His Own Feet
RICHARD HOWELLS WATKINS
Stubborn Joe Noakes had salvaged a deadly floating mine . • • Stubtoed Jerry Calder knew it would blast the village—and Sally too
JERRY CALDER began edging his motor dory closer to the cabin boat running down the seas alongside him. His grip on the tiller tightened. He was going to try again. He shoved his long-peaked cap forward so that he could run his left hand from the back of his neck up over his head. The crisp tickle of his clipped sandy hair whispered thought-inducingly against his fingers.
This could be bad. He shouldn’t have laughed. But his notion of what was funny had roughened up some in months of living close to sizeable chunks of TNT. “Of course, I shouldn't have laughed,’’ he said.
It wasn’t funny at all, back here in civilian life. He had to convince old Pete Noakes this time. His boat and Noakes’ larger boat took the same high comber together. They raced toward the low line of the shore as the cresting sea shouldered under them; then seemed to slip backward as the top charged on and left them crawling in the trough. You had to watch your steering. Jerry worked in closer to the other boat.
“The ignorant old mule!” he said. “He’d better stick to fish.”
Jerry lifted his voice above the cacophonous clamor of the two old engines.
“Listen to reason, Noakes!” he called. “That’s a mine you’re towing! No kidding!”
Old Pete Noakes heard him. Suspicious little black eyes gleamed at Jerry. Noakes canted his head, already askew on his narrow shoulders, farther to port. He opened his mouth like a haddock and showed pallid gums, sparsely studded with queerly shaped yellow teeth. That was a grin, in Pete Noakes’ book, a mirthless, knowing, most cunning grin, to answer Jerry’s. Coupled with the rest of Pete’s head, greystubbled, oddly angled, narrow as a fish’s, the grin was hard to take.
“That’s a mine!” Jerry cried again, pointing at the black thing rolling along almost all submerged in Noakes’ white wake. “A mine! New type—and tougher than the old kind.”
Again that wide and gummy grimace from Pete Noakes. He was old enough to suspect and dislike young newcomers to the Inlet, even though they brought in few fish. His rasping voice split through the motor noises:
“It’s a buoy, kid, an’ I got my line on it. Sheer off!” “I tell you ...”
“Keep your stub toes out o’ my business! Mines are round. Go back to fishin’. Ye need the practice—as that girl’ll be telling ye.”
The stub-toe crack deepened the wrinkles of Jerry’s forehead.
“It’s a coast defense contact mine broken loose from its mooring,” he roared. “Don’t you see the horns on it?”
Pete Noakes enhanced his cynicism by closing his left red eye. ,
“She’ll be wuth $15 off the Government,” he retorted. “T’me, not you. I got my line on it.”
Jerry Calder eased his tiller to port and slid away. Pete Noakes towed that mine on a desperately short scope. If his motor skipped a few beats and that thing wabbled close enough to nudge his counter—finish for a mulish old sea rat.
“You can’t save a guy like that,” Jerry told himself. “Not unless you had 20 bucks to buy the mine off him.”
You could see that once Pete Noakes got a line on anything in the sea, fish, corpse, boat or wreckage, Satan with bells on couldn’t get him to let go. Other people cast their bread on the waters; Pete Noakes picked it up.
Jerry went swooping down over the seas to a safer distance. He could think better farther away from that horned terror. He knew nothing good about mines. The Navy school had taught him their little ways before he had shipped in a corvette. But they hadn’t taught him anything about old fishermen like Pete Noakes. He glowered across at Pete. The old man was cackling and canting his head at him.
With every beat of his motor Noakes was taking that canned death closer to his Inlet. Jerry could see him running the bar and stubbornly bucking the teacolored current that would be swirling seaward between the jetties.
Jerry felt the wind blowing cold on his forehead and wiped the sweat away. He was getting scared. With luck Noakes might bounce the mine off the bottom somewhere near the entrance and blow only himself and his boat skyward. But the chances were that Pete Noakes knew that shallow Inlet well enough to tow the mine unscathed across the bar, up under the bridge and to the little basin where nine or 10 fishing boats would be lying. A good few fishermen would be fussing with their boats or cleaning their catches while their wives and kids waited for them. There was always a drift toward Pete Noakes’ boat to see what he had. No matter how much men might cuss out the cross-grained old coot they always had to add, if they were fair-minded, “but he sure does bring in the fish.” And that one talent, which Pete Noakes worked so hard, gave him the title, by a sour brand of humor, of Mayor of the Inlet. Jerry Calder grinned, rather as if something had set his teeth on edge. As far as Pete Noakes was concerned the Mayor of the Inlet meant tops among men.
“A broad-minded old fish rat,” Jerry muttered. “He knows you can’t have an Inlet without a world, because you got to sell your fish. So there is a world, but it don’t amount to much. I’ll bet he’s even heard about the war, because it’s raised the price of fish. He sure does bring in the fish.”
He checked himself, not at all amused. The kids would swarm over to Noakes’ slip too as he reversed his motor to stop her dead. There was a chance that Sally might be there, looking at him with that wooden little face she showed him in public.
Jerry Calder wiped his forehead again and searched the sea. Little lines were digging themselves in on his broad forehead, like cracks in the smooth china egg of his youthful self-confidence. Just lately—well, probably he’d shifted from boy to man while in the Navy, and coming back into a civilian world again of course it looked queer and tough. He was seeing it from a man’s angle, with a man’s question marks ahead of him.
There might be an inshore naval patrol around here somewhere. But there wasn’t now. A plane raced along to southward, maybe three miles farther out. The sun wasn’t down under the lowland to westward yet so a flare wouldn’t light up bright enough to attract a distant eye.
He measured the speed of Pete Noakes’ boat. A good hull and engine. Even while towing that mine she was doing close to the top Jerry Calder could get out of his old motor. He’d never be able to kick his dory up the Inlet in time to warn the Navy on the picket boat stationed near the basin.
“The old mule!” he said aloud. “He needs handling, and I’m the man to do it!”
Big talk. He glanced down uneasily at his feet and felt his confidence drain out of him. Those toes had been frozen on a raft three days after the torpedoing. Though he felt a man again, in this dory he had bought, he wasn’t too lively ashore yet. He might not be fast enough against that stringy old rat. Footwork counted in any kind of a scrap.
He looked sideways at Pete Noakes. The old man was watching him. Pete Noakes was always watching with those small black eyes. They saw plenty, too. They could spot a school of mackerel where another man could see only smooth blue water. And he was no fool, Noakes, even if he didn’t know a new type mine from a buoy and thought Jerry Calder wanted to talk him out of $15 reward money.
No fool! Noakes could take fish in an empty sea. He couldn’t be skunked—except, of course, when another fisherman followed him to share his luck. Then Pete Noakes, with never a glance astern, would go trolling a stretch of sea or anchor and bottom-fish a reef. Mighty few fish, if any, would Pete Noakes and the other fellows catch that day. They soon got tired of following Noakes. No, he was no fool and those stringy arms could handle a box of fish as if it were a basket of feathers. It would take a man to flatten him.
“Look, skeesicks!” Jerry warned himself in a sudden rush. “If you’re not good enough to stop Pete Noakes from blowing up half the Inlet people you’re not man enough for Sally Blaine—whether she thinks so or not!”
It was out—the thing that had been cankering in him. He let his eyes rove across the blue sea that was slowly deepening in hue as the sun slid under the land.
He hadn’t been willing to admit that he was a disabled man and therefore not for a girl like Sally. Neither would he go ahead and marry her. Instead he had tangled with himself. At different times he got different answers. That brown-haired, merry girl might just be sorry for him. Sure he could handle a boat—but he hadn’t earned enough in his fishing even to call it a start. There wasn’t 20 pounds of cod in his dory right now.
You couldn’t figure yourself on your way to owning a few good-sized fishing boats when you weren’t even making a go of one-man fishing in a dory. And you couldn’t figure yourself a man again when a stubborn old fish rat could yawp at you like a haddock and go his destroying way. But Sally! A cockeyed world like this—and then you find Sally Blaine in it!
Jerry looked around at Pete Noakes and gave his tiller a touch.
“Seems like I ought to do something—or quit thinking about Sally,” he told himself. “Yes, sir— that’s a bet!”
Somebody had to look after Sally’s interests, since the loyal little cuss wouldn’t look after her own. Plainly Jerry understood that it had to be love on
Sally’s side. Nothing else was solid. And he had to rate that love —a little, anyhow. With a girl a man had to stand on his own feet, not counting the number of toes he had left and how well the feet behaved. A
man . . .
“Look, will you get going?” Jerry asked himself. “Not even counting what he may do at the basin you need this workout.”
Pete Noakes’ watchful black eyes saw Jerry swerving over. There must have been something different about Jerry this time for Noakes left the wheel and jumped into his cabin. He came out with a double-barrelled shotgun. Illegal, of course, that gun was. these days. But war or no war, away from naval patrols Pete Noakes was no man to divide a hig meaty fish with a lurking porpoise. When a porp rushed a hooked fish Noakes gave him bird shot instead and boated the whole of his wriggling property. Jerry had heard talk of that gun at the basin.
Pete Noakes was making no secret of his shotgun now. He lifted it above his gunwale. There was a gleam of fierce red around the rims of his little black eyes.
“One bar’l for your water line an’ the other for you!” he said. “Sheer off, ye blasted hijacker, while ye’ve still got whole strakes in her!”
The old coot felt sure he was in the right. He was defending his property. Fish were his yardstick, and how could a young scut as ignorant of fish’s ways as Jerry Calder tell him about anything that came out of the sea? He wasn’t going to be bamboozled out of the reward for a drifting buoy. He stood by to repel boarders. The red in his eyes intensified.
“Sheer away!” he rasped and lined up the gun on the dory forward and low down.
Jerry Calder gave a little ground with light fingers on his tiller.
“You’ll bounce that thing going across the bar and blow yourself to blazes!” he warned.
Pete Noakes laughed. He cradled the gun on his skinny forearm and thumped himself on the chest.
“Ye lie in your teeth!” he said. “I’m the one man that won’t touch sand in the Inlet! The one man!”
It was disastrously true. The tide would be close to dead low. But Noakes, with squinted black eyes reading the sliding water, would probably tow that
mine in through the shoaling mouth of the Inlet, with never a bump. That bump would come later, and worse.
Jerry Calder nursed his dory in closer and tried to get confidential.
“Look, Pete, when I was in the Navy ...”
Noakes’ eyas appraised the narrowing gap. He jerked up his gun.
“Git!” he spat. “I’ll fix ye at the basin for this! Ye’ll catch bait alone and market your catch alone! I’ll run ye out before the month’s up, by Satan, L will! Ye’ll find who’s boss here!”
He meant it, and more. His angry finger slid inside the trigger guard and curled around the t rigger.
“Git!” he rasped.
Jerry held his place. He should have edged away. Bird shot at that range would be deadlier than solid lead. Noakes was too mad to know it. And in Jerry’s mind Sally was mixed up in this. He wasn’t in the mood to quit.
Unexpectedly Noakes broke the deadlock. One hand leaped to the wheel. He wrechend it around and
Continued on page 22
His Own Feet
Continued, from page 17
I opened his throttle to the limit. He drove ahead.
Jerry opened up too. With careful fingers he enriched the mixture.
But Noakes held his lead of 100 feet.
Grim-faced, Jerry looked ahead at ‘ the shore. The western sky was flaming j with red and yellow streaks. Where the i blue showed through it was a cool light green instead. In spite of all that warm color to westward the sea around him had already turned black. In that ! brilliance fading over the land he could make out the black rocks of the two ! jetties—but they were still massed like a single pile of stone against the white I beach. That meant that it would be ¡ nearly dark before they reached the Inlet. Nobody would be able to see what Noakes was towing.
Noakes turned backward long enough to show Jerry that open, toothstudded grin of his.
“He’s sure got me in a hole now,” Jerry told himself, eyeing that gap. Painstakingly he set about cutting it down some, without annoying the old man too much. He kept well to port and his uneasy eyes searched the sea for an ally. But it looked, as the land darkened slowly ahead, as if this was up to him. But how? He saw only one measly chance.
Slipping a line around the tiller he j took quick steps forward. He moved briskly and surely in the plunging boat. Where there was a motor box, gunwale or thwart to lend a little support he was as steady on his abbreviated pins as anybody. Later on he’d chuck overboard the stick he still had to use ashore.
He crouched down beside his fish gaff and shoved it aft toward the tiller, out of sight below the screen of the dory’s upthrust bow. With an occasional hand on the helm to keep her running down the seas he lashed a keen fish knife on the gaff end opposite the hook. He made a strong tight job of it with leader wire.
He hustled to the bow and, crouching low, tied the bight of his grapnel line J around a thwart, leaving only six feet 1 of scope to the grapnel. Once he jumped up, nearly late, to plunge aft as the dory threatened to broach to on a sharper sea.
The old shark ahead was craning his leathery neck back. Already it was too dusky for him to see much. But Jerry, returning Noakes’ inspection, saw the old coot line up his own wicked-looking gaff and a boat hook beside his gun on the cockpit floor. He wouldn’t want to advertise that gun this close to shore— or would he?
The boats charged on down wind and sea toward the unlighted Inlet. Quietly Jerry managed to cut the gap a little more. Noakes hated to put an unnecessary strain on his motor. For a long time the boats seemed to stand still in the sea, never gaining on the land. And then, of a sudden, the sea began kicking up higher under the shoaling bottom.
The two black jetties opened apart I against black shore. Jerry peered hard.
Nobody out on the rocks. The fishing ; wouldn’t be worth trying till the current slacked off.
Favor the north jetty and hang there a while, sizing up the tide, the smash of the seas on the bar, the smooth black slice of the current close to the piled rocks; that was the way to get into the Inlet. Wait it out; look it over. That was how Pete Noakes was doing it. But Jerry Calder had a mine on his mind—and a girl.
i He darted a look astern to see what he would have under him. Noakes, deeper draft boat, standing still in the
seaward rush of the current with motor going slow ahead blocked what there was of the channel — you could call that slit close to the jetty a channel. Jerry’s eyes squinted with respect at the dark shape just aft of Pete Noakes’ white counter. His own bow missed it by no more than five feet as he closed up with a rush, swerving to port.
For only an instant Jerry throttled down. He let the curling crest of a big one, writhing up like a striking snake, pass under him. It flung its might against the sand bar ahead. Gunning his motor hard he rode the shoulder of the big sea. He hurtled in over churning sand and water. That white, hissing flurry covered the solid ground deep enough. With teeth gritted for a crash of bottom against sand he ran over the bar.
At once Noakes began following. The old man kept to the narrow channel. His motor was turning full out. The boom and crash of breaking combers crowned its roar. The boat, seeming to graze the piled stone on one hand and the riotous white foam on the other, nosed in along the narrow strip of deep water.
For himself Jerry cut his throttle a notch. By only scant feet a minute did he breast the current. The black water came sliding in swift silence down the Inlet and ran under him, rushing to crash against the booming seas on the anvil of the bar.
“Come on, you old crab,” Jerry muttered. He did not dare turn around. Pete Noakes, pulling up astern of him, might spot the white of his face and be more wary. With eyes straining sideways in his head Jerry made out the white bow and white house of Noakes’ boat creeping up level with him. The cockpit, and Noakes himself, showed in the corner of his eye. Noakes was keeping as far away from him as he could in the narrow channel. That might not be far enough. Still Noakes gained.
“Sally, here I come!” Jerry whispered.
He opened his throttle and flung his weight on his tiller. He scrambled forward and dived for his grapnel. His dory was swinging sharply toward Noakes’ boat. The granite wall of the breakwater hemmed Noakes in. The boats closed.
Jerry slung his grapnel over Noakes’ rail. The two boats bumped. The line and grapnel held them together.
Jerry was already grabbing for his gaff. Whatever steering those locked boats got in that swirling tideway must come from Noakes.
With a yowl Noakes deserted his wheel. He darted toward the grapnel.
Jerry had gripped the gaff armed with his sharp fish knife. He flung himself half over his gunwale and lunged at the taut line aft of Noakes’ counter. He slashed furiously. His knife probed the darkness a foot or so from the black object tailing behind.
“Stop!” Noakes rasped. He jerked up the grapnel with furious strength. He hurled it back at Jerry.
Jerry dodged. The grapnel, checked by the short line, thudded into the bottom of the dory.
Noakes scooped up his boat hook and raised it for a full arm swing. Jerry’s bent head was an easy target.
Jerry flung up his gaff in time to ward off the blow. His hands stung.
His boat was dropping back. Jerry stretched far out over the gunwale. He thrust again in final desperation. The knife sliced into the Manila. He bore down. The rope gave. Cut!
The black mine went swirling down current. Jerry flipped up his gaff to fend off Noakes’ next blow. But the boats had parted. The metal point of
Continued on page 24
I Noakes’ boat hook splashed water a j foot away from him.
Jerry leaped back to his tiller. His j boat was swinging broadside to the 1 current. He turned her bow.
Noakes had grabbed up his shotgun, j But he mastered his red rage in time.
¡ He crashed it down and brandished his I skinny arm at Jerry, shouting out his I wrath. Jerry gritted his teeth and tightened his grip on his tiller. Seconds passed. Maybe . . .
The world bulged und went to pieces j in Jerry’s ears. A massive power I flattened him down on his engine box. An explosion that was a blow, not a sound wave, beat against his tortured eardrums. HLs dory went crazy under him. He tried to lift himself. Solid water came crashing down on him from the sky. He fell under it.
He scrambled up, fighting with a seaman’s instinct for control of his rioting boat. His shirt, ripped off his back, draped the tiller. He tore it loose. He got a vague glimpse of old Noakes ' whirling his skinny white arms around his wheel in his own fight to save his ship.
Quickly the boats quieted down. Slick black water came sliding calmly i under them again. Jerry’s eyes darted astern. Everything was blurred but j through the watery confusion he made j out one massive black boulder, teeter| ing on top of its massed fellows at the j seaward end of the jetty, suddenly rumble over into the water.
He looked at Pete Noakes, close alongside him. The old sea rat drooped at his wheel, numb and spent. His head was toward Jerry, as if his eyes were on him in a glazed stare. They
i both held to their helms, face turned to face, still too awed to speak.
A little time passed. Noakes’ boat ! crept ahead. He eased his throttle.
“Might of—been a mine—at that,” he piped. His voice was thin.
“Yeah,” Jerry said.
^ He felt sorry. The poor old lug’s I fishy world was shot—blown away in 4 that blast. They could do plenty to him for towing in that mine. And he . wouldn’t be Mayor of the Inlet any r more —just the butt of the Inlet.
Jerry slid in closer to the cabin boat, i “I think it was a mine,” he called. I “A loose mine, drifting along down the r beach, till it got caught in the current. 1 Then it bumped on the bar. That’s i what I think happened.”
“Huh?” Noakes stared at him. i Then, quickly, he laid his boat along? side the dory.
? “You do?” he croaked. “You think that?”
i “Sure!” Jerry said. “For the record ' —that’s what I think.”
* Noakes gulped, canted head bobbing.
“Look, son,” he said, “if ye was to follow along o’ me on this coast for a j couple o’ weeks, watching, you might find out where there’s some fish an’ how ye tell. Yes, sir; plenty o’ fish. That’s what ƒ think. And ye can tell your girl that too.”
t Jerry laughed. The old fish hound wanted to square up. And the pay-off a would be—in fish! Well—Jerry planted j his feet firmly on the floor boards. They
3 felt right. Or else he did.
4 “I’ve got other things to tell my girl
r —now,” he said.