Sea Scamps/Back Tracks
THE ship was one mass of incongruities from stem to stern. To begin with, she wore the red, white, and blue of Uncle Sam's Quarter-master's Department on her two big buff funnels and flew the British Ensign. Then her captain wasn't a captain at all, but only the navigating officer, and the real captain was an army man who didn't know the lazarette from the foretop. The snore of the trades through her rigging mingled with barnyard sounds from the 'tween decks, and when the bosun called "all the starboard watch" the mules made such a racket that the pipe was drowned.
Also, we were cursed with captains. There was an army surgeon with the rank of captain who got peevish if anybody called him "doctor," though why I'm sure I don't know. I took the trouble to point out to him that his President could make any silly ass a captain in a day, but that it took time, money, and in some cases brains to make him a doctor. In addition, we had a naval captain, Uncle Sam's Navy, then our captain-quartermaster, and a few Volunteer captains whom some of the privates called by their Christian names, and last, and, as far as I could make out, least, the original captain of the ship, who had his certificate from the British Board of Trade and carried the responsibility of the ship upon his shoulders.
I had been a surgeon in the line before the ship was chartered to the Americans, and, in some peculiar way, was transferred to Uncle Sam's army for service on the transport by signing a contract for a month and taking an oath which, as far as I could discover, was for the same length of time as the contract. Thereafter I was directed to buy a uniform in which I was promptly addressed as "Lieutenant," which struck me as being rather an Irish promotion, having once previously served as major—but that has nothing to do with this yarn. All things considered, our old floating stockyard and her complement were about as odd a jumble as I was ever shipmates with.
The greatest incongruity of the whole outfit was that of the ship's captain and his first mate. The captain was an ex-Royal Navy officer of the frequent bluff, beefy, sea-going type, with a voice like a sea-lion and a hand like the fluke of a whale. He came of a good old county family and was probably the black sheep of the lot. I knew something of his people and had heard some queer stories of how he was kicked out of the service for some crooked work that wouldn't stand inspection, backed up by brutality and general caddishness. He no doubt owed his present billet to sheer force of vitality at sea, supplemented by boot-licking ashore. On the transport he managed to keep his position pretty solid by cursing out everyone beneath him and currying favour with every dummy that had a bit of gold lace stitched to the collar of his blouse.
The mate, on the other hand, impressed me as being the mongrel strain of two fine breeds. It was not easy to form an idea of what nationality he belonged to. One instinctively felt him to be a type, without being able to say of what. Some thought that he was an Egyptian, others a Mongol, a few sized him up as a "down East" Yankee. Whatever he might be, he certainly possessed all of the earmarks of a gentleman, both in appearance and behaviour. I never knew of but one person that gauged him correctly for what he was, and that was myself.
To one who had made the study of anthropology that I had, the man was absorbingly interesting, both mentally and physically. He stood about six feet in height and might have weighed 176 pounds. His head was rather long in the antero-posterior diameters, well planted on a firm, rounded neck, his shoulders disproportionately broad, and his chest unusually arched and full, but the most remarkable thing about his figure was the extreme smallness of his waist and narrowness of hips. I saw him several times early in the morning taking a bath under the deck hose, and noticed that, when standing naturally, his arms hung well clear of his hips, reminding one of the figures of the men pictured in Egyptian hieroglyphics. When one got a side view of him, however, one was struck by the depth of the muscles of waist and thigh. His legs were all ankle until almost to the knee, when they suddenly bulged into round knotted bunches of muscle. In fact, the man's whole figure reminded me of the anatomical drawings illustrating the muscular system.
His face was the most sinister that I have ever seen on any man, savage or civilised. The hair, straight, coarse, and black, typically Indian, was brushed away from a brow broad and intelligent enough, but carved straight across without the slightest superciliary arch. Underneath a pair of heavy brows there shone a pair of cold metallic eyes as fierce and unblinking as an eagle's. They were of that stony grey often seen in the Gaelic tribes, and had a peculiarity seldom seen in man; that is, the "retinal reflex." In certain lights the expression of the eye suddenly became blank, and one got the flat red glint that we associate with the low animals. The eyes themselves were set on the slightest suspicion of an upward slant, which effect may have been accentuated by a pair of high, prominent cheek-bones. His nose was aquiline and keenly chiselled, and his mouth, thin-lipped and compressed, was cut straight across his face like a gash.
The man's actions were as striking as his appearance. He seemed incapable of slowness or deliberation. Once I saw him reach for a loose roll of marlin-stuff that was lying on the deck, at the same time that one of the sailors stooped to pick it up. The rope was off the deck, thrown into the bosun's chest near by, and McKim on his way aft before the sailor had straightened his back again.
One could see at a glance that the transport captain hated the sight of the mate, having no doubt the usual British Navy suspicion and dislike of anything that acted independently and of its own volition. The captain was forever growling and fault-finding, and I often wondered just what effect it had upon the mate, for his face was as immobile as a mask, and he would simply salute and get to work to remedy the matter. The clash, which I plainly saw was imminent, came at last, and in a most remarkable manner.
The captain was just finishing his morning inspection of the ship, made in company with the quarter-master, captain-doctor, and aides. As they came through the forward alleyway to reach the deck he noticed a small puddle of water formed by the condensation of the moisture on a waterpipe overhead.
The mate was standing by the starboard bitts at the foot of the companionway leading to the deck above.
"Mr. McKim!" growled the captain. The mate was at his side in three quick steps.
"Why don't you keep the water off the deck? What d'ye think this is—a fishin' smack or a Sound coaster?"
"You don't want the pipe parcelled, so it can't be helped, sir," replied the mate. He said "can't" with the broad Maine accent. "The pipe's cold and the air's hot, so the water's bound to condense!"
"Ho!—very interestin'!" sneered the captain. "Well, mister mate, I want to tell ye that it will be helped, by ——, or the deck 'll be gettin' as rotten as the crew! Get out the way!"
He stepped across the puddle, and the mate leaned back against the bulkhead to give him room to pass. Whether it was by accident or design I do not know, although I suspect the latter, but the burly brute of a skipper, although the ship was steady and there was plenty of room, deliberately planted his great heavy-soled boot on the mate's instep, at the same time brushing him roughly with his elbow.
I heard a low soft gurgle,—the sound of a cat when stroked,—and saw the mate's hands flash up to the captain's waist, just above the belt. It simply looked as though he had grasped him instinctively to take the weight from off his foot, but the next instant there was a bellow of pain and fright that fairly shook the deck, and the captain came lurching through the door and reeled over against the rail. The high colour had left his face, and it was drawn and tense.
"My God!" he gasped; "my God!"
I turned to him instantly, and noticed that his shirt on both sides of his body was blood-soaked. I glanced for a moment toward the mate; his hands were hanging empty at his sides, and his face was expressionless, but just for an instant I caught the flat red gleam in both eyes. The captain was getting paler, and the perspiration stood out on his face in beads. I pulled up his shirt and to my astonishment found not the cut that I expected, but a great semi-circular tear through skin and adipose. The mate had torn the flesh apart with his hands!
No one seemed to know just what course to take in the matter. The action was so grotesquely inhuman that it didn't seem to fall under any definite jurisdiction, so the captain-quartermaster decided to let the matter drop until we reached Manila and then ship a mate more canny in his actions.
The next day I was leaning on the rail watching the little flying fish spattering out under the bows when I was conscious of a light tread behind me. I looked over my shoulder and saw McKim.
"Good-morning," I remarked casually. I was intensely interested in the man, but felt instinctively that to betray it would be to fog the plate,
"Good-morning, Doctor Boles," he answered. He paused a moment, then remarked suddenly, "You saw me lose my temper with the captain yesterday?"
"Yes," I said; "you have a strong grip, McKim. I've seen some queer wounds in my time, but never one made in that way."
"What do you think they'll do about it?" he asked.
"I think you'll lose your billet," I answered.
"I don't care for that," said he. "All I wanted was to get out here."
"What are you going to do?" I asked carelessly.
"Get a little vessel and trade around the islands. I can buy a fifty-ton brig out here for five thousand." He regarded me silently for a few minutes.
"Doctor," he said, "I don't know why a man of your age, and an Englishman at that, should want to come out to this God-forsaken place as an acting-assistant surgeon in the army. There's no money in it and not much glory." There was a bit of a sneer on his face as he said this.
"Now I've got a proposition to make. I want another man to go in with me on this trading scheme. There is no end of money in it. I've made two trips out here before and know what I'm talking about. Do you know anything about a ship?"
"A little," I said.
"When will your time be up?" he asked.
"It's up now as far as that's concerned. My contract was only made for a month."
"Have you ever been in the East before?" he asked.
"Yes," I answered, "I once went out to China as a medical missionary. Now, I want to see the Filipinos. You ought to be interested in them yourself," I remarked, turning to him suddenly. "They're distant blood relations of yours."
His eyes narrowed. "What do you mean?"
"Haven't you got some Indian blood? North American, I mean?"
"What makes you think so?"
"Because I've studied racial peculiarities and see many points of similarity."
"You are right, doctor; my grandmother was a Tuscarora woman."
"And your grandfather?"
"A Scotch Puritan," he answered with a slight smile. "Queer combination, wasn't it? I was brought up among the Indians until I was twelve years old, and then I was sent to my cousin's people in Maine."
"And went to sea with the fishing-fleet. Summer on the banks and winter on the farm?" I added.
"How do you know that?"
"Partly because everyone there's a fisherman, partly from the way you hold your hands."
"Right again, doctor; but let me tell you more about my trading scheme."
He explained the idea with so much clearness and certainty that I began to get interested, and before he had finished I was about as enthusiastic as a man can be who has made a failure of everything he has tried from boyhood to his fortieth year. The outcome of it was that I decided to go into it with him; he to be master of the vessel with a three-quarter interest, and I as mate with a quarter's. The proceeds would be shared on that ratio.
When we reached Manila McKim was informed that his services were no longer required, as I had foreseen. I had rather more difficulty than I expected in getting my contract annulled, and was, in fact, subjected to considerable criticism for leaving the service right upon arriving on the scene of action. But I had gotten past the age when sentiment counted for much, and I was sick and tired of taking orders from everyone in sight, anyway; so I simply demanded that my contract be annulled, and in due time was successful.
McKim came in to see me almost every day. Most of his time was spent along the Pasig and paddling around inside the breakwater looking for a suitable vessel at a reasonable price. Until my contract was annulled I was occupied with my duties in the First Reserve Hospital, where I had been temporarily assigned. One day I met him on the Escolta talking to a Spanish mestizo who seemed greatly excited.
"Good-morning, doctor," he remarked in Spanish. "Señor Valdez," turning to the mestizo, "permit me to introduce my partner, Doctor Boles. Señor Valdez," he continued to me, "owns a vessel that I think might answer our purpose were it not for the sad fact that some of her frames and part of her keel are badly burned as the result of a fire that broke out in her cargo a few months ago."
"Madre di Dios, the señor captain is mistaken. The fire occurred three years ago; the muchacho lied. He does not know what he is talking about; and the timbers are in no way injured, simply scorched and blackened, in fact, rendered stronger from the hardening effect of the heat, and her bottom is but newly coppered."
"Probably because she got so worm-eaten that she wouldn't float without," remarked McKim. "That's the trouble. These tubs are all copper-sheathed, of course, or they'd be eaten right up in these waters, and that copper costs. Let's go down and look at her," he added, turning to me.
We jumped into a passing carimita and jolted across the Bridge of Spain, over through the Walled City, and pulled up at the "cut-off" that runs from behind the breakwater into the river. There we got a banca and paddled out to look at the Purissima Concepcion, Valdez' little brig, that was lying in the inner basin. She was an ungraceful, chunky little tub, of about forty tons, not exactly pot-bellied; she didn't have shape enough for that, but straight-waisted and chopped off, like the first effort of a small boy trying a new knife. Her bluff bows and slender black bowsprit reminded me of a pug-nosed girl with a slate pencil in her mouth, and she had a stern like a bull-pup. She was brig-rigged, and sparred from the tough "Nampan" wood, which partly accounted for her clumsy appearance, as the stuff is so strong and heavy that the spars are cut down to what seems a ridiculous lightness. There was no attempt at any sheer; in fact she looked a little hogged, and as we pulled up under her counter I noticed that she was pieced in the side, although the seams had been carefully puttied and painted, and just at that place the curve of her bilge was a trifle too abrupt.
"Her first two after frames are gone," I remarked to McKim; "look at that sag." It was just a guess on my part, of course, but it turned out to be about right, as when we went below we found that three of the frames on her starboard side were burned clear through. However, that was easily remedied, although we made Valdez, who wasn't much of a sailor, but had simply bought the hooker at a bargain on speculation, think that the circumstance ruined her absolutely. We persuaded him that if she was to go to sea in that condition, the first big wave that struck her would break her clean in two, and we hinted that perhaps it was our duty to report the matter to the captain of the port and have her condemned. Before we got through with him he was overjoyed to let us have her at our own price, which was fair enough, and we made him throw in an extra anchor and two hundred fathoms of three-inch coir hawser. Valdez was a "compradore," and had a shop down on the canal that runs up from the river under the Puente del General Blanco.
The following day McKim shipped a native crew, three Tagals and two Visayans, Ilo Ilo men, who afterwards turned out to be brave, devoted servants. Our idea was to run down among the southern islands of the Archipelago and try to pick up a cargo of hemp and tobacco, especially the former, as the war had put the price 'way up. Many of the ports were still closed, but natives can be induced to run cargoes off at night, and besides there were the pearls and copra to consider. I was strongly in favour of a trip to Sydney or Melbourne after a load of trading junk, calico prints, condemned cutlery, and stuff of that sort, knowing how much the natives preferred these things to money. But McKim seemed to think there was more in getting our hands on all of the loose hemp around the islands.
A week later we had got our craft in pretty good sea-going shape. I had the cabin aft slightly re-modelled and made very comfortable. Some Chino carpenters had been strengthening the burned portions, replacing some of the teak frames, and fishing others in weak spots. One afternoon I was superintending the work as McKim was ashore haggling with Valdez about stores, when I saw a banca coming alongside. Under the awning sat the biggest, fattest Chinaman I ever saw. As he seemed to want to come aboard I called to one of the crew to drop the ladder for him. With amazing activity for a man of his size he came up over the side and stood smiling at me placidly. It was easy to see that he was a person of some consequence, both from his brisket, for only a wealthy Chinaman grows really fat, and from the richness and care with which he was dressed. On his head was the usual mandarin cap with its Turk's-head button, and his queue, which was spliced out at the end with black silk, barely brushed the deck. His tunic was of silk, richly embroidered around the corners and fastened pajama-like with buttons of carved antique ivory. Over his trousers he wore the divided silk overalls usually affected by the better class of Chinamen.
"Good-afternoon," I remarked in Spanish. He answered fluently in the same tongue.
"Is this Mr. McKim?" he added.
"No," said I; "he's ashore, but he'll be back soon. Come under the awning and sit down."
At first he started to pump me about our plans, but I cut him short, gave him a cigar, and went on about my work. In about an hour McKim came aboard.
"Who's that chap?" he asked.
"Some Chinese compradore, I expect," said I. "Seems to be quite a swell in his way. Probably wants to sell us a few extra kegs of nails. Looks as if we might need 'em before we get back, too." I pushed a sprung piece of deck planking back into place with my heel. McKim walked aft. A few minutes later he called me.
"Come here, will you, doctor. This gentleman," said McKim in Spanish, indicating me, "is my partner, and whatever I do must be done with his consent. Will you please state the proposition to him?"
The big Chinaman looked at me with twinkling eyes; one would have sworn that he was about to tell a funny story.
"I have just been telling Mr. McKim," he said in very good Spanish, "that I wish to charter your vessel to carry a cargo for me from Hai Chin."
"Where is that?" I asked.
"Ten miles up the Hai Chin River."
"What is the cargo?" said I, though I knew what was coming.
"And where is it to be landed?"
"Here; but I will attend to that myself. You will run no risk whatever."
"And we are to keep our mouths shut."
"That is, of course, understood—your own interests would demand it."
I looked at the old scoundrel in admiration. He was willing to trust European honesty to bring a valuable cargo across the China Sea, and was consistent enough to see that it would not do to try and persuade us to run it for him. But our being silent accessories of this act of smuggling did not seem to occur to him as crooked. In his Oriental code of ethics there could be no dishonesty where there was no risk of punishment. I looked at McKim. His face was as expressionless as the Chinaman's. Then I turned to the latter.
"How large a cargo?" I asked.
"Altogether, including a few bales of silk, about what you could load into a casco."
"And the compensation?"
"Two thousand pesos."
I shrugged my shoulders disdainfully.
"I have lived in China for many years," I said, "and I know the danger of loading a cargo of opium; also of getting it away from that part of the coast. The place you speak of being shallow and dangerous and full of pirates, we risk losing our brig, and, as you know, our lives as well!" I caught McKim's eye.
"What do you think of it?" he asked in English.
"It's worth while," I answered, "and he will give us ten thousand; let's do it."
McKim's sinister face almost beamed.
"Good," he said; "I thought you wouldn't be foolish about it. You see we don't have anything to do with landing the stuff. And it isn't smuggling."
"Yes it is," said I, "and I don't give a hang if it is. If I can make a dollar without breaking God's commandments I'll do it. The devil for those made by fool legislators!" I turned to the Chinaman.
"We won't take a peseta less than ten thousand pesos," I said, "and if you try to beat us down, we'll raise our price."
The Chinaman still smiled and his eyes twinkled merrily.
"It is a bargain," he said; "do you want an agreement signed?"
"Oh, no," said I, "it's not necessary, but we want the money before we transfer the cargo to your lighters."
"Very well, you shall have it. Now, if you will come to my office to-morrow morning I will give you all the necessary information."
"One moment," said McKim. "How is it that you dare entrust such a valuable cargo to strangers and foreigners?"
The Chinaman smiled joyously and emitted a few happy little chuckles.
"I cannot go myself," he said; "it is necessary to trust someone, and I have found that white men of the better class are honest. Besides, there will be more cargoes to carry!"
The following day we went over to Manila and saw our patron. He explained in detail what was required of us, at the same time giving suggestions as to the easiest way of accomplishing the undertaking. It was easy to see that the thing had been done before, and not to his satisfaction. We were to clear in ballast for the open ports of the southern islands, ostensibly after a general cargo of rice, tobacco, coffee, hemp, sugar, etc., and, once clear of the land, were to make all haste across the China Sea, run into the estuary of the Hai Chin River, and drop anchor. Then we were to charter a boatman to take a letter about twenty miles up the river to a place called Wai Fu, lying in the foothills of the Yan Chin Mountains. The following night a small junk would come alongside from which we would transfer our cargo. On our way back we were to call at Cebu, where a general cargo would be quickly put aboard. Then we were to break out the hemp and bale it up around the opium and silk. If there were any questions about the time it took us to go from Manila to Cebu we were to answer that we had got aground and sprung a leak, so that it was necessary to beach her for repairs. This story the appearance of our craft would amply justify.
Our patron promised us that there would be no risk to us, as he would give us an order duly made out to carry his cargo, of which, of course, we would not be expected to know any more than its general appearance seemed to justify, from Cebu to Manila. Once Anchored in Manila Bay the whole work of discharging would be taken by him, and all it would be necessary for us to do would be to show him the manifest signed by his Chinese partner and receive our pay. The whole trip should not take over six weeks.
Three days later we sailed. Much to my surprise the Purissima proved to be a fairly good traveller, and it was truly a marvel the way the old coffin would get to windward. McKim had made a few alterations in her rig and had given her a tremendous fore-and-aft mainsail, which made her something between a brigantine and a hermaphrodite brig. It had a queer look, but it helped her wonderfully in getting up into the wind. Our crew turned out very well. They all bunked forward, of course, and seemed to get on peacefully enough. McKim had the starboard watch with the two Tagals, and I the port with the Visayans. The odd man cooked.
Once clear of Corregidor we struck the northeast monsoon, which blows steadily at that time of year, so we were able to make one leg of it across, and on the seventh day we sighted the southern island of Pratas that lay about 150 miles from the China coast. There we caught a slant that headed us, so we had to beat in, and it was three days later before we entered the bay, and with nothing but a forestaysail and a scrap of our mainsail set stood cautiously up toward the river mouth. I had never heard of the place before, and what I had told our patron was simply an invention, but it turned out to be about correct.
An incident had occurred on our way across that I must not forget. On the morning of the second day out McKim came on deck to relieve me at eight bells, and before I went below to get my breakfast he dipped up a bucket of water from over the side and threw off his clothes for a bath. I was watching him casually, for his quick, lithe motions always had a fascination for me, and I noticed around his neck a sort of rosary, which when I observed more closely seemed to be a diminutive imitation of those peculiar ancient rosaries that have frequently been found in use in China, Thibet, North America, and old Mexico. I believe they have also been dug up with the relics unearthed from the ancient tumuli of the mound builders.
"Why do you wear that thing, McKim?" I asked. He flushed and then looked rather vexed.
"It belonged to my grandmother," he answered shortly. "It is an amulet. Here, boy, throw that water over me," he added, turning to one of the sailors.
I saw that he was touchy about the thing, so I made no further comment, but went below.
The little bay where we dropped anchor was a fine harbour, land-locked on all sides by high, bold, rounded hills, naked of vegetation and studded with great black granite boulders; a wild, desolate place, and uninhabited except for a few fishermen's huts on the shore. We got ahold of a couple of coolies who came out in a sailing sampan, and after much haranguing, for their dialect was different from any that I had encountered in my missionary work, made them understand what we wanted, and that there would be twice the amount of money paid them when they returned. Our patron's agent was to send us back a scrap of paper bearing, a character of which we held the duplicate, to indicate that our message had been received.
The following day the messengers returned, so I got everything in readiness to receive our cargo. The silk was to go down in the forepeak under some extra sails, and the opium under a false flooring beneath our cabin. I had seen enough of Chinese character not to trust it too far, so I got out my Colt's revolver and carefully oiled and loaded it, getting McKim to do the same. Then I armed the sailors with heavy knives that I had secured before leaving Manila, and cautioned them against turning their backs on the crew of the dhow.
The night came down dark and murky, and blotted out the shore line except where here and there the shoulder of some great overhanging hill loomed blackly against the sombre sky. The water was dead and dismal. Not a ripple nor a flicker of phosphorescence came from the sea, though now and then I felt the puff of a chilly land breeze, smelling of moist earth and rotting seaweed. I was leaning on the rail trying to cheer myself with a reflective pipe, for my spirits were very low, and thinking of the altered conditions between my first and second trips to China: the first as a missionary, the second as a smuggler.
Suddenly I caught the faint "chunk-a-chunk" that the great stern sculling oar of a freight sampan makes upon its thole pin. I called McKim, who came up through the companionway buckling on his gun. We listened together, and presently heard the soft "pat, pat," of naked feet as the coolies who were sculling the craft threw the weight first on one foot and then on the other. Our crew were gathered together forward in a little black huddled knot, and presently one of them crawled stealthily aft.
"What is it?" I asked in a whisper.
The man pointed his skinny arm into the darkness. Following the direction there suddenly resolved itself from the gloom a great square opacity that stood out against the denser darkness behind. It puzzled me at first, and then I made it out to be the big black sail of the dhow which had been hoisted to catch the fitful puffs of the night breeze.
Our anchor light was burning a dead yellow. I went below, and, lighting a powerful lantern we had got for the purpose, hoisted it on a halliard that I had reeved through a little block lashed to the spring-stay the day before. The light flared suddenly on the big sail of the dhow, that was now close aboard. A patter of muffled orders in a guttural voice came from her decks.
"Hello," said I. "Stand by for a line."
"E-ee—yah—aa——" came a voice in answer.
I sent a heaving line uncoiling snakily through the darkness. It fell athwart her decks and in a moment we had her moored bow and stern. McKim dropped our sea ladder and immediately the crew of the dhow came swarming up. I couldn't see any use for more than the captain, so I shoved the rest of the mob back and hauled up the ladder. A light whip had been rigged from the main topsail-yard arm, and I ordered our crew to man it, and in a moment the bales and boxes came swinging over the side. No attempt was made to examine them, as we were simply to receive what was sent and receipt for the total number of pieces.
The Chinaman who had come aboard carried a piece of paper in his hand which he signified that he wanted signed. McKim carried it below. The Chinaman stood beside the hatch waiting for him to come up. I was busy tallying in the bales, the last of which was just coming aboard, but something, I don't know what, impelled me to watch that Chinaman out of the tail of my eye. And as I watched the bales with one eye and the man with the other, I saw his hand suddenly slide down to his belt and caught the flash of the cargo light on naked steel.
"Look out, McKim!" I shouted.
A wild, eerie scream came in answer and a wave of dark, agile figures came pouring suddenly over the bow and stern. My gun was out in a flash, and I cut down on the man at the head of the companionway, who, with another scream even wilder than the first, lurched headlong into the scuppers. The next moment McKim was on deck, and together we leaped onto the deck house.
Up forward our sailors were fighting for their lives, and for a moment they stayed the rush from that direction, giving me time to reach under our dinghy, which we carried lashed bottom side up on the deck-house, and to slip out the heavy teak tiller which was shoved under the after thwart. It was well that I did so, for our revolvers were quickly emptied into the faces of the mob, and the next moment we were back to back fighting a blind and hopeless fight against overpowering odds.
McKim had got hold of a long iron capstan brake that he had torn from the hands of one of the assailants, and was lashing about him like a wildcat. I had thrown my empty revolver into a man's face, and gripping the tiller with both hands was getting in blow after blow as opportunity offered, parrying occasional thrusts as best I could. For what seemed a long time we beat them back as fast as they leapt up at us, then suddenly something heavy struck me in the chest, and over I went with a crash, and the next moment was almost suffocated in writhing, gripping forms, and remember with disgust the abominable stench of opium mingled with a nasty fishy smell that was overpowering. My arms were wrenched back until I thought that my shoulder blades would go, and turn after turn of thin bark twine was whipped around and cut deep into my wrists.
Although repeatedly struck and cuffed I did not lose consciousness, and the most distinct impression retained is that of McKim, the clothes torn away from the upper part of his body, a great gaping gash over his eye from which the blood spattered over his demoniacal face, which was working grotesquely in the dim, flickering light from the cargo lantern, and even at the time I was struck by the weird similarity of his face to those about him.
So quick were his actions that they seemed unable to reach him with any weapon; then suddenly some great object flew up from the crowd. There was the scrunching noise of iron on bone, and the next moment he was gone!
The fight was over, and almost immediately I heard the windlass in the bow going around and the chain hawser coming in. Vehement orders were frenziedly chattered in a fierce and constant flow of monosyllabics, and from what I was able to understand I gathered that a part of the gang were to take the brig immediately to sea. Everything about was clamorous confusion, yet with it all the work was purposeful. Some were frantically swinging aboard the remaining freight of the dhow; others ran nimbly aloft and shook out the sails, then slipped down and manned the halliards and braces, while all the while the "clank-clank" of the chain as it was snapped in through the hawse-pipe gave a sort of staccato time to the ebullition about the decks.
In the general confusion I appeared to have been overlooked, and lay bound and helpless where I. had been dropped. Suddenly a shout came from forward, the clank of the hawser ceased, and the foretopsail began to flap lazily. A louder order was shouted from the poop, and the crowd about the deck broke up, half of them hurrying to the side. Three men who were at the main-halliards belayed them where they were, and slipping to where I lay grabbed me roughly and started to drag me to the side. I supposed, of course, that I was going overboard, and had in fact become quite reconciled to the idea, and was trying to get a cold consolation from the sight of the prostrate bodies that lay about the deckhouse, but as I saw how many they were I began to fear that possibly there might be something warmer in store for me than the black waters of the bay.
They hauled me forward, as the dhow had drifted under the bows of the brig, for the land breeze had backed her fore-topsail and she was making sternway. As I was dragged up over the bulwarks I caught a glimpse of one of our poor sailors, a Visayan named Manuel. He had been knifed from behind and had fallen back across the coaming of the fore-hatch. His head was twisted back, and his face shone pallid in the thin light, while his protruding eyeballs stared up into mine. From under his left chest a long kris dagger blade stuck six inches from his body, its wavy sides glinting snakily in the lamplight.
I was hauled over the gunwale and dropped heavily into the bottom of the dhow, and a few seconds later McKim was laid alongside of me. He was unconscious and breathing stertorously, and I got my shoulder under his head and hauled a loose piece of matting up over him with my teeth, for the night was cold and his shirt had been torn to pieces.
A few final orders were shouted from the deck of the brig, which was already under way, and we cast off and headed up the river. I was beginning to feel dizzy and light-headed, for although I did not notice it at the time I had lost a good deal of blood from a long shallow slash where some beggar had wiped a knife across the front of my chest; perhaps I simply slept, but at any rate I have no recollection of the first part of the trip. When I finally awoke, or came to myself, the dawn had broken and I saw by the grey, early light that we were working up a winding stream which flowed sluggishly between irregular mountains of no great height which I judged to be the Yongnans—foothills of the Bohea Range that runs north-easterly from the north of Kwang Tung. We had probably been sculling by relays all night, but toward sunrise the breeze blew in from the sea, so the big square sail was hoisted and we made good sailing time.
The behaviour of our captors when they saw that I was awake and inclined to take an interest in things, rather surprised me. At first I was so stiff and sore that I could hardly move; my shoulders felt as if they were being racked, but my arms and hands were entirely devoid of all sensation. By squirming around a bit I managed to get in a sitting position. There was a Chinaman on either side of me, one smoking, and the other busy with a wooden bowl of rice and chopped greens. Although I knocked against them in my effort to rise they did not pay me the slightest attention, but a man who seemed to be a person of authority caught sight of me a few moments later, and said something to one of the men beside me, who drew his knife and cut the lashing around my wrists. I could, no doubt, have made myself understood, and was rather tempted to ask some questions, but decided to conceal what knowledge I had of their language in the hope of learning something of what was to happen. A little later, however, a bowl of rice was handed me.
McKim was still unconscious, but his pulse was fairly good, and his breathing quiet and even. I did not feel much concern about him, as I had a sort of a notion that he might be in a better state than I was. Nevertheless I tore a piece from my shirt and, dipping it over the side, washed the blood away from his wounds and bound them up. No one seemed to take the slightest interest in the proceeding, and it even seemed to me that such glances as were thrown casually our way were strangely free from malice. Indeed, I knew enough of Chinese character to appreciate that in their utter selfishness such as had survived the fight of the night before were possibly gratified on the whole that we had lessened the number among whom the profits of the expedition were to be divided.
As we worked up the river it kept growing narrower and narower, and sometimes it would loop so that it was necessary to clew up the sail and scull for a while in the direction whence we had come. We passed two towns, both of which were laid out on the same plan, and deserted. They were built upon the sides of hills that faced the river, and around each there ran a triangular wall with the base along the shore and the apex near the summit. There seemed to be a sort of citadel surrounded by another wall built inside. These defences, I supposed, were built for resistance against the Tartar pirates that used to swoop down along the coast and ravage the seaboard cities. The hills on both sides of the river were growing higher and wilder as we proceeded, though some of the valleys seemed to be somewhat cultivated.
About sundown we sighted a village ahead, at the base of a big dome-shaped mountain, and, as we drew near, I saw that we were to stop there. I was glad of it, for the suspense and pain of my wound was beginning to be unbearable. McKim was regaining consciousness, but seemed to be getting feverish, and occasionally muttered incoherently. As we drew up to a bamboo jetty that was built out into the stream, I noticed a very old man who was in the little crowd that had come down to meet us. He was apparently of a very great age, although strong and active, and in spite of his round, stooping shoulders, and the deep wrinkles that seamed his face, there was something about him that again suggested that bizarre resemblance to McKim.
We were carried ashore and laid on the ground near a hut, the crowd watching us apathetically, but the old man I have mentioned drew near and appeared to ask some questions of our captain. The next moment he became perfectly convulsed, and when he straightened out again I saw that his face was simply demoniacal with rage. He came hobbling over to us with such an uncanny agility, and a look of such concentrated hatred and malice upon his face, that I decided that at last we had swung to the end of our scope.
McKim was the nearest to him, and was lying on his back, his face flushed and muttering to himself with lips parched from fever. As the old man approached him I saw an expression of the most utter astonishment pass over his face, and following his gaze saw that his eyes were fixed on the rosary or amulet that hung about the neck of my shipmate. The next moment he had it in his hand and was breaking into exclamations of wonder and awe. He kept glancing from the rosary to McKim's face, and suddenly he darted to him, took his head between his hands, and said a few quick harsh words. McKim stared at him stupidly for a moment, then answered:
I did not know it at the time, but have since discovered that the word for "mother" of the Tuscaroras and Six Nations is "Annah," which is the same as the Tartar word. But the effect on the old man was magical. He fairly capered with excitement, and in a moment came rushing over to me and fired a torrent of questions, but I simply pointed to McKim, and then towards the east, at which he nodded several times. I think I had unwittingly answered his question.
Suddenly McKim began to talk, slowly at first, then rapidly and incoherently. The old man dropped on his haunches beside him and listened with the most peculiar expression I ever saw upon a human face. Wonder, interest, awe, and fear chased one another successively across his features, and all the time there was the look of one listening to a long-forgotten melody. At first I thought McKim's mutterings were inarticulate and meaningless, but pretty soon I recognised the fact that he was talking to himself in a North American Indian dialect, many of the guttural sounds of which once heard are unmistakable, and all the while the old Chinaman was listening with the ecstasy of a parent who, almost contrary to his belief, hears the voice of a child whom he has long believed dead.
Soon, however, the talking ceased. McKim moaned and raised a bloody hand to his head. The old man posted off, and a few minutes later some coolies came down with stretchers, and we were taken up to a hut where, under the supervision of our aged friend, some of the women stripped and bathed us and then laid us on mattings, covering us with homespun blankets, for the evening was chilly.
I lay awake a long time, partly from the pain of my wound and partly because the affairs of the afternoon had suggested something to my mind, and the more I thought it out the more convinced I became that my theory was a possible if not a probable one. McKim had once told me that his grandmother was a Tuscarora squaw, and that he had been brought up among the Indians. In that case it was more than probable that he had picked up one or more dialects to which, in his feverish and unbalanced mental condition, his mind might naturally revert.
I knew that there were many proofs of the Asiatic origin of the Indian tribes of North America, the similarity of many words, the same system of counting; their strong comparative anatomical resemblance, as well as those of disposition, religions, and system of hieroglyphics. A man who had made a study of philology had once told me that, in eighty-three American languages, one hundred and seventy-three words have the same roots in both continents. Could it not be possible that some one dialect had preserved its integrity? Then the little incident of the rosary occurred to me, and that suggested another train of thought. Our captors had not paid any attention to the thing whatever, except that one of them ran it through his hands apparently to ascertain if it possessed any intrinsic value, and had dropped it as worthless. But the moment the old man had seen it he had become violently agitated, and, I thought, a trifle alarmed, for he had looked around apprehensively, and now that I came to think of it, he was of an entirely different type from the rest of the crowd. He seemed more of a Tartar or Hun, which, however, made it rather difficult to account for his presence way in the southeast of Asia.
This suggested another idea. I had heard of these rosaries being found in Thibet and Mongolia, but never, that I could remember, in China. Evidently the rosary had some particular significance to the old man that it had not to the others. And the old man was of a distinctly different type. Then I recalled what I knew about the early history of Asia. I remembered that toward the close of the twelfth century, one Tchinggiskhan, the king of the Southern branch of the great tribe of Huns, who had not shared in the great southwestern movement of the Northern Huns, came down from the northern steppes of Mongolia and ravaged the country far and wide. He overran China Tartary, India, Poland, Hungary, Persia, and Syria. Later, his grandson. Khan Khoubilai, finished the conquest of China, and, for the first time that we know of, subdued that vast empire. Khoubilai's domain was the largest that ever existed. It reached northward to the deserts beyond the In Chau Mountains, westward into Gobi, the Sandy Desert; eastward it touched the river Siao, and to the south it formed the shore of the Youé Sea. A hundred years later Tchon Youen-Tchang founded the great Ming Dynasty, one of the first acts of which was to expel the Tartars from their domain. But the great southern movement of Khoubilai would, I thought, account for the pure Tartar stock in almost any part of the Chinese Empire. Might it not be that some clan had split off from the main horde or army, and, being separated and possibly cut off by enemies, had remained, or pushed southeast to strike sea water?
To trace McKim's Tartar origin was more difficult, but there were a few strong evidences. The rosary given him by his Indian ancestress, his dialect, and his undeniable physical resemblance to the Mongols. I called to mind an early writer who had referred the savage and larger portion of America to the North of Asia, and the civilised families of Mexico and Peru to ancient Egypt and Southern Asia. The Tartars who inhabited the deserts north of the great wall of China were a nomadic, roving race, and the geographical conformity of Behring Strait would make an eastern migration perfectly possible. Once having reached the continent of North America, they would naturally turn their faces southward, finding no resistance and a rich and fertile country before them. The more I thought of the matter, the more I became satisfied with my theory, and finally, having reached a standstill, I fell asleep.
The murmur of voices awakened me, and, turning over, I saw that the room was full of men who were arguing excitedly and occasionally casting scowling looks at McKim, who was sleeping heavily. But our old friend of the evening before was the most excited of the lot, and apparently the most authoritative, for finally the tumult ceased, and the rabble poured out. I tried to get up, but he shook his head and motioned for me to remain where I was. One of the women brought me some food, a stew of chicken and rice, and a few slices of raw fish.
With the old man's permission I moved my mat to the doorway of the hut, and amused myself watching the fishermen along the river bank. Evidently our jailor was well disposed, for he spoke to one of the women, who steeped me a bowl of tea and furnished me with a pipe and tobacco. I tried to talk with him, as I was somewhat familiar with the dialects of the coast, but, although he made every effort to understand me, he was unsuccessful.
After it had grown dark he went out, but in a few moments returned with a heavily padded tunic. I was not at all chilly, but he motioned for me to put it on. A few minutes later two coolies came in, and lifting McKim, mat and all, carried him outside the door, where there were a little knot of men waiting— coolie carriers I made them out to be. McKim was laid in a hammock swung from a bamboo, and our host, or jailor, motioned for me to get into another like it, and in a few moments we were all in motion.
Although it was very dark, I could see that we were climbing up into a very wild country. Occasionally the road led along the edge of a chasm, and I could hear the water boiling far beneath. At dawn we reached a little hut, where we remained all day, and at night the trip began again, this time with new coolies. On the fourth morning of our journey, McKim's condition began to change for the better, and, after sleeping all day quite naturally, he suddenly awoke to consciousness. I did not want to excite him any more than was necessary, so in answer to his questions simply said that we were prisoners, but were being well treated and just now were moving into the interior, probably to make escape more difficult. That seemed to satisfy him, and, after eating a light meal, he went to sleep.
That night we travelled again, and as the first light began to break in the east, I saw that we were entering a big, fertile valley. We changed bearers once more, but the following day continued our travel instead of waiting for the darkness.
As soon as we started, I noticed a difference in our coolies. They were leaner, more muscular, and more of the Tartar or Samoeide type. I noticed also that the old man seemed to address them in a different tongue and that they treated him with great deference.
When we halted at noon McKim was wide awake and taking an active interest in his surroundings. While we were talking, for I had told him nothing about the queer events at Hai Chin, the old man approached, and as he drew near I could see that he was powerfully agitated. He tried once or twice to speak, but seemed unable to articulate. Finally he jerked out a few quite guttural words.
The effect on McKim was magical. He was on his feet like a flash, and stood with his head dropped between his shoulders, looking at the old Chinaman through narrowed lids—every muscle was tense, and his lower jaw worked nervously up and down like a pointer dog's when he is standing a covey. The Chinaman's face was set and rigid, and, his eyes boring straight into McKim, he spoke slowly four monosyllabic words; and like an echo the words came back followed by a dozen or so more.
Then the spell was rudely broken. The old man uttered a sudden cry, and the bearers came running up. He spoke to them in quick, unmusical words while they stood apparently wonderstruck, uttering at intervals astonished grunts, much resembling the "Ugh! ugh!" of the American Indian.
I turned to my partner. "McKim, what the deuce does it all mean?"
He looked at me, his face dazed and awestruck.
"He talks my grandmother's language," he said weakly.
"Is he talking it now?"
"No, but he is talking one like it. What does it mean, doctor?" He turned on me almost fiercely.
"It means," I answered, "that you are among your relatives. I hope they are glad to see you. He can tell you more about it than I can."
McKim turned to the old man and said a few words. The moment he began to speak, the coolies dropped upon their knees and touched their foreheads to the ground. The old man stood listening respectfully. In a moment he answered.
"His name is Khan-ghi-sen," said McKim, turning to me. "He says I speak an almost forgotten language used only by the nobility of his tribe, and he wants to know where I come from."
"Suppose you ask him where you are going," I suggested. "Keep him guessing, as you Yankees say."
McKim turned to Khan-ghi-sen and spoke. It seemed to me that the Khan was ratherin his manner.
"He says to my own people," said McKim. "I don't know what he means by that."
"Ask him if your people came down here six hundred years ago from the northward beyond the Great Wall," I ventured.
McKim repeated the question. It was easy to see that my straight shot had gone home. The Khan was evidently overcome with curiosity and from that time on treated me with marked respect.
"He wants to know why you ask that question," said McKim. "He says that it is not well that one not of our people should know so much. But he says we must be going on."
Towards evening we saw the village lying below us in a fertile sheltered valley, most of which was planted in rice. The sun was setting, and as we came down the mountain-side we caught the successive flashes of crimson and green from the reflection of its rays upon flooded rice fields that were terraced against the sloping side of the hill. I noticed that the path we travelled was almost obliterated; indeed, I doubt if anyone not acquainted with the way could have followed it.
Night had fallen when we reached the outskirts of the village, but evidently something unusual was going on, for the streets were crowded with people, and as we passed the temple we heard the muffled "boom-boom" of the great drum, and the noiseless tread of the priests walking round and round. No one impeded us in any way, but there were many curious glances as our hammocks passed, and more and more was I struck by the similarity of these people to my shipmate.
The arrangement of the houses was different from anything I ever saw before in China. They were built of bamboo and wicker-work closely thatched and of a peculiar conical shape, with a bulge about six feet from the ground: a Tartar style of architecture, as I afterwards discovered.
We entered one of the best, which had evidently been arranged for our reception. Inside there were a couple of large comfortable couches the sides of which were of a peculiar scroll-shape design, and in one corner there was a little recess in which stood—or rather squatted—a brass image of Buddha about eighteen inches in height, in front of which were arranged in a semicircle nine brazen vases, of wine-glass shape.
About eight o'clock the following morning the Khan appeared and took McKim away with him. When they came back, about two hours later, I could see that McKim was tremendously excited. His hands were working spasmodically, his nostrils distended, and from time to time I caught the red glare from his pupils, which I learned to associate with unusual excitement. He turned on me abruptly.
"Doctor," he said, "do you know what these people tell me?"
"I can form an idea," said I. "They claim that you are a descendant of their own race, and, more than that, a descendant of their own regal line."
He looked at me in amazement. "How did you ever discover that?" he demanded.
"Simply because I have thought so myself for some time."
"Well," he said, "I give it up. Surprises are coming too fast. But do you know what they want me to do?"
"Not quite that, but to remain with them as a sort of prince to be instructed by their wise men, and perhaps later to lead the tribe northward. It seems that their own country is to the north, and they have a tradition that a man of their royal blood will come from across a big water and will lead them home."
"A very hackneyed popular tribal prophecy," I remarked. "And what are you going to do?"
"Oh, I don't know. I've got to think it out. It doesn't make much difference, as they wouldn't let us go just now, anyway."
"What does the Khan rank in the outfit?" I asked.
"He is the younger brother of the present chief. He went down to the coast with a good bulk of the opium for the partner of our friend in Manila. It seems we had the misfortune to kill one of his servants who went out with the stuff; rather a favourite with the old man."
"And whose plan was it to scragg us?"
"Oh, that scheme was cooked up by our friend's partner, who wants to start a little piracy business of his own and needed a vessel."
"He got it, and something to boot," I said with a grin, thinking of the way he had dived into the scuppers.
A little later the Khan came for McKim, and they went out together.
And then began a process which I hope to God I may never live to see again—the reversion of a man from the civilised to the barbarian. Day by day I could see the insidious process working. Through the wiles of that cunning schemer Khan-ghi-sen, McKim sunk slowly backward through six centuries in a little more than six months. At the end of that time I doubt if there was a fiercer, keener, more blood-thirsty pagan in the whole clan than he. I witnessed the process passively, for I had always felt more interest than affection for my partner. At first the old Khan watched me with jealous suspicion, but seeing that I was indifferent, his vigilance relaxed, and we even became, in a way, good friends.
McKim was allowed to taste both the freedom and the darker pleasures of an Oriental life. His manner and disposition began to undergo subtle changes, until the liking I had once felt for him turned gradually into disgust. At last the climax came.
For some time there had been frequent depredations among the scarce flocks of the tribe, and though repeated efforts had been made to detect the robbers, all had been unsuccessful. Finally, one night McKim took a dozen of the young men from the village and managed to ambush and capture the thieves, although in the fight one of his men was knifed and killed. The following day, hearing a great hubbub in the market-place, I went over to see what it was all about. To my horror I saw one of the robbers lashed to a stake that had been firmly planted into the ground, while near by a man was heating a spearhead in a little mud furnace. Standing by, apparently directing the proceeding, stood my shipmate.
"McKim," said I, "what under Heaven are you up to? Are you going to torture that man?"
"Yes," he answered sullenly; "he has killed one of us."
"But, my God, man, you can't torture him. Remember that you're an American!"
"I am a Mongol," he answered in an even voice; "it is the custom of our people."
"Well, it's not the custom of mine to stand by and see a man tortured." I laid my hand on the hilt of my knife. "Kill him if you want to, but if that beggar with the spear tries to torture him, there will be another of you gone up."
His eyes narrowed, and he tried to glare me down, but if his eyes were aflame, my blood was as well, and I verily believe I would have tackled the whole gang. But I think the good English words brought him to his senses.
"Dr. Boles," he said at length, "it was my fault that you got into this scrape, and I had hoped to be able to make some sort of amends, but it is time we parted. I have wanted to keep you with us, because you stood by me in danger, and my people say your skill is great, and honour and respect you. But your ways are not our ways, and it is better that we part."
The next day I left for the coast in the care of six coolies and a sort of lieutenant. It was a ten-days' trip to where I could get transportation to Hong-Kong, but in due time I reached that city without accident. There I found a friend who was captain of a big, flat, sea-going freight-car about to clear for Delagoa Bay. He wanted to ship a doctor, as the callow youth that came out with him had got war-fever and scuttled off to the Cape.
I was glad to get the billet, as my funds were getting low and the East Coast offers many chances.
While I was hanging around Hong-Kong waiting for the ship to sail a train of circumstances arose, however, which postponed my much desired departure from China, but as it gave me a chance to get even with some of my old enemies I suppose that I have no right to complain.
I have never heard from McKim, and at times it is hard to realise that, even in that land of incongruities, there is to-day a native-born American, of mingled Puritan and Indian blood, who rules as the lawful and hereditary chief of a thousand wild Asiatics.