VII. Beach-Combers
 

Wilbur returned aft and joined Moran on the quarterdeck. She was already studying the stranger through the glass.

"That's a new build of boat to me," she muttered, giving Wilbur the glass. Wilbur looked long and carefully. The newcomer was of the size and much the same shape as a caravel of the fifteenth century--high as to bow and stern, and to all appearances as seaworthy as a soup-tureen. Never but in the old prints had Wilbur seen such an extraordinary boat. She carried a single mast, which listed forward; her lugsail was stretched upon dozens of bamboo yards; she drew hardly any water. Two enormous red eyes were painted upon either side of her high, blunt bow, while just abaft the waist projected an enormous oar, or sweep, full forty feet in length--longer, in fact, than the vessel herself. It acted partly as a propeller, partly as a rudder.

"They're heading for us," commented Wilbur as Moran took the glass again.

"Right," she answered; adding upon the moment: "Huh! more Chinamen; the thing is alive with coolies; she's a junk."

"Oh!" exclaimed Wilbur, recollecting some talk of Charlie's he had overheard. "I know."

"You know?"

"Yes; these are real beach-combers. I've heard of them along this coast--heard our Chinamen speak of them. They beach that junk every night and camp on shore. They're scavengers, as you might say--pick up what they can find or plunder along shore--abalones, shark-fins, pickings of wrecks, old brass and copper, seals perhaps, turtle and shell. Between whiles they fish for shrimp, and I've heard Kitchell tell how they make pearls by dropping bird-shot into oysters. They are Kai-gingh to a man, and, according to Kitchell, the wickedest breed of cats that ever cut teeth."

The junk bore slowly down upon the schooner. In a few moments she had hove to alongside. But for the enormous red eyes upon her bow she was innocent of paint. She was grimed and shellacked with dirt and grease, and smelled abominably. Her crew were Chinamen; but such Chinamen! The coolies of the "Bertha Millner" were pampered and effete in comparison. The beach-combers, thirteen in number, were a smaller class of men, their faces almost black with tan and dirt. Though they still wore the queue, their heads were not shaven, and mats and mops of stiff black hair fell over their eyes from under their broad, basket-shaped hats.

They were barefoot. None of them wore more than two garments--the jeans and the blouse. They were the lowest type of men Wilbur had ever seen. The faces were those of a higher order of anthropoid apes: the lower portion--jaws, lips, and teeth--salient; the nostrils opening at almost right angles, the eyes tiny and bright, the forehead seamed and wrinkled--unnaturally old. Their general expression was of simian cunning and a ferocity that was utterly devoid of courage.

"Aye!" exclaimed Moran between her teeth, "if the devil were a shepherd, here are his sheep. You don't come aboard this schooner, my friends! I want to live as long as I can, and die when I can't help it. Boat ahoy!" she called.

An answer in Cantonese sing-song came back from the junk, and the speaker gestured toward the outside ocean.

Then a long parleying began. For upward of half an hour Moran and Wilbur listened to a proposition in broken pigeon English made by the beach-combers again and again and yet again, and were in no way enlightened. It was impossible to understand. Then at last they made out that there was question of a whale. Next it appeared the whale was dead; and finally, after a prolonged pantomime of gesturing and pointing, Moran guessed that the beach- combers wanted the use of the "Bertha Millner" to trice up the dead leviathan while the oil and whalebone were extracted.

"That must be it," she said to Wilbur. "That's what they mean by pointing to our masts and tackle. You see, they couldn't manage with that stick of theirs, and they say they'll give us a third of the loot. We'll do it, mate, and I'll tell you why. The wind has fallen, and they can tow us out. If it's a sperm-whale they've found, there ought to be thirty or forty barrels of oil in him, let alone the blubber and bone. Oil is at $50 now, and spermaceti will always bring $100. We'll take it on, mate. but we'll keep our eyes on the rats all the time. I don't want them aboard at all. Look at their belts. Not three out of the dozen who aren't carrying those filthy little hatchets. Faugh!" she exclaimed, with a shudder of disgust. "Such vipers!"

What followed proved that Moran had guessed correctly. A rope was passed to the "Bertha Millner," the junk put out its sweeps, and to a wailing, eldrich chanting the schooner was towed out of the bay.

"I wonder what Charlie and our China boys will think of this?" said Wilbur, looking shoreward, where the deserters could be seen gathered together in a silent, observing group.

"We're well shut of them," growled Moran, her thumbs in her belt. "Only, now we'll never know what was the matter with the schooner these last few nights. Hah!" she exclaimed under her breath, her scowl thickening, "sometimes I don't wonder the beasts cut."

The dead whale was lying four miles out of the entrance of Magdalena Bay, and as the junk and the schooner drew near seemed like a huge black boat floating bottom up. Over it and upon it swarmed and clambered thousands of sea-birds, while all around and below the water was thick with gorging sharks. A dreadful, strangling decay fouled all the air.

The whale was a sperm-whale, and fully twice the length of the "Bertha Millner." The work of tricing him up occupied the beach- combers throughout the entire day. It was out of the question to keep them off the schooner, and Wilbur and Moran were too wise to try. They swarmed the forward deck and rigging like a plague of unclean monkeys, climbing with an agility and nimbleness that made Wilbur sick to his stomach. They were unlike any Chinamen he had ever seen--hideous to a degree that he had imagined impossible in a human being. On two occasions a fight developed, and in an instant the little hatchets were flashing like the flash of a snake's fangs. Toward the end of the day one of them returned to the junk, screaming like a stuck pig, a bit of his chin bitten off.

Moran and Wilbur kept to the quarter-deck, always within reach of the huge cutting-in spades, but the Chinese beach-combers were too elated over their prize to pay them much attention.

And indeed the dead monster proved a veritable treasure-trove. By the end of the day he had been triced up to the foremast, and all hands straining at the windlass had raised the mighty head out of the water. The Chinamen descended upon the smooth, black body, their bare feet sliding and slipping at every step. They held on by jabbing their knives into the hide as glacier-climbers do their ice-picks. The head yielded barrel after barrel of oil and a fair quantity of bone. The blubber was taken aboard the junk, minced up with hatchets, and run into casks.

Last of all, a Chinaman cut a hole through the "case," and, actually descending into the inside of the head, stripped away the spermaceti (clear as crystal), and packed it into buckets, which were hauled up on the junk's deck. The work occupied some two or three days. During this time the "Bertha Millner" was keeled over to nearly twenty degrees by the weight of the dead monster. However, neither Wilbur nor Moran made protest. The Chinamen would do as they pleased; that was said and signed. And they did not release the schooner until the whale had been emptied of oil and blubber, spermaceti and bone.

At length, on the afternoon of the third day, the captain of the junk, whose name was Hoang, presented himself upon the quarter- deck. He was naked to the waist, and his bare brown torso was gleaming with oil and sweat. His queue was coiled like a snake around his neck, his hatchet thrust into his belt.

"Well?" said Moran, coming up.

Wilbur caught his breath as the two stood there facing each other, so sharp was the contrast. The man, the Mongolian, small, weazened, leather-colored, secretive--a strange, complex creature, steeped in all the obscure mystery of the East, nervous, ill at ease; and the girl, the Anglo-Saxon, daughter of the Northmen, huge, blond, big-boned, frank, outspoken, simple of composition, open as the day, bareheaded, her great ropes of sandy hair falling over her breast and almost to the top of her knee-boots. As he looked at the two, Wilbur asked himself where else but in California could such abrupt contrasts occur.

"All light," announced Hoang; "catchum all oil, catchum all bone, catchum all same plenty many. You help catchum, now you catchum pay. Sabe?"

The three principals came to a settlement with unprecedented directness. Like all Chinamen, Hoang was true to his promises, and he had already set apart three and a half barrels of spermaceti, ten barrels of oil, and some twenty pounds of bone as the schooner's share in the transaction. There was no discussion over the matter. He called their attention to the discharge of his obligations, and hurried away to summon his men aboard and get the junk under way again.

The beach-combers returned to their junk, and Wilbur and Moran set about cutting the carcass of the whale adrift. They found it would be easier to cut away the hide from around the hooks and loops of the tackle than to unfasten the tackle itself.

"The knots are jammed hard as steel," declared Moran. "Hand up that cutting-in spade; stand by with the other and cut loose at the same time as I do, so we can ease off the strain on these lines at the same time. Ready there, cut!" Moran set free the hook in the loop of black skin in a couple of strokes, but Wilbur was more clumsy; the skin resisted. He struck at it sharply with the heavy spade; the blade hit the iron hook, glanced off, and opened a large slit in the carcass below the head. A gush of entrails started from the slit, and Moran swore under her breath.

"Ease away, quick there! You'll have the mast out of her next-- steady! Hold your spade--what's that?"

Wilbur had nerved himself against the dreadful stench he expected would issue from the putrid monster, but he was surprised to note a pungent, sweet, and spicy odor that all at once made thick the air about him. It was an aromatic smell, stronger than that of the salt ocean, stronger even than the reek of oil and blubber from the schooner's waist--sweet as incense, penetrating as attar, delicious as a summer breeze.

"It smells pretty good, whatever it is," he answered. Moran came up to where he stood, and looked at the slit he had made in the whale's carcass. Out of it was bulging some kind of dull white matter marbled with gray. It was a hard lump of irregular shape and about as big as a hogshead.

Moran glanced over to the junk, some forty feet distant. The beach-combers were hoisting the lug-sail. Hoang was at the steering oar.

"Get that stuff aboard," she commanded quietly.

"That!" exclaimed Wilbur, pointing to the lump.

Moran's blue eyes were beginning to gleam.

"Yes, and do it before the Chinamen see you."

"But--but I don't understand."

Moran stepped to the quarterdeck, unslung the hammock in which Wilbur slept, and tossed it to him.

"Reeve it up in that; I'll pass you a line, and we'll haul it aboard. Godsend, those vermin yonder have got smells enough of their own without noticing this. Hurry, mate, I'll talk afterward."

Wilbur went over the side, and standing as best he could upon the slippery carcass, dug out the lump and bound it up in the hammock.

"Hoh!" exclaimed Moran, with sudden exultation. "There's a lot of it. That's the biggest lump yet, I'll be bound. Is that all there is, mate?--look carefully." Her voice had dropped to a whisper.

"Yes, yes; that's all. Careful now when you haul up--Hoang has got his eye on you, and so have the rest of them. What do you call it, anyhow? Why are you so particular about it? Is it worth anything?"

"I don't know--perhaps. We'll have a look at it, anyway."

Moran hauled the stuff aboard, and Wilbur followed.

"Whew!" he exclaimed with half-closed eyes. "It's like the story of Samson and the dead lion--the sweet coming forth from the strong."

The schooner seemed to swim in a bath of perfumed air; the membrane of the nostrils fairly prinkled with the sensation. Moran unleashed the hammock, and going down upon one knee examined the lump attentively.

"It didn't seem possible," Wilbur heard her saying to herself; "but there can't be any mistake. It's the stuff, right enough. I've heard of such things, but this--but this--" She rose to her feet, tossing back her hair.

"Well," said Wilbur, "what do you call it?"

"The thing to do now," returned Moran, "is to get clear of here as quietly and as quickly as we can, and take this stuff with us. I can't stop to explain now, but it's big--it's big. Mate, it's big as the Bank of England."

"Those beach-combers are right on to the game, I'm afraid," said Wilbur. "Look, they're watching us. This stuff would smell across the ocean."

"Rot the beach-combers! There's a bit of wind, thank God, and we can do four knots to their one, just let us get clear once."

Moran dragged the hammock back into the cabin, and, returning upon deck, helped Wilbur to cut away the last tricing tackle. The schooner righted slowly to an even keel. Meanwhile the junk had set its one lug-sail and its crew had run out the sweeps. Hoang took the steering sweep and worked the junk to a position right across the "Bertha's" bows, some fifty feet ahead.

"They're watching us, right enough," said Wilbur.

"Up your mains'l," ordered Moran. The pair set the fore and main sails with great difficulty. Moran took the wheel and Wilbur went forward to cast off the line by which the schooner had been tied up to one of the whale's flukes.

"Cut it!" cried the girl. "Don't stop to cast off."

There was a hail from the beach-combers; the port sweeps dipped and the junk bore up nearer.

"Hurry!" shouted Moran, "don't mind them. Are we clear for'ard-- what's the trouble? Something's holding her." The schooner listed slowly to starboard and settled by the head.

"All clear!" cried Wilbur.

"There's something wrong!" exclaimed Moran; "she's settling for'ard." Hoang hailed the schooner a second time.

"We're still settling," called Wilbur from the bows, "what's the matter?"

"Matter that she's taking water," answered Moran wrathfully. "She's started something below, what with all that lifting and dancing and tricing up."

Wilbur ran back to the quarterdeck.

"This is a bad fix," he said to Moran. "Those chaps are coming aboard again. They're on to something, and, of course, at just this moment she begins to leak."

"They are after that ambergris," said Moran between her teeth. "Smelled it, of course--the swine!"

"Ambergris?"

"The stuff we found in the whale. That's ambergris."

"Well?"

"Well!" shouted Moran, exasperated. "Do you know that we have found a lump that will weigh close to 250 pounds, and do you know that ambergris is selling in San Francisco at $40 an ounce? Do you know that we have picked up nearly $150,000 right out here in the ocean and are in a fair way to lose it all?"

"Can't we run for it?"

"Run for it in a boat that's taking water like a sack! Our dory's gone. Suppose we get clear of the junk, and the 'Bertha' sank? Then what? If we only had our crew aboard; if we were only ten to their dozen--if we were only six--by Jupiter! I'd fight them for it."

The two enormous red eyes of the junk loomed alongside and stared over into the "Bertha's" waist. Hoang and seven of the coolies swarmed aboard.

"What now?" shouted Moran, coming forward to meet them, her scowl knotting her flashing eyes together. "Is this ship yours or mine? We've done your dirty work for you. I want you clear of my deck." Wilbur stood at her side, uncertain what to do, but ready for anything she should attempt.

"I tink you catchum someting, smellum pretty big," said Hoang, his ferret glance twinkling about the schooner.

"I catchum nothing--nothing but plenty bad stink," said Moran. "No, you don't!" she exclaimed, putting herself in Hoang's way as he made for the cabin. The other beach-combers came crowding up; Wilbur even thought he saw one of them loosening his hatchet in his belt.

"This ship's mine," cried Moran, backing to the cabin door. Wilbur followed her, and the Chinamen closed down upon the pair.

"It's not much use, Moran," he muttered. "They'll rush us in a minute."

"But the ambergris is mine--is mine," she answered, never taking her eyes from the confronting coolies.

"We findum w'ale," said Hoang; "you no find w'ale; him b'long to we--eve'yt'ing in um w'ale b'long to we, savvy?"

"No, you promised us a third of everything you found."

Even in the confusion of the moment it occurred to Wilbur that it was quite possible that at least two-thirds of the ambergris did belong to the beach-combers by right of discovery. After all, it was the beach-combers who had found the whale. He could never remember afterward whether or no he said as much to Moran at the time. If he did, she had been deaf to it. A fury of wrath and desperation suddenly blazed in her blue eyes. Standing at her side, Wilbur could hear her teeth grinding upon each other. She was blind to all danger, animated only by a sense of injustice and imposition.

Hoang uttered a sentence in Cantonese. One of the coolies jumped forward, and Moran's fist met him in the face and brought him to his knees. Then came the rush Wilbur had foreseen. He had just time to catch a sight of Moran at grapples with Hoang when a little hatchet glinted over his head. He struck out savagely into the thick of the group--and then opened his eyes to find Moran washing the blood from his hair as he lay on the deck with his head in the hollow of her arm. Everything was quiet. The beach- combers were gone.

"Hello, what--what--what is it?" he asked, springing to his feet, his head swimming and smarting. "We had a row, didn't we? Did they hurt you? Oh, I remember; I got a cut over the head--one of their hatchet men. Did they hurt you?"

"They got the loot," she growled. "Filthy vermin! And just to make everything pleasant, the schooner's sinking."