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- West Wind Drift - 4/60 -
"Well," said the young man slowly, "you see, news is a long time getting out into the wilderness where I've been located for a couple of years. We knew, of course, that there was a war on, but we didn't know how it was progressing. Down here in this part of the world we have a war every two or three months, and we've got so used to having 'em over within a week or two that we just naturally don't pay much attention to them. We don't even care who wins. But a couple of months ago we got word up there that the United States had finally got into it with everybody under the sun, and that the Germans were bound to win if we didn't get a couple of million men across in pretty short order. I am thirty years old, Captain, strong and healthy, and I'm a good American. That's why I want to get home. I've told you the truth about being robbed. I don't mind losing the money,--only a couple of thousand pesos, you know,--but if you chuck me off at the next port of call, Captain Trigger, I'll curse you to my dying day. I'm willing to work, I'm willing to be put in irons, I'm willing to get along on bread and water, but you've just got to land me in the United States. You are an Englishman. I suppose you've got relatives over in France fighting the Germans. Maybe you've had some one killed who is dear to you."
"My youngest son was killed in Flanders," said the Captain simply.
"I am sorry, sir. Well, for every Englishman and every Frenchman who has died over there, my country ought to supply some one to take his place. I expect to be one of those men, Captain. I have no other excuse for coming aboard your ship as a stowaway."
The Captain still eyed him narrowly.
"I believe you are honest, young man. If I am deceived in you I shall never trust the eyes of another man as long as I live. Sit down, Mr. Percival. I shall put you to work, never fear, but in the meantime I am very much interested in what you were doing up in the hills. You will oblige me by going as fully as possible into all the details. I shall not pass judgment on you until I've heard all of your story."
Algernon Adonis Percival, civil and mining engineer, Cornell, had gone through certain rather harsh stages of development in the mines of Montana and later in the perilous districts of Northern Mexico. A year or two prior to the breaking out of the great World War, he was sent to South America to replace the general superintendent of a new copper-mining enterprise in a remote section of the Andes, on the Bolivian side of the mountains. Here he was in charge of the heterogeneous horde of miners, labaurers, structural workers and assayists who were engaged in the development and extension of the vast concession controlled by his company.
His description of the camp or town in which this motley assemblage dwelt from one year's end to the other, far from civilization, was illuminating to the two sea-faring men. It must be confessed, however, that a sound reluctance to swallow the tale without the proverbial grain of salt caused them to watch closely for the slightest sign that might reveal to them the always-to-be expected and seldom successful duplicity so common in those harrowing days when all men were objects of suspicion. From time to time they glanced inquiringly at each other, but the stranger's story was so straightforward, so lacking in personal exploitation, so free from unnecessary detail, that they were finally convinced that he was all that he represented himself to be and that they had nothing to fear from him.
His long, hazardous journey by horse through the passes down into the forests and jungles, out upon the endless, sparsely settled pampas, and eventually into the remote village that witnessed the passing every second day of a primitive and far from dependable railway train, was presented with agreeable simplicity and conciseness. He passed briefly over what might have been expanded into grave experiences, and at last came, so to speak, to the gates of the city, unharmed, resolute and full of the fire that knows no quenching.
"By the way," observed the Captain, still wary, "has it occurred to you we may be justified in suspecting that you deserted your post up there in the hills, and that you have betrayed the confidence of your employers?" Percival had completed what he evidently believed to be a full and satisfactory account of himself.
"I was in full charge up there, Captain Trigger. My contract had but a month more to run. I appointed my own successor, and the company will not be any the worse off for the change. My letter to headquarters, announcing my decision not to renew the contract, went forward two weeks before I left the camp. I merely anticipated the actual termination of my contract by a month or so, and as I handed my resignation at once to my own newly appointed superintendent, I submit that I acted in absolute good faith. I may say that he accepted it without a word of protest, sir. As a matter of fact, I told him in advance that I wouldn't appoint him unless he agreed to accept my resignation."
The Captain smiled at this ingenuous explanation.
"I daresay I ought to put you under guard, Mr. Percival," he said. "My duty is very plain. A stowaway is a stowaway, no matter how you look at him. The regulations do not leave me any choice. Maritime justice is rarely tempered by mercy. However, under the circumstances, I am inclined to accept your word of honour that you will not violate your parole if I refrain from putting you in irons. Have I your word of honour that you will not leave this ship until I hand you over to the proper authorities in the United States?"
"You have, sir."
"You are a very head-strong, ambitious young man. You will not jump overboard and try to beat us into port under your own steam?"
"You may trust me, sir, never to give up the ship."
"And you will kill as many Germans as possible?"
"Yes, sir," said A. A. Percival submissively.
Captain Trigger arose and extended his hand.
"I've never done anything like this before in all my years as ship's master. You ought to be flogged and stowed away in the brig until you show a properly subdued spirit, young man. I suppose you've heard of the cat-o'-nine-tails?"
"My reading up to the age of fifteen was confined almost exclusively to the genteel histories of pirates, buccaneers and privateersmen, Captain Trigger," announced A. A. Percival, taking the master's hand in a firm grip. "I wonder if you know what a black-snake whip is, or a cattle-adder? Well, they're both painful and convincing. As director of morals in the camp I have just left behind me, it was my official duty on frequent occasions to see to it that current offenders had from fifteen to fifty applications of the black-snake in a public sort of way. The black-snake, I may explain, could be wielded by a strong but unskilled arm. It was different, however, with the cattle-adder. That had to be handled by an expert, one who could stand off twenty paces, more or less, and crack the long lash with such astonishing precision that the tip end of it barely touched the back of the culprit, the result being a nobby assortment of splotches that looked for all the world like hives after the blood got back into them again. You see, I was chief magistrate, executioner ex-officio, chief of police, jury commissioner--in fact, an all-around potentate. Sort of Pooh-bah, you know. For serious offences, such as wife beating, wife stealing, or having more than one wife at a time, we were not so lenient. The offender, on conviction, was strung up by the thumbs and used as a target by amateurs who desired to become proficient in the use of the cattle-adder. Murderers were attended to a trifle more expeditiously. They were strung up by the neck."
"Good God, man,--do you mean to say you hung men in that off-hand fashion?" cried Captain Trigger, aghast.
"Not without a fair trial, sir. No innocent man was ever hung. There was no such thing as circumstantial evidence in that camp. The guilty man was always taken red-handed. We had good laws and they were rigidly enforced. There was no other way, sir. Short, sharp and decisive. It's the best way. Men understand that sort of thing and honest men approve of the method. You see, gentlemen, we had a hard lot of characters to deal with. I wish to add, however, that before I had been up there six months we had a singularly law-abiding and self-respecting camp. Crime was not tolerated, not even by the men who had once been criminals. If two men quarrelled, they were allowed to fight it out fairly and squarely in any way they could agree upon. Knives, hatchets and all other messy weapons were barred. It was either fists, pistols or rifles at a fairly long range, and under the strictest rules. Duels were fought according to Hoyle, and were witnessed by practically every one in camp. You will perceive that Copperhead Camp was no place for a coward or a bluffer or a bully. It takes a brave man to fight a duel with a chap who may be only half as big as he is, but who can shoot like the devil. So you see, Captain Trigger, the cat-o'-nine-tails has no terror for me."
Mr. Mott regarded the young man with wide-open, somewhat incredulous eyes.
"You don't look like a fire-eating, swashbuckling party to me," he said.
"I am the most peaceable chap you've ever seen, Mr. Mott. You needn't be alarmed. I'm not going to bite a hole in the ship and scuttle her. Moreover, I am a very meek and lowly individual on board this ship. There's a lot of difference between being in supreme command with all kinds of authority to bolster you up and being a rat in a trap as I am now. Up in Copperhead Camp I was a nabob, here I'm a nobody. Up there I was the absolute boss of five or six hundred men,--I won't say I could boss the women,--and I made 'em all walk chalk without once losing step. There were murderers and crooks, blacklegs and gunmen in my genial aggregation, men whose true names we never knew, men who were wanted in every part of the civilized world. The only place on earth, I suppose, where they could feel reasonably at home was in that gosh-awful nowhere that we called Copperhead Camp. You can't handle such men with mittens. And there
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