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TALBOT MUNDY

RED SEA CARGO


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First published in Adventure, August 1933

This e-book edition: Roy Glashan's Library, 2016
Version date: 2021-06-27
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Cover

Adventure, August 1933, with "Red Sea Cargo"


Illustration

Hedpiece from "Adventure"


THE schooner Tres Hermanos slowly approached the Red Sea port of Hoseyn Shellabi Kabir. Captain Bridgeman Burgess stood near the wheel, a splendid specimen of Nova Scotian bone and muscle; his head looked captain of the man as surely as the man was captain of his schooner. Toward him along the deck, in silk pajamas, strolled Edward Harvey, who was obviously captain of nothing.

"They're all pirates on this coast," Harvey remarked. "Stay offshore until daylight. Why not?"

Burgess glanced at the stars; the sky was powdered with them. The pulse beat of the perfectly conditioned Diesel engine made the schooner seem like a living thing that felt her way intelligently.

"You don't know Red Sea Arabs," Harvey insisted.

"You're hired," said Burgess, "to talk Arabic, not to tell me how to run guns."

It had needed brains to get to sea with a thousand new Japanese rifles and a million rounds of ammunition manifested as cotton piece-goods.

"This isn't the sealskin trade," said Harvey.

"No, nor is it the heroin racket."

Harvey sneered. He had lost his medical certificate and self-respect and served a long term in an Indian prison for running heroin. He was out of his class on that schooner, and he knew it. He despised men who broke laws but kept promises. He hated Burgess because Burgess could see through him. But he knew his own value.

"How's your Arabic?" he demanded. He was the only man on the schooner who could speak Arabic fluently.

Burgess rang to stop the engine.

"Let go," he commanded, and the anchor chain roared.

The shadowy forms of half a dozen dhows were dimly visible, and there was a vague white line where the surf dashed oh coral reefs. The dark shoreline was just discernible. It was a stifling, dark night--no wind at all. Tobacco seemed tasteless, so there was not even a glow from a cigaret.

Harvey fidgeted.

"You'll leave the negotiations to me, I suppose? I did the Bombay end. I--"

Burgess interrupted.

"This here Kahin, as you call him, talks English. That's what you said. Tell me again about him."

"He was booted out of Bombay by the Indian police," said Harvey. "He became a rajah's pet astrologer, but the rajah sacked him. Then he got himself the same sort of job here--astrologer, physician, interpreter, spy, intriguer. He needs expert handling."

"No one starts a sheet without my orders. Do you get that?" Burgess answered. There was nothing of the high seas bully about him; but he meant what he said, and Harvey flinched a little. "When were you here last?"

"Four years ago, on plague work. Hoseyn Shellabi Kabir means the Very Beautiful Fortress. It's the filthiest pest-hole in all Arabia. Sultan Mahmoud Quotch, who runs the place, is the financier, remember. He is supposed to have the money in English sovereigns wangled from the Arabs who fought under Feisal in Allenby's drive to Damascus."

Burgess eyed Harvey calmly and made a smug remark--

"Who cares how he got it, if he has it?"

"You'll find him difficult," said Harvey. "Your actual customer is a sheik named Dandan, who is said to be half French. His mother was looted from a caravan and liked it. He has no money--nothing but horses, camels, sheep and goats. Dandan is to take the rifles overland and trade them to the Kurds, who will pay anything for them--anything. They're in rebellion against Turkey, Persia and Irak."

"Sounds O.K. to me," said Burgess. "First man aboard with the money gets 'em. Better turn in, hadn't you?"

Harvey snorted and went forward of the cabin-house.

Obadiah Tingle, first mate, wandered aft with his thumbs in the belt of a pair of serge pants. His only other garment was a peaked cap.

"Hotter 'n hell," he remarked to Captain Burgess by way of not appearing too inquisitive.

He was a small man; Burgess looked nearly twice his size as he peered around the cabin-house to make sure Harvey was not lurking there to listen.

"Harvey has a scheme," said Burgess, and Tingle nodded. "He and this feller they call a Kahin may have figured we'd be easy picking for a British cruiser. But we're two days ahead of time. There's no cruiser at Aden or Perim, but one may come from Suez. There's a scheme to get our cargo free for nothing."

Tingle hesitated; then he stuck out his jaw and spoke his mind.

"I warned you when you signed him, Harvey's rotten."

"Had to have a man who knows the language," Burgess answered. "Turn in."


Illustration

ALL grew quiet. About midnight a muezzin's voice whined from a minaret ashore, and dogs howled a response. Burgess turned in on a mattress on the poop, slept three hours and fifty minutes to the second, and awoke about sixty seconds before the steward came aft with his morning coffee. He shaved and dressed himself in spotless white, then stared at the shoreline until the sun rose over the town.

The fort of Shellabi Kabir, with the muzzles of ancient cannons peering through embrasures, stood sharp against the sky, above and behind a flat roofed town that presently emerged from shadow. There was a jetty in bad repair, a filthy beach, and a cemetery over to the right, as bleak and dismal as the sky was blue and cruel. Six dhows lay at anchor in the lee of a reef, on which the lazy swell burst green and white. And there were the fins of three prowling sharks.

Tingle, also dressed, came and stood near Burgess, after seeing to the spreading of the awning on the main boom.

"Three boats putting out from the jetty," he said, "and thirty Arabs in 'em. That's a proposition."

"Yeah, they look too innocent. Tell Joe to get the engine started. Heave short."

The Arabs made for the nearest dhow and swarmed aboard her. Tingle hurried aft again for orders.

"They're figuring," said Burgess, "to come alongside, and that won't suit us. Lay our spare spar forward. Set the butt of it against the bitts and make fast. Then get your hook, and send the quartermaster aft. I'm going to learn 'em manners."

The Arabs began hauling on their weed-foul cable, but it was a slow job; only four men could work at a time without impeding one another. Before their four-pronged anchor was awash a long spar, very firmly lashed in place, projected far beyond the jib-boom of the Tres Hermanos.

"Grease it good," commanded Burgess.

So a man with a can of stinking tallow crawled out to the end. By the time the anchor was up and the tallow had taken the heat of the sun, no human guile was quite so slippery as that long spar.

"I'm going to lay 'em on the reef," Burgess remarked when Tingle hurried aft again. "Give four of the men rifles. Four's plenty. Not a shot unless I order it. Bullets ain't good for business--not at this stage."

Burgess swung the schooner slowly, and the Arabs proceeded to look innocent. They overdid it. The man at the masthead called a warning:

"They've swords and guns stowed handy behind the bulwark. I can see 'em."

Burgess rang for half speed, circling toward the dhow as if he meant to come alongside; but he straightened his course suddenly, and the light dhow reeled at the impact as the long spar struck her amidships, turning her bow toward the reef. Burgess reversed his engine, drew clear and resumed the assault from the stern.

Only then did the Arabs perceive it was not an accident. They yelled, screamed, imprecated and showed their weapons--too late. A dozen of them scrambled aft and jumped for the spar, not guessing it was greased; they had to let go their weapons and swim for the boats before sharks could get them. Those remaining on the dhow cursed mightily and fired three hysterical shots that did no damage.

"Steady now!" commanded Burgess. "I'll dock the share of the man who shoots without my order."

The dhow crashed the reef head-on at four knots, climbed it, half careened and sat there. Burgess backed away in time to save the spar from breaking, circled leisurely to observe the situation and then returned to his former anchorage. Not a man on the schooner except himself had spoken.

"That'll learn 'em to try to hijack me," he remarked. "All right, unship that spar."


Illustration

ONE of the shore boats left the dhow and drew near. Some one in the boat's stern shouted, and that brought Harvey aft. Burgess nodded to him. He shouted back in Arabic, and the boatswain lowered a rope overside. He in the boat's stern seized the rope, and the boat backed away in a hurry, leaving him waist-deep in water. The boatswain hauled him over the bulwark by the seat of his Allah-be-good-to-Arabia pants. "Bring him aft," commanded Burgess. So he came aft, lacking dignity in spite of Arab headdress and flowing garments.

"Astaghfaru'llah--" he began.

"Beg Allah's pardon in the mosque," said Burgess. "I'll forgive you for trying to hijack me, providing business is good. Who are you?"

"May God whiten your Honor's countenance, I am the Kahin, who in Bombay made negotiations with this man here."

"I'm the man with the goods," said Burgess. "Where's your money?"

"God be praised, we have it ready," the Kahin answered. "The Sultan Al-Hajj Mahmoud Quotch, whose representative I am, commanded me to bless your Honor's countenance and say that he will buy the rifles on the jetty."

Burgess grinned.

"Tell him the price is fifty pounds a rifle and a thousand rounds, in gold, on my deck."

The Kahin looked scandalized. His eyes sought Harvey's, but Harvey looked the other way.

"Insh'allah bukra," he answered.

"Meaning, 'Please God, tomorrow'," Harvey interpreted. His smile suggested it would not be long before the captain would have to pass the buck to somebody who knew the Red Sea Arabs.

"Tell him I'm superstitious. Tomorrow's the thirteenth."

Harvey talked with the man in Hindustani, of which Burgess knew even less than he did Arabic.

"You must give him time," he said at last. "Your price is too high. Offer him a pound a rifle for himself and--"

Burgess shoved his fists into his pockets, hugely patient.

"What's the layout ashore?" he demanded. "Sheik by the name o' Dandan is to have the rifles? He's to take 'em off by caravan and sell 'em to the Kurds? But Quotch pays?"

"Yes, effendi."

"Then I'll bet this ship and cargo against yonder dhow that Quotch has good security in hand. What hold has Quotch on that there Dandan?"

"His Calamity, effendi--his daughter. The Sheik Dandan has delivered his daughter as hostage. The Sultan Al-Hajj Mahmoud Quotch shall keep her as security until his Honor, the Sheik Dandan, shall return from dealing with the Kurds and make a settlement in full."

"Is she considered valuable?"

"She is so beautiful, effendi, that whole cities shed tears at sight of her. She is eighteen but not yet married because nations go to war about her. The Sheik Dandan seeks a suitable alliance."

"But he's put her in hock for the price o' the rifles, eh? Where is he?"

"Camped beyond the cemetery, with a hundred men."

Burgess glanced toward the cemetery, desolate and naked looking, on a dune against the skyline. Between it and the beach lay barren sand in windblown ridges.

"You go ashore," he said to Harvey.

The Kahin perked up. Even his wet trousers looked less bedraggled.

"I will take his Honor straight to Sultan Mahmoud Quotch," he volunteered.

But Burgess beckoned. Tingle strolled aft with the boatswain and two seamen. Almost before the Kahin knew what happened to him, he was borne away backward and lashed to the mainmast.

"They're just treacherous. They'd double-cross 'emselves if there was no one else. So talk 'em turkey. My price. Cash on my deck, if they want the cargo. Go ashore in their boat," said Burgess.

So Harvey went, in helmet and silk pajamas.

Tingle drew near then and leaned against the rail until Harvey was well out of earshot, eyeing the lone sentinel, motionless as a vulture, on the roof of the fort of Shellabi Kabir.

"That guy 'ud see a cruiser's smoke before we did," he remarked. "But we'd see it and be out beyond the three-mile limit before the cruiser sighted us."

Burgess grinned.

"Suppose you were burning Admiralty fuel all the way from Suez on a hot tip, would you measure the miles off-shore with a foot-rule before you picked on something our size? Rifles and ammunition under hatches, and booked as cotton piece-goods--we'd be logged within the three-mile limit if land was twenty miles off. What about our papers? We're going to have to use salesmanship."


Illustration

BURGESS approached the Kahin, stared at him and grinned without a hint of malice.

"Better pick your bet soon, hadn't you?"

"I do not understand you," said the Kahin, writhing to ease his muscles where the rope bit.

"Very good. Words o' one syllable. I'll jettison the cargo if a cruiser shows up. Any share o' booty money you'd get wouldn't compensate for what my crew 'ud do to you. I've sent Mr. Harvey ashore to tell your Sultan Mahmoud Quotch that you've confessed that he was on that dhow with the intention o' pirooting me and my cargo. Mr. Harvey don't mind whether you said it or didn't. So you don't stand ace high with the sultan. You'll be bastinadoed to a frazzle any time he catches you. Is there a customs officer ashore? Has he a seal? Could you borrow it?"

"I could steal it, effendi. But what for?"

"Why does Dandan want those rifles?"

"For the Kurds, effendi."

"That's what he says. Why did Quotch try to pirate 'em? To keep Dandan from having 'em? Then Quotch would have had the rifles, the money and Dandan's daughter, wouldn't he? He'd have set soft. Was that your idea?"

"No, effendi."

"You're a liar. This here Dandan, does he like Quotch?"

"No, effendi."

"Any fight in Dandan?"

"People liken him to the hot wind."

"Would he fight Quotch--for a fat stake?"

"But how could he? His daughter is a hostage. Gross indignities to her would be the consequence."

"I get you. It's a pity I can't trust you."

"But, effendi, I am purchasable."

"How much?"

"For a thousand pounds. By Allah, pay my price and I will keep faith!"

Burgess strolled aft and stared at the shore through binoculars. He could see Harvey in striped pajamas on the jetty, talking to about a dozen Arabs. Burgess returned to the Kahin.

"If Dandan was here," he said, "I'd proposition him."

"Five hundred pounds, effendi."

"Fifty."

"In the name of the All Merciful, effendi, I am poor; and you have set the Sultan Mahmoud Quotch against me. I have lost my living. It is risky to go to Dandan. But for two hundred and fifty pounds--"

"A hundred. That's the limit."

"In advance, effendi?"

"Do you take me for a sucker? Hey, Tingle, take him below and set two men to watch him. Treat him decent if he's quiet."

Tingle, the boatswain and two men spirited the Kahin out of sight as the man at the masthead reported a boat putting off from the jetty. Tingle returned and leaned on the rail beside Burgess, his eyes puckering in the Red Sea glare as he watched the small boat approaching. It was deep laden, burdened with nine men. Harvey, in helmet and pajamas, looked dwarfed amid those loose-robed Arabs.

Tingle spat into the sea.

"Harvey don't like us," he said. "He knows damned well we don't like him. For spite, he'd sell us out for half what he'd get by acting decent."

Burgess spat too.

"Get the hatch off," he answered. "Then come back aft and listen in."

Tingle was listening in, from behind the cabin-house, when Harvey scrambled overside to have the first word with Burgess.

"Sultan Al-Hajj Mahmoud Quotch in person!" he announced with an air of triumph. "How's that? Let me do the talking. You pretend to give me orders, but leave him to me. He came because I promised medicine."

"Bring him aft here and say what I tell you," Burgess answered. "Only one man with him. Let the rest of 'em slay in the boat. Fetch up cabin cushions for the sultan. Park him comfortable."


Illustration

SO the Sultan Al-Hajj Mahmoud Quotch recovered dignity after being hauled aboard by the boatswain, and walked aft awkwardly, as men do who have lived alternately on horse- or camel-back and harem cushions. Three pilgrimages to Mecca had made him supercilious. Sly and rather bleary eyes, a nose like Abdul Hamid's, a sparse gray beard that looked as if he tore it in times of anger, and the cutlery he carried at his waist decidedly offset the graciousness at which he aimed.

"In the name of the Almighty, peace," he said in sonorous Arabic. Then he Bat down.

Burgess stuck his fists into his pockets while he studied the man.

"Peace?" he answered. "Why did he try to hijack me this morning?"

"For heaven's sake, don't speak about that," Harvey objected. "Keep him amiable. Let me do the talking."

"Tell him what I said. You hear me? He doesn't answer, eh? Tell him I wouldn't trust him a yard, not after what the Kahin told me. He can send me the money aboard, and I'll land the cargo afterward. It's fifty pounds a rifle and a thousand rounds. Say that to him."

Harvey turned the ultimatum into Arabic, sneering to show he did not approve; but his distaste was nothing compared to the sultan's indignation.

"Allah!" he exploded. His attendant clucked, scandalized.

There was a long pause. Then the sultan drew forth patience from the folds of his burnous and temporized.

"He says," said Harvey, "if he sends the money, what is to stop you from sailing away with it? He wants the rifles ashore before he sends the money. But he is willing to send you a hostage to remain on board until the rifles are ashore and you get your money."

"O.K. Tell him he may send me Dandan's daughter. Tell him, do you hear me?"

Harvey had to say it. Burgess knew sufficient Arabic to check him if he only pretended to say it. There was another explosion of "Allahs," another silence and then eloquent anger. Harvey interpreted:

"Verily saith the Prophet, all astrologers are liars; and that Kahin shall be bastinadoed into food for vultures! Dandan's daughter is a sacred trust in his charge. He would violate the law and his religion if he handed her over to any one else, particularly to an Unbeliever."

"Tell him," Burgess answered, "that the law's off when it comes to running firearms. Send the girl aboard and I'll put half the goods ashore. Send me half the money, then I'll set the other half ashore. When he pays for that half he can have the girl back. Meantime, he can have you for an offset. You go ashore with him and check the goods against the money. Tell him."

The sultan's face betrayed no satisfaction. It was Harvey who could not conceal emotion as he interpreted the sultan's answer.

"Half the cargo and half the ammunition?" he asked.

"Yes," said Burgess, turning aside to wink at Tingle. His face looked wooden again when he turned to Harvey. "Take your medicines ashore and doctor the whole harem. Do you see that spit o' beach, this side o' the hollow where the sand dune humps between the shore and cemetery? That's where I'll land 'em, after I've sent a boat to take soundings. Tell him."

Harvey interpreted, and the sultan nodded, raising no objections. Harvey went below and was gone five minutes. He returned with a bulging suitcase. Burgess eyed that, but made no remarks; and Harvey hurried the sultan overside. There were no formalities. Tingle, leaning beside Burgess, watched the boat start shoreward.

"Damned quick work I'd call it, if you ask me!" he said. "I'd say you were crazy."

Burgess grinned.

"Aren't you on to 'em? I wasn't until he spoke up about ammunition. It's a dollar to a doughnut that he doesn't give a damn for Dandan's daughter! They expect a British cruiser, and they want my ammunition on the beach before it gets here. Cheaper to pay Harvey than to pay us, isn't it?

"We'd look pretty with an Arab's daughter on the schooner and half the cargo still on board. No money; Quotch sitting pretty with plenty o' rifles and ammunition; Dandan howling for his daughter, and probably no ammunition to fight Quotch with. Harvey 'd thumb his nose ashore. And some snooty Navy officer *d charge us with stealing Arab women for the love-boat traffic! Fetch the Kahin, and tell the Second to put the port boat overside."

So the Kahin came aft again under the eyes of a roughneck escort, and the port boat took the water, four men standing by to man the oars. The second mate waited at a respectful distance. The Kahin did his utmost to assume grave dignity.

"Strip him to the pants, so he won't be recognized too easy," Burgess ordered, and the Kahin's dignity ceased to exist.

Burgess went to his cabin and counted a hundred pounds into a handkerchief, returned and showed them to the Kahin; he appeared to expect to be beaten, but the sight of gold made his small eyes glitter.

"Yours," said Burgess, "if you earn it. Fetch Dandan."

"How can I make him come to you, effendi?"

"Easy. Tell him his daughter is being put by Quotch aboard my schooner. Say I'll proposition him about her if he comes quick. See that spit o' sand? You see the hollow just beyond it? He's to come there with you and with nobody else."

"He will never believe, effendi, that the Sultan Al-Hajj Mahmoud Quotch would do such a thing."

"That so? It's your job to make him believe it. No one's paying you for nothing. After that, fetch the customs seal. If the customs man comes with it there's an extra fifty."

Burgess knotted up the handkerchief, returned it to his cabin, came on deck again and gave definite, detailed orders to the second mate. Then he spoke to the crew in a louder voice.

"Fellers, there's a cruiser coming, sure as tomorrow's the thirteenth. Harvey and this Kahin tipped 'em off for the reward. Harvey and Quotch have laid their heads together to get half our stuff for nothing before the cruiser gets here. You boys stick with me. There'll be double money for whoever gets hurt overcoming sales-resistance."

"Harvey?" some one asked, fingering a holster.

Burgess glanced toward Hoseyn Shellabi Kabir.

"He'll wish we'd bumped him off before he's learned the names o' half his new friends! Here they come."


Illustration

THEY watched a boat putting out from the jetty. Shrouded in black, three women sat in the stern, resembling vultures. Several men laughed.

"Mike!" said Burgess, and the cook approached him. "Fix up something sweet to keep 'em amiable. You're the chaperon. You get that?"

Mike arranged a kitchen cloth to resemble an Arab headdress. He grinned and returned to the galley to make sticky miracles.

Burgess turned to the Kahin. "See her? Better hustle and tell Dandan, if you want your money."

The Kahin went into the port boat suddenly and lay face downward under the thwarts, between the rowers' feet. The port boat started for the sandspit, where a long dune cast a purple shadow. The Kahin's departure left no interpreter aboard, so there was a dramatic silence when the Arab boat came alongside.

The three women, whose eyes looked terrified above their impenetrable black veils, were lifted aboard by the boatswain, one by one, and received by Mike, who ushered them aft to the cabin cushions so recently honored by the person of the Sultan Al-Hajj Mahmoud Quotch. The Arab boat started back for the jetty at top speed, as if the crew felt guilty.

"One's a pippin," Mike announced, returning to the galley. "She has eyes like nobody's business. But wait till I've fed 'em. They'll have to raise their veils to cat molasses. Oh, boy!"

Burgess studied the shoreline through binoculars. Through a shimmering heat haze, he watched the second mate's boat touch the sandspit and then head back slowly, taking soundings. He saw the half naked Kahin leap overside and vanish almost instantly in shadow on the far side of the dune.

When the second mate signaled that the water inshore was deep enough and there was room to turn he started very slowly shoreward, with a man in the chains to check the soundings, and two men at the masthead.

"Mr. Tingle," he commanded, "serve out rifles and a bandoleer to each man. I'll be going ashore, so you take over. Bosun, in case of shore work, you command the port watch. I'll take personal charge of my watch." He took a rifle himself, examined it and squinted down the sights. "Get this, all of you. We'll act peaceful if they'll let us. Nobody fires a shot without my orders. But if a scrap's what these Arabs are after, shoot to kill!"

Less than a hundred yards from the stinking, crab-infested beach they anchored.

Burgess avoided the three women carefully, but observed that their heads, as they sat in a row on heaped up cushions, could be easily seen from the beach. The youngest looked mischievous. Her fear had given place to curiosity. She jingled necklaces beneath her voluminous black robe. It was very easy to see she was laughing at him.

"Starboard boat!" he commanded.

A man on horseback, followed by the Kahin, was just discernible against the cemetery wall; he started shoreward slowly along the hollow behind the dune. Burgess called to the men at the masthead:

"One of you watch me. One watch the horizon. Mr. Tingle, I want three blasts on the whistle when and if he sees smoke."

He himself had landed alone. The boat stood offshore, two men lazing at the oars, the boatswain and the other two on guard with rifles on their knees. Sweating, cursing the flies, he stepped into the shadow of the dune and stood still, with the rifle like a bird-gun beneath his armpit.


Illustration

THE horseman rode toward Burgess, and they eyed each other for a full minute before the Arab dismounted. The half naked Kahin watched, seeming to expect bloodshed. Suddenly he found courage to introduce them.

"This, effendi, is his Honor the Sheik Dandan, chieftain of the Beni-Ayyub."

He looked like a man who had faced scorching wind and known the far spaced desert water-holes for as many years as Burgess had faced storms and fogs amid uncharted soundings. Each appeared to be a law to himself--simple in his own way and sufficient for the purposes he thought good. Neither stare flinched. Smoldering, angry, dark eyes, from beneath a white keffieh bound with camel hair, glared at blue-gray eyes that held the cold, dispassionate calm of sunlit ice.

When Burgess spoke, even the Kahin's mincing voice interpreting could not spoil the effect.

"Quotch has put your daughter and two other women aboard my schooner as security for fifty thousand pounds. That's my price for a thousand rifles and a million rounds of ammunition. What do you say?"

The Kahin interpreted that, and then the answer:

"By the nine-and-ninety names, it is time for doing; and may God dishonor me, as Mahmoud Quotch dishonors God, if I fail in the doing!"

"O.K. Quotch is shy ammunition. If you had a hundred modern rifles and the ammunition for them, could you lick Quotch?"

The sheik's eyes glinted; red fire seemed to glow behind their darkness.

"Had I the ammunition, there would be no Mahmoud Quotch to offend God's nostrils," he answered. "I have more than a hundred men beyond the cemetery."

"Can they fight?"

"They are the Beni-Ayyub."

"If you lick Quotch, will you buy my cargo?"

"Yes, he says he will buy it, effendi."

"Tell him I'll set a hundred rifles and ten thousand rounds behind this dune where he can come and get 'em. I'll set some more in the open to tempt Quotch, along with empty ammunition boxes to deceive him proper. He'll send men to grab 'em, the way I figure it. We'll sort of resist that. Can he bust into the town behind Quotch, loot his money and pay me?"

"Insh'allah, na'am--undoubtedly, if God is willing."

"Is he willing?"

"Yes."

"It's a deal. Hop to it. He can have his women and all my cargo for fifty thousand pounds in gold on my deck."

There was talk then between the sheik and the Kahin.

Burgess interrupted.

"Tell him to get busy. Say he'll lose his women if a cruiser shows up and I put to sea to escape search. You go and get the customs seal."

Burgess and the Arab looked into each other's eyes, hated and understood each other, scorning each other's souls--and were allies for a moment, like fire and sea uniting to make havoc.


Illustration

TIME creaked by. Impatience, blue veined, sweated. Both boats, loaded almost to the gunwales, presently started shoreward, eight men leaping overside to wade through the shallow surf with the heavy ammunition boxes. Burgess made them set the ammunition and a hundred rifles in the hollow behind the dune, but he piled the remainder in full view on the sandspit.

They had hardly finished when shadow after shadow, purple on bleached white, touched the cemetery wall and vanished. In another moment men came like ants, needlessly stooping, scurrying along the shadow of the dune.

"Broach the ammunition boxes," Burgess ordered. "Dump 'em and let 'em help 'emselves. Set the empty boxes on the beach. Carry 'em awkward, so they'll look full."

He set the example, staggering under an empty box. Then he returned to watch Dandan's Bedouins behind the dune; they pounced and squabbled like hungry wolves, filling the folds of their clothes with cartridges, cursing one another in low voices as they scrambled, snatched and hurried back toward the cemetery.

Second boatloads came--all rifles--carried ashore in hot haste to be piled beside the others on the sandspit.

"That should do," said Burgess. "That's a tempting bait for any Arab. They've no glasses; they'll guess that half of it's ammunition. All hands to the boats, and row back slow toward the schooner."

It looked like lunacy; and even Burgess's admiring, sweat-drenched seamen grumbled at the risk of leaving all that valuable booty. They were shareholders. They had a right to be considered. But Burgess watched the sand dunes from the stern seat of the starboard boat, shading his eyes under a gnarled hand. When he did speak he was sudden.

"Hard about, and give way! Back to the beach, boys! Learn 'em, damn 'em! Give way. One, two--one, two!"

He was first into the water and first ashore. The crews had to haul the boats out. He was alone behind the rifle cases when an Arab fired the first shot and a hundred others, hesitating, surged out suddenly from hiding and began to rush for the loot. Burgess fired deliberately at the leading Arab, dropped him and then took off his helmet and waved to Tingle on the schooner. There began a hot fire from the schooner's rail. It checked the rush. Half the Arabs were armed with swords and knives; but the others, short of ammunition though they might be, had rifles and took good cover on the undulating sand. The swordsmen waited for a chance to rush, creeping closer over sand that would have scorched a white man into impotence.

"Take your time and get your man," said Burgess. The schooner raked their flank, but the Arabs gained ground.

"Pull your gats, and steady!" Burgess ordered. He was bleeding.

Then the second mate saw opportunity. Resenting being under boatswain's orders, he sprang to the top of the dune to prove his marksmanship with a .45. A bullet tore his right arm and another clipped him on the knee. The boatswain ran to haul him under cover and was shot in the neck. They crawled off the dune and lay cursing each other. Then the rush came--pistol work at fifty, forty and thirty paces. It was too late to retreat to the boats. They clustered around Burgess, dazzled by the glare; it was nearly impossible to shoot straight amid swarms of flies that crawled amid blood and sweat. Then some one thought of Harvey.

"Any one see Harvey? Don't forget him!"

"Harvey, damn him! Harvey!"

As if it were a magic word that touched the trigger of events--sudden, savage and almost too late--ragged and wasteful volleys ripped into the Arabs' rear. Dandan's men were in the field at last. They had the advantage of the higher ground between the town and the cemetery. They were out for murder, vengeance and pillage; to that were added new, good rifles and abundant ammunition.

"Harvey, damn him! Harvey!"

"Akbar! Allah akbar!"

Raked by a cross fire, potted from the schooner, decimated, utterly bewildered, two thirds of the followers of Mahmoud Quotch tried to scatter and run to their former hiding place. But they were cut off. They had to take to the beach.

A dozen of them, maddened by the hope of ammunition, charged almost to the feet of Burgess's men. One died, brained by the butt of Burgess's rifle. Five survived the charge by carrying away the wounded on their backs to serve as shields. But few reached Shellabi Kabir, and then only by means of wading in the surf when Dandan's men were too busy slaughtering the rest to notice them.

"Chuck our wounded into my boat. Damn that Harvey, we could use him!"


Illustration

THERE was firing within the town already. Dandan and some of his men were storming the ancient citadel; the remainder were either looting the dead and wounded, or racing to their chief's assistance in small groups, spurting, running with the funny, half-effeminate awkwardness of unhorsed Bedouins.

"It's three o'clock." said Burgess, wiping blood off his face with the back of his fist.

He stared at the schooner, at the skyline, at his little handful of men, at the dunes--where Arabs lay who might not be so dead as they appeared--and at the boats on the beach behind him.

"Harvey?" said some one.

"To the boats! The hell with Harvey!"

They launched the boats, and he eyed his wounded humorously.

"Double money? If I weren't hit too, I reckon I'd be out o' pocket this trip! Anybody hurt bad?"

As soon as they were out of the fly zone they bandaged each other with torn shirts; and by the time they reached the schooner it appeared that there were no really serious casualties, although the second mate was weak from loss of blood. He insisted he was fit for duty.

However, Burgess picked himself a boat's crew that was only thirsty. He had a word or two with Tingle on the schooner, climbed to the masthead, noticed that some of Dandan's men were busy looting the rifles on the sandspit and then turned the glasses on the town, where there were spurts of firing, sudden and intermittent. He returned to the deck and stared hard at the three black-shrouded women.

They returned the stare with interest, owl-eyed and inscrutable, although the youngest one seemed more amused than frightened. Tingle volunteered appraisal:

"If you ask me, they'd be good enough security for about a couple o' hundred dollars. We're stung, I reckon."

Burgess looked stung. But a glare of obstinacy grew in his eyes.

"Whip the cargo out on deck. I've sold it."

He then took his place in the boat's stern, calling to Tingle:

"All hands work cargo except one man at the masthead." Then to the boat's crew, "Give way."

He headed straight for the jetty, straining his eyes across the glare. The jetty was deserted, but he could sec the spars of several small boats. There was not a human being visible anywhere, and random firing made the town sound even more dead than it looked.

The sweating crew lay on their oars, exhausted when they had rounded the jetty, and Burgess stood up to con the situation. He could see donkeys dozing in purple shadow; stray dogs lurking near a street's end; one camel, kneeling, masterless--but not a human being. Eleven lateen-rigged boats lay moored to the jetty without crews. There was high pitched shouting here and there--one sudden burst of rifle fire somewhere in the town--and then, when he looked up, innumerable heads along the roof of the fort.

"If those are Dandan's men--"

The words were clipped off. Three blasts shrieked from the schooner's whistle, and Burgess's jaw snapped like a trap.

"Cruiser!" he said grimly. "Set me ashore quick."


Illustration

HE stood alone on the jetty, wondering what to do next. He was bandaged with a handkerchief. There was blood on his sweat-drenched white coat, his naked, hairy breast was a-stream with sweat, and he held his rifle like a caveman's club. Around the corner of the one street that gave on the jetty a head appeared, cautious, turning to look behind, then watching Burgess as a cat examines a proposition. Suddenly its owner darted forward--the half naked Kahin, breathless with excitement.

"Allah! Listen to me! They have taken the fort, and Mr. Harvey--"

"Him? Where is he?"

"I am to say that. Will your Honor speak to him under flag of truce?"

"Yes."

"On your Honor's honor?"

"O.K. Fetch him."

The Kahin screamed between his cupped hands. Harvey, in his helmet and pajamas, stepped out from a shadow at the street end. He approached, not once taking his eyes off Burgess.

"You," said Burgess to the Kahin, "get crews for those boats, quick. Say I'll sink 'em all unless they hustle. There's a cruiser coming."

"Allah!"

"Did you get that seal?"

"Yes."

"Give it to me. Now then: Boats' crews and Dandan and the money. Damn you, get a move on!"

The Kahin fled. Three more screams came from the schooner's whistle. Harvey walked up.

"Well--" he sneered--"I lost my bet. But I've something to sell. Will you buy?"

"What?"

"Information."

"No."

"It's valuable. You're in Dutch unless you know what's happened."

"If it listens good, I'll tell you what then."

"Quotch is out," said Harvey. "Fled into the desert."

"Money with him?"

"Left it. No time. All his men deserted. But--" he paused--"you're out of luck unless you know the rest of it."

Three more blasts came from the schooner's whistle. Tingle seemed to be in a hurry, or a panic;--perhaps both.

"Strut your stuff," said Burgess. "If it's good, I'll act according. Say what you know, or go to hell."

Harvey hesitated. Burgess turned away. Then Harvey spoke:

"I'll trust you." He ignored the curt answering laugh. "That isn't Dandan's daughter on the schooner. She and the other two are dancing women. They've nothing to do with Dandan."

"I suspected it. But does he know it?"

"He will if I tell him. Quotch took Dandan's daughter to the desert. He can use her to buy his life from Dandan. He may even get some of his property back."

Three blasts again from the schooner's whistle. They sounded nearer. Burgess stared seaward and saw smoke on the horizon--a mere smudge against brilliant sky.

"You're a skunk," he remarked.

"I bet on the wrong horse," Harvey answered. "No use crying about spilt milk. You're a man of your word. I--"

"Some o' the hands need surgeoning. I'll stake you to your hide and a passage. Where's your suitcase?"

"Lost it."

"Get into the boat then."

Arabs, shepherded by the Kahin, poured out, racing for the jetty. Three more blasts from the schooner's whistle shrieked for notice; she was coming in as close as Tingle dared to bring her. Tingle himself was waving wildly from the poop deck.

The port boat came hurrying shoreward.

"I'll need more than a passage!" said Harvey. "Dandan won't pay fifty thousand if I send word by one of these Arabs that his daughter--"

Burgess watched the Arabs man their boats. The schooner's port boat touched the jetty. A man leaped out.

"Mr. Tingle, sir, says only half the cargo's out on deck and there's a cruiser coming, full speed."

"Shucks, she's only doing ten or fourteen knots." Then, sotto voce, "Two of you take Harvey to the schooner."

The seaman beckoned a man from the port boat. Burgess shouted to the Kahin, who was sawing a knotted mooring with his knife to free the last boat from the jetty--

"Where's your Dandan?"

"Counting the money, effendi!"

Two men rushed Harvey. He went into the port boat, struggling and cursing.

"Treat him lady-like. No one's to touch hide or hair of him," said Burgess. "Mind that." He turned to the Kahin. "Hold that boat for Dandan and the money. You cut back and say I'll give him fifteen minutes."

"But, effendi, he must count the money!"

"Count it on my deck, tell him!"

Then he jumped into his boat and was rowed to the schooner where the Arabs' boats clustered alongside. He could see the cruiser's topmasts.

"Send the women below and turn a key on 'em," he ordered. "Then set Harvey to work on the wounded. I'll take over. Clear out every last case from the hold. I've sold 'em. Let the Arabs have 'em."

"Money?" Tingle asked him.

"Do what I say!"


Illustration

THE cases began to go overside into the Arabs' boats, the whole crew sweating at the job, impatient, angry, pausing by turns to wring their clothes and stare at the approaching cruiser's masts. Burgess went below, unlocked the schooner's papers and put the customs stamp on documents that bore a stamp in Japanese; then he returned to the deck to watch the last of the cargo go overside.

"That's that," said Tingle, glancing at the cruiser, already hull and all above the skyline. "Got your money?"

The Arabs' boats were making for the jetty, but there was one boat on its way to the schooner.

"Get your hatches on," said Burgess. "This is Dandan. He's due for what he won't like when he's paid his money."

"Money? Do you mean that?"

"Did I say it?"

The schooner was under way by the time the Arabs' boat threw up a warp and was taken in tow. The Kahin scrambled aboard, excited, triumphant. Then came two men hugely careful of two heavy little wooden barrels that had once held black powder. Dandan came last. His eyes smoldered. His mouth, just visible above the flowing end of his keffieh, smiled with thin lipped anger. He spoke abruptly, without bowing, and the Kahin interpreted--

"His Honor, the Sheik Dandan, says there is your money."

The insult missed fire. The money was promptly poured out, jingling, on a spare sail and surrounded by the crew, who squatted under the mate's eyes as if at a crap game and began counting it into heaps. Burgess eyed the cruiser, pretty close now and flying signals. He gave orders to the quartermaster, took the Kahin by the arm and dragged him in a hurry to the cabin.

"What's the customs man's name?"

"He is dead," said the Kahin. "He was shot on the beach."

"Sign his name here in Arabic. Sign it here again, and now here. Sign your own name below in English as witness. O.K. There's your money in that handkerchief."

"And the bonus, effendi? How could I bring you a dead man? It was not my doing that the customs officer was shot dead."

Burgess counted fifty pounds in paper money from the cash box.

"May I sign on?" asked the Kahin. "Hoseyn Shellabi Kabir is not a happy place for me. But if your Honor should need knowledge of Arabia, I--"

"See the mate about it."

Burgess returned to the poop and eyed the cruiser thoughtfully. Most of the money had been counted back into the barrels and checked by the mate with a lump of chalk on the schooner's log slate. Burgess changed the course a trifle, taking advantage of a reef before being overhauled. He ignored the cruiser's signals.

"One pound shy," said the mate after several minutes.

"Get that from the Kahin; he has fifty extra. Bring the women and help 'em overside."

The Kahin came and stood by Burgess, frightened, his eyes on Dandan's rifle. But the sheik's face was expressionless as he watched the women shepherded on deck and hustled overside, fluttering like black birds. He spoke then to the Kahin; and the Kahin, as he interpreted, was pop-eyed.

"Captain effendi, he says that those are not his women!"

Burgess looked brass faced.

"Nor mine either," he answered.

The sheik spoke again.

"He says, sir, that had they been his women, you and he should settle that on this deck, since he does not tolerate an insult to his women."

"I can lick him," Burgess answered.

"She who was a hostage is already recaptured from the Sultan Al-Hajj Mahmoud Quotch, who, his Honor the Sheik Dandan says, is now in hell if hell will have him."

"Perfectly O.K. by me," said Burgess.

"Nevertheless, he claims these, since it is his duty to protect them."

"Good enough," said Burgess. "I'd have wished 'em on him if he hadn't."

"In the name of names, he says, your Honor fought well and sold good rifles and ammunition, though at a scandalous price."

"Does he think we're Santa Claus?"

"Therefore he prays to the Prophet to bespeak God's favor for you in the matter of that cruiser. But in future, says his Honor, the Sheik Dandan, keep away from Hoseyn Shellabi Kabir!"

"He should come and visit me in Nova Scotia," said Burgess. "I'll act hospitable."

Without bowing, scornful and dignified, the sheik went overside. A knife cut the warp, and his boat fell astern him until he was out of range. Then Burgess gave his orders.

"Stow away the firearms. All you wounded, take a watch below and kid you're sleeping. Lie so your wounds won't show if some one looks in. Send Harvey aft."

He stared at Harvey for at least a minute before speaking to him. First he eyed the cruiser, and then the shoreline.

"Surgeon the boys," he said at last. "I'll pay you off with fifty pounds at the first port. Look to it I never set eyes on you after that. Get busy."

Fifteen minutes later his Britannic Majesty's third class cruiser Dorking fired an "angry blank", and Burgess hove to.

About ten minutes after that, as the sun, like a hot brass disk, fell suddenly below the horizon, a pinnace fussed alongside and a lieutenant in white duck and gold braid stepped up the lowered ladder and walked aft.

"Tres Hermanos. Captain Bridgeman Burgess," said the Nova Scotian.

"May I see your papers?" asked the lieutenant.

"Certainly." Burgess led him to the cabin. "Here they are. They're in order. I'm a mite outside the three-mile limit, but I'll have the hatches off for you if you like. Hold's empty."

"You've a big crew, Captain Burgess, for a small ship."

Burgess smiled.

"Any o' your business? Hard times such as these, it's only right to overman."

The lieutenant eyed the bandage on Burgess's head.

"Any trouble ashore?" he asked. "Fighting?"

"Hell, no. Flies as big as birds. They bite you like a horse. I'm peaceful."

"Cotton piece-goods? One of these days we will catch you, Captain Burgess."

"Oh, yeah? Fond o' fat duck? Ill be pickings, won't I?"



THE END


Roy Glashan's Library
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