Magick7's Moonlight Stories Index

 

 

 

 

Adventure's Heart

Albert Dorrington

 

 

 

CHAPTER I. A VISITOR IN THE DARK.

CHAPTER II. A MEANS TO AN END.

CHAPTER III. THE VERDICT OF THE QUEEN.

CHAPTER IV. THE PRICE OF A LIFE.

CHAPTER V. A SCENE OF CONFUSION.

CHAPTER VI. TREASON IN THE AIR.

CHAPTER VII. NO ROOM FOR ARGUMENT.

CHAPTER VIII. NOT EVEN A YEAR.

 
 

Top-Notch, May 1, 1922

CHAPTER I. A VISITOR IN THE DARK.

THE schooner labored and sagged in the fresh cyclones of wind and brine that blew through and over her. At dawn on the ninth day after her departure from Honolulu, the Pocahontas struck coral in a blinding smother of surf and wind. Mace was hurled into a maelstrom of wreckage and smothering water, and the sensation reminded him of a knock-out he had once received in the early days of his career as a boxer. Above him was the subdued murmur of incoherent voices, while within him was a feeling of intense lassitude, broken only by a faint desire to rise and stand erect.

He rose to the surface with faculties numbed, but with a fighter's knowledge of his desperate chances within the surf-hammered channels of coral. He fought and floated, kicked and dived when the green-headed slopes of water threatened to amputate him on the razor-backed shoals. An old ring veteran had once told him that brains will beat death itself, and the man who at one time had killed an opponent in a boxing contest learned in a flash how not to fight wind and sea on a dead lee shore.

And when his tiring limbs recognized this fact, the sea helped him and the tornado that had blown the schooner to her undoing blew him onto a narrow belt of reef where the tamanu shrubs held true to his drowning grasp. Another green-crested wall of surf hurled him high and dry, where he lay in the hot sun until the fainting blood about his heart resumed its life-giving pressure.

He slept for thirteen hours without a move. When he awoke it was to find that another day had begun with the sun standing like the torn rim of a volcano in the east.

Slowly Mace collected his jaded senses and began an investigation. The tornado had cast him upon a deserted atoll fringed with skeleton puroa trees and wind-shriveled palms. In the center of the atoll was the remnant of a forgotten banana plantation, with here and there a group of upright stakes showing where some native huts once had stood. Everywhere there were signs of recent habitation. The ashes of cooking fires were blown among the rocks and crevices.

Searching the ground closely Mace came upon Scraps of clothing that did not belong to the dresses of South Sea islanders. There were rags of half-scorched cloth that had come from the looms of American factories. In a declivity adjoining some upright stakes, he came upon a charred watch guard that must have belonged to a seafaring man or white trader.

The mental suggestion following the discovery of the relics left Mace in a state of horror and bewilderment. A further search merely confirmed the suspicion that the atoll had recently been the scene of a horrible orgy. Near midday hunger drove him into the deserted plantation searching among the stunted bushes for food. Bananas and papaws were there in abundance; the ground was littered with fiber-covered coconuts, delicious and thirst quenching after his long fast.

Pieces of wreckage drifted in from the outer reefs where the schooner had broken up in the mountainous surf. But the sight of the useless deck hamper scattering about the low beach brought small comfort to Mace as he wandered and crawled along the saucer-shaped edge of the atoll.

Although not faced with immediate starvation he viewed with dismay the loneliness of his surroundings. He dared not count on a ship approaching within hailing distance. Night came with a wisp of moon and the large tropic stars that seemed to lean from the violet dome of mid-heaven. The storm had subsided, leaving no trace of its pitiless wrath on the windless horizon.

Mace found cover inside a jungle of fronds and tamanu leaves on the sheltered side of the atoll. The water had ruined his watch, but he guessed it was late by the sudden nip in the air. Yet he found sleep difficult even on his bed of fragrant ferns.

The stillness was unbroken save for the slow, measured boom of distant breakers. The crying of a tern under the shelf of reef near by added pang on pang to his overwrought nerves. Unable to settle his mind to sleep, Mace crept from his lair of ferns and peered across the coral barriers that seemed to stretch to the horizon.

A faint, splashing sound reached him as if a paddle had struck water near by. Straining forward he listened and again caught the soft swirl and rippling motion as of something afloat. It came nearer, became more audible as the minutes passed. Mace slipped forward in the direction of the sound, scarce daring to breathe.

A native canoe shot into the narrow channel a dozen yards from where he crouched. In the faint moonlight he discerned the solitary figure of an old man paddling close in. Without hesitation Mace approached and saluted with an affectation of geniality.

“Hello, friend! Do you live here, or is it just a place where you come home to sleep?”

The ancient figure in the canoe turned sharply in Mace's direction, the paddle staying in mid-air as if sound of the human voice had petrified his movements. Slowly, very slowly, his glance took in Mace's outline, the supple, Herculean young figure that could have lifted him, canoe and all, from the water.

Taeo, papalagi! It is well I speak your tongue. I once was cook on a steamer that traded from Sydney to Samoa. At first I thought you were a spirit come to mock me. Oho, there are many spirits here after the burnings and the great storm.”

The canoe touched the beach, but the old man made no effort to get out. He sat with his paddle across his huddled knees, while the bones of his face seemed to protrude. Some metal ornaments pierced his ear lobes; a necklace of shark's teeth encircled his wizen throat. He was the oldest man Mace had ever seen, a mummified human, moving and speaking with ineffable weariness and languor. Yet he was human at least, with a brain and heart among the infinite solitudes of sea and sky. Mace stared down at him with a feeling of pity and welcome.

“I'll help you out,” he volunteered, placing a hand on the bow of the canoe. “Skipping from a boat is no joy at your time in life, eh?”

“You do not explain,” the old man returned without moving. “How did you come here?”

Mace laughed easily. “I got blown in by the big wind yesterday. Our schooner broke up out there. Not a soul came out of it but me!” he added, a sudden tremor in his voice.

The old man nodded and again favored the white man with a covert glance. “Only the broken ships reach here,” he said. “I have not seen a ship in eight years; not one!”

“White men have been here,” Mace asserted. “And somebody did the cremating pretty thoroughly.”

The old man shrugged wearily. “All white people die who come here. It is the law!”

“Why?” Mace demanded hotly.

“Because they destroy happiness—our lives, children, women. They bring disease, they carry plagues that sweep our islands from end to end. There is also the gin and rum. We are a clean race here, stranger. We kill white men so that we may live.”

“Seems to me,” Mace protested sharply, “that our doctors and missioners have been busy cleaning up your hotbeds of disease since Noah made his first trip. The white man is all right when you don't eat him.”

Something like a low chuckle escaped the old man as he crouched over his paddle. “Come, sit near me,” he invited. “Let us talk. Big men are always my friends.”

Mace squatted on the beach, his curiosity aroused by the old man's manner.

“My name,” the visitor went on, “is Sagon. The people in the islands near by call me their spirit-man and doctor.”

“Are they very near—these islands?” Mace questioned eagerly.

Sagon indicated a low reef wall in the far south where the Pacific breakers hurled with the sound of gun blasts on the still night air. “Beyond those reefs our people dwell, papalagi! I alone know of your schooner going to pieces on the cruel coral last night. I kept the secret to myself. A spirit whispered that some of the white sailors had reached this island.” '

“What do you want to do, Sagon?”

“Come with me to my people. Like a brave man you must take your chance with them. If you stay here you will go mad, or”—he paused and nursed his paddle thoughtfully—“some of the chief's men will spy you out. Oho, you will then be destroyed without a hearing. Will you come with me?”

“Sure!”

“Then sit in this boat and paddle by direction. It is a long way; my arms have grown stiff.”

Mace clambered into the canoe, glad of an opportunity to escape the dreadful monotony of his sea-girt prison. Far better to die with the voices of men around him than to succumb to madness or plague, alone in the awful wastes of mid-Pacific.

CHAPTER II. A MEANS TO AN END.

DAY was breaking over the high coral hummocks when the canoe shot into a narrow channel that opened into a dish-shaped lagoon. Myriads of sooty-winged terns and man-o'-war hawks hovered above the dense Pandanus palms that fringed the inner beach. High up on the shelving banks forests of candlenut trees swayed and whispered in the rising southeastern trade winds. The sun flashed its crystal rays over forest and lagoon, where the sponge beds and parrot- billed fish flashed under every dip of the paddle.

A village of palm-thatched huts became visible as the canoe touched the beach. The blue smoke of many cooking fires lay over the forest. Voices of women and men reached Mace, voices filled with laughter and homely badinage, together with the shrill babel of children clamoring for their early meal.

“Say, it sounds good!” Mace declared, stepping from the canoe and assisting the old man to land. “I've got no animus against a town like this, doctor.”

Sagon stepped slowly to the beach, his small, black, shriveled figure contrasting strangely with the white man's abundant proportions. “There is peace now,” he murmured; “but the storm will beat around the council house in a little while. Palotta will provoke it.”

“Is Palotta a woman?”

“She rules here!” Sagon snapped under his breath. “Her father was a brigadier of gendarmery at Nukahiva, over there in the Marquesas. Her mother was a rich Italian and became a queen in these islands. She bought lands from the chiefs and owned twenty trading steamers. Palotta's mother is dead. She now rules here with her brother Avian. But the chiefs are troublesome, as you will see, stranger.”

“A woman ruler!” Mace commented and was silent.

Sagon hobbled slowly toward the village, pausing for breath and to enlighten Mace further concerning the female ruler of the islands. “Palotta looks after her little kingdom better than most rulers. She has taught her people the value of many things she learned in the school at Apia. She laughs at my medicine and scorns my charms and herbs. There is no love between us, and some day——” He paused and muttered a string of words in the vernacular that were lost on the white man.

“But this darned hate of her own kind?” Mace broke in at last. “Put me wise, Sagon, that I may help myself.”

Sagon shrugged. “A month ago a party of white men landed on the island where I found you. They had come to raid our pearl hatcheries and steal our women for the coffee plantations of Fiji. That was their intention. It was well proved by letters in their keeping. To steal our women and our pearls, to give nothing in return but gunshots, is no bargain to us. There were seven whites in all, and”—the old man made a gesture as he concluded—“you saw the heaps of ashes. So—that was Palotta's justice. Thou shalt not steal. That is good mission-house talk, stranger.”

They had reached the village where the news of Sagon's arrival with a white man struck like a fireball. Native women, in their headdress of shells and coral beads, deserted their cooking fires to stare in wonder at the tall stranger striding beside the bent and decrepit doctor. Many of the headmen and warriors assembled at the sudden beating of a war drum, and stood with clubs and spears in hand outside the square, palm-log building in the center of the village.

Hoarse insults were flung at Mace from the more youthful members of the tribe, followed by an aggressive closing of their ranks as he drew nearer. Sagon snarled a word that fell like a lash among them.

“Dogs of the swine yard, can you not see that the papalagi walks with me? His life is my life until the queen decides. Out of our way! Leap, dogs! Begone!”

The skeleton arms of the old doctor made signs that caused the headmen to cover their eyes as though from the unseen shafts of his magic. “Follow me, stranger,” he commanded Mace as he hobbled slowly into the log-built council house.

It was almost dark inside. The walls were hung with spears and weapons of the tribe, with here and there a war god of painted wood or stone. A curiously carved throne of sandalwood stood at the far end of the chamber, its highly polished sides glinting with innumerable pearls inset. Above the throne gleamed a naked skull. Mace drew a deep breath and waited.

Outside the council house the shouts of the crowd fulfilled all Mace's longings to hear the voices of his fellow men. The voices became hysterical in their demands for the life of the white stranger. Spearheads and clubs hammered the log walls outside. Why was Sagon protecting the pale devil? they demanded.

The old doctor rolled some betel nut in a moist banana leaf and chewed abstractedly, casting from time to time a glance in Mace's direction.

“Palotta will come with her brother Avian,” he intimated at last.

Mace made no reply. He could not escape a thought that rose in him that Sagon was in some way using him as a means to an end. What wizard impulse had impelled the old medicine fraud to seek him on the atoll? he asked himself.

A sudden silence fell on the hostile crowd outside. A squad of headmen filed quickly into the chamber, long-limbed warriors with the blue-andred tattoo marks of their tribe on their naked bodies. Each headman carried a short, broad- bladed stabbing spear. Without haste or confusion they ranged about the empty throne and glared at Mace standing beside Sagon.

The old doctor chewed betel with supreme indifference. It was as if fifty well-fed geese had waddled into the council house. “These people,” he said to Mace, “have no more brains than oysters. All day they eat and brag about their deeds. Listen! She is here!”

CHAPTER III. THE VERDICT OF THE QUEEN.

A LOW murmur passed over the assembly. A drumbeat sounded a slow tattoo; it came nearer until the crowd outside fell back in awe, and the cry “The queen comes!” struck sharp on the ears of the white man.

She came on foot and not in a litter of many- colored silks and veils. A youth of twenty towered beside her; his skin was the color of wild honey; his boyish face was alive with the ardor of life and the fierce joy of ruling a wayward people.

Palotta walked easily into the council chamber. For a fraction of time her glance rested on the tall, white man, and then with an air of business she settled on her throne.

Mace suppressed a cry of surprise. She was barely eighteen. He had expected to see a woman of thirty. His heart thumped like a stone within him. The beauty of her face and form was like a thrust from a jeweled weapon. It was incredible! He had pictured a female judge with the face of a vixen, and he was confronted by a type of loveliness that would have shamed half the film queens of Broadway.

Her skin was fairer than her brother's. It was a golden tan that carried the faint flush of dark roses in her soft cheeks. She was staring fixedly at Sagon as if expecting him to speak.

He did, and for the benefit of the chiefs delivered himself in the vernacular: “I found the stranger on the island where the seven scamps were burned. His schooner was wrecked where Trau Kau lifts her fangs above the tide, O queen. Of all the crew he alone reached the shore. He says that the wind blew him out of his course. He had no wish to violate or trespass on our lands.

“He has told me his own story on our way here, in my little boat. In his own country he is a professional warrior, a fist-man. But he will not talk of his prowess as our warriors do. It is hard, therefore, O queen, to believe him a man of great deeds, such as thy noble brother and the great men here assembled.”

Then Sagon subsided into a morose silence. Palotta transfixed Mace with her dark, searching eyes. He met her glance with the composure of one undaunted by fate. In her face there was no sign of hate or condemnation. It was the face of a child thinking hard and swiftly, without reference to the glowering eyes and sullen whispers of the chiefs around her. It was some time before she spoke; then each headman leaned nearer as she addressed Sagon.

“It is hard to believe that white men come here for nothing,” she said. “How often do we hear the story of shipwreck and accident? These islands are far removed from the track of ships. They come, these strangers, and they persist in coming. In the north and west they have swept over our islands and submerged our people. They brought the coughing plague, that scourged us last year. Our numbers have fallen grievously. These islands have become our graveyards. We must protect and enforce our laws.”

A mutter of approval greeted her. Silence fell again as she continued:

“It is hard to pass judgment, but this stranger must go the way of others. There can be no evasion of our law.”

A savage shout welcomed her verdict. The circle of spearmen beamed gratefully upon her. Sagon scratched and combed his thin hair with a talon-like forefinger as one who had listened to a tiresome harangue.

“It is well, O queen,” he said. “The white people are our enemies. This stranger deserves death,” he added with a scowl in Mace's direction. “Yet there are times when it is foolish to kill without proof of guilt. There are the stranger's warships,” he suggested meekly.

“And me, too,” Mace declared without heat as he divined something of the argument.

His eyes lighted on a heavy battle-ax hanging from the wall within easy reach. The thought of death did not occur to him. His supreme faith in his own lightning initiative and strength gave a positive joy to the situation. He could not entertain the idea that these slow-footed headmen were capable of finishing him in a mix-up. His health was too raw and buoyant; each limb of his young body refused to believe that human lions could bring him down. His faith in his own invincibility had won him a hundred fights and the sea had trained and tempered him until his flexed muscles leaped.

“Let there be more wisdom in the queen's second thoughts,” Sagon droned warningly.

“Sagon is right, my sister. This stranger is not proved guilty.” It was Avian who spoke, his right hand resting against the throne. “Although we do not fear the warships, we must do justice. Did the stranger come to steal?” he challenged.

There was no answer from the group of sullen-lipped headmen. The soft noise of Sagon's chewing merely added to the tenseness of the moment.

Palotta regarded her brother in cold-eyed amazement. Twice she was about to speak, but restrained herself as one in dread of bringing the wrath of the headmen upon him.

Avian came to his own rescue, his boyish face illumined by the overwhelming impetus of his thoughts. “We judge men and destroy them!” he almost shouted. “This man we cannot judge, neither can we allow him to go free to carry the news of our rich lands to the rovers and thieves who lie in distant rivers ready to pounce on us with their accursed ships. We cannot allow this man to go!”

“What then?” came from a score of throats. Avian folded his long, muscle-packed arms, while the chest above the narrow hips expanded to the fullness of a gladiator. Mace marked him in that moment, the quick, snakelike length of torso, the young neck and shoulders built to smash and kill. And Mace knew what was coming.

“Let the stranger be pardoned,” Avian begged, “so that I can deliver his body to the sharks that lie under the Red Reef. Let this fist- man from the great water go with me to the Ru Trau Kau, and my people shall see that I can cast his body to the sharks. Their hunger is great. The reefs are red where they watch and feast.”

Sagon's jaws snapped. He looked sharply at Mace while a grin split his toothless mouth. “Wisdom at last,” he said, chuckling, “and from the mouth of Avian the Strangler!”

Palotta moved uneasily on her throne. A word of protest was on her lips that was drowned by the shouts of approval that greeted Avian's offer.

“Rash boy!” she gasped under her breath. “Your tongue and your pride will humble us both.”

Avian leaned toward her tenderly, his shapely hands touching the gold armlets scarcely visible against the amber sheen of her beautiful skin.

“Your eyes do not meet mine, Palotta,” he whispered. “The fear of the milk-fed babe is in your heart when I choose to fight. I cannot forever be a toy warrior. These headmen doubt my strength, and you have kept me in leash too long. I swear, sister mine, that the stranger will go over the Red Reef, and I will return to you a man!”

Palotta averted her eyes; pain had dulled their childlike brilliance. Her lips were tight set. “You have gone mad!” she murmured.

Her probing eyes measured Mace's athletic outlines, took in every curve and slant of his physical make-up. The quality and breed of the man was revealed in a flash. She withdrew her glance with a stifled sound in her throat.

“The stranger will not be thrown from the Red Reef, brother mine! Never, never!”

CHAPTER IV. THE PRICE OF A LIFE.

THERE was no mystery about the Red Reef at Langos Bay. It was of coral formation and stood almost in the center of the bay; square-cut, tablelike in appearance, it resembled a red-stone boxing arena when viewed from the beach.

In the past it had served as an altar of sacrifice. In later years, under a more modern regime, it was used as a stage where the young bloods of Langos were permitted to exhibit their skill in wrestling and mimic games of war. On gala days, under the eyes of Palotta, the budding, warriors tested their strength against each other to the shouts of the assembled villagers watching from the beach.

There were other occasions when murderers and felons were clubbed in full view of the community and their bodies cast to the ravening hordes of sharks that cruised in the vicinity. These monsters of the Pacific were fed regularly from the offal thrown to them by the village scavengers and breeders of pigs.

Outside the council chamber Palotta paused and beckoned Sagon who had followed in her wake, leaving Mace in charge of Avian's bodyguard. Palotta regarded the old man critically, her fingers closing idly on the jeweled haft of a knife in her girdle.

“What evil spirit guided the white man here, Sagon? What devil of chance took your canoe to the atoll last night? Speak; was it chance or more of your schemes for my downfall?”

In her eyes was an unloosed tempest of wrath that was not free from terror for the life of her brother, whose foolish pride and tongue had trapped him into a death duel with the white man.

Sagon blinked at her, and his toothless grin struck new fears into her young brain and heart. “I cannot stop your brother's tongue, Palotta. His vanity and ambition will yet send him to the sharks. You heard all that was spoken. The thing happened.”

“As you wished it!” she flung out. “There is always a motive behind your actions. I believe that this white man was brought here to provoke Avian!”

“How—how?” Sagon snapped, his impish eyes dilating in sudden rage. “You speak to me like a child, Palotta— I who have watched over you in war and peace. How could this papalagi have been brought here to provoke your brother? Blame the spirit of the storm, the reefs that open ships and drown the rats and men in them. How could I?”

They walked some distance from the council house, each feeling that the last word had yet to be spoken. In Palotta's mind was the conviction that the old medicine man had managed to maneuver her into a desperate position. It seemed as if Sagon had chosen Mace to kill her brother. Her instincts warned her that Avian would be as a babe in the hands of Mace. She dared not think of Mace killing him, yet only one of them could leave the coral platform alive. One of them must go down the steep slope to the sharks; and no man's hand could stretch out to save either.

Palotta halted near a well-constructed house of tamanu wood and sandal logs that stood apart from the low-roofed huts in the main street of the village. It was surrounded by a low stockade where scarlet hibiscus trailed within the well-kept borders. It might have served as the residence of a rajah, and it had been Palotta's home since the death of her mother, some years before.

“Tell me, Sagon,” she said slowly, “what you know of the white man. Is he dangerous? Is he what you said, a professional fist-man, a wrestler of repute in his own land?”

Sagon chewed blandly, standing in the limestone path. “I do not talk much, Palotta, but this papalagi is Fate. The cruel sea threw him upon us. His name is Darrel Mace. He is nicknamed 'The Lightning.' I have looked upon him well, I, who have the gift of seeing through men's skins and into the muscles of their hearts and brains. By their voices I know if they lie to me. This man is Fate!”

“What do you mean, Sagon?” Her face had lost its childish look of wonder; it had grown marble-white under the strokes of the native doctor's tongue. She was now quaking for her brother's life, the boy who had clung to her and who had often risked his foolish young life for her in the past. Sagon knew now that her heart was flinching in his chill grasp.

He combed his lime-washed hair with his talon fingers, his old eyes conning her like a trapped bird.

''Fate, my child, threw Mace here. The man, as I know, is the world's gladiator. The sport papers the traders send us carry his pictures. I go here and there among the traders. I am not a Kanaka of this island group. The sea sent Mace to kill Avian. In the hands of the white man your brother will be as the milk-fattened baby. Avian is too ambitious. His tongue has caught him at last.”

Palotta leaned against the stockade to prevent herself from falling. “You must help me, Sagon!” she gasped. “Mace must not kill Avian!”

The old doctor blinked at her in the hot sunlight. “There is no way to prevent, except through your brother's honor,” he returned icily. “It has gone too far. The chiefs are in favor of a fight. Many of them think your brother will strangle the papalagi. Such ideas come through eating nuts and papaw,” he sneered. “Avian is only a boy; he is soft as a girl, but brave as the Malayan tiger. Yet he is too soft, Palotta.”

Palotta drew breath sharply; the stockade and house seemed to reel in the blinding glare of the sun. “It must be stopped!” she flung out. “I will prohibit the fight. It would be murder!”

“The chiefs are preparing them already,” Sagon told her. “The canoe to take them to the Red Reef is being got ready. The people expect the fight to take place. Listen!”

A murmur of many voices came from the bay. Men called to each other in joyous anticipation of the coming struggle between the brother of the queen and the accursed papalagi. Children and dogs ran toward the beach, followed by crowds of women. Laborers in the fields dropped tools and donned gala attire.

The holiday cries reached the swooning Palotta as she leaned against the stockade. She could think of Avian only as a wayward boy, who had clung to her in her hours of peril when famine and war threatened extermination. All the wealth of her mother's vast hoard counted for naught if evil befell him. The day could end only with a cup of poison for her if the white man triumphed.

“Sagon, you must help me!”

“Show me, Palotta!”

“Speak to Mace. Promise him safety if he will hold his hand.”

The old doctor made a gesture of despair.

“There is only one way known to me. The stranger can be bought over.”

“How much?”

Sagon clawed his chin and ruminated for a period that ached like eternity to the waiting Palotta. When he looked up his nose seemed as sharp as a wolf's.

“A great matter needs large rewards, Palotta. Give me that pearl necklace of your mother's. I shall offer it to Mace; he will take it as the price of your brother's life. Give me the necklace at once! Mace will be on the Red Reef before I can speak in his ear. Quick, or they will be at each other's throats!”

Palotta blanched and threw up her hands. “Follow me to the house!” she said faintly. “I cannot hand it to you here.”

Sagon bent his head and followed in her footsteps in the direction of the house.

CHAPTER V. A SCENE OF CONFUSION.

FOR the time being Mace was a prisoner in the hands of a dozen armed natives. When it became known that he was to meet Avian in fair fight on the Red Reef, their ferocious manner relaxed. They brought him cooked meats and fruit in abundance, after the manner of jailers who bestow favors on prisoners doomed to die.

Mace ate sparingly although his healthy appetite craved for more of the delicacies spread before him. The meal over, they escorted him down a palm-shaded path in the direction of the limestone cliffs that shut in the bay of Langos. Halting on the beach, the leader of the escort indicated the red, table-shaped reef that stood in the center of the bay.

“You go there,” he announced with a flourish of his short stabbing spear in Mace's direction. “You get planta fight wi' Av'an. Month ago he fight Malinga, the big, big man from Java.”

“How did they fight?” Mace questioned easily, his glance fixed on the smooth slopes of the reef.

The chief of the escort showed his dazzling white teeth for a moment. “They fighta anyhow,” he responded. “They get holda one anotha. Malinga no holda queen's brother long. Queen's brother play him to edge of rock, an' over he go to the sharks!”

“No funeral and no flowers, eh?” Mace laughed. “Just hit the blamed water and shook hands with the sharks!”

A big canoe ferried him across the bay to the almost perpendicular slopes of the Red Reef. Some steps had been hewn out of the side. Clambering on top, a distance of fifteen feet, Mace found himself on a perfectly flat, tablelike surface of footworn coral, with slightly more space at his disposal than he had found in twenty-four-foot rings. His curiosity took him to the slope that fronted the bay entrance. Peering down he beheld the shadows of a dozen reef monsters of the hammerhead variety, basking in the hot sun rays that poured down on the still waters.

In spite of his debonair manner, Mace was guilty of a slight shudder as he stared down at the family of man-eating sharks. No craftsman of the ring could escape those jaws once his footwork on the coral table betrayed him. There was no referee to call off their torpedo-like rushes and rending jaws. Mace heaved a big sigh and then cast aside his coat and vest, revealing to his escort the wonderful lines of his arms and torso. They drew aside in amazement.

“There is no such man among us,” they cried. “Look, brothers, the skin is like the milkwood tree! There can be no strength in it, yet it is like nothing we have ever seen!”

It was low tide and the high cliffs shut out the cool trade wind. A palpitating heat swam over the island and beach. Mace returned to the edge of the reef and continued to peer down at the gray- throated hammerheads sunning their bladelike fins. At sight of his figure above they stirred sulkily away, their swinish eyes following each movement of his shadow. Glancing back at the beach he saw hundreds of villagers streaming toward the sands, where a large crowd had already assembled, squatting near the water's edge, eating fruit and cooked bananas after the manner of holiday folk.

Another canoe put off from the beach; in it were Avian and Sagon accompanied by several chiefs. The brother of Palotta was first up the steps and with a bound reached the top. After him came Sagon, slowly, painfully, like a tree-climbing crab. Breathing in short gasps, the old doctor shuffled to the spot where Mace was still contemplating the dusky shadows below. He looked up quickly as Sagon touched his arm.

“Listen!” the old man whispered with a back glance in Avian's direction. “You must not harm this boy!”

Mace flung around, his eyes kindling strangely. “What's the scrap about, anyway? And say, old man, who's going down that slope, me or him?” He indicated the gray, gleaming hides of the ocean monsters below.

Sagon made gestures of disapproval. “We must think of the young queen,” he warned. “She bears you good will. And there is a way out of this trouble, papalagi. Spare the boy and obey me. Now, while these chiefs are telling Avian how to kill you, look down the slope near the sharks. You will see a crevice in the coral. In the fight you must slip down—your muscles are young—and creep into the crevice. There is a big space inside. Wait for me until dark. The people will think the sharks have eaten you. They cannot see this side of the reef from the beach. You will find some pig's blood in a gourd. Cast it into the water. Sabe?”

Mace allowed his swift glance to traverse the southern slope of the reef. He discerned a narrow cleft in the coral, about a foot from the tide level. He nodded thoughtfully and then turned to the center of the reef to find Avian awaiting him.

Sagon shuffled back to the steps, followed by the chiefs and escort, leaving Mace and Avian alone. A thunderous shout went up from the beach as the two faced each other. Avian was naked except for the silk trunks he wore. His body gleamed like beaten gold in the tropic sun glare; his sleek, black hair was brushed back from his broad brow. From his small, Arablike feet to his shapely throat, he was a moving-picture ideal of a Greek Adonis.

He approached Mace, body bent forward, his hands outspread as one about to enter the water. For a fraction of time Mace was puzzled. Against the brother of Palotta he bore no shadow of malice or anger, and for the first time in his life he stood irresolute before his opponent without any fixed scheme of attack or defense.

Avian, with shining eyes and body, did not keep him long in doubt. With a darting feint at Mace's throat, he doubled to the floor, snatching at the American's ankles, and in a flash Mace was flung backward to the foot-beaten floor of the reef.

Mace broke the fall with his elbows and was on his feet almost before Avian had straightened his body.

“Guess you're some ankle-fighter, kid! A rougher man than me would have kicked your face away!”

Avian laughed in the sudden glory of his achievement and stepped round with pantherlike watchfulness to gain another opening. “I shall get you again,” he predicted, “and then you will go over.”

Mace's eyes grew narrow, but not with anger. Then, with scarcely a motion of his body, he flung forward and boxed Avian's ears, left and right, with his open hands.

“Sorry to do it, kid,” he declared. “I've got to put the wind up you to keep you in order. Sabe?” Then his right shot in under Avian's heart. The blow was timed with the ease of a champion, and scarcely a muscle of Mace's body stirred as he delivered it.

Avian recoiled, his head jerked forward, knees sagging as if a knife had reached his spine. For an instant he rocked to and fro within a few feet of the perilous declivity. Mace called to him in sudden anxiety.

“Don't fall off this rock, or those darned goldfish will get you! I just gave you a medicine ball to keep you from curling round my waist. Don't dive at my feet any more!”

Avian rallied with the young blood spinning through his veins. The swooning mist which followed the heart punch vanished. In another instant he was bunching for a leap at Mace.

Curiously enough Mace forgot his man entirely. He was thinking of Palotta and could almost feel that she was a terrified spectator of the present conflict. She was watching from the beach each movement of the boy before him. Mace sighed to think, as Avian crouched in front of him, that her heart would be filled with joy if the boy gladiator could only succeed in hurling him from the reef.

Avian sprang in with a cry of victory, his lithe arms pinning Mace with the strength of a bull-hide thong. With incredible agility he executed a body twist that he evidently had learned from a Japanese wrestler, and in a moment had the American “half- scissored” and apparently sprawling.

A great shout rent the beach; a forest of spears and clubs waved and quivered along the lines of warriors and chiefs.

“The papalagi is finished! The fist-fighter is already in a strangle hold. Wonderful is the strength of our queen's brother!”

“Now for the slow music!” Mace whispered without an effort to change his position. “Put me over the side, kid,” he intimated softly. “No rough stuff, or I might put you over instead. Sabe?”

Locked in a seemingly unbreakable hold, Mace was forced to the edge of the reef. Here their white and brown bodies swayed and oscillated to the fierce rhythm of a war song chanted from the beach.

“Down with him, O Avian! Let the sharks tear his body! Down, down, down!”

Mace stumbled, regained his balance, but only to be thrust over and down the steep slope. Avian drew back, lurching blindly after his exertions, and collapsed limply on the floor of the reef.

Realizing that the white man had gone over the side, a scene of indescribable confusion mingled with screams of triumph and joy was visible on the beach. Black shapes capered wildly to and fro, while a dozen canoes put off to bring the victorious Avian home.

CHAPTER VI. TREASON IN THE AIR.

MACE'S strong fingers clutched the sides of the reef as he slithered over from the gaze of the war-whooping multitude on the beach. But even the abnormal strength of his hands failed to steady his downward rush. His feet struck the water, and the contact sent a chill spasm to his brain. His fingers fought desperately to find the crevice edge, while his glance went out to the slinking gray shadows of the reef monsters that had been visible only a few minutes before.

His grip closed on the edge of the crevice as his body sank into the water. Just here a triangle of fin skated in his direction, the snout of a giant hammerhead heaved its dripping jaws to the surface, the sawlike fangs flashing in the hot sunlight. Mace drew up his knees as though an ax had sliced the air, and with a frantic heave drew his chest and head through the opening in the reef.

The snout of the hammerhead lunged with terrific impact against the wet slope, while the savage rush and thrashing of water showed that the school of sharks had just missed their man.

Inside the crevice Mace discovered a small, cavelike apartment, dark except for the slit of light that streamed through the narrow opening. The floor was of fine coral sand, inviting to the man who had just completed a dangerous trick at the end of a strenuous rough-and-tumble.

Mace stretched himself on the sand, his glance fixed on the crevice through which gleamed the open waters of the bay. Above the crevice he noted a big, native gourd hanging from a peg in the roof. He recalled instantly Sagon's reference to the pig's blood. Rising, he took it down and poured the contents into the shark-infested depths outside.

The sound of voices above warned him that the chiefs had returned to the reef to compliment Avian on his victory. To and fro they paced, acclaiming in loud tones the skill and deftness of Avian's methods of attack and defense. The voices surged nearer, and Mace knew that they were standing directly above the spot where he had pitched over.

“See where the sharks are even now at their work!” a voice exclaimed.

Mace saw by the furious thrashing and leaping of the excited monsters outside the crevice that the chiefs were watching the sharks' unholy scramble in the blood-wash from the gourd. One by one the voices retreated, and a few minutes later the sound of the canoe paddles told him that the party had returned to the beach with the triumphant Avian.

During the long afternoon Mace was afflicted with a great thirst as he lay with his face to the opening in the reef, not daring to show himself lest some watcher on the cliffs might detect his presence.

The tropic night came swiftly, bringing slants of cool air into his rocky prison. He felt that he was at the mercy of Sagon whose influence over the natives would keep wandering canoemen from the vicinity of the Red Reef. Oaf Palotta he had no doubts. She would not betray him. Treachery, if it came, would emanate from the wily old medicine man.

He dozed fitfully in his thirst torment and awoke at the slightest sound from the starlit bay. Occasionally the phosphorescent streaks and flashes of water reminded him of the eternal presence of the shark-shoal cruising like sentinels of an enemy squadron through every passage in the reef-lined bay. Without a canoe or vessel of some kind, he was in a death trap from which there was no escape.

The wisp of moon edged over the forest and showed him the ocean passage through the frowning cliffs. Then his roused ear caught the soft whir of a propeller churning somewhere across the bay. It came nearer, and Mace squeezed through the crevice and peered out.

A twenty-ton launch was gliding toward the reef; it slowed suddenly and swung in a half circle to where he stood.

“Hi, there!” a voice hailed softly. “Get ready to come aboard!”

The launch rounded the curve gracefully and swung with her open gangway close to the reef opening. Mace needed no second invitation; clutching her fender as she squeezed near the rock, he clambered aboard feeling certain that his fate was now in friendly hands.

The launch carried no lights, but the starshine revealed her snow-white decks and glittering brass rails. A native stepped near him, thrusting a silk coat upon him to hide his naked chest. Mace drew it on with a nod of thanks and turned quickly to the wheelhouse and beheld Sagon standing near Palotta and Avian.

The old doctor addressed him curtly. “Our queen is here to help you, papalagi. This vessel will carry you to Nukahiva in the Marquesas, where you will soon find a bigger ship to carry you home. There is nothing more to say.”

“Except that I'm grateful to the queen for her kindness,” Mace supplemented, conscious that her dark eyes were devouring him from the shelter of the house.

“Brave men are the children of the gods!” she murmured gently. “I thank you for your chivalry and forbearance.”

Avian came forward, his boyish face rent with his sense of humiliation and defeat. There were tear stains under his lowered eyes. “You did not fight me in true fashion!” he burst out passionately. “I was like a stick in your hands. The honorable death I deserved was denied me. The fight was a lie! I cannot look my chiefs in the face, never, never!” he cried bitterly.

Mace's hand rested consolingly on his bent shoulder. “Avian, you had me stretched and guessing in the first clinch. You could have rolled me over to those cannibal fish with your feet. Don't worry about the fight bein' a frame-up. You gripped me so darned hard in the second session that I was almost cryin' out for my mammy. I'll never get over that squeeze. I've been coughing queer ever since.”

“He is too young for these life-and-death bouts,” Palotta declared, Avian's hand held in her own. “In a year or so he will——”

“Walk away with the world's championship,” Mace broke in with an air of sincerity that made even the unhappy Avian smile.

The sound of paddle strokes sent the old doctor to the rail, peering across the starlit bay, mumbling incoherently. “They are coming!” he chattered excitedly; “Enos, Ganda, and Oke. They suspect treason. We had better beware!”

A big war canoe shot out of the darkness of the wooded shore and approached the launch with swift, measured strokes.

Avian turned quickly to his sister, “Ganda and the others are against us,” he intimated under his breath. “We cannot trust this forest spider, Sagon. He is working for our ruin. The canoe carries a dozen spearmen!” he announced with a shrewd glance across the bay.

CHAPTER VII. NO ROOM FOR ARGUMENT.

THE war canoe drew alongside and hailed the launch. Ganda, the tallest chief on the island, decked, in his flowing heron plumes and battle shield, stood erect in the high-beaked prow. His voice had a challenge that held no doubt regarding his intentions.

“Where is the queen?” he thundered. “Where is the brother that goes to combat with his heart full of lies? The papalagi he fought is not dead. We have been deceived!”

The big war galley was within a cable's length of the launch. Her prow was lighted by candlenut torches held aloft by half a dozen tattooed warriors. The wind-blown flares illuminated the repulsive, paint-smeared occupants of the galley, the steel-barbed weapons glinting with murderous intent.

Sagon touched Palotta's arm in the darkness; his voice was soft and wheedling. “Let Ganda come aboard,” he advised, “with Oke and Enos.”

Palotta pushed him aside as she stepped to the rail. “How dare these people come armed to address me?” she challenged. “Speak, Ganda! Am I to cringe before the war irons of these Kanakas?”

“We shall answer the queen's question in the council chamber!” Ganda retorted fiercely. “The queen must reply to her chiefs. We have come to bring you and your brother, the sham warrior. We want the papalagi also, who hid from the fight under the Red Reef. Let him come, too.”

Mace had been slaking his thirst from an oak cask near the saloon head, which contained fresh water and a cup for the use of the deck hands. Palotta translated Ganda's message to him in an undertone, while he wiped the delicious water drops from his lips.

“Ganda's some bull chief,” he commented.

“Maybe he'd like a silver band to play our funeral march.”

Palotta flung back her answer to the waiting chief. “I will not return to be judged by your people, Ganda. I ask the freedom that is mine by right and birth.”

The old doctor made a sign in the darkness. “You must return, O queen,” he chided. “The chiefs will compel you!”

Mace moved forward slightly. “See here, Sagon,” he drawled. “Who's who in this palaver— the queen or these banana merchants? I guess if she wants to leave these islands she'll choose her own time and her own way.”

Sagon recoiled, his old lips snarling a native imprecation. “You shall not leave these islands, dog with the white skin! You die here where the carrion fish can rend your body. Your breed must not escape!”

Palotta interposed with a gesture. “Remember, Sagon,” she declared in an undertone. “I gave you my pearls so that he might go free. You shall not betray him now!”

In reply the old doctor clutched the brass rail with his shaking fingers and called to the waiting chiefs in the war canoe. “Come aboard, my children! The white man is here. We must obey the law.”

Mace's right hand gripped his waist softly. In a moment Sagon was lifted from the deck and shaken as a lion shakes a vulture. The bones of the old schemer rattled like sticks in the white man's clasp; his scream of protest was heard by the fierce-eyed crowd in the galley.

Mace put him on his feet, still gripping him by one arm. “Those pearls, Sagon!” he ordered.

“Which pocket? Quick!”

The old man squirmed and struggled to get free and, with his disengaged hand, Mace rent the other's garments and in a twist of the fingers had drawn the precious rope of pearls from a pocket of grass silk that was near Sagon's heart. Then he released the man.

With a vicious snarl Sagon made a plunge to regain the prize that had been wrested from him. In doing so he slipped and fell overboard.

A soft, gurgling noise was heard down in the water, followed by a smothered yell of terror as a dozen phosphorescent wedges of fire darted under and over the struggling body. In a moment the water was dark again.

Avian approached Mace. “We must fight or run from this war canoe,” he said quickly. “What does our friend say?”

Mace shrugged. “No use having a mess when you can walk away,” he answered quietly. “There's no gate money for beating this bunch of tinhorns. Shake up your engines and get clear!”

Palotta nodded appreciation. “Let us go, Avian. We can reach the Marquesas on our oil fuel. The launch is well stored. I have always lived in a state of preparation,” she confessed hastily. “And now the hour has struck!”

Ganda and the others seemed to guess Palotta's intention. With savage cries they drove the big war galley beak onto the launch as Avian shouted a word to his helmsman to stand clear.

“Make it a running fight!” Mace spoke near Avian's elbow. “I'll stand in the stern and deal with the black stuff if it climbs over the rail.”

The launch maneuvered cleverly to avoid the slamming beak of the heavy galley. With shouts and thunders of paddles and spear butts it plunged onto the launch's stern. Only a few seconds were needed for the oil-driven launch to get clear, but Avian had allowed the galley to come closer than was prudent. Her big-bladed paddles almost raised her from the water, hurling her towering beak to the launch's stern rail.

With incredible skill the warriors in the galley's fore part locked their pronged spearheads to the brass rail of the launch, thereby forcing the launch to tow them in her wake. The locked spears, cunningly interwoven, formed a ladder for the first of their boarding party. It was Ganda, who, with shield held before him, crawled up the ladder of spears to the stern rail.

His shaking head plumes and the red paint on his chest and face produced an uncanny effect in the torchlight. He leaped to the rail like a giant from an inferno, shield and spear swaying in his great hands, the spirit of loot and murder in his eyes. He knew now that the launch held the vast hoard of wealth which Palotta had inherited from her mother—gold dollars and gems from all the islands of the archipelago. One straight blow and his own sons would inherit the queen's far-won treasures.

A hose box stood near the stern rail; Mace skipped to it lightly, bringing his head level with the protruding jaw of Langos' Herculean chief. In his day Mace had met the worst breed of fighters and saloon-bar bandits. To him circumstances never presented new factors whether the man struck with fist, knife, or bottle. His rejoinder had always been effective. There could be no room for argument when men strove to become his executioners. At other times he was genial and lovable.

Ganda's spear drove at him with the force of a shell splinter. Straight toward his heart it came, the black, sinewy arm bunched like a steel rope behind it. Mace leaned forward, his left and right hands touching shield and spear arms with the lightness of a cat; then his lithe body crouched as shield and spear deviated the matter of a hand's breadth. The barbed weapon went wide, bringing Ganda's profile almost to Mace's shoulder.

Ganda's snakelike length of body, with its roots of muscles quivering, was for a fraction of time, “all mussed up,” as the ringmen say. His perfect balance was gone, his whole structure out of joint. Mace's right fist smashed under the chin, and the neck of Ganda cracked like a twisted hinge. The blow seemed to generate to Mace's toes, but the crunch and volt came from the lightning in his brain.

Ganda went down the ladder of spears in a limp and spineless heap, his shield and his charms of brass clattering over the prow of the galley. Mace kicked the spearheads from the rail, and the launch shot away at torpedo speed for the open Pacific.

CHAPTER VIII. NOT EVEN A YEAR.

THE launch throbbed through seas of palm- dotted atolls that stretched like gems of sapphire along the horizon. There were bird-haunted islands that called to them to stay, islands where the shimmering purple of valleys and streams faded like dream-mists from the eyes of waking children.

Palotta, book in hand, reclined in a deck chair in the cool shade of the sun awning, the heavy pearl necklace which Sagon had surrendered drooping from her ivory throat. Mace and Avian studied a navigator's chart inside the small wheelhouse aft.

“To-night we fetch Nukahiva,” Avian declared with a side glance at his companion. “Perhaps you are sorry,” he added, studying the chart afresh.

Mace sighed. He had spent five blissful days in a floating haven of peace and tranquillity. And it seemed to him that each beat of the propeller was bringing him nearer the end, to the last night when he must say good-by to the woman who had raised his mental outlook to a finer plane.

Avian regarded him a trifle curiously, for in the last few days he had learned to trust the man who had stood by them in their hour of need. “I shall be sorry to lose you, Darrel Mace,” he admitted with boyish awkwardness. “It is a pity that friends must go different ways!”

Mace nodded absently. “You see, Avian, I'm a partner in some coffee lands down in the Manono Archipelago, and I'll have to get busy locating my territory. My partners were drowned on those reefs of yours. So I'll have to pursue the venture alone.”

His voice, although low, reached Palotta under the awning. She tossed her book aside and lay back in her chair, her eyes tight shut, listening to the beat of the small but powerful engines below. She was bound for a strange island and people who would know her only by repute.

She had lived nearly all her life at Langos with Avian. As a child she had been almost worshiped by the natives until of late when Sagon and Ganda had stirred the chiefs against her. The coming of Mace had brought things to a climax. All her mother's wealth and her own was in the steel-walled vault adjoining her stateroom. Her lands and house she surrendered to the people she still loved and remembered.

Her great courage had been shaken by the events of the last few days, and the new life she was entering held many shadows and fears for her young mind. The world outside Langos was hard and ruled by tyrants more subtle and ferocious than Ganda or Sagon. Her brother, too, was woefully inexperienced in the ways of white men, although the blood of the white race ran pure in his veins. Palotta was lonely, and, for the first time in her life, afraid.

Mace stepped from the wheelhouse, paused an instant opposite her chair to hitch a flapping guy rope to a stanchion. The bronze of his throat and face, the elastic ease of his young body were revealed in the tropic sun flare. Like a boy, anxious to make good in his reputation for tidiness, he picked up the discarded cushions and shawls near her chair and placed them in a dry corner abaft the skylights.

She opened her eyes suddenly and regarded him with attention, for Palotta was gifted with a quaint sense of humor at times.

“I once sentenced you to death,” she declared dreamily. “Now I discover that the death penalty has been overlooked. And neither of us appears jubilant,” she added with a sigh.

Mace found himself staring into a tiny, lustrous spot between her half-closed eyelashes. “I'm sorry the trip is over,” he said. Then with a forced laugh he added: “It may be years before I catch up with that death penalty.”

“But you are sorry the trip is over?”

His reply was a fierce intake of breath as he bent over the rail. “I came near drowning on a reef once,” he admitted slowly. “It was just a holiday from my job compared to some things.”

“Some things!” Palotta laughed mirthlessly.

“You poor boy! There are truly many worse fates than drowning!”

Mace felt like a quitter in love as he walked away to the wheelhouse, the fires of his confusion blazing on his cheeks and brow. Her voice sounded faintly behind him, blurred by the mad poundings of his heart. Avian had gone below.

“Mr. Mace! Please come here!”

He halted at the wheelhouse, swung around dutifully and returned to the chair. She was studying the jeweled pendant that hung from the pearls on her breast.

“I am sorry you are unhappy,” she began in childlike tones. “Tell me how I can repay you for your devotion and courage. I feel that my life and the life of my brother are still in your keeping.”

Mace knelt beside her chair, even though the eyes of the native steersman were staring through the window of the wheelhouse. “I go my way alone tomorrow,” he declared huskily. “I will forget today and yesterday. But you must tell me that it is well that I should go, and that I must not love even the memory of you. Say it now, and I'll just disappear, for your peace of mind and my own.”

For the first time Mace saw her lips tremble, and his heart leaped wildly. Her voice sounded like a wind reed in the warm silence. “Your country is far away, Darrel, and I do not want to lose you forever!”

“For a year, Palotta?”

She stared over his shoulder as though afraid of unseen hands and spears. The shadows of lonely islands crossed her eyes, and her soul shrank within her. “No, no; not a year!” she almost gasped. Then, with hands outspread, she smiled again. “I do not want you to go, Darrel. I, too, am very unhappy!”

That night the glittering lights of Nukahiva twinkled across the sky line. Pier lamps winked with fairy faces at the dreaming couple standing hand in hand near the port rail.


EText from pulpgen.com - 2007 Blackmask Online.