Harold Bindloss.

The Boy Ranchers of Puget Sound

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At last Harry called Frank down from the roof.

"You can let up," he said. "It's hardly likely we'll have any more trouble. There's a lamp and some canned stuff in the shack, and as we'll have to camp here I'll make some coffee. It's quite dark now."

Frank concluded that it had been dark some time, though he had not noticed when dusk crept down. He was glad to find the stove still burning when he entered the house, very wet, and aching in every limb. The kettle was soon boiling, and, as there was no bottom in the spider, Harry, who had found a bag of flour and a can of syrup, contrived to make some flapjacks and what he called biscuit on the top of the stove. He said that this would be no drawback because Mr. Webster never blacked the thing, and Frank found no fault with the cakes when they ate them hot with syrup.

Then they filled up the stove with the full draught on and lounged contentedly beside it while their clothing dried on them. They had had a heavy day, but now that the danger was over they were no more than comfortably weary and the thrill of the last stirring hours remained with them. Frank felt that they had done something worth while that afternoon.

When he diffidently pointed it out Harry laughed.

"Sure!" he agreed. "Still, it's quite likely that Webster will get jumping mad when he sees his fence, though it won't take him many days to split enough rails for a new one."

A little later Frank walked across the room and opened the door. The undergrowth on one side of the clearing gleamed white with frost. On the other side a few big branches still snapped and glowed, and there was a red glare behind the black rows of trunks, but it was now broken by patches of darkness and he could see that the fire was rapidly dying out. He came back with a shiver and sat down in his warm seat beside the stove.


There was a sprinkle of snow upon the ground, and the boys were working in Mr. Oliver's slashing one afternoon a week after their visit to Mr. Webster's ranch when Harry, who had just hauled up a log, stopped his oxen and addressed his father.

"It looks as if it would be a fine night," he remarked.

"Yes," said Mr. Oliver. "I've no fault to find with the weather. We'll get most of the logs piled for burning if it lasts."

Harry smiled at Frank. "Dad's slow to take a hint. I wasn't thinking of the logs."

"I can believe it," Mr. Oliver retorted. "Anyway, they have to be hauled out, and it's easier to do it now than when the soil's soft and boggy."

Frank, who had been heaving the sawed trunks on top of one another with Jake, agreed with the rancher. The big masses of timber slid easily over the snow and they were clean to handle, which was something to be thankful for after the difficulty they had had in moving them when they were foul with clotted mire. The frost, as he had discovered, seldom lasted long in that country, but it was very cold and the firs towered flecked with snow against a clear blue sky.

"I was wondering if there was any reason why we shouldn't try to get a duck to-night," said Harry.

"We won't go near the island where the cache is. There's a flat behind the other one to the southward."

"I can think of one reason," his father answered. "You won't feel like working to-morrow, and there's a good deal of log-hauling to be done."

"We'll be ready to start as usual," persisted Harry.

"Then you can go on that condition, but you'll have to stick to it. I don't mind your getting a few hours' shooting now and then, but I expect you to be ranchers first of all when there's work on hand."

Harry repeated his assurance and Mr. Oliver made no more objections. When they had heaved up the next log Jake turned to the boys.

"There'll be a moon and I guess you're not going to do much on the flats," he said. "You want to cut two very short paddles and put some spruce brush that you can lie on in the canoe. Then if you keep quite flat you might creep up on a flock of ducks in one of the channels. You can't do it if you use the ordinary paddle kneeling."

He split them two flat slabs off the butt of a cedar, but Mr. Oliver, who was chopping nearby, looked around when Harry began to hack them into shape.

"What are those for?" he asked.

"Paddles," Harry answered with some hesitation.

"You're logging just now," said his father dryly. "I want another tier put up before it's dark."

Harry laid down the half-finished paddles and grinned at Frank.

"I guess dad's quite right, but his way of staying with it gets riling now and then."

Frank laughed. One day when Harry had hurt his knee and there was no work of any consequence on hand, Mr. Oliver had taken him out into the bush, and the boy had a painful recollection of the journey they had made together. No thicket was too dense or thorny for the rancher to scramble through, and he prowled about the steepest slopes and amongst the thickest tangles of fallen logs with the same unflagging persistency until at the first shot he killed a deer. Mr. Oliver was, as his son and Jake sometimes said, a stayer, one who invariably put through what he took in hand. He was the kind of person Frank aspired to become, though he was discovering that he was not likely to accomplish it by taking things easily. Success, it seemed, could only be attained by ceaseless effort and constant carefulness.

He went on with the logging, though the work was remarkably heavy, and it was an occupation he had no liking for, but he helped Harry to finish the paddles after supper. Then they carried a bundle of spruce twigs down to the canoe, and, though there was not much wind, tied a reef in the sloop's mainsail, which Mr. Oliver had insisted on before they loosed the moorings.

An hour later and shortly before low water they let go the anchor in a lane of water which wound into a stretch of sloppy sand. It was just deep enough for the sloop to creep into with her centerboard up, and the flats ran back from it into a thin mist on either side. It was very cold and the deck glittered in the pale moonlight white with frost. Frank stood up looking about him while Harry arranged the twigs in the canoe, but there was very little to see. The sky was hazy, the moon was encircled by a halo, and wet sand and winding water glimmered faintly. At one point he could dimly make out the dark loom of an island, but there was no sign of the beach in front of him. Though he could feel a light wind on his face, it was very still, except for the ripple of water and the occasional splash of undermined sand falling into the channel, which seemed startlingly distinct. Once he heard a distant calling of wildfowl, but it died away again.

Dropping into the canoe when his companion was ready he took up one of the longer paddles. The water was quite smooth and they made good progress, but Harry did not seem satisfied.

"If I'd had any sense I'd have brought a pole to shove her with," he complained. "It's handier in shallow water and the ducks seem to be a long way up. A creek that runs out on the beach makes this channel."

Frank paddled on, watching the sloppy banks slide by and the palely gleaming strip of water run back into the haze in front of him until at last it forked off into two branches.

"We'll try this one," said Harry. "I believe it works right around behind the island. The flood should come up that end first, and it ought to drive the feeding birds back over the sands to us."

The water got deeper as they proceeded, for Frank could feel no bottom when he sank his blade, but there was no sign of any duck until at last they heard a faint quacking in the mist. Soon afterward there was a shrill scream as a flock of some of the smaller waders wheeled above their heads.

"Now," said Harry, "we'll try Jake's idea. If the ducks aren't on the water they'll be along the edge of it where the bank's soft. You don't often find them feeding where the sand's dry and hard."

They placed the guns handy, and lying down upon the spruce brush dipped the short blades. Frank found the position a very uncomfortable one to paddle in, and he could not keep his hands from getting wet, though the water was icy cold. They were fast becoming swollen and tingled painfully in the stinging frost. Still, the boys made some progress, and at last looking up at a whisper from Harry, Frank saw a dark patch upon the water some distance in front of him. Harry edged the canoe closer in with the bank, which had a slope of two or three feet on that side.

After that they crept on slowly, because they dared not use much force for fear of splashing, and Frank's wet fingers were rapidly growing useless. The ducks became a little more distinct and he could see other birds moving about in the faint gleam on the opposite bank. Some of them, standing out against the wet surface, looked extraordinarily large, though he could not tell what they were.

At last a sudden eerie screaming broke out close ahead and Frank started and almost dropped his paddle as a second flock of waders rose from the gloom of the bank. They flashed white in the moonlight as they turned and wheeled on simultaneously slanted wings. Then they vanished for a moment as their dusky upper plumage was turned toward the boys, gleamed again more dimly, and the haze swallowed them. They had, however, given the alarm, and the air was filled with the harsh clamor of startled wildfowl.

"Now!" cried Harry. "Before the ducks get up!"

Frank flung in his paddle and pitched his gun to his shoulder, with the barrel resting on the side of the canoe. It sparkled in the moonlight, distracting his sight, and stung his wet hand, but he could see dark bodies rising from the water ahead. As he pressed the trigger Harry's gun blazed across the bows, and following the double crash there was an outbreak of confused sound, the sharp splash of webbed feet that trailed through water, a discordant screaming, and the beat of many wings. Indistinct objects whirled across the moonlight and as Frank with stiffened fingers snapped open the breach Harry's gun once more flung out a train of yellow sparks. Then the smoke hung about them smelling curiously acrid in the frosty air and they seized the paddles to drive the canoe clear of it. When they had left it behind them the lane of water was empty except for one small dark patch upon it, and the clamor of the wildfowl was dying away. They had paddled a few yards when Frank made out that something was stumbling away from them along the shadowy bank, but they were almost abreast of it before he could get another shell into the chamber. The bird lay still when he fired, and Harry picked up the duck on the water, after which he ran the canoe ashore.

"So far as I could see, the rest of them headed across the flat toward the other channel," he said. "It looks soft here, but, as you'll have to get out to pick up the duck yonder, it might be a good idea if you followed them over the sand. I'll work along the creek and it's likely that any birds I put up will fly over you."

This seemed possible to Frank, who realized that the walk would warm him, and he stepped out of the canoe into several inches of slushy sand. Floundering through it, he picked up the duck and threw it to Harry, who shoved the canoe out.

"I won't go far and you had better head back toward the forks in half an hour or so," he said. "I'll probably be waiting."

The canoe slid away, and Frank felt sorry that he had left her when he reached the harder top of the bank. The level flat which stretched away before him into the mist looked very desolate, and the deep stillness had a depressing effect on him. He also remembered that in another hour or less the flood tide would come creeping back across the dreary waste. He could, however, think of no reasonable excuse for rejoining his companion, and turning his back on the channel he set out across the sand. Nothing moved upon it as he plodded on, the silence seemed to be growing deeper, and he had an idea that the haze was denser than it had been. Still, he determined to make the round Harry had suggested and quickened his pace.

It was some time later when he heard a double report that sounded a long way off and he stopped to listen, when the clamor of the wildfowl broke out again. It died away, but he fancied that a faint, rhythmic sound stole out of the silence that followed it. A minute later he was sure that a flight of ducks was crossing the flat and, what was more, that the birds were heading toward him. As yet he could see nothing of them, for there was now no doubt that the mist was thicker. He crouched down as the sound increased, as it occurred to him that he would be too plainly visible standing up in the moonlight on the level flat.

The sound drew nearer, growing in a steady crescendo until he wondered that a duck's wing could make so much noise, and at last a number of shadowy objects broke out of the mist, flying low and swiftly in regular formation. The gun flashed, and the ducks swept on and vanished, all but one which came slowly fluttering down out of the mist.

Frank spent nearly a minute fumbling with stiffened fingers while he crammed in another shell, and then saw that the duck was running across the sand some way off. Closing the breach he set off after it, and had got a little nearer when it rose, fluttered awkwardly, and fell again, though it was able to make good progress on its feet. Twice he got within sixty yards of it, but on one occasion it flew a little way, and on the second it swam across a long pool which he had to run around. Indeed, it led him a considerable distance before he brought it down.

Picking it up he stopped and looked about him. It was pleasant to feel a little warmer, but there was nothing to guide him toward the other fork of the channel except the drift of the mist and the chill of the wind upon one side of his face, and he could not be sure that the wounded bird had led him straight. The flat was level and bare except for little pools of water on which were glistening filaments of ice. It was, however, too cold to stand still with wet feet and consider, and deciding that the sooner he got down to the forks the sooner he would be back on board the sloop, he set off briskly. He had had enough of wandering about that desolate waste.

At last, to his relief, he saw a faint silvery glimmer ahead in the mist, and turning off he struck the channel a little lower down. There was no sign of a duck or anything else, but he was by no means sorry for this, for his one idea was to get back to the forks as soon as possible, and the surest way of doing it was to follow the creek. It appeared to be a considerable distance, though he walked as fast as he could, splashing straight through shallow pools and slipping in half-frozen mud, and when at last he reached the spot where the channels branched off he could see nothing of Harry or the canoe. What troubled him almost as much was the fact that the stream was now flowing inland, and after a quick glance at it he shouted with all his might. His voice rang along the water and level sand, but though he called again no answer came out of the drifting mist. Then he slipped his hand into his pocket to get a cartridge and drew it out again with an exclamation of disgust, recollecting that he had only picked up three or four loose shells in the canoe.

For a moment he stood still considering, and it occurred to him that the situation was not a pleasant one. The flood tide was making and he did not know how far off the beach was, while he had no desire to spend the night in the woods. He could not see the island, and in order to reach it he would have to cross the main channel, which, as he remembered, was moderately deep. On the whole it seemed wiser to wade through the smaller fork and, if Harry did not overtake him in the meanwhile, try to get on board the sloop. She would float in very shallow water with her centerboard up, and he had touched bottom with the canoe paddle a few yards away from her.

When he had arrived at this decision he plunged into the water, which immediately rose above the top of his long boots. It was horribly cold, but this caused him less concern than the fact that it rippled strongly against his legs, which made it clear that he must get down to the sloop as fast as possible. He was over his knees before he got across, and then he ran his hardest along the edge of the channel, which seemed to be growing wider at every moment. The palely gleaming water was perfectly smooth, but it was moving with an ominous speed.

He grew breathless, but he did not slacken the pace. He went straight, splashing through trickling water and into pools, while he strained his eyes for the first glimpse of the sloop, but he could only see the mist which hid the sand thirty or forty yards in front of him. At last he made out a strip of something solid low down ahead and then what seemed to be a mast, and a few moments later he stopped at the water's edge. There was nothing but water in front of him and it was no longer quite smooth. Little ripples ran along the sand, and one broke about his feet while he gazed at them. It did not recede but splashed on, and when he looked around there was at least a yard of water behind him. Then he struggled with a paralyzing sense of dismay, and strove to keep his head. It was necessary to think and think very hard.

He could not wait where he was with the water deepening about him; while, if he went back and did not find Harry before he reached it, the creek, which he would no longer be able to cross, would head him off. If he followed it up on the near side it would take him away from the canoe, and he did not know how far off the beach was. There was evidently only one thing to be done and that was to get on board the sloop even if he had to swim.

She seemed a horribly long way out, but he splashed in hurriedly, afraid to wait a moment lest his resolution should melt away, and he was soon waist-deep with a strong stream swirling around him. It was almost impossible to keep his feet, the gun hampered him, and the coldness of the water seemed to check his breathing and take the power out of his limbs. He could not go back, however, and face a journey through the mist across the waste of sand, and setting his lips he struggled on. Twice he was almost swept away, but at last making a savage effort he clutched the stern of the craft and scrambled up on to her deck.

The first thing he did was to light the stove, and when a pleasant warmth began to fill the cabin he was conscious of a strong desire to sit still and dry his clothes. That, unfortunately, was out of the question, and he reluctantly crawled out and stood up on deck. There was nothing but water around him now. It stretched back on every side into the mist, and the only sounds were the soft lap of the tide and the ripple it made flowing over thinly covered sand. Then having already decided that Harry would have some difficulty in paddling against the stream, he set about getting sail upon the craft to go in search of the canoe.

The mainsail looked remarkably big and heavy, and he was thankful that there was a reef in it, which made the task a little easier before he got it up. Then he spent several minutes in very hard work heaving the boat up to her anchor, and bruised his swollen hands in the determined effort it cost him to break it out. After that he set the jib and the sloop slid gently away with the wind abeam of her. He did not know exactly where she was going, but he shouted as loudly as he could every now and then, and at last there was a faint answering cry.

He called again and the cry rose more clearly, after which he hauled the sheet and changed his course, and by and by the canoe appeared out of the haze close ahead. A few moments later Harry paddled alongside, and handing up the ducks and his gun made the canoe fast before he turned to Frank.

"Do you know where you're heading for?" he asked.

"No," Frank confessed. "I've only a notion that it's in toward the land."

"Then we'll drop the jib and pitch the anchor over. We'll have to wait until the stream slackens before we get out again."

They followed his suggestion and Frank was glad indeed to creep back into the cozy cabin.

"This is uncommonly nice," drawled Harry, sitting down with a smile of content. "It was horribly cramping in the canoe and my hands were 'most too cold to paddle."

"What kept you?" inquired Frank.

"I must have gone farther than I intended and when I turned back the tide was running up so strong I could hardly make head against it. I was getting scared about you when I reached the forks and saw how the water was spreading on the sand. After that I didn't spare myself, but I was mighty glad to hear your shout."

"Did you get any more ducks?"

"No," said Harry, "I had only one shot – a long one."

Frank, who told him to make some coffee, stripped off part of his clothes and dressed himself in an old blanket, after which they sat beside the stove for an hour or so, until Harry crawled out and said that there was a little more wind and the mist was thinning.

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