Harold Bindloss.

The Boy Ranchers of Puget Sound



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"You have an idea there might be smugglers on board of her?" he suggested.

"It's more than an idea. I'm sure."

"I wonder if you could tell me why?"

It was rather difficult to answer, but Harry made the attempt, furnishing his questioner with half a dozen reasons which did not seem to have much effect on him.

"Well," he persisted, "you're convinced she had opium and Chinamen on board her?"

"Aren't you?"

Mr. Barclay looked up with a smile. "At the present moment I can't form an opinion. After all, it's possible."

He rose, and as he was strolling away toward the house Harry's face contracted into an indignant frown.

"That man must have been cooking, or something of the kind, at Forks Butte," he broke out contemptuously. "Anyway, it was the last time he ever did anything worth talking about. Did you ever run up against such a stuffed image?"

Frank was far from certain that this description was altogether applicable to the stranger, but Harry seemed so much annoyed that he did not express his opinion, and they got down into the trench again. When they went back to the ranch an hour later they heard that Mr. Oliver and Mr. Barclay had gone to a neighboring ranch and intended to make a journey into the bush if they could borrow horses. When the boys were eating breakfast the next morning Miss Oliver turned to Harry.

"We have run out of pork, and the flour is almost gone," she said. "I meant to ask your father to bring some when he went up to the settlement, but I forgot it, and Jake must bring in those steers to-day."

"We'll go," broke in Harry quickly. "There's a nice sailing breeze."

His aunt looked doubtful. "You have never been so far with the sloop unless Jake was with you; and isn't there a nasty tide-rip somewhere? Still, I don't know what I shall do unless I get the flour."

She yielded when Harry insisted; and shortly afterward the boys paddled off to the sloop and made the canoe fast astern. They set the big gaff mainsail and Harry sculled her out of the cove before he hoisted the jib. Then he made Frank take the helm.

"It's a head wind until we're round the point yonder, but you'll have to learn to sail her sometime," he said. "The first thing to remember is that she'll only lie up at an angle to the wind and if you make it too small she won't go through the water. You want to feel a slight strain on the tiller."

He hauled the sheets in until the boom hung just over the boat's quarter, and while Frank grasped the tiller she slid out into open water. Bright sunshine smote the little tumbling green ridges that had here and there crests of snowy foam, and she bounded over them with a spray cloud flying at her bows. She seemed to be making an excellent pace, but Harry shook his head.

"No," he objected, "you're letting her fall off. That is, the angle you're sailing her at is too big. She'll go faster that way, but she won't go so far to windward.

Don't pull so much on your tiller and she'll come up closer."

Frank tried it, but the boat sailed more slowly, and presently her mainsail flapped.

"Now you're too close," warned Harry. "You're trying to head her right into the wind. Pull your helm up again."

Frank did so, and when the boat gathered speed he ventured a question.

"If you keep her too close to the wind she won't sail, and if you let her fall off she's not going where you want. How do you find out the exact angle she ought to make?"

Harry laughed. "It depends on the boat, the cut of her sails, and how smart you are at the helm. One man would shove her to windward a point closer than another could and keep her sailing faster, too. It's a thing that takes time to learn, and there are men you couldn't teach to sail a boat at all."

Frank found that it became easier by degrees, though his companion did not appear altogether satisfied. The sloop had dipped her lee rail just level with the water now, and she rushed along, bounding with a lurch and splash over the small froth-tipped seas. He began to understand how one arrived at the proper angle by the slant at which the wind struck his face as well as by watching the direction of the seas which came charging down to meet her in regular formation. Then Harry said that as they had stretched out far enough to clear the point they would go about upon the other tack.

"Shove your helm down – that's to lee – not too hard!" he ordered, and as Frank obeyed him there was a sharp banging of sail cloth and the boat, swinging around, swayed upright.

In another moment the wind was on her opposite side, and she was heading off at an angle to her previous course, while Harry with one foot braced against the lee coaming struggled to flatten in the sheet on the jib. The big mainboom had swung over of its own accord amidst a great clatter of blocks. By and by when the point slid away to lee of them Harry told Frank to pull his helm up, and then he pointed to a confused mass of gray rocks and trees rising above the glistening water several miles away.

"Now," he said, "she'll go there straight, and all you have to do is to keep her bowsprit on yonder head. It's a fair wind, and when you've got that you want to slack out the sheets until the sails are as far outboard as they'll go and still keep full. If your sheets are too tight, you'll know it by the weight on the tiller."

He let a couple of ropes run out through the clattering blocks, and the sloop, slanting over a little farther, seemed to leap forward. The sparkling green ridges which came tumbling up on one side of her swung her aloft with the foam boiling along the edge of her lee deck, and then surged away in turn and let her drop while another came rolling up. Instead of being a mere thing of wood and canvas she seemed to become animate, charged with vitality. The springy way she rushed along was strangely exhilarating. Frank became fascinated watching her bows go up and the snowy, straining sail sweep across the dazzling blue at every lurch, while he became conscious of a sense of control and mastery as he gripped the tiller. He felt that he could do what he wanted with this wonderful rushing thing.

For she was certainly wonderful. There was no doubt of that, because among all of man's works and inventions there is none that more nearly approaches the simplicity of perfection and adaptability to its purpose than the modern sailboat. It has taken centuries to evolve her, each builder adding a little to the work of those who went before, and balancing in her making, often without knowing it, the great natural forces one against another, until at last science justified what man did, so that with this frail creation one may brave the untrammeled winds of heaven and the onslaught of the seas.

By and by the headland they had been nearing thrust them off their course, and outside it lay a nest of islets, with a strong stream running up between. As it ran to windward it broke up the regular, breeze-driven waves into short, foaming combers with hollowed breasts and tumbling tops which flung up wisps of spray. Frank glanced at this tumult with some anxiety, and it was a relief to him when his companion offered to take the tiller.

"You had better let me have her," Harry said. "She wants handling in a jump like that. I'd heave a reef down to reduce the sail, only that it would take us some time to tie it in and there'll be smoother water once we're past the islands. As we'll have to beat through, you can get the sheets in."

Frank found this no easy task, for he had no idea that the sails could pull so hard, and Harry had to help him with one hand. Then the latter's face became intent as they plunged into the turmoil. The seas looked big and angry now. In fact, as usually happens, they looked a good deal bigger than they really were, but they were breaking in a threatening manner and came on to meet the sloop in white-topped phalanxes. She went over some with a disconcerting plunge and swoop, but she rammed a few of the rest, driving her jib and bows in and flinging the brine all over her when she swung them up. Her deck was sluicing, and every now and then a green and white cascade came frothing over the coaming into the well. Frank, however, noticed that, instead of letting the boat meet the combers, his companion occasionally pulled his tiller up, so that, swinging round a little, she brought the ridge of frothing water farther on her side as she plunged over it.

"I thought you had to face a nasty sea head-on," he said.

"Did you?" Harry responded. "Then watch that smaller one."

A slope of water came tumbling on some yards ahead, and as the boy eased his helm down an inch or two the bows came up to meet the sea. They struck it full in its hollowed breast, and the next moment there was a shock and half the deck was lost in a rush of foam.

"Like me to plug another?" laughed Harry.

Frank begged him not to do it. The result of the experiment was rather alarming, and Harry let her fall off a little to dodge the onslaught of the succeeding combers, until at last they grew smaller as the stream spread itself out in open water. Then he gave Frank some further instruction.

"If you were pulling or paddling a small craft it would be safer to bring her head-on, because you have to remember that she'd be going mighty slow, but when you're sailing a boat that's carrying her speed it's evident that you don't want to ram her right at a comber. If you do, she's bound to go bang into it. When you see one that looks threatening you let her fall off slightly and she goes over slanting." He broke off for a moment with a laugh. "Seems to me I'm always on the 'teach.' You come here and take the tiller while I get some of the water out of her. You can head for that point to starboard."

He busied himself with the bucket while Frank steered the boat, and an hour or so later they ran into a little sheltered inlet where they brought her head to wind and pitched the anchor over. After that they bailed out the half-swamped canoe, and, dropping into her, paddled ashore.

CHAPTER VII
A WARNING

Frank looked about him with some curiosity when they reached the settlement, which struck him as a singularly unattractive place. In a hole chopped out of the forest that crept close to the edge of the water stood a few small log houses and several roughly boarded shacks. Tall fir stumps surrounded them, and here and there provision cans and old boots lay among the fern, in which a few lean hogs were rooting. Farther on, however, there was an opening in the bush, for the boy could catch the gleam of water between the trees, and in one place the great columnar trunks cut against the soft green of a meadow. The grass was bright with sunshine, but dim shadow hung over the forest-shrouded settlement.

"A forlorn spot," said Harry. "I don't know why the folks first pitched here, but they raise a little fruit, and now and then a Seattle boat comes along. It's thin gravel soil on this strip, and that's probably the reason they haven't done any more chopping – there are salt meadows farther along – but if they'd any hustlers among them they'd have got out their axes and let a little daylight in." He waved his hand contemptuously. "They're a mean crowd, anyway, except the storekeeper, and I've wondered how he makes a living out of them. Now we'll go along and get that flour."

They moved on down the trail, which was torn up by the passage of jumper sledges, until they reached a frame building which Frank had not noticed at first. It stood back a little and was larger and neater than any of the rest. A veranda ran along the front of it and in one window small flour bags and more provision cans were displayed. A couple of men in blue shirts and overalls lounged smoking on the veranda in a manner which suggested that they had never hurried themselves in their lives, and they seemed to be the only inhabitants of the place. As the boys walked up the stairway Harry pointed to a notice pasted up in the window. Frank stopped and read it aloud.

"Twenty dollars will be paid to any one identifying the man who recently drove a pair of horses off the Oliver ranch."

With a laugh Harry looked up defiantly at the lounging men. "That's Oliver's answer," he said. "They told him to keep his mouth shut."

One of the men grinned. "Seems to me it was good advice. Do you figure any one round here is going to earn those twenty dollars?"

Harry shook his head. "I don't," he answered. "Still, my only reason for believing it is that the money isn't big enough. Anyway, that notice will serve its purpose. It makes it clear that we mean to fight."

The lounger grinned again and Harry, marching past him with his head up, entered the store. A man who was sitting behind the counter rose when the boys came in and raised his hand in a manner which seemed to indicate that caution was desirable.

"You're wanting some groceries?" he asked.

"Flour," Harry answered. "A seventy-pound bag, if you've got it. Some pork, too – you know the piece we take. You might send them down to the beach, if there's anybody in the place who's not afraid of carrying a flour bag."

The storekeeper smiled and strolled casually toward the window. Coming back he leaned upon the counter.

"Your aunt's mighty particular about her pork," he said, raising his voice a little. "Better come along into the back store and see what I've got."

They followed him into a smaller room, where he first of all threw several big slabs of pork down upon a board, making, it seemed to Frank, as much noise as possible.

"Twelve pounds in this lot," he said loudly, then lowering his voice: "Those fellows outside haven't gone and I don't want them to hear. You haven't found your horses yet?"

Harry admitted that they had not done so, and the man nodded gravely.

"Well," he said, "I guess they'll turn up presently. I couldn't tell your father that because there were other folks in the store when he handed me the notice. What I want to say is that he's not wise in bluffing the boys. You had better tell him that's my opinion."

"How much do you know about the thing?" Harry asked directly.

"Very little, but I can guess a good deal. Quite enough, anyway, to convince me that you folks had better lie quiet, and let the boys alone."

Harry glanced scornfully toward the veranda.

"Pshaw!" he growled. "We don't want to meddle, but it's another matter to let those slouches drive off our team. That's my view, though I don't know what my father means to do about it. He hasn't told me."

"He never does tell folks," the storekeeper answered with a trace of dryness. "I guess he'll wait, and kick when he's ready, but you tell him from me that he's up against quite a big thing." He raised his voice: "Well, I'll send that pork and flour along."

The boys went out and met one of the loungers strolling casually across the store, though Frank had a suspicion that he had come in softly some time earlier. As they were walking down to the beach Harry glanced up the strip of sheltered water.

"There's a Chinese camp a little way up the creek," he said. "Nothing much to see there, but we may as well take a look at it."

They paddled across a strip of shadow where the reflections of spreading cedar and towering fir floated inverted in the still, green water until the ripple from the bows broke across and banished them. After that they slid out into the sunlight where a narrow belt of cultivated land ran back on either hand. On one side it was partly hidden by a bank of soil, at the end of which three or four men were leisurely working. They merely looked down as the canoe slid past.

"Hard cases!" said Harry presently. "If I was sheriff I'd clean this hole right out. There are decent folks here, but the curious thing is that when you let two or three toughs into a place they seem to get on top."

Frank made no comment, and soon they were once more paddling into the shadow of the forest. The creek was growing smaller, and at length they ran the canoe ashore and struck into a narrow trail through the bush.

It was now getting on into the afternoon and Frank felt sorry that they had not eaten the lunch Miss Oliver had prepared for them before they left the sloop. It was very hot, and very still, except when now and then the drumming of a blue grouse came sharply out of the shadows. By and by, however, the wood became a little thinner, and Harry pointed toward an opening between the trees.

"That's the place," he said. "Not much to look at, but it's good land. You can see the maples yonder – that's always a favorable sign – and somebody with money has lately bought quite a piece of it to start a fruit ranch on. The Chows have taken the contract for clearing it, and if any dope has been landed in the neighborhood they're probably mixed up with the thing."

Frank glanced toward the opening, and sitting, as he was, in dim shadow, the open space he looked out upon seemed flooded with dazzling brightness. In the background, and some distance away, little, blue-clad figures were toiling with axes that flashed as they swung amidst a confusion of branches and fallen logs, the staccato chunk of the blades ripping through the heavy stillness. Nothing else, however, seemed to move, and the air was filled with a languorous, resinous smell. Rows of stumps stretched out from the spot on which the Chinamen were working, breaking off before a cluster of bark and split-board shacks that stood beneath the edge of the forest. A man dressed in loose, blue garments was seated motionless outside one of the shacks, before two logs, from between which a little smoke curled straight up into the air. Presently the man stood up, and just then Harry seized Frank's shoulder.

"Look round a little – to the left," he whispered.

Frank did so and was astonished to see another man slip quietly out of the forest and approach the shack. His face was not discernible, but there was something peculiar in the way he walked, and his dress made it evident that he was a white man.

"Have you seen him before?" Harry asked softly.

"I can't locate him, but I've an idea that he's not quite a stranger," said Frank.

"Well," said Harry, "I'm open to make a guess at him. Just as the schooner went about that night I had a look at her helmsman. He had his back to me, but it was moonlight, and I could see that one shoulder hunched up in a kind of curious manner."

Frank looked again and it seemed to him that there was something unusual in the way the man held his shoulder. It was somewhat higher than the other, though it hardly amounted to a deformity.

"Slip in behind that tree," whispered Harry, pointing toward the bush. "We'll creep up through the shadow if he goes into the shack."

They spent some minutes moving forward in and out among the trees, and in the meanwhile Frank saw the stranger enter the shack and the Chinaman follow him. Then he and Harry walked out of the bush scarcely a score of yards from the rude building, and headed straight for it. As they approached, the Chinaman became visible in the doorway, where he stood waiting for them. He appeared to be an old man, for his face was lined and seamed, but it was absolutely expressionless, an impassive yellow mask, and Frank felt baffled and repelled by it. As soon as it was evident that the boys intended to enter his dwelling, he moved aside, and when they stood in the little, shadowy room Frank was astonished to see that there was nobody else in it. This seemed incomprehensible, for there was only one door in the place. In the meanwhile the Chinaman was looking at them quietly.

"It's quite hot," observed Harry.

"Velly hot," assented the other, who did not seem in any way disturbed by the fact that they had so unceremoniously marched in.

Harry appeared embarrassed after this, as though he did not know what to say next, until he was evidently seized by an inspiration.

"Got any chow, John?" he asked.

"Velly good chow," answered the Chinaman. "Lice, blue glouse, smokee fishee."

"Blue grouse!" said Harry disgustedly aside to Frank. "It's the nesting season, but I guess that wouldn't count for much with them." He turned to his host. "I'm not a heathen. Savvy cook American? Got any flour you can make biscuits or flapjacks of?"

"You leavee chow to me," said the other. "Cookee all same big hotel Seattle, Tacoma, San F'lisco."

"It's quite likely," said Harry, looking round at Frank. "You can trust a Chinaman to turn out a decent meal. I'll walk round a bit in the meanwhile; you can sit here and rest."

Frank did not particularly wish to rest, but he fancied that his companion had given him a hint, and while the Chinaman busied himself with his pots and pans he sat down outside the shack. He had been up early that morning, and after the steady, arduous work at the ranch it was pleasant to sit still in the strip of shadow and let his eyes wander idly about the clearing. Among other things, he noticed that a little trickle of water flowed across it, and that the soil was quaggy in the neighborhood. He concluded that the stranger, who had so mysteriously disappeared, must have crossed the wet place.



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