Read CHAPTER XXIII - THE CLAMP of Brandon of the Engineers , free online book, by Harold Bindloss, on ReadCentral.com.

When work began next morning, Jake asked Dick if he should order the péons to search for the clamps that had held the guard-rail.

“I think not,” said Dick.  “It would be better if you looked for the things yourself.”

“Very well.  Perhaps you’re right.”

Dick wondered how much Jake suspected, particularly as he did not appear to be searching for anything when he moved up and down among the broken concrete.  Half an hour later, when none of the péons were immediately about, he came up with his hand in his pocket and indicated a corner beside a block where there was a little shade and they were not likely to be overlooked.

“I’ve got one,” he remarked.

When they sat down Jake took out a piece of thick iron about six inches long, forged into something like the shape of a U, though the curve was different and one arm was shorter than the other.  Much depended on the curve, for the thing was made on the model of an old-fashioned but efficient clamp that carpenters sometimes use for fastening work to a bench.  A blow or pressure on one part wedged it fast, but a sharp tap on the other enabled it to be lifted off.  This was convenient, because as the work progressed, the track along the dam had to be lengthened and the guard fixed across a fresh pair of rails.

Taking the object from Jake, Dick examined it carefully.  He thought he recognized the dint where he had struck the iron, and then, turning it over, noted another mark.  This had been made recently, because the surface of the iron was bright where the hammer had fallen, and a blow there would loosen the clamp.  He glanced at Jake, who nodded.

“It looks very suspicious, but that’s all.  You can’t tell how long the mark would take to get dull.  Besides, we have moved the guard two or three times in the last few days.”

“That’s true,” said Dick.  “Still, I wedged the thing up shortly before the accident.  It has stood a number of shocks; in fact, it can’t be loosened by pressure on the back.  When do you think the last blow was struck?”

“After yours,” Jake answered meaningly.

“Then the probability is that somebody wanted the truck to fall into the hole and smash the block.”

“Yes,” said Jake, who paused and looked hard at Dick.  “But I’m not sure that was all he wanted.  You were standing right under the block, and if I hadn’t been a little to one side, where the lights didn’t dazzle me, the smashing of a lot of concrete wouldn’t have been the worst damage.”

Dick said nothing, but his face set hard as he braced himself against the unnerving feeling that had troubled him on the previous night.  The great block had not fallen by accident; it looked as if somebody had meant to take his life.  The cunning of the attempt daunted him.  The blow had been struck in a manner that left him a very slight chance of escape; and his subtle antagonist might strike again.

“What are you going to do about it?” Jake resumed.

“Nothing,” said Dick.

Jake looked at him in surprise.  “Don’t you see what you’re up against?”

“It’s pretty obvious; but if I ask questions, I’ll find out nothing and show that I’m suspicious.  If we let the thing go as an accident, we may catch the fellow off his guard.”

“My notion is that you know more than you mean to tell.  Now you began by taking care of me, but it looks as if the matter would end in my taking care of you.  Seems to me you need it and I don’t like to see you playing a lone hand.”

Dick gave him a grateful smile.  “If I see how you can help, I’ll let you know.  In the meantime, you’ll say nothing to imply that I’m on the watch.”

“Well,” said Jake, grinning, “if you can bluff Stuyvesant, you’ll be smarter than I thought.  You’re a rather obvious person and he’s not a fool.”

He went away, but Dick lighted a cigarette and sat still in the shade.  He was frankly daunted, but did not mean to stop, for he saw that he was following the right clue.  His reason for visiting the Adexe wharf had been guessed.  He had been watched when he went to the Vice-Consul, and it was plain that his enemies thought he knew enough to be dangerous.  The difficulty was that he did not know who they were.  He hated to think that Kenwardine was a party to the plot, but this, while possible, was by no means certain.  At Santa Brigida, a man’s life was not thought of much account, and it would, no doubt, have been enough if Kenwardine had intimated that Dick might cause trouble; but then Kenwardine must have known what was likely to follow his hint.

After all, however, this was not very important.  He must be careful, but do nothing to suggest that he understood the risk he ran.  If his antagonists thought him stupid, so much the better.  He saw the difficulty of playing what Jake called a lone hand against men skilled in the intricate game; but he could not ask for help until he was sure of his ground.  Besides, he must find a way of stopping Kenwardine without involving Clare.  In the meantime he had a duty to Fuller, and throwing away his cigarette, resumed his work.

Two or three days later he met Kenwardine in a cafe where he was waiting for a man who supplied some stores to the camp.  When Kenwardine saw Dick he crossed the floor and sat down at his table.  His Spanish dress became him, he looked polished and well-bred, and it was hard to think him a confederate of half-breed ruffians who would not hesitate about murder.  But Dick wondered whether Clare had told him about his proposal.

“I suppose I may congratulate you on your recent promotion?  You certainly deserve it,” Kenwardine remarked with an ironical smile.  “I imagine your conscientiousness and energy are unusual, but perhaps at times rather inconvenient.”

“Thanks!” said Dick.  “How did you hear about the matter?”

“In Santa Brigida, one hears everything that goes on.  We have nothing much to do but talk about our neighbors’ affairs.”

Dick wondered whether Kenwardine meant to hint that as his time was largely unoccupied he had only a small part in managing the coaling business, but he said:  “We are hardly your neighbors at the camp.”

“I suppose that’s true.  We certainly don’t see you often.”

This seemed to indicate that Kenwardine did not know about Dick’s recent visit.  He could have no reason for hiding his knowledge, and it looked as if Clare did not tell her father everything.

“You have succeeded in keeping your young friend out of our way,” Kenwardine resumed.  “Still, as he hasn’t your love of work and sober character, there’s some risk of a reaction if you hold him in too hard.  Jake’s at an age when it’s difficult to be satisfied with cement.”

Dick laughed.  “I really did try to keep him, but was helped by luck.  We have been unusually busy at the dam and although I don’t know that his love for cement is strong he doesn’t often leave a half-finished job.”

“If you work upon his feelings in that way, I expect you’ll beat me; but after all, I’m not scheming to entangle the lad.  He’s a bright and amusing youngster, but there wouldn’t be much profit in exploiting him.  However, you have had some accidents at the dam, haven’t you?”

Dick was immediately on his guard, but he answered carelessly:  “We broke a crane-drum, which delayed us.”

“And didn’t a truck fall down the embankment and do some damage?”

“It did,” said Dick.  “We had a big molded block, which cost a good deal to make, smashed to pieces, and some others split.  I had something of an escape, too, because I was standing under the block.”

He was watching Kenwardine and thought his expression changed and his easy pose stiffened.  His self-control was good, but Dick imagined he was keenly interested and surprised.

“Then you ran a risk of being killed?”

“Yes.  Jake, however, saw the danger and warned me just before the block fell.”

“That was lucky.  But you have a curious temperament.  When we began to talk of the accidents, you remembered the damage to Fuller’s property before the risk to your life.”

“Well,” said Dick, “you see I wasn’t hurt, but the damage still keeps us back.”

“How did the truck run off the line?  I should have thought you’d have taken precautions against anything of the kind.”

Dick pondered.  He believed Kenwardine really was surprised to hear he had nearly been crushed by the block; but the fellow was clever and had begun to talk about the accidents.  He must do nothing to rouse his suspicions, and began a painstaking account of the matter, explaining that the guard-rail had got loose, but saying nothing about the clamps being tampered with.  Indeed, the trouble he took about the explanation was in harmony with his character and his interest in his work, and presently Kenwardine looked bored.

“I quite understand the thing,” he said, and got up as the man Dick was waiting for came towards the table.

The merchant did not keep Dick long, and he left the cafe feeling satisfied.  Kenwardine had probably had him watched and had had something to do with the theft of the sheet from his blotting pad, but knew nothing about the attempt upon his life.  After hearing about it, he understood why the accident happened, but had no cause to think that Dick knew, and some of his fellow conspirators were responsible for this part of the plot.  Dick wondered whether he would try to check them now he did know, because if they tried again, they would do so with Kenwardine’s tacit consent.

A few days later, he was sitting with Bethune and Jake one evening when Stuyvesant came in and threw a card, printed with the flag of a British steamship company, on the table.

“I’m not going, but you might like to do so,” he said.

Dick, who was nearest, picked up the card.  It was an invitation to a dinner given to celebrate the first call of a large new steamship at Santa Brigida, and he imagined it had been sent to the leading citizens and merchants who imported goods by the company’s vessels.  After glancing at it, he passed it on.

“I’ll go,” Bethune remarked.  “After the Spartan simplicity we practise at the camp, it will be a refreshing change to eat a well-served dinner in a mailboat’s saloon, though I’ve no great admiration for British cookery.”

“It can’t be worse than the dago kind we’re used to,” Jake broke in.  “What’s the matter with it, anyhow?”

“It’s like the British character, heavy and unchanging,” Bethune replied.  “A London hotel menu, with English beer and whisky, in the tropics!  Only people without imagination would offer it to their guests; and then they’ve printed a list of the ports she’s going to at the bottom.  Would any other folk except perhaps the Germans, couple an invitation with a hint that they were ready to trade?  If a Spaniard comes to see you on business, he talks for half an hour about politics or your health, and apologizes for mentioning such a thing as commerce when he comes to the point.”

“The British plan has advantages,” said Stuyvesant.  “You know what you’re doing when you deal with them.”

“That’s so.  We know, for example, when this boat will arrive at any particular place and when she’ll sail; while you can reckon on a French liner’s being three or four days late and on the probability of a Spaniard’s not turning up at all.  But whether you have revolutions, wars, or tidal waves, the Britisher sails on schedule.”

“There’s some risk in that just now,” Stuyvesant observed.

Bethune turned to Jake.  “You had better come.  The card states there’ll be music, and the agent will hire Vallejo’s band, which is pretty good.  Guitars, mandolins, and fiddles on the poop, and senoritas in gauzy dresses flitting through graceful dances in the after well!  The entertainment ought to appeal to your artistic taste.”

“I’m going,” Jake replied.

“So am I,” said Dick.

Jake grinned.  “That’s rather sudden, isn’t it?  However, you may be needed to look after Bethune.”

An evening or two later, they boarded the launch at the town mole.  The sea was smooth and glimmered with phosphorescence in the shadow of the land, for the moon had not risen far above the mountains.  Outside the harbor mouth, the liner’s long, black hull cut against the dusky blue, the flowing curve of her sheer picked out by a row of lights.  Over this rose three white tiers of passenger decks, pierced by innumerable bright points, with larger lights in constellations outside, while masts and funnels ran up, faintly indicated, into the gloom above.  She scarcely moved to the lift of the languid swell, but as the undulations passed there was a pale-green shimmer about her waterline that magnified the height to her topmost deck.  She looked unsubstantial, rather like a floating fairy palace than a ship, and as the noisy launch drew nearer Jake gave his imagination rein.

“She was made, just right, by magic; a ship of dreams,” he said.  “Look how she glimmers, splashed with cadmium radiance, on velvety blue; and her formlessness outside the lights wraps her in mystery.  Yet you get a hint of swiftness.”

“You know she has power and speed,” Bethune interrupted.

“No,” said Jake firmly, “it’s not a matter of knowledge; she appeals to your imagination.  You feel that airy fabric must travel like the wind.”  Then he turned to Dick, who was steering.  “There’s a boat ahead with a freight of senoritas in white and orange gossamer; they know something about grace of line in this country.  Are you going to rush past them, like a dull barbarian, in this kicking, snorting launch?”

“I’ll make for the other side of the ship, if you like.”

“You needn’t go so far,” Jake answered with a chuckle.  “But you might muzzle your rackety engine.”

Dick, who had seen the boat, gave her room enough, but let the engine run.  He imagined that Jake’s motive for slowing down might be misunderstood by the senoritas’ guardian, since a touch of Moorish influence still colors the Spaniard’s care of his women.  As the launch swung to starboard her red light shone into the boat, and Dick recognized Don Sebastian sitting next a stout lady in a black dress.  There were three or four girls beside them, and then Dick’s grasp on the tiller stiffened, for the ruby beam picked out Clare’s face.  He thought it wore a tired look, but she turned her head, as if dazzled, and the light passed on, and Dick’s heart beat as the boat dropped back into the gloom.  Since Kenwardine had sent Clare with Don Sebastian, he could not be going, and Dick might find an opportunity for speaking to her alone.  He meant to do so, although the interview would not be free from embarrassment.  Then he avoided another boat, and stopping the engine, steered for the steamer’s ladder.