The Boy Ranchers of Puget Sound
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"What kind of a man?"
"A stranger. He looked like a sailor and seemed liberal. Said he wanted the team particularly, and if I'd have them handy when he turned up we needn't quarrel about the figure. That must have meant I could charge most what I liked."
"What did you say?"
Mr. Webster smiled. "I just told him the horses were promised and I couldn't make the deal. Anyway" – and he added this in a different voice – "I'd no notion of going back on you."
"Thanks," said Mr. Oliver quietly, and they talked about other matters until Webster, making a few more excuses to Miss Oliver, drove away. When he had gone she looked at her brother and laughed softly.
"I was startled but not very much astonished when the gun went off," she said. "The little incident was so characteristic of the man."
The next day the boys commenced practicing at flung-up meat cans with the cartridges he had given them and in a week they could hit one every now and then at thirty yards. Soon afterward Mr. Oliver went away. He only told the boys that he was going to Tacoma, but Harry thought it possible that he wanted to see Mr. Barclay, since Mr. Webster's story made it clear that the dope runners were about again. He announced ingenuously that they had better try the flight-shooting while his father was away, because if they came back all right with several ducks he would probably not object to their going another time. Miss Oliver seemed doubtful when they casually mentioned the project to her, but as she did not actually forbid it they set out with the sloop late one afternoon, taking the dog with them.
It was falling dusk and the tide had been running ebb two or three hours when they beat in under the lee side of one of the islands they had passed on a previous occasion on their way to the settlement. After anchoring the sloop where she would lie afloat at low water some distance off the beach they got into the canoe and paddling ashore crossed the island, which was small and narrow. It was covered with thin underbrush and dwarf firs, and on its opposite side a broad stretch of wet sand and shingle with pools and creeks in it stretched back toward the channel, which cut it off from the mainland.
To the eastward, the pale silver sickle of a crescent moon hung low in the sky, but westward a wide band of flaring crimson and saffron still burned beneath dusky masses of ragged cloud and the uncovered sands gleamed blood-red in the fading glow. A cold wind stirred the pines to an eerie sighing, and the splash of a tiny surf came up faintly from the outer edge of the sands. The whole scene struck Frank as very forbidding and desolate, and he fancied that there was a threat of wind in the sky. Something in the loneliness troubled him, and for no particular reason he felt half sorry that he had come. He realized that it would have been much more cozy in the sloop's cabin than upon that dreary beach, and he said something about the weather to Harry.
"We'll be sheltered here if the breeze does come up, and this looks just the place where we ought to get a duck," his companion answered."There aren't many spots like it around this part of the coast, where we've generally deeper water. Perhaps we'd better move on a little nearer yonder clump of firs. They'll hide us from any birds that come sailing down to the flats."
"What's the matter with the dog?" Frank asked. "What's he snuffing at?"
The animal was trotting about with his nose upon the ground and would not come when they called him.
"I don't know," said Harry carelessly. "Perhaps somebody's been across the island lately, though I don't think it's often a white man lands here."
They took up their stations a little apart from each other among some very rough boulders, with the nearest of the firs on a rocky ridge some thirty or forty yards away from them. Their ragged branches cut in a sharp ebony pattern against the sky, which was duskily blue. It was very cold and the wind seemed fresher, for the trees were rustling and moaning, and the calling of distant wildfowl came up through the increasing murmur of the surf.
Frank's boots had suffered from hard wear in the bush, and, as he had stumbled into a pool, his feet were very wet, but he crouched behind a boulder, clutching the single-barreled gun with cold fingers, and watching the sky beyond the fir tops, for what seemed a considerable time. Nothing moved across it except a long wisp of torn-edged cloud, and he was commencing to wonder whether it would not be better to go back to the sloop when Harry called softly, and he heard a new sound in the darkness somewhere beyond the firs. It suggested the regular movement of a row of fans, which was the best comparison that occurred to him, for there was a kind of measured beat in it, and in another few moments he recognized it as the rhythmic stroke of wings. Then a double line of dark bodies spreading out from a point in the shape of a wedge appeared close above him against the sky.
He saw that they had long necks, but that was all, for they were coming on with an extraordinary swiftness. There was a crash as Harry's gun flung a streak of red fire into the darkness. Then Frank pitched up the single barrel, pulling hard upon the trigger as the butt struck his shoulder. He felt the jar of it and saw a whirling blaze, after which he swung around when Harry's gun flashed again.
The wedge, which had scattered, was reuniting. He could just see it dotted upon the sky, but he fancied that one dark object had come whirling down and struck the flats outshore of him a few seconds earlier.
"One, sure!" cried Harry. "I've an idea there's a cripple, too, trailing on the ground. Where's that dog? I wonder if he'd hunt it up?"
They called, but there was no sign of the animal.
"He'd probably sit down and eat it, if he got it," said Frank, laughing. "As he isn't here, we'd better get after the birds."
They soon picked up the dead one, a mallard, Harry said; but it was some minutes before they saw the other fluttering across a patch of wet sand. Breaking into a run they were astonished to find that they did not get much nearer, and it must be admitted that Frank fired again without stopping it. After that, it led them through several pools and runlets of water, until at a flash of Harry's gun it lay still, but they were almost up to their knees in a little channel before they retrieved it.
"I wonder how long we'll have to wait before some more ducks come," said Harry as they made their way back to the boulders. Then he suddenly looked about him. "Where can that dog have gone?"
They called a second time, but there was still no answer, and while they listened it struck Frank that the sound of the surf was growing more distinct.
"He seemed to be trailing something when I last saw him," he answered. "I don't feel keen on going after him. The top of the island's rough. Perhaps, we'd better wait here until he comes."
They waited for about ten minutes and then a succession of quick barks reached them, apparently from across the island. There was something startling in the sound and Frank turned sharply toward his companion.
"He doesn't bark like that for nothing. Hadn't we better go along?" he suggested.
They started on the moment, stumbling among the boulders and splashing into pools. The going was no easier when they reached the firs, but they broke through them somehow, and when at length they approached the beach, which was steep on that side, the dog came bounding toward them and then ran back with a growl to the edge of the water. Looking around with strained attention, Frank made out the sloop, a dim, dark shape upon the water, for the moon was covered now. After that he ran down toward the edge of the tide, but there was nothing unusual to be seen, though the dog again yelped savagely. As he stopped close beside the animal Harry's voice reached him.
"Where's the canoe?" he cried.
It was a moment or two before Frank saw her, and then he started and cast a quick glance at the strip of beach left uncovered by the ebbing tide. The breeze was off the shore, and on arriving they had thrown over a lump of iron with a rope made fast to it and then paddled the canoe ashore and shoved her out again to drift off as far as the rope would allow her, in order to avoid dragging her down over the rough stones when they went away. Now she seemed farther off than she should have been, and in another moment he realized that she was moving.
"She's adrift!" he shouted.
"Then we will have to get her," Harry answered.
Frank laid down his gun and threw off his jacket. Harry could swim better than he could, but Harry was some distance back and the beach was very rough, while it was clear that every moment would increase the distance between it and the canoe. He struck his knees against something which hurt as he floundered into the water stumbling among the stones, but that did not matter then, and as soon as it was deep enough he flung himself down. A horrible chill struck through him as he swung his left arm out, and he was badly hampered by his boots and clothes, and though he swam savagely the canoe was still some way in front of him when at length he turned breathlessly upon his breast. What was worse, she was steadily drifting farther off shore.
Chilled and anxious as he was, he thought quickly. He was far from certain that he could get back to the beach, and even if he did so, he would have to spend the night wet through without any means of making a shelter. The sloop was lying a good way out and he did not think that Harry could swim so far in that cold water. He was quite sure that he could not, and it was evident that there was nothing for it but to overtake the canoe.
For what seemed a very long time he swam desperately, and then just as he was almost alongside the craft something came up behind him and seized his arm. Turning his head with a half-choked cry, he saw that it was the dog, who apparently intended to stick fast to him. The animal, however, hampered him terribly, and flinging it off he made a last effort and contrived to clutch the canoe before it seized him again. Holding on by the low stern he tried to recover his breath, while he wondered if he could manage to lift himself in. It seemed to him that if he failed to do it at that moment he could not expect to succeed afterward, in which case he would in all probability have to let go before very long. Setting his lips he made the attempt, and falling headforemost into the canoe he lay still for a few moments gasping, until he rose and pulled the dog on board. Then he hauled up the iron, which was still attached to the rope, though it was not upon the bottom, and found a paddle. Two or three minutes later he was back at the beach, and Harry got in.
"Make for the sloop as fast as you can," he said.
Frank, now chilled to the bone, was glad to paddle, and they were soon alongside. Harry handed him up the birds and guns when he got on board, and then made the painter fast.
"I'll start the stove first thing while you tie two reefs in the mainsail," he said. "I guess we'll want them, and the work will warm you."
He disappeared below, and before he came out again Frank had managed to get the tack and leach down, which was not so difficult now that the sail lay along the boom.
Harry gave him a quick look.
"Go in and strip yourself," he said. "There's a blanket forward and some coffee in the can. I'll be down by the time you have wrung out your things."