Harold Bindloss.

The Boy Ranchers of Puget Sound



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CHAPTER I
FRANK GOES WEST

It was the middle of an afternoon in May. An old side-wheeler was steaming south toward Puget Sound across the land-locked waters that lie between Vancouver Island and the state of Washington. A little astern on one hand Mount Baker lifted its heights of eternal snow. On the other, and a little ahead, the Olympians rose white and majestic; and between, vast, dim forests rolled down to the ruffled, blue water. It seemed to Frank Whitney, sitting on the steamer's upper deck in the lee of her smokestack, that it was a wild and wonderfully beautiful country he had reached at last; for since leaving Vancouver, British Columbia, they had steamed past endless rocks and woods, while island after island faded into the smoke trail down the seething wake and great white mountains opened out, changed their shapes, and closed in on one another as the steamer went by. He had, however, not come there to admire the scenery, and as he watched the wonderful panorama unroll itself he looked back upon the troubles that had befallen him since he set out from Boston a little less than a year ago.

When he left that city he was but sixteen, and was, as he had cause to realize during the following twelve months, merely an average American boy, with a certain amount of alertness, self-reliance and common sense; though he might, perhaps, have had more of these desirable qualities, had he not been a trifle spoiled by his widowed mother before he went to Gorton school. He had, quite apart from his lessons, learned a few useful things there which probably he would never have learned at home, but he had been suddenly recalled, and his mother had informed him that it was now impossible for him to enter the profession for which he had been intended. Frank did not understand all the reasons for this, but he knew that they were connected with the fall in value of some railroad stock and the failure of a manufacturing company in which his mother held shares. She had, as she pointed out, his two younger sisters to provide for, and he must earn his living at once.

Frank found this much harder than he had expected. The subjects in which he excelled did not seem to be of the least use to business men, and the fact that he could play several games moderately well did not seem to count at all. There were people who were ready to give him a trial, but they seemed singularly unwilling to pay him enough to live in a way that he considered fitting; and this somewhat astonished as well as troubled him. In the end, a relative, who said that a young man with any grit and snap had better chances in the West, found him a position with a big milling company in Minneapolis. Frank accepted the position, but soon found it not much to his liking. The people he met were not like his Boston friends. They were mostly Germans and Scandinavians, and their ways were not those to which he had been accustomed.

What was worse, they hustled him in the milling company's offices, and instead of teaching him the business kept him busy licking stamps, copying letters and answering telephones, which did not seem to him a fitting occupation for an intellectual lad.

He bore it, nevertheless, because he had to, until one day there came a climax, when a clerk who had bullied him all along assigned to him a particularly disagreeable task which was really outside his duties. In return, in a fit of very foolish anger, Frank screwed the clerk's new hat down tight in a copying-press, and it happened that the secretary came upon the scene during the trouble that followed. The secretary had an unpleasant temper, and when he walked out of the general office Frank sat down at his desk boiling with indignation and almost stupefied. There was, however, not the least doubt that he was fired.

He spent a very dismal evening afterward, for one thing, at least, was clear – he could not go home to Boston and become a burden on his mother. But the flour trade was bad in Minneapolis just then, and business in St. Paul did not seem much better, so eventually he found employment in the offices of a milling company in Winnipeg. He suffered from the extreme cold during the winter there. The cold of Massachusetts, as he discovered, is very different from the iron frost which shuts down on the Canadian prairie and never slackens its grip for months together. The clothing he had brought from Boston was not warm enough, and his small earnings would only provide him with shelter in the cheapest quarters. Still, he held on until trade grew slack in the early spring and he was turned adrift again. This time he felt that he had had enough of business. He had heard and read of men who burrowed for treasure in the snow-clad ranges, broke wild horses, and cleared the forests, out in the farthest West. There was a romance in that life surpassing anything that seemed likely to be got out of the addition of flour invoices or the licking of stamps, and he wrote a letter to an old friend of his dead father, who lived on a ranch near Puget Sound. It was some time before he got an answer telling him rather tersely to come along.

Frank started the day after he received it, and was now, he supposed, within a short distance of his journey's end. He had never seen his father's friend, and knew nothing of what he would be required to do at the ranch, though he fancied that all that was necessary could readily be learned by an intelligent lad. In this, however, he was wrong.

Suddenly the steamer's whistle hurled a great blast out across the waters, and, looking around, Frank saw, not far ahead, a long point strewn with rocks and streaked with wisps of pines. There was, however, no sign of life on it, and he turned to a deck-hand who strode by.

"Can that be Bannington's?" he asked.

"Yes," the man informed him. "I guess that's just what it is."

"But there's nobody about," objected Frank.

The deck-hand grinned.

"Did you expect it was like Seattle or Port Townsend? There's a store to the place, and they've got a post-office back among the rocks. We lay off and whistle, and if there's no sign of a shore boat she goes on again."

He went forward with a jump as a man came out of the pilot house with a pair of glasses in his hand.

"Run up slow," he ordered. "There's nothing coming yet."

The big side-wheels beat more slowly and the whistle called again, but there was still only the ruffled blue water with white flecks on it and the rapidly rising pines. Frank watched them anxiously, for he had only about two dollars in his pocket, and it seemed quite possible that he might be carried on to Seattle, in which case he had not the faintest notion as to how he was to get back. It was quite certain that he could not pay any more steamboat fares.

A minute or two later the man with the glasses raised his hand as a sail crept out around the point, and the big wheels stopped. The strip of canvas grew into a gaff mainsail and a jib; the hull beneath it emerged at intervals from the little tumbling seas; and it became apparent to Frank for the first time that it was blowing rather hard. The sail seemed to be dripping and he could see the spray flying about the shapeless figure at the helm. Then the steamboat officer motioned to him.

"Are you getting off here?" he asked.

Frank answered rather dubiously that this was his intention.

"Then you'd better get down on to the wheel-case bracings with your grip. I don't know how they're going to take you off, but I guess they'll shoot her up head to wind and you'll have to jump."

Frank got out on the guard-framing on the after side of the wheel and watched the boat drive by, swung up on a little sea some distance away. Half of her hull seemed to be under water, though the fore part of it was hove up streaming into the air. She rolled wildly with her big mainsail squared right out and the jib, which hung slack, dripping water. Then she came round and headed for the steamer, lying down all slanted to one side, while the water sluiced along her lee deck, and Frank made out a boy crouching under the sail with a rope in his hand. It seemed to him that the boat must inevitably ram the steamer and smash in her bows. Then a hail reached him.

"Hello, pilot house! Shove her astern soon as we're clear of you!"

Somebody shouted an answer, and the steamer swung out, lifting a row of wet plates out of the water and burying them again with a gurgling splash. A glance around showed Frank a deck-hand standing behind him with a long, spiked pole and a crowd of passengers leaning over the rails of the deck above. How he was to get into the boat he did not know, for the thing was beginning to look difficult. Then there was another shout from the figure at her helm:

"That you, Whitney?"

Frank waved his hand in answer, hastily grabbing up the small bag which contained his few possessions. The wheel-casing sank again into a ridge of frothing brine which swirled about his feet, and he felt that it would be a good deal wiser to climb back to the deck above and go on to Seattle. This, however, was out of the question, even if there had not been so many passengers looking on, and it was comforting to remember that he could swim a little. The next moment the deck-hand touched his arm.

"I'll sling your grip aboard her as she shoots," he said. "Then jump, and stick to anything you get your hands on."

The boat was now only seven or eight yards away, nearer the steamer's stern, but as Frank gazed at her she suddenly swayed upright with a frantic thrashing of canvas, and shot forward head to wind beneath the vessel's side. The next moment his bag went hurtling through the air, and he heard the deck-hand shout something in his ear. Then he set his lips and jumped.

He struck something hard with his knees, and was conscious of a sudden chill as the brine washed over one leg, but he had his hands clenched tight on a strip of wet wood, and somebody seized him by the shoulder. Making a determined effort he dragged himself up on the narrow side deck, and fell in a heap into the bottom of the boat. When he scrambled to his feet again the big side-wheel was splashing amidst a welter of churned-up foam as the steamer pushed away from them, and, in the boat, the boy he had already noticed was tugging desperately at a rope.

"Get hold and heave!" he cried.

Frank did as the boy directed. Then the helmsman waved his hand.

"Not too flat! Belay at that! Get down here aft, both of you!"

Frank staggered aft a pace or two, and sitting down breathless and dripping gazed about him. The boat looked a good deal bigger than she had appeared from the steamer, and, as a matter of fact, she was a half-decked sloop of about twenty-four feet in length. Just then she was slanted well down on one side, with the water foaming along her depressed deck and showers of spray beating into her over her weather bow, while the jib above her bowsprit every now and then plunged into the short, white-topped seas. There seemed to be some water inside her, for it washed up above the floorings at every heave. In a few moments Frank had recovered his breath sufficiently to look around at his companions. One was a boy of about his own age who smiled at him. He had a bronzed skin and a kindly expression, and looked lean and wiry.

"You're Frank Whitney?" asked the boy.

Frank acknowledged that this was his name, and the other proceeded to introduce himself and his companion.

"I'm Harry Oliver, and, as you're going to stay with us, we've got to hit it off together."

Then he turned and indicated the ruddy-faced, red-haired man who held the helm.

"This is Jake, one of the smartest choppers and trailers on the Pacific Slope. There aren't many of the boys who could have picked you off that steamboat in a breeze of wind as he did."

"Oh, pshaw!" said the helmsman with a grin.

Neither of them had said anything striking in the way of welcome, but Frank felt quickly at ease with them. As a rule, the new acquaintances he had made in business farther east seemed to expect him to recognize their superiority, or, at least, to understand that it was a privilege to be admitted into their society. His present companions, however, somehow made it plain that as long as he was willing to be commonly civil there was no reason why they should not get on well together, for which he was thankful, though he felt that any attempt to put on airs with them would probably lead to trouble.

"How far is it to your father's ranch?" he asked presently.

"Twelve miles," responded Harry. "With a head wind like this one, it means from eighteen to twenty-four miles' sailing. It depends, for one thing, on Jake's steering."

"Thirty, sure," broke in the helmsman, "if you had the tiller."

"How's that?" asked Frank.

"Know anything about sailing?"

Frank confessed his ignorance, and Jake nodded to Harry.

"Show him," he said. "He has got to learn and you can teach the fellow who'll allow he doesn't know anything. The kind we've no use for is the one that knows too much."

Harry laid a wet finger on the hove-up weather deck.

"Now," he began, "a boat or a ship under sail can go straight to the place she's bound for as long as she has the wind anywhere from right behind her to a little forward on her side. In fact, as she'll lie up within a few points of the wind, there's only a small segment of the circle you can't sail her straight into."

He traced a circle on the deck and then placed his finger over about a quarter of the circumference of it.

"She won't go there."

"But supposing you want to?"

"Then, if the wind's ahead, you have to beat." He drew two lines across the circle at right angles to each other and laid his finger at the end of one. "Say we're here at north and the cove we're going to lies about south. Well, you get your sheets in flat – same as we have them now – and you sail up this way, at this angle to the wind." He ran a slanting line across the circle until it touched the rim. "That brings you here; then you come round, and go off at the same angle on the opposite tack, which brings you right up to the cove. You can do it in two long tacks, or – and it's the same thing – in a lot of little ones, each at the same angle to the wind; but how many degrees there are in that angle and when you get there depends on how your sails are cut and how smart you are at steering her."

Frank understood the gist of it, but there were one or two difficulties, and he was not ashamed to ask a question:

"What makes her go slantways against the wind? Why doesn't it blow her back, or sideways?"

"It does," Jake broke in dryly, "if you don't sail her right, or it blows hard enough."

"What makes a kite go up slantways against, or on, the wind, which is the same thing in sailing?" continued Harry. "Because with the wind and the string both pulling her, that's the line of least resistance." He paused, and added deprecatingly, "I was at school at Tacoma and as I'd a notion I might take up surveying, they pounded some facts into me that made this kind of thing easier to get hold of. A boat goes ahead on the wind because, considering the shape of her, it's the easiest way; and this is what stops her going off sideways to lee." He kicked a high narrow box which ran along the middle of the boat. "It holds the centerboard – a big plate that's down deep in the water now. Before the wind could shove her off sideways – and it does a little – it would have to press that flat plate sideways through the water."

Frank made a sign of comprehension.

"That's about the size of it," said Jake. "Now I guess it would be more useful if you got some of the water out of her."

Harry, who explained that there was something wrong with the pump, pulled up one of the flooring boards and invited Frank to dip a bucket into the cavity and hand it up to him when it was full. Frank endeavored to do so, but found it difficult, for the water which surged to and fro as the sloop plunged left the bottom of the hole almost dry one moment and the next came splashing back so rapidly that before he could get a fair scoop with the bucket it had generally gone again. Besides, the motion every now and then flung him off his knees; but he toiled on with his head down for nearly half an hour, when a horrible nausea mastered him and he staggered to the foam-swept lee coaming. For the next ten minutes he felt desperately unhappy, and when he turned around again there was a grin on the faces of his companions.

"She'll do," said Harry. "You want to look to weather and get the wind on your face. That's the best way to keep a hold on your dinner."

Frank suddenly remembered that he had had no dinner. He had had only a dollar or two left in his possession, and after considering the steamboat tariff he had decided to dispense with the meal. In spite of this fact and the unpleasant sensations he felt, he was conscious of a certain satisfaction with his new surroundings. The seasickness would pass, and grappling with the winds of heaven and the charging seas seemed a finer thing than adding up the price of flour or sticking stamps on letters. Here man's skill, nerve and quickness were pitted against the variable elements, and Frank had a suspicion – which, as it happened, was quite justified – that if Jake made a blunder the next white-topped comber would come foaming across the bows of the craft. It was only his cool judgment and ready hand on the tiller that swung her safely over them.

Raising himself a little he glanced ahead. The steamer and her smoke trail had vanished some time ago, and the white Olympians had faded, too. Evening was drawing on. The sky was now a dismal, dingy gray, and the leaden-blue water was streaked with flecks and curls of foam. It seemed to him that the sea was steadily getting higher, and there was not the least doubt that the sloop was slanting more sharply and throwing the spray all over her.

"It looks bad up yonder, doesn't it?" he queried in anxious tones.

"I allow we might have more wind by and by," Jake answered laconically. "Seems to me she has about all the sail she can stand up to on her now."

He had scarcely finished speaking when a comber curled over at its top rose up close ahead, and the boat went into it to the mast. Part of it poured over the forward head ledge into the open well, and the rest sluiced foaming down the slanted deck to lee, through which she lurched clear, with the water splashing and gurgling inside her.

"We'll heave another reef down right away," said Jake. "Get forward, Harry, and claw that headsail off her."

The boy seized a wet sail that lay in the well, and as he crawled forward with it the sloop rose almost upright, with her mainsail banging and thrashing furiously. When he loosed a rope the jib ran partly down its stay, and then jammed, filling out and emptying with sudden shocks that shook the stout spar beneath it and the reeling mast. Harry, however, crawled out on the bowsprit with his feet braced against a wire – a lean, dripping figure that dipped in the tumbling seas – and Frank, seeing that he was struggling vainly with the sail, scrambled forward to help him, sick as he was. Water flowed about his knees on the plunging deck, flying ropes whipped him, and the spray was hurled into his face, but he could think of no reason why the Western boy should do more than he could. He crouched down, hauling savagely on a rope at which Harry pointed, and by and by the sail fell upon both of them. They dragged it in, made it fast, and set a smaller one in place of it, after which they floundered aft to where Jake was struggling with the mainsail.

He had hauled down what Frank afterward learned was the leach of it, and was now standing with his toes on the coaming and his chest upon the boom, pulling down the hard, drenched canvas and tying the little bits of rope that hung in a row from it around the boom.

"Hustle!" he shouted. "Get those reef-points in!"

Frank took his place with his companion, and tried not to look at the frothing water close beneath him as he leaned out on the jerking boom. For the most part, the big spar lay fairly quiet, but now and then the canvas above it shook itself with a bang. It cost him a strenuous effort to drag each handful of it down in turn, and he discovered afterward that he had broken two of his nails. He lost his breath, the perspiration started from every pore in his skin, and he was sick and dizzy, but he managed to hold on. At last it was finished, and soon afterward Jake, driving the sloop on her course again, turned to Harry.

"She'll make nothing of it against this breeze," he said. "We'll up-helm and look for shelter under Tourmalin."

Harry, bracing himself against the strain, let a rope run through the clattering blocks, the bow swung around, and the motion became a little easier.

"We'll be snug beneath the pines in an hour," said Jake, nodding reassuringly.

Frank found the time quite long enough. He was wet and dizzy, and the way the big frothing ridges came tumbling up out of the growing darkness was rather terrifying. They heaved themselves up above the boat, and every time that one foamed about her she slanted alarmingly over to leeward. At last, when it had grown quite dark, a shadowy blur that grew into a wisp of tall pines rose up ahead, and a minute or two later there was an almost bewildering change from the rolling and plunging as the sloop ran into smooth water. Her sails dropped, the anchor chain rattled out, and by and by they were all sitting in the little cabin, which was scarcely three feet high, and Jake was cramming bark and kerosene rags into the stove.



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