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Adventure's Heart

By Albert Dorrington


THE schooner labored and sagged in the fresh cyclones of wind and brine that blew through and over her. At dawn on the ninth day after her departure from Honolulu, the Pocahontas struck coral in a blinding smother of surf and wind. Mace was hurled into a maelstrom of wreckage and smothering water, and the sensation reminded him of a knock-out he had once received in the early days of his career as a boxer. Above him was the subdued murmur of incoherent voices, while within him was a feeling of intense lassitude, broken only by a faint desire to rise and stand erect.

He rose to the surface with faculties numbed, but with a fighter's knowledge of his desperate chances within the surf-hammered channels of coral. He fought and floated, kicked and dived when the green-headed slopes of water threatened to amputate him on the razor-backed shoals. An old ring veteran had once told him that brains will beat death itself, and the man who at one time had killed an opponent in a boxing contest learned in a flash how not to fight wind and sea on a dead lee shore.

And when his tiring limbs recognized this fact, the sea helped him and the tornado that had blown the schooner to her undoing blew him onto a narrow belt of reef where the tamanu shrubs held true to his drowning grasp. Another green-crested wall of surf hurled him high and dry, where he lay in the hot sun until the fainting blood about his heart resumed its life-giving pressure.

He slept for thirteen hours without a move. When he awoke it was to find that another day had begun with the sun standing like the torn rim of a volcano in the east.

Slowly Mace collected his jaded senses and began an investigation. The tornado had cast him upon a deserted atoll fringed with skeleton puroa trees and wind-shriveled palms. In the center of the atoll was the remnant of a forgotten banana plantation, with here and there a group of upright stakes showing where some native huts once had stood. Everywhere there were signs of recent habitation. The ashes of cooking fires were blown among the rocks and crevices.

Searching the ground closely Mace came upon Scraps of clothing that did not belong to the dresses of South Sea islanders. There were rags of half-scorched cloth that had come from the looms of American factories. In a declivity adjoining some upright stakes, he came upon a charred watch guard that must have belonged to a seafaring man or white trader.

The mental suggestion following the discovery of the relics left Mace in a state of horror and bewilderment. A further search merely confirmed the suspicion that the atoll had recently been the scene of a horrible orgy. Near midday hunger drove him into the deserted plantation searching among the stunted bushes for food. Bananas and papaws were there in abundance; the ground was littered with fiber-covered coconuts, delicious and thirst quenching after his long fast.

Pieces of wreckage drifted in from the outer reefs where the schooner had broken up in the mountainous surf. But the sight of the useless deck hamper scattering about the low beach brought small comfort to Mace as he wandered and crawled along the saucer-shaped edge of the atoll.

Although not faced with immediate starvation he viewed with dismay the loneliness of his surroundings. He dared not count on a ship approaching within hailing distance. Night came with a wisp of moon and the large tropic stars that seemed to lean from the violet dome of mid-heaven. The storm had subsided, leaving no trace of its pitiless wrath on the windless horizon.

Mace found cover inside a jungle of fronds and tamanu leaves on the sheltered side of the atoll. The water had ruined his watch, but he guessed it was late by the sudden nip in the air. Yet he found sleep difficult even on his bed of fragrant ferns.

The stillness was unbroken save for the slow, measured boom of distant breakers. The crying of a tern under the shelf of reef near by added pang on pang to his overwrought nerves. Unable to settle his mind to sleep, Mace crept from his lair of ferns and peered across the coral barriers that seemed to stretch to the horizon.

A faint, splashing sound reached him as if a paddle had struck water near by. Straining forward he listened and again caught the soft swirl and rippling motion as of something afloat. It came nearer, became more audible as the minutes passed. Mace slipped forward in the direction of the sound, scarce daring to breathe.

A native canoe shot into the narrow channel a dozen yards from where he crouched. In the faint moonlight he discerned the solitary figure of an old man paddling close in. Without hesitation Mace approached and saluted with an affectation of geniality.

"Hello, friend! Do you live here, or is it just a place where you come home to sleep?"

The ancient figure in the canoe turned sharply in Mace's direction, the paddle staying in mid-air as if sound of the human voice had petrified his movements. Slowly, very slowly, his glance took in Mace's outline, the supple, Herculean young figure that could have lifted him, canoe and all, from the water.

"Taeo, papalagi! It is well I speak your tongue. I once was cook on a steamer that traded from Sydney to Samoa. At first I thought you were a spirit come to mock me. Oho, there are many spirits here after the burnings and the great storm."

The canoe touched the beach, but the old man made no effort to get out. He sat with his paddle across his huddled knees, while the bones of his face seemed to protrude. Some metal ornaments pierced his ear lobes; a necklace of shark's teeth encircled his wizen throat. He was the oldest man Mace had ever seen, a mummified human, moving and speaking with ineffable weariness and languor. Yet he was human at least, with a brain and heart among the infinite solitudes of sea and sky. Mace stared down at him with a feeling of pity and welcome.

"I'll help you out," he volunteered, placing a hand on the bow of the canoe. "Skipping from a boat is no joy at your time in life, eh?"

"You do not explain," the old man returned without moving. "How did you come here?"

Mace laughed easily. "I got blown in by the big wind yesterday. Our schooner broke up out there. Not a soul came out of it but me!" he added, a sudden tremor in his voice.

The old man nodded and again favored the white man with a covert glance. "Only the broken ships reach here," he said. "I have not seen a ship in eight years; not one!"

"White men have been here," Mace asserted. "And somebody did the cremating pretty thoroughly."

The old man shrugged wearily. "All white people die who come here. It is the law!"

"Why?" Mace demanded hotly.

"Because they destroy happiness—our lives, children, women. They bring disease, they carry plagues that sweep our islands from end to end. There is also the gin and rum. We are a clean race here, stranger. We kill white men so that we may live."

"Seems to me," Mace protested sharply, "that our doctors and missioners have been busy cleaning up your hotbeds of disease since Noah made his first trip. The white man is all right when you don't eat him."

Something like a low chuckle escaped the old man as he crouched over his paddle. "Come, sit near me," he invited. "Let us talk. Big men are always my friends."

Mace squatted on the beach, his curiosity aroused by the old man's manner.

"My name," the visitor went on, "is Sagon. The people in the islands near by call me their spirit-man and doctor."

"Are they very near—these islands?" Mace questioned eagerly.

Sagon indicated a low reef wall in the far south where the Pacific breakers hurled with the sound of gun blasts on the still night air. "Beyond those reefs our people dwell, papalagi! I alone know of your schooner going to pieces on the cruel coral last night. I kept the secret to myself. A spirit whispered that some of the white sailors had reached this island." '

"What do you want to do, Sagon?"

"Come with me to my people. Like a brave man you must take your chance with them. If you stay here you will go mad, or"—he paused and nursed his paddle thoughtfully—"some of the chief's men will spy you out. Oho, you will then be destroyed without a hearing. Will you come with me?"


"Then sit in this boat and paddle by direction. It is a long way; my arms have grown stiff."

Mace clambered into the canoe, glad of an ...

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