The Courage of Ben Bontell
ACHILL wind was still dwindling out of the brusque north, but the mounting sun was already retouching with life those nooks and niches and corners facing the amorous south. In the lee of the little white lime kiln, which overlooked the lake, a depressed looking black ant was stretching its cramped limbs preparatory to a season of industry. It was a favored spot, this nook in the side of the bank. It was here that the sunshine lingered last in autumn days and returned with a bound in the spring.
was here, too, that Ben Bontell, reclining in a comfortable posture greeted, as he whittled, the first exultant rays. On this spring day, the warmth that roused the ant to activity, had quite the opposite effect upon the man.
upon man. “How you havin’ your cabins, boys,” he yawned to the two youthful companions, who, with eager eyes and voluble tongues, huddled close to the man’s sides.
“Oh, Ben,” cried one, “I wants mine with winders on all sides an’ a stove pipe up in it.” “And Ben,” cried the other, “I wants mine with winders on all sides an’ a stove pipe up in it, an’ a slidin’ door fer the cap’un to come up an’ down, an’ a compass box put in it.”
“Phew,” grunted the boat whit tier, as he began work upon the vessels’ cabins. Bontell’s big legs were drawn up, and his chin reclined on his bulging chest. As he whittled he contentedly wheezed forth a sailor tune, which came wit h t he measure and force of his heavy breathing. The models he shaped with his keen-edged knife were of balm wood bark; and each finishing stroke caused the youths to smack their lips and snuggle stil 1 closer to the man’s stout legs. Presently one of the boys started, frowned, and said in an undertone:
“Ha, Ben, here they comes again—them two.”
D ONTELL glanced up at the approach of two lake shore men, and quietly resumed his whittling. The men came to a halt before the trio. There was a portentous silence as they critically surveyed the scene.
ically surveyed the scene. “Sit down, boys,” said Bontell, motioning to the plank on which he himself sat.
“No time to be settin’ down these days,” answered one. “Not when men are gettin’ knocked down with surprisin’ reg’larity. Say, Ben, what’s got into you? Be you afeared uv that Red Shirt?”
“I ain’t afeared o’ any man I ever claps an eye on!” answered Bontell, and his deep, broad chest expanded as he spoke.
The men exchanged glances, and Bontell continued to whittle. In him there lay inert the power of a gas engine; but the manipulation of a pocket knife was to big Ben sufficient means of giving his latent energy expression. A timber merchant had once said that nature had committed a great economical blunder in not putting four legs under his muscular body; but those who knew Bontell’s habits better agreed that nature had already misapplied considerable time and material
“I ain’t afeared o’ him,” repeated Bontell musingly, as his knife peeled thin, curling shavings from the
the soft, brown balm bark. ‘‘I ain’t afeared o’ him, but I ain’t in fer fightin’ no man jist dog like. A man ain’t likely to fight good unless his bristles is up—and mine
“Guess you’re right there,” said Charlie Banks, somewhat nervously. “There ’pears to be no connectin’ pin atween your bristles and your size. If there was it don’t seem to me you’d be allowin’ a big, gander-shanked, brawlin’ sailor man to romp over things at Scott’s Dock. He’s been in port now three days, drinkin’ like a porpoise, swearin’ like a heathen pirate, and sayin’ as how he’s a hard boiled un out fer blood. He don’t stop at kickin’ over a chair, havin’ no concern whether or no it is occupied. And while all this has been goin’ on up there in the tavern, you set’s here fiddlin’ your strength away on makin’ toy boats fer kids.”
OONTELL had stopped whittling and was now stroking his knife back and forth across the heel of his boot. His countenance had suddenly become thoughtful. “So it’s come to this, Charlie; it’s come at last,” he said. “I’m to be your bully, the bully o’ Scott’s Dock. Do you know, if Scott’s Dock was a common lake port you’d have me brawlin’ day and night.”
“But you ain’t in a Great Lakes port,” persisted Charlie Banks. “You’re in a little hole cut outer the woods that’s been mighty kind to you. It took you in, housed and fed you, and asked no more uv you than the little odd jobs you was handy at. No one bothered with who you be or where you kim from. Us folks at Scott’s Dock only knows that the storm tossed you on our shore, and we sorter takes a pride in claimin’ you.” Banks cleared his throat ami tapped his fingers in his
“But things is changin’, Ben Bontell,” he cried. “Thi wind from now on is goin’ to take you from anothei quarter. Six years go by; and fer two days now we’ve been askin’ and coaxin’ uv you to hold up the reputatior uv our port, and you declines. On behalf of all concerned, I wants to say—it’s small business. Me anc Johnson here has been delegated to inform you, Mistei Bontell, that us men uv Scott’s Dock ain’t in fer supportin’ a man as won’t stand up fer us. Maybes youi grub won’t be cornin’ quite so reg’lar in future; maybes a spell on the end of a cross-cut will get them bristles up.’
rjONTELL lifted his head and stared at the speaker There was a troubled look in his big, open face. He realized that in pursuing his happy life here in this little haven he had suddenly come upon a fork in the road. lí was one of two courses; leave, or buy his way with his brutal strength. His nature rebelled at the transaction.
“Maybe you’re right,” he said simply. “I ain’t give much to figurin’ things out. But as fer my answer, that’i settled. You go back and tell the men o’ Scott’s Docl that Ben Bontell ain’t in fer payin’ back six year o’ feec and lodgin’ with monkey-shinin’ around a bar room.”
Charlie Banks flushed red to the ears; and the mar Scoville grinned broadly. Wheeling around, Bank: hurried away, calling back over his shoulder,
“Sometimes it takes six years fer a feller to find ou that a big ox o’ a man is as yaller as a little pie pum’kin.’ With this parting shot Charlie Banks proceeded to th little, trouble-haunted tavern on the bank, where th anxious coterie awaited the delegates’ last report.
For a moment big Ben’s face had darkened, then hi wriggled himself into a more comfortable posture am yawned. Bontell was too much at peace with the work to court trouble. He craved no place in the sun; he wa: satisfied to bask in the rose-tinting sunshine. There wa no external trimming to Ben’s make-up. He was like tin great elm that takes no more from the earth than i requires. The bark of h’m was rough enough; but unlik the elm, the heart beat through. Much that he migh have said he did not consider worth the while. And thu did he excel all men. Perhaps he had well ordered room there in his matted top, and a richness in furnishing conducive to thought. And if he kept the place tight h was shutting in nothing vitriolic—nothing that wouh eventually breed evil to himself and misery to others Ben Bontell loved the simple things of life.
“I ain’t a fightin’ man,” he told his companions, as th point of the knife peeled out the crease that was to re present the captain’s sliding door. “It’s all right for dog —bull dogs. I ain’t afeared of the Red Shirts, but I don’ intend bein’ drug into trouble with a spreein’ fellow tha is only one of the thousands on the lakes.”
“Oh, you could lick him, Ben, I betcha!” cried one o his companions. “You kin lick him easier’n I kin Tom mie. Can’t he, Tommie?” “Easier, I betcha,” responded Tommie, throwing dirty little hand over the man’s great shoulder.
BUT for all these comforting words the threat of th delegates sank deep into Bontell’s understanding His pópularity at Scott’s Dock was on the wane. Th red-shirted buccaneer of the great Lakes was turnin his sunlit haven into a common, repugnant and pug nacious lake port. For a spell big Ben’s knife was idle Presently he got to his feet and stretched himself. De livering over the finished models to the two impatien customers, Bontell turned off and down the broad silve border of the Bay. The serenity of his mind had take flight; on the horizon of his peace there lay a cloud.
Except where Scott’s Dock had been cut out a thic growth of timber encircled the Bay. The contour of th shore bends in like a well strung Indian bow, the easter tip forming Point Pelee. This strip of evergreen land run its dagger-like blade far out into the blue bosom of Erit In the wide expanse formed by Pelee and Colchaste points the water is shoal, and when once aroused, b( comes an irregular, choppy mass. Bontell had felt it fury. Long stretches of sand bars reaching opt fror Pelee Point and the north-east end of Pelee Island all bu meet, leaving only a narrow channel as a means of escap to vessels caught on either side of the treacherous gag And thus was Pelee Point made both a comforting arm c shelter and an avenging instrument of death to the earl sailors of the Great Lakes.
Pausing before the smooth, gray timbers of a wreck, Bontell gazed out into the peaceful waters of Pigeon Bay. Away on the southern horizon rested the faint blur of Pelee Island. Behind him the somber shades of a parting day were already beginning to gather in the wood. The wavelets amidst the shining bones of the wreck had struck up a weird dirge—a requiem to the dead. Seating himself upon a polished timber, Bontell methodically drew out his knife and began to whittle. But somehow the keen edge had lost its precision. The blade slipped and cut into his finger. The red-shirted intruder had drawn first blood.
FOR years the little settlement had been to Bontell a haven of content and plenty—an untrammeled spot hidden from the world. His glance now rested on the small patch of cleared land, with its heaps of logs and low crouching homes. He had been a welcome guest at every homely table. Everyone had made a great deal of him—• he was the miraculous man that the storm cast up.
But the little haven, with its increased timber trade, was beginning to take on a mark of importance, and with it the contamination of the outside world. The big sailor had felt it coming. He felt that the simple life he so loved was becoming infected by contact with the truculent outside. Each incoming vessel brought fresh evidence—the ribald world was breaking in.
The advent of the rollicking red-shirted sailor, with a taste for strong drink and a disposition to fight, sealed BontelTs apprehensions. The men of Scott’s Dock welcomed the innovation. It broke in on the monotony of everyday life. They accepted the defy from the great beyond; and being a bit timid themselves of a thing so terrifying, they rested their hopes in the powerful physique of Ben Bontell to stamp their port on the charts of fame. The big sailor’s lack of enthusiasm for the of'fice of honor came as a crushing blow. They pleaded and entreated, but all in vain. Ben Bontell only became the more reluctant and dumb.
“De leetle kitten she has more sand in her,” Pete Savory had declared in disgust.
“He’s too thunderin’ lazy to fight off a house fly.” observed Nat Edwards. “He yawns when he sets down, and stretches when he gets up; and most of his time he don’t get up.”
“He’s bin spiled,” put in Charlie Banks, “over-fed and made a fool uv. I think I could lick him myself.”
“Say we lets the Red Shirt do it,” cried out Johnson Scoville.
“Tell you how—I’ll change my red flannel shirt with a sailor shippin’ on the Molly Hawk. I’ll pint him out to big Ben. And after that I’ll bait the white-feathered gentleman up to the tavern to-night on smoked sturgeon—to meet the real Red Shirt.”
“No!” objected Dan Goodby. “Strikes me, boys, there’s somethin’ we ain’t understandin’ about Ben Bontell. Give him one more chance.”And Goodby’s suggestion had resulted in Banks and Scoville interrupting the whittler and his two youthful companions in their shipyard in the lee of the lime kiln.
QUITE unaware of the true nature of affairs, the gigantic Ben sat on the gruesome wreck, his knife plying back and forth on a pine stick, his mind absorbed in thought. Across the bay the clank, clank of the iron dogs upon the windlass, and the hum of reeving blocks reminded him that the schooner Molly Hawk had received her cargo of walnut timber, and with her sheering deck all but forming her water line was now making ready to sail. Bontell watched the white sails as one after another they took their stately shape and trembled in the breeze. When the anchor broke the forward canvas leisurely filled, and the burdened vessel sheered away. Bontell watched the graceful movements and was conscious of a thrill. He wondered if the lakes would not cease to roll when bulging sails no longer skimmed their bosoms.
The squat little scow Gracie was lying in at the pier, which ran out into the water like a thousand legged caterpillar. The Grade was loading moulding sand for a port beyond the islands. When Bontell turned his eyes again upon the departing vessel, she had run down opposite the Gracie and the pier and luffed up in the wind. She was apparently waiting for some of her crew.
The crunching of sand beneath heavy boots caused big Ben to turn. Instantly the wide, propitious mouth dropped at the corners. Coming towards him was Johnson Scoville. For the first time in six years of his life at Scott’s Dock there was fight in the big, sunny face of Ben Bontell.
“Now you see here!” he called before Scoville reached him, “no more of this fuss about me fightin’ a top-heavy, spreein’ sailor. Maybes I’ve et your bread off and on fer a number o’ years now—but I won’t fight fer it! Put that down—all of youse—I won’t fight for it, like a dog! Look you, Scoville, I sees the outside world long afore I rolls in here. I sails it from the toughest ports at the two ends o’ the Great Lakes—and I hates ’em all.”
Big Ben’s face was flushed; it was the first time he had ever talked. Reaching out he seized Scoville by the shoulder, and the man’s face went meek and gentle under the grip of iron.
“Look you, Scoville,” he continued in a strange voice, “since I was a boy I see ’em— men a showin’ off their strength, like women a showin’ off their finery, and never onct ain’t the hand of Bontell bin reachin’ out fer the beaten man or woman. But don’t youse go too far— don’t youse men o’ Scott's Dock get it in your heads that Bontell can’t fight when his bristles is up.” And then as if abashed at his own fervor he hastily resumed his seat. And the knife began again peeling long, feathery shavings from the pine stick.
/ANCE released from BontelTs fingers the little man’s ^ complexion regained its natural salmon color.
“Ben, old boy, lemme shake your hand,” he said, drawing a long breath of relief. “Charlie Banks just now put it to you all too strong; and thinks I to myself I’ll just go back and look Ben up and tell him so. I know, so do all the boys, if it was fer our kids, our wives, or our homes, Ben Bontell would be just the first one in the muss, eh Ben? But look ye, Ben, yonder’s the Red Shirt! I wants to tell you, he’s shipped on the Molly Hawk. Good riddance—don’t you say so, Ben?” And the narrow eyes of Scoville blinked at Bontell as he pointed to a red-shirted figure seated in the bow of the yawl boat, which was putting out to join the timber ship.
Bontell made no response; but his countenance lightened as he watched the yawl with its conspicuous redshirted passenger gliding towards the mother boat. Soon it passed under the vessel’s stern and three men went lightly over the rail.
Scoville, who had quite recovered h i s composure, was quick to detect the change in Ben’s face. He noticed, too, that as the thin, shiny wake lengthened behind the departing vessel, the knife glided more freely along the pine stick. Scoville struck a match and lighted his corn-cob pipe, and behind his bony hands he smiled maliciously. If at first Scoville had thought of changing his designs he reconsidered it now. Bontell must fight or take his trimming, maybe both. And he wiped his mouth wdth his sleeve to conceal his satisfaction. Bontell on his part had not so much as detected the change in Scoville’s shirt.
The little man cleverly changed the conversation and big Ben, quite as if the disagreeable incident had passed with the departing vessel, talked of the pans he had promised to solder for Mrs. Scoville.
,,rTell Mrs. Scoville I’m callin’ around torn o r row about the Continued on page 39 pans,” he said, “an’ I’ll be mendin’ her tub at the same time.”
Continued from page 21
Before Scoville left his guileless companion he had obtained his promise too drop into the Dew Drop Inn that evening and share in a feast of smoked sturgeon which he himself had donated. Bontell’s failing for this savory viand was the jest of the lake shore.
WHAT first caught the eye of Ben Bontell that evening, as he rolled into the tavern and steered his course towards the familiar lunch counter, was a long, gorilla-shaped individual, stoopshouldered and bony faced. And more electrifying than all was the crimson red shirt that he wore. The terrible fellow’s hat was off, and his sleeves were menacingly rolled up above his mahoganyhued elbows. In all he had very much the appearance of a business man about him. Despite the surprise accorded him, big Ben had already fallen upon the platter of smoked sturgeon. He plainly sensed the fact that he had been duped into a pre-arranged encounter with the original Red Shirt—the obstreperous gentleman himself. The unfriendly actions of the men of Scott’s Dock spoke plainer than words—they had set the gawky, leeryeyed sailor upon him. For a moment Bontell felt his bristles rising, but it was when he looked into the grinning face of Johnson Scoville.
“So this is your hoss-man,” the Red
Shirt growled ironically. Then, summoning up his boldness, he called out, “Come on mates, the whole crew drinks on the hoss-man.”
The most of Scott’s Dock man power was present for the coming event. They were already upon their feet anxiously awaiting developments. A number had ranged themselves in front of the door to frustrate any attempt on the part of Bontell at escape. At the call to partake on the hospitality of the horse-man they now came reluctantly forward. The Red Shirt himself seemed to move with some hesitancy. Quite disinterested in the big show, big Ben disposed of the last vestige of the choice fish and finished his schooner of foaming ale. He grinned obligingly at the bar man, and turned and addressed the red-shirted one:
“I’ve got to get a fire started in the kiln,” he calmly said. “You’d better come on down, mate. I wants to have a word with you.”
Encouraged by Bontell’s peaceful disposition, the sailor jumped furiously upon the floor, answering the retiring man with a breezy, nautical oath.
“See here,” he yelled at Bontell, who had stopped with his hand on the door knob, “I gets the draft lines of a craft at a peep, I do. You might waller along under a big enough load, but for footing it lively you’re about as fly as a founderin’ scow.”
Seeing that Bontell offered no offensive, the Red Shirt keyed himself up to a fuming^ pitch. “Clear the deck!” he roared. “Give me a clipper ship room to sail ’round an old tub.” And the blustering sailor shambled across the bar room towards Bontell, his long sea legs none too steady from the bibulous sojourn of their master upon land.
The prepossessing corners of Bontell’s mouth had not entirely disappeared, but there was in his eyes a look of mild concern. This, indeed, was the very specimen of the gladiator that he had expected the terrible Red Shirt to be—a very ordinary human being, drunk with triumph and excited with strong drink. If there were any bristles in Bontell’s nature it was evident that they were not bristling. As the blustering fellow approached, Bontell’s hand slipped from the door knob, and he stood unaggressively against the panels of the door.
JUST at this moment the adjoining hall door suddenly opened, letting into the room the tall figure of a man, whose stripped form gave evidence of enormous strength. He had apparently come hurriedly, for he was in his sock feet, trousers and flannel undershirt. His suspenders hung loosely about his knees; and in his hand he carried a small pocket edition of the Bible. With little gray eyes he blinked about the room, which was dimly lighted with crude oil lamps and afloat with dense clouds of tobacco smoke. No sooner had his eyes fallen on the flaming red shirt of the swashbuckling buccaneer than he exclaimed:
“So help me Johnnie Rogers, if it ain’t you, Dave Spindish! You that is making all this fuss when a devout gentleman the likes o’ me happens to be spendin’ a few worshipful hours on dry land with his Maker. How in thunder do you expect me to read of Paradise aloft with all of this rumpuss goin’ on down below! Get off in the corner with you,” he cried. With a swift movement he seized the gawky sailor and hurled him back across the room. At the same time the stranger cuffed the recent belligerent’s ears soundly with the small book, until they were as red as his flaming shirt.
“I guess you kinder forgot old Cap Pringle and the lickin’ he onct give you just up Colchester way—the time you spilled dish water in his evening slippers. Cap Pringle, of the scow Gracie—that’s who I be, gentlemen. You know that, don’t you, Spindish? Tell the gentlemen here you know that to be a livin’, burnin’ fact,” demanded the portly captain of the scow Gracie.
The transformed Red Shirt, who had become so surprisingly amenable to the civilizing effects of Cap Pringle’s pocket edition, meekly nodded in the affirmative, while the spectators stood dumbly fixed, foolishly staring at one another. As if to complete his civilizing process, Cap. Pringle released another resounding spat upon the humbled sailor’s ears and then turned upon the assembly.
“They say,” said he, “that I’m a cuss aboard ship, and a saint on land. Anyhow, when ashore Cap Pringle never misses attendin’ religious service. And you will be told, gentlemen, from one end o’ the lakes to the other, that Pringle alius puts a gale o’ wind into the meetings he attends. And right here, in the devil’s own barracks, I’m going to read you somethin’ from the Word o’ Truth. And before I’m through I’ll reeve you off, hand over hand, the very sermon preached to-night up at the meetin’. Gentlemen, don’t think that Cap Pringle, of the scow Gracie, ain’t sincere. He may cuss a bit aboard ship when the devil’s workin the winds; but as I takes it, that ain’t likely to interfere with him stowin’ his canvas safely on the other shore.”
Captain Pringle heaved up the slack of his slipping trousers and entered into his sermon with great unction. His thundering voice rolled through the creaky old frame building for more than an hour, arousing the sleeping inmates and terrifying the rats and mice. Only one of his weary congregation had challenged the parson captain’s wrath by departing. The red-shirted sailor still sat in a lopped over stertorous stupor in his corner. The men of Scott’s Dock were misty eyed and decidedly sober. Ben Bontell alone was at peace in his bunk in the little white kiln on the bank.
ON THE following morning there was not a man at Scott’s Dock who did not feel the brand of infamy upon him.
I Even a number of the smaller fry took an extra heavy potation and began a brave search for the missing Red Shirt. But it was upon Bontell that the stigma was to be placed—Bontell, who had flatly refused to fight a common blow-hard from a foreign port. He was twitted and joked by the ones who felt the guiltiest. As the treatment became general his placid disposition began to undergo a strain. Scott’s Dock was losing for him some of its perfect peace. He caught himself now and then gazing out across the end of the treacherous point, into the world beyond. Into his mind had come the significant words of Charlie Banks only the day before. The chill had set in, and it had penetrated the rough bark.
It was six years since he had been adopted by the good people of Scott’s Dock; six years since he had been washed ashore—a fragment of the Great Lakes. And now for the first time he felt the loneliness of the big lakes again upon him. He turned towards the pier and gazed out beyond the smiling gap into the restless world of turmoil.
It was still early spring and the water of the lake was icy cold. Bontell looked across the Bay, and was for a spell charmed with the glinting, dancing colors. The heaving bosom was ablaze with myriads of flashing jewels. Big Ben had often marvelled at the star filled sky; but compared with this animated scene the splendor of the night seemed austere and mocking. The shaking out of a sail attracted his attention. It was aboard the Gracie. The little scow had received her load of moulding sand and was making ready to embark. She now sat low in the water, resembling an oblong chip that had strangely found itself afloat. Bontell looked long at the squat little lime kiln tucked away in the bank like a nestling snow-white bird; then turning resolutely he approached Captain Pringle, who was stirring about his little ship.
THERE were few formalities to undergo in shipping with Captain Pringle. Still under the opiate of religious zeal, the captain was considerate and generous. He hired freely; he had never been burdened with the duties of discharging. The little Gracie was never known to sail a second time under the same crew. When the Gracie docked, the crew went over her rails like birds from an open cage. Once safely out of reach of Captain Pringle, they would shake hands vehemently, congratulating one another on their good fortune. All but one—and that one stuck, not so much to the terrible Pringle as to the office. The office was that of first mate, and the man’s name was Duprey. Duprey’s life was in imminent jeopardy each trip he made on the Gracie, but the glory of being first mate was worth the risk. He knew Pringle to a compass point, and he knew the Grade’s rigging a bit better. Duprey was a cat in the foot ropes. Once aloft he sang hymns until the irascible master cooled off.
So it happened that when the clank of the windlass again reverberated along the •shore big Ben, the easy going whittler, was sailing away from his soul’s ideal. The stationary stamp of contentment had left his face. He was a sailor aboard a craft, bound for a port that meant no more to him than did the fleecy clouds that flecked the sky above his head. His brows were dark and his jaws were set. Pie was going back to join the ribald world after six sweet years among the things he loved. Perhaps he owed the world a life long grudge. Who knows aught of his fellow man?
Captain Pringle remained close to his cabin and his Bible. The religious zeal which followed a sojourn upon land had not yet lost its assuaging influences. But everything this spring day seemed in opposition to its power. The wind, which was at first light, had suddenly switched dead ahead, and, after a few spirited puffs, went out entirely. The canvas flapped idly, and the booms swung creaking across the deck to the gentle movement of the becalmed scow.
At .last the captain emerged from his cloister. He immediately shot a gull-like eye around the horizon and began nervously walking to and fro. Mate Duprey became immediately alert. Even at a time so early he was peeling a vigilant eye. ' That Duprey’s fears were well founded, Pringle’s lake record would prove. On board ship the massive captain was-a tyrant. The laws of the seas had abetted the violence of his temper—the law of man and the law of the elements. The sceptre of authority being placed in Pringle’s hands, Pringle at sea became a wrathful god. To raise a finger against him was mutiny. Sailors knew the law and feared it; but they feared Pringle more.
TN TEMPERAMENT Pringle may A have been the victim of his vocation. He had been tutored by those hard, ungovernable forces of the elements which are tireless in their efforts to clutch the sailor by the throat. In the fierce struggle against overpowering odds he became the exact replica of the forces he fought. The fury of Pringle was the fury of the gale which, having spent itself, lapses into a state of tranquility. The tales told of him and the crafts he sailed went the rounds of the Great Lakes. Out of fear of him sailors became cringing, which only made the irascible captain the more intolerant. He had never fallen upon his knees when assailed by the inexorable furies, and he detested the man who betrayed in his eye a supplicating look. The man who whimpered he crushed, and he crushed him as remorselessly as the tempest would crush his little scow.
At the wheel of the Gracie stood Ben Bontell, silently ruminating on the events that had so recently cast a shadow over faces and things in the little port behind him. The sun was warm upon his great back, and there was no chill wind to cut. So intently was he thinking that he did not notice the Gracie carried an extra hand. The man had come out of the forecastle, a long, bony, red-shirted fellow, and confronted Bontell.
“My trick, mate,” the sailor yawned laying an angular hand on the wheel. His eyes were heavy and swollen like those of a sick child, and his whole frame shook as if hit by a cold blast. Bontell surrendered the wheel and stood scrutinizing the person of Dave Spindish.
“If you ain’t feelin’ quite right,” said Bontell, “you’d best let me take your trick.”
“Best not on this tub, I’m thinkin’,” whispered Spindish, as he glanced at Captain Pringle, who in sullen silence passed the two men and went into his cabin. “I ain’t here by right o’ choice,” finished the cautious Red Shirt.
Almost immediately Pringle reappeared, his lips twitching, his hands clenching convulsively. All the barometer the master knew was the dial of the overhanging sky. Upon a chart he had never dropped a glance. But what his protruding eyes did not sight, his stub nose caught the scent of. He paced forward, sniffing now and then the air as would a bull moose.
THAT there was a heavy current sweeping through the Pelees the master was aware. Beyond the passage and dead ahead to the south east, hazy scuds were rising up like puffs of smoke from a dusky horizon. The course of the Gracie laÿ through the treacherous gap. No one knew better than Pringle of Erie’s dangerous archipelago—and just how soft the Gracie was beneath her coat of red paint.A dead swell had set in, and the booms swung back and forth with increased alacrity. Captain Pringle came to a halt. He uttered a guttural sound that put action into Duprey’s nimble toes.
“The devil’s got the wind under his cap,” muttered the master. “He’ll let it out soon enough, and if we ain’t under the lee o’ yon island, you land croakin’ frogs’ll cuss the day you sailed with Captain Pringle. Hi, you!” he called out to a gaping sailor. “Do you call that sailin’, you mud hen! Get them lines cleared up, and get a shinny on ye. You ain’t loafin’ in a peat bog when you’re sailin’ with Captain Pringle.”
Pringle threw off his long, clerical coat and brandished his great arms. He disappeared into the cabin and as suddenly reappeared. Mate Duprey had fled to the rigging. The master scanned the sky and swore an oath that might have done service years before on the Spanish Main. A moment later he swore another, new and improvised for the occasion. That he was afraid of the Gracie was quite evident. With a little favorable wind he could work up under the lee of Pelee Island; but there was not a breath astir. He walked the deck briskly, his big, red hands clenching menacingly. Over in the south east the sky was thickening fast.
Presently a puff of wind filled the limp canvas. The sluggish scow moved ahead for a short distance, and then, to the master’s surprise, began working up to windward until the sails shook. Captain Pringle let out a roar as he turned aft. Dave Spindish had been dozing at the wheel! With a flow of oaths gushing from him like hot lava from a crater, the enraged master rushed upon the delinquent wheelsman. His face was red and distorted, his heavy lips were suspiciously twisted. In his fury he typified the storm that foams and lashes and rushes on.
The alarmed wheelsman came out of his doze with a bound. He left the wheel and darted forward. Ben Bontell, idly whittling, blocked his way to the rigging. Before the frightened man could wriggle by, the hand of the master was upon him. Crushing him back against the cabin he beat him mercilessly.
BONTELL stood by, his head raised.
He knew the laws of the seas— the penalty of an infraction. But through his sluggish being had shot that ungovernable spontaneity that, like the bursting of a storm, is unfettered by the laws of men. His eyes emitted a dull glow; his nostrils dilated. The cords of his neck had swollen and stood out like small hawsers. Laying his hand upon the arm of the brutal captain, he growled:
“You’re killin’ him, man. Leave him be!”
Captain Pringle shot one glance at the audacious sailor. Then with incredible swiftness he released his victim and swung his redoubtable fist. The blow landed squarely on Bontell’s jaw. The impact was terrific. Bontell staggered back and fell face down over the cabin. In a flash the ponderous captain was upon his man. He clutched Bontell by the neck, swung him to the rail and partly overboard. Big Ben’s face was thrust back by the elbows pressed against his throat. In his face was a look of anguish as he balanced upon the rail. Suddenly, as if revived by a low rumble of thunder, he reared forward, carrying Pringle out upon the open deck. Locked in each others’ arms the two men went surging and swaying, back and forth from one end of the deck to the other. Soon their heavy breathing grew hoarse and gushed forth as from overstrained bellows. This, with the dull thud of blows and half choked articulations, broke in on the dead calm of Pigeon Bay that afternoon.
The storm, which was rising fast, could now be seen rushing through the frowning gap. Across the agitated waters it swept, a gray, misty curtain that whitened the water and shut out the light as it came. Low, ashen streamers, wreathing and twisting, reached down from the dark cloud body, as if mad for prey. The scow, with sails all set, continued to roll listlessly in the troughs of a dead-sea. Upon her rail the sailors stood transfixed, their protruding eyes following the struggle of the two giants of the Great Lakes as they fought for supremacy—master and mutineer.
Either of the men was too powerful to be thrown off by the other; so they hung to one another like two hairy monarchs of the cave, striking, choking, gouging, as the advantage shifted between them. Over their heads rolled the first thunder of spring, and a dull flash of lightning forked the breast of the onward rolling mass. Still the men fought on, their breathing becoming clotted in their throats, their reeling bodies more and more sluggish in movement. They had fought their way back to the cabin. For a moment they paused as if preparatory to a deciding issue. Suddenly Bontell broke the master’s hold and threw him with his shoulders crashing across the top of the low cabin. Bontell crushed h'is adversary back, even as the captain had crushed poor Spindish. The beaten man struggled to free himself, but at last his great strength failed him. Slowly the short, thick fingers of the whittler reached the captain’s throat and sank into the flesh.
'"THEN followed a sudden rattle of canvas and a cry from behind. Mate Duprey leaped to the deck and ran to the fore halyards. The halyards sang through the shives, then suddenly jammed. And then it struck—a wall of wind and rain. The main-sail cracked twice and went out of the Gracie like an exploded paper sack. The stay-sail and jibs, in the first wild outburst, were whipped into flayed boat-ropes. The whistling wind got under the unstowed foresail and shot it up the spar. It filled with a shock that bore the motionless scow over on her beam ends. A sudden darkness swooped down upon the Bay. The wide, undulating expanse of weary dead-seas leaped into a frenzy of rage. The little scow lay in the deepening troughs, her leeward rail buried in foam. An unbattened hatch was carried away and the water came boiling into her hold. There was a sudden crash as the shrouds parted, and fore-mast and canvas went out of the little scow.
Crumpled up on the after deck lay the master of the wreck. Bontell stood nearby, braced against the cabin. He gazed into the storm with a vacant stare. He had come back into the world of contention. The maddened elements screamed and roared and whistled in his ears. The wild spray shot in white sheets far to leeward; still Ben Bontell stood clinging to the cabin, as if rooted to the deck. Suddenly a hand gripped his arm, and a red face was thrust close to his. It was Dave Spindish.
“Come—quick!” he shouted. “She’s punk—soft as cheese.” And he jerked Bontell after him. The yawl boat had been already launched.
Aroused into action, back into big Ben’s mind came a picture of a white, sun-bathed lime kiln, and the boys with their stores of bark. A warm, invigorating desire to live seized him. Gripping the cabin railing he made his way towards the yawl boat. Suddenly he stopped, and turned back. The men called to him, but Bontell did not heed. Reaching the prostrate heap on the deck, he gripped Captain Pringle by the shoulders; and slipping and stumbling he dragged the heavy burden to the stern on the ill-fated craft.
“We can’t carry both,” yelled the man in the bow of the yawl. Big Ben remained grimly unresponsive.
Captain Pringle’s eyes opened, and he struggled to save himself. Big Ben helped him to the rail, and as the yawl plunged directly under, he heaved him into it. Mate Duprey shrilled out an oath and cut the painter. In a flash the ducklike boat was carried away on the crest of a racing sea.
Bontell watched the yawl grow into a mere speck and disappear into the misty gloom. It was speeding back to Scott’s Dock. The cold spray dashed with a drenching sound, and the gloom was thickening. Ben Bontell crouched low in the stern of the wreck. Whining and cuddling close to his legs was the watch dog of the master. Methodically the man’s hand sank into his pocket. It was seeking a knife and a bit of bark.