CAPTAIN MATT CARDIGAN, of the whaling steamer Taginak would have been considerably upset had he known the contents of the two battered sea chests being brought aboard. But only Captain Amos Bunce and Captain Con Struthers knew. Each of the ancient seadogs kept the secret from the other. Each chest contained quaint, old-fashioned harpoons and neatly coiled lines.
“Greasy luck!” rang out along the Akutan pierhead. The Taginak, belching oily smoke from her short stacks, shoved her broad, capable nose into the swelling sea.
“Greasy luck!” rang out again for the Starling, with Captain Johnny Edwards in command, as she, too, with grumbling Diesels, rode away in the wash of the Taginak.
For “greasy luck” is the whaler’s bon voyage, the jargon of the fleet for “May your catch be big!”
Members of the steamers’ crews crowded the after-decks, waving farewells, but beside the forepeak of the Taginak, oblivious to the shouts, two ancient mariners, relics of windjamming days out of Bedford, looked from faded eyes in crinkled leather settings, out through the narrows to the open sea.
Yesterday the bickering of the two old men had been a squabble over chickens and mush melons. When Captain Matt had sought the captains, who almost overnight had become the owners of the Taginak, he had found the air embattled. But it was always so with the two old captains, who lived in their gardens above Akutan because the taint of rendering whale oil was in the air.
They signed the papers for their new-made captain, and Matt Cardigan ceased to be the record harpoon gunner of the Akutan fleet to become commander of the Taginak. Captain Bunce was two-thirds owner, and in the papers was a clause that would transfer one-third interest to Captain Matt if he brought home the first record catch of the season.
Out of their bickering came the challenge of Captain Bunce to Captain Struthers. Each declared he could spot a finback quicker than the other, and taking advantage of another clause in the contract the new owners decided they would go aboard for the first voyage of the season. Because Captain Con Struthers was the father of Sally Struthers, and Sally had given Captain Matt her word, the new commander of the Taginak consented to the arrangement, but with considerable misgivings.
Always the two old men ragged Matt Cardigan for his manner of whale hunting.
“Ye ain’t half a man, or ye wouldn’t be dyneemitin’ the insides outa sleepin’ finbacks,” Captain Con, a ratted slat of a man with wispy whiskers, would bellow from astonishing lungs.
“Ye’d go after whales as whales was meant to be gone after by he-men, with a hand harpoon an’ a line to the bow o’ yer boat,” Captain Bunce would shrill out in his high falsetto.
EDWARDS’ Starling had the best of the getaway, once the whalers had cleared the harbor’s narrow, tricky entrance and had squared away, piling the bone, of the grey northwest tide-rip high on their blunt bows. Captain Matt expected speedy questioning and complaint from his new owners and it was not long forthcoming.
“Be ye goin’ ter take his smudge an’ let him walk away from ye like that” piped up the querulous voice of Captain Bunce.
The oily smoke from the Starling was drifting across the Taginak’s deck and the Starling was slowly but steadily drawing away.
Can t be helped,” said Captain Matt. “Edwards’ old tinpot’s got a knot an’ a half an hour the best of us. We’re turnin’ all I want to give her.”
“Humph!” exclaimed Captain Con. “We’ll have ter be seein’ about that. Useter rig up an extry jury ail er two on ch’ ol’ windjammer whenever some other galoot tried showin’ us his heels. Eh, Captain Bunce?”
“Shucks! Matt’s doin’ all he kin, ain’t he? ’Spose yer came along ter tell him how ter run th’ job, huh?” indignantly snapped Captain Bunce, totally ignoring the fact that he had voiced the first complaint.
They were hot at it when Captain Matt left them to attend to the duties of assigning his hodgepodge of a crew, and getting cleared away for action once they reached the whaling grounds. But Captain Matt was chuckling, for out of the turmoil of their verbal duel, if the trip were a success, he was pretty certain would come new engines for the Taginak before another season.
Beyond a heavy swell that rode the northwest tide almost continuously and a few short, gusty blows that affected them little, there was nothing in the seasonal swing of the sea to prevent the Taginak from holding a steady course northward. Captain Matt was not disturbed by the Starling’s advantage in time, for frequently they would cruise for days before sighting a finback, after they had arrived off the edge of the warm, poleward-flowing current. Then, too, Captain Matt was aware that Edwards lacked a good gunner and was likely to score more misses than hits.
The disappearance of the Starling over the skyline late in the day afforded fresh fuel for the bickering of the old seadogs, which had been proceeding intermittently all day. Only once had Captain Bunce and Captain Con ceased disputing. That was when the afternoon watch came on duty. Captain Bunce recognized an old acquaintance among the men, an angular hand, with sparse, greying hair, that he remembered once having been aboard his old ship, the Tarheel.
Captain Bunce was quick to seize an advantage and for a long time he talked with the old sailor, Sandy McGowan by name. Whatever the burden of his conversation, McGowan clearly was not in agreement with his former skipper. Again and again he shook his head, until finally Captain Bunce produced a small roll of bills. Several of these changed hands, and later Sandy called three others of the crew into the circle.
THE first week passed with the Taginak cruising aimlessly about the waters where the whales might be sighted. In one respect the Taginak kept to the tradition of the old whaling days, for high up on the foremast that carried the wireless was rigged a basketlike affair that answered for a crow’s nest. Here a member of the crew was kept on constant watch during the long hours of daylight.
During the first part of the second week, the feud between Captain Bunce and Captain Con had taken a new turn. To the dismay of Captain Matt, the two ancient captains had ceased their verbal assaults upon each other’s character, antecedents and current opinions. Each had picked for himself a little group of four or five of the crew of twenty men, and for two days neither had addressed the other directly. Then, too, Captain Matt fancied they were evading him.
The situation was disturbing. Two small cliques apparently had been formed and Captain Matt had heard words passed that sounded like taunts. They were abruptly silenced when he came near. Once Captain Matt had almost decided to speak of the matter to the old man, but decided that, after all, they were the owners and whatever was brewing was their own affair. However, he began to wish heartily that they were back in Akutan, where they could quarrel to their hearts’ content and thwack their spite fence until the boards wore out.
The tenth day out, the whole matter was dismissed from Captain Matt’s mind. Under a blazing sun the Taginak was rolling lazily on a slow swell, her engines turning at slow speed, when the man in the crow’s nest sang out.
“There she blows! There she blows!”
More modern methods of slaughtering the finbacks may have been devised, but that ancient cry still survives, to thrill all hands.
“There she blows! Sou’east by sou’!” called the lookout, and Captain Matt, who was close to the wheelhouse, called an instant order changing their course.
“Stand by to clear the gun!” Captain Matt ordered, sending all of the men on watch to their places and clearing the foredeck of all but two of the hands, who helped with the gun.
Captain Matt knew it was useless to attempt to dislodge Captain Bunce and Captain Con from their places beside the peak, so he merely indicated a place of safety where they would be clear of the cannon.
Once after the lookout called, a thin line of spray arose from the dark bulk of the whale, and with scarcely a splash it vanished below the surface. Captain Matt held the Taginak steadily on her course until they were in proximity to the spot where the whale had been. The engines were cut out and the Taginak drifted.
“Tarnation!” exclaimed Captain Con. “’Stead er sneakin’ up like a cussed whangdoodle, we’d ’a’ had th’ boats off th’ davies an’ been—”
“There she blows! Straight south!”
At the call of the man in the nest, Captain Matt swung the gun with its bomb-loaded harpoon. . The great bulk of the finback upheaved from the sea no more than a scant two hundred yards to starboard.
“Clear line!” yelled Captain Matt. “Get down!”
Captain Bunce and Captain Con instinctively ducked and crouched when the cannon roared, belching the harpoon and sending it on a line, with hardly an arc. The whale, now clearly outlined, seemed not to have been touched, but the harpoon line suddenly ceased to run from the coils.
FOR nearly half a minute not a word was spoken and the whale remained almost motionless. Then there was a dull, distant thud, like a muffled hammer-blow on the head of an empty cask, and instantly the whale rolled, his broad tail smiting the water and sending a wave rolling away that would have swamped a small boat had it been close. The ensuing few minutes afforded plenty of action at the far end of the harpoon line.
The whale, mortally wounded by the explosive bomb that had let go deep in his vitals, attempted to sound, but disappeared for only a few seconds in the heaving, bloody foam. Air was leaking inside from the perforated lungs, and with a coughing blast the dying mammal again arose and lashed out with its tail on the surface. So tremendous was the weight of the blows that the resulting waves broke across the swell and rocked the steamer.
At last the whale expelled a column of mixed blood and spray, and its hulk settled slowly in the water. This was the signal for fast action. The crew hardly needed the barked orders from Captain Matt. The Taginak was brought up, and with half a dozen hand harpoons with their broad barbs embedded in the whale’s flesh it was lashed alongside the steamer.
While the work of securing the catch was under way, Captain Bunce addressed Captain Con directly for the first time in several days. The excitement of the moment, although he affected deep scorn for this method of whale catching, caused him to break down the barrier that had arisen between the two old skippers.
“Goshwhanged murder, that’s what she be,” said Captain Bunce in his high voice. “Pottin’ their meat with a danged scatter-gun. Humph! Any seagoin’ land lubber could hit a finback with that thing. Bigger’n th’ side of a house. How in th’ name of hocuspocus could anybody miss th’ danged thing. Pretty tame huntin’, I calls it.”
“Humph, yerself,” boomed the elongated Captain Con. “Took notice ye was dancin’ around shakin’ your wabbly belly an’ wavin’ yer paws like a crab outa water. ’Low ye couldn’t hit a whole flock o’ whales offen a boat deck, lessen someun tied ’em up fer ye. Nice shootin’ th’ laddie did, I’m thinkin’.”
The ancient feud was on again. With their first whale riding alongside, the slow cruising was again begun. In the old days on the windjammers commanded by the old skipper owners of the Taginak, the catching of the whale would have been followed by days of odorous activity. Bell-mouthed pots would have poured forth their nauseating smoke, and in the pots masses of whale meat would have been cooked until the oil was rendered for placing in the casks all stowed below deck.
Sharks and other scavengers of the deep, with clouds of gulls from the air, would have fought and feasted on the refuse. The decks would have been slippery with the grease, and for days after the rendering process the swabbing would have been ceaseless. But all this has changed, much to the sorrow and disgust of the ancient skipper owners. The whale alongside, and others if they were lucky, would be towed to the “factory” at Akutan. Not a shred of the huge mammal would be wasted. From meat to whalebone and finally to the entrails to be dried and ground into fertilizer, every pound of the whale would be converted into profit, running an average of a thousand dollars to the whale.
But beyond towing the whale to the station, the Taginak’s job on this particular whale was done. The hunt went on, while Captain Matt kept a wary eye on the barometer, prepared to run if smoky weather was indicated, and praying the calm of the summer sea would last until another whale or two could be added to his first string. For two days after their first catch, neither whale nor companion craft was sighted, and then, early in the morning of the third day, a smudge appeared to the northward.
THE smudge spread until it became a heavy black banner belching from the stacks of the Starling, making heavy way in the quiet sea. Captain Matt eyed the approaching steamer with a sinking heart. The broad bone the Starling was packing in her teeth and the continued volume of her exhausts could mean but one thing. Captain Edwards had had an unusual run of “greasy luck.” No one whale could make the Starling drag like that.
Captain Matt smiled and waved congratulations across the narrow space of rolling water as the Starling went by. For Captain Edwards could not forego the privilege of flaunting his success in his rival’s face. Good cause, indeed, had the triumphant stacks of the Starling to roar with the strain of their burden. And the upflung hand of Captain Edwards brought an assortment of profane acknowledgment rolling from the lungs of Captain Matt’s crew. For, lashed two on one side and one on the other, the Starling was homeward bound with three whales.
Captain Matt’s smile was rueful when he turned to the two old skippers.
“Guess you’ll be keeping your third interest in the Taginak,” he told Captain Bunce. “Looks like all the miracles that’s due to happen this run have gone an’ happened to Edwards.”
Captain Matt continued to smile because that was his way. For two seasons in succession he had been winner of the early season record, but there was no bitterness in his voice or face on that account. Nevertheless, when he was left alone, looking out across the shining green of the sea under the morning sun, his thought was not for himself, but for the girl ashore who had so confidently expected they would be moving into their own cottage nest under the cliff with the ending of the season. And thinking of her, he was considerably downcast, even though he did not permit it to show.
But the luck of the sea is, after all, miracle luck. When Captain Matt said one miracle was sufficient to a season, he had spoken without regard for the vagaries of old Father Neptune. Now whales are not usually found in schools like lesser fish, if the whale may be classed as such.
EARLY evening across the sea, a radiance on the shifting green waters, a slight chill in the air and little grey wisps of fog smoking along the surface of the swells hinted ominously at possible changing weather. Captain Matt kept an eye on the glass, but this was reassuring. The coming of fog might be expected, which to the landsman may not seem much, but to the whaler spells the disaster of inactivity. For days together the ships, of the whaling fleet have held an idle speed, the fog whistles hoarsely sounding at minute intervals. A storm may come and whip the sea to sudden fury, but at this season it passes quickly. A fog may blanket a ship in its grey wall for a week.
Captain Bunce and Captain Con were below, downing their evening grub in a duel of words, in which Captain Con was woefully handicapped by the necessity of masticating his food between toothless gums. The grumble of his voice was lost in the rolling of shredded ham between his jaws.
“Anyhow, ye’re the Jonah that’s jinxed this ’ere v’yage,” insulted Captain Bunce. “Ye’re only dif’runt from Jonah, ’cause there hain’t no self-respectin’ whale 'd swaller ye after he took one look.”
Whatever mumbling reply might have issued through Captain Con’s troublesome food was lost in the swift tramp of feet past the cabin doorway on the deck above. A cry and then another rang out.
“There she blows! Nor’west!”
“There she blows! Sou’east!”
And after a short interval, still another cry.
“There she blows! Dead ahead! Two together nor’west! One alone, sou’east! There she blows! Three of ’em!"
The miracle of “greasy luck” had descended upon the Taginak.
In the rush of making ready the gun, Captain Matt groaned aloud. His smile was lost and a crease appeared between his eyes. Two of the whales lay scarcely two hundred yards apart off the port bow. By rare luck, it was conceivable that he might place a harpoon in each. Farther away, somewhat astern to starboard, the third whale had shot its fountain of shining spray. That one Captain Matt instantly gave up as lost to the Taginak.
Even though each of the other two might be spotted from the deck of the Taginak, the steamer’s position would then be such, with two whales already hooked up, that no amount of manoeuvring could possibly give opportunity for a third shot. Well, Captain Matt decided, they would take what the blind gods of chance had provided. At least that would bring the Taginak even up with the Starling, although the Edwards’ boat would have the advantage of being first in.
As the old skippers reached the top of the cabin stairs, the cannon boomed its first shot, and almost before the smoke had cleared away, a second charge was swung into the breech and another loaded harpoon was projecting from the muzzle. Captain Matt’s first shot was a square hit. The dull explosion that followed the entering of the harpoon must have shattered the whale’s giant spine, for with hardly more than a quiver it lay still on the surface.
But the second shot was off. The harpoon struck the whale too high, and while it was low enough to imbed itself, the exploding bomb was merely the signal for loosing a hurricane on the surface of the ocean. The whale is not an agile animal. Its great size would seem to prohibit any acrobatic demonstration, but the second whale moved with amazing celerity. By some strange freak in the manner of its injury, the big mammal had lost all sense of direction. As the result, it began thrashing about in ever-widening circles.
These unexpected tactics threatened to foul the harpoon line that held the first victim of the cannon. Captain Matt had the cannon reloaded quickly, hoping to take a third snap shot at the whale as it spun around on its dizzying career. His attention and that of the crew, or nearly all of the crew, was centred on the madly careening whale. The Taginak was being manoeuvred with just enough headway to hold her bow on to her victims.
THUS it happened that Captain Matt did not know that his crew of twenty had suddenly been reduced to twelve men. Nor did he know that from the davits on the afterdeck a small boat had been swung down on each side of the Taginak. The afterdeck was completely concealed from Captain Matt and others gathered in the whaler’s bow by the stacks and superstructure of the cabin. Each with a dory crew of four sailors at the oars, Captain Bunce and Captain Con started across the grey expanse of sea toward the third whale.
Each of the old captains seemed unaware of the other’s intention until the boats were being swung out and lowered, then they contented themselves with glaring at each other, silenced for once by the necessity of keeping Captain Matt from becoming aware of their mad venture. Almost together the boats swung away, the veterans of the whaler’s crew bending heartily to the oars, maintaining a grim silence except for their labored breathing.
Crouched in the bow of each boat, Captain Bunce and Captain Con busied themselves with coils of lines and their ancient hand harpoons. Not in years had these weapons been used, and they had been polished until they shone. But the light from the smoothed shafts was no keener than that which glowed in the eyes of the old skippers. Each in his day had ridden in battle royal, and each had known the vicissitudes of hunting whales by hand. Boats had been shattered under them by the slap of mighty tails, far sturdier boats than these comparatively flimsy affairs in which they had set forth in their crazy undertaking.
Two varsity crews with the championship of a nation for their goal could not have rowed with more determined pluck than these veterans of windjammer days, handpicked by Captain Bunce and Captain Con. Nose and nose they raced toward the whale, which, having sounded once since it was first sighted, again lay on the surface, apparently oblivious to the furious battling of one of its own kind in the vicinity of the Taginak. Whales have ever been of a confiding and unsuspecting nature. Had they not been, the hand harpoon hunters of past days would not so readily have come upon them in their longboats.
Side by side the boats approached to within fifty yards of the giant mammal. Then Captain Bunce gave a quick order, changing the course of his boat to circle the whale at the tail. Captain Con broke silence to curse fluently. Already he was poised in the bow of the boat, his harpoon balanced and his long figure swaying to the sweep of the oars. The manoeuvre of Captain Bunce upset his calculations. He could have driven ahead and possibly sunk his harpoon in a vital spot, but to do that with the other small boat crossing to the rear of the whale might have brought the swift annihilation of Captain Bunce and his small crew. Once wounded, the whale with a slap of his tail could have wiped out that other boat, and Captain Bunce was passing around the whale with reckless disregard for his own safety.
“Dang ol’ boneheaded snake tooth,” grumbled Captain Con. “Ye’d think th’ dodrotted porpoise hadn’t never seen one o’ them things kick. Doin’ it fer spite, that’s what he is. Danged ef I hain’t a notion to—”
Captain Bunce’s boat had passed from sight on the other side of the whale, and swift as an electrical shock the mammoth body in front of Captain Con’s boat was galvanized into action. Captain Bunce had struck. Swinging his long arm forward, Captain Con sent his harpoon hurtling toward the whale. The slender line at his feet made a curving loop through the air, and although age may have sat upon the captain’s shoulders, his sinewy, old arm had not lost its cunning. The point of the harpoon was buried in the whale’s side just below the fin.
Simultaneously the cries of the old skippers rang out.
“Backwater, me hearties . . . back . . . give ’er hell!”
The men at the oars needed no order. As the harpoon left Captain Con’s hand they had laid to the oars, seeking to widen the margin between the boat and the quivering whale. In Captain Bunce’s boat the same tactics had been employed, and perhaps it was the lesser strength of the old seadogs’ arms when they drove the harpoons that saved them. Neither of the shafts had bitten deeply enough to bring instant agony and both boats were well backed away with the lines half paid out before the whale leaped to life.
Down went the whale, and a whoop went up from Captain Con when he saw bloody foam come up and spread on the surface as the whale expelled its breath. But this was no moment for premature exultation. The harpoon lines went whizzing away over the bows of the boats, and here it was that the experience of other days came into play. Captain Bunce and Captain Con each stood crouched over the smoking lines, ready with a small hand axe should the whale continue too long on its mad rush to escape the pricking harpoons. Once the ends of the lines were reached, swift disaster would have overtaken the boats had the lines not been cut.
This feature of hunting whales by hand is exactly like any other kind of fishing. When the whale is running, there is no checking his rush, but like a hooked game fish, the whale seldom goes far enough in its first mad frenzy to carry out all of the line, and with a fourth of the coil remaining in the boats the whale stopped. Swiftly the two skippers coiled the slackened line, while the oarsmen continued backing the boats with frantic zeal. Somewhere the whale was coming up. Somewhere, but where that might be, none could tell. It might be directly under one or the other of the boats, to heave it from the surface of the sea and send its occupants into the water in perilous proximity to the battling mamal.
LUCK stayed by the old seadogs. The whale emerged directly ahead of the two boats, the mammoth bellows of its lungs sending a whistling, sighing breath mixed with red spray high into the air. Captain Con ceased coiling his line, his boat having come as close as he felt he dared to the wounded whale. Not so the doughty Captain Bunce. Arming himself with a second harpoon, the rotund skipper ordered his men to row ahead.
For a second Captain Bunce’s crew was seen to hesitate. Then the old-time discipline of the sea asserted itself. For the moment they ceased to be a part of the crew of the steam whaler Taginak. Once more they were ancient salts with the law of the sea issuing from the lips of the grotesquely fat Captain Bunce. Their oars dipped and they swept ahead.
“Th’ consarned ol’ halfwit!” roared Captain Con with a deep note of concern in his voice. “Stand by to pick up crew.”
Captain Con knew that in a split second some inner spasm might set the vast bulk of the whale into murderous action. He had seen long whaleboats smashed like matchwood when driven too close to sink an extra harpoon. Fear that this would happen put him a-tremble with rage and fear, but it was a rage mixed with another strange, softer emotion that he would not have confessed under torture that he held for the rotund Captain Bunce.
Captain Bunce sank his second harpoon, close up, and again his crew of four bent swiftly to the oars to back water. But not swiftly enough. The broad tail of the mammal, a half ton of weight in itself, flashed high above the water. By a scant few feet it missed descending upon the boat. Its impact would have had about the same effect as a steam hammer dropping on a watch case.
The blow of the mighty tail sent a wall of water sweeping down upon Captain Bunce’s boat. In the rock of the wave, Captain Con’s men somehow held their boat bow to and rode the crest in time for Captain Con to see Captain Bunce and the four men with him flung into the air as their boat upended and capsized. Then the whale was going down, down, down, and in the suck of the whirling water Captain Con saw two men clinging to the wrecked boat.
Paying no heed to the swiftly running line that sent blue smoke rolling from his bow, Captain Con ordered his own boat into the circle of swirling water. Not often does the luck of the sea run with such even good fortune. The head of Captain Bunce bobbed up close ahead and before he had been hauled into the boat, the two men who had been submerged with him were grasping at the sides. Once more the line had ceased to run, and the pair clinging to the overturned boat were brought aboard.
Slowly, displacing the water as the bulk of a submarine might have presented itself to view, the whale came to the top. By his final daring stroke and the “greasy luck” that went with it, Captain Bunce had sunk his second harpoon in a vital spot. The whale had ceased to struggle. Led by the two old men the crews of the now overloaded boat sent up a mighty shout of triumph. But the shout died quickly. Looking away to the northward, the occupants of the boat saw only a drifting grey wall of fog. The Taginak had vanished.
CAPTAIN MATT came hurrying to the platform beside the wheelhouse that served as a bridge for the small steamer. A hasty search below had revealed that Captain Bunce and Captain Con were missing with eight of the crew. The empty davits told the story.
“Holy mackerel!” exclaimed Captain Matt. “Now do you suppose those two old coots—”
He studied the wall of fog that reduced visibility to a few yards. Figures of the crew were magnified into grotesque shapes the length of the foredeck. In the hour of battling to bring the two whales of their catch alongside, the departure of the boats had not been noticed.
One member of the crew remembered having seen the boats headed for the third whale. Captain Matt reprimanded him sharply for not reporting at once.
The intermittent blasts of the whistle awakened no echo in the grey, heaving world around them. Captain Matt ordered the Taginak to cruise slowly in a widening circle. Towing her catch of three finbacks, the steamer made poor headway. Captain Matt paced the deck listening. No sound came from the enveloping fog.
“Dang’d old fools,” said Captain Matt bitterly, and he was not cursing. “Bet they were set on bringin’ the record to the Taginak. Wouldn’t have a chance. They’d be smashed to smithereens in those peanut shells. Shouldn’t have let ’em come.”
The weight of the whales dragged heavily. The drift of the tricky currents of the northern sea possibly had carried the missing men miles away. Except for widely separated whaling craft, they would have little chance to be picked up. Boats of the halibut fleet were many miles to the landward. Even had they survived in an encounter with the whale, their plight would be desperate without food or water.
Suddenly Captain Matt stepped to the window of the wheelhouse.
“Ease ’er down!” he commanded, and when the engines had slowed he turned to the men on watch.
“Stand by, all hands,” he ordered. “Bring the axes to clear the whale lines.”
This was the measure of Captain Matt. He had decided to sacrifice the Taginak’s catch to speed up the search.
Here in hand he had his small fortune, sufficient and more for the cottage under the cliff. The loss of the two old captains, sole owners of the whaler, meant that the Taginak probably would fall into his hands. Out there somewhere on the fogridden sea were the two old skippers, both of whom had lived beyond their time, embittered derelicts from a passing generation of seafaring men. Captain Matt had only to do all that ordinarily would be done, keeping his catch and trusting to slim chance to find the lost men. None would censure him for that. Many would think him a great fool for doing what he was about to do.
“Rig couplings and cut the lines,” commanded Captain Matt.
The order meant that the bodies of the floating whales would be attached to each other and freed from the whaler. Probably they would be picked up by some other vessel of the fleet.
A low mutter ran through the group of sailors. Long Tom Brennan, a huge, barebreasted man with a scarred face, stepped forward.
“Would ye he after throwin’ away th’ profits?” he demanded angrily. “I’ll not be helpin’ cut th’ lines. Let them ol’ rats go . . .
Brennan’s remark ended abruptly. He went to the deck when Captain Matt’s fist crashed squarely against his mouth.
“There’ll be no man of you lose any of his divvy,” Captain Matt announced. “You’ll be paid your share on the dot, same as though the whales were docked. Cut the lines!”
In that commitment Captain Matt knew that he had pledged nearly all of his meagre savings, and that he had put the cottage under the cliff far away.
Captain Matt kept watch throughout the night. He had hot coffee brought on deck and maintained his vigil as the Taginak, freed of its cumbersome tow, combed a wide area of the sea. The fog held and the search seemed hopeless. Captain Matt hoped with the morning sun the fog might be dissipated, but it was in the hour before sunrise that a faint hail was heard.
QUICKLY the Taginak was turned toward the cry in the darkness, steaming slowly in that direction. First of the men to come on deck were Captain Bunce and Captain Con, the treble voice of Captain Bunce being no more than a faint whisper. But despite the necessity for strong hands to help them aboard, both were holding the harpoon line, and each asserting in feeble defiance that he had killed the whale which was brought up to float alongside.
Warmed with a tot of hot rum, the two old seadogs continued their dispute, and indignantly refused to be put to bed at Captain Matt’s order.
“Ye horn-snouted walrus, ye, if ye hadn’t come messin’ along I’d a laid that ol’ finback ’longside afore th’ fog snagged us in,” shrilled Captain Bunce.
“Dang ol’ snake tooth, ye hain’t got no more sense than a sculpin er ye’d a stayed on th’ ship where ol’ men oughta be,” boomed Captain Con. “Lookit! All on ’count o’ yer danged stubbornness Cap’n Matt has ter go an’ lose th’ best catch that’s ever been made, jest to drag an ol’ pollywog like you be outen th’ ocean.”
Captain Bunce glared at Captain Con for a full minute without speaking. Then his fat face began to wrinkle. To one unfamiliar with the contour of his countenance it would have seemed that he was in great agony. On the other hand, Captain Bunce had merely had a brilliant idea. It affected his face that way.
“By ding! Ye mean th’ laddie cut loose them there finbacks to bring back our worthless carcasses? Well! Well!” The skin around his eyes crinkled.
“Tell ye, ye hornswizzled ol’ rat-whiskers ye, I’m fer makin’ that up an’—bring me them there papers, Cap’n Matt.”
With a wide flourish Captain Bunce affixed his signature to the assignment, not of one of his third shares in the Taginak, but of both.
“There ye are, son, all shipshape, an’ now I reckon ye kin make that walkin’ cadaver talk turkey from now on, seein’ as how ye’re th’ two-thirds owner jest as soon as ye have it sworn up by a notary.” “Hell’s bells! Ye hain’t never had but one gen’rous impulse in yer life, ye ol’ snake tooth,” bellowed Captain Con, “an’ danged if ye kin outdo me. Gimme them papers.”
Captain Matt Cardigan came on deck just as the rising sun broke through the fog. The grey wall was rapidly dissolving into flying wisps of smoke.
“There she blows!” sang out the man in the crow’s nest.
Captain Matt, looking southward, saw, only a few ship’s lengths away, not one but three great bulking whales lashed together. In its search the Taginak had circled and “greasy luck” had held.
Captain Matt looked at the floating finbacks, and he saw a cottage under the cliffs with green shutters and the trim form of a woman running down the path.