THE CRIMSON HOODOO
THE rusty, clanking old steam tramp Matilda, a sea-going pig according to her long-suffering crew, wallowed her way to the pile wharf at Iloila. McDonald, the engineer, had temporarily abandoned swearing at her: even his flow was inadequate. Why her engines didn’t all come unstuck and settle like evil sediment in one unholy junk pile on the ship’s bottom was à perpetual mystery to him. The Matilda was reputed to be the oldest steam driven craft in the Pacific, and her internal mechanism suffered from every complaint known to marine engineers.
McDonald stumped for’ard, climbed the bridge companion, and approached the skipper with easy informality. Dave Fenton and he were ship mates of twenty years’ standing. Equally they shared ownership of the Matilda: equally they sorrowed in their possession. For the Matilda was a good ship to lose money with. In the trade she was known by various unpleasant names, some of them frankly obscene. She had come near to being the grave-yard of her present owners’ fortunes.
It had been a variegated score of years in which the -master mariner and McDonald had stuck together. The first vessel they bought jointly was sunk in the St. Lawrence by some mad-brained skipper who drove full tilt into them. Insurance covered only a part of that loss. Dipping deeply into their pockets, they bought another ship at Quebec. A pilot put her aground well up the Amazon, and though she came off again they lost months of trading while she lay in dry dock. They sold her eventually, bought a tug, and for a twelvemonth picked up a precarious livelihood outside Sydney Harbor.
After that there was a pearling speculation which set them on their feet for a space, but fate still had one watchful eye on them. If ever they got two rungs up the ladder they were pulled back. For a decade they became pawns in some inscrutable game played by unseen powers. It was as though a sneer ever lurked in fortune’s smile. Grimly they hung on, battling with the sea and things they could not understand, sometimes able to send only a bare pittance to their respective families who lived cheek by jowl in New Brunswick. The Matilda had now been their weary burden for eighteen months, and gradually she was sucking their figurative life’s blood. To save insurance for a while they carried their own risk, where«pon a gale beat the ship almost to a pulp and the repair bill left a mortgage on her. Increasing the mortgage, they bought a cargo of spices on the African cost, and a leaky patch in the Matilda's side wasted ten thousand dollars’ worth of the stuff under her hatches. Her cylinder heads were defective, steam pipes were everlastingly cracking, and the whole engine had begun to Bhow a tendency to rock on its foundations.
“Our luck’s clean oot, cap’n,” said the engineer, cutting off a large wad of black tobacco and placing the tid-bid under his tongue, as he gained the skipper’s side on the bridge. “We’ll ha’ to lie here at Iloila full four days for repairs afore I dare drive her to sea again.”
pAPT. FENTON glanced at his partner. This was bad news. An eight hundred ton steamer lying idle for four days is infinitely worse than any white elephant.
“Well, you’re the doctor, Sandy,” he said at last, beckoning to the second mate. “There’s an hour ’s run yet. Guess we’ll slip below and have a little something.”
They were curiously in contrast, this pair, as they entered the old man’s cabin. Dave Fenton, with three score years to
his credit, and a life-time of failure behind him, was yet something of an optimist. Even when things looked blackest a twinkle in the skipper’s pale blue eyes saved Sandy McDonald from utter melancholia. Sandy’s face was criss-crossed with lines limned by care: the engines of the, Matilda had done their full share to take the desert color out of his hair, but trouble had come in a ceaseless stream all the years of their precarious partnership.
The Scot poured himself out three fingers of gin, held the glass up with an oily hand, raised it to his lips—and then put the liquor down untouched, his eyes fixed on an object over the skipper’s shoulder. It was a carved monkey smeared grotesquely with scarlet pigment. It had rested on the same shelf ever since he and Dave Fenton took the Matilda over, and on similar shelves in the skipper’s various cabins for quite ten years.
“Dave,” the engineer said in an oddly serious voice, “I’m going to ask you a question. You tote that blame thing along everywhere. Why? There’s nae superstition in ma make-up, but what’s the matter with dumpin’ it overboard?”
Dave Fenton mixed his own grog with a steady-hand.
“And yet you say there’s no superstition in you?” he observed quietly.
“Why, yes, but ye’ll no deny that we’ve been carryin’ a hoodoo aboot with us for a long month o’ Sundays. We’ve both sweated for a livin’ since we were kids, and what have we got noo? About half shares in this crazy bunch of trouble and she isn’t worth ten cents except for junk. Last time she went under survey it was just a plain miracle that they let her go to sea. If you an’ me weren’t takin’ a chance along with the crew I’d say we deserve to go to prison for riskin’ human life.”
There was sufficient truth about this to hurt Dave.
“I bought that monkey at Vera Cruz,” he said. “Don’t know why, but I kind of liked it, see? There’s monkeys and monkeys, but this little chap’s got a cheerful look about him. We were sailing the So,lutarias in them days. I stuck him up on a shelf in my cabin to bring us luck.”
“Well, hasn’t it—rotten luck?”
' I VHE skipper puffed at his cigar thoughtfully a few moments.
“Sandy, I ain’t denyin’ that you and me’s headin’ straight for the poor-house. I ain’t denyin’ that we look
Tlike being jammed tight in a corner with a dern thin chance to get out of it. We’ve both worked almighty hard, and got mighty little to show for it. L R If anything happens to this ship we’ll never get another, and at our time o’ life owners would laugh if we asked to be put on a reg’lar payroll. ’Cordin’ to schedule we ought to be going home now with a wad and raisin’ chicken for a hobby, though pigs are my partic’lar fancy. Alius wanted to grow pigs. Prize Berkshire pigs. Ever seen ’em, Sandy? They do your eyesight good. I want ’bout a dozen of ’em in a little farm yard. And when it’s blowin’ all hell out at sea I want to walk down into that little farm yard and watch—”
“Dave, it’s monkeys I’m talkin’ aboot: not pigs. Let’s heave the thing over the side, just for luck.”
“After I’ve carried it everywhere?” The skipper lifted one eyebrow in query. “You’ve another guess coming, Sandy. Maybe pigs are going to be off the map for me. Maybe we’ll both go broke and have to work our passages back to Canada peeling potatoes. But that l’le old monk—w’ell, I guess he’ll stay right where he is.” The skipper stuck down a rebellious leaf on the cigar. “Pigs, Sandy, in a farm yard that don’t throw’ you all over the place every time a storm starts blowin’! Ever get the idea?”
“Pigs nothing!” retaliated the engineer, a dreamy look drifting into his pale blue eyes. “If ever I’d had ma way I’d hae settled doon wi’ ma family on an island near Fiji farming silkworms. Mon, there’d be big money in it. If ever I could scrape together—”
“You mean you’d work?" asked the skipper.
“Ain’t pigs going to be work?” retorted Sandy. “Noo, Dave, how aboot throwdn’ that monkey overboard?”
For answer the skipper finished his grog and walked to the bridge; and Sandy, with one last look at the scarlet thing on the shelf, returned to his laboring inferno below.
When, at Iloila, he tackled the job of fixing the engines, he found the trouble more serious than he had anticipated. He and his staff slaved night and day for sixty hours and then had to begin all over again. It was eight days before the halting Matilda was able to put to sea again, and even then Sandy McDonald’s heart wras filled w’ith misgivings.
“We ought to ha’ had another hundred ton o’ coal, too, Dave,” he said, “but it’s an awfu’ sinful price at Iloila. I guess w'e’ll just be able to make Fiji comfortably with what we’ve got in the bunkers. Coal’s cheaper there.”
For long leagues the Matilda pounded and thrashed her way wnth so few’ signs of faltering that Sandy, instead
of being jubilant, began to grow nervous. This was not the Matilda's way.
“It’s as though she was savin’ up for something terrible,” Sandy observed fearfully to the skipper. “That patch I put on at Iloila ought to last a good w’hile, but there’s a hundred other things all due to go wrong.”
Dave Fenton stroked his scanty beard. The barometer wras dropping ominously, so he had cares of his own. Such antics of the barometer, with the moon in that quarter right in the middle of the hurricane season, were enough to keep any master mariner from falling asleep at the sw’itch.
“I guess we’ll be all right, Sandy,” he said. That had been his sermon for a good many years. But twelve hours later when the hurricane burst over them Dave Fenton felt considerably less assurance. He lashed everything securely, turned the ship’s bluff nose into the wund, and waited Continued on page 51
The Crimson Hoodoo
Continued from page 15
for her to ride it out or break her back in the process. Dave figured that at times the wind, which well-nigh tore the Matilda apart, was rushing by at over eighty miles an hour. And yet the skipper had one consolation: at the end of three days the gray racing mountains of water that hurled the rusty tramp about like an empty bottle, told Dave that he was missing the worst of it. Even on the outer edge of that elemental upheaval he had sickening moments of suspense, when the ship lay over in her agony, threatening never to right herself, or when, with her propeller clean out of the water and racing madly, she tried to shake herself to pieces. It was the worst weather Captain Fenton had known during many a year, and in seven days he snatched perhaps a bare dozen hours of sleep. But every time his gaze travelled away to the west’ard he wondered exactly what would have happened had the Matilda been, say, a day’s run further over in that direction.
“It’s fair hell here” he muttered, bloodshot eyes resting sleepily on the tumultwracked waters where the heart of the hurricane raged. “But I guess they’ve had a dose over there that’d breaK anything afloat.”
EVEN SO, it was bad enough for the owners of the Matilda. That rusty old baggage of the sea had remained afloat by a miracle only. Her decks had been swept clean as a whistle by the first big wave that hit her. Not a boat remained, nor davits to hold a boat. Stanchions were twisted or gone. Abaft the funnel twelve fathom of rail had been carried overboard and to make matters worse the strain had opened an old wound in the ship’s side. She was leaking—leaking so fast that the pumps barely held their own.
A living gale was still raging when Sandy McDonald stood, stripped to the waist, in the super-heated, din-ridden engine room, wondering as he had not wondered since the days of his youth. Never for more than a moment did his eyes leave the gauges, never did his hand or voice fail to respond to the engines’ slightest want. But never, through it all, did he cease to wonder. He doubted whether the machinery had ever had a severer test, and he was wondering all the time just how many more minutes it was going to bear the strain. The instant those horizontals ceased to groan and shiver, the pumps would stop. Moreover, she would lose steerage way, turn broadside on to the waves and be swamped. And anyhow, even if the gale stopped now, they would be in a desperate plight, for they had been steaming practically a week without making appreciable headway, and the coal was nearly gone. Already the ordinary bunkers had been swept out. Sandy had fallen back on the reserve, and every shovelful thrown on the furnaces brought the Matilda one step nearer the inevitable moment when she must float helpless, like an over-fed hog, awash and impotent. As near as Sandy could figure out the coal reserve would keep them running for four more days. After that he and the skipper might just as well light their pipes and wait. If the Matilda kept afloat some vessel might happen along and let them have a little coal. It might. They were well off the beaten track, but there was always hope.
Dull eyed, almost sleeping where he stood, Sandy continued to wonder for another day or two until the prankish hurricane, as though weary of the game, suddenly went elsewhere. From a blatant sky the sun beat down fiercely and not the faintest breeze stirred. Only the long mountainous swell remained, heavy but unbroken.
SANDY and his partner foregathered in the skipper’s cabin.
“Weel,” said the engineer, wiping beads of sweat from his brow with a dirty piece of waste, “this is about the end of a’ things.”
“It’s pretty bad, Sandy,” agreed the
old man, throwing open the port hole for air, “but I guess we’ll be all right. It’s a tidy step from here to New Brunswick, though, I’ll allow.”
A deck hand poked his nose in the door with a message from the mate on the bridge.
“Mr. Barnes says there’s somethin’ on the starboard bow, sir. Not far off the Chicani Rock.”
“With a bit of luck, that means coal, Sandy,” said the skipper. “Man, we’ll be all right.” And he pottered forward to the bridge.
But things were not as he anticipated: were not, indeed, as anyone could have anticipated. As they drew near the Chicani Rock, a lonely menace to which sailors usually give a wide berth, Sandy McDonald joined the skipper on the bridge and when his brain took in the situation he gripped Dave Fenton’s arm, speechless.
One of the big Blue Diamond liners, with maybe a thousand souls aboard, was lying within half a mile of the dreaded Chicani and flying the most desperate signal known to men of the sea.
“Dear God!” exclaimed the skipper. “Sandy, it’s a salvage job, and we’ve got no coal!”
“Salvage!” muttered the engineer, scarce believing his eyes. Sailors pray for salvage all their lives, and when it comes it may be an empty coal hulk or a half ruined schooner. But here was a Pacific greyhound right under their nose, sorely wounded and begging for help. Somewhere hereabouts she had battled for days with the worst fury of that terrific hurricane until she had been reduced from a thing of proud beauty to a broken, limping creature, decks swept bare. She was canting over to starboard at a dangerous angle. Part of the bridge, even, had been claimed by the sea.
“Leggo my arm,” snapped the skipper, shaking himself free as he awoke to the full possibilities of the position.
“Losh, man!” said the engineer in an awed voice. “Her engines have gone to glory! Broken ner main shaft, I expect. What can we do, Dave? What can we do?”
“Darned if I know yet,” retorted the skipper, thrusting a fresh cigar between his teeth. He could always think best that way. And here was the one occasion of his life to do some tall thinking. “Wait till we get within hailing distance. Meanwhile, slip below and see exactly what coal we’ve got left. There’s not much, but I want to know exactly—exactly, mind—how long it’ll last if we drive this packet at full speed. Come and let me know soon’s you can.”
SANDY scuttled from the bridge. His brain was aflame. Here, dangling under their noses, were wealth, comfort, leisure for the rest of their lives, and yet at the crucial moment there had come a poisonous fly in the ointment. No coal!
He was hurrying past the skipper’s cabin when a queer thought assailed him. Fiendish ill-luck had pursued them long enough. Sandy acted on the spur of the moment. Afterward the skipper could say what he liked, but no scarlet monkey hoodoo was going to interfere with a situation of this sort. Maybe it was only silly superstition, but latterly the idea had taken firm root in Sandy’s mind that Dave’s monkey was queering things for them. Anyhow, it wouldn’t queer this.
He dived into the cabin, grabbed the scarlet monkey, pitched it bodily out of the open port-hole, and then slid down to see about the coal.
By the time he returned to the bridge Dave Fenton was just reaching for a megaphone.
“We can steam hard at it for four hours, no longer,” reported Sandy. The skipper made a wry grimace, then raised the megaphone to his lips.
“You want assistance?” he shouted across the narrowing space to the other vessel.
“Yes. Get a move on,” came in reply
“We’ve lost our propeller. We’ve only got one anchor left, and she’s dragging that. We’ll be ashore if you aren’t quick. Five thousand dollars if you pull us out of this.”
Already Dave had had a stout wire hawser got ready. He spat orders like a machine gun, and in five minutes had manoeuvred near enough to pick up a line. When that had been accomplished and the hawser was being drawn across, he reached for the megaphone once more.
“Five thousand dollars don’t buy this tow, mister,” he bellowed forth. “It’s a man-size job. I’ve been wanting it for fifty years.” The hawser was being made fast. Already Dave had begun to draw away.
“Make it twenty thousand, then,” came from the other vessel’s captain. “We’re in wireless communication with one of our own steamers. She’ll be here to pick us up in another eight hours.”
EIGHT hours! And the Matilda only had coal enough to steam for half that time! Dave bit hard on his cigar. With a strong tide running and the enormous dead weight of a laden Blue Diamond liner astern, the little tramp steamer would have a hard battle.
“It’s a regular salvage job or nothing,” he barked back across the water.
“Call it a deal at fifty thousand, then,” suggested the liner’s master as the hawser tightened.
“For the love of Mike, take him on at that,” begged Sandy at the skipper’s elbow.
“Mr. McDonald,” said Dave acidly, “are you drawin’ this cat or am I? You attend to your job and the court’ll award us a hundred thousand bones for to-day’s work—if we do it. But we haven’t finished yet by a jugful. Now get below, and I’ll talk turkey to yon feller.”
WITH no alternative, the liner’s master finally agreed to Dave Fenton’s condition of full legal salvage money, and the tramp settled down to her task. Slowly the other vessel eased the pressure on her dragging anchor and floated further from danger, to the accompaniment of a mighty cheer from the mass of life-belted passengers clustered about her decks. Gauging the Matilda's strength carefully, Dave signalled below for a shade less steam, but at the end of an hour Sandy appeared, agitatedly.
“Mon, can ye no gang easier?” he asked, eyes strained in the direction of the vast liner. “Or maybe you could pass a boat back to them for a wee bit coal.”
The skipper smiled.
“Sandy, you’re a first class engineer, I’ll tell the world. But you’ve got no more notion of playin’ poker than a silkworm. If we show our cards now what d’you expect that skipper’s going to say? He’d give his ears to compromise with us. Listen, you pin-headed son of Scotland, I’ve been thinking. We’ve got to steam somehow for about four hours after the coal finishes. I’d burn the cargo in the furnaces, only there isn’t anything there that would burn. There’s going to be something doing on this packet. I’ve sent the mate to get out some axes. I’m going to burn the blame ship itself to keep her going. Start by breaking up all the partitions in the men’s quarters. Tear ’em down like as if they., hadn’t cost money. Then there’s the deck house.' Smash it—break it—burn it. Then rip off the doors in the saloon—tables, chairs everything. Dang me, I’ll burn the bridge itself if necessary before I’ll let that dog-gonned sea-lawyer go back on his deal because we don’t deliver the goods. He’s prayin’ for the chance, an* all the time I'm thinking of prize Berkshire pigs! Dozens of the blame things, Sandy. I’ll confess to you I’ve never even dared to hope for years. But now I can see ’em. Sandy, go and smash the Matilda, but if you don’t keep that furnace burning I hope you choke!”
TO THE Scot’s mind it was almost irreverence to slash at the tramp’s permanent fixtures with axes, and it tortured his soul to see partitions wrhich had cost good money torn down ruthlessly. But—Dave was right. After the first shock a fever of destructiveness possessed the engineer. Anything and everything that would burn was fed to the flames until a mighty yell and hooting from the crippled liner announced the first sight of her sister ship on the horizon. By that time the Matilda, never a thing of beauty, was a gallant, struggling ruin.
Casting a frugal Scot’s eye over the damage, Sandy gulped. The fever had passed: something of the sinfulness of such waste gnawed at the engineer’s conscience. But the knowledge that they had made sure of their salvage money— money that was going to keep him and Dave Fenton in comfort for the rest of their days—was a golden, glowing joy.
He returned to the engine room and took up his station once more in front of the gauges, watching the dwindling steam pressure until the bridge telegraph rang “stop.” The old Matilda wouldn’t have been able to punch it out for more than another ten minutes.
Sandy peeped from the engine room. He saw the strong liner take hold of her sick sister, saw Dave rowed across. The skipper had gone for something in black and white “in consideration of services rendered.”
Then the engineer retired to his own cabin, there to refresh his weary frame with certain bottled goods.
“Losh!” he exclaimed, and half filled a tumbler. He was raising it to his lips when his eyes fell on the port-hole ventilator. There was something caught there which held him from a second drink that day.
He put the glass down with a palsied hand, rose unsteadily, and crossed the cabin. Gingerly he put one arm through
his port-hole until his fingers had a firm grip on Dave Fenton’s scarlet monkey. When he threw it out of the captain’s state room it had evidently travelled in mid air as far as the engineer’s port-hole and rested there.
“Losh!” muttered Sandy again, his heart contracting at the thought of that narrow margin by which he and his partner had won to success. He set the carved creature on his bed, stared at it, and scratched his head, with a puzzled face. Then he picked it up again, bore it to the skipper’s cabin, and placed it back on its old shelf. Almost he could fancy the thing winked at him.
It was some time before the Matilda's master returned. The tramp was then nestling by the side of the crippled liner. There was a twinkle in Dave’s eye as he came over the side.
“We’ll be all right now, Sandy,” he said. “I’ve got it signed and witnessed, and they’re going to pass us all the coal we want. Come down to my cabin and we’ll celebrate with a little something.”
Glasses were filled. Joyously the two sea-dogs nodded to one another. Dave sipped his grog, and turned his eyes to the crimson creature on the shelf.
“Sandy, it’s a grand world. And that’s a grand l’le old monkey, isn’t it? You’ll admit now you’re glad we didn’t heave it overboard?”
Sandy buried his nose in his glass.