We have been looking for this item for a number of years until it got up in the top 10 in ‘Missing Verrill’. A copy of the magazine came up on eBay at a price I could not afford but the vender was persuaded to sell me a clear digital copy. This story probably has not been read in it’s entirety for eighty years until now. Enjoy!/drf
Trailing The Gun Runners
By A. Hyatt Verrill
Author of "The Syndicate of Terror," "Pearls Beyond Price," etc.
A two-part story – Part1, from Secret Service Stories magazine, August 1928, digitized by Doug Frizzle Nov. 2011.
Gale and his "Man Friday," start out on their mission for Uncle Sam and run into many weird experiences in their quest for the smugglers. A mighty interesting story.
I START ON MY MISSION
IT was a wonderful tropic evening, soft and balmy, with a gentle breeze rustling the palm fronds with a caressing touch and filling the air with the delicate odor of jasmine and orange blossoms. Overhead, the full moon rode in a dome of indigo sprinkled with countless stars and, low in the heavens, hung the brilliant Southern Cross.
Beyond the twinkling lights of the little town, the bay shimmered in the moonlight and silhouetted the black hull of a mail steamer swinging at her moorings near the quay while, from distant dance halls, came the dreamy strains of "Sobre las olas" and the liquid tinkling of guitars.
Lulled by the charm of the night, we had ceased our conversation and sat silently smoking in the vine-shaded gallery of Le Croix's house.
"That reminds me," he said, "Mateo was in today. He says all the people are talking revolution and that arms and ammunition are plenty in the interior."
"The rotten beggars!" exclaimed Branch, the British Consul. "How the bounders evade you customs chaps is most extraordinary, Merrit."
"Yes, hang it all!" cried Merritt, the Customs Inspector. "But they do get by us just the same. I'll stake my reputation they don't get their stuff through the ports, though. It may come over the Haitien border, or they may land it at some Godforsaken part of the coast, or, for all I know, they may bring it by airplane. The revenue boats are on the job day and night, the border is patrolled, and if an airship ever showed up here the people would have a panic. Just the same, they get the goods."
"There are plenty of chances," declared Le Croix, the steamship agent. "You can't expect to guard two hundred miles of jungle border with a few dozen lazy natives, nor watch a thousand miles of coast with three tin gunboats. Nobody can blame you, Merritt; but our Uncle Samuel will have to give you more men and boats if he doesn't want to fall down on his job of keeping peace in by keeping arms out."
"What I want is a few good men, not a crowd of boobs," exclaimed Merritt. “If I had even one good, smart Yankee, and the spigottys didn't know he was a revenue man, he might be able to locate the leaks; but I haven't him."
"By Jove!" cried Branch. "I say, Gale, old top, why don't you help Merritt out? You knock about all over the island and none of the natives would conceive of a bug-hunter being interested in their game. Top hole idea, don't you think?"
Merritt's feet came down from the rail with a bang and, slapping Branch on the shoulder, he cried: "Hang it all, man, you've hit the idea all right! What say, Gale? Drop your bugs and orchids and hunt smugglers for a change. I'll fix the salary all right—say two hundred a week and expenses. Is it a go?"
For a space I was nonplussed. Here was I, a naturalist-explorer, being asked to turn special revenue agent to trail down the gun-runners. To be sure, my collecting work was practically completed and I was free lance anyway. The work promised excitement and adventure and the salary was not to be scoffed at. In a moment my mind was made up. "All right," I said, "I'll take it. I don't believe your smugglers are any harder to find than that orchid I showed you, nor any shyer than the trogans. I'm tired of small fry and long for big game, anyway."
"Righto, old chap!" cried Branch.
"I'll bet on Gale," declared LeCroix.
"When do you start?" queried the practical Merritt.
"Daybreak tomorrow," I replied, adding: "By the way, LeCroix, is your motor boat in good shape? I'll borrow her if you don't mind. Can Mateo run her?"
"Welcome to the boat," answered our host. "Yes, Mateo handles her well. I'll tell him to be ready at the dock tomorrow morning at five. Want any supplies?"
"No thanks," I replied. "I'll take my own outfit in the canoe. I'm off to the Colorado swamps to explore the river, if anyone asks questions. I imagine Mateo's a good talker and the more he talks about the crazy Yankee over in the Colorado the better. I'll be back by canoe when I'm ready, so don't send for me. If I want to communicate I'll find a way. But don't let anyone make me a week-end visit. Did Mateo mention where he heard most of the revolutionary talk?"
"He came in from the south," replied LeCroix. "Said every man in the Seybo district was a walking arsenal already. But the whole southeast of the Republic appears full of arms."
"Well, boys," I remarked with a yawn, "it's late and if I'm starting at dawn I'll have to turn in."
Merritt and Branch also rose, and bidding goodnight to LeCroix, we passed between the masses of shrubbery to the street.
Branch left us at the first corner, but Merritt trudged along up the hill with me, talking over the details of my coming trip.
"Gale," he ejaculated, after Branch had left us, "I'll bet old Fales is at the bottom of this deal. Remember how slick he got the goods in for the last rebellion when Mendoza was president? Shipped his cartridges in as tinned vegetables and meats. Never would have been discovered if it hadn't been for a hungry Turks Island stevedore. The nigger dropped a case of beans and copped one of the tins for his lunch. When he opened it up, instead of Van Camp's best, he found it filled with 30-30s packed in black powder—nice, pleasant job it must have been to solder it up, eh! It didn't help us much. Couldn't very well open every tin that came in, and couldn't prove anything on the shippers anyway. Some of the stuff was genuine all right. Opened half a dozen cases and all bona-fide things. Not a mark to show which was which. Tried weighing, but that was no go. Real beans and ammunition tins balanced to a "T". While we waited for instructions from Washington the revolution broke out; but as old Mendoza got wise through the nigger's find he licked the life out of Fale's men. Old Miguel had to beat it over the border and hit Jamaica. Used to entertain the tourists there, telling how he fooled the Yankees with his loaded bean tins.
"He's a mighty decent sort, too. Jolly, good natured, gentlemanly old chap. Educated at Princeton and talks United States as well as anyone. Never lets on, though, and pretends he doesn't spout anything but Spanish, unless you're wise to him."
"I think I've met your friend," I replied. "At least, I became acquainted with a native of that name coming down on the ship. Stout, light-colored fellow with laughing eyes and thin mustache. Always wore a skull cap and smoked long, black cigars. We were quite friendly on the ship, after he found I spoke Spanish, and seemed well up on scientific matters. He took a lot of interest in my work and told me about the birds and gave me valuable hints on the country. He said he lived at 'La Antigua' in the Seybo and invited me to visit him there. Promised a good time and said there were lots of rare things in his neighborhood; but I've never run over there yet."
"That's Don Miguel, all right," declared Merritt. "Has a big estate over there and lives like a feudal lord with an army of half wild retainers. After old Mendoza got out and Carillo came in, Fales came back. Lives an easy life, but loves kicking up trouble for excitement. Money's no object—he's got at least a million salted down in the States, You're in luck, Gale. If Miguel asked you over you'll be as welcome as the flowers in May, and knowing you came here after bugs he'll never suspect you're looking for anything else. If the buzzing is over in Seybo, you can bet old Fales is the queen-bee of the hive. Be careful, Gale; if he or any of his bunch get wise to your game you'll never see little old New York again, my boy."
By now we had reached my hotel and Merritt stopped for a few last words before leaving me.
"Draw on LeCroix for expense money or anything you may want," he said. "I don't want anything to show up between us, and if you send any messages put them through LeCroix or Branch. If you need one of the gunboats anywhere, just let me know and we'll send her around. But what's this Colorado stunt, Gale? There's nothing doing over there. What is it, just a bluff?"
I laughed. "I've a hunch, Merritt," I answered, "but I'm not giving my plans away, even to you; but, nevertheless, as they say of Postum, 'there's a reason'."
"All right," laughed Merritt. "I don't want to know anything—as long as we get results. Good luck to you and for God's sake and your own, take care of yourself."
With a hearty handshake he left me and I watched his spruce, white-clad form disappear in the shadows as he walked briskly towards his bungalow. Although it was late when I reached my hotel routed out a sleepy servant and sent him with a message to Joseph. Joseph was my "Man Friday," my porter and my traveling companion combined. A St. Thomas boy, black as night, but with the features of the Caucasian and the dignity of a Spanish Grandee. Over six feet in height and lean as a rail, he seemed built of whipcord and steel and was ever ready to obey any command regardless of time or place. Taciturn, faithful, willing and honest, and with an intelligence far above his class, he had proved an ideal servant and had accompanied me on all my expeditions into the interior.
Only on one occasion had he ever balked—when he first entered my little Oldtown canoe. His long, grasshopper-like legs were a serious handicap in the tiny craft, and he had grave fears of its seaworthiness. After one or two experiences, he became accustomed to the canoe, however, and now, after numerous voyages on rivers and bays, he was as fond of the craft and could handle her as well as myself. He had the greatest contempt for the natives, especially those of his own color, and classed them all under the general term of "stupid niggers." I therefore felt that Joseph would be an essential part of my expedition and could be fully trusted to keep secret anything which might be discovered.
With the first sign of dawn the next morning, Joseph knocked at my door and, shouldering my dunnage, he departed for the dock. Eating a hasty breakfast, I gathered up my few remaining things and made my way through the still sleeping town to the water-front.
Early as it was, LeCroix was waiting at the quay to see me off, his little gasoline launch ready, with my canoe laid across its deck, and with Joseph seated on our bundles in the bow. Mateo was on hand, and after a few parting words with LeCroix, I stepped aboard, Mateo cranked the motor, and as the chugging exhaust aroused the drowsy pelicans on the beach, the painter was cast off and our voyage began.
In a few moments the dock was left far astern and LeCroix, waving his hand in farewell, was hidden by the mist rising from the water at the touch of the golden sun as it rose amid a riot of color, beyond the palm trees on the point.
As yet I had scarcely spoken to Mateo, for he had been busy about the motor, but now, with a twenty-mile run before us, he had nothing to do but steer and talk. He was a Porto Rican, with the clear skin and reddish hair often found among the natives of Catalan descent, and being an honest and intelligent chap had risen to the position of purchasing agent for LeCroix, his duties being to travel through the interior and purchase cacao beans from the small farmers. In this work he met natives of every class and, being of a sociable and talkative disposition, he made innumerable friends and knew the gossip of every town, village and barrio in the Republic. As he regarded LeCroix with a sort of reverence and boasted that he was an "Americano" himself, he was quick to report anything that savored of revolution or of disloyalty to his adopted country.
He was filled with curiosity as to why I was going to the Colorado, for to him the vast mangrove swamps at the river's mouth were most oppressive, and he could not conceive how anyone in his senses would leave civilization to camp amid such solitudes. He rattled on with Joseph and, as I expected, began to chatter of his recent trip through the island. "And who knows?" said he, "when you return from the Colorado—if God wills that you are not eaten by mosquitoes or killed by fever—but that you may find a new president at El Capital. Everywhere is there talk of revolt, never have I bought cacao so cheaply, Senores. The people desire guns and to buy guns they must of a truth have money. Poor Dios! Had Don Enrique but given me cartridges in place of gold, I could have made his fortune, and yet, one can buy guns cheaply, yes! At Almacen, two months ago, a gun was worth three sacks of cacao and cartridges cost two reales each and now, but Thursday last—when I stopped at Seybo, one could buy a gun more cheaply than a horse, while cartridges—a peso would purchase a dozen. Twas so I told Don Enrique, that he might apprise the Senor Merritt, for it takes not the fortune teller to know that when arms are thus plenty the smugglers are busy."
Not caring to show undue interest in his story, and yet wishing to learn all I could of the district, I remarked casually: "But tell me, Mateo, what sort of a country is this ! Seybo? Is it mountainous or flat, wet or dry; do the people raise cattle or crops? It's a part of the island I have not yet seen."
"Ah, Senor!" replied the Porto Rican, "the Seybo is a beautiful country. For many leagues can one ride over great savannas of rich grass where hundreds of cattle and horses grow sleek and fat. Here and there are clumps of trees—growing in barrancas—and in these the Senor should indeed find good hunting—pigeon and parrot, perdiz and Guinea fowl—all lurk in these barrancas with deer and other game besides. On the savannas are many villages, El Valle, La Ceiba, Cienaga and others; some a score of houses, others of greater size. Here live those who grow the cacao upon the rich hillsides about the plains. But near the sea the hills grow higher and the savannas narrow. 'Tis here the rich men live—Don Miguel Fales, old Jose Moya, Manuel Pedro Gonzales, all with great estates and many men. Here, too, grows the sugar and the fruits and cacao. Truly 'tis a rich land and great wealth have the owners amassed. Of a truth, Senor, you would do well to visit the Seybo."
Evidently Mateo knew the district well, but he could give me little information that I did not already have, and I gave myself up to plans of my campaign and allowed him to chatter on with Joseph.
The mist had now cleared from the bay and the magnificent sheet of water stretched away for miles to the south and east. Before us, a dozen miles distant, the Sierras rose above the horizon, their summits wreathed in rosy clouds and their rugged forest-covered slopes purple in the morning light.
Nearer and to the west, the deep, rich green of the mangrove swamps marked the limit of the bay, the home of countless water-fowl and of myriads of mosquitoes, and the haunt of enormous alligators.
Soon the motor was slowed down and Mateo told Joseph to keep a sharp lookout for floating logs which here, there and everywhere appeared—just level with the water's surface. At last the logs became fewer, and presently we were again speeding through clear water across the mouth of the great river. Soon the launch was run ashore on a little island, and in a few moments the various bundles, the guns and the tent were put ashore with the canoe, Joseph and I pushed off the launch, Mateo started his motor and was soon out of sight beyond the nearest point, and we were alone.
IN THE CAVERNS OF SAN LORENZO
As soon as Mateo was fairly off, Joseph pushed his way into the bush towards the interior of the island, evidently bent on exploration. A minute later, there was a tremendous crashing as something dashed headlong through the brush, and, the next instant, Joseph rushed madly from the jungle, a perfect cloud of mosquitoes swarming about him. Beating wildly with both hands, he dashed forward to the beach and, dropping on all fours, plunged head and shoulders into the water. As he rose, dripping and spluttering, I burst out laughing, for his expression of mingled anger and offended dignity was irresistible.
"Boss!" he exclaimed, "Ah'm ready to do mos' arnythin' an' go arny place; but man! If yo' arsk me, this place is pure corruption an' no spot fo' campin', sir!"
"Never mind, Joseph," I replied, "We're not going to camp here, so don't worry. Just pack all the things in the canoe, with guns and cartridges handy, and we'll soon leave your mosquito friends to themselves."
He looked at me quizzically for a moment, but forebore to question, and at once commenced to busy himself with the baggage.
At last all was ready, and shoving our little craft into the water, we stepped in, picked up our paddles and started down stream. While Joseph had been packing I had been considering how much I should take him into my confidence. I knew he would be of the greatest assistance, for by mingling with the people we met he would learn a great deal which would never reach my ears otherwise, and his color would enable him to win the confidence of the natives far more readily than I could hope to do. As I had already proved his intelligence and devotion to me, and as he was not talkative, I had no fear of his betraying my secret. My only fear was that in his zeal to help he might be incautious and arouse suspicions by his questions, but on the whole, I decided that it was wisest to inform him fully of the nature of my; trip.
"Joseph," I said after we had been paddling for a few moments, "I suppose you're wondering where we're going and what we're after. I want you to remember that everything I'm going to tell you must be kept a secret. If you even let anyone guess the truth it may mean death for both of us, and it certainly will mean that we'll be in a heap of trouble. We're bound on a dangerous trip and if you want to turn back, or are afraid of risking your life, let me know before it's too late."
Joseph's reply was prompt and to the point, as I had felt it would be.
"Mr. Gale, Ah'm pleased to have yo' trus' me an' yo' know Ah'll never be false to yo' confidence. Ah'm not minded to dessart yo', sir, an' Ah'm not afraid of arnythin', when yo's with me, no."
"Thanks for the compliment, Joseph," I laughed. "If you do well on this trip there's a nice little pile of money coming to you. We're bound to San Lorenzo and places beyond, and we're going to try and catch the gun-runners. You heard Mateo's stories and how arms are being brought in. You know the United States has charge of the customs and that we've guaranteed to keep out arms and ammunition so as to prevent revolutions. I'm going to try and find out how the stuff is getting in and who's getting it, and I've an idea that it's landed somewhere on the southern shore of the bay near San Lorenzo. That's the northern entrance to the Seybo and Mateo tells us most of the guns and cartridges are over there. I want you to help me all you can. Whenever we're at a house or village get a chance to talk to the natives, keep your ears and eyes open and your mouth shut, and tell me everything you hear—whether you think it's of interest or not.
"Do you know anything about the San Lorenzo country? I've never been there, but I've heard about it, and it seems to me it's a likely spot to land a cargo."
Joseph was grinning as I finished, and replied: "When Ah was a boy, Ah was cookin' on a St. Thomas boat. Charlotte Amelie was a free po't then, yo' know, sir, an' plenty o' smugglers run from man home down the islan's. Ah knows they ways an' Ah'll be please' to he'p yo' cotch the stoopid niggers, sir. Trus' me to use mah ears an' repo't to all Ah hear. San Lorenzo's a pretty place fo' smugglers, Mr. Gale. The's a big shallow lagoon with mangrove all about an' quant'ties o' li'l canas runin' atween them. Outside the bay the's a long po'nt o' san' lan' growed over with coconut trees. This side, the lan's hilly an' full o' caves—thousan's o' them."
I laughed. "Not thousands of caves, are there, Joseph?"
"Ah'm speakin' true, Mr. Gale," he replied in a somewhat injured tone. "Ev'ry hill has a cave, sir, an' off the sho' the's plenty o' li'l' keys, an ev'ry key has a cave in it. Ah worked at Cana Honda one time, an' Ah been to the caves of 'em. The stoopid niggers use to tell as how a treasure was hid in one o’ the caves an' we use' to spen' our holidays a sarchin' fo' it."
"That must be a fine place for smugglers," I responded; "but if there are so many caves it will be some job to locate the right one. You say you worked at Cana Honda. Do you know the road from there to Seybo?"
"Yessir," he answered, "Ah been over that ol’ road many a time. It cert'nly is a bad road, narsty Ah call it, sir."
"Is that the only trail to Seybo from this side, Joseph?"
"Yessir, mos' of the people go by way o' the south sho' by boat."
"Cana Honda's deserted now, since the company failed, isn't it?" I asked.
"No, sir, the's a caretaker there. A Dutchman named Hirechfeldt with a native wife; but the's no work goin' on. The plantation's all growed to bush an' the docks gone."
I was glad I had consulted Joseph on these matters, for his knowledge of our destination was invaluable. I had heard of the landlocked bay of San Lorenzo, of the huge abandoned estate of the Cana Honda Company and, vaguely, of the wonderful caves; but Joseph actually had worked on the estate and knew the ground intimately.
To my mind there was little doubt that the smuggled arms found their way to the Seybo from the northern side, for I well knew the efficiency of coast patrol—consisting of the three miniature gunboats officered by American customs men—and I felt sure that no native would take the risk of running in to land a cargo on an open coast where one of the patrols might pounce upon them at any moment. The great Bay of Samana, with its low shores, shoal waters, tortuous channels and wooded islands offered far greater opportunities and, if a vessel could once enter the bay unsuspected and then hugged the southern shore after nightfall, there would be nothing to prevent the crew from making a safe landing in one of the smaller bays or lagoons with their thick fringe of mangroves.
As the only available trail from the southern shore of the bay to the interior of the Seybo district led from San Lorenzo, I had decided that this was the most promising point at which to commence my hunt.
"Mr. Gale," said Joseph presently, "Ah'm arskin' yo' pardon, sir, but Ah'll be please' to know why we went to Colorado first, sir?"
It was the first time he had ever evinced the least curiosity as to my movements and I realized that, in so doing, he had naively hinted that now he had been taken into my secret of the trip he considered himself a member of the revenue force, rather than a servant whose duty it was to obey commands and ask no questions.
"I headed for the Colorado just to throw Mateo off our track," I replied. "I knew he'd report where we went to everyone, and if the gunrunners got wind of strangers about San Lorenzo they might keep away, even if they believed we were still bug hunting. Besides, by keeping close inshore we can dodge behind one of the keys, or into the mangroves, if we see anyone about. With the green canoe we can't be seen more than a few hundred feet away, while the launch or a sailboat would be hard to keep out of sight. As soon as we get near the first key we'll head close inshore and go carefully. I plan to spend the afternoon hidden within easy reach of San Lorenzo bay, and if you know of a cave where we can camp and hide the canoe, and from which we can keep watch on the bay and lagoon, we'll run there after dark and stay until we locate the smugglers' boats, if they really come this way."
"Yessir," replied Joseph promptly. "Ah know a cave tha's jus' the spot yo' wish. Ah don' doubt yo' humbugged Mateo. Yo' heard what he said a-comin' over, sir."
A little later we approached close to the shore and soon spied a landing place, a little beach in a small cove among the trees, where we ran the canoe ashore and made a noonday camp. As Joseph busied himself with the cooking, I studied a map of the country and found we should just about reach San Lorenzo by sundown. Then, going to the canoe, I got out a heavy Colt's .38 and a box of cartridges which I handed to Joseph, remarking, "Here's a present for you, Joseph. You may need it at any time and at any rate it will make you feel brave. But don't turn revolutionist in order to use your gun, and for Heaven's sake don't gamble away your cartridges or let anyone steal them."
He thanked me profusely and dropped his cooking while he strapped on the holster, as proud as a peacock and grinning broadly at my remark, for Joseph was not a gambling man and knew I was merely joking. As a matter of fact, I had little faith in the efficiency of the gun in Joseph's hands for, as I far as I knew, he had never used a revolver in his life; but I felt that if it did come to shooting he was quite as likely to hit his assailant as to be hit, for the natives are notoriously bad revolver shots and depend mainly on their long, swordlike machetes when at close quarters. Both Joseph and myself invariably carried these useful implements, and, in addition, I had a double-barreled shotgun, a 25-35 Marlin repeating rifle and a Savage automatic, so that I felt we were well able to take care of ourselves in case of trouble. Little did I dream how much my present to Joseph would mean to me, or how much I erred in my estimation of Joseph's marksmanship.
We soon finished our meal, and pushing off, resumed our trip towards San Lorenzo, keeping close to the shore and maintaining a sharp lookout for boats, but for several hours we saw nothing.
About three o'clock, however, a sail was sighted emerging from behind a large island half-way across the bay; but as it stood away from us and headed towards the northern shore we decided it was some freighter on legitimate business. A little later, a smudge of smoke trailed across the eastern horizon and we watched the Clyde liner as she worked slowly up the bay, hugging the channel a couple of miles to the north. Shortly after this the character of the land, ahead and to the south, began to change, the low-lying, rounded coastal ridge growing more and more broken and presently giving way to numerous sharp, conical hills.
Joseph called my attention to these and remarked that they were the "cave hills" he had mentioned, and half an hour later, we reached the base of the nearest one.
This hill stood near the water, its steep, brush-covered sides rising abruptly from the bay with merely a few masses of broken rock for a beach. Rounding one of these accumulations of debris, a large, arched opening was disclosed in the side of the hill, its roof four or five feet above our heads, and passing under the arch we entered the cavern and floated upon the calm water within. Overhead the roof rose to a height of thirty or forty feet and gleamed with countless stalactites of every size from tiny, needle-like affairs to great, inverted cones five or six feet in diameter. On every side the water extended, far into the dim recesses among the limestone columns and, looking down through the crystal clear water, we could see the white, sandy bottom a score of feet beneath us, and could watch the bright-hued fishes swimming lazily about amid the broken bits of stalactites and marine growth on the floor of the grotto.
Far above our heads, a break in the rocky roof admitted sunlight, but in many places the cave was dark and mysterious with shadows. On one side was a little beach, and landing here, we walked about among the huge stalagmites, which, joined with the stalactites above, formed huge, stone columns of innumerable forms.
It was an ideal spot for smugglers, for a good-sized boat easily could pass through the entrance; but Joseph stated that in rough weather the waves dashed into the cavern with terrific force.
Leaving this first cave we continued on our way and, as we had an abundance of time, we paddled near each conical hill that was in our course and in every one—as Joseph had said—was a cave of some sort.
In some cases the openings were submerged and entrance was impossible, in others, the entrances were far above the water on the side of the hill. Some of the caverns had narrow slits or crevices leading to the interior, while others were merely huge, open hollows in the hillsides. In size the caves varied from small affairs a few yards square to immense chambers several hundred feet in length, and with vaulted roofs a hundred feet or more above the floor. In many instances the floors were covered several feet in depth with fossil sea shells, while in others, the floors were of shining, crystalline limestone.
As we neared San Lorenzo, we found many of the hills separated from the mainland by narrow channels and, here and there, they stood a quarter of a mile or more from shore and formed queer islands of sugar-loaf form.
I could well imagine how difficult it would be to search through all of these caves on a hunt for pirates' treasure or smugglers' contraband, and so, keeping well out of sight of possible observers by following the channels back of the isolated hills, we pushed steadily onward towards our goal.
Just as the sun topped the western mountains we reached the last of the hills, and looking ahead, saw a stretch of smooth, sheltered water bordered on its farther side by an enormous cocoanut grove stretching eastward as far as eye could see, while near us, the land fell off in rocky cliffs clothed with a jungle of brush and vines. At the foot of this cliff we could see the remains of what once had been a dock, for a few crooked iron rods and sagging timbers still projected from the shore or stood drunkenly in the water.
We had reached the end of our day's journey and before us was the entrance to San Lorenzo Bay and the neglected dock of the Cana Honda estate.
About three hundred yards from where we were, a wooded island rose to a height of some two hundred feet above the water and Joseph pointed this out as the spot he had in mind for our camp. The islet was not round or conical like the others we had seen, but was rather square, with bold precipitous sides and was overgrown with thick brush, small palms and a tangle of vines. Joseph declared that there, was a sheltered beach between the rocks and that a large, dry cave was located on the island, and I judged, from his description, that it would prove an ideal spot for my purpose.
Without further hesitation we paddled across to the islet, Joseph ran the canoe between two great masses of limestone and the little craft grated upon a smooth, white, sand beach a dozen yards in length, and completely concealed by the jutting rocks between which we had passed.
Beaching the canoe, Joseph led the way for a few yards inland and pushing aside the hanging vines, disclosed the entrance to a cavern. Stepping within, I was surprised to find the interior almost as light as outside, and looking about, I discovered that the apex of the domed roof was open to the sky, and through the aperture I could see the branches of a tree and the drooping fronds of a palm so sharply outlined, so clear and distinct, and yet seemingly so far away, that they appeared as if viewed through the wrong end of a telescope.
The cave was immense, it apparently occupied the entire interior of the island and left merely a shell of rock surrounding it. The floor was deep with fossil shells and sloped gradually towards the further side, but in many places masses of stalactites had dropped from the roof and had fallen to the floor forming piles of broken rock a dozen feet in height.
Scrambling over these, I noticed a narrow opening on the opposite aide of the cavern about three feet above the floor. Making my way to this crevice I peered out and to my satisfaction found that I could look directly upon the entrance to San Lorenzo Bay and the cocoanut grove beyond. This was indeed a spot exactly suited to my purpose, and which could scarcely have been improved upon if made to order. Our canoe was invisible to passing boats, the main entrance to the cave was concealed by hanging vines, the smoke from our fire would scarcely be visible as it issued from among the trees around the natural chimney in the lofty roof, and by peering from our peep-hole we could maintain a constant watch upon the bay beyond.
Fresh water was the one thing lacking, but Joseph assured me that there would be no trouble on that score, for a good-sized stream ran into the bay on the mainland near at hand, and it would be an easy matter to paddle across after nightfall and secure our daily supply.
It was now growing dark, and hastening to the canoe, we soon transferred our belongings to the cave, and selecting a spot behind a barrier of fallen dripstone, so that the light would not be visible through the openings, a fire was soon blazing cheerfully and Joseph cooked supper.
As soon as the meal was over, Joseph paddled ashore for water while I maintained a watch upon the bay through the peep-hole. As we had no idea at what hour a smuggling vessel might arrive, I determined that one of us must be constantly on watch from sunset to sunrise, for I felt sure that if a vessel approached it would be after nightfall.
Within half an hour Joseph returned with our two canteens and a demijohn filled with water and I told him of my plan for keeping a sharp lookout and offered to take the first watch lasting until midnight, and he at once curled up on his blankets and was soon sleeping soundly.
I soon found that my task of keeping a lookout was far more difficult than I had imagined. I was tired with the long canoe trip, and peering steadily through the opening towards the bay had an almost hypnotic effect. The soft night-wind rustled the foliage of the trees, the gentle swell of the water broke in little waves against the rocks with a sleepy, swishing sound and several times I found myself nodding and my eyes closing, and roused myself with a start until finally I was obliged to walk back and forth, occasionally scanning the bay through the crevice, in order to keep awake. As the bay was bathed in brilliant moonlight, and the cocoanut grove and even the distant shores, were as sharp and distinct as in broad daylight, I felt that it would be impossible for a boat to approach unseen; but nothing appeared and at midnight I roused Joseph.
I cautioned him to keep a sharp watch, telling him of my trouble in keeping awake, and instructing him to call me promptly if he saw any sign of a boat, I threw myself on my camp bed and did not awaken until Joseph touched my shoulder and told me coffee was ready.
He had seen nothing and stated that in order to avoid any chance of cropping off to sleep, he had gone outside and had walked back and forth on the rocks. I could well imagine that this was a feat calculated to keep anyone wide awake, for the rocks were sharp and jagged, and to make one's way among them required the agility of a goat.
The day was spent in sleeping and eating, and late in the afternoon we undertook a tour of our island. It was hard work scrambling over the steep sides and pushing through the tangled brush, but by cutting a way here and there, we managed to reach the summit and had a splendid view in all directions.
From this elevation, we could look back across the bay for miles and even could distinguish the tiny white dots of houses among the greenery on the northern shore. Towards San Lorenzo we could look down directly on the cocoanut grove and the entrance of the broad lagoon itself, with its fringe of mangrove swamps broken by innumerable little creeks or "canas" that turned and twisted among the dense green foliage. Here, far above the water, the sweep of the trade wind was cool and refreshing, and I at once realized that it was far superior to the cave as a lookout, and I suggested that we should clear an easy trail and make a brush shelter from which to keep watch.
On one side of the summit we found the opening in the roof of our cave and by lowering a string through this we easily could arrange a signal to arouse the sleeper within the cavern in case anything should be sighted.
Joseph at once fell in with my plans, and we set diligently to work, clearing a path through the brush from the summit to the beach, and cutting in a zig-zag fashion to make ascent easier, and at the same time to prevent the path from being seen at a distance. The work was completed before dark and with splendid appetites we ate a hearty meal.
The wind had now dropped and as no sail was in sight I knew that it would be impossible for any vessel to arrive for several hours, and I therefore decided to paddle over to the lagoon and explore the entrance and the surroundings. The moon had not yet risen and although the stars made the night fairly light, yet there was little chance of being seen, even if anyone was in the vicinity, which I thought very unlikely.
We made our way quietly over the calm water to the grove, and passed over the bar at the entrance of the lagoon. I found that in most places the water was very shallow, and that the only channel that would permit a large vessel to pass through was at the southern end of the bar close to the old dock, and I thus felt sure that any boat which entered from the bay must pass quite close to our island and could scarcely escape detection, even in the darkest hours of the night.
THE GUN RUNNERS
Returning to the island, I made my way to the summit, carrying a long coil of fish-line with a lead sinker at its end, after instructing Joseph to tie this to his foot when I lowered it down through the top, so that I could awaken him if necessary. Dropping the sinker through the aperture, I jerked the line up and down so that the lead jangled on the floor, so that Joseph soon located it in the darkness and presently he called up that it was secured in place about his ankle. The other end of the line I fastened to a shrub within easy reach, and spreading my poncho, I sat down with my back against a palmetto and gazed out across the bay to where the moon was now rising.
It was a beautiful night with just enough breeze to ripple the moonlit water and cool the air, but glancing towards the northern shore I saw a heavy bank of clouds hanging about the distant mountain tops and I felt sure that before morning we would have a heavy shower.
For several hours I had been seated at my post, but nothing appeared and I was commencing to think that my theory must be at fault, and that after all, the smugglers might land at some other spot. For all I knew the revolutionists might already have obtained all the arms they required, and while I was looking for the gun runners the rebellion might break out. On the other hand, I reasoned that, if this were the case, there was no reason why the revolt should have been delayed until after my departure, for beyond a doubt, as soon as a full complement of arms was received, fighting would begin. The leaders, I knew, would make every effort to rush their contraband in as rapidly as possible, for at any hour they might be discovered, and the more they obtained before they were apprehended the better. I appreciated the fact that with the moonlight they would be at a disadvantage, but they could scarcely afford to delay until the nights were dark, and even under a full moon, a vessel might creep in under the shadow of the land without being seen from the settlements on the shore a dozen miles across the bay.
Turning these matters over in my mind, I glanced seaward and instantly my interest was aroused, for against the silvery moonlight, I saw a moving black speck, a sail beyond question, and apparently headed towards me.
Intently I watched, and slowly the boat increased in size until, half an hour after I first sighted her, I could distinguish her rig and made her out as a small schooner. She was headed almost directly towards our island and I was just considering the advisability of arousing Joseph, when the schooner's helm was suddenly shifted and she stood off towards the northern side of the bay and disappeared against the dark shadow's of the mountains.
I was greatly disappointed, for I had quite made up my mind that the vessel was really a smuggler bound for San Lorenzo, but apparently she was merely a trader and had followed the southern shore on account of a more favorable wind or current. There was nothing to do but wait, and the hours passed slowly, while the bank of clouds to the north spread across the sky and the moon frequently was hidden by masses of scurrying vapor. At last the time of my watch was over, and descending the path I aroused Joseph, tied the cord to my own foot and went to sleep.
I was in the midst of an exciting dream, in which I was captured by pirates and was being strung up by my heels, when, with a start, I awoke to find my leg being pulled vigorously by Joseph's cord. Quickly throwing off the loop about my ankle, I hurried from the cave to find the night inky black and to be greeted with a terrific downpour of rain. I turned towards the pathway, groping about and stumbling among the bushes, but I had not progressed a dozen yards when Joseph met me, and cautioning me to step carefully and to make no sound, he led the way rapidly towards the summit of the island.
Here we stopped and in a whisper Joseph asked me to listen carefully. For a few moments I heard nothing but the slash and rattle of the rain beating on the foliage, but as the downpour ceased for an instant, I caught another sound, a steady, swirling roar, like a torrent of running water, accompanied by a creaking, grating note.
"What is it?" I asked.
"It's a boat!" answered Joseph, and added: "Ah don' see it, sir, but he's comin' nearer all the time; but Ah can' mek out where he at."
Again I listened intently, turning my head first one way and then the other. Again the rain poured down in a sudden shower and in the next lull I once more caught the mystifying sounds, but so baffling and indefinite that I could not tell whether it came from right or left, from north or south. Then came a squall of wind and a heavy downpour and through the sob of the wind and the splash of rain we heard the sharp creak and rattle of a tackle-block, the slatting of a fluttering sail and the loud clatter and crash of a boom swinging to the other tack. There was now no question of the boat's position, the louder sounds had located it and we strained our eyes in a vain attempt to penetrate the murk.
Suddenly, a shaft of moonlight pierced a rift in the scurrying clouds and by its momentary gleam we caught a glimpse of a schooner rushing madly through the channel between our islet and the southern shore; a mass of foam at her bows, her lee rail awash and her outflung boom actually tearing the hanging vines from the sides of the island, as, like a phantom ship, she was swallowed up in the blackness of a perfect cloudburst.
Drenched to the skin and wildly excited by what we had seen, we rushed down the path and sought shelter in the cave while outside the wind howled and the rain came down in solid sheets.
Within the cavern we at once fell to discussing the presence of the vessel we had seen. So unreal, so unexpected and so wraith-like had been the sudden glimpse we had caught that we could scarcely convince ourselves that it was not a hallucination. It seemed incredible that any vessel would attempt to run between our island and the shore from the west especially when driven through the inky night by the fierce squalls of a tropical storm.
I did not in the least doubt that the strange craft was a smuggler, for I well knew that no honest vessel would be sailing without lights and none but desperate men would risk their lives and their ship among the shoals and reefs of this uncharted and unfrequented portion of the bay on a night like this. Joseph was almost as surprised as myself over the matter, but when, in the course of our talk, I mentioned the sail I had seen earlier in the night, he expressed the opinion that the schooner I had sighted and the one which had just passed were identical. His idea was that in the bright moonlight the gun runners were afraid of being detected if they headed towards San Lorenzo, and that, to avoid suspicion, they had swung over towards the northern shore as if bound for La Cacao or some of the other ports, trusting to the clouds to hide the moon later and thus enable them to tack back and reach the lagoon unseen.
This seemed a very plausible explanation for the smugglers probably did not expect to be caught in a storm and had to take their chances and run for the lagoon when it broke. It seemed impossible that they could safely steer their course over the bar in the wind and darkness, and we both fully made up our minds that, with the coming of dawn, we would see the smugglers' schooner piled in a wreck upon the sandbar or on the rocks at the entrance of the lagoon.
We dared not start a fire for fear its light would be seen through the opening by any of the desperadoes who might have escaped from the schooner if she had been wrecked, or who might be on the lookout in case she had escaped destruction and had anchored safely in the lagoon.
Soaked by the rain, cold and in utter darkness all we could do was to wrap ourselves in blankets and tent cloths and spend the few remaining hours until daybreak shivering and miserable.
At last the rain ceased, the wind died down, and looking through the peep-hole I saw the eastern sky growing bright with the approaching dawn. Rapidly the pink flush overspread the sky, the last remnants of the storm clouds glowed crimson and gold, the great red sun rose from the sparkling sea and another perfect day had dawned.
Over the surface of the bay the morning mists still hung low but was rapidly disappearing in little wisps and curls and disclosing the indigo blue water with tiny waves dancing brightly in the glorious sunshine.
Our first glance was towards the southeast and the entrance to the lagoon but not a sail nor other sign of vessel was in view. We were more than surprised and leaving the cave we hurried up the pathway for a wider view.
As I reached the summit, I clutched Joseph's arm and pointed to the lagoon. There, hidden from our cave by the coco palms, were the two tapering masts of a small schooner, her hull hidden by the mangroves that bordered the little creek wherein she was safely moored.
Even as we gazed at her, a red flag rose to the mast head, dipped, rose again and a second time fluttered down. It was evidently a signal and, in a few moments, a row-boat issued from the hidden creek, and pulled by four men, it headed up another cana and disappeared among the mangroves.
In reply to my query, Joseph replied that the small boat had entered Cana Honda creek and evidently was bound for the landing place, a mile or so up the stream.
Telling him to go down and prepare breakfast I stretched myself on a dry rock in the sunshine and kept a sharp watch on the schooner and the swamps. Through my glasses, every detail of the foliage and trees was visible, and I easily had made out that the boat contained five men, four at the oars and another in the stern, but her appearance had been so unexpected, and she had passed so quickly from one creek to the other, that I had had no time to study the men carefully.
There was no further signs of life near the vessel and when Joseph called me to breakfast I left him in charge when I descended.
On my return to the lookout I found Joseph with his eyes glued to the binoculars, but he reported that he had seen nothing during my absence. We waited patiently, talking of the schooner and wondering how she had managed to run into the lagoon to find a safe refuge among the mangroves during the storm.
"Well," I remarked, "whatever else our friends may be, they are surely mighty good sailors. It would stump most men to get a schooner there in broad daylight and with a fair wind, and how those chaps ever managed to run over the bar, across the lagoon and into the creek in a miniature hurricane and in absolute darkness is a marvel beyond my comprehension."
"Yessir," answered Joseph. "Thay's mighty good sailor men an' Ah think they's from down the islan's. Ah was studyin' the mas's while yo' was eatin' sir, an' Ah think she's a Dutch schooner, Mr. Gale. The mas's rake too much fo' a native boat, an' they's too tall fo' a Frenchman. She mebbe a St. Thomas boat, but Ah think she's mos' liable from 'Statda or Saba, sir."
This theory seemed quite probable, for the Dutch West Indian boats, especially those from the quaint islands of Saba and Eustatia, are noted throughout the Antilles for their seaworthiness and speed, while the Dutch islanders are born sailors. Moreover, many of the political exiles from the Spanish American republics find a safe refuge in the Dutch colonies and from their retreats aid their friends by providing the sinews of war.
No doubt the little ship hidden in the mangroves had made many previous trips to San Lorenzo, and her captain and crew probably knew every reef, shoal and bar on the coast, and could find their way about with their eyes shut.
We had been chatting and waiting for fully an hour when the row boat again appeared at the mouth of the creek, and headed towards the schooner. This time, however, I was prepared and focussing the glasses upon it, I saw that four of the five occupants were stalwart negroes, the man in the stern being of a lighter hue and apparently a mulatto or quadroon. The next instant the boat shot out of sight back of the mangroves, and a few moments later, the red flag rose to the mast head and fluttered down again. It was evident that this was a prearranged signal to someone on shore, and probably signified that the boat had reached the schooner safely.
All that day we kept watch, one of us constantly on guard at the summit of the island; but no sign of life was visible and no boat crossed the open water between the creeks. Evidently the arms had all been carried ashore in the first trip of the small boat, or else no further attempts would be made to land until after nightfall. After darkness came on it would be impossible to discern the movements of the smugglers from our island and for that matter, it would do us little good, merely to watch the boat. It was essential that we discover where and how the goods were landed, the name of the vessel and to whom the smuggled arms were delivered. After discussing this matter with Joseph I finally decided to paddle around the lagoon and approach close to the schooner after nightfall.
There would, of course, be considerable risk in the undertaking, for in the stillness of the evening the least sound would be audible for a long distance, and if either of us made a misstroke or rattled a paddle against the gunwale of the canoe, we might instantly be discovered by the smugglers, for I had not the least doubt that they maintained a keen lookout and possessed keen ears and eyes.
Fortunately for my plans, the moon would not rise until very late, and we would have at least two hours of intense darkness in which to approach the schooner and take up a favorable position within a short distance of her moorings.
Having decided to attempt this, I told Joseph to have everything in readiness, to remove the remaining things from the canoe, to have arms and ammunition handy, to cover the floor of the canoe with blankets and to wrap each paddle with cloth, from blade to grip, to deaden the sound in case a paddle should run against the gunwales.
Just before sundown, he reported everything ready, and as soon as the sun dropped behind the horizon I left the lookout and descended to the cave. We ate our evening meal rapidly and, for my own part, I must confess that I was inwardly too excited to have a good appetite. By the time we had finished, darkness had fallen and we hurried to the beach prepared to embark upon our rather perilous undertaking.
Before pushing off I again cautioned Joseph against making the least sound and told him that, in case of necessity, I would leave the navigation of the canoe to him, for he was better acquainted with the swamps and channels than myself. I added that if anything happened to me he was to report at once to Merritt but that I hoped for a successful outcome of the trip.
Lifting the canoe we set it in the water and slipping off our shoes, placed them in the tiny craft, knelt in our places, took up our paddles and silently started on our way.
The night was very dark and the shores were scarcely visible, but open water could be distinguished by the sheen of the stars on its surface and we found little trouble in finding our way towards the land. We first ran across to the southern shore, and keeping well within the shelter of the banks, headed for the old dock and the entrance to the lagoon. Passing the dock with the utmost caution, to avoid striking the rotting piles, we paddled carefully up the lagoon. It was very difficult to judge distances and each clump of mangroves looked so much like another that I frequently was doubtful of our course.
We had thus progressed for some time, and I had commenced to think that we had missed our way, when, from the darkness ahead, I heard the faint sounds of voices. Instantly we stopped paddling and drifted motionless in the shadows of the mangroves. The voices came from the dense mass of trees to our left, and straining my eyes I distinguished the outline of the schooner's masts against the stars beyond. We were a little off our course, and in order to approach the vessel closely, we would be compelled to cross a hundred feet or more of open water. Although, from our low position in the canoe, the water seemed very dark, yet I realized that, looking down upon it from the height of the schooner's deck, the canoe might be seen and I hesitated about attempting the passage in the open.
There was nothing to be gained by waiting, however, and as the voices were too far distant to distinguish words, I made up my mind, and dipping paddles we swung the head of the canoe towards the sounds and started forward. All went well, and we were close to the farther side, when we were startled at hearing the splash of oars and the creak of thole pins rapidly approaching from the blackness ahead. With a sudden plunge of my paddle I whirled the canoe around, drove it forward and crouched low in the bow. Joseph followed my example, and we both remained silent and motionless, expecting each moment to have the approaching boat bear down upon us.
In less time than it takes to relate, we heard the swish of water around the boat's bow and the splash of the oars, apparently within a few feet. The next moment our tiny craft was rocking and tossing on the wave made by the boat's passage and the sounds were growing fainter in the distance. It was a mighty close shave, for the boat had passed within a rod of our canoe and, to this day, I cannot imagine how we escaped detection. The boat was now behind us, and from the direction it had taken, I felt sure that it was bound to Cana Honda landing. Resuming our paddles, we crept cautiously towards the hidden schooner until we reached the mangroves beyond which she was moored.
These mangroves grew directly from the water, and between their spreading roots, were many open spaces which were wide enough to admit our canoe.
To endeavor to push through the growth was a tremendous risk, for the roots and trunks of the trees were covered with oysters, while giant crabs scuttled over them, and if by any chance we should run against them the grating sound would surely betray our presence to those on the vessel.
To attempt a passage around the trees, and a direct approach to the schooner, was even more hazardous, however, and in the lowest possible whispers, I made my decision known to Joseph and worked the canoe into the opening between the nearest trees.
Slowly, and with extreme caution, we proceeded, holding out our hands on either side, and working our way among the roots by pushing and pulling, moving by inches, but ever drawing nearer to the schooner in the creek ahead.
Our hands were cut and bleeding from the razor edged oyster shells, but we had accomplished the greater part of the journey without mishap, when, without the least warning, an ibis flapped from its roost above our heads and with loud croaks expostulated at the invasion of its haunts.
The noise was enough to arouse anyone on the schooner and we listened with bated breath expecting a challenge. No sound reached us, however, and after a few moments, we again pushed forward. In a few minutes more we reached the last of the trees, and peering ahead, saw the hull of the vessel looming up within a dozen yards of us.
No light showed upon her and everything was as silent as the tomb. We listened to catch the sounds of whispered voices or the faint noise of footsteps, but the silence remained unbroken. I thought it very strange that no guard had been left and wondered if the five negroes composed the entire crew. Certainly, if men were aboard they were wonderfully quiet. Possibly they might be below and asleep, but this hardly seemed probable, for the night was hot and I well knew how uncomfortable and stuffy the cabin would be, here in the midst of the swamp.
It was of the utmost importance to learn the schooner's name and port, and if possible, locate the contraband, and we now had but scant time to investigate and follow the trail of the rowboat before the moon rose.
With our hands as paddles, we pushed out from the shelter of the trees and approached the schooner's bows. Reaching her side without mishap, we slowly worked our way aft along her side until we reached the stern. Here we passed under the counter, and by peering close to the woodwork, we could distinguish lettering; but the darkness was too intense to decipher the words. I dared not strike a light, and was exasperated to think I could not make out the name, when, in fending off the canoe from the vessel's rudder, my fingers came in contact with the stern, and to my intense satisfaction, I discovered that the letters were raised.
Feeling about until I found the first letter, I carefully went over each with my finger tips and at last made out the name, "GAVIOTA." Below was the name of her home port, and again I felt each letter with infinite care, and with my fingers spelled out the word, "CURACAO."
Joseph was right—the schooner was Dutch.
A CARGO IS LANDED
Time had passed more rapidly than I thought, and as I was about to push the canoe out from below the overhang of the stern, I was warned by a low hiss from Joseph. Busy in discovering the name of the schooner, I had relaxed my vigilance, but at Joseph's warning I heard the swish of oars and the subdued sounds of voices from ahead of the schooner, and I realized that the returning boat was close upon us.
We were indeed in a tight place. To attempt to push off and gain the shelter of the mangroves would be to invite destruction, for the boat was within a score of feet of the schooner, and no doubt its occupants were even now peering ahead with cat-like eyes, in order to locate the exact position of their craft, and the least movement of our canoe would be detected instantly.
After the men came aboard, they would undoubtedly allow their boat to swing around to the stern of the schooner, and we would be discovered at once.
There was no time to hesitate, and with but slight hopes of success, I crouched low and dragged the canoe as far beneath the stern as possible, trusting that, in the deep shadow of the counter, we might escape detection. Joseph at once grasped my intentions and followed my example, and in a moment, the canoe was laid athwart the schooner close to her stern post.
It seemed ridiculous to imagine that we could avoid being seen, for the canoe was longer than the schooner was wide, and one end of our craft must project several feet beyond the vessel's side. Judging from the sounds, that the rowboat was approaching my side of the schooner, I gently worked the canoe back until its bow was flush with the vessel's side, and breathlessly awaited results.
Luckily the rudder of the schooner was swung hard over, but I realized that should one of the men move the tiller, the rudder would grate against the bottom of the canoe and would either capsize us, or would make such a scraping, unusual sound that an investigation would immediately follow.
We were taking great chances, but we had no time to consider them, for our canoe was scarcely in position before the rowboat grated alongside. I heard a man leap onto the deck, and a moment later, four others scrambled aboard.
As they reached the deck, I heard one of the men give a low command, and although it was not in English, I could not determine whether it was in Dutch, French or Spanish. He was answered in low tones, and I heard a door grate on its hinges. The men were evidently barefooted, for I could not distinguish the sounds of footsteps; but I judged that they had gone below, and a moment later, my supposition was verified as I heard subdued noises issuing from the schooner's interior.
Each second I fully expected to see the rowboat drop back to the stern, and to find a smuggler peering at us, but nothing happened, and presently, gaining confidence, I peeked past the edge of the stern. I could see the boat lying alongside and as I watched, I heard a rustle on deck, and the next instant a man straddled over the low rail and dropped into the boat.
Another form appeared at the rail, and in low, throaty tones, addressed his comrade in the boat below him: "Arl ready dar, Pete?" he queried.
"Yas ma bo'; parse da garns, Jan," was the reply, and without further hesitation, the man known as "Jan" passed a package over the rail.
Pete laid this in the bottom of the boat, and reached for another and another, until the tenth narrow object was stowed in the rowboat.
Two more heads now appeared at the rail, and one man sprang into the boat while the other remained on board. Jan stepped to him and together they lifted a heavy box and balanced it on the bulwarks.
"Con cuidado!" muttered the latest arrival, and added in Spanish, "Put the cartridges in the stern and under the thwarts, but move lively or we don't get off tonight."
Pete and his companion in the boat deftly seized and lowered the box silently to their craft, and the two above disappeared. Presently they reappeared, another box of ammunition was safely placed in the small boat, and they again went below.
As they disappeared, Pete and his comrade conversed in low tones.
"Das de las' box, eh?" I heard Pete ask.
"Oui m' fren'," was the reply in the broken English of a Leeward Islander. "De las Oui; dey plainty rifeel an' peetol mo' yes."
The others now arrived and handed down package after package, until over fifty small boxes and bundles had been stowed in the boat.
The fifth man now approached the rail and stepped into the row-boat, which was already very low in the water. "Carrajo!" he exclaimed, and continued in Spanish. "The boat has all it will stand, and there's another load on board. Come along, men. We can't wait here all night."
At his words, the other two dropped into the boat, and throwing off the painter, picked up their oars.
As they pushed off from the side, I ducked back to the shelter of the counter, and in doing so bumped my head against the stern. Instantly there was an exclamation from one of the men. "Sacre!" he hissed, “Wha' 'dat?" For a brief instant I thought discovery was certain, but the huge stroke-oarsman answered contemptuously, "Narthin', yo' dom Franch niggas plenty 'fraid, yes."
There was a subdued chuckle at this, instantly silenced by a sharp command in Spanish from the steersman, and without further comment, the men's oars caught the water and the boat headed towards the other creek. We pushed the canoe from under the stern and stretched ourselves with relief.
"A precious crew we've got aboard there, Joseph," I whispered, "the scum of the Dutch, French and English islands with a Spanish captain. I'm going aboard. I don't think there's any danger. No one is on the schooner, I'm sure, and the boat will not return until they've unloaded her. You wait alongside in the canoe and keep watch, and as soon as I've gone through the schooner, I'm going to follow the boat; so here goes."
As I spoke, I worked the canoe around to the side of the vessel, and grasping the lanyards of the main rigging, I pulled myself up to the rail and jumped aboard. There was no light, and I stepped carefully, across the deck to the companion-way. The door was unfastened, and without hesitation I stooped and entered the cabin.
Inside it was dark as pitch, but I knew that the smugglers must have had lights, and as we had seen no evidences of it, I reasoned that the windows must be screened, and I therefore struck a match without fear. In the light from this I saw a hanging lamp, and lighting it I glanced about and found, as I had expected, that the four windows were all covered with heavy cloth. There seemed nothing suspicious in the cabin, but at the forward end was a small door, evidently leading to the hold, and taking the lamp, I walked to the door and finding it unlocked, stepped through into the schooner's hold.
This was a large, dim place, smelling abominably of bilge water and swarming with cockroaches. The space was partly filled with bales, boxes and barrels and a hasty examination convinced me that these were legitimate goods and were undoubtedly destined for delivery at some regular port. I had no doubt that the schooner made frequent trips among the islands, and that, after delivering her secret cargo of arms, she would sail leisurely up the bay, unload at some port and never be suspected of having made a side trip to San Lorenzo.
Hurrying about among the cargo, and searching for a likely hiding place for the remaining firearms and ammunition which I had heard the captain declare was on board, I was compelled to stoop slightly, for the deck above was not high enough to permit me to stand upright. I could find no signs of contraband, and could see no possible hiding place, and I had about given up in despair when my hat suddenly was pulled from my head by some object which projected from the ceiling. Holding up the lamp to ascertain the trouble, I found my hat caught firmly on a loose screw. Wondering why a screw should be thus placed, I wiggled it back and forth to remove it. As I did so, the entire strip of sheathing moved, and with little effort I slipped this out and disclosed an open space between the ceiling and the true deck above it.
Reaching into the cavity, I was overjoyed to feel my hand come in contact with a package. Seizing this, I drew it out and saw instantly that it was a heavy army revolver in its pasteboard box.
Here, then, was the hiding place of the gun-runners, and a hurried examination showed that the entire space between deck and sheathing served this purpose, and that at various points, openings could be made by removing sections of the ceiling.
I had no time to waste in a further investigation, for my mission was accomplished, and replacing the boards and screws, I returned to the cabin, blew out the lamp, passed out of the companion-way, and hurried to the rail where Joseph waited in the canoe.
We now had no time to lose, for the night was already growing lighter from the rising moon, and I feared that before we could reach the landing and take up a position from which to watch the smugglers, that the moon would be well above the horizon.
With rapid strokes we paddled away from the schooner and headed for Cana Honda creek. In a few minutes we had crossed the intervening space of open water and had entered the broad and sluggish stream, and were soon following its tortuous channel between the fringe of mangroves on either side. I felt sure that, in case the boat had disposed of its load and was on its return trip, we could hear its approach and could dodge into the mangroves, and we made all haste up the stream.
Joseph presently whispered that we were approaching the landing, which was around the next bend, and thus cautioned I headed the canoe close to the bank on our right and, proceeding very carefully, we worked slowly ahead. To round the turn and come in sight of the landing was a risk I did not care to take, for there was now enough light for objects to be visible at some distance on the water and, moreover, I had no means of knowing if there were any suitable protection beyond the bend.
While hesitating as to what to do, the sounds of conversation reached us followed by the splashing of oars, and realizing the boat was returning, we pushed the canoe back among the mangrove roots and crouching down, slipped behind the low-hanging branches. In this way we were effectually screened from view and we were scarcely hidden before the small boat swung around the point and passed within ten feet of us.
The oarsmen were joking and laughing in low tones and seemed to feel perfectly safe, little dreaming of our presence so close at hand. As soon as they had passed out of hearing, I leaned back and, in whispers, asked Joseph if he knew how we could reach a view of the landing without being seen, for I thought it probable that someone was on shore to receive the arms.
Joseph replied that, on the opposite side of the stream a small channel entered the mangroves, and that by running up this a short distance, we could land on fairly firm ground, and could look through the grass upon the landing. This was exactly what I wanted, and we paddled across the stream and Joseph skillfully piloted the canoe into a well hidden back-water.
Pushing carefully through the screen of branches, we came upon a narrow, dark opening in the trees, a mere ditch, which curved and twisted among the mangroves and which was barely deep enough to float the canoe.
A few minutes paddling up this little waterway brought us to a clay bank and grounding the canoe, we crept ashore.
Joseph led the way while I followed and flat on our stomachs we sneaked through the coarse grass for several hundred feet. Presently, my guide lifted his hand for caution, and we wriggled forward to the crest of a little rise. It was now as light as day and before me lay the main creek, its surface bright with moonlight. Its farther shore was low and free from brush or mangroves and with a sharp cut clay bank, and a few feet back from the water's edge grew a single large tree. Seated beneath this, a huge pipe in his mouth, and a gun across his knees, sat a man.
His back was partly towards us and I could not see his face, but his enormously broad shoulders, thick neck and massive build proved that he was a giant in strength and stature. Presently he turned his head towards our hiding place and in the brilliant moonlight l saw his features.
A broad, heavy, brutal face, looking scarlet in the moonlight, and half hidden in a great, tawny, tangled beard. Close-set pig-like eyes beneath overhanging brows and a shock of red hair growing low on his forehead. There was no mistaking his nationality and Joseph's half whispered, "Hirschfeldt," did not surprise me, as I had already suspected the man was the Dutch caretaker of the old Cana Honda estate.
Behind him on the grass, were piled boxes and packages, while, at one side fully fifty rifles were laid upon a strip of canvas, and at his feet stood a lantern, its flame weak and sickly in the moonlight. That he was awaiting the last load of the smugglers was evident, and we prepared ourselves to share his vigil.
The minutes dragged slowly; insects chirped in the bushes, the occasional call of a nightbird broke the silence overhead and now and then a fish, jumping in the creek, would startle us with its splash. Our bodies were cramped and chilled from the damp earth, and various creeping things ran over our hands and faces, and once when a great land crab scuttled across my legs, I could scarcely resist reaching down to knock him off. Luckily there were few mosquitoes, but even without these pests it required all my patience and will power to remain motionless and silent while the grim watcher a few yards distant sat like a statue and puffed great clouds of smoke from his enormous pipe.
At last we heard the sounds of oars and Hirschfeldt rose from his seat, stretched himself, knocked the ashes from his pipe and stepped to the edge of the creek.
A moment after, the boat came in sight, ran alongside the bank and the Dutchman deftly seized the painer and secured it to a stake. A second rope was then made fast to the stern of the boat and, with scarcely a word, the five men began rapidly to unload their craft.
Rifle after rifle was passed ashore and placed beside the others on the canvas, to be followed by dozens of the flat square packages which I knew contained revolvers, until the last box was safely ashore and the men stood waiting.
Hirschfeldt and the steersman, whom I now saw was a villainous looking mulatto, now stepped to one side. Each held a paper in his hands, and running their fingers down the pages they rapidly checked off various items in low tones. Hirschfeldt then produced a bag from his shirt bosom, and counting out a number of coins, handed them to the mulatto, who then turned and gave an order to his men. At the command, the four blacks picked up the canvas containing the rifles, and each holding a corner, they started across the grass grown land towards a dense mass of trees and brush beyond. Hirschfeldt and the mulatto, the latter carrying the lantern, followed and, as they passed from view, Joseph whispered that they were going to the old machine shop. He said it was a tumble-down building hidden in the trees and that, originally, the tracks of the little tramway which led to the dock, had passed through the mass of tropical vegetation which now concealed it.
Presently the men returned, and each having picked up a box or package and again made their way to the hiding place. Trip after trip was made until all the goods were out of sight, when the men stepped into their boat and sat waiting, while their captain sat talking with Hirschfeldt under the big tree.
The crew lolled about, conversing in low tones and a more villainous looking lot of cut-throats I never saw. Each and every one would have been a fitting type for a dime novel pirate.
One was an enormous, jet-black fellow, naked to the waist and with huge gorilla-like arms and receding forehead. He spoke in the deep, gutteral voice of the Dutch Creole and doubtless was a native of Curacao. Another was a bull-necked, chocolate colored man whose thin, cruel lips and bloodshot eyes were made more hideous by the mop of red wool which covered his head. He was the one who had laughed at his companions' fright when I knocked my head against the schooner's stern, and I at once put him down as a native of Montserrat, where many of the negroes have inherited the red hair of their "wild Irish" ancestors, who originally settled the island.
The two remaining members of the crew were as ugly as their comrades, but of slighter build and more active in their movements, and having already heard one speak I surmised that they were natives of St. Vincent or St. Lucia.
As I watched the men, Hirschfeldt produced a jug from behind the tree and both he and the captain drank copiously. The Dutchman then handed the bag of money to the mulatto and the latter, carrying the jug, walked to his boat and handed the liquor to his men. With a last handshake and numerous "Adois" from the captain and "Goot lucks" from Hirschfeldt, the boat was cast off and started down the creek.
As soon as it was out of sight, we wriggled back through the grass and reaching the canoe paddled along the narrow stream among the trees. I had not as yet formed any very definite idea as to my next steps, but in a general way, I planned to reach the bay and after watching the schooner depart, return to deal with my Dutch friend. I regretted that I could not capture the schooner's crew as well and considered sending word to Merritt in order that he might hold them when they arrived in port.
I was thus busy, thinking out plans as we paddled along, and gave little heed to our course, taking it for granted that Joseph was guiding the canoe towards the main creek. Suddenly it dawned upon me that we were seemingly taking too long to gain open water and I was about to ask Joseph his opinion; but at that moment I caught sight of clear moonlit water through the trees ahead.
Thinking we had reached the creek I paddled forward and pushed aside the branches.
Scarcely had they parted when I dug my paddle into the water in a furious attempt to back the canoe—not fifty feet distant, and coming directly towards us was the smugglers' boat!
That they had seen us was at once manifest, for instantly, the steersman leaped to his feet, ripped out a Spanish oath and whipping out a revolver, fired point blank at me.
At his exclamation every man in the boat turned, and the suddenness of their action, and his own impetuous movement, saved my life and all three of his shots ploughed through the foliage above my head.
Almost before the last shot had rung out, the canoe had darted back among the trees, and whirling it about, we paddled with the utmost speed up the little creek. We had scarcely covered a dozen rods when we heard the heavy boat crashing into the branches behind us; but the creek was narrow and shallow, the branches hung low and I doubted if the men could force their craft through the channel to follow us. Undoubtedly we could have stopped and held off our pursuers, or could have picked them off with the rifle from our place among the trees; but I felt sure that any shooting would result in betraying the fact that we were spies and would also alarm Hirschfeldt.
On the other hand, by simply retreating, we might lead the smugglers to believe that we were merely curious natives, for they could not have caught a good view of my features, and if Hirschfeldt had heard the pistol shots he would probably assume that they were fired at some bird or animal.
Moreover, by attacking the smugglers, we would probably prevent them from attempting to land another cargo or visiting one of the ports, and I was anxious, too, to have the vessel captured on her next trip.
All these thoughts rushed through my brain as we made the canoe fairly race over the water among the trees, never ceasing until the sounds of our followers were lost in the distance.
Then, mopping our faces and panting with our exertions, we rested on our paddles and looked about.
We were floating on the edge of a large, quiet lagoon in the midst of a mangrove swamp, and in the bright moonlight I saw that on every side, were scores of waterways between the trees. Certainly we never had been here before and turning, I asked Joseph if he knew the place.
There was no need for him to reply, for I knew by his blank expression and puzzled look that we were lost—lost in the labyrinths of an enormous swamp that stretched for miles along the coast—a maze of waterways and mangrove trees; the home of countless waterfowl, but without a drop of fresh water or a spot of dry land throughout the vast solitudes.
(To be continued) Here