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THE CRUISE OF THE JASPER B. (chapter26)

2006-08-28 19:57

    CHAPTER XXVI

    A DOG DIES GAME

    Clambering out of the hold, the three detectives and Cleggett briefly made their followers acquainted with the extraordinary turn of events. The Rev. Mr. Calthrop, Miss Pringle's Jefferson, and Washington Artillery Lamb were detailed to guard the Jasper B. end of the tunnel. The others, seizing their rifles, raced across the sands towards Morris's.

    In a few moments the place was invested, with riflemen on every side except the south, which fronted on the bay. The steel-jacketed bullets from the high-power guns tore through and through the flimsy walls. Nevertheless the defenders replied pluckily, and the siege might have dragged on for hours had it not been for the courage and resource of Kuroki. Gaining the stable, Kuroki found an old pushcart there. He piled three bales of hay upon it, and then set fire to the hay. Pushing the cart before him, and crouching behind the bales to protect himself from revolver shots, he worked his way to the east verandah of the building and left the hay blazing against the planks. Then he ran as if the devil were after him, and was almost out of pistol shot before he got a bullet in the calf of his leg.

    The blaze caught the wood and spread. In two minutes the east verandah was in flames. Loge and his men attempted to pour water on the blaze from above. But Cleggett's party directed so hot a fire upon the windows that the defenders were forced to retire.

    The main building caught. The road house was old, and was of very light construction; the fire spread with rapidity. Loge was in a trap.

    But that evil and indomitable spirit refused to yield. Even when his remaining ruffians came out and gave themselves up Loge still fought on alone in a sullen fury of despair.

    Reckless of bullets, he leaned from an open window, a figure not without its grandeur against the background of smoke and flame, and shouted a savage and obscene insult at Cleggett.

    "Give yourself up," cried Wilton Barnstable.

    "Damn it, man, anything's better than roasting to death!"

    Loge raised his hand and sped a last bullet at the detective, grazing Barnstable's temple.

    "Come in and get me!" he shouted.

    Barnstable fired, just as a whirl of smoke blew in front of Loge.

    Cleggett thought the outlaw staggered, but he was not certain.

    A moment later a portion of the roof fell; then the east wall crashed in. Morris's was a blazing ruin.

    "He has perished in the flames," said Wilton Barnstable. "So ends Logan Black!"

    "More like he's blowed his head off," said Cap'n Abernethy. "If you was to ask me, that's what I'd do."

    "He has done neither!" cried Cleggett. "He has taken to the tunnel. That man will fight to the last breath."

    And without waiting to see whether the others followed him or not Cleggett set off at top speed for the Jasper B.

    With a dagger between his teeth, his pistol in its holster, and his electric, watchman's lantern in his pocket he entered the tunnel and crawled forward on his hands and knees. If Loge were in there indeed he had the fire at one end and Cleggett at the other. But even at that, escape was possible, for all Cleggett knew. What ramifications this peculiar passageway might have he could not guess.

    The place was narrow, and in spots so low that it was necessary for a man to crouch almost to the ground. Cleggett, because he did not wish to reveal his presence, did not flash his lantern; there were stretches where he might have stood almost erect and made quicker progress, if he had found them with the light. The earth beneath him was beaten hard and smooth. Cleggett thought possibly that the tunnel had originally led from Morris's basement to the smuggler's cave which Wilton Barnstable had spoken of, and that it had been extended later to the ship. He learned afterwards that this was true from the men who had surrendered. The Jasper B. had been abandoned for so long, and was so completely abandoned except for the visits of Cap'n Abernethy, who fished from it now and then, that Loge had conceived the idea of making it the back-door, so to speak, of Morris's. In the event of a raid upon Morris's his "getaway" through the hulk was provided for. He had intended buying the ship himself; but Cleggett had forestalled him.

    From the prisoners Cleggett also learned later that two men had been concerned in the explosion which had broken the big rocks on the plain. One of them had won the Claiborne signet ring at poker after Reginald Maltravers had been stripped of his valuables, and had worn it. They had been dispatched with a bomb each, which they were to introduce into the hold of the Jasper B., retiring through the tunnel after they had started the clockwork mechanism going. It was known that one of them owed the other money; they had been quarreling about it as they entered the tunnel from the cellar of Morris's. It was conjectured that the quarrel had progressed and that the debtor had endeavored, by the light of his pocket lantern in the tunnel, to palm off a counterfeit bill in settlement of the debt. This may have led to a blow, or more likely only to an argument during which a bomb was dropped and exploded, followed quickly by the other explosion. Dead hand, counterfeit bill and ring were flung whimsically to the surface of the earth together, and the leaning rocks had been astonishingly broken from beneath through this trivial quarrel. Had it not been for this squabble the Jasper B. and all on board must have been destroyed. Verily, the minds of wicked men compass their own downfall, and retribution can sometimes be an artist.

    But Cleggett, as he crawled forward through the darkness and the damp, thought little of these things that had so mystified him at the time. He was alert for what the immediate future might hold, not doubting that Loge had retreated to the tunnel. He had too strong a sense of the man's powerful and iniquitous personality to suppose that Loge would kill himself while one chance remained, however remote, of injuring his enemies. Loge was the kind of dog that dies biting.

    Suddenly, after pressing forward for several minutes, he ran against an obstruction. The tunnel seemed to come to an end. He did not dare show his light. But he felt with his hands. It was rock that blocked his way. Cleggett understood that this barrier was the result of the explosion. Groping and exploring with his hands, he found that the passage turned sharply to the left. It was more narrow and curving, for the distance of a few yards, and the earth beneath was fresher. When the tunnel had been blocked by the explosion, Loge and his men had burrowed around the obstruction.

    Cleggett judged that he must be at about the middle of the tunnel. He felt the more solid earth beneath his hands again, and knew that he had passed the rock. The passage now descended deeper into the ground, slanting steeply downward. This incline was twenty feet in length; then the floor became horizontal again on the lower level. At the same time the passage widened. Cleggett stretched one arm out, then the other; he could not touch the wall on either hand. He stood erect and held his hand up; the roof was six inches above his head. He was in a room of some sort. Wishing, if possible, to learn the extent of this subterranean chamber, which he did not doubt had at one time been used as a cave and storehouse of smugglers, Cleggett began to sidle around walls, feeling his way with his hands.

    He dislodged a pebble. It rolled to the ground with what was really a slight sound.

    But to Cleggett, who had been getting more and more excited, it was loud as an avalanche. He stopped and held his breath; he fancied that he had heard another noise besides the one which his pebble made. But he could not be sure.

    The sensation that he was not alone suddenly gripped him with overwhelming force. His heart began to beat more quickly; the blood drummed in his ears. Nevertheless, he kept his head. He took his pocket lantern in his left hand, and his pistol in his right, and leaned with his back against the wall. He listened. He heard nothing.

    But the eerie feeling that he was watched grew upon him. Presently he fancied that the darkness began to vibrate, as if an electrical current of some sort were being passed through it, and it might forthwith burst into light. Cleggett, as we know, was not easily frightened. But now he was possessed of a strange feeling, akin to terror, but which was at the same time not any terror of physical injury. He did not fear Loge; in dark or daylight he was ready to grapple with him and fight it out; nevertheless he feared. That he could not say what he feared only increased his fear.

    Children say they are "afraid of the dark." It is not the dark which they are afraid of. It is the bodiless presences which they imagine in the dark. It was so with Cleggett now. He was not daunted by anything that could strike a blow. But the sense of a personality began to encompass him. It pressed in upon him, played upon him, embraced him; his flesh tingled as if he were being brushed; he felt his hair stir. One recognizes a flower by its odor. So a soul flings off, in some inexplicable way, the sense of itself. This force that laid itself upon Cleggett and flowed around him had an individuality without a body. Not through his senses, but psychically, he recognized it; it was the hateful and sinister individuality of Loge.

    With choking throat and dry lips Cleggett stood and suffered beneath the smothering presence of this terror while the slow seconds mounted to an intolerable minute; then there burst from him an uncontrollable shout.

    "Loge!" he roared, and the cavern rang.

    And with the word he pressed the button of his electric pocket lamp and shot a beam of light straight in front of him. It fell upon the yellowish brow and the wide, unwinking eyes of Loge. The eyes stared straight at Cleggett's own from across the cave, thirty feet away. Loge's teeth were bared in his malevolent grimace; he head was bent forward; he sat upon a rock. Cleggett, unable to withdraw his eyes, waited for Loge's first movement. The man made no sign. Cleggett slowly raised his pistol. . . .

    But he did not fire. The open, staring eyes, unchanging at the menace of the lifted pistol, told the story. Loge was dead. Cleggett crossed over and examined him. Clutched on his knees was a bomb. He had been wounded by Barnstable's last shot, but he had crawled through the tunnel with a bomb for a final attempt on the Jasper B. His strength had failed; he had rested upon the rock and bled to death.

    As for his last thought, Cleggett had felt it. Loge had died hating and lusting for his blood.

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