Twice in the Graveyard Watch
BERTRAND W. SINCLAIR
What causes men to “crack”? Why do some men's nerves break?—and then they have to fight their way back, like Billy Stone.
STONE heard the ship’s bell strike seven in the graveyard watch, which is three-thirty a.m. by shore time. Night still lay like an ebony mist over the land and the land pressed close on port and starboard, crowding the sea into a narrow pass, a danger-studded sea-lane between high, wooded mountains, an artery through which flowed all the commerce between Puget Sound and Alaska.
The channel opened ahead of the Mandarin a faint shade lighter than the general gloom. Still, a lookout could see little more than the white curl that spread fanwise from the vessel’s bow. The Mandarin plowed up Johnstone Strait by time and compass courses checking her position by known points, beacons, marks established for navigators. If she ran her courses true, so many minutes on a given course at a given speed, with proper allowance for all known factors, she avoided danger. She did not need to see—no more than a blind man needs to see in a familiar room.
Stone stepped out on the bridge. The end of his watch was taking him into tricky waters and forthright dangers, chances that must be accepted by every vessel making that run through the Inside Passage.
The tide ebbs and floods through the long constriction of Johnstone Strait at from three to seven knots speed. Dead ahead of the Mandarin slashing south at fourteen knots per hour, helped onward by the full strength of the tide, Helmcken Island split the Strait in twain, each narrowed pass made doubly dangerous by powerful surging currents, eddies, whirls that swung a great ship as if it were a toy. There was a clear channel on each side of Helmcken, a choice of two evils with little to recommend either in the way of ease or safety. Helmcken Island Light threw a red sector over Earl’s Ledge, an ugly reef standing two hundred yards out from shore a mile westward of Helmcken. That passed, a navigator could take his choice of chances, the north passage or the south, with the south generally favored—and with the O.S.S. steamers taking the north, known as Current Passage, for the very reason that traffic favored the south side. The less used pass offered less chance of meeting another ship in close quarters.
On Helmcken light Stone kept his gaze fixed, to hold his ship just outside the red sector until he cleared Earl’s Ledge. He could mark the Mandarin's course and position by that. He could feel the slight twist and swing of her as she gave to crosscurrents. She was sweeping down on Helmcken under the combined thrust of her screw and the six-knot current at very close to twenty miles an hour over th.e ground.
In seven years of making the Inside run Billy Stone had never been able to clear Helmcken Island by day nor night
without his nerves growing taut, without a feeling of relief once Speaker Rock and Ripple Shoal and Earl’s Ledge all lay astern. The Mandarin displaced five thousand tons deadweight. She carried a hundred and ten passengers and a light cargo. Her strong-room held four wooden, iron-strapped boxes said to contain ninety thousand dollars in gold bullion from the Tanana mines. It wouldn’t have made much difference if she had been merely in ballast and ship’s stores and the only lives aboard her a capable crew. Billy Stone was the officer on watch. The ship was in his hands; he was responsible for her safety.
That curious tensity began to creep over him now while the Mandarin still lacked half a mile of the outer danger, Earl’s Ledge, outthrusting its rock-barbed shoal two hundred yards into the fairway from the Hardwicke shore. Over this when the tide ran strong the sea boiled and swirled with a sinister grumble. The depths about the Ledge fell sharp to many fathoms. Its water-worn teeth bared at low tide. Stone stared over the port bow, straining his eyes for the white line of broken water that marked Earl’s Ledge on the blackest night.
_ As lie stood there a queer jumble of thought traversed his mind. He was acutely conscious of his vessel’s course, speed, position, alert to each detail of his duty, prepared for any contingency as it might arise. Yet he thought of a girl in Seattle, the long years of his service at sea, the slow drag of promotion. A hundred associated ideas flashed across his mind. He felt toward life, in that moment, a touch of the strange tension that he always experienced in clearing these dangers. He was merely a cog in the machine. Watch after watch, voyage after voyage. Years slipped by. Goals he hoped to reach stood far on the horizon. Regarded with the inevitable impatience of youth, his progress toward them seemed a snail’s pace, a road beset with as many difficulties as the passage of a ship through these rockƒ lined narrows.
T_TE GLANCED in at the quarterL -*■ master gripping the wheel. He would not have changed places with the man, but for a fleeting instant he envied him his utter freedom from responsibility. The quartermaster had only to keep eyes steadfast on the compass card and shift helm as ordered. He did not have to exercise a judgment which might prove fallible. And in the merchant service there is no excuse for an error in judgment. Masters and mates in coastwise shipping stake their reputations and livelihood on the two-spoke turn of a steering wheel. One blunder unrectified puts an officer on the beach, wrecks whatever standing he may have gained in his profession as effectually—sometimes even more effectually—as if his vessel is wrecked.
Again Stone turned to look for the breakers and white foam on the reef. Presently it showed dim on the port side, well clear. The Mandarin swept by at train speed. Three minutes straight ahead at that pace would pile her with a crash on the end of Helmcken Island. Stone smiled. In one minute and thirty seconds precisely he
would order the quartermaster to put her over just enough to stand fairly into the middle of Current Passage. He looked backward, marking the overfalls and swirls and confusion over the Ledge vanish astern—and as he swung to look forward his eye caught something which a moment before had not been there, something which caused his heartto give one tremendous leap and stand still.
The running lights of a vessel, the red and green and white triangle bore head on as the Mandarin swung into the course she must run. The current set across the end of Helmcken. A powerful eddy worked there. If she bore to starboard and was caught in that fast water all the Mandarin's power would not keep her off shore.
And this other vessel, mysteriously flashing out of the darkness, had the right of way. Under the rules of the road at sea she must hold her course and speed. The Mandarin must give way. To give way meant a surety of being forced into the eddy. To stand on meant certain collision.
A multitude of possibilities, chances, questions, flashed through Stone’s mind in that one transfixed instanteven to a seaman’s solution of why this vessel’s lights so suddenly opened near at hand.
They stood out terrifyingly clear, converging rapidly. Behind and below the red and green he seemed to see the faint haze of cabin windows.
He knew that without a quick shift the two would cut each other down. There was a chance to shave the eddy; there was no chance in a collision.
Thought outstrips lightning. All these things occupied no more than a fraction of time in Stone’s mental processes. He acted almost instinctively, yet with a clear knowledge of the possible consequences of his act. So crystalline clear was his perceptive faculty that as he shouted his order he saw that the helmsman’s eyes were on the compass, but that his face was yellow in the pale reflection from the binnacle light and that his lips were parted over tight-set teeth. He was braced and ready. The wheel spun in his hands at Stone’s first word.
Billy stood in the doorway watching the lights that seemed to rush down on him. They were so close they must scrape sides in passing, and he prayed for the Mandarin to turn on her heel. She had never seemed So sluggish. But she swung. Her bow shifted in an arc until at last she showed her red to the other red and Stone heard the quartermaster’s held breath go out in a shuddering exhalation.
Then—just as Billy Stone’s mind grasped the fact that although the two ships were nearly abreast the other had not answered his passing signal nor could he mark a single gleam beyond the red and white and a range light astern—he felt the Mandarin heel sharply over, and he knew that he had been forced into the eddy.
As he ordered the wheel over again to stem that savage current and pass clear under the stranger’s stern he found himself staring blankly into the empty night. There were no lights, no sound—nothing but the dark loom of the Helmcken shore to starboard and the smother of white water where the current snarled at the rocks.
And as the master of the Mandarin clad only in his pajamas burst into the wheelhouse the strong sidesweep of the tide carried the deflected ship into the Helmcken shore against all the thrust of her engines working full speed.
They felt the dull crunch, the sickening shudder that ran through her steel frame as she took the ground.
LOOKING aft from a position by the forward winches J Billy Stone stood at rest for a minute. The Mandarin lay impaled upon a hidden ledge. She heeled badly. Her stem was awash while her bow stood if anything a trifle in the air. Her situation was rather bad. She had struck with a good deal of force, filled and settled astern within half an hour after stranding. They had determined'by the sounding-lead that the hull was supported only from amidships forward. The sternward half of her projected out into a watery space. A tiny slip back, a slight movement and the ponderous hulk would up-end and slide stern first into over sixty fathoms deep. A swift current, eddying and surging this way and that, a twelve-foot rise and fall of tide were unreckonable factors. She might shift; she might not.
Since at sea life comes first and treasure afterward the passengers were all ashore, camping now pleasantly enough in a fir grove with stewards to tend them. They had food and blankets, all their personal belongings. To them, after the first shock, an unavoidable wave of excitement in that dusky hour that comes just before dawn, the thing began to take on a certain aspect of adventure. Shipwrecked. Cast away on an island. There were no hardships to destroy an air of romance for those romantically inclined. The morning was warm and still. The sunrise breeze brought fragrant odors out of the forests to mingle with the smell of kelp alongshore and
coffee boiling in great pots over campfires. Stone could hear them talking and laughing. For them, he knew, the situation was dramatic or comic or merely inconvenient, according to personal bias. They had no sense of any tragic element—nothing of the mingled anger, pain, and incredulity that filled Billy Stone’s heart with conflicting emotions in this, the first breathing-spell since the Mandarin struck.
He stood there reckoning up the consequences. No life had been lost, or even imperiled. The underwriters, not the owners, would shoulder what monetary loss accrued. But for him, red ruin; literally just that. He had given an order. By his command the ship had been turned from
her proper course and wrecked.
And now, in the cold light of day it seemed that no danger had ever threatened. There had been no running lights; no steamer. No one besides himself had seen anything in the shape
of another vessel bearing down on the Mandarin. Not a soul. The quartermaster, when Stone demanded: “You see those lights?” had looked startled, uncertain, confused for a second. But he answered:
“Didn’t see nothin’. What was it?”
Stone knew the man lied. But he couldn’t convey that knowledge to anyone else. It was based on the expression of the quartermaster’s face, on a momentary flash of something in his eyes.
The man, like Stone, had a job at stake, only unlike Stone he had no responsibility. He had only to keep his eyes on the compass and obey orders. He was not supposed to keep lookout nor to report what he saw. His only duty was to obey orders. But Stone felt that the man, like Peter of old, denied for his own safety. In the merchant marine it is not well for a man’s future to admit himself subject to visual hallucinations.
Was it an hallucination? Had he conjured up a set of phantom lights to his own undoing? Stone might have doubted the evidence of his eyes—only for the startled, tense expectancy of the quartermaster at the moment. The man had seen what Stone saw, understood what it implied, stood ready for the only possible order that could adequately meet the occasion. No, Billy Stone was thoroughly mystified. There hadn’t been any steamer. A vessel could not so quickly have vanished out of hearing, out of range of searchlight and signal blast; the very sounds of her passing must have filled that narrow channel, and the wash from her must have broken against the Mandarin and the Helmcken shore with a noise like ocean surf. And there hadn’t; been a sound.
"NEVERTHELESS Billy had a positive conviction that whatever he saw in the shape of well-defined running lights the quartermaster also saw in spite of his denial— and the same hallucination does not affect two separate sets of optic nerves at the same moment. Not that this conclusion promised to be of any service to him in the outcome, but it served to steady him. The sea annually tots up a respectable score of mysteries, and some of them have broken men’s hearts, to say nothing of driving them mad.
The Mandarin's skipper came clawing forward. He stood beside Stone, glancing over the muddle of his ship, at the passenger groups showing on the rocky beach, at the great hawsers running from bollards on deck to treetrunks on the bank a tentative effort to minimize the danger of her slipping off.
“Everything’s done that can be done?”
He spoke as much to himself as to the mate.
“Yes, sir. I think so,’’ Stone replied.
The skipper looked him over keenly. He seemed about to put a direct question, then refrained. Probably, Stone reflected, he thought the Board of Inquiry would attend to that. Stone had already told him why he put the Mandarin off her course.
Captain Stevens had taken his own time to consider and verify that. Then he had observed slowly that there was neither sight nor sound of a vessel, and lacking corroboration Billy Stone’s story didn’t hold water— didn’t account for anything.
“I’m sorry for you, Stone,” he had said, almost pityingly. “You weren’t drunk, and you weren’t asleep. I guess you just naturally cracked, Billy. Too bad.”
The “old man” was sorry. That was explicit in his attitude. In his speech he confined himself to orders and casual remarks.
Now, standing by, with nothing to do but stand by until a salvage vessel and the underwriters’ representatives arrived, and a steamer picked up the passengers, Billy Stone wondered if he had momentarily “cracked.” Had he simply seen things?
He didn’t believe it. Visual realities ordered the world of navigation. Instruments and calculations alike depended upon the verification of the human eye. If a man couldn’t trust his vision, the world became pure phantasmagoria. His had never failed him, even in moments of stress. He couldn’t believe it had failed in this instance. The facts in the case were incomprehensible, that was all.
But he knew very well, and it pressed upon him with an intolerable heaviness, that whether those lights were realities or phantasms he had issued an order that put his ship ashore. As an officer in the American merchant marine his day was done, short of proving the existence of those lights—for which there was only his unsupported world. They would take his ticket away from him and put him on the beach higher and dryer than the Mandarin. They would see to it that an officer who saw lights where there were no lights would never stand on any ship’s bridge to issue another order.
STONE had a chance to look at the wreck from shore the evening of the third day. The Arethusa, a black ungainly vessel with powerful cranes lifting above her decks, lay close in to the half-submerged Mandarin. The wrecking experts had looked over the sunken ship and pronounced her tolerably safe as she lay. In the morning their divers would go down. By and large within twenty-four hours they would know if the steamer could be refloated; and if not whether any or all of her cargo could be salvaged.
It might have been worse, Billy reflected. No life lost, no great material loss perhaps, if the salvage job was successful and easy. Perhaps, thought he, the black mark against him might not be too great to wipe out. But he couldn’t get much comfort out of that hope. What a board of inquiry would do to him was pretty well established by precedents which had been a long time in the making.
Helmcken lay silent in the shadows that crept out from the western shore. Day faded. The little noises aboard the wrecking ship seemed muted sounds in a great hush. The passengers who had filled with their clatter the grove of fir trees where Stone now stood were speeding south on another O.S.S. boat. In the last of a sun which he could not see for the great mountain barrier of Vancouver Island the mainland ranges on the east lifted in great tiers, one behind the other, shading from a dusky green to far-off purple, out of which white peaks stood stark against the blue. In another mood Stone might have marked this beauty, been moved a little by it; he wasn’t altogether insensitive to form, to color, even to such an intangible thing as an atmosphere; few men are.
But as matters stood the tremendous reach of forest and hill and mountain, immobile and unchangeable, as vast as the sea itself and filled with uncanny silences, gave him a sense of desolation. It wasn’t beautiful in that aspect. It wasn’t friendly. It was even hostile in its immensity, its aloofness. The space and the heights and the silences dwarfed him. The mutter of the streaming tide against the rocky shore has a sinister sound in his ears. Perhaps he was too greatly weighed upon by the associations of that particular spot—the grave of many a seaman’s reputation and a trap for ships.
He stood thinking absently until he became aware of someone whistling in the woods behind him. His curiosity aroused, he moved toward the sound. In a short distance he came out of the screen of trees and thicket bordering the shore into a slashing brightened and made faintly aromatic by piles of split red cedar. A man sat on a low stump by one of these, smoking a pipe and whistling a little tune, an old sea chanty that Stone recognized and thought incongruous in that setting. As Stone drew near the man looked up.
For an instant Billy Stone gaped in astonishment. “Well, for the love of Mike,” he exclaimed at last, “you’re the last man I expected to find here, Joe. How goes the battle?”
“So-so,” the other answered casually, as he struck out his hand. “Surprise party for me, too. Didn’t know you were on the Mandarin. Looks like the O.S.S. is due to
lose another boat. Who’s in Dutch, this time?”
He laid a peculiar emphasis on the “this.”
“I am,” Stone replied tersely.
“Tough luck,” the other responded. “Too bad. Think you’ll lose your ticket?”
“Pretty sure to,” Stone admitted. “I’m in wrong—in deep.”
“You never can tell,” the man’s tone was edged with cynicism. “They might strike an average by overlooking you. You know they made me the goat to save a pet skipper, don’t you?”
“I heard something like that.”
“Fact,” Joe Molter smiled sardonically. “It isn’t supposed to be done, but they did it to me. But it was a good turn in the long run. I’ve made out all right ashore. I expect you’re like me. I thought I couldn’t live off the bridge. Darned near broke my heart to be kicked out. But I discovered that a man don’t have to be brassbound to get along in this little old world. Sit down and make a smoke, Bill.”
They talked desultorily for half an hour. Molter was working in timber, shingle stuff. He had a stumpage contract on all the red cedar growing on Helmcken. With two partners he ran a show that was making money. Molter had been the youngest master in the O.S.S. service four years earlier; a wreck had put him on the beach. He disclaimed any feeling for the sea or ships, yet there was a faint note of regret in his voice as he mentioned vessels and men they both knew. Stone got up off the stump to go when twilight began to fade into dusk.
“Say, Billy, if they beach you for keeps, hop on a local boat and come up here for a while till you get your bearings,” Molter suggested. “You might find something that looked good to you in this neck of the woods.”
“Maybe I will. I don’t know,” Stone said. “I don’t know just what’ll happen, nor what I’ll do.”
“You don’t stop living because you get kicked out of the merchant marine,” Molter drawled. “I know how it goes. It’s a jolt. But you get over it. A man has to live. He sometimes finds out that he can live better ashore than afloat.”
^TONE went back to where the Mandarin's crew ^ camped on the beach, since the angle of the vessel’s decks prevented cooking, eating, or sleeping with any degree of comfort. Two days of hanging on by their eye brows had made them glad to have level ground under their feet. There was besides the thoroughly understood, although never mentioned, fact that the Mandarin might slip temward—and if she slipped in the night with her crew aboard there would be a casualty list that nobody wanted to figure in—one that would be appalling.
Dusk faded into a velvet-black night.
Lights on the wreck and the wrecker standin g by glowed like fireflies. A night wind sighed in the channel.
Sleeping by snatches, wakeful because of the constant dwelling of his mind on things both inexplicable and unalterable, Billy Stone was glad when day came again. Action of any sbrt was a relief.
The Arethusa spraddled like a black spider in the centre of a network of mooring-cables to hold her stiffly in that rapid tiderace that was full of savage crosscurrents. From her side a sturdy workboat with a flat scow-deck moved alongside the Mandarin.
Stone watched the copper-domed, tripleeyed diver sink beneath the surface—a creature like some fish’s nightmare. Stone didn’t envy him his job and he had a first hand knowledge of that sort of job because he had once tried his hand at the diver’s game. Down there among rocks and seaweed, buffeted by heavy currents, his life hanging on an air-pipe and a signal-rope —it took nerve as well as skill.
Billy turned away to some minor task on deck. An hour passed, perhaps more or less; he didn’t mark the time. But an exclamation, a quick movement of men to the Mandarin's lower rail drew him also.
He looked down. The diver in his ungainly suit was
stretched on the workboat’s deck. Two men hovered over him. Half a dozen others stood about, craning their necks, expectant. Hands worked at fastenings with evident haste. They drew off his windowed headpiece, the great breastplate. One remained on his knees, staring fixedly into the diver’s white, set face. The other stood up. After a second he threw out his hands in a brief, expressive gesture that chilled Stone. There was a terrible significance about that motion.
The master of the Arethusa and the underwriter’s agent climbed aboard half an hour later.
“We’re out of luck,” he complained. “Curry was dead as a mackeral when they hauled him up. Funny thing. Markham, our second string diver absolutely refuses to go down. Says a man has no chance. Thinks Curry must either have gone into the place where she was bilged and got foul of the ragged plate edges. Or else the current banged him about till it killed him. Anyway, he won’t move.”
“What’s the next move?” inquired the Mandarin's skipper.
“Wire for another diver—one with some nerve,” the wrecking captain snorted. “Meantime, the insurance man’s hunch is to get off what cargo we can reach. We don’t like her looks so well. She’s shifted a trifle.”
'T'HIS was true. Stone had marked the change, a slight vibration once or twice. He hadn’t said anything. He was under a cloud, his opinions manifestly not worth much to those in charge. He felt that implied rather than stated.
“That bullion first out of the strong room,” the underwriter put in. “That’ll be so much to the good. It should have been off before now.”
“She’s about on a balance,” Stone impulsively pointed out. “You can only reach the cargo forward. A few tons out of her forward hold and she might up-end like a seesaw.”
“ ’S true,” the wrecking skipper agreed. “But we can clean out the strongroom.”
They proceeded about that at once. But there was a hitch. The Mandarin's strongroom held treasure besides the bullion, but the gold was by far the most outstanding item on the ship’s manifest. And the strongroom was underwater many feet. The wrecker went overside saying that Markham could go down within the hull without risk. He came back in twenty minutes swearing like a pirate.
“That yellow dog won’t even look at his suit,” he raged. “He says there’s no use talking to him about going down on this job.”
“I’ll go down for that strongroom stuff, if you like,
while you wait for another diver,” Stone volunteered. “I wouldn’t tackle the outside because I’m out of practice. But I don’t mind taking a shot in the hold.”
“You ever been down in a suit? Much experience? 1
don’t want to drown another man just because he’s willing,” the salvage skipper asked.
“Two years at it,” Stone replied curtly. “Long time ago.”
“Want to chance one of your officers in a diving rig?” the wrecker addressed Stone’s captain.
“If he wants to,” the old man replied casually, “I have nothing to say.”
The workboat came back from the Arethusa. They hoisted the pump equipment and gear and diver’s suit aboard. They fastened Stone up, adjusted his helmet, tested his air-line, and he went down the companionway that led to a lower deck and so to the treasure-room, with the purser’s keys tied by a cord to his waist. He had an electric lamp to light him on his way.
Below, in those shadowy depths full of strange sights in the glimmer of his lamp, Stone lost track of time. He did not know how long he stayed down, but long enough to learn more than he bargained for. He parted the upper waters that laved a grand staircase and presently heaved his unwieldy bulk to the deck and the light of day. They freed him of his deep sea harness. And for a moment Stone stood staring blankly at the salvage chief, his own skipper, the purser and the underwriters’ agent. Then he found his tongue:
“There’s nothing there. The door was open. Lock bursted. The strongroom’s empty. Nothing but a few soggy sacks of mail. The bullion’s gone.”
“Stone,” the captain of the Mandarin said quietly, almost with a trace of pity, “that can’t be. You know it can’t be so. The strongroom was intact when we went aground. It’s been submerged twenty feet below the surface where no one could get at it ever since. You’ve gone clean off your head. First you see running lights where there are no running lights and put the ship ashore. Then you tell us that a steel-plated room locked and bolted, proof against anything but an expert safe-cracker, is wide open and empty. You’re either crazy—or—or—■”
“I tell you—” Stone burst out hotly—
But he didn’t finish the sentence. He bit it in two. A strange tremor ran through the dead hull beneath their feet—a tremor followed by a faint dull, shock. She seemed to shake from below as if her dead engines had mysteriously begun to turn the great propeller once more. And slowly, very slowly, her bow began to rise.
“She’s going—overside everybody!” the salvage skipper barked. The Mandarin's captain issued orders, cool, unhurried instructions to his men. Boats for all lay alongside hooked to the falls.
Inch by inch, yes, foot by foot, as they clambered down rope ladders she settled by the stern and rose by the head until, as they backed water with their oars her red
forebody, fouled with clinging weeds, speckled with barnacles, rose dripping above the run of the tide.
There for a moment she seemed to hesitate, then heeled sharply to starboard and slid backward in the same motion, and the boat crews lay on their oars staring at the eddies and swirls that played back and forth across the depths into which the Mandarin had vanished.
WHEN a man, even a very young man with all of youth’s happy disregard for unpleasant consequences, has worked for years toward a definite purpose he may be pardoned a temporary discouragement in the face of finding all his pains and labor gone for naught. To work and feel that his work has been wasted; to plan and see his plans destroyed; to strive for a future that shall be better than the past and see that future shattered— only a superhuman being could face that undismayed.
Something like that loomed before Billy Stone, without the superman’s egotism to support him. He couldn’t admit that he was merely suffering the usual penalty for careless or ill-judged navigation. There would have been a simple justice about that which he could have appreciated and accepted as his due. But he hadn’t been careless. His
judgment—ah, there was the rub! It would have been better—in retrospect—to risk collision rather than stranding, since it seemed proven that there had been nothing with which to collide. Still, he asked himself peevishly, how could he tell that from the bridge of the Mandarin in the dark of the graveyard watch with the lights of a steamer staring him in the face?
He had to hold fast to the evidence of his own eyes that night by Helmcken Island. Otherwise he found himself spinning in the whirlpools of sheer fantasy, with his own sanity in doubt. His imagination re-enacted that stirring sequence of events in Johnstone Strait. Those running lights—the orders he gave—the startled face of the quartermaster braced at the wheel—the shock of grounding—the scene would assume form for Billy without a single detail missing.
And the logic, the coherence of his detailed account, of what he saw and did and why he did so condemned him the more effectually before the Board of Inquiry that sat on the Mandarin case. He could not have seen the running lights of a steamer. The movements of coastwise shipping proved conclusively that no vessel was near Helmcken Island, or indeed anywhere in Johnstone Strait, that night. Therefore it followed that Billy Stone simply lied to cover up a dereliction of duty, or a gross error in estimating his ship’s position at a critical change of course. Those lights had shown to no eyes save his owm. The quartermaster denied again.
There had been no answer to the Mandarin's passing signal. And whether he had been the victim of an hallucination, of a momentary confusion or what-not, as the officer on watch he had wrecked' a ship and the Board of Inquiry duly dealt out a punishment to fit the crime.
That was a closed chapter now,
Stone thought with a tinge of bitterness as he breasted the steep slope of one of Seattle’s famous hills. It was distinctly unpleasant to be the sacrificial goat, and that was precisely how Stone regarded himself—although sacrificed to what definite purpose he could not say.
Stone’s destination was a bungalow on Queen Anne hill, a bungalow entirely surrounded by other bungalows, and occupied by a retired mariner named Captain Amos Powell. The captain’s age ran around seventy, but he was yet hale. He had been born a Cape Codder, nurtured in Martha’s Vineyard aboard fishing schooners, spent his early manhood on the broad bosom of the Atlantic and gone into steam too late in life to be off with his earlier love, the full-rigged ship.
FOR many years this worthy seaman had been compelled to repress a dislike that amounted to contempt, for steamers and steamship men. He could not forget that steam had driven sail from the sea and he had been reared on the feel and sight and sound of sail. In the very necessary pursuit of a competence he had spent the last twenty years of his life going up and down the Pacific (which belies its euphonious name; in command of screw-propelled ships. Bottling up his real feelings during this long period as regards “wallopin’ cargo-boxes operated by a gang of marine motorists,” which was his favorite way of describing steamers, once retired he felt free to air his opinions and indulge his dislikes which extended to the modern breed of navigator who goes down to the seven seas in twelve-thousand ton ships capable of doing twenty knots.
The captain had a daughter. The captain’s daughter liked Billy Stone.
Martha cherished also a good deal of affection for her irascible parent, although he was occasionally a trial.
Said irascible parent disliked Billy.
And Billy was sub rosa engaged to Martha Powell.
These things complicated Billy Stone’s shore life considerably. As he climbed the hill he wondered just where this latest development would leave him standing in the Powell menage.
Billy turned a corner. The front of the Powell home loomed across three narrow lawns. A yellow taxi stood at the curb. A male figure in gray tweeds detached itself from the Powell porch, came down the steps, entered
the taxi, which thereupon departed in the well-known manner of taxis.
Stone had a keen eye. He recognized the man. He was also pretty sure the recognition had been mutual, even at the distance. And while there was no definite reason for such a feeling Stone was immediately annoyed by a slight irritation, an increase of the depression that afflicted him. He was, he said to himself, getting infernally touchy.
Martha herself let him into a tiny hall. Whatever else Billy Stone found lacking in life at that particular moment he had reason to be thankful for the glow in her eyes.
“Oh, Billy boy,” she whispered from within the encircling pressure of his arms, “I’m so sorry. Why did they have to be so perfectly savage? I’d think a six months’ suspension would have been severe enough, wouldn’t it?”
“I told you what I’d have to expect,” Stone replied. “How did you happen to know what I got?”
“Joe Molter told me. He’s in town and called. Left just a half minute before you came. Didn’t you see him?”
“I thought that was Joe,” Billy answered. “Shows you how bad news outruns a man. The board only handed out its decision a couple of hours ago. I wonder how Joe got hold of it so quick? He told you they took my ticket away for keeps, did he?”
The girl nodded.
"I’m sorry, Bill,” she murmured. “It doesn’t seem fair."
“ It’s the regular thing in cases of this sort,” he commented a little grimly. “You couldn’t expect a bunch of hard-boiled old salts to be easy on a young man who has
just wrecked a very fine ship for a total loss. On the evidence presented—unless they believed my wild yarn without any supporting proof—I’m not a fit man to be put in charge of a ship. I see things.”
Martha disregarded the irony of his words for more practical considerations.
“What’ll you do now, Billy?” she asked. “It seems a shame to have a career stopped short like that. But after all the sea isn’t the only thing in our young lives, is it?” “It’s been pretty much all there is to mine,” he said, moodily. “It’s about all I know. I’m a little bit up in the air yet. I haven’t made any particular plans I’ve got to start in at something, but I haven’t even begun to figure where or how to begin.”
A LITTLE silence ensued. Billy looked intently at By Martha Powell. She was very dear to him. He had never been able to define her charm. It was enough to feel it, to know that for him it existed. Martha was goodlooking without any claim to beauty; intelligent without being clever. If Billy Stone had been compelled to say why he loved her he could only have replied because he found her lovable.
“In another year or so I should have had a command,” he continued. “We would have had something to go on. Now everything is all shot to pieces. I did have a future as a seaman. Unless I can get rid of this black mark against me—it seems to me I’ve got to do that somehow.”
He knitted his brows in thought for a moment.
“There’s something about this particular wreck, Marty, that keeps nag^ ging at me. I can’t help thinking—well —never mind. Are you game to wait, Mart? Or does it look like—like—”
She put one soft hand over his mouth.
“If you start talking like that to me, Billy Stone,” she said, severely, “I’ll sue you for breach of promise.”
They smiled at each other.
“I’ll tell you something,” Billy said impulsively. “Maybe you’ll think it sounds foolish. But it amounts to this: either there was a set of running lights showing off Helmcken or I’m given to hallucinations and delusions. In other words, I’m crazy. And I don’t think I am. Nobody else saw them but me and the quartermaster. The quartermaster never admitted seeing anything. But I’d stake anything he did. I’ll never be satisfied until I know. What I’m getting at is this: I’m going after this mystery instead of doing what common sense tells me I ought to do—which is to hunt up a shore job that amounts to something. There’s a gambling chance that I might uncover something that doesn’t show on the surface. I’m not superstitious. There’s generally a man or men behind every queer thing that happens on land or sea. I would like to prove to ’em that there were lights over my bow—and that the Mandarin's strongroom was empty when she slid off into deep water.”
FROM Queen Anne Hill, Billy Stone made his way downtown to a certain chophouse near the O.S.S. docks. He was hungry and old habit led him to this place patronized by sailors, longshoremen, the tnarine fraternity in general, because good food was served there and it was handy to their stamping ground, the waterfront. Other than food Billy had at that moment no objective. He hadn’t formulated any plan. He was groping in his mind for some possible course of action without having as yet found a feasible one. He didn’t take much stock in intuition. A navigating officer’s training embraces technicalities, empirical conclusions—but not hunches. Hunches have put many a good, ship on the beach, so the coastwise maxim runs.
Nevertheless Billy experienced something akin to a hunch as he stepped over the threshold. Nothing definite; mostly a state of feeling, an anticipation, an awareness that he was about to encounter something or someone. When man’s psychic life ceases to be the riddle it is,
Continued on page 53
Twice in the Graveyard Watch
Continued from page 12
Billy Stone may possibly find the true reason for that certainty that he had come suddenly, without rhyme or reason, to a focussing-point on something of importance.
Whatever the basis of that conviction, the thing itself brought him out of the shell of his self-communing, aroused an expectancy, made him instantly alert. He seated himself at a table, but his gaze roved. Men of all sorts and sizes lined a counter along one side of the room, perched on swivel stools that turned squeakily on iron pedestals. As his eyes swept down the line the mirror behind, which had reflected many a grand elbowcrooking in the days before the Eighteenth Amendment troubled the land, Stone’s gaze matched glances with another—and having made sure of his man Billy left his table and took a vacant stool beside Dave Branston, ex-quartermaster of the lost Mandarin.
“Hello, Dave,” he greeted.
“Why, hello there—ah—ah—” the man seemed uneasy, uncertain whether to address Stone as a fellow-being or as his superior officer.
Billy grinned inwardly. A purpose leaped full-formed into his mind; the first logical step in a sequence.
“What are you doing?” he asked casually.
“They have plenty of ships,” Stone observed. “They’ll probably sign you on again pretty soon. There’s nothing against you.”
“I’ve a darned good mind to go back on the tugs,” Branston grew confidential. “I went quartermaster coastwise with a first mate’s ticket because I thought I’d get experience and a chance at promotion. But it don’t look so good to me now. Yes, sir, I have a darned good mind to go back on a tug. The pay’s as good.”
“Why did you deny seeing those lights off Helmcken?” Stone asked crisply. “Why were you afraid to admit you saw them?”
The man’s mouth opened. His face flushed.
“You’re a seaman, and pretty levelheaded,” Billy went on calmly. “When I barked at you to put her over you didn’t even look up. You were waiting for it, and you put the wheel over bang. You were scared—not at the order, but at what you saw—what you had seen— the same thing I saw—a set of steamer’s running light, on top of us. You knew she had the right of way, and that we had to swing quick or crash.”
“Hell’s bells!” Branston grunted. “You’re a regular mind-reader, ain’t you? What you gettin’ at?”
“Why, you declared you didn’t see those lights?”
“There was nothin’ to show runnin’ lights, was there?” Branston muttered.
Billy smiled wearily.
“Did you lie deliberately, or did you think you simply imagined seeing those lights and were afraid to admit that you thought you saw them?” he asked pointblank.
“TX7ELL then,” Branston said bluntly.
V V “I seen them lights just like you did. But the minute we took the ground —while you’re all centred on your own ship and what’s happening to her, I step out of the wheelhouse to look for the other packet. And there ain’t a sight nor a sound. No wash from her passing. There’s no ship in the channel at all. I know it. And I’m scared. It’s creepy. And while I’m rasslin’ with this crazy idea that I’ve seen ghost lights in the dark, the Old Man jumps me. He’s been talkin’ to you and he’s pretty near foamin’ at the mouth. He says; ‘What in hell did you see, quartermaster?’ He’s excited, and mad as a hornet—and I’m scared. ‘Nothin’,’ says I. T ain’t supposed to see. Only to obey orders— which I dor.e.’ ”
“That’s all,” Branston confessed. “Havin’ said one thing I stuck to it; I wouldn’t bp'*lr water. I figured it out before the L_ I sat. They’d break you anyhow. That was a cinch. And I got a wife and two kids to keep. If I back
up your story it don’t help you, because if there ain’t no ship to show her lights they wouldn’t believe the two of us on a stack of Bibles, and you know it. And it leaves me marked. Every time I ask for a job, they’ll say: ‘Oh, yes, you’re the guy that sees runnin’ lights where they ain’t. Guess we couldn’t use you.’ Now you got it straight.”
“It’s straight enough, Branston,” Stone replied quietly. “Í don’t blame you. But doesn’t it strike you that if we both saw the same thing at the same time there must have been something to see?”
But Branston only shook his head, looking deeply puzzled.
“You ain’t mentioned it yet,” he said with apparent irrelevance. “But I suppose you seen the mornin’ papers, ain’t you?”
“No, why?” Stone asked. Some curious quality in the man’s tone made the question come out with a snap.
“The Manchu went ashore on Helmcken Island last night in pretty darned near the same spot,” Branston told him gravely.
They sat for a half minute staring fixedly at each other. The same thought ran in their minds. They knew it without speaking.
STONE immediately got a newspaper.
The details of the latest wreck on Helmcken were meagre enough, he discovered on perusal. The Manchu was one of the finest ships on the Alaska run and her master was a particular friend of Billy Stone’s, almost a contemporary. The simple fact of another wreck in the same place carried a certain significance to Billy. It revived and strengthened to a conviction what had been little more than a troubled impression that more than mere chance was involved in the disaster to his own ship.
Coming on the heels of his conversation with Branston, and the quartermaster’s frank admission, the Manchu wreck spurred him to some pretty farreaching speculation, caused him to evolve a theory and hunger for a hand in evolving a solution.
Stone set out in search of Markham, the diver off the Arethusa who, after a look at his dead mate, had refused to go down in his deep-sea harness at any price.
But Markham was not to be found in any of the usual places. After diligent search Stone finally got track of him. Markham had gone out of town leaving word that he would return in a few days. Billy left a message to be given the man as soon as he reported back to the Divers’ Association. Then he sat down to wait more or less patiently until Paul Ackley, master of the wrecked Manchu, arrived in Seattle.
He hadn’t long to wait. Within a week the crew of the wrecked steamer abandoned her to the underwriters and shipped south. Stone called up Ackley, made a rendezvous, and they foregathered in the Master Mariners’ Club.
Ackley didn’t look glum; merely thoughtful, inclined to be silent. Stone wasted no time in skirmishing.
“We went ashore, according to the Arethusa’s say-so, within a hundred feet of where the Mandarin did,” Ackley answered Billy’s first question. “But we went on solid. They’ll salvage her without any great loss. She can’t slip off. She’s aground practically the full length of her keel. But—”
“Go on,” Stone urged. “But what?” “I’ll tell you after a while.”
“All right,” Billy acquiesced. “Tell me this. What put you ashore?”
An odd expression flitted across Ackley’s face.
“What put you ashore?” he counterqueried.
“The Board of Inquiry,” Billy retorted sardonically. “They took away my ticket for keeps. Permanently suspended.”
“Oh. I didn’t hear what the finding was. In fact I had no line on the Mandarin wreck at all. I meant what put the I
Mandarin ashore. It was in your watch, of course.”
“Running lights dead ahead. Right on top of us. Other fellow had right of way. Altered course to pass port to port. Eddy put me on the beach.”
“Running lights,” Ackley murmured. “Phantoms.”
“No,” Stone declared positively. “There is no such animal. In your case —how many of you saw these lights?”
ACKLEY stretched his arms above his head and laughed mirthlessly. “The fact is,” he snorted contemptuously, “three of us saw them, but only one man admits it—myself—the commander. It’s very odd, Stone. I’m bound to get it in the neck because it happened while I was still on watch. Yet I didn’t open my mouth to issue an order. I should certainly have done so in another instant—and yet I don’t know. Let me tell you just how it happened.
“I was on the bridge just outside the wheelhouse door. I had been looking up Current Passage with a very good pair of night glasses. It was dark, but not too dark to have made out another vessel even if she hadn’t shown a gleam. I could see the white water on Earl’s ledge well astern. We had turned to centre the fairway. I lowered the glasses, turned my head. Next thing there were those lights, bright and clear —out of nowhere. You know how it feels when a set of running lights loom up close. You act instinctively. Everybody knows instantly what is to be done. Yet I was so absolutely sure no vessel could possibly be in that position off our bows that I just stared in amazement —until I felt the Manchu list as she always does when the helm goes hard over. The quartermaster was spinning the wheel. The mate—who had come up and was standing by to relieve me as we cleared Helmcken—stood humped up, looking scared, pointing with his finger at those lights. He had told the quartermaster to put her over. They were both scared stiff at the idea of being cut down in that hell of a tiderace. Nobody said a word until our bow swung. And the minute the eddy took hold of us those lights snapped off as if somebody had turned a switch.”
“Probably did,” Stone grunted.
“I shouldn’t be a bit surprised, now you mention it,” Ackley commented. “Anyway, you know there’s no leeway in that passage. Before we could swing around to buck the eddy we were aground.
“Now here’s the rub. We whistled. No answer. Swept the channel with the searchlight. Nothing in sight. Then the mate and the quartermaster fudged. Swore they saw nothing. Quartermaster said I ordered the wheel over. Mate backed him up. Can you beat it?” “Afraid of their jobs,” Stone said contemptuously. “My quartermaster did the same. Only he thought better of it eventually. He’s willing to go to bat now. That makes three of us for corroborative evidence. Might help at your hearing. I think perhaps I can get something that bears on another phase of it out of the Arethusa’s second string diver —who looked at his drowned partner and refused to have anything more to do with the Mandarin inside or out. Now tell me something more, if you can. Did the divers go down and survey the Manchu? What did they report? Did. you have any valuables, gold or securities, in the strongroom?”
Ackley looked at him soberly.
“I know what you’re driving at,” he said. “But how the hell do you know what to expect? We did have treasurebullion—a shipment from the Yukon to Seattle. The divers report the strongroom door open and the bullion gone. She got a hell of a bump and is badly holed—but that wouldn’t open the strongroom door, would it, and remove two or three boxes of gold?”
“The question is,” Billy mused, “was it looted before she went ashore—or after. There’s a point. In other words was the Manchu—like the Mandarin—
I wrecked to cover a robbery, or was she ; wrecked to make a robbery possible?”
“I wonder?” Ackley echoed. “The I same thing did happen to you?” “Identically,” Stone declared.
“What can we do?” said Ackley. “As j it stands we’re as apt—either or both I of us—to be suspected, as anyone I unknown.”
“It sounds difficult, and probably will be some job,” Billy Stone ventured, “but I believe it’s up to us to get to the bottom of this. Here are two wrecks, two robberies, and a man’s death. I’m black-listed; ruined as far as a career at sea is concerned. The sea is all I know; the thing I’ve been trained for and care most about, if you want the truth. You’ll be in pretty much the same boat. Damn it all, we’ve got to do something about it.”
“It’ll take time. It generally takes money to camp on crooked trails until you find out where they lead to,” Ackley put in moodily. “Maybe the Pinkertons ’ll clean it up. I’m no detective.”
“Pinkerton’s—blah!” Stone fleered. “This is a job for seamen. I’m going to get hold of Markham. Maybe he knows something, or has his suspicions. If he does—or if he doesn’t—let’s get him and Branston and our two selves together and put it squarely up to the O.S.S. superintendent and the underwriters and bring it up at the hearing on the Manchu case if necessary. I want my ticket back —and you don’t want to lose yours, do you?”
“Not unless I lose it on the square,” Ackley admitted.
“All right. As soon as I get hold of Markham we’ll have a mothers’ meeting and see what we can do,” Stone declared.
With that they separated.
BEFORE he got fairly seated in his own room Stone was called to the telephone. Markham had come back to town. Stone made an engagement with him at once.
“Would you mind telling me,” Billy asked when they got together, “just why you refused to go down on the Mandarin job?”
The diver shrugged his shoulders. “Shucks, I told ’em plain enough,” said he. “Too dangerous. Fierce undercurrents there. Man’s got to have some chance—for his life, as well as to get his work done.”
“You have the reputation of not minding dangerous work underwater,” Billy replied. “Loosen up, Markham. This is strictly between ourselves. There’s something fishy about this whole Helmcken Island business. It has cost me my license. I figure there is a good deal more there than mere accident of navigation. Was there anything more than accident in Curry’s drowning?”
The diver caressed his chin, frowning to himself.
“Well,” he said at last, “a man can’t prove nothing by wild talk. It sounds wild—and it might be that sawing across broken steel plates, and being bumped around down there along the Mandarin’s keel, could have done it—but when I looked over Curry’s gear I got so strong a hunch that a knife or a hatchet had gashed his air-line and slit his suit that I wouldn’t ’a’ gone down for fifty thousand dollars. I had that creepy feeling so strong. Neither inside nor out. You went down into her hold, I understand. What did you find?” “Nothing,” Stone replied. “It doesn’t sound reasonable, Markham, that a diver could be knifed in ten fathoms of water.”
“I know it doesn’t,” Markham admitted. “I told you it sounded like a pipe dream. Still, funny things happen below. The way the Mandarin went off that ledge wasn’t natural. She should ’a’ hung there till kingdom come. She went off almost as if she was shoved.” “Did you know the Manchu went ashore in the very same place a few days ago?”
“The hell you say!” Markham stared. “Under precisely the same conditions,” Stone explained. “The same queer set of things happened her that did my ship. I have a theory, Markham, and I’d like to see it verified or disproved. Will you repeat to the underwriters and the superintendent of the O.S.S. the idea and opinion you’ve given me?”
“Sure—if you think it will do any good to tell those boneheads anything,” Markham .observed caustically.
They made arrangements to keep in touch, and from there Stone went straight to the Ocean Steamship Services dock and got himself admitted to the august presence of the chief superintendent. But he was not permitted to get very far with his subject.
“We’re not interested in fantastic theories, Stone,” the super interrupted crisply. “Incompetent navigation has
lost us two valuable ships. Personally I think those mysterious lights you fellows give as a reason for altering your course are pure bunk. You and Ackley were either soused or dreaming on watch. In any case you are both done as ship officers. If you must agitate this question see the underwriters. They bear the loss. It’s a waste of time to discuss it with me.”
Incompetent navigation. Drunk or dreaming!
BILLY STONE went away from there without giving in to a burning desire to smite the O.S.S. superintendent on his angular jaw. Perhaps this sense of injustice keyed him up a little, made his manner more aggressive, gave his conversation a force that carried over. For whatever reason, he got the attention of the chief of the underwriters with his first blunt sentence. The man heard him out, asked a number of questions, sat thoughtfully silent at last, tapping his desk with a pencil.
“There is more in this than meets the naked eye, my worthy mate,” he said dryly, at length. “Pity we didn’t take you seriously at first. You see, Stone, your unsupported account at the hearing was too much like the action of a man grabbing at a straw to save himself. Nobody believed you, either, when you reported the Mandarin’s strongroom empty of bullion. That was a little too much. Now your story seems to have some foundation. We know that the Manchu's gold was looted. Whether before or after the wreck, or by whom, is of course still to be determined. I am interested. These two wrecks have cost us a lot of money. There does seem to be more to them than the act of God or peril of the sea. Can you get hold of these two men, and also Captain Ackley at about—-say, three this afternoon?”
At three sharp Stone had his companions ushered in. The insurance man questioned them from a dozen different angles. When he signified that the interview was over, he also motioned Stone to remain.
“Now,” said he, when the door closed on the other three, “let’s get down to brass tacks. You want your ticket back and a clean sheet, eh? That’s why you’re so keen on this, isn’t it?”
“That’s motive enough, isn’t it?” Stone countered.
“All right. How do you propose to go about getting at the bottom of this peculiar series of happenings?”
Stone hesitated. He had no clear-cut idea. But he did have a feeling that Helmcken Island somehow held a clue to dark secrets.
“I’ll be frank,” said he. “I’m going it blind, and probably will until I get hold of a definite lead. I have only a hunch that to go back to Helmcken, lie low, keep my ears and eyes open and my mouth shut, might put me on the right track. To do that means I must have a gasboat, grub—and time. I’d like to take either Markham or Branston—-preferably Markham, because he’s a bright man and a diver beside, and he’s game. I haven’t got much capital to start a detective bureau. But I am willing to gamble my time if you’ll stake me to an outfit to get about the country. I have more in proportion at stake than you have, to make me keen on getting results.”
“H-m,” the man relapsed into a silent study of his desk, beating his little tattoo with the pencil end. For a considerable time he remained locked fast in this deeply reflective state. Then said he: “Might get somewhere that way. All right. I’ll supply you with a motor launch, and allow you three hundred dollars for expenses. Take a chance on you. Go to it your own way. But you haven’t any definite clue, you say?”
“No. That’s what I expect to find at Helmcken.”
The insurance man again sat briefly silent. Then he opened a drawer, took out a parcel and laid it on his desk. His eyes, narrowed and quizzical, never left Stone’s face while his fingers removed a paper wrapping. He displayed a small white canvas bag, about four inches wide by six in depth. He flirted open one end and exposed native gold in coarse grains, dust, nuggets.
“You recognize that?” he asked casually.
“Gold, by the looks,” Stone answered. “Don’t seem familiar at all?”
The man’s eyes burrowed into Stone’s. “No. Why should it?”
“I thought perhaps it might,” Cleary
drawled. “You see, we’ve had some Burns operatives at work on this case already. We don’t usually take a loss on a mysterious wreck lying down. All sorts of queer kinks in this marine insurance game. One of these sleuths got a hot tip on you from some unknown source. While you were in seeing me this morning he frisked your room. Understand? He found this. Came pretty near pinching you right off.” “Well?” Stone demanded hotly, in the pause.
“Happen’s to be one of the original sacks out of that bullion shipment on the Mandarin. In your room, you see.”
“I don’t see,” Stone challenged angrily. “Do you mean to say—”
Cleary held up his hand with a deprecating smile.
“7 don’t say,” he remarked evenly. “What do you think, then?” Billy demanded.
“I don’t know what to think,” Cleary responded. “But I know what I believe is the wise thing to do. I’m going to take you on trust—in spite of this. Let you go the limit. Give you all the rope you need. Then if you hang yourself—”
He stopped to smile encouragingly. “But I don’t think you will.”
WHEN he left the underwriter’s office Billy walked along the street a prey to very mixed emotions indeed. He was angry, resentfully puzzled at a deliberate attempt to incriminate him. Why should anyone plant stolen property in his room and anonymously incite a detective to look there for plunder? Who could hate him enough to stab in the dark with such a deadly weapon? Vain queries. The thing was serious enough to stir him deeply. Men had gone to the penitentiary on just such circumstantial evidence. He could only feel grateful that the crudeness of the enemy’s Strategy had defeated its own end. Cleary had unequivocally voiced his own belief that the whole thing was a plant. It was just a little too raw. And he had repeated his promise to supply a launch so that Stone could be on his way to tackle the mystery on its own ground.
Nevertheless Billy realized the added complication of being suspected. Somebody was interested in him with a vengeance, with a wholly malevolent interest. He hadn’t the least idea who or why. His career hadn’t been such as to make that kind of reprisal likely. It didn’t matter much, he reflected, unless it went farther. If wilful, unlawful, malicious and felonious intent to do him injury took form in other overt acts he rather welcomed that in his present mood, because the man or men might thereby show their hands, and so give him a definite lead in the right direction. He was pretty sure of one thing; whoever planted that tiny sack of stolen gold in his room had a finger, if not both arms to the elbow, in the Mandarin pie.
True to his word, Cleary at once transferred to him a chunky gasboat. She was neither handsome nor large, being only some thirty feet overall, but she was staunch, heavily built, and powered with a good engine. She looked able and she was; a typical fisherman’s craft, with living quarters for two men.
Stone put it up to Markham, the diver. He would a little have preferred Paul Ackley, but Paul was out of the question. He had to stay in Seattle and go on the carpet. Markham jumped at the chance. “Sure,” he said, simply. “I’ll go.” Whereupon, certain details of food and fuel being attended to, Billy set out for Queen Anne Hill to bid Martha Powell good-bye. He made sure of Martha being at home. But he did not know and could not reckon on Captain Powell’s movements. He did not desire contact with that worthy ex-mariner. The Captain didn’t like him and made no bones about his feelings. For that matter, Billy had lately come to the conclusion that the old man didn’t like anyone who manifested too lively an interest in his daughter. Martha professed to regard that attitude with amusement, hut it irritated Billy Stone.
The captain’s motive seemed quite clear and rather ignoble, to Billy. Captain Powell looked on Martha as the crew of the good ship “Home.” He found himself very comfortable on this quarterdeck in his declining years. He did not take kindly to any chance of being superseded, Martha kept his house, served his food, supplied him with companionship as a
dutiful daughter should. And it appeared to Billy that Martha’s irascible old parent desired only that this (for him) most comfortable schedule should be continued regardless of any wish or affection or passion his daughter might be moved by. Personally Billy looked on Captain Powell as a domineering and utterly egocentric old person with a waspish tongue—an elderly dragon from whom a lovely and altogether desirable girl stood in need of rescue.
It had been troubling Billy Stone for some time that his salary didn’t quite permit him to insist on marriage with the corollary of a decent home in which to instal a bride. That was one reason why he so desired a command, and why he took it so hard that his prospects as a seafaring man had been snuffed out like a blown candle. Hence his distaste for Captain Powell grew, if anything, more acute since he recognized that the old man had now valid ground for his objection to him as a son-in-law. For a long time he had avoided any meeting with Martha s father unless it was necessary.
THIS day, because he particularly wanted a quiet hour with Martha, fate brought the Captain on the scene as soon as Billy rung the doorbell. He joined them in the living-room, planted himself in his favorite chair and gazed a trifle maliciously (or so it seemed) at Billy.
“Lost your ticket, heh?” he suddenly gave the conversation a disagreeable personal twist. “What you goin’ to do
n°St'one shrugged his shoulders. Privately, he felt that was none of the captain’s business. But he tried to be polite. . , „ ,
“If I don’t get re-mstated, he answered, “I daresay I can make myself a place on land as well as at sea.”
“If you were a seaman, you’d know better,” quoth Captain Powell. “Man that falls down at sea hasn’t much chance ashore. But there ain’t any seamen any more,” he snorted. “Nothin’ but a bunch of machinists and dog-barking navigators shoving floatin’ cargo-boxes up and down
“You spent a good many years, Daddy, doing just that,” Martha put in a defence of her own generation. “And you seemed to think it took some skill, then.”
“Yeah, I had to keep you and your mother going,” he growled. “And I was a sailing-master before I had to go into steam in order to make a living. And I never lost a ship, sail or steam,” he ended boastfully. .
Billy said nothing. Captain Powell sat tight, and Billy tried to outsit him. He probably would have failed in this had not some crony of the captain’s, living near-by, reminded him over the telephone that he had a chess engagement. His departure gave Billy and Martha a little while to themselves. Not that they had a great deal to say. It was sufficient to be together. There existed between them that rare understanding which does not always require expression in words.
When Billy was at last compelled to go Martha walked with him a little way. Within a block of the house they met Joe Molter. He halted only long enough to shake hands and exchange a few sentences, then went on. Martha glanced after him and somehow Billy Stone got the impression of trouble in her eyes.
“Vot iss?” he asked.
She looked at him wonderingly.
“Clairvoyant,” she retorted, but she did not smile.
“What’s bothering you?” he persisted. “Is Joe still on your mind.”
“N-no,” she said, hesitatingly. “But I’m still on Joe’s mind, it seems, and I don’t like it much. He has been in town for awhile. Dad, I think, rather encourages him to come to the house. I used to be sorry for Joe. Now he just makes me uncomfortable.”
THAT was an old story. Joe Molter, Martha Powell and Billy Stone had grown up together in the Ranier Valley, wrangled and chummed through grammar and high school—with Molter two years in the lead, and always assuming a natural leadership that went unquestioned until as a man Joe began to regard Martha with more than friendly eyes—and Martha had chosen to love Billy Stone instead. Joe had accepted that a little sadly, but without rancor, as the fortune of war—or of life. Billy wondered why Molter should chose the present to renew that old seige. “Maybe you’d do better to take him
seriously,” he joked. “I believe Joe is ready money; seems to have done pretty well in timber up north. Good second string if it’s going to take me half my young life to make a stake.”
Martha pinched his arm. Her blue eyes glowed.
“Billy,” she said, bluntly, “does it ever strike you that we stress this money thing too much? Why should we have to have a —cinch? Suppose you don’t get this mess cleared up and get a ship? Suppose you do have to start in somewhere at the bottom? Let’s start together.”
Billy’s heart leaped. Without regard to street traffic and possible amused eyes he bent over and kissed her.
“God bless your soul,” he said, tenderly. “We’ll do it. I wondered—but I didn’t have the nerve. It doesn’t seem quite fair to you—and still—”
“Why should we wait forever?” she voiced his own thought wistfully. “We’ve only one life to live. If we wait too long—”
She made a little quick gesture with her hands, and Billy understood. The same thought had been often in his own mind.
He was sailing on the next tide. A street-car came rumbling along.
“I’ve got to get this one,” he said. “Take care of yourself, Billum,” she whispered. “Good-bye.”
Deep in his own reflections as the car went clanging and shuddering downtown Billy wondered from what subtle pressure Martha wanted to take refuge in his arms. She hadn’t said so. No. But Billy had a curious prescience of something that troubled Martha more than she cared to own, something that constituted a threat to their chance of happiness. Or was it simply that she was like himself, lonely and unsatisfied? He wasn’t sure. Probably both. He smiled and then wrinkled his brows. He was getting almost psychic in his capacity to scent trouble. Idly he wondered if evil either in throught or deed could fling its own form of disturbance into the ether—like radio. And if now and then somebody could, so to speak, unconsciously tune in so that they could catch vague impressions without being aware of the source. Fantastic? Of course. But there was no denying the fact that he was getting abnormally sensitive to impressions, tones, even to so indefinable a thing as personal atmosphere. Probably because his nerves were strung up tight. By that time he was at the docks.
FREE of Canadian waters by virtue of a cruising permit, Stone and Markham drove the Wasp up sheltered channels, across the blowy stretch of the wide Gulf of Georgia, and at last through the swift tideraces of Discovery Passage into the swifter tidal surges that ebbed and flowed by Helmcken Island.
Evening of the third day saw them two hundred and fifty miles from Puget Sound, nosing into a bight at the upper end of Helmcken, a little bay well out of the heavy swirls that troubled the channel. They edged the Wasp in beside a rough log float before Joe Molter’s bolt-camp and made her fast.
There was a definite purpose in Stone’s selection of this berth. Molter knew everybody in that region, and he knew Billy Stone. Billy had a choice of guesses. One, that the wrecking was done to cover the looting of ship’s treasure, to mask an “inside” job; the other that the Mandarin and Manchu had been fooled into a change of course that must put them on the beach—-for the specific purpose of looting them by operations from shore. In either case those mysterious vanishing lights involved confederates ashore. Ashore could only mean Helmcken Island or the immediate vicinity of Helmcken.
Hence every man in the region was tentatively suspect to Stone and he took it for granted that any casual stranger touching there in a boat would likewise be suspect to the unknown wreckers unless said stranger was logically accounted for. Billy reasoned thus, to Markham: “I’ve lost my license and naturally I’m done as a ship’s officer. Naturally I have to look about for a fresh start in life. Molter knows me since I was knee-high to a grasshopper. Nobody can very well question us openly about our private affairs, even if he should be curious. Therefore if they know nothing about us and especially if we keep more or less under cover and do any snooping around, we’ll be pretty closely watched by anybody with an interest in keeping tab on
what goes on around this island. Molter, | knowing all the local people, can, and altogether likely will, talk about who we are and what we’re after to anyone who happens to mention us or the Wasp. Therefore we tie up to his float in his bay, and we’re scouting for the main chance, logging on a small scale, a whack at land settlement or anything that promises to beat working for wages. People are always nosing about on this coast looking for a chance to make something.”
As camouflage it seemed natural. It did account for them and it left them untagged as possible investigators of a puzzle that was perhaps more formidable than it looked.
“Joe may not be here,” Stone observed. “He was in Seattle the night we left.” But Molter was on hand when they went ashore to call at the camp. He had come up on one of the coasting steamers the day before.
“Well,” said he to Billy, with a genial j grin, “couldn’t you resist coming back to the scene of your crime? Or do you like the looks of the country? Or are you just j on a holiday since you’ve retired from the merchant marine?”
“There’s lots of good-looking country laying around loose up here,” Billy rejoined. “It struck me that since I’ve been : chucked ashore I may as well try to do some good for myself ashore. This looked like it might make a jumping-off place. I’m willing to listen in on any dope you ; have on timber, if you’ve got any you want to pass along. I’ve got to live, and | I’d like to make money.”
“Most of us have ambitions of that j sort,” Molter remarked dryly.
However, Joe not only talked timber j with them, but he volunteered to show I Billy Stone just how he could best go ¡ about making a start in either shinglebolts or hand-logging. He introduced a dark-faced man named Perez as his partner in the cedar operations, and an obvious Scandinavian as the foreman. They worked thirty Japanese as cutters. There was money in cedar, Molter observed casually, if a man went at it right. He further invited them to make themselves at home in the camp.
THE wrecking of the O.S.S. steamers naturally came in for comment, but Molter, like most people not particularly concerned, took that as the ordinary chance of navigation in those tricky waters. The whole coast of British Columbia, with its network of channels and rapid tidal currents, bold rocky shores and periods of thick weather, is a nightmare to seafarers. From Vancouver’s voyage of discovery down to date its history is sprinkled with wrecked standings, a long roll of disabled ships and total losses.
“It’s simple as a b c,” Molter dismissed the subject at last. “The O.S.S. like every other steamship company, lays out a schedule from port to port that calls for speed. You make time or you-lose your job. The law of averages under such navigating conditions would put a certain percentage of vessels ashore if the Lord Almighty Himself was at the wheel. And when one goes up on the beach there always has to be a goat to take the blame. That’s the system. A coastwise skipper gets penalized for acts of God and stress of weather and the demands of owners who insist on fifteen knots where ten would be safer. And he takes that chance year after year for about a good carpenter’s wages. Pah!”
Molter snorted and changed the subject. A collision in the foggy reach of Grenville Channel had cost him a captain’s papers, and he was frankly prejudiced.
Once aboard the Wasp Markham said: “That big Swede has a darned familiar look to me. Know anything about him, Bill?”
Stone shook his head.
“I can’t place him,” Markham admitted. “But his mug certainly reminds me of something or somebody.”
They slept, soundly, dreamlessly. Once Billy wakened, listened drowsily for a minute to the sibilant murmur of agitated waters outside the sheltered bay, to the sighing of a night wind among the close ranked trees ashore. When he opened his eyes again the sun was peeping over the high, green crest of Hardwicke on the east and Markham was laying a fire in the galley stove.
They ate breakfast and went ashore. The Japanese were just beginning to stir. Around the Molter quarters no life
showed, except a streamer of blue smoke from the cookhouse chimney.
"Let’s take a walk to the upper end,” Billy suggested.
They made their way along a path cut through the cool, green forest. In the heart of Helmcken, back from the tideswept shores, the cedars stood bough to bough, thick-trunked noble trees whose feathery crests shut out the sun even at high noon. Heavy moss overlaid the floor of these woods so that a man walked softly as on a thick-piled rug. Here and there thickets of salmon berry, devil’s club, salai, giant bracken made a jungle in which birds were merry and the small life of the forest stole furtively about its affairs.
THEY tramped half a mile to the first workings. Down trees, a little of broken boughs, chips, peeled bark, stumps, a most unlovely confusion amid which stood ricks of split cedar, bolts cut to a size one man could handle, ready for their journey to the shingle mills. The woodsy odors of shrub and vine of Oregon grape and wild honeysuckle, mingled with the new-cut cedar smell to make a fragrance that teased the nostrils. And Stone reflected, as he stood for a moment sniffing that scented air, that a man might do worse than quit the sea to work at such tasks amid áuch surroundings. But he stiffened himself with the thought that the quitting should be voluntary. A man doesn’t like to be kicked out. He wanted a clean sheet. That was why he was there.
In another fifteen minutes they came to the last slashing where Stone had talked with Joe Molter while the Mandarin still hung on the rocky beach. Here was more piled cedar, a horse-sled path that meandered away to some loading-point. In the edge of this working, almost on the shore itself stood a couple of shacks, one of logs and very old apparently, the other built of cedar shakes only slightly weathered. The log cabin was abandoned, windowless, occupied only by a rude bedstead in one corner on which lay a mattress ravaged by rats and mice. The other served as a sort of storage for tools and fresh-filed saws of the bolt-cutters. The two looked in briefly and passed on through a narrow fringe of shrubbery and fir trees. Less than a hundred feet brought them out almost under the bows of the stranded Manchu.
She lay canted to port, half-submerged. A twinge of pity ran through Stone; he was a seaman with a seaman’s strange personal feeling for a crippled ship. She looked so forlorn. The bow of the same salvage vessel which had served the Mandarin—the black-hulled Arethusa— was pushed in close beside the after part of the wreck. Her powerful crane was lifting up and transferring cargo to great lighter scows. The salvage work went on under a double shift. Once lightened they would patch the holes below water, pump the Manchu out and refloat her. Stone knew the process but it did not then greatly engage his interest. He would have liked a word with the Arethusa's skipper, but there was no connection between the salvage steamer and the shore. The wreckers lived afloat. Their only connection with Helmcken was the mooring cables that held the Arethusa against the strong surge of changing tides.
"We might have rowed up here,” he said to Markham. "We could have got aboard.”
THEY stood a little longer. Two ships wrecked. One man’s life forfeited underwater. The careers of two others stopped short, besmirched. Somewhere, many fathoms below those swirls and eddies that spun and swayed in jade-green whorls, flecked here and there with white splotches of foam in the sunlight, the Mandarin rested her bones on the bottom. And behind those linked events lay plan and purpose, Stone felt very sure. He discounted chance. The sequence was too orderly. Yet it seemed incredible at that moment, in that place. Evil seemed to have no lurking place there. The sea muttered as it hurried through its pent channel. The deep green forested shores looked calmly down on the tide. Immobile and silent mountain ranges stood afar, purple and blue and white-tipped behind the nearer hills. An atmosphere of peace. A great silence. The tidal murmurings and the whisper of a morning wind in the fir tops were muted notes in the hush. Until, as they stood there gazing the winches and gears on the Arethusa—which had been silent for a
time—began to clank and whir and grind once more.
"When you stand off and look around?” Billy remarked, “it don’t seem promising. No place to begin. Still, we’re here to try and pick up a lead. Suppose we split up, Mark? I’ll go back along one side of the island. You take the other. It may stand us in hand to know the lay of this island. We can row up here later on. I don’t know that there is anything to be gained by going aboard the Arethusa, after all.”
They parted. Markham disappeared in the thickets lining the shore that faced Vancouver Island. Billy stood gazing at the wreck for a minute or two longer, thinking, reckoning the chance that seemed so slender now that he was on the ground. He soon gave over that. He had to begin, even if it was to grope blindly for he knew not what.
He began to traverse the opposite side of Helmcken. Without any objective, except that he sought a taking-off place which might be supplied by unlikely chance in the most unlikely spot, Billy painstakingly looked into and over every dent, cove, crook and brushy pocket that lay along the shore. He marked how the tidal stream swirled wickedly here and lay like dead water there. He conned swampy hollows, penetrated dense thickets, marked the contours of the land.
He got his reward—or at least he found something which vastly stimulated his curiosity.
In a narrow, V-shaped break in the shore line, well masked by overhanging clumps of willow and alder, he came down to the beach to seek freer progress along the rocks. The cleft, rather a jump-off, barred his way. He turned to the right and went about skirting the head of this cove. He came presently to low ground running out of the woods down to this notch. Soft earth, leaf-mold, rotten logs, rank vegetation filled the hollow. There were signs of someone or something having lately passed through the heavy fern growth. It was trampled, pushed aside. And when Billy stooped to examine the moist soil to determine whether a man or a deer had crushed the vegetation his eye caught the glint of water under the thicket.
He turned back toward the beach. It was getting hot in the woods and he was tired of fighting brush. The jungly undergrowth and the primeval forest offered nothing but lessons in woodcraft. He decided to confine himself to the open shore. And making his way thence down the gut of the hollow he was in, he came fairly into the brush-screened mouth of the little cove—and nearly ran into the sharp stem of a boat drawn well up into the mud and her topsides completely covered by a green tarpaulin.
“Hidden,” was the first word that popped into Stone’s mind. Then followed the inevitable "why?”
HE EXAMINED his find. The query grew more insistent. It wasn’t the type of craft common to those waters or, indeed, likely to be used by anyone in that region. It was the costly and powerful toy—from a seafaring man’s point of view—played with by people with money who craved the thrill of speed. Barely twenty five feet long, broad-beamed, with the pronounced V-bottom of the speedster and powered, Stone surmised from the length of her locked engine compartment^ to do anything from twenty to thirty knots. Mahogany and brass and copper—all hidden under a recent coat of dull green paint. Camouflage, Billy hazarded. She wasn’t abandoned in that secluded place. By the feel and appearance of her exhaust outlet her motor had been firing within twenty-four hours.
The whole thing had an air of concealment; costly paint and metal and fine joiner-work smeared with base paint; that perfect hiding-place which he had only stumbled on by accident. Even the green tarpaulin, blending perfectly with the foliage, spoke of design in its selection for a cover. A man rowing alongshore, passing twenty feet inland through the brush, could look straight at the spot and not distinguish a boat. Yet with the tide high she could be pushed afloat at will.
Billy took a last careful look and turned away. At least his mind had something tangible to chew on. The idea which 1 immediately took substantial form was ¡ that this hidden craft would bear watching—by night!
To be Continued