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There were four of us there, four of the devil’s own, and a hard lot by any man’s count. We’d come together the way men will when on the beach, the idea cropping up out of an idle conversation. We had nothing better to do, all of us being fools or worse, so we borrowed a boat off the Nine Islands and headed out to sea.
Did you ever cross the South China Sea in a 40-foot boat during typhoon season? No picnic certainly, nor any job for a churchgoing son — more for the likes of us, who mattered to no one, and in a stolen boat at that.
Now, all of us were used to playing it alone. The truth was that each was biding his own thoughts and watching the others.
There was Limey Johnson from Liverpool; Smoke Bassett from Port au Prince; Long Jack from Sydney; and then there was me, the youngest of the lot, at loose ends and wandering in a strange land.
Twenty-two years old I was, with five years of riding freights, working in mines or lumber camps, and prizefighting in small clubs in towns I never saw by daylight.
In those years, I’d been wandering from restlessness, but also from poverty. However, I had no poverty of experience, and in that I was satisfied.
It was Limey Johnson who told us the story of the freighter sinking off the mangrove coast, a ship with $50,000 in the captain’s safe, and nobody who knew it was there anymore … nobody but him.
Fifty-thousand dollars, and we were broke. Fifty-thousand lying in a bare 10 fathoms, easy for the taking. Fifty-thousand split four ways.
If we all made it, $12,500 apiece. And that was a point to be thought upon, for if only two should live … $25,000 … and who can say what can happen in the wash of a weedy sea off the mangrove coast? Who could say how much some of us were thinking of lending a hand to fate?
Macao was behind us and the long roll of the sea began, and we had a fair wind and a good run away from land before the sun broke upon the waves.
She took to the sea, that ketch, and we headed south and away, with a bearing toward the east. The wind held with us, and when again the sun went down, we had left miles behind. In the night the wind held fair and true, and when another day came we were running under a high overcast and there was a heavy feel to the sea.
As the day drew on, the waves turned green, and the sky turned black with clouds. Hour by hour, we fought it out, our poles bare and a sea anchor over, and though none of us were praying men, pray we did.
We shipped water and bailed and swore and worked, and when the storm blew itself out, we were still afloat and somewhat farther along, for when we topped a wave, we saw an island, a brush-covered bit of sand forgotten here in the middle of nothing.
We slid in through the reefs, taking it easy because of the bared teeth of coral so close beneath our keel. Lincoln Island, it was, scarcely more than a mile of heaped-up sand and brush. We’d a hope there was water, and we found it near a stunted palm — a brackish pool, but badly needed.
From there, it was down through 1,000-odd miles of navigator’s nightmare, a wicked tangle of reefs and sandy cays, of islands with tiny tufts of palms, millions of seabirds and fish of all kinds, and the bottom torn out of you if you slacked off for even a minute. But we took that way because there was small chance we’d be seen.
Fools? We were that, but sometimes now when the fire is bright on the hearth and there’s rain against the windows and the roof, sometimes I think back and find myself tasting the wind again and getting the good old roll of the sea under me.
Yes, it was long ago, but what else have we but memories? Only sometimes I think of them, and wonder what would have happened if the story had been different, if another hand than mine had written the ending.
Then one morning we got the smell of the Borneo coast in our nostrils, and felt the hot, sticky heat of it coming up from below the horizon. We saw the mangrove coast beyond the white snarl of foam along the reefs, then we put our helm over and turned east again, crawling along the coast of Darvel Bay.
The heat of the jungle reached out across the water, and there was the primeval something that comes from the jungle, the ancient evil that crawls up from the fetid rottenness of it, and gets into the mind and into the blood.
We came up along the mangrove coast with the setting sun, and slid through a narrow passage into the quiet of a lagoon where we dropped our hook and swung to, looking at the long wall of jungle that fronted the shore for miles.
Have you seen a mangrove coast? Have you come fresh from the sea to a wild and lonely place, with the line of the shore lost among twisting, tangling tentacle roots, strangling the earth, reaching out to the very water and concealing under its solid ceiling of green those dark and dismal passages into which a boat might make its way?
Huge columnar roots, and from these, still more roots, and roots descending from branches, and under them black water, silent, unmoving. This we could see, and beyond it, a long, low cliff of upraised coral.
So we had arrived, four men from the world’s waterfronts, and below, somewhere in the dark water, a submerged freighter with $50,000 in her strongbox.
From Off the Mangrove Coast by Louis L’Amour. Copyright © 2000 by Louis & Katherine L’Amour Trust. Reprinted by arrangement with Bantam Books, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.