Harold Bindloss.

The Boy Ranchers of Puget Sound



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It was not easy to haul in the bucket. Indeed, once or twice it was nearly torn away from them, but at length they accomplished the task.

"It's awkward running a boat with a spinnaker unless you have a crew," remarked Harry with a somewhat puzzled look. "Still, I feel we ought to give those fellows a run for their trouble and I can't get clear of them with only the mainsail drawing. A jib set in the ordinary way is no use when you're before the wind."

The other boat had drawn almost level with them and came surging along some forty yards away, rising and falling, with the foam piled up about her bows, and a great spread of canvas that swung up and down as she rolled on either side.

"Hello!" shouted Harry. "Where are you going?"

"North," was the laconic answer.

Harry chuckled as he turned to Frank. "Well, as dad will be in Everett by this time, I don't see why they shouldn't come along with us as far as they like, but we'll let them draw ahead before we get up the spinnaker. I'd rather they didn't notice I had to set it alone."

The other boat forged past them, and she was growing dim ahead when Harry pulled out a bundle of canvas from beneath the side deck.

"It's an extra big jib we carry in light winds, but it makes a good spinnaker," he said. "You'll have to keep her straight before the wind, because it's a mighty awkward thing to set."

Frank took the helm and watched his companion as he shook the big sail out all over the boat, after which he led a rope fastened to one corner of it through a block at the end of a long spar that lay along the deck. He thrust this out over her side and made its inner end fast to the foot of the mast.

"A spinnaker boom always goes forward of the shrouds and you lead the guy aft outside them," he said. "Get hold of it and stick fast. It's easy so far, but in a minute the circus will begin. You want two pairs of hands to set a spinnaker in a breeze of wind."

Frank glanced at the short seas which surged by, glittering in the moonlight flecked with wisps of snowy froth, and it struck him by the way the boat swung over them with the foam boiling about her that she was carrying sufficient canvas in her mainsail. Then Harry, calling to him to mind his steering, hauled on a halliard and a mass of thrashing canvas rose up the mast. It blew out like a half-filled balloon, lifting up the boom, which was run out on the opposite side to the mainsail, and seemed bent on soaring skyward over the masthead. After that the boom swung forward with a crash, the mast strained and rattled, and Frank feared that the great loose sail would tear it out of the boat. He saw Harry lifted off his feet and flung upon the deck, after which the forward part of the boat was swept by flying ropes and billowy folds of canvas, among which his companion seemed to be futilely crawling to and fro. Presently his voice reached Frank hoarse and breathless.

"Haul on the guy!" he cried.

"She'll pitch me over or whip the mast out if this goes on."

Frank dragged at the rope with all his might, but he could not get an inch of it in, and he dared not take his right hand off the tiller for fear of bringing the big mainboom over upon the spinnaker, which would probably have caused a catastrophe. Indeed, he fancied that one was inevitable already, since it seemed impossible that Harry could control the big loose sail which was now wildly hurling itself aloft.

"I can't move it!" he shouted.

Harry came aft with a jump and grasped the guy.

"Now," he said, "together! Get both hands upon it. Hold the tiller with your elbow."

For the next half minute there was a furious struggle, and as the boom went up again Frank felt that they were beaten. His companion, however, hung on desperately, panting hard, and by degrees the boom swung down and back across the boat and the sail flattened out.

"Make fast!" cried Harry breathlessly. "I can manage the sheet."

He floundered forward to the foot of the mast, and when he came back the spinnaker was drawing steadily and the sloop had changed her mode of progress. She no longer rolled viciously or screwed up to windward as she lifted on a sea, but swayed from side to side with a smooth and easy swing, and Frank could steer her with a touch upon the tiller. In spite of that, steering was ticklish work, for the mainboom and the spinnaker boom went up and came down until they raked the glittering brine alternately, and Frank realized that it would be singularly easy to bring one crashing over upon the other. There was no doubt that the boat was sailing very fast, and he hazarded one swift glance over his shoulder at the canoe. She was surging along astern, hove up with her forward half out of the water, and a seething mass of foam hiding the rest of her. Harry, however, glanced forward somewhat anxiously.

"That boom's lifting too much," he said. "One of us ought to sit on it. Do you feel able to steer her?"

Frank said that he believed he could manage it.

"Well," said Harry, "if you jibe either sail across you'll either pitch me in or break my leg, even if you don't roll the boat over. Sing out the moment you feel her getting too hard upon the helm."

Scrambling forward, he crawled out along the spinnaker boom, to which he clung precariously, lifted up high one moment and the next swung down until his feet were just above the foam. Sometimes they splashed in, and Frank, bracing himself until every nerve was strung up, felt horribly uneasy. In spite of that, the wild rush through the glittering water which boiled about the boat was wonderfully exhilarating. She seemed a mass of straining sail which swayed in the moonlight above an insignificant strip of hull half buried in snowy foam. Over her black mainsail peak dim wisps of clouds went streaming by, and from all around there was a tumult of stirring sound – the clamor at the bows, the swish of water as the canoe came charging up to her, and the splash of tumbling seas. Everything ahead, however, was hidden by the sail, and he was wondering where the other boat was when Harry called to him.

"Slack the guy a foot or two and let her come up a little. Don't let it get the run of you or you'll pitch me in."

Frank was very cautious as he eased the rope out around a cleat, after which, when the spinnaker boom had drawn forward, he found that he could luff the boat. When she had swerved from her course a trifle he could see the other boat close ahead, and it gave him some idea how fast both craft were traveling. She seemed nothing but sail. Indeed, except for the torn-up track of foam that marked her passage, she looked much less like a boat than some wonderful phantom thing flying at an astonishing speed across the sea. Swiftly as she sped, however, there was no doubt that the sloop was creeping up on her, and Frank felt himself quivering all through as the distance between them lessened yard by yard. Then suddenly the contour of her canvas changed and she swung around from leeward across the sloop's bows. Frank's heart gave a sudden leap as he wondered what he must do and his nerve almost deserted him, until Harry called again.

"More guy!" he sang out. "They're trying to luff us. We must keep their weather."

Although fearful that it might overpower him, Frank slacked the guy out inch by inch, and as the sloop came up a little farther he saw the whole of the other boat again. The sloop's bowsprit was level with her quarter. She was scarcely a dozen yards away, leaping, plunging, swaying through a flung-up mass of foam, but they were steadily drawing up with her, and the boy could have shouted in the fierce excitement of the moment. Two or three minutes later they were clear ahead. He could no longer see the other boat, and he dared not risk a glance back at her. Indeed, it was a relief to him when Harry came scrambling aft.

"We'll get that guy in again," he said. "Unless something gives out, those folks won't catch us up."

They had a desperate struggle with the guy, but Harry laughed gayly when they had made it fast.

"They'll follow us on to Bannington's, sure," he said. "We should be there in half an hour, and I don't mind allowing that I'll be glad to get some of this sail off her."

After a while a black bank of cloud spread across the moon, and Frank wondered anxiously how much of the half hour had gone. He had now only the pull on the tiller to guide him as they drove on furiously, and the strain of concentrating all his faculties on his task was beginning to tell on his strength. Once or twice he imagined that he came perilously near to bringing the mainboom over, and he would have called Harry to the helm if he had felt certain that he could cling to the slender lurching spar as well as his comrade could. He was getting nervous, and the seething rush of water past the boat was becoming bewildering.

At length, however, he made out a dark and hazy mass over the edge of the mainsail, which he supposed was land, and in another few minutes a blinking light appeared. He called to Harry, who merely twisted himself around on the boom with the object of looking out beneath the sail and then told him to keep her heading as she was. After that the land rose rapidly, growing blacker, and a second light appeared. This was closer to them and Frank, thinking he saw it move, noticed a green blink beneath it.

Presently both lights disappeared behind the sail, and some minutes later Frank almost let go the tiller as the deep blast of a steamer's whistle rang out close ahead. On the instant Harry swung himself down from the boom.

"Let go your guy!" he shouted. "Down helm; get the mainsheet in!"

Frank could never clearly remember all that followed in the next two or three minutes during which he was desperately busy. He let the spinnaker guy run, and the big sail which heaved up the spar beneath it swung wildly forward. Then he shoved down his helm, and the mainboom slashed furiously as the boat came up toward the wind. The sheet blocks seemed to be banging everywhere about him as he hauled at the rope, and he could hear nothing but the savage thrashing of loosened canvas. Harry was struggling forward with a mass of billowing sail that threatened to sweep him off the narrow deck, while flying ropes whipped about him. Presently, out of the din, there rose another sonorous blast of the steamer's whistle.

The next moment Frank saw her, heading, it seemed, straight for them, blazing with tiers of lights, and in almost nerveless haste he pulled up his tiller. The bolt fell off, he saw Harry flung down with the spinnaker rolling about him, and he scarcely dared to breathe as the rows of lights ahead lengthened and the black wedge of the steamer's bows faded from his sight. It was now her side he was gazing at, and it was evident that she was swinging around. In less than another minute she had forged past them, and leaving the helm he scrambled forward to aid his companion. For a moment they had a brief struggle with flying ropes and billowing sail, and then they clambered back into the well, where Frank sat down with a gasp of fervent satisfaction.

"Well," he panted, "I'm glad that's over, and you had better take the helm. I've had enough."

Harry glanced toward the steamer, which was growing less distinct.

"A close call!" he remarked. "It looked as if she was going slap over us. I couldn't see her sooner because of the sail. She's running into Bannington's."

They heard her whistle a little later, but they were then close in with a shadowy point of land, and looking back Frank made out a faint blur on the water far behind them which he knew must be the other boat. When he pointed it out Harry laughed.

"They can't see us against the land, but I've an idea they'll be in soon enough to learn the steamer didn't pick one of us up," he said. "That will start them wondering why we drove her so hard and where we've gone. Now you had better get the stove lighted and the supper on."

CHAPTER XXV
THE UNITED STATES MAIL

The boys reached the ranch the next morning, and Mr. Oliver, who followed by a different route a couple of days later, seemed satisfied with the result of his journey.

"If the dope men leave us alone for the next three weeks we're not likely to be troubled with them afterward," he said. "Barclay expects very shortly to be ready for what he calls his coup."

"I suppose he didn't mention exactly when he would bring it off?" Harry remarked.

"No," said Mr. Oliver with a laugh. "Barclay usually waits until he's certain before he moves, and he's not addicted to spoiling things by haste. In the meanwhile you may as well keep your eyes sharply open."

"Won't it be awkward to communicate with him if you have to go to Bannington's every time you mail a letter?" Frank asked.

"That's a point which naturally occurred to me," Mr. Oliver answered. "There are, however, reasons for believing that Barclay will be able to get over the difficulty."

He said nothing further on the subject, but it cropped up again one evening when Mr. Webster arrived at the ranch in time for supper. He told them that he had finished the bridge he had gone away to build, and when they sat about the stove after the meal was over he turned to Mr. Oliver.

"Have you heard that Porteous has been fired out of the store and they've got a man down from Tacoma?" he asked.

"No," replied Mr. Oliver indifferently.

"Anyway, you don't seem much astonished."

Mr. Oliver smiled at this. "I can't say I am. What was the trouble?"

"It's generally believed Porteous was tampering with the mails, and that brings up another thing I want to mention. I'm puzzled about it as well as pleased."

Harry, unobserved by Mr. Webster, grinned at Frank, looking solemn again as his father caught his eye.

"Well?" said the latter politely.

"It's just this," said Mr. Webster. "When I came through the settlement this morning the man who fills Porteous's place gave me a letter. It requested me to send in a formal application if I was open to have my place made a postoffice and carry the mails for this and the Carthew district. They don't pay one very much, but it only means a journey once a week."

"Then what are you puzzled at?"

"Well," said Mr. Webster, his eyes bent thoughtfully on the fire, "you and the Carthew folks tried to have a mail carrier appointed some time ago, and you heard that the authorities were considering your representations. I guess that's about all they did. They're great on considering, and as a rule they don't get much further. It strikes me as curious that they should give you the postoffice now, considering that they wouldn't do it when you worried them for it. The next point is that although I applied the other time I don't know anybody in office or any political boss who would speak for me."

Frank noticed the smile broaden on Harry's face, but Mr. Webster was intently watching Mr. Oliver, who answered carelessly.

"It's a poor job, one that only a local man could undertake, and I don't know any one else who wants it," he said. "What are you going to do about it?"

"Send in the application right away. That's partly what brought me over. I'll have to get you and two of the boys at Carthew to vouch for me."

"There'll be no trouble about that," Mr. Oliver assured him, after which they changed the conversation. Before Mr. Webster went away he asked the boys to spend a day or two with him and do some hunting.

Mr. Oliver let them go at the end of the week, but he said that they had better meet Mr. Webster at the settlement where Miss Oliver wanted them to leave an order for some groceries, and that if any letters had arrived for him one of them must bring them across to the ranch. They reached the settlement Saturday evening, soon after the weekly mail had come in. When they had finished their supper at the store Mr. Webster bundled his mails promiscuously into a flour bag, which he fastened upon his shoulders with a couple of straps.

"There seems to be quite a lot of letters," remarked Harry as he lifted up the bag.

Mr. Webster frowned. "Letters!" he growled. "Most of the blamed stuff's groceries. It strikes me I'm going to earn my dollars. The boys who run short of sugar or yeast powder or any truck of that kind expect me to pack it out. Give the thing a heave up. There's the corner of a meat can working into my ribs."

They set out shortly afterward, following a very bad trail driven like a tunnel through the bush, and when they had gone a mile or two Mr. Webster lighted a lantern which he gave to Frank.

"Hold it up and look about," he said. "It's somewhere round here Jardine has his letter box nailed up on a tree."

Frank presently discovered an empty powder keg fixed to a big fir, and Mr. Webster, wriggling out of the straps, dropped the bag with a thud. As it happened, it descended in a patch of mud.

"Hold the light so I can see to sort this truck," he said, and plunged his hand into the bag. It was white when he brought it out.

"Something's got adrift," he commented. "They never can tie a package right in the store."

With some difficulty he at last found the letters, though this necessitated his spreading out most of the rest and the groceries on the wet soil. Then he deposited those that belonged to Jardine in the keg and went on again.

Dense darkness filled the narrow rift in the bush and the feeble rays of the lantern were more bewildering than useful, but they covered another two miles before they stopped at a second keg, when Webster discovered that a couple of letters he fished out were stuck together with half-melted sugar. He tore them apart and rubbed them clean upon his trousers, smearing out the address as he did so.

"It's lucky I looked at them first, because I couldn't tell whose they are now," he said. "Anyway, as I guess the stuff hasn't had time to get inside, Steve will know they're his when he opens them." He raised the bag a little and examined it. "This thing's surely wet."

"I expect it is," said Harry. "The last time you stopped you dumped it in the mud. Didn't they give you some sugar for this place at the store?"

"Why, yes," said Mr. Webster. "I was forgetting it. Hold the lantern lower, Frank, while I look for it."

He pulled the flour bag wider open and presently produced a big paper package which seemed to have lost its shape.

"Half the stuff's run out," he added. "That's what has been mussing up the mail. Pitch this truck out and we'll skip the rest of the sugar out of the bottom of the bag."

It took them some time to deposit the various bundles of letters and packets among the wineberry bushes beside the trail, after which Mr. Webster shook a pound or two of loose wet sugar into the opened package. It appeared to be mixed with flour and other substances, and Harry smiled as he glanced at it.

"It's off its color," he remarked.

"That," said Mr. Webster, "will serve Steve right and save me trouble. The next time he wants sugar he'll walk into the settlement and pack it out himself. When you've put that truck back the mail will go ahead."

They threw the things back into the bag, but while they were engaged in this task Harry held up a bundle of letters to the light and separated two of them from the rest.

"These are dad's," he mused. "It strikes me they'd be safer in my pocket."

They saw no more powder kegs, but by and by they stopped at a ranch where they delivered a newspaper and a pound of coffee, and then plodded on in thick darkness which was only intensified by the patch of uncertain radiance that flickered upon the trail a yard or two in front of them. Even this failed them presently when Frank fell and dropped the lantern. It went out, and neither he nor Harry, who struck a match, could open it.

"I'm afraid I've bent the catch," said Frank.

"It's not going to matter much," Mr. Webster answered. "I guess we can fix the thing when we reach my place, and there isn't another ranch until we come to it."

They trudged along in silence for another hour. The trail seemed darker than ever, and it was oppressively still. Even the great trunks a few yards away were invisible, and once or twice Frank walked into the bushes that clustered among them. At last, however, the sound of running water came out of the gloom and grew louder until the boy fancied that there must be a rapid creek somewhere below them. Neither he nor Harry had been that way before. As they expected to get some shooting, he was carrying the double gun, which was beginning to feel heavy, while Harry had brought a rifle. When the roar of water had grown so loud that they could scarcely hear each other's footsteps, Mr. Webster stopped.

"There's an awkward place close ahead, and you had better let me go in front," he warned. "Keep a few yards behind and close to the bank on your left side. The trail goes down a gulch, and there's a steep drop to the creek."

He moved on until the boys could just see his black and shadowy figure. The hollow beneath them was filled with impenetrable gloom, and they went down cautiously, trying to follow him and feeling with their feet for the edge of the bank on one hand. They had gone some little way when Mr. Webster seemed to stagger and suddenly disappear. Then there was a crash amidst the underbrush, a sound which might have been made by a heavy body rolling down a slope, and a hoarse cry which was almost drowned by the clamor of the creek.



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