The Verdict of the Storm
A grim duel, fought in a gale fit to blow tomcats’ tails into Kingdom Come
IN THE dingy little office of Gilpent and Hudson, Great Lakes shippers, a stocky, red-faced skipper— in stature, resembling much a snubbing-post— confronted two ferret-eyed old partners. The sailor stood before a railing which separated him from the two men seated at their respective desks.
“You ask us, sir, for a contract to carry freight out of Chicago,” snarled the more shrivelled of the two, “but you offer us no recommendation either for yourself or the vessel you sail. Extraordinary, I should say! Mr. Hudson, please pass me the eraser,’’ and on receiving the hard-worn lump of rubber the speaker bowed his bald head even lower over his sheet of figures.
The red face of the skipper became a shade redder, and the short back somewhat more crescent-shaped, in its tight-fitting pea-jacket. His lips parted, but he forbore to speak when he realized that his presence was disregarded. At length the second partner raised his head.
“Mr. Gilpent,” he bleated; “our rule in these matters . . . This man, here, might as well know we never depart from our rule! We chartered one tramp vessel once, and what happened? We lost a valuable cargo when the old hulk foundered. Beside, this man—Ehem!” Mr. Hudson blew his crimson-tipped nose, then wiped it vigorously. “I might ask,” he added, fixing his keen eyes on the skipper, “the name of your craft, Captain— eh—Diglett.”
“The Red Head,” came the crisp answer.
“We have no record of her; never heard of such a craft. Perhaps you can tell us her builders?” and the canny old shipper slyly peered at the red face, which, confronted by the pertinent query, shaded into purple.
“I have told you, gentlemen,” the skipper answered in a rising voice, “that my schooner’s sound and a good sailor. Before this fall empties itself 0’ wind you’ll wish you owned a fleet 0’ ’em. As to her history, well ...” The sailor paused, and Mr. Hudson interjected:
“Well, by thunder!—it’s sunk!”
The boldness of the man brought hot anger into the partner’s cold eyes. “So are your chances, sir, of enlisting in our trade!” he curtly retorted.
“Then, all’s said and done!” spoke out the sailor breezily. “My schooner lays anchored off in the Bay, loaded for Chicago. Learning you were busy out of that port, I just dropped in, hoping at this late time 0’ season to be 0’ some service to you, and at the same time get hold of a return cargo. I don’t mind saying that I can’t afford to return empty. Still, there’s Providence and a pretty good reputation to rely on. To all the Lakes my name’s Paul Diglett, and my name’s a fair recommendation. As for my schooner, she’s sound as a pine knot. If you don’t know her yet, maybe some day you will!”
The skipper had reached the door, but halted at the sound of a high-pitched voice behind him. “It may interest you, Captain Diglett, to know that your name is already known in this office. You might have added that you were discharged from the services of a reliable company for insobriety. Ehem! Don’t get angry, sir! You sea, we know something about the man, if not about the craft. We suspect, however, that after your dismissal you found it necessary to resurrect a derelict and strike out for yourself. Your refusal to disclose the boat’s history is enough. Mr. Hudson, have I not related this matter as it came first-hand to us?” Again the ferret eyes of the shrewd old partners blinked and their bald pates nodded on precarious stems.
The skipper turned away from the door he had partly opened and, with his left hand clinched and shaking, strode back upon his accusers. “This story about me is a damned lie!” he shouted. “The man who brought it to you is the cur who slandered me to my former employers. I know the skunk; he’s in your em—”
“That will do, sir! No more of that!” shrilled Mr. Gilpent, a strand of yellow-white hair losing its perch and falling over one ear. “Not another word in our presence! We must ask you to retire, sir!”
“See, here!” thundered back the fuming sailor—“if you’re going to attack my character, I’m going to have my say! Three years ago I sailed the prettiest barque on the Chain o’ Lakes, for as good people as ever dashed ink. I lost my command through a scurvy hound who wanted my job. You know the man! He was sailing your old tub, Watama, the clumsiest, drifting raft o’ timbers afloat. I didn’t much blame him for wanting to quit the ‘old sinner’. For six years he and his craft had been the joke 0’ the Lakes. But it was the way he went about it that got me. Through a clerk, who, had a grudge agin’
me, he got his lies spread about the office of my masters. He knew I’d always been a good fellow on shore. But this man didn’t get my vessel; partly because the company had no use for his stamp, and partly because you decided just at this time to discard the ‘old elephant’ and put her faithful master in command of your new boat, the Erihon.
“That, sirs, is the inside lining to your first-hand story.
“As for being a drinking man—that is an infernal lie. I didn’t get my walking-papers. I was never discharged in my life. In setting matters right with the bill-fish of a bookkeeper I just satisfied an itchin’ in my fingers by cuffing him to a peak. After that I resigned and picked up a vessel of my own, a thing I had always set my heart on. Don’t wiggle and twist, gentlemen!”—as the two partners became fidgety in their chairs. “You know the man—and a finer skunk never sleeked its own hair!”
Pop-eyed, and with their hands working nervously, the partners stared beyond the fuming skipper to the open door. Suddenly the sailor wheeled about. For a moment he scowled, then with a reckless movement of his hand he yanked his cap tight to his head.
In the doorway stood a tall, erect, blackwhiskered man, well up to the two hundred pound mark. His blazing black eyes were levelled like two gun barrels flush at the sturdy figure in front of him; and as he glared the color left his high cheek bones, and the chords in his neck swelled. Slowly the bearded lips curled back, showing a white line of teeth. But before he could command his voice, the short, doughty sailor wheeled back upon the two convulsive old partners and, pointing a stubby finger toward the door, shouted:
“I say nothing behind a man’s back I would not say to his face. I said a skunk, and I mean what I say!”
The silence which fell over the little room was that of the portentous burning of a fuse toward a bomb. It exploded in a mad roar: “Take that back, or I’ll—I’ll—”
“Never!” pealed back the wrathful sailor. “By God, you are a skunk, and a damned dirty one!”
Mad with rage Captain Oscar Blodson disregarded all office proprieties and lunged across the room, his powerful right arm raised parallel with his shoulder. The blocky Diglett settled himself for the shock. Suddenly, with the quickness of a cat, he swooped under the pile-driving blow, and wheeled to catch his man off guard. But Blodson did not round to. The momentum of his attack carried him into the railing, which crashed to the floor beneath his sprawling body.
A series of hysterical cries added to the confusion.
Like two frenzied hornets the aged partners lit upon the fearless sailor.
“Get out of here—get out! Get out, this minute!” they screamed in one voice. Then, realizing they were pushing and tugging on a snubbing-post, they pleaded: “Please, sir, leave!
Leave this minute, sir! Get!” But Paul Diglett, snorting and blowing, paid no heed to them.
Captain Oscar Blodson scrambled to his feet and looked dazedly about. Then he caught the blazing eye of his enemy. As the Great Lakes sailors stood glaring at one another, the old vessel-owners danced between them, waving their arms frantically.
“I’ll go,” gushed from Diglett’s twisted lips,
“but one word, Blodson! Ever since we were boys together I have tried to be your friend.
When for years you buffeted about the old tub Watama, boasted your seamanship, I didn’t know then that all the time you were knifing me in the back. To-day when I ask these gentlemen for honest work I find your black tongue had already been at work. Now, by God! it’s a fight to a finish. Mark it!—a fight to a finish! The first time I catch you out in a gale o’ wind I'll give you the licking that’ll drive you in ridicule from the Chain o' Lakes. This is no stab in the back; I
give you fair warning! Keep a weather-eye out for the Red Head; she’s painted red!” Then turning to the two partners he exclaimed: “And before I’m through I’ll prove to you something about men and boats—Goodday”
npHE door closed on the last words, and the tempestuous sailor had gone. Out in the street a small crowd had gathered. It instantly parted as Paul Diglett bolted down the steps. Looking neither to right nor left he hurried along the waterfront. He had left behind his magazines, but gave no thought of returning for them. His breath still came quick and sharp as he came upon the sand. Suddenly the stormy sailor halted, and, glancing at the glum October sky, muttered: “Weather forecasts say it; every sign supports ’em. Even now the wind switches about like a wild thing caged. Watch out! Ere this season’s out t’will blow tomcats’ tails into King-
dom Come, and then, by the gods, I’ll make him squeal like the rat that he is!”
Captain Diglett’s fighting eyes flashed out along a dock and rested upon a three-masted fore-and-aft rigged vessel. He recognized her; she was the forecastle talk of the Lakes. Sailors called her the ‘Ghost of Fresh Waters’ —the ‘fleetest model in timbers under wings’. As the weather-seasoned skipper scanned the graceful cut of her lines, and her tall, raking masts, a look of disdain came into his face. He turned resolutely away to the Bay where a low, bluff-bowed schooner, resembling much a bloated toad, lay anchored. This was the vessel into which Captain Paul Diglett had sunk his last dollar, and for whose urgent need of business he had dared to approach the crafty, tight-fisted, suspicious old couple, Gilpent and Hudson. A few minutes later Diglett’s mate, eyeing the purple face surreptitiously, sculled him back to his craft.
On the following morning the slim, graceful Erihon, under the autocratic command of Captain Oscar Blodson, pulled out for Chicago, loaded to her main wale strake. A crowd of jealous shoremen called out their godspeed as the clank, clank of the windlass broke on the brisk air and the proud home vessel swung away from the dock. The news of the conflict in Gilpent and Hudson’s office had spread from man to man. The threat of a stubby, red-faced sailor had been amply enlarged upon. So, when the ‘belle of the Port’ made on her high-peaked mizzensail, she elicited a cheer from the dock she was leaving.
However unpopular Captain Oscar Blodson stood
among men, there were few to question his ability as a sailor. His service aboard the old Watama had established a reputation for him. For six years he had pounded the perverse old craft to his indomitable will. Other men, before Blodson, had quit Gilpent and Hudson rather than be assigned to her. But Blodson sailed the tabooed vessel through wind and sleet, and the metal in him seemed not to crack. It was this bulldog tenacity to fight the cumbersome old schooner into port which caused her shrewd owners to keep him wedded to his charge. Just about the time that it became hinted that even the iron Blodson was courting a new command in another company, Gilpent and Hudson decided that tfce heavy cargoes carried by the Watama did not offset the time lost in transit. The old boat was accordingly discarded and Blodson put in command of the most modern addition to their fleet. In the course of a few seasons the fame of the swift-sailing Erihon became as general as the career of his former vessel had been notorious. Nothing could better abet Blodson’s ambition to rule the Lakes. At heart he was a Viking, self-willed and cold. Now, with the Erihon as a weapon, he became tyrannical. The glory of the latter days all but blotted from his memory those humiliating years, when every type of craft left him in its back-wash. Sailors feared him as a merchant feared a pirate. There was something dreadful in his thundering voice. They dubbed him ‘The Black-bearded Prince of the Flying Erihon,’ and, if anything, the sobriquet pleased the man’s vanity.
Tattered clouds, in endless stampede, raced across a frost-bitten North. The bleak border of the Straits of Mackinac lay splotched with an early powdering of snow. Along the lee shore an up-bound fleet hung in shelter, while a heavy wind swept the Upper Lakes.
Stationed ac the head of the Straits, as if jealously guarding the exit, lay the stately Erihon. On the second day—the wind to all appearance having blown itself out —Captain Oscar Blodson, with topsails and jibs stowed, pulled out, standing away on his course for Chicago with a free-sheet. At his initiative the line of hovered lakecarriers followed the Erihon into the open water of Lake Michigan.
The wind was still fresh and the sea lumpy. With a good start on the sheets and the rollers on her stern, the slippery Erihon took to her heels. «The day hung dark, and land and water frowned correspondingly drear. Before an hour had passed, the small fleet oozing out of the Straits began to widen out, each sail for itself. As noonday passed and daylight dimmed, gradually they fell behind the Erihon. The austere master emerged from his cabin, his dark face grim and his eyes alert. He critically watched each sail tug and strain, and measured the dip of the vessel’s bow with the height of the waves, as one after another the great green backs raced up and broke in curling drifts under the shapely bows. Occasionally he scanned the fleet astern, and once there came to mind the excruciating experiences aboard the old Watama. To, one of Blodson’s temperament those days were indeed torture. And now as he flashed a triumphant eye
astern, just two sails dotted the filmy veil of gloom. And on swept his Erihon, leaving these deeper engulfed in the gathering night. Gradually the veil dropped denser, and the more distant one blurred out. Just one hung on—one lone companion cut loose on a ghostly flood, and darkness veiling it over. Suddenly it, too, blotted out, and the phantom Erihon sailed alone. The black-bearded master, strong and irreconcilable as the night itself, paused in the companionway to thunder back his last order to his mate. Then he passed below to catch a few hours of sleep. The exciting tilt with the master of the Red Head had all but slipped his mind.
Late that night when the skipper arose from his cot and came on deck, the wind had freshened somewhat and the night darkened. Now and then a slight tremor ran through the vessel’s frame as she surged in the seas. Blodson’s mate issued from a shadowy passage and immediately accosted him.
“Sir,” he cried, above the weird monotone of the wind in his ears, “there’s a feller been sneakin’ up on us for some time now,” and the alert sailor pointed astern where, at that moment, two flashes, one red, the other green, shot like sabre-thrusts out of the darkness.
“He’s pulled out from the lee of an island,” shouted back the skipper “When did you pass him?”
“Didn’t pass him, sir. I say, he’s been sneakin’ up.”
“Man, have you been asleep?” thundered Blodson, the Viking in his blood rising.
“No, sir,” shrilled John Pyke, the mate. “I say, he’s been workin’ down on us with the stiffenin’ after-wind. Since we get a snort o’ it he ain’t been brushin’ up so fast.”
The skipper set his face to the blackness astern, and again the menacing lights flared out, sharper and longer. Standing in the ghostly ray of the starboard cabin-light, Blodson’s tall and stately figure dilated to awe commanding proportions. His body, as if rivetted to the deck, rose and fell and swayed with the movements of his vessel. With chin out-thrust he vigilantly peered into the darkness to catch and gauge the flames which darted like phantom fires out of the black water. Suddenly the
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red light blurred, and a swift green tongue licked out from a position well to starboard of theErihon’s course. The stranger had hauled up to the weather side in accordance with her intention of coming up abreast. Captain Blodson’s erect figure shrunk to a brutal crouch. Again and again the green tongue astern shot its defiance into his smarting eyes. A wicked puff sent the Erihon down on her beam; she labored for a moment, then reared high and dashed wildly on. At the same time her skipper’s voice sounded above the whistling wind and seething spray like the toll of doom itself.
“Bend on the inner jib!” it thundered. “All hands on deck!”
jV/fATE PYKE had sailed under CapI ’-*■ tain Blodson since the days of the old Watama. His confidence in his skipper had, by long experience, become unshakable. The import of the present command, however, caused him for a moment to falter incredulously. The eel-like clip-
per was already straining and creaking under her spread of canvas. The jib went on with a kick, and at the same time the slim vessel raced into a trough. The impact caused Mate Pyke to feel strangely anxious about a capricious cargo in the vessel’s hold, and, incidentally, to wonder if the bulkhead that supported it possessed the strength that was behind the old Watama’s timbers.
Down through the black night the Erihon flew, but in spite of her added sail the phantom thing astern held fast. Sharing now an equal advantage in the after-wind the race was settling into a dogged one. The wind was coming in puffs, and, as the night wore on, hit sharper and stronger. At intervals Mate Pyke tossed his head to windward and sniffed. The ‘Northwester’ was no more than toning up. Again the voice of his skipper thundered and another jib snapped and cracked and bagged to the wind. As the weather stiffened, the ‘Ghost of Fresh Waters’ fought harder to
hold her own. Near her wheel stood her princely master, a jealous lover in mortal
With the breaking of dawn, the green light on the weather-quarter faded into a dull ember. Gradually it died out, leaving in its place a low, dusky object, which came rocking leisurely over the waves. Captain Blodson levelled his glass at the apparition. As he stood with out-stretched legs and whipping beard, suddenly a wicked puff hissed Paul Diglett's threat into his ears. An uncomfortable sensation as of cold metal, passed up the skipper's spine. The craft astern was a 'Two-master', carrying lier mainsail, foresail and jibs. Once she rose high, like a giant water-fowl on the back of a sea. At the same moment a whisk of light swept her framework. The hiss in Blodson's ears might have been a trick of his memory, but not so the object disclosed by his telescope. There was no mistaking the illumined color on the heaving bow. Like pricking needles the words of a few days back sank into his mind ‘Keep a weather-eye out for the Red Head; she’s painted red!’
Blodson’s jaw set. He disappeared into his cabin, to emerge a few minutes later buckled in oilers and sou’wester. Against this grim background the bearded chin bristled more barbarously, and the black eyes gleamed hotter with fight. Scarcely, however, had his head raised above the taffrail than the thunderous command on his tongue's end froze there. Blodson halted, and as he stared his under lip dropped. Just astern, as if in open defiance to skippers, vessels, and the threatening sky itself, his challenger was at that moment breaking out her topsails. On they went, flapping, then billowing from the peaks of the stubby masts. Instead of going down on her beam the sturdy craft swooped up and leisurely over, and like some winged monster came undulating up on the pitching Erihon.
Captain Blodson stepped from the companionway just as his vessel rushed into a deep trough and brought up with a thud which unbalanced him. Turning in a rage upon his wheel man, he loudly cursed the man for his slowness in catching the schooner in her wild sheers. But more voluminous banked the canvas on his after-starboard quarter. Blodson saw it, and it only; even though just beyond to the north-west, an expanding cloud had burst, and fragments of scuds came circling down likeenveloping cavalry. The face of the water darkened, and a noose of mist tightened in on the racing vessels. The ‘Northwester’ had opened its mouth in earnest.
Suddenly a bulky form appeared in the forward port side of the two-masted schooner. For a brief spell the sailor braved the flying spray to face the tall, rigid figure boldly outlined in the stern of the leading vessel. And as, from across the heaving gap, the two rival skippers surveyed one another, the distance separating them shortened. To each man the issue was clear: the head of top canvas was deciding the struggle. As suddenly as it had appeared, the bulky form in the red-painted bow vanished under the staysail boom. In the departure there was no evidence of a taunting gesture, yet something in the sturdy bearing sent the blood boiling in the veins of the master of the Erihon.
Spinning about, Blodson staggered his wheelman with the weight of his hurled body. Seizing two spokes of the wheel, he braced himself and roared: “Get forward!” Then followed the thundering command, and the blood in every sailor tingled: “Flatten sheets!” A moment later: “On with tops’ls!” Captain Blodson flashed one glance at the schooner on his weather quarter, then hissed a brimstone curse. The bulldog fighting-nature that had pounded the old Walama head into it, now drove the sensitive Erihon, already wobbling under her canvas, harder into the troughs.
' I 'HE topsails went on with a rattle and
snap. Under the lofty canvas the slim vessel squatted lower in the seas. With hauled sheets, theErihon was swung to windward, her course altered to cut across her rival’s bow, thus forcing him to haul up closer on the wind or go to leeward. It was the favorite manoeuvre of the domineering Blodson. But this time it did not discomfit the craft bearing down with a free sheet. On she ploughed, riding the seas as if saddled to their backs. The angle of the two vessels’ courses brought them bearing down on one another.
In spite of Blodson’s efforts on the wheel, the Erihon sheered up and away. Mate Pyke darted another glance aft. Blodson’s face looked flinty. Pyke recognized it—had seen it times innumerable behind the wheel of the old Watama. The eyes gleamed round and fixed, like those of a man fighting a losing battle. A chalky white line marked where the bristling lips peeled back over clenched teeth. Again the spirited clipper sheered, but her stubborn master ground his wheel hard over and put her away.
As if in defiance to Blodson’s highhanded tactics, the beamy red hull held dead on its course for Chicago. Over the seas the schooner rocked, with an ease that won the admiration of Mate Pyke. The sailor’s experienced eye told him that the Erihon’s challenger carried a perfect balance of canvas and that she had the bottom to stand up under it. Pyke’s keen judgment also told him that unless one of the skippers ‘caved in’ the converging point of their courses would present a wild scene. Again the Erihon plunged into a trough, and shuddered from stem to stern from the staggering shock. John Pyke felt for his knife. Down they swooped, like giant birds upon a single prey. A drop of cold perspiration rolled from under the sweat-band of the mate’s sou’wester. Out of the corner of his eye he glimpsed a massive bulk of sail which, like a cloud descended from the sky, came sweeping along the water. Confused with the roar of wind and sprey, broke in the fearful rumbling of a giant monster, crushing its way through the elements. The next instant the mate leaped aft crying out a warning.
On the Erihon’s weather side the redhulled schooner had staggered and dropped on her beam. In a flash the seas had piled her, heaping into a mound of foam. Slowly she recovered her strength; then, like a mighty sea monster, wrenched herself free and shook the white sheets of water from her decks. But the black, ghastly face behind the wheel of the Erihon looked neither to right nor left. Sensible of an advantage to be gained, he ground his wheel hard to starboard, wearing his vessel away to the full force of the blast. Then it struck. The lithe Erihor settled as if pressed down and down by a crushing weight. Lower and lower her leeward rail nestled in the boiling water.
A sharp crack sounded the full length of the vessel; then a shudder ran through her frame. Suddenly, like a frightened bird, she soared high and swooped sharply to windward, straight across the bow of the schooner holding like a stone wall to her course. Higher and higher the fluttering schooner soared, then she pitched headlong into a yawning trough. A deadening shock followed, then a terrific crash from the vessel’s forward bulkhead. John Pyke’s hand darted to the knife in his belt, and he sprang like a cat for the yawl suspended from the davits. A second crash and the ripping and tearing of timbers followed; then the dreadful rumble of skidding freight into the forecastle. Like an arrow, heavily flinted at its head, the gallant vessel sped downward, her tall, raking masts folding back like splints of a fan.
And as the vessel’s stern shot higher and higher into the air, John Pyke slashed desperately at the falls which bound the yawl to the doomed mother
boat. He had slashed the stern free, which left the boat suspended by its nose to one davit. Pyke, in tight places, was slippery as an eel and quick as a cat, but in a suspended boat, spinning in the air, he could do no more than hang on. Suddenly the stern hit the water, right side up, and Pyke bounded into the stem, the knife in his teeth. With one desperate effort he struck at the falls. The mizzenboom, caught by the in-pouring water, swished over his head.
Again Pyke slashed, this time blindly, then, throwing his body backward, wrapped his arms around the seat. At the same moment a heavy body fell across his own, and although the world had instantly changed to a roaring, hissing, boiling vortex of sounds, still John Pyke was momentarily conscious of a snapped thigh bone. Over and over, then down shot the sturdy yawl. The bedlam of fiends filled Pyke’s ears, and hell itself seemed dragging at his body to break his hold. But he clung to the seat like an anchor dug into clay.
At last something let go; then followed the interminable sensation of rising. Suddenly something ponderous thumped the small boat, and it rolled leisurely over, right side up. John Pyke gasped for breath, then shook the water from his dripping head. The yawl, a late build, was equipped with air chambers, and, though full of water, rode high. Pyke snapped his eyes and glared about him. Across the seat next to him sprawled a large man encased in oilskins and seaboots. The mate immediately shifted his position so as to more evenly balance up the boat, and a sharp pain struck him in. the thigh. The pang instantly stimulated his memory; brought back every detail which had subscribed to his present situation. Instantly into his mind came the question: would the ‘two-master’ stand by? Pyke raised himself on his arms, and from the top of a sea scanned the heaving water. Off to leeward the red-hulled schooner was just then wearing away close hauled on a starboard stretch to windward. Her topsails were stowed; so were her jibs, and her mainsail was squatted. John Pyke’s lake experience told him what was happening. He settled back into his former position to hang on and wait for the boat which he felt confident had already put away. And as he did so, his lone companion twisted his neck until a wild hairy face glared into his own. Again the pain in Pyke’s leg caused a facial contortion, but this time a sickly weakness stole over his body, and a sailor’s instinct to ‘hang on’ alone saved him for the rescue boat which was slowly approaching.
ON BOARD the beamy Red Head Captain Paul Diglett, shorter and more bulky in his heavy-weather outfit, approached the two survivors of the overcanvased Erihon. His red, weatherbeaten face, with its defiantly thrust out lips and pinched in, dripping eyes, suggested a daredevil recklessness subdued and rigidly governed by a dominant intellect. The skipper disregarded the one survivor to fasten his eyes upon the disabled sailor who stood supported by two of his own men.
“Be easy with him there!” he sternly cried. “The man has a broken leg. Move him into the cabin and put him into my bunk.” Then from under his low, shaggy brows the blue flame of his eyes darted at the second man.
“Come, sir,” he said in a voice civil, almost compassionate; “come into my cabin and change your clothes.”
But Captain Oscar Blodson, standing braced with his back against the leeward main shrouds, heard only the wind in his ears. His wide, staring eyes remained fastened to the deck of the vessel on which he now stood. From the massive bulwarks his gaze shifted to the stumplike timber-heads, then to the ponderous hatches and back again to the squat cabin, which, built like a miniature fort,
bore across its front the taunting name, Red Head. A finger touched his wet sleeve, and the glowering face of Oscar Blodson became a contortion of muscles.
“Don’t you touch me!” he hissed, coldly turning his blazing eyes away to searchingly inspect the schooner’s deckwork. Suddenly his jaw dropped and he slunk back, his protruding chin pointing at the foot of the main-mast, where new planking had been set in.
“Sir!” shouted Paul Diglett, with rising authority, “if you’ll not share my cabin, then you must occupy the fo’csle.
I allow no man to freeze stiff on my deck.” To a passing sailor he called out; “Here, help this man down forward!”
In a flash the indomitable will which had driven the old Watama headlong ‘into it’, reasserted itself. Tall and defiant Blodson stood, with a restraining hand uplifted. “I don’t need your assistance,” he spat contemptuously.
The sailor stopped abruptly, and Captain Paul Diglett’s red face purpled. With a cat-like movement Blodson turned his back on the two men and seized a stay. Before Diglett could move a muscle, the supple skipper had sprung to the splintery, weather-worn rail. For a moment he swayed, majestically poised, then leaped into a yawning trough. The two shocked sailors rushed to the vessel’s side, just as a seething wave rushed up and sealed over the spot where the blackbearded prince had leaped to join his fleet-footed Erihon.
1WAWN arose with an ugly, dripping face, and crouched spectres, braced forward and aft along the slippery decks, took the shapes of storm-battered men. When the frothing schooner swept in between the open jaw of the piers of Chicago, a huddled crowd of spectators sprang out from their shelter and cheered. The Red Head was the first vessel to make port in the teeth of the gale.
On the day the ambulance arrived for John Pyke, a smooth-shaven young man stood on the deck of the Red Head talking with her skipper. The loading was already in progress.
“You see, captain,” the agent was saying, “Gilpent and Hudson wired me that as the Erihon and another of their fleet had gone down in the storm, to waste no time in enlisting three sea-worthy vessels to get their freight moving before the close of navigation. The whole waterfront will agree that I make no mistake in entrusting a Gilpent and Hudson cargo to the only vessel that made port in the teeth of that gale.”
Captain Paul Diglett sank his red face into his hand, and the finger tips pressed deep. His full lips worked, but he made no reply. The stretcher, bearing John Pyke, at that moment emerged from the cabin. Captain Diglett wheeled quickly about. “Be careful there—be careful!” he shouted. “I set that leg, and I don’t want to see a perfect job upset.”
John Pyke rose on his elbow to run his critical eye over the craft that had weathered a storm that had brought such havoc to shipping. Suddenly his brows knit, and he stared from one heavy timber of the Red Head’s framework to another. At length his beady eyes fastened upon the low, squat cabin, then upon the deck where new planking indicated where the mainmast had been re-stepped. Pyke’s jaws unlatched.
“What in hell have you been up to now, Captain Paul Dinglett?” he shrilled, his eyes flashing into those of the skipper.
Captain Diglett glanced furtively forward to where the agent of Gilpent and Hudson stood, then he stepped closer to the former mate of the Erihon. “Just what half a sailor ought to have done when she was first launched—re-stepped her misplaced masts and measured her up for a proper balance of canvas fore and aft. I picked her off a junk pile. So you know her, eh?”
“My God, yes!” cried John Pyke—“The old Watamal”