Harold Bindloss.

The Boy Ranchers of Puget Sound



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The boys stopped abruptly, uncertain what to do. Mr. Webster had evidently fallen down the declivity, but they could not tell where he was in the darkness, or if it was possible to reach him. Frank fancied that if he once moved out from the bank he would probably step over a ledge and plunge down into the creek, which, it was evident, would be of no service to Mr. Webster. By and by he was sincerely glad to hear a sound below him which seemed to indicate that the man was endeavoring to clamber up again. On recalling the incident afterward, he decided that they had stood waiting about a quarter of a minute.

"We must get down somehow," he said to Harry.

His companion did not answer, but gripped his arm warningly. Then to Frank's astonishment another sound rose up somewhere in front of them and a voice followed it.

"Is that you, Webster?" it asked.

"Sure!" was the answer. "I've pitched right down the gulch."

Frank would have scrambled forward, but Harry held him back.

"Hold on!" he said softly. "He doesn't seem hurt."

A crackling and snapping below them suggested that somebody was cautiously scrambling through the undergrowth toward Mr. Webster, while the latter was evidently crawling up the ascent. Frank wondered why Harry had restrained him until a blaze of light suddenly broke out. It showed a very steep bank with clumps of brush scattered about it dropping to a foaming creek, Mr. Webster holding on by the stem of a stunted pine, with the flour bag lying some distance higher up, and another figure moving toward him. A third man stood on the brink of the declivity holding a blazing pineknot. Where the boys stood, however, there was deep shadow.

Mr. Webster, so far as Frank could make out, was gazing at the man nearest him in astonishment.

"Well," he said sharply, "what do you want?"

"The mail," answered the other. "Stop right where you are!"

Then the meaning of the situation dawned on Frank. At that moment he saw Mr. Webster scramble forward to intercept the man who was making for the bag. The latter, however, was nearer it, and he had crept almost up to it while Mr. Webster was still several yards away. Without a moment's hesitation, Frank sprang out into the flickering light.

"Keep back!" he shouted. "Don't touch that bag!"

The radiance fell upon the barrel of his gun, and the next moment Harry emerged from the gloom with his rifle thrust forward. They decided afterward that the strangers could only have seen two indistinct figures with weapons in their hands and that there was nothing to indicate that they were not grown men.

"Hold him up!" shouted Mr. Webster, scrambling forward furiously as if to seize the man.

The latter stooped swiftly and made a grab at the bag as Frank pitched up his gun, though he kept the muzzle of it turned a little from the bent figure, but just then Harry's rifle flashed behind him and there was sudden darkness as the light fell into a thicket.

Confused sounds followed the detonation, but it became evident to Frank, now quivering with excitement, that three separate persons were smashing through scrubby undergrowth as fast as they could manage. Then one of them stopped while the rest went on.

"Have you got the bag?" cried Harry.

"It's in my hand," said Mr. Webster.

They heard him floundering toward them, while the other sounds grew fainter, until he emerged from the gloom close beside Frank and threw the bag at his feet.

"Give me your gun," he said shortly. "Stop where you are!"

He disappeared again, but in another moment they saw him raking in a clump of brush from which a pale light still flickered, after which he came back toward them with something blazing feebly in his hand.

"Bring the bag, and be careful how you walk," he said.

When they joined him he was stooping over a short strip of wire stretched across the trail about a foot above the ground, holding the pineknot so that the light fell upon it.

"I guess that's the reason I fell down," he said. "You didn't touch that fellow, Harry."

"I didn't mean to," was the answer. "I wanted to scare him off, and I was mighty thankful when I saw I'd done it."

"Well," said Mr. Webster, "I expect that was wiser. It would have made things worse for your father if you'd plugged him. Anyway, they've cleared and we may as well get on."

"Aren't you hurt?" Frank inquired.

"There's a nasty rip on my leg and my arm feels mighty sore, but that's all the damage. Seems to me I haven't much to complain of, considering how far I fell."

He flung the pineknot down into the ravine as he turned away, and they had crossed the creek and were ascending the other side before one of them spoke again.

"Did you recognize either of the men?" Harry inquired.

"No," said Mr. Webster. "On the whole I don't know that I'd want to do it, though I'm kind of sorry I didn't get my hands upon the nearest fellow. It was those two letters for your father he was after."

"Yes," said Harry gravely, "you're right in that."

The trail got narrower presently and when the boys fell a little behind Harry laid a hand on Frank's arm.

"I'm not sure that dad and Barclay would have had Webster made mail carrier if they had expected this," he whispered. "There's no doubt the dope men are growing bolder."

CHAPTER XXVI
MR. BARCLAY LAYS HIS PLANS

It appeared that one of the letters which Harry had secured was from Mr. Barclay, and shortly after the boys got back to the ranch Mr. Oliver sent them off to Bannington's with the sloop. Mr. Barclay, he said, was expected down by the next steamer and they must be there in time to take him off. It proved to be an uneventful trip and they returned to the cove with their passenger just as a gloomy day was dying out. Mr. Oliver was shut up with his guest for an hour after supper that night, but at length he called the boys into his room, where Mr. Barclay lay in a big chair with a cigar in his hand. He looked up with a smile when they came in.

"No doubt you'll be pleased to hear that we expect to round up your dope-running friends before the week is out," he said. "Anyway, I fancy it was a relief to my host."

"There's no doubt on that point," Mr. Oliver assured him. "I don't mind admitting that the suspense and the uncertainty as to what they might do were worrying me rather badly."

Frank was surprised to hear it, for the rancher had certainly shown no sign of uneasiness.

"You mean you're going to break up the gang once for all and corral the whole of them?" he asked.

"Something like that," answered Mr. Barclay lazily. "If there's no hitch in the proceedings, I don't expect many of them will be left at large when our traps are sprung, though the affair will have to be managed with a good deal of caution."

Harry smiled. "There oughtn't to be any hitch. You have been a mighty long while fixing up the thing."

"That remark," said Mr. Barclay, "is to some extent justified. Over in Europe they say 'slow and sure,' though I don't suppose it's a maxim that's likely to appeal to young America. We'll paraphrase it into this form: 'Don't move until you know exactly what you mean to do and how you're going to set about it, and then get at it like a battering ram.'"

"A battering ram must have been a clumsy, old-time contrivance," Harry objected.

"There are reasons for believing it could strike very hard," said his father with a smile.

"It would naturally take a long while to work the thing out," Frank broke in, addressing Mr. Barclay.

"It did," the little, stout man assented. "We had to get hold of a clue here, and another there, and follow them up as far as possible without giving anybody the least idea what we were after. It might have been more difficult if one hadn't been purposely placed in our hands a week ago."

"Somebody has been giving the gang away?" asked Frank.

"That doesn't quite describe it," Mr. Barclay answered. "To be precise, somebody has sold them. It appears that one man a little smarter than the rest discovered that the gang was being watched. That scared him, and, as it happened, he'd had a difference of opinion with the bosses about the share he claimed to be entitled to. He didn't point his suspicions out to them, but when, as he said, they couldn't be induced to do the square thing he came along to one of my subordinates, who sent him to me. I'm not sure that I'd have got much information out of him then if I hadn't been able to convince him that he and his partners were already more or less in my hands."

Frank was impressed by what he had heard. Indeed, he was conscious that he was half afraid of the man who sprawled lazily in his chair smiling at him. He appeared so easy-going and he had bantered Harry so good-humoredly, but all the time he had been following up the smugglers' trail with a deadly unwavering patience and a keenness which missed the significance of no clue, however small. Now when at last the time for action had come the boy felt that he would strike in the swiftest and most effective manner.

"If there's any small part you can give us – " he said hesitatingly.

"There is," said Mr. Barclay, to the delight of Frank and his companion. "It appears that they intend to land a parcel of dope and some Chinamen at a place down the Straits of Fuca. It will be done at night – the moon will be only in her first quarter next week – and the schooner will stand out to the westward, keeping clear of the traffic to wait for the next evening before going on to the place where she's to make another call. The men and the dope will be seized soon after they're put ashore without anybody on board the vessel being the wiser if our plans work out right, but it's important that we should know as soon as possible if anything has gone wrong and it will be your business to bring me on a message. We'll have a small steamer and a posse hidden ready at this end, and when the schooner runs in two nights later she'll fall into our hands with the rest of the gang, who'll be waiting for what she brings."

Frank looked at Mr. Oliver, who nodded his consent.

"Yes," he said, "I've promised to let you go, though in this case you'll have to take Jake along."

Then Mr. Barclay spread out a chart upon the table and pointed first to an inlet which appeared to lie at some distance from any settlement.

"You'll run in here in the dark and lie close in with the beach until you're hailed by a mounted messenger, which will probably be early on the following morning. When he has given you his message you must manage to deliver it to me here" – he laid his finger on another spot on the chart – "at the latest by the second evening following. That's important, as it's impossible for me to get the news by mail or wire."

He gave them some further instructions, and half an hour had slipped by before he seemed satisfied that they knew exactly what they were to do; then he nodded.

"I think you've got it right," he said. "The great thing is not to be seen if you can help it, and if it's possible you must only run in at either place in the dark."

The boys spent the next two days in a state of eager anticipation, which, however, became much less marked when one lowering afternoon after a long, cold sail they beat the sloop out to the westward down the Straits of Fuca. They had kept watch alternately with Jake during the previous night, throughout most of which it had rained hard, and now Frank, who admitted to himself that he had had enough sailing for a while, was feeling rather limp and weary. He sat beneath the coaming, as far as he could get out of the bitter wind. When at last he raised his head to look about him, he saw nothing very cheerful in the prospect before him.

The light was dim, the low gray sky to windward looked hard and threatening, and a long gray blur which he supposed to be land rose up indistinctly over the port hand. Ahead dingy, formless slopes of water heaved themselves up slowly one after another in dreary succession. They were ridged and wrinkled here and there, and now and then a little wisp of white appeared on one of them, for the long swell of the Pacific was working in. The breeze was very moderate as yet, and each time the sloop sluggishly swung up her bows and lurched over one of the undulations her mainboom jerked and lifted amidst a harsh clatter of blocks, while the water inside her went swishing to and fro. The noise presently aroused Jake, who was sitting silently at the helm.

"One of you had better get her pumped out," he said. "You haven't done it since we started, and you won't find it easy by and by."

"It doesn't look nice up yonder," said Harry, glancing windward.

"It's either blowing hard in the Pacific or going to do it, and we'll get it presently. I'd be better pleased if we were nearer that inlet. It's eight or nine miles off, and the wind's dead ahead."

"The dope men would rather have a black, wild night, wouldn't they?" suggested Frank.

"They're going to be gratified," Harry answered significantly.

Frank, glad to do something to warm himself, set to work at the little rotary pump, and a stream of water splashed and spread about the deck, which slanted and straightened irregularly. He was still busy when Jake called to him.

"You can let up and get that jib off her. Strip it right off the stay. We're not going to have any use for a sail of that kind. Get out the small one, Harry."

"There's no wind to speak of yet," Harry protested.

"Well," said Jake grimly, "you'll have plenty before you're through."

Harry dragged up the small sail, and when Frank had lowered the larger one they proceeded to strip it off the stay. It took them some little time, but Frank, glancing at the slowly heaving, leaden water, fancied that there was no need for haste until as he and his companion bundled the canvas off the deck Jake called to them.

"Up with that jib!" he ordered. "Get a hustle!"

They had the halliard in their hands, and the sail was half set, when it blew out suddenly and there was a sharp creaking. The sloop slanted over wildly and a curious humming, rippling sound broke out to windward. Glancing around a moment Frank saw that the swell was growing white, and a rush of cold wind nearly whipped his cap away. Then jamming his feet against a ledge with the deck sloping away beneath him he struggled furiously to hoist the jib, while disjointed cries reached him from the helmsman.

"Heave!" Jake roared. "I can do nothing with her until you have it set!"

They got the sail up somehow, though by the time they had finished the sloop's lee rail was in the sea, and then flung themselves upon the mainsail. They were breathless with the effort before they had tied two reefs in it, and Frank wondered at the change in their surroundings when at length he sat down in the well.

The sea, which had run in long and almost smooth undulations before they began to reef, now splashed and seethed about the boat, and each big slope of water was seamed with innumerable smaller ridges. Bitter spray was flying thick in the air, water already sluiced about the deck, and it was disconcerting to recollect that they were still eight miles from the inlet. This would not have mattered so much had it not lain dead to windward, which meant that they must fight for every yard they made.

There was shelter to lee of them. They could put up the helm and run, but though they were wet through in a few minutes they braced themselves for the struggle, while the savage blast screamed about them and the ominous sound Frank had noticed – the splash of waves that curled and broke – came more loudly out of the gathering gloom ahead. Though his physical nature shrank from the task before him Frank would not have chosen to go back. It was a big thing they were taking a hand in, the climax which all their previous adventures had led up to, and he recognized that they must see it through at any cost.

At last he was playing a man's part, acting in close co?peration with the Government of his country, and Mr. Barclay, who had elaborated the scheme with infinite patience and foresight, counted upon him and his comrade. That they should fail him now was out of the question, but Frank was glad that Jake sat at the tiller. Harry was quick and daring, but he was young, and in this fight there was urgent need for the instinctive skill which comes from long experience. The helmsman's stolidness was more reassuring. He gazed up to windward, gripping the tiller, with the spray upon his rugged face, ready for whatever action might be necessary. Loud talking and an assertive manner were of no service here; what was wanted was raw human valor and steadfast nerve. It was fortunate that Jake, who was tranquil and good-humored, possessed both.

Darkness shut down on them suddenly as they thrashed her out to westward full and by, lurching with flooded decks over the charging seas. Their whitened tops broke over her, her canvas ran water, and every other minute she plunged into a comber with buried bows. The combers, growing rapidly higher, broke more angrily, and her progress changed into a series of jerks and plunges, which at times threatened to shake the spars out of her. Frank could see the black mainsail peak above him swinging madly up and down, and it seemed at times that half her length was out of the water, which was not improbably the case, for the foam upon her hove-up deck poured aft in cascades over the low coaming and splashed about their feet. By and by, for she was shallow-bodied like most centerboard craft, it began to gather in a pool which washed to and fro across the floorings in her lee bilge, and at a shout from Jake he started the pump. It needed no priming, for as soon as he unscrewed the covering plate the sea ran down, and there was now nothing to show what water it flung out, because half the lee deck was buried in a rush of gurgling foam and the combers' tops broke continuously over the bows.

Still, the work roused and warmed him, and he toiled on, battered and almost blinded by flying brine, while he wondered how long the boat would stand the pressure of her largely reduced sail. He did not think they could tie another reef in, because it seemed certain that something must burst or break the moment a rope was started. Besides, even had it been possible, reefing was out of the question. Their harbor lay to weather, and a boat will not sail to windward in a vicious breeze unless she is driven at a speed which is greater than the resistance of the opposing seas.

They thrashed her out for two anxious hours, since it appeared doubtful that she would come round and a failure to stay her would be perilous in the extreme, but at last Jake called to the boys.

"We've got to do it somehow," he said. "Stand by your lee jibsheet and tail on to the mainsheet the moment you let it run. Hold on till I tell you. We'll wait for a smooth."

A smooth, as it is termed by courtesy, is the interval that now and then follows the onslaught of several unusually heavy seas, and at length as the boat swung up with a little less water upon her deck Jake seemed satisfied.

"Now! Helm's a-lee!" he shouted.

They let the jib fly, and jumping for the mainsheet hauled with all their might, while Jake helped them with one hand as the boat came up to the wind. Then as a comber fell upon her they sprang back to the jibsheet and hauled upon it, while the spray flew all over them. It struck Frank that if the boat did not come round there would very speedily be an end of her. While he watched, holding his breath, the bows swung around a little farther, and working in frantic haste they let the sheet fly and made fast the opposite one, which was now to lee. She forged ahead on the other tack – and the most imminent peril was past.

It was two hours later when they raised the land again, and though one or the other of them had pumped continuously the water was splashing high about their feet. Jake had, however, made a good shot of it, for he recognized a ridge of higher ground marked upon the chart, and they drove in toward it, battered, swept, and streaming. Frank felt strangely limp when at length they ran into smoother water, and Jake made one significant remark.

"We're through," he said, "but if we'd had to make another tack it would have finished her."

The black land grew higher until they could make out masses of shadowy pines, and eventually dropping the jib and peak they ran her in behind a point with very thankful hearts and let go the anchor. Half of their task was finished, and they could take their ease until morning broke.



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