The Man in the Cask by Vincent Starrett
Adventure

The Man in the Cask

A Story of Strange Adventures

by Vincent Starrett

Real Detective Tales | June/July 1927 | Vol. 11, No. 2 THE RED FILE | Sep. 24, 2017 | Vol. 6 No. 20 Casefile No: 55ccf75fb3901011515aeff0

He wanted to die in Oak Grove, Illinois. A hell of a place to die, but that’s what he wanted. The least we can do is see that he gets there right side up.

Table of Contents

Chapter 1

Rum Pudgeon

In the Hotel Esperanza, which is the best hotel in San Angel and the worst in the world, two men sat drinking whisky. They drank morosely and without enjoyment. In the intervals of gloomy conversation, they turned their eyes sometimes upon the figure of a third man, who lay upon the bed, and sometimes through the open doorway, across a blistered balcony, to the waterfront beneath.

The sun, half risen from the sea, smoldered on the horizon, but for the most part the sea was pale and silver gray. In the foreground the mists of early morning still streamed above the water, and greenish waves washed the foundations of the pier. Lines of foam rolled in and melted against the sand. In the near distance rose upward a lazy twist of smoke and two bare spars; these served for the moment to mark the inner harbor and the single vessel that lay within.

"It's now or never," said the fat man in dirty pongee, at last. "He goes on the Stockholm, or he doesn't go at all."

The somewhat cleaner linen of his companion absorbed another spot of liquor. "Damn him!" said the second man, with a furtive glance at the figure in the bed. "What did he want to die down here for?"

"Don't be an idiot, Hyatt," retorted the first speaker, mildly. "He wanted to die in Oak Grove, Illinois. A hell of a place to die, but that's what he wanted. The least we can do is see that he gets there right side up."

"I know," grumbled the man called Hyatt. "A lovely mess he's left for us. Not an undertaker in a hundred miles — and this devilish sun getting up earlier every morning. Of course, Rulofson won't take him."

The fat man checked his tumbler in mid-flight. "Won't take him!'' he repeated. ''He's got to take him. It's our only chance. Rulofson'll get his money."

His leaner companion shrugged.

"It isn't a question of money," he answered, with a gesture of impatience, "although there's little enough of that, God knows! He won't take him, that's all. The crew wouldn't stand for it. You ought to know that, Drews. It stands to reason."

The fat man was irritated. "Why ought I to know it?" he demanded querulously. "I'm not in the business. I never tried to ship a body before."

"I have," said Hyatt, grimly. "That's why I'm sore at this one. It was downright inconsiderate of him."

He glared malevolently at his empty liquor glass, then filled it to the brim from a bottle that stood on the table beside him. "It was decent of him to leave this liquor, anyway," he admitted as an afterthought. "Don't know what we'd have done without it last night!"

"Why does it stand to reason?" persisted the other. "You ain't going to leave me flat, at this stage, are you? You promised him, too; I heard you."

"I know," said Hyatt, again setting down an empty glass. "Well, I'm not going back on you, nor on him, either. All I said was that Rulofson wouldn't take him; and he won't. Not if he knows it."

The speaker looked curiously at his cherubic companion. With his flabby, unshaven jowls and his protruding blue eyes, bloodshot after a night's vigil, Drews was not at all a pretty sight.

"You knew Galloway pretty well, didn't you, Drews?"

"I didn't know him a bit," replied Drews, promptly. "Any more than you did. Any more than anyone did. He told me his story when he came down here; and I didn't tell him he was a damned fool not to shoot the other man, that's all. That's what everyone else had told him, and he was getting tired of hearing it. So he sort of cottoned to me."

Hyatt nodded, a bit absently, and filled his companion's glass. "Who was the woman?" he asked. "I suppose there's no secret about any of it, now?"

"His wife," said Drews. "He'd probably have told you, himself, if he'd lived long enough. He liked you pretty well. You and I were about the only friends had, I guess."

"I saw her picture, once," remarked Hyatt, thoughtfully. "He opened his locker for a minute, and it was in the tray, face up. She's a beauty; I'll say that for her … Sounds a bit like the old story, eh?"

"Old as — as all that!" said the fat man. With a ludicrous but comprehensive gesture, he embraced the spectacle beyond the open door, the sea and the sky and the red sun lying on the water. "She left him flat for the other fellow. Kind of a nasty mess, I guess. There weren't any kids; so he packed up a few clothes and came away. Went to Mexico first, but it didn't suit him. Too many people. He hated people. Then somebody told him this was the damndest place in creation — which it is — and he came here."

"Divorced?"

"Not that he ever heard of. Maybe she was waiting for two years to run, so's she could call it desertion. This'll be just as good. It's a damn sight more complete."

The narrator glanced apprehensively toward the bed and brought his eyes back to the table. His thick, nervous fingers closed convulsively about the base of his tumbler. With a deep sigh, intended to indicate sympathy, he gulped down half the contents of the glass. There was a moment of silence in which Hyatt's eyes strayed also to the bed.

"I never saw a man drink himself to death quicker," testified the second man, a note of admiration in his voice. "Was he always that way ?"

"Ever since I knew him. He said his wife used to call him a 'rum pudgeon,' whatever that is. Anything looked good to him, so long as it was liquor. I've seen him stretched out so stiff you'd think he'd been dead for weeks."

In the pause that followed, Hyatt turned restlessly in his chair. "Where is she?" he asked, at length.

"Oak Grove," said Drews, "as far as I know. That's where she was anyway. And it's where Galloway is going," he added with determination. "His brother lives there yet; I've got his address."

Hyatt nodded vaguely. "All right," he agreed. "But I'm telling you, Drews, Rulofson won't take him — if he knows it!"

The fat man's chair rasped along the boards. Its occupant puffed slowly to his feet and ambled to the door. His glance settled upon the spars in the harbor and the line of smoke that went straight up, now, between them. Hyatt joined him in the doorway. The comparative coolness of dawn was vanishing before the intensifying rays of the sun.

"He's got to know," said Drews, at last. "Good God, we can't nail him up and call him books, or gunpowder!"

"Listen," said, Hyatt, in a low voice, as if he feared that the dead might have ears. "Come out here on the balcony. Look at that damned sun, will you! We're in for another hellish day, Drews, and I've had enough of them. I'm sick of San Angel, and San Everything. I'm sick of the whole damned peninsula, and all the islands of the sea … Do you know what Rulofson is taking north, Drews?"

"Rum!" exploded the fat man, almost profanely. "The only decent liquor in the vicinity, except what's left in that bottle."

"Yes," agreed Hyatt, "that's what he's carrying — rum. A hundred hogsheads of it from this very port, this very pesthole. Well?''

The fat man's eyes were held by those of his companion; after an instant they fell before the significance of Hyatt's gaze. "I'm afraid I don't get you," muttered Drews.

"Yes, you do," said Hyatt, with a hard smile. "It's the only way, Drews; I'm telling you. If you know a better way, let's hear about it. Where's your undertaker? Where's your — "

He ended his sentence abruptly and pointed with circling finger.

"Look at that! The first of ten thousand, perhaps, inside of six hours."

A great green fly was humming about their heads in aimless geometric designs. Suddenly, as they watched it, it darted in through the open door. Drews felt his scalp prickle under his short bristle of hair. He ran his fingers over the stubble.

"The rum shipment is our only chance," continued the dispassionate voice of his companion. "You don't think I'm keen about the job, myself, do you? I'd rather take him up on the hill, where we buried the poor old Mex. But it's a long journey Galloway's got to take, and if he's to arrive without premature discovery … ." He shrugged.

"Of course, we'll have to tell the brother! You'd better write him a letter, explaining why. It'll get posted at New Orleans."

He turned to enter the room, but paused for a moment on the doorsill and looked back.

"And Drews," he added casually, "you needn't do any worrying about Rulofson. I'll take care of all that. The fact is, I'm going along, myself — all the way — to see that Galloway gets home to his brother's house."

Back to Top

Chapter 2

The Stockholm

Captain Andrew Rulofson was as jovial soul, in those days before the war, as ever carried a rum cargo across the gulf. He flew two flags, that of Sweden and that of the United States of America, and he was himself a teetotaler.

Also, he was passionately addicted to loud music. In the wireless room of the Stockholm, which for several reasons had been stripped of its outfit and its operator, he had installed an electric piano, for which he had paid seven hundred dollars in an American port.

There was an electric wall socket in the room, which the captain alternately used for lighting purposes and for operating the piano, since he could not do both at once, he was very proud of his lamp and his piano, both of which his wife had refused to have about the house. The light, however, was unnecessary when the instrument was in action, for with the first crashing chords the entire front panel, which was of colored glass tricked out with clouds and turrets, lighted up from behind like a proscenium. The range of the piano's repertoire was not great; it played four melodies, of which a smashing march called Blaze Away was the captain's favorite; but for what it lacked in versatility it made up in volume. There was nothing like it on the high seas.

Hyatt shared the wireless room with a filthy Mexican parrot. The parrot's cage hung in a corner, far enough from the L not to bang, and the door at all times stood open. The parrot was accustomed to freedom, although it seldom left the room, and the top of the piano had become its promenade. It sulked for a time after the intrusion of a stranger, but soon regained its arrogance and swaggered as bravely as before. Its vocabulary was largely Spanish, and was surprisingly adequate to emergency.

In the captain's absence, Hyatt cursed the bird bitterly. He did not like his bunk, which lay crosswise of the ship, having been originally a bench clamped strongly to the wall just opposite the piano. The vessel was not outfitted, however, for passengers. When it rolled gently in the long swell of the Mexican gulf, the movement was pleasant and soporific but when it pitched in headlong plunges the occupant of the bed clung grimly to its side to keep from being thrown to the floor. In the intervals of storm the parrot always swore raucously. Hyatt devoted some time to its education, trying to teach it a ribald ballad, only the chorus of which was beyond reproach. He ended by calling the bird by the title of the song, which was La Cucharacha, or "The Cockroach," because of its abominable habits.

Only Hyatt knew of the second passenger carried by the Stockholm, and for the most part he was able to keep his mind free of the knowledge. He was not a squeamish man. Occasionally there crossed his vision a picture of the consternation he might create by a chance slip of the tongue; but he knew there would be no such slip. More often his mind ran upon the events that would succeed the arrival of Galloway at his brother's home, when he — Hyatt — was free to go about his own business in his own way.

The letter that he carried in his pocket would be mailed at New Orleans, and it should reach the small town in Illinois some days before his own more portentous arrival. Galloway's effects were in his locker, now shipshape and upright at the end of the bunk. It had furnished a new and popular rostrum for the green parrot. Hyatt had opened it only once, and then he had not delved beneath the level of the tray. He was not a curious man.

Sometimes he set the portrait he had taken from the tray against the rack of the piano, and gazed at it for a long time. At such times his mind raced with delicious possibilities, although he had set himself no program. His imaginings were in no sense reticent. It was unfortunate, he thought, that the photograph was only a head, but he had no difficulty in finishing the picture to his taste. The information he carried would be sufficient introduction to any woman. He wondered if she would be at the funeral.

At times the captain joined him in the wireless room, and they sat and smoked in a darkness lighted only by the glare of the piano, while that extraordinary instrument filled the cabin with its martial uproar. When the smoke became too thick they opened the door, and the strains rushed out into the wind and darkness with curious effect. Sometimes they sat in blackness and exchanged boisterous stories, while the green parrot rustled in its cage in the corner.

When they were six nights out, and three bells had just gone in the darkness, the captain entered the wireless room in somewhat of a temper. His cigar was at a truculent angle.

"Damn those fellows forward!" he said vigorously. ''They've got at the rum, some of 'em, and they're drunk as fools. I've just been down in the hold, with the mate, trying to get a line on what they've been up to; but you might as well look for a particular stone on the shore as one barrel in a bunch like that. If you ever turn skipper, Mr. Hyatt, don't carry any more liquor than the law allows, so to speak. I don't touch it myself, and I try to get a crew that won't touch it — but you can imagine what luck I have in that direction!"

For a moment Hyatt's heart stood still. Then he laughed easily.

"Trying to put something over on you, are they?" he asked. "How long d'ye suppose they've been at it ?"

"God knows!" said the captain, with gloomy emphasis. ''Ever since we left port, maybe. I had a crew like that, once before. They began quiet and easy; just a little here and there, thinking it wouldn't be noticed. But by the time we were out a week, damned if they weren't bold as brass about it, and drunk nearly every night."

"What do you do about it?" asked the passenger, concealing his interest with a yawn.

"What can I do? I give 'em hell, of course! If they don't stop, I beat some of them up. And you can bet I drop them all at the end of the voyage. But what's accomplished if you only get another bunch just like them?"

"You might increase their allowance," suggested Hyatt, helpfully.

"Increase nothing!" asserted the captain, with picturesque additions. "Give 'em an extra inch, and they want an extra pint. The more you give 'em the more they want. I'll give 'em hell, that's what I'll give 'em! And the only effect it'll have," he added with a snort, "is that they'll be more careful next time not to get caught."

He crossed his legs philosophically, then uncrossed them to lean forward to the wall socket.

"Damn swine!" he observed, viciously shoving home the plug. With a crash of brass, his favorite masterpiece blared forth to soothe the mariner's nerves.

Throughout the concert that followed, Hyatt's mind was busy. If the rum stealers, by some fiendish chance, were to hit upon the particular hogshead that was his especial care, a disturbing situation might result. He thought it all over, carefully, and made up his mind.

"Look here. Captain," he said, as the skipper prepared to depart, "if you find any more of this drinking going on between meals, as it were, I wish you'd tip me off when you start to investigate. I've got a cask of my own down there, you know. I'd like to take a look at it."

It sounded a bit weak and childish, after he had said it. The burly captain paused in his retreat to grin back at his passenger.

"Don't you fret about that cask of yours, Mr. Hyatt," he chuckled. "It's safer than any of 'em. Those fellows ain't fools. They wouldn't tap a barrel that was all ticketed and addressed. Any time you want to go down and look at it, why help yourself; I'll send Peterson down with you; but it ain't necessary. It'd be a big job to find it, anyway."

He waved a cheerful hand and disappeared in the darkness. Hyatt followed slowly. He paused in the shelter of the doorway to light a cigar, then stepped out onto the upper deck. The night was as perfect as any he had ever known, but he gave it no attention.

For a long time he stood at the rail, thinking, and watched the dark water creaming at the ship's side. He was more than half tempted to take Rulofson into his confidence, to throw himself upon the discretion of that temperate mariner and have the infernal cask dropped quietly overboard. It was getting to be a nuisance and a care. Heaven knew what difficulties awaited him in the States.

He might even be arrested as Galloway's murderer, if the thing should be investigated. For that matter, Rulofson might leap to the same conclusion, if he were told, crazy as the idea would be. If he had murdered Galloway, the adventurer told himself, he would hardly be idiot enough to travel about the world with the body of his victim.

It occurred to him to wonder if Galloway's brother would thank him for the astonishing visitation. There were only the pleadings of the dying Galloway himself to justify the enterprise, and only Drews' fatly sentimental letter to prepare the way. He himself would be as well received if he brought neither the letter nor the cask. However, the letter would probably be useful. The trouble was that the letter told about the cask.

"Damn him!" said Hyatt, bitterly, repeating an earlier remark. "What did he want to die down there for?"

However, if Galloway had not died in San Angel, his friend Hyatt would not now be making his way northward to carry the welcome tidings to the lady of the portrait. The thing seemed to travel in a circle.

He had enough money now to buy some decent clothes in New Orleans, and that was a comfort. The money left by Galloway would hardly be enough to pay both their fares, in other circumstances, but as matters stood it was adequate for the absolute needs of the venture. Expressing a cask could be no great expense; and no doubt there was plenty more money in Oak Grove.

He returned to the dubious company of the parrot, and lay down upon his bunk, face upward in the darkness. His doubts slowly quieted. Again and again his imagination pictured the days that would follow his arrival, and at the height of his dreams he writhed in anthropoid ecstasy. Then he dozed gently, and in a little while the throb of the tramp's engines lulled him to sleep.

Back to Top

Chapter 3

A Shout From Below

A week later there was another scare. He sat alone in the darkened room that he called his cabin, as the minutes ticked on toward morning. It had been hours since he had seen the captain, and the time for a visit from Rulofson was long past. Before beginning to undress, he stepped out onto the deck, and at the same instant from somewhere below arose a confused murmur of voices, in the pauses of which he distinguished the heavier speech of the missing captain. He listened with keen attention. Something out of the usual had occurred.

For a time the babble seemed to increase in volume, and twice the captain's voice ascended to him as a roar. Then the confusion subsided, and shortly thereafter Rulofson appeared at the head of the ladder. His actual advent was preceded several seconds by his larklike whistle, which rose gaily out of the darkness below. Obviously, Rulofson was feeling happy about something.

"And that ends that," observed the captain, cheerily, as he noticed his passenger leaning against the rail.

"I thought I heard a shout below," explained Hyatt.

"So you did," agreed the captain, still cheerily, "several shouts, if you listened well. You'll be glad to know that your barrel's safe from now on. The crew have just taken the pledge."

"Good God!" said Hyatt, almost reverently. He was more alarmed than he dared to show. For a hideous moment there rose to his mind a picture of the guilty cask, isolated, stark, and damning, on the lower deck, its head knocked in, its …

He recovered himself quickly and contrived a smile. Rulofson was bending nearly double with suppressed laughter. He had exploded into mirth, silently and suddenly.

"Funniest thing I ever saw I" he gasped, after a moment, and Hyatt breathed at greater ease. If what Rulofson had seen was something funny, there was no cause for alarm.

"The whole crew's sworn off," continued the captain, mirthfully. "One of 'em was down in the hold again, stealing liquor for the rest of 'em. It seems they've been tapping just one cask; the same cask every time. I got the whole story out of them before I was through. It's a story for a temperance lecturer, Mr. Hyatt. As a teetotaler, I think I'll take the platform."

"It must have been good," admitted Hyatt, cautiously. He was again profoundly alarmed. "Do you mind telling me about it?"

"Well," said the captain, with a joyous giggle, "it seems that they've been at it all evening. They began early, and two of 'em took turns going down after more. Then they began to get cheerful, so that they didn't give a damn; and finally they began to show it. Peterson sniffed it on them and came and told me what was going on. Well, we found one of them dead drunk in his bunk, and one man missing. The missing man was in the hold getting more liquor; and just as we started after him, up he came. He came up all by himself. And did he come up fast! His eyes were sticking out of his head, and he was so scared he couldn't scream. You'd think he'd seen a ghost! All he could say was, 'In the barrel! There's a man in the barrel!' And some of the crew laughed, and some of them nearly died — from fright!"

The captain laughed heartily.

"I never saw a man so scared, and some of the others were almost as bad. Those that were drunk, you know. Well, I asked this fellow, of course, what he was talking about. 'How do you know there's a man in the barrel?' I asked him. And he said, 'Before God, Captain, I heard him! The barrel was nearly empty, and I tilted it, just a little; and he thumped inside! Thumped around like he was in there, drowned!' Did you ever heap such damned nonsense in your life?" asked Rulofson with a final chuckle.

Hyatt, breathing deeply, asserted that he never had.

"It's a perfect madness," he declared. "Isn't it?"

He listened for the captain's reply.

"Of course it is," said Rulofson triumphantly. "It's D. T's., that's what it is; and serves him right, too. But to quiet the rest of the crew, I sent Peterson down into the hold, with another man to show him the cask. The first fellow wouldn't go down again. And, of course, everything was all right, just as it always is. But it's solved one problem for me. There'll be no more rum stealing on this ship. I'll be lucky if the men'll get out the casks for me when we make port."

He treated himself to another chuckle, and departed, whistling. A grand teetotaler was Captain Andrew Rulofson.

Hyatt staggered to his bunk and fell across its length. After a period of frantic thought, he drew a long breath of relief, and immediately went back to his thinking. It occurred to him that he badly needed a drink. Then he thought with particularity of the drinking done by the crew, and rose quickly and went out into the night.

As he leaned weakly across the rail, another figure appeared at the top of the ladder, and the mate, Peterson, came noiselessly to his side.

"Ain't turned in yet, eh, Mr. Hyatt?" smirked the mate, with solicitude. "I don't blame yuh. Yuh look sick enough for two men. That's a pretty nasty business down there in the hold. Gave me quite a turn for a minute."

"What are you talking about?" snapped Hyatt, with sudden savagery. He felt his strength return with a rush, and his vehemence carried him forward a step toward the newcomer.

But the mate only laughed and moved backward a pace.

"Forget it!" he chided, with perfect good humor. "I'm not talking about it to anybody but you. But it ought to be worth a little something to a poor man, if I help you get it ashore."

For an instant Hyatt's brain was a murderous whirl of red; then it cleared, and he indicated the open door of his cabin.

"Inside," he ordered in a hoarse whisper. "Come inside, you damned fool!"

The door closed after them. In his private corner of the darkness, the green parrot listened with cocked head to the low murmur of their voices. No word was said that sounded familiar.

Back to Top

Chapter 4

Blackmail and Murder

On the dock, separated from its fellows, the cask appeared peculiarly sinister and alarming. To Hyatt, standing nervously by, it seemed that all who passed must surely read its hideous secret. The less imaginative Peterson went calmly about his duties, with untroubled conscience. He had personally removed the cask to a quiet spot out of the immediate rush, and he paused in intervals of activity to wink reassuringly at his accomplice.

It had been the notable genius of Peterson that had suggested an additional precaution. He had pointed out that, since a beginning had been made, it might be as well to drain the cask dry, thus diminishing the danger of a revelation similar to that which had shocked the sailors. A long train journey still lay ahead of the itinerant Galloway, he had explained, and the temptations of men are of a kind in all nations.

"Now," he added, when the furtive business had been accomplished, "he might be anything, for all anybody knows — potatoes, or hardware, or a roll of linoleum. S'long as they ain't any liquor washing around, nobody 'll bother to look."

Hyatt sighed with relief when at last the thing had been deposited with the proper agent. In the sweet release of the moments that followed, he realized how heavily the cask had weighed upon his nerves. He was almost grateful to the mate for his assistance, and the two separated at the dock with every assurance of mutual esteem.

"'Bout eight o'clock," said Peterson. "Don't forget! And don't come too early, or the skipper'll be around, and he might get curious."

"Eight o'clock," echoed Hyatt. "I'll be there."

He would be, too. He knew very well that he would not dare to fail. How much of the story Peterson believed, only Peterson knew. He had appeared to believe it all. Yet one word of doubt dropped in the wrong quarter, and there would be some difficult questions to answer.

Peterson's blackmailing greed would leave barely enough for transportation and the barest necessities. The handsome arrival suit would have to go the way of dreams, thought Hyatt bitterly. The hat he wore would have to answer. He compromised, at length, on a second-hand serge and a cravat of livid purple. These, with his battered felt and the bronzed face beneath it, gave him somewhat the appearance of a reservation Indian to whom the Great White Father had just issued a new outfit. He dined meagerly at a glittering Greek cafe, and afterward cautiously counted his money — Galloway's money. There was very little left.

Fortunately, he had not promised the mate any specific sum; he had spoken vaguely of "money." Shortly before the hour appointed for the meeting he strolled back to the docks, and on the stroke of the hour boarded the ship. Peterson was already awaiting him in the wireless room. A pint flask of whisky stood on the piano, against the music rack, and the room was filled with the reek of bad liquor.

Hyatt came to the point immediately.

"You see how it is," he concluded. "The real money is at the other end of the trip. What I've got left will just about get me there, and feed me on the way. You get fifty now — all I can spare — and a couple of hundred later."

The mate was surprisingly amiable.

"'S'all right, ol' man," he said affectionately. "Don't worry 'bout the monish. Know jus' how 'tis! Tired o' this damn' ship, anyway. I'll go 'long with you — help get the monish." "You will like blazes!" retorted Hyatt, with swift suspicion. "I can take care of that, myself, Peterson. You'll get your money, don't worry about that."

"Not worrying, ol' man," said the mate. "Wanna go 'long, anyway. Tired o' this damn' ship … . Get monish, plenty monish, eh? Open cigar store, eh? Get married, eh? Tired o' this damn' ship. 'S all right, ol' man. Not worrying."

It was plain that Peterson had reached certain definite conclusions, and at least one decision. Also, that within the hour he had been doing some important drinking. It was possible that the one was the result of the other.

At any rate, thought Hyatt, the man was more nearly at his mercy than at any time before. He took the bull by the horns. Grasping the mate by the shoulders he shook him vigorously.

"Come out of it, you damned fool!" said Hyatt. "Listen to me. You're not going with me. Do you understand? This is my party, and you're not invited. Have you got that straight? I've got trouble enough without having to look after a drunken Swede. You'll get your money as soon as I get it. This ship sails again in ten days, and you sail with her. You'll have your money in plenty of time. I'm not trying to gyp you."

In his growing anger, he shook the mate more violently than he had intended. Peterson, at first helpless in the sudden grip, sobered under the treatment. His hands flew up to break the other's grasp, and failing, closed viciously about Hyatt's throat. Then each, surprised by the swiftness with which affairs had turned, relaxed his hold. The men stood eye to eye in the darkness, breathing heavily. In its cage in the corner the green parrot squawked and fluttered its clipped wings.

Something told Hyatt that this was an end of diplomacy. No amount of money now would serve to close the mate's mouth. Whatever Peterson might promise, under stress or otherwise, he was not to be trusted. The best that could be expected was an extended campaign of blackmail. The adventurer's brain functioned slowly, but with increasing clarity as the seconds passed. His arms dropped to his sides, his hands became iron knots. Then the right fist lashed perpendicularly upward on a line with Peterson's jaw.

It was a blow that should have broken the mate's neck; but Peterson had sensed its coming and had ducked. Its violence spun its author about so that he fell sidewise against his adversary. They grappled, and for a moment the black room seemed to whirl as each fought for an advantage. The flask of whisky toppled and went down with a liquid crash. The combatants slipped and skidded in the spilled liquor. The parrot, forgetting its vocabulary, screamed shrilly and constantly in its own tongue.

As suddenly as it had begun, the fight ended. Hyatt, gaining a momentary hold, crushed the mate's body against his own, then flung it from him into a corner of the darkness. With clenched fists he sprang forward to follow up his advantage, and at the same instant Peterson freed his knife from its sheath and lunged upward. For a split second the adventurer from San Angel seemed to rise upon his toes and teeter there; in the next instant he pitched forward against the wall, then slid quietly to the floor.

Peterson staggered to his feet and stood rocking. After a moment he stooped and felt cautiously for his knife, which the falling body had torn from his grasp. There was no sound from the vague heap in the corner, no movement. With ears alertly cocked, the mate listened for noises from without; there was only the slap of water against the ship, a familiar and reassuring sound. Even the parrot had subsided.

Groping in darkness, the mate's hand encountered a swinging electric cord. It might be that of the lamp, and it might be the piano cord. He shrugged. What difference? With his other hand he traced the socket in the wall, and thrust home the plug. The mechanism o f the piano clicked loudly and a blaze of colored light sprang out of the panels. Clouds and turrets glowed in the darkness as if by magic, and the inspiring strains of Blaze Away crashed in the narrow room.

Peterson's nerves jumped acutely, and he stepped quickly to the door. His eyes, from that distance, sought out the face of the man who lay upon the floor; but the face was turned away. It seemed to be buried in the boards. Then the glint of his knife blade caught the mate's eye. With a little frightened rush he recovered the weapon, and instantly snatched at the electric cord. Cloud and turret faded out as if they had never been, and the music lapsed with a suddenness that left the silence painful.

Outside, with the door closed behind him, Peterson looked for a moment at the water and the vessel that he was leaving. By morning the hue and cry would be up and abroad, and he must be well upon his way. It did not matter now which way, as long as it was not toward the Illinois township. That way would lie difficulty and perhaps dangerous explanations. That way lay the objective of the infernal cask, the never-sufficiently-to-be-execrated cask, now peacefully jogging northward toward revelation. If it should happen to prove an object of interest upon the journey, the resulting situation might jump with exciting possibilities. It would be roughly handled by strangers, many times, and strangers again possibly would hear the eerie thump of Henry Galloway.

On the records of the express company appeared the name of Robert Hyatt, shipper, and in the wireless room of the Stockholm lay the body of Robert Hyatt. He had been fairly slain in a fight that he had himself begun; but only a green parrot had been witness to the provocation and the assault.

Some such thoughts, less coherently organized, ran in the mate's mind. Hyatt's burden now had become his own, and who would believe the story he would have to tell? He only half believed it himself. Damn Hyatt! Damn him for a damned fool! Damn Rulofson and his rum and his churchy principles! Damn Galloway, and his damned brother, and his damned widow!

A stirring of limbs, somewhere below, called the blasphemer back to the immediate present. He ran quickly down the ladder and crossed the lower deck with swift strides. Disdaining the three feet of water that lay between the moored vessel and the dock, he leaped lightly ashore and in a moment had disappeared in the shadows of the warehouses.

Back to Top

Chapter 5

For Mrs. Henry Galloway

The following morning, in Oak Grove, Illinois, a letter, addressed to Mr. Horace Galloway, was duly received at the post office and duly readdressed and forwarded to that gentleman at Granite Basin, Oregon, whither he had removed some months before.

The cask reached Chicago on the succeeding Saturday, and departed for Oak Grove on an afternoon truck piloted by a husky chauffeur with two formidable assistants. An earnest attempt was made to deliver it at the erstwhile home of Horace Galloway, and a vast amount of language was wasted between the truck men and the current inmates of the dwelling.

"What'm I going to do with it?" demanded the foremost spokesman, truculently. "Take it home for the kids to play with? My orders was to leave it here."

"I keep telling you," said the woman who thwarted him, "the post office has Mr. Galloway's new address. It's somewhere in Oregon."

"OregonI What d'ye think this is, a box of candy?" continued the truck driver, with ironic emphasis. "Think it's a parcel post package? Take a look at it!"

"I don't want to look at it, and I don't tare what you do with it," snapped the harassed woman, at last. "You can take it to Mrs. Henry Galloway, if you like. I don't care."

This was an idea that found favor with the truck men.

"Where's she live?" asked the spokesman, briskly. "Who is she? His mother?"

"She's his sister-in-law," said the woman in the doorway, "and she lives up there across the tracks. The big house on the hill."

She added further minute details, and the mollified truck men departed. Their suspicions of the cask were profound and jovial, although just why a cask that reeked of rum should not also sound like rum was a problem that puzzled them. The truck rattled through the streets and the cask jolted merrily against the tailboard.

"Seems to be some sort of a party goin' on," commented the driver, as they came m sight of the house. "Maybe we'll get a handout. Say, d'ye suppose this damn' thing is liquor? It sure smells like it."

He turned his chariot into the long drive. The truck climbed slowly upward toward the festive scene, the gravel crunching at every revolution of the wheels.

A party of men and women at ease upon the upper lawn turned at the sound of the wheels. A slender woman in the group pointed suddenly and detached herself from the party. A tall man came quickly to her side, and together they watched the approach of the truck. After a moment they walked forward to meet it. The driver spoke quickly over his shoulder, and one of his huskies ripped away the addressed card that had been tacked to the cask.

"Mrs. Henry Galloway?" asked the spokesman, in a loud voice, and added immediately: "Big barrel from New Orleans."

The rest of the party was advancing across the descending lawn. It arrived in time to hear the protests of the hostess.

"It must be a mistake," she was saying. "I don't understand it at all. Who would be sending me a barrel from New Orleans ?"

"Don't know, lady," answered the driver. "It had your name on it, that's all we know. The card got torn off while we was handling it."

He glanced apprehensively behind him at the floor of the truck. The card was not in evidence.

"Are there any charges, driver?" asked the tall man, who stood at the woman's side.

"Well, we'd better have it off the truck. We can see what it contains afterward."

"We'll see what it contains now," said the slender woman, sharply. "I don't like mysteries. I hope this isn't one of your jokes, Howard. I shan't forgive you, if it is, for interrupting the party."

"Don't be silly, Alice," he replied. "I know nothing about it. It smells like very bad liquor, to me."

He bent toward her, and asked in a low voice: "It couldn't be anything that Henry has sent, I suppose? You haven't heard from him ?"

He turned to the driver.

"All right! Roll it over here onto the lawn. Mrs. Galloway wants it opened. She thinks there may have been a mistake."

The three truck men descended and let down the tailboard. They lowered the huge cask to the roadway, laid it upon its side, and rolled it toward the lawn. It rolled without effort, and at every turn Henry Galloway thumped drearily within. On the sloping lawn the cask was set upright, and braced at its farther side with a stone, to keep it level. One of the truck men produced a hammer and a chisel. He inserted the latter at an advantageous point between the edge of the cask and the upper metal rim, and struck it a few sharp blows with the hammer. In a moment the hoop broke and was wrenched aside, releasing the boards across the top.

The workman stepped back, and at the same instant the curious group pushed forward with craning necks. The tall man inserted a hand at the edge and tugged at the boards. With a protesting creak, the circular top came away from its groove at all sides, and Mrs. Henry Galloway leaned quickly toward the opening.

"It's not liquor," said the tall man. "It's …"

"Henry!" screamed Mrs. Henry Galloway.

Reeling with nausea, the man made no effort to catch her as she fell. After a moment, "God!" he said softly.

A passing autoist brought his car to a sudden stop and stared wildly up the hill for an explanation to the shrieks that seemed to have burst at once from a dozen human throats. He determined to say something about it to the next policeman he met.

~ The End ~