The Boy Scouts of the Air at Cape Peril/Chapter 14



"'Twar Bill Perkins what done it!"

"Bill Perkins!" echoed several of the group gruffly. "Who is he? We'll get him!"

"You recollec' the party I tol' you I fit the duel with thirty year ago?" asked the Cap'n, looking at Turner. "And I tol' them boys about it, too," he added, nodding at Jimmy.

"You saw the man, then, and know him?" Turner demanded excitedly.

"No, I ain't seen him this time, but I know 'twar Bill Perkins."

One fisherman put his hand to his forehead and made a wheellike movement, giving, at the same time, a knowing glance at a neighbor.

"That's that 'ar stuff he took that's talkin'—that ain't him," was his inference.

"He didn't tie hisself up, that's sho'," replied the other, picking up a piece of the rope.

The thought of Perkins had choked the utterance of the Cap'n for a moment. Then he went on, "Yes, 'twar him we saw on the beach yestiddy."

"That stranger—the one in the oilskins?" asked Turner, starting, while a stir occurred among the fishermen.

"It war him," insisted the old man promptly.

"I suspicioned that man o' some devilment soon as I seen him prowlin' around," declared one fisherman.

"But we'll get him as soon as day come on," said another hotly, "and when we ketch him!" He added a significant gesture.

"Now, Cap'n Buffum," encouraged Turner, "tell us how it all happened, in order. Stop if you feel excited. Take your time."

"'Twar this way," began the old man, catching his breath, and talking in panting phrases. "After I eat my supper and dark war comin' on, I goes up to start the light, and seen everything was shipshape and cosy, fer I knowed if thar ever war a night when a light war needed, this war the time. Then I come down and set a while. Then, thinks I to myself, I'll go ashore and limber up my legs and take a look at that nasty sea good and close, and down I walks. I own it, mates, I ain't locked the do' after me, sence it never come in my head no critter would sneak in to do no mischief. Off I goes and stays down thar a-watchin' that grumpy sea and a-lookin' fer twenty minutes, it might be, and then I turns in agin, and locks the do' and goes up fer another mindin' of my light."

"Sure you didn't see anybody suspicious hanging around outside?" Turner put in.

"Nary a soul has I seen except that Hank Thomas thar over by the settlement, and I ain't considerin' him suspicious."

Hank, present, becoming the center of interest, turned very red and began to mutter. His companions' glances, however, were cast in jest rather than in earnest.

"I went up to mind the light," proceeded Buffum, "and then I come down and set by my lamp, and my rheumatism bein' worse fer walkin' on my legs, I took some painkiller to ease 'em."

At this several fishermen winked at one another.

"And then I did a thing I ain't never recollec' doin' befo'. I dozes off in my chair."

Despite the suspense, this innocent statement aroused a general grin, for nearly every person present, at one time or another, had found the lighthouse keeper fast asleep in his accustomed seat.

"I must have been nappin' fifteen minutes—" he went on.

"Say, Cap'n, how long you think your light's been out?" interrupted a fisherman.

"Sumpin' like two hours as fer as I kin calkerlate, mates, sence I war tied up and heard that scum smash the light."

"Right after dark you fell off?" persisted the questioner.

"Right after dark it war."

"What happened those other two or three hours?" Turner took up the quizzing.

"Maybe it war more'n fifteen minutes I war' sleep. Maybe it war." conceded the Cap'n, "or maybe it war more'n two hours sense the devil lit on me."

Turner and the others, raising no further objection to the misfit in time, allowed the old man to go on.

"As I war sayin', after I had been 'sleep fifteen minutes, or maybe mo', I waked a-sudden, feelin' a rope coilin' roun' and roun' me same as a sarpint; and, befo' I could bat a lid, mates, I war lashed tight in that thar chair. I never knowed such quick work as that varmint done. I yells, but it ain't done no good; and what I let out I ain't got no way o' knowing fer thar is times when a man's words ain't come from his senses."

"And you didn't see the man?" Turner asked quietly.

"I couldn't, mates. He war behind me, and I war tied stiff as a corpse befo' I knowed it, and one twis' o' that thar rope war roun' my neck."

"And you claim it was a man you knew as Bill Perkins?"

"Bill Perkins it war that I hadn't seen befo' fer thirty year."

"And you didn't see him this time?" insisted Turner.

"Let the Cap'n talk," growled a longshoreman. "You can't tell a yarn straight when you're pestered by a felluh tryin' to twis' sumpin' out o' you like a pesky lawyer."

Turner flushed, but kept out of a dispute.

"When I war tied that-a-way," went on the old man, "I knowed it war a sailor that turned the trick, that's what I knowed fust."

Turner nodded in approval of his own suspicions along this line.

"I tried to turn my head, but, quick as lightning, a hand slip roun' my bandanna handkerchief, and though I jerk my derndest he got it over my eyes; but, mates, befo' he done that thing, I seed a fist on my larboard side, and 'twar his'n. I'd a knowed that claw if I'd a seen it hangin' on a monkey-tree in Africky. 'Twar Bill Perkins's."

At the harrowing thought, the Cap'n paused to recover from his emotion, and demanded another draft of his medicine.

"Bill Perkins," he continued, apparently refreshed, "had two claws on his left handle. They warn't no longer than the first joint; his fingers warn't never cut off; he come into the world that way, fer them stumps had a nail growin' on the end o' each of 'em. 'Twar Bill Perkins's left I seen. One second I seen it, but in that second I knowed. And I felt a burnin' feel I ain't never felt so powerful since that 'ar duel. But I ain't tried to call his name fer, if he'd a knowed 'twar me, he'd a killed me cold-blooded on the spot—that ornery critter would 'a done it."

"Look here, Cap'n," put in the doubting Turner once more. "Why couldn't somebody else have had a hand like that?"

"Nobody but the Old Scratch. Blister my boots, thar ain't no other hand like it created."

To humor the old man, Turner did not insist on this doubt, but nevertheless put another query, "If this was your Bill Perkins—"

"He ain't no Bill Perkins o' mine!" exploded the Cap'n.

"I mean," corrected Turner, smiling. "If this was Bill Perkins, why hasn't he found out you were the Buffum he knew, while he's been prowling around here?"

"He never would 'a knowed no Buffum," explained the old man, "because, when I fust shipped to sea, I warn't Bill Buffum no longer. To make my old daddy easy I called myself out o' my name. I war Jim Happer to all who knowed me aboard ship. That war the name Perkins heard me called the month he war on ship with me."

"I see," said the questioner, apparently satisfied with the explanation.

"I warn't tellin' him who I war after I seen that hand, but I war spittin' and sputterin' good and hearty when he stuck that thar dirty rag in my mouth till he cut off my holluh instantaneous. I ain't seen nor speak nothin' mo', but I hed my feelin' lef', mates, and my hearin' were thar. He twist my wrist and my legs till the cut hurt so hard I ain't felt the rheumatism on account of that other misery killin' it off by bein' so mighty. He lashed me up, mates, and then my heart turn turtle and crack and my stummick raise a billyhoo when I hear him go up and bus' the light. He stove it to smithereens, thar warn't no mistakin' that thar sound, thar warn't."

"Did the scoundrel hang around after that?" coaxed Turner.

"Right away he went as soon as he done that dirty deed. I heard his steps a-sneakin' down from aloft; he comes through this room and then I hear him start to go below, but he stumbled and fell; then howls and cusses low, but it ain't kilt him, fer five minutes later I hear the outdoor lock. I heard it plain as I hears you now. Then, hyuh I set all this time a-sufferin' what I I ain't suffered befo' and, with that howlin' wind in my years, a-killin' my brain to know what war happenin' on them wicked shoals. Ain't no signal of distress been seen?"

"Best easy, Cap'n," assured Turner. "No ship's in trouble." So saying, the speaker made a warning sign to the rest of the group.

More questions were put by various members of the group, but no more definite information could be extracted. Then it was voted that the time for action had come. Several went upstairs to inspect the damage; others by the light of their lanterns examined the immediate neighborhood for footprints or other evidence of the criminal.

Turner and Jimmy joined first one and then another of the exploring parties; but it was soon evident that in the darkness nothing was to be expected, so man and boy decided the wiser course was to remain quietly with the Cap'n till the first sign of dawn.