Read CHAPTER XIV - COMPLICATIONS of Brandon of the Engineers , free online book, by Harold Bindloss, on ReadCentral.com.

It was dark outside the feeble lamplight, and very hot, when Dick sat on his veranda after a day of keen activity in the burning sun.  He felt slack and jaded, for he had had difficult work to do and his dusky laborers had flagged under the unusual heat.  There was now no touch of coolness in the stagnant air, and although the camp down the valley was very quiet a confused hum of insects came out of the jungle.  It rose and fell with a monotonous regularity that jarred upon Dick’s nerves as he forced himself to think.

He was in danger of falling in love with Clare Kenwardine; indeed, he suspected that it would be better to face the truth and admit that he had already done so.  The prudent course would be to fight against and overcome his infatuation; but suppose he found this impossible, as he feared?  It seemed certain that she had stolen his papers; but after all he did not hold her accountable.  Some day he would learn more about the matter and find that she was blameless.  He had been a fool to think harshly of her, but he knew now that his first judgment was right.  Clare, who could not have done anything base and treacherous, was much too good for him.  This, however, was not the subject with which he meant to occupy himself, because if he admitted that he hoped to marry Clare, there were serious obstacles in his way.

To begin with, he had made it difficult, if not impossible, for the girl to treat him with the friendliness she had previously shown; besides which, Kenwardine would, no doubt, try to prevent his meeting her, and his opposition would be troublesome.  Then it was plainly desirable that she should be separated from her father, who might involve her in his intrigues, because there was ground for believing that he was a dangerous man.  In the next place, Dick was far from being able to support a wife accustomed to the extravagance that Kenwardine practised.  It might be long before he could offer her the lowest standard of comfort necessary for an Englishwoman in a hot, foreign country.

He felt daunted, but not altogether hopeless, and while he pondered the matter Bethune came in.  On the whole, Dick found his visit a relief.

“I expect you’ll be glad to hear we can keep the machinery running,” Bethune said as he sat down.

Dick nodded.  Their fuel was nearly exhausted, for owing to strikes and shortage of shipping Fuller had been unable to keep them supplied.

“Then you have got some coal?  As there’s none at Santa Brigida just now, where’s it coming from?”

“Adexe.  Four big lighter loads.  Stuyvesant has given orders to have them towed round.”

“I understood the Adexe people didn’t keep a big stock.  The wharf is small.”

“So did I, but it seems that Kenwardine came to Stuyvesant and offered him as much as he wanted.”

“Kenwardine!” Dick exclaimed.

Bethune lighted his pipe.  “Yes, Kenwardine.  As the wharf’s supposed to be owned by Spaniards, I don’t see what he has to do with it, unless he’s recently bought them out.  Anyhow, it’s high-grade navigation coal.”

“Better stuff than we need, but the difference in price won’t matter if we can keep the concrete mill going,” Dick remarked thoughtfully.  “Still, it’s puzzling.  If Kenwardine has bought the wharf, why’s he sending the coal away, instead of using it in the regular bunkering trade?”

“There’s a hint of mystery about the matter.  I expect you heard about the collier tramp that was consigned to the French company at Arucas?  Owing to some dispute, they wouldn’t take the cargo and the shippers put it on the market.  Fuller tried to buy some, but found that another party had got the lot.  Well, Stuyvesant believes it was the German, Richter, who bought it up.”

“Jake tells me that Richter’s a friend of Kenwardine’s.”

“I didn’t know about that,” said Bethune.  “They may have bought the cargo for some particular purpose, for which they afterwards found it wouldn’t be required, and now want to sell some off.”

“Then Kenwardine must have more money than I thought.”

“The money may be Richter’s,” Bethune replied.  “However, since we’ll now have coal enough to last until Fuller sends some out, I don’t know that we have any further interest in the matter.”

He glanced keenly at Dick’s thoughtful face; and then, as the latter did not answer, talked about something else until he got up to go.  After he had gone, Dick leaned back in his chair with a puzzled frown.  He had met Richter and rather liked him, but the fellow was a German, and it was strange that he should choose an English partner for his speculations, as he seemed to have done.  But while Kenwardine was English, Dick’s papers had been stolen at his house, and his distrust of the man grew stronger.  There was something suspicious about this coal deal, but he could not tell exactly what his suspicions pointed to, and by and by he took up the plan of a culvert they were to begin next morning.

A few days later, Jake and he sat, one night, in the stern of the launch, which lay head to sea about half a mile from the Adexe wharf.  The promised coal had not arrived, and, as fuel was running very short at the concrete mill, Dick had gone to see that a supply was sent.  It was late when he reached Adexe, and found nobody in authority about, but three loaded lighters were moored at the wharf, and a gang of péons were trimming the coal that was being thrown on board another.  Ahead of the craft lay a small tug with steam up.  As the half-breed foreman declared that he did not know whether the coal was going to Santa Brigida or not, Dick boarded the tug and found her Spanish captain drinking cana with his engineer.  Dick thought one looked at the other meaningly as he entered the small, hot cabin.

“I suppose it’s Senor Fuller’s coal in the barges, and we’re badly in want of it,” he said.  “As you have steam up, you’ll start soon.”

“We start, yes,” answered the skipper, who spoke some English, and then paused and shrugged.  “I do not know if we get to Santa Brigida to-night.”

“Why?” Dick asked.  “There’s not very much wind, and it’s partly off the land.”

The half-breed engineer described in uncouth Castilian the difficulties he had had with a defective pump and leaking glands, and Dick, who did not understand much of it, went back to his launch.  Stopping the craft a short distance from the harbor, he said to Jake:  “We’ll wait until they start.  Somehow I don’t think they meant to leave to-night if I hadn’t turned them out.”

Jake looked to windward.  There was a moon in the sky, which was, however, partly obscured by driving clouds.  The breeze was strong, but, blowing obliquely off the land did not ruffle the sea much near the beach.  A long swell, however, worked in, and farther out the white tops of the combers glistened in the moonlight.  Now and then a fresher gust swept off the shadowy coast and the water frothed in angry ripples about the launch.

“They ought to make Santa Brigida, though they’ll find some sea running when they reach off-shore to go round the Tajada reef,” he remarked.

“There’s water enough through the inside channel.”

“That’s so,” Jake agreed.  “Still, it’s narrow and bad to find in the dark, and I expect the skipper would sooner go outside.”  Then he glanced astern and said, “They’re coming out.”

Two white lights, one close above the other, with a pale red glimmer below, moved away from the wharf.  Behind them three or four more twinkling red spots appeared, and Dick told the fireman to start the engine half-speed.  Steering for the beach, he followed the fringe of surf, but kept abreast of the tug, which held to a course that would take her round the end of the reef.

When the moon shone through he could see her plunge over the steep swell and the white wash at the lighters’ bows as they followed in her wake; then as a cloud drove past, their dark hulls faded and left nothing but a row of tossing lights.  By and by the launch reached a bend in the coastline and the breeze freshened and drew more ahead.  The swell began to break and showers of spray blew on board, while the sea got white off-shore.

“We’ll get it worse when we open up the Arenas bight,” said Jake as he glanced at the lurching tug.  “It looks as if the skipper meant to give the reef a wide berth.  He’s swinging off to starboard.  Watch his smoke.”

“You have done some yachting, then?”

“I have,” said Jake.  “I used to sail a shoal-draught sloop on Long Island Sound.  Anyway, if I’d been towing those coal-scows, I’d have edged in near the beach, for the sake of smoother water, and wouldn’t have headed out until I saw the reef.  It will be pretty wet on board the scows now, and they’ll have had to put a man on each to steer.”

Dick nodded agreement and signed the fireman to turn on more steam as he followed the tug outshore.  The swell got steadily higher and broke in angry surges.  The launch plunged, and rattled as she swung her screw out of the sea, but Dick kept his course abreast of the tug, which he could only distinguish at intervals between the clouds of spray.  Her masthead lights reeled wildly to and fro, but the low red gleam from the barges was hidden and he began to wonder why her captain was steering out so far.  It was prudent not to skirt the reef, but the fellow seemed to be giving it unnecessary room.  The lighters would tow badly through the white, curling sea, and there was a risk of the hawsers breaking.  Besides, the engineer had complained that his machinery was not running well.

A quarter of an hour later, a belt of foam between them and the land marked the reef, and the wind brought off the roar of breaking surf.  Soon afterwards, the white surge faded, and only the tug’s lights were left as a long cloud-bank drove across the moon.  Jake stood up, shielding his eyes from the spray.

“He’s broken his rope; the coal’s adrift!” he cried.

Dick saw the tug’s lights vanish, which meant that she had turned with her stern towards the launch; and then two or three twinkling specks some distance off.

“He’d tow the first craft with a double rope, a bridle from his quarters,” he said.  “It’s strange that both parts broke, and, so far as I can make out, the tail barge has parted her hawser, too.”

A whistle rang out, and Dick called for full-speed as the tug’s green light showed.

“We’ll help him to pick up the barges,” he remarked.

The moon shone out as they approached the nearest, and a bright beam swept across the sea until it touched the lurching craft.  Her wet side glistened about a foot above the water and then vanished as a white surge lapped over it and washed across her deck.  A rope trailed from her bow and her long tiller jerked to and fro.  It was obvious that she was adrift with nobody on board, and Dick cautiously steered the launch towards her.

“That’s curious, but perhaps the rest drove foul of her and the helmsman lost his nerve and jumped,” he said.  “I’ll put Maccario on board to give us the hawser.”

“Then I’ll go with him,” Jake offered.  “He can’t handle the big rope alone.”

Dick hesitated.  It was important that they should not lose the coal, but he did not want to give the lad a dangerous task.  The barge was rolling wildly and he durst not run alongside, while some risk would attend a jump across the three or four feet of water between the craft.

“I think you’d better stop here,” he objected.

“I don’t,” Jake answered with a laugh.  “Guess you’ve got to be logical.  You want the coal, and it will take us both to save it.”

He followed the fireman, who stood, balancing himself for a spring, on the forward deck, while Dick let the launch swing in as close as he thought safe.  The man leapt and Dick watched Jake with keen anxiety as the launch rose with the next comber, but the lad sprang off as the bows went up, and came down with a splash in the water that flowed across the lighter’s deck.  Then Dick caught the line thrown him and with some trouble dragged the end of the hawser on board.  He was surprised to find that it was not broken, but he waved his hand to the others as he drove the launch ahead, steering for the beach, near which he expected to find a passage through the reef.

Before he had gone far the tug steamed towards him with the other barges in tow, apparently bound for Adexe.

“It is not possible to go on,” the skipper hailed.  “Give me a rope; we take the lighter.”

“You shan’t take her to Adexe,” Dick shouted.  “We want the coal.”

Though there was danger in getting too close, the captain let the tug drift nearer.

“We bring you the lot when the wind drops.”

“No,” said Dick, “I’ll stick to what I’ve got.”

He could not catch the captain’s reply as the tug forged past, but it sounded like an exclamation of anger or surprise, and he looked anxiously for the foam upon the reef.  It was some time before he distinguished a glimmer in the dark, for the moon was hidden and his progress was slow.  The lighter was big and heavily laden, and every now and then her weight, putting a sudden strain on the hawser, jerked the launch to a standstill.  It was worse when, lifting with the swell, she sheered off at an angle to her course, and Dick was forced to maneuver with helm and engine to bring her in line again, at some risk of fouling the hawser with the screw.  He knew little about towing, but he had handled small sailing boats before he learned to use the launch.  The coal was badly needed and must be taken to Santa Brigida, though an error of judgment might lead to the loss of the barge and perhaps of his comrade’s life.

The phosphorescent gleam of the surf got plainer and the water smoother, for the reef was now to windward and broke the sea, but the moon was still covered, and Dick felt some tension as he skirted the barrier.  He did not know if he could find the opening or tow the lighter through the narrow channel.  The surf, however, was of help, for it flashed into sheets of spangled radiance as it washed across the reef, leaving dark patches among the lambent foam.  The patches had a solid look, and Dick knew that they were rocks.

At length he saw a wider break in the belt of foam, and the sharper plunging of the launch showed that the swell worked through.  This was the mouth of the channel, and there was water enough to float the craft if he could keep off the rocks.  Snatching the engine-lamp from its socket, he waved it and blew the whistle.  A shout reached him and showed that the others understood.

Dick felt his nerves tingle when he put the helm over and the hawser tightened as the lighter began to swing.  If she took too wide a sweep, he might be unable to check her before she struck the reef, and there seemed to be a current flowing through the gap.  Glancing astern for a moment, he saw her dark hull swing through a wide curve while the strain on the hawser dragged the launch’s stern down, but she came round and the tension slackened as he steered up the channel.

For a time he had less trouble than he expected; but the channel turned at its outer end and wind and swell would strike at him at an awkward angle, when he took the bend.  As he entered it, the moon shone out, and he saw the black top of a rock dangerously close to leeward.  He waved the lantern, but the lighter, with sea and current on her weather bow, forged almost straight ahead, and the straining hawser dragged the launch back.  Reaching forward, Dick opened the throttle valve to its limit, and then sat grim and still while the throb of the screw shook the trembling hull.  Something would happen in the next half minute unless he could get the lighter round.  Glancing back, he saw her low, wet side shine in the moonlight.  Two dark figures stood aft by the tiller, and he thought the foam about the rock was only a fathom or two away.

The launch was hove down on her side.  Though the screw thudded furiously, she seemed to gain no ground, and then the strain on the hawser suddenly slackened.  Dick wondered whether it had broken, but he would know in the next few seconds; there was a sharp jerk, the launch was dragged to leeward, but recovered and forged ahead.  She plunged her bows into a broken swell and the spray filled Dick’s eyes, but when he could see again the foam was sliding past and a gap widened between the lighter’s hull and the white wash on the rock.

The water was deep ahead, and since he could skirt the beach and the wind came strongly off the land, the worst of his difficulties seemed to be past.  Still, it would be a long tow to Santa Brigida, and bracing himself for the work, he lit his pipe.