XI. A Change in Leaders
 

"Well," exclaimed Wilbur at length, the excitement of the fight returning upon him. "We have plenty to do yet. Come on, Moran."

It was no longer Moran who took the initiative--who was the leader. The brief fight upon the shore had changed all that. It was Wilbur who was now the master, it was Wilbur who was aggressive. He had known what it meant to kill. He was no longer afraid of anything, no longer hesitating. He had felt a sudden quadrupling of all his strength, moral and physical.

All that was strong and virile and brutal in him seemed to harden and stiffen in the moment after he had seen the beach-comber collapse limply on the sand under the last strong knife-blow; and a sense of triumph, of boundless self-confidence, leaped within him, so that he shouted aloud in a very excess of exhilaration; and snatching up a heavy cutting-in spade, that had been dropped in the fight near the burning cabin, tossed it high into the air, catching it again as it descended, like any exultant savage.

"Come on!" he cried to Moran; "where are the beach-combers gone? I'm going to get one more before the show is over."

The two passed out of the zone of smoke, and reached the other side of the burning cabin just in time to see the last of the struggle. The whole affair had not taken more than a quarter of an hour. In the end the beach-combers had been beaten. Four had fled into the waste of sand and sage that lay back of the shore, and had not been pursued. A fifth had been almost hamstrung by one of the "Bertha's" coolies, and had given himself up. A sixth, squealing and shrieking like a tiger-cat, had been made prisoner; and Wilbur himself had accounted for the seventh.

As Wilbur and Moran came around the cabin they saw the "Bertha Millner's" Chinamen in a group, not far from the water's edge, reassembled after the fight--panting and bloody, some of them bare to the belt, their weapons still in their hands. Here and there was a bandaged arm or head; but their number was complete--or no, was it complete?

"Ought to be one more," said Wilbur, anxiously hastening for-ward.

As the two came up the coolies parted, and Wilbur saw one of them, his head propped upon a rolled-up blouse, lying ominously still on the trampled sand.

"It's Charlie!" exclaimed Moran.

"Where's he hurt?" cried Wilbur to the group of coolies. "Jim!-- where's Jim? Where's he hurt, Jim?"

Jim, the only member of the crew besides Charlie who could understand or speak English, answered:

"Kai-gingh him fin' pistol, you' pistol; Charlie him fight plenty; bime-by, when he no see, one-piecee Kai-gingh he come up behin', shoot um Charlie in side--savvy?"

"Did he kill him? Is he dead?"

"No, I tinkum die plenty soon; him no savvy nuttin' now, him all- same sleep. Plenty soon bime-by him sleep for good, I tink."

There was little blood to be seen when Wilbur gently unwrapped the torn sleeve of a blouse that had been used as a bandage. Just under the armpit was the mark of the bullet--a small puncture already closed, half hidden under a clot or two of blood. The coolie lay quite unconscious, his eyes wide open, drawing a faint, quick breath at irregular intervals.

"What do you think, mate?" asked Moran in a low voice.

"I think he's got it through the lungs," answered Wilbur, frowning in distress and perplexity. "Poor old Charlie!"

Moran went down on a knee, and put a finger on the slim, corded wrist, yellow as old ivory.

"Charlie," she called--"Charlie, here, don't you know me? Wake up, old chap! It's Moran. You're not hurt so very bad, are you?"

Charlie's eyes closed and opened a couple of times.

"No can tell," he answered feebly; "hurt plenty big"; then he began to cough.

Wilbur drew a sigh of relief. "He's all right!" he exclaimed.

"Yes, I think he's all right," assented Moran.

"First thing to do now is to get him aboard the schooner," said Wilbur. "We'll take him right across in the beach-combers' dory here. By Jove!" he exclaimed on a sudden. "The ambergris--I'd forgotten all about it." His heart sank. In the hideous confusion of that morning's work, all thought of the loot had been forgotten. Had the battle been for nothing, after all? The moment the beach-combers had been made aware of the meditated attack, it would have been an easy matter for them to have hidden the ambergris--destroyed it even.

In two strides Wilbur had reached the beach-combers' dory and was groping in the forward cuddy. Then he uttered a great shout of satisfaction. The "stuff" was there, all of it, though the mass had been cut into quarters, three parts of it stowed in tea- flails, the fourth still reeved up in the hammock netting.

"We've got it!" he cried to Moran, who had followed him. "We've got it, Moran! Over $100,000. We're rich--rich as boodlers, you and I. Oh, it was worth fighting for, after all, wasn't it? Now we'll get out of here--now we'll cut for home."

"It's only Charlie I'm thinking about," answered Moran, hesitating. "If it wasn't for that we'd be all right. I don't know whether we did right, after all, in jumping the camp here. I wouldn't like to feel that I'd got Charlie into our quarrel only to have him killed."

Wilbur stared at this new Moran in no little amazement. Where was the reckless, untamed girl of the previous night, who had sworn at him and denounced his niggling misgivings as to right and wrong?

"Hoh!" he retorted impatiently, "Charlie's right enough. And, besides, I didn't force him to anything. I--we, that is--took the same chances. If I hadn't done for my man there behind the cabin, he would have done for me. At all events, we carried our point. We got the loot. They took it from us, and we were strong enough to get it back."

Moran merely nodded, as though satisfied with his decision, and added:

"Well, what next, mate?"

"We'll get back to the 'Bertha' now and put to sea as soon as we can catch the tide. I'll send Jim and two of the other men across in the dory with Charlie. The rest of us will go around by the shore. We've got to have a chin-chin with Hoang, if he don't get loose aboard there and fire the boat before we can get back. I don't propose taking these beach-combers back to 'Frisco with us."

"What will we do with the two prisoners?" she asked.

"Let them go; we've got their arms."

The positions of the two were reversed. It was Wilbur who assumed control and direction of what went forward, Moran taking his advice and relying upon his judgment.

In accordance with Wilbur's orders, Charlie was carried aboard the dory; which, with two Chinamen at the oars, and the ambergris stowed again into the cuddy, at once set off for the schooner. Wilbur himself cut the ropes on the two prisoners, and bade them shift for themselves. The rest of the party returned to the "Bertha Millner" around the wide sweep of the beach.

It was only by high noon, under the flogging of a merciless sun, that the entire crew of the little schooner once more reassembled under the shadow of her stranded hulk. They were quite worn out; and as soon as Charlie was lifted aboard, and the ambergris--or, as they spoke of it now, the "loot"--was safely stowed in the cabin, Wilbur allowed the Chinamen three or four hours' rest. They had had neither breakfast nor dinner; but their exhaustion was greater than their hunger, and in a few moments the entire half-dozen were stretched out asleep on the forward deck in the shadow of the foresail raised for the purpose of sheltering them. However, Wilbur and Moran sought out Hoang, whom they found as they had left him--bound upon the floor of the cabin.

"Now we have a talk--savvy?" Wilbur told him as he loosed the ropes about his wrists and ankles. "We got our loot back from you, old man, and we got one of your men into the bargain. You woke up the wrong crowd, Hoang, when you went up against this outfit. You're in a bad way, my friend. Your junk is wrecked; all your oil and blubber from the whale is lost; four of your men have run away, one is killed, another one we caught and let go, another one has been hamstrung; and you yourself are our prisoner, with your teeth filed down to your gums. Now," continued Wilbur, with the profoundest gravity, "I hope this will be a lesson to you. Don't try and get too much the next time. Just be content with what is yours by right, or what you are strong enough to keep, and don't try to fight with white people. Other coolies, I don't say. But when you try to get the better of white people you are out of your class."

The little beach-comber (he was scarcely above five feet) rubbed his chafed wrists, and fixed Wilbur with his tiny, twinkling eyes.

"What you do now?"

"We go home. I'm going to maroon you and your people here on this beach. You deserve that I should let you eat your fists by way of table-board; but I'm no such dirt as you. When our men left the schooner they brought off with them a good share of our provisions. I'll leave them here for you--and there's plenty of turtle and abalone to be had for the catching. Some of the American men-of-war, I believe, come down to this bay for target- practice twice a year, and if we speak any on the way up we'll ask them to call here for castaways. That's what I'll do for you, and that's all! If you don't like it, you can set out to march up the coast till you hit a town; but I wouldn't advise you to try it. Now what have you got to say?"

Hoang was silent. His queue had become unbound for half its length, and he plaited it anew, winking his eyes thoughtfully.

"Well, what do you say?" said Moran.

"I lose face," answered Hoang at length, calmly.

"You lose face? What do you mean?"

"I lose face," he insisted; then added: "I heap 'shamed. You fightee my China boy, you catchee me. My boy no mo' hab me fo' boss--savvy? I go back, him no likee me. Mebbe all same killee me. I lose face--no mo' boss."

"What a herd of wild cattle!" muttered Wilbur.

"There's something in what he says, don't you think, mate?" observed Moran, bringing a braid over each shoulder and stroking it according to her habit.

"We'll ask Jim about it," decided Wilbur.

But Jim at once confirmed Hoang's statement. "Oh, Kai-gingh killum no-good boss, fo' sure," he declared.

"Don't you think, mate," said Moran, "we'd better take him up to 'Frisco with us? We've had enough fighting and killing."

So it was arranged that the defeated beach-comber, the whipped buccaneer, who had "lost face" and no longer dared look his men in the eye, should be taken aboard.

By four o'clock next morning Wilbur had the hands at work digging the sand from around the "Bertha Millner's" bow. The line by which she was to be warped off was run out to the ledge of the rock; fresh water was taken on; provisions for the marooned beach- combers were cached upon the beach; the dory was taken aboard, gaskets were cast off, and hatches battened down.

At high tide, all hands straining upon the warp, the schooner was floated off, and under touch of the lightest airs drew almost imperceptibly away from the land. They were quite an hour crawling out to the heads of the bay. But here the breeze was freshening. Moran took the wheel; the flying-jib and staysail were set; the wake began to whiten under the schooner's stern, the forefoot sang; the Pacific opened out more and more; and by 12:30 o'clock Moran put the wheel over, and, as the schooner's bow swung to the northward, cried to Wilbur:

"Mate, look your last of Magdalena Bay!"

Standing at her side, Wilbur turned and swept the curve of the coast with a single glance. The vast, heat-scourged hoop of yellow sand, the still, smooth shield of indigo water, with its beds of kelp, had become insensibly dear to him. It was all familiar, friendly, and hospitable. Hardly an acre of that sweep of beach that did not hold the impress of his foot. There was the point near by the creek where he and Moran first landed to fill the water-casks and to gather abalones; the creek itself, where he had snared quail; the sand spit with its whitened whale's skull, where he and Moran had beached the schooner; and there, last of all, that spot of black over which still hung a haze of brown-gray smoke, the charred ruins of the old Portuguese whaling-cabin, where they had outfought the beach-combers.

For a moment Wilbur and Moran looked back without speaking. They stood on the quarter-deck; in the shadow of the main-sail, shut off from the sight of the schooner's crew, and for the instant quite alone.

"Well, Moran, it's good-by to the old places, isn't it?" said Wilbur at length.

"Yes," she said, her deep voice pitched even deeper than usual. "Mate, great things have happened there."

"It doesn't look like a place for a Tong row with Chinese pirates, though, does it?" he said; but even as he spoke the words, he guessed that that was not what he meant.

"Oh, what did that amount to?" she said, with an impatient movement of her head. "It was there that I first knew myself; and knew that, after all, you were a man and I was a woman; and that there was just us--you and I--in the world; and that you loved me and I loved you, and that nothing else was worth thinking of."

Wilbur shut his hand down over hers as it gripped a spoke of the wheel.

"Moran, I knew that long since," he said. "Such a month as this has been! Why, I feel as though I had only begun to live since I began to love you."

"And you do, mate?" she answered--"you do love me, and always will? Oh, you don't know," she went on, interrupting his answer, "you haven't a guess, how the last two days have changed me. Something has happened here"--and she put both her hands over her breast. "I'm all different here, mate. It's all you inside here-- all you! And it hurts, and I'm proud that it does hurt. Oh!" she cried, of a sudden, "I don't know how to love yet, and I do it very badly, and I can't tell you how I feel, because I can't even tell it to myself. But you must be good to me now." The deep voice trembled a little. "Good to me, mate, and true to me, mate, because I've only you, and all of me is yours. Mate, be good to me, and always be kind to me. I'm not Moran any more. I'm not proud and strong and independent, and I don't want to be lonely. I want you--I want you always with me. I'm just a woman now, dear--just a woman that loves you with a heart she's just found."

Wilbur could find no words to answer. There was something so pathetic and at the same time so noble in Moran's complete surrender of herself, and her dependence upon him, her unquestioned trust in him and his goodness, that he was suddenly smitten with awe at the sacredness of the obligation thus imposed on him. She was his now, to have and to hold, to keep, to protect, and to defend--she who was once so glorious of her strength, of her savage isolation, her inviolate, pristine maidenhood. All words seemed futile and inadequate to him.

She came close to him, and put her hands upon his shoulders, and, looking him squarely in the eye, said:

"You do love me, mate, and you always will?"

"Always, Moran," said Wilbur, simply. He took her in his arms, and she laid her cheek against his for a moment, then took his head between her hands and kissed him.

Two days passed. The "Bertha Millner" held steadily to her northward course, Moran keeping her well in toward the land. Wilbur maintained a lookout from the crow's-nest in the hope of sighting some white cruiser or battleship on her way south for target-practice. In the cache of provisions he had left for the beach-combers he had inserted a message, written by Hoang, to the effect that they might expect to be taken off by a United States man-of-war within the month.

Hoang did not readily recover his "loss of face." The "Bertha's" Chinamen would have nothing to do with this member of a hostile Tong; and the humiliated beach-comber kept almost entirely to himself, sitting on the forecastle-head all day long, smoking his sui-yen-hu and brooding silently to himself.

Moran had taken the lump of ambergris from out Kitchell's old hammock, and had slung the hammock itself in the schooner's waist, and Charlie was made as comfortable as possible therein. They could do but little for him, however; and he was taken from time to time with spells of coughing that racked him with a dreadful agony. At length one noon, just after Moran had taken the sun and had calculated that the "Bertha" was some eight miles to the southwest of San Diego, she was surprised to hear Wilbur calling her sharply. She ran to him, and found him standing in the waist by Charlie's hammock.

The Chinaman was dying, and knew it. He was talking in a faint and feeble voice to Wilbur as she came up, and was trying to explain to him that he was sorry he had deserted the schooner during the scare in the bay.

"Planty muchee solly," he said; "China boy, him heap flaid of Feng-shui. When Feng-shui no likee, we then must go chop-chop. Plenty much solly I leave-um schooner that night; solly plenty-- savvy?"

"Of course we savvy, Charlie," said Moran. "You weren't afraid when it came to fighting."

"I die pletty soon," said Charlie calmly. "You say you gib me fifteen hundled dollah?"

"Yes, yes; that was our promise. What do you want done with it, Charlie?"

"I want plenty fine funeral in Chinatown in San Francisco. Oh, heap fine! You buy um first-chop coffin--savvy? Silver heap much-- costum big money. You gib my money to Hop Sing Association, topside Ming Yen temple. You savvy Hop Sing?--one Six Companies."

"Yes, yes."

"Tellum Hop Sing I want funeral--four-piecee horse. You no flogettee horse?" he added apprehensively.

"No, I'll not forget the horses Charlie. You shall have four."

"Want six-piecee band musicians--China music--heap plenty gong. You no flogettee? Two piecee priest, all dressum white--savvy? You mus' buyum coffin yo'self. Velly fine coffin, heap much silver, an' four-piecee horse. You catchum fireclacker--one, five, seven hundled fireclacker, makeum big noise; an' loast pig, an' plenty lice an' China blandy. Heap fine funeral, costum fifteen hundled dollah. I be bury all same Mandarin--all same Little Pete. You plomise, sure?"

"I promise you, Charlie. You shall have a funeral finer than little Pete's."

Charlie nodded his head contentedly, drawing a breath of satisfaction.

"Bimeby Hop Sing sendum body back China." He closed his eyes and lay for a long time, worn out with the effort of speaking, as if asleep. Suddenly he opened his eyes wide. "You no flogettee horse?"

"Four horses, Charlie. I'll remember."

He drooped once more, only to rouse again at the end of a few minutes with:

"First-chop coffin, plenty much silver"; and again, a little later and very feebly: "Six-piecee--band music--China music--four- piecee--gong--four."

"I promise you, Charlie," said Wilbur.

"Now," answered Charlie--"now I die."

And the low-caste Cantonese coolie, with all the dignity and calmness of a Cicero, composed himself for death.

An hour later Wilbur and Moran knew that he was dead. Yet, though they had never left the hammock, they could not have told at just what moment he died.

Later, on that same afternoon, Wilbur, from the crow's-nest, saw the lighthouse on Point Loma and the huge rambling bulk of the Coronado Hotel spreading out and along the beach.

It was the outpost of civilization. They were getting back to the world again. Within an hour's ride of the hotel were San Diego, railroads, newspapers, and policemen. Just off the hotel, however, Wilbur could discern the gleaming white hull of a United States man-of-war. With the glass he could make her out to be one of the monitors--the "Monterey" in all probability.

After advising with Moran, it was decided to put in to land. The report as to the castaways could be made to the "Monterey," and Charlie's body forwarded to his Tong in San Francisco.

In two hours' time the schooner was well up, and Wilbur stood by Moran's side at the wheel. watching and studying the familiar aspect of Coronado Beach.

"It's a great winter resort," he told her. "I was down here with a party two years ago. Nothing has changed. You see that big sort of round wing, Moran, all full of windows? That's the dining- room. And there's the bathhouse and the bowling-alley. See the people on the beach, and the girls in white duck skirts; and look up there by the veranda--let me take the glass--yes, there's a tally-ho coach. Isn't it queer to get back to this sort of thing after Magdalena Bay and the beach-combers?"

Moran spun the wheel without reply, and gave an order to Jim to ease off the foresheet.