101 Classic Short Stories: A Question of Time

By Sargent Kayme

“The native pilot who is to take the gunboat Utica around from Ilo Ilo to Capiz is a traitor. I have just discovered indisputable proofs of that fact. He has agreed to run the gunboat aground on a ledge near one of the Gigantes Islands, on which a force of insurgents is to be hidden, large enough to overpower the men on the gunboat in her disabled condition. Do not let her leave Ilo Ilo until you have a new pilot, and one you are sure of.


Captain James Demauny, of the American army in the Philippine Islands, folded the dispatch which he had just written, and sealed it. Then, calling an orderly to him he said, “Send Sergeant Johnson to me.”

Captain Demauny’s company was then at Pasi, a small inland town in the island of Panay. He had been dispatched by the American general commanding at Ilo Ilo, the chief seaport of Panay, to march to Capiz, a seaport town on the opposite side of the island, to assist from the land side a small force of Americans besieged there by the natives, while the gunboat Utica was to steam around the northeastern promontory of the island and cooperate from the water side of the town, in its relief.

The distance across the island was about fifty miles, while that by water, by the route which the Utica must traverse, was about two hundred miles. Captain Demauny, starting first, had covered half the march laid out for him, without incident, until, halting at Pasi, half way across the island and well up in the mountains, he had been so fortunate as to obtain the information which he was about to send back to the commander at Ilo Ilo. Panay had been, up to this time, one of the most quiet islands in the group. He had met with no opposition in his march, so far, and it was believed that the only natives on the island who were under arms were those living in the northeastern part of the territory. It was a force of these that had invested Capiz.

“Sergeant Johnson, sir,” the orderly reported.

“Very well. Send him in.”

A young man, wearing a faded brown duck uniform, tightly buttoned leggings, and a wide-rimmed gray hat, entered the tent.

“I have sent for you, sergeant,” said Captain Demauny, “for two reasons. One is that I want a man who is brave, and one whom I can trust.”

The sergeant bent his head slightly, in acknowledgement of the implied compliment, his cheeks looking a trifle darker shade of brown, where the blood had flushed the skin beneath its double deep coat of tan.

“The other reason,” the officer went on, “is that I want a man of whose muscle and endurance as a runner, and whose skill as a boatman, I have had some proof.”

In spite of the difference in rank, and the seriousness of the situation, which the officer knew and the man guessed, the two men looked at each other and smiled. For one was a Harvard man, and the other had come from Yale.

“The gunboat Utica is to leave Ilo Ilo at midnight, tonight. It is of the very greatest importance that this dispatch,” handing him the letter, “be delivered to the American general at Ilo Ilo before the vessel gets under way. I entrust it to you, to see that it is delivered.

“You ought to have no trouble in getting there in ample season,” the captain continued, spreading out a map so that the other man could see it. “I cannot spare any men for an escort for you, because my force is already far too small for what we have to do. Instead of following back the road we took in coming here—which would be impassable for any one but a man on foot, even if I had a horse for you, which I have not—I think you can make better time by another route.

“Six miles from here,” pointing to the map, “you will reach the same river which we crossed at a point farther up the stream. Get a boat there and go down the river some fifteen or twenty miles, until you come to a native village built at the head of steep falls in the stream. I am told that until you reach there the river is navigable, and that the current is so swift much of the way that you can make rapid progress. At that village you will have to leave your boat, but from that place you will find a clearly marked path to Ilo Ilo.

“The quicker you start, the better; and, as I have told you, I trust it to you to see that the general has the dispatch before the Utica leaves port.”

It was ten o’clock in the forenoon when the sergeant had been sent for to come to headquarters. Half an hour later he had started, the letter tightly wrapped in a bit of rubber blanket before he had placed it inside his jacket, for he had already had enough experience with the native boats to know how unstable they would be in the current of a rapid river.

The five miles from Pasi to the river were easily made, in spite of the fact that it was midday, for there was a good path, which, for nearly all the distance, was shaded by lofty trees. When he reached the river the sergeant bought from a man whom he found there a native “banca,” for three dollars, a sum of money which would make a native rich. In this boat he started on his voyage down the river.

A native “banca” is a “dug-out,” a canoe hollowed out from the trunk of a tree. It is propelled and guided by a short, broad-bladed paddle, and is as unstable as the lightest racing shell, although not any where nearly so easy to send through the water.

It was unfortunate for the sergeant that he did not know—what he could not, since the map did not show it—that the place where the path touched the river first was on the upper side of a huge “ox-bow” bend. If he had kept on by land, a third of a mile’s walk farther through the swamp would have brought him to the river again, at a point to reach which by water, following the river’s windings, he would have to paddle three or four miles.

Another thing which was unfortunate; that he could not know the nature of the man from whom he bought the “banca,” any better than he could know the nature of the river, and so did not suspect that he was dealing with a “tulisane,” to whom the little bag of money which the officer had shown when he had paid for the boat had looked like boundless wealth, to see which was to plan to possess.

A “tulisane” is to the Philippine Islands what a brigand is to Italy, a bandit to Spain, a highwayman to England, and a train-robber to America; a man who lives by his wits, and stops at no means to gain his object. The “banca,” by the way, was stolen property.

This man would have stabbed the American soldier when he stooped to step cautiously into the slippery boat, and taken the purse from his dead body, had he not been far-sighted enough to see that the purse might be had, and much more money beside.

The “tulisane” knew that the American soldiers were at Pasi. Although he did not find it best to come to town himself, in general, he never had any trouble finding men to go there for him, and bring him news, or carry messages. No bandit leader who promptly carves an ear off the man who does his errands grudgingly is half so feared as a Filipino “tulisane” whom his fellows know to be the possessor of a powerful “anting-anting.” And this man’s “anting-anting” was famous for the wonders which it had done.

The “tulisane” knew that the American soldiers were at Pasi; and that the man who led them lived in one of the white tents they had set up there. This man in the brown clothes, which looked so tight that it made the Filipino tired just to look at them, could be no common soldier, else he would not be paying three big silver dollars for a “banca.” If anything was to happen to this man—that is if he was to disappear, and still not be dead, and the officer in the white tent should know of it—the leader of the white soldiers would no doubt pay much money to have his man brought safely back. Consequently the man in the brown clothes, with the fat money purse, should be made to disappear.

That was the way the “tulisane” reasoned. It was the three dollars, the rest of the money in the purse, and the ransom which the leader of the white men would pay, which influenced the Filipino. It was not that the Asiatic highwayman cared a leaf of a forest tree for patriotism. So long as he got the money, white men and brown men were all alike to him, American soldiers and Filipino insurgents.

So the native, going into the forest, a little way back from the river, looked until he found a tree the roots of which growing out from well up the trunk had made a sort of great wooden drum. Taking a stout stick of hard wood which had been leaned against the tree,—he had been there before,—he struck the hollow tree three heavy blows, the sound of which went echoing off through the forest. Then the man listened.

Not long; for from far, very far away, there came an answer, one blow, and then, after a moment’s pause, two more. The drum beats which followed, and the pauses for the faint replies, were like listening to a giant’s telegraph.

The soldier, paddling steadily out around the river’s winding course, heard the noise and wondered curiously what it was. The natives who heard it said, “The trees are talking,” meaning that some one was making them talk. To the “tulisane” the sounds meant that he was bringing his partner to help him, just as at night the far-off, long-drawn cry of a panther calls the creature’s mate to share the prey.

Sergeant Johnson, still paddling, after he would have said that with the help of the current he had put four good miles of the river behind him, saw a tiny ripple in the water ahead of the boat, but in a stream so rapid thought nothing of it.

An instant later a cocoanut fibre rope, stretched taut across the river and just below the surface of the water, had turned his skittish boat bottom upward. The “tulisane,” you see, had seen the sergeant’s revolver, and thought wisest to attack him wet.

Drenched, blowing for breath, before he knew what had happened, the soldier found himself dragged to the bank, disarmed, robbed, his hands bound behind him, and his feet hobbled. He could speak Spanish and so could the “tulisanes.” Words told him that his captors, only two in number, meant him to march, hobbled as he was, along a path which they pointed out; but it took several sharp pricks from a “campilan” which one of them carried, to make him start. For the path led away from the river, away from Pasi, from Ilo Ilo and the Utica, which he would have given his life itself rather than fail to reach in time.

Only a little way back from the river the path began to leave the low land, mounting up to the hills among which the “tulisanes” had their camp. Sometimes one of the brigands led the way, with the prisoner between them, sometimes both drove him before them, secure in the knowledge that in his helpless condition he could not escape. The captain’s message, in its rubber case, still lay undisturbed and dry within the messenger’s jacket. For that he was glad, although his heart sank as every step carried him farther away from the destination of the dispatch, and from the chance of its being delivered in season.

The means which providence uses to accomplish the ends which it desires are marvellous, and those of us who do not believe in providence say, “a strange coincidence.”

The day before, back among the mountains of Panay, a little old Montese woman, who had never heard of God, or of America, and whose only dress had been thirty yards of fine bamboo plaiting coiled round and round her body, had died.

When the dead body had been set properly upright beneath the tiny hut which had been the woman’s home, and food and drink placed beside it for the long journey which the spirit was to take, the hut was abandoned, as is the custom of the tribe, and the men of the family, the woman’s sons and nephews, started out with freshly sharpened lances and “mechetes.”

For this is the only religion of the Monteses; that no one must be left to go alone upon the long journey. And so, when one of a family dies, the men relatives do not stay their hands until some one,—the first person met,—is slain by them to go on the journey as an escort. Only if they seek three days through the wood, and find no human being, then, after the third day, a beast may be slain, and the law of blood still be satisfied.

The sons and nephews of the Montese woman had marched for thirty-six hours, and the steel of their weapons had not been dimmed by any moisture other than the dew, when, suddenly rounding a turn in the mountain path, they met three men.

The first of the three at that moment was the “tulisane” leader, and him, in thirty seconds, they had driven six lances through. His partner, with a scream of terror, dashed into the trackless forest and disappeared. He need not. The demand for a sacrifice was appeased, and the men who had killed the “tulisane” cared as little for his companion as they did for the white man who had been his prisoner. All they wanted, now, was to get back to the Montese country, and to the new huts which their women would have been building in their absence. The white man’s words they could not understand, but his gestures were intelligible, and before they parted, he to hurry back towards the river and they towards the Montese country, they had cut the cords which bound the soldier’s hands and hobbled his feet, and thus had left him free to make such haste as he could.

Even then the afternoon was well nigh gone when the messenger reached the river at the place where he had been dragged from it; and practically all his journey was yet before him, wearied as he was.

For once, though, fortune favored him. His dug-out had grounded on a sandy island hardly a dozen rods below where it had been overturned, and swimming out to it, he soon had righted it and was on his way again.

At first the forest on each side was a tropic swamp. Then the river grew more swift, with here and there rapids in which it took all his skill with his clumsy paddle to keep his boat from being upset. The ground had begun to grow higher here, and back from the banks there were rank growths of hemp and palm trees.

A few miles farther, and he was in the mountains, the river winding about like a lane of water between walls which were almost perpendicular, and covered with the densest, bright green foliage, in which parrots croaked hoarsely and monkeys chattered sleepily as they settled themselves for the night. The walls of the living canon grew narrower and steeper. The river here was as still as a lake, and the current so sluggish that only his labour with the paddle sent the “banca” forward. It grew dark quickly and fast, down in the bottom of this mountain gorge, and by and by the twilight glow on the tops of the banks, when he would peer up at them, grew fainter.

The soldier strained his eyes to look ahead. Would the living green canons of that river never end? It was dark now, except that the stars in the narrow line of sky above the gorge sent down light enough to make the surface of the water gleam faintly and mark out his course.

He drew his paddle from the water, and holding it so that the drops which trickled from it would make no noise, listened breathlessly for the sound of the falls which marked the site of the village he was to find, and at it leave his boat for the land again. A night bird screamed in the forest, and then there was utter silence, until a soft splash in the water beside him revealed the ugly head of a huge black crocodile following the dug-out.

By and by the stars in the lane of sky above grew dim, and a stronger light, which faintly illuminated the river gorge, told him that the full moon had risen, although not yet high enough to light his course directly. After a time the gorge grew wider and its sides less steep and high; and then, at last, he heard the roar of the falls, and found the village, and had landed.

What time it might be now the sergeant did not dare to guess. A sleepy native pointed out to him the path, stared, when the stranger said he must hurry on to Ilo Ilo that night, and flatly refusing to be his guide, went back to bed.

The forest path was rankly wet with night dew, and dimly lighted by the moon. The soldier hurried forward, only to find that in his haste he had missed the main path. Slowly and anxiously he retraced his way until he found the right road again, and then went forward slowly enough now to go with care.

And so, at last, he saw before him the city of Ilo Ilo, only to learn, when he was challenged by a picket, that it was one o’clock and that the Utica had steamed out of the harbour an hour before.

Useless as he feared the dispatch might be now, Sergeant Johnson insisted that it be delivered at once, and that he be given an opportunity to ask to be allowed to tell the general why he was so late. When that officer, roused from sleep, had read the dispatch and heard the story briefly, for there were other things to be thought of then, he told the young man, “You have done well,” for he knew the ways of Filipino “tulisanes,” “and after all perhaps you may not be too late.”

But before he explained what he meant by the last part of his sentence, the general called for one of his aids, and as soon as the man could be brought, hastily gave him certain orders with instructions that they were to be communicated to the officers whom they concerned, as quickly as was possible, regardless of how sound asleep those gentlemen might be.

Then, because he was at heart a kindly man, and because he felt that the water-soaked, thorn-torn soldier before him, pale with weariness and anxiety, had done his best, the general told him what was the nature of the dispatch, and why, even then, he might yet be in time.

For by another of the fortunate dispensations of providence, or if you please, by a strange coincidence, that very afternoon another American gunboat had unexpectedly steamed into the harbour of Ilo Ilo and dropped anchor.

The general had sent messages to the commander of the Ogdensburgh, explaining the situation to him, and as soon as that officer understood the matter he replied, “You did just right.”

“We will start in pursuit of the Utica as soon as we can get up steam, and do our best to overtake her.”

Could they overtake her? That was the question. She had a good three hours start, for daylight was breaking before the Ogdensburgh could be got under way, and the registered speed of the boats was about equal.

At any rate there was doubt enough as to what the result would be so that when the Ogdensburgh reached the town of Concepcion, fifty miles up the coast from Ilo Ilo, and the Utica was seen to be lying at anchor in the harbour there, the commander of the Ogdensburgh said words which were as thankful as they were emphatic. For just beyond Concepcion harbour began the narrow channels of the Gigantes Islands, in some of which he had feared to find the gunboat wrecked.

When the captain of the Utica came to know why he was pursued, and what he had escaped, he was as grateful for the faulty cylinder head which had delayed him as, the night before, he had been exasperated by it.

The pilot, charged with his treachery, proved at once that the charge was true, by turning traitor again and offering to buy the safety of his own neck by guiding the boats to where they could shell the woods in which the natives were hidden.