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THE CRUISE OF THE JASPER B. (chapter11)

2006-08-28 19:57

    CHAPTER XI

    REPARTEE AND PISTOLS

    Loge dropped his gaze to the pistol, and the smile upon his lips slowly turned into a sneer. But when he lifted his eyes to Cleggett's again there was no fear in them.

    "Put up your gun," he said, easily enough. "You won't have any use for it here."

    "Thank you for the assurance," said Cleggett, "but it occurs to me that it is in a very good place where it is."

    "Oh, if it amuses you to play with it——" said Loge.

    "It does," said Cleggett dryly.

    "It's an odd taste," said Loge.

    "It's a taste I've formed during the last few days on board my ship," said Cleggett meaningly.

    "Ship?" said Loge. "Oh, I beg your pardon. You mean the old hulk over yonder in the canal?"

    "Over yonder in the canal," said Cleggett, without relaxing his vigilance.

    "You've been frightened over there?" asked Loge, showing his teeth in a grin.

    "No," said Cleggett. "I'm not easily frightened."

    Loge looked at the pistol under Cleggett's hand, and from the pistol to Cleggett's face, with ironical gravity, before he spoke. "I should have thought, from the way you cling to that pistol, that perhaps your nerves might be a little weak and shaky."

    "On the contrary," said Cleggett, playing the game with a face like a mask, "my nerves are so steady that I could snip that ugly-looking skull off your cravat the length of this barroom away."

    "That would be mighty good shooting," said Loge, turning in his chair and measuring the distance with his eye. "I don't believe you could do it. I don't mind telling you that _I_ couldn't."

    "While we are on the subject of your scarfpin," said Cleggett, in whom the slur on the Jasper B. had been rankling, "I don't mind telling YOU that I think that skull thing is in damned bad taste. In fact, you are dressed generally in damned bad taste.——Who is your tailor?"

    Cleggett was gratified to see a dull flush spread over the other's face at the insult. Loge was silent a moment, and then he said, dropping his bantering manner, which indeed sat rather heavily upon him: "I don't know why you should want to shoot at my scarfpin——or at me. I don't know why you should suddenly lay a pistol between us. I don't, in short, know why we should sit here paying each other left-handed compliments, when it was merely my intention to make you a business proposition."

    "I have been waiting to hear what you had to say to me," said Cleggett, without being in the least thrown off his guard by the other's change of manner.

    "If you had not chanced to drop in here today," said Loge, "I had intended paying you a visit."

    "I have had several visitors lately," said Cleggett nonchalantly, "and I think at least two of them can make no claim that they were not warmly received."

    "Yes?" said Loge. But if Cleggett's meaning reached him he was too cool a hand to show it. He persisted in his affectation of a businesslike air. "Am I right in thinking that you have bought the boat?"

    "You are."

    "To come to the point," said Loge, "I want to buy her from you. What will you take for her?"

    The proposition was unexpected to Cleggett, but he did not betray his surprise.

    "You want to buy her?" he said. "You want to buy the old hulk over yonder in the canal?" He laughed, but continued: "What on earth can your interest be in her?"

    There was a trace of surliness in Loge's voice as he answered: "YOU were enough interested in her to buy her, it seems. Why shouldn't I have the same interest?"

    Cleggett was silent a moment, and then he leaned across the table and said with emphasis: "I have noticed your interest in the Jasper B. since the day I first set foot on her. And let me warn you that unless you show your curiosity in some other manner henceforth, you will seriously regret it. A couple of your men have repented of your interest already."

    "My men? What do you mean by my men? I haven't any men." Loge's imitation of astonishment was a piece of art; but if anything he overdid it a trifle. He frowned in a puzzled fashion, and then said: "You talk about my men; you speak riddles to me; you appear to threaten me, but after all I have only made you a plain business proposition. I ask you again, what will you take for her?"

    "She's not for sale," said Cleggett shortly.

    Loge did not speak again for a moment. Instead, he picked up the spoon with which Cleggett had stirred his highball and began to draw characters with its wet point upon the table. "If it's a question of price," he said finally, "I'm prepared to allow you a handsome profit."

    Cleggett determined to find out how far he would go.

    "You might be willing to pay as much as $, for her——for the old hulk over there in the canal?"

    Loge stopped playing with the spoon and looked searchingly into Cleggett's face. Then he said:

    "I will. Turn her over to me the way she was the day you bought her, and I'll give you $,." He paused, and then repeated, stressing the words: "MIND YOU, WITH EVERYTHING IN HER THE WAY IT WAS THE DAY YOU BOUGHT HER."

    Cleggett fumbled with his fingers in a waistcoat pocket, drew out the torn piece of counterfeit money which he had taken from the dead hand, and flung it on the table.

    "Five thousand dollars," he said, "in THAT kind of money?"

    Loge looked at it with eyes that suddenly contracted. Clever dissembler that he was, he could not prevent an involuntary start. He licked his lips, and Cleggett judged that perhaps his mouth felt a little dry. But these were the only signs he made. Indeed, when he spoke it was with something almost like an air of relief.

    "Come," he said, "now we're down to brass tacks at last on this proposition. Mr. Detective, name your real price."

    Cleggett did not answer immediately. He appeared to consider his real price. But in reality he was thinking that there was no longer any doubt of the origin of the explosion. Since Loge practically acknowledged the counterfeit money, the man who had died with this

    piece of it in his hand must have been one of Loge's men. But he only said: "Why do you call me a detective?" Loge shrugged his shoulders. Then he said again: "Your real price?"

    "What," said Cleggett, trying him out, "do you think of $,?"The other gave a long, low whistle."Gad!" he cried, "what crooks you bulls are.""It's not so much," said Cleggett deliberately, "when one takes

    everything into consideration." Loge appeared to meditate. Then he said: "That figure is out of the question. I'll give you $, and not a cent more." "You want her pretty badly," said Cleggett. "Or you want what's on her."

    "Why," said Loge, with an assumption of great frankness, "between you and me I don't care a damn about your boat. I think we understand each other. I'm buying her to get what's on her."

    "Suppose I sell you what's on her for $, and keep the ship," said Cleggett, wondering what WAS on the Jasper B. "Agreed," said Loge.

    "Since we're being so frank with one another," said Cleggett, "would you mind telling me why you didn't come to me at the start with an offer to buy, instead of making such a nuisance of yourself?"

    "Eh?" Loge appeared genuinely surprised. "Why should I pay you any money if I could get it, or destroy it, without that? Besides, how was I to know you could be bought?"

    Cleggett wondered more than ever what piece of evidence the hold of the Jasper B. contained. He felt certain that it was not merely counterfeit bills. Cleggett determined upon a minute and thorough search of the hold.

    "You'll send for it?" said Cleggett, still trying to get a more definite

    idea of what "it" was, without revealing that he did not know.

    "I'll come myself with a taxicab," said Loge.

    Cleggett rose, smiling; he had found out as much as he could expect to

    learn.

    "On the whole," he said, "I think that I prefer to keep the Jasper B. and everything that's in her. But before I leave I must thank you for the pleasure I have derived from our little talk——and the information as well. You can hardly imagine how you have interested me. Will you kindly step back and let me pass?"

    Loge got to his feet with a muttered oath; his face went livid and a muscle worked in his throat; his fingers contracted like the claws of some big and powerful cat. But, out of respect for Cleggett's pistol, he stepped backward.

    "You have confessed to making counterfeit money," went on Cleggett, enjoying the situation, "and you have as good as told me that there are further evidences of crime on board the Jasper B. You can rest assured that I will find them. You have also betrayed the fact that you planned to blow my ship up, and there are several other little matters which you have shed light upon.

    "I am not a detective. Nevertheless, I hope in the near future to see you behind the bars and to help put you there. It may interest you to know that my opinion of your intellect is no higher than my opinion of your character. You seem to me to have a vast conceit of your own cleverness, which is not justified by the facts. You are a very stupid fellow; a——a——what is the slang word? Boob, I believe."

    But while Cleggett was finishing his remarks a subtle change stole over Loge's countenance. His attitude, which had been one of baffled rage, relaxed. As Cleggett paused the sneer came back upon Loge's lips.

    "Boob," he said quietly, "boob is the word. Look above you."

    A sharp metallic click overhead gave point to Loge's words. Looking up, Cleggett saw that a trap-door had opened in the ceiling, and through the aperture Pierre, who had left the room some moments before with the bartender, was pointing a revolver, which he had just cocked, at Cleggett's head. He sighted along the barrel with an eager, anticipatory smile upon his face; Pierre would, no doubt, have preferred to see a man boiled in oil rather than merely shot, but shooting was something, and Pierre evidently intended to get all the delight possible out of the situation.

    Cleggett's own pistol was within an inch of Loge's stomach.

    "I was willing to pay you real money," said Loge, "for the sake of peace. But you're a damned fool if you think you can throw me down and then walk straight out of here to headquarters." Then he added, showing his yellow teeth: "You WOULD bring pistols into the conversation, you know. That was YOUR idea. And now you're in a devil of a fix."

    The man certainly had an iron nerve; he spoke as calmly as if Cleggett's weapon were not in existence; there was nothing but the pressure of a finger wanting to send both him and Cleggett to eternity. Yet he jested; he laid his strong and devilish will across Cleggett's mentality; it was a duel in which the two minds met and tried each other like swords; the first break in intention, and one or the other was a dead man. Cleggett felt the weight of that powerful and evil soul upon his own almost as if it were a physical thing.

    "You are not altogether safe yourself," said Cleggett grimly, with his eyes fixed on Pierre's and his pistol touching Loge's waistband. "If Pierre so much as winks an eye——if you move a hair's breadth——I'll put a stream of bullets through YOU. Understand?"

    How long this singular psychological combat might have lasted before a nerve quivered somewhere and brought the denouement of a double death, there is no telling. For accident (or fate) intervened to pluck these antagonists back into life and rob the gloating Pierre of the happiness of seeing two men perish without danger to himself. Something of uncertain shape, but of a blue color, loomed vaguely behind Pierre's head; loomed and suddenly descended to the accompaniment of a piercing shriek. Pierre's pistol went off, but he had evidently been stricken between the shoulders; the ball went wild, and the pistol itself dropped from his hand, another cartridge exploding as it hit the floor. The next instant Pierre tumbled headlong through the hole, landing upon Loge, who, not braced for the shock, went down himself.

    As the two men struggled to rise a strange figure precipitated itself from the room above, feet first, and hit both of them, knocking them down again. It was a tall man, thin and lank, clad only in a suit of silk pajamas of the color known as baby blue; he was barefoot, and Cleggett, with that lucid grasp of detail which comes to men oftener in nightmares than in real life, noticed that he had a bunion at the large joint of his right great toe.

    If the man was startling, he was no less startled himself. Leaping from the struggling forms of Pierre and Loge, who defeated each other's frantic efforts to rise, he was across the barroom in three wild bounds, shrieking shrilly as he leaped; he bolted through the west door and cleared the verandah at a jump.

    Loge, gaining his feet, was after the man in blue in an instant, evidently thinking no more of Cleggett than if the latter had been in Madagascar. And as for Cleggett, although he might have shot down Loge a dozen times over, he was so astonished at what he saw that the thought never entered his head. He had, in fact, forgotten that he held a pistol in his hand. Pierre scrambled to his feet and followed Loge.

    Cleggett, running after them, saw the man in the blue pajamas sprinting along the sandy margin of the bay. But Loge, his hat gone, his coat tails level in the wind behind him, and his large patent leather shoes flashing in the morning sunlight, was overhauling him with long and powerful strides. Cleggett saw the quarry throw a startled glance over his shoulder; he was no match for the terrible Loge in speed, and he must have realized it with despair, for he turned sharply at right angles and rushed into the sea. Loge unhesitatingly plunged after him, and had caught him by the shoulder and whirled him about before he had reached a swimming depth. They clinched, in water mid-thigh deep, and then Cleggett saw Loge plant his fist, with scientific precision and awful force, upon the point of the other's jaw. The man in the blue pajamas collapsed; he would have dropped into the water, but Loge caught him as he fell, threw his body across a shoulder with little apparent effort, and trotted back into the house with him.

    Cleggett had left his sword cane in the barroom, but he judged it would be just as well to allow it to remain there for the present. He turned and walked meditatively across the sands towards the Jasper B.

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