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EXCEPT that the color is dead-flesh his brow and eyes and mouth; rugged and
and not white, it is like nothing so much as only a child's ten-cent sail-boat. But the suggestion of horror in the triangular fin leisurely cutting the surface of green water! If a human being were out there, bone and blood and tender, pink skin,—and the fin drew nearerNo, the soul breaks back before the suggested picture. The humanness of the soul will not have the picture. It arrests the last grisly stroke.
in repose, I mean. And kindly; yes, and kindly, too. All his features were large, and his head was long and squared, so that his jaws were lank. His hair was thick, virile; and hair, short beard, and shaggy mustache were a strong iron gray. His mouth was good-humored, not grim; and his steely blue eyes were, too. His eyebrows were darker than his beard, and they were overlined by a crease in the brow, made up of many fine wrinkles, shaped like a gull on the wing. He was quiet, uncommunicative about himself; yet this was not because of any lack of ease. Although grimy overalls would have seemed more congruous on his rawboned frame than the tailored clothes he wore, he could not be imagined as awkward in either. He was too downright, calmly downright, for that. What he did or said was with the grace of driving a nail true, which is more of grace than there is in a minuet. No, obviously his character had been too painfully chiseled out of rock for anything like faltering diffidence ever.
BY EUGENE P. LYLE, JR.
Author of "The Lone Star," "His Biggest Venture," etc.
The humanness of the soul! Of every soul, I think. Would you care to know what a dirty scoundrel did? I'll just let the noun and epithet stand. "Dirty scoundrel" was his own description, and he had deserved it. There's no sense in trying to get around that.
His name was Yell. It stood out on the passenger-list, and the other American passengers, idly reading down our cards at our first meal out of Vera Cruz, where we had come on board, paused at that name. Our other names were just the usual ones-names, nothing more, until we should find one another out during the voyage before us. Which of us was Yell, we wondered; and eyes went questing up and down the board on the same errand. Who was Yell? Luther Yell? The great reformer's surname made Christian!
He proved to be a big, rock-hewn, grizzled man of fifty, maybe. Truly a man of frame and countenance that one loved to look at; a type of gaunt, weathered, God-fearing, naught-else-fearing, competent sea-captain. Competent comes last, and includes the others. One rested comfortably in the feeling of his competence. One would not fear storms at sea with this man on the bridge. Yet, as it turned out, he was not a sea-faring man at all. It was simply that a similar hard school for body and brain and eternal soul had put that kind of brand on him; and the man is the thing, after all.
The strength of his limbs seemed so satisfyingly at one with the strength of
Scarcely the portrait of a scoundrel, you will say. A man to be trusted, rather; particularly to be trusted. Well, yes. One felt that instinctively and gratefully. It is good to feel that way about a fellowbeing; and when you do, you have a sense of owing him something. As a sort of hypothesis, though, consider a man who has wantonly toyed with the responsibilities of life. Take a train-despatcher, for instance, at some water-tank, rebellious because of the smallness of his compensation and the gloom of outlook generally; and in one of these mutinous lapses he lets a comet of human freight get by him when he should have hung out the red lantern. He can neither see nor hear the wreck that is happening off yonder in the dark; but an angel, Remorse, in the devil's flaming cloak screeches the details of the scene, rasping every quivering fiber of him that is human. That man, having entertained
that visitor once, will never make another such mistake. The chances are that he is. more to be trusted henceforth than another yet guiltless. And years afterward he will look like a man to be trusted, the same as this man Yell.
Now about the triangular fin. The ship had anchored off Progreso, and that means several miles off, the day after leaving Vera Cruz. There were Yucatan planters and their families to go ashore, after a week of national holiday in Mexico City, and there were bales on bales of henequen to come on board, so that we were rocked by the swell nearly all the afternoon, and had nothing to do except to sit around on deck and get acquainted.
A small group of us sat at the stern rail, where we had drawn our chairs to watch the sharks, which were foraging for what might be dumped out of the cook's port. There was a fascination in watching the lazy, sluggish shadows in the liquid emerald, as there always is for mortal man. A drop of ten feet from the overhang of the stern, and one would be among them. Oh, well, it was the usual fascination of beckoning eternity; a particularly horrible phase, that was all.
On the main deck just below, which was open around the stern, an engineer and two or three of the crew were baiting a line. We could partly see them down the companionway, but we did not know then that they were baiting the line with dynamite. We drowsily rose and fell with the swell, peering down between the rails to see the line cast. I am afraid it gave us a pleasurable thrill to fancy one of those tigerish monsters swallowing a grappling-hook. Here was a sport without the drawback of feeling that we ought to sympathize with the victim. We could sate our pagan lust for blood-letting with a pious conscience. We cannot often have our Roman holiday.
Our fellow-passenger Yell was near by, his slippered feet on the lower rail, reading a technical book of some sort, about dikes and dams, probably. Some of us had heard of him, and recalled that Luther Yell was the big contractor who had been putting in several million pesos worth of jetties for the Mexican Government. In his quiet way he kept among us, and seemed content with fellowship around him, without being actually of us.
As for the sharks, he was not interested. Evidently they were an old story.
Then came a steward aft, stupidly half reeling, his face vacuous, yet defiant.
"Does my room, that lump," remarked an Orizaba coffee-planter from Paterson, New Jersey. "I rather thought my tequila was ebbing mighty fast through the bottom of the bottle."
"He's the same pirate," said another of our group, "who spilled the gravy over Mr. Yell at supper last night.”
"Wait till an officer sees him," said another. "They'll find a cooler for him."
If only for his undress, including bare feet, as he had emerged from dawdling in the torrid forecastle, they would have put him out of sight; but so far no one in authority had spied him.
We watched him in the amused disgust of prosaic sobriety. He was a whitishhaired, pink-cheeked, well-built fellow of past thirty; a chinless, weak, dissolute specimen, subdued enough ordinarily, but doggedly resentful of metes and bounds, as we perceived, when liquor was in him. Abruptly one of us sat up a little straighter. Something in the lowering intentness of the steward as he came nearer gave us all the feeling that he was out for trouble, that he had been bibbling deliberately with trouble in mind, and now with discipline comfortably cobwebbed in a foggy perspective, that he was ready for it-trouble. The rest of us sat up a little straighter, except Yell, who was apart from the group, and oblivious in his book. It was against Yell's reclining deck-chair that he lurched; accidentally, we thought.
"Eh, son," the old man looked up quizzically at the flushed face,-"making heavy weather of it, seems like." He, too, supposed the jolt accidental, and resumed his book, not minded to notice the interruption any further.
But the steward made no effort to detach himself from the support of the passenger's chair. senger's chair. Instead, he brought his face closer to the old man's; and as he would have pitched over the arm of the chair across the other's lap, he caught at the farther arm of the chair, and so steadied himself after a fashion. With features working, he looked down at the old man over the edge of the book.
"What a breath!" said Yell. "Man, ain't you clear yet?"
The inebriate weaved back and forth. His lips puckered several times for utterance. There was nothing comical about it. It was impotence trying too desperately hard to be deadly for that.
"Sshay," came the snarl, thickly, "name 's Yell, you? Name 's Yell? Got know. Name 's Yell?"
For the first time the gaunt, grizzled, competent old fellow actually took notice of the steward, actually looked at him.
"Yes," he said, "my name 's Yell. But you want to be careful. You'll pitch overboard among the little fishes in a minute."
"No, won't. Name 's Yell. All I want know. Got you. Got you at last. No f-f'gettin' name. Yell? Lute Yell? Huh! No, not in th-thirty years. Huh, some scream, you! Or is it short f' yellow? Eh, sshay, you-" But the abuse was foul, and may not be written.
Those seated within the curve of the stern rail, waiting for the baiting of a shark, numbered seven or eight, all men. Yell merely glanced our way, noting that there were no woman's ears to be of fended, and let the fellow go on. We had not expected that, a competent man like him. He only put out a great hand now and then to keep the steward from collapsing on him when the swell dropped the ship. Then he asked:
"Your name ain't Dillard, is it? Not Dillard, by any chance?"
"No, 't ain't Dillard," said the other, hotly. "Mortimer; my name 's Mortimer."
"I mind me there was an Artie Dillard, about six or seven. Sour little cub. More like a viper than a human kid. I thought maybe you was him growed up."
"My name 's Mortimer, I tell you," cried the steward.
"Then I never heard of you, bub," said Yell. "And there 's no need getting put in irons. Better-"
However, the drunkard was past warning. He was amuck for a purpose. He bent over the man, leering confidentially, and repeated: "Got you. Got you at last." First he glanced round the deck in furtive, stupid craft, as if to reckon on the chance of interference, and then he thrust a hand in his open shirt for a
Yell seemed not to see. He looked
puzzled; more than that, troubled, but not because of his danger.
"I don't guess I understand," he said. "If your name ain't Dillard, if you ain't Artie growed up, what business you got with me? But if you are Artie—"
The steward's clouded brain mistook that for temporizing, and he broke in:
"Don't make no diff'ence. I got you, 'n' I 'm goin' to do what Artie 'd do, f-f' what you did to old man Dillard 'n' Effie. No, won't mention Effie; jus' old man Dillard. What you did to old man Dillard."
The hand in his shirt had closed on the weapon, as we judged from the bulge of the fist over the breast; and he had backed against the rail, planting one naked heel against the lower rail, as if to raise and hurl himself down on the man in the deckchair.
We were astounded. He had let pass a charge of theft like that!
Effie 's out of it, tell you; out of it," cried the steward. "Effie 's married. Married twenty years 'go."
"Married?" The old man's steely eyes softened. "I'm glad, I 'm glad," he said.
"Glad, you?" The other misunderstood. He thought it a sneer. And his foolish, blubbering rage, though rising insanely, was somehow worthier. "You hound!" he spluttered. "You hid behind what she was to you, or you 'd had your little term in the pen. Glad, you—"
We believed it, knew it, not of course from the drunken ravings, but from the
man Yell himself. The dumb look on his long, gaunt face admitted it. I believe that in the instant we hoped to see the maudlin avenger strike true.
He rose against the rail as if with the froth of his curses, jerking the hand from his shirt, clenching a sailor's knife, and straining backward for the drive of the blow. But the stern of the ship dropped as the swell slipped from beneath, and at the moment a charge of dynamite exploded in the water. Yell grabbed for the steward. Too late, however. He was overboard. A strong current carried him like a cork a hundred feet astern. Behind him he had left his knife, the sailor's long knife. It lay in the scuppers, under the rail, where he had dropped it. The knife here, and he out there-what a sudden gulf between them! A breath of time ago, he and the knife were one, an instrument. It gets me how strange and quick things happen sometime in this world.
Not that any of us noticed the knife just then. We were all eyes for the man overboard, where he lay as if on the side of a cliff a cliff of glass, say, of green glass. We hardly noted when he began swimming back to the ship. A horrible something, as yet subconscious, was holding us palsied. Abruptly we knew. Yes, the sharks!
Fortunately the charge of dynamite had scattered them, except the one that had swallowed it, which lay in fragments on the wave, and others that were either stunned or killed by the concussion. Some one-Yell-had shouted down the companionway to the shark-baiters there, and by the time they reached him, he was working at the ropes of the nearest lifeboat. The captain and other officers were there by that time, too, and Yell hastened back to us at the stern rail.
We had been cutting the lashing of life-preservers and throwing them over. The man out there, though, did not need them. He could swim, that doubly soused steward. The water, the peril, had sobered him, and he was coming in gallantly. Yell was not looking at him at all. His keen, blue eyes searched out the green bosom of the swell. Suddenly he uttered a low exclamation, and leaned far over the rail, and began coaching the swimmer.
"On your side-the overstroke, man!
Kick hard!" he called, and with a waving arm tried to set the pace for the stroke, as a cockswain would with his body. But why "Kick hard?"
Then we saw what Yell's capable eyes had seen first-a triangular fin. It was coming down the slope of the water, cutting the surface, leaving in its wake a faint hair-line of foam, a line of death, as straight for the swimmer as an arrow's flight. He of course could not see, and did not know; it was behind him, yards away as yet. I opened my mouth to shout, to urge, implore the man down there to swim faster; but Yell, next me, tramped my toe with his slippered foot, and he scowled forbiddingly, quickly round on all of us. We understood. He had gaged the imperiled man rightly. The swimmer must not know of the fin behind. He might lose a stroke trying to look back. He might go all to pieces.
"Correct-o!" Yell shouted down, still pacing the strokes with his arm. "We're betting on your time, bub. But kick! kick hard!"
"For God's sake! kick! kick!" we joined in. A tremendous splashing might keep off the shark, we knew now.
The swimmer had almost reached the overhang of the deck; but there was no rope to throw him-nothing. And the shark had halved the distance between them. If only we had not thrown over the life-preservers, they would have done for the moment to splatter around the monster and frighten him off, perhaps, until the boat could come. But the boat was only just going over the side. It would not come in time. It seemed that the shark had only to dart once. We did not know, or remember, that he must first turn over on his back before he could take his prey between those dense rows of serrated teeth. We made out the sinister shadow in the green water beneath the fin. Our faces were white, and our souls in our stomachs were turning us sick, when Yell picked up from the deck the sailor's knife with which the man down there in the water had meant to kill him.
"Any you men know how?" he addressed us with the sharpness of a command. He half proffered the knife. "Quick! Answer! I don't want him to owe his life to me. Any you know how?" I suppose we stared helplessly at the
knife. Who were we, inlanders, merchants, office men, to know even what he meant? He saw instantly that we did not, and eliminated us as so much wooden furniture. He sprang to the top rail, holding by a stanchion, the long knife in his right hand, and watched with tense calculation the culminating horror beneath him. The shark was twenty feet long, and not half his length behind the steward. Moreover, the steward knew now what was there. He knew it from our faces bent over him, and he had looked back and seen. His eyes were raised to us, and one arm. He was trying to ask us for a rope, but terror had taken his voice. He could not utter a sound. And the shark- We turned our heads. We could not bear to look.
There was a splash in the water directly under us. We shuddered, and the Paterson man melted to the deck in a faint like a clothed pillar of sawdust. The rest of us looked; the fascination was that compelling. Yell had vanished. He was not on the rail. He had gone overboard, feet first, the knife in his hand. The splash we had heard was of his body shooting downward. We peered over, and there was the shark. Its immense tail was doubling and snapping back, churning the water into froth and bubbles. The froth and bubbles were reddish, and suddenly it was as if a whole jar of crimson fluid had been smashed under the surface and was welling up. At the same time the shark lay prone, then rolled over. We saw that the dead-white belly was ripped open for the length of a yard or more. What a sweep of knife that had been, after the first upward thrust!
Then Yell's virile old head bobbed up, the iron-gray hair wet over his eyes. He was straining, and finally he got the steward's head to the surface, too. The murderous inebriate had fainted. There was not a thing the matter with him, not a scratch.
Sympathy was all for Yell-our sympathy, I mean-as the two of them were taken into the small boat and brought back on board. Of course every one in the ship was crowding round, doing the awed-whispered thing for the blear-eyed, shuddering hulk that had so nearly been slashed up into fish-food, and wanting to do the acclamatory thing for his shaggy,
dripping rescuer, who left tracks of wet socks on the deck as he went direct to his cabin. But by sympathy I mean of those of us who had seen it all from first to last. No matter what he had done in the past, no matter if for a moment we had wanted to see retribution fall on him, there was no standing up against the brave, clean deed that had followed swiftly. While all the others were asking themselves, and meaning to ask him, how he did it, we who had heard the denunciation, the foul abuse, and witnessed the attempted assassination, were wondering why he did it. Why? The question was bound to shape itself. Nay, more, we were almost angry with him to think that he had risked a life such as his, such as the deed had proved his life to be, to save a worthless, malignant cur who a moment before had tried to murder him.
When he reappeared in dry clothes, of course he was besieged to answer the first question. And he answered that easily, with whimsical and paternal indulgence for the curiosity. He had merely timed his jump to come up under the shark; it was a common-enough trick.
"But Mr. Yell," demanded the passenger who sat at the captain's table next the captain, "had you ever done it before?"
"No, 'm," said Yell; "but I 'd seen it done. Sharks was right common round the jetties where I 've been working."
He had only seen it done? And he had risked doing it! Had risked the slight, but ghastly, miscalculation of not getting his shark at the first thrust! Indeed, the question of the rest of us was bound for expression. It was not one that he would answer so easily. And of such a man it was going to be an awful hard one to ask, too. As things turned out, though, we did not have to ask. He came to us himself.
This was when he could get away, without being too brusk, from the general mob.
"I rec'lect you as one of them on the deck there at the time," he said quietly and gravely to me.
I replied that I was, but I was strangely embarrassed-embarrassed for him. It was passing in both our minds that I had heard him denounced as a thief and worse.
"And you know who all else was there?" he asked.