Harold Bindloss.

The Boy Ranchers of Puget Sound



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CHAPTER XXVII
THE DERELICT

The wind freshened after they reached shelter and it blew very hard. For a time Frank found sleep impossible, though he was glad to lie snug in the warm cabin with the lamp burning above him and the stove snapping cheerfully. The sloop lurched and rocked, drawing her chain tight now and then with a bang, while a muffled uproar went on outside her. Frank could distinguish the angry splash of water upon her bows and the drumming and rapping of loose ropes against the mast, though these sounds were partly drowned by the furious clamor of the ground sea beyond the point and a great deep-toned roaring made, he supposed, by long ranks of thrashing trees. Once or twice, when Jake, who crawled out to see if the anchor was holding, left the slide open, the sound filled the cabin with tremendous pulsating harmonies.

Besides this, the boy's face smarted after the lashing of icy spray, and he wondered whether Mr. Barclay's plans were working out successfully and what fresh adventures awaited Harry and himself on the morrow, all of which was sufficient to keep him in a state of restless expectation. He envied his companion who presently went to sleep, but it was toward morning when at last his own eyelids closed and he got a few snatches of fitful slumber broken by fantastic dreams. He was awakened by a chill upon his face, and looking around saw that Jake had gone out again into the well. The roar of the wind did not seem so overwhelming as it had been, though there was no doubt that it was still blowing hard. By and by Jake called out.

"You'd better get up," he said. "I've a notion that there's somebody hailing us."

Frank crawled out shivering, with Harry grumbling half asleep behind him, and when he stood in the well found he could see a hazy loom of trees across the little white waves that came splashing toward the boat. They made a sharp, rippling sound, pitched in a different tone from the din that rose all around. The latter swelled and sank, and he was slightly surprised when he was able to hear what seemed to be a faint shout. It rose again more clearly, and there was no longer any doubt that somebody on the beach was hailing them.

"Can we get ashore?" he asked.

"You'll have to try," said Jake. "The man's to windward of us, and it will be a stiff paddle, but if you can't manage it you'll blow across to the beach on the other side of the inlet safe enough and he may be able to get round to you. Anyway, I don't want to leave the sloop. She'd have picked up her anchor once or twice if I hadn't given her more cable."

"What time is it?" Harry inquired.

"About seven o'clock," Jake answered. "We'll have daylight soon after you're back."

They hauled up the canoe and were not surprised to find that she was full of water. It took them some time to bail her out, and Frank felt anxious when at last they pushed her clear of the sloop. It was difficult to tell how far off the beach was, and for the first few moments they could make no progress against the blast.

Then they won a yard or two in a partial lull, and after that for a while barely held their own by determined paddling. Thick rain drove into their faces and the spray from the bows and splashing blades blew over them. Frank was breathless when they reached the beach, and it cost him an effort to scramble over the uneven stones as far as the edge of the bush, where a shadowy figure stood beside a horse. Its head drooped and even in the darkness, which was not very deep, its attitude was suggestive of exhaustion. The man was dimly visible, and they felt sure that he was the messenger they expected.

"You're here on Barclay's business?" he said.

"Yes," said Harry. "Have you a message for him?"

The man fumbled in his pocket and took out an envelope.

"That's from the boss. I guess it will explain the thing, but he said I'd better let you know that we'd had trouble."

"Then you didn't get the dope men?"

"We corralled three of them; the rest broke away. One of the boys got a bullet in him and he's been lying in the rain all night. I don't know how we're going to pack him out."

"Things went wrong?" said Frank.

"They did," the man assented. "One of the boys got his pistol off by accident just after the boat had come ashore, and that gave our plans away. The boat's crew shoved off and several men who'd been landed broke through in the dark. Anyhow, when the trouble was over we'd got one case of dope, two whites of no account, and a Chinaman."

"And the schooner?"

"She was heading out to sea with mighty little sail on her when I left. You'll be able to take word through to Barclay?"

"I don't know," Harry answered dubiously. "It's too dark to tell what the sea's like now. I suppose there's no other means of warning him?"

"No," said the man. "Even if I could get a message on to the wire they wouldn't be able to deliver it at the other end, but he has to be warned somehow."

"If you'll come off we'll give you breakfast. It should be light enough to see what the weather's like by the time you had finished," Harry suggested.

"It can't be done," was the answer. "I've to go on for a doctor and raise a crowd to run those fellows down. I've already stayed longer than I should."

"Your horse is played out," Frank objected.

"I'll hire another. There's a ranch somewhere ahead. I'll say you have taken that message."

"We'll do it if it's any way possible," said Harry.

The man turned away without another word and they heard him stumbling through the wood beside his horse until the roar of the wind drowned the sound, after which they went back to the canoe. They had no trouble in reaching the sloop, for they were driven down upon her furiously, and on clambering on board they found that Jake had breakfast ready.

It was daylight when they crawled out of the cabin after the meal, but the sky was hidden by low-flying vapor, and gazing seaward they could see only a short stretch of big leader combers which rolled up out of the haze crested with livid froth. Jake shook his head doubtfully at Harry.

"You'll have to stop a while," he said. "She wouldn't run for half an hour before that sea. We couldn't start till after dinner if the wind dropped right now, but it's falling and we might get away in the afternoon."

The morning dragged by while the boys chafed at the delay, though they had no doubt that Jake was right and neither of them felt any keen desire to face the sea that was tumbling in from the Pacific. Still, the roar of the wind steadily diminished and the sloop rode more easily, and at length Jake offered to make the venture after they had had a meal.

They lashed three reefs down before they started, leaving only a small triangular strip of mainsail set, but that proved quite enough, and during the first few minutes Frank felt almost appalled as he glanced at the great gray combers that heaved themselves up astern. Most of them were hollow breasted, and their tops curled over, flinging up long wisps of foam and roaring ominously. As a rule they broke, divided, on either side of the boat, piling up in a snowy welter high about her shrouds, but now and then one seemed to break all over her and most of her deck was lost in a furious rush of water. Twice the canoe, which was too big to stow on deck, charged up and struck her with a resounding crash, and then broke adrift and disappeared.

By degrees, however, Frank's uneasiness diminished. Somewhat to his astonishment, the light and buoyant craft stood the buffeting, and by the time dusk fell the seas were getting smaller. Still, they were big enough, and the boat appeared to be driving before them at an extraordinary speed. By eight o'clock in the evening they had shaken out one reef, and soon afterward Frank lay down in the cabin, because Jake said that he had no intention of entrusting either him or Harry with the helm, which was on the whole a relief to both of them. To run a small craft before a breaking sea in the dark is a very severe test of nerve, and it is, perhaps, worse when the combers still come foaming after her after the wind has somewhat fallen.

In spite of the violent motion Frank managed to sleep until he was awakened some time after midnight by a shout from Jake. Crawling out, partly dazed, with his eyes half open, he saw that the sky had cleared and that a crescent moon was shining down. Then, close ahead of them, he saw the schooner.

She was also running, for her stern was toward them, though for a moment or two it was hidden by the white top of a sea, and Frank could only make out the forward half of her sharply tilted deck. Her bowsprit and two torn jibs above it were high in the air, and her black boom-foresail all bunched up, with its gaff, which had swung down, jammed against the foremast shrouds. She carried no after canvas, and the reason became evident when, as her stern lurched up, Frank saw that her mainmast was broken off short. She sank down again while a comber foamed high about her rail, which was shattered on one quarter where the falling mast had struck, and a mass of canvas and tangled gear trailed in the sea beneath it. What struck the boy most, however, was the erratic manner in which she was progressing, for her bows swung up to windward every now and then until all her side was visible and she lumbered off at angle to her course and then came lurching back again. She was herringboning, as it is called at sea, in an extraordinary fashion, and she seemed low in the water.

In the meanwhile the sloop was coming up with her fast and Jake stood up at the tiller to see more clearly.

"They've been in trouble, sure," he said. "I could tell there was nobody at her helm when I first saw her and that's why I ran up so close. Ease the peak down, one of you; I don't want to run by until we've had a look at her."

Harry did so, and as they stood watching her the schooner slued round until she was almost beam to wind. The sea streamed down her weather side, which rose up like a wall, and Frank could see her wheel behind the low deckhouse jerking to and fro. There was no sign of life anywhere on board her.

"Deserted!" Jake said shortly. "They must have jibed her and smashed her mainmast. She seems a smart vessel. Seems to me she ought to fetch a good many dollars."

The sloop was sailing more slowly now with her peak swung down, keeping pace with the schooner but a little behind her, and the boys gazed hard at Jake. His rugged face looked very thoughtful in the moonlight.

"It's a fair wind to the islands and she'd come up until it was abeam with the foresail set if it was necessary," he said. "It wouldn't be much trouble to sail her in and she could be beached somewhere in smooth water. Anyhow, I'd like to get on board her."

"If you ran up close alongside when she screws to windward one of us could jump," Harry suggested eagerly. "There's a raffle of ropes over her quarter."

Jake seemed dubious. "It might be done and Barclay would be uncommonly glad to get his hands on her, but I can't leave the sloop. Somebody has to take that message."

"Put us on board," urged Harry. "How far is it to the islands?"

"With this wind and the whole sail on her she ought to fetch them by daylight." Then Jake seemed to hesitate. "Looks as if there was water in her, but one could wear her round and fetch the land to southward if she was leaking very bad."

The boys looked at each other and the same impulse seized upon both of them. This was an adventure such as they had never dreamed of, and with a fair wind they would only have to keep the vessel running until they picked up the land. It would not be difficult, for she was under very easy sail, and the only hazard would be in the attempt to get on board her. Then Harry jumped forward and hauled up the peak.

"Run alongside as quick as you can," he said.

Jake put down his helm a little, and the boys stood up on the weather deck with tense, set faces as the sloop crept in under the schooner's lea. The latter slued to windward while the spray flew over her, rolling until her deck on the side nearest them was level with the sea, and then fell off again and sluggishly heaved her bows high above the foam. This herringboning was the danger, since it would need nerve and skill to get near her without wrecking the sloop. A blow from the big lurching hull would probably send her to the bottom.

Frank felt himself quivering all through as they closed with the derelict yard by yard, until when she once more lumbered round to windward Jake put down his helm a little farther. The sloop shot in beneath the black hull, which broke the sea and partly sheltered her, but as she swept forward amidst a long wash of foam Frank's courage ebbed away from him. A great white swell lapped about the wall of wet planking close in front of him, and the top of it was higher than his head. It seemed impossible that he could spring out from the lurching sloop and by any means clamber up. All his senses shrank from the dangerous task, but with a determined effort he braced himself. If Harry made the attempt he would do it, too, and he clenched his hands and set his lips as the schooner's side came sinking down.

"Don't jump unless you are sure you can reach her!" shouted Jake.

They were now scarcely a fathom from the trailing wreckage, and the schooner's rail was dipping lower. It seemed just possible to clutch it by a desperate leap, and the next moment Harry launched himself out into the air. Frank followed, struck the wet planking, and seizing a trailing rope held on by it with his legs in the sea. Then he dragged himself up clear of the water, and Harry, who was kneeling in the opening in the broken rail, reached down to him.

Frank clutched his hand, and in a few more seconds was almost astonished to find himself, breathless and dripping, safe upon the schooner's deck. A glance showed him the sloop abreast of her quarter and about a dozen yards away.

"Jake did that mighty smartly," Harry gasped. "I'll get to the wheel while you look around her."

CHAPTER XXVIII
A GRIM DISCOVERY

Frank had some difficulty in getting about the vessel. She was rolling wildly and loose ropes and blocks whipped blindly to and fro, but he noticed that the boat had gone, and the cleanly severed shrouds indicated that her mainmast had been cut loose after it had fallen over the side. It was evident that the crew had made some attempt to save the vessel before they abandoned her. The mainboom had disappeared, though the broken gaff and part of the sail were still attached to the hull by a mass of tangled gear. Scrambling forward he found the anchor lying still hooked to a tackle and half secured with its arms upon the rail, which suggested that the smugglers had sailed in haste and had been kept too busy afterward to make it fast. It was reassuring to discover that the anchor could be dropped without much trouble if this became necessary. Then he came upon a lantern hooked beneath the forecastle scuttle and went back to report to Harry. The latter, who was standing at the wheel, listened to him attentively.

"Well," he said at length, "I can't figure out the thing, and unless some of the dope men explain it I don't think we're likely to be much wiser. As Jake said, it looks as if they had jibed her by accident, which would probably rip out the mainmast, but, although it's easy to bring the mainboom over on a fore-and-aft rigged craft, it's mighty seldom that a capable sailor does it. Then, as there's water in her, they must have bumped her on a reef, though she could only have struck once or twice before she drove over it. That's as far as I can get, and the first thing is to find out what water there is below. It's fortunate you have a lantern."

Frank looked around. There was no doubt that the wind was falling, and the schooner, having only part of her forward canvas set, steered easily. The sloop, which had sheered off a little farther, was sailing abreast of her with lowered peak about a hundred yards away, rising and falling with the long combers which, however, broke less angrily.

"Jake will stand by for three or four hours," Harry explained. "After that he'll have to haul her up to make the inlet where we were to join Barclay, but it will be close on daylight by then."

Frank was glad to hear it. There would be some peril in getting on board the sloop if that became necessary, but it was comforting to see her close at hand. In the meanwhile he shrank from going below and made no move to do so until Harry spoke again.

"I'm anxious about that water and you had better get down," he said. "Go in by the house; there'll probably be a lazaret below it with an opening in the deck."

Frank reluctantly scrambled forward around the house, the door of which faced toward the bows, and being out of the wind there he contrived to light the lantern, though he struck several matches in the attempt. The house, which occupied most of the vessel's quarter, was low so that the mainboom could swing over it, and it was evident that the cabin floor was sunk some feet below the level of the deck. Frank thrust the door open and then stood hesitating, holding up the lantern, which did not burn well and only flung a faint light into the obscurity before him. He could hear an ominous gurgle of water below when the schooner rolled and made out three or four steps which seemed to lead down into it. As he placed his foot on the first of them the vessel lurched wildly and he went down with a bang, while the lantern flew out of his hand. For no very evident reason, except that he was overstrung, he could have shouted in alarm as he lay upon the wet flooring in the dark. He had struck his knee in his fall and for a moment or two he feared to move it.

Then he noticed a pale reflection against what he supposed to be the bottom of a seat, and as it was evident that the overturned lantern had not quite gone out he crawled toward it. As he did so the splash and gurgle of water seemed much louder than it had done on deck. He could hear it surge against the sides of the vessel and the hollow sound jarred upon his nerves. He longed to escape from the oppressive obscurity and get out into the moonlight by his companion's side, but he reflected that it would not be pleasant to tell Harry that he had run away from the darkness and left the lantern. He determined to secure the latter, and he was moving toward it on hands and knees when his fingers struck something that felt like a pistol. He let it lie, however, and stretched out his hand for the lantern, setting it upright. The flickering flame grew brighter, and standing up he flung the uncertain light about him. There was undoubtedly a revolver on the uncovered floor, which was dripping wet, and he thought it curious that the smugglers should have left the weapon lying in that position; but ever since he had boarded the schooner he had been troubled by an uncomfortable sense of strangeness. The fact that her crew had abandoned her, apparently without a sufficient reason, suggested a mystery. Then he raised his hand so that the radiance touched a little, clamped-down table, and as it did so he started and came near dropping the lantern again, for a man sat at the table with his head and shoulders resting upon it as if he had suddenly fallen forward.

Frank afterward confessed that his first impulse was to run toward the door, and he was never quite certain why he did not do so, but he stood still holding up the lantern, while his heart throbbed painfully and his flesh seemed to creep. The bent figure was unnaturally still, but when the schooner lurched and the table slanted it fell forward a little farther, all in one piece – which was how he thought of it – and as a heavy sack would have done. That was too much for Frank, and clambering up the steps he ran back to Harry in breathless haste.

"You look as if something had scared you," said the latter with a trace of anxiety in his voice.

Frank leaned against the house, and his face showed white and set in the moonlight.

"There's a man lying across the table in the cabin," he panted.

Harry started, but he pulled up his helm a spoke or two.

"She'll come up if I leave her, but that won't matter much," he said. "We'll go back together."

Frank felt a little easier now that he had a companion, and he was more collected when he stood in the cabin holding up the light while Harry, who called first and got no answer, walked cautiously toward the huddled figure. Then he shrank back a pace or two.

"The man's dead!" he said.

After that neither of them moved for half a minute during which the deck slanted wildly beneath them, and then Frank proceeded very reluctantly toward the table. Harry followed him, and when they stooped over the shadowy figure Frank caught a partial glimpse of a yellow face and saw that the man wore a loose blue jacket.

"Turn the light a little," said Harry in a low, hoarse voice, and when Frank had done so he looked around at him.

"It's the man we got dinner with the day we went up the creek. He's been shot," he added.



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