Sunday, 16 February 2014
Trailing the Gun-Runners -Part 1
This story is remarkable, for several reasons, as a recent discovery, because it predates it's release in Secret Service Stories magazine some six years later, and the illustrations are terrific. Note also that The Wide World magazine was known for true stories while Secret Service Stories was a fiction magazine! Which is correct?
Please remember that this story appears only 56 years after the American Civil War./drf
Trailing the Gun-Runners -Part 1
by A. Hyatt Verrill
illustrated by Stanley L. Wood
from The Wide World magazine, June 1922, Vol 49, No 290. Digitized by Doug Frizzle February 2014
Mystery, breathless suspense, thrilling situations—all these things figure in this exciting story of adventures that occurred in the turbulent Negro Republic of Dominica in 1906-7.
The United States Government undertook the onerous task of preserving peace by keeping out supplies of arms and ammunition for the revolutionists. Spite of their utmost vigilance. however arms were smuggled in somehow and the Author, who was on a scientific expedition in the country at the time, was asked to try and elucidate the mystery. It was a quest on which he carried his life in his hands, for the gun-runners were known to be desperate characters. Mr. Verrill’s account of his experiences, will be found as thrilling as any work of fiction. He has furnished an affidavit that the narrative is a record of actual events, but for obvious reasons names of persons and places have been altered in several cases.
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 odour of jasmine and orange blossoms.
Beyond the twinkling lights of the little Dominican 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 alas” 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.
Presently, from the fort on the hill, a bugle sounded “taps,” breaking rudely into our thoughts, and Le Croix spoke.
“That reminds me,” he said; “Mateo was in to-day. He says all the people are talking revolution and that arms and ammunition are plentiful in the interior.”
“The beggars!” exclaimed Branch, the British Consul. “How the bounders evade you Customs chaps is most extraordinary, Merritt.”
“Yes, hang it all!” cried Merritt, the Customs Inspector. "They certainly do get by us. 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 God-forsaken part of the coast, or, for all I know, they may bring it by aeroplane. Yet the Revenue boats are on the job day and night, the border is patrolled and if a ’plane ever showed up here people; would have a panic. All 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,” answered Merritt. “If I had even one good smart Yankee, and the natives didn't know he was a Revenue man, he might be able to locate the leaks; but I haven’t got him.”
“By Jove!” cried Branch. “I say, Verrill, 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, Verrill? 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 gunrunners! To be sure, my collecting work was practically completed; and I was a 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.”
“Right-ho, old chap!” cried Branch.
“I’ll bet on Verrill,” declared Le Croix.
"When do you start?” queried the practical Merritt.
“At daybreak to-morrow,” I replied, adding, “By the way, Le Croix, is your motor boat in good shape? I’ll borrow her, if you don’t mind. Can Mateo run her?”
“You’re welcome to the boat,” answered our host. “Yes, Mateo handles her well. I’ll tell him to be ready at the dock to-morrow 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 pay me a week-end visit. Did Mateo mention where he heard most of the revolutionary talk?”
"He came in from the south,” replied Le Croix. “He said that every man in the Seybo district was a walking arsenal already. But the whole south-east of the Republic appears to be 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 good night to Le Croix 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.
“Verrill,” he ejaculated, after Branch had gone, “I’ll bet old Fales is at the bottom of this deal. Did you hear how cleverly he got the goods in for the last rebellion, when Mendoza was President? Shipped his cartridges in as tinned vegetables and meats. We should never have discovered it if it hadn’t been for a hungry Turks Island stevedore. He dropped a case of beans and collared one of the tins for his lunch. When he opened it up, instead of Van Camp’s best, he found it filled with 30-30’s packed in black powder! Nice pleasant job it must have been to solder it up, eh? We couldn’t very well open every tin that came in, and couldn’t prove anything against the shippers. Some of the stuff was genuine all right; we opened half-a-dozen cases—all bona-fide. There was not a mark to show which was which. We tried weighing, but that was no go; the 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 stevedore’s find he licked the life out of Fales's men. Old Miguel had to beat it over the border and went to Jamaica, where he used to entertain the tourists there by telling them how he fooled the Yankees with his loaded bean-tins. He’s a mighty decent sort, too—a jolly, good-natured, gentlemanly old chap. He was 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—a stout, light-coloured fellow, with laughing eyes and a thin moustache. We were quite friendly on the ship, after he discovered I spoke Spanish. He took a lot of interest in my work and gave me valuable hints about the country. He said he lived at ‘La Antigua,’ in the Seybo, and invited me to visit him there. He promised me a good time and said there were lots of rare things in his neighbourhood; but I’ve never run over there yet.”
"That’s Don Miguel, right enough!” declared Merritt. "He 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. He 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, Verrill. 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. But be careful, Verrill; if he or any of his bunch get wise to your game you’ll never see little old New York again, my boy.”
By this time we had reached my hotel and Merritt stopped for a few final words before leaving me.
“Draw on Le Croix for expense money or anything you may want,” he told me. “I don’t want anything to show up between us. If you send any messages, put them through Le Croix 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, Verrill? 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. Nevertheless, as the advertisements say, 'there’s a reason.’ ”
“All right,” grinned Merritt. “I don’t want to know anything—so long as we get results. Good luck to you, and for goodness’ sake 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, I routed out a sleepy servant and sent him with a message to Joseph. Joseph was my “Man Friday,” my porter and travelling companion combined. He was 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, with an intelligence far above the average of 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 jibbed, 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 concerning its seaworthiness. After one or two experiences, however, he became accustomed to the canoe, 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 colour, 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, 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, Le Croix was waiting at the quay to see me off, his little gasolene launch ready, with my canoe laid across its deck, and Joseph seated on our bundles in the bow. Mateo was on hand, and after a few parting words with Le Croix I stepped aboard, Mateo cranked the motor, and as the 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 Le Croix, 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 colour, 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 buying agent for Le Croix, 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 made innumerable friends, so that he knew the gossip of every town and village in the Republic. As he regarded Le Croix with a sort of reverence and boasted that he was an “Americano” himself, he was quick to report anything that savoured of revolution or disloyalty to his adopted country.
Mateo was filled with curiosity as to why I was going to the Colorado, for he could not conceive how anyone in his senses could leave civilization to camp amid the vast mangrove swamps at the river’s mouth.
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 the capital? Everywhere there is talk of revolt, and never have I bought cacao so cheaply, Señores. The people desire guns, and to buy guns they must of a truth have money. Por 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. Now, but Thursday last, when I stopped at Seybo, one could buy a gun more cheaply than a horse—while a peso would purchase a dozen cartridges. 'Twas so I told Don Enrique, that he might apprise the Señor 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.”
Evidently, from what Mateo told me, he knew the district well, but he could give me little information that I did not already possess, and I gave myself up to plans for 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, and 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 the haunt of enormous alligators.
Soon the motor was slowed down and Mateo told Joseph to keep a sharp look-out for floating logs which appeared here, there, and everywhere. At last the logs became fewer, and presently we were again speeding through clear water across the mouth of the great river. 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 left alone.
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 with a perfect cloud of mosquitoes swarming about him. Beating wildly with both hands, he tore down 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.
“Nevermind, 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 forbore 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 far I should take him into my confidence, as 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 colour 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 his devotion, and as he was not talkative, I had no fear of his betraying my secret. The only risk 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 LEARNS MY SECRET.
“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 will certainly 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. Verrill,” he answered, “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 anythin’, 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 about arms 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.”
“Not thousands of caves, surely, Joseph?”
“Ah’m speakin’ true, Mr. Verrill,” he said, in a somewhat injured tone.
“Ev’ry hill has a cave, sir, an’ off the shore they’s plenty o’ li’l keys, an’ ev’ry key has a cave in it as well. Ah worked at Caña Honda one time, an’ Ah been to the caves often. The stoopid niggers said 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 Caña 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 road.”
“Is that the only trail to Seybo from this side, Joseph?”
“Yessir. Most of the people go by way o’ the south shore, by boat.”
"Caña Honda’s deserted now, since the company failed, isn’t it?” I asked.
“No, sir; there’s a caretaker there. A Dutchman named Hirschfeldt, with a native wife; but there’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 Caña Honda Company, and, vaguely, of the wonderful caves; but Joseph had actually 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 the coast patrol—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. Verrill,” 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 the 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 gun-runners 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 hide. 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 paddled 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 that 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 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, sword-like machetes when at close quarters. Both Joseph and myself invariably carried these useful implements, and in addition I had a double-barrelled 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 look-out 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, remarking that they were the “cave hills” he had mentioned, and half an hour later we reached the base of the nearest one.
THE CAVES OF SAN LORENZO
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 to form huge stone columns of innumerable forms.
It was an ideal spot for smugglers, for a good-sized boat could easily 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 lay 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 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 they 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 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 behind the islands, we pushed steadily onwards 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 coco-nut grove stretching eastward as far as the eye could see, while near us the land fell away in rocky cliffs clothed with a jungle of brush and vines. At the foot of this cliff we could see the remains of what had once 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; before us was the entrance to San Lorenzo Bay and the abandoned wharf of the derelict Caña Honda estate.
About three hundred yards away 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 almost square in shape, with bold, precipitous sides, overgrown with thick brush, small palms, and a tangle of vines. Joseph declared that there was a sheltered beach between the rocks backed by a large, dry cave, 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, sandy 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.
The cave was of immense size. The floor was covered deeply with fossil shells, and sloped gradually towards the farther side.
Scrambling over the debris on the ground, I noticed a narrow opening on the opposite side 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 coco-nut grove beyond. This was indeed a spot exactly suited to my purpose! Our canoe was safely hidden from 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, where, 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 my companion 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 the water, and I told him of my plan for keeping a sharp look-out. I offered to take the first watch lasting until midnight, and he at once curled up on his blankets and was soon sleeping soundly.
As the bay was bathed in brilliant moonlight, and the coco-nut grove and even the distant shores stood out as sharply and distinctly 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, 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 he touched my shoulder and told me coffee was ready. He had seen nothing.
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 could even distinguish the tiny white dots of houses among the greenery on the northern shore. Towards San Lorenzo we could look down directly on the coco-nut grove and the entrance of the broad lagoon itself, with its fringe of mangrove swamps broken by innumerable little creeks’ or cañas 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 look-out. I accordingly 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 could easily arrange a signal to arouse the sleeper within the cavern, in case anything suspicious 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. The task 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. 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 was at the southern end of the bar, close to the old dock. This made it certain 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.
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 Joseph soon located it in the darkness, and presently he called up that it was secured about his ankle. The other end of the line I fastened to a shrub within easy reach, and then, 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.
THE HILL-TOP LOOK-OUT.
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 over the distant mountain-tops, and I felt sure that before morning we would have a heavy shower.
For several hours I sat at my post, but nothing appeared, and I began to think that my theory must be at fault, and that, after all, the smugglers might land their contraband 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 stopped the better. I appreciated the fact that the moonlight would put them at a disadvantage, but they could scarcely afford to delay until the nights were dark; and even with 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 again, and instantly my interest was aroused, for against the silvery moonlight I saw a moving black speck—a vessel without a doubt — 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 coming 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 shadows of the mountains.
I was greatly disappointed, for I had quite made up my mind that the vessel was a smuggler bound for San Lorenzo, but apparently she was merely a trader and had followed the southern shore on account of a more favourable 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 was frequently hidden by masses of scurrying vapour. At last 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 when I awoke with a start to find my leg being pulled vigorously by Joseph’s cord. Quickly throwing off the loop about my ankle, I hurried from the cave. The night was inky black and I was greeted with a terrific downpour of rain. Turning towards the pathway, stumbling among the bushes, I had not progressed a dozen yards when Joseph met me and, cautioning me to step carefully and to make no sound, 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’t see it, sir; but he’s comin’ nearer all the time. Ah can’ mek out where he’s at.”
THE PHANTOM SCHOONER.
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. There was a mass of foam at her bows, her lee rail was awash, and her outflung boom was 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, but wildly excited by what we had seen, we rushed down the cliff 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 wraithlike had been the sudden glimpse we had caught that we could scarcely convince ourselves that it was not an 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 knew well that no honest vessel would be sailing without lights, and that 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 such a night. 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 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 look-out 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 our 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 sun rose from the sparkling sea, and another perfect day had dawned.
Our first glance was towards the south-east and the entrance to the lagoon, but not a sail or other sign of a 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 rowboat, pulled by four men, issued from the hidden creek, headed up another caña, and disappeared among the mangroves.
In reply to my query, Joseph replied that the small boat had entered Caña Honda Creek and was evidently 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 had easily made out that the boat contained five men, four at the oars and another in the stern.
There was no further sign 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 look-out 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.
“Whatever else our friends may be,” I told him, "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 islands. Ah was studyin’ the masts while you was eatin’, sir, an’ Ah think she’s a Dutch schooner, Mr. Verrill. The masts rake too much fo’ a native boat, an’ they’s too tall for a Frenchman. She mebbe a St. Thomas boat, but Ah think she’s mos’ liable from ’Statia or Saba, sir."
This theory seemed quite probable, for the Dutch West Indian boats, especially those from the quaint islands of Saba and Eustatias, are noted throughout the Antilies 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 rowboat again appeared at the mouth of the creek, and headed towards the schooner. This time, however, I was prepared, and focusing 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 behind the mangroves, and a few moments later the red flag rose to the masthead 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 should 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 we might instantly be discovered by the smugglers, for I had not the least doubt that they maintained a keen look-out and possessed sharp 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 favourable 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, so as to deaden the sound in case they should rub against the gunwales.
Just before sundown he reported everything ready, and as soon as the sun dropped behind the horizon I left the look-out 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. Then we knelt in our places, took up our paddles, and silently started on our way.
UNDER COVER OF NIGHT.
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 making our way towards the land. We first ran across to the southern shore, and then, 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 was frequently doubtful of our course.
We had progressed thus 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 were 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.
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 our paddles, we swung the head of the canoe towards the sound 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 of us. 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 for Caña 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 wide enough to admit our canoe. To endeavour 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 stillness 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 cautiously 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 stem, 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 spelt out the word Curaçao.
Joseph was right; the schooner was Dutch!
Do not miss next month's thrilling installment.
The WW installment of the story is not available yet. The entire story is available but the story is again in two parts, but not in the same spot. THIS should go as close as I know how to link! then ctrl 'f', search for "time had passed", which is in the new chapter, 'A Cargo has Landed'.
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- As an armed forces brat, we lived in Rockcliff (Ottawa), Namao (Edmonton), Southport (Portage La Prairie), Manitoba, and Dad retired to St. Margaret's Bay, NS.
Working with the Federal Govenment for 25 years, Canadian Hydrographic Service, mostly. Now married to Gail Kelly, with two grown children, Luke and Denyse. Retired to my woodlot at Stillwater Lake, NS, on the rainy days I study the life and work of A. Hyatt Verrill 1871-1954.