X. A Battle
 

Wilbur had imagined that the fight would be hardly more than a wild rush down the slope of the beach, a dash over the beach- combers' breastworks of sand, and a brief hand-to-hand scrimmage around the old cabin. In all accounts he had ever read of such affairs, and in all ideas he had entertained on the subject, this had always been the case. The two bodies had shocked together like a college rush, there had been five minutes' play of knife and club and gun, a confused whirl of dust and smoke, and all was over before one had time either to think or be afraid. But nothing of the kind happened that morning.

The "Bertha Millner's" crew, in a long line, Moran at one end, Wilbur at the other, and Charlie in the centre, came on toward the beach-combers, step by step. There was little outcry. Each contestant singled out his enemy, and made slowly for him with eyes fixed and weapon ready, regardless of the movements of his mates.

"See any rifles among them, Charlie?" shouted Moran, suddenly breaking the silence.

"No, I tink no hab got," answered Charlie.

Wilbur took another step forward and cocked his revolver. One of the beach-combers shouted out something in angry vernacular, and Charlie instantly responded. All this time the line had been slowly advancing upon the enemy, and Wilbur began to wonder how long that heartbreaking suspense was to continue. This was not at all what he had imagined. Already he was within twenty feet of his man, could see the evil glint of his slant, small eye, and the shine of his yellow body, naked to the belt. Still foot by foot the forward movement continued. The Chinese on either side had begun exchanging insults; the still, hot air of the tropic dawn was vibrant with the Cantonese monosyllables tossed back and forth like tennis-balls over the low sand rampart. The thing was degenerating into a farce--the "Bertha's" Chinamen would not fight.

Back there, under the shelter of the schooner, it was all very well to talk, and they had been very brave when they had all flung themselves upon Hoang. Here, face to face with the enemy, the sun striking off heliograph flashes from their knives and spades, it was a vastly different matter. The thing, to Wilbur's mind, should have been done suddenly if it was to be done at all. The best course now was to return to camp and try some other plan. Charlie shouted a direction to him in pigeon English that he did not understand, but he answered all right, and moved forward another step so as to be in line with the coolie at his left.

The liquor that he had drunk before starting began suddenly to affect him, yet he knew that his head was yet clear. He could not bring himself to run away before them all, but he would have given much to have discovered a good reason for postponing the fight--if fight there was to be.

He remembered the cocked revolver in his hand, and, suddenly raising it, fired point-blank at his man, not fifteen feet away. The hammer snapped on the nipple, but the cartridge did not explode. Wilbur turned to the Chinaman next him in line, exclaiming excitedly:

"Here, say, have you got a knife--something I can fight with? This gun's no good."

There was a shout from Moran:

"Look out, here they come!"

Two of the beach-combers suddenly sprang over the sand breastworks and ran toward Charlie, their knives held low in front of them, ready to rip.

"Shoot! shoot! shoot!" shouted Moran rapidly.

Wilbur's revolver was a self-cocker. He raised it again, drawing hard on the trigger as he did so. It roared and leaped in his hand, and a whiff of burned powder came to his nostrils. Then Wilbur was astonished to hear himself shout at the top of his voice:

"Come on now, get into them--get into them now, everybody!"

The "Bertha's" Chinamen were all running forward, three of them well in advance of the others. In the rear Charlie was at grapples with a beach-comber who fought with a knife in each hand, and Wilbur had a sudden glimpse of another sitting on the sand with his hand to his mouth, the blood spurting between his fingers.

Wilbur suddenly realized that he held a knife, and that he was directly abreast the sand rampart. How he got the knife he could not tell, though he afterward distinctly remembered throwing away his revolver, loaded as it was. He had leaped the breastworks, he knew that, and between him and the vast bright blur of the ocean he saw one of the beach-combers backing away and watching him intently, his hatchet in his hand. Wilbur had only time to think that he himself would no doubt be killed within the next few moments, when this latter halted abruptly, took a step forward, and. instead of striking downward, as Wilbur had anticipated, dropped upon his knee and struck with all his might at the calf of Wilbur's leg. It was only the thickness of his boots that saved Wilbur from being hamstrung where he stood. As it was, he felt the blade bite almost to the bone, and heard the blood squelch in the sole of his boot, as he staggered for the moment, almost tripping over the man in front of him.

The Chinaman sprang to his feet again, but Wilbur was at him in an instant, feeling instinctively that his chance was to close with his man, and so bring his own superior weight and strength to bear. Again and again he tried to run in and grip the slim yellow body, but the other dodged and backed away, as hard to hold as any fish. All around and back of him now Wilbur heard the hideous sound of stamping and struggling, and the noise of hoarse, quick shouts and the rebound of bodies falling and rolling upon the hard, smooth beach. The thing had not been a farce, after all. This was fighting at last, and there within arm's length were men grappling and gripping and hitting one another, each honestly striving to kill his fellow--Chinamen all, fighting in barbarous Oriental fashion with nails and teeth when the knife or hatchet failed. What did he, clubman and college man, in that hideous trouble that wrought itself out there on that heat-stricken tropic beach under that morning's sun?

Suddenly there was a flash of red flame, and a billow of thick, yellow smoke filled all the air. The cabin was afire. The hatchet-man with whom Wilbur was fighting had been backing in this direction. He was close in when the fire began to leap from the one window; now he could go no further. He turned to run sidewise between his enemy and the burning cabin. Wilbur thrust his foot sharply forward; the beach-comber tripped, staggered, and before he had reached the ground Wilbur had driven home the knife.

Then suddenly, at the sight of his smitten enemy rolling on the ground at his feet, the primitive man, the half-brute of the stone age, leaped to life in Wilbur's breast--he felt his muscles thrilling with a strength they had not known before. His nerves, stretched tense as harp-strings, were vibrating to a new tune. His blood spun through his veins till his ears roared with the rush of it. Never had he conceived of such savage exultation as that which mastered him at that instant. The knowledge that he could kill filled him with a sense of power that was veritably royal. He felt physically larger. It was the joy of battle, the horrid exhilaration of killing, the animal of the race, the human brute suddenly aroused and dominating every instinct and tradition of centuries of civilization. The fight still was going forward.

Wilbur could hear the sounds of it, though from where he stood all sight was shut off by the smoke of the burning house. As he turned about, knife in hand, debating what next he should do, a figure burst down upon him, shadowy and distorted through the haze.

It was Moran, but Moran as Wilbur had never seen her before. Her eyes were blazing under her thick frown like fire under a bush. Her arms were bared to the elbow, her heavy ropes of hair flying and coiling from her in all directions, while with a voice hoarse from shouting she sang, or rather chanted, in her long-forgotten Norse tongue, fragments of old sagas, words, and sentences, meaningless even to herself. The fury of battle had exalted her to a sort of frenzy. She was beside herself with excitement. Once more she had lapsed back to the Vikings and sea-rovers of the tenth century--she was Brunhilde again, a shield-maiden, a Valkyrie, a Berserker and the daughter of Berserkers, and like them she fought in a veritable frenzy, seeing nothing, hearing nothing, every sense exalted, every force doubled, insensible to pain, deaf to all reason.

Her dirk uplifted, she rushed upon Wilbur, never once pausing in her chant. Wilbur shouted a warning to her as she came on, puzzled beyond words, startled back to a consciousness of himself again by this insensate attack.

"Moran! Moran!" he called. "What is it--you're wrong! It-s I. It's Wilbur--your mate, can't you see?"

Moran could not see--blind to friend or foe, as she was deaf to reason, she struck at him with all the strength of her arm. But there was no skill in her fighting now. Wilbur dropped his own knife and gripped her right wrist. She closed with him upon the instant, clutching at his throat with her one free hand; and as he felt her strength--doubled and tripled in the fury of her madness-- Wilbur knew that, however easily he had overcome his enemy of a moment before, he was now fighting for his very life.

At first, Wilbur merely struggled to keep her from him--to prevent her using her dirk. He tried not to hurt her. But what with the spirits he had drunk before the attack, what with the excitement of the attack itself and the sudden unleashing of the brute in him an instant before, the whole affair grew dim and hazy in his mind. He ceased to see things in their proportion. His new-found strength gloried in matching itself with another strength that was its equal. He fought with Moran--not as he would fight with either woman or man, or with anything human, for the matter of that. He fought with her as against some impersonal force that it was incumbent upon him to conquer--that it was imperative he should conquer if he wished to live. When she struck, he struck blow for blow, force for force, his strength against hers, glorying in that strange contest, though he never once forgot that this last enemy was the girl he loved. It was not Moran whom he fought; it was her force, her determination, her will, her splendid independence, that he set himself to conquer.

Already she had dropped or flung away the dirk, and their battle had become an issue of sheer physical strength between them. It was a question now as to who should master the other. Twice she had fought Wilbur to his knees, the heel of her hand upon his face, his head thrust back between his shoulders, and twice he had wrenched away, rising to his feet again, panting, bleeding even, but with his teeth set and all his resolution at the sticking- point. Once he saw his chance, and planted his knuckles squarely between her eyes where her frown was knotted hard, hoping to stun her and end the fight once and for all. But the blow did not seem to affect her in the least. By this time he saw that her Berserker rage had worked itself clear as fermenting wine clears itself, and that she knew now with whom she was fighting; and he seemed now to understand the incomprehensible, and to sympathize with her joy in measuring her strength against his; and yet he knew that the combat was deadly serious, and that more than life was at stake. Moran despised a weakling.

For an instant, as they fell apart, she stood off, breathing hard and rolling up her sleeve; then, as she started forward again, Wilbur met her half-way, caught her round the neck and under the arm, gripping her left wrist with his right hand behind her; then, exerting every ounce of strength he yet retained, he thrust her down and from him, until at length, using his hip as a pivot, he swung her off her feet, threw her fairly on her back, and held her so, one knee upon her chest, his hands closed vise-like on her wrists.

Then suddenly Moran gave up, relaxing in his grasp all in a second, and, to his great surprise, suddenly smiled.

"Ho! mate," she exclaimed; "that was a tough one; but I'm beaten-- you're stronger than I thought for."

Wilbur released her and rose to his feet.

"Here," she continued, "give me your hand. I'm as weak as a kitten." As Wilbur helped her to her feet, she put her hand to her forehead, where his knuckles had left their mark, and frowned at him, but not ill-naturedly.

"Next time you do that," she said, "use a rock or a belaying-pin, or something that won't hurt--not your fist, mate." She looked at him admiringly. "What a two-fisted, brawny dray-horse it is! I told you I was stronger than most men, didn't I? But I'm the weaker of us two, and that's a fact. You've beaten, mate--I admit it; you've conquered me, and," she continued, smiling again and shaking him by the shoulder--"and, mate, do you know, I love you for it."