-kami.
Three-quarters of the distance had been covered in safety before the samurai came within safe spear range of the trio. Theriere, seeing the danger to the girl, dropped back a few paces hoping to hold the brown warriors from her. The foremost of the pursuers raised his weapon aloft, carrying his spear hand back of his shoulder for the throw. Theriere's revolver spoke, and the man pitched forward, rolling over and over before he came to rest.
A howl of rage went up from the samurai, and a half-dozen spears leaped at long range toward Theriere. One of the weapons transfixed his thigh, bringing him to earth. Byrne was at the forest's edge as the Frenchman fell—it was the girl, though, who witnessed the catastrophe.
"Stop!" she cried. "Mr. Theriere is down."
The mucker halted, and turned his head in the direction of the Frenchman, who had raised himself to one elbow and was firing at the advancing enemy. He dropped the girl to her feet.
"Wait here!" he commanded and sprang back toward Theriere.
Before he reached him another spear had caught the man full in the chest, toppling him, unconscious, to the earth. The samurai were rushing rapidly upon the wounded officer—it was a question who would reach him first.
Theriere had been nipped in the act of reloading his revolver. It lay beside him now, the cylinder full of fresh cartridges. The mucker was first to his side, and snatching the weapon from the ground fired coolly and rapidly at the advancing Japanese. Four of them went down before that deadly fusillade; but the mucker cursed beneath his breath because of his two misses.
Byrne's stand checked the brown men momentarily, and in the succeeding lull the man lifted the unconscious Frenchman to his shoulder and bore him back to the forest. In the shelter of the jungle they laid him upon the ground. To the girl it seemed that the frightful wound in his chest must prove fatal within a few moments.
Byrne, apparently unmoved by the seriousness of Theriere's condition, removed the man's cartridge belt and buckled it about his own waist, replacing the six empty shells in the revolver with six fresh ones. Presently he noticed the bound and gagged Oda Iseka lying in the brush behind them where he and Theriere had left him. The samurai were now sneaking cautiously toward their refuge. A sudden inspiration came to the mucker.
"Didn't I hear youse chewin' de rag wit de Chinks wen I hit de dump over dere?" he asked of Barbara.
The girl, oddly, understood him. She nodded her head, affirmatively.
"Youse savvy deyre lingo den, eh?"
"Tell dis gazimbat to wise his pals to de fact dat I'll croak 'im, if dey don't beat it, an' let us make our get-away. Theriere says as how he's kink when his ole man croaks, an' his ole man was de guy youse put to sleep in de chicken coop," explained the mucker lucidly; "so dis slob's kink hisself now."
Barbara Harding was quick to see the strength of the man's suggestion. Stepping to the edge of the clearing in full view of the advancing enemy, with the mucker at her side, revolver in hand, she called to them in the language of their forbears to listen to her message. Then she explained that they held the son of Oda Yorimoto prisoner, and that his life would be the price of any further attack upon them.
The samurai conferred together for a moment, then one of them called out that they did not believe her, that Oda Iseka, son of Oda Yorimoto, was safe in the village.
"Wait!" replied the girl. "We will show him to you," and turning to Byrne she asked him to fetch the youth.
When the white man returned with the boy in his arms, a wail of mingled anguish and rage rose from the natives.
"If you molest us no further we shall not harm him," cried Barbara, "and when we leave your island we shall set him free; but renew your attack upon us and this white man who holds him says that he will cut out his heart and feed it to the fox," which was rather a bloodthirsty statement for so gentle a character as Barbara Harding; but she knew enough of the superstitious fears of the ancient Japanese to feel confident that this threat would have considerable weight with the subjects of the young Lord of Yoka.
Again the natives conferred in whispers. Finally he who had acted as spokesman before turned toward the strangers.
"We shall not harm you," he said, "so long as you do not harm Oda Iseka; but we shall watch you always until you leave the island, and if harm befalls him then shall you never leave, for we shall kill you all."
Barbara translated the man's words to the mucker.
"Do youse fall fer dat?" he asked.
"I think they will be careful to make no open assault upon us," replied the girl; "but never for an instant must we cease our watchfulness for at the first opportunity I am sure that they will murder us."
They turned back to Theriere now. The man still lay, unconscious and moaning, where Byrne had deposited him. The mucker removed the gag from Oda Iseka's mouth.
"Which way is water? Ask him," he said to Barbara.
The girl put the question.
"He says that straight up this ravine behind us there is a little spring," translated the girl.
Byrne lifted Theriere in his arms, after loosening Oda Iseka's feet and tethering him to his own belt with the same grass rope; then he motioned the youth up the ravine.
"Walk beside me," he said to Barbara Harding, "an' keep yer lamps peeled behind."
Thus, in silence, the party commenced the ascent of the trail which soon became rough and precipitous, while behind them, under cover of the brush, sneaked four trailing samurai.
After half an hour of the most arduous climbing the mucker commenced to feel the effects of loss of blood from his many wounds. He coughed a little now from the exertion, and when he did the blood spurted anew from the fresh wound in his breast.
Yet there was no wavering or weakness apparent to the girl who marched beside him, and she wondered at the physical endurance of the man. But when at last they came to a clear pool of water, half hidden by overhanging rocks and long masses of depending mosses, in the midst of a natural grotto of enchanting loveliness, and Oda Iseka signaled that their journey was at an end, Byrne laid Theriere gently upon the flower-starred sward, and with a little, choking gasp collapsed, unconscious, beside the Frenchman.
Barbara Harding was horror-stricken. She suddenly realized that she had commenced to feel that this giant of the slums was invulnerable, and with the thought came another—that to him she had come to look more than to Theriere for eventual rescue; and now, here she found herself in the center of a savage island, surrounded as she felt confident she was by skulking murderers, with only two dying white men and a brown hostage as companions.
And now Oda Iseka took in the situation, and with a grin of triumph raised his voice in a loud halloo.
"Come quickly, my people!" he cried; "for both the white men are dying," and from the jungle below them came an answering shout.
"We come, Oda Iseka, Lord of Yoka! Your faithful samurai come!"
CHAPTER XIII. A GENTLEMAN OF FRANCE
AT THE sound of the harsh voices so close upon her Barbara Harding was galvanized into instant action. Springing to Byrne's side she whipped Theriere's revolver from his belt, where it reposed about the fallen mucker's hips, and with it turned like a tigress upon the youth.
"Quick!" she cried. "Tell them to go back—that I shall kill you if they come closer."
The boy shrank back in terror before the fiery eyes and menacing attitude of the white girl, and then with the terror that animated him ringing plainly in his voice he screamed to his henchmen to halt.
Relieved for a moment at least from immediate danger Barbara Harding turned her attention toward the two unconscious men at her feet. From appearances it seemed that either might breathe his last at any moment, and as she looked at Theriere a wave of compassion swept over her, and the tears welled to her eyes; yet it was to the mucker that she first ministered—why, she could not for the life of her have explained.
She dashed cold water from the spring upon his face. She bathed his wrists, and washed his wounds, tearing strips from her skirt to bandage the horrid gash upon his breast in an effort to stanch the flow of lifeblood that welled forth with the man's every breath.
And at last she was rewarded by seeing the flow of blood quelled and signs of returning consciousness appear. The mucker opened his eyes. Close above him bent the radiant vision of Barbara Harding's face. Upon his fevered forehead he felt the soothing strokes of her cool, soft hand. He closed his eyes again to battle with the effeminate realization that he enjoyed this strange, new sensation—the sensation of being ministered to by a gentle woman—and, perish the thought, by a gentlewoman!
With an effort he raised himself to one elbow, scowling at her.
"Gwan," he said; "I ain't no boob dude. Cut out de mush. Lemme be. Beat it!"
Hurt, more than she would have cared to admit, Barbara Harding turned away from her ungrateful and ungracious patient, to repeat her ministrations to the Frenchman. The mucker read in her expression something of the wound his words had inflicted, and he lay thinking upon the matter for some time, watching her deft, white fingers as they worked over the scarce breathing Theriere.
He saw her wash the blood and dirt from the ghastly wound in the man's chest, and as he watched he realized what a world of courage it must require for a woman of her stamp to do gruesome work of this sort. Never before would such a thought have occurred to him. Neither would he have cared at all for the pain his recent words to the girl might have inflicted. Instead he would have felt keen enjoyment of her discomfiture.
And now another strange new emotion took possession of him. It was none other than a desire to atone in some way for his words. What wonderful transformation was taking place in the heart of the Kelly gangster?
"Say!" he blurted out suddenly.
Barbara Harding turned questioning eyes toward him. In them was the cold, haughty aloofness again that had marked her cognizance of him upon the Halfmoon—the look that had made his hate of her burn most fiercely. It took the mucker's breath away to witness it, and it made the speech he had contemplated more difficult than ever—nay, almost impossible. He coughed nervously, and the old dark, lowering scowl returned to his brow.
"Did you speak?" asked Miss Harding, icily.
Billy Byrne cleared his throat, and then there blurted from his lips not the speech that he had intended, but a sudden, hateful rush of words which seemed to emanate from another personality, from one whom Billy Byrne once had been.
"Ain't dat boob croaked yet?" he growled.
The shock of that brutal question brought Barbara Harding to her feet. In horror she looked down at the man who had spoken thus of a brave and noble comrade in the face of death itself. Her eyes blazed angrily as hot, bitter words rushed to her lips, and then of a sudden she thought of Byrne's self-sacrificing heroism in returning to Theriere's side in the face of the advancing samurai—of the cool courage he had displayed as he carried the unconscious man back to the jungle—of the devotion, almost superhuman, that had sustained him as he struggled, uncomplaining, up the steep mountain path with the burden of the Frenchman's body the while his own lifeblood left a crimson trail behind him.
Such deeds and these words were incompatible in the same individual. There could be but one explanation—Byrne must be two men, with as totally different characters as though they had possessed separate bodies. And who may say that her hypothesis was not correct—at least it seemed that Billy Byrne was undergoing a metamorphosis, and at the instant there was still a question as to which personality should eventually dominate.
Byrne turned away from the reproach which replaced the horror in the girl's eyes, and with a tired sigh let his head fall upon his outstretched arm. The girl watched him for a moment, a puzzled expression upon her face, and then returned to work above Theriere.
The Frenchman's respiration was scarcely appreciable, yet after a time he opened his eyes and looked up wearily. At sight of the girl he smiled wanly, and tried to speak, but a fit of coughing flecked his lips with bloody foam, and again he closed his eyes. Fainter and fainter came his breathing, until it was with difficulty that the girl detected any movement of his breast whatever. She thought that he was dying, and she was afraid. Wistfully she looked toward the mucker. The man still lay with his head buried in his arm, but whether he were wrapped in thought, in slumber, or in death the girl could not tell. At the final thought she went white with terror.
Slowly she approached the man, and leaning over placed her hand upon his shoulder.
"Mr. Byrne!" she whispered.
The mucker turned his face toward her. It looked tired and haggard.
"Wot is it?" he asked, and his tone was softer than she had ever heard it.
"I think Mr. Theriere is dying," she said, "and I—I— Oh, I am so afraid."
The man flushed to the roots of his hair. All that he could think of were the ugly words he had spoken a short time before—and now Theriere was dying! Byrne would have laughed had anyone suggested that he entertained any other sentiment than hatred toward the second officer of the Halfmoon—that is he would have twenty-four hours before; but now, quite unexpectedly, he realized that he didn't want Theriere to die, and then it dawned upon him that a new sentiment had been born within him—a sentiment to which he had been a stranger all his hard life—friendship.
He felt friendship for Theriere! It was unthinkable, and yet the mucker knew that it was so. Painfully he crawled over to the Frenchman's side.
"Theriere!" he whispered in the man's ear.
The officer turned his head wearily.
"Do youse know me, old pal?" asked the mucker, and Barbara Harding knew from the man's voice that there were tears in his eyes; but what she did not know was that they welled there in response to the words the mucker had just spoken—the nearest approach to words of endearment that ever had passed his lips.
Theriere reached up and took Byrne's hand. It was evident that he too had noted the unusual quality of the mucker's voice.
"Yes, old man," he said very faintly, and then "water, please."
Barbara Harding brought him a drink, holding his head against her knee while he drank. The cool liquid seemed to give him new strength for presently he spoke, quite strongly.
"I'm going, Byrne," he said; "but before I go I want to tell you that of all the brave men I ever have known I have learned within the past few days to believe that you are the bravest. A week ago I thought you were a coward—I ask your forgiveness."
"Ferget it," whispered Byrne, "fer a week ago I guess I was a coward. Dere seems to be more'n one kind o' nerve—I'm jest a-learnin' of the right kind, I guess."
"And, Byrne," continued Theriere, "don't forget what I asked of you before we tossed up to see which should enter Oda Yorimoto's house."
"I'll not ferget," said Billy.
"Good-bye, Byrne," whispered Theriere. "Take good care of Miss Harding."
"Good-bye, old pal," said the mucker. His voice broke, and two big tears rolled down the cheeks of "de toughest guy on de Wes' Side."
Barbara Harding stepped to Theriere's side.
"Good-bye, my friend," she said. "God will reward you for your friendship, your bravery, and your devotion. There must be a special honor roll in heaven for such noble men as you." Theriere smiled sadly.
"Byrne will tell you all," he said, "except who I am—he does not know that."
"Is there any message, my friend," asked the girl, "that you would like to have me deliver?"
Theriere remained silent for a moment as though thinking.
"My name," he said, "is Henri Theriere. I am the Count de Cadenet of France. There is no message, Miss Harding, other than you see fit to deliver to my relatives. They lived in Paris the last I heard of them—my brother, Jacques, was a deputy."
His voice had become so low and weak that the girl could scarce distinguish his words. He gasped once or twice, and then tried to speak again. Barbara leaned closer, her ear almost against his lips.
"Good-bye—dear." The words were almost inaudible, and then the body stiffened with a little convulsive tremor, and Henri Theriere, Count de Cadenet, passed over into the keeping of his noble ancestors.
"He's gone!" whispered the girl, dry-eyed but suffering. She had not loved this man, she realized, but she had learned to think of him as her one true friend in their little world of scoundrels and murderers. She had cared for him very much—it was entirely possible that some day she might have come to return his evident affection for her. She knew nothing of the seamy side of his hard life. She had guessed nothing of the scoundrelly duplicity that had marked his first advances toward her. She thought of him only as a true, brave gentleman, and in that she was right, for whatever Henri Theriere might have been in the past the last few days of his life had revealed him in the true colors that birth and nature had intended him to wear through a brilliant career. In his death he had atoned for many sins.
And in those last few days he had transferred, all unknown to himself or the other man, a measure of the gentility and chivalry that were his birthright, for, unrealizing, Billy Byrne was patterning himself after the man he had hated and had come to love.
After the girl's announcement the mucker had continued to sit with bowed head staring at the ground. Afternoon had deepened into evening, and now the brief twilight of the tropics was upon them—in a few moments it would be dark.
Presently Byrne looked up. His eyes wandered about the tiny clearing. Suddenly he staggered to his feet. Barbara Harding sprang up, startled by the evident alarm in the man's attitude.
"What is it?" she whispered. "What is the matter?"
"De Chink!" he cried. "Where is de Chink?"
And, sure enough, Oda Iseka had disappeared!
The youthful daimio had taken advantage of the preoccupation of his captors during the last moments of Theriere to gnaw in two the grass rope which bound him to the mucker, and with hands still fast bound behind him had slunk into the jungle path that led toward his village.
"They will be upon us again now at any moment," whispered the girl. "What can we do?"
"We better duck," replied the mucker. "I hates to run away from a bunch of Chinks, but I guess it's up to us to beat it."
"But poor Mr. Theriere?" asked the girl.
"I'll have to bury him close by," replied the mucker. "I don't tink I could pack him very fer tonight—I don't feel jest quite fit agin yet. You wouldn't mind much if I buried him here, would you?"
"There is no other way, Mr. Byrne," replied the girl. "You mustn't think of trying to carry him far. We have done all we can for poor Mr. Theriere—you have almost given your life for him already—and it wouldn't do any good to carry his dead body with us."
"I hates to tink o' dem head-huntin' Chinks gettin' him," replied Byrne; "but maybe I kin hide his grave so's dey won't tumble to it."
"You are in no condition to carry him at all," said the girl. "I doubt if you can go far even without any burden."
The mucker grinned.
"Youse don't know me, miss," he said, and stooping he lifted the body of the Frenchman to his broad shoulder, and started up the hillside through the trackless underbrush.
It would have been an impossible feat for an ordinary man in the pink of condition, but the mucker, weak from pain and loss of blood, strode sturdily upward while the marveling girl followed close behind him. A hundred yards above the spring they came upon a little level spot, and here with the two swords of Oda Yorimoto which they still carried they scooped a shallow grave in which they placed all that was mortal of the Count de Cadenet.
Barbara Harding whispered a short prayer above the new-made grave, while the mucker stood with bowed head beside her. Then they turned to their flight again up the wild face of the savage mountain. The moon came up at last to lighten the way for them, but it was a rough and dangerous climb at best. In many places they were forced to walk hand in hand for considerable distances, and twice the mucker had lifted the girl bodily in his arms to bear her across particularly dangerous or difficult stretches.
Shortly after midnight they struck a small mountain stream up which they followed until in a natural cul-de-sac they came upon its source and found their farther progress barred by precipitous cliffs which rose above them, sheer and unscalable.
They had entered the little amphitheater through a narrow, rocky pass in the bottom of which the tiny stream flowed, and now, weak and tired, the mucker was forced to admit that he could go no farther.
"Who'd o' t'ought dat I was such a sissy?" he exclaimed disgustedly.
"I think that you are very wonderful, Mr. Byrne," replied the girl. "Few men could have gone through what you have today and been alive now."
The mucker made a deprecatory gesture.
"I suppose we gotta make de best of it," he said. "Anyhow, dis ought to make a swell joint to defend."
Weak as he was he searched about for some soft grasses which he threw in a pile beneath a stunted tree that grew well back in the hollow.
"Here's yer downy," he said, with an attempt at jocularity. "Now you'd better hit de hay, fer youse must be dead fagged."
"Thanks!" replied the girl. "I AM nearly dead."
So tired was she that she was asleep almost as soon as she had found a comfortable position in the thick mat of grass, so that she gave no thought to the strange position in which circumstance had placed her.
The sun was well up the following morning before the girl awakened, and it was several minutes before she could readjust herself to her strange surroundings. At first she thought that she was alone, but finally she discerned a giant figure standing at the opening which led from their mountain retreat.
It was the mucker, and at sight of him there swept over the girl the terrible peril of her position—alone in the savage mountains of a savage island with the murderer of Billy Mallory—the beast that had kicked the unconscious Theriere in the face—the mucker who had insulted and threatened to strike her! She shuddered at the thought. And then she recalled the man's other side, and for the life of her she could not tell whether to be afraid of him or not—it all depended upon what mood governed him. It would be best to propitiate him. She called a pleasant good morning.
Byrne turned. She was shocked at the pallor of his haggard face.
"Good morning," he said. "How did yeh sleep?"
"Oh, just splendidly, and you?" she replied.
"So-so," he answered.
She looked at him searchingly as he approached her.
"Why I don't believe that you have slept at all," she cried.
"I didn't feel very sleepy," he replied evasively.
"You sat up all night on guard!" she exclaimed. "You know you did."
"De Chinks might o' been shadowin' us—it wasn't safe to sleep," he admitted; "but I'll tear off a few dis mornin' after we find a feed of some kind."
"What can we find to eat here?" she asked.
"Dis crick is full o' fish," he explained, "an' ef youse got a pin I guess we kin rig up a scheme to hook a couple."
The girl found a pin that he said would answer very nicely, and with a shoe lace for a line and a big locust as bait the mucker set forth to angle in the little mountain torrent. The fish, unwary, and hungry thus early in the morning proved easy prey, and two casts brought forth two splendid specimens.
"I could eat a dozen of dem minnows," announced the mucker, and he cast again and again, until in twenty minutes he had a goodly mess of plump, shiny trout on the grass beside him.
With his pocketknife he cleaned and scaled them, and then between two rocks he built a fire and passing sticks through the bodies of his catch roasted them all. They had neither salt, nor pepper, nor butter, nor any other viand than the fish, but it seemed to the girl that never in her life had she tasted so palatable a meal, nor had it occurred to her until the odor of the cooking fish filled her nostrils that no food had passed her lips since the second day before—no wonder that the two ate ravenously, enjoying every mouthful of their repast.
"An' now," said Billy Byrne, "I tink I'll poun' my ear fer a few. You kin keep yer lamps peeled fer de Chinks, an' de first fony noise youse hears, w'y be sure to wake me up," and with that he rolled over upon the grass, asleep almost on the instant.
The girl, to while away the time, explored their rock-bound haven. She found that it had but a single means of ingress, the narrow pass through which the brook found outlet. Beyond the entrance she did not venture, but through it she saw, beneath, a wooded slope, and twice deer passed quite close to her, stopping at the brook to drink.
It was an ideal spot, one whose beauties appealed to her even under the harrowing conditions which had forced her to seek its precarious safety. In another land and with companions of her own kind she could well imagine the joy of a fortnight spent in such a sylvan paradise.
The thought aroused another—how long would the mucker remain a safe companion? She seemed to be continually falling from the frying pan into the fire. So far she had not been burned, but with returning strength, and the knowledge of their utter isolation could she expect this brutal thug to place any check upon his natural desires?
Why there were few men of her own station in life with whom she would have felt safe to spend a fortnight alone upon a savage, uncivilized island! She glanced at the man where he lay stretched in deep slumber. What a huge fellow he was! How helpless would she be were he to turn against her! Yet his very size; yes, and the brutality she feared, were her only salvation against every other danger than he himself. The man was physically a natural protector, for he was able to cope with odds and dangers to which an ordinary man would long since have succumbed. So she found that she was both safer and less safe because the mucker was her companion.
As she pondered the question her eyes roved toward the slope beyond the opening to the amphitheater. With a start she came to her feet, shading her eyes with her hand and peering intently at something that she could have sworn moved among the trees far below. No, she could not be mistaken—it was the figure of a man.
Swiftly she ran to Byrne, shaking him roughly by the shoulder.
"Someone is coming," she cried, in response to his sleepy query.
CHAPTER XIV. THE MUCKER SEES A NEW LIGHT
TOGETHER the girl and the mucker approached the entrance to the amphitheater. From behind a shoulder of rock they peered down into the forest below them. For several minutes neither saw any cause for alarm.
"I guess youse must o' been seein' things," said Byrne, drily.
"Yes," said the girl, "and I see them again. Look! Quick! Down there—to the right."
Byrne looked in the direction she indicated.
"Chinks," he commented. "Gee! Look at 'em comin'. Dere must be a hundred of 'em."
He turned a rueful glance back into the amphitheater.
"I dunno as dis place looks as good to me as it did," he remarked. "Dose yaps wid de toad stabbers could hike up on top o' dese cliffs an' make it a case o' 'thence by carriages to Calvary' for ours in about two shakes."
"Yes," said the girl, "I'm afraid it's a regular cul-de-sac."
"I dunno nothin' about dat," replied the mucker; "but I do know dat if we wants to get out o' here we gotta get a hump on ourselves good an' lively. Come ahead," and with his words he ran quickly through the entrance, and turning squarely toward the right skirted the perpendicular cliffs that extended as far as they could see to be lost to view in the forest that ran up to meet them from below.
The trees and underbrush hid them from the head-hunters. There had been danger of detection but for the brief instant that they passed through the entrance of the hollow, but at the time they had chosen the enemy had been hidden in a clump of thick brush far down the slope.
For hours the two fugitives continued their flight, passing over the crest of a ridge and downward toward another valley, until by a small brook they paused to rest, hopeful that they had entirely eluded their pursuers.
Again Byrne fished, and again they sat together at a one-course meal. As they ate the man found himself looking at the girl more and more often. For several days the wonder of her beauty had been growing upon him, until now he found it difficult to take his eyes from her. Thrice she surprised him in the act of staring intently at her, and each time he had dropped his eyes guiltily. At length the girl became nervous, and then terribly frightened—was it coming so soon?
The man had talked but little during this meal, and for the life of her Barbara Harding could not think of any topic with which to distract his attention from his thoughts.
"Hadn't we better be moving on?" she asked at last.
Byrne gave a little start as though surprised in some questionable act.
"I suppose so," he said; "this ain't no place to spend the night—it's too open. We gotta find a sort o' hiding place if we can, dat a fellow kin barricade wit something."
Again they took up their seemingly hopeless march—an aimless wandering in search of they knew not what. Away from one danger to possible dangers many fold more terrible. Barbara's heart was very heavy, for again she feared and mistrusted the mucker.
They followed down the little brook now to where it emptied into a river and then down the valley beside the river which grew wider and more turbulent with every mile. Well past mid-afternoon they came opposite a small, rocky island, and as Byrne's eyes fell upon it an exclamation of gratification burst from his lips.
"Jest de place!" he cried. "We orter be able to hide dere forever."
"But how are we to get there?" asked the girl, looking fearfully at the turbulent river.
"It ain't deep," Byrne assured her. "Come ahead; I'll carry yeh acrost," and without waiting for a reply he gathered her in his arms and started down the bank.
What with the thoughts that had occupied his mind off and on during the afternoon the sudden and close contact of the girl's warm young body close to his took Billy Byrne's breath away, and sent the hot blood coursing through his veins. It was with the utmost difficulty that he restrained a mad desire to crush her to him and cover her face with kisses.
And then the fatal thought came to him—why should he restrain himself? What was this girl to him? Had he not always hated her and her kind? Did she not look with loathing and contempt upon him? And to whom did her life belong anyway but to him—had he not saved it twice? What difference would it make? They'd never come out of this savage world alive, and if he didn't take her some monkey-faced Chink would get her.
They were in the middle of the stream now. Byrne's arms already had commenced to tighten upon the girl. With a sudden tug he strove to pull her face down to his; but she put both hands upon his shoulders and held his lips at arms' length. And her wide eyes looked full into the glowing gray ones of the mucker. And each saw in the other's something that held their looks for a full minute.
Barbara saw what she had feared, but she saw too something else that gave her a quick, pulsing hope—a look of honest love, or could she be mistaken? And the mucker saw the true eyes of the woman he loved without knowing that he loved her, and he saw the plea for pity and protection in them.
"Don't," whispered the girl. "Please don't, you frighten me."
A week ago Billy Byrne would have laughed at such a plea. Doubtless, too, he would have struck the girl in the face for her resistance. He did neither now, which spoke volumes for the change that was taking place within him, but neither did he relax his hold upon her, or take his burning eyes from her frightened ones.
Thus he strode through the turbulent, shallow river to clamber up the bank onto the island. In his soul the battle still raged, but he had by no means relinquished his intention to have his way with the girl. Fear, numb, freezing fear, was in the girl's eyes now. The mucker read it there as plain as print, and had she not said that she was frightened? That was what he had wanted to accomplish back there upon the Halfmoon—to frighten her. He would have enjoyed the sight, but he had not been able to accomplish the thing. Now she not only showed that she was frightened—she had admitted it, and it gave the mucker no pleasure—on the contrary it made him unaccountably uncomfortable.
And then came the last straw—tears welled to those lovely eyes. A choking sob wracked the girl's frame—"And just when I was learning to trust you so!" she cried.
They had reached the top of the bank, now, and the man, still holding her in his arms, stood upon a mat of jungle grass beneath a great tree. Slowly he lowered her to her feet. The madness of desire still gripped him; but now there was another force at work combating the evil that had predominated before.
Theriere's words came back to him: "Good-bye, Byrne; take good care of Miss Harding," and his admission to the Frenchman during that last conversation with the dying man: "—a week ago I guess I was a coward. Dere seems to be more'n one kind o' nerve—I'm just a-learnin' of the right kind, I guess."
He had been standing with eyes upon the ground, his heavy hand still gripping the girl's arm. He looked into her face again. She was waiting there, her great eyes upon his filled with fear and questioning, like a prisoner before the bar awaiting the sentence of her judge.
As the man looked at Barbara Harding standing there before him he saw her in a strange new light, and a sudden realization of the truth flashed upon him. He saw that he could not harm her now, or ever, for he loved her!
And with the awakening there came to Billy Byrne the withering, numbing knowledge that his love must forever be a hopeless one—that this girl of the aristocracy could never be for such as he.
Barbara Harding, still looking questioningly at him, saw the change that came across his countenance—she saw the swift pain that shot to the man's eyes, and she wondered. His fingers released their grasp upon her arm. His hands fell limply to his sides.
"Don't be afraid," he said. "Please don't be afraid o' me. I couldn't hurt youse if I tried."
A deep sigh of relief broke from the girl's lips—relief and joy; and she realized that its cause was as much that the man had proved true to the new estimate she had recently placed upon him as that the danger to herself had passed.
"Come," said Billy Byrne, "we'd better move in a bit out o' sight o' de mainland, an' look fer a place to make camp. I reckon we'd orter rest here for a few days till we git in shape ag'in. I know youse must be dead beat, an' I sure am, all right, all right."
Together they sought a favorable site for their new home, and it was as though the horrid specter of a few moments before had never risen to menace them, for the girl felt that a great burden of apprehension had been lifted forever from her shoulders, and though a dull ache gnawed at the mucker's heart, still he was happier than he had ever been before—happy to be near the woman he loved.
With the long sword of Oda Yorimoto, Billy Byrne cut saplings and bamboo and the fronds of fan palms, and with long tough grasses bound them together into the semblance of a rude hut. Barbara gathered leaves and grasses with which she covered the floor.
"Number One, Riverside Drive," said the mucker, with a grin, when the work was completed; "an' now I'll go down on de river front an' build de Bowery."
"Oh, are you from New York?" asked the girl.
"Not on yer life," replied Billy Byrne. "I'm from good ol' Chi; but I been to Noo York twict wit de Goose Island Kid, an' so I knows all about it. De roughnecks belongs on de Bowery, so dat's wot we'll call my dump down by de river. You're a highbrow, so youse gotta live on Riverside Drive, see?" and the mucker laughed at his little pleasantry.
But the girl did not laugh with him. Instead she looked troubled.
"Wouldn't you rather be a 'highbrow' too?" she asked, "and live up on Riverside Drive, right across the street from me?"
"I don't belong," said the mucker gruffly.
"Wouldn't you rather belong?" insisted the girl.
All his life Billy had looked with contempt upon the hated, pusillanimous highbrows, and now to be asked if he would not rather be one! It was unthinkable, and yet, strange to relate, he realized an odd longing to be like Theriere, and Billy Mallory; yes, in some respects like Divine, even. He wanted to be more like the men that the woman he loved knew best.
"It's too late fer me ever to belong, now," he said ruefully. "Yeh gotta be borned to it. Gee! Wouldn't I look funny in wite pants, an' one o' dem dinky, little 'Willie-off-de-yacht' lids?"
Even Barbara had to laugh at the picture the man's words raised to her imagination.
"I didn't mean that," she hastened to explain. "I didn't mean that you must necessarily dress like them; but BE like them—act like them—talk like them, as Mr. Theriere did, you know. He was a gentleman."
"An' I'm not," said Billy.
"Oh, I didn't mean THAT," the girl hastened to explain.
"Well, whether youse meant it or not, it's so," said the mucker. "I ain't no gent—I'm a mucker. I have your word for it, you know—yeh said so that time on de Halfmoon, an' I ain't fergot it; but youse was right—I am a mucker. I ain't never learned how to be anything else. I ain't never wanted to be anything else until today. Now, I'd like to be a gent; but it's too late."
"Won't you try?" asked the girl. "For my sake?"
"Go to't," returned the mucker cheerfully; "I'd even wear side whiskers fer youse."
"Horrors!" exclaimed Barbara Harding. "I couldn't look at you if you did."
"Well, then, tell me wot youse do want me to do."
Barbara discovered that her task was to be a difficult one if she were to accomplish it without wounding the man's feelings; but she determined to strike while the iron was hot and risk offending him—why she should be interested in the regeneration of Mr. Billy Byrne it never once occurred to her to ask herself. She hesitated a moment before speaking.
"One of the first things you must do, Mr. Byrne," she said, "is to learn to speak correctly. You mustn't say 'youse' for 'you,' or 'wot' for 'what'—-you must try to talk as I talk. No one in the world speaks any language faultlessly, but there are certain more or less obvious irregularities of grammar and pronunciation that are particularly distasteful to people of refinement, and which are easy to guard against if one be careful."
"All right," said Billy Byrne, "youse—you kin pitch in an' learn me wot—whatever you want to an' I'll do me best to talk like a dude—fer your sake."
And so the mucker's education commenced, and as there was little else for the two to do it progressed rapidly, for once started the man grew keenly interested, spurred on by the evident pleasure which his self-appointed tutor took in his progress—further it meant just so much more of close companionship with her.
For three weeks they never left the little island except to gather fruit which grew hard by on the adjacent mainland. Byrne's wounds had troubled him considerably—at times he had been threatened with blood poisoning. His temperature had mounted once to alarming heights, and for a whole night Barbara Harding had sat beside him bathing his forehead and easing his sufferings as far as it lay within her power to do; but at last the wonderful vitality of the man had saved him. He was much weakened though and neither of them had thought it safe to attempt to seek the coast until he had fully regained his old-time strength.
So far but little had occurred to give them alarm. Twice they had seen natives on the mainland—evidently hunting parties; but no sign of pursuit had developed. Those whom they had seen had been pure-blood Malays—there had been no samurai among them; but their savage, warlike appearance had warned the two against revealing their presence.
They had subsisted upon fish and fruit principally since they had come to the island. Occasionally this diet had been relieved by messes of wild fowl and fox that Byrne had been successful in snaring with a primitive trap of his own invention; but lately the prey had become wary, and even the fish seemed less plentiful. After two days of fruit diet, Byrne announced his intention of undertaking a hunting trip upon the mainland.
"A mess of venison wouldn't taste half bad," he remarked.
"Yes," cried the girl, "I'm nearly famished for meat—it seems as though I could almost eat it raw."
"I know that I could," stated Billy. "Lord help the deer that gets within range of this old gat of Theriere's, and you may not get even a mouthful—I'm that hungry I'll probably eat it all, hoof, hide, and horns, before ever I get any of it back here to you."
"You'd better not," laughed the girl. "Good-bye and good luck; but please don't go very far—I shall be terribly lonely and frightened while you are away."
"Maybe you'd better come along," suggested Billy.
"No, I should be in the way—you can't hunt deer with a gallery, and get any."
"Well, I'll stay within hailing distance, and you can look for me back any time between now and sundown. Good-bye," and he picked his way down the bank into the river, while from behind a bush upon the mainland two wicked, black eyes watched his movements and those of the girl on the shore behind him while a long, sinewy, brown hand closed more tightly upon a heavy war spear, and steel muscles tensed for the savage spring and the swift throw.
The girl watched Billy Byrne forging his way through the swift rapids. What a mighty engine of strength and endurance he was! What a man! Yes, brute! And strange to relate Barbara Harding found herself admiring the very brutality that once had been repellent to her. She saw him leap lightly to the opposite bank, and then she saw a quick movement in a bush close at his side. She did not know what manner of thing had caused it, but her intuition warned her that behind that concealing screen lay mortal danger to the unconscious man.
"Billy!" she cried, the unaccustomed name bursting from her lips involuntarily. "In the bush at your left—look out!"
At the note of warning in her voice Byrne had turned at her first word—it was all that saved his life. He saw the half-naked savage and the out-shooting spear arm, and as he would, instinctively, have ducked a right-for-the-head in the squared circle of his other days, he ducked now, side stepping to the right, and the heavy weapon sped harmlessly over his shoulder.