Black Reef

Grandpa McCann, old-time sailor, shows the younger generation how to handle a life-or-death emergency

FREDERICK B. WATT January 1 1931

Black Reef

Grandpa McCann, old-time sailor, shows the younger generation how to handle a life-or-death emergency

FREDERICK B. WATT January 1 1931

Black Reef

Grandpa McCann, old-time sailor, shows the younger generation how to handle a life-or-death emergency


CARMANAH light switched on as they came abreast of it, stabbing the swiftly closing dusk with its regular, three-second flashing. McCann headed the little craft well out into the Strait to obtain full benefit of the approaching flood tide, then swung the bow almost due east. The oily seas that had been jolting the Margaret M. with sluggish blows on the starboard quarter during the journey down the coast now heaved encouragingly under the stern, as though to make amends for the eurlier punishment they had administered.

Night came on, as black as the inside of a vault. The air was crisp and clear; the wind dead astern. High, heavily-banked clouds hid the stars completely. Sea and sky merged into an ebony void, broken occasionally by flashes from distant lights that burned and died like short-lived star shells. It was the sort of night dear to the heart of McCann. He had known many of them in his forty-five years of seafaring but they had never lost their appeal. To him there was a thrill in the loneliness, the independence, of surging through the blankness of complete dark, as though carried on the red and green mist cast by his own sidelights.

Midway between the San Juan and Sherringham lights Davie, his eighteen-year-old grandson and lone companion aboard the Margaret A/., crawled out of the stink of the boxlike engine room and into the wheelhouse. He ran true to the McCann type long legs, big shoulders, and a well-shaped head set solidly on a rugged neck.

“Maybe you haven’t noticed it,” he announced, “but there’s a sizeable boat coming up astern.”

Angus stuck his head out of the dinky wheelhouse and regarded the gun-metal wall of night down the Strait. It was pierced he discovered, by pinpoints of red, green

and white. Their height above the water announced that they could only belong to a large liner.

“Oh, aye,” he answered with careful nonchalance. It annoyed him that Davie, who was supposed to be confining his activities to the engine room, should be checking him up on deck.

“Your eyes must be going back on you, Grandpa,” chaffed the boy. “All of which goes to show that it’s about time you took life easy and handed the Margaret M. over to me.”

The grizzled hair on the back of Angus McCann’s neck rose like that of a growling dog.

“Lay off that ‘Grandpa,’ ” he roared. “I’m still young enough and tough enough to take the conceit out of any McCann brat that thinks he’s grown too big for a bib and tucker. When you’ve learned respect for your betters and a quarter as much about fishing as I do, maybe I’ll start to consider you for the boat.”

Davie forced his features into a contrite expression.

"Maybe I haven’t enough respect for my elders, but—”

“Your betters!” barked the other. “The sooner you get it out of your head that I’m an old man to be humored, the better it’ll be for you. Your father had the same idea when he was your age and I had to lick it out of him. One day I’m going to do the same for you. I can do it. You know that, don’t you?”

“Yes, Gran—Angus,” assented Davie with alacrity. It wasn’t respect for the aged that forced the admission from him. Bob, Davie’s cousin, had handed Angus some chin less than a year before. Bob was twenty-two and big even for a McCann. But he hadn’t been big enough to stand up to Angus for more than a minute and a half. The head of the clan was the sort of man who threw off

the advancing years as easily as a trim, seasoned ship shaking itself clear of slightly annoying seas.

“Well, no more of your lip,” ripped Angus and turned his back on the boy.

Davie climbed back into the engine room and with an oil can viciously stabbed the “one-lunger” in a dozen laboring joints.

“Silly old fool,” he gritted.

FROM the wheelhouse Angus watched the lights astern overtaking him. With the tide in its favor, the liner was steaming along at a brisk twenty knots. It came abeam of the little fishing craft just off the Sherringham light. With admiring eyes McCann saw it gradually take form to starboard, a mountainous ghost ship with her pure white bulk showing eerily in the dark and her scores of softly-lighted portholes regarding the night dispassionately. The red of her port light burned like a flawless ruby against a white satin gown, then died away as the vessel swept ahead of the Margaret M., leaving behind the dull drone of mighty engines.

The fishing boat suddenly found itself pitching violently in the heaving wake of the ocean monster, and McCann was forced to forego further admiration in tending to the bucketing craft. Gradually the man-made cross swell slackened. Angus eased his grip on the wheel. An instant later, however, he clutched it convulsively. A low black shape had suddenly risen on his port bow. He knew the Strait like a book and he was certain there wasn’t a rock within ten miles of him. Not until he was on top of the object did he recognize it as a large motor boat steaming without lights. He caught the strident whirr of a powerful engine above the steady “chug, chug, chug” of the Margaret M. Quickly he yanked the engineroom bell for “Full astern,” though still keeping the boat on its course. The rules of the road called for the launch to make way for him. Apparently, though, the other cared little for the principles of navigation.

It was all over with the breath-taking speed of accidents that happen on a darkened sea. In a flash Angus saw the broad bow of the Margaret M. crunch into the launch, dead amidships. In a momentary hell of wild shouts and splintering wood the staunch fishing boat passed through the lighter craft just back of the engine.

There was something almost amusing in the ease with which it cut the motor boat in half.

“Lordamighty !” groaned Angus, and swung the wheel hard over.

Davie’s alarmed face popped up from the engine room.

“What the—?” he commenced.

“Get the lantern lighted,” the older man cut him off, “and set the engine slow ahead.”

Panic-stricken yells directed him back to the scene of the crash as he circled about. In the rays of the lantern which Davie had produced with commendable speed, he distinguished two bobbing heads in the black water, each etched against a circle of brine made white by wildly flailing arms. Dropping the wheel, he reached out with a boathook and skilfully caught the nearest survivor by the back of the collar. Hauling him close to the side, he reached over and lifted him bodily to the deck as he would a flopping halibut. The man lay where he was deposited on the little forecastle, coughing up the sea water that had come close to choking him. Quickly Angus directed the boat toward the other swimmer and repeated the rescue.

The second man had apparently kept his head and conserved his energy while he had waited to be picked up.

His clothes were those of a city dweller, smart to the point of being effeminate—in McCann’s opinion. He had a bullet head, sharp wolfish features, and a pair of eyes that glinted like polished rock in the light of Angus’ lantern.

Instead of being grateful for a new lease on life, he shoved his unprepossessing face close to the fisherman’s as he rose shakily to his feet and demanded:

“What’s the idea, eh?”

KEEP your temper, young man” ordered Angus stolidly, much as he might have reproved Davie, “and tell me if there are any more of you. I’ll have something to say to you myself when you’re all picked up.”

“There were three of us,” snarled the other.

McCann swung the lantern in a circle above his head and his deep voice rolled to every point of the compass.

“Ahoy, ahoy, ahoy!”

The lisping of the waves was the only answer. He turned heavily to the survivor and announced:

“It looks as though you’re only two now.”

The man grunted, more in disgust than sorrow then stepped to where his companion crouched on the forecastle.

“Come out of it, Jake,” he ordered roughly, prodding the unhappy fellow none too gently with the toe of his boot.

“Lay off, Ed,” complained the other. “My guts are full of sea.”

“That’s what comes from opening your mouth so wide,” was the comfortless reply.

“Maybe you’ll learn some day to keep it shut.

Come on, you louse, get up. The launch is gone and Macey’s croaked, if you don’t know that already.”

“What you going to do about it?” demanded Jake sullenly. In the light of the lantern he had the appearance of a wharf rat that, by some mistake, had climbed into a respectable suit of clothes.

The other leaned down and spoke lowly. Jake climbed to his feet as quickly as his groggy legs would lift him. Ed’s eyes swept the darkened sea intently. As they did so a light blossomed out in the dying wake of the liner, burning as might a calcium flare on a lifebelt that had been thrown to the water. For a moment McCann imagined that the steamer had seen the disaster and

had dropped some life-saving apparatus. This possibility was eliminated almost immediately from his mind, however. The crash had taken place well out of sight of the vessel. It was dashed puzzling. Every light at sea is of importance to a sailor, and it worried the veteran fisherman to encounter one whose portent he could not read.

Ed, the obvious master of the sunken launch, moved swiftly to McCann’s elbow.

“Get over to that flare,” he commanded curtly.

Angus turned on him weightily.

“I’m not accustomed to taking orders on my own boat,” he said. “Perhaps if you’ll explain what the light is and ask me decently—”

“I said get over to that flare,” rapped the other. “You’ve smashed my boat and I’m using yours as long as I’ve need of it. Show a bit of sense and you won’t be out anything. Get nasty and I’ll dump you overboard.”

For the first time the fisherman noticed that Ed had a short barreled automatic pointed at his midriff. The other survivor, too, had produced a pistol. For five seconds Angus surveyed the two, much as a cow in the middle of a road might regard a motor car honking for the right of way. Then he slowly clumped into the wheelhouse, closely covered by Ed.

“Have things your own way,” he grunted resignedly, ringing the engine room bell for “full ahead.”

Obediently the Margaret M. chugged up to the light. It was, as McCann had imagined, a calcium flare, but

the rosy circle of illumination that it cast did not reveal the white ring of a lifebuoy. Instead there was a watertight box, some two feet square. The fisherman noted the eagerness with which Jake reached for it with the boathook as he sidled the little craft alongside. Speedily the box was hauled to the deck, Ed apparently experiencing the temptation to give up his watch over McCann in his desire to examine the mysterious bit of flotsam.

“O.K. bass,” called Jake, placing the box carefully out of reach of the occasional waves that slapped over the forecastle.

“Douse that flare, you idiot,” rasped the other. “D’you want the steamer coming back to see what it’s all about?” He turned belligerently to McCann. “Now you can land us somewhere below Port Angeles. Not at the harbor—four or five miles on the far side. No fooling either or—”

“Say, what’s going on here anyway?”

The interruption came from Davie, whose curiosity had again drawn him from

below decks.

Ed stepped back a couple of paces into a position from which he had both fishermen in range.

“Stick up your hands,” he directed the newcomer savagely.

“Quit your foolin’,” said Davie, still blinking after the change from the well-lighted engine room to the heavy darkness.

“Stick ’em up, I said!” repeated the gunman.

“Do what he tells you, boy,” said Angus gruffly.

“But what’s it all—” protested Davie.

Blam! The flash from the pistol muzzle lit up the little deck momentarily. Then the blackness closed in again, unearthly and silent after the one shattering instant. In the lighted square of the engine room hatch, Davie’s crumpled body was silhouetted. A second later it disappeared. There was a heavy, sickening thump from below.

'"THE grandfather, his fingers frozen to the wheel, said nothing. His silence, however, was a more scathing accusation than if he had cried out.

“Y’see, I mean business,” grated Fid. “I give him his chance. The same goes with you, old ’un, if you’re feeling smart. Get below, Jake, and start the engine again. See that that chump is out for good, too.”

Jake, despite his unprepossessing appearance, was not the accomplished killer his master was. He was obviously shaken by the coldblooded shooting of Davie and scuttled below, half relieved at escaping from the possibility of further slaying and half nervous at the thought of sharing the tiny engine room with a corpse. P"or several minutes after he had disappeared he could be heard fussing with the mechanism, apparently having some difficulty in making it function. During the interval the two men stood in the wheel house without speaking. Angus as rigid as a ramrod and the gunman slowly whistling with a nonchalance that bespoke a tremendous outlay of will power.

Finally the engine spluttered into action and settled dowm to its steady chugging. McCann pointed the Margaret M.’s head down the middle of the Strait.

“Ease over toward the American shore,” commanded Ed dangerously. “I know these waters as well as you do and you can’t put anything over on me.”

The fisherman ponderously figured out that the man was lying. If Ed knew the waters as well as he made out, he’d be taking the wheel himself. It was reasonably certain that if there had been a real seaman aboard the

lost launch it had been the man who had lost his life. With slow satisfaction Angus realized that, for the time being, his captors were as much at his mercy as he was at theirs.

He swung the bow slightly to starboard to ease Ed's suspicions, then commenced to plot out the problem as he would have studied a chart of particularly tricky waters. The fact that he was well nigh stunned with grief and rage over the shooting of Davie failed to dull his ability to see things clearly. The sea can discipline a man to a fine point when he has given half a century of service to it.

Had Angus been younger, emotions would probably have been the undoing of him. He might have flown at the gunman in fury and been killed for his pains. He might have wept at the futility of his position. He might have piled up the Margaret M. on the nearest reef and taken the murderers to death with him. It stood to reason that, having killed once, they would do so again to remove the witness of their crime. But Angus did none of these things. He steered obediently for the American shore and kept his thoughts to himself. Jake poked a contorted face up from the engine room. "Say, boss,” he whimpered, “how about dumping this guy down here into the drink? I don’t think much of his company.”

"There’ll be time for that later,” answered Ed brusquely.

"Well, give us a shot in the meantime,” pleaded the other. “I got the shakes and my snow’s all dissolved.” "I suppose you think I come out dressed in waterproof duds just in case we take a dip in the sea?” sneered the leader. “You blasted fool, I’m as soaked as you are.” Jake started toward the box they had taken from the waves.

“There’s enough here to keep us goin’ for the rest of our lives,” he laughed shakily.

“Get outa there,” yelled Ed menacingly. “What d’you think’ll happen if we hand that over unsealed. Beat it, rat, or you’ll be keeping company with the other stiff. My temper ain’t so good tonight.”

"Looka here, Ed—” protested the quaking man. “Get below !” shot his leader. There was something in his voice that caused Jake to bolt for cover like a scared rabbit.

That he had discovered the root of the mystery, a dope-running scheme, interested McCann not at all. All that mattered to him was that Davie was lying, murdered, down below and that if he was to be avenged it would have to be before the slayer decided to complete the job. Three lights were visible, two on the American side of the Strait and one on the Canadian. As accurately as though he had a large scale chart before him, he got his bearings, then eased over another ten degrees to starboard.

“We seem to be taking our time,” advanced Ed, suspiciously, after a half hour of silence.

"This isn’t any speedboat,” retorted Angus curtly. The dope runner peered into the darkness ahead.

"Is that land we’re coming to?” he demanded, confirming the fisherman’s poor opinion of his local knowledge.

"No,” answered Angus. "It’s a bit of an island.” "What’s the idea of coming in so close to it?” questioned the other insistently. "Trying to pile us up?”

“I need it to get my bearings,” explained McCann carefully. "No fear of hitting anything. The deep water runs right up to the shore.”

“Well, remember—” reminded Fid, and poked the fisherman roughly in the back with the muzzle of his weapon.

They skirted the island closely. It was a long, low stretch of rock, entirely devoid of trees. At its highest point it rose scarcely more than six feet above the water.

"Not much of a place,” remarked McCann idly. “It’s got more to show for itself at low water, of course.” He glanced shrewdly out of the corner of his eye to observe the effect of his statement on the man. If Ed knew so much about the Strait he would know that the flood had only started to "make” in earnest in the last half hour. The gunman seemed to take his word for it, however, that it was already the hour of high water.

Half-way down the grey length of the island a little cove was bitten out of the rock. As the Margaret M. came abreast of it McCann glanced sharply to port and uttered a half-smothered exclamation. Fid started nervously and stuck his head through the open wheelhouse window to discover the cause of the fisherman’s anxiety. The movement required only the matter of a second and, discovering nothing unusual, he swung back on Angus with an oath. He was just in time to see the long body of the older man vanish through the wheelhouse door.

“Come back, curse you!” he shrieked, sending a bullet crashing after the fugitive.

With no more hesitancy than a seal taking to water, McCann cleared the low bulwark and slid, like a driven arrow, into the heart of a black swell. Ed, dancing with rage on deck, saw his head appear well out from and

slightly astern of the boat. Twice his gun roared spitefully, and white spurts of water rose close to the swimmer. The boat was rolling though, and the bobbing head offered a poor target. Angus disappeared in the low trough of another swell, then was swallowed by the darkness.

The marksman stumbled back into the wheelhouse and swung the wheel hard over, sweeping in a wide circle away from the island before heading in toward the little cove that had been McCann's obvious destination. A twitching face suddenly appeared from below.

“Did you burn him down, boss?” stammered Jake.

“No, but I’m going to—even if I have to go ashore for him,” flared Ed. “We might as well give ourselves up as let him wander around loose. Get back to that engine. Shut her off if I give you a shout.”

Jake slunk back to the depths. Heedless of the chance of putting a rock through the boat’s bottom, Ed swept in to the very mouth of the cove in the hope of cutting off McCann’s retreat. The old man was no ordinary swimmer though. He was apparently already ashore for, as the Margaret M. came about in the shadow of the unfriendly islet, a taunting shout rose above the chugging of the one-lunger. The helmsman bellowed down the engine-room hatch and the noise of the laboring mechanism was stilled.

“See here, fella,” Ed cried in a wheedling voice at the shadowy rocks, “you needn’t get scared. I don’t aim to hurt you as long as you behave. There’ll be something in it for you—and your boat back—when you take us to Port Angeles.”

“There’ll be nothing in it for you when I talk to the police tomorrow except a rope about your dirty neck,” came Angus' derisive hoot.

The voice was close at hand but, although Ed peered into the murk until his eyes ached, he could distinguish nothing at which to take a chance shot. McCann had merged himself with the rocks.

“You’d better listen to sense,” warned the killer, his self-control close to the breaking point.

“Stinking murderer,” boomed the fisherman. “I’m going to be right there when they string you up.”

Ed’s grip on himself vanished in an explosion of vile blasphemy. Sandwiched between the gusts of profanity was an order to Jake to start the engines again. More by good luck than by good seamanship the Margaret M. achieved the cove. Propeller again silent, it drifted slowly across the calm, deep water of the indentation and bumped lightly against the iron beach.

“Come back before I come to get you,” screamed Ed.

A laugh, faint and seemingly from the centre of the islet, indicated that McCann was again in retreat. The man at the wheel stepped out on deck, calling to his companion to join him.

“There isn’t much space to cover,” he told Jake, “and not a stick for him to hide behind. Shoot straight and don’t get scared. He can’t hurt you. You go to the left while I take this side. We can’t miss him.”

“O.K.,” answered the other in a half-hearted manner.

They lowered themselves over the side and waded ashore. The water which rose to their thighs was like the rubbing of salt in an open wound as it came in contact with their already chilled bodies. Hurriedly they blundered to the dry ground and, guns presented, began their search of the bleak rock strip.

When they had advanced fifty feet from the cove something squirmed from a barnacled fissure not five yards from where they had landed. Silently a long body slithered to the water’s edge. Doubled up so as not to project against the gloomy skyline, McCann waded the short distance to the Margaret M. and pulled himself over the familiar bulwarks. In a moment he had possessed himself of the boathook and was laboriously poling the craft out into deep water. When he could no longer touch bottom he moved quickly to the engineroom hatch.

F'or the first time in the eventful night he emitted an exclamation of alarm. Below, in the lighted cavern there was a sudden movement. A ghastly, blood-smeared face, set on a sturdy neck, confronted him. It was Davie - alive!

In an instant Angus was his customary unexcitable self.

“Don’t cry out, lad,” he hissed. “Everything’ll be all right. Are you fit enough to get the screwturning?”

GORY bewilderment was on the boy’s face and he seemed on the point of starting a prolonged conversation. Gradually, however, he came to his senses and bent over the engine.

“All set,” he said.

“See that she’s w-ell primed,” admonished Angus. “She’s got to start on the first kick. The moment she takes hold shoot her straight astern.”

“Aye,” assented Davie, though his voice was alive with painful curiosity.

Old McCann took his place at the wheel and waited. Half a dozen times he imagined he distinguished the forms of the armed men looming large on the shore

twenty feet distant. His heart was beating like a triphammer. He decided that he was rather enjoying himself. Then the engine wheezed, coughed and exploded into action.

An enraged shout broke from the island, but Angus had little time to pay attention to it. He was too busily engaged in backing the boat from the cove. Ten seconds later the Margaret M. was out in the solemnly rolling waters of the open Strait.

When he had half a mile of sea between himself and his stranded adversaries, Angus came about and rang “Stop.” Anxiously he dived below to the still stupefied Davie.

“Badly hurt, lad?” he demanded.

“Feels as though my head’s been kicked in, but it’s only a crease, I think,” replied the younger McCann, rubbing the ugly flesh wound above his temple tenderly. “What’s it all about? Where’s the scum who shot me? When—”

“Pipe down and let me put a bit of rag about it,” interrupted Angus with rough solicitude. “ Y our shooting friend’s all right. He and his mate are on Black Reef waiting for high water.”

“Eh?” puzzled Davie.

“They’re smart young fellows like yourself,” remarked Angus dryly. “So danged impulsive, so danged sure of themselves—and without any of the advantages that you have had by being born a McCann. ’Tis no fault of theirs you aren’t dead nor that they didn’t do for me. It’s our turn now. I think we’ll just stand by and listen to ’em squeal as they find the rock sinking beneath ’em.”

The old fisherman went back to the wheelhouse and again approached within hailing distance of the reef.

“Ahoy!” he shouted.

Another round of Ed’s choice expletives answered him. It was impossible to see the speaker in the darkness, but McCann could visualize his rage-distorted features.

“I only wanted to tell you,” announced the fisherman when the fiery outburst had ceased, “that there’s three feet of water over your reef at high water. That’ll be in another hour. Of course, a wave will probably pick you off before that.”

The statement drew a maniacal scream from Jake. Wildly he emptied his pistol in the direction of the boat. The bullets all flew wild.

“Cut it out, you,” thundered Ed. His voice became silky as he addressed McCann:

“Look here, old fellow, I’m game to admit you’ve outsmarted us. Ten thousand dollars is yours if you’ll just take us off here and set us down on the nearest land. You can keep the box if you want to. It’s worth plenty. Have a heart.”

“Little heart you had when you shot down my grandson, you filthy whelp,” retorted Angus. “Make up your mind to it, you’ll stay where you are until the sea washes the earth clean of you.”

For the next twenty minutes he refused to reply to the agonized entreaties of the stranded men. Crie3 of terror, curses and pitiful attempts at sensible argument drew only low chuckles from him. Suddenly Ed’s cracked voice proclaimed:

“Have a heart! That one wet my feet!”

Angus discovered Davie at his elbow, looking sicker than ever.

“Pick ’em up, Grandpa,” he whispered.

The older man turned on him with a roar.

“How often have I got to tell you my name’s Angus?” he grunted. “If that’s not good enough for you, you can make it ‘sir.’ So you’d like me to pick ’em up, would you, and land us back just where we started? That man Ed has still got a gun and he’s more anxious to use it than he was when he pinked you. How old d’you have to be to start using your brains? And you suggesting that I hand the boat over to you because I’m an old man !”

“Well, what are you going to do?” cried Davie desperately. The yells of the gunmen were beginning to flay his nerves.

“Just what I’d do if there were no young whippersnappers around trying to give me advice,” rumbled Angus.

They waited another ten minutes, while the wind off the open Pacific caught up the terrified screams of the tortured men and tossed them eerily through the night.

“Old ’un—you’ll drown us!” bellowed Ed. “That last one almost knocked me off my feet!”

“Maybe the next one will do better,” came the cold comfort. Then in an undertone: “Get below, Davie, and give us half ahead!”

Carefully Angus brought the Margaret M. in close to the reef. The rocky ledge was completely under water and low breakers were beginning to snarl across it. Two dim shapes stood up in the white-streaked water like old piles from some dismantled dock.

“I can’t come any closer in safety,” called the fisherman. “If you want to come aboard you’ll have to swim for it.”

Madly the two waded toward him until the surf carried

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them into deep water. Ed, the stronger of the two and the better swimmer, reached the side of the boat first. Angus hauled him aboard much as he had done after the sinking of the launch—only on this occasion, as he pulled him across the bulwarks he tapped the gunman on the head with a wooden billet usually used in the subduing of obstreperous fish. Ed collapsed in a sodden heap. Jake, who barely made the boat, required no such attention. He was senseless by the time he was dragged to the deck. Angus bound both men securely with halibut line and, with Davie’s

assistance, piled them unceremoniously below.

“I guess we’d better drop them in Port Angeles, eh?” advanced Davie.

The hair on Angus’ neck bristled.

“I guess not!” he exploded. “I’m not going out of my way for any dirty criminals. A Canadian court’s what these birds need anyway. They’ll get what’s coming to’em there. Port Angeles!” He sniffed disgustedly. “It’d take a brainless young idiot like you to think of something like that.”

“Yes—sir,” agreed Davie respectfully.