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Chapter XXXV The Last Shot on Afitā.

BY this time the ship was within three or four miles of the island, and had been seen by one of the Tahitian women. She ran back to the settlement, and roused the little community to a state of wild excitement by her loud cries of “A ship! a ship! A ship is coming.”

Soon Young and Smith reached the cliffs, and one glance at the ocean showed them the vessel—a ship of war, they were quick to perceive, by the cut of her canvas and her lofty spars.

Young was scarcely able to walk, and his excitement at first prevented him from speaking, but when he could control himself he held a hurried consultation with Smith, who then set off for Christian's cave to inform him of the ship's approach, while Young returned to the settlement and told Mahina to prepare to leave the house and, with the other women, be ready to hide herself if necessary.

They had resolved, as a first step towards safety, that every person on the island should assemble near the

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cavern. The difficulty of access and the remoteness of its situation, they thought, would afford them all a safe retreat from such people as might land. It was hoped by Young and Smith that, unless the vessel was a King's ship specially sent to search for the missing mutineers, those who placed foot on shore would not easily discover that the island was inhabited. As a first precaution, however, some of the women were sent to remove all traces of human occupancy from the two little beaches, and to cover up the Bounty's boat with dead coconut branches and bushes.

Four of them departed to do this, while Mahina and her children, with the remaining women, set out for Christian's cave.

But when they reached the cavern they found it deserted by both Christian and Smith, and saw that no preparations had been made to defend the narrow path leading to the stronghold.

Frightened at the absence of the two men, the terrified women ran hither and thither, calling loudly, and seeking for traces of them; till presently Mahina, wildly excited, sped down the path and looked over the edge of the cliffs to the beach below. Then a cry of alarm broke from her.

Beckoning to the others, she flew down the perilous path to the shore. Half-way she stumbled and, but for a projecting pinnacle of rock, would have pitched headlong to the beach. Before she recovered herself the other women overtook her, and were peering down to discover what it was that had so agitated her. But from where they clustered together they could see only

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the billows bursting in foam upon the black rocks below; and while they waited for Mahina to explain there came the report of a musket from beneath.

Too far down on their way to turn back, as their rears dictated, Mahina's companions stood trembling and hesitating, their hearts filled with an undefined apprehension that some fresh tragedy had occurred.

Smith, filled with anxiety for his leader, had hurried along the rocky track to Christian's cave. The dreaded hour had arrived at last—the hour that he and the other mutineers had so often feared. A King's ship! Yes, she could be no other! His seaman's eye told him she was a ship of war. Perhaps she was a Frenchman? That was not likely. She was English—sent to search for them; and even if she were not, she evidently intended to send a boat ashore. Once a landing party from the ship ascended the cliffs they could not fail to see the houses, and would not take long to find those who lived in them. Then would come discovery and a disgraceful death.

But, thought he, Christian will never be taken alive; and even if the presence of white men upon the island should be discovered, the cave was hard to find. And still, even if the ship were in search of Christian and his companions, the identity of the inhabitants might not perhaps be suspected. If the worst came to the worst, they could make a fight of it to the death in such a place as Christian's stronghold.

So ran the quick current of his thoughts as he

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panted up the ridge to the cave—then, with an exclamation of dismay, he saw that it was untenanted.

As loudly as possible he called Christian's name, but only the countless reverberation of his cries answered him from the desolate solitude. A hurried glance down the path which he had just ascended showed no human being in sight. Surely Christian could not be far off? He must either be coming along the ridge and hidden from view, or lying asleep somewhere along the edge of the cliffs. Perhaps he had gone to the beach?

Hastily descending again, Smith struck across to the eastern side of the island, till he came to a spot which overlooked Bounty Bay. He knew that Christian, in his lonely wanderings, sometimes visited the place, and sat for hours upon the wreckage of the Bounty's spars. A thick, stunted growth of matted scrub and vines grew to the very edge of the cliffs, but hastily pushing through it, the seaman looked down. There, far below, he saw the man he sought, bending his tackle to launch the Bounty's boat!

The next moment, too anxious even to lose time by descending the regular path Smith, at the hazard of his life, began to scramble down the almost precipitous face of the cliff. At last, with bleeding feet and hands, he reached the shore.

“In God's name, Mr. Christian, what are you trying to do?” he demanded, breathlessly.

“What am I trying to do?” repeated Christian fiercely—“I am about to end it all. That is a King's ship, and I am going to give myself up.”

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“You must be mad to talk like this. Come away at once and let us get back to the cave, or we shall all be discovered.”

“It will be your own fault if you are; you and those with you may do as you please, but I will board that ship,” answered Christian wildly, and Smith saw that he was nearly mad with excitement. As he spoke he still strained with all his might on the tackle, and the boat, once started, slid down the skids till her stern touched the pebbly beach.

“By God, you shan't do this! Our lives as well as yours depend upon your hiding with us”; and Smith laid his hand on the fall of the tackle so as to prevent Christian from unshipping the hook.

“Stand back, Smith! Stand back, I say. I swear that no longer shall justice go unsatisfied. I will go!” As a wave dashed up, the boat lifted and floated; he sprang past Smith, jumped in and cast off the tackle.

Seizing hold of the gunwale, Smith exerted all his strength and drew the boat broadside on to the beach.

“Beware, man, beware!” and Christian's eyes blazed with sudden fury—“let go your hold, I say. I am dangerous!” Smith recognised it was no time for words; he released his hold, jumped into the boat, and threw himself upon the desperate man. They went down together, and the boat rocked from side to side with the violence of their struggle. No word was spoken, but there was in Christian's face such a look of savage determination to overcome his friend, that Smith at last aimed a blow at his head, thinking to stun him for a time.

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Nerved with a madman's strength, the blow only seemed to rouse him to greater fury; with a mighty effort he freed himself from Smith's left arm, which was wound about his waist, and in another moment his hand grasped the barrel of the loaded musket, which he drew towards him by the muzzle.

Then Smith again threw himself upon him. There was a short, fierce struggle, a report, and Fletcher Christian sank back with a groan—the ball had passed through his chest.

Sick with horror, Smith staggered to his feet and raised the dying man in his arms. He lifted him out of the boat and carried him to the beach, where he placed him in a sitting posture; then tearing off his shirt he sought to stanch the fearful rush of blood.

“My God, sir! my God, sir! you don't think 'twas my doing?” he asked in anguished tones.

“No, no, my good fellow,” gasped Christian, “you are not to blame. My foot must have touched the trigger.… I was mad.”

Smith knelt beside him, overcome with grief and blinded by tears. He took his leader's hand in his and tried to speak, but one look at the gaping wound told him that the end was near.

And then there echoed from the cliffs a cry of heart-broken agony. Mahina, springing from rock to rock, had reached the overhanging ledge under which her husband lay, and, looking down, saw him.

Leaping to the ground, she turned upon Smith. “Thou murderer; thou hast slain him!” she cried,

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and pushing him away, threw herself upon her knees beside her husband.

“Nay, nay, Mahina,” he said; “not so. My foot struck the gun.… He hath ever been my friend.… Listen to me … for in a little time I die.”

Slowly and gaspingly the words came, and Mahina, with a sob of misery, saw the grey shadows of death dimming the eyes of him she loved so well.

“He shall not die; he shall not die!” she cried wildly to Smith and Young, who had now joined them, and was overcome at the scene before him. “Save him, save him, lest ye both die accursed!” then burst into anguished weeping, as she bent her face upon her husband's knees.

“Is that you, Young?” asked Christian faintly—“my time is nearly run, old friend,” and he put out his brown, sun-tanned hand. “But, quick; listen to me.… Save yourselves while there is yet time. … The ship must be near now.”

“No,” said Young, pressing his hand, “she kept off quite suddenly when within a mile of the land. I saw her stand away again to the westward. In another hour she'll be hull down.”

“Thank God!” he murmured. “Mahina. wife … come closer to me, … and you, Young and Smith, give me your hands. Promise me that no one but yourselves shall ever know where I lie. Let no other white man point to my grave and say, ‘Fletcher Christian … mutineer.’ ”

He ceased, then by a dying effort, opened his arms wide.

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“Mahina! My wife! Mother of my children! … it is all over now,” he sighed with his last breath, as his arms closed gently round her neck.

She pressed her cheek to his; his head sank upon her shoulder, and then lay there in the quietness of death.

Years later, when Pitcairn was “discovered,” the venerable man, loved and revered by the children of the mutineers under the name of John Adams, revealed his identity with Alexander Smith, and tremblingly waited to hear his fate from the lips of the naval officers who had landed on the island. The story of the death of Young from consumption soon after that of Christian, as well as the deaths of the others of the ill-starred company, was told by him; though, faithful to his promise, he refused to show his leader's last resting-place; and the listeners heard for the first time the fate of the Bounty mutineers.

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