I'd Sooner Kill a Man
A tale of the sea and the rescue of two rescuers who tried to pawn their souls
FREDERICK B. WATT
A LONG, ragged-crested swell surged ponderously at the Fuca's beam; a veritable mountain of jadegreen sea that had slowly piled up off the Japan ese coast and swept across the Pacific, gaining mom entum with every mile. At least that was the way it impressed the men on the bridge of the little tramp steamer as it sullenly thudded against the ship's weather flank, set every stanchion twanging like a harp string, and raised a fury of spume high as the foremast shrouds.
Slowly, as though utterly tired of the long fight, the Fuca shook nerself clear of the writhing water wraiths and, groaning horribly, regained a comparatively even keel. On the bridge the captain and first mate almost copied the vessel’s motions, shaking the brine from their gleaming oilskins and gradually allowing tensed bodies to relax into upright positions as the slant of the deck lessened.
“Enough o’ that,” grunted Captain Mercer, his words sending a burst of fine spray from his dripping mustache. “You don’t catch me spending the night in this caldron. We’re heading for the Sound.”
In a series of sickening lurches the ship’s head came about until it was pointed directly for the broad, smudged line that was the west coast of Vancouver Island. The heavy rolling of. the Fuca ceased, but the sea continued its incessant attack on the stern, now taking the brunt of the storm. There was no set style to the ocean’s onslaught. First would come a series of short, heavy blows above the stern-post, terrific blows that threatened to tear the poop away. Baffled, the water would draw back with a venomous, salty hissing, cast aside its slugging tactics and return in the guise of a wrestler. High in the air it would raise the stern, shaking the ship in a frenzy of rage, trying to force it, bows first, into the side of one of the fluid mountain ridges.
Cape Beale, with its gaunt lighthouse, was a smother of spray as the Sound opened before the Fuca. The rocky, inhospitable shore presented a wildly beautiful picture with the great seas dashing like herds of creamy-maned horses between the islets and thundering with dull explosions through the water-carved caves. Stunted pines clung precariously to the tops of some of the larger rocks like gnarled, bent, stubborn old men. Mercer had a fellow feeling for those trees, hanging grimly on for no reason at all except to be twisted a little closer to the ground with each succeeding gale.
“I'm going up this passage,” the captain stated, indicating the chart. “I’ve had enough rough water for a week. It should be like a millpond with that protection.”
“Ever been up before?” asked Handel, the first mate.
“No,” said Mercer woodenly. “That’s why I’m going. May not have another chance and I always was curious. It’s narrow in spots, but there’s plenty of water according to the chart.”
“The charts aren’t any too good in some of these out-of-the-way places,” warned Handel. ,
“Well, what’s the difference if there is a brick or two in the channel, anyway?” shot the skipper. “It’d be the chart’s fault if anything happened.”
“Yes, that’s so,” admitted the mate heavily.
“Maybe we’d better hope for the odd rock.” “No, thanks,” said Mercer crisply. “I’m having lots of water beneath her when she’s scuttled. Don’t want any of Lloyds’ divers poking about, the carcass after she’s gone.”
STRANGE talk, coming, as it did, from two men who were credited with more honesty than you would find in a year’s steaming. If there was one thing to be said against Mercer it was that he was too straight, too prone to stick by his word in the face of smart business methods. Handel, too, was made of the same stuff; had been with the captain since his apprenticeship. They were owners of the Fuca along with old Dearborne, the man who had given Mercer his first command.
Dearborne had sold his other shipping interests several years before but had retained the Fuca, partly as a souvenir of the game that had given him his money, and partly because of his liking for her captain and first mate. Good solid men, refreshing company after a day at the stock exchange. They had jumped at the opportunity of sinking their savings back into the Fuca. Already they were operating her as though she was their private possession; not making a clean-up by any manner of means, but causing her to pay her way with a bit to spare. All she needed was a thorough refit—twenty or twenty-five thousand dollars would do it—and she’d be good for several profitable years. Dearborne had planned to give the two clear title to the ship after the refit. It rather tickled him, the thought of acting as fairy godfather to a grey-haired captain and a middle-aged mate. The idea had so pleased him that he had spilled his secret before the delivery was actually made. The
expressions on the weather-beaten faces of Mercer and Handel when they heard the news had given him one of the greatest thrills of a decidedly eventful lifetime.
The Fuca had returned for the promised refit. All the way up the harbor Mercer and his mate had exchanged the glances of excited boys. Perhaps, seeing he was a bit of a boy himself, Dearborne would be at the dock with the magic papers in his hand and his lawyer at his side. The chill of an unpleasant presentiment struck the two, however, the moment the fenders crunched against the wharf. Suddenly it seemed it was much too good to be true that, by evening, they would own the Fuca as unshakably as the Fuca had owned them. A messenger handed Mercer a note from Dearborne. He and the mate had gone ashore without bothering to change into their best uniforms.
“I don’t like it,” the captain had muttered. “Why should we seek him in this lousy hotel when it’s the custom to go to his house?”
The answer was soon apparent. Dearborne had greeted them in the dingy hotel room with his old bluff air, but beneath the bold front slumped a beaten man.
“Sorry to drag you here, boys,” he said, “but I’ve moved from the house temporarily. Had a nasty crack on the market. Fact is, I’m cleaned. Square with the world, and all that, but it’s taken everything I have.” The seamen were silent. Dearborne read their thoughts instantly. A whole-hearted smile flickered OIL his lips.
“Keep your shirts on,” he ordered. "The Fuca’s still clear. She’s all I saved from the wreck. Sorry I can’t hand her over right away—I know you wouldn’t have it even if I wanted to—but she’s to be the rallying point of the Dearborne fortunes. All I’ll need is my share of a year’s profits to give me another foothold. After that she’s yours.”
“We’re not worrying about that, John,” answered Mercer heavily. “The main trouble is there’ll be no profits without that refit. She might pull through for another trip but she’s in poor shape. I’d hate to have an underwriter’s opinion of her. I doubt if he’d give us a nickel’s protection in her present condition. We were lucky to get past him last time.”
Dearborne whistled softly.
“I'd fdlrgotten about that,” he said. “Darned annoying, isn’t it? Funny old world. Last week I could have raised half a million for the asking. This week I doubt if any one would trust me with fifty dollars. We’ll put the old girl in dock anyway, though, and take a chance that I'll be able to foot the bill when she’s in shape.” "Let’s not hurry,” advised Mercer. “We’ll think it over and come to a decision tomorrow.”
The decision was arrived at that night, but Dearborne had nothing whatever to do with it. Captain Mercer’s cabin was a fog of strong tobacco smoke, and both he and Handel appeared to have aged ten years by the time the matter was settled.
“It's to be worse than piracy, I suppose,” the skipper admitted, “but I’m willing to take my judgment in the next world. The insurance people won’t miss the money, and it’ll give the old man a fighting chance. He’ll never raise the cash for the refit and I’ve seen too many ships sold to pay repair bills to let the Fuca go that way. Dearborne would feel that he’d smashed two other lives as well as his own, seeing we’d drop everything we possess when the ship changed hands. He’d probably shoot himself. He’s that sort of a fellow.”
“Yes,” agreed Handel. “He is. Seems like the decent chaps always get it in the beam while the slick crooks manage to meet it bows on. He was ready to do a lot more for us than our contract called for. I guess we can do the same for him. Wonder what it’ll be like, though, to go to a new ship as an honest hand and know all the time you’re a dirty wrecker?”
“There’ll be plenty of time to think about that after,” jerked Mercer, like the hardened criminal he wished he was.
Next morning Dearborne was informed that a survey of the Fuca—Mercer didn’t bother to say whether it was an underwriter’s or not—had shown that she was good for one more trip. In the meantime Dearborne could see about raising the money for the refit. The shamesinged hearts of the captain and Handel were given a certain amount of relief by the way Dearborne’s face lighted with a new hope, a new fighting spirit, as he accepted the news. It was evident that he had been ready to give up the battle.
Mercer and his mate used what small funds they possessed to give the Fuca a new coat of paint while she lay in the stream waiting to take on cargo. There was nothing of hopelessness, nothing of criminal intent, in the appearance of the little tramp as she cleared harbor. Naturally, none of the crew were aware of the true state of affairs. Handel, working at night with a cold chisel, had done a clever bit of work below the waterline where he knew some rivets were already missing in the steel skin of the ship. When he was through he was confident that the slightest encouragement would buckle one plate. Once that had gone others would speedily collapse before the rush of water. Nothing remained
except to wait for a day when the chart showed “No bottom at a hundred fathoms,” when the sea was calm enough for the lowering of lifeboats and the land close enough for the boats to reach it without too much effort.
The west coast of Vancouver Island would have been an ideal setting for the scuttling had it not been for the full gale the Fuca had encountered. The boats could not have been launched, much less have lived, in the great seas. Ordinary prudence had called for the retreat to the Sound, even overlooking the weakened plates in the hull.
THE passage Mercer had chosen stretched for half a mile like a natural canal, then widened into a small, land-locked harbor in which the water scarcely rippled. The sudden silencing of the howling storm, the velvety caress of the quiet seas, and the sight of heavily-plumed evergreens swaying casually on the shore, was almost breath-taking, so abrupt was the change in scene and atmosphere. The voices of the officers, raised to a high pitch through hours of shouting against the gale; rang out almost sacrilegiously in the whispering calm.
The chart showed shoals to starboard, but to port deep water was indicated practically to the shoreline, where a small mountain dropped precipitously in the sea. Mercer took soundings, discovering a good thirty fathoms beneath him despite the proximity of the port hand shore. He dropped his hook, letting go enough cable to guarantee him a firm hold but carefully guarding against giving the ship too much leeway when it came to swinging with the tide. The current was setting for the nearest land, and when the anchor chain was taut the mountain side was only a stone’s throw distant. There was still water to spare beneath the stern, however—plenty of it. Mercer blew down the engine-room voice pipe. “Aye?” came a thin, distant voice.
“You can bank your fires, Andrew,” the captain announced. “We’ll be waiting out the blow here for the next twenty-four hours anyway.”
Discarding his oilskins he joined Handel, who had again returned to the bridge. The mate was pacing moodily, his head half-hidden in a cloud of vicious tobacco smoke.
“Pretty spot,” grunted the skipper.
“Yeh,” answered Handel. “Pretty spot for a man with a weight on his conscience to go crazy in. So quiet, y our thoughts can jump out of your head and shout at you so loud, you’d think the world could hear. No, sir, I’m for the open and a bit of rough water—but not so rough that we can’t launch the boats and get this ruddy thing over with. The longer we have to wait, the harder it’s going to be. Queer business, when you come to think of it—us nursing the old girl in here like she was the apple of our eye, and all the time we’re only keeping her alive so that we can do what the storm’d like to do for us.”
If the mate’s speech was slightly complicated it was because it was the longest outburst Mercer had heard him deliver in the fifteen years they had been together. When Handel managed to stretch a complaint beyond the length of a single curt sentence or two, he was decidedly agitated. When he made a voluble paragraph of it he was on the verge of a mental blow-up.
“Try and look at the bright side of things,” commanded the captain with affected brusqueness. “The blow’s a godsend. When we dip, the logical solution will be that the beating about we took weakened the plates and started the trouble.”
Handel wouldn’t be comforted.
“I’d sooner kill a man than a ship,” he said dully.
It was a deadly thing, the peace of that little uninhabited harbor, coming, as it did, on top of the tension of a stiff fight with the Pacific. Mercer could sympathize with his second in command, could sense his suffering, because his own devastation of soul was probably twice as severe. He was older, though, and tougher. And he was the captain, accustomed to taking the brunt of any responsibility.
“I’d sooner kill a man than a ship,” repeated the mate, as though finding a certain amount of comfort in self-torture.
“You can have your choice,” said Mercer sharply. “You and I can kill Dearborne instead of the Fuca. Would that suit you better?”
Handel ran his fingers through his thick hair distractedly.
“Hell, no,” he barked. “But why have we been put in a jam like this? We’re blackguards whichever way we turn, and the worst we’ve ever done is to try and play straight with the world.”
“I’m only a second-rate seaman, Archie,” laughed Mercer unhappily. “You’ll have to go to some university or church to get answers to all the questions you want to ask; and then I doubt if you’ll be any the wiser. The only thing I can suggest now is that you and I row ashore and go for a tramp. The air’s too thick aboard here.”
It was rough country, but passable. They were grateful for the stiff going, really. It made them sweat and it gave them little time for mental reflection. A doe and her fawn, springing up ahead, sent them away in excited pursuit for another glimpse. At the top of a high ridge they flung themselves on the moss, tired and happy, like a couple of boys.
“I remember when I was a kid . . . ” began Handel.
A hoarse hoot echoed among the ridges, drifting up from the direction of the Fuca.
“What the devil?” snapped Mercer. “Something serious or Bellamy wouldn’t be whistling, the easygoing* swab.”
Anxiously they regarded the Fuca as they arrived, panting heavily, at the shore.
“She’s got a bit of a list to starboard,” announced the captain grimly. “Moses! The plates must have given when they weren’t intended to !”
“Hell’s bells!” exploded Handel.
Bellamy, jarred out of his customary placid self, met them at the gangway.
“Devil to pay,” he gasped. “We’re aground !”
“We can’t be,” snapped the captain.
“There’s twenty fathoms at the shallowest point according to the chart.”
“The chart’s a liar,” said the disrespectful second mate. “As far as I can discover we’ve swung on top of a submerged ridge. I felt her bump ever so slightly as the tide fell, but we didn’t have enough steam up to drag her off. Andrew’s got his gang stoking like blazes, but it’s too late. We’re on solid, there’ll be another drop of six feet or so before the turn and you can feel the old girl listing.”
“Think we’re holed?” demanded Mercer.
“Not as far as I can find out,” answered the other.
“Then there’s nothing to do but get the boats out and wait until we slide off into deep water,” growled the skipper.
“Given luck we may slither clear without ripping her belly too badly.”
The Fuca, however, showed no inclination to slide off. Cradled on the uncharted rock, her starboard bulwarks dipped nearer and nearer the water as the tide fell. Working like madmen the stokehold staff raised a certain amount of steam, but the threshing propeller made no impression on the deadly solidity of the reef's hold.
TT WAS a grave situation and a weird one. Rapidly it ■** became apparent that by the time the tide reached full ebb the dipping starboard beam would, in all probability, be “gun’les under,” the vessel would fill like a tipped saucepan, roll on her beam ends and do a slow somersault to the bottom in the deeper water. It was almost incongruous—an uninjured ship, a sea like a millpond, land so close you could almost toss a heaving line ashore, yet a sentence of death hovering over the vessel. Mercer, having forgotten his rôle as wrecker in the excitement, sweated coldly under the collar.
There was really nothing he could do. It was doubtful if the shifting of the cargo could have helped him, even if the time for such an operation was available—which it wasn't. The ship was lying practically parallel with the
near-by shore, so he sent away boats with every line he possessed. In a short time half a dozen hawsers stretched from the Fuca's port bollards to stout trees on the land. They were like cobwebs attempting to check the progress of an elephant, but there was a certain moral support to them and just a possibility existed that they might stay the listing of the stranded boat by a matter of inches. Inches would decide things in the final test, Mercer was certain.
“All right, Bellamy,” he announced when the last line had been secured. “Take the hands ashore along with the engine-room gang. Archie and I’ll stand by and see what happens. Has Jasper got hold of anyone?”
“Not yet,” answered Bellamy. “His broadcasting set isn’t everything it should be, and he claims we’re in a bit of a dead pocket among the mountains like this. He’s still trying, though.”
“Might as well save himself the effort,” grunted Handel. “Even if a ship could help us—which is doubtful—there’s nothing within fifty or seventy-five miles.”
The Fuca was abandoned except for Mercer, Handel and the wireless operator, who insisted on sticking to his instrument. Slowly, placidly the water dropped. Inch by inch the starboard beam reached down toward the green depths, as effortlessly and as certainly as the progress of the hour hand of a clock. On the bridge the captain and mate watched the hawsers, which had been slack at first, tautening like tensed, brown muscles as they sensed the terrific pressure of the lifting port beam. The stout manila creaked in combined protest and determination.
Handel clumped to the deck, glanced over the side and returned to his chief.
“Another foot and a half will do it,” he announced laconically.
“There’s no reason for you to stay if you’d like to be
put ashore,” said Mercer, not unkindly. “I think I’ll remain, though, and jump for it when she goes.”
“I’ll stick,” answered Handel simply. “I guess we owe the old girl that much after the way we intended to do her in.”
“Well, chase Jasper ashore anyway,” ordered the
skipper. “He’s done nothing that he should have to take a ducking. He’s liable to be snuffed out if he’s caught in his cabin when she rolls.”
The wireless man saved Handel the trouble of routing him out by appearing on the bridge at that moment. His youthful face was drawn in serious lines.
“Looks as though it’s a bad day for this coast,” he announced. “We’re not the only ones in the soup—in fact we’re mighty lucky compared to some. The Hatley Hall is adrift five miles off the Sound, propeller gone, and being carried like billy-oh for the shore. From what I can pick up there’s nobody within fifty miles of her. You can bet no one will be steaming up in much of a hurry in that weather, either.”
Mercer and Handel breathed the exclamation together; saw together the Hatley Hall, a splendid osthousand-ton vessel, launched the previous year, bring swept helplessly upon the steel-fanged, spume-lashed islets the Fuca had so recently left astern. They saw, too, the ghastly scene that would follow when the big freighter was torn apart by sea and rock, as a gull rends a stranded salmon. Weir, captain of the Hailey, was the best of fellows, too. Not a bit of side, even though his new ship had made the Fuca look like a cross between a coal barge and a trawler.
Mercer shook himself savagely.
“Can you get in touch with her?” he demanded.
“I’ve just been talking to her,” said Jasper.
“Fine,” jerked the captain. “Tell them to hold on and we’ll be out to give ’em a tow as soon as we can put right a minor bit of damage.”
“Eh?” gasped the wireless man.
“Do what you’re told,” snapped the skipper.
Jasper departed hurriedly to his cabin.
“What’s the idea?” shot Handel.
“It won’t do ’em harm to be bucked up,” growled Mercer, “and we may be able to come through, at that. The next foot of the ebb will tell the tale for us. If we stick that, we’ll live. The water’ll be up again in a hurry, too, and provided the Hatley doesn't drift too fast we’ll be able to get out to her. We’ll make the five or six miles in no time.”
“Yes, with a full head of steam,” the mate cut in pessimistically. “It’ll take an hour to get the old girl moving after she proves whether she’s going to stay on the surface or not. The fires must be very nearly out already and the boilers are getting cold.”
“There’s nothing against stirring them up again,” said the captain, cheerfully almost. “If we start right away the ship’ll be ready for sea the moment we are clear of this blasted rock.”
“Good heavens,” the mate burst out. “You aren’t going to send the stokers below with the boat threatening to turn over at any minute? They’d be drowned without a fighting chance.”
“I never said anything about sending the stokers below,” returned Mercer, throwing off his heavy bridge coat.
Handel regarded him blankly for a moment, then a peculiar light glowed dimly in his eyes, grew stronger and finally blazed fiercely.
“By cripes,” he thundered. “I'm on.”
YWTTHOUT another word they walked W rapidly to the door leading to the stokehold. In turn they took a hurried glance at the calm beauty of the little harbor, then turned to the black iron ladder leading to the gloomy bowels of the vessel. The tautened hawsers, on which their lives hung, creaked ominously.
“Going down,” announced Mercer and vanished below, closely followed by his lieutenant.
Wonderingly , the men ashore saw black, greasy smoke billowing from the funnel of the heavily listing Fuca. For some moments they imagined that water wag at last finding the stokehold and dousing the deserted fires. Then, across the sileni’ strip of sea came the distant, harsh voice of a shovel on coal—the clang of an iron door—the rattle of a slice clattering to a steel deck.
Mercer and Handel worked furiously, without a word. After all, there was nothing to talk about except of thé bare possibility that their labors would prove more than a courageous gesture in the face of fate. Occasionally, though, they glanced at one another and nodded toward the slowly climbing pressure gauge. On neither moistureglazed face was there the slightest sign of the fear of death. In sight of oblivion they were happy, wildly happy. For the first moment since they had planned the murder of the Fuca, they were their own men. Mercer, stripped to the waist, saw in the trickling lacery of coalsoiled sweat upon his torso the blackness of soul being driven from him.
waist, saw in the trickling Continued, on page 58
Continued from page 8
Handel had complained, not two hours before, that no matter which way they turned they were helplessly forced into becoming blackguards. And here, almost in the tick of a clock, the situation had become reversed. If the Fuca lived, Weir and his large crew aboard the Hatley Hall stood a chance of escaping the horrible end that awaited them. If the Fuca died—well, it’d be a clean, fighting finish. What more could any man, who had been tempted to sacrifice every principle he held sacred, ask? And Dearborne would come by the fateful insurance honestly. It was a cast-iron cinch.
The sudden, muffled thunder of steam blowing off brought them up with a start. Their chests heaving, they leaned against a bulkhead, gazing up at the proudly standing needle of the gauge. Abruptly the mate pointed at the sooty deck, an excited grin on his lips.
“Look !” he muttered.
Mercer saw nothing but the grime in which they had toiled. He regarded the other suspiciously.
“The deck, the deck,” breathed Handel. “It’s nearly level.”
In the frenzy of work they had failed to notice that they were no longer forced to adjust their bodies to a steeply listed footing; that it was once again possible to stand upright without an effort. The tide had ebbed and had risen again, rapidly— as the tables had assured them it would.
“Good,” said Mercer; but from his intonation the word was entirely inadequate. “Get the hands back aboard.”
Bellamy and the rest had already returned, however, and were tumbling over the side as the grimy pair emerged from below. There was no time for questions.
“Get those lines in, Bellamy,” roared the captain, “and stand by to weigh the moment we’re clear. We’re going to sea again. You get your men below, Andrew, and see to it that they don’t ruin that head of steam Archie and I have given ’em. Jasper, tell Captain Weir we’re on our way.”
“There’s no saying how the hull has stood it,” warned Handel as the Fuca slid into the narrow channel leading to the Sound. “Lying up on a rock pile can’t have helped it, especially the plates I played about with. God knows how she’ll stand another beating about and the strain of towing a ship twice her size.”
“It’s a risk you and I can’t take alone,” answered Mercer tersely. “It can be regretted but not avoided. In any case, I’ll start to worry about it when I find we’re sinking.”
The thunder of the surf rolled hollowly to them between the echoing walls of rock. Ten minutes later the Sound had welcomed the Fuca back to its troubled bosom and the gale was sending the funnel smoke astern in a thin, straight line. Sturdily, the little tramp dug her bow in the steep swell and headed into the worst the Pacific had to provide.
THEY found the Hatley Hall a mile north of the upper lip of the Sound and half a mile from the rocks. Miraculously, the crippled ship had missed several outlying shoals but, having drifted beam on to the seas, she had taken a terrific drubbing. Boldly the Fuca wallowed through a gap between two spouting reefs and battered her way to windward of the Hatley’s. A grass line was buoyed and thrown over the side. Its progress toward the heavily rolling cripple was maddeningly slow. All the while both vessels swept closer and closer to the froth-flecked fangs of the pitiless coastline. Finally, however, .the wisp that formed the Hatley’s hope of salvation reached its objective and was hauled aboard. Working with frantic haste, sea-
men drew in the light line, then the heavy manila tow rope that was attached to it. The latter was secured forward. A hoarse blast from the Hatley’s whistle was the signal for the fight to commence.
“Fight” it was in every sense of the word. There was no time to pass over a second line. Every second brought the snarling breakers and the jagged teeth of the coastline nearer. Mercer mustered every ounce of seamanship that was in him as he gradually pulled the larger ship’s head about. The gallant, if inadequate, strength of the Fuca trembled through the rope and, at a snail’s pace, the Hatley began to draw away from the perilous shore. Sailors, in the meantime, were drifting a second line astern.
As intelligently and as carefully as though he was towing the big freighter with the strength of his own body, Mercer nursed the Fuca along, miraculously keeping the strain on the hemp fairly consistent. Eventually a particularly vicious swell bested him. The Fuca, high on the back of the great, white-capped mound, refused to answer propeller or rudder. The line sagged, then came up with a terrific jerk. There was a crack like the bark of a small cannon as the rope parted. By this time, however, the immediate danger of going ashore was over and the second line was being hauled aboard the Hatley.
At a cost of four snapped lines, all of his small boats and a condensed lifetime of mental stress, Captain Mercer dragged the bulky freighter clear of the reefs and a mile south. From this point the going was easier, the wind and sea assisting instead of fighting him. By dusk both ships were well within the Sound; still in troubled water but sufficiently sheltered from the wind reasonably to expect a couple of anchors to hold. At this point watchers on the Hatley Hall were surprised, and somewhat angered, to observe first-mate Handel appear on the Fuca’s poop with an axe. Four or five small blows and the rescuer had been cut adrift from the rescued. Without bothering to explain her action, the Fuca steamed at increased speed for the shore. Captain Weir promptly dropped both hooks and spent a perplexed half hour until his wireless operator got in touch with Mercer.
The skipper of the Fuca humbly apologized for his rudeness, but explained that water had been gushing into his Number One hold during the latter part of their arduous association and that he had made his hasty departure in an effort to beach his ship before she went under. He was pleased to report the Fuca was aground on a convenient gravel beach and though the tide was at flood her upper works were still above water.
rT'HE storm had blown itself out by
morning and Weir took charge of the small boats that rowed the two miles to the Fuca. Mercer greeted him on a bridge not ten feet above the water.
“Close thing, Weir,” he said briskly, gripping the other’s hand. “I was afraid we’d lost you a couple of times.”
• “There’s not much I can say, John,” said the Hatley’s captain gravely. “If anyone else had done what you did, he’d never hear the last of it. He’d spend the rest of his life grinning at movie cameras and writing testimonials for cigarettes and athletic underwear. It’s different with you. I knew the moment I got your first wireless message that my worries were over. Honest John Mercer, the man who never let a fellow down ...”
“Listen to the man,” interrupted Mercer loudly, winking slyly at his mate. “Stop it, I say, before you drive Archie here into convulsions. I suppose you figure you ought to humor me because you’ve laid my ship up on the beach.”
“All right, old chap, laugh it off if you will,” grinned Weir. “I never knew anyone yet who could tag a medal on you. As far as the Fuca’s concerned, though, I’ve no pangs of conscience. I’ve a mighty costly cargo aboard the Hatley. You’ll collect more than the value of the Fuca in salvage. Add that to your insurance and you’ll have the price of a real ship.” The eyes of Mercer and Handel met and spoke to one another. Salvage ! Salvage running into six figures ! Funny the Hatley Hall had only represented itself
as so many shipmates saved up until that moment. Handel slipped around behind the wheelhouse and executed a frantic jig. Mercer, however, walked to the bridge rail and gazed at the decks awash beneath him.
“No, my lad,” he said, turning to Weir slowly. “There’ll be no new ship for me. The Fuca’s going to be raised and given a refit such as an old tramp never dreamed of. She’s got it coming to her, the abused, gutty old girl.”