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BikerNet Fiction: "Slender Chance Part One"

1/1/2000


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Slender Chance
Slender
Chance

Part One


Fiction by A. Carney Allen
On the map it was to be seen as a small red square set flush against the Equator, for all the world like a scarlet kerchief hung up to dry on a line. That was how Terry Devine expressed it when he first located it in his old school Atlas, but he didn't know then just how apt he was being.

For the little state of Miranda, after three years of bloodshed and misery, was hanging up to dry on the line, and if events were sufficiently recent to make appropriate the color of that little square as depicted on the map, there was every hope of the newfound peace bleaching it white.

For, after three years, tyranny and corruption had been overthrown, and the riff-raff and scum who had won power by the unexpectedness of a coup d'etat had been cast out of high office. And now that wise and patriotic gentleman, Don Isidore Pancha, reigned supreme.

Such was the position of affairs in the little state of Miranda as the S.S. Eldorado danced into the wide bay of her only port and capital, Las Palmas. Terry Devine stood at the rail to take his first glimpse of the city in all the splendor of its whiteness.

Small chance he had of studying its beauty, for beside him lounged a tall, swarthy man of middle age-a man whose presence and looks implied that he might call "home" some spot near the Equator line where it cleft the American continent-and that man seemed in a mood for talk.

"This refers to you, my friend?"

Terry Devine, starting from the enchantment of his first view of the city they steadily approached, drew up his 72 inches of bone and muscle and turned equiringly to his fellow passenger. He saw that the South American held out a somewhat grimy newspaper a week or two old-a mere leaflet that passed in Miranda as the press-and the South American was marking a half-column article with his thumb.

It was in Spanish, of course, but Terry read it as he might have read his own native English and he found it discussed the expected arrival of a certain Britisher representing a certain British motor bike company desiring world markets. The newspaper, heralding the enterprise as a sign of Miranda's new prosperity and the taking of her place in the realm of commerce, gave its best wishes to the English representative and trusted he would gain much commission on many orders.

Terry raised his shrewd gray eyes to his companion's face. "It refers to me, Se?or Martino," he said with a boyish grin, "and you'd better look out for your railway. When everybody in Miranda is buying Premier motor bike-"

Se?or Esteban Martino lacked humor. Terry was suddenly aware that he was scowling darkly.

"You will not sell one single bike, my young friend," he retorted with unconcealed ill temper. "You do not know the roads of Miranda! You have not seen them, no! A tank would find them trying! Your company is crazed to send you here with their foolish bike, and soon I shall have you pleading on your knees to me for work as a porter, or something such!" He paused, then: "There is another thing. I am more than owner of the Miranda Railway-I have great political influence, too, and, it will be easy to smash you and your company's enterprise!"

His tone was calculated to offend, yet Terry's grin did not fade. "You never know," he said, "but on the other hand you might have to buy a sheet of sandpaper to keep the rust off your rails. Oh, well," he added with a yawn, "I guess we'll be alongside the quay in two shakes and I've still a deal of packing to do."

With that he strolled off in the direction of his cabin, and he was busying himself there when the Eldorado dropped anchor. Something like 15 minutes must have passed after that before Terry, carrying a couple of valises, made his way back to the deck.

On the quay, in front of a long, low customs building, the ship's cargo was being unloaded, and a cursory glance showed the youngster a crate, which he recognized as that containing the motor-bike with which he was to advertize his company and, if possible, gain orders. He remarked vaguely that, nearby, stood a number of piano cases, and began to reflect idly on the inherent love of music common to the Spanish race.

A sudden din of voices broke the trend of his thoughts-voices raised in a prolonged cheering-and suddenly he saw, beyond the customs building, where the quay merged onto a broad promenade running along the entire seaboard of the city, a concord of people. Closely packed, they were, and Terry caught the flutter of countless handkerchiefs and ran his eye over a sea of faces.

And then all at once he saw a meaning in the cheering and the kerchief waving, a meaning that seemed clear as he realized it had broken out on his appearance. That newspaper article had roused the enthusiasm of the populace, and the numbers had come to greet him!

With that, an inspiration struck Terry. Here was his chance to advertise the Premier bike. He would take it from its crate on the quay, fill the tank with petrol, and drive to his hotel amid the shouting throng. On the spur of the moment he started down the gangway, bowing and nodding responsively as he went, and presently found himself involved with the customs officials.

The duty paid, he opened his crate with the aid of a porter, filled the tank, handed his luggage to the aforesaid porter, and by him was directed to the hotel where a room had been booked in advance. The Customs building had hidden him from view, but now, wheeling the bike, he rounded the crowds. As he did so another rousing cheer went up, and then....

Terry realized with a shock that the sea of faces was still up-turned toward the deck of the Eldorado, and that no one paid him the slightest attention; and a backward glance showed him Esteban Martino advancing down the gangway and bowing his acknowledgment of the reception as he came.

Blankly, Terry stood there, and Martino, passing quite close, shot a baleful glance in his direction. Then suddenly a man came through the crowd leading a black horse, into the saddle of which Martino climbed.

Something happened that took Terry utterly by surprise. The cheering gave place all at once to a sudden exultant roar, and simultaneously the motley crowd surged forward onto the quay-past the youngster and on to where the Customs officials were on the point of opening one of those piano cases for inspection. In a twinkling the hapless officials were swept aside, and next second the rabble was breaking open the crates for themselves.

Piano cases-yet the instruments they contained were calculated to give out the deadliest kind of music, for out of those cases the wild crowd drew rifle after rifle and some there were who, carried away in the heat of the moment, loosed them off promiscuously!

Bullets had never intimidated Terry Devine, yet he judged right then that he had no urgent desire to be trampled under in a riot that did not concern him. The crowd was behind him now, massed on the quay. Near him Esteban Martino sat impassively on the black horse, with one or two ruffianly looking individuals gathered about him. The way was clear for a hasty departure from the scene.

Terry kicked the starter of his bike.

The sudden roar of the powerful engine rose above the din of the crowd, and momentarily stilled that din. One other effect it had-on the black horse Martino sat-and out of the corner of his eye Terry noted that effect.

The horse was nervous, highly strung. The roar of the motorbike was startling. Martino was suddenly clinging tooth and nail to his mount as it plunged and curvetted under him for a moment; then scattering the group round about, it flashed off at break-neck pace in an ungovernable panic.

The beast headed blindly for a broad thoroughfare running at right angles to the promenade. Terry had been informed that his hotel lay along that road and so, thrusting the gear lever into "low" and dropping the clutch, he started after the run-away.

As he did so a venomous howl rose from the crowd on the quay, and almost simultaneously there came a wild, desultory volley of musketry. The shots went wide, zipping harmlessly to right and left of the youngster, and overhead; but a backward glance showed him the mob surging hot-foot on his trail.

He did not fear them. Their pursuit was futile, and their shooting, proverbially bad, so that Martino seemed to stand as much risk of a bullet as himself-Martino, a hundred yards ahead on the runaway horse.

Steadily, Terry was overtaking him, yet he was still 30 yards to the rear when, turning a slight bend, he found himself faced by a hastily formed line of soldiery, drawn across the street with their rifles at the ready.

They seemed on the point of firing when Martino's horse swung to the left and careered between a pair of great solid door-gates set in a lofty wall. Terry, a fitting target for itching trigger-fingers, decided he might do worse than follow, and the next second he was surging into a broad courtyard at the far end of which stood a veritable palace.

In the courtyard Martino had somehow pulled up, amid a group of uniformed officers, and as Terry pulled up alongside the party two of those officers covered him with heavy service-revolvers. Almost simultaneously a burst of firing sounded beyond the gates, signifying that the rabble from the quay had come within sight of the soldiery.

A tall elderly man who carried himself elegantly advanced on Terry. "What is the meaning of your presence here?" he demanded in a tone of mingled agitation and anger. He spoke in Spanish, and Terry answered him in that language, for Terry had been born in Seville, Spain, when his father had been resident there as agent for an English firm of planters.

Briefly the youngster started to explain, but presently Esteban Martino cut in on him.

"It happened in this way, Your Excellency." With awe Terry realized he had been speaking to Don Isidore Pancha, the president. "The rabble was cheering-for me, I thought-but as my servant brought my horse the crowd rushed the piano cases, and I saw then they were cheering because the Eldorado carried guns for them--"

He checked. Through the gates came those soldiers Terry had seen in the street, and presently, with those gates slammed against a yelling mob, and officer came running across.

"It is hopeless, Your Excellency," he gasped. "They are ten to one!" We may hold out for half a day-no more. Reinforcements--"

Don Isidore clenched his hands. "It is the scum of the country taking advantage of the troops' absence-scum guided by some traitor and ripe for plunder and looting and the old regime of terror, which we overthrew! Yet we will fight them-Don Pancha does not flee and leave his home to be ransacked, his servants to die! Reinforcements, you said-in half a day! It is impossible, for the army is at San Luis, where I was to attend maneuvers tomorrow, and we have just discovered that telegraphic communication has been destroyed."

He turned to the man whose animosity Terry had aroused aboard the Eldorado. "Martino, my old friend, can you suggest nothing?"

Terry caught his breath on a sudden inspiration. Here was a chance to gain favor for his company, and, into the bargain, to save a country from riot and ruin. "Your Excellency," he said, starting forward, "I am a foreigner, but I am at your service. With my motor-bike perhaps I can reach San Luis with a signed order for your troops there-in time for them to save you."

A faint glimmer of hope came into the president's eyes. "You would do that, Se?or?" he began, and then once again Martino interrupted.

"I have a better way, Your Excellency," he said, with a dark glance in Terry's direction. "Along the rear wall of the palace runs the canal-beyond that is the railway station-and there is a train there now. The rebels, I fancy, have not yet paid their attentions there, and moreover I would go unnoticed in the excitement. I will take the signed order personally-by rail. This English youth is likely to be shot down before he is a dozen yards beyond the gates."

The idea seemed to strike the President favorably. Terry saw his chances of fame and favor evaporating. Moreover, there was a shrewd suspicion in his mind-a suspicion that, he sensed, would be utterly discountenanced by Don Isidore, but...

"Your Excellency," said Terry, "two chances are better than one, and I am willing to run the risk of bullets. There would be more hope of success if both went-Se?or Martino by his train-I by my motor-bike-for it is possible the rebels have tampered with the railway in advance."

The President was silent for a moment. With the orders made out and signed, preparations for departure were begun. Assured of crossing the canal by an improvised raft, Martino went to the rear of the courtyard, not without another frown for Terry. And Terry-he kicked the starter of his bike again and sent the powerful machine into a roaring motion.

Twice he circled the great courtyard, gathering speed, and then, on the second time round the solid double-doors-of dark bronze-were flung open suddenly by the palace guards. Terry was in high gear then, and touching 40 to the hour, and like a lightening streak he went through into the street.

The surprise of it was the saving feature-without it he must have been shot down as Martino had prophezied. But, flashing out through gates that were swiftly slammed and barred behind him, he was up the road and a hundred yards away before the rebels-sheltered for the most part in opposite buildings now-were aware of what had happened.

A volley of shots came after him then, chipping paving stones and asphalt, but from the palace wall came a covering fire from the loyalist soldiers. And, running a gauntlet less formidable than it might have been, a difficult target on account of his speed, Terry escaped unharmed and swung swiftly into a deserted side turning.

He came very soon to the edge of the town. It was walled-the wall a relic of ancient times when the first Conquistadores had founded Las Palmas-and there was a great solid gateway. It had been unguarded, and without a pause Terry hurtled through it into open country.

Right away Terry made a discovery-that Esteban Martino had not lied concerning the roads. The streets of the city were well-laid-out, but the open road was like a London navvy's nightmare-literally pitted with potholes and scarred with ruts, so that to travel at more than 20 miles an hour, even 15 in places, was suicidal. Terry realized that very soon, landing in a heap with his bike a couple of yards off. He picked himself up unharmed but for a bruise or two, and his bike none the worse but for a bent foot-rest; but as he climbed into the saddle once more he caught the drumming of hoofs and, glancing behind, he saw an ill-assorted bunch of rebel horsemen on his trail.

They had secured animals from somewhere, and at once Terry saw that they would make formidable pursuers, for those animals were less hampered-on a road probably familiar to them-than the youngster and his motorcycle. Moreover, their riders were already within range, and their bullets were uncomfortably close.

Terry drew upon the natural resources of an astute brain. A hundred yards to the right, separated from him by ground even worse than the road surface, was Martino's railway-banked up. It had crossed the canal and now ran due north to a range of heat-hazed mountains. And on each side of the rails was a more or less level strip of ground, two or three feet wide.

Terry swung from the road and went bumping and thumping over the chewed-up ground on the right, and as he did so he knew that his pursuers swerved to follow him with a rousing yell.

They were desperately close to him when he gained the banking of the railway, but with a defiant roar the powerful bike surged up the slope and next second Terry was swinging parallel with the metals, gathering speed and more speed on the narrow but level strip alongside them.

There was a daredevil grin on his lips now-in his eyes the exultant gleam of the born speedman in his element. The rebel riders were at a discount now, with the big machine streaking away from them, and they could only follow it with a few ill-aimed shots, the deadliest of which tugged wickedly at the youngster's sleeve.

He paid no heed. In a few seconds he was out of range, and heading along by the track at close on 50 an hour-heading for the north on an iron trail of adventure-the north, those heat-hazed mountains and, beyond, San Luis... "The Canyon of Lost Souls."

Hours of climbing-incessant climbing...

Perched away up there amid those grim fastnesses of vivid, sun-scorched rock he felt oddly trivial, as a fly on a wall. He seemed to be travelling parallel with the brink of a mighty canyon, on a terrace along which the railroad was built. To the left an almost sheer wall of sandstone reared itself farther skyward; to the right, as he had marked, was the gaping chasm, shut off to some extent by a fairly broad parapet of stone.

Between parapet and sandstone wall there was only the width of the track-sleepers, with no strip of ground alongside, so that he was forced to pursue a jolting course over the rough wooden beams. It seemed as if every bone in his body were being jarred numb, yet he saw no alternative. He could only hope that the canyon was of no great length, for, among other things, the tires prevented him from attaining any speed.

Above the deep, slow chuckle of the bike's exhaust he caught a new sound, a sound that brought him half-craning round in the saddle. As he turned he saw the belching black smoke of a railway engine, saw simultaneously the bluff front of the locomotive itself, with its cow-catcher and its great headlight-American pattern, like most of those little state railways equipped from Yankee or British engineering shops.

The loco drew two coaches, and in a flash Terry realized this must be Martino's train. He watched it as it drew nearer, steadily overtaking him on account of his necessarily slackened speed, and then all at once he decided that there was every likelihood of his being run down unless he steered clear of the track.

There was no room for him on each side of the metals-his handlebars were inches too wide-and he could not possibly outstrip the train over those sleepers. There remained the parapet.

Terry, pulling up, dismounted and clambered on to that parapet; then, taking his bike by saddle and handlebars, he gave a superhuman heave. The machine was a prodigious weight, but with his muscles standing out against his shirt sleeves, he lifted it up beside him in his strong arms.

An inadvertent glance drew his attention to the chasm, and at the depth of it as seen from his perch he grew faint and dizzy. Just for an instant it seemed as if some magnetic influence were drawing him to the brink of the parapet, whence he would be plunged to death thousands of feet below.

He forced his thoughts from the awful chasm, and, turning, saw that the train was very close now. He waited for it hurtle past him.

He waited in vain. With the thunder of its wheels growing on him there came a new sound-the shrill metallic screeching of brakes. Next instant the huge engine, enveloped in smoke and steadily hissing steam, was drawing to a standstill beside him.

The smoke wafted aside, blown gustily on some chance breeze, and on that Terry was aware of a familiar figure leaning from a window of the first carriage. There were other figures at other windows-ruffianly looking individuals whom Terry vaguely noted as being armed-but for these he had little attention. His glance was focussed on the first-the figure of Esteban Martino, covering him with a wicked little pearl-handled pistol.

"Well met, my young friend of the foolish little machine," said Esteban Martino, and underneath the jocular sneer in his voice there ran an electric undercurrent of menace. "We were told by a certain party of horsemen that you had taken to the railroad."

Terry stared up at him without the flicker of an eyelid. As he did so he realized that those other figures were flinging open carriage doors and, clambering on to the parapet, advancing toward him. But still the youngster paid them small heed-his mind was on a certain suspicion that had occurred to him in the palace courtyard.

Leisurely he kicked down the stand and propped the motor bike upon it. Then he spoke: "Friends of yours, those horsemen," he said quite casually, and: "Friends of yours, that rabble at the quay?"

Esteban Martino smiled. "Why not? However, so much you have guessed, and I am inclined to tell you more, seeing you are about to die-for die you will, my young friend. The ancient Indians called this the 'Canyon of Lost Souls,' and soon your soul will be flitting to and fro within its depths, when we fling you and your cursed machine down there!"

He paused, his brows drawn down over his glittering eyes. Then:

"I told you of my political influence. I can tell you more-I can tell you that soon I shall be president, for I am the leader of what you were pleased to call a rabble, and I was behind the smuggling of those guns aboard the Eldorado. And but for you and your confounded machine I should be leading my men to victory-a victory which will give hope to all our friends and rouse them against the reining president. For we shall subdue Las Palmas and after that, with recruits flocking to our cause, we shall overwhelm the Government troops at San Luis, who will make but a poor fight when Don Isidore is dead."

The words came as no surprise to Terry, for he had suspected it all along. But even in that moment he marvelled at Chance, which had taken Martino helplessly on the back of a runaway horse into the presence of the man he sought to betray.

Martino was speaking again. "For your interference, and to prevent further interference, you die! I entrained personally, with a handful of my men, to see that you did not reach San Luis and that you died!"

He turned toward the men who had descended to the parapet, half a dozen in number, and at his command they started toward the youngster. It was then that Terry jumped to action.

Standing idly with his hands behind him, he had allowed Martino to talk on and now Martino, turning toward his men, had allowed the pearl-handled pistol to waver. The six, advancing on the Britisher, had pocketed revolvers, which they had been carrying. There were other men in the train-an escort against possible stray parties of loyalist troops-but these had laid their weapons aside and leaned unwarily on the carriage doors. It was Terry's chance.

Like a flash he lifted his hand and something streaked from it, glinting in the sunlight-a heavy spanner he had slipped out of his tool kit. It struck Martino on the temple, and with a cry the traitor went reeling back into his carriage, dropping the pearl-handled pistol.

The foremost of the half-dozen ruffians on the parapet sprang forward with an angry snarl, but swift as lightening Terry spun on his toes and again his right hand was in action.

It held nothing now-beyond an instantaneous sleeping potion. The big bunched knuckles drove home on the dago's jaw with a sickening crack, and the fellow went reeling amidst his fellows, flinging them into momentary confusion.

Momentary, yet Terry needed no more than a moment. In a fraction of time he had kicked his bike from its stand. Next instant he was in the saddle, with the bike roaring defiantly beneath him. Away-along that crazy parapet hung up among the mountains, and the mighty canyon to the right of him checking the breath at the mere glimpse of its depth. Away-and in a twinkling round a nearby bend taken at frantic, desperate speed, with the wheels skidding toward the brink on the smooth, glassy stone.

Yet he was round it in safety, and before so much as a shot could be fired; and somehow he had righted that ghastly skid on the turn and was streaking along in high!

A hundred yards he covered, and then he sensed rather than saw that the train was thundering round the bend after him. A moment later a shot whined across his shoulder and went futilely into space above the canyon, singing its song of death.

Another followed, rattling against his rear mudguard and ricocheting after the first bullet. A third chipped the parapet, aimed for the tires. Terry caught his breath as he saw it spurt up a fragment of stone an inch from the whirling wheel. A burst and he would plunge headlong to doom!

Another bend in the parapet. Terry made it in safety.

On the spur of the moment he made up his mind. A desperate risk, yet he was game to take it-had to take it. Unhesitantly he opened the throttle to the limit, felt the bike leap beneath him like a hound with a cast-off leash, saw the bay under his front wheel.

Mid-air for the briefest fraction of time, and then the jolt of contact with the parapet again. Wildly the machine swayed, but with his heart choking him Terry righted it and gained control of the steering again.

A hundred yards farther on and he knew that he was outstripping the train, with the "speedo" needle well over the 60 mark and climbing, climbing. Sixty-on a parapet above a mighty chasm!

The company had chosen him for riding ability, his command of the language, his engaging way, and his grit. Truly they had made no mistake in their estimate of him! The menace of the bullets again, yet the wild swaying of the train threw out the rebel's aim and with every passing second Terry was a more difficult target.

Another of those chancy bays! And this time it was not to be jumped as the other-Terry saw that as he drew near-saw that its width was too great. There was the alternative-to follow the parapet in its semi-circular outward bulge! No time to climb down and lift his bike over, for before he could effect that and remount, the train would be level with him.

Terry followed the parapet! Round the bay he went, slackening up for the feat almost imperceptibly. On the wild reckless swing he felt the rear wheel sideslip toward the outer edge and the mighty drop, sensed the poising of that wheel half on stone, half in space; and then engine power and driving genius drew it from the brink.

He left the canyon at last, the stone parapet sinking gradually then to the level of the track. Once again Terry found himself careering alongside the sleepers on a narrow strip of level ground, and it was only then that he glanced back. Martino's train was still in sight but losing ground rapidly, for Terry was on a downward slope and the needle was hovering on 70.

A downward slope. All around him the ground sloped downward to a vast, verdant fair-sized city.

He had crossed the mountains and was in sight of San Luis
 
Part Two

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