TRENCHARD had had more or less experience with native leaders or white men escaping from Latin authority along the east coast of Africa. He did not, by a good deal, set himself up to be any philanthropic assistant to fugitives; yet he had been more or less thrust into that very position, owing to his peculiar notions of justice as opposed to law, and to his readiness to lend the under dog a helping hand. This somewhat accounted for the wild hostility with which French and Portuguese regarded both him and his nameless, elusive schooner.
“Your name?” he asked quietly.
“Emile Forillon, monsieur,” answered the man.
“I suppose you realize,” said Trenchard, holding a match to his pipe, but regarding Forillon from beneath his lowered lids, “I suppose you realize that the prosperity and freedom, if not the actual lives, of the men who are helping you and me—men such as Ram Das Bhantjee—are dependent on your future silence. In other words, that they trust your fidelity.”
“Yes,” said the other, his eyes widening slightly at this speech.
“My name's Trenchard.”
Forillon made no response.
He was a thick-set but extremely wiry man, not over thirty, and he certainly looked his part, having a stubble of reddish beard, ragged garments and much dirt. His features expressed a certain stubborn tenacity, the undershot jaw looking as though it were double-bitted; the full and deep voice indicated a high-roofed singer's mouth, and each word was shot out with an intensity which showed that the man had deep strength of character. His sun-reddened face was that of an indoor man. His eyes were intelligent, striking, of a deep and vivid blue. The hands which gripped his wide straw hat were large and powerful; the square shoulders and posture of his body indicated military service. So Trenchard summed him up, and knew that he had to deal with a man of uncommon character and intelligence.
“If I were a chef de bureau,” said Trenchard, “I should not pick such a man as you to ensnare in false accusations.”
Forillon shrugged and smiled, showing white and even teeth, well cared for.
“What is done, is done, monsieur,” he said. “I must express my most grateful homage for what assistance you are giving me; and since I have money in plenty—”
“Keep it,” said Trenchard. “You'll need it more than I do, and there are some things for which I don't take pay. Sit down and be comfortable. Smoke.”
Forillon looked astonished at the refusal of his money. He sat down, produced a pink packet of Oran cigarettes, and lighted one. Trenchard glanced through the high window, saw that darkness was rapidly falling, and tamped at his pipe as he spoke.
“You realize,” he said, “that accidents may happen.”
“But yes.” Forillon shrugged. “The presence of that gunboat in the bay makes one nervous, Captain Trenchard.”
“What boat is she?”
“Obsolete,” murmured Trenchard. “One six-inch gun, four four-inch, a battery of three-pounders. Four fathom draft, which means that she wont venture in less than six. Collard, her commander, is a cautious old woman. She can do only six knots, and that with effort.”
Forillon's eyes opened. “My faith! You have information.”
“That is my business. I believe in living.” Trenchard's inscrutable smile touched his lips. “You have no effects, no luggage?”
“None. I suppose we cannot leave until the gunboat departs, eh?” Forillon spoke carelessly, but his fingers were gripping the cigarette very hard. “How and when do we reach your schooner?”
“Here and now,” said Trenchard. “We shall leave in five minutes.”
Forillon jerked his head slightly. His deep blue eyes fastened upon Trenchard, who read a flicker of alarm, of dismayed consternation, in their depths.
“Why impossible?” asked Trenchard, suddenly alert. The other hesitated, licked his lips, lifted his cigarette and puffed at it.
“I have—I must see the man who sheltered me. I must pay him.”
“I shall have it attended to. Give me the money.”
Forillon darted a glance around, then put a hand into his pocket and drew out a sheaf of notes. He counted out three hundred francs and gave them to Trenchard, who struck a gong on the table. The door opened, and Ram Das entered. Trenchard extended the money.
“Have this given to the man who has sheltered M. Forillon. How much do I owe you?”
Ram Das salaamed. “Sahib, he who sent you here would not be pleased if I accepted money from his guest.”
Trenchard rose. “Very well. For the hospitality, I thank you. Come along, Forillon.”
They passed out. Ram Das let them into the street, and Trenchard started for the shore. The stars were glimmering; darkness was stealing over the land, although the bay was still faintly luminous. Trenchard put his hand under his shirt, where an automatic was slung. He looked down the bay to where the lights of the gunboat glittered, then glanced at the sky. There would be no moon for an hour at least. Everything looked like plain sailing.
Uneasiness was upon him, none the less. The very peace and calm of the night seemed to hold a nameless and indefinable menace for which he could not account. Beneath his outwardly calm demeanor, Trenchard was a nervous organism, and more than once had been saved by yielding to the vague warning of a telepathic or sixth sense. Now it came to him insistently that there was danger to him from this man who trod at his side, whose very walk expressed a strong and stubborn character.
THIS thought Trenchard put resolutely aside, having already weighed the possibility. Forillon, who faced a penal colony if caught, could not gain freedom by betraying Trenchard; from the very nature of the case this was impossible, even though the manner of the man had been a trifle queer. Still, men were apt to be queer when so circumstanced. It was not at all impossible, on the other hand, that the rubber-broker had given away the whole game to the authorities. In such an event the gunboat might be letting Forillon alone as a bait to catch Trenchard, might be waiting and watching for the schooner to show up, might be lying with steam up in order to act at a moment's notice. Such a possibility did not worry Trenchard in the least.
The two men were treading the sand to the left of the village, where the channel of a small creek broke through the circling sand-banks and afforded passage for fishing boats. On the beach these lay drawn up—boats from twenty to fifty feet in length, with curved ends. The eight-inch planks were tied together with twisted cords of anivona fiber, the seams being calked with strips of bamboo, and the thwarts protruded through the sides, Delagoa Bay fashion, to stiffen the construction. As the two white men approached, four natives rose and greeted them. Trenchard gave them quiet instructions.
“You have the lantern? Good. Strike across the bay, and when you get in under the cliffs go straight out to Bararata Point. Keep as far away from the gunboat as you can. No noise.”
The stalwart Sakalava fishermen grinned in perfect comprehension, and ran out a small twenty-footer. Trenchard and Forillon were placed amidships, a small lantern with hooded sides and a sliding sector being given Trenchard. The boat was shoved off, the paddles dipped, and next minute the craft was heading for the dim lights of Bali, on the opposite shore.
After a mile of paddling, the boat turned, scraped across a sandy bar, and drove north into the long reach of the bay. Save for the stern paddle, the others were now abandoned, and a sail was run up on the low mast to catch the fitful breeze. The boat was sent slipping through the water at a good rate, and once past the Bali cliffs, the breeze strengthened. They passed the gunboat, whose lights showed stationary, at a mile. All this while Forillon had not spoken, but now he leaned forward.
“Safe to smoke?” he inquired.
“Aye, if you keep down under the gunnel,” said Trenchard.
Forillon squatted down in the bottom of the craft. He passed his cigarettes to Trenchard, who refused them, then took one and got out his box of matches. He scraped one; it fizzled and died, as Forillon held his coat about it to conceal the light. He scraped a second. The match broke in his fingers, and the flaming end whirled up into the air above his head, falling hissing into the water.
AN exclamation burst from the fishermen. Forillon cursed and flung the whole box of matches overboard, the cigarette after them. Trenchard said nothing, but eyed the gunboat and to himself damned his carelessness in giving the man permission to smoke.
“Curse the luck! I'm sorry,” said Forillon.
“You may be sorrier,” said Trenchard. “Down! Out of sight! Get that sail in!”
His eye had caught a movement of lights aboard the gunboat. The Sakalavas had not waited for this, but as the little flame whirled through the air had headed the boat in for shore. The tide was down, and an exposed sandbank jutted out into the bay, behind it a long curving shoal. The four paddles flashed; the sail dropped; and in two minutes the boat was flashing in past the tip of the sandbank, which now lay between her and the gunboat.
Here she waited. Then, without warning, a finger of light reached out from the gunboat as she began to sweep the shore with her small searchlight. White and brown men kept low in the boat.
“You've done it,” said Trenchard. “She saw the light. Keeping good watch, eh?”
After playing up and down, the finger of light vanished. The Sakalavas dipped their paddles, hoisted the sail, and sent the boat driving across a mile-wide shallow bight for another sandy spit. Just before they reached it, the searchlight broke out again, but failed to pick them up.
“She's moving,” said Trenchard. “Still, she's two miles away—go ahead!”
They gained the shelter of the sandspit, lowered the sail, and the four men leaned on their paddles. The searchlight wavered over them, passed on, then drew back and began to search the shores behind them. Again the sail went up, this time to stay. Looking back, Trenchard saw that the gunboat was coming out. She would come slowly, however.
“Ah!” The word broke from him, as her lights vanished. Now he knew for certain that she was here to catch him, that she had been awaiting his schooner. So, then, the whole game had been betrayed! The rubber-broker had played double! Thinking that the schooner would run in to pick up Forillon, the gunboat had waited to catch her—and was now going out to get her as she came, sneaking out with all lights doused.
“Old Collard might do something, if he wasn't such an old woman,” said Trenchard quietly. “But he'll have to feel his way out at half-speed.”
He could hear Forillon's deep breathing, while the four paddlers grunted softly in unison to time their strokes. The canoe, under sail and paddle, flashed along at amazing speed, working along the line of straight cliffs that stretched to the north and the point beyond. After a little, Trenchard, who did not depend on the execrable French Government match, leaned over the lantern, shielded it with his wide hat, and got it alight. He drew the slide closed, and waited. A glance at the radium dial of his watch showed that it lacked ten minutes of ten. Another mile, and the boat would be off the point. The gunboat, naturally, would not be looking for any ship to come in across the dreaded Vigilant Bank—she would be watching the channel and the harbor approach to the eastward, across the bay. On the starlit water he could see nothing of her, but knew that she was feeling her way out toward the entrance.
THE black line of cliffs rose against the stars as the boat scudded along; and presently, off the port bow, appeared the open sea and the higher mass of Bararata Point. Vainly Trenchard searched the water; he could see nothing of the schooner, but then, his horizon was very limited, and the waters were obscure. He stood up with the lantern, opened the sliding shutter so that its light glimmered to seaward, then closed and opened it again. Closing it, he sat down. Two flashes—that would mean danger. Yusuf would understand.
The native in the bow uttered a low word. Trenchard rose again and searched to seaward. Now he made out a dark blot; the wind was freshening here off the point, and he motioned to the natives.
They obeyed, and the long canoe floated on the lifting waves. Again Trenchard lifted the lantern and flashed his signal toward the approaching schooner, then placed the lantern on the thwart beside him. He was not certain the light had been seen, so low in the water was the boat, and Yusuf, in the face of the two-flash warning, would not show any response.
The dark blot increased in size, and then swung up into the wind a cable-length distant with a slatting of canvas. A hail came in the voice of Yusuf.
“Right,” called Trenchard. “Have a line ready.”
The paddles dipped, and a moment later the boat was ranging under the side of the schooner. A line was flung, and another. Trenchard felt for money in his pockets, and handed some notes to the nearest fisherman. A Jacob's ladder tumbled down and was held taut.
“Up with you, Forillon,” said Trenchard.
“Diantre! I am stiff,” said the fugitive as he came to his feet.
The boat touched the schooner's side and rocked. Forillon uttered a curse, half fell across the thwart, gripped at Trenchard to keep his balance. Next instant there was a rush of flame—the lantern, overturned, smashed, fired the oil.
What came then, came swiftly. Trenchard struck out, the blow sharp and quick as a whipcrack. Forillon gasped and sank down. Seizing the man, Trenchard shoved him into the spreading pool of flame, crushing and smothering with clothes and body the flickering flare; in a moment it was accomplished, and the last oil-flame died out.
“Pass him up, quickly!” he snapped.
The fishermen obeyed, hauling at the blackened, senseless figure, shoving it up the ladder to where one of the Hova crew awaited it. Then Trenchard leaped to the rungs.
“Off with you!” he cried to the fishermen. “They'll be after us—you're safe.”
The boat drew away from beneath him. He swung up and over the rail, and sprang to his own deck. Then he paused. That deck was bathed in a strange radiance; the flapping sails overhead were distinctly seen, every line and spar stood out.
“By Allah!” exclaimed Yusuf, at his side. “A searchlight, eh?”
“The gunboat,” said 'Trenchard. “That flame gave us away. She's two miles off.”
Yusuf laughed suddenly, and snapped out orders. The men sprang to obey. The schooner turned; her sails bellied out in the wind; then she leaned over to the thrust and went smashing through the waves toward the high headland.
Trenchard did not interfere, understanding the strategy instantly. Yusuf was heading west, straight across the Vigilant Bank, and in five minutes would be sheltered from any gunfire by the point itself. The gunboat, on the other hand, would have to circle around for miles before clearing the outjutting end of the reef. Thus the schooner was not only safe, but had a clear start which would carry her beyond sight of the slower gunboat within an hour.
A bursting gun-crack broke against the wind, and Trenchard laughed.
“Fire, you poor fools!” he said. “If your gunnery isn't better than your seamanship, you'll never catch John Trenchard, or sink him either! Yusuf! Where's that man who came aboard?”
“On the after hatch, rais.”
“Put him in irons below, forward. After breakfast, bring him on deck to me. Our course is for the Barren group, down the coast.”
So the schooner slipped in past the headland, and the searchlight died. Trenchard, with a deep sigh of relief and comfort, tumbled into his own berth and was asleep in a moment.