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THE EMPTY BRANDY BOTTLE
So there I was at once deprived of my chief support. Although no danger seemed imminent, nevertheless the necessity of acting on my own initiative and responsibility oppressed me somewhat.
Truth to tell, after the first, I was more relieved than dismayed at the captain's resolution to stay aboard. His drinking habit was growing on him, and afloat or ashore he was now little more than a figurehead, so that my chief asset as far as he was concerned, was rather his reputation than his direct influence. In contact with the men, I dreaded lest sooner or later he do something to lessen or destroy the awe in which they held him.
Of course Dr. Schermerhorn had been mistaken in his man: A real captain of men would have risen to circumstances wherever he found them. But who could have foretold? Captain Selover had been a rascal always, but a successful and courageous rascal. He had run desperate chances, dominated desperate crews. Who could know that a crumble of island beach and six months ashore would turn him into what he had become? Yet I believe such cases are not uncommon in other walks of life. A man and his work combine to mean something; yet both may be absolutely useless when separated. It was the weak link----
I put in some time praying earnestly that the eyes of the crew might be blinded, and that the doctor would finish his experiments before the cauldron could boil up again.
My first act as real commander was to announce holiday. My idea was that the island would keep the men busy for a while. Then I would assign them more work to do. They proposed at once a tour into the interior.
We started up the west coast. After three or four miles along a mesa formation where often we had to circle long detours to avoid the gullies, we came upon another short beach, and beyond it a series of ledges on which basked several hundred seals. They did not seem alarmed. In fact one old bull, scarred by many battles, made toward us.
We left him, scaled the cliff, and turned up a broad, pleasant valley toward the interior.
There the later lava flow had been deflected. All that showed of the original eruption were occasional red outcropping rocks. Soil and grass had overlaid the mineral. Scattered trees were planted throughout the flat. Cacti and semi-tropical bushes mingled with brush on the rounded side hills. A number of brilliant birds fluttered at our approach.
Suddenly Handy Solomon, who was in advance, stopped and pointed to the crest of the hill. A file of animals moved along the sky line.
"Mutton!" said he, "or the devil's a preacher!"
"Sheep!" cried Thrackles. "Where did they come from?"
"Golden Horn," I suggested. "Remember that wide, empty deck forward? They carried sheep there." The men separated, intending fresh meat. The affair was ridiculous. These sheep had become as wild as deer. Our surrounding party with its silly bared knives could only look after them open-mouthed, as they skipped nimbly between its members.
"Get a gun of the Old Man, Mr. Eagen," suggested Pulz, "and we'll have something besides salt horse and fish."
We continued. The island was like this as far as we went. When we climbed a ridge, we found ourselves looking down on a spider-web of other valleys and caņons of the same nature, all diverging to broad downs and a jump into the sea, all converging to the outworks that guarded the volcano with its canopy of vapour.
On our way home we cut across the higher country and the heads of the caņons until we found ourselves looking down on the valley and Dr. Schermerhorn's camp. The steam from the volcanic blowholes swayed below us. Through its rifts we saw the tops of the buildings. Presently we made out Percy Darrow, dressed in overalls, his sleeves rolled back, and carrying a retort. He walked, very preoccupied, to one of the miniature craters, where he knelt and went through some operation indistinguishable at the distance. I looked around to see my companions staring at him fascinated, their necks craned out, their bodies drawn back into hiding. In a moment he had finished, and carried the retort carefully into the laboratory. The men sighed and stood erect, once more themselves. As we turned away Perdosa voiced what must have been in the minds of all.
"A man could climb down there," said he.
"Why should he want to?" I demanded sharply.
"Quien sabe?" shrugged he.
We turned in silence toward the beach. Each brooded his thoughts. The sight of that man dressed in overalls, carrying on some mysterious business, brought home to each of us the fact that our expedition had an object, as yet unknown to us. The thought had of late dropped into the background. For my part I had been so immersed in the adventure and the labour and the insistent need of the hour that I had forgotten why I had come. Dr. Schermerhorn's purpose was as inscrutable to me as at first. What had I accomplished?
The men, too, seemed struck with some such idea. There were no yarns about the camp fire that night. Percy Darrow did not appear, for which I was sincerely sorry. His presence might have created a diversion. For some unknown reason all my old apprehensions, my sense of impending disaster, had returned to me strengthened. In the firelight the Nigger's sullen face looked sinister, Pulz's nervous white countenance looked vicious. Thrackles' heavy, bulldog expression was threatening, Perdosa's Mexican cast fit for knife work in the back. And Handy Solomon, stretched out, leaning on his elbow, with his red headgear, his snaky hair, his hook nose, his restless eye and his glittering steel claw--the glow wrote across his aura the names of Kid, Morgan, Blackbeard. They sat smoking, staring into the fire with mesmerised eyes. The silence got on my nerves I arose impatiently and walked down the pale beach, where the stars glimmered in splashes along the wettest sands. The black silhouette of the hills against the dark blue of the night sky; the white of breakers athwart the indistinct heave of the ocean, a faint light marking the position of the Laughing Lass--that was everything in the world. I made out some object rolled about in the edge of the wash. At the cost of wet feet I rescued it. It was an empty brandy bottle.
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