Chapter 15: The Rescue
Copyright© 2015 by Edgar Rice Burroughs
AFTER Byrne had dropped the lifeless form of his enemy to the ground he turned and retraced his steps toward the island, a broad grin upon his face as he climbed to the girl's side.
"I guess I'd better overhaul this gat," he said, "and stick around home. It isn't safe to leave you alone here--I can see that pretty plainly. Gee, supposin' I'd got out of sight before he showed himself!" And the man shuddered visibly at the thought.
The girl had not spoken and the man looked up suddenly, attracted by her silence. He saw a look of horror in her eyes, such as he had seen there once before when he had kicked the unconscious Theriere that time upon the Halfmoon.
"What's the matter?" he asked, alarmed. "What have I done now? I had to croak the stiff--he'd have got me sure if I hadn't, and then he'd have got you, too. I had to do it for your sake--I'm sorry you saw it."
"It isn't that," she said slowly. "That was very brave, and very wonderful. It's Mr. Mallory I'm thinking of. O Billy! How could you do it?"
The man hung his head.
"Please don't," he begged. "I'd give my life to bring him back again, for your sake. I know now that you loved him, and I've tried to do all I could to atone for what I did to him; just as I tried to play white with Theriere when I found that he loved you, and intended to be on the square with you. He was your kind, and I hoped that by helping him to win you fairly it might help to wipe out what I had done to Mallory. I see that nothing ever can wipe that out. I've got to go through life regretting it because you have taught me what a brutal, cowardly thing I did. If it hadn't been for you I'd always have been proud of it--but you and Theriere taught me to look at things in a different way than I ever had learned to before. I'm not sorry for that--I'm glad, for if remorse is a part of my punishment I'll take it gladly and welcome the chance to get a little of what's coming to me. Only please don't look at me that way any more--it's more than I can stand, from you."
It was the first time that the man ever had opened his heart in any such whole-souled way to her, and it touched the girl more than she would have cared to admit.
"It would be silly to tell you that I ever can forget that terrible affair," she said; "but somehow I feel that the man who did that was an entirely different man from the man who has been so brave and chivalrous in his treatment of me during the past few weeks."
"It was me that did it, though," he said; "you can't get away from that. It'll always stick in your memory, so that you can never think of Mr. Mallory without thinking of the damned beast that murdered him--God! and I thought it smart!
"But you have no idea how I was raised, Miss Harding," he went on. "Not that that's any excuse for the thing I did; but it does make it seem a wonder that I ever could have made a start even at being decent. I never was well acquainted with any human being that wasn't a thief, or a pickpocket, or a murderer--and they were all beasts, each in his own particular way, only they weren't as decent as dumb beasts.
"I wasn't as crafty as most of them, so I had to hold my own by brute force, and I did it; but, gad, how I accomplished it. The idea of fighting fair," he laughed at the thought, "was utterly unknown to me. If I'd ever have tried it I'd have seen my finish in a hurry. No one fought fair in my gang, or in any other gang that I ever ran up against. It was an honor to kill a man, and if you accomplished it by kicking him to death when he was unconscious it detracted nothing from the glory of your exploit--it was WHAT you did, not HOW you did it, that counted.
"I could have been decent, though, if I'd wanted to. Other fellows who were born and raised near me were decent enough. They got good jobs and stuck to them, and lived straight; but they made me sick--I looked down on them, and spent my time hanging around saloon corners rushing the can and insulting women--I didn't want to be decent--not until I met you, and learned to--to," he hesitated, stammering, and the red blood crept up his neck and across his face, "and learned to want your respect."
It wasn't what he had intended saying and the girl knew it. There sprang into her mind a sudden wish to hear Billy Byrne say the words that he had dared not say; but she promptly checked the desire, and a moment later a qualm of self-disgust came over her because of the weakness that had prompted her to entertain such a wish in connection with a person of this man's station in life.
Days ran into weeks, and still the two remained upon their little island refuge. Byrne found first one excuse and then another to delay the march to the sea. He knew that it must be made sooner or later, and he knew, too, that its commencement would mark the beginning of the end of his association with Miss Harding, and that after that was ended life would be a dreary waste.
Either they would be picked up by a passing vessel or murdered by the natives, but in the latter event his separation from the woman he loved would be no more certain or absolute than in her return to her own people, for Billy Byrne knew that he "didn't belong" in any society that knew Miss Barbara Harding, and he feared that once they had regained civilization there would be a return on the girl's part to the old haughty aloofness, and that again he would be to her only a creature of a lower order, such as she and her kind addressed with a patronizing air as, "my man."
He intended, of course, to make every possible attempt to restore her to her home; but, he argued, was it wrong to snatch a few golden hours of happiness in return for his service, and as partial recompense for the lifetime of lonely misery that must be his when the woman he loved had passed out of his life forever? Billy thought not, and so he tarried on upon "Manhattan Island," as Barbara had christened it, and he lived in the second finest residence in town upon the opposite side of "Riverside Drive" from the palatial home of Miss Harding.
Nearly two months had passed before Billy's stock of excuses and delay ran out, and a definite date was set for the commencement of the journey.
"I believe," Miss Harding had said, "that you do not wish to be rescued at all. Most of your reasons for postponing the trip have been trivial and ridiculous--possibly you are afraid of the dangers that may lie before us," she added, banteringly.
"I'm afraid you've hit it off about right," he replied with a grin. "I don't want to be rescued, and I am very much afraid of what lies before--me."
"I'm going to lose you, any way you look at it, and--and--oh, can't you see that I love you?" he blurted out, despite all his good intentions.
Barbara Harding looked at him for a moment, and then she did the one thing that could have hurt him most--she laughed.
The color mounted to Billy Byrne's face, and then he went very white.
The girl started to say something, and at the same instant there came faintly to them from the mainland the sound of hoarse shouting, and of shots.
Byrne turned and started on a run in the direction of the firing, the girl following closely behind. At the island's edge he motioned her to stop.
"Wait here, it will be safer," he said. "There may be white men there--those shots sound like it, but again there may not. I want to find out before they see you, whoever they are."
The sound of firing had ceased now, but loud yelling was distinctly audible from down the river. Byrne took a step down the bank toward the water.
"Wait!" whispered the girl. "Here they come now, we can see them from here in a moment," and she dragged the mucker down behind a bush.
In silence the two watched the approaching party.
"They're the Chinks," announced Byrne, who insisted on using this word to describe the proud and haughty samurai.
"Yes, and there are two white men with them," whispered Barbara Harding, a note of suppressed excitement in her voice.
"Prisoners," said Byrne. "Some of the precious bunch from the Halfmoon doubtless."
The samurai were moving straight up the edge of the river. In a few minutes they would pass within a hundred feet of the island. Billy and the girl crouched low behind their shelter.
"I don't recognize them," said the man.
"Why--why--O Mr. Byrne, it can't be possible!" cried the girl with suppressed excitement. "Those two men are Captain Norris and Mr. Foster, mate of the Lotus!"
Byrne half rose to his feet. The party was opposite their hiding place now.
"Sit tight," he whispered. "I'm goin' to get 'em," and then, fiercely "for your sake, because I love you--now laugh," and he was gone.
He ran lightly down the river bank unnoticed by the samurai who had already passed the island. In one hand he bore the long war spear of the head-hunter he had slain. At his belt hung the long sword of Oda Yorimoto, and in its holster reposed the revolver of the Count de Cadenet.
Barbara Harding watched him as be forded the river, and clambered up the opposite bank. She saw him spring rapidly after the samurai and their prisoners. She saw his spear hand go up, and then from the deep lungs of the man rose a savage yell that would have done credit to a whole tribe of Apaches.
The warriors turned in time to see the heavy spear flying toward them and then, as he dashed into their midst, Billy Byrne drew his revolver and fired to right and left. The two prisoners took advantage of the consternation of their guards to grapple with them and possess themselves of weapons.
There had been but six samurai in the party, two had fallen before Byrne's initial onslaught, but the other four, recovered from their first surprise, turned now to battle with all the terrific ferocity of their kind.
Again, at a crucial moment, had Theriere's revolver missed fire, and in disgust Byrne discarded it, falling back upon the long sword with which he was no match for the samurai. Norris snatched Byrne's spear from the ground, and ran it through the body of one of the Japs who was pressing Byrne too closely. Odds were even now--they fought three against three.
Norris still clung to the spear--it was by far the most effective weapon against the long swords of the samurai. With it he killed his antagonist and then rushed to the assistance of Foster.