Chapter VIII. A Victory, and a Defeat
 

I arose silently to my feet, conscious of possessing no weapon, yet fully aware that all hope of thwarting this villainy lay in immediate action. But I must await the right moment. Even with the advantage of surprise, there would inevitably be the noise of struggle. I had in the past despised Sanchez, but I had never yet tested him as a fighting man, and, indeed, no longer considered the fellow to be a mean antagonist. Remembering who he was, I now realized fully the desperate nature of my attempt, the need of quick, remorseless action. Nevertheless I dared not attack until assured that those men he had just dispatched were safely beyond ear-shot. I could hear or see nothing of them; they had vanished utterly, and the soft sand returned no echo of their footsteps. Time alone gave me judgment as to the distance they would travel. If I yielded too much of this, they might attain the sloop before I could sound an alarm; while if I moved too quickly the noise would bring them back to the rescue. The moments were agony, as I bent tensely forward, poised for a leap. God! I could wait no longer!

Sanchez had turned slightly, apparently immersed in thought, and stood with his face toward the Bay. Even in that darkness his position was that of a man intently listening for the slightest sound to reach him out of the black night. I ventured a cautious step forward, and stood on the open sand, scarcely a yard to his rear, every nerve throbbing, my lips still silently counting the seconds. I could not, I dared not wait longer. Some vague sense of my presence must have influenced the man, for he swung suddenly about, uttering a stifled cry of startled surprise, as we met face to face. For an instant we were locked so closely within each other's desperate grip, his head bent beneath my arm, with my fingers clutching at his throat to block any call for help, that he possessed no knowledge of his assailant's identity. But the man was like a tiger, possessed of immense strength encased in a wiry frame. The surprise of attack was to my advantage, yet almost before I realized what was being done, he had rallied, broken my first hold, and his eyes were glaring straight into mine. Then he knew me, signaling his discovery with an oath, his free hand instantly grasping at the knife concealed beneath his loose cloak. Even as he jerked it forth, I crushed his wrist within my fingers, forcing his fore-arm back. Breast to breast we wrestled for mastery, every muscle strained, our feet firm planted on the sand. There was no outcry, no noise, except that of our heavy breathing, and trampling feet. Personal hatred had ascendancy in both our hearts--I doubt if he ever thought of aught else but the desire to kill me there with his own hands. Only once did he even utter a word, hissing out the sentence as though it were a poison:

"To hell with you, you sneaking English cur!"

"Then I travel that road not alone," I muttered back. "There will be one less of the devil's brood afloat."

What followed has to me no clearness, no consistency. I remember, yet it is as though memory played me a thousand tricks. Never have I fought more wickedly, nor with deeper realization that I needed every ounce of strength, and every trick of wit and skill. I had not before dreamed he was such a man; but now I knew the fellow possessed greater knowledge of the game than I, and a quicker movement; I alone excelled in weight of body, and coolness of brain. His efforts were those of an infuriated animal, his uncontrolled outburst of hatred rendering him utterly reckless of results in his struggle to overcome me at any cost. It was this blind blood-lust which gave me victory. I know not clearly how it was done; my only memory being his frantic efforts to drive home the knife point, and mine to defeat the thrust. Twice he pricked me deep enough to draw blood, before I succeeded in twisting backward the arm with which he held the blade. It was a sailor's trick of last resort, heartlessly cruel in its agony, but I felt then no call to mercy. He met the game too late, falling half back upon one knee, hoping thus to foil my purpose, yet my greater weight saved me. There was the sharp crack of a bone, as his useless fingers let the knife drop, a snarled curse of pain, and then, with the rage of a mad dog, Sanchez struck his teeth deep into my cheek. The sharp pang of pain drove me to frenzy, and for the first time I lost all control, my one free hand seeking to reach the lost knife. With a thrill of exultation I gripped it, driving instantly the keen blade to its hilt into the man's side. He made no cry, no struggle--the set teeth unlocked, and he fell limply back on the sand, his head lapped by the waves.

I remained poised above him, spent and breathless from struggle, scarcely conscious even as to what had occurred so swiftly, the dripping knife in my hand, blood streaming down my cheek, and still infuriated by blind passion. The fellow lay motionless, his face upturned to the sky, but invisible except in dim outline. It did not seem possible he could actually be dead; I had struck blindly, with no knowledge as to where the keen blade had penetrated--a mere desperate lunge. I rested my ear over his heart, detecting no murmur of response; touched the veins of his wrist, but found there no answering throb of life. Still dazed and uncertain, I arose staggering to my feet, conscious at last that the man must actually be dead, yet, for the moment, so surprised by the discovery as to scarcely realize its significance. Not that I regretted the act, not that I experienced the slightest remorse, yet, for an instant, the shock seemed to leave me nerveless and unstrung. Only a moment since I was engaged in desperate struggle, and now I could only stare down at the dark lines of that motionless body outstretched upon the sand.

Then I remembered those others--the unconscious sleepers on the deck of the sloop; those blood-stained villains creeping toward them through the black shadows of the night. The memory was like a dash of water in the face. With the death-dealing knife still gripped in my hand, I raced forward along the narrow strip of sand, reckless of what I might encounter, eager only to arrive in time to give utterance to a shout of warning. I could not have covered more than half the distance when the first sound of attack reached me--far-off, gurgling cry of agony, which pierced the darkness like the scream of a dying soul. The heart leaped into my throat, yet I ran on, unhalted, unseen, until the planks of the wharf were beneath my feet, the low side of the sloop looming black before me. There was confusion aboard, the sounds of struggle, mingled with curses and blows. With one upward swing of my body I was safely aboard, knife still in hand, peering eagerly forward. Through the gloom concealing the deck, I could perceive only dim figures, a riot of men, battling furiously hand to hand, yet out of the ruck loomed through the darkness in larger outline than the others---Cochose, the negro. I leaped at the fellow, and struck with the keen knife, missing the heart, but plunging the blade deep into the flesh of the shoulder. The next instant I was in a bear's grip, the very breath crushed out of me, yet, by some chance, my one arm remained free, and I drove the sharp steel into him twice before he forced the weapon from my fingers. Through a wrestler's trick, although my wrist was as numb as if dead from his fierce grip, I thrust an elbow beneath the brute's chin, and thus forced his head back, until the neck cracked.

This respite served merely for the moment, yet sufficiently long to win me a firm foot-hold on deck, and a breath of night air. He was too strong, too immense of stature. Apparently unweakened by his wounds, the giant negro, thoroughly aroused, exerted his mighty muscles, and, despite my utmost effort at resistance, thrust me back against the stern rail, where the weight of his body pinned me helplessly. With a roar of rage he drove his huge fist into my face, but happily was too close to give much force to the blow. My own hands, gripping the neck-band of his coarse shirt, twisted it tight about the great throat, until, in desperation, panting for breath, the huge brute actually lifted me in his arms, and hurled me backward, headlong over the rail. I struck something as I fell, yet rebounding from this, splashed into the deep water, and went down so nearly unconscious as to make not even the slightest struggle. I had no strength left in me, no desire to save myself, and I sank like a stone. And yet I came up once more to the surface, arising by sheer chance, directly beneath the small dory--which my body must have struck as I fell--towing by a painter astern of the sloop, and fortunately retained sense enough to cling desperately to this first thing my hands touched, and thus remained concealed.

This occurred through complete exhaustion, rather than the exercising of any judgment, for, had it not been for this providential support, I would surely have drowned without a struggle. Every breath I drew was in pain; I felt as though my ribs had been crushed in, while I had lost sufficient blood to leave me as weak as a babe. I simply clung there desperately, hopelessly, yet the salt water soon served to revive me physically, and even my brain began to arouse from its daze to a faint realization of the conditions. The small dory to which I clung, caught in some mysterious current, floated at the very extremity of its slender towline, and in consequence the sloop appeared little more than a mere smudge, when my eyes endeavored to discover its outlines. Evidently the bloody work had been completed, for now all was silent on board. I could not even detect the sound of a footstep on the deck. Then, clear enough to be distinctly heard across the narrow strip of water, came the voice of Estada, in a gruff inquiry:

"So you are hiding here, Cochose? What are you looking for in the sea?"

"What? Why that damned Englishman." The response was a savage growl, intensified by husky dialect. "Mon Dieu! He fought me like a mad rat."

"The Englishman, you say? He was here then? It was he you battled with? What became of the fellow?"

"He went down there, Senor. The dog stabbed me three times. It was either he or I to go."

"You mean you threw him overboard?"

"Ay, with his ribs crushed in, and not a breath left in his damned body. He's never come up even--I've watched, and there has not been so much as a ripple where he sank."

The two must have hung in silence over the rail staring down. I dared not advance my head to look, nor even move a muscle of my body in the water, but both were still standing there when Estada finally gave utterance to an oath.

"How know you it was the man?"

"Who else could it have been? You have the others."

"Ay, true enough; yet it will go hard with you, Cochose, when the Captain learns of this--he would have the fellow alive."

"As well attempt to take a tiger with bare hands--see, the blood yet runs; a single inch to the left, and it would be I fed to the fishes. Pah! what is the difference, Senor, so the man dies?"

"Right enough, no doubt; anyway it is not I who must face Sanchez, and it is too late now to change fate. Let's to the rest of our task. You can still do your part?"

The giant negro growled.

"Ay; I have been worse hurt, yet a bit of cloth would help me."

"Let Carl see to that, while I gain glimpse at this map of the house up yonder. Come forward with me to the cabin, till I light a candle. How came you aft here?"

"Because that fellow leaped the rail from the wharf. I saw him, and we met at the wheel."

"From the wharf, you say? He was not aboard then? Santa Maria! I know not what that may mean. Yet what difference, so he be dead. Anderson, Mendez, throw that carrion overboard--no, bullies, never mind; let them lie where they are, and sink an auger in the sloop's bottom. That will settle the whole matter. What is that out yonder, Cochose?"

"A small boat, Senor--a dory, I make it."

"Cut the rope, and send it adrift. Now come along with me."

The darker loom of the sloop vanished slowly, as the slight current sweeping about the end of the wharf drifted the released boat to which I clung outward into the Bay. The faint echo of a voice floated to my ears across the widening expanse of water, and then all was silent as the night closed in darkly between. There was scarcely a ripple to the sea, and yet I felt that the boat was steadily drifting out into deeper water. I was still strangely weak, barely able to retain my grasp, with a peculiar dullness in my head, which made me fearful that at any moment I might let go. I was not even conscious of thinking, or capable of conceiving clearly my situation, yet I must have realized vaguely the immediate necessity of action, for finally I mustered every ounce of remaining energy in one supreme effort, and succeeded in dragging my body up out of water over the boat's stern, sinking helplessly forward into the bottom. The moment this was accomplished every sense deserted me, and I lay there motionless, totally unconscious.

I shall never know how long I remained thus, the little dory in which I lay rocked aimlessly about by the waves, and constantly drifting in the grasp of unseen currents farther and farther out into the Bay. The blackness of the night swallowed us, as tossed by wind and sea, we were borne on through the waste unguided. Yet this time could not have been great. As though awakening from sleep a faint consciousness returned, causing me to lift my head, and stare hopelessly about into the curtain of mist overhanging the water. At first, with nothing surrounding to awaken memory into action, only that dull vista of sea and sky, my mind refused to respond to any impression; then the sharp pain of my wounds, accented by the sting of salt water, brought me swift realization of where I was, and the circumstances bringing me there. My wet clothing had partially dried on my body as I lay there motionless in the bottom of the boat, and now, with every movement, chafed the raw spots, rendering the slightest motion a physical agony. I had evidently lost considerable blood, yet this had already ceased to flow, and a very slight examination served to convince me that the knife slashes were none of them serious. Beyond these punctures of the flesh, while I ached from head to foot, my other injuries were merely bruises to add to my discomfort--the result of blows dealt me by Sanchez and Cochose, aggravated by the bearlike hug of the giant negro. Indeed, I awoke to the discovery that I was far from being a dead man; and, inspired by this knowledge, the various incidents of the night flashed swiftly back into my mind. How long had I been lying there unconscious, adrift in the open boat? How far had we floated from land? Where were we now, and in the meantime what had occurred ashore?

These were questions impossible to answer. I could not even attempt their solution. No gleam of light appeared in any direction; no sound echoed across the dark waste of water. Far above, barely visible through a floating veil of haze, I was able to detect the faint gleam of stars, and was sailor enough to determine through their guidance some certainty as to the points of compass; yet possessed no means by which to ascertain the time of night, or the position of the boat. With this handicap it was clearly impossible for me to attempt any return to the wharf through the impenetrable black curtain which shut me in. What then could I do? What might I still hope to accomplish? At first thought the case appeared hopeless. Those fellows had swept the sloop clean, and had doubtless long ago scuttled it. This ruthless deed once accomplished, their orders were to raid the house on the bluff. But would they go on with their bloody work? They would suddenly find themselves leaderless, unguided. Would that suffice to stop them? The vivid memory came to me anew of that arch villain, Sanchez, lying where I had left him, his head resting in the surf--dead. Would the discovery of his body halt his followers, and send them rushing back to their boat, eager only to get safely away? This did not seem likely. Estada knew of my boarding the sloop from the wharf, and would at once connect the fact of my being ashore with the killing of Sanchez. This would satisfy him there was no further danger. Besides, these were not men to be easily frightened at sight of a dead body, even that of their own captain. They might hesitate, discuss, but they would never flee in panic. Surely not with that ruffian Estada yet alive to lead them, and the knowledge that fifty thousand pounds was yonder in that unguarded house, with no one to protect the treasure but two old men asleep, and the women. The women!--Dorothy! What would become of her? Into whose hands would she fall in that foul division of spoils? Estada's? Good God--yes! And I, afloat and helpless in this boat, what could I do?