Harold Bindloss.

The Boy Ranchers of Puget Sound



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"You want to keep the sheet handy in a very small craft," he instructed. "Then if a hard puff of wind strikes her you can slack it up, or let it go altogether, when the sail will blow out loose. There's more weight in this breeze than I expected."

It seemed to Frank from the gurgle at the bows and the way the foam slipped by them that they were sailing very fast, but for a while he watched the rocky heads that dipped to the water open out one after another and then close in again behind them. The woods that crept between them down to the strips of shingle were rapidly growing shadowy, and the ridges of water that followed them seemed to be getting darker, though here and there one of them was flecked with bright wisps of froth. At length Harry let the sheet go and brought the canoe around.

"We'll have the mast down and get back," he said.

They had no trouble in rolling up the sail and laying the mast in the bottom of the craft, but when they dipped the paddles, Harry kneeling in the stern and Frank toward the bow, the latter realized that their next task would not be quite so easy. A chilly wind which seemed considerably stronger than before they turned struck his face, the bows splashed noisily, throwing up little spurts of spray, and now and then the narrow craft lurched rather wildly over the top of a swell. He worked hard for about twenty minutes, and then glancing astern was a little astonished to see that a rock which had been opposite them was now a remarkably small distance behind. Harry, who had evidently followed his glance, scowled disapprovingly.

"We'll have to paddle, that's a cold fact," he declared. "The tide seems to have turned quite a while before it ought to have, and the breeze is getting up again. We might find slacker water right inshore."

They edged close in to the rocks, the sight of which did not add to Frank's comfort, though the boat crept on a little faster. The swell broke in long white swirls about their feet, and it was evident that any attempt to land there was out of the question. Besides, even if they managed to reach the bush, there was no trail to the ranch, and he had no desire to struggle through the tangle of fallen branches and dense thickets in the darkness. His knees and hands were getting sore, but he toiled on patiently with the single-ended paddle, while the canoe lurched more viciously and little showers of spray flew in over her bow. It was becoming exceedingly hard work to drive the craft into the rising head sea. The foam-girt rocks were, however, slowly crawling by, and at length, after laboring, panting and breathless, around a somewhat larger head, Harry suddenly stopped paddling.

"Hold on!" he exclaimed. "Just keep her from swinging, and look yonder!"

Frank, glad of a brief rest, gazed astern. It was neither light nor dark, for a pale moon hung low in the sky, casting a faint silvery track upon the water, which was now flecked with white froth a little off shore.

Across the sweep of radiance there moved a tall black spire of slanting canvas, with the foam leaping up about the shadowy strip of hull beneath.

"The schooner!" said Harry significantly. "She's beating up over the tide and she'll probably stand close in, but I don't think they could see us against the land."

He spoke as if he did not wish to be seen, and for no very clear reason Frank felt glad that they lay in the shadow of a big black head. The schooner was coming on very fast, rising, it seemed to him, bodily, until he could make out the curl of piled-up water that flowed away beneath her depressed side. The mass of straining sailcloth hid most of her slanted deck, and he could see nobody on board her, but it seemed curious that she carried no lights. Then it occurred to him that she was heading straight for them, and he was about to dip his paddle when Harry stopped him.

"Keep still!" he commanded. "They'll have to come round before they reach us."

Frank could now hear the roar of water about the bow of the vessel, and in a minute or two she swayed suddenly upright and there was a great thrashing of canvas as, shooting forward, she came round. She was very near them and as her boom-foresail and mainsail swung across, leaving clear the side of the deck they had shrouded, he saw two or three shadowy figures busy forward. They became more distinct as she drove back into the moonlight, which fell upon the form of her helmsman. Frank could see him clearly, and there was, he fancied, something peculiar about the man.

The splashing top of a sea slopped into the canoe as they got way on her, and they taxed their strength to the utmost during the next hour. The craft bucked and jumped as they laboriously drove her over the confused swell, which was rapidly getting higher, and there was already a good deal of water washing about inside her. Once or twice Frank held his breath as a threatening mass of water heaved up ahead, but in each case she lurched across it safely, and presently they found smoother water under another crag. He gave a sigh of relief when at length they reached the cove and beached her upon the shingle. They turned her over to empty before they ran her up, and then Harry sat down upon a boulder. Frank already had discovered that he seldom talked of anything they had done as though it were an exploit.

"I'm quite puzzled about that schooner," he said presently.

"Why?"

Harry paused and thought a moment. "Well, it's a sure thing she's the vessel that crept past us the morning we were lying beneath the point, and though she's been seen three or four times now there's no notice in the papers of any arrival that seems to fit her. She has the look of being built for the Canadian sealing trade, and most of the craft in that business are mighty smart vessels."

"Doesn't a ship have to carry papers saying where she's from and where she's going?"

"Oh, yes," assented Harry. "Still, she might clear from somewhere in Canada, say for the halibut fishing – I've heard they're trying to start it there – or something that would keep her out a month or so. Then, as there is no end of quiet inlets in British Columbia and a good many here, she could run up and down from one to another and go back with a few fish, and there'd be nothing to show what she had been doing in the meanwhile."

"You think it's something illegal?"

"If it is anything honest I don't see why she was beating up without her lights in the strength of the tide, when she'd have slacker water over toward the other side, only there'd be a chance of her being seen from the Seattle boat if she ran across yonder. Now it's a general idea that there's a good deal of dope – that's opium – smuggled into this country, and now and then Chinamen, too. Our people won't have any more of them, but though they have no trouble in getting into Canada, they seem to like the States better. I guess wages are higher."

"Have you talked to your father about it?"

"I told him what we'd seen the other time and he looked kind of amused, or as if he didn't want to be bothered about the thing; though that may not have been it, either. Unless he tells you right out, you can never figure on what he's thinking. Anyway, I'll say nothing more to him unless there's some particular reason."

Harry was afterward sorry that he had arrived at this decision, and, for that matter, so was his father, but it was the next morning before this came about. In the meanwhile the boys went back to the ranch, and soon afterward retired to rest in the room they now shared. Frank went to sleep at once, and it was some time later when, awaking suddenly, he fancied that Harry had left his bed, which was fixed against the opposite wall. A faint light from outside crept into the room, and Frank made out a black figure standing by the open window. Slipping softly to the floor he moved toward it and Harry raised his hand warningly when he joined him.

"What are you doing here?" Frank inquired.

"Well," answered Harry, "since you ask me, I don't quite know, but I fancied I heard somebody about the ranch. Keep still and listen."

He spoke in a low and rather strained voice, and Frank, who was uneasily impressed by it, leaned out of the window. There was a moon somewhere in the sky, but it was obscured by clouds, and only a dim, uncertain light filtered down. It showed the great black firs which rose, a rampart of impenetrable darkness, beyond the rather less shadowy clearing, across part of which the fruit trees stretched. Then ran back, in regular rows, little clumps of deeper obscurity which presently grew blurred and faded into one another. The wind had apparently dropped again, for it was impressively still.

"I can't hear anything," whispered Frank.

"I'm not sure that I did," rejoined Harry. "It may be that seeing that schooner put the thing into my head, but we'll wait a little now that we're up."

For a couple of minutes they waited in silence. Then Harry suddenly gripped his companion's arm.

"Look!" he whispered. "Across the clearing – yonder!"

Frank fancied that he could make out a shadowy object in the open space between the fruit trees and the forest. It was very dim and indistinct, and he realized that he would not have noticed it only that it moved. Shortly afterward it disappeared and a faint rattle like that made by two pieces of wood jarring together came out of the deep gloom beneath the firs.

"The fence," suggested Harry. "It sounded like the top rails going down."

The fence was made of split rails interlocked together in the usual manner without the use of nails, and it seemed to Frank very probable that anybody climbing over it in the darkness would be apt to knock one or two of them down. The question was who would be likely to climb over it, since there was no one living within some miles of the ranch. Then he caught another sound which seemed farther off. It suggested the crackle of rotten branches or torn-down undergrowth, but it ceased almost immediately.

"Slip on your things," whispered Harry. "I'm going down."

In a few moments they crept softly down the stairway barefooted, and Harry opened the outer door very cautiously. He picked up an ax outside, and they moved silently around the house, stopping now and then to listen. There was only a deep stillness. Nothing seemed to move; though Frank wished that he had at least a good thick stick in his hand. He had an uncomfortable feeling that they might come upon a man hiding in some strip of deeper gloom as they slowly crept along the wall. When at length they had satisfied themselves that there was nobody about, Harry sat down.

"I can't figure out this thing," he mused. "It seems to me that whoever those strangers were they haven't been near the house, and it's a quiet country, anyway." He glanced down at his bare feet. "I'd go along and look around the barn and stables only that I'd certainly stub my toes, and it wouldn't be any use. Nobody steals horses around here. They couldn't get rid of them if they did."

The outbuildings stood at some little distance from the house, and Frank, who remembered that they had strewn the trail to them with broken twigs in dragging some branches from the slashing, agreed with his companion that it would not be wise to traverse it in the darkness with unprotected feet.

"Couldn't you slip into the kitchen and get our boots?" he suggested.

"Not without waking dad," answered Harry. "He's in the next room, and he sleeps lightly. I'm not anxious to bring him out if no harm's been done."

"He'd get angry?"

"No, he'd only smile; and somehow that makes you feel quite cheap and small. Besides" – and he hesitated – "there was another time, when I roused them for nothing; and I don't want to do it again. You wouldn't either, if you had stood as much about it from Jake as I've had to ever since."

They decided to say nothing about the matter unless some reason for doing so appeared in the morning, and creeping back through the house as silently as possible they went to bed. They awoke a little later than usual, and going down found Mr. Oliver standing at one side of the kitchen table rather grave of face, with Jake, who also looked thoughtful, opposite him. A strip of paper with some writing on it lay between them. Mr. Oliver looked around as the boys came in.

"Did either of you hear anything suspicious last night?" he asked.

"Yes," said Harry hesitatingly. "In fact, we came down."

He briefly related why they had done so, and Jake broke in:

"Then why in the name of wonder didn't you call somebody?"

"It's a reasonable question," said Mr. Oliver.

Harry explained with some diffidence that they were afraid of being laughed at, and Frank felt a little uncomfortable under the rancher's steady gaze.

"Well," said the latter dryly, "I suppose your idea was natural, and we'll let it go at that. It's perhaps scarcely worth while to point out that most people get laughed at now and then, and there's no reason for believing that it hurts them. I wonder if you will be surprised to hear that my team has gone?"

They were certainly somewhat startled.

"I found this stuck up on the stable door," said Jake, pushing the strip of paper across toward them.

The boys read the straggling writing: "If you want your team back keep your mouth shut."

For a moment they looked at each other in silence, and then Mr. Oliver turned to them.

"It's all we know in the meanwhile. Have you anything more to tell us?"

Harry diffidently mentioned the schooner, and his father drew down his brows.

"Whether her appearance has any connection with the matter is more than I can say, but I'll sail up to the settlement this morning. You and Frank can go on with the drain cutting while I am away."

Just then Miss Oliver came in to get breakfast ready, and when the meal was finished the two boys made for the clearing where they were cutting a trench. When they reached their destination Harry sat down and pushed back his hat.

"This thing isn't very clear to me, but I'm beginning to get the drift of it," he announced. "It's quite likely that dad knows a good deal more about it than I do, but until he has it all worked out he won't tell. First of all, we'll allow that they're smugglers on that schooner. They borrowed two of our horses and that fixes it."

"You couldn't smuggle a great deal on two horses," Frank pointed out.

"Sure," admitted Harry. "Still, they might have picked up another team somewhere else, and you want to remember that it only pays to smuggle things that are valuable and can be easily moved. Now one packhorse load of dope would be worth a good many dollars, and you can't move anything much easier than a man. He's got feet."

This was incontestable, but Frank considered the matter.

"If you turned a number of Chinamen loose in the bush wouldn't they be recognized as strangers at any settlement they reached and have to give an account of themselves to somebody?"

"The trouble is that, although I believe they have to carry papers of some kind, it's mighty hard to tell one Chinaman from another and they all work into each other's hands."

"Your idea is that the smugglers have confederates?"

"They have them, sure," said Harry. "There's some diking being done on a salt marsh not far away, and the last time I was there it struck me there were some hard-looking white toughs on the workings. Then there's a small Chinese colony behind the settlement, and it's thick bush with only a few ranches for some leagues beyond. Just the kind of country for running dope through."

"Are the ranchers likely to stand in?"

"No, not in a general way, but it's possible that a man here and there living by himself in the bush would say nothing if they borrowed a horse or two. It's not nice to have a gang of toughs up against you."

"Your father doesn't seem inclined to look at it that way."

Harry laughed. "I'll allow that there's a good deal of sense in dad. It would be clear to him that he couldn't well give them away afterward if he did nothing this time. They'd certainly have got him; and dad's not the man to let a gang of dope runners order him round." He paused a moment, and added significantly: "If they try any bluffing in this case there'll be trouble."

Frank asked no further questions and they set about the trenching.

CHAPTER VI
AT THE HELM

Mr. Oliver did not come back until nightfall. He said nothing about his visit to the settlement and several days passed before the boys heard anything further of the matter. In the meanwhile they went on with the drain they were cutting across a swampy strip of clearing, and one afternoon they stood in the bottom of the four-foot trench. Harry was then busy with a grubhoe, cutting through the roots and breaking up the wet soil, which his companion flung out with a long-handled shovel. It was unpleasantly hot, and the flies were troublesome. Frank's hands were too muddy to brush them away and they crawled about his face and into his ears. He had already decided that draining was about the last occupation he would have chosen for a scorching afternoon, had the choice been open to him.

He stood, stripped to shirt and trousers, in about a foot of water, and because he had not learned the trick of pitching out the soil, part of every shovelful fell back upon him. His shirt was spattered all over, and patches of sticky mire glued it to his skin. There was no doubt that ranching was considerably less romantic than he had supposed it to be, and logging and ditching struck him as particularly uninteresting and somewhat barbarous work, but he was beginning to realize that all the agricultural prosperity of his country was founded on toil of a very similar kind. The wheat and the fruit trees would not grow until man with patient labor had prepared the soil for them, and, what was more significant, Mr. Oliver had made it plain that their yield varied in direct proportion with the work bestowed on them. Nature's alchemy, it seemed, could transmute the effort of straining muscle into golden sheaves, glowing-tinted apples, and velvet-skinned peaches and prunes.

It was clear to Frank that if he meant to become a rancher he must make up his mind to face a good many unpleasant tasks, and he swung up the mire shovelful by shovelful, though his back and limbs were aching and he had to work in a horribly cramped position. He was young, and though there were times when the work seemed almost too much for him, it was consoling to feel when he laid down his tools at night that he was growing harder and tougher with every day's toil, for his muscles were now beginning to obey instead of mastering him. He could go on for several hours after they commenced to ache, without its costing him any great effort.

By and by, however, there was an interruption, and Frank was by no means sorry when Mr. Oliver came up with a stranger and called them out of the trench.

"This is Mr. Barclay whose business is connected with the collection of the United States revenue," he said. "I believe he would like a little talk with you."

He walked away and left them with the stranger, who sat down on a log and took out a cigar. He was a little man and rather stout, dressed carelessly in store clothes, with a big soft hat and a white shirt which bulged up above the opening in his half-buttoned vest. It occurred to Frank that he looked like a country doctor. From out rather bushy eyebrows shone a pair of whimsical, twinkling eyes. When he had lighted his cigar he indicated the trench with a large, plump hand.

"Been making all that hole yourselves?" he asked.

"Yes, sir," replied Harry.

"Interesting work?"

"That depends on how you look at it," said Harry flippantly. "Would you like to try?"

Mr. Barclay waved his hand. "It isn't necessary. Did something of the same kind years ago – only, if I remember, it was rather wetter."

"Where was that?" Harry inquired with an air of languid politeness, at which Frank felt inclined to chuckle.

"Place called Forks Butte Creek. It was a twenty-foot trench."

Harry seemed astonished and his manner suddenly changed.

"You were with the boys at Forks Butte when they swung the creek?"

"Sure," assented Mr. Barclay with a laugh. "I didn't expect you'd have heard of it. You certainly weren't ranching then."

"I've heard of it lots of times," declared Harry, turning excitedly to Frank. "It was one of the biggest things ever done by a few men this side of the Cascades. The old-timers talk about it yet. A mining row – there were about a dozen of them working some alluvial claims on a disputed location. I don't know the whole of it, but the thing turned upon the frontage, and they stood off a swarm of jumpers while they shifted the creek."

"Something like that," said Mr. Barclay. "In those days they interpreted the mining laws with a certain amount of sentiment, which – and in some respects it's a pity – they don't do now." He paused and flicked the ash from his cigar. "I understand you have been seeing a mysterious schooner."

His tone was sufficiently ironical to put Harry on his mettle, and he furnished a full and particular account of the vessel. When he had finished Mr. Barclay glanced at him with amusement in his eyes.



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