Harold Bindloss.

Thrice Armed



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CHAPTER I
JIMMY RENOUNCES HIS CAREER

It was with somewhat mixed feelings, and a curious little smile in his eyes, that Jim Wheelock stood with a brown hand on the Tyee's wheel as the deep-loaded schooner slid out through Vancouver Narrows before a fresh easterly breeze. Dim heights of snow rose faintly white against the creeping dusk above her starboard hand, and the busy British Columbian city, girt with mazy wires and towering telegraph poles, was fading slowly amidst the great black pines astern. An aromatic smell of burning followed the schooner, and from the levels at the head of the Inlet a long gray smear blew out across the water. A fire which had, as not infrequently happens, passed the bounds of somebody's clearing was eating its way into that part of the great coniferous forest that rolls north from Oregon to Alaska along the wet seaboard of the Pacific Slope.

The schooner was making her six knots, with mainboom well out on her quarter and broad wisps of froth washing off beneath her bows, slanted until her leeward scuppers were close above the sliding foam. Wheelock stood right aft, with his shoulders just above the roof of the little deckhouse, and, foreshortened as the vessel was, she seemed from that point of view a mere patch of scarred and somewhat uncleanly deck surmounted by a towering mass of sail. Two partly seen figures were busy bending on a gaff-topsail about the foot of her foremast, and Wheelock turned as one of them came slouching aft when the sail had been sent aloft. The man wore dungaree and jean, with a dilapidated oilskin coat over them, for the wind was keen. He appeared to be at least fifty years of age. Leaning against the rail, he grinned at Wheelock confidentially.

"She'll make a short trip of it if this breeze holds," he said. "I guess you find things kind of different from what they were in the mail-boats?"

Jim Wheelock nodded as he pulled up a spoke of his wheel, for it was that difference that had brought the smile to his eyes. It was several years now since he had touched a vessel's wheel, or done more than raise a directing hand to the trimly uniformed quartermaster who controlled the big liner's steering engine. He was twenty-eight years of age, and held an extra-master's certificate, and he had just completed the year's training in a big British warship which gave him his commission as a lieutenant R.N.R. It was certainly a distinct change to figure as supernumerary on board the Canadian coasting schooner Tyee, but he did not resent the fact that it was the grizzled, hard-faced man leaning on the rail beside him who had brought him there.

"Aren't you going to get the main gaff-topsail on to her? We'll carry smooth water with us 'most across the Straits," he said.

This was not to the purpose, as both of them felt, but it gave the other man the opening for which he had been looking.

"No," he replied, "I guess not.

We'll feel the wind fresher when she draws out from the land, and there's a streak of dry rot in her mainmast round the partners. That stick was sound right through when we put it into her, but it has stood the wind and weather quite a while, and I guess it's getting shaky, like its owner."

Now, the redwood logs hewn in the British Columbian forest as a rule make excellent masts, but they naturally deteriorate with time, and in some of them there is hidden a latent cause of trouble which now and then leads to premature decay. Jimmy was aware of this, and fancied that he knew why his companion had reminded him of it. It was scarcely two hours since he had arrived on board the Tyee. He had made a long journey to join her, because his father's kinsman Prescott, her mate, had sent for him; and now, though he almost shrank from asking for the information, there were points on which it was necessary that the latter should enlighten him. He leaned on his wheel in silence a minute or two and the smile died out of his eyes. Prescott regarded him steadily.

Jim Wheelock, who hitherto had taken life lightly, could bear inspection, for he was a personable man, as more than one of the young women who traveled in the big liner of which he had been mate had decided, and he had seldom experienced much difficulty in finding a pretty partner at any of the dances given to the warship's officers. He had whimsical blue eyes, and, though he was Colonial-born, a face of the fair, clean-skinned English type, which had in it an occasional suggestion of latent force. He had a well-proportioned frame, and his life in the mail-boats, and the R.N.R. training, had set their stamp on him. Just then he was attired incongruously in an old skin-cap, battered gum-boots which reached to his knees, trousers showing signs of wear, and a steamboat mate's jacket with gilt buttons on it, in much the same condition; but, in spite of that, he did not appear the kind of man one would have expected to come upon steering a coasting schooner.

"What do you think about my father, Bob?" he asked.

"What I said in the letter," the other man replied. "I guess you ought to understand it, now you've seen him. Tom's going to looard fast, 'most as fast" – and he seemed to search for a metaphor – "as a center-boarder when her board won't come down. It kind of struck me it was 'bout time you came home and looked after things and him. That's why I wrote you. He'd have never done it, anyway."

Jim Wheelock knew this was true. Prescott's letter, which had come to hand at Portsmouth just after he had finished his navy training, had somewhat startled him, and, as the result of it, he had forthwith started for Vancouver, traveling second-class and by Colonist car, as one does not gain very much financially by serving in the R.N.R. On arriving there he had been further startled by the change in his father whom he had last seen several years earlier when Tom Wheelock was, apparently, at least, beyond the reach of adversity as the owner of several small coasting vessels, one of which he insisted on sailing personally, though this had not seemed needful at the time. It was evident to Jimmy that he had been going to leeward very fast in several ways since then.

"Yes," he said, "that is a sure thing. When did the change begin? I mean, when did things first go wrong with him?"

"When he lost the Fish-hawk– that was 'most four years ago. Anyway, that was when I began to notice it. Then the cannery people put on their steamboat, and he couldn't keep the Eagle going without their trade. She lay ashore in a bad berth with a big load of Wellington coal in her, and it cost him about a thousand dollars before she was fit for sea again. Things were slack that season, and he gave Merril a bond for the money. I guess that made the real trouble. Merril's a mighty hard man, and he has been putting the screw on him."

Jim Wheelock looked thoughtful. "A thousand dollars isn't such a great deal of money, after all. The old man seemed to have plenty of it when I left home."

"Well," said Prescott dryly, "it's quite certain he hasn't got it now, and I've more than a notion that there's a big bond on the Tyee. Why did he bring your sister Ellen back from Toronto?"

Jim Wheelock did not know. He had, in fact, once or twice asked himself the same question without finding an answer. His sister Eleanor, who was an ambitious and capable young woman, was now earning a pittance by teaching at a ranch near New Westminster; but she had never given him any reason in her letters for abandoning the studies she had gone East to pursue in Toronto.

"Anyway," said Prescott, "it's quite clear to me that your father needs a man with sense and snap to stand right behind him and see that he worries out of Merril's clutches. I don't know whether you can do it – I can't – I'm no use at business. Tom and I were always honest. Then, supposing you can do that, you're 'bout half-way through with the thing."

"Only half-way?"

"'Bout that. Tom's been drifting to looard. You want to brace him sharp up on the wind again."

He broke off somewhat abruptly, for the scuttle slide in the deckhouse roof was flung back, and a man below lifted his head above it.

"Come right down and get your supper, Jimmy. Bob will take your wheel," he said.

Jimmy left the helm to Prescott, and with an effort he braced himself for the interview before him as he descended to the little stuffy cabin. It was dimly lighted by an oil-lamp that creaked as it swung, though the Tyee was ploughing her way westward steadily as yet. A little stove made it almost intolerably hot, and the swirl of brine beneath the lee quarter filled it with a sound that was like the rattle of sliding gravel. Jimmy sat down, and ate the pork, potatoes, fresh bread, and desiccated apples set before him, which he surmised might be considered somewhat of a banquet on board the Tyee, and then he took out his pipe and turned toward his father as he filled his pannikin again with strong green tea. He had arrived in Vancouver only that afternoon, and they had had no time for conversation in the hurry of getting to sea.

"Take some whisky in it?" asked Tom Wheelock. "It's not much of a supper after what you've been used to on board the liners."

"No, thanks," said Jimmy. "I'm glad I didn't miss you."

"Got your wire," said Wheelock, who helped himself liberally to the whisky. "We weren't through with the loading until yesterday, and, though the folks want those sawmill fixings bad, I figured we could wait another twenty-four hours. It's good to see you sitting there; but I don't know yet what brought you over. It's quite a long way."

Jimmy spent some time in filling his pipe. He was a truthful person, and Prescott, who wrote the letter, had pledged him to secrecy; then, too, he was by no means certain that his father would appreciate what either of them had done, or would consider it in any way necessary. He also had scarcely got used to the change in his circumstances and surroundings, and did not feel quite at ease. On the last liner he sailed in, the officers dined in the saloon, and, though the battleship's wardroom was less luxurious, it was, at least, very different from the Tyee's quarter-cabin. Tin pannikins and plates of indurated ware lay on a soiled, uncovered table; a grimy brown blanket from the skipper's bunk trailed down across the locker that served as a settee; and the fish-oil lamp smelt horribly. Then he glanced at his father, who sat silent, sipping his tea, which was freely laced with whisky.

Tom Wheelock was by no means dressed as neatly as most of the Vancouver wharf-hands, and he looked like a man who had lost heart, and pride as well. He was gaunt and big-boned, with a seaman's weather-darkened face, but there was weariness and something that suggested vacancy in its expression. He and Jimmy had the same blue eyes, and they were kindly and honest in the case of each; but Tom Wheelock's were a trifle watery, and there was a certain bagginess under them, while his mouth was slack. In fact, the man, as his son recognized, appeared to have sunk into a state of limpness that was mental as well as physical.

"Well," said Jimmy, with a little laugh, "I don't quite know. There were, you see, several reasons. To begin with, I had to come out of the mail-boat for my year's training, and when that was over there were a good many men on the Company's list to be worked off before they wanted me again. Trade is slack over there, and it seemed wiser to await my turn. After all, it doesn't cost so much to come across second-class and Colonist; and I guessed you would be glad to see me."

"So I am;" and there was no doubt that Wheelock meant it. "I've been wanting you quite a while, Jimmy. Things aren't going well with me. Take some whisky?"

It was evident to Jimmy that his father already had taken as much as was good for most men; and he did not often shrink from a responsibility, that is, when he recognized it as such, which is now and then a little difficult when one is young.

"Well," he said, "this time I guess I will."

He took the bottle, and, after helping himself sparingly, contrived to slip it out of sight on the locker.

"How's Eleanor?" he asked.

"Quite well; but though she has her mother's grit, life's hard on the girl. Ellen could have done 'most anything if she'd got her diplomas, or whatever they are, and I had figured I'd do something for one of my children when I sent her back East. It was your mother's brother – the brains come from that side of the family – did everything for you. A kind of pity you and he quarreled, Jimmy!"

Jimmy smiled drily as he remembered the year he had spent in Winnipeg with the grim business man before the call of the sea that he was born to listen to grew irresistible and the rupture came. Young as he was then, he had proved himself equal in strength of purpose to the hard old man, and had gone to sea in an English ship. It cost his father fifty pounds for his outfit and premium, and that was all that Tom Wheelock had done for him. He had made his own way into the steamers, and the extra-master certificate and the commission in the R.N.R. he owed to himself. Now it was evident that he must renounce all that they might bring him – at least, for a while.

"I don't think we ever would have hit it off together; and I can't help a fancy that, after all, he didn't blame me very much for taking my own way in spite of him," he said. "Still, it is a pity Eleanor had to come back. I suppose keeping her in Toronto was out of the question?"

Wheelock's eyes seemed to grow a trifle bloodshot, and his voice sank to a hoarser note. "Quite. I might have done it but for the bond I gave Merril when the Eagle went ashore. It wasn't that big a one, but he fixed up quite a lot of things I never figured on. I was to insure to full value, and have her repaired whenever his surveyor considered she wanted it. Twice the man ran me up a big unnecessary bill, and I had to go to Merril for the money. Now the boat's his, and there's a bond on the Tyee. When the old man goes under, you'll remember who it was squeezed the life out of him, Jimmy. Say, where d'you put that whisky?"

"I'm not quite through with it yet;" and Jimmy, who did not pass it to him, smiled reassuringly. "Anyway, I wouldn't worry too much about Merril. I've a few dollars laid by, and I'm going to stay right here and look after you. Bob Prescott tells me the Siwash wants to go ashore, and that makes a berth for me. It's scarcely likely the Company will want me for three months or more."

The old man looked at him with a gleam of comprehension in his watery eyes. "Jimmy," he said, "you have been a good son – and it wasn't quite my fault I never did anything for you. Your mother was often ailing, and when I sent her East twice to the specialists the freights I was getting would scarcely foot the bill. Oh, yes, things were generally tight with me. Now they're tight again; but when Merril wants my blood you've come back to see it out with me."

He made a gesture of weariness. "Well, I guess I'll turn in. I've been trailing round the city most of the day after a man who owes me forty dollars – and I'm 'way from being as young as I used to be."

He climbed somewhat stiffly into his bunk, and Jimmy went up on deck. It was dark now, and the Tyee, leaning down until the foot of her lee bulwarks was almost in the foam, swept through the dark water with a leisurely dip and swing. A dim star or two hung over her mastheads, and the peak of the big gaff-topsail swung athwart them a little blacker than the night; but there was no shimmer of light on all the water, and the schooner swung out to westward, vague and shadowy, with one blurred shape gripping her straining wheel. It reminded Jimmy of the sailing-ship days when he had set his teeth and borne what came to him – wet and cold, utter weariness, want of sleep, purposeless exactions, and brutal hazing. Those black days had gone. He had lived through them, and had been about to reap his reward when the summons had come and he had gone back West to his duty. The broken-down man in the little cabin needed him, as Jimmy, who tried not to admit the greatness of the change in him, realized. Then he turned as Prescott spoke to him from the wheel.

"Now you've had a talk to him, I guess you'll understand why I sent for you," he said. "You've got to take hold and straighten things. Tom's been letting go fast."

Jimmy Wheelock said nothing, but he knew that in the meanwhile he must put his career aside; and once more he set his lips and braced himself to face the task before him as he had done often in the sailing-ship days.

CHAPTER II
TO WINDWARD

Two days had slipped away since Jimmy joined the Tyee, when, with her dew-wet canvas slatting at every roll, she crept out from the narrow waters into the Pacific. Astern of her the Olympians towered high above the forests of Washington, a great serrated ridge of frosted silver that cut coldly white against the blue of the morning sky. To starboard the shore of Vancouver Island rose, a faint blur of misty pines, and ahead the sea was dimmed by drifting vapors out of which the long swell swung glassily. At times a wandering zephyr crisped it with a darker smear, and the Tyee crawled ahead a little. Then she stopped again, heaving her bows high out of the oily sea, while everything in her banged and rattled.

There was nothing that any one on board her could do but wait for the breeze and wonder whether it would come from the right direction. Jimmy sat on the deckhouse with his pipe in his hand, and Tom Wheelock, whose face looked careworn in the early light and showed pasty gray patches amidst its bronze, glanced westward a trifle anxiously as he held the jerking wheel.

"It's a kind of pity we lost that breeze," he said. "The people up yonder want those sawmill fixings, and with the wind from the east we'd 'most have fetched the Inlet to-night. There was talk of somebody putting a steamboat on, but the mill's a small one, and they figured they'd give me a show as long as I could keep them going. I've got to do it. There's a living in the contract."

Then his face hardened suddenly, and he sighed. "That is, there would have been if Merril hadn't got his grip on me. That man wants everything."

He appeared about to say something further, but just then Prescott flung the scuttle slide back, and a smell of coffee and frizzling pork flowed out of it.

"If you want your breakfast, Tom, I guess you'd better get it," he said, and lumbered round the deckhouse toward the wheel.

Wheelock went below, and Jimmy, who seemed to forget that he had meant to light his pipe, glanced thoughtfully at Prescott.

"Who is this Merril, Bob?" he asked.

Prescott made a vague gesture. "I guess he's everything. He has a finger in most of what goes on in this Province, and feels round with it for the money. Calls himself general broker and ship-store dealer; but he has money in everything, from bush ranches to steamboats."

"You mean he holds stock in them?"

"No," said Prescott, "I guess I don't. I'm not smart at business, and Tom isn't either, or he'd never have let Merril get his claws on him; but it's quite plain to me that stocks don't count along with mortgages and bonds. When you buy stock you take your chances, and quite often that's 'bout all; but when you hold a bond at a big interest you usually get the ship or mill. Anyway, that's how Merril fixes it."

Jimmy lighted his pipe, but he looked more thoughtful than ever, as, in fact, he was. Hitherto, he had taken life lightly, for, after all, wet and cold, screaming gale and stinging spray, are things one gets used to and faces unconcernedly; but Jimmy could recognize a responsibility, and he realized that there was now to be a change. Tom Wheelock was growing prematurely old and shaky, and it was, it seemed, his son's part to free him from the load of debt that was crushing him, if this by any means could be done; if not, at least to share it with him. He feared it would be the latter. Hitherto he had waged only the clean, primitive strife with the restless sea; but he did not shrink from the prospect of the meaner and more arduous conflict with the wiles of man and the forces of capital, or consider that in renouncing his career he was doing a commendable thing. He was by no means brilliant intellectually, though he had a certain shrewdness and a ready wit; and it only occurred to him that the course he had decided on was the obvious one. He did not even think it worth while to mention that he had done so, which indeed would have been unnecessary, since Prescott seemed to take it for granted.

"I believe you had the wind from the east for several days," he said. "Why didn't you run across before?"

"Well," replied Prescott reflectively, "we might have done so, but Tom didn't seem greatly stuck on trying it. Took time over his loading when he got your wire. Perhaps he didn't want to leave you hanging round Vancouver until we got back again."



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