IX. The Capture of Hoang
 

"What smashed the junk? What wrecked her?" demanded Moran.

The deserting Chinamen huddled around Charlie, drawing close, as if finding comfort in the feel of each other's elbows.

"No can tell," answered Charlie. "Him shake, then lif' up all the same as we. Bime-by too much lif' up; him smash all to--Four- piecee Chinamen dlown."

"Drown! Did any of them drown?" exclaimed Moran.

"Four-piecee dlown," reiterated Charlie calmly. "One, thlee, five, nine, come asho'. Him other no come."

"Where are the ones that came ashore?" asked Wilbur.

Charlie waved a hand back into the night. "Him make um camp topside ole house."

"That old whaling-camp," prompted Moran. Then to Wilbur: "You remember--about a hundred yards north the creek?"

Wilbur, Moran and Charlie had drawn off a little from the "Bertha Millner's" crew. The latter squatted in a line along the shore-- silent, reserved, looking vaguely seaward through the night. Moran spoke again, her scowl thickening:

"What makes you think the beach-combers want our schooner?"

"Him catch um schooner sure! Him want um boat to go home. No can get."

"Let's put off to-night--right away," said Wilbur.

"Low tide," answered Moran; "and besides--Charlie, did you see them close? Were you near them?"

"No go muchee close."

"Did they have something with them, reeved up in a hammock-- something that smelled sweet?"

"Like a joss-stick, for instance?"

"No savvy; no can tell. Him try catch um schooner sure. Him velly bad China boy. See Yup China boy, velly bad. I b'long Sam Yup. Savvy?'!

"Ah! the Tongs?"

"Yas. I Sam Yup. Him," and he pointed to the "Bertha's" crew, "Sam Yup. All we Sam Yup; nisi him," and he waved a hand toward the beach-combers' camp; "him See Yup. Savvy?"

"It's a Tong row," said Wilbur. "They're blood enemies, the See Yups and Sam Yups."

Moran fell thoughtful, digging her boot-heel into the sand, her thumbs hooked into her belt, her forehead gathered into a heavy frown. There was a silence.

"One thing," she said, at last; "we can't give up the schooner. They would take our stores as well, and then where are we? Marooned, by Jove! How far do you suppose we are from the nearest town? Three hundred miles wouldn't be a bad guess, and they've got the loot--our ambergris--I'll swear to that. They didn't leave that aboard when the junk sank."

"Look here, Charlie," she said, turning to the Chinaman. "If the beach-combers take the schooner--the 'Bertha Millner'--from us we'll be left to starve on this beach."

"I tink um yass."

"How are we going to get home? Are you going to let them do it? Are you going to let them have our schooner?"

"I tink no can have."

"Look here," she went on, with sudden energy. "There are only nine of them now, to our eight. We're about even. We can fight those swine. I know we can. If we jumped their camp and rushed them hard, believe me, we could run them into the sea. Mate," she cried, suddenly facing Wilbur, "are you game? Have you got blood in you? Those beach-comberes are going to attack us to-morrow, before high tide--that's flat. There's going to be a fight anyway. We can't let them have the schooner. It's starvation for us if we do.

"They mean to make a dash for the 'Bertha,' and we've got to fight them off. If there's any attacking to be done I propose to do it! I propose we jump their camp before it gets light--now--to-night-- right away--run in on them there, take them by surprise, do for one or two of them if we have to, and get that ambergris. Then cut back to the schooner, up our sails, and wait for the tide to float us off. We can do it--I know we can. Mate, will you back me up?"

"Back you up? You bet I'll back you up, Moran. But--" Wilbur hesitated. "We could fight them so much more to advantage from the deck of the schooner. Why not wait for them aboard? We could have our sails up, anyhow, and we could keep the beach-combers off till the tide rose high enough to drive them back. Why not do that?"

"I tink bes' wait topside boat," assented Charlie.

"Yes; why not, Moran?"

"Because," shouted the girl, "they've got our loot. I don't propose to be plundered of $150,000 if I can help it."

"Wassa dat?" demanded Charlie. "Hunder fiftee tlousand you hab got?"

"I did have it--we had it, the mate and I. We triced a sperm whale for the beach-combers, and when they thought they had everything out of him we found a lump of ambergris in him that will weigh close to two hundred pounds. Now look here, Charlie. The beach-combers have got the stuff. It's mine--I'm going to have it back. Here's the lay. Your men can fight--you can fight yourself. We'll make it a business proposition. Help me to get that ambergris, and if we get it I'll give each one of the men $1,000, and I'll give you $1,500. You can take that up and be independent rich the rest of your life. You can chuck it and rot on this beach, for it's fight or lose the schooner; you know that as well as I do. If you've got to fight anyhow, why not fight where it's going to pay the most?"

Charlie hesitated, pursing his lips.

"How about this, Moran?" Wilbur broke forth now, unheard by Charlie. "I've just been thinking; have we got a right to this ambergris, after all? The beach-combers found the whale. It was theirs. How have we the right to take the ambergris away from them any more than the sperm and the oil and the bone? It's theirs, if you come to that. I don't know as we've the right to it."

"Darn you!" shouted Moran in a blaze of fury, "right to it, right to it! If I haven't, who has? Who found it? Those dirty monkeys might have stood some show to a claim if they'd held to the one- third bargain, and offered to divvy with us when they got me where I couldn't help myself. I don't say I'd give in now if they had-- give in to let 'em walk off with a hundred thousand dollars that I've got as good a claim to as they have! But they've saved me the trouble of arguing the question. They've taken it all, all! And there's no bargain in the game at all now. Now the stuff belongs to the strongest of us, and I'm glad of it. They thought they were the strongest and now they're going to find out. We're dumped down here on this God-forsaken sand, and there's no law and no policemen. The strongest of us are going to live and the weakest are going to die. I'm going to live and I'm going to have my loot, too, and I'm not going to split fine hairs with these robbers at this time of day. I'm going to have it all, and that's the law you're under in this case, my righteous friend!"

She turned her back upon him, spinning around upon her heel. and Wilbur felt ashamed of himself and proud of her.

"I go talkee-talk to China boy," said Charlie, coming up.

For about five minutes the Chinamen conferred together, squatting in a circle on the beach. Moran paced up and down by the stranded dory. Wilbur leaned against the bleached whale-skull, his hands in his pockets. Once he looked at his watch. It was nearly one o'clock.

"All light," said Charlie, coming up from the group at last; "him fight plenty."

"Now," exclaimed Moran, "we've no time to waste. What arms have we got?"

"We've got the cutting-in spades," said Wilbur; "there's five of them. They're nearly ten feet long, and the blades are as sharp as razors; you couldn't want better pikes."

"That's an idea," returned Moran, evidently willing to forget her outburst of a moment before, perhaps already sorry for it. The party took stock of their weapons, and five huge cutting-in spades, a heavy knife from the galley, and a revolver of doubtful effectiveness were divided among them. The crew took the spades, Charlie the knife, and Wilbur the revolver. Moran had her own knife, a haftless dirk, such as is affected by all Norwegians, whether landsmen or sailors. They were examining this armament and Moran was suggesting a plan of attack, when Hoang, the leader of the beach-combers, and one other Chinaman appeared some little distance below them on the beach. The moon was low and there was no great light, but the two beach-combers caught the flash of the points of the spades. They halted and glanced narrowly and suspiciously at the group.

"Beasts!" muttered Moran. "They are up to the game--there's no surprising them now. Talk to him, Charlie; see what he wants."

Moran, Wilbur, and Charlie came part of the way toward Hoang and his fellow, and paused some fifteen feet distant, and a long colloquy ensued. It soon became evident, however, that in reality Hoang wanted nothing of them, though with great earnestness he asserted his willingness to charter the "Bertha Millner" back to San Francisco.

"That's not his game at all," said Moran to Wilbur, in a low tone, her eyes never leaving those of the beach-comber. "He's pretty sure he could seize the 'Bertha' and never pay us a stiver. They've come down to spy on us, and they're doing it, too. There's no good trying to rush that camp now. They'll go back and tell the crew that we know their lay."

It was still very dark. Near the hulk of the beached "Bertha Millner" were grouped her crew, each armed with a long and lance- like cutting-in spade, watching and listening to the conference of the chiefs. The moon, almost down, had flushed blood-red, violently streaking the gray, smooth surface of the bay with her reflection. The tide was far out, rippling quietly along the reaches of wet sand. In the pauses of the conference the vast, muffling silence shut down with the abruptness of a valve suddenly closed.

How it happened, just who made the first move, in precisely what manner the action had been planned, or what led up to it, Wilbur could not afterward satisfactorily explain. There was a rush forward--he remembered that much--a dull thudding of feet over the resounding beach surface, a moment's writhing struggle with a half-naked brown figure that used knife and nail and tooth, and then the muffling silence again, broken only by the sound of their own panting. In that whirl of swift action Wilbur could reconstruct but two brief pictures: the Chinaman, Hoang's companion, flying like one possessed along the shore; Hoang himself flung headlong into the arms of the "Bertha's" coolies, and Moran, her eyes blazing, her thick braids flying, brandishing her fist as she shouted at the top of her deep voice, "We've got you, anyhow!"

They had taken Hoang prisoner, whether by treachery or not, Wilbur did not exactly know; and, even if unfair means had been used, he could not repress a feeling of delight and satisfaction as he told himself that in the very beginning of the fight that was to follow he and his mates had gained the first advantage.

As the action of that night's events became more and more accelerated, Wilbur could not but notice the change in Moran. It was very evident that the old Norse fighting blood of her was all astir; brutal, merciless, savage beyond all control. A sort of obsession seized upon her at the near approach of battle, a frenzy of action that was checked by nothing--that was insensible to all restraint. At times it was impossible for him to make her hear him, or when she heard to understand what he was saying. Her vision contracted. It was evident that she could not see distinctly. Wilbur could no longer conceive of her as a woman of the days of civilization. She was lapsing back to the eighth century again--to the Vikings, the sea-wolves, the Berserkers.

"Now you're going to talk," she cried to Hoang, as the bound Chinaman sat upon the beach, leaning his back against the great skull. "Charlie, ask him if they saved the ambergris when the junk went down--if they've got it now?" Charlie put the question in Chinese, but the beach-comber only twinkled his vicious eyes upon them and held his peace. With the full sweep of her arm, her fist clinched till the knuckles whitened, Moran struck him in the face.

"Now will you talk?" she cried. Hoang wiped the blood from his face upon his shoulder and set his jaws. He did not answer.

"You will talk before I'm done with you, my friend; don't get any wrong notions in your head about that," Moran continued, her teeth clinched. "Charlie," she added, "is there a file aboard the schooner?"

"I tink um yass, boss hab got file."

"In the tool-chest, isn't it?" Charlie nodded, and Moran ordered it to be fetched.

"If we're to fight that crowd," she said, speaking to herself and in a rapid voice, thick from excitement and passion, "we've got to know where they've hid the loot, and what weapons they've got. If they have a rifle or a shotgun with them, it's going to make a big difference for us. The other fellow escaped and has gone back to warn the rest. It's fight now, and no mistake."

The Chinaman who had been sent aboard the schooner returned, carrying a long, rather coarse-grained file. Moran took it from him.

"Now," she said, standing in front of Hoang, "I'll give you one more chance. Answer me. Did you bring off the ambergris, you beast, when your junk sank? Where is it now? How many men have you? What arms have you got? Have your men got a rifle?--Charlie, put that all to him in your lingo, so as to make sure that he understands. Tell him if he don't talk I'm going to make him very sick."

Charlie put the questions in Chinese, pausing after each one. Hoang held his peace.

"I gave you fair warning," shouted Moran angrily, pointing at him with the file. "Will you answer?"

"Him no tell nuttin," observed Charlie.

"Fetch a cord here," commanded Moran. The cord was brought, and despite Hoang's struggles and writhings the file was thrust end- ways into his mouth and his jaws bound tightly together upon it by means of the cord passed over his head and under his chin. Some four inches of the file portruded from his lips. Moran took this end and drew it out between the beach-comber's teeth, then pushed it back slowly.

The hideous rasp of the operation turned Wilbur's blood cold within him. He looked away--out to sea, down the beach--anywhere, so that he might not see what was going forward. But the persistent grind and scrape still assaulted his ears. He turned about sharply.

"I--I--I'll go down the beach here a ways," he said quickly. "I can't stand--I'll keep watch to see if the beach-combers come up."

A few minutes later he heard Charlie hailing him.

"Chin-chin heap plenty now," said he, with a grin, as Wilbur came up.

Hoang sat on the sand in the midst of the circle. The file and coil of rope lay on the ground near by. The beach-comber was talking in a high-keyed sing-song, but with a lisp. He told them partly in pigeon English and partly in Cantonese, which Charlie translated, that their men were eight in number, and that they had intended to seize the schooner that night, but that probably his own capture had delayed their plans. They had no rifle. A shotgun had been on board, but had gone down with the sinking of the junk. The ambergris had been cut into two lumps, and would be found in a couple of old flour-sacks in the stern of the boat in which he and his men had come ashore. They were all armed with their little hatchets. He thought two of the men carried knives as well. There was neither pistol nor revolver among them.

"It seems to me," said Wilbur, "that we've got the long end."

"We catch um boss, too!" said Charlie, pointing to Hoang.

"And we are better armed," assented Moran. "We've got the cutting-in spades."

"And the revolver, if it will shoot any further than it will kick."

"They'll give us all the fight we want," declared Moran.

"Oh, him Kai-gingh, him fight all same devil."

"Give the men brandy, Charlie," commanded Moran. "We'll rush that camp right away."

The demijohn of spirits was brought down from the "Bertha" and passed around, Wilbur and Moran drinking from the tin cup, the coolies from the bottle. Hoang was fettered and locked in the "Bertha's" cabin.

"Now, then, are we ready?" cried Moran.

"I tink all light," answered Charlie.

The party set off down the beach. The moon had long since gone down, and the dawn was whitening over the eastern horizon. Landward, ragged blankets of morning mist lay close in the hollows here and there. It was profoundly still. The stars were still out. The surface of Magdalena Bay was smooth as a sheet of gray silk.

Twenty minutes passed, half an hour, an hour. The party tramped steadily forward, Moran, Wilbur, and Charlie leading, the coolies close behind carrying the cutting-in spades over their shoulders. Slowly and in silence they made the half circuit of the bay. The "Bertha Millner" was far behind them by now, a vague gray mass in the early morning light.

"Did you ever fight before?" Moran suddenly demanded of Charlie.

"One time I fight plenty much in San Flancisco in Washington stleet. Fight um See Yups."

Another half-hour passed. At times when they halted they began to hear the faint murmur of the creek, just beyond which was the broken and crumbling shanty, relic of an old Portuguese whaling- camp, where the beach-combers were camped. At Charlie's suggestion the party made a circuit, describing a half moon, to landward, so as to come out upon the enemy sheltered by the sand- dunes. Twenty minutes later they crossed the creek about four hundred yards from the shore. Here they spread out into a long line, and, keeping an interval of about fifteen feet between each of them, moved cautiously forward. The unevenness of the sand- breaks hid the shore from view, but Moran, Wilbur, and Charlie knew that by keeping the creek upon their left they would come out directly upon the house.

A few moments later Charlie held up his hand, and the men halted. The noise of the creek chattering into the tidewater of the bay was plainly audible just beyond; a ridge of sand, covered thinly with sage-brush, and a faint column of smoke rose into the air over the ridge itself. They were close in. The coolies were halted, and dropping upon their hands and knees, the three leaders crawled to the top of the break. Sheltered by a couple of sage- bushes and lying flat to the ground, Wilbur looked over and down upon the beach. The first object he made out was a crazy, roofless house, built of driftwood, the chinks plastered with 'dobe mud, the door fallen in.

Beyond, on the beach, was a flat-bottomed dingy, unpainted and foul with dirt. But all around the house the sand had been scooped and piled to form a low barricade, and behind this barricade Wilbur saw the beach-combers. There were eight of them. They were alert and ready, their hatchets in their hands. The gaze of each of them was fixed directly upon the sand-break which sheltered the "Bertha Millner's" officers and crew. They seemed to Wilbur to look him straight in the eye. They neither moved nor spoke. The silence and absolute lack of motion on the part of these small, half-naked Chinamen, with their ape-like muzzles and twinkling eyes, was ominous.

There could be no longer any doubts that the beach-combers had known of their enemies' movements and were perfectly aware of their presence behind the sand-break. Moran rose to her feet, and Wilbur and Charlie followed her example.

"There's no use hiding," she said; "they know we're here."

Charlie called up the crew. The two parties were ranged face to face. Over the eastern rim of the Pacific the blue whiteness of the early dawn was turning to a dull, roseate gold at the core of the sunrise. The headlands of Magdalena Bay stood black against the pale glow; overhead, the greater stars still shone. The monotonous, faint ripple of the creek was the only sound. It was about 3:30 o'clock.