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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Iron Trail - Chapter 1. In Which The Tide Takes A Hand
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The Iron Trail - Chapter 1. In Which The Tide Takes A Hand Post by :rvlawrence Category :Long Stories Author :Rex Beach Date :May 2012 Read :2129

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The Iron Trail - Chapter 1. In Which The Tide Takes A Hand

CHAPTER I. IN WHICH THE TIDE TAKES A HAND

The ship stole through the darkness with extremest caution, feeling her way past bay and promontory. Around her was none of that phosphorescent glow which lies above the open ocean, even on the darkest night, for the mountains ran down to the channel on either side. In places they overhung, and where they lay upturned against the dim sky it could be seen that they were mantled with heavy timber. All day long the NEBRASKA had made her way through an endless succession of straits and sounds, now squeezing through an inlet so narrow that the somber spruce trees seemed to be within a short stone's-throw, again plowing across some open reach where the pulse of the north Pacific could be felt. Out through the openings to seaward stretched the restless ocean, on across uncounted leagues, to Saghalien and the rim of Russia's prison-yard.

Always near at hand was the deep green of the Canadian forests, denser, darker than a tropic jungle, for this was the land of "plenty waters." The hillsides were carpeted knee-deep with moss, wet to saturation. Out of every gulch came a brawling stream whipped to milk-white frenzy; snow lay heavy upon the higher levels, while now and then from farther inland peered a glacier, like some dead monster crushed between the granite peaks. There were villages, too, and fishing-stations, and mines and quarries. These burst suddenly upon the view, then slipped past with dreamlike swiftness. Other ships swung into sight, rushed by, and were swallowed up in the labyrinthine maze astern.

Those passengers of the Nebraska who had never before traversed the "Inside Passage" were loud in the praises of its picturesqueness, while those to whom the route was familiar seemed to find an ever-fresh fascination in its shifting scenes.

Among the latter was Murray O'Neil. The whole north coast from Flattery to St. Elias was as well mapped in his mind as the face of an old friend, yet he was forever discovering new vistas, surprising panoramas, amazing variations of color and topography. The mysterious rifts and passageways that opened and closed as if to lure the ship astray, the trackless confusion of islets, the siren song of the waterfalls, the silent hills and glaciers and snow-soaked forests--all appealed to him strongly, for he was at heart a dreamer.

Yet he did not forget that scenery such as this, lovely as it is by day, may be dangerous at night, for he knew the weakness of steel hulls. On some sides his experience and business training had made him sternly practical and prosaic. Ships aroused no manner of enthusiasm in him except as means to an end. Railroads had no glamour of romance in his eyes, for, having built a number of them, he had outlived all poetic notions regarding the "iron horse," and once the rails were laid he was apt to lose interest in them. Nevertheless, he was almost poetic in his own quiet way, interweaving practical thoughts with fanciful visions, and he loved his dreams. He was dreaming now as he leaned upon the bridge rail of the Nebraska, peering into the gloom with watchful eyes. From somewhere to port came the occasional commands of the officer on watch, echoed instantly from the inky interior of the wheelhouse. Up overside rose the whisper of rushing waters; from underfoot came the rhythmic beat of the engines far below. O'Neil shook off his mood and began to wonder idly how long it would be before Captain Johnny would be ready for his "nightcap."

He always traveled with Johnny Brennan when he could manage it, for the two men were boon companions. O'Neil was wont to live in Johnny's cabin, or on the bridge, and their nightly libation to friendship had come to be a matter of some ceremony.

The ship's master soon appeared from the shadows--a short, trim man with gray hair.

"Come," he cried, "it's waiting for us."

O'Neil followed into Brennan's luxurious, well-lit quarters, where on a mahogany sideboard was a tray holding decanter, siphon, and glasses, together with a bottle of ginger ale. The captain, after he had mixed a beverage for his passenger, opened the bottle for himself. They raised their glasses silently.

"Now that you're past the worst of it," remarked O'Neil, "I suppose you'll turn in. You're getting old for a hard run like this, Johnny."

Captain Brennan snorted. "Old? I'm a better man than you, yet. I'm a teetotaler, that's why. I discovered long ago that salt water and whiskey don't mix."

O'Neil stretched himself out in one of Brennan's easy-chairs. "Really," he said, "I don't understand why a ship carries a captain. Now of what earthly use to the line are you, for instance, except for your beauty, which, no doubt, has its value with the women? I'll admit you preside with some grace at the best table in the dining-salon, but your officers know these channels as well as you do. They could make the run from Seattle to Juneau with their eyes shut."

"Indeed they could not; and neither could I."

"Oh, well, of course I have no respect for you as a man, having seen you without your uniform."

The captain grinned in thorough enjoyment of this raillery. "I'll say nothing at all of my seamanship," he said, relapsing into the faintest of brogues, "but there's no denying that the master of a ship has many unpleasant and disgusting duties to perform. He has to amuse the prominent passengers who can't amuse themselves, for one thing, and that takes tact and patience. Why, some people make themselves at home on the bridge, in the chart-room, and even in my living-quarters, to say nothing of consuming my expensive wines, liquors, and cigars."

"Meaning me?"

"I'm a brutal seafaring man, and you'll have to make allowances for my well-known brusqueness. Maybe I did mean you. But I'll say that next to you Curtis Gordon is the worst grafter I ever saw."

"You don't like Gordon, do you?" O'Neil queried with a change of tone.

"I do not! He went up with me again this spring, and he had his widow with him, too."

"His widow?"

"You know who I mean--Mrs. Gerard. They say it's her money he's using in his schemes. Perhaps it's because of her that I don't like him."

"Ah-h! I see."

"You don't see, or you wouldn't grin like an ape. I'm a married man, I'll have you know, and I'm still on good terms with Mrs. Brennan, thank God. But I don't like men who use women's money, and that's just what our friend Gordon is doing. What money the widow didn't put up he's grabbed from the schoolma'ams and servant-girls and society matrons in the East. What has he got to show them for it?"

"A railroad project, a copper-mine, some coal claims--"

"Bah! A menagerie of wildcats!"

"You can't prove that. What's your reason for distrusting him?"

"Well, for one thing, he knows too much. Why, he knows everything, he does. Art, literature, politics, law, finance, and draw poker have no secrets from him. He's been everywhere--and back--twice; he speaks a dozen different languages. He out-argued me on poultry-raising and I know more about that than any man living. He can handle a drill or a coach-and-four; he can tell all about the art of ancient Babylon; and he beat me playing cribbage, which shows that he ain't on the level. He's the best- informed man outside of a university, and he drinks tea of an afternoon--with his legs crossed and the saucer balanced on his heel. Now, it takes years of hard work for an honest man to make a success at one thing, but Gordon never failed at anything. I ask you if a living authority on all the branches of human endeavor and a man who can beat me at 'crib' doesn't make you suspicious."

"Not at all. I've beaten you myself!"

"I was sick," said Captain Brennan.

"The man is brilliant and well educated and wealthy. It's only natural that he should excite the jealousy of a weaker intellect."

Johnny opened his lips for an explosion, then changed his mind and agreed sourly.

"He's got money, all right, and he knows how to spend it. He and his valet occupied three cabins on this ship. They say his quarters at Hope are palatial."

"My dear grampus, the mere love of luxury doesn't argue that a person is dishonest."

"Would you let a hired man help you on with your underclothes?" demanded the mariner.

"There's nothing criminal about it."

"Humph! Mrs. Gerard is different. She's all class! You don't mind her having a maid and speaking French when she runs short of English. Her daughter is like her."

"I haven't seen Miss Gerard."

"If you'd stir about the ship instead of wearing out my Morris chair you'd have that pleasure. She was on deck all morning." Captain Brennan fell silent and poked with a stubby forefinger at the ice in his glass.

"Well, out with it!" said O'Neil after a moment.

"I'd like to know the inside story of Curtis Gordon and this girl's mother."

"Why bother your head about something that doesn't concern you?" The speaker rose and began to pace the cabin floor, then, in an altered tone, inquired, "Tell me, are you going to land me and my horses at Kyak Bay?"

"That depends on the weather. It's a rotten harbor; you'll have to swim them ashore."

"Suppose it should be rough?"

"Then we'll go on, and drop you there coming back. I don't want to be caught on that shore with a southerly wind, and that's the way it usually blows."

"I can't wait," O'Neil declared. "A week's delay might ruin me. Rather than go on I'd swim ashore myself, without the horses."

"I don't make the weather at Kyak Bay. Satan himself does that. Twenty miles offshore it may be calm, and inside it may be blowing a gale. That's due to the glaciers. Those ice-fields inland and the warm air from the Japanese Current offshore kick up some funny atmospheric pranks. It's the worst spot on the coast and we'll lose a ship there some day. Why, the place isn't properly charted, let alone buoyed."

"That's nothing unusual for this coast."

"True for you. This is all a graveyard of ships and there's been many a good master's license lost because of half-baked laws from Washington. Think of a coast like this with almost no lights, no beacons nor buoys; and yet we're supposed to make time. It's fine in clear weather, but in the dark we go by guess and by God. I've stood the run longer than most of the skippers, but--"

Even as Brennan spoke the Nebraska seemed to halt, to jerk backward under his feet. O'Neil, who was standing, flung out an arm to steady himself; the empty ginger-ale bottle fell from the sideboard with a thump. Loose articles hanging against the side walls swung to and fro; the heavy draperies over Captain Johnny's bed swayed.

Brennan leaped from his chair; his ruddy face was mottled, his eyes were wide and horror-stricken.

"Damnation!" he gasped. The cabin door crashed open ahead of him and he was on the bridge, with O'Neil at his heels. They saw the first officer clinging limply to the rail; from the pilot-house window came an excited burst of Norwegian, then out of the door rushed a quartermaster.

Brennan cursed, and met the fellow with a blow which drove him sprawling back.

"Get in there, Swan," he bellowed, "and take your wheel."

"The tide swung her in!" exclaimed the mate. "The tide--My God!"

"Sweet Queen Anne!" said Brennan, more quietly. "You've ripped her belly out."

"It--was the tide," chattered the officer.

The steady, muffled beating of the machinery ceased, the ship seemed suddenly to lose her life, but it was plain that she was not aground, for she kept moving through the gloom. From down forward came excited voices as the crew poured up out of the forecastle.

Brennan leaped to the telegraph and signaled the engine-room. He was calm now, and his voice was sharp and steady.

"Go below, Mr. James, and find the extent of the damage," he directed, and a moment later the hull began to throb once more to the thrust of the propeller. Inside the wheelhouse Swan had recovered from his panic and repeated the master's orders mechanically.

The second and third officers arrived upon the bridge now, dressing as they came, and they were followed by the chief engineer. To them Johnny spoke, his words crackling like the sparks from a wireless. In an incredibly short time he had the situation in hand and turned to O'Neil, who had been a silent witness of the scene.

"Glory be!" exclaimed the captain. "Most of our good passengers are asleep; the jar would scarcely wake them."

"Tell me where and how I can help," Murray offered. His first thought had been of the possible effect of this catastrophe upon his plans, for time was pressing. As for danger, he had looked upon it so often and in so many forms that it had little power to stir him; but a shipwreck, which would halt his northward rush, was another matter. Whether the ship sank or floated could make little difference, now that the damage had been done. She was crippled and would need assistance. His fellow-passengers, he knew, were safe enough. Fortunately there were not many of them-- a scant two hundred, perhaps--and if worse came to worst there was room in the life-boats for all. But the Nebraska had no watertight bulkheads and the plight of his twenty horses between decks filled him with alarm and pity. There were no life-boats for those poor dumb animals penned down yonder in the rushing waters.

Brennan had stepped into the chart-room, but returned in a moment to say:

"There's no place to beach her this side of Halibut Bay."

"How far is that?"

"Five or six miles."

"You'll--have to beach her?"

"I'm afraid so. She feels queer."

Up from the cabin deck came a handful of men passengers to inquire what had happened; behind them a woman began calling shrilly for her husband.

"We touched a rock," the skipper explained, briefly. "Kindly go below and stop that squawking. There's no danger."

There followed a harrowing wait of several minutes; then James, the first officer, came to report. He had regained his nerve and spoke with swift precision.

"She loosened three plates on her port quarter and she's filling fast."

"How long will she last?" snapped Brennan.

"Not long, sir. Half an hour, perhaps."

The captain rang for full speed, and the decks began to strain as the engine increased its labor. "Get your passengers out and stand by the boats," he ordered. "Take it easy and don't alarm the women. Have them dress warmly, and don't allow any crowding by the men. Mr. Tomlinson, you hold the steerage gang in check. Take your revolver with you." He turned to his silent friend, in whose presence he seemed to feel a cheering sympathy, "I knew it would come sooner or later, Murray," he said. "But--magnificent mummies! To touch on a clear night with the sea like glass!" He sighed dolefully. "It'll be tough on my missus."

O'Neil laid a hand upon his shoulder. "It wasn't your fault, and there will be room in the last boat for you. Understand?" Brennan hesitated, and the other continued, roughly: "No nonsense, now! Don't make a damned fool of yourself by sticking to the bridge. Promise?"

"I promise."

"Now what do you want me to do?"

"Keep those dear passengers quiet. I'll run for Halibut Bay, where there's a sandy beach. If she won't make it I'll turn her into the rocks, Tell 'em they won't wet a foot if they keep their heads."

"Good! I'll be back to see that you behave yourself." The speaker laughed lightly and descended to the deck, where he found an incipient panic. Stewards were pounding on stateroom doors, half- clad men were rushing about aimlessly, pallid faces peered forth from windows, and there was the sound of running feet, of slamming doors, of shrill, hysterical voices.

O'Neil saw a waiter thumping lustily upon a door and heard him shout, hoarsely:

"Everybody out! The ship is sinking!" As he turned away Murray seized him roughly by the arm and thrusting his face close to the other's, said harshly:

"If you yell again like that I'll toss you overboard."

"God help us, we're going--"

O'Neil shook the fellow until his teeth rattled; his own countenance, ordinarily so quiet, was blazing.

"There's no danger. Act like a man and don't start a stampede."

The steward pulled himself together and answered in a calmer tone:

"Very well, sir. I--I'm sorry, sir."

Murray O'Neil was known to most of the passengers, for his name had gone up and down the coast, and there were few places from San Francisco to Nome where his word did not carry weight. As he went among his fellow-travelers now, smiling, self-contained, unruffled, his presence had its effect. Women ceased their shrilling, men stopped their senseless questions and listened to his directions with some comprehension. In a short time the passengers were marshaled upon the upper deck where the life- boats hung between their davits. Each little craft was in charge of its allotted crew, the electric lights continued to burn brightly, and the panic gradually wore itself out. Meanwhile the ship was running a desperate race with the sea, striving with every ounce of steam in her boilers to find a safe berth for her mutilated body before the inrush of waters drowned her fires. That the race was close even the dullest understood, for the Nebraska was settling forward, and plowed into the night head down, like a thing maddened with pain. She was becoming unmanageable, too, and O'Neil thought with pity of that little iron-hearted skipper on the bridge who was fighting her so furiously.

There was little confusion, little talking upon the upper deck now; only a child whimpered or a woman sobbed hysterically. But down forward among the steerage passengers the case was different. These were mainly Montenegrins, Polacks, or Slavs bound for the construction camps to the westward, and they surged from side to side like cattle, requiring Tomlinson's best efforts to keep them from rushing aft.

O'Neil had employed thousands of such men; in fact, many of these very fellows had cashed his time-checks and knew him by sight. He went forward among them, and his appearance proved instantly reassuring. He found his two hostlers, and with their aid he soon reduced the mob to comparative order.

But in spite of his confident bearing he felt a great uneasiness. The Nebraska seemed upon the point of diving; he judged she must be settling very fast, and wondered that the forward tilt did not lift her propeller out of the water. Fortunately, however, the surface of the sound was like a polished floor and there were no swells to submerge her.

Over-side to starboard he could see the dim black outlines of mountains slipping past, but where lay Halibut Bay or what distance remained to be covered he could but vaguely guess.

In these circumstances the wait became almost unbearable. The race seemed hours long, the mites stretched into leagues, and with every moment of suspense the ship sank lower. The end came unexpectedly. There was a sudden startled outcry as the Nebraska struck for a second time that night. She rose slightly, rolled and bumped, grated briefly, then came to rest.

Captain Brennan shouted from the bridge:

"Fill your life-boats, Mr. James, and lower away carefully."

A cheer rose from the huddled passengers.

The boiler-room was still dry, it seemed, for the incandescent lights burned without a flicker, even after the grimy oilers and stokers had come pouring up on deck.

O'Neil climbed to the bridge. "Is this Halibut Bay?" he asked Captain Johnny.

"It is. But we're piled up on the reef outside. She may hold fast--I hope so, for there's deep water astern, and if she slips off she'll go down."

"I'd like to save my horses," said the younger man, wistfully. Through all the strain of the past half-hour or more his uppermost thought had been for them. But Brennan had no sympathy for such sentiments.

"Hell's bells!" he exclaimed. "Don't talk of horses while we've got women and children aboard." He hastened away to assist in transferring his passengers.

Instead of following, O'Neil turned and went below. He found that the water was knee-deep on the port side of the deck where his animals were quartered, which showed that the ship had listed heavily. He judged that she must be much deeper by the head then he had imagined, and that her nose was crushed in among the rocks. Until she settled at the stern, therefore, the case was not quite hopeless.

His appearance, the sound of his voice, were the signals for a chorus of eager whinnies and a great stamping of hoofs. Heads were thrust toward him from the stalls, alert ears were pricked forward, satin muzzles rubbed against him as he calmed their terror. This blind trust made the man's throat tighten achingly. He loved animals as he loved children, and above all he cared for horses. He understood them, he spoke their language as nearly as any human can be said to do so. Quivering muscles relaxed beneath his soothing palm; he called them by name and they answered with gentle twitching lips against his cheek. Some of them even began to eat and switch their tails contentedly.

He cursed aloud and made his way down the sloping deck to the square iron door, or port, through which he had loaded them. But he found that it was jammed, or held fast by the pressure outside, and after a few moments' work in water above his knees he climbed to the starboard side. Here the entrance was obstructed by a huge pile of baled hay and grain in sacks. It would be no easy task to clear it away, and he fell to work with desperate energy, for the ship was slowly changing her level. Her stern, which had been riding high, was filling; the sea stole in upon him silently. It crept up toward him until the horses, stabled on the lower side, were belly-deep in it. Their distress communicated itself to the others. O'Neil knew that his position might prove perilous if the hulk should slip backward off the reef, yet he continued to toil, hurling heavy sacks behind him, bundling awkward bales out of the way, until his hands were bleeding and his muscles ached. He was perspiring furiously; the commotion around him was horrible. Then abruptly the lights went out, leaving him in utter blackness; the last fading yellow gleam was photographed briefly upon his retina.

Tears mingled with the sweat that drained down his cheeks as he felt his way slowly out of the place, splashing, stumbling, groping uncertainly. A horse screamed in a loud, horribly human note, and he shuddered. He was sobbing curses as he emerged into the cool open air on the forward deck.

His eyes were accustomed to the darkness now, and he could see something of his surroundings. He noted numerous lights out on the placid bosom of the bay, evidently lanterns on the life- boats, and he heard distant voices. He swept the moisture from his face; then with a start he realized his situation. He listened intently; his eyes roved back along the boat-deck; there was no doubt about it--the ship was deserted. Stepping to the rail, he observed how low the Nebraska lay and also that her bow was higher than her stern. From somewhere beneath his feet came a muffled grinding and a movement which told him that the ship was seeking a more comfortable berth. He recalled stories of explosions and of the boiling eddies which sometimes accompany sinking hulls. Turning, he scrambled up to the cabin-deck and ran swiftly toward his stateroom.

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