A Question of Brains

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A Question of Brains  (1919) 
by H. Bedford-Jones
Extracted from People's magazine, February 1919, pp. 65-73. Title illustration omitted.

A grim and fascinating short story by our master novelist. Singapore Strait, Carnahan, with his obscene laugh. The yellow proa!

A Question of Brains


H. Bedford-Jones

YOU can get away with anything,” said Carnahan, laughing his obscene laugh, “if you have brains enough.”

The boat sidled in under the huge mangrove roots with a lunging thrust of the sluggish current. Carnahan was in the bow; now he leaned outward over the gunwale and took up a little slack in the bowline which was made fast to the roots there.

The movement brought him under a shaft of the radiant sunlight which pierced down only at rare intervals through the tangled jungle foliage above. The man squirmed beneath the touch. It burned him as a concentration of light burns beneath a sunglass. It made his profile stand out sharply against the shadowed gloom—a white cameo of bronzed skin, tangled black hair, unshaven jowl, hard and reckless linings.

“You’re right,” purred the silky tones of Winters from the stern. “You and I have the brains, old boy; no doubt of that! The slickest thing ever pulled off south of Singapore, yes, sir! And now it’s all done. Nothing left but drift down to the sea and let the wind take us across the strait, and pick up the schooner under the Peak of Lingga to-morrow, or whenever we get there. Pretty smooth, Carnahan! We have the brains.”

“Take up that slack aft,” rejoined the other man. “Must ha’ worked loose while we were sleeping.”

Winters bestirred himself from his somnolent posture and uprose. A vagrant shaft of sunlight struck upon him, too; one could almost imagine a thin volute of steam spiraling up from where the white-hot ray touched his skin. The man cursed purringly, and Carnahan echoed the curse from forward, with his obscene laugh.

“Tasting hell already, Winters? Bit o’ blood on your cheek, lad; but leave it be. Don’t wash it off. Must have come from the girl and she’s in the river. Wash it in the boat if you want, but not in the river.”

Winters lifted a hand to his sleep-pink features. Yes, there was blood there, as though a jet of the crimson fluid had spurted across his cheek. Not his own blood.

“What do you mean about not washing it?” he demanded silkily.

Winters was of a finer stripe than his companion; a nervous, lithe, terrible man, very intelligent, and much less coarse than Carnahan, so that the latter assumed a paternal air. Carnahan was intelligent, also, of course, but lacked the fine piercing quality of Winters.

“Any fool knows that it’s bad business to send blood back to blood, in a river like this,” said Carnahan easily. “That’s what the Dyaks say, and those beggars know!”

“You’re a fool yourself,” and Winters laughed. He leaned over the side and caught up a flirt of water in his fist.

Carnahan cursed and attempted to interfere, then fell back with a gloomy scowl.

“All right, my bucko!” he glowered. “Now you’ve done it, you have!”

Winters wiped his cheek on his sleeve and flung a sneer at Carnahan; if the laugh of Carnahan was obscene, the sneer of Winters was a terrific thing deadly and venomous. It changed swiftly to a laugh, however. Leaning forward, Winters took the tarpaulin that covered the great heap amidships of the boat, and stripped away the cover.

Fascinated, the two man stared at the mass of treasure thus revealed. One of the intermittent sunbeams broke down through the leafy shroud overhead and struck athwart the pile. It was a heap that bespoke mad confusion. Ruddy gold, yellow brass, black-struck gilt lacquer on wood, all intermingled; a radiance of confused plunder.

Carnahan had forgotten his scowling thought and now laughed sheepishly.

“Lord!” he said abruptly. “We must ha’ been stark mad last night, Winters. Look at the rotten stuff we mixed in!”

“Let’s eat,” suggested Winters. “Then we can jettison the junk and be on our way. Ought to get down to the river’s mouth during the hot hours; no Dutchmen on the river then.”

Carnahan growled in his throat. “Damn the sleepy Dutchmen! We’ve got brains. You can get away with anything, if you have the brains!”

“Right,” and Winters laughed happily. From the edge of the pile he took a basket and placed it atop of the massed treasure. He produced rice and curry and fish, bread and cakes. Carnahan opened a locker up forward and got out a bottle of native wine.

The two men fell to their meal.

A few feet from them, the wide Indragiri sluggishly swung through the lowlands toward the Berhala Straits—a wide, lazy, muddy river, overhung with Sumatran fevers and touching the nostrils with vague jungle evils.

“Don’t you worry,” observed Winters between bites, “no Dutch on the river now. They won’t look for us to be on the river, either."

Carnahan grunted. “One hell of a trip for us without an awning over this cursed craft! But we got to reach the mouth before afternoon, or the Dutch will set all the Malay villages out to catch us. Watch out for those Malays down at the mouth!”

The two fell to their replenishment again hungrily.

Outside, the river swirled past, steamy hot beneath the pouring sun of noon. An occasional mugger appeared sluggishly and retired in haste to the cooler depths. The hordes of parrots had ceased to flit like jewels through the treetops. The screeching monkeys had disappeared. The sun streamed down in an absolute dead heat—a heat that was like a scorching, searing fog of blinding whiteness.

When the basket of food was finished, Carnahan did not drop the débris overside; Carnahan was no such fool as to send word down-river in that fashion. He rose, instead, and carefully tossed basket, and all up among the tangle of mangrove roots. Then he sat down and pulled out his pipe. Winters was rolling a cigarette. Winters touched a match to the ironwork of the forward thwart, in the fall of a sunbeam, and the match flamed. The two men lighted up, then sighed, and faced their heap of treasure.

Winters, the poetical and imaginative, picked up a brass cup ringed with great Solok rubies, three abreast.

“Queer how these fool natives combine worth and dross,” he observed reflectively. “You got this off the Vishnu altar, didn’t you?”

Carnahan nodded and puffed at his pipe. “Sure. That was when the cross-eyed Brahman butted in and started things.”

Winters inspected a dull red-black blotch across the lower part of the cup, a stain so rich that it came away in little dry flecks from the brass as he touched it. Smiling dryly, he laid aside the cup.

“Let’s get rid of the junk,” he suggested.

Together the two men fell to work, earnestly sweating in the stifling sultriness. They picked through the mass of treaure, jerking out the gold lacquer and tossing it up among the mangroves; they inspected the brass and gold for possible gems before discarding each piece. Most of the heap, however, was of gold—and one acquainted with the Sumatran temples would have guessed whence the loot had come.

“Must say the old man and the girl treated us white,” observed Carnahan, sucking at his long-dead pipe and surveying a little lacquered box with matter-of-fact appraisal. “Real feather beds, too. The girl must have gone to a Dutch school somewhere.”

“Too had we couldn’t bring her along to help pass the time,” said Winters. “Hello! that’s her box you have there, isn’t it?”

Carnahan nodded and forced open the lacquered lid. “Yes. I got a few things out o’ there while you were dropping her in the river. And that reminds me, you washed off—say, by jings! This was a worth-while haul, eh?”

He shook into his great paw a glittering heap of baubles from the box; goldwork and jade, a few rough diamonds from the hills, some gaudy buckles. The buckles he tossed into the stream. The other things he swept back into the box and handed it to Winters, who casually inspected it, then tossed it on the pile.

“Better wrap the stuff in the tarp,” suggested Carnahan. He looked up with his obscene laugh and a sudden coarse grin. “Say, d’you know, I was afraid you wouldn’t have nerve for this job. Taking their hospitality and then bleedin’ them, and all that. But you’re all right, pal.”

Winters smiled frostily. “Thanks. I might say I thought you were too much of a bucko sailor to do the job right, too. But everything’s fine. We’ve brains between us!”

“And with brains,” declared Carnahan, solemnly, knocking out his pipe against the gunwale, “you can get away with anything—anything! We’ve done it, ain’t we?”

“Looks that way,” agreed Winters. He stooped over and began to sweep the pile of loot into the tarpaulin.

Five minutes later they shoved cautiously forth from among the mango roots, emerged from their leafly screen into the sluggish current, and ran out their oars. Neither man observed that a spark from Carnahan’s pipe had fallen into the rolled-up sail. They were absorbed in watching the wide reaches of the river and in gingerly expending their inner resistance to the steaming, lurid waves of heat that streamed down upon the yellow water.

It was not until an hour had passed that Winters, at the after thwart, smelled smoke.


IT was three hours after the two had shoved forth from their shelter among the mangrove roots; and now they lay in just another such hidden spot, roots all around them like giant frozen tentacles, and a leafy screen covering them safely.

In those three steaming, torrid hours of midday, sundry things had happened. The sail, upon which they had counted to take them across the Berhala Strait that night, had slowly smoldered, unsuspected, and when discovered too late, the damage was done. The discovery, quite naturally, had been attended with excitement, and this excitement had resulted in further disaster.

Brains cannot prevent accidents of fortune, if one considers them as such and denies any providential interventions. Brains could not prevent the boat drifting on a concealed mugger while the sail was being quenched overside; could not prevent a flirt of the mugger’s tail knocking the boat’s bow strakes into a sievelike mess.

Being seamen and having brains, the two voyagers had mended matters neatly. The remnants of the sail, together with a fine skill in loading the heavy freight aft and keeping the craft all hunky, had negatived any actual sinking. By dint of sweating effort, the two men had attained their objective at the mouth of the river, and were safely hidden. They perched on the slimy mangrove roots and used their eyes with somber longing.

They had reached the islands that split the Indragiri’s wide delta. Out before them stretched fifty miles of sea, the wide straits rolling under the afternoon sun. One could almost fancy the mighty Peak of Lingga nosing across the horizon, and the brown sails of an island schooner slowly tacking between the peak and Singkep, waiting for the boat which came not, and the men and treasure of her lading.

But it was not at the sea that the two men sat and stared.

“Curse the luck!” growled Carnahan, moodily filling his pipe. “We’ll have to take her, o’ course; and we have to wait until dark to do it; unless we want every Malay proa on his damned coast out after us!”

Winters nodded abstractedly and began to construct a cigarette.

“Oh, sure,” he assented. “This old boat of ours is on her last legs now. Even if we had a sail, she’d never stand it for five minutes. That craft over there looks providential, if you ask my opinion!”

Carnahan grumbled in his throat.

“I don’t want too blamed much Providence mixed up in this here affair,” he stated. “You washin’ that blood off into the river, that’s what did it! The girl was dropped in the river too, remember. And it was her blood——

“Oh, give me a match and stop being a fool!” sneered Winters, then broke into a hearty laugh. “We’ll paddle over there, load the loot aboard, and trade boats, eh? They’ll not discover it until morning. By that time we’ll be aboard the schooner and they can chase until hell freezes for all we care.”

Carnahan lighted his pipe and his scowl vanished.

“Yes,” he assented with a sigh of relief. “Yes, we’re all right, I guess. Can’t keep us from fallin’ on our feet, eh? Brains, that’s what it is!”

Winters gestured toward the scene at which they were gazing.

“But why the devil is the boat yellow? Stained with turmeric, probably. Know what they’re about, Carnahan?”

The other shook his head. “Some native bobbery. Damn that mugger. Except for his cursed tail, we’d be all right. We’ll have a job trimming ship aboard that craft, pal—this loot weighs like the devil, remember. Hello! That’s baskets of fruit, or I miss my guess! We’ll not starve, eh?”

Winters sniffed the breeze. “It isn’t turmeric,” he said thoughtfully. “Saffron. And that boat’s a model of the big proas the rajahs up the coast use, savvy? A model of a lanchang, and everything complete! Even wooden cannon fore and aft.”

“A good craft for us,” quoth Carnahan complacently.

Facing them, and less than fifty yards distant, was a curving half circle of sandy shore, upon which emerged paths through the jungle. That these paths came from a Malay village around the next bend, was fairly obvious; the village was well out of sight, however, which was fortunate.

Upon the sandy shelvage lay a small but beautiful craft, which had been stained the royal yellow from masts to keel with saffron, this color being acceptable to devils. The craft was slightly larger than the half-broken whaleboat and was a perfect model in miniature of a lanchang.

She was complete from her two masts, with silken sails, to the galleries fore and aft, where were mounted imitation cannon of wood. While the hidden men watched, parties of Malays brought baskets of flowers and fruits and stowed them aboard, with jars of wine and arrak. Carnahan’s eyes glittered at the raw smell of arrak on the breeze.

“Must be some religious business,” said Winters: “It’s mighty providential for us——

“Keep Providence out of it,” growled the other irritably.

“You’re too superstitious!” came the cheerful retort. “Now, I’d like to know what that ceremony over there means! It means something big, that’s sure; these Malays don’t built a model proa just for the fun of it. They don’t waste grub and liquor that fashion, either, without something big behind it.”

“Wedding, maybe, or funeral,” suggested Carnahan.

“No. That would be an individual matter, more or less. This is a communal affair. You’ll notice there haven’t been any songs and dances, either; a mournful sort of proceeding all along.”

“Well,” growled Carnahan, “what the hell do we care, anyhow, so long as we get off in that lanchang to-night? What I want to know is this; why ain’t the Dutchmen showed up? There was a government patrol launch up at Rengat agency. Where is it? First thing those fool Dutchmen would do, would be to get down here and try to head us off at the river mouth.”

The two men fell to discussing the matter earnestly, as befitted men whose lives hung upon the decisions involved. All that afternoon they had seen no sign of human life, either white or native, upon the wide reaches of the river, until reaching this spot. And in view of certain incidents which had taken place the previous night, they were warranted in expecting to see the government patrol launch dashing about very busily. They had made all their plans with that launch in view, and it was rather irritating to find that their caution and trouble had been wasted. Thorough workmen dislike to see their pains expended for nothing.

Quite naturally, it did not occur to either of them that there might be any connection between the saffron lanchang there before them, and the nonappearance of the Hollanders.

“What I don’t like,” said Carnahan suddenly, “is the sails on that craft. Silk! Yellow silk! Near as I can tell, they weren’t made for use, either; no reënforcements, and holes cut in the bloomin’ silk for cringles. How long’s that goin’ to last in a breeze?”

“True.” Winter’s eyes narrowed. “No leech linings, no bellybands, not even a footband! Say, those sails weren’t meant to use, Carnahan—they’ll blow out in a shot! What’ll we do about it?”

“Use our brains,” grunted Carnahan. “That’s what we got brains for, pal. We’ll use this here tarp; she’s good and stout, see those silk contraptions will take us out a few knots, anyhow, then we can bend on this tarp for’ard. What’s left of the boat sail we can patch up here and now from our clothes. I got a palm and needle.”

“There’s nobody in sight over there now,” said Winters. “We’d better start in, for any one over there might catch a flap of the canvas between the leaves. Let’s get to work while they’re gone.”

True enough, the strip of beach was now deserted. With much labor, the two men got their brown-holed canvas unlashed from the broken bow of the boat, and hauled it up, spreading it across the tangle of mangrove roots. Carnahan produced palm and needle and line; their rolled-up pea-jackets were produced from the bow, where they had been packed into the seams as makshift calking, and were cut up into ragged patches to cover the holes in the sail. Winters was a poor hand at sailmaking.

“Lay low!” ejaculated Carnahan suddenly. “Don’t flap the canvas—they’re coming!”

Quite true. Coming unannounced by any song or drum pulse, a great company of Malays broke from the jungle and filled the sandy strip of shore. They carried two long burdens, which at first could not be clearly seen by the two hidden watchers. After a moment, some of the men seized the yellow lanchang and ran her down into the water.

“Hell!” exploded Carnahan, viciously. “Are we goin’ to lose her?”

“No,” rejoined Winters. “No. She’s anchored there.”

The anchor of the saffron craft was carefully hooked into the stream; she swam securely, scarce a dozen feet from shore, in shallow water. All this was accomplished without a word, which was unnatural. But presently Winters descried an old man, a wizard, who was directing operations.

“These coast Malays are a mixture of Mohammedan and devil worshipers,” he observed. “This is some kind of religious business, sure.”

“A corpse, by jings!” breathed Carnahan.

One of the two burdens was disclosed, as it was borne carefully aboard the lanchang. It was a rattan couch, draped with very handsome silks and adorned with the tassels that frighten devils; and upon it lay a covered object which was evidently a body.

The two white men watched operations with fascinated intentness. Upon them both was the fear that this yellow craft might yet be sent dancing out upon the current, and with it their hopes of salvation. But no such disaster happened.

Upon the shore was now set the second burden. This proved to be another rattan couch, decorated like the first very handsomely and covered with pillows. Upon the pillows lay a woman, her face alone visible. She was neither dead nor sleeping, for she seemed to be watching the operations with a calm and unexcited interest.

The old wizard waded out to the lanchang and fumbled beneath the covers of the body. He came back ashore, carefully bearing a long thread; this thread, it was evident, had been attached to the hand of the defunct. The woman on the shore lifted her hand from beneath her silken coverings, and the wizard drew taut the thread, then tied it about her thumb.

“The corpse was their sultan or headman probably,” ventured Carnahan.

Winters nodded. “Sure. And the woman there is his wife. Maybe she’s got to spend the night that way, tied up to him. Then in the morning they’ll cut him loose and let him go out to sea. That sounds logical, anyhow. What’s the old boy talking—Malay?”

The wizard seemed to be pronouncing incantations. Carnahan growled in disgust.

“Yes, but it’s High Malay, and no white man can fathom that lingo. Hello! They’re off.”

The Malays, one and all, were vanishing back upon the jungle paths. The saffron proa floated alone upon the stream with its burden of the dead, and the thread that ran ashore. And upon her gorgeous couch by the shore, the woman lay unmoving.


DARKNESS was falling quickly upon the island-studded river. The two men perched upon the tangle of mangrove roots could no longer see the details of the shore, although the yellow lanchang still showed as a vague, grayish spot.

“We’re up against it,” said Winters thoughtfully. “One screech from that hag will raise the devil with us, Carnahan.”

The other laughed his obscene laugh. “We’ll settle her quick enough!”

“But, see here. We’d have to bail out this craft before we could row over there, and she’d catch the noise instantly. We’ll have to swim over there, make a careful landing, and get our knives into the woman before she can sing out. Then come over here with the proa; it has oars aboard, because we saw ’em. We can dump the corpse here, set our stuff aboard, and be gone in ten minutes. We’ll have to chance the muggers.”

“They won’t bother us.” Carnahan arose and stripped off his trousers. “You’re right. Brains, that’s what we’ve got! You get her throat and I’ll settle her.”

He slung the lanyard of his knife about his neck.

The two men slung themselves down into the lukewarm, dirty water, efficient and wasting neither words nor actions. They swam without thought for the possible dangers of the river; they swam silently and swiftly, every faculty concentrated upon the business in hand.

They gained the shelving shallows and moved forward without splashing, at last gaining the white beach. Already the stars were beginning to twinkle ghostily, and they flashed faintly, once, as Carnahan’s naked knife rose and fell. It rose again, but this time it did not flash.

“Done,” said Winters under his breath, without emotion, as he relaxed his grip. “Good stroke.”

Carnahan’s obscene laugh echoed at him from across the couch.

“Carry it down and chuck it in, see? The muggers will do the rest. The beggars will fancy that her husband chucked her into the boat and beat it for paradise, see? Good joke, and makes all safe behind us. Using our brains, eh?”

“Excellent notion,” agreed Winters. “Heave!”

They slid the couch noiselessly into the water and watched it fade away upon the stream, sagging a little at one corner before it was out of sight.

Losing no moment of precious time, their thoughts already upon the Peak of Lingga and the schooner which would meet them there in the dawning, they waded to the saffron proa and climbed aboard. They knew where the oars had been placed; a moment later the anchor was in and the proa was moving like a yellow ghost.

“All in all,” commented Carnahan exultantly, “the slickest job ever pulled south o’ Singapore, mate! Easy, there—lay the corpse off here in midstream.”

They bent over the task, and it speaks well for their efficiency that they accomplished it without a single splash. Also, they found their own hidden boat again without unnecessary delay and hauled the lanchang in beside it. They were hungry, and upon exploring the heaped-up baskets they discovered a multitude of good things to eat. Also, there seemed to be a good many personal effects aboard; Winters, puzzling over this, suddenly chanced upon the explanation.

“This is great!” he exclaimed softly, with suppressed delight. “They put all the headman’s stuff aboard with him, Carnahan! We’ll find some rich pickings in the morning, I’ll warrant! Some of those green jars of camphor, anyhow, and likely a bit of dust.”

“Nothing like having brains to take advantage o’ circumstances,” returned the other complacently. “Here, lend a hand to this tarp and dump the loot aboard tire yellow craft!”

They threw the plunder in a heap amidships, transferred their meager belongings, and got aboard their new craft. Shoving out into the current, they drifted seaward and presently managed to get the two silken sails hoisted without noise. The light offshore breeze had come up with evening, and the sails filled. The proa gently heeled and began to sing through the water.

The two men stool on the poop beside the long steering oar. Carnahan had broken out one of the jars of arrak and now drank gingerly of the biting fluid.

“What I’m wonderin’ about,” he said, his tongue loosening, “is these here preaching sharks, talkin’ hell-fire and the like o’ that. What’ve we done upriver? We’ve pulled a slick job, we have!"

“Including a few murders,” put in Winters purringly.

“Sure, but what of it? Here we’re out o’ trouble and layin’ a straight course for the Peak, where the schooner is standin’ by to pick us up. That’s what comes of havin’ brains, mate! All we got to do is to split the loot. All this preacher talk about——

“You mean,” queried Winters, “that we’ve evaded retribution? Of course. Your’re dead right there, Carnahan; nothing can touch us now. It’s the poor inefficient fools who slip up somewhere and get caught, and then talk about retribution and hell.”

“Sure,” agreed the other, with his obscene laugh. “If you’ve got brains, you can get away with anything—anything! Ain’t we proved it? Sure!”


UNDER the lee of the long island that lies in the channel between Singkep and the Peak of Lingga, the dirty little trading schooner Island Queen was anchored and pitching slowly to the long swells that came in across the shallows.

Two of the Kanakas were peering through the misty dawn, the rest were asleep. By the stern rail lounged Captain Nichols and his mate, both in pajamas, for the morning was hot and steamy.

“No,” observed Nichols, “how do I know what they went ashore for? I didn’t ask no questions; Winter guaranteed the charter if I wasn’t satisfied with results, that’s all. I know their breed, and I wouldn’t take no hand in it, that’s certain!”

“Carnahan had spotted some sort o’ temple he meant to loot, I guess,” said the mate, gazing longingly at the western horizon. “It’ll be easy money for all hands. But what was that you was just sayin’ about the yellow proas? I never heard about it before.”

“There’s a hell of a lot you never heard before I’ve noticed, since you signed on with me,” snorted the skipper with heavy sarcasm. “But that—well, most folks don’t know it either, I guess. Y’ see, these coast Malays take a heap o’ stock in superstitious fancies, so when they get the cholera real bad and some o’ their head men come down with it, they fight it in their own fashion.

“Y’ see, they take and build a lanchang on a small scale, large as a whaleboat, sometimes. Then they put the dead man aboard, maybe; or else they put all his stuff aboard, and all the other cholera-infected stuff in the village. They got some sense, that way. Then they lay the boat off shore overnight, and if anybody else is sick they take and put ’em on the shore with strings running to the boat.”

“Drawin’ out the cholery, eh?” suggested the mate, with interest.

“Sure, that’s prob’ly the idee. Come morning, they cut the strings and let the boat go out to sea. Incantations and charms and so forth play a big part.”

“But you was talkin’ about a yellow boat!” said the mate.

“Oh, sure. I forgot to say that they always stain the whole caboodle bright yellow. Sometimes they use turmeric, sometimes saffron. But believe me, when any skipper in these here cussed seas lamps one o’ them yellow boats drifting past, he gives it lots o’ seaway.”

“Shouldn’t think the gov’ment would stand for it,” opined the mate.

“They don’t, especially the Dutch, which thinks nothin’ of blowing the bottom out of a cholera junk and drownin’ all aboard, sooner’n get the infection on land. No, them Dutch and others, they waste no time with the yellow proas! They just give ’em a shot or two and down they go. There’s a reward o’ ten florins for information that’ll put a gunboat on the track of them proas, too!”

One of the Kanakas turned with a low, musical call.

“All hands!” bellowed the skipper, rousing suddenly. “Lay for’ard and shake a leg!”

The mate took charge, and the capstan pawls clinked merrily. Having obtained his glasses, the skipper focused upon a glinting object against the western horizon—an object which was just catching the first rays of the rising sun.

As the Island Queen slowly stood out into the strait and gathered way, the skipper remained with the glasses glued to his eyes. A startled oath broke from him, then another. He looked away once, glanced at the mate, said a low word to the Kanaka at the wheel.

The schooner began to fall off slightly, toward the north and the passage into Singapore Strait.

“Goin’ to tack down on her?” queried the mate with interest.

“No, I ain’t,” returned the skipper curtly. He was secure in the knowledge that he had the only pair of glasses aboard.

“What? Ain’t that them?”

The skipper fell to gazing again at the glinting object. He saw very clearly that it was a yellow proa, and that the sails which drove it were tattered silk ribbons over a canvas backing, which seemed to have been bent on in a hurry.

And the skipper saw two men standing in the stern, waving.

“No,” said Nichols. “That ain’t anybody that’s goin’ to speak this hooker, you can swear to that! Mr. Jimson, you set a course for Singapore Strait, and you mind them reefs to the east o’ Kundar.”

The mate stared, and scratched his head. His gaze went to the distant craft.

“But you ain’t goin’ off and leave Winters an’ Carnahan!” he uttered in amazement. “Not to mention the stuff they was going to bring——

The skipper’s lips compressed firmly for an instant.

“Them two ain’t coming,” he returned. “That there is one of them cholera boats, and it’s come straight out from the Indragiri, with this wind. Ain’t that true? Well, if there’s cholera along the Indragiri delta, do you reckon Winters and Carnahan are coming aboard here with it? Not if I know myself!”

The mate perceived that this argument contained flaws, but, having no glasses, he could not well perceive that Winters and Carnahan were trying to wave from the distant craft. The skipper apparently did not perceive it either, for he closed the glasses and pocketed them.

“You would have thought,” said the skipper to himself, as he turned his back on the distant yellow speck and eyed the northern horizon, “you would have thought them two men would ha’ had some brains! But not a speck. No, sir! Not a speck o’ brains between ’em! It’s a ripe shame, that’s what it is. Not a speck o’ brains between ’em!”

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1928.

The longest-living author of this work died in 1949, so this work is in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 73 years or less. This work may be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.

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