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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesWest Wind Drift - Book 2 - Chapter 8
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West Wind Drift - Book 2 - Chapter 8 Post by :rankwarforum Category :Long Stories Author :George Barr Mccutcheon Date :May 2012 Read :3451

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West Wind Drift - Book 2 - Chapter 8

BOOK II CHAPTER VIII

Percival's blood was still in a tumult as he ran down the line of cabins. From every doorway men were now stumbling, half-dressed, half-asleep. Behind them, in many cabins, alarmed, agitated women appeared. Farther on there were lanterns and a chaotic mass of moving objects. Above the increasing clamour rose the horrible, uncanny wail of a woman. Percival's blood cooled, his brain cleared. Men shouted questions as he passed, and obeyed his command to follow.

The ugly story is soon told. Philippa, the fifteen-year-old daughter of Pedro, the head-farmer, had gone out from her father's cabin at dusk to fetch water from the little reservoir that had been constructed alongside Leap Frog River a short distance above the cabins. The pool was a scant two hundred yards from her home. It was a five minutes' walk there and back. Half-an-hour passed, and she had not returned. Her mother became uneasy. Pedro reassured her. He laughed at her fears.

"She could not have fallen into the pool," he said. "You forget the fence we have built around it."

"I am not thinking of the pool, Pedro," she argued. "Go you at once and search for her. She is no laggard. She has not stopped in to see one of the girls."

And Pedro went grumpily forth to search for his daughter. An hour later he came staggering down from the woods above the pool to meet the dozen or more friends and neighbours who had set out some-time earlier to look for the two of them, father and daughter.

He bore in his arms the limp, apparently lifeless form of Philippa. He was covered with blood, he was chattering like a madman. Out of his incoherent babble the horrified searchers were able to put together the cruel story. It seems he had heard a faint cry far back in the dense wood,--another and yet another. Then utter silence. Even the night-birds were still. Swift, paralysing fear choked him. He tried to call out as he rushed blindly up from the pool into the forest, but only hoarse, unnatural gasps left his lips. He fell often, he crashed into the trunks of trees, but always he went onward, gasping out his futile cries. He knew not how long he beat through the forest. He was not even sure that it was Philippa's cry he had heard, but his soul was filled with a great, convincing dread. He knew that his beloved Philippa, the idol of his heart, the sunshine of his life, was up there in the woods. Frequently he stopped to listen. He could hear nothing save the pounding of his own heart, and the wheezing of his breath, thick and laboured.

Then, at last, during one of those silences, he heard something moving in the darkness near at hand. Something--some one was coming toward him through the underbrush. He called out hoarsely: "Philippa!" The sound ceased instantly, and then he heard a whispered execration. Wild rage possessed him. He plunged forward into the brush. Something crashed down upon his head, and he felt himself falling forward. The next he knew, he was trying vainly to rise to his feet. Something hot was running into his eyes,--hot and sticky. He lifted his hand to his head; it came away wet. He put his fingers into his mouth,-and tasted blood! It was enough. His strength came back. He sprang to his feet and rushed onward, shouting, cursing, calling upon God! He had no recollection of finding his girl. Apparently everything was a blank to him until long afterwards he saw lights moving among the trees, and voices were calling his name.

Percival and other cool-headed men were hard put to check the fury of the mob. Men and women, bent on vengeance, made the night hideous with their curses, howls and shrieks. In their senseless fury they prepared to kill. They had heard the stories about Manuel Crust and his disciples. Only the determined stand taken by the small group that rallied to Percival's support kept the maddened crowd from seeking out these men and rending them limb from limb. The sailors from the Doraine were the first to listen to the pleas of the level-headed,--just as they had been the first to demand the lives of Manuel Crust and his gang. Individually they were rough men and lawless, collectively they were the slaves of discipline. It was to their vanity that Percival and the others appealed,--only they called it honour instead of vanity. The mob spirit was--quelled for the time being, at least. No one was so foolish as to believe that it was dead, however. Unless the man guilty of the shocking crime was found and delivered up for punishment, the inevitable would happen.

"We'll get the right man," said the voice of universal fury, "if we have to cut the heart out of every one of Manuel Crust's gang."

The women were the worst. They fought like wildcats to reach the cabins occupied by the known followers of Manuel Crust. With knives and axes and burn-ing faggots they tried again and again to force their way through the stubborn wall of men that had been raised against them.

As for Manuel Crust and his little group of radicals, they had vanished. They had mingled with the mob at the outset. There were many who recalled seeing this one and that one, remembered speaking to him, remembered hearing him curse the ravisher. But as their own names began to run from lip to lip, they silently, swiftly disappeared.

Dawn found the camp awake, but grimly silent. No one had gone to bed. With the first streak of day, the man-hunt began in earnest. All night long the camp had been patrolled. Every cabin had been searched, even those occupied solely by women. This search had been conducted in an orderly, business-like way under the supervision of men chosen by Percival. The folly of beating the woods during the night was recognized even by the most impatient; there was time enough for that when the blackness of night had lifted.

Throughout the long night, the restless crowd, with but one thought in mind, hung about the cabin of Pedro the farmer. The doctors and several of the nurses were in there. Down at the meeting-house a bonfire had been started, and here were grouped the men to whom the leaders had intrusted firearms and other weapons,--men of the gun crew, under officers from the Doraine, the committee of ten and others.

It was accepted as a fact that two men were involved in the heinous deed. Percival's account of the mysterious runners seemed definitely to establish this. He called upon Olga Obosky to verify his statement. If she was surprised by his admission that he was in her company when the men rushed past them in the darkness, she did not betray the fact. She indulged in a derisive smile when he went on to explain that it was so dark he had failed to recognize her until she spoke to him. She agreed with him that the two men must have come into the open a very short distance above them, having sneaked out between the cabins before suddenly breaking into a run. Avoiding the beaten roadway, they had laid their course twenty or thirty feet to the right of it, keeping to the soft, springy turf.

Percival had issued orders for the entire camp to congregate on the Green at the first sign of day. The cold grey light of dawn fell upon vague, unreal forms moving across the open spaces from all directions. There was no shouting, no turmoil, scarcely the sound of a voice. The silent, ghostly figures merged into a compact, motionless mass in front of the meetinghouse. It was not necessary for Percival to call for order when he appeared on the steps and began to speak. The only sounds were the shuffling of feet, the rustling of garments, the deep, restrained breathing of the mass.

He spoke partly in English and partly in Spanish, and he was brief.

"You know what we are here for and what is ahead of us. I don't have to tell you the story of last night. You know it as well as I. You will be glad to hear the latest word from Dr. Cullen. Philippa is conscious. He thinks she will recover. She is having the best of care and attention. I will explain why we are all here now. The first thing for us to do is to count noses. We will go about it as rapidly as possible. After that, we will get down to business. Mr. Landover and Mr. Malone will check off the name of every man, woman and child. As your names are called, come forward, answer, and then move over beyond the corner of the building. We've got to find out just who is missing,--if any one is missing at all."

He raised his voice. "I want you all to keep cool. Don't forget that we are after the men who committed this crime. We have no right to say that Manuel Crust or any of his crowd did this thing until we have positive proof of the fact. It may not have been any of Manuel's gang, don't forget that, people. We must make no mistakes. I am saying this to you now because I see Manuel Crust and some of his friends standing over there at the edge of the clearing. Stop! Don't make a move in their direction. We've all had time to think,--we've all had time to get ourselves in hand. There is a right and a wrong way to handle this thing,--and we've got to be sure we're right. The guilty cannot escape. They haven't a chance, and you know it. So, let's be sure,--let's be dead sure before we accuse any man. We have no right to charge Manuel's gang with this crime. The guilty men may be here among us,--absolutely unsuspected. Chizler! You and Soapy Shay go over and tell those men that we are taking a count of all the people in this camp. Tell them to come and answer to their names. They will be safe."

The count was never completed. Manuel Crust did not wait for his name to be called. He pushed his way through the crowd, leaving his followers behind. Advancing to the foot of the steps he cried out hoarsely to Percival:

"If you want your men, I--I, Manuel Crust, will lead you to one of them. He is up there in the wood. Three men are guarding him. He is Sancho Mendez, the blacksmith. Listen, I will tell you. It is the God's truth I tell. There were seven of us hiding out there in the wood. We were scared. We heard our names called out. We had heard the threats to burn us alive. We ran away. We were not cowards,--but still we ran away. We would wait till the crowd cooled off. That was my advice. Then we would return,--then we would help to find the men who did it,--and we would help to burn them alive. An hour ago Sancho Mendez crawled out of the brush up there above the landing and begged us to protect him. His leg was broken. He had fallen over a log. You all know Sancho Mendez. He was a good boy. He was the friend of Boss Percival. He was no friend to me. But he swears he will be my slave for ever if I will save him. Then he tells us everything. When I ask him why the hell he run away, he says he lose his mind or something. He just go crazy, he says. He say everybody was chasing him,--he could hear them in the bushes, he could hear that girl screaming out his name,--and all that. He was going to jump in the water and drown, because he say people tell him always it is the easy way to die. But he falls down and breaks his leg,--here below the knee. He cannot run no more. It is all up. He is afraid to breathe. People are all around him with knives and axes and clubs. He can hear them in the brush. Then the daylight comes, and he sees us down below in the wood, and he says he thanks God. I will be his friend,--I will save him because I am an angel from heaven! Bah! I spit in his face. We tie him to a tree with our belts, and then I come down to tell Boss Percival we have his man,--his good and loyal friend."

"Stop!" yelled Percival, as the crowd began to show symptoms of breaking away. "Listen to me! I give you fair warning. I don't want to do it, but, by God, I'll order these men to shoot the first who tries to start anything. We're going to have law and order here. This man Sancho is going to have a fair trial. What's more, he had a companion. What does he say of the other man, Manuel Crust?"

"Sancho Mendez says he was alone. There was no other man."

Percival looked hard into Manuel Crust's bloodshot eyes. An appalling thought had suddenly flashed into his mind. Many seconds passed before he dared to open his lips. As if by divine revelation the situation lay bare before him,--the whole Machiavelian scheme as conceived by Manuel. Sancho Mendez was to be sacrificed!

Even as he stood there speechless, the plan began to work toward its well-calculated end. Manuel's friends started to harangue the crowd. They were growling hoarse invectives, shaking their fists in the direction of the wood, fanning the pent-up fury of the mob into a whirlwind that would sweep everything before it. Once the tide turned there would be no stopping it until Sancho Mendez was torn to pieces. He would shriek his innocence into deaf ears. And that was Manuel's game.

Percival's heart leaped with joy as he saw the armed force under Lieutenant Platt move swiftly into a position barring the way to the woods. He thrilled with a mighty pride in the shrewd intelligence and resourcefulness of this trained fighting-man from the far-off homeland.

Manuel Crust was turning away to mingle with the crowd. Quick as a flash, Percival was down from the steps and at the "Portugee's" side. He grasped the man's arm.

"I've got a gun against your back," he cried in fierce suppressed tones. "Stand still and keep your mouth shut, or I'll drill a hole through you. You're safe if you do as I tell you, Crust. I'm onto your little game. I'm not saying you are the guilty man, but you know who he is,--and it won't work."

Manuel Crust was as rigid as a block of stone. He did not even turn his head to look into the face of the man who held him.

Michael Malone and Landover were at Percival's side in an instant. From their position on the steps they could see what was not visible to the crowd beyond,--the revolver that was pressed against the small of Crust's back.

"Cover this man," whispered Percival to Malone. "Shoot if he opens his mouth."

Malone's revolver was jammed against the "Portugee's" back, and Percival sprang back up the steps.

Manuel Crust shot a look of surprise at Abel Landover.

"What the hell--" he began, but choked off the words at a command from Malone. While Percival was rapidly calling out orders from above, he broke out recklessly again, addressing the stern-faced banker.

"Are you my friend or not?" he snarled. "What kind of a man are you? Speak up! Tell them I'm all right."

"Keep quiet," warned Malone.

Landover's eyes met the searching, questioning gaze of the Portuguese. Manuel Crust apparently was satisfied with what he read in them, for a quick gleam of confidence leaped into his own. His chest swelled with a tremendous intake of breath.

The remarkable personality,--or perhaps the magnetism,--of the "boss," again asserted itself. He made no allusion to the thing uppermost in his mind as he spoke hurriedly, emphatically to the tense throng. When he directed Randolph Fitts to take a few picked men with him up into the woods to bring down the captive, there were mutterings but no move on the part of the crowd either to anticipate or to follow the detachment. A few terse words to Buck Chizler sent that active young man after Fitts, the bearer of instructions. Sancho Mendez was to be brought in alive. His guards were not to be given a chance to kill him when they realized that the scheme had failed and he would be allowed to tell his own story.

With the departure of Fitts and his men, Percival ordered the people to return to their cabins. He promised them that Sancho Mendez should have his just deserts. Slowly, reluctantly the crowd broke up and shuffled away in small groups across the dewy Green. Manuel Crust was free to go. The few words that passed between Landover and Percival, although unheard by the man, sufficed to put courage back into his heart. He had come to look upon the banker as his "pal"! And his "pal" had not failed him!

This is what Landover said to Percival:

"Whatever may be in your mind, Percival, I want to say this to you. I was in Manuel Crust's cabin when the thing happened. There were eight of us there. I can point out to you the other six. I must beg you to overlook the fact that we are not friends, and believe what I am saying. It is the absolute truth."

"I will take your word for it, Mr. Landover," said Percival, after a moment. "I am aware of your dealings with Crust and his crowd. I don't know what the game is, but I do know that you have been fostering discontent,--it may even amount to revolt,--among; these men. If you say you were with Crust and that he was not out of your sight all evening, I will believe you. You may be a misguided, domineering fool, Mr. Landover, but you are honest. You have failed to appreciate what you were stirring up,--what you were letting yourself and all the rest of us in for, that's all."

Landover flushed. He compressed his lips for a second or two before speaking.

"My opposition to you as a dictator, Percival, hardly warrants the implication that I am in a sense responsible for the devilish thing that happened last night."

"I grant you that," said Percival. "Nevertheless, it is your purpose to down me, no matter what it costs,--isn't that true?"

"No, it is not true. There is an honest, sincere belief on the part of some of us that you are not the man to rule this camp. You may call it politics, if you like,--or revolt, if you prefer."

"We'll call it politics, Mr. Landover. It was not politics that made me the superintendent of construction here, however. I've looked after the job to the best of my ability. I am ready to retire whenever the people decide they've found a better man. You may be right in supposing that Manuel Crust is the right man for the job,--but I don't agree with you."

Landover started. "Nothing is farther from my thoughts than to turn the affairs of this camp over to Crust," he said.

"Once more I agree with you. But that is what you will be doing, just the same. If you think that Manuel Crust is going to play second fiddle to you, Mr. Landover, you'll suddenly wake up to find yourself mistaken. You know what Crust is advocating, don't you? Well, I guess there's nothing more to be said on the subject."

"We will drop it, then," said Landover curtly. "I merely want you to understand that Crust had no hand in last night's affair. I can vouch for that."

"Can you vouch for each and every member of his gang?"

"I know nothing about his gang, as you call it. If I am not mistaken, this fellow Mendez is one of your pet supporters. He may be double-crossing you."

"We'll see. For the present, your friend Crust is safe. As long as he lives within the law, he is all right. We're going to have law and order here, Mr. Landover. I want you to understand that. The best evidence that most of us want law and order is the incredible manner in which these people have curbed their natural instincts."

"No one wants law and order more than I," said Landover.

"And I suppose Manuel Crust is of the same mind, eh?"

"So far as I know, he is," replied the other firmly.

Percival looked at him in blank astonishment. "Well, I'm damned!" he said, after a moment. "Do you really believe that?"

"It does not follow that he is an advocate of lawlessness and disorder because he happens to be opposed to some of your pet schemes, does it, Mr. Percival?" inquired Landover ironically.

"One of my pet schemes happens to conflict seriously with Manuel's pet scheme, if that will strengthen your argument any, Mr. Landover."

"I don't believe Crust ever had any such thought," said the other flatly.

"We're not getting anywhere by arguing the point," said Percival. He turned to walk away.

"Just a moment," called out Landover, after the younger man had taken a few steps. "See here, Percival, I don't want you to misunderstand me. If there is anything in this talk about Crust,--you know what I mean,--and if it should come to the point where stern measures are required, I will be with you, heart and soul. You know that, don't you?"

Percival studied the banker's face for a moment. "I've never doubted it for an instant, Landover. We may yet shake hands and be friends in spite of ourselves."

Landover turned on his heel and walked away, and Percival, with a shrug of his shoulders, set about making preparations to safe-guard Sancho Mendez when he was brought in from the wood. He posted a number of reliable, cool-headed men around the "meetinghouse," many of them being armed. Arrangements were made for barricading the door and the few windows. The prisoner was to be confined in the building, a long, low structure, and there he was to tell his story and stand trial. There was to be no delay in the matter of a trial.

"You will sit as judge, Mike," said the "boss," addressing Malone. "There will not be any legal technicalities, old man, and there won't be any appeal,--so all you've got to do is to act like a judge and not like a lawyer. We've got to do this thing in the regular way. Try to forget that you have practiced in the New York City courts. Remember that there is such a thing as justice and pay absolutely no attention to what you are in the habit of calling the law. The law is a beautiful thing if you don't take it too seriously. Ninety-nine out of every hundred judges in the courts of the U. S. A. sit through a trial worrying their heads off trying to remember the law so that they can keep out of the record things that might make them look like jackasses when the case is carried up to a higher court,--and while they are thinking so hard about the law they forget all about the poor little trifle called justice. I guess you know that as well as I do, so there's no use talking about it."

"I guess I do," said Michael Malone. "I live on technicalities when I'm in New York. If it were not for technicalities, I'd starve to death. And, my God, man, if we had to stop and think about justice every time we go into court, we'd be a disgrace to the profession."

Percival, Peter Snipe, Flattner and several others strode out from the meeting-house and swept the long line of huts with serious, apprehensive eyes. They had expected to find the people congregated at some nearby point, ready to swoop down upon the prisoner the instant he appeared with his captors at the edge of the wood. To their amazement and relief, the people had taken Percival's command literally. They had retired to their huts, and but few of them were to be seen, even on their doorsteps.

"Can you beat it?" cried Snipe. "By golly, boys, they've put it squarely up to us. It's the greatest exhibition of restraint and confidence I've ever known. This couldn't have happened at home. Hello!"

The gaze of all was centred upon two persons who walked rapidly in the direction taken by Fitts and his party. No one spoke for a few seconds. Flattner, after a quick look at Percival's set, scowling face, was the first to speak. To a certain degree, he understood the situation. It was out of pure consideration for his friend's feelings that he said:

"I'll go and head 'em off, A. A."

"Thanks, old chap,--but there's no sense in getting yourself disliked. I'll do it. I'm in bad already,--and besides I'm the one who gave the order."

Near the end of the row of huts, he drew alongside of Ruth Clinton and Landover.

"The order was meant for every one, Miss Clinton," he said levelly. "Am I to understand that you have decided to ignore it?"

She stopped short and drew herself up haughtily. Their eyes met. There was defiance in hers. She did not speak. Landover confronted Percival, white with fury.

"I am capable of looking after Miss Clinton," he exclaimed. "Your beastly officiousness--"

"You will go back to your cabin at once, Miss Clinton," said Percival, ignoring Landover.

She did not move.

"Miss Clinton came out here at my suggestion," said Landover. "If you have any more bullying to do, confine yourself to me, Percival."

"I am not doing this because I enjoy it, Miss Clinton," went on the young man, still looking into her unwavering eyes. "I am sorry it is necessary to remind you that there are no privileged classes here. You will have to obey orders the same as every one else."

"Very well," she said, suddenly lowering her eyes. "Take me back to the cabin, Mr. Landover. There is nothing more to say."

Percival stood aside. They walked past him without so much as a glance at his set, unsmiling face. Landover slipped an arm through hers. She did not resist when he drew her up close to his side. Percival saw him lean over and speak to her after they had gone a few paces. His lips were close to her ear, but though his voice was low and repressed, the words were distinctly audible to the young man.

"Ruth darling, I am sorry,--I can't tell you how sorry I am for having subjected you to this insult. God, if I could only help matters by resenting it, I--"

She broke in, her voice as clear as a bell.

"Oh, if I were only a man,--if I were only a man!"

They were well out of hearing before Percival looked despairingly up at the pink and grey sky and muttered with heartfelt earnestness:

"I wish to God you were. I'd like nothing better than to be soundly threshed by you."

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BOOK II CHAPTER VIIShe quickly closed the door behind her and sped off down the line of now lightless cabins. A man stepped out of the black shadow beyond the second cabin and stood in her path. She did not pause, but walked swiftly, fearlessly up to him, her heart quickening under the thrill of exultation. He was waiting for her! He had been waiting for her all the long evening. The time had come! The night was dark now; a strong wind had sprung up to drive the black and storm-laden clouds across the moonlit sky. She held out her
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