AFTERNOON, and the empty, open boat rocking to the long swinging swell of the seas; empty, save for the two men who sat in her, alive once more in the warm sunlight. No mast or sail or oar was in the boat, no water or food, not even a tiller.
Battered and bruised, the two men had used teeth and fingers to get free of their bonds, and after bandaging each other sat smoking thirstily, silent for a long while, their eyes roving about the empty horizon. Job Warlock had a swollen jaw and a black eye, Dick Hampton had a slashed scalp and a dozen minor contusions, and about his neck still dangled the knife by its lanyard. Gradually their thoughts were gaining coherence, gradually Hampton was remembering everything of that wild and fearful scene aboard the vanished Hannah. He broke the silence at length, with slow words!
“Cut and dried, you said, Job. Did ye catch that voice giving orders?”
Warlock shook his head in perplexity.
“Aye, but I was a bit hurt and dazed. 'Twas no voice I had heard before, Dick. Could swear to that. A proper seaman's voice.”
Hampton's puffed lips curved slightly in a smile.
“Day's voice. I caught a glimpse of him at the rail above, as we were cast off. All cut and dried.”
Job Warlock stared, and presently uttered a slow, thoughtful whistle.
“Whew! Queer enough, matey, queer enough. It's all a riddle, and where's the key?”
“It's to find,” said Hampton grimly. “If you'd seen Day's grin, you'd understand; it was malignant, bitter, venomous. There was hidden poison in the man, but why? I've never done him harm.”
The brown, squat face of Job Warlock wrinkled up, and he puffed hard at his pipe. Dick Hampton was searching for some reason behind everything, but could find none. The whole thing seemed outrageous, without explanation. He was still slow to realize that from the moment of Jed Barnes' murder, his fate had been decided—there had been a slow culmination of events, yet everything had been cut and dried, planned out to the last detail. Who and why? If by Day, then for what reason? With a shiver, Hampton loosed the knife from about his neck and flung it into the stern of the boat.
Warlock straightened up suddenly on his thwart.
“By the crooked tree—let's trace the riddle, and seek the key afterward! So it was Day as done it, eh? It was him directing things?”
“Aye,” said Hampton. “He suggested the sentence to old Nickerson, and it seemed all fair enough. Otherwise, d'ye see, I'd ha' been put in irons for trial on return to Beverly, which would have suited me poorly indeed, for I have work to do. But let's work back slowly. It was not in Nickerson's mind, of course, or the skipper's either, to set us adrift without food or sail; with them, we'd not be badly off. As it is now——”
“It's nothin' short of murder,” said Job Warlock, “and it's Day's doin', too. It was him caught the crowd all aback, drove orders at 'em, cast us adrift; so that's settled. Aye, we did wrong to trust the rogue! Was it him murdered the old man?”
Hampton shook his head.
“Wait; come to that later. Why should Day have gone out of his way to take us aboard ship, only to work this game on us? It looks queer, Job. He'd have murdered me instead of setting me adrift, had he dared do it. Why, then, would he want me killed, after taking me along and promising me command of a schooner?”
“Hm! Where was he when the murder was done?”
“I don't know—ah!” Hampton checked himself, recollecting. “He was in the after cabin with the other company officers—I remember seeing him there as I glanced in.”
“Could he have done the job, then slipped into the after cabin?”
Hampton shrugged, frowned, puffed for a moment at his emptied pipe.
“Hard to say; it's possible, of course. Yet, why would he have killed Jed Barnes?”
“Well, work it out and we'll find a key.” Warlock slipped off the thwart, settled himself in the bottom of the boat, bracing himself to the swing and the fall. “Where'd ye see him first, and how?”
“By chance. Pure chance.”
Hampton recounted in detail his first meeting with James Day. For both of them, this effort to pierce the mystery not only had its own end to be attained, but served to relieve their thoughts. They were already suffering from thirst, because of their hurts and because of the lack of water itself affecting their imagination; both men realized clearly the peril of letting their minds dwell upon their almost hopeless circumstance.
“First meetin', then, all pure chance,” commented Job Warlock. “Fair enough; he had need of you, like he said, so set that down to his side of the ledger. He took me on for the same reason, and that's all square. Now, then, what was it come up to change him——”
“Ah!” Hampton's gray eyes lighted with a sudden flash of recollection. “That night, after he took you to your quarters, he came back and offered me introductions to friends of his in the Panama country—filibusters or pirates, no matter which. Said I could make my fortune in a year, throw in with him! When I refused, there were no hard words, but there was a look in his eye——”
“Too fast, too fast, matey! Take in a reef,” cried out Warlock in swift animation. “D'ye remember how he jerked out the little pistol on us? How it was that story of your brother—oh, I see it now, the trail's all clear! The world's a fine place, so hurray!”
The half-breed's swarthy features were agleam with exultation, with wolfish eagerness. He was scenting out this mental trail as he would follow any forest track, and seemingly he had now found the hidden clue. He leaned forward, dark eyes blazing.
“Listen, matey! Oh, it's clear as day now, aye, Day!” His lips drew back from his teeth in a snarling grin, and he checked himself to find the right words. “That letter from your brother—why, news of that hit him between wind and water! Caught him flat aback. What a shift o' wind it was for him! Stripped him to bare poles, and out came the pistol!”
Hampton caught the implication.
“Go on,” he said grimly. “You've hit it. Next?”
“Little black bull came down from the mountain,” sang Warlock, and laughed. “Oh, aye, clear as Day himself now! That mention of the letter, of your errand, of the man who had caught your brother atrip—Winslow!”
“His bitterest enemy,” said Hampton, and frowned. “Yet how that could have changed him toward me, made him hate me, I don't quite see! The man Winslow——”
“Not Winslow, not Winslow!” cried out the other eagerly. “It was a false trail, and it threw us all off! Not Winslow at all!”
“What are ye driving at, man?”
“Dias! What's that but Spanish for Day? Why, there's the man himself ye were seeking! No wonder he demanded why ye sought Winslow or Dias, was afraid to speak out——”
A groan of mingled fury and bitterness broke from Dick Hampton, as across his mind burst realization of the truth. Dias—James Day in person! No wonder Day had said that Dias was his bitterest enemy; true enough in all conscience!
Hampton waved his friend to silence, lowered his face into his hands, sat gripped in furious and futile quest of memory. One thing after another flooded in upon him, now that he understood the truth. This adventurer must have operated under a dozen names; no wonder that Job Warlock had heard of the filibuster Day, and again of the supposed Mexican Dias. Hampton saw that from the moment he had told James Day of his errand, he had been marked for death. At first eager to enlist a lieutenant and assistant, Day had then become more desperately eager to get rid of a man who might surprize his secret at any time.
And with this, abruptly, the whole affair began to broaden out in the light of that letter from Eli Hampton.
“If we'd only learned all this a day sooner!” and Hampton lifted his head, with another groan. “Now we're helpless.”
“Better late than never,” said Job Warlock cheerfully. “We've done well to find this much of a key, matey; it don't take many words to understand the game friend Dias is playing now, eh? No wonder he wanted to be rid of us. No matter what happens now, he's won his game.”
This was horribly true. It stood out clearly that Day, or more truly Dias, was one of those vultures who were now preying upon the flood of gold-seekers pouring across the isthmus or working up the west coast—not Americans only, but men of all nations. Owing to the expense of the journey, the average gold-seeker carried enough money to get him to his destination, and this was no small sum.
Dias, then, was not only a vulture, whose activities were clearly exposed in the letter from Eli, but was carrying on his activities on a large scale; Hampton stood aghast at the man's incredible audacity. Coming to New England, Dias had swiftly organized his company, with very plausible secrecy, from picked men of means. Perhaps the wealthiest in that company had been Jed Barnes, and none of them were poor men. Lured by the prospect of an assured and swift California passage under experienced auspices, they had trusted themselves to Dias—and what would be the end of this affair?
“Damnation, damnation!” cried Hampton, as the prospect burned into him, torturing him with the anguish of his own futility. “Those whom he can't rob and strip along the isthmus, he'll pack into his schooners at Panama and rob on the way north—they'll never see California at all! He'll land them somewhere in Mexico, penniless and broken—he's not a man but a devil! If we were at Chagres——”
“Take it calm, matey, for it can't be helped,” said Job Warlock coolly. “If we were at Chagres this blessed minute, waiting for him, what could we do? Nothing. You're a convicted murderer, I ain't nothin' but a common A. B., more or less. Depend on it, he's greased them dago officials to the limit. And who'll listen to us aboard ship? Nary a one, be sure of that. He's got them poor fools eating out of his hand, matey. Now listen here! Has the rascal got his eye on the lass, think ye?”
Hampton started, then shook his head. He had with his seaman's papers that letter from his brother Eli, and got out the oilskin packet. He showed Warlock the letter, which sufficiently removed any such conjecture as the bosun had put forth.
“Well, then, you and me better go to Chagres and look up this here Injun, El Hambre,” said Warlock. “Bet you a plugged two-cent piece we can work fine with him. Injun does it, every time. But if Dias ain't stuck on the girl, you can be sure it was him knifed the old man; sure as shootin', matey!”
Hampton nodded thoughtfully.
“Yes, but it can't be proved. And he's probably scheming for all the money Jed Barnes had. What will become of Nelly, then? That devil won't spare her——”
The blood rushed to his face. Warlock laid one powerful hand on his arm, restrainingly.
“Steady, matey! Brace up the yards and sheet home; she ain't goin' to suffer in a hurry. She's safe enough far's Chagres, and likely them other women will look after her to Panama. It's there that Dias will work his deviltry—there and after, up the west coast. Now come back to the job which we ain't finished. Where's that knife?”
Hampton retrieved the weapon from its position in the stern and they examined it for the first time, with quick interest.
The blade was not extraordinary, being of that universal and deadly fashion known to the whole frontier, north and south, as a Bowie. The handle, however, was most peculiar; Hampton recalled the skipper's comment that the murderer would never have left such a knife had he been given time to withdraw and remove it. The haft, with its short cross-guard, was of solid and heavy silver, intricately fashioned in the shape of an angel whose wings formed the guard, a hole between the feet carrying a stout ring through which the lanyard ran.
“Spanish or Mex work,” observed Job Warlock, “and durned pretty work, too. What's them figures on the back, matey? Mean anythin' to you?”
Hampton shook his head. On the back of the angel were graven, or chiseled, two characters, running deeply into the metal, one above the other. To Hampton they meant nothing:
“All Greek to me,” he responded. “Are they Mexican Indian?”
“Don't look like it, only I'm no judge,” said Warlock. “Well, the knife don't tell us much—but hang on to it. Better lay off smokin' that 'bacca and chew it. Good for what ails us both right now. Hard times ahead, as the Injun said when he rubbed his belly.”
Hampton occupied himself with cleaning the knife, and presently slung it about his neck once more, beneath his shirt.
The afternoon was nearly gone, and the sun went westering with never a fleck of sail to break the rim of the horizon. The boat rose and fell monotonously to the lift of the long seas, and as the slow darkness drew down the two men who sat in her were fully aware of what future they faced. The crafty guile of Dias, who had so cunningly twisted to his own advantage all the little happenings aboard ship and so masterfully dominated the sequence of events, had doomed them. They realized that without food or water they had practically no hope, for the chance that any ship would pick them up within a week was negligible in the extreme.
Yet, as they sat and rocked to the motion of the boat, they talked of Chagres and Panama, and of the future.