The Murder On The Beach by Stewart Edward White

Story type: Literature

The cook stuck his head in at the open door.

“Say, you fellows,” he complained, “I got to be up at three o’clock. Ain’t you never going to turn in?”

“Shut up, Doctor!” “Somebody kill him!” “Here, sit down and listen to this yarn!” yelled a savage chorus.

There ensued a slight scuffle, a few objections. Then silence, and the stranger took up his story.

I had a chum named Billy Simpson, and I rung him in for friendship. Then there was a solemn, tall Texas young fellow, strong as a bull, straight and tough, brought up fighting Injins. He never said much, but I knew he’d be right there when the gong struck. For fourth man I picked out a German named Schwartz. He and Simpson had just come back from the mines together. I took him because he was a friend of Billy’s, and besides was young and strong, and was the only man in town excepting the sailor, Anderson, who knew anything about running a boat. I forgot to say that the Texas fellow was named Denton.

Handy Solomon had his boat all picked out. It belonged to some Basques who had sailed her around from California. I must say when I saw her I felt inclined to renig, for she wasn’t more’n about twenty-five feet long, was open except for a little sort of cubbyhole up in the front of her, had one mast, and was pointed at both ends. However, Schwartz said she was all right. He claimed he knew the kind; that she was the sort used by French fishermen, and could stand all sorts of trouble. She didn’t look it.

We worked her up to Yuma, partly with oars and partly by sails. Then we loaded her with grub for a month. Each of us had his own weapons, of course. In addition we put in picks and shovels, and a small cask of water. Handy Solomon said that would be enough, as there was water marked down on his chart. We told the gang that we were going trading.

At the end of the week we started, and were out four days. There wasn’t much room, what with the supplies and the baggage, for the five of us. We had to curl up ‘most anywheres to sleep. And it certainly seemed to me that we were in lots of danger. The waves were much bigger than she was, and splashed on us considerable, but Schwartz and Anderson didn’t seem to mind. They laughed at us. Anderson sang that song of his, and Schwartz told us of the placers he had worked. He and Simpson had made a pretty good clean-up, just enough to make them want to get rich. The first day out Simpson showed us a belt with about an hundred ounces of dust. This he got tired of wearing, so he kept it in a compass-box, which was empty.

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At the end of the four days we turned in at a deep bay and came to anchor. The country was the usual proposition–very light-brown, brittle-looking mountains, about two thousand feet high; lots of sage and cactus, a pebbly beach, and not a sign of anything fresh and green.

But Denton and I were mighty glad to see any sort of land. Besides, our keg of water was pretty low, and it was getting about time to discover the spring the chart spoke of. So we piled our camp stuff in the small boat and rowed ashore.

Anderson led the way confidently enough up a dry arroyo, whose sides were clay and conglomerate. But, though we followed it to the end, we could find no indications that it was anything more than a wash for rain floods.

“That’s main queer,” muttered Anderson, and returned to the beach.

There he spread out the chart–the first look at it we’d had–and set to studying it.

It was a careful piece of work done in India ink, pretty old, to judge by the look of it, and with all sorts of pictures of mountains and dolphins and ships and anchors around the edge. There was our bay, all right. Two crosses were marked on the land part–one labelled “oro” and the other “agua.”

“Now there’s the high cliff,” says Anderson, following it out, “and there’s the round hill with the boulder–and if them bearings don’t point due for that ravine, the devil’s a preacher.”

We tried it again, with the same result. A second inspection of the map brought us no light on the question. We talked it over, and looked at it from all points, but we couldn’t dodge the truth: the chart was wrong.

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Then we explored several of the nearest gullies, but without finding anything but loose stones baked hot in the sun.

By now it was getting towards sundown, so we built us a fire of mesquite on the beach, made us supper, and boiled a pot of beans.

We talked it over. The water was about gone.

“That’s what we’ve got to find first,” said Simpson, “no question of it. It’s God knows how far to the next water, and we don’t know how long it will take us to get there in that little boat. If we run our water entirely out before we start, we’re going to be in trouble. We’ll have a good look to-morrow, and if we don’t find her, we’ll run down to Mollyhay[1] and get a few extra casks.”

Footnote: [1] Mulege–I retain the Old Timer’s pronunciation.

“Perhaps that map is wrong about the treasure, too,” suggested Denton.

“I thought of that,” said Handy Solomon, “but then, thinks I to myself, this old rip probably don’t make no long stay here–just dodges in and out like, between tides, to bury his loot. He would need no water at the time; but he might when he came back, so he marked the water on his map. But he wasn’t noways particular AND exact, being in a hurry. But you can kiss the Book to it that he didn’t make no such mistakes about the swag.”

“I believe you’re right,” said I.

When we came to turn in, Anderson suggested that he should sleep aboard the boat. But Billy Simpson, in mind perhaps of the hundred ounces in the compass-box, insisted that he’d just as soon as not. After a little objection Handy Solomon gave in, but I thought he seemed sour about it. We built a good fire, and in about ten seconds were asleep.

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Now, usually I sleep like a log, and did this time until about midnight. Then all at once I came broad awake and sitting up in my blankets. Nothing had happened–I wasn’t even dreaming–but there I was as alert and clear as though it were broad noon.

By the light of the fire I saw Handy Solomon sitting, and at his side our five rifles gathered.

I must have made some noise, for he turned quietly toward me, saw I was awake, and nodded. The moonlight was sparkling on the hard stony landscape, and a thin dampness came out from the sea.

After a minute Anderson threw on another stick of wood, yawned, and stood up.

“It’s wet,” said he; “I’ve been fixing the guns.”

He showed me how he was inserting a little patch of felt between the hammer and the nipple, a scheme of his own for keeping damp from the powder. Then he rolled up in his blanket. At the time it all seemed quite natural–I suppose my mind wasn’t fully awake, for all my head felt so clear. Afterwards I realised what a ridiculous bluff he was making: for of course the cap already on the nipple was plenty to keep out the damp. I fully believe he intended to kill us as we lay. Only my sudden awakening spoiled his plan.

I had absolutely no idea of this at the time, however. Not the slightest suspicion entered my head. In view of that fact, I have since believed in guardian angels. For my next move, which at the time seemed to me absolutely aimless, was to change my blankets from one side of the fire to the other. And that brought me alongside the five rifles.

Owing to this fact, I am now convinced, we awoke safe at daylight, cooked breakfast, and laid the plan for the day. Anderson directed us. I was to climb over the ridge before us and search in the ravine on the other side. Schwartz was to explore up the beach to the left, and Denton to the right. Anderson said he would wait for Billy Simpson, who had overslept in the darkness of the cubbyhole, and who was now paddling ashore. The two of them would push inland to the west until a high hill would give them a chance to look around for greenery.

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We started at once, before the sun would be hot. The hill I had to climb was steep and covered with chollas, so I didn’t get along very fast. When I was about half way to the top I heard a shot from the beach. I looked back. Anderson was in the small boat, rowing rapidly out to the vessel. Denton was running up the beach from one direction and Schwartz from the other. I slid and slipped down the bluff, getting pretty well stuck up with the cholla spines.

At the beach we found Billy Simpson lying on his ace, shot through the back. We turned him over, but he was apparently dead. Anderson had hoisted the sail, had cut loose from the anchor, and was sailing away.

Denton stood up straight and tall, looking. Then he pulled his belt in a hole, grabbed my arm, and started to run up the long curve of the beach. Behind us came Schwartz. We ran near a mile, and then fell among some tules in an inlet at the farther point.

“What is it?” I gasped.

“Our only chance–to get him–” said Denton. “He’s got to go around this point–big wind–perhaps his mast will bust–then he’ll come ashore–” He opened and shut his big brown hands.

So there we two fools lay, like panthers in the tules, taking our only one-in-a-million chance to lay hands on Anderson. Any sailor could have told us that the mast wouldn’t break, but we had winded Schwartz a quarter of a mile back. And so we waited, our eyes fixed on the boat’s sail, grudging her every inch, just burning to fix things to suit us a little better. And naturally she made the point in what I now know was only a fresh breeze, squared away, and dropped down before the wind toward Guaymas.

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We walked back slowly to our camp, swallowing the copper taste of too hard a run. Schwartz we picked up from a boulder, just recovering. We were all of us crazy mad. Schwartz half wept, and blamed and cussed. Denton glowered away in silence. I ground my feet into the sand in a help less sort of anger, not only at the man himself, but also at the whole way things had turned out. I don’t believe the least notion of our predicament had come to any of us. All we knew yet was that we had been done up, and we were hostile about it.

But at camp we found something to occupy us for the moment. Poor Billy was not dead, as we had supposed, but very weak and sick, and a hole square through him. When we returned he was conscious, but that was about all. His eyes were shut, and he was moaning. I tore open his shirt to stanch the blood. He felt my hand and opened his eyes. They were glazed, and I don’t think he saw me.

“Water, water!” he cried.

At that we others saw all at once where we stood. I remember I rose to my feet and found myself staring straight into Tom Denton’s eyes. We looked at each other that way for I guess it was a full minute. Then Tom shook his head.

“Water, water!” begged poor Billy.

Tom leaned over him.

“My God, Billy, there ain’t any water!” said he.

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