Nightmare, by Francis Stevens

Chapter 3

AS IF stricken dumb, Mr. Jones obeyed the guiding hand of James Haskins, as it steered him back to the point whence he had first sighted the camp-fire. It seemed as though something even stronger than Fate were against him. Whatever he said was turned back upon him; whatever he did, it merely led him into fresh disaster. There was no use in fighting the tide. Henceforth he would keep still and permit events to shape themselves, unhelped or hindered by his efforts.

Perhaps, presently, he would wake up. Yes, this must be some unusually vivid nightmare which had him in its clutches.

“Squat right down on that rock, stranger, and make yourself at home.” Of course, it was Haskins who broke in on his reverie. “If any more mavericks stray off your range up this way, I’ll be right here to throw, tie, and brand ’em. Have a cigarette?”

“No — Yes, thank you, I believe I will.”

For a few moments the two smoked without speaking. The night was silent, save for the low, distant murmur of the sea and the occasional squeak of a bat. Overhead the great, brilliant stars, which hung so strangely low and near, seemed to wink at Jones, as if they were sharers in some huge joke of whose nature he was not yet informed, but of which he was unquestionably the butt.

“Strange,” he reflected. “I can’t remember ever having smoked in a dream before. I can taste the tobacco, too. And my hands hurt like the dickens, where I scraped ’em on the rocks. I wonder if I ever will wake up. That girl is a winner for looks, all right; but, oh, mama, I don’t like her disposition one little bit! Seems to have it in for me, all right. I wonder — ”

“Pleasant dreams!” It was James Haskins again. “Say, did you really get washed ashore like you told the bunch?”

“I certainly did,” said Jones with convincing vigor and promptitude. “Look here; if I should tell you the whole story about what has happened since I reached this place, would you believe me?”

“Fire away!” the other replied noncommittally.

Jones obeyed, and his jailer listened patiently and in silence to the full tale of his misadventures. Barring the fact that it was a liner and not his own yacht from which he had fallen, he adhered closely to facts; for, in the light of his reception, it seemed it was only for his own good that Doherty had warned him not to speak of the other camp. And in this opinion his listener presently confirmed him.

“So this man Doherty told you not to tell you’d been in his camp, did he?” was Haskins’s comment at the end of the recital. “Well, he, was dead right, friend castaway. Prince Paul has got just the same love for Prince Sergius that a grizzly has for a rattlesnake.

“But me, I think you’re straight. For one thing, you haven’t got the map of a bunco-steerer; and for another, I think you are because size thinks you ain’t. Do you get me? I never saw anything in skirts yet that you couldn’t copper her guess and be on the right trail. Only your swim seems to have twisted your geography some. It isn’t the Azores you mean — it’s the Philippines, or Hawaii. Now, if you and me should swap yarns, will you give me away to my outfit, or will you keep it under your hair?”

“Prince Sergius’ knout wouldn’t extract it from me,” sighed Mr. Jones, with the happy sense that here again, where least expected, he had found a friend.

“Well, to commence with, me, I’m riding a long way off my own range, which is Colorado, by rights, though I was born in Arizona. Arizona Jim, that’s me. Well, this prince fellow come along when I was on my uppers in Frisco, having gone up against a few large doses of redeye and an outfit of card-sharks some simultaneous. But, say, you fellows started from Savannah, you said. Did you get into the Pacific through the canal?”

The Pacific? Jones’s brain reeled again, but he managed to keep his voice steady and reply: “Yes, of course we went through the canal.”

“I asked because I know a fellow that runs a cafe in Colon. Did you stop there?”

“I didn’t go ashore there. But how did you meet the prince?”

“Oh, yes. Well, as I was saying, he met up with me, and he offers me a job. Says he’s goin’ on a big trip and wants a guy with a good gun-eye. That’s me, all right; so I joins the outfit immediate. Then’s when I meet this brother of his, they bein’ on good terms then, just like an owl and a prairie-dog.

“So brother Sergius, it seems, he’s gone right ahead and chartered a yacht without waiting for brother Paul to approve the deal. This annoys us some, but not half so much as when we get away out on the broad, be-yutiful, lonesome Pacific Ocean and finds that the captain and the crew are all ‘brothers’ of his, too. Yes, little Annie, Sergius is in with the anarchists, saddle, bridle, and spurs, and the great and noble cause has got to get its share in the profits, even if brother Sergius has to knife brother Paul to do it. Oh, yes, it was some rotten deal, take it from me.”

“But where does this Miss . . . Miss — ”

“Weston come in? Not yet but soon. We picks Miss Weston up out of an open boat, along with a couple of half-dead sailors. She’s a Boston young lady that’s been taking lessons in nursing. She aims to join the Red Cross, but she’s some foxy, so she comes clear across to Frisco and takes a boat for Japan, figurin’ to get into the festivities by the back gate, so to speak. No German torpedoes in hers.”

(Jones gave a mental groan. Again!)

“And right then, was when the lid blew off the kettle for keeps. I never did see two brothers take a shine to the same girl quite so simultaneous and sudden. Gee, they ought to have been twins, their tastes are so similar. Was she going to be Princess Sergius or Princess Paul? I suggests to Paul, casual-like, that they cut her in two and divide her up, it being my idea that there ain’t any female woman born that’s any real good in a round-up like this one. But he didn’t seem to take to it.

“So brother Paul, he reveals to her the perfidy of brother Sergius, and right away that swings her. No nihilanarchists for hers. In which she shows more sense than I’d expected.

“Right about then we sights this here Joker Island. Some name, Joker; but she’s some Island, too, believe me. There being considerable hard feeling, what with one thing and another, me and Prince Paul and this Weston girl and her two sailors, we thinks it wise and becoming to withdraw ourselves from evil associations, and we drops off the yacht the first dark night. Then Prince Paul he says there’s a guy on the island expecting him, which is the first I heard of Holloway. As near as I can make out, this is Holloway’s island, by right of being wrecked here and finding out some darn thing about the inside of it. These cliffs go all the way around, you know, but there’s a cave runs under ’em, and Mr. Holloway, he’s the only one that knows where it is.”

“I shouldn’t think it would be very difficult to find a cave in a wall of rock like this, if one hunted for it,” suggested Jones, deeply interested in the narrative.

“Oh, no, it’s dead easy — like three guesses at which is the right hole in a colander. There’s about fifteen hundred other caves, and they all run back under the cliffs, and there’s only one that goes clear through. And if you get lost in a blind lead — good night!”

“But what is there inside, anyway?”

“Me not being Prince Paul’s confidential secretary, I don’t know, nor I don’t know how Sergius thinks he’s going to get there without dear brother Paul and friend Holloway. But it’s plain he knows something about Holloway, or he wouldn’t have made that nice, kind offer to persuade you when he thought you was Holloway. One thing, it’s clear he don’t know him by sight. The way I figure it is that when Holloway was wrecked here, after he comes out of the inside again, he was taken off by some ship, and then he hikes right after Prince Paul, who, it seems, is his dear old college chum. It must be some secret, all right; for Paul, he gets leave immediate from his regiment by the Czar’s special permit.

“But brother Sergius, who’s some unpopular at home, he don’t need no permit, because he’s in America already. I don’t think Paul was lookin’ to run across him; but when he does, he takes him in on the deal for the sake of them old days back on the farm. Well, while Paul is rustling this outfit together, friend Richard gets himself put on the island alone again, with provisions, and stays right on the claim to wait for Paul. Paul comes along with a brother and a aggregation of nihilanarchists and a Boston schoolmarm girl, and now the only way out is in.”

“What?”

“Just like I says — in. We’re going through the caves at daybreak. Holloway says even he might get the wrong one at night.”

“Good Lord!” murmured Mr. Jones softly. From boyhood he had suffered from a dread of dark, shut-in places, running parallel, perhaps, with his habit of sleep-walking. Even now be never slept without a light in his room, and he would not have explored the Mammoth Caves with a guard of fifty guides for all the money in the world. “Are you — are they going to take me along?”

“What’s the matter? Don’t you want to sit in? Take it from me, you’re better off with Paul than you would be with Sergius, and you’ve only got Paul and Sergius to choose between.”

“What sort of lights are you going to use?” queried Mr. Jones anxiously.

“Oh, we have some electric torches. Stranger, I’ve talked myself into the finest thirst outside of Arizona. But it’s wasted — absolutely wasted. Ain’t that a sad thought? By gracious, I’d almost go over and take up with this naughty Sergius party, if I thought he had anything stronger than water to give me. But, alas! The Monterey is like Russia — she’s gone prohibition. Don’t you notice a different feeling in the air? What time’s it getting to be?” He glanced at his watch.

“‘What time were you intending to start?” inquired Jones.

“Half an hour. It’s three now. Here comes Holloway.”

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/s/stevens/francis/nightmare/chapter3.html

Last updated Wednesday, March 5, 2014 at 22:30