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THE FREE LANCE
By the following afternoon Dr. Trendon reported his patient as quite recovered.
"Starved for water," proffered the surgeon. "Tissues fairly dried out. Soaked him up. Fed him broth. Put him to sleep. He's all right. Just wakes up to eat; then off again like a two-year old. Wonderful constitution."
"The gentleman wants to know if he can come on deck, sir," saluted an orderly.
"Waked up, eh. Come on, Barnett. Help me boost him on deck."
The two officers disappeared to return in a moment arm-in-arm with Ralph Slade.
Nearly twenty-four hours' rest and skilful treatment had done wonders. He was still a trifle weak and uncertain, was still a little glad to lean on the arms of his companions, but his eye was bright and alert, and his hollow cheeks mounted a slight colour. This, with the clothes lent him by Barnett, transformed his appearance, and led Captain Parkinson to congratulate himself that he had not obeyed his first impulse to send the castaway forward with the men.
The officers pressed forward.
"Mighty glad to see you out." "Hope you've got your pins under you again." "Old man, I'm mighty glad we came along."
The chorus of greeting was hearty enough, but the journalist barely paid the courtesy of acknowledgment. His eye swept the horizon eagerly until it rested on the cloud of volcanic smoke billowing up across the setting sun. A sigh of relief escaped him.
"Where are we?" he asked Barnett. "I mean since you picked me up. How long ago was that, anyway?"
"Yesterday," replied the navigating officer. "We've stood off and on, looking for some of our men."
"Then that's the same volcano----"
Barnett laughed softly. "Well, they aren't quite holding a caucus of volcanoes down in this country. One like that is enough."
But Slade brushed the remark aside.
"Head for it!" he cried excitedly. "We may be in time! There's a man on that island."
"A man!" "Another!" "Not Billy Edwards?" "Not some of our boys?"
Slade stared at them bewildered.
"Hold on," interposed Dr. Trendon authoritatively. "What's his name?" he inquired of the journalist.
"Darrow," replied the latter. "Percy Darrow. Do you know him?"
"Who in Kamschatka is Percy Darrow?" demanded Forsythe.
"Why, he's the assistant." It's a long story----"
"Of course, it's a long story. There's a lot we want to know," interrupted Captain Parkinson. "Quartermaster, head for the volcano yonder. Mr. Slade, we want to know where you came from; and why you left the schooner, and who Percy Darrow is. And there's dinner, so we'll just adjourn to the messroom and hear what you can tell us. But there's one thing we're all anxious to know; how came you in the dory which we found and left on the Laughing Lass no later than two days ago?"
"I haven't set eyes on the Laughing Lass for--well, I don't know how long, but it's five days anyway, perhaps more," replied Slade.
They stared at him incredulously.
"Oh, I see!" he burst out suddenly; "there were twin dories on the schooner. The other one's still there, I suppose. Did you find her on the stern davits?"
"That's it, then. You see when I left----"
Captain Parkinson's raised hand checked him. "If you will be so good, Mr. Slade, let us have it all at once, after mess."
At table the young officers, at a sharp hint from Dr. Trendon, conversed on indifferent subjects until the journalist had partaken heartily of what the physician allowed him. Slade ate with keen appreciation.
"I tell you, that's good," he sighed, when he had finished. "Real, live, after-dinner coffee, too. Why, gentlemen, I haven't eaten a civilised meal, with all the trimmings, for over two years. Doctor, do you think a little of the real stuff would hurt me? It's a pretty dry yarning."
"One glass," growled the surgeon, "no more."
"Scotch high-ball, then," voted Slade, "the higher the better."
The steward brought a tall glass with ice, in which the newcomer mixed his drink. Then for quite a minute he sat silent, staring at the table, his fingers aimlessly rubbing into spots of wetness the water beads as they gathered on the outside of his glass. Suddenly he looked up.
"I don't know how to begin," he confessed. "It's too confounded improbable. I hardly believe it myself, now that I'm sitting here in human clothes, surrounded by human beings. Old Scrubs, and the Nigger, and Handy Solomon, and the Professor, and the chest, and the--well, they were real enough when I was caught in the mess. But I warn you, you are not going to believe me, and hanged if I blame you a bit."
"We've seen marvels ourselves in the last few days," encouraged Captain Parkinson.
"Fire ahead, man," advised Barnett impatiently. "Just begin at the beginning and let it go at that."
Slade sipped at his glass reflectively.
"Well," said he at length, "the best way to begin is to show you how I happened to be mixed up in it at all."
The officers unconsciously relaxed into attitudes of greater ease. Overhead the lamps swayed gently to the swell. The dull throb of the screw pulsated. Stewards clad in white moved noiselessly, filling the glasses, deferentially striking lights for the smokers, clearing away the last dishes of the repast.
"I'm a reporter by choice, and a detective by instinct," began Slade, with startling abruptness. "Furthermore, I'm pretty well off. I'm what they call a free lance, for I have no regular desk on any of the journals. I generally turn my stuff in to the Star because they treat me well. In return it is pretty well understood between us that I'm to use my judgment in regard to 'stories' and that they'll stand back of me for expenses. You see, I've been with them quite a while."
He looked around the circle as though in appeal to the comprehension of his audience. Some of the men nodded. Others sipped from their glasses or drew at their cigars.
"I loaf around here and there in the world, having a good time travelling, visiting, fooling around. Every once in a while something interests me. The thing is a sort of instinct. I run it down. If it's a good story, I send it in. That's all there is to it." He laughed slightly. "You see, I'm a sort of magazine writer in method, but my stuff is newspaper stuff. Also the game suits me. That's why I play it. That's why I'm here. I have to tell you about myself this way so you will understand how I came to be mixed up in this Laughing Lass matter."
"I remember," commented Barnett, "that when you came aboard the South Dakota, you had a little trouble making Captain Arnold see it." He turned to the others with a laugh. "He had all kinds of papers of ancient date, but nothing modern--letter from the Star dated five years back, recommendations to everybody on earth, except Captain Arnold, certificate of bravery in Apache campaign, bank identifications, and all the rest. 'Maybe you're the Star's correspondent, and maybe you're not,' said the Captain, 'I don't see anything here to prove it.' Slade argued an hour; no go. Remember how you caught him?" he inquired of Slade.
The reporter grinned assent.
"After the old man had turned him down for good, Slade fished down in his warbag and hauled out an old tattered document from an oilskin case. 'Hold on a minute,' said he, 'you old shellback. I've proved to you that I can write; and I've proved to you that I have fought, and now here I'll prove to you that I can sail. If writing, fighting, and sailing don't fit me adequately to report any little disturbances your antiquated washboiler may blunder into, I'll go to raising cabbages.' With that he presented a master's certificate! Where did you get it, anyway? I never found out."
"Passed as 'fresh-water' on the Great Lakes," replied Slade briefly.
"Well, the spunk and the certificate finished the captain. He was an old square rigger himself in the Civil War."
"So much for myself," Slade continued. "As for the Laughing Lass----"
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