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Title: The Secret of the Desert Author: Coutts Brisbane * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 2000171h.html Language: English Date first posted: March 2020 Most recent update: March 2020 This eBook was produced by: Colin Choat Project Gutenberg of Australia eBooks are created from printed editions which are in the public domain in Australia, unless a copyright notice is included. We do NOT keep any eBooks in compliance with a particular paper edition. Copyright laws are changing all over the world. Be sure to check the copyright laws for your country before downloading or redistributing this file. This eBook is made available at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg Australia Licence which may be viewed online.
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"SAIL lib, port bow, suh!" the look-out in the fore-crosstrees hailed the schooner's deck. "Two stick boat lib, suh!"
Captain Girvan, R.N.R., hoisted his long body fromhepths ofis deck-chair, stared ahead over the shimmering wake of the sun setting across the placid waters of the Gulf of Carpentaria, then swung himself into the main rigging.
The brown man in the foretop pointed. Girvan stared through puckered eyelids and picked a speck out of the shimmering gold.
"Tommy, pass me up my glasses!" said Girvan. "There's something queer about this craft, though I can't exactly see what."
"There's something queer about most things hereabouts!" grunted Tommy, otherwise the Honourable Thomas Quincey Paston. Seated on the deck, he was engaged on the cleaning of a couple of sporting rifles. Wiping his greasy hands, he got up, reached for the binoculars hanging inside the open door of the after-deck cabin, and swung himself up to the skipper's side.
"Here you are. What's the trouble?" he added, as Girvan, after a long stare through the glasses, whistled perplexedly.
"You've heard of the Flying Dutchman, haven't you?" growled Girvan. "Well, that's the identical craft! Take a look at her!"
"She's going at a good lick," commented Tommy. "Shoving along a good deal faster than we are. But I don't see where any Flying Dutchman business comes in, except that she's not as tidy-looking as our own little Rockabelle. Her skipper hasn't enjoyed the advantages of having footed it in the R.N."
"Tommy, your education has been neglected, or else you'd know that old Vanderdecken always sailed right into the wind's eye—which is exactly what that craft is doing."
"Auxiliary motor," replied Tommy placidly. "I'm not the complete seaman, but I'll bet that's the answer."
"Yes!" grunted Girvan impatiently. "Of course, there's an auxiliary! But why does her skipper keep canvas on her? Main and foresail and a couple of jibs, all sheeted flat as boards, by the look of 'em. And a thumping big stack of deck-house aft. And, from the way she's footing it, her auxiliary must be one of the most powerful engines ever put into a craft of her size. Hang it, Tommy, she must be all engine-room below! She's the oddest-looking craft I ever set eyes on!"
"A regular mystery ship, eh? Jimmy! Oh, Jimmy!" Tommy bawled down to a youth who had just come out of the deck-house yawning and blinking. He was Girvan's kid brother, a slighter edition of the skipper. "Come up here and give us the benefit of your opinion about a two-sticker that's showing us her heels."
"I think you fellows might have a heart!" grumbled Jimmy Girvan. "It's my watch below, and your notion of being matey is to howl like a couple of cats! Here—lemme see what it's all about!" He climbed aloft and grabbed the glasses. "Rummy! But what about it, Ned? She's slipping along a good three knots faster than the best we can make. Heading into Lambourne Inlet, too, isn't she? She couldn't dodge through the shoals under sail alone, could she?"
"No, But why keep sail on her at all, that's what I want to know? It must cut a knot or two off her speed!"
"Eccentric skipper. Keeps his canvas up to get rid of moths," said Jimmy flippantly. "But she's a rum craft, anyhow. What in thunder does she want in the inlet? There's nothing up there, eh?"
"Perhaps she's on our lay, taking another mighty buffalo hunter along. You may have company, Tommy," suggested Girvan. "Anyhow, we'll be able to have a look at her at close range. Watch, ahoy! Ready about!"
The Rockabelle came round on the other tack, a manoeuvre which brought the mystery craft on her other bow. But the distance between them was increasing momentarily, for the wind was failing. Soon the Flying Dutchman had rounded a rocky headland and was lost to view.
But Girvan's curiosity was thoroughly aroused. He ordered the Rockabelle's auxiliary motor to be started and the canvas to be taken in. Before the sun had set they had entered the mouth of the inlet, a broad, but shallow sheet of water that ran twisting about for miles between gradually converging rocky shores backed by a stretch of sand which, away to the westwards, gave place to a great belt of marshland.
At no great pace, for the deep water channel was tortuous, the Rockabelle crept inland. There was still light enough left when Captain Girvan went aloft and scanned the inlet with his glasses. Slowly he swept the placid waters that mirrored the sunset sky.
A group of pelicans was settling down for the night. The clatter of their big beaks came clearly across the water. But otherwise, so far as he could see, which was a distance of a mile or so, the inlet was empty.
"D'you see her?" called Jim Girvan from the deck.
"Not in sight. She must have gone right away up to the head, and that's hidden from here." Girvan descended. "It's very odd, Jim. What would she be doing up there? We'll find her to-morrow. I'm not going to risk going farther to-night. We'll anchor here."
Jim passed on the order, the motor stopped, and as the schooner lost way, the mudhook plunged and brought her up in five fathoms, in the middle of the channel and a quarter of a mile from the shore.
"I don't see any signs of inhabitants," said Tommy, as, the ship having been snugged down to the brothers' satisfaction, they entered the lighted cabin and sat down to their evening meal.
"There aren't any, so far as I know," replied Girvan. "A gang of blacks may wander this way occasionally, and I've heard of pearlers taking a day or two off to try for a buffalo over in the marshes where you're going to-morrow, but no one else."
"Aren't you coming along, too?" asked Tommy.
Captain Girvan shook his head. He and Paston were old friends, and when they had met again in Port Moresby, New Guinea, where Paston was engaged in some obscure business for the British Colonial Office, he had invited him to come for a cruise in the Rockabelle along the coast of Australian Northern Territory, and so to the Girvan home at Rockhampton, Queensland.
Paston, a mighty hunter in his spare moments, was anxious to bag a good specimen of the buffaloes that wander amongst the Territory marshes, hefty brutes and formidable antagonists. So the Rockabelle had put into Lambourne Inlet, where it was practically certain that Paston would quickly find what he wanted.
"I'd like to go with you," Girvan replied. "But one of us must stay aboard. Jim will go along. He has never shot anything bigger than a rabbit. And you'll take a couple of the boys. I don't think you'll have to go far."
Here Ah Sin, the Chinese cook and steward, entered with steaming dishes, and they fell to work. Tommy Paston regarded the Chinaman thoughtfully as he flitted about, serving the meal with finished dexterity.
"You're a very good cook, Ah Sin," he said approvingly. "And a very good waiter. Perhaps you have served as mess-room steward aboard a man-o'-war on the China station?"
"Servee one piecee year 'long Thlundeler, sir," replied Ah Sin. "Admilable's stleward, sir. Velly nicee genleman, Admilable Manders. But thlis person liking thlis better. Not having makee hand wagge allee time."
He swung a hand to the salute in correct man-o'-war style, smiled blandly, and trotted out.
"How long have you had him?" asked Tommy. "Cheery bloke for a Chink. More like a Japanese in his ways."
"We've had him about four months. Yes, he has a touch of the Jap in his manner. He might be one, for that matter. It isn't easy for a European to tell the difference between them. After all, they're very much the same, racially. If John Chinaman once gets inoculated with some of the Japanese energy—"
"Then Europe will have to sit up and take notice. America, too, for that part of it—and Australia very specially!"
"The Yellow Peril, eh?" said Girvan with a laugh. "Still thinking of that bogey."
"Yes." Paston lowered his voice and glanced towards the door. "It's a good deal more than a bogey. Japan is like a hive, with a swarming population which keeps on increasing at a tremendous rate. They're getting fearfully overcrowded at home, and they have no colonies worth mentioning. Here's Australia, a thundering great continent with about the population of London. Most of the country is empty. Japan is within easy striking distance. What's more natural than that she should turn envious eyes this way? Australia would be an ideal dumping ground for some of her superfluous millions."
"Country like this?" scoffed Girvan, jerking his head in the general direction of the shore. "Sand and rock and marsh! And more sand and rock inland for hundreds of miles! Rot, Tommy! At the best they'd only get it after the bitterest scrap in history. The British Empire is still a going concern, and the British Navy would have something to say on the subject. But even if they did win, which is unthinkable, it wouldn't be worth having. The Sahara or the Gobi Desert are smiling paradises compared with some of the tracts in the interior here."
"Ned Girvan, you don't jolly well know what you're talking about! My suffering friend, you should really learn a little about geology! A lot of Australia is desert, true. Why?"
"Because there's no water," put in Jim Girvan with a grin. "Q.E.D., as we used to say at school."
"Another one!" moaned Tommy. "Listen, you thick-headed chump! There's plenty of water—only, it has gone underground. Go a few hundred feet down, pump up the water you'll find there in the subterranean lakes and rivers, and the desert will blossom like a Kentish market-garden. The yellow brother knows all about that. A Japanese professor gave me a regular lecture on the subject only a few months ago. I gathered that he'd been all over Australia investigating. There was no blamed modesty about him, either. He talked about Australia being the heritage of Japan. You'd have thought he was a landlord giving a tenant notice to quit."
"Oh, there are always fellows like that," said Girvan comfortably. "It's usually due to a rush of book learning to the head—or a desire to make themselves notorious."
"I don't agree. The fellow was blatant, but he wasn't an ass. He talked quite freely about the great day when Japan, having quietly trained her hordes and China's, would take her rightful place as mistress of Asia, and then of the world. And I happen to know that he was only expressing what a great many Japanese think—men who can do a lot towards giving their notions practical expression. I see and hear a lot while I'm trotting about. In fact "—his low voice dropped to a whisper—"that's my real job. The Colonial Office..."
He got no further, for there was a patter of feet outside, a tap, and Billy Kettle, the half-caste Kanaka bos'n, or second mate, entered, a broad-shouldered giant with a singularly soft voice.
"If you please, cap'n, there's a motor boat coming down on us. No lights. She's not running right. The engine's missing, sir. You can hear her. Sounds sorter like there's something wrong."
Through the open cabin door came a faint, spluttering sound, the noise of a motor that was firing badly, but even as they listened it ceased. Captain Girvan got up.
"A SKIPPER'S job is never done," he said. "I'll see what it's all about. Carry on, Tommy." He stepped out on deck, taking his night-glasses from the rack by the door. "Whereabouts is she, Kettle?"
The mate pointed, and presently he picked up a dark object that moved slowly towards the ship.
"Cutter away! Fetch her alongside," ordered Girvan. "This is no place for a boat with a broken-down engine!"
The Rockabelle's crew were well trained. The cutter was swung out and into the water in quick time. Captain Girvan watched her slide over the smooth water, her lantern gleaming, saw her stop beside the now motionless blur, heard a murmur of excited voices. Then she came slowly back, towing what turned out to be a small, yawl-rigged boat which looked altogether unequal to navigation along that often stormy coast.
As she came alongside, Billy Kettle hailed softly.
"There's a man in her, sir, but us reckon he's dead!" he called. "Looks to have been shot, sir. He ain't been dead long. He's still warm."
"Eh? What's that?" Tommy Paston and Jim had come silently from the cabin.
Leaning over the rail, Girvan had caught a glimpse of the still form huddled in the stern of the boat, one limp hand still on the tiller. "Get him aboard, Kettle. Gently! There may be life in him still."
They hoisted him carefully in and laid him on the deck, but a brief examination showed that life was extinct. He was a man of about forty years of age, bearded, dressed in a sort of compromise between a sailor's and a hunter's rig, with heavy boots, puttees, a loose shirt, and a battered sun-hat. A bandolier with a good supply of ammunition hung about his shoulders. There was a repeating rifle in the stern of the boat.
"Two bullets at least through the body. I should say he was shot hours ago—perhaps this morning. He tried to bandage himself. Poor chap! He had plenty of pluck and amazing vitality to live so long. Look over the boat, Jim!"
Captain Girvan finished his examination by clearing the dead man's pockets. A handful of mixed silver and copper, a sovereign, several keys, a pocket-book containing forty-seven pounds in notes, a small notebook, three letters, and a photograph-case, made up the contents. These Girvan carried to the cabin and stowed in a locker, then hastened out again.
Paston was kneeling by the dead man, examining his face closely by the light of a lantern.
"I've a sort of notion I've seen this chap before somewhere," he said softly. "Look at his hands I They're not the hands of a man who has spent his life knocking about the coast, or prospecting, or anything of that sort. They're well-kept hands—or, at least, have been well kept till lately. And I don't think somehow he has had that beard long. There's something very queer about this. Do you think that odd-looking craft we saw has anything to do with it?"
"I don't see how she can have. This poor fellow's wounds were almost certainly received hours before that vessel came into the inlet."
"Then who shot him? Why? Is there anything up here that would bring scallywags?"
"Nothing that I know of," answered Girvan. "I believe there was a rumour of a bed of pearl shell, some time ago. It's possible that that may have brought some gang of toughs along to look for it, and possible that this poor chap may have run into them. There are always poachers on the look-out for pearl shell, you know, and they're very hard bitten. They might start shooting. I don't know. We'll put him on the hatch. Lift!"
Gently they carried the dead man forward, laid him on the hatch-top, and covered him with a canvas awning. Then they joined Jim, who, with Kettle, was aboard the boat.
"He must have run into a bunch of pirates," said Jim. "Look here! There are a score or two of bullet-holes in the top strakes. The petrol tank is holed in two or three places. The holes have been plugged with bits of wood. The engine has suffered, too. A couple of sparking-plugs are out of action. No wonder she chugged along in that broken-winded way. It's awonder he kept her going at all. Must have been pumping the feed all the time till he gave out—and then the motor died along with him."
"Two pair of horns, sir! Buffler horns," observed Kettle from the tiny cabin which he had been rummaging. "Fresh, sir. Took mebbe three or four days ago. And a lot of boxes, sir, with butterflies and bugs."
"Hum!" Girvan investigated. "Yes, and a regular collecting outfit. An entomologist, eh?" He turned his torch to and fro. "Yes; hundreds of specimens here!" He had opened a large, flat case, and the light fell upon rows of insects all neatly fastened upon sheets of cork by slips of paper and pins. "This should make it easy to identify him, even if we don't find particulars among his papers."
"Hold on! I've got him!" exclaimed Paston. "I remember now. I thought I knew him, in spite of the beard, He was clean-shaven when I saw him last. His name is Lancing. I met him at Surabayo about a year ago. He was collecting insects there. I gathered that he was doing it for the fun of the thing. Plenty of cash. He talked about the British Museum, I remember, and said he proposed to give his spoils to it. Poor blighter! Well, what are we going to do now?"
"Go look-see!" replied Girvan. "In the morning we'll move up to the head of the inlet, and it'll be queer if we don't find out something. Hallo! What do you want, Ah Sin?"
The Chinaman had appeared silently at the schooner's rail.
"You want piecee more coffee?" he inquired. "Wantee clear away."
"Clear away, then! We've finished. We'd better be turning in, Tommy. You'll take the first watch, Jim."
"Right you are—but wherefore? We're snug enough here, cap'n mine," responded Jim. "I should have thought I could have a beauty sleep for once."
"Those bullet holes are reason enough," Captain Girvan grunted. "And keep a bright look-out for that craft. She may go out in the night."
"And cows may fly! Why should she? Anyhow, rest easy, my captain. Your faithful mate will watch over your balmy slumbers," said Jim. "By the way, where did you put the poor chap's things?"
"In a locker. I'll stow them in my safe for to-night and look at them in the morning. There's nothing more we can do. C'mon, Tommy. It's our watch below, and if you're going after the merry buffalo you'll have to turn out early. All fast, young 'un? Fetch that rifle!"
A few minutes later the yawl had been streamed astern, and Captain Girvan, having retrieved the scanty contents of the dead man's pockets from the locker, had stowed them in his cabin safe. Then he turned in.
Tommy Paston took a last turn about the deck with Jim Girvan. They halted before the still shape on the hatch-top.
"Queer—uncommonly queer!" murmured Tommy. "He was a quiet, inoffensive sort of chap, as I remember him. He had qualms about taking the lives of the insects he collected. A fellow like that isn't likely to go stirring up trouble, is he?"
"No; but I think this puts the hat on our shore-going trip to-morrow. I had a look at this poor fellow's rifle. It hasn't been fired since it was cleaned. That means that he didn't fire a shot to-day, I guess. And that, again, means that the boat was ambushed, it looks to me. This gang saw him cruising along off the shore, maybe, and let loose at him. I don't know how you feel about it, but I'm not keen about being treated the same way."
"Neither am I. We'll see to-morrow. I'll turn in now. Good-night!"
Tommy disappeared. Jim went forward, found the Kanaka boy who was on watch crouched against the windlass, placidly smoking, told him to keep eyes and ears open, and returned aft. Half an hour passed, then Ah Sin, who had been busy washing up, emerged from his galley.
"Velly hot piecee night, sir," he observed, trotting first to port, then to starboard to look at the side lights.
They were burning brightly, even though the little vessel was at anchor. It wasn't necessary, of course, for a riding light was burning aloft, but with a native crew it is never wise to depart from regular routine, so the side lights had been trimmed and set in place as usual at sunset.
Ah Sin lingered for a minute by the green starboard light. He seemed dissatisfied with its trim. He fiddled with the wick thumbscrews and polished the glass with a loose sleeve. Finally he came aft and halted before Jim's chair.
"What kill poo' man?" he asked. "What for shootee? C'lectah man. Piecee bug not worth heap muchee money."
"We don't know. We'll go up to the head of the inlet in the morning. Perhaps we'll find out then. Perhaps we'll do a little shooting, too," replied Jim. "Most likely a gang of toughs looking for shell did it. I don't know."
"Velly sad," murmured Ah Sin. "I go makee sew shlirt. Good-night, sir!"
He trotted noiselessly forward, dived into his galley, opened a shutter on the starboard side which allowed a stream of bright light to pour out. Then a regular movement began, a swaying shadow which broke the level beam. Jim noted it lazily, and told himself that Ah Sin had settled to his sewing.
To and fro swung the shadow, with little pauses every few moments as the Chinaman shifted his hold.
"Industrious beggar," thought Jim, and fell to thinking of what Tommy Paston had been saying about the yellow races.
There was something in it, certainly. He hadn't been in Japan, but he had encountered a good many Japanese. He liked them. They were very polite, very industrious, very efficient. His brother, who had seen something of them during the war, had a high opinion of their fighting qualities.
They hammered the Russians, but, of course, the Russians were hampered by inefficiency and corruption. And they were a long way from home, with only the Trans-Siberian Railway to serve their armies. And their navy was a poor thing at the best—badly trained, with poor ammunition. Supposing Japan were to try anything against us, they'd risk having their communications cut at once. If they were to land a force anywhere in Northern Australia, what could it do? The big centres, Sydney and Melbourne, are away down in the South. They couldn't get at 'em. No, they wouldn't be fools enough to try anything unless they had command of the sea—and that would need a lot of getting. And, anyhow, it won't be in our time, concluded Jim comfortably, and refilled his pipe.
Ah Sin presently concluded his labours. The lamp was extinguished. He had gone below. Jim took a turn round the deck, then climbed aloft and looked up the inlet. From that elevation he should have seen the masthead light of the strange craft that had gone up that afternoon, but he could see nothing. Probably, less methodical than the skipper of the Rockabelle, her captain had not troubled to light up.
ONLY the splash of fishes breaking water occasionally disturbed the utter stillness, though once a booming bellow that might have been made either by a bull buffalo, or one of the swarming alligators in the swamps, came rolling over the calm water. Nothing whatever had happened when Captain Girvan came on deck, and nothing happened during the rest of the dark hours.
The regular routine was followed, as though the Rockabelle had been at sea. The crew turned out, the pumps were manned, the deck washed down, and everything put ship-shape. Then, after breakfast, the anchor was got up, and with her auxiliary motor chugging, for there was little more than a breath of wind stirring, the schooner made slowly up the inlet, look-outs alert for shoals, Jim Girvan, aloft at the crosstrees, sweeping the shores with his glasses in search of the mystery schooner—and any signs of the gang of murderers who had killed Lancing.
But the shores were desolate. No smoke rose from any camp fire, never a boat broke the mirror-like surface of the little coves or short creeks that indented the coastline. On went the Rockabelle, following the curve of the inlet till its head was in plain view, a mile away.
Jim Girvan swung the glasses to and fro over the smooth water, over the outcrop of rock that formed a sort of natural quay about the top of the inlet, then lowered them with a puzzled look, just as his brother joined him.
"Well? What's the answer?" asked Captain Girvan. "Where is she? We saw that schooner come up here last evening. I take it that you didn't go to sleep on watch, so that she could run out unseen, and certainly I didn't. So, if there's anything in logic, she must be here. Only—she isn't!"
"She isn't!" echoed Jim. "I—I suppose—it's absurd, of course, but—she couldn't have gone ashore? She couldn't be a sort of amphibian—a ship with motor wheels—could she?"
"Bosh!" snapped Girvan. "You've been reading some sensational novel! How in the name of wonder would you get a craft of that size ashore? Why would you want to do it? And if you did do it, where would you take her? And supposing for a moment that you had a wheel attachment, what sort of track d'you think you'd leave? Have you seen anything of the sort, because I haven't?"
"Then they must have sunk her," suggested Jim. "She isn't ashore, she didn't go out, she isn't on top of the water—therefore she must be under it."
"Oh, more bosh!" Girvan was irritated because he was puzzled. The thing was out of all reason. "Don't talk silly nonsense! Anyhow, we'll have a look around the head of the lagoon there and take a turn ashore."
Tommy Paston regarded them, his head on one side.
"How are these things done? I'm a land-lubber, and all that, of course, but it seems a trifle out of the ordinary, even to me," he remarked. "She seemed solid enough, but I suppose she was a mirage. A phantom ship, eh? That's the only explanation."
"Quite so, Tommy. And that's all about it for the moment, please. I don't like mysteries of this sort. Call all hands, Jim. We'll take Lancing ashore for burial. Call away the cutter."
The hands, eleven all told, mustered on deck, the cutter was got into the water and the body of Lancing lowered into it and covered with the flag, the Blue Ensign that Girvan, as an officer of the R.N.R., was entitled to fly.
"Rifles and ammunition!" said Girvan. "Serve 'em out, Jim!" He turned to the crew. "Men, this poor fellow has been murdered. We don't know who did it. We are going to bury him over yonder. There isn't cover for a rabbit for a mile round, but you, Kettle, will go aloft and keep a look-out. If you see anything suspicious you'll fire a rifle. Four men in the cutter. The rest will line the rail with rifles ready. Jim, you'll stay aboard. Cover us, if there's need."
"Ay, ay, sir," murmured Jim. "We can pot at anything very handily."
The boat put off. Jim searched the low-lying shore with glasses. Nothing stirred. Rock, sand, a sparse growth of spinifex and jack weed, all baking in the sunlight. Away beyond, to the north-east, began the marshland. Drainings from it tinged the upper end of the inlet, though they must have come by some underground channel, since no sign of any watercourse appeared above ground. The whole landscape was desolate in the extreme. Jim shook his head as he remembered what Tommy had said about the water underground.
"Perhaps this may be irrigated in time," he thought. "But I think they'll have to import soil if they want to grow anything. I've never heard that sand is good for much."
Then he stood still at attention, for Lancing's body was being carried ashore. A grave was quickly dug. Captain Girvan read the burial service. Soon the boat was pulling back to the ship.
"We'll take a look up at the head," called Girvan, as he swung round under the stern instead of coming alongside. "Keep on standing by, though. Keep a man aloft."
The boat went steadily on, and as steadily the water grew dark and muddy as they neared the place where the marsh water ran into the lagoon.
Tommy Paston looked back at the schooner. He could see Jim Girvan standing on the rail by the main shrouds, watching them through his glasses. In the foretop was a figure in blue dungarees, easily identified, for it was the Chinese cook's working rig. He had a telescope. Tommy could see the sun glint on it as he swung it to and fro, staring over the sands glimmering in the rapidly increasing heat.
"Looks like a natural landing-place, doesn't it?" said Girvan.
Tommy turned. The rock ledges ahead certainly were convenient. There were three of them, arranged like gigantic steps, each ledge about a couple of feet higher than the other, and about three or four feet wide. A boat could run alongside at any state of the tide, which here had no great rise and fall.
"Deep water, too," continued Girvan. "Twenty or thirty feet, at least, I should say. Well, there's nothing in sight, but as we've come so far we may as well give it the once-over. Oars!"
The boat slid alongside a ledge just awash, and the two white men stepped ashore, carrying their rifles. The uppermost ledge, which seemed to continue some way inland, was almost perfectly level, as though nature, having begun well in the way of a landing-stage, had determined to do the thing handsomely and provide a fine wharf as well. A thin coating of sand covered the surface, but they could feel the rock beneath.
Tommy suddenly stooped and picked up something small which he had stepped upon.
"Covered by the sand," he explained. "Now what d'you make of that? Not the sort of common object of the desert you'd expect to pick up hereabouts, eh?"
He held up a small pair of dividers fitted with a bow spring and setting screw, the sort often used for measuring distances on charts.
"Lancing's?" suggested Girvan.
"Don't know. He has a full set of instruments in his case. I noticed that. He may have had a spare pair. But—I don't think these are of European manufacture. They look to me like Japanese. Yes, see, there's the chrysanthemum. These have belonged to some officer of the Japanese Imperial Navy, Ned, old son, at some time or another. Well, have you seen all this delightful spot has to offer, or shall we go a little farther?"
"Over there to the left is where your buffaloes lie up. Are you still anxious to get one or..." Wheee-eee-eeee! Spat! Spat! Sand spurted up about them; they heard the whine of bullets, the vicious hum of missiles that passed within a few inches or a few feet of their bodies. They were under fire! From somewhere out amidst the dancing heat haze of the sands, a number of men were blazing away at long range with very efficient repeating rifles.
Neither of the pair waited. They leaped together down to the second, then to the third of the ledges, and, tumbling aboard the boat, ordered the men to give way.
A hail of bullets piped above their heads, but the rock ledges protected them. For the moment they were safe. Captain Girvan, his face red with anger, steered close under the shore. The men pulled like demons. Tommy Paston adjusted the sights of his rifle and stared with puckered eyelids across the glimmering waste of sand. The hail of bullets ceased as suddenly as it had begun. Tommy half-lifted his rifle with an exclamation, lowered it again.
"See anything?" asked Girvan.
"Something dancing along—like bits of brown paper before a puff of wind. Can't see much in this dazzle. Guess it's the darlings advancing to another position. Pull like the deuce!"
"Ah! Jim had seen something!" Girvan grunted.
From the schooner came the rattle of an irregular volley, then the rat-tat-atat of independent firing. They could see the crew lining the rail and firing rapidly. Ah Sin was descending the rigging at a great rate. Above the rattle of the rifles, his high-pitched screaming came to them like the voice of a scared hobgoblin.
The boat was near the schooner now. Phut! A spray of water flew up astern and a little short of the boat. Girvan shifted the tiller a trifle, and they swung out towards the farther side of the schooner. Phut! Phut! Then more shots, none of which fell very near.
"We're in the wake of the sun," said Tommy calmly. "Jolly good job, that! They can't see us clearly. Wow!"
The fountains were all about the boat. Bullets ricochetted from the water and went whining about their ears. The stroke jerked convulsively, his right arm dropped limp, while a splash of red started out upon his shoulder. Tony dropped his rifle, swung to the thwart beside the man, grabbed the oar as he dropped it, caught the time and swung into stroke.
Phut! Phut! Wheeoo-whee! They were through the bullet-sprinkled area, swinging in behind the schooner.
"Way enough! Oars! Stand by, bow!" rasped Girvan, and the boat ran alongside. Jim and a couple of men appeared at the rail.
"Are you hurt?" he cried anxiously. "Eh? What's it all about? I got a glimpse of 'em moving. Hard to see. They're in khaki, I think. Don't show up. Hey, is Lobo hurt?"
Captain Girvan turned to the wounded man crouching at his feet, ran a light, searching hand over the bloodstained shoulder.
"Not so bad! The bullet has gone clean through. Shoulder-blade drilled, but not fractured, I think. We'll see in a moment. Get the motor started, slip the cable. All on deck lie down. Get Lobo up, Tommy!"
He climbed aboard while the boat drew up to the ladder, and ducked low while he ran forward. The now invisible marksmen were firing at the schooner's deck. Bullets whined and thudded over and into the deck-house, rang on the steel hull, zipped about Girvan's head. One of the crew, hit in a leg by a ricochet, yelped as he crawled behind the deck-house.
FROM below came the first choked splutter of the starting motor, then it settled into stride. Throwing himself flat, Girvan loosed the stops of the windlass.
"Go astern!" he yelled.
Some one repeated the order, the Rockabelle backed away from her anchor, the cable paid out. As though they realized that their prey was escaping them, the unseen riflemen redoubled their fire, concentrating on the bows.
"There must be some sailors amongst those scoundrels!" thought Girvan. "They want to keep us here. Way enough! Full speed ahead!" he bellowed.
The cable had drawn taut. Bullets were flying as thick as hailstones about the forecastle, several struck the windlass. It wouldn't have been healthy to rise and loose the shackle that held the cable end. Girvan whipped out his knife, slashed the tough rope, it gave with a loud snap, the severed end snaked through the hawse-hole and splashed under the bow. Then, losing her stern way, the Rockabelle began to forge ahead, gathering speed.
"Hard over!" Girvan stooped and raced aft, throwing himself down beside Kettle, who, prone on the deck, was twirling the wheel.
Jim, who had started the motor, appeared in the hatchway, ducked as a bullet whistled past his nose and came across the deck snake fashion. A group of men lay about Lobo and the other fellow who had been hit, passing Tommy Paston strips torn from a shirt. One of them had fetched the skipper's medicine kit. There was a sharp tang of iodine in the air.
The Rockabelle came round in a half-circle and headed down the inlet. For a minute longer the firing continued, then, with a last flurry, ceased.
"Keep down!" bellowed Girvan, and it was well he did, for a few moments later came another burst, even more furious. It lasted, perhaps, twenty seconds, then ceased as suddenly as it had begun.
"Just so! They thought they'd catch us on our feet," said Girvan. "Two men forward! Keep down! Starboard a little, Kettle!"
The Rockabelle forged on. The falling tide was with her, and she made good way. There was no more firing, and presently the schooner was well out of range. Jim, who had been using his glasses, thought he saw a movement, but he couldn't be sure, for the shimmering waves of hot air above the heated sand distorted everything.
"You can get up now," called Girvan, and, having seen that the wounded men were comfortably stowed, bellowed for Ah Sin, who, during all the racket, had kept up a continuous screaming. "Shut off the siren now!" he commanded. "Why did you make that row?"
Ah Sin was trembling all over as he crawled out of his galley on hands and knees, looking fearfully back at the shore that had held such a deadly surprise.
"No wantee be killee!" he moaned. "No likee!"
"I don't likee, either. No one does. But that's no reason for squealing like a demented rabbit!" rumbled Girvan. "Now tell me, have you ever heard anything about this inlet? Have you heard of any shell up here? Any poachers?"
"Yes!" wailed Ah Sin, his yellow face streaming with tears. "Piecee fella walkee 'long thlis way. Piecee Jap. Sneak shell. Killee two Chinaman las' year. Velly bad men!"
"Then why the deuce couldn't you tell me when we came in?" roared Girvan. "And if there's shell in the inlet, and they've been taking it, why aren't there any signs along the beaches?"
"No can tellee. Not knowing. Thlink them gone 'way. Flaid you laughee along of me tellee."
"Oh, get along with you and get us something to eat!" snapped Girvan, and went aloft. Tommy and Jim joined him.
"We're well out of this," said Paston, after a silent scrutiny of the shores. "What do we do now?"
"Get along and report at Thursday Island. If there's a gunboat she'll come round and scour the place. I suppose Ah Sin heard the correct explanation. A gang of Jap and probably Malay poachers. But—"
"That doesn't explain the disappearing schooner," put in Jim. "And it seems to me these fellows were under jolly good fire control," said Tommy. "You'd say they were disciplined. Have you looked over Lancing's papers yet? And are we going to tow that yawl all the way to Thursday Island?"
"Yes, we'll try to take her there. I haven't looked at the letters and the notebook yet. Let's do it now!"
The letters were from a friend of Lancing's in London, and contained only casual gossip.
"Nothing in these. Nothing in the other books aboard, I think, except notes about butterflies and beetles. But this was in his pocket," said Girvan, turning over the notebook.
It was about seven inches by five, made up of thin parchment paper, with a line of perforation along the inner margins to allow of a leaf being detached. There were several sketches on the first few leaves, one of a bit of marsh with a group of buffaloes, done swiftly but with great spirit. Another of a curious bird with a crest, accompanied by notes of its colouring. A third page was covered with notes about the habits of an ant.
There followed several blank pages, then halfway down one a hasty scribble:
"Unfortunate necessity. Two buffaloes attacked me. Had to shoot them. They charged fire, but, fortunately, saw them in time. Very narrow escape. Found one had been lately wounded by bullet. This confirms suspicions that men are somewhere in neighbourhood. Tomorrow I will..."
Girvan turned the page. The two following had been torn out. There was a smear of blood on the narrow margin left in the book.
"That's odd!" murmured Tommy Paston, looking over his shoulder. "See, the following sheets are indented. That means he wrote on those two. It looks as if he had written after he was shot, doesn't it? Then why did he tear the pages out? Let me have the thing."
He held the page beyond the gap sideways to the light, allowing the indentations made by the pencil-point through the thin paper to show.
"Two pages overlaid. No, it's too mixed up to read," he said, and turned several more pages. "Hallo! Here's something! A sheet of carbon paper. Um! It's mixed up, but..."
He held up the open book. Upon the page displayed was a confused jumble of writing in the faint black of the carbon.
"The words written separately on two pages have been transferred to this one," went on Tommy. "This is the missing stuff. Very shaky and uneven writing, apparently. 'Strange...heavy...tion.' No, I can't read it!"
"And no one else, either. It's all a jumble," Jim said. "What a pity! He must have written about the hounds who killed him. Perhaps he found out who they were, or something of the sort."
"I can't read it in its present condition," went on Paston. "But I know how it can be done. I'll have it photographed and have a magic-lantern slide made of it. When the enlarged image is thrown on a screen, we'll be able to pick out one lot of words from the other. If there's a secret hidden there, we'll discover it."
"Then we'll have to wait till we get home. Meanwhile I'll stow the thing away in my safe. But why, in the name of all that's mysterious, did Lancing destroy those two pages after taking the trouble to write them, especially when he was dying?"
"But was it he who destroyed them?" asked Tommy Paston.
And, shaking his head, Captain Girvan gathered up letters and notebook and stowed them in his cabin safe.
As they neared the mouth of the inlet, a breeze came off the land and sail was hoisted. A little after noon the Rockabelle reached the open waters of the gulf and shaped away for the tip of the York Peninsula and Thursday Island. It was as the schooner was put over on the long board to the northwards that Girvan, going aft, glanced over the rail to see what sort of weather Lancing's yawl was making. The little vessel had disappeared.
Girvan hauled in the short length that remained of the tow-line and examined it. It had been cut more than half through, and the remaining strands had snapped. It was a clean cut.
"May have been done by a bullet. Must have been done by a bullet. There were enough of them flying about. Then the rope gave way under the strain. I suppose we left the yawl somewhere up the inlet. Can't be helped. We got everything out of her, anyhow," thought Girvan, and let it go at that.
CAPTAIN NED GIRVAN turned over the soiled envelope addressed to him in pencil, in a shaky, sprawling, uncultivated hand.
"How come? Who's it from?" he shouted to the rapidly retreating boatman who had passed it up to him.
The man didn't reply, except with a grin, and Girvan opened the envelope, muttering:
"Some blamed beachcomber, I s'pose."
Then he frowned. The Rockabelle had come in to Thursday Island on the previous evening. He had at once gone aboard the old gunboat Beagle, that ancient though still serviceable vessel which represented the law in that quarter of the world, and made his report. And as the Beagle had been on the point of sailing on one of her regular tours of inspection, her captain had said that he would look into Lambourne Inlet and investigate the strange attack upon the Rockabelle and the murder of Lancing, though he had little hope of discovering anything.
"Illicit pearling gang. They'll be gone right away by the time we get there," said the skipper of the Beagle. "And you don't expect me to believe that bit about the disappearing schooner, do you, Ned? She must have given you the slip somehow. Miracles like that don't happen, that's all there is to it."
"That's exactly the point—they don't. So there we are," agreed Girvan. "But the fact remains the man was murdered, and we had a darned narrow shave."
"Well, take my tip and don't talk about it ashore till I come back. There are some very queer characters knocking around Thursday. If any of them are in on this monkey work it's just as well not to give 'em warning. Tell nobody. I'll let you know within a week. Wait till then, and we'll see what can be done."
So Girvan had returned to his own ship and given orders that no one should talk. The better to ensure silence, he had picked the men who took him ashore and specially warned Ah Sin against talking when he went to buy fresh provisions. He had been certain that all the men could be trusted—and now, here in his hands was proof that some one had been talking!
The letter began:
"Dere Captain Girvan,—You knows me, ole Johnny Rudge."
Girvan smiled in spite of himself. He knew Johnny—everybody knew Gulf Johnny. He was one of the old-timers. Away back in the bad old days of black-birding, Johnny had been the skipper of Helen K., one of the most notorious schooners in the labour trade.
Johnny had "recruited" labour for the Queensland sugar plantations in the fearless old fashion. He would drop anchor in the lagoon of some island, invite a select party of natives aboard, load them up with trade gin, and when they were all helplessly drunk, clap them under hatches and get away. The recruits went ashore in handcuffs, and the plantation owners had their own methods of keeping discipline after they got them.
It was a paying game while it lasted, though naturally it couldn't be played very long, since he couldn't visit the same island twice. When it was played out, Johnny had gone pearling. There were various incidents, culminating in the barefaced robbery of a private lagoon. After that Johnny and the Helen K. found it convenient to get away to South America.
There he played a part in a revolution, running a cargo of arms for one of the parties. Later he was back again in Australasia minus schooner and crew, and very close-mouthed even when he was painting the Melbourne bars a brilliant vermilion.
He next turned up in New Guinea, where he made a lucky gold strike. By turns trader and prospector, explorer and dealer in pearls, sometimes rich, sometimes stony broke, Johnny had finally settled down in Thursday, apparently well-to-do, living in a little shack some distance from the township on the spit east of the anchorage.
"Know you, you old pirate! I should rather think so!" murmured Girvan, and again read the words that had caused him to frown:
"So I rite to tell you theres funny bizness up
the Lambourne Inlet, so Ive heerd tell you been up there ought to
know about, and I can tell you some more, but I won't rite it, but
you can have it word of mouth if you come to see me to-nite. Don't
let no one see you come in a bote when it's quiet. It is verry
serous. I have know it only a little while, but you know me, and I
tell no lies.
"Your true friend,
"My aunt!" breathed Girvan. "Eh?" He turned sharply. Ah Sin stood at his elbow, holding a tray on which was a long glass full of amber liquid in which ice tinkled enticingly.
"What d'you want?" he snapped. "What d'you mean by creeping about like that?"
"Shloe nevlah makee nloise," replied the Chinaman patiently. "Me makee whhlistle nex' time? Blingee cool dlink'long got ice. Tea and olange juice. Velly cool."
"Oh, all right!" said Girvan ungraciously. "Look here, did you say anything about that shooting business when you went ashore yesterday evening?"
"No talkee. You tellee no talkee. Why me talkee when you tellee no?" quoth Ah Sin.
"Well, some one has," growled Girvan, and dismissed the Chinaman with a nod.
He read the letter again. It was very perplexing. Gulf Johnny probably knew more about the very queer people who occasionally turned up at Thursday than any one else. No doubt he had plenty of dark secrets. And he owed Girvan a good turn, for the skipper of the Rockabelle had, years before, come to his rescue when he was in dire trouble, and Johnny was the sort of man who never forgot friend or foe.
When Tommy Paston and Jim came aboard after a run around ashore, they found Girvan still staring absently at the letter. He handed it to them silently.
"Is there anything in it, d'you think?" asked Paston.
"Gulf Johnny would regard homicide as merely a passing incident in the day's work, if he were sure he wouldn't get into trouble over it. When a man like that speaks of something being very serious, you can bet it's something jolly close to a catastrophe," said Girvan.
"So you'll go along—alone?"
"You two can come with me. Johnny is worth knowing. He's like one of those old buccaneers, born out of his time. But is there any talk about this business ashore?"
"Never a word," answered Jim. "We looked in at a hotel and met Billy Fiddler, the airman we saw in Townsville last year. There were a lot of chaps in the place seeing Billy off, but no one said anything to us about Lambourne Inlet. I think some one would if the yarn had leaked out."
"Johnny knows, anyway, so some one must have told him. Has Billy gone? I've got a notion he'd be the very man to scout round and spot anything queer behind the inlet."
"He went off half an hour ago. But I asked him to come and stay with us when he comes up the coast again. I guessed you would think of this scouting notion when you heard of him," answered Jim with a grin. "I think he'd be keen on it."
"Good egg! But I'm afraid the circus, whatever it is, will be over long before we could get him there. It's probably over now—unless..."
He tapped Johnny's letter meaningly, but said no more, and the subject wasn't referred to again till the evening, when dinner was over and darkness had fallen.
"Shall we start now?" asked Jim in a low voice as Ah Sin cleared away the coffee cups and retreated to his den.
"Yes, I'll tell Kettle!"
Girvan strode forward, and returned with the second mate. The three dropped into the boat, the skipper took the tiller. Ah Sin appeared at the rail.
"You wantee sluppah?" he asked.
"No!" rasped Girvan. "You can turn in. That fellow gets on my nerves, somehow," he said. "He's always at one's elbow of late."
"Near the end of the voyage. He's showing zeal, hoping you'll keep him on," suggested Tommy Paston. "He's a very good servant, and I suppose he likes the billet. But where are you going? I thought Gulf Johnny's shack was on the spit over there—and you're steering t'other way."
"We'll swing round presently. Johnny doesn't want any one to know I'm visiting him. Mind your oar! There's a bit of breeze coming!" said Girvan shortly.
He felt anxious. The mystery of Lambourne Inlet had worried him a great deal. The more he thought of it the less likely seemed the easy explanation that the shooting had been done by some gang of shell poachers. Why on earth, he asked himself, should such fellows call attention to themselves by shooting at the Rockabelle's crew, when they had only to lie low to escape notice altogether? And how did Johnny come to know anything about the affair?
"Anyhow, we'll soon know," he concluded, and presently put the boat about and headed for the spit.
It was dark, for the breeze had brought up clouds which obscured the stars, but he knew the spot well enough, having visited Johnny on previous trading trips. In a little the boat ran in and grounded in a tiny cove.
"Wait here a minute. The old boy seems to be waiting for me." Girvan pointed to a faint gleam of light coming from the dark silhouette of the shack. "If we all go up together he might get nervous and start shooting. A lot of men have had reason to dislike him. I'll be back in a minute."
He walked up the beach and across the loose, drifted sand to the door of Johnny's abode. It was merely a two-roomed bungalow, built of unpainted planks, roofed with the usual corrugated iron. The whole structure leaned crazily to leeward.
"One of these days the whole contraption will be blown down," thought Girvan, and rapped smartly on the door.
THERE was no answer. He knocked again, then, as silence still reigned inside, turned the handle. The door opened and he stepped directly into the living-room, to halt, staring at what lay upon the uncarpeted floor, his hand darting to the inner pocket where he carried a pistol.
Gulf Johnny had lived most of his days by violence; and now, in the evening of his life, violence had ended him. He lay upon his face, a big, old-fashioned navy revolver still in his grip, quite dead. The back of his head had been battered in by a blow of tremendous force.
Ned Girvan had served throughout the war, and was hardened to the sight of sudden death, but somehow this unexpected horror affected him more than anything he had ever seen, so that he leaned against the door jamb gasping, before he retreated, shutting the door softly, and returned to the boat.
"Stay here, youngster!" he rapped out. "Tommy come with me. Gulf Johnny has been murdered!"
"Now—why?" asked Tommy Paston a few minutes later, when they had examined the shack. "By the position of the body he was sitting here by the window, his back to the door, reading that newspaper. Some one comes quietly in. He draws his gun, but before he can do anything he is done for by a blow that only a strong man could have delivered. Then the body is searched—and this packet of notes, over a couple of hundred pounds, is left intact, while there's not a scrap of writing, not even an old account-book or a letter, left in the whole place. It wasn't done by an ordinary thief. Why was it done? Because Johnny knew something which the murderer knew, or guessed, he was going to tell you."
"Yes," agreed Girvan. "That seems fairly plain. Perhaps the poor old boy had made notes, or had letters, or something of the kind. Anyhow, it was done not more than an hour ago, soon after dark, I think, and..."
He broke off sharply. The wind had risen and the surf on the other side of the spit was making a good deal of noise, but not enough to drown the crack of a pistol-shot fired close by. Then came the thud of running feet, and Jimmy Girvan burst into the room, slamming the door behind him. Next instant a bullet crashed through it and thudded into the farther partition wall.
"Put out the light!" snapped Ned Girvan. Tommy blew the dim lamp out. "Now then, young 'un, who is it?"
"Don't know!" panted Jim. "I came up the beach and squatted on the dry sand. And I saw something moving—half a dozen, I'd say—and sprinted for it. And some one took a crack at me. That's all."
The lock of his automatic clicked as he cocked it. Two other clicks answered. There was silence for a moment.
"Delightful spot for the job," drawled Paston. "Couple of miles from anywhere, surf and wind to drown the racket of shooting, no one likely to come this way. Seems to me we're rather in the soup, what?"
"There's a little window in the other room. Look out, there, Jim. We might slide away to the boat. Keep low! Ah, would you!"
He whirled and fired through the window as something crashed through the glass, dropped sparking on the floor, then with a hiss burst into wan flame. It was a blue light, and on the instant the room was bright with the ghastly flare.
Next moment the room seemed filled with buzzing bullets. Paston suppressed a yell as one touched his arm, cutting it deep.
"Hit?" asked Girvan, as he scrambled across the room on all fours.
"Painful, but nothing much. What..."
Girvan's grab at the water-bucket which stood in the corner answered the question before it was asked. He heaved the bucket up, sent a splash of water on to the blue light, which hissed and went out.
Came another irregular volley that tore through the thin wooden walls as though they had been paper, but by a miracle no bullet found a target. Then silence fell.
"Jim!" whispered Girvan. "Where are you?"
There was no reply. Had the youngster been killed? With a hot flame of anger blazing within him, Girvan made towards the door of the inner room, only to stop as the outer door crashed open and another sparking blue light dropped inside.
But this time it wasn't allowed to flare. Paston jumped at it, flung it out. It flared up as it flew, revealing a couple of crouching figures. Both the skipper and Tommy fired at them. One rolled over, picked himself up, was out of sight in a moment, while the other snapped a shot and dived into a hollow of the sand.
From the other side of the house came a sudden fusillade, a thin scream of pain, a sharp command, a volley. Then silence again, while the blue light burned.
"They weren't firing at us. It's the youngster. He got out of the window and took them in rear. Hallo! There he goes again."
A rattle of dropping shots, farther off now.
The blue light died out.
"Come on! Quick!" commanded Girvan, and dashed outside, followed by Tommy Paston.
On the farther side of the spit flashes laced the darkness, the reports of the shots came faintly, then firing ceased.
"Ahoy, Jimmy!" bellowed Girvan.
"Sit tight!" Jim replied from no great distance, and came up at the trot, labouring through the loose sand. "They've gone!" he cried as he drew near. "They had a boat over there. Sorry to leave you, but it seemed the best thing to do. The coast was clear on that side, so I slipped out, got round and got one chappie at least when that light went up. They picked him up and cleared. There were more than I thought at first. Eight or nine, I think. We've had all the luck."
"It's the way with a skirmish in the dark, sonny," said Paston. "There's more landscape than target—or we shouldn't be here. Lend a hand on this arm of mine. Here's a handkerchief!"
They tied up the wound, the sole casualty sustained. Then they went back to the shack, re-lit the lamp, and looked round. The walls were perforated like a colander. It seemed amazing that they should have escaped death, but Paston and Ned Girvan, veterans both, showed no surprise, so young Jim concealed his wonder that they survived.
"Well, there's nothing for it but to go to the police," said the skipper. "Could you see anything of these darlings, Jim? What did they look like?"
"Sailors, so far as I could make out—and they all wore big beards. At least, that's what it looked like. I couldn't see much. They didn't stay after I opened fire. Don't blame 'em. I haven't the faintest notion who they are."
"Poor old Johnny might have told, but he can't. Tommy, there's something a lot bigger than we suspected at first behind this business. I think we'd better say as little as possible till we hear from the Beagle, and perhaps no more then. But I'm jolly well going to get to the bottom of it, if it takes a year. I think the solution is in that notebook, if we can only read it, but that'll have to wait till we get back to Rockhampton. I won't risk the thing in strange hands, but there's a photographer there who I can trust. We'll get away as soon as we can. Now for the police."
* * *
The murder of Gulf Johnny and the attack on the Girvans and Paston very naturally made a tremendous sensation. It seemed to be an entirely pointless crime. Gulf Johnny had made plenty of enemies during his lively career, and, as the coroner pointed out, it was, doubtless, some of these who had murdered him, though it seemed very odd that they hadn't robbed the dead man of his money.
But while one might find reasons for Johnny's slaying, the attack on the three was inexplicable. The shack was searched anew, but nothing more was forthcoming, and the coroner directed the jury to bring in a verdict of murder against persons unknown, which, after all, was the only verdict possible so far as the evidence went.
It was as the three were going to their boat to return to the Rockabelle that an old man intercepted them.
"Cap'n Girvan, I wants you to take me aboard," he said. "I got something I want to say to you. Mebbe you knows me, mebbe you don't, and it don't signify. But—" he bent nearer "—I was a pal o' Gulf Johnny's. I sorter suspicion something. I'd like to tell you."
"Right you are! You're Gaff Bennet, aren't you? I've seen you round. Get aboard!"
Bennet climbed aboard.
"If you've got some information, why didn't you speak up at the inquest?" said Girvan, when they were seated in the cabin of the schooner, and Gaff had been furnished with a long drink.
"Well—" The old fellow looked round before replying, and closed the port behind him. "Here's how, gents!" He drank. "It's this way: Johnny knowed something, and it didn't do him no good, pore chap. Mebbe if I'd spoke up in open court like, it wouldn't do me no good neither. Mebbe I'd get a bashed head likewise."
"You're safe enough here. Out with it!" encouraged Girvan. "I'm going to get to the bottom of this. What do you know?"
Again Gaff looked round apprehensively. He nodded to Jim.
"I'd take it kind, young fella, if you'd jus' kind of do sentry-go around the deck-house. I don't want no one listening to what I tells you, cap'n. That Chink o' yourn has long ears, I reckon."
Jim rose at a sign from his brother. He wanted to hear the secret as much as the others, but he was under discipline. He stepped out, only to return in a moment.
"YOU needn't worry about Ah Sin; he's going ashore in the dinghy," Jim said. "The boys are all forrard, and Kettle's at the rail. We trust him all the way. Go ahead!"
"Gone, has he? Good riddance, that! Well, gents, it's this way: Me and pore Johnny was in the war—afore the mast in one of them transports as took sojers to that Gallipoli place. Crool work, that was. Then us went along back down the Red Sea, and blowed if them idjuts didn't go and put the ship on a bank. Along comes one of them Jap torpedy destroyers and lends a hand to get us off."
Jim looked at the speaker impatiently.
"We've heard all about the war," he began, to be silenced by his brother with an impatient gesture.
"Him bein' young he ain't got no patience," said Gaff reprovingly. "But, as I was saying, this here Jap destroyer come along, and the orfficer as commanded her was a first luff. Real smart chap. Well, we gets off and goes on. But, mind you, me and Johnny, we seed enough of that chap to know him again anywheres, cos he was skippin' round lively for two days helpin' us get off."
"And you have seen him since?" put in Paston eagerly.
"Saw him twelve months back—and saw him jus' now when he brung in the drinks. He's your Chink, Ah Sin!"
"Eh?" Girvan leaped to his feet, then subsided again with a shake of the head. "But no, surely not, Gaff! Surely a Japanese naval officer wouldn't be doing cook's work in a hooker like this? It's a bit too much!"
"So you says, but it's him, I'll take me Bible oath on it. And you won't see him no more, I'll lay."
"But—but—why?" Astonishment silenced Girvan.
"I saw him when I dined aboard the Thunderer at Singapore some eighteen months ago. He was the admiral's steward then. There was a leakage of information from her and the deuce of a row over it," put in Paston softly. "There's no reason why a first luff shouldn't have been set to that job. I didn't mention it before because I really thought he was the genuine Chinese article, though I have had an uncomfortable feeling that he might be Japanese. You remember I said something about it. However—go on, Gaff. You saw him twelve months ago. Where and what was he then?"
"Now, that there's the point I'm comin' to. Johnny and me we got a job from one of them collector chaps that buys for zoos and such, to get him a reg'lar big bull buffalo, the horns and skin, all complete. I b'lieve as it was some bloke that wanted to say he'd shot it hisself but didn't want the trouble o' going after it, but no matter. Fifty quid was the figure, and we reckoned it'd pay, so we goes in my ole boat as was a ship's cutter along to Denny's Cove, and gets a good bull and two cows as we didn't want."
"How? Why did you kill them if you didn't want them?" asked Jim.
"'Cos they all went for us. That's the way wi' them Gulf butliers. They all comes at you," explained Gaff. "So we comes back to the boat with the skin—and mortal heavy it were—and there's a schooner in the Cove and a lot o' Japs. And this fella, he was with 'em, dressed jus' like a 'foremast hand, but bossing things. And he gives us the once over, and we knowed him but didn't let on—and he knowed us for certain, but he didn't let on. He said as they'd lost a boat overboard, and had we seen it, and we said no, and got off quick. Didn't like the looks of 'em, and they hadn't no business there. Reckon they was snoopin' round for shell till we seen them moty tyres as they had stacked on deck."
"Motor tyres!" echoed Girvan. "What on earth for?"
"Big lorries, I reckon. They was them big, thick uns. They was on the main hatch, a whole lot of 'em, covered with a bit o' canvas, but it blowed off accidental and we saw 'em. It was a bit after that when we got back, as Johnny started goin' round at night by hisself. I told him as it were foolishness, but he wouldn't take no heed—he's got done in for it."
"But where did he go?" asked Paston.
"Down along by the Fuji house. It's a place where them Japs goes. That saki they drinks ain't half bad when you're used to it. Johnny could talk a bit of the lingo. He learned it one time along o' being in gaol along at Hakodate. Real quick to pick up lingo, Johnny was. Used to make some of them drunk, and then he'd talk to them quite nice."
"But what did he find out?" asked Paston. He was growing impatient of the long-drawn-out story.
"Now that's jus' what he didn't say. Said that there was something mighty queer goin' on. And he knowed you been to Lambourne Inlet and had trouble o' some sort that very night you come in. He told me that much and gimme the letter he sent you. He said he was going to tell you, you being a gent as he could trust. And that's all, gents. Thought I'd tell you, Johnny bein' dead. And I'd take it kindly if you'd ship me down along the coast. I don't reckon I'd live long ashore here. You'll be wanting a cook, anyways. You won't see that Ah Sin—which his real name was Toyuni—no more."
"Right you are. You're cook," said Girvan. "This is a queer kettle of fish. Haven't you any sort of notion what it was Johnny found out?"
"Not a thing, sir. Only that it was something big and to do with Japs. That's all. Thank you kindly, sir. And if you'd send a boat ashore for my kit I'd be obliged. I don't feel like setting foot there not for a while. Shall I. go to the galley and see about fixin' the grub, sir?"
"Tell Kettle, and show him the galley and his quarters, Jim," said Girvan, and as the pair left the cabin, turned to Paston. "If you don't know it—Denny's Cove is close to the mouth of Lambourne Inlet. But why the motor tyres? You couldn't use a car or a lorry, or anything but a caterpillar tractor anywhere round there. You've seen the sand. It's too loose and deep to drive anything over—and where there isn't sand it's swampy."
"All part of the puzzle," murmured Paston. "Isn't there a photographer here who could do the job of photographing that crossword notebook page? I'd like to get a move on."
"There is—but he's a Jap. Nothing doing!" Girvan answered. "I'm only waiting for the Beagle. We may hear from her to-morrow."
And sure enough, on the following morning came a wireless message which was picked up at the station ashore and sent aboard by the boat that brought Gaff's small supply of necessaries. Girvan read it eagerly, then tossed it to Paston, whose face fell as he glanced through it.
"Inlet visited. No sign any sort of activity. Conclude shell poachers. No craft of any sort, even disappearing schooners."
"Well, that leaves us to our own devices," said Girvan. "We'll sail to-day."
"By the way, why didn't we inform the authorities about Ah Sin—or Toyuni, or whatever his name is?" said Jim Girvan, as the Rockabelle ran out into open water for the homeward voyage. "Couldn't we have jugged him?"
"On what charge? The only thing we could allege against him is that Gaff Bennet knows he is, or was, a Japanese officer. We may suspect him of other things, of signalling those fellows in the inlet and of cutting loose Lancing's yawl, but we haven't a shadow of proof. The fact that a Chinaman goes ashore and doesn't return means nothing—and, at all events, once ashore he is lost as effectively as if he'd dived into thick jungle."
"Pity we didn't know a little earlier, in time to stop him," said Jim. "Though perhaps he'd have slipped a dose of cold poison into the curry. The idea, I take it, is that he's a spy. Then why on earth has he been putting in four months aboard the Rockabelle? We haven't had any secrets for him to get hold of."
"On my account, I suspect," said Paston softly. "I wrote to Ned from Tokio asking if he could pick me up at Port Moresby. I'm certain that my letters were being read before they were sent on. What was to hinder arrangements being made to plant this chap on you, all in order to keep an eye on me? The Japanese F.O. do me the honour to consider me dangerous."
"You mean that you're a Secret Service man?" asked Jim, wide-eyed.
He had known in a general sort of way that Paston, after being badly gassed in Flanders towards the end of the war, had been ordered by the doctors to live as much as possible in the open air, preferably in warm, dry air. He had secured a billet with a long title, Correlation of Overseas Trade Commissioner, which took him to and fro among the Consulates in Japan and China and the islands of the Malay Archipelago with an occasional run to an Australian port. He had appeared to do very much as he chose.
If Jim Girvan had thought anything about Tommy Paston's affairs it was merely to envy him his care-free, roving life. But now there was a look in Paston's eyes which told that his usually jovial, flippant manner was only assumed, that a deep seriousness was hidden under his ready smiles.
"Yes," he replied, and for once his voice was grave and earnest. "We never talk of these things, but it's the one way left for a crock like me to serve his country."
"But—you don't really think that Japan would go to war with us?" exclaimed Jim.
"A lot of Japanese seem to think that it might be done," replied Tommy, resuming his usual air of gay irresponsibility. "As I told you that night in Lambourne Inlet, a great many of them—and not the fools, either—think and talk of the day when Japan is going to boss all Asia. The Kaiser was a flamboyant ass in many ways, but his notions about the Yellow Peril weren't so far off the track. And, as I said that night, the Japanese think of Australasia as their natural heritage."
"But what could they do?" persisted Jim. "There's our navy!"
"And there's a rattling good Japanese Navy, too, my boy, trained originally by our people. If—or when—it comes to a scrap they would be in superior force, with their base fairly near."
"How about our bases—Hong Kong and Singapore?" put in Ned Girvan.
"And how about Formosa, where Japan has been busy for a good many years? I've tried to have a run around there. No go, though. They were as polite as salesmen, but I got nowhere. And don't forget that Formosa isn't more than about four hundred miles from Hong Kong, that is about a day's steam for fast destroyers, half a night's flight for bombing 'planes, and a sweet base for submarines."
"But—Australia—it's a long way off, and—"
"Look at your map! For practical purposes Formosa is as near the northern coasts of Australia as either Hong Kong or Singapore. Most of the population is in the south and east. Assume that Japan means mischief. She bides her time, then—biff! There's a declaration of war out of a clear sky, so to speak, and simultaneously a surprise attack on Hong Kong, a crowd of destroyers letting go torpedoes in the harbour, a crowd of 'planes dropping bombs on Kowloom. At the same time subs and more 'planes are attending to Singapore. Torpedoes in the water, torpedoes from the air, clouds of poison gas! Their fleet at sea ready to mop up any details! Grrrh!"
"Oh, rot!" growled Ned Girvan. "They couldn't do that without a lot of preparation. The mobilisation would give the game away long before they could strike."
"There you underrate the yellow brother's capacity for secrecy. My dear chap, it could be done. Combined army and navy manoeuvres, plan of campaign announced, naval and military attachés invited, all the usual rootle-tootle, and then..."
"Then do you think that this affair up the inlet could possibly have some sort of bearing on this notion?" asked Girvan.
Tommy shrugged his shoulders.
"I've got a brother at the Bar. He'd tell you never to go ahead of your evidence or you may fall into all sorts of holes. What's the evidence? A collector chap runs across some scallywags and gets shot. We are shot at by the same gang. They may have been looking for shell; or they might, just possibly, have found gold. Gulf Johnny discovers something, and is murdered. The Beagle finds everything normal in the inlet. Gaff Bennet and Johnny have seen an alleged pearler with a load of heavy lorry tyres. We found a pair of dividers that may have belonged to an officer of the Japanese navy. Ah Sin turns out to have been in the inlet before. He is an ex-officer of the said navy. We have a scribbled sheet of paper, which may or may not give us light on the matter. That's the evidence so far, and a nice jumble it is."
"I've got it!" exclaimed Jim, jumping up suddenly. "It must have been Ah Sin—or Toyuni—who tore out those sheets from the notebook. He had plenty of opportunity before Lancing's things were put in the safe. And—I believe he signalled that night. He had a bright light in his galley, and the light kept coming and going. He said he was sewing a shirt, so I thought nothing of it. Thought it was his arm going to and fro before the light as he stitched. Corks! He's a smart chap, all right!"
"That schooner—" began Girvan, but Paston held up a hand.
"No evidence," he said, smiling. "This meeting is now adjourned. I refuse to discuss anything till we see what is on that bit of paper. Never go ahead of your evidence!"
And filling his pipe, he stretched himself out in a deck-chair, to smoke and, doubtless, to review all the aspects of the problem set by the events of the past few days.
THE wind served well. With a steady breeze on her quarter, the Rockabelle reeled off the knots, running down the coast of Queensland till at length she hauled her wind and made in for the mouth of the Fitzroy and her home town, Rockhampton.
Captain Girvan's house lay some distance up river, and there the three proceeded in a car after they had dodged the attentions of a reporter and various other inquisitive people who wanted to hear details of the fight in Gulf Johnny's shack. Before leaving the town Girvan went to Sampson, the photographer of whom he had spoken, and entrusted him with the page from Lancing's notebook.
"It may be important. Keep it safe and get on to it at once. When can I have the slide? This evening?"
"All right," said Sampson. "And I've got an old lantern I can lend you. I'll fetch them out to your place, captain, this evening."
"You really want to know what it's all about, don't you, you old rascal?" Girvan chuckled. He had known Sampson for many years. "All right. You can hold your tongue. Keep that sheet of paper in your safe, and the negative, too, after you've made the slide. Savvee?"
"Sounds like the 'papers' in one of those old melodramas, it's so precious," said Sampson. "I'll take care of it. I suppose you'll be staying ashore for a bit, now you're back?"
"That depends a good deal on what this photograph may reveal. Well, I'll expect you about eight." Girvan turned, then pulled up suddenly before a big enlargement set on an easel in the front reception-room of the place.
It represented a portly Japanese gentleman, clad in magnificent robes, squatted upon a cushion, a long Japanese sword laid across his knees, a shorter one stuck in his sash.
"Jolly good picture!" exclaimed Girvan. "But how in thunder did you come to make it?"
Sampson purred delightedly. He loved to have his work praised.
"It is good, isn't it? That's old Oyonara. He's a big Japanese millionaire. He has been doing a tour around in his yacht. Vain old cockatoo! He brought his son, a jolly little six-year-old, to be taken. The boy was rigged up in our sort of togs and looked a regular guy. So did Oyonara. I sort of smelled a chance for something out of the ordinary. I got him to put the kid in native dress. That's him, over there. And then the old boy was so pleased that he rigged himself up in his own kit—and there you are. He was awfully bucked, and paid up a decent fee without a murmur."
"Yes. Wait a moment. Paston!" Girvan called in Tommy, who had been waiting outside in the car with Jim. "Here's a chap called Oyonara. Know anything about him?"
"Oh, rather! He's the richest man in Japan. Mills and fisheries and factories no end. But—I say, you know, this is a bit tall. He's an absolute nobody, socially speaking, the son of a rickshaw man. But here he is dressed as a nobleman and wearing the two swords of the samurai. He'd get into trouble in Japan if he dressed like that at home. The nobility are very touchy. It's funny, though, and rather pathetic. The one thing he wants is to be made a noble—and he can't have it."
"Don't they make peers of rich men, then, in Japan, same as they do in England?" asked Sampson.
"No. Men are ennobled sometimes for great services to the State, but never merely because they happen to be rich. And Oyonara has been too busy making money to do anything else. His ambition is laughed at; but still he's a power in the land. I dare say he'll try to do something big to get a title. When was he here, Mr. Sampson?"
"He was here for three days. Sailed yesterday. He has a fine yacht. That's a picture of her. And I've got pictures of some of the officers and a lot of the crew. I tell you, I did good business while they were here."
"If you don't mind, I'll have a look at the pictures of the officers later on," said Paston. "It's all very interesting. The yacht's one of the fastest vessels of her size afloat, Ned. Pretty thing, isn't she? She could mount guns, too, I've been told. She'd be a holy terror as a commerce destroyer. Well, let's get on. Thank you, Mr. Sampson. I'll drop in to be immortalized in a day or two."
"What's the big idea? Surely you don't think Oyonara has anything to do with this inlet stunt?" asked Girvan, his curiosity aroused by a queer look that flitted across his friend's face.
"Of course not!" laughed Paston. "And if he tried to use that long sword he's holding, he'd probably cut his own ears off. Let's get on."
They rolled away, and presently were being greeted by the Girvans' sister, Janice, little more than a girl, who kept house for the brothers. Tommy Paston hadn't seen her since she was a flapper.
"I used to call you Tootums when we last met," he said. "But I suppose it must be Miss Girvan now?"
"And I used to call you Piggy!" she replied, laughing. "I don't think it would be respectful to call you that now. But call me Tootums, if you like—"
"And I'll be Tommy. That establishes the home-like atmosphere so desirable to a homeless chap who's been living in every sort of hotel for years, and hating the lot," said Tommy.
Promptly at eight o'clock that evening, Sampson, the photographer, arrived with a magic lantern and the finished slide.
Ned Girvan decided to tell Sampson everything. Ned knew the photographer well enough, and, besides, Sampson knew what was on the slide, and, knowing so much, he might as well know the rest. Sampson listened silently until Ned had finished, then asked:
"Well, what are you going to do?"
"Read that message first—and now. We'll darken one of the rooms upstairs. Come on!"
The slide was shown quite clearly, but the reading of the jumble, even when the letters were enlarged, was no easy matter. More than two hours had passed when Paston laid down his pencil.
"That's the lot," he said. "Very interesting, but—it's still a puzzle."
"I've got thoroughly mixed up," said Janice. "Read it all, please!"
"Take this to police or naval officer at once. Very important. I have seen a lot of yellow men, Chinese or Japanese, with a gun on a lorry. The mountings on a second lorry. A gun. Three inch. And shells for it. They went inland from the head of Lambourne Inlet, nearly due south. Other lorries, but could not see what they carried. I am dying. They shot me. They think me dead. But I can get away. Farther out I may be picked up. I think they are trained soldiers. They had military rifles. They may have a depot inland. I saw tubing for artesian wells. Whoever finds this, take it to police. A magistrate. It is all true. Herbert Lancing."
"Poor fellow!" said Janice softly. "He did his best. But what is the puzzle, Tommy? Is it why these Japs were taking a gun with them?"
"Partly that. The other is how the gun and the other stuff got there. We saw a schooner enter the inlet ahead of us, but we didn't see her come out, and she wasn't anywhere along the inlet. Even if she went up a creek we should have spotted her masts."
"Couldn't they have been made to fold down, like those English barges you see on the Thames?" suggested Janice.
"That's possible. I didn't think of that," said Ned Girvan. "It could be done. That must be the explanation."
"And they've found a very valuable gold mine, and don't want to give it up, so they brought the gun to drive off any one who came near," went on the girl eagerly. "They've got a regular camp with a fort. They're filibusters, I suppose. I would think it all very romantic if it wasn't for the horrid murders. And now what happens?"
"We'll go and take a look round. If we could get a 'plane that would be the best way, but there isn't one available for the time being."
"There's that chap Billy Fiddler—he'll be coming up the coast again in three or four weeks," said Jim. "I asked him to look us up when he stopped here, and he said he would. I guess he'd take on the job. A few hundred miles is nothing to him. Why not get him to carry us there, Ned?"
"All the way from here? Nothing doing. We'll start off in the Rockabelle. She's our base. I suggest that we should go up the inlet in a boat, or over the sands on foot, or—and it's the best way of all—I can go aloft on that old kite contraption and have a look round."
"Take me with you, Ned, and let me go aloft," said Janice. "I'm lighter than any of you. I went up in it before."
"Infant, you're gibbering! You're going to stay at home. You'd be as useful as a kitten and a dashed lot more trouble. No; I'll leave a letter for Billy Fiddler, asking him to fly to the inlet if we've already started when he gets to Thursday, and telling him what to look out for. You can hand it over. That's the extent of your usefulness in this business, so shut up talking nonsense."
"Our family deals in candour, you see, Tommy," murmured Janice, but said no more.
Sampson, picking up the lantern in its box, looked up suddenly.
"Wouldn't a photographer be useful, Captain Girvan?" he asked. "It's this way: I haven't had a proper holiday for I dunno how long. I can afford to take one now. I've got an assistant who can carry on while I'm away. I'd—I'd like to come. I'd like to do something against these fellows. Perhaps if I could get a few photographs—you could use them as evidence—they're very convincing, you know."
"Evidence of what, exactly?" demanded Jim.
"Of this gun—or the fort—or the mine, or whatever it is that they're working on."
Captain Girvan laughed, but there was no mirth in his voice.
"My dear Sampson, while we appreciate your spirit, I don't think you realize what we'll be up against. We should have to crawl around in hiding, spying out the land. If we're discovered we'll be shot without mercy. We've had a sample of what these fellows are prepared to do already. To discover anything we'll have to lie around in hiding and—"
"Don't you see that's just where I'd come in? I've got a telephoto arrangement. I could take pictures from a long distance, miles away. You wouldn't have to go close," insisted Sampson. "There's a good deal in what he says," observed Paston. "We're seeking evidence that may induce the authorities to move—and, as Sampson says, there's nothing more convincing than photographs. I'd vote for taking him along—though, remember, Mr. Sampson, there's a big chance of getting shot."
"I'll take it!" said the little photographer.
"I'll pay my own expenses, and—"
"Oh, rot! Your provender won't amount to anything!" cut in Girvan. "We'll take you along. Now, be ready to start to-morrow afternoon. I'm going to send the Rockabelle off to-morrow, nominally to Brisbane, in charge of old Gaff Bennet. He has a master's ticket. Then we'll go out fishing to-morrow afternoon, and she'll pick us up down the coast a bit after dark. That'll leave any one who's watching us guessing for a little bit. Now scud along, Sampson. Not a word to any one, remember. I'll have your baggage smuggled aboard to-night, and you join the fishing trip to-morrow. C'mon, Jim. We'll go and prime Bennet and Kettle."
The rest of that day, and the following morning, the brothers were very busy. The Rockabelle was revictualled, the petrol tanks of the auxiliary refilled, and sundry supplies sent aboard, all in double-quick time. Shortly after noon she set sail, leaving Ned and Jim Girvan on the quay.
"THAT'S that! Now for rest and recreation!" said Captain Girvan cheerily, for the benefit of any of the group of loafers on the wharf who might be listening. "We'd better get those lines."
But the purchases the pair made in the sports outfitting shop which they visited included a fresh supply of cartridges for automatic pistols and rifles, weapons which so far have not come into use for fishing. They walked home at an easy pace.
"Any one following?" asked Girvan, as they turned in at the house gate.
"No one that I can see," replied Jim. "But that means nothing. I've had a feeling that we are being watched all the time. It's nerves, perhaps."
"Didn't know you had any, young 'un—but I've got the same feeling, too. I'll be glad to be afloat again."
Lunch was a dismal function, for Janice was red-eyed and for the most part silent. Tommy Paston, who had spent the morning writing a code letter to some mysterious person in Melbourne, was also very quiet, though he tried to console the girl.
"There's nothing to worry about, Tootums," he said. "Really, there's very little risk. We know what we're up against, so we'll take precious good care not to get into anything we can't get out of."
"I shouldn't care so much if I was going along with you. I shouldn't mind the risks. It's sitting at home imagining things that I hate. Can't you take me along? I shouldn't be in the way—and you know I can shoot."
"Sis, don't talk nonsense!" growled Ned. "I'm stretching a point in taking you along this afternoon. I've half a mind not to."
"Some one has to bring the boat back," she pointed out.
"We could hoist her in. She might be handy later. Oh, all right!" he added hastily as Janice's eyes filled with tears. "Don't turn on the rain! You may come, only be careful when you run in."
"I'll be careful!" promised Janice. "To hear you, any one would think I'd never handled the boat before. Well, are you all done? Let's start and get it over with."
Everything had been made ready. The three had left most of their baggage aboard the Rockabelle, Sampson's belongings had been slipped aboard in the early morning. The boat held nothing except a couple of outsize baskets.
"You're doing us well, Sis. There's grub enough for a platoon here," said Jim, lifting the lid of the uppermost basket.
"The other is a little surprise. You're not to open it till you're at sea," replied Janice mysteriously, and would not be drawn as to the nature of the surprise, though they guessed it would consist of creature comforts. She was fond of doing that sort of thing.
They rowed down river, put into a jetty, and picked up Sampson. He was quivering with suppressed excitement, for it was the first approach to adventure he had ever made in his uneventful life.
"I've fixed everything up," he said. "Tony Smith will carry on. He'll tell everybody I've gone for a holiday. I've been talking about it long enough. I sent off a trunk to my brother up at Yaamba, and the notion is that you're going to run me there in a car after we get back."
"Good man!" said Ned approvingly. "Now, calm down; relax. You're going fishing, remember."
Clear of the river, they hoisted the sail and moved slowly down the coast. There were other small craft about, several fishing boats under sail, others with motor power.
But no suspicious craft followed them as they rowed down the coast, to all appearances bent on fishing. Dark came, and with it the Rockabelle. The men and Janice transferred to the schooner, and had the boat hauled up on deck.
While this was being done, Janice vanished down below. When Ned and Tommy sought their cabins, she emerged from Jim's cabin rigged out in an apron, wearing a large cap.
"But—you're wearing a different dress!" exclaimed Ned. "Where—"
"My dear ma-an!" drawled Janice. "I brought an outfit along with me in that basket. That's the surprise, and it means I'm coming along with you. If this hadn't happened I'd have sunk the boat, or something. Do you think I'd let you go off to risk getting killed on the sort of meals you'd get from some ham-handed food spoiler? You can't get a Chink because you wouldn't know whether he wasn't another Ah Sin, so it's up to me. I'm going to furnish the background of pleasant meals. So there!"
And she marched on, leaving her brother staring at Tommy Paston.
"I'll never understand women!" grunted Ned Girvan. "Well, she's a very good cook. Perhaps we'll keep her till we get to Thursday." The wind continued to freshen. By midnight it was blowing a gale.
Carrying as much canvas as she could stagger under, the schooner raced on all next day, all the two following days. Then the gale moderated. And meanwhile Janice cooked like an angel, assisted by old Gaff Bennet, who had fallen in with her suggestion that he should do the rough work while she put on the fancy touches, as he called them.
"We must pull in for Port Denison tomorrow," said Ned Girvan as he sat down to a very appetizing dinner on the evening of the third day out. "We'll be sorry to lose you, Janice."
"You'll lose time as well," she replied. "Don't be silly, Ned. Let me stay aboard till we come to Thursday. Then, if you must get rid of me, I can take a steamer back. But there's no real reason for that. I'd be safe enough aboard the Rockabelle while you go crawling round the desert."
"Safe as a mouse on a cat ranch!" grunted Ned. "Well, it certainly would save time. But back you go from Thursday. I wouldn't have a moment's peace with you aboard up the inlet. You know the way these darlings do things. Do you imagine they'd spare you because you smiled at them?"
"No; but they might if I cooked dinner for them!" chuckled Janice. "But I'll do as you say if there's a steamer handy. Only I don't want to be left in Thursday by myself. It isn't a pleasure resort."
"We'll fix it up all right," said Ned easily, and thought no more of the matter for the moment.
And so at last, shortly before sunrise, with her motor going, for the wind had died to a calm, the Rockabelle threaded her way past the grid of reefs and slipped to the anchorage of Thursday, and dropped her mudhook even as the sun began to appear.
And as it did so there came the bang of a small saluting gun from a vessel lying just beyond a big freighter preparing to get under way, and a flag ran up to her peak and broke out, flapping languidly in the almost motionless air.
Paston and Jim Girvan turned simultaneously. Jim started, Paston smiled, as the red and white of the flag showed clearly for a moment. It was the Rising Sun, the ensign of Japan.
"And that vessel is the Aomori, old Oyonara's yacht," said Paston softly. "An interesting coincidence, isn't it?"
"The question is, has Oyonara any hand in this business?" said Captain Girvan.
He had come on deck as the gun banged, and now stood looking at the yacht as the freighter, with a great clatter of cable chains and hooting of siren, got under way and waddled out of the anchorage.
The Aomori was no fair weather craft, but a vessel of some two thousand tons. Her beautiful lines told of speed, and certain tell-tale points in her construction revealed other things to Girvan's professional eye.
The yacht was, in fact, a very fast light cruiser, fitted with gun platforms fore and aft, while it was highly probable that she was fitted with at least two under-water torpedo-tubes.
"Looks like a butterfly, and could become a hornet in a few hours. I'll bet she has her guns in ballast—a couple of four-inchers and two or three lighter ones," continued Girvan. "But you don't say anything, Paston."
"What is there to say? I simply don't know. It may be a coincidence that Oyonara was in Rockhampton before we arrived, and that he is here now. Then, again, it might not be. How the dickens are we to know?"
"You're not very helpful!" growled Girvan.
"My dear chap, never go ahead of your evidence! I suppose you'll go ashore presently to see about shipping Janice back home?"
"Of course. There should be a B. & S. liner along in a day or so." He took another turn along the deck, stared at the Aomori again.
A flicker of bright colour showed on the deck aft. A small boy, clad in a brilliantly embroidered robe, was capering about, swinging on the stays of the awning frame, clambering about like a large and very agile monkey.
"That must be Oyonara's son," said Paston.
"Yes. Golly, look at the little idiot!"
The boy had climbed on the rail, clutched the horizontal of the awning frame above his head, and, treating it as a horizontal bar, was hauling himself upon it. Perched precariously, he raised one hand, then the other, balancing himself with his legs only.
It all happened in an instant. Some one on the yacht spied him, and called shrilly. The boy started, lost his balance, and next moment had fallen into the seven-knot tide trip racing past the yacht's lean hull, to be hurried away towards the point of the reef and the open straight beyond.
A thud of flying feet along the Aomori's deck, distracted howls, a shout, a splash. A man had gone in after the boy, but already he was far behind the little figure, which—with one arm dangling, for it had hit the rail in falling—was swirling past the stern of the Rockabelle.
"Drop a boat! There's a big fin over there!" cried Jim Girvan. Then he kicked off his shoes, clutched at the sheath-knife he wore at his belt, and went over the rail in a long, clean dive.
Paston and Captain Girvan didn't wait to see him rise. There was not a moment to waste. People don't go bathing around the reefs of Thursday; and there is usually at least one big blue tiger-shark in the offing, cruising to and fro, seeking something to appease his always unsatisfied appetite. The splash made by the child was like a dinner-gong, as Jim Girvan knew very well when he went in.
He rose close to the boy, spurted, and coming up with him grabbed his gay robe. The youngster had courage. He tried to smile.
"Thank you, honourable sir!" he gasped. "My arm divides itself!"
"We'll fix you in a jiffy! Kick out for all you're worth!" Jim said, and glanced over his shoulder as he tried to hold up against the hurrying tide.
Yes, there it was—the big, dark, triangular fin, slashing across the oily swirls, not fifty feet away!
"Sonny, there's a shark! Can you keep up while I drive him off?" asked Jim hoarsely. All too well he knew how small his chances were in a contest with a twenty-foot man-eater, swift as a tiger and as ruthless.
"Yes, honoured sir!" piped the boy, white of face, but game.
"Don't splash! Float!" commanded Jim, who loosed his hold, grabbed his knife from its sheath, and struck out directly across the shark's path, splashing tremendously.
He wanted to divert the brute. Would he succeed, or would it dash past him and snap the helpless child!
IT was a matter of seconds. The big fin seemed to waver irresolutely, then turned towards Jim, sinking out of sight. Jim dived, kicking himself down with a strong thrust of the legs.
He saw the long dark shape below him, saw it sliding swiftly up. In theory the shark always turns on its back to seize its prey, but in practice it grabs whatever it can in whatever manner best suits it. Jim had no thought about theories just then. He remembered only a talk with an old kanaka.
"Him come to you, you go one side, make stick wid knife, hang on!"
With a couple of swift strokes he literally flung himself aside. He was rolled over by the swirl of the mighty fish's charge, and saw the white belly glint beside him as it turned. He struck his knife deep, grabbed a fin, hung on, withdrew the knife, and struck again and again.
Up they came to the surface in a flurry of blood-stained foam. For one blessed moment Jim's head was above water, he drew a deep lungful of air, closed his mouth only just in time as the shark dived.
He dared not let go his hold upon the fin, for the great brute would have whirled upon him in an instant. With a grip of desperation he hung on, plying his knife, driving it home again and again, slashing, cutting, blinded, with bursting lungs, muscles suddenly aching for lack of sufficient oxygen to supply their needs.
Down they went. For a moment he thought the shark was going to try scraping him off against the coral bottom, but it turned a fathom or so short, swept up again.
Drums beat furiously in Jim's head. How long had he been doing this? Surely it was hours, not seconds or minutes. Up! They broke the surface again, and again Jim could breathe. The shark swung round in a circle. It seemed to be going more slowly. He struck once more; amidst a wild flurry of flying foam he heard a shout.
Crash! That sounded like a pistol. The shark flung round, dragging him under, came up again. A boat was almost on top of it. Crash!
"Let go! Come in!"
That was Ned's voice—the big voice he used in a gale. It was Ned's hand that grabbed his arm. For a moment he hung blindly on to the shark's fin, so that he was almost torn in two, then he let go, was jerked from the water, and toppled headlong over the boat's gunwale.
"Pull, Tommy! There's the kid!"
Shoes kneaded Jim's back as he lay gasping on the bottom boards. They were using him for a stretcher. No matter. He was out of it, out of the water. The boat was dancing, lifting with every tug of the oars. Where was the kid? Where was the shark?
Jim gasped, lifted his head, only to get a rap from the handle of an oar.
"Keep down, idiot! Trim boat!" roared Ned. "Backwater, Tommy!"
The boat rocked, oars banged on the thwarts as Girvan shipped them, and, leaning over side, grabbed at the boy, hoisted him in, dumped him on top of Jim.
"Got him! Eh, young 'un, a fine nuisance you've made of yourself!" roared Ned Girvan. In reaction from the strain he had been through he felt suddenly angry with the child.
"Go easy! His arm's broken!" said Jim, and sat up. "It's all right now. Where's that blamed cannibal fish?"
"Moving away—and I think I see a brother cannibal cruising up with the worst intentions," said Tommy Paston. "Congratulations, Jim! I didn't know you added shark fighting to your other accomplishments."
"Oh, don't rot a chap. How are you feeling, sonny?" He drew the small boy closer against his body, out of the way of the oar, as his brother began to row again.
"Thank you, sir gentleman, I am not so quite well. But honoured father comes. He will make you the more thankings," replied the boy.
"Plucky little chap, isn't he?" said Jim. "I'm blowed if I would remember to be polite with a broken arm. Is this the honoured sire?"
A boat was foaming up. Bobbing about in the stern, unable to keep still, was the original portly gentleman whose portrait adorned Sampson's showroom in Rockhampton—Oyonara himself. Gone was the impassivity which he prided himself upon. His face was ravaged by the fears he had undergone. Tears of relief streamed down it. He called something quite unintelligible.
"The kid is all right—bar a broken arm!" yelled Jim. "Don't worry! He'll be right in a few weeks."
"Much thank! Good man! I salute honourable English. I thank much! Greetings!" babbled Oyonara. "My only son! Great thanks!"
"Thank the stars he isn't a Frenchman, or he'd want to kiss me," muttered Jim, as the boat came alongside. "That's all right, Mr. Oyonara!" he added aloud. "I couldn't stand by and see him snaffled by that brute. He's a brave little fellow. Did as I told him, and never a whimper out of him. Shall I pass him over?"
"I receive him from the honoured hands of the brave man who preserved him," said Oyonara gravely. "Later, I make fitting thanks. Also my son. We will tow you back to your ship. What is your honoured name?"
"James Girvan. Glad to have been of use," repeated Jim awkwardly. All this business of thanks embarrassed him. Why couldn't they say it once and be done with it? He knew they were thankful. Why couldn't they let it go at that?
The Japanese crew, all smiles, took the boat's painter aboard and began the tough pull back to the anchorage against the tide. Girvan took up the oars and helped to ease the tow.
It was not a very long pull, and presently the boats rounded the Rockabelle's stern to reach her accommodation ladder. Paston, watching Oyonara, saw him glance upwards at the name painted on the schooner's stern, saw his smiling face stiffen suddenly into something very like dismay and consternation. The expression was only momentary. Next instant the plump face had relaxed again into its usual benign kindliness.
"Now, that's very interesting," thought Tommy. "What next?"
"I go take my son to doctor man. Presently I beg to return to make thanks," said Oyonara, as Billy Kettle grabbed the loosed painter and hauled the Rockabelle's boat in.
He rose, bowed profoundly as his boat drew off, said something sharply in his native tongue. His crew tossed their oars aloft in salute, cheered shrilly. Captain Girvan saluted, Oyonara spun away to his own vessel, and the three climbed to the deck of the Rockabelle.
Jim bolted to his cabin, to re-appear presently clad in dry clothes.
"Now, then, I don't want to hear anything more about it!" he said, as he dropped into his place at the table. "It was beastly enough while it lasted. I don't want to think more about it than I can help, so kindly shut up, Sis! I've had all I need of the hero stuff. I tell you I was scared nearly stiff, so let it go at that."
Janice nodded, and said nothing, but beamed the more.
"You'll have to hear more about it, young fellow m'lad," put in Paston. "Oyonara will turn up in a little, with the rescued heir, and you'll have to look pleased and make the proper responses. We don't want him to think you a boor," he added crisply, as Jim started to remonstrate that he'd rather not, and that he'd go ashore. "We know it isn't mock modesty on your part, but he wouldn't. Besides, I'm interested in seeing how he'll try to get out of the dilemma this rescue has put him in."
"Dilemma? What do you mean?" asked Jim.
"I caught sight of his face when he saw the name of this hooker. Up till then he knew nothing about us. He hadn't seen the schooner, or, at least, didn't know her. But he gave himself away, just for a second or two. He knows all about the Rockabelle, or I'm a Dutchman. Whatever is going on up there, he's in it, I'm certain. And now you've put him in debt to us by saving his only boy."
"You mean he'll want to stop us going up the inlet, and at the same time not do us any damage?" suggested Jim.
"That's the general idea, as I see it. He'll want to reward you, of course."
"Nothing doing there," said Jim promptly. "A fellow can't take anything for saving a kid that way."
"Exactly! And so Oyonara will feel in a fix. As I see it, knowing something of Japanese character, he won't feel free to treat us rough until he has done something to pay his debt. I'll bet that at this moment he's cudgelling his brains to find a way of squaring himself."
"Then our plan is to get off while he's still unsquare," decided Captain Girvan. "I'm taking Janice ashore. The Great Northern is a fairish hotel, and she can stay there till a steamer comes in. There's bound to be one in a day or two at most, and the proprietor is a friend of mine, and he'll see that Jan is properly looked after. I'm telling every one that we're going to Melville Island after buffalo. There are any number there, so the tale will go. We'll sail to-night. Better set about packing your traps, Janice."
Janice had been hoping against hope that she might be allowed to stay aboard, but there was finality in her big brother's voice. She knew that he could only be wheedled or persuaded up to a certain point. After that she was up against an iron will which would yield no more. She set about her packing quietly.
An hour later there were movements on the deck of the Aomori. A cutter was lowered and manned by a crew in spotless whites. Oyonara, clad in regulation yachtsman's uniform of white with a peaked cap which didn't suit his squat, plump figure, descended, carrying his son, who was rigged in exactly the same fashion.
The boat swung over the now still water to the Rockabelle, the crew rowing with splendidly mechanical precision.
"My hat! We're being ceremonial!" exclaimed Ned, as he saw the start. "We can't let the old Rockabelle down. Man the side! Back ina jiffy!"
He dashed into his cabin, to return wearing his best white jacket, adorned with a row of medal ribbons, and a naval captain's cap, in time to take his place at the top of the ladder with Jim, Paston, and Billy Kettle standing to attention behind him as Oyonara arrived.
The Japanese came up the ladder nimbly enough, saluted the deck, saluted the captain, then stood aside as his son followed, went through the same actions—and wound up by falling on his knees and bowing before Jim.
And with that, ceremony went to pieces, for Jim's face flushed brick red, he stooped, picked up the boy carefully and set him on his feet.
"You don't need to do that, old son!" he said gruffly, and shook the one available hand. The other protruded limply from the splints in which the forearm was set. "How's the arm? Better, eh? I hope it isn't paining you?"
"Honourable sir, no pain. I come to make proper thank you for life saved," replied the boy.
"Captain, honoured James, I make the great thanks," Oyonara said. "The life of my only man child is of too much high value to me for make a pay. First I beg you take his little gift. It is not of much value, but I ask you to take. I know you wish not to take gift of high value, but you will take this from the hand of my little Yoshio because he chose it himself. He say: 'The steel in hand of most brave James save me, therefore I give steel to him.'"
He snapped his fingers, and one of his crew passed up a long lacquered case, which he gave to little Yoshio.
"I beg you take, honourable sir," said the boy, and presented it to Jim, throwing open the lid as he did so.
Inside lay two swords, short and long, in lacquer sheaths.
"I—I don't know what—" began Jim. He had resolved not to accept any present, but the lad was looking up at him with an expression of anxiety, so that he felt he couldn't refuse.
"Take them! Don't hurt the nipper's feelings," whispered Paston at his elbow.
"I don't know what to say to thank you, Yoshio," Jim amended. "They are very beautiful. I will keep them always in memory of you and the lively time we had in the water together." He turned to Oyonara. "You have a very brave son, sir. He was very cool and brave, even when he must have thought he was going to die. He's a boy to be proud of."
"Very good boy. I am much proud of him!" Oyonara purred, and bowed deeply. "One time more I thank you for save him. And I wish you to make a little feast with me this night, yes. Also you, captain, and you, honourable sir." He bowed in turn to Girvan and Paston.
"We were going to sail this evening for Melville Island to shoot buffaloes," replied Girvan, looking at Paston doubtfully.
"But it will give us the greatest pleasure to come," said Paston swiftly. "We will put off sailing till to-morrow."
"At the hour of seven I will send the boat," murmured Oyonara. "Now we go. Greetings!"
He bowed, little Yoshio bowed, the three saluted as the pair went down the ladder, the boat put off. Yoshio waved his hand, smiling his delight as he was rowed back to the yacht.
"Now—what do you make of that?" exclaimed Girvan. "Those are fine swords, but from what you said of him I should have expected him to offer Jim something tremendously valuable."
Paston was examining the swords. He looked keenly at the mounts and sheaths, the guards, beautifully wrought in steel, then drew the long sword a few inches. The steel shone like a mirror, the edge was keener than most razors.
"They are valuable," he said. "Look at the maker's signature. They're over a couple of centuries old, and made for a daimio of very high rank. I've seen a pair not so fine as these sold for twelve thousand dollars in New York. Colectors would go mad over these. But, anyhow, I dare say we aren't done with the matter yet. Oyonara may try to present something else this evening. Remember, this is the boy's gift, not his."
"I should like to have been asked to the party," said Janice, emerging from behind the deck-house, where she had taken refuge. "I couldn't have gone because I haven't a frock, but still—"
"It's a stag party. Besides—" Girvan hesitated a moment. "—I don't think it's at all likely, but it does occur to me that if Oyonara is the big boss of this game up the inlet, he might very easily put a stop to our spying round, and at the same time keep us out of harm's way by running off with us."
"I don't think he'd do that. It would put the fat in the fire," said Paston. "Still, as we want to get away soon after the feast is over, you'd better be ashore before we go to it, Janice."
"That's it. We'll go ashore and fix up at the hotel now. Get the boat manned, Jim!"
"Right! And you'd better take these swords along home with you, Jan," said Jim. "I shouldn't like them to be damaged, and they'll be better at home than kicking round in this steamy heat."
HALF an hour later Janice had been arranged for Saunders, the owner of the Great Northern Hotel, was eager to do all he could for Captain Girvan's sister. Mrs. Saunders, a shrivelled wisp of a woman, who ruled the polyglot crew of servants with a tongue like a whip-lash, gave her a big, airy room at the end of one wing of the rambling building next to her own quarters. There was a small patch of a garden which she might step into from the window.
This garden was overgrown and neglected, but it was shady and kept private by a board fence. "You can sit out there, Miss Girvan. It's a bit cooler than inside in the afternoon—if there's any coolness on Thursday," said the good woman with a sigh, as she remembered the pleasant Kentish fields which she had left long ago. "Not that you'll need it long. Tom says there's a steamer due the day after tomorrow. But, anyhow, it'll be more comfortable than going along with your men to Melville Island. I went there once with Tom when we first came here. He did think of setting up there, but it's no place for white folks that wants to live decent. Thursday's not so bad when you get used to it."
But Janice thought it would take a lot of getting used to when, after lunch in the hotel, she strolled around the townlet with her brothers and Paston.
"It's either a Turkish bath or a sandstorm here," said Tommy. "No sort of moderation in the climate. And what with pearlers and small trading craft going and coming, and people stepping off for a few hours ashore from steamers, I suppose there's as queer a mixture of races as you'll get anywhere."
"Yes," agreed Janice absently. "But what exactly do you and Ned intend to do? And how long will you be away?"
"There's no 'exactly' about it at all. We must be guided by circumstances, so we have no idea how long we may be gone. But the general idea is that we shall start due west as though we were really going to Melville, then, when we are clear of any possible observation, turn south and make for the inlet. We'll leave the schooner at the mouth to stand off and on, while we go up at night in the boat, taking Sampson and the kite outfit. We'll send him up. If he sees anything he'll take long-distance photos. If not we'll march into the desert for a day or so and put him up again."
"Won't that mean a big load? Won't you need a windlass to haul the kite in?" asked Janice. "That was what we used before."
"We're going to use a couple of spikes driven into a rock and two or three blocks. It'll be slower but quite effective."
"And what if you don't see anything?"
"We'll make one or two more treks in different directions. If there is still nothing to be seen we'll return to the Rockabelle and hang around the mouth of the inlet. And if nothing continues to happen—why, we'll have to come back with our thumbs in our mouths, that's all. But I don't think we should have been the subject of such strenuous attentions if there had been no chance of our discovering something very fishy indeed."
"No, that's true. But do take care of yourselves," she said impulsively. "I'd be all alone in the world if anything happened to you."
"We've had luck so far, and it'll hold. Besides, you can send Billy Fiddler along to help us. Ned's letter must have reached him by now, and he'll be keen to help. He'll soon settle the question whether there is some sort of camp inland or not. A couple of hours' flying will do more than a month of foot-slogging. Now we'll have to be getting aboard again. Promise me you won't do anything foolish, but go straight home."
"I promise," she said, and their hands gripped in a warm clasp.
Then they took Janice back to the hotel and bade her good-bye. The Girvan family parted as casually as if the men were going for a week-end trip. But when they were gone Janice went to her room and there sat for a while in deepest depression. She had every confidence in her brothers and Paston, but the odds were heavily against them.
"They're groping in the dark, and they don't know exactly what they may run into," she thought.
Then Mrs. Saunders called her to share a pot of tea, and for a while she put on a cheery face and talked merrily of her life in Rockhampton and the gaieties of Sydney.
* * *
The deck of the Aomori was agleam with shaded electric lights as Captain Girvan, Jim, and Tommy Paston came aboard. Oyonara and little Yoshio, clad now in the rich silks of their native costume, bowed before them, greeting them warmly. Then Oyonara presented a portly Japanese, dressed in European clothes, named Osaki.
"He is old friend to me. He merchantman make deal with pearls," explained Oyonara. "Please to come cabin."
The main saloon of the Aomori was a beautiful room, decorated in fine golden lacquer, lit by concealed lights so that the place glowed as though the sun shone through a warm veil.
The dinner was a wonderful meal, a sort of compromise between East and West, excellently cooked and served by smiling waiters attired in spotless white. Oyonara was a model host. Yoshio devoted himself specially to Jim. The three enjoyed the meal, though all the while Paston wondered what was to come as he talked to Osaki, whose English, though occasionally rather quaint, was quite intelligible.
Osaki spoke of the pearl trade and of the trouble he had had in finding reliable men to take charge of the season's pickings.
They were drinking coffee when he at last came to the point towards which, as Paston divined, he had been working.
"Just now I am troubled," he said. "I have much fine pearl. Look!"
He produced a small lacquered box from a breast-pocket, opened it. On a bed of cotton wool lay some twenty superb pearls, all large and of the finest lustre, all of the same size. Matched pearls of such quality are rare and very valuable. At a swift estimate, Paston guessed them worth at least thirty or forty thousand pounds.
Even Captain Girvan, not easily moved by the sight of such things, gasped, while Jim's mouth opened in astonishment.
"I say! Those must be worth a fortune, Mr. Osaki," he exclaimed. "Aren't you taking risks in carrying them about with you? There are plenty of men on Thursday who would cut a throat for a good deal less than those are worth."
Osaki smiled and produced two more boxes. Wonder of wonders! They contained more pearls, little inferior in value to the first lot.
"I have bought many," he purred softly. "But also I sell. I have went through a big trouble. I want America to send these to. But I not know man to trust. But Oyonara say to trust you, captain, and your very brave brother and your good friend. You will charter me your little ship, yes, and take them for me? I will make a good charter. These are to me worth in money English, one hundred twenty thousand pounds. I pay you five thousand pounds for charter and you sell for one hundred twenty-five thousand pounds. You so make ten thousand pounds, eh?"
"Oyonara's way of rewarding us," thought Paston, "and also of getting us out of the way for a while—without risk! Clever, but..."
"I—I don't know. I—" Captain Girvan began to reply.
He, too, had instantly guessed at the real source of what was an unheard of offer, a quixotically generous offer if considered from the point of view of a business man—and Osaki looked a business man from top to toe.
But to accept meant taking a bribe, meant a three months' absence from the northern coast, meant leaving the quest at what might be a critical time.
Captain Girvan was not a wealthy man. His trading voyages in the Rockabelle covered his small expenses and enabled him to live comfortably, but no more. Ten thousand pounds was certainly a temptation, but he knew he couldn't take the money.
All this flashed through his mind. His hesitation was merely to gain time to put his refusal into words that would not hurt the feelings of Oyonara, who was beaming on him like one of those jolly little statues of the cheery Japanese gods.
Here Paston interposed and spoke to Ned.
"How about leaving it over till to-morrow so you can decide?" he suggested.
As he said it, Tommy thought he saw a flicker of annoyance pass over the countenance of Oyonara, but, if so, it was gone in a moment.
"Good idea," said Ned, then to Oyonara: "If you wouldn't mind, perhaps it would be better for me to think it over. You see, you are so generous that I hardly know whether to accept. But if you are of the same mind to-morrow, then I'll give you my answer."
Oyonara murmured agreement, and the subject was not referred to again during the meal. After the feast was over, the white men were rowed back to the Rockabelle.
Then, with old Gaff beside them, the three settled down to a council of war.
The old fellow listened attentively, but said nothing till his opinion was asked.
"Well, cap'n, it ain't for me to say jus' what you is to do, but, if it was me, why, I'd take this here packet o' pearls and sail off as if I was going to Ameriky, and then, when I had a clear offing, I'd 'bout ship and hook it for the inlet. I wouldn't take the ship up, but jus' a boat, and lie mighty low. The ship, she could lie off and on, but keep well out, anyhow, jus' comin' in at night. That's what Gulf Johnny and me used to do when..."
He shut up suddenly, remembering that he was about to tell of some strictly illegal doing in the past.
"That's jus' my notion, o' course," he finished lamely.
"The question is, would we be justified in taking it on if we did not mean to deliver the pearls?" said Ned. "I wouldn't take their money, anyhow."
"We'll soon discover if it's genuine or merely a ruse to get us out of the way," declared Tommy. "But, anyhow, I agree with Gaff. Take on the commission. You needn't take the money. Tell him you'll do it for your regular charter charge."
"There'll be some circus about it," prophesied Ned.
There was when, the next day, Ned gave Oyonara his answer. Oyonara and Osaki talked a great deal. They tried to get Ned to take the sum the latter had offered, to get him to accept the commission on the sale. There was nothing doing.
Oyonara gave in suddenly. He smiled, he bowed.
"Eet like you say. Osaki make the pearls pack in box. You give them to man he write the name; he give you writing. He pay you freight. No other theeng. You are much honourable mans. I make beg only thees. Yoshio make leetle gif' to honourable Meester James."
"If it is not very valuable," agreed Ned.
"My son life ver' valuable," murmured Oyonara. "He bring."
And a little later Yoshio came aboard the Rockabelle. He presented Jim with a small box after many bows and took himself away after making him promise not to open it till he was gone.
"We make sail," he explained. "I got great grief to leave you."
He bowed thrice to Jim, shook hands with him, and went off hiding his tears.
"A fine kid!" said Jim. "Let's see what's in it."
The box contained a pair of pearls, the largest and choicest of the Osaki collection, superb gems of considerable value.
"There's no getting over him. He's determined to be good to us by hook or by crook," said Jim. "What about the rest of them, Ned?"
"We'll wait and see. There, the boat's coming back."
For some obscure reason of politeness, Osaki had waited till Yoshio returned before making his own visit. Now he came up the side carrying a package of about a foot square. This he handed to Ned, together with the sum agreed upon for the charter.
"It's a princely way of doing things, Mr. Osaki, to send a ship across the sea with one small parcel."
"Ver' much mon' worth," answered Osaki. "A much good voyage, honourable captain and misters. We make to go."
"A good voyage to you all. We may meet soon again, I hope," said Ned.
"To great pleasure we look much forward," replied Osaki, and returned to the Aomori.
AN hour later she got up anchor, and, with Yoshio waving from the bridge, his father and Osaki bowing beside, she swung round, saluted the Rockabelle, and was gone at a pace which quickly took her out of sight.
"With guns mounted, that craft could settle no end of vessels before she was rounded up. I should say she has the heels of anything afloat this side of the world," said Tommy as the faint shape vanished over the rim of the sea. "What about making certain about this packet?"
"I don't like it," demurred Ned. "It's rather fierce, Tommy. Here am I, trusted with a very valuable package, and the first thing I do is to betray confidence and open it. I don't think I can, in honour."
"Don't be an ass!" snapped Tommy. "The thing has to be done. The case would have to be opened, anyhow, for the American Customs, supposing we really took it across. Here..."
He snatched the parcel and bolted into the deck cabin, shutting the door behind him. There followed sounds of ripping and tearing. Then Tommy emerged, a broad grin on his face.
"Come hither, my quixotic captain, and observe the jewels I have found," he said, and stood aside, pointing to the cabin table.
There, in the midst of a pile of wrappings, lay an assortment of oddments, very evidently collected at random as make-weights—paperweights, ash-trays, cakes of soap, and a couple of tins of sardines.
"Some useful, several decorative, none valuable. My conscience is clear. But it's a clincher, isn't it?" observed Tommy. "My theory is borne out. The grateful Oyonara wants us out of the way because he doesn't wish to damage us. I'm sorry for his feelings if we do encounter after this, for he may feel free to scupper us. Ned, we're really on to something big. I'm itching to be off to see what it is."
"But he was prepared to pay big for taking the thing. I don't quite understand," put in Jim. "He couldn't think we'd be such fools as not to understand it was only a pretext for rewarding us for saving the kid."
"Oh, that's only his way of saving our face. Very polite, eh? Well, as soon as we're out of sight, we start for the inlet, I suppose, Ned?"
"Yes, but we'll start eastwards. There are bound to be watchers ashore who'll report."
The day passed slowly. To maintain the pretence that they were about to cross the Pacific to the U.S.A., Captain Girvan got his clearance papers for San Francisco, and took in a further supply of provisions and water.
At midnight the Rockabelle sailed, ostensibly to America.
With daylight, the schooner, then well out of sight of the land, altered course, and, with the auxiliary motor helping her sails, for there was but a light breeze, made back through Torres Strait, and headed for the gulf—and Lambourne Inlet.
"Nothing in sight!" reported Jim Girvan, dropping on the deck after scanning sea and shore with a powerful telescope. "So I s'pose we carry out the programme as arranged, Ned!"
"Yes. We'll put off about three to-morrow morning. That will give us the tide in and get us up to the head of the inlet before sunrise. Give an eye to the packing."
The observation kite, though light, was bulky, even dismantled. With its gear it occupied about half the cutter. Provisions, water, and blankets took up most of the rest of the available space.
The party consisted of the two Girvans, Tommy Paston, Sampson, the photographer, and old Gaff Bennet. They took rifles as well as their pistols and a supply of ammunition, enough, as Gaff said, to see them through a regular battle.
After dark the Rockabelle stood in with the tide and wind. Her motor was not used, for the sound of it would carry far in the still night.
"I feel like a blessed burglar on a job," said Jim, as, after a snooze, the party turned out in the darkness and snatched a hasty meal in the deck cabin, with all lights carefully masked.
"How do you feel, Sampson?"
The little photographer smiled joyfully.
"D'you know, I've never had such a time in all my life," he said. "Up till now I've never been off the beaten track, so to speak; I've never even camped out for more than a couple of nights, and then it was alongside a road, and a car woke us up. This is different. I'll enjoy every moment of it."
"I hope you do," said Ned Girvan. "We're up against something rather big, I fancy, and if we come back with whole skins we'll be lucky. Have you got all your traps? Very well, we'll be going."
He gave his last instructions to Billy Kettle, the second mate, who was being left in charge of the ship. They were simple. The Rockabelle was to stand well off shore during the day and return every night, sending a boat in to the mouth of the inlet about midnight. And if a signal was made, of three smokes during the day and three fires or other lights at night, the schooner was to come inshore at once as quickly as possible.
"Keep a sharp look-out night and day, Billy," concluded Girvan, and, dropping into the boat, they rowed away with muffled oars.
The tide helping, they went swiftly up the inlet, lying on their oars at intervals to rest and listen. But no sound broke the stillness. Dawn broke when they were about half a mile from the head.
"Hold on!" said Girvan softly. "I think we'll land here. There's a little creek over yonder by those rocks. If we run in there we should be out of sight of anything coming up."
"Ay, that's a notion!" agreed old Gaff. "Good cover and hard sand behind."
The creek proved to be deep enough to allow the boat to run in for some twenty yards and lie snug behind a tumble of rocks, completely hidden from the lagoon.
The kite was got ashore, and at once Jim and Tommy set to fitting the sections together, while Ned and Gaff unloaded provisions, buried some in the sand, and parcelled out the rest in rations for each man, which he would carry with him. Thus, in emergency, none would starve for a couple of days at least.
Sampson got out his camera and made his preparations. The little photographer was highly elated. At last he was living the adventurous life of which he had dreamed since he was a boy, but never had a chance of realizing before.
"Now, this is my notion," said Ned when at length everything was ready. "That kite isn't exactly a speck of dust. It'll show up for a thundering long way. I don't suppose we'll have the chance of putting it up more than once, if there is any one around. I suggest that Gaff stays here by the boat while we make a march about due south from the head of the inlet in the direction Lancing said those lorries went. We'll go, say, eight or ten miles, put the kite up if the breeze holds, and Sampson can see what's to be seen. We'll be guided by that."
"And if you see nothin'?" asked Gaff.
"We'll go on a bit farther, camp for the night, and put up the kite again. We'll go on till we either find something or see that we're on the wrong trail. Then we'll come back and try in another direction."
"Don't you stay too long. It's mighty lonesome here," said Gaff, and stood on a rock watching them march away carrying the kite, the small blocks and pulleys, and the big coil of fine steel piano wire on which it was flown.
"I'd rather the little 'un went up wi' that contraption than me," thought Gaff, looked around him, then made for a rock outcrop a quarter of a mile away, carrying his provisions and water.
He was an old hand at this sort of work, and he didn't want to be caught napping. If any one should happen upon the boat, at least they shouldn't catch him. Lying down in the shade, he lit his pipe, smoked for a while, then went peacefully to sleep.
Meanwhile the four had reached the head of the inlet and struck out along firm sand. Indeed, it was more than sand. Prodding at the surface with one of the crowbars he carried, Girvan found rock only a few inches below the surface.
That solved the problem that had been worrying him concerning the lorries. On loose sand they would certainly have had difficulty in going far with any load. This natural causeway made travel easy. And soon they had proof that it had been recently used.
Sampson, who was a little ahead, spying out the land with glasses, halted and pointed. There, half a mile or so from the water, began lines of wheel-tracks, running straight away to the ridge some three miles away. Some were partly obliterated by the drifting sand, but several pairs were comparatively fresh.
Sampson shook his head in bewilderment as he looked around him. The sand running down to the water was exactly the same consistency as the other; there was no sign that the vehicles had turned—and yet the tracks ended at his feet.
"It looks almost as if they had wiped 'em out?" he suggested.
"I guess it's just what they have done," said Girvan. "It would be easy enough to drag some sacks or something of that sort behind the back of lorries for a bit. But there's been a thundering lot of heavy traffic. Come on! We're getting warm!"
They marched on. Soon they came on other evidences. A nut that had fallen off some part of a lorry, a badly worn tyre which had ripped and been thrown aside, a bit of sacking with a piece of rope fast to it, which had apparently been used as Captain Girvan had suggested, for brushing out the tyre tracks.
The sun was growing warmer; the wind, though still steady and fairly strong, was like a breath from a furnace. They kept steadily on till they reached the ridge. There they went more cautiously, and, as they neared the top, halted to allow Sampson to go ahead on all fours lest he should be seen against the sky. Dropping flat, he finished the last of the ascent on his stomach, then brought his glasses to bear.
"There's something away over there," he called back. "Looks like men moving along—it's gone. There's such a lot of shimmer, I can't make out anything clearly."
They joined him. But the dancing heat haze distorted and magnified everything so that the distance was merely a shimmering blur through which rocks looked large as houses, stones became elephants, all wavering to and fro as though viewed through water.
"There seems to be something there," said Ned Girvan, after a prolonged scrutiny. "I thought I saw steam puffing, and there's an odd sort of hump that might be a roof, but there's no making anything out in this. It'll be clearer in the evening, but by then the wind will have died down. I think we had better camp somewhere near for the night, and get the kite aloft at dawn. There'll be plenty of breeze then, the air will be clear, and there'll be no mirage. There's a hollow over there. Let's go to it."
They found that the ledge of rock along which the track ran didn't extend very far. They had to labour through deep sand before they reached the hollow, and it proved no pleasant resting-place. It was hot as an oven, and the fine sand sifted down upon them as they lay, each grain a red-hot cinder, but with the unknown menace near it would have been very unwise to lie out in the open. If any one had come along the track they would have been seen at once.
And a little later the wisdom of concealment was shown.
At noon the wind had fallen entirely. Steel blue sky above, reddish yellow sand below, and heat, fervent, parching heat that dried the moisture of the body, and would have made them drink their canteens dry if they had not been inured to it. Silence, the awesome silence of the desert, unbroken by the chirp of bird or insect, for the very sand-hoppers had crawled under stones to drowse, brooded over all.
SUDDENLY it was broken by a distant sound, the purring thrum of a motor. Swiftly the sound came nearer. It came from the desert.
Jim and Tommy crawled to the edge of the gully in which they lay and peered out through the heat haze from behind a couple of stones. The put-put of the motor came nearer. Jim recognized the sound of a two-stroke cycle engine.
A cloud of dust appeared above the ridge, the rider came down the near side. He wore khaki shirt and shorts and putties. Goggles shielded his eyes, his head was swathed in a sort of turban, and from this hung a cloth that protected his neck and shoulders. He spun past without looking to right or left, and in a moment was lost in the cloud of his own making.
"He might be anything," was Tommy's opinion. "But he had a rifle, so I guess he was a scout of sorts. I hope he doesn't run across Gaff. The old boy would pot him for a certainty, and then the fat would be in the fire."
They lay listening. They heard the distant put-put cease for a little while. Then it re-commenced, came near; again the cycle passed, its rider still unidentifiable. Nothing more happened. The long, long day drew slowly to a close, and with the setting of the sun came the first breath of coolness.
The four climbed out of the gully and mounted the slope to the top of the ridge, gazing into the distance through the purple shadow that was swiftly darkening into night.
"I think I see a light," said Tommy. "There, as I point. Ah, now it's gone! It was very faint. We couldn't make a night march, I suppose, and reach whatever is there in the early morning?"
"Too risky. There's so little cover. If the kite is spotted we have time to get away and lie low, but if we were spotted close to this dump or whatever it is—well, you remember the narrow shave we had up here before. No, we'll fly the kite, Sampson shall take his pictures, if he sees anything to take, and then we'll scoot back and lie low for a day or two. Now let's feed and sleep."
In the small hours they roused up and set about securing the crowbars to which the pulleys for the kite wire would be fastened. The points were driven into crevices of the rock, the wire led through the small blocks. The morning wind was blowing, gathering strength, and it needed all four men to hold the kite steady before it was allowed to rise, for it was a large, powerful one.
It went up steadily once it was loosed, however. Sampson, his camera and glasses slung round his neck, took his place on the carrier, a primitive arrangement of a crossbar, on which he sat astride, with a loop of rope beneath it in which to put his feet.
"If you see anything coming that's likely to be dangerous, signal at once and we'll haul you in," said Ned. "Sit tight and you'll be safe enough. I've been up myself and I'm a good deal heavier than you. You're all right."
Jim, kneeling by the controlling tackle, let out more wire. Sampson went slowly up as the kite lifted, higher, higher, till he was merely a dark blob against the sky.
But the day was coming. The upper air flushed, slowly the light spread. Sampson, swaying on his precarious perch, waited for it to touch earth. He was not very high, less than two hundred feet from the ground, but it seemed to him as though he floated miles above the earth, for he could see nothing but the paling sky above him.
But there were only a few minutes to wait. The dawn flush grew broader—and then it was day. Cold light flooded the desert. Eagerly Sampson looked out to the southward.
Yes, there was something eight or nine miles away, but he could not clearly make out what it was, for in colour it harmonized exactly with the sand. It seemed to be some sort of shed, a big shed surely to tell up like that at such a distance. Sampson brought his glasses to bear. It was difficult to get the thing into the field, for the kite chose that moment to sway about in a sudden gust of wind.
Then it steadied again, and Sampson focused on the object. Yes, it was a shed right enough, but so well camouflaged that it was impossible to tell exactly how big it was. There were other objects, too, which might be more buildings, and something that was almost unmistakably a crane or derrick.
They stood on one side of a flat space of considerable extent. A thin line of smoke was rising straight aloft, but even as he looked it rose and dissipated.
"They've put the fire out lest it should show at a distance," muttered Sampson sagaciously. "Now, if I get a picture or two when the sun rises, the light on one side will give strong shadows and that'll show what they are. It's coming."
He had his camera' all ready. It was a fine instrument, and focused to give the clearest possible definition at a distance. He adjusted it, waited.
The eastern sky was glowing now. Two or three minutes more. It occurred to him that he, or at least the kite, must be clearly visible to any one who happened to be looking that way. It gave him a feeling of being exposed, helpless against the unknown, mysterious enemy.
But nothing could get at him—at all events, quickly. He looked down along the slanting wire to his comrades. They were gazing up at him, waiting for his signal to haul him in.
Then he looked towards the inlet, and what he saw sent a shiver through him, for there at the head of it lay a schooner. He saw the head-sails, but not the hull, which was hidden.
Along the road, not a mile away, came a group of men running hard. There might have been twenty or more, but he didn't wait to count them. He only noted that they had rifles. And then, a good deal nearer, no more than a quarter of a mile off, he saw a solitary figure, heavily laden, coming at a fast trot, and recognized Gaff Bennet.
Almost at the same moment Gaff looked back, then quickened his pace. A shout came from him. Sampson waved a hand, then pointed towards him.
Paston and the Girvans turned, saw everything. They had been absorbed in watching Sampson, and indeed they would not have been able to see him or the enemy a minute before, for only now was there light enough.
In the first instant of surprise they stood stock still. Then Girvan cupped his hands and shouted:
"We're going to pull you down!" he roared, and with the others sprang to the end of the kite wire.
"Just a second!" yelled Sampson.
He had plenty of pluck, and it went very much against the grain to have to descend without doing what he had set out to do. He levelled his camera. The sun was not yet up, but no matter. He couldn't wait for it. He got the distant building into the field of the viewfinder, held it steady, pressed the button, and, as the shutter clicked, waved his hand.
"Haul away!" he bawled.
Instantly the three began to run, hauling in the wire. The kite danced wildly, sending Sampson swinging to and fro. He felt dizzy, sick. Then it steadied and he saw clearly again, saw the group of running figures halt, drop on their faces. They were going to fire.
Old Gaff Bennet, running like a hare now, was close up. He turned, looked back, flung himself down with a warning yell. Next instant flashes darted from the group.
The air about Sampson and the kite whined with piping bullets. There was a sudden crackle, a sharp, tinging noise. The kite seemed to crumple in on itself. It leaped up convulsively like a living thing that has received its death blow—and began to fall. One or more of the bullets had struck the frame.
"Done for!" thought Sampson, his heart pounding madly. "I'll smash! Urrr!"
He was dropping like a plummet. No! He was slowing! The earth was rushing up towards him, but not quite so fast. He looked up. The kite had spread out like a sail. It bellied. It was a sort of parachute. He was falling, but it was breaking his fall.
The earth was close, very close it was—and then he touched the sand with his feet, pitched forward. He felt the camera crumple as he crashed upon it, rolled over and over, bruising himself. Then he was on his knees, freeing himself from the ropes which had held the crossbar, scrambling to his feet. Bullets were piping about him, sand flew as they struck close to him. He turned.
There was a crackle of rifle-shots close at hand. Jim Girvan and Tommy Paston were blazing away. Old Gaff had disappeared, but from the edge of the gully where they had passed the previous afternoon and most of the night, came the blaze and rattle of his rifle.
Ned Girvan was shouting.
"Roll down to the gully, man! Quick!" he roared.
He came racing up, grabbed Sampson, hauled him down. Somehow they were close to the gully now. The enemy's fire seemed to have ceased. Sampson looked round. He saw the reason. They had come into a hollow out of sight of the men lying flat on the roadway. Jim and Tommy were coming, running on all-fours like grotesque, giant rabbits. Again old Gaff's rifle rattled.
"Down!" rasped Ned Girvan. His brother and Tommy rolled down beside him.
Sampson, not sure whether he was on his head or his heels, found himself gasping at the bottom of the gully. He sat up, looked ruefully at his smashed camera, unslung it and dropped it. The others were above him, lying along the lip of the gully, peering out between the stones. Ned Girvan turned and looked down at him.
"Are you damaged?" he asked.
"N-no! Only shaken up. I got a picture—but the camera's smashed open. It's spoiled! There's something over there, but—"
"Never mind that now. Your rifle and ammunition are over there by the grub. Get 'em and come here beside me. Quick!"
Sampson rose, shook himself. He was bruised, but he wasn't much hurt. He'd had tremendous luck. He had fallen a couple of hundred feet and come off with sore ribs and a bit of skin off an elbow. Good old kite!
He got his rifle, climbed up beside Girvan.
"Six hundred. Take a fine sight and aim low. They're over there. You can just see their heads. They don't quite know where we've gone," said Ned. "They'll move in a moment, and then fire for all you're worth. You can handle a rifle, I see."
"Not too badly," said Sampson modestly.
He had been in a cadet corps as a boy and followed up by joining a volunteer corps. He had his marksman's badge, and he felt jolly glad of it now. Whoever these brutes might be who fired on a defenceless man, he'd show he could hit back.
Ah! They were moving now. They were brave enough, but not very wise. They were standing up—right against the bright sky, the first rays of the rising sun playing athwart them. One who appeared to be in command was looking this way and that through binoculars.
"Now, then, each take his man, and then blaze away for all you're worth. I'll take the chap with the glasses," said Ned. "Ready!"
They were all good shots; the light couldn't have been better. With a crash the five rifles spoke together; five men dropped. But that wasn't all, for working their bolts like pump-handles, the five got in another round or two before the group disappeared, dropping flat.
Came an answering shot, then several together. They had been located.
"Down! Grab the grub and bolt along there. This gully runs for miles, I think," said Ned. "Scuttle for all you're worth or they'll work round and cut us off."
No need to urge them to haste. They tumbled down into the hollow, each grasped his pack of provisions and the precious water and got going, making along the bed of the gully towards the north-east.
Sampson cast one regretful glance at his wrecked camera. The lenses were valuable—but life was worth a great deal more to him. He ran with the rest, old Gaff leading, making nothing, apparently, of the extra tins of water he had loaded himself with. Ned Girvan was the rearguard, trotting along, looking over his shoulder every few seconds.
Sampson wanted to ask a lot of questions, wanted to know what had happened at the Inlet, why exactly Gaff was here with them, but it wasn't the time and the place. On they went.
They heard one or two dropping shots, but no bullets came near them. The enemy were shooting at random, or at the place where the party had lain, trying to draw answering fire, to locate them.
But by now the twists of the gully hid them completely, even if the enemy had reached the beginning of it.
"Get on! Get on!" cried Ned Girvan. "We've got to get well away before they have a notion which way we've gone."
It was hot down there in the gully, for the wind didn't reach the bottom of it. Sampson was not fat, but he wasn't in first-class condition; his life at home didn't allow him time for much exercise. He perspired a good deal, for Gaff was setting a hot pace. But when men are running for their very lives they don't bother about trifles, and Sampson kept up easily enough.
More firing. Still there were no signs of pursuit. Ned Girvan turned aside, climbed the side of the gully and cautiously looked out over the desert. He spurted to overtake the others.
"Two or three seem to be where we left them. The others have disappeared, but I think they're after us," he called. "Hurry up a bit!"
Gaff and the others quickened their pace. To Sampson it seemed unbelievable. Were they made of steel and whipcord then? His legs were aching now, for though the sand underfoot was fairly hard, it was not an ideal surface for running. Still, to slow meant slowing the others. He'd never let them down. Gamely he struggled on, his breath coming in loud gasps. Captain Girvan ranged up alongside of him, took his rifle and the glasses hanging from his neck.
"I'll carry these. Keep at it!" he said encouragingly. "We've made quite a way. Not much farther. That looks to be a straight bit ahead."
Sampson thought they had gone miles. He didn't know what a "straight bit" had to do with resting, but the words heartened him. And now they reached the straight where the gully ran for a good quarter of a mile as though it had been cut by engineers.
"Stop at the end!" called Girvan. "Dig in!" he added, as they halted by the turn. "Get into the sand at the sides and have a rest. Hurry up! Put the traps round the corner."
"What's the idea?" asked Jim, but obeyed, nonetheless.
"Don't want 'em to see us if they are behind—till they're fairly close. Then we'll get 'em coming and going," explained Girvan, and set to scraping a shallow trough, throwing the sand up in front.
They all burrowed like moles, lay down, scraped more sand on top of themselves, so that in a few moments they were covered, their heads and hats hidden by the little hillocks before them.
"I'll watch. Be ready, but don't shoot before I give the word," said Ned Girvan, and snuggled down.
He calculated that if the enemy—so far unidentified—had pursued along the gully, the first would come in sight in two or three minutes at most, but nearly ten had passed before something moved round the corner and halted, staring along the "straight."
A small man, clad in khaki shirt and shorts and wearing a saucer-shaped straw hat. His rifle was at the ready, a bandolier hung around his shoulders, he was alert to throw himself flat.
But he saw nothing. He signalled to men behind him. They came round the corner, stared along the straight, nine of them, yellow of face and hands, unmistakably—Japanese.
They seemed doubtful whether to continue the pursuit or not. One jerked a hand towards the southward and seemed to suggest waiting for reinforcements, but another shook his head decisively. They moved forward all together, not very fast. Girvan noted that they seemed tired, as they very well might be after their strenuous exertions.
"THEY'RE coming," said Girvan, in a low voice. "Don't move, but get your sights down to point-blank. And when I give the word, fire for all you're worth. If we can get this bunch, we'll be able to get a good offing before more turn up."
The Japanese were carrying their rifles slung on their backs, with the exception of the two in the lead. They advanced at a slow jog-trot. Girvan let them come to within a couple of hundred yards.
"Now!" he hissed.
Up went the rifles. They rattled, bolts snicked back. The next ten seconds the crashing reports filled the gully, then ceased, for not a man of the enemy was on his feet. Several seemed to be dead, the others were certainly hit. They lay strung across the gully, some moving hands or legs. One shot only had been fired in return by the leader before he went down, and the nick in Girvan's hat-brim showed that the aim had been good, though not quite good enough.
"So much for them!" growled Ned Girvan, rising. "It's a pretty pass to be hunted in one's own country by a parcel of yellow men! But that bunch won't do much more. We'll get on. This gully seems to be trending back towards the swamps beyond the inlet."
"That's it, cap'n," said Gaff, as they got going once more. "This here's a sort o' drain from the ridge up yonder. It don't so often rain hereabouts, but when it does it's a fair snifter. Reckon it wore this here gully."
"All to the good. We'll get to the swamps. Once there they'd need an army to find us. You'll get your buffalo, perhaps, Tommy, after all. Feeling better, Sampson?"
"A bit better, captain. I'll stick it all right. Only, I hope we get another rest before long."
"If we're copped out here we'll get a precious long rest," chuckled Girvan. "Sorry, but there are a few miles ahead of us yet. But we needn't go quite so fast."
But though they slowed a trifle, they still went a great deal faster than Sampson relished. However, he had his second wind, and the short rest had done his legs a lot of good. He plugged away doggedly. Time seemed to stand still, the sun grew hotter and hotter. Fine dust rose from his comrades' feet. He seemed to be breathing it, breathing in heat. Everything swam in a haze of dust and heat. He saw only Tommy Paston trotting ahead of him and felt Ned Girvan beside him. The captain was carrying his rifle again.
Then the captain had eased off his haversack. Sampson hardly noticed that, though he ran all the better for it. He felt that he had been running for an eternity when suddenly he noticed something. The dust was no longer rising.
He blinked, raised his weary, dust-filled eyes. Something had happened to the sand on which he had been running. It was darker. It wasn't sand, but—mud. Damp mud. There was a green blur ahead. Coarse grass, tall weeds, reeds! The air was steamy. The air was full of moisture that made it feel hotter. It was like being in a hothouse just after watering-time. He looked around him.
The desert stretched away, glimmering in the heat, to one side, but on the other was an expanse of dark browns and green, green grass, water covered with green slime. They had reached the swamp!
"Halt!" cried Ned Girvan, and thrust out a hand, steadying Sampson. "You've done thundering well, old chap," he said. "Steady on! You're going to have a rest now. Easy does it!"
"But—but how long—" began Sampson.
"You've been hoofing along for nearly two hours from the last stop, old son," replied Girvan, with a laugh. "Most of the time you've been in a sort of daze. We've covered over ten miles, as the crow flies, and a good deal more, allowing for meanderings. There's a good, dry place over there, Jim. We'll camp."
Sampson lay down in the dry place. They had come prepared to camp, fortunately, and each carried a blanket with a waterproof groundsheet backing. Stretched on his back, he began to recover. The others made themselves comfortable also, Jim Girvan, on the highest place, reclining against a low growth of scrub. Captain Girvan lit his pipe.
"Well, what did you see, Sampson?" he asked. "Of course, you had precious little time."
"If I had had two or three minutes longer I might have seen something more. As it was—nothing much. A big shed with a tin roof, camouflaged with whirly bits of colour, like those pictures of ships in the war. It was hard to make out what size it was. There seemed to be a big flat space, but I couldn't really make out anything definite. I'm sorry."
"Not your fault. We had bad luck, that's all. Now, Gaff, spill your yarn."
"Nothing all day yesterday. I jus' lay around and thought of things and smoked. I went to sleep in the afternoon. Woke up when it was getting dark. Something woke me. I lay low. Snorting sort of noise it was. Then I heard fellas shouting up by the head of the inlet. So I crawled along a bit and see a schooner's sail against the sky.
"Reckoned she had come up while I was asleep. The noise I heard would be her motor, I guess. She came up with the last o' the light. Then I starts crawling round and a dog began barking. That fair put the wind up me. The beast came after me. I hooked it back to the boat. There was fellas in a coupla boats after me, too. I jus' got hold of the grub and all the water I could carry and cleared out. Heard them come to the creek. Then they smashed up the boat a bit, and the blamed dog came after me again. Didn't come near enough to get a lick at him, but stood off barking. So I legged it right out and they cruised round the sand a bit, then called it a day. Me, I felt lonely and I had to warn you, so I started. But I had to go a long way round, and the sand was heavy, and I don't know just where you was, so that was how I come to be late meeting up with you."
Gaff had delivered his narrative in a rapid, monotonous voice. Ned Girvan nodded.
"The same schooner, I expect—the one we saw before, the craft that ran into the wind's eye with all sail set. You didn't see her close at hand, I suppose?"
"Not being clean mad, I did not!" quoth Gaff emphatically. "That blamed dog was too keen. He upset the apple-cart proper. If it hadn't been for him I wouldn't ha' been twigged."
"He's a nuisance—but I have a way with dogs," said Tommy Paston softly. "I don't know why, but they always trust me. It's seldom one barks at me more than once after I've spoken to it."
"Meanin' how?" asked Gaff.
"The alarm is given. We can stay here for a day or two safely enough, I think, but that isn't getting on with the job. We could make our way back to the mouth of the inlet, and get aboard the Rockabelle, but we haven't discovered anything definite yet. So I propose that Jim and I go down to the head of the inlet, see what we can, and come back. If we start in an hour we'll get there about sunset. We can be back by morning. It's a bit of a trek, but we can do it all right."
Captain Girvan looked thoughtful, and finally nodded assent.
"It's risky, but after all it's the last place where they would expect us. Right you are!"
Tommy Paston and Jim Girvan travelled light. They carried only their weapons and ammunition, water, and food enough for a couple of sparing meals, which they didn't propose to touch if they could avoid it.
An arm of the swamp ran down close to the inlet. By keeping on the edge of it, they travelled in a steamy haze, which effectually screened them from observation of any one at a little distance, while if needs must they could quickly take refuge amidst the rank undergrowth by the margin.
Towards sunset they came to the last of the swamp, the overflow going underground to seep through subterranean channels into the head of the inlet, now little more than a mile off. It was time to exercise extreme caution, for now they had left the protecting screen of haze, and the heat shimmer upon the sands was clearing off as they cooled. Cautiously they climbed a hillock and peered over towards the inlet.
"There's the schooner!" exclaimed Ned. "Still with sail on her! She's the queerest sort of craft I ever heard of, or has the queerest skipper. Why on earth should they keep the canvas on her?"
"Don't know! But—is it canvas, Jim? Doesn't look like it. Too stiff."
He handed Jim the glasses. The youngster stared and shook his head.
"They look more like metal!" he replied. "Let's go on. There's a bit of a hollow. We can get fairly close up without being spied. Hurry, before it's too dark to see anything!"
Stooping, they ran along the hollow in comparative safety till they were close to the head of the inlet. There they halted, listened. There was no sound. Flat on the sand they wriggled closer, till they were behind a rock outcrop. Then at last they ventured to peer out.
They had come within a couple of hundred yards of the natural rock wharf or quay where the Rockabelle's boat had landed on the occasion of their first coming.
Now the schooner lay there. Only, she wasn't a schooner. She was a submarine!
The mystery that had first excited Girvan's attention, the oddity of a schooner going into the wind with all her sails set, even though she had an auxiliary motor to push her along, was explained to Jim Girvan's sailor eyes.
The sails weren't of canvas but metal, aluminium treated with some paint which would resist sea-water. Swivels at the foot of each mast allowed them to be lowered so as to lie snugly along the superstructure. The walls of the large deck cabin had been folded back, showing that they were merely contrived to conceal the conning-tower. When they and the masts and sails were lowered, the vessel was an ordinary submarine. When she ran on the surface with only her superstructure showing and cabin and sails displayed, she was, from a distance, at least, a rather clumsy but quite authentic-looking schooner.
It was all plain to Jim, but Tommy, not wise in sea-lore, stared in amazement.
"Why did they bother with all these fixments?" he whispered.
"Because the water of the gulf is too shallow inshore to allow her to run submerged in safety. She had to come up. But if she'd been seen by any casual craft—as we saw her—then the fat would have been in the fire. The Government would have roused up at reports of a strange submarine making trips in and out. They'd have thought of big smuggling and got busy. But a schooner might be seen fifty times, and no one would think anything about it. D'you get the idea?"
"I do now. Then she must have been here when we paid our first call!"
"Yes—lying submerged. The water's discoloured by the seepings from the marsh, and you can't see more than two or three feet down. We must have been actually over her when we landed. Crumbs! If we'd only got a few bombs we might settle her now!"
"Easy on! Don't move!"
They lay very still, for from the hatch emerged a couple of men with pistols in their belts, carrying something between them.
It proved to be a couple of bedding rolls. The pair spread their beds, looked casually round—and lit pipes. Sitting down, they talked for a while. The sun set, the night came swiftly on.
Tommy listened keenly, for he knew a fair amount of the language, but he could make out nothing of the murmured conversation. Presently it slowed down. Finally it ceased. The sound of faint snoring floated to the watching pair.
"We're in first-class luck!" whispered Tommy at last. "No dog! I expect it's gone off with the rest of the crew to hunt for us. I don't think there's any one else aboard, or they'd have come up too. Inside that thing must be infernally hot. The confiding darlings have left the gang-plank in place. Listen, Jim: We go aboard, give these chaps a rap on the head to keep them quiet, tie them up, and then see what we can do about sinking the blamed thing. If she goes down with open hatches they'll have plenty much trouble in trying to fish her up again—and no other sub. would be able to lie close to the rocks. Come along!"
They slung their rifles, drew their pistols, and crept cat-footed towards the ship.
"DON'T shoot unless it's absolutely necessary. Sound carries a long way at night," whispered Tommy. "Slug the near fellow on the head while I attend to the other one."
Nearer and nearer they crept. From afar came a hoarse bellow. It might have been an alligator or a bull buffalo. They had seen nothing of either sort of creature during their march, though plenty of tracks had been in evidence. Faint though the noise was it roused one of the sleepers. He sat up.
The pair halted, waited till he lay down and resumed his snoring. Now they were at the gang-plank. It creaked a trifle as Tommy went lightly up. Again the sleeper stirred. Another wait, Tommy crouching beside the superstructure, Jim frozen to immobility on the shore. Finally he ventured, came swiftly up.
This time the sleeper roused, got up, peering round. His hand was on his pistol as a shadow loomed up beside him, but he was too late. Jim's pistol butt fell with a thud which was echoed by a second as Tommy too struck home.
"Those flag halliards'll come in nicely," said Tommy, and, cutting them, hauled in a length of line. "Truss 'em up well. They're slippery beggars, so make a good job. I'm going below. Glory be! This is pie!"
"But wait!" insisted Jim, knotting swiftly. "Don't go down there alone. If there should be others—"
"There aren't; don't worry! Listen, old son, we have the chance of a lifetime! We're going to sink her! Dump those fellows ashore when you're done with them, while I look at the gadgets."
He disappeared down the hatch. Jim finished his trussing. The two Japanese remained insensible. They had hard heads; but the blows had been heavy. Jim carried them ashore, finished his tying neatly by adjusting nooses round their necks, the other ends fast to the ankles so that any attempt to rise meant strangulation.
Then he raced aboard again and went to the hatch.
"Tommy!" he called softly.
"All right. I've found the control-room. Lucky I've been over one of these boxes of tricks before. All clear up there? I'm going to open the tanks."
Before Jim could reply there came a faint sound across the stillness of the night. It was the unmistakable put-put of a motor-cycle coming from the south.
"Hurry up! There's some one coming on a motor-bike!" he called.
"Stand by to scupper him if he comes before we're away!" called back Tommy. "Better hide those fellows in the shadow. Here goes!"
A gurgling sound from somewhere below was followed by the rush of water. The submarine rolled gently, and began to sink slowly.
Jim leaped ashore and cast off the mooring line. The motor-cycle was louder, but it was still some miles away. Tommy Paston appeared thrusting a paper package into his pocket. He sprang ashore, ran to the prostrate Japanese. Jim joined him. They carried the men a little way, dumped them in a hollow beneath a rock and retreated to the place where they had previously lain.
Put-put-put! A light appeared, came swiftly nearer. The cycle ran out on the flat rock quay, stopped. The rider ran forward shouting. Tommy lifted his rifle, for though the submarine was sinking, there was still time for an active man to board her, and perhaps, if he had the pluck, to go below and shut the valves that admitted water to the submerging tanks.
But apparently the cyclist either knew nothing about submarines, or else he hadn't the nerve to make an attempt that might easily end in his death.
He merely stood on the edge of the water shouting and wringing his hands as slowly but surely the submarine sank lower and lower. Now the superstructure was almost covered. Now the water began to pour in through the hatch. The vessel pitched; her sham, metal sails clanked as they swung to and fro. And then, with a great outrush of air, the ship went under, see-sawing down and down till she reached the bottom of the lagoon, a few feet of the tops of her masts remaining above water.
Tommy Paston breathed a deep sigh of relief.
"That's one line of retreat cut, anyhow," he whispered. "It's a pity we hadn't time to lower those masts. That might have kept those beauties guessing a little longer; but, anyhow, we've put a crick in their necks, eh? Now I s'pose that chap will go back and tell the glad tidings, and then—ah!"
The exclamation echoed a wild screech. It rose like the wail of a banshee, echoed across the water, across the barren rocks, out into the desert.
One of the Japanese had recovered consciousness and was voicing his sorrows.
The cyclist whirled round, drawing a pistol from the holster at his belt. He shouted. An answer came. Cautiously, ready to fire, he made for the place whence the noise came. Tommy raised his rifle and sent a bullet through one of his legs. The man fell, his pistol flying from his hand. He rolled over, trying to reach it.
"Halt!" roared Tommy, and rose. "Don't move or I'll kill you!"
The man didn't understand the words perhaps, but the sudden roar and the tone of it was warning enough. He lay still.
"Bag that gun, Jim. Sling it into the water, and send the cycle after it," Tommy said and turned to the wounded man. "I regret the necessity, honourable sir, but this is war, it seems," he said in his best Japanese. "Allow me to tie up your wound."
The man said nothing. The fellow in shadow remained silent. Tommy cut a strip from the wounded one's shirt and bound the wound which, since the bullet had drilled clean through the calf of the leg without touching the bones, was not very severe, though enough to put him out of action.
"Thank you, honourable sir," he said, as Tommy concluded.
"Tell me what all this means," continued Tommy. "What are you doing over yonder? You know that you are breaking the law of nations. You know that the penalty is death, for filibusters?"
"Kill, then," said the man calmly. "I am ready. I know nothing!"
"Then have a cigarette!" said Tommy, and produced the packet he had brought from the submarine. "This is all the salvage from your ship. I had the pleasure of sinking her! Light up, Jim," he added as young Girvan came up. "We must be going. Oyonara will be grieved to hear he has lost his submarine."
He watched the man's face keenly as he spoke. The eyes of the Japanese blinked, but he did not betray himself by any other gesture. Tommy Paston shook his head. He knew that it would be impossible to obtain any information. The man was staunch and ready to die rather than say a betraying word.
"Your comrades are over there," he said pointing. "After we are gone you can release them. Tell them they will be shot if they try to follow us. Good-night, honourable enemy."
"Good-night, honourable sir," murmured the Japanese.
Tommy and Jim walked swiftly away down the shores of the inlet. Once they looked back. The wounded man was crawling towards his friends.
They dipped into a hollow and began to run. Not till they reached the beginning of the swamp did they halt.
"I tried to snaffle some sort of evidence, but the log and all the ship's papers—if she has any—were doubtless in a safe in the captain's cabin," Tommy said. "But they'll keep. It'll need trained divers and high explosive to open the thing. Now we have only to get a good look at this inland depot, and then I'd like to see even the thickest headed official shelve the report I'll send in."
"They'll do their level best to stop us," said Jim. "We've got to lie precious low if we want to keep whole skins."
"They haven't been very successful so far. We'll pull through if we keep our eyes and our ears open. Let's get on."
Mile after mile they trudged. Midnight came. They halted again, ate, drank a little water, smoked a cigarette and got going again. Several times they heard bellowing, but it was nowhere near them, and they kept far enough from the water's edge to avoid risk of a sudden attack by an alligator, though sundry splashings and swirls in the pools of the swamp told that there were plenty of the brutes in the vicinity.
Dawn came at last. Jim picked up the landmarks, those small differences in the colour and shape of the bits of scrub which he had noted on the previous day. Soon they were near to the spot where they had left their friends.
A cheery voice challenged, and little Sampson appeared suddenly out of what looked like a clump of reeds. Then it broke asunder, disclosing the captain and Gaff.
"Well hidden, eh? I'll lay you didn't spot us!" said Ned Girvan. "It's a dodge of Gaff's. Reeds and grass, you see."
Each wore a sort of cloak made of the stuff. From the distance of a few yards they blended perfectly with the grass and reeds against which they had been reclining.
"You had better cover us up. We must sleep," said Tommy.
"But what have you been doing?" asked Ned Girvan. "What's this?"
Tommy had passed him the big packet of cigarettes, his only loot.
"Salvage, dear boy. All that remains above water of your mysterious schooner, which turns out to be a submarine."
And in a few brief sentences, all the more effective for their curtness, he told of all that they had done.
"Jiminy Crissmus!" exclaimed Gaff. "If that don't fair beat the band! You been and stirred 'em up and no mistake! They'll be hopping mad, they will!"
"Don't doubt it!" said Jim, with a tremendous yawn. "And now we'll adjourn. Nighty-night!"
He laid himself down and was instantly asleep. Tommy followed his example. Gaff busied himself cutting more reeds, which he wove into a sort of tiny wigwam above the sleepers' heads.
The three talked in low tones for a while, discussing their plans. They decided to make one final effort that night. They would march towards the mystery camp, or depot, or whatever it might be called. They would approach as near as they could, taking advantage of the depressions of the ground. They might even lie up for the day and approach at night. And when they had learned all they could, they would make another night march, to the mouth of the inlet, get aboard the Rockabelle and be safe.
"That is, if them yellow beasts ain't got another card up their blamed sleeves!" said Gaff. "Well, I'm going to shut-eye. You do the same, Mr. Sampson. Ain't no need to watch, cap'n."
But Girvan shook his head. He filled and lit his pipe, and settled down to keep watch. He was the leader. His was the responsibility.
Yet he drowsed a little, never really asleep, one part of his mind always alert, though his eyelids drooped. The heat grew intense. Flies buzzed tormentingly. Then he sat up, broad awake. He had heard something.
Came a bellow. Others took up the call, Buffalo!
Girvan glanced round. Once before he had encountered the brutes. Here, where till recently they had hardly been molested, they had little fear of man. The cows were sometimes timid when alone, but in a herd or when they had calves running by them they were as fierce as the bulls.
It was the pleasant habit of a herd to charge any intruder into their domain if the ground permitted it. Then the only thing to do was to shoot the herd bull. Usually that dispersed the herd; not because they were afraid, but because they had no leader. But it didn't always happen that way. Sometimes one of the young bulls would take command at once, sometimes the whole herd would stampede madly towards the slayer of their chief. Again, they would bolt in panic for no known reason. They were chancy beasts. One never knew what they would do, but usually they were dangerous.
And now a herd was apparently coming towards the spot where the five lay. If they winded them an attack might follow. Rifles would have to be used, and if any party of Japanese happened to be within earshot—and very surely parties were scouring the country in search of the daring destroyers of their submarine—then they would make for the sound.
More bellowing, nearer now. Ned wondered what had induced the beasts to move in the heat of the day. Usually they plastered themselves with mud or submerged themselves in a wallow and so lay drowsing till nightfall, when they began to feed.
"Something must have set them up," Ned decided, and reached for his reed cloak.
He hoped that the beasts wouldn't come any nearer. The wind had died down, so there was little chance that the man taint would be carried to them, but it was quite possible that they might blunder on the party. He put out his pipe, arranged his reed covering, and sat tight.
More cattle noises, squelching sounds, splashes. The thin screen of scrub and reeds a couple of hundred paces away shook and parted. A great bull, plastered with mud, emerged, looked around him and snorted uneasily. A couple of cows with half-grown calves running by them, joined him. For a moment Ned thought that they had caught the man scent, perhaps a whiff from his pipe. His fingers closed over his rifle, then relaxed again.
The buffaloes weren't looking towards him. They were all staring to the south-east. They had seen or heard something. And then Ned heard the sound that had attracted their attention also—the hum of a 'plane.
For a moment he thought of Billy Fiddler. But Billy was scarcely due yet. Ned had left a letter for him at Rockhampton and another at Thursday Island. He might have reached Thursday by now, but Ned's injunctions had been strict and detailed. He was to make for the mouth of the inlet and communicate with the Rockabelle before proceeding farther, and the Rockabelle was somewhere to the north-east at the moment.
NEARER came the sound. Now Ned could hear it more clearly he knew that it didn't come from Fiddler's 'plane, which was a singleengined machine, while he distinctly heard the thrum of two propellers.
A speck appeared, grew rapidly larger. It swung westwards, came back, swung again.
"By Jenks, it's a bomber!" exclaimed Ned Girvan softly. "And it's jolly well looking for us! Curiouser and curiouser! What do they want with a machine of that sort here?"
There was a stir among the sleepers. The noise had penetrated to Sampson's consciousness. He began to sit up.
"Keep still!" hissed Ned. "Tell those others if they move. There's a 'plane hunting us."
"Golly, we are seeing life!" muttered Sampson, and lay still.
But the movement had been seen by one of the buffalo cows. She snorted. Instantly the bull turned his head. Nobody knows exactly how animals communicate with one another. Perhaps it was the quality of the snort, perhaps the intimation that there was something strange close at hand, something that might be dangerous, was passed from one dim, brute mind to the other without need of sound or movement.
At least the bull turned from looking at the thunderous 'plane and began to advance upon the heaped rushes that covered the group of men.
The ground between man and beast was clear, covered with short, coarse grass. If the bull charged he would be upon the party in a few seconds. Again Ned Girvan's hands gripped his rifle. If he was compelled to, he could drop the bull with a bullet in its brain before it could reach him.
But now the 'plane was close at hand. It was flying low, not more than two or three hundred feet up at most, and Ned knew that keen-eyed men would be scanning every inch of likely hiding-places.
"Still! Keep still!" he heard Sampson say sharply.
The others had awakened. But for the warning they might have sprung up. They moved, but very slightly. Yet the bull saw. He pawed the ground, threw up his head, let loose a bellow that was drowned by the roar of the 'plane. It was swooping down, almost dangerously close to the earth. The racket of its engines seemed to make the ground and the mud and water of the swamp quiver.
The bull, about to charge the men he sensed were hidden by the reeds, was distracted for an instant. He glared up at the great bird-like thing thundering towards him, about to attack him, so it seemed.
Deafeningly the great machine whizzed above the hidden men. Something fell from it, slanting through the air towards the group of buffalo. There was a flash, red flame and black smoke jetted up at the big bull's very feet, he reared, fell over backwards, half his chest torn away by the explosion of a high-powered bomb!
A calf flew into the air, fell limp beside its dead father, the cows bolted at speed. In a few seconds the double danger had come and gone. Unwittingly, the Japanese airman had defeated himself. Had he not loosed the bomb in sport, the bull would have charged, Girvan would have had to kill it, and by so doing would have betrayed himself and the others, for, having passed, the 'plane returned, flying low as it zig-zagged across the swamp.
The buffaloes were gone by then, though, crashing into cover half a mile away, For ten minutes or so the 'plane drove to and fro at no great distance, searching the ground. Then since nothing appeared, it soared and roared away to the northwards, dipping here and there above other patches of cover.
Not till it was a mere dot on the horizon did Girvan turn to his friends.
"A narrow shave that!" he exclaimed. "I thought we'd be spotted, but as it was the danger's cancelled out, eh? But a bomber hereabouts is a darned queer sight."
"Those 'planes have a long range," said Tommy significantly. "One of them could easily get to Rockhampton or Brisbane, or even Sydney and drop a load of pills. Well, what about a meal? Does any one fancy a cut of veal? That calf might be tender."
But no one cared to sample the delicacy. They had a meal of biscuits and chocolate, washed it down with a drink of luke-warm water, then waited for the sunset, smoking some of the Japanese cigarettes.
They said little, for a sense of grave and pressing danger was upon them.
They were going to attempt to penetrate to the heart of the mystery, the nature of which Tommy Paston, for one, had already guessed. They knew that if they were seen they would be shot down mercilessly. But despite this knowledge they looked gay, even cheerful, as they started out in the short dusk.
Captain Girvan calculated that a long march would bring them within easy reach of the mystery camp or depot. They might even get close to it before dawn. Then they would lie up all day, enduring a roasting in the sand, make a closer examination at night, then march for the mouth of the inlet and the Rockabelle.
"You're going to get another gruelling, Sampson, I'm afraid," said Jim, falling in beside the photographer. "It can't be helped, though."
"I'll keep going better now. I've had a good rest, and that last march hardened me a bit. Besides, it's cooler marching at night," replied Sampson, and laughed. "Really, it was the heat put me out."
And he proved as good as his words, for when they halted for rest and refreshment at midnight, having covered rather more than half the distance as Girvan estimated, he was still in good shape.
But the second part of the march proved more trying, for they came upon a tract of loose sand through which they had to wade ankle deep. There were two full miles of this before they reached higher ground where the going was better.
It was somewhere about two o'clock when, surmounting another ridge, they saw a twinkling light perhaps four or five miles ahead.
"Good! We've done better than I thought we should," said Girvan. "One effort more and we'll be within a mile of the place before the light comes."
"There's another light," said Jim. "And a third over to the left. Are they having an illumination in our honour? Hallo! D'you hear that? I believe they're putting up a 'plane."
The sputtering roar of an aeroplane's engines warming up came clearly through the stillness of the night. It steadied to a hum that rose in volume. The 'plane had taken off.
"They can't see. Let's get on," said Girvan.
"Yes; but stand by for surprises," warned Tommy Paston. "Why should they send a 'plane up at this time? Because they calculate that we may be on the march. That means they'll have some means of showing a light. Ah, look at that!"
The unseen 'plane had shot away to the westwards. Now out burst a brilliant light, a far-spreading radiance that travelled at amazing speed, lighting up the sands beneath it so that, even from where the party had halted, they could see the clumps of brush, the sand-worn rocks protruding from the desert.
"There, old chap! If it had lit up any where near here we'd have been done for," said Tommy. "I suggest we lie down and cove' ourselves up at once."
"Good notion! Let's get down to the level first, though. Spurt!"
They ran down the slope, reached a space of what looked level sand with a good deal of rock outcrop. Away over towards the swamp another white flare blazed up and died down.
"She was turning. They're coming this way. Dig in!" said Ned Girvan. "Mind that you—Grrr!"
His scraping rifle-butt with which he had begun to make a shallow trough had encountered rock, and the others had no better luck. At the moment when they most needed it there was no depth of sand in which to burrow out of sight, and the sound of the 'plane was growing louder every moment!
"There's a little bit of rock! Cuddle up close against it. Keep your heads down and your legs under you!" called Tommy sharply. "Jump!"
He had glanced back, seen a flash, understood that it must be the lighting of the fuse of another flare.
Only in time they reached the rock, threw themselves down beside it and over it, freezing to immobility as the fierce white light burst out once more.
It beat down on them, flinging long shadows that swiftly shortened as the 'plane drew nearer. Now it was almost overhead. The roar of the motors was deafening. The light seemed to search every cranny of the ground. Surely, surely they must be seen by the men aloft!
They didn't dare move, they didn't dare breathe. Perhaps the first intimation that they had been detected would come in the shape of a crashing bomb that would blow them to shapeless, palpitating shreds. Or a machine-gun would rattle and they would fall riddled with bullets.
Nearer, nearer! Another moment and...
The flare went out. The great machine surged overhead and was gone. Nothing had happened. They had not been seen.
"Run for it. There's soft stuff ahead," said Ned Girvan. "It may come back, and anyhow it'll soon be dawn. Scuttle!"
They ran till they felt the sand loose under their feet, tried it with their hands. It was deep enough to serve. Like moles they burrowed in, covering themselves. Far away another flare burned.
A glow rose in the east. It was the first light of dawn. The 'plane came booming back, burning another baleful star, but it did not come close. Circling, it shot away to where lights twinkled in the sudden, steely gleams of dawnlight. They saw it dip. And then it was day.
"Sheds. A trench surrounding 'em. And what's that over there? My aunt, it's an anti-aircraft gun on a universal mounting!" exclaimed Ned Girvan. "And others as well. A regular battery. It could sweep the desert or the air."
Crouched behind the rock, the others lying beside it covered with sand, the captain was surveying the great camp or depot through his glasses.
It lay spread before him in the clear light of dawn which showed up every detail plainly.
There was a great flat expanse of hard rolled sand. There were gun platforms with half a dozen quickfirers furnished with shields, on what were called universal mountings, which enabled them to be fired at any angle from point-blank almost to perpendicular.
There was an artesian-well head, a low building of concrete almost flush with the sand, that looked like a magazine. A group of motor lorries. The large building was a hangar, roofed with iron, painted so that from above and at a distance it looked like a group of rocks and sand mounds. And there was a long row of tents with open sides and several dumps of materials or stores. Three tall telescopic masts supported a wireless aerial. A shed beside them suggested dynamos.
"You were right, Tommy—dead right from the very first," said Girvan. "It's a great place. They must have been working at it for a long while with a small army of men. It looks fairly complete now. There seems to be only that one bomber and a smaller 'plane in the hangar, but there's room for a score more, and, anyhow, a hangar is scarcely necessary here. They could assemble a big air fleet and start it off, collar Brisbane easily. The forts on Morton Bay could be bombed out of action in a few minutes. Then they'd have a good naval base and be within easy hitting distance of Sydney and Melbourne. My hat! It makes my blood run cold to think of it. No wonder they have taken such pains to prevent the secret leaking out. Hallo! There's reveille! I'd better be getting down. I might be spotted."
A bugle had called. Instantly the shadows beneath the row of tent tops became animated. A swarm of men tumbled out. Girvan, loath to leave his observation-post, waited long enough to see one gang run towards the wireless masts and lower them till the network of wires was within a few feet of the ground, while the rest fell into a long double line with military snap and precision that told they were all trained soldiers.
Sentries were relieved. Everything went like a well-oiled machine. Girvan waited till he saw men approach the hangar, then slid cautiously down behind the rock and buried himself into the shallow trench prepared for him after a look round to see that nothing would betray their presence.
He was barely in time, for a few minutes later the bomber rose, and, slowly circling the camp, passed directly over them and drove away towards the swamp.
"What if they spot the Rockabelle?" asked Tommy Paston in a low voice.
"Then good-bye to her and all aboard. And good-bye to us unless we can help ourselves," replied Ned Girvan. "I have a notion—but it's desperate. But if that 'plane goes towards the mouth of the inlet and settles the Rockabelle, there'll be nothing else for it. If Fiddler turns up, I hope he'll have the common sense to go straight back and report what he has seen without troubling about us."
"And then we'll be properly in the soup," muttered Jim.
"So long as the authorities get word, it doesn't much matter who takes it," said Girvan. "I've got a natural prejudice in favour of living a little longer, but we knew we were taking big risks when we came here. I'd die cheerfully enough if I knew we'd spoiled this game—but I don't want to die knowing we've failed utterly."
"Then what are we going to do?" asked Jim.
"The only thing in the meantime is to wait till nightfall, then make a forced march to the sea and get away—that is, if nothing happens to the ship."
They lay silent after that, listening to the distant drone of the 'plane. It died away, grew louder. Sheltered from observation from the direction of the camp by the rock, Girvan ventured to look towards the sound. He grunted dismally.
"She's heading towards the gulf," he said. "I'm afraid the Rockabelle is in for trouble."
The sound of the motors died down. For a quarter of an hour or so no noise save the faint hum and clank of machinery from the camp disturbed the silence of the desert. Then, from the direction of the sea came at short intervals three heavy detonations.
Ned Girvan groaned aloud. What he had feared had happened, then. The Rockabelle had been seen, recognized—and blown out of the water. The little ship that had been the pride of his sailor's heart was no more.
"That's that!" he growled. "Well, boys, there's nothing else for it but to wait till those beggars are asleep. Then we'll sneak in, try to snaffle a 'plane and get away in it."
"But, cap'n, them things wants knowin'," said old Gaff. "If you don't know 'em, even s'posin' we was to get aboard, we'd smash ourselves."
"No, we shouldn't. At least, Tommy here can handle a 'plane—and I know something about them. I never completed my course, but I was in training for the Naval Air Squadron when the war ended. I know enough to get up and keep up, though I might crash the thing on landing. We'll risk it, anyhow. It's our only chance of getting the news through—unless Fiddler comes and gets away again."
"Orright. It'll be better, anyways, than being shot down cold-blooded like," murmured Gaff.
BILLY KETTLE was a very fine specimen of the half-breed Kanaka. His father had been a trader in the Tongas, who had married a chief's daughter. He had been well educated, and owned a good plantation at home, but a love of the sea had made him ship with Captain Girvan, to whom he was deeply attached.
He had a master's certificate, but was content to act as second mate of the Rockabelle, though soon he proposed to have a schooner of his own when he had saved enough money.
Billy Kettle was entirely reliable. No sooner was the boat gone than he made sail, standing off shore. Daylight found the Rockabelle a score of miles out in the gulf. Billy took in sail, exercised the crew with their rifles, and told them something about the job on which the captain was engaged.
"You got to keep your eyes skinned. It's uncommon dangerous what we're doing. The captain is taking the big risks, but we'll mebbe have our share," he said. "And you remember this all the time: If we do meet any of these Japs, there won't be any taking prisoners. They'll try to kill the lot of us, so you just shoot as straight as you know how and fight like sharks."
The day wore on. No sail showed, there was no sign of any enemy. Towards evening the Rockabelle made in for the land, all hands on the alert for signals.
None came. The schooner clawed off shore again, spent another day of waiting with bare poles. That night Billy Kettle himself landed at the mouth of the inlet and stayed a little while ashore, hoping to hear something of the shore party. He heard and saw nothing. This was the night on which Tommy Paston had sunk the submarine.
It was late on the following afternoon, close on sundown, that the look-out reported a sail. Billy took a long look at her before the night came on and decided that she looked uncommonly like one of the pearling tuggers in which the Japanese plied their trade. He ordered extra look-outs as he made in once more for the shore.
Again he visited the rendezvous, and this time he saw something that alarmed him: the distant glow of brilliant flares moving about inland. He couldn't make out exactly what they were, but he didn't like them.
He thought he heard a 'plane, but the wind was blowing on shore, and he couldn't be certain. He waited for some time, wondering if the lights could possibly be a signal from the captain, but decided that they must come from the enemy. He made a fairly accurate guess at the reason for them.
"Reckon they've got wind of the captain being around, and they're looking for him," he thought.
But while he hesitated time was passing. He was late in putting off, and dawn found the Rockabelle still close to the shore.
And, as the dawnlight spread, there came a sudden shout from the look-out:
"Lugger close aboard, suh!"
There she was, the vessel they had sighted on the previous evening, running in against the tide with a fair breeze to waft her. She was a fair-sized vessel for her build, as big as the Rockabelle and carrying a large crew. She was barely a quarter of a mile away when sighted.
Billy hesitated a moment. Very plainly this lugger was going into the inlet. She was obviously Japanese. She had something to do with those other Japanese the captain had talked about. Her people would give word that the Rockabelle was on the coast. Should he, Billy, take the initiative and attack her?
But even while he hesitated the lugger acted. Her helm went over, she bore down on the Rockabelle, which, close-hauled, with a sandbank close under her lee, couldn't go about to avoid her.
"Rifles—and fight like you never did before! Lie down!" yelled Billy Kettle.
He was only just in time. On came the lugger, and bore up. A volley flashed from her deck, and a sleet of bullets piped over the Rockabelle. The look-out yelped, for a bullet had taken him through a leg. He slid down a stay to the deck, crawled under cover, and, getting hold of a rifle, opened fire as the others of the crew had done.
"Hold your fire!" roared Billy. "Wait till I tell you! They're coming aboard!"
Next instant the lugger had crashed alongside. Down came the Rockabelle's fore-topmast, and she swung round. The tide rip caught her, and a few moments later she grounded upon the bank, while over her bows, clambering like cats about the raffle of the fallen mast and headsails, came the crew of the lugger, yelling distractingly and firing as they came.
"Steady! Good aim! Fire!" roared Billy. Not in vain had he been exercising his men. The volley crashed out, and at the short range every bullet found its billet. The boarders were mown down in a struggling heap. A shrieking man waving a short, razor-sharp sword, came leaping from the lugger with more men at his heels. He charged straight at Billy, took a bullet through the body, and dropped flat on his face, the sword flying along the deck to the mate's feet.
"Fire!" bellowed Billy. "Give it 'em!"
The rifles cracked. Two wounded in the forepeak raised themselves and shot down a couple of the Rockabelle's crew. Billy snapped back at them, got one through the head. The second fell a moment later. The attack was checked. The Japanese hesitated, fired at random. The Rockabelle's men had dropped behind the scanty cover the deck afforded. Four of them were aft behind the deck-house, shooting from shelter. The crowded boarders made a mark there was no missing, and they went down rapidly.
A man on board the lugger yelled an order. He saw they had made a bad mistake. They should have stood off and trusted to their superior numbers to beat down the Rockabelle's fire. The boarders turned, stumbling over the fallen, more of them dropping as they started to return to their own vessel.
Suddenly Billy realized that the tables were turned. The Rockabelle's crew had suffered, but not so badly as the Japanese. The close volley had dropped a good half of them.
"We're the big dog!" thought Billy, and acted in a flash. "After them, boys!" he roared. "Take the blinkin' lugger! Come on!"
He snatched up the sword beside him, sprang to his feet, and raced along the deck, his crew at his heels. A man turned and fired pointblank. The flash singed Billy's cheek, and the bullet nipped away part of his ear. The next instant the keen blade fell, and the man went down. Billy sprang over him, cut at another, sending him overboard between the grinding hulls of the vessels.
Bullets whirred, rifles banged, and there was a desperate flurry at the lugger's rail. The red blade in Billy's hand whirled and fell, darting like a red dragon's tongue, to find the life of another man and yet another.
And then, scrambling, panting, firing, and smashing with their butts, the Rockabelle's men were aboard the lugger. The man aft fired steadily, dropped two or three men, then went down himself. Two men fled aloft, screaming for quarter. Bullets brought them thudding down. Several bolted below. They were followed and slaughtered.
It was a desperate battle. The Rockabelle's crew, infuriated at the unprovoked attack, showed no mercy. Half of them were down, dead or wounded, when at last the fight was over, the last Japanese disposed of.
Billy Kettle dropped his red sword, and looked round. Ferocious and decisive as had been the contest, it hadn't lasted long. Not more than five minutes could have passed since the first volley had been fired, but what a change had been wrought in that short space!
The Rockabelle, disabled by the loss of her topmast, lay firmly aground on the sandbank, with the tide fast running out. Of her crew perhaps eight were fit for duty. The rest were either dead or badly hurt. Billy himself, now he had time to realize it, was wounded in several places, though luckily none of the wounds was at all serious. Of the eight, only two had escaped scatheless, but they were all able to go on.
Now was the moment for swift decision. Billy didn't know whether the noise of the combat had reached the Japanese ashore, but it seemed very probable. If so, some of them would soon arrive to see what had been doing.
There was no shifting the Rockabelle in a hurry. She was firm set until her ballast and water could be shifted. Then she could be kedged off at the top of the tide, with her auxiliary motor assisting. That Billy saw might be done—but not for twelve hours.
And in the meantime the Japanese ashore might arrive in force.
But he had the lugger. She was afloat, for the Rockabelle lay between her and the bank; but she would have to be taken out quickly or she would certainly ground also.
"Fetch any of our men who are alive aboard here, quick!" ordered Billy. "You, Toddy, stay 'long me. Take reef in that mainsail. Jump to it!"
He went aft to the wheel. Now that the fight was over he felt tired. He wanted to sleep. But the white blood in his veins was a potent driving-force. He saw that all was clear, prepared to give his orders.
The men came over the side carrying two of their comrades. Then two more.
"All dem other lib for die!" reported Sara, the carpenter.
"Bring the medicine chest from the captain's room. Hurry!" cried Billy.
He was eager to get away from the vicinity of the land. If those fellows ashore had boats they might easily come aboard. Nine men could not do much against a swarm. Sara came leaping along the Rockabelle's deck with the medicine chest, lugged it over the rail, tumbled inboard. Instantly Billy snapped his orders.
The lugger came round, the tide caught her as she drew away from the Rockabelle. Close hauled, she moved slowly down the broadening channel, came about, and stood away till nearly a mile of open water lay between her and the coast.
There Billy came about and hove to. There were many things that they needed aboard the Rockabelle. Doubtless there was plenty of food and water aboard the lugger, but Billy preferred familiar provender. He would send a boat aboard to fetch provisions. But first they must see to the wounded, and clean ship.
The dead Japanese went overboard, the pump was manned, water flushed the stained decks, while Billy did his best with his wounded men. He could not do much except staunch bleeding and put splints on broken limbs. He discovered plenty of water in two tanks. That was good, for wounded men are thirsty. But as for food...
He was about to give the order to man the quarter boat, when he heard again the sound of the 'plane which he had heard in the night. This time it was coming towards the gulf.
"Hold on all!" he called. Then he had a happy thought. This 'plane must be from the Japanese ashore, since the captain hadn't got one. Perhaps they would know the lugger, but it would be as well to be on the safe side.
"Look in that there flag locker. You get out the Jap ensign, and send it up when I tell you," he ordered. "Hallo, there it comes!"
The big 'plane roared slanting towards them. It was skirting the shores of the gulf, coming from the northward. Billy raised his hand, the ensign fluttered aloft and blew out to the breeze. The 'plane tacked about. It left the shore. Would it come close enough to see that the men on the lugger's deck weren't Japanese?
There were several of the straw hats shaped like wash-bowls, the characteristic head-gear of the Japanese lower class, lying around the deck.
"Put 'em on!" shouted Billy. "You that ain't got any, go below. See what stores there are. I don't like that 'plane no way."
It was close now, only a few hundred feet up, swinging round in a long curve that would bring it over the ship and back to the mouth of the inlet. Some one leaned out and waved a bright-coloured scarf. Billy ordered the colours to be dipped in salute. They were still dipping when the 'plane turned away.
Billy breathed more freely. They had passed muster. But the Rockabelle? What was that? A dark speck had dropped from the 'plane. Well aimed, it fell upon the schooner's deck a little forward of the main hatch. Billy sobbed an oath. A red flash, a gush of smoke, a shower of débris. The bomb had blown away half the Rockabelle's deck. Down went the foremast. There was a gap in the hull, the mainmast leaned drunkenly forward.
Round came the 'plane, crash went another bomb, bringing the mainmast down, obliterating the deck-house. Then a third, not quite so well aimed, fell right aft. The stern vanished, the whole of the battered hull turned over on its beam ends, a flare ran along it, orange flames leaping about the fragments of planking and the wreck of the spars.
Riven and shattered, the Rockabelle slid down the sandbank, the swirling tide took her. Flaming from end to end, sinking fast, she was hurried down the channel by the swift ebb. Steam rose in clouds, then her battered bows lifted and she plunged to the bottom. Two minutes after the first bomb fell there was nothing left of the dainty craft but a litter of blackened fragments scattering out over the waters of the gulf, while the 'plane, her work accomplished, circled once more and sped away inland.
Then, since there was nothing to do but obey orders, though he no longer commanded the same ship, Billy stood off shore. The wounded were made as comfortable as possible, food was cooked. The stores consisted mostly of dried fish, but there was a stock of canned meats and a quantity of canned vegetables, so they did not fare badly. After making an offing, Billy took in sail and went below to examine the cargo. What he found made him open his eyes. The hold was packed with aerial bombs of several sizes, but all of tremendous power.
"It's awful!" thought Billy. Captain Girvan had told him enough of the quest to allow him to realize something of what this cargo of death implied. "Poor people all busted to bits! And all by those yellow beasts! Wasn't any wonder they tried to shoot us up first time we went up the inlet. I hope they don't get the captain."
Afternoon came. Billy had put about for the shore, hidden now in the dazzling shimmer of heat haze that lay upon the coast. Again he heard the sound of a 'plane.
Was it the big fellow that had destroyed the defenceless Rockabelle?
No. The sound came from the opposite direction, the farther side of the gulf, the direction in which lay Thursday Island.
Billy knew nothing about the arrangements made with Fiddler. Captain Girvan having deemed it best to say nothing of it. So though he noted the 'plane passing away to the southward, he made no attempt to signal it as he might have done if he had but known that it was indeed Fiddler who, seeing no sign of the Rockabelle near the trysting-place and disregarding the lugger, which indeed he assumed to be Jap, shot away inland after circling two or three times above the mouth of the inlet.
"If that big fellow meets that one, that's perhaps one of ours, it'll be too much for him," thought Billy despondently.
But he wouldn't have worried quite so much had he known that Fiddler, in defiance of all rules and regulations, and quite unknown to the authorities, had mounted a gun.
Captain Girvan's letters had told him that danger was to be expected, and Girvan very quietly had arranged for the weapon, an old one, but quite reliable, to be smuggled ashore to the Great Northern Hotel at Thursday.
There it had been transferred to Fiddler's 'plane and carried in ballast as it were. Fiddler had descended after leaving Thursday and mounted the gun. And now, alert for what might befall, he headed away inland, searching the shimmering haze that blurred and distorted everything below him.
SHORTLY after the distant booming that announced the end of the Rockabelle, the five men hidden by the sand from eyes aloft heard the bomber returning. Again she passed overhead, dipped to the great aerodrome, and alighting, ran into the hangar.
Girvan ventured to take his place behind the rock once more. He saw the crew of the bomber alight, saw mechanics swarm about the machine, filling up her tank. Then he saw something else that brought a menacing glint to his eyes.
From the magazine came men with little trucks. On each truck was placed a large cylindrical object. There were four of them. They were bombs, aerial torpedoes rather, the sort of things which could blow down a large building or sink a ship if they hit her fairly.
Apparently two of these were put aboard the bomber. Did this mean that the attack for which all this labour in the wilderness was a preparation was nearly due? If so, would the warning to the Federal and Imperial Governments come too late? Would that night or the next see the arrival of a swarm of big 'planes, all ready to make their swoop on some defenceless coast town? Was it war?
The heat haze was gathering as the sun rose higher. Soon he could see no more. The whole aerodrome, the guns, the hangar, the men working away at the farther end on some job that looked like the erection of searchlights, all danced and hovered in distorted shapes. Visibility was gone.
"We're going closer!" said Girvan, coming to a decision. "In this shimmer they won't be able to see us if we crawl slowly. We have lots of time before sundown. Then we'll dig in, wait till dark, and then—well, we'll see if our luck holds."
Slowly, careful to raise no dust, they crept out across the burning sands. The heat was fearfully oppressive. Every breath seemed to parch their lungs, thirst tortured them. But the water supply, carefully eked out, was running very low. They restrained the torturing desire to drink and crawled on and on. Noon passed. Yet even though the sun was declining the heat did not diminish. Rather it seemed to increase. Slowly, yard by yard, they neared the trench and low parapet that surrounded the aerodrome.
Girvan had carefully noted the spots where sentinels were placed. There was one over the magazine which lay on the southern side, another by the well, a third over by the entrance where the road from the head of the inlet ended, and one at the door of a long, low shack of light wood, which was presumably the headquarters, but none anywhere along the line of trench.
"We'll get into the ditch and wait our chance," said Girvan. "We haven't much farther to go. Stick it! There are water tanks in the hangar. We'll get a big drink before starting."
He said it as cheerfully as he could, though he knew that their chances were very poor.
The very boldness of the plan offered the possibility of success. The Japanese knew that somewhere in the desert, perhaps in the swamp, possibly somewhere on the shores of the inlet, lurked a party of men who had inflicted a heavy blow upon their arrangements by sinking the submarine. But they could not imagine that these men would be mad enough to go straight to their very stronghold.
"We may pull it off," thought Girvan, "or if we don't...."
But he refused to dwell on that possibility. Better to think of the bright side. On they crawled. The ground sloped down. They were at the bottom of the ditch.
"Here we are. Dig in, though I think we're safe enough. Now a little drink, but we mustn't smoke. There's no one near us, but we're near the end of the hangar," said Ned softly.
They drank, and never did rare vintage wine taste half so good as those mouthfuls of warm water. Refreshed, but dreaming longingly of cold draughts from a sparkling spring, they lay still for a little, resting their weary limbs.
Presently Ned Girvan and Tommy Paston crawled up the face of the low embankment and peered over. Nothing moved near them. Close at hand the rear end of the hangar offered a patch of shade gradually lengthening as the sun declined.
"D'you think we dare risk going into that place?" said Tommy softly. "We could lie up behind those cases. Now's the time if we're going to try it. No one can see us plainly in this shimmer at more than a hundred yards or so, and there's no one in sight, anyhow."
"Very well!" Girvan turned. "Come on, you fellows. Don't rush and don't cheer. We'll be cooler—and we can have a drink."
It proved quite safe and simple. They slipped over the parapet and into the hangar through a gap in the matting which hung on three sides, leaving the fourth open, and settled down behind a low wall of packing-cases.
They were but a few yards from the big bomber. It had been turned round ready for another flight. Two huge bombs, the ones Girvan had seen, were in place in the rack of the undercarriage. Two more lay near.
Beyond the bomber was a small fighting 'plane with a machine-gun, a single-seater. It looked very fast, and was evidently ready for work at a moment's notice.
"Let's look at the controls of that bomber now, so that we'll have no trouble when we do start," said Tommy Paston. "Then if all is in order I don't see any reason why we shouldn't hop off at once, eh?"
"None at all..." began Ned, and paused, holding up a hand. "I hear a 'plane. If it's Fiddler....Look over there!"
A man was waving a hand to the sentry by the headquarters door. Seen through the shimmering heat haze that danced over the aerodrome floor, as it had danced over the desert, he looked queerly elongated, like a reflection in a distorting mirror. His arms waved about like bits of seaweed in a tide-way.
The sentry understood. He reported something. Two men came out of the headquarters building. Others appeared at a run, leaping and waving grotesquely. The 'plane was near now. It could not be Fiddler. Very evidently it was expected, for the pair from the office, who carried themselves like officers, looked up, talking eagerly. The sound of their voices floated to the watchers in the hangar.
The 'plane appeared. By stooping low, Tommy and Paston could see it as it swung round, slid down from the sky, and came running along to stop almost in front of the office door.
The sentry presented arms, the two officers saluted—and out of the 'plane came a squat figure clad in airman's kit, but recognizable for all that.
"Oyonara!" exclaimed Ned Girvan.
"Precisely. The big noise who's responsible for this, I shouldn't wonder. At least, they're treating him that way. Look out! Get back! They're bringing his machine in!"
They slipped back behind the packing-cases, and, pistol in hand, waited. But they were in no danger of discovery, for the half-dozen mechanics ran the 'plane into the hangar at some distance away. They got busy upon it at once, chattering excitedly. Tommy listened closely, while they filled the tanks and busied themselves with the motor.
"There seems to be a hitch in the programme," Tommy said as the men moved away at last. "Sinking that sub. has something to do with it. Perhaps it had stores or more bombs or something of the sort aboard. I think I caught something about another week to pass before a fresh supply could come. Now shall we get aboard that bomber and see how things work?"
It was easy enough to get aboard, and in a minute they were examining the controls.
"Nothing out of the way here. I remember all these gadgets. They have left the spark set. Switch on the juice. Now, who's going to take her up?" asked Tommy.
"You'd better. I'm heavier, and these props will take a bit of swinging. We'll get out at once. Better put that fighter out of gear, though. It would be awkward to have it on our tail. I'll do it, and Golly, are we caught?"
A bugle shrilled suddenly. And then above the sudden murmur that arose came the thrum of a 'plane.
"Down! They'll be coming here!" hissed Girvan. "Quick! I believe it must be Fiddler. What rotten luck for him to turn up just now!"
They swung themselves to the ground, dived behind the packing-cases. The drone of the approaching 'plane sounded plainer. Greatly daring, Tommy crawled out into the open behind the end of the hangar.
He saw the newcomer, flying high, coming in from the sea. The pilot could not see much of what was on the ground at that height, Tommy thought. Surely he'd come down, and then...Yes, it was Fiddler right enough. Tommy was sure he recognized the 'plane.
Excited voices sounded in the hangar. Men were running. They buzzed round the small fighting 'plane. Tommy peered round the end of the shed. The haze wasn't so bad now, and he could make out men busy at one of the guns. Its long nose swung skywards, the gunners were busy at the breech. Several stood by with long brass shells glinting in their arms as they waited for orders.
A group in the hangar parted as one man climbed into the fighter. Next moment the motor roared, was throttled down. The machine was being run out. The roar rose in volume. The machine was moving.
It ran out across the open, gathered speed, and began to rise. Lying flat, squirming over each other to get a view, the five saw it climbing steeply up and up. And then they saw the other 'plane, and doubt was at an end, for it was near enough to read the letters and numbers on it.
"Fiddler! And that beggar has the heels of him!" muttered Ned Girvan. "We can't go up while it's around. It would bring us down within the first ten miles. Hark!"
From high aloft came the put-put of a machine-gun, the first shots of a duel in which one must fall. Heedless of the danger of being seen, the five crawled out. Now they could see. Fiddler had swooped low enough to make out all the details of the aerodrome. Then he had risen again, and would have made off for the coast but that the Japanese fighting 'plane intercepted him.
It had higher speed, could climb faster, was the more easily managed machine. The scales were weighted against Fiddler. But—there was one great asset in his favour. Fiddler had actual experience of air fighting. He had been one of the dare-devils of the Flying Corps, and had a dozen enemy machines to his credit during the latter part of the Great War.
The cold-drawn courage that dares everything to get results, the knack of making an instantaneous decision and then as quicky changing it to meet the swiftly changing emergencies of an air fight were his. And, in addition, he was a fine shot with a machine-gun synchronised to shoot through the propeller.
But the Japanese was above him, striving to get into position to dive upon his tail and give him a quietus at close range.
Fiddler waited, circling round and climbing steadily. But his opponent climbed faster and kept behind him. Up and up they went. The intermittent popping of the Japanese gun came faintly to the excited onlookers, but still Fiddler didn't fire. He knew that to fire too soon would be fatal.
So far the Japanese hadn't managed to hit the 'plane, except to put a neat hole or two through the wings. If he were going to do anything at all he would have to do it quickly, for they were getting high, and the engine of the fighter wasn't adapted to great altitudes.
Fiddler, with that extra sense which comes of experience, the sense that enables an airman to guess what his opponent will do next, knew what was about to happen even as the Japanese dived at full speed, his gun blazing. There was a rattle and a clank. Too well Fiddler knew what that meant. His spare tank had been perforated. Even if he should defeat his enemy, he wouldn't be able to fly very far.
Then—Whoosh! A bullet went past his cheek. The enemy was almost on him. Fiddler looped, swung under the rushing Jap. As the Englishman had anticipated, his nerves weren't equal to the strain of risking a collision by holding on. He turned his nose up, checking his pace, and as Fiddler came round, there was the Jap just ahead of him, in the place where every air-fighter wants his enemy.
Fiddler pressed the firing button. Put-utut-ut! Straight and sure flew the leaden stream. He saw the leather-clad figure half rise, then collapse over the side of the cockpit. Experience had triumphed. He had won!
For a few moments the Japanese 'plane flew on. Then the body of the pilot slid down. The controls were loose, and the machine's nose dipped. Twisting and turning, the Japanese fell earthwards.
"All over but the smash," muttered Fiddler. "Now, what the dooce am I to do? Where's Girvan and his fellows? I can do mebbe fifty miles. That should take me to—"
Crrrash! He knew that sound. He had heard it all too often before. Shrapnel! The guns below had opened on him. The 'plane wobbled wildly in the vacuum caused by the explosion.
Crasssh! Zeee! Something like an invisible pair of shears ripped the lower starboard wing, the 'plane dipped. He was hit, he was done. Instinctively he righted the machine. She staggered over again. A stay went with a loud whang.
Nothing for it. The whole wing would probably go in a moment and he would drop like a shot bird. He'd have to go down anyway, so he might as well try to arrive whole.
He righted the machine again, slanted down in a wide spiral, swaying and tossing wildly, winged, but still in control.
"She'll go when I check her and we'll pancake!" he muttered. "And they'll get me. Well, I downed their man. Wow!"
The machine dived and plunged madly. The rip in the wing was spreading. The ground was near now. He could see men running away to the sides of the aerodrome. The ground was close. He straightened, and, as he expected, the wing gave at the strain.
The machine dropped straight down in a pancake landing. But it wasn't such a bad crash after all. The undercarriage and the floats went to wreck, but somehow, though he got a tremendous jolt, Fiddler wasn't hurt. Dazed, he sat with the remnants of his machine jutting up about him, and laughed.
A FURIOUS yellow face popped up beside him, yelling something.
"I don't like your manners!" quoth Fiddler. "Gimme a hand out, you yellow peril!"
But the man only yelled the louder and swung up his rifle butt. Another moment and he would have brained Fiddler. Across the ground floated a tremendous voice. It halted the excited Jap, who lowered his weapon. He stepped back. More heads appeared, then a big face, with hanging jowls, adorned by a seraphic smile.
"Give your honourable self trouble of descending to ground, if pleasing," said Oyonara. "Are you fortunately unbroken?"
"That's very polite of you, I'm sure," said Fiddler. "Yes, I'm not smashed up. Only shaken."
"Muchly fortunate," purred Oyonara.
Fiddler got stiffly out. He was bruised, but he concealed any sign of the twinges of pain that he felt. A great crowd of Japanese was about him. All the faces were hostile, some snarling, some more restrained, but all regarding him with fury. One face alone retained the semblance of good-will, and that was Oyonara's.
Fiddler didn't know Oyonara, but he realized that he was the chief. He didn't like the smile on his face though. It seemed unnatural. It wasn't forced, but there was a glint in Oyonara's eyes that belied it.
"Now, what's this all about?" Fiddler demanded. "Why was I attacked in the air? Why was I fired at? What is this place and why are all these armed men here? I left Thursday a few hours ago and Japan and the British Empire were at peace then. What's the notion, honourable sir?"
"Japan and British Empire are muchly at peace, goodly sir," replied Oyonara and bowed. "But I am Oyonara. I am now at war with honourable British Empire!"
"Eh? You!" For a moment Fiddler was utterly dumbfounded by this amazing statement. He had heard of Oyonara. He knew that he was a master of many millions, one of the richest men in the world, next to one or two of the great American multi-millionaires. He stared, half expecting to see something that would explain what seemed to him a colossal joke.
"But—the British Empire!" he repeated. "That's a very big order, and I fancy you'll find you've bitten off more than you can chew. Still, I'll take your word for it. As it is war, I presume you will hold me as a prisoner?"
"You are a prisoner—but I not holding you," said Oyonara very slowly and deliberately. "Honourable sir, I muchly regret, but this is my war and I make him in old-fashioned way. I do not hold prisoners. If you will be muchly good to step thees way you shall be honourably shotted—at once!"
Fiddler had a feeling that he was in the middle of a very realistic and very unpleasant nightmare. Was it possible that he had gone to sleep and dreamed all this? But no! There was nothing dreamlike and unsubstantial here.
"But surely—you wouldn't be so uncivilized!" exclaimed Fiddler, unwittingly playing his best card, for Oyonara flushed hotly.
"I am muchly civilize," he said coldly. "But thees is not war like European fashion. I am Eastern. I do not play game. I make war to kill. I want thees country. I take him."
"Thunder!" growled Fiddler in blank astonishment.
He saw that Oyonara was entirely in earnest. He looked round the great aerodrome, saw the gun emplacements, the hangar, the other evidences of tremendous preparations. He thought of the little house near Sydney where his wife and two small sons waited his return. For a single instant his iron resolution faltered.
Then, with an effort, he mastered his emotion.
"I presume you will allow me time to write a little letter to my wife? A simple farewell," he said. "You would find means of sending it to her, honourable sir?"
"Not of use," replied Oyonara with a deprecatory shake of the head. "One little week—no wife—not many peoples left—soon none. I kill! Will you kindly walk thees way?"
He waved a hand towards the middle of the aerodrome. A score of men armed with rifles stood drawn up in line. A firing-party!
Fiddler smiled. Here was irony. He, who had survived the butchery of the Great War, who had come through a score of air fights with only a scratch or two to show, was to be shot down in cold blood in his own country by a gang of filibusters!
"Perhaps you will allow me a minute or two to smoke a cigarette and compose myself?" he said with a smile.
Now that the end was certain he could face it with equanimity. He'd show them how a white man, a British officer and gentleman, could die.
"Yess, yess!" said Oyonara. "Honour me, sir!" He whipped out a cigarette case. Fiddler took a cigarette, lighted it with steady hands. "I muchly regret," continued Oyonara. "But—it ees no other way. Thees war—I mus' mak' it a wipe out. I mak' the place for my peoples. They want country. I take thees country, geeve it to them. I empty it for them. That ees all!"
"And enough too!" murmured Fiddler, and puffed reflectively, glancing round the crowd of hostile faces. "But—you'll never do it! The odds are too heavy. You'll make a dooce of a mess for a start—but wait till the Empire gets busy! You'll be wiped out before you know where you are!"
Oyonara shrugged and smiled. He waved a hand invitingly towards the firing-party.
"You kindly walk now, honourable sir?" he said softly.
Breathless, their eyes glued upon the two soaring 'planes, Ned Girvan and his friends had watched the aerial duel. They saw the Jap crash and then Fiddler pancake on to the aerodrome.
"Now we'll do our piece!" said Ned Girvan grimly. "Get aboard that 'plane, all of you. I'll see to the gun. Jim, there are a couple of big bombs under the machine. When I give the word, let 'em loose!"
No one was near the hangar. Every one seemed to be running towards the fallen 'plane. Tommy Paston peered out.
"Fiddler isn't killed!" he exclaimed. "I see him! And there's Oyonara! Wait! We'll see what they're going to do."
The crowd closed about Fiddler. Tommy Paston got aboard the 'plane in which the others had already ensconced themselves. There was plenty of room, for the thing had been constructed apparently to carry at least half a dozen men in addition to stores.
Captain Ned Girvan stood by the propellers ready to start up, but staring out at the milling throng. There might be a chance of picking up Fiddler, one chance in a thousand. If only he was clear of the crowd, they might...
With beating heart Ned waited. What on earth was happening in the middle of the crowd? He heard shouted orders, then growled in his throat as he saw a party of men file out to the middle of the ground, rifles in hand. They halted and formed in line.
The men at the guns had left them for the centre of attraction. That was all to the good. If the bomber only got aloft quickly, she would be away before the shooting could start. But what was happening there amidst the closely packed throng of khaki-clad figures?
The crowd parted. Ned saw Fiddler standing by the wreck of his machine, Oyonara beside him. Fiddler was smoking. Surely that was a good sign? He seemed to be talking amicably to the Japanese chief.
Oyonara waved a hand towards the party of riflemen. The pair began to walk towards them. Now Ned understood. It was an execution. Fiddler was doomed. A minute or so more, and...
"Paston, they've got a firing-party, and they're going to shoot Fiddler. We'll try to run the party down and pick Fiddler up. You'll see as we clear the hangar. Ready!"
He leaped up at one propeller, twirled it, then sprang at the other. In that climate there was never a second's hesitation in the firing of the motors. The engines roared at once. Ned Girvan scrambled aboard, and as he did so the great 'plane moved out.
Ned settled behind the forward machine-gun. There were two on the 'plane, both ready for action.
There was the crowd, well back from the firing-party; there were Fiddler and Oyonara, walking slowly towards the front of the line, Oyonara bowing his captive a polite farewell.
Ned saw Fiddler turn and look at the 'plane. He leaned out, wagged a hand in signal. All the faces turned towards the 'plane, running now across the aerodrome, making straight for the firing-party.
"I'll try to pick him up, then speed away and rise!" roared Tommy Paston in Ned's ear. "Blaze away!"
Ned's thumb went down on the firing-button. Put-ut-ut! A stream of bullets caught the firing-party, swept them down like a scythe.
Oyonara kept away from Fiddler's side, flung himself down behind the piled bodies of the fallen men. Rifles cracked all over the aerodrome, bullets whined and buzzed about the machine, clattered on and through its metal body.
Ned Girvan leaned far out, his voice rose to the emergency in a full-throated bellow that rang above the roar of the motors.
"Get aboard, Fiddler! Girvan speaking!"
But the burst from the machine-gun had already told Fiddler that though the bomber might be Japanese, the men aboard her were friends.
He was running in. Bullets threw up sand about his feet, a red graze started out upon his cheek, but he ran on untouched.
Now the great machine was upon him, running as slowly as Tommy dared let it go. Fiddler leaped up at the lower wing, grasped it, swung himself aloft and to the body. Ned Girvan grabbed him, hauled him in, and Tommy opened the throttle.
The bomber leaped forward, and slowly slanted into the air.
"They're running to the guns!" yelled Girvan. "Take her round, Tommy!"
The 'plane circled up, came back over the aerodrome at a height of only a few hundred feet.
"Let go those bombs, Jim!" howled Ned Girvan.
The 'plane gave a little leap upwards as a bomb was released. Girvan looked over, saw it fall. There was a faint flash, but no explosion worth mentioning. Was it a dud? No! Out poured a great volume of vapour, almost as though it had been steam, greenish of tint, rolling over the ground.
Plomp! The second bomb had fallen and burst. More greenish vapour.
"Gas!" cried Ned. "Golly! They're running! They're falling! My hat, what awful stuff! They're dropping in dozens!"
Nobody heard more than disconnected words, for Tommy was sending the 'plane high up in a long slant towards the sea.
The wind tore at Ned Girvan, beating him down. He had one glimpse of a rising 'plane, a small machine. It seemed to be coming after them.
Was it Oyonara? There was no means of telling. Fiddler shook himself. He had dropped in the bottom of the cockpit, momentarily overcome by reaction. To be saved from the very jaws of death in such a fashion is apt to be unnerving, even to a hard-bitten man like Billy Fiddler.
He rose, touched Paston's shoulder, pointed to himself and the controls. He wanted to take over. Tommy was no expert, and if that 'plane was in pursuit, expert hands were needed.
Ned Girvan looked back. He saw the 'plane again and recognized Oyonara's machine. It was heading away to the northwards, going at a great pace. Fiddler cupped his hands and bellowed at him.
"Where do we go?"
"Mouth of the inlet! Down there! Look for Rockabelle. Then on to Thursday Island." Fiddler cut off the engines and slid down the air towards the shore of the gulf.
"DON'T you want to look see what's happened back there?" he asked in the momentary stillness.
"Too risky. Those guns may be still ready. Look over there! There's a sail!"
They swept towards it. As they neared it Ned Girvan saw that it was a lugger. A ball of colour burst out at the masthead and a Japanese ensign fluttered free.
"So!" muttered Ned. "She's going to the inlet, is she? And where's my Rockabelle? Those hounds sunk her with this very machine! Well, I'll take a bit more toll. Hey! Fiddler! Take me round and round that lugger at close range, as low as you dare go. I'm going to shoot her up."
Down swept the 'plane till the water was a bare fifty yards below her. She roared towards the lugger. Ned waited, glaring over the gun sights. Yes, there were men on the deck, yellow men apparently. One of them was dipping the ensign in salute. Very good! He'd do a bit of dipping in a few moments, on his own account.
But he wasn't going to hurry. He'd let them have a glimpse of him first, let them know that the tables were turned. As the 'plane roared alongside almost within a stone's throw, Ned leaned out and recognized Billy Kettle! And also the other men.. Part of his own crew!
He didn't speculate on what had happened. He waved a hand. Billy had recognized him. He waved in return. The others waved. They lined the rail as the 'plane turned and came back. Their open mouths showed that they were cheering.
"They're my fellows! I don't know what's become of my ship, but they've snaffled that one. I must drop a message!" roared Ned in Fiddler's ear.
Hastily he scribbled orders for the lugger to make for Thursday Island, tied the sheet in his handkerchief, fastened it to his canteen.
The 'plane swung over the lugger, almost touching her mastheads. Ned dropped the packet neatly, saw the canteen smash on the deck, saw the message unwrapped, saw Billy's wave and salute. Even as the 'plane began to climb again, the lugger put about and squared away for Thursday Island.
"And now there's going to be the deuce of an enormous row!" said Ned in Fiddler's ear as they roared away over the gulf. "I don't know whether we'll find ourselves at war with Japan or not. But, anyhow, there's all the materials for an immense bust-up."
"That chap—Oyonara—said he was doing it on his own. D'you think he's clean mad?"
"There's a thundering lot of method in his madness, then!" snorted Ned. "The fellow means—or meant—swiping us under the belt. That is, if that aerodrome means anything at all."
"He meant it all. Told me it was to be a war without quarter, a complete wiping out of all the whites in the country—to make room for his people. Now, either he's entirely mad, or he has the backing of his Government—in which case..."
Fiddler didn't complete the sentence. He was thinking of that vast, empty continent, that immense stretch of country south of them, barren and desert for the most part in the interior but capable of being made to blossom into a garden, like the desert spaces of Arizona, if the life-giving water that harboured below it were but raised and used.
They arrived at Thursday Island after dark. There was trouble in landing, but Fiddler knew the ground and managed his big machine well. They landed in safety. And then began the tremendous bustle they had anticipated.
Telegraphs and wireless, telephones too, were instantly busy. Government officials concerned with defence, the Navy, and the Army, and Ordnance, were all awakened from their beauty sleep.
In far away Whitehall on the other side of the world, Admiralty officials buckled to and issued long cables in code that set naval stations buzzing.
For a couple of days Captain Girvan and his party remained at Thursday. Then things began to happen. A double squadron of 'planes arrived; the Howard, a heavy cruiser, came at top speed over the horizon and then foamed away for Lambourne Inlet.
Naturally, Captain Girvan, his brother, Tommy Paston, and Billy Fiddler took the air. They were the first to circle above the great desert aerodrome. It was deserted, and they descended.
A great blackened patch showed where stores had been destroyed. A huge crater showed where the magazine had been. The guns were still there, but they had been wrecked by charges of high explosive fired in their barrels. There was nothing left except the vast levelled space and a row of mounds beneath which reposed the victims of Oyonara's mad ambition.
"We have orders to occupy the place. It will come in handily as a training ground," said the commander of the air force. "And those emplacements will fit some of our own guns very nicely. I don't think this sort of thing is likely to happen again—not in our day, anyway."
"The Japanese Government is pained and shocked," said Captain Vincent of the Howard. "They are, of course, entirely innocent, though they believe that Oyonara is the head of a great secret society which had for its object the forcing on of a war between Japan and Great Britain. They have disowned Oyonara, of course, and ships are out scouring the seas for his yacht, the Aomori."
"Has she been heard of, sir? What has become of Oyonara's son, little Yoshio? He's a fine kid that. I should be sorry if he had to suffer for his father's sins," said Jim.
"I don't think he'll suffer," said Captain Vincent, with an odd look at Tommy Paston. "He was landed with his tutors in Japan about a week ago. The Aomori then sailed for an unknown destination, and has not since been reported. Well, gentlemen, if we catch Oyonara, we shoot him. But he will have the satisfaction of knowing he'll go down in history as the greatest filibuster who ever tried the game. Trying to seize a continent! It's magnificent!"
"I don't think he'll try to hide up," said Jim. "D'you know, I've got a sneaking liking for him. He may have started as a coolie, but he does his stuff like a prince. I fancy he'll make a sporting finish."
Jim was a true prophet. The four went aboard the Howard, for the bomber was left at the aerodrome, and Vincent had offered them a passage back to Thursday, where he was to make a report.
And midway across the gulf next morning, out of the blue came a wireless message which showed that Oyonara's network of intelligence was still in good working order.
"To honourable captain and officers of His Majesty's Ship Howard, Oyonara sends greeting. He desires the honour of meeting Howard in battle. He awaits Howard twenty miles northwest of Thursday Island in his ship Aomori. He will open fire at four thousand yards. He will not use torpedoes. He will fly his own house flag. Greeting to honourable officers of H.M.S. Howard."
This amazing message was brought to Captain Vincent as he sat at breakfast with his guests and the first lieutenant. He read it, stared incredulously, then read it aloud.
"I've had some experiences myself, and I've heard some yarns, but I've never heard of anything like this!" he exclaimed. "Why, it's—it's suicide!"
"Precisely!" said Tommy Paston. "In the old days a defeated Japanese noble and his followers all committed hara-kiri together. Oyonara is going to do the same thing in a more spectacular way."
"What will you do about it, Captain Vincent?" asked Jim eagerly.
"My orders are to capture the yacht. Obviously, since she has the heels of us, we'll have to fire on her. And there you are. Let me see, we should sight Aomori a little after noon, I think."
"Yes, sir," said the lieutenant. "Shall we clear for action, sir? Our information is that she carried three four-inch guns in ballast and several three-inch. She should be able to do a certain amount of damage if we don't sink her with the first salvo."
"My hat! What a fellow!" murmured Vincent. "He's living out of his time. He should have been a sixteenth-century pirate. But we'll certainly oblige him. Yes, clear for action, Henry. But wait a moment; let's answer the message. Lemme see!"
He wrote a few lines, then read them aloud.
"Captain Vincent and the other officers of H.M.S. Howard will do themselves the honour of opening fire upon the honourable Mr. Oyonara at four thousand yards as soon as H.M.S. Howard reaches that range."
"How'll that do?" he added. "Short, sweet, and to the point. Have it sent at once. My hat! This is a polite scrap, this is!"
The first lieutenant went out. A few moments later bugles rang out, the ship hummed with the bustle of clearing decks for battle. Ammunition hoists slid up and down, the guns were loaded. All was ready when, a little after noon, the look-out sighted the Aomori.
The yacht was moving slowly when sighted, but a few minutes later she put on speed and the two ships closed rapidly.
"No use taking risks, so come into the conning tower with me," said Vincent. "They'll be opening in a couple of minutes. Great Caesar, look at her! She's like a flower show!"
The Aomori was decked out with all her signal pennants. From the top of her mainmast floated the flag of Oyonara's line of steamships—white, with a large red character that looked like a five-barred gate in the midst. Her three four-inch guns were trained on the approaching cruiser.
"Hang the fellow; it's not a battle, it's a massacre!" growled Vincent irritably. "We'll simply smother that hooker. But what else can we do? I've given orders that, if possible, she isn't to be sunk but disabled, but with a hull like that it's impossible to make certain. I want to take her in, but—"
"You can be absolutely sure you won't do that, captain, if there's a man left to blow up the magazine," said Tommy Paston in a low voice. "They've got to die. Their own people would scupper them if we don't, so have no scruples. Ah, they're going to open fire!"
Vincent thrust them into the conning tower, the door closed. Locked within that chamber of steel against which heavy shells might burst in vain, they peered through the narrow view slots at the Japanese ship.
She came on valiantly. The hand of the range dial swung down and down. At four thousand yards there came a flash from the Aomori, and a shell whistled over the Howard. A second, and this time it burst just short of the ship. Vincent pressed a button, bells rang.
Next moment the Howard quivered as her guns boomed. The salvo was beautifully aimed. The Aomori seemed to disappear in a cloud of shell bursts. The smoke cleared, and fearful was the havoc that was disclosed. The whole of the ship's upper works, with the exception of the bridge which was well forward, had been blown away. Two of the three larger guns were dismounted. The third had taken a direct hit upon its shield, and its crew must have been killed by the explosion. The masts were down, and a shell must have found the engine room, for the ship was slowing to a stop.
Very definitely the Aomori was out of action. Vincent signalled the cease fire.
Swiftly the Howard drew close, her engines backing to check her way. A fire had started on the yacht. It was far aft. Three or four men were running to and fro along the deck, apparently distracted. Another appeared, staggering as though badly wounded. He mounted the bridge, stooped over one of the figures that lay prone upon it, then turned towards the cruiser, now within some five hundred yards. Through glasses Tommy Paston recognized him.
"Oyonara!" he said. "He has been hit. Ah, he's saluting! He's—yes, he's pressing a..."
The word "button" was drowned in the crash of a sudden terrific explosion. The yacht burst asunder in a broad sheet of crimson flame, the fragments of her decks and hull went flying high aloft to fall with enormous splashes in the suddenly tossing sea; a huge cloud of smoke flew up and settled slowly down on the scene of the ocean tragedy.
"I could have betted on that," said Tommy Paston softly. "Exit Oyonara. He has failed, and he has paid the penalty. But—what a man!"
Boats were lowered, but no survivor of the Aomori was found. Swinging to the east, the Howard steamed towards Thursday Island.
* * *
A full month had passed since the last act of the most amazing filibustering attempt in the history of the civilized world had been played out.
The Girvan brothers sat under the arbour of their house in Rockhampton smoking and talking over the events that had made them famous throughout the Empire. There had been much discussion about the form public recognition of their services should take, but nothing definite had come of it so far, except that a group of wealthy merchants had subscribed for a new and improved Rockabelle to be presented to Captain Girvan.
Since the old original schooner had been lost in the public service, Ned Girvan had no scruples about accepting the new one. But now the brothers had another theme as they caught sight of Paston and Janice coming slowly up the path together. They grinned.
"She couldn't have picked a better man," said Ned.
"And he couldn't have picked a better girl. Here's luck to them! But what are they reading!"
At which moment Tommy, feeling their eyes upon him, looked up. The pair quickened their pace; Tommy waved the letter he had been reading.
"News!" he said. "It's from a pal of mine in Hong Kong, a chap in the same risky sort of business as myself."
"Tommy's giving it up. He's going to build aeroplanes here," put in Janice. "I don't know if it'll be any safer, but I can be with him all the time."
"Allow me to stick to the subject, infant!" said Tommy severely. "This letter tells me something that isn't generally known even in Japan. You remember little Yoshio, Jim?"
"I should do. What about him? He was a fine kid."
"Oyonara was keen on being ennobled for his son's sake. Well, he has his wish—so far as his son is concerned. Yoshio has been created a lord. What do you think of that? Of course, Oyonara was a filibuster, but if he had been allowed to carry on for a few days longer I wonder whether—"
"Don't wonder. It's not diplomatic," murmured Ned. "But, all the same, I wonder..."
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