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THE CRUISE OF THE JASPER B. (chapter4)

2006-08-28 19:57

    CHAPTER IV

    A BAD MAN TO CROSS

    The isolated road house on the bay was a nondescript, jumbled, dilapidated-looking assemblage of structures, rather than one house. It was known simply as Morris's. It stood a few hundred yards west of the end of the canal which opened into the bay and was about a quarter of a mile from the Jasper B.

    The canal itself was broad, straight, low-banked, and about three-quarters of a mile in length. The town had thrown out a few ranks of cottages in the direction of the canal. But these were all summer bungalows, occupied only from June until the middle of September. The solider and more permanent part of Fairport was well withdrawn from the sandy, sedgy stretches that bordered on tidewater.

    At the north and inland terminus of the quiet strip of water in which the Jasper B. reposed was a collection of buildings including bathhouses, a boathouse, and a sort of shed where "soft drinks" and sea food were served during the bathing season. This place was known as Parker's Beach and was open only during the summer.

    Morris's was of quite a different character from Parker's Beach. One could bathe at Morris's, but the beach near by was not particularly good. One could hire boats there and buy bait for a fishing trip. In one of its phases it made some pretensions to being a summer hotel. It had an extensive barroom. There was a dancing floor, none too smooth. There were long verandahs on three sides. That on the south side was built on piles' people ate and drank there in the summer; beneath it the water swished and gurgled when the tide was in.

    The townspeople of Fairport, or the more respectable ones, kept away from Morris's, summer and winter. Summer transients, inhabitants of the bungalows during the bathing season, patronized the place. But most of the patronage at all seasons seemed to consist of automobile parties from the city; people apparently drawn from all classes, or eluding definite classification entirely. In the bleakest season there was always a little stir of dubious activity about Morris's. In the summer it impressed you with its look of cheapness. In the winter, squatted by the cold water amidst its huddle of unpainted outhouses, at the end of a stretch of desolate beach, the fancy gave Morris's a touch of the sinister.

    Cleggett was anxious to get the Jasper B. into seaworthy condition as soon as possible. It occurred to him that the employment of expert advice should be his first step, and early the next morning he hired Captain Abernethy. That descendant of a seafaring family, though he felt it incumbent upon him to offer objections that had to be overcome with a great show of respect, was really overjoyed at the commission. He left his own cottage a mile or so away and took up his abode in the forecastle at once. By nine o'clock that morning Cleggett had a force of workmen renovating both cabin and forecastle, putting the cook's galley into working order, and cleansing the decks of soil and sand. That night Cleggett spent on the vessel, with Captain Abernethy.

    By Saturday of the same week——Cleggett had bought the vessel on Wednesday——he was able to take up his abode in the cabin with his books and arms about him. To his library he had added a treatise on navigation. And, reflecting that his firearms were worthless, considered as modern weapons, he also purchased a score of . caliber Colt's revolvers and automatic pistols of the latest pattern, and a dozen magazine rifles.

    He brought on board at the same time, for cook and cabin boy, a Japanese lad, who said he was a sailor, and who called himself Yoshahira Kuroki, and a Greek, George Stefanopolous.

    The latter was a handsome, rather burly fellow of about thirty, a man with a kindling eye and a habit of boasting of his ancestors.

    Among them, he declared, was Leonidas, the hero of Thermopylae. George admitted he was not a sailor, but professed a willingness to learn, and looked so capable, as he squared his bulky shoulders and twisted his fine black mustache, that Cleggett engaged him, taking him immediately from the dairy lunch room in which he had been employed. George's idea was to work his way back to Greece, he said, on the Jasper B. If she did not sail for Greece for some time, George was willing to wait; he was patient; sometime, no doubt, she would touch the shores of Greece.

    The hold of the Jasper B. Cleggett and Captain Abernethy found to be in a chaotic state. Casks, barrels, empty bottles by the hundred, ruins of benches, tables, chairs, old nondescript pieces of planking, broken crates and boxes, were flung together there in moldering confusion. It was evident that after the scheme of using the Jasper B.'s hulk as one of the attractions of a pleasure resort had failed, all the debris of the failure had simply been thrown pell-mell into the hold. Cleggett and Captain Abernethy decided that the vessel, which was stepped for two masts, should be rigged as a schooner. The Captain was soon busy securing estimates on the amount of work that would have to be done, and the cost of it. The pile of rubbish in the hold, which filled it to such an extent that Cleggett gave up the attempt to examine it, was to be removed by the same contractor who put in the sticks.

    All the activity on board and about the Jasper B. had not gone on without attracting the attention of Morris's. Cleggett noticed that there was usually someone in the neighborhood of that dubious resort cocking an eye in the direction of the vessel. Indeed, the interest became so pronounced, and seemed of a quality so different from ordinary frank rustic curiosity, that it looked very like espionage. It had struck Cleggett that Morris's seemed at all times to have more than its share of idlers and hangers-on; men who appeared to make the place their headquarters and were not to be confused with the occasional off-season parties from the city.

    On Sunday morning Cleggett was awakened by Captain Abernethy, who announced:"Strange craft lookin' us over mighty close, sir."

    "A strange craft? Where is she?" Cleggett was instantly alert.

    "She's a house boat, if you was to ask me," said the brown old man——in a new brown suit and with his whiskers newly trimmed he gave the

    impression of having been overhauled and freshly painted.

    "Where is she?" repeated Cleggett, beginning to get into his clothes.

    "She must 'a' sneaked up an' anchored mighty early this mornin',"

    pursued Cap'n Abernethy, true to his conversational principles.

    "Is she in the bay or in the canal?"

    "She looks like a mighty toney kind o' vessel," said Cap'n Abernethy.

    "If I was to make a guess I'd say she was one of them craft that sails herself along when she wants to with one of these newfangled gasoline engines."

    "She wasn't towed here then?" Cleggett gave up the attempt to learn from the Captain just where the house boat was.

    "She lies in the canal," said the Cap'n. Having established the point that he could not be FORCED to tell where she lay, he volunteered the information as a personal favor from one gentleman to another. "She lies ahead of us in the canal, a p'int or so off our port bow, I should say. And if you was to ask me I'd say she wasn't layin' there for any good purpose."

    "What do you think she's up to? What makes you suspicious of her?" "No, sir, she wasn't towed in," said Cap'n Abernethy, "or I'd 'a' heard a tug towin' her. Comin' of a seafarin' fambly I'm a light sleeper by nature."

    Cleggett finished dressing and went on deck. Sure enough, towards the south end of the canal, three or four hundred yards south of the Jasper B., and about the same distance east of Morris's, was anchored a house boat. She was painted a slaty gray color. As Cleggett looked at her a man stepped up on the deck, and, putting a binocular glass to his eye, began to study the Jasper B. After a few minutes of steady scrutiny this person turned his attention to Morris's.

    Looking towards Morris's himself Cleggett saw a man standing on the east verandah of that resort intently scanning the house boat through a glass. Cleggett went into the cabin and got his own glass.

    Presently the man on Morris's verandah and the man of the house boat ceased to scrutinize each other and both turned their glasses upon the Jasper B. But the moment they perceived that Cleggett was provided with a glass each turned hastily and entered, the one Morris's place, and the other the cabin of the house boat. But Cleggett had already recognized the man at Morris's as the stoop-shouldered man of tall stature and fanciful dress who had tried to stare him down some days before.

    As for the man on the house boat (which, as Cleggett had made out, was named the Annabel Lee), there was something vaguely familiar about his general appearance which puzzled and tantalized our hero.

    As the morning wore on Cleggett became certain that the Jasper B. was closely watched by both the Annabel Lee and Morris's, although the watchers avoided showing themselves plainly. A slightly agitated blind at a second story window over the verandah showed him where the tall man or one of his associates gazed out from Morris's; and from a porthole of the Annabel Lee he could see a glass thrust forth from time to time. It was evident to him that the Annabel Lee and Morris's were suspicious of each other, and that both suspected the Jasper B. But of what did they suspect Cleggett? What intention did they impute to him? He could only wonder.

    Through the entire morning he was conscious of the continuance of this watch. He thought it ceased about luncheon time; but at two in the afternoon he was certain that, if so, it had been resumed.

    Cleggett, innocent and honorable, began to get impatient of this persistent scrutiny. And in spite of his courage a vague uneasiness began to possess him. Towards the end of the afternoon he called his little company aft and spoke to them.

    "My men," he said, "I do not like the attitude of our neighbors. To put it briefly, there may be squalls ahead of the Jasper B. This is a wild and desolate coast, comparatively speaking. Strange things have happened to innocent people before this along the shores of Long Island. It is well to be prepared. I intend to serve out to each of you two hundred cartridges and a . caliber Colt's. In case of an attempt to board, you may find these cutlasses handy.

    "Cap'n Abernethy, in all nautical matters you will still be in command of the ship, but in case of a military demonstration, all of you will look to me for leadership. You may go now and rig up a jury mast and bend the American colors to the peak——and in case of blows, may God defend the right! I know I do not need to exhort you to do your duty!"

    As Cleggett spoke the spirit which animated him seemed to communicate itself to his listeners. Their eyes kindled and the keen joy that gallant men always feel in the anticipation of conflict flushed their faces.

    "I am a son of Leonidas," said George Stefanopolous, proudly. And he secreted not merely one, but two, of Cleggett's daggers about his body, in addition to the revolver given him. As George had already possessed a dagger or two and an automatic pistol, it was now almost impossible for him to lay his hand casually on any part of his person without its coming into contact with a deadly weapon ready for instant use. Cap'n Abernethy picked up a cutlass, "hefted" it thoughtfully, rolled his sleeve back upon a lean and sinewy old arm that was tanned until it looked like a piece of weathered oak, spat upon his hand and whirled the weapon till it whistled in the air. "I come of a seafarin' fambly," said the Cap'n, sententiously.

    As for Kuroki, he said nothing. He was not given to speech at any time. But he picked up a Malay kris and ran his thumb along the edge of it critically like a man to whom such a weapon is not altogether unfamiliar. A pleased smile stole over his face; he handled the wicked knife almost affectionately; he put it down with a little loving pat.

    "Brave boys," murmured Cleggett, as he watched them. He smiled, but at the same time something like a tear blurred his eloquent and magnetic eye for a moment. "Brave boys," he murmured, "we were made for each other!" The display of the American flag by the Jasper B. had an effect that could not have been foreseen.

    Almost immediately the Annabel Lee herself flung an exactly similar American flag to the breeze. But a strange thing happened at Morris's. An American flag was first hung from an upper window over the east verandah. Then, after a moment, it was withdrawn. Then a red flag was put out. But almost immediately Cleggett saw a man rip the red flag from its fastenings and fling it to the ground.

    Cleggett, resorting to his glass, perceived that it was the tall man with the stoop shoulders and incongruous clothing who had torn down the red flag. He was now in violent altercation with the man who had hung it out——the fellow whom he had called Heinrich some days before.

    As Cleggett watched, the two men came to blows; then they clinched and struggled, swaying back and forth within the open window, like a moving picture in a frame. Suddenly the tall fellow seemed to get the upper hand; exerting all his strength, he bent the other backward over the window sill. The two contending figures writhed desperately a moment and then the tall man shifted one powerful, sinewy hand to Heinrich's throat.

    The binoculars brought the thing so near to Cleggett that it seemed as if he could touch the contorted faces; he could see the tall man's neck muscles work as if that person were panting; he could see the signs of suffocation in Heinrich's countenance. The fact that he saw so plainly and yet could hear no sound of the struggle somehow added to its horror.

    All at once the tall man put his knee upon the other's chest, and flung his weight upon Heinrich with a vehement spring. Then he tumbled Heinrich out of the window onto the roof of the verandah.

    He stepped out of the window himself, picked Heinrich up with an ease that testified to his immense strength, and flung him over the edge of the verandah onto the ground. A few moments later a couple of men ran out from Morris's, busied themselves about reviving the fellow, and helped him into the house. If Heinrich was not badly injured, certainly all the fight had been taken out of him for one day.

    With Heinrich thus disposed of, the tall man turned composedly to the task of putting out the American flag again. Through the glass Cleggett perceived that his face was twisted by a peculiar smile; a smile of joyous malevolence.

    "A bad man to cross, that tall man," said Cleggett, musingly. And indeed, his violence with Heinrich had seemed out of all proportion to the apparent grounds of the quarrel; for it was evident to Cleggett that Heinrich and the tall man had differed merely about the policy of displaying the red flag. "A man determined to have his way," mused Cleggett. "If he and I should meet——" Cleggett did not finish the sentence in words, but his hand closed over the butt of his revolver.

    His musing was interrupted by the noise of an approaching automobile. Turning, he saw a vehicle, the rather long body of which was covered so that it resembled a merchant's delivery wagon, coming along the road from Fairport.

    It stopped opposite the Jasper B., and from the seat beside the driver leaped lightly the most beautiful woman Cleggett had ever seen, and walked hesitatingly but gracefully towards him.

    She was agitated. She was, in fact, sobbing; and a Pomeranian dog which she carried in her arms was whimpering excitedly as if in sympathy with its mistress. Cleggett, soul of chivalry that he was, born cavalier of beauty in distress, removed his hat and advanced to meet her.

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