The Boy Ranchers of Puget Sound
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Somewhat to his astonishment, Mr. Oliver laid a hand upon his shoulder.
"The wish was very natural, but stay where you are, my lad. There's more room out here in the Western bush, and you're making progress. This is going to be a great country, and you won't be sorry you came out in a few more years."
"I'm not sorry now," Frank answered sturdily, with a flush in his face.
Mr. Oliver turned away as the agent opened the door of his shack, and they went into the little, untidy office.
"I want to send a message south," said Mr. Oliver, writing something on a form. "It's a code address. I suppose I could get an answer in an hour or so?"
"Oh, yes," said the agent. "They'll be beginning to move about in Seattle now, and if the man's in his office there'll be no delay. In the meanwhile they would give you a good breakfast at the hotel."
Mr. Oliver thanked him, and as they left the depot two men whom they had not noticed hitherto met them. Mr. Oliver glanced at them sharply, but he did not speak, and a few minutes later they sat down to an excellent meal in the primitive wooden hotel. When they had finished the proprietor strolled in and sat down for a chat with them.
"Is there much going on about the place?" Mr. Oliver asked, offering him a cigar.
"Yes," said the hotelkeeper, accepting the proffered cigar with alacrity, "we've struck quite a boom. There's a man clearing a lot of ground for a fruit ranch and putting up a smart frame house. Then they're cutting a couple of new trails. The boys are making good wages and they're all of them busy."
"I saw two men just now who didn't seem to have much to do," said Mr. Oliver carelessly, and Harry gave his companion a nudge with his elbow.
"They don't belong here," was the answer. "One of them lives down the beach and does some fishing with his boat. The other man came in from the South yesterday on the cars, and I don't know what he's after. I told him I could put him on to a job and he said he didn't want it."
"As they're together, he's probably going in for fishing with the first one," Mr. Oliver suggested.
The hotelkeeper pursed his lips and looked as if he were solving a hard problem.
"It's a puzzle to me how Larry makes a living. It's only now and then he sends a little fish away, and I can't see what he'd do with a partner." Then he changed the subject. "You're thinking of buying land?"
"No," said Mr. Oliver, "I sailed over in my boat to dispatch a wire. It was much easier than riding a long way to the nearest office now that the trails are soft."
"They're bad, sure," assented his companion, and they continued to discuss ranching until Mr. Oliver finally rose and said he would walk across to the depot. The boys followed him a few paces behind. Harry addressed his companion with a look of admiration for his father.
"I guess you noticed how dad found out about those fellows without letting the man think he was curious?" he said.
Frank said that he had noticed it and added:
"I wonder what the fellow came up from the South for?"
"That," said Harry significantly, "is a point I expect dad's doing some hard thinking on just now."
They walked into the agent's office and sat down to wait as he told them that he had as yet received no answer to the telegram.The door near which Frank sat stood partly open, and he noticed that the two men were lounging close outside it. He quietly touched Mr. Oliver's arm, indicating them with a glance. The rancher knitted his brows and presently spoke to the agent.
"There are two men who seem to be waiting for you outside," he said.
The agent walked across to the door.
"Back again, Larry!" he said impatiently. "What's the matter now?"
"When's that fish box of mine coming along?" the man inquired.
"I don't know," said the agent. "Next freight, most likely, if it's been delivered to us at the other end."
"Won't you wire up the line about it?"
"No," said the agent. "If you'll put up the stamps I'll wire to the fish store you billed it to."
The man looked indignant. "I tell you it's in the railroad's hands. Do you think I've nothing better to do than hang about this depot every time a freight comes through?" He paused a moment with his eyes on the ground, then went on: "Anyway, now I'm on the spot I may as well wait for the next one. She should be along in about an hour. Won't you let me in?"
The telegraph instrument began to click just then and the agent turned toward him sharply.
"There's no room. You can wait at the hotel."
"Perhaps the message is about his box," broke in the other man.
Frank glanced around at them. They were dressed like most of the bush choppers in rough working clothes and there was nothing particularly noticeable in their appearance, but he fancied that they had some reason for wishing to get into the office.
"No, sir," said the agent. "They don't wire about the delivery of an empty box on this road. Get out! I want to shut the door."
Frank noticed that one of the loungers had thrust his foot against the post, but the agent, seeming to lose his temper, slammed the door on it. The man withdrew it with an exclamation, and the agent turned toward the instrument which was now clicking rapidly. He tapped an answering signal, and then wrote upon a strip of paper which he handed Mr. Oliver. The latter read the message and handed it to the boys.
Frank was puzzled, but he fancied that Harry understood the message better than he did.
"Thanks," said Mr. Oliver, addressing the agent. "Your two friends outside seemed uncommonly anxious about that box."
"That's a fact," said the agent. "Larry was worrying me about it before it was light. I don't know the fellow who came along with him, but it struck me that he was listening to the instrument as if he understood it, though he couldn't have heard more than the depot call. Of course," he added thoughtfully, "'most any one who had worked on a railroad would know the code, but I can't figure why they should make so much fuss about a box that's scarcely worth a dollar."
"It's curious," Mr. Oliver answered indifferently. "You might lend me your train schedule."
The agent gave him the company's time bill, which also included the coast steamboat sailings, and Mr. Oliver walked back with the boys to the hotel. There was nobody in the general room when they reached it, and they sat down near the stove.
"Now," he began, "as we have taken you into our confidence and it's probable that you can help, you may as well understand the situation thoroughly. The message was, of course, from Barclay, though it bears a clerk's name, and it means that Porteous has opened the letter you left him. I fancy he'll regret it, but that is by the way. Barclay received the second letter untampered with, and the rest is plain enough. The only question is how I'm to keep the appointment without putting the fellows at the depot on my track."
"You believe they're in league with the smugglers?" Frank inquired.
Mr. Oliver smiled. "It seems very likely. Here's a man who keeps a boat, and, as you have heard, folks wonder how he makes a living by his fishing. If the boat's moderately fast you can imagine how useful he would be to the smugglers by taking messages from place to place and communicating with the schooner. Then we have another man who seems able to read the telegraph turning up and trying to hear Barclay's message."
"But how could they have learned that you expected it?" Frank asked.
"I'm not sure. Porteous may have suspected something and sent a mounted man off to wire one of the gang. Besides, the fellow who has the boat may have been across with her. It wouldn't be hard to surmise that I would wire from here, though they may have had a man watching the nearest office I could have reached by land on horseback." He paused a moment and looked at the boys gravely. "All this points to the fact that we're up against a big and remarkably well-organized gang."
Frank had no doubt that Mr. Oliver was right, but he asked a question:
"Why did Barclay choose Everett when it's so far from the field of their operations?"
"That's exactly why he fixed on it. There would be less probability of somebody connected with the gang recognizing us, and I've met him there already. The fact that he doesn't mention any particular hotel should have told you that; but what we have to consider is how I'm to get there without these fellows following me. It's important that I should be back at the ranch as soon as possible, and you and Harry must manage to arrive there the first thing to-morrow."
Frank understood the necessity for this. The nights were long, the bush was lonely, and Mr. Oliver's wooden house and barns, which had cost him a good deal of money, would readily burn, while now, when there was only Jake to take care of them, they would be more or less at the smugglers' mercy. Then Harry, who in the meanwhile, had been examining the schedule, looked up.
"I've an idea," he said. "There's a train goes south in the afternoon, and a steamboat which calls at Everett goes up the Sound this evening. Well, suppose we order dinner here and start for Bannington's a little before the cars come in. The steamboat would stop to pick up there if she's signaled, and with this breeze we should get down shortly before she passes."
Mr. Oliver turned to Frank.
"How does that strike you?" he asked.
"The trouble is that the other men would follow us in their boat," the boy objected. Then a light dawned upon him as he saw the twinkle in Mr. Oliver's eyes. "You mean that's what Harry intended them to do?"
"Exactly!" Harry broke in with a grin. "They raise brainy folks in Boston, and you're getting hold. Those fellows will get after us as soon as they can hoist sail on their boat and we'll give them a run for it. The point is that while they're following us dad will be on the cars."
"But how is he going to elude them?"
"That," Harry admitted sagely, "wants some thinking out."
They made their plans in the next half-hour, and some time after dinner was over walked toward the beach. Nobody seemed to be following them, though they could not be sure of this since the trail wound about through the bush, but when they reached the canoe another boat which they had not noticed on arriving lay moored a few hundred yards away. They were obliged to carry the canoe down some distance over very rough stones, and on reaching the water's edge Mr. Oliver took a quick glance about him.
"I'm afraid one plan's spoiled," he said.
The boys glanced back toward the trail and Frank saw two figures saunter out on to the beach. Harry frowned as he glanced at them.
"You can't slip back into the bush without their seeing you," he warned.
"No," said Mr. Oliver. "Still, I think there's a means of getting over the difficulty. Shove the canoe in. They'll have to carry their boat down, and our boat's lying nearer the head yonder than theirs is."
Frank did not understand how the rancher intended to evade his pursuers and fancied that Harry was not much wiser. They had soon launched the canoe, however, and were paddling off to the sloop, running the mainsail up in haste. Then the boys set the jib as she drew out from the beach, and Frank noticed that the other men were hoisting sail upon their boat as fast as they could manage it. The sloop, however, was already some distance away from them, and it was not long before she picked up a freshening breeze. Lying well over to it she gathered speed, and close to lee of her Frank saw a low, rocky head, down the face of which straggled stunted pines and underbrush. He fancied that she would be hidden from their pursuers when she had sailed around the end of it, but on glancing back as they approached the corner he saw that the other men had started after them. They were three or four minutes behind, but he had no idea yet how Mr. Oliver meant to elude them. He was still wondering about it when the rancher spoke to him.
"Get hold of the canoe painter," he ordered. "The moment we're around the corner we'll haul her up and you'll put me ashore. You'll have to be smart about it, because you must be back on board before the other boat rounds the head."
Harry had already taken the helm, and the sloop was sailing very fast, with the canoe lurching and splashing over the short seas astern of her. They broke in a broad fringe of foam upon the stony beach thirty or forty yards to lee, and as the boat swept on the bay behind closed in and the seaward face of the cliff opened out ahead. Frank could still see the boat astern, but as he stood in the well with his hands clenched upon a rope he knew that in another moment the rocks would shut her out. Then, sure enough, she suddenly vanished, and shortly afterward he heard Mr. Oliver's voice.
"Haul!" he shouted.
Harry flung loose the mainsheet, but the boat did not quicken her speed immediately, and Frank found it desperately hard to drag up the canoe, though Mr. Oliver had seized the rope behind him. Haste was, however, necessary, if the rancher was to slip back to the depot unsuspected. At last the canoe ran alongside with a bang and Mr. Oliver dropped on board, while Frank nearly upset her as he followed him. Each of them seized a paddle and the boy had a momentary glimpse of the sloop rolling with her slackened mainsail thrashing to and fro, while Harry struggled to haul the jib to weather. After that he looked ahead and swung his paddle, and as the breeze was blowing on to the beach a few quick strokes drove them in through the splashing surf. She struck the stones violently, for they had no time to be careful, and Mr. Oliver jumped ashore, running into the water to thrust her out. Frank contrived to twist her around, though it taxed all his strength, after which he hazarded a single glance behind him. Mr. Oliver had disappeared among the several masses of fallen rock and clumps of small growth which were scattered about the slope.
So far the plan had succeeded, but Frank had still to reach the sloop, which was a different matter from paddling ashore. There was a fresh breeze ahead of him and a little splashing sea heaved up the canoe's bows and checked her speed. In addition to this, it is a rather difficult thing to keep a canoe on a straight course with a single-ended paddle, which can only be dipped on the one side, and in order to do so one must give the blade a back twist, which retards the craft unless it is skillfully managed. Frank, who had hitherto practiced it only in smooth water, found that the bows would blow around in spite of him. He grew hot and breathless, and though he set his lips and strung up his muscles he made very little progress.
"Paddle!" shouted Harry, who had been watching his maneuvers. "Shove her through it! Can't you get a move on? I can't run in any nearer without getting her ashore."
Frank made another desperate attempt, but a splashing sea broke about the bows, driving the canoe off her course again, and while he savagely swung the paddle Harry surveyed him contemptuously.
"Culcha!" he jeered. "Guess you loaded that up in Boston, but what you want is sand. Can't you get a bit of a hustle on? You're sure born played-out back East."
Frank felt a little more blood surge into his hot face. This was more than he felt inclined to stand from any Westerner of his own weight, but it was clear that he could not rebuke his reviler fittingly until he reached the sloop and the veins swelled up on his forehead as he furiously plied the paddle. Once more a sea broke about the bows and this time part of it splashed in, while as he tried the back-feather stroke the canoe lurched and began to swing around in spite of his redoubled efforts. Harry spread out one hand resignedly.
"Well," he said, "it's our own fault for letting you into the canoe. The trouble was you couldn't be trusted alone with the sloop either. Pshaw! We've no use for folks of your kind in this country."
This was intolerable, because part of it was true, and Frank felt his heart thumping painfully. But he made a last effort, and panting, straining, taxing every muscle to the utmost, he drove the canoe ahead, and eventually managed to grasp the sloop's lee rail. He could not speak, and as he breathlessly crawled on board Harry snatched the rope from him and made it fast.
"Trim that jibsheet over," he commanded.
Frank obeyed him and when they hauled on the mainsheet the sloop once more gathered speed, while Frank glancing astern saw a strip of slanted sail appear around the corner of the head. Then he glanced ashore, and though he saw no sign of Mr. Oliver the slope to the beach was not remarkably steep and he fancied that the rancher would not have much trouble in ascending it.