previous
no next



  ― 219 ―

“North of 53°”

 “There is never a law of God or man runs North of 53°”

“WULL, ma lassie,” said Captain Angus McPhail, of the sealing schooner, Seadrift, “ye'll be comin' roon to ma opeenion before lang a' mak' no doot,” and he turned the quid in his cheek slowly.

O Hannah San looked at him out of her narrow, dark eyes, and there was no doubt in her mind. It was a good thing, of course, to attract the attention of the captain. He was part owner, too. There was wealth behind him—witness that smart schooner in the harbour there, with her taper masts and neatly painted sides, and witness his own dress. Did he not wear a waistcoat where other men were content with merely a shirt, and the gold chain that stretched across that waistcoat was heavy and strong. Everything about him spoke to her of wealth. If she pleased him, and she did please him very much, he would spend money here, indeed he would do more, he would take her away from this miserable place where she was to all intents and purposes a slave—body and soul. And O Hannah San, with the blood of her English father beating in her veins, had inherited something of his independence. She could not so invariably smile at fate as did the Japanese women around her.

She was pretty and dainty in her simple kimono of soft pearl grey, embroidered with black and white storks, that set off so well the faint colour in her cheeks. Her hair was not done Japanese fashion. It


  ― 220 ―
was drawn back from her face and plaited in a long plait that hung down below her waist. It marked the European blood in her, and made her look still more childish and out of place in this drinking-hell.

The door stood wide open, and the July sun streamed in on to the dirty floor and across the counter slopped with beer and spirits. There were men there from all quarters of the earth, and O Hannah San and two gentle Japanese girls waited on them. They all sought O Hannah San, while O Hannah San's dark eyes roved to fair-haired Olaf Olsen, the mate of the Seadrift.

His shirt was torn, his trousers were tarry, his feet were encased in boots of undressed deerskin, and there was no gold chain to ostentatiously proclaim his wealth; but his blue eyes smiled back at her, and his square jaw told of strength and determination. O Hannah San's heart went out to him. With his strong arm he would do more for her than the skipper with all his wealth. She loved him, this poor little half-caste Japanese girl who had nothing but her beauty to offer, and he loved her, this burly American Swede who was bound hand and foot to the hard Dundee skipper, who would certainly brook no rival.

Now he came forward slowly, a little reluctantly.

“I reckon it's about time we slipped our moorings, Mister. The cruiser'll be off in a day or two. She's only waiting for her mails, and the Oisha Maru 'll be in from Tokyo any time now.”

“Oh, rats! It'll mak' na differ for a day or twa. The Rusky cruiser's there all the same.”

Through the open doorway of the weatherboard house they could see the cruiser with the British ensign flying, her yellow funnels, and the water streaming from her sides as she rolled in the swell. A smart ship, one of the bulwarks of Britain's power; but McPhail, one of Britain's sons, snapped his fingers scornfully.

“What matter about the cruiser when we're in the fog? It'll be all one then, eh, O Hannah San?” and he chucked the girl under the chin.




  ― 221 ―

The colour rushed to Olsen's weather-beaten cheeks, and he clenched his fists. O Hannah San drew back. Always with her woman's wit she tried to prevent these two men from coming to blows. She loved the mate, but she was woman enough to know the advantage of keeping the skipper at her beck and call; and now, even as she drew back, she smiled saucily, though Olsen frowned.

The skipper leaned his elbows on the dirty counter.

“You an' me'll be marrit,” he said, with a calm air of proprietorship that goaded the mate to wrath; “when a' coom back.”

Olsen's face was black as thunder. He stretched out his hands, and the girl thought he was going to take his skipper and pitch him out of the bar.

“Time enough to talk about that, Captain,” she said lightly. “You haven't gone yet!”

“Ma certy! We'll mend that,” cried the skipper, bringing his fist down with a bang that made the glasses jingle. “Get the crew together, Mister. We'll start this very night, an' when we coom back with a full hold, O Hannah San, a'll marry ye honest an' square if a' ha' to fetch a pairson from Tokyo to do it.”

Olsen frowned, and the girl, with the width of the dirty bar counter between them, made him a mocking little curtsy.

He turned savagely on the mate.

“If that crew isna aboard by four o'clock a'll set fire to every boozin' ken between here and Edermo. Move yourself now, quick an' lively.”

The girl looked across at Olsen, as the skipper was quick to notice. She stood for a moment, then slipped behind the dingy cretonne curtain that made a little private room for the girls behind the bar.

One of the little Japanese girls started the ancient musical box. Perhaps she foresaw trouble and thought that music might soothe the savage breasts. But half the teeth were broken. It had been used as a weapon of offence and defence too often.




  ― 222 ―

“The last Rose of Summer left blooming—burr— buzz—b-u-z-z,” went the musical box, doing its best.

“Now you get an' rouse those lazy blackguards out, Mister,” raged the skipper, “for the mud hook comes up at four, crew or no crew.”

Olsen's angry eyes were fixed on a little dainty brown hand that waved and pointed through the other end of the curtain.

“Aye, aye, Mister,” he said mechanically.

“Burr—burr—b-u-z-z,” went the musical box. A tender dark face appeared for a moment at the curtain, and the next second the mate, with an access of zeal, had dashed among the drinking men.

Flat-nosed Indians, Chinese, Kanakas, men from all the earth were to be found here, and Olsen caught a big Irishman by the shoulder.

“Now then, O'Hara, look alive. Move yourself, move now. The old man's starting at four sharp. Where's Stinker Jim?”

“At the ‘Black ‘Diamond'; where else?” growled O'Hara, who had his own reasons for not wanting to go to sea in a hurry; and Olsen, hustling the men as he passed, slipped out of the bar and was in a second round in the shadow of the dirty weather-board house, where stood a little figure in her dainty Japanese dress, stretching out her arms to him, all her coquetry and sauciness gone.

In a moment he had taken her in his arms, her head was on his breast, and she was sobbing heart-brokenly.

“You're not going—not now—not this moment. I can't let you go.”

He put his face down to hers.

“Oh, steady, little girl, steady. Don't cry. Before you've properly missed me you'll see the old schooner drifting round the point inward bound with a full hold,” and he rubbed his rough cheek against her soft one. But for all his cheery words, there was a sinking at his heart that he did not like.

“Dear, dear, dear.” Her little clinging hands went up round his neck. “Suppose you never come back


  ― 223 ―
again.” She caught her breath with a little sob. “Black Peterson was in here last week dismasted in the Bounding Billow, and he says there are no seal at all on the way up, and you'll be for raiding the rookeries then, and that means Vladivostock and a Russian prison, and I'll never see you any more.”

“You'll be able to beg me off,” he said with a laugh, “when the skipper of the Rusky cruiser comes south. No, no, little woman, never fear. The price of skins has gone up. I'm getting twenty-five shares this trip, an' when we've paid off you an' I'll take a schooner away south to the pearlers on the Great Barrier. No typhoons, no fogs there, little girl.”

She raised her face, smiling for a moment through her tears. A schooner with him, in summer seas; surely the world could hold no greater joy. Then a new fear assailed her.

“He—he—” she breathed, “the old man, he hates you.”

“And I hate him—when you're by,” he said fiercely, and his clasping hands hurt her.

“He'll—he'll kill you.” She was accustomed to deeds of violence, and she thought he might.

The man laughed aloud. “I'd like to see him,” he said, throwing back his head. “Come, little girl, I guess I'll have to get. He'll raise Cain if those men ain't aboard, and I'll have to carry most of 'em, you bet.”

“O Hannah San! O Hannah San!” came a shrill and angry call from the house. The old hag who owned her was calling, and she drew his rough face down to hers for one brief moment, then released him and slipped silently away.

“ 'Nother of them sealers under weigh, sir,” reported the smart signalman in the ward-room of the cruiser, where the officer of the day was busily engaged in tossing for sherry and bitters.

“We'll hoist the colours an' just dip to 'em. It's as well to be ceevil,” said McPhail.




  ― 224 ―

And slowly the red ensign floating on the land breeze descended from peak to taffrail showing out clear against the dark hills of Hakodate with the little Japanese town nestling at their foot. The last rays of the setting sun caught the full white sails, and the chanty of the men, as they catted the anchor, came mournfully across the waters to the ears of the little girl they had left behind them.

“For there's lots of gold
So I've been told,
On the banks of the Santa Anna.”

“Pea soup,” grunted the skipper.

“I reckon,” said the mate, “it's a d—d sight thicker than any our food-spoiler whacks out.”

The great mainsail overhead idly flapped as the Seadrift rolled to the slight swell. The hands were lying lazily about the decks after dinner smoking, and the two men were standing by the wheel. There was friction. Neither, perhaps, would have acknowledged that so slight a thing as a woman could have influenced them in any way; but the fact remained that the skipper, looking at the mate, remembered that a little slip of a girl had preferred him, and had only laughed a little mocking laugh when he—part owner of the Seadrift—had, before the whole crowd, openly announced his intention of marrying her; and then Olsen could not but remember that, while he was penniless, the skipper had the cash and could buy the girl outright if he wished, whatever her views on the subject. A little half-caste Japanese girl doesn't count for much in Hakodate. But might is apt to be right there too, thought the mate grimly, as he looked at his clenched fists and the muscles of his arms.

“I could almost swear,” he said, “I smelt the land in the middle watch last night. D'ye reckon we're to the nor'ard of Petropaulski yet?”

“Aye, she's been movin' through the water always two or three knots sin' we sighted yon volcano in the


  ― 225 ―
Kuriles, an' the Kurosiwo current ought to have been helping us on a bit. Dom they seals.” He leaned over the taffrail and spit into the water. “Three weeks out, right in the track of the seals comin' north, an' never a pelt.”

“Land, O! There's the land!” shouted the mate, snatching his pipe out of his mouth and pointing. The schooner had drifted to the edge of the fog, and three miles to leeward they could see a mountain deep in snow from beach to summit, far away in the clouds.

“Yon's Kamskatscka. That's Cape Shipmunski. A ken it weel,” said the skipper. “On the sandy beach abreast of us there's a big lot of walrus hauls up. A've a guid mind to go in an' luik for 'em. There was a professor man askin' for skins to stuff for museums down Tokyo way.”

The mate's suppressed fury burst out now it had a legitimate object to vent itself upon. He swung round.

“Museums to blazes! You don't reckon we've come all this way collectin' old walrus hides for professors. It's come to this, Cap'en [?]. We've an empty hold. The seals are only in one place. I calculate we'd better look for 'em there.”

“Mon, mon,” it was not sink or swim with the skipper this venture, “ye're vera anxeeous for employment in they mercury mines or to know what a Ween-chester bullet feels like.”

“Mercury mines be blowed; and if it comes to shooting we can give as good as we get, I guess.”

The fog was heavy and wet and cold, and the thought of a schooner and a loving little girl in summer seas was tantalising—and far away—for an empty hold and payment by the share system meant landing at San Francisco or Hakodate with empty pockets. The skipper could afford to fail for one voyage. The thought came to the mate that he would prefer it just for this once. It would put him, Olsen, right out of the running, and the thought stung. He turned to the men.




  ― 226 ―

“Empty pockets at 'Frisco, boys,” he mocked, and the shot told.

A curse or two went out into the fog, and then a voice cried loud and insistent:

“The rookeries! We'll make for the rookeries!”

“A've no mind,” cut in the skipper dryly, “to spend the rest of ma days in a mercury mine.”

“Be blowed! We can go an' look.”

“You hold your jaw, O'Hara. I'm cap'en of this ship.”

“Cap'en or no cap'en,” growled the Irishman, “cap'ens have fallen overboard before now. We're a pretty hard case crowd down for'ard, an' we ain't up here for the good of our healths only. The mate's roight. If he says the word we'll go with him an' skin every seal in the place, an' the blanked fur company's men as well if they go shovin' their oars in.”

“That'll do, O'Hara. That'll do you. Hold your jaw. You dry up,” said Olsen. “The skipper's all right.”

But he had sown the seed.

McPhail looked at the threatening faces for a moment. Hard-bitten Scotchman as he was, he did not like giving in. His desire was for an empty ship and a quick return, but the crew were not to be denied. He was one man against the lot, and he knew that O'Hara's threat was not an idle one. He gave in with what grace he might.

“Wull, wull, ma lads, remember a'll do no mair than luik. There's no hairm in luikin'. The Lord send no cruiser catches us within the thretty-mile leemit,” and he threw the last words sullenly at the jubilant mate.

“Cruiser! In this fog! We've good papers and a clean hold, and it 'ud take a better man than the navigator of the Rusky or the British cruiser to say whether we're within the thirty-mile limit or not.”

“I guess we'll take the risk,” shouted the men, and the skipper turned to the man at the wheel.

“Port your helm, then, ye dommed fule. Keep her east by south.”




  ― 227 ―

For three days the schooner jogged steadily along through the fog. On the second day McPhail was lucky enough to get sights which gave him a good position abreast of the islands he was heading for so unwillingly. Then the fog came down again thicker than ever. It moved in waves, and every now and again the men on the fo'c'sle were just dim figures to the man at the wheel. Sea, sky, half the ship were swallowed up in the dimness, and it was weirdly still. The only sound that broke the silence was the slop of the waves against the schooner's side, and the flapping of her sails against her masts. The lazy leaden waves heaved under the fog, and McPhail took up his position beside the man at the wheel and watched them sullenly.

He wondered in his dull, stolid way would they risk a raid on the rookeries. If they risked and succeeded it would put money in his pocket, but if they failed— well, his would be the greater loss. He looked at the restless, anxious mate and knew that what he, the skipper, wanted, was to get back just as they were with empty holds and a clean ship.

Between him and his mate was an armed neutrality. They spoke when they had to, that was all, and the crew were with Olsen; but McPhail knew they could have done nothing had the mate stood in with the skipper. And he knew, too, he would have been loyal but for that girl away in Hakodate. Their ship, their liberty, their lives, were all weighed down in the balance by the slim figure of the little girl in a pearl grey kimono with black and white storks upon it. He nursed his wrath and bitterness, and cursed the mate by all his gods.

Then suddenly out of the gloom, making every man jump, came the hoarse hoot of a sailing ship's foghorn quite close to them.

“Wonder what a whaler's doing hereaway,” said the mate. “The whaleman should be farther north by now.”

The skipper looked at him with scorn. “An' ye ca' yersel' a sealer! I spiered ye'd never been beyont the


  ― 228 ―
tail o' the toon pier. Ye never heard a whaleman troublin' to sound his foghorn. Yon's a cruiser, Rusky or British. They bank their fires an' cruise under canvas within the leemit.”

Then over the top of the fog came slowly into view the topgallants'les of a man-of-war, and they heard the pipes of the boatswain's mate “calling away” a cutter, and knew that they, too, had been seen, for the fog in these seas is sometimes little more than forty feet high, and the masts of ships close to one another may plainly be seen, while the hulls are shrouded by a thick curtain of fog.

And now the skipper and the mate must stand together. They dropped below, and in a second the skipper had put away the chart and spread out an old one on the table.

“Here away's the ship's poseetion at noon to-day, Mister,” he said, making a pencil mark on the chart forty miles south of their real position, and abreast of Petropaulski, “we're a-lookin' for Petropaulski, ye ken. You keep your tongue amidships, an' a'll spin 'em a yarn.”

When they came on deck again the man-of-war's cutter was only a couple of ship's lengths away. The white boat was hardly discernible, only the black badges with the gilt initial letter in her bows showed up clearly, and the red cross in the white ensign flying at her stern made a spot of brilliant colour on the dull grey of sea and fog. The next second the boat was scraping alongside, and a young lieutenant came over the side, the collar of his monkey-jacket turned up about his ears, his sword banging against the bulwarks as he stepped over.

“You're a sealer by the looks of you,” he said.

“Aye, sur,” said the skipper, “an' an unlucky one.”

“Well, I suppose you know you're within the thirty-mile limit, and as such you're liable to arrest for poaching.”

“Gude save us! The thretty-mile leemit! Wull,


  ― 229 ―
wull, wull! Would ye no have a luik at the chart, sir?”

“Yes, I will, and your papers and the hold as well.”

“Mr Olsen, get the main hatch off. Wull ye juist step doon inta the cabin, sur?”

“This,” he pointed to the chart, “is my poseetion by dead reckonin' to-day. A'm workin' in for Petropaulski, an' reckon to reach it on the next board, ye ken.”

The lieutenant laughed and pointed to their real position.

“Gude save us!” sighed the skipper. “It'll tak' me a week workin' back against this current.”

A brief inspection of the empty hold followed. Whatever might be their intentions they certainly had not poached as yet, and the young officer got into his boat again, saying he would explain to his captain, and warning McPhail to get out of the limit at once.

By this time the vessels had drifted out of sight and hearing.

“Your course back is west by nor', sur,” said McPhail, civilly, hanging over the bulwarks; and then he put his hands to his mouth and shouted, “Get the hands up, Mr Olsen. We'll put the ship about.”

In a few seconds the boat was swallowed in the dense fog, and McPhail wiped his brow and stroked his hair with his fur cap.

“That was a close call, Mister. A British gaol's better than the mercury mines, but— Ma lads, we'll put the ship about.”

There was a threatening murmur.

“We know where one cruiser is, anyhow,” said Olsen. “He's astern of us. I reckon we'll go on.”

For a moment the two men looked at one another, measuring each other like two angry dogs.

“Cheer O for the skipper, boys! He stood by us like a trump,” said Olsen, and turned on his heel with a laugh, and the hard-bitten Dundee skipper knew he must go on. He might have made known his plight


  ― 230 ―
to the lieutenant, but his trade was sealing, and where would he have got another crew had he betrayed this one. And the ship went on her course.

During the evening the wind freshened, blowing steadily off the land, clearing away the fog, only to be succeeded by driving rain and sleet. They could see no farther, and it was bitter cold, and cut their faces like knives. There was a subdued excitement in the ship. Would the mate really see them through? The old man had behaved well about the cruiser, and they cheered him when he came on deck after supper, but he only shook his fist at them.

“You dommed fules,” he said. “There's the Rusky to reckon wi' yet, an', anyhow, a'll mak' ye pay.”

But the men thought with a full hold he would forget his anger. They knew nothing of the storm of jealous fury raging at his heart.

“Ye'll gang yer ain gait,” he said, and went below again. Olsen watched his broad back in the glimmer of the companion light. He, too, was excited, far more excited than the men, for with him lay the responsibility. It was a different thing to talk of raiding the seal rookeries and to do it, to know that it would be all settled in the course of the next few hours. Even if they got the pelts they would have to run the gauntlet of the two cruisers. But visions of O Hannah San and a peaceful schooner running between the islands and Sydney with copra rose up before him, and filled him with a desperate longing.

“Make or break, the pool or nothing,” he muttered, as he shook the water from his oilskins. Money he must have, therefore seals he must get, and since the legitimate trade on the high seas had failed, the only alternative was a dash for the fur company's preserves.

“Breaker ahead—I tink—I hear him,” the hoarse voice of the Russian Finn at the wheel broke in on his reverie.

“The rookery, by thunder! It's the roar of the seals! It's a weather shore, no breakers there. What a landfall to make!” And again the sick feelings of


  ― 231 ―
intense anxiety gripped at his heart. “It ought to be a good omen—such a landfall, in such weather!”

“The de'il they say luiks after his own,” said a gruff voice behind him, and slewing round he saw the oil-skinned figure of McPhail close behind him, his enemy —well, not his enemy exactly, but his rival. Another couple of hours would settle it. If they sailed south of Hakodate with a full hold then he would have no rival. And if they failed—

They were not going to fail. He turned away and knocked his pipe out over the bulwarks, and answered the skipper neither by word or look.

Aft came O'Hara to relieve the wheel, and the mate pointed with his pipe into the gloom.

“The rookeries,” he said, as coolly as he could, “a matter of five mile away.”

“The devil!” cried O'Hara, and then he yelled at the top of his voice for benefit of the watch on deck and the watch below, “the rookeries, boys! The rookeries, you sons of sea cooks! Rouse out there! Who's for the shore? Rouse out there, rouse out!”

Up came tumbling the men, shrouded figures in the gloom and wet. The slanting decks were streaming with water, the binnacle light showed but a feeble glimmer, and overhead the spread of sails was dark against the lowering sky. The sleet driven before a biting wind cut their faces, but the roar of the seals was plainly to be heard above the sough of the wind in the sails and the slop of the sea against the ship's sides.

They would go for those seals. Olsen knew it as he looked at them straining their eyes out into the gloom, and the skipper knew he was helpless in the hands of his men.

“Shall we try for them, boys?” asked the mate. “I'd better get the boat cleared away.”

“Aye,” came the answer like one man.

“Men,” came the skipper's voice in remonstrance, “it's takin' big reesks. There's no fresh deal, ye ken. If ye don't get they pelts there's a gran' chance o' the mercury mines, an' a'm layin' odds on them.”




  ― 232 ―

“See here, Cap'en,” said Olsen angrily. “We're lookin' for seals, I take it, and they're ahead of us. The sub-agents' men will be all in their huts to win'ard of the rookeries; not a thing'll be heard above the roar of the seals. It's black as blazes and thick as a hedge. A boatful of good men, and four hours clear darkness, never had men such a chance.”

There was a chorus of assent from the men. They were like eager dogs on the leash.

“I'll tak' no hand in it, I tell ye,” said the skipper angrily. “It's agin the law.”

Captain Angus McPhail setting up as a law-abiding citizen would only have moved the men to laughter another time, but now it moved them only to wrath.

“Shove him overboard,” came an angry voice out of the darkness.

But the mate recognised the voice. He crossed the sliding deck, and with one blow of his heavy fist felled the man. He had no reason to love McPhail. At the bottom of his heart he knew well enough it was not honesty that was troubling the skipper, but a desire to thwart him, Olaf Olsen, to send him back to port a beggar; but as one of the after-guard he was loyal to a certain extent.

“Stow that,” said he. “If the skipper ain't with us, he ain't agin us. O'Hara and I can settle it. Now then, lads, we'll take the fores'le and stays'le off her. The less sail, the less chance of being seen.”

The roar of the seals was getting louder and louder as they drew in. Presently, sail had been shortened, the whale-boat cleared away and lowered over the side close to the water, and a couple of hands were busy passing over clubs and skinning knives and other implements.

“Sandy,” ordered the mate, “jump down to my cabin and pass up those Winchesters underneath the settee.”

“Mon, mon,” remonstrated the skipper, “that's a hangin' matter for all of us. The raidin's bad eneuch, an' means chokee for those that ha' the meesfortune to


  ― 233 ―
be catched, but this yon is a hangin' matter for all of us.”

“Oh, that's all right,” said the mate cheerfully. “If that infernal Rusky takes a hand in the game we'll be prepared to see him, and raise him every time. I'll take fifteen of you men. It's a big load for the boat, and most of you'll have to swim off, I'm thinkin',” he added with a chuckle, the excitement was taking hold of him, “when we've a full load of skins.”

Just faintly through the driving sleet and rain they could make out land, with the rocks only a few hundred yards away, and the mate reflected they must be perfectly invisible from the shore. The schooner was hove to, and the boat pulled silently away in the direction of the rocks. The six remaining men, one of whom was the Chinese cook and steward, hung over the bulwarks, straining their eyes out into the gloom. Intense excitement kept them silent, and presently the skipper joined them. He had the sullen air of a beaten man, but even on him the situation had its effect. The excitement was catching. Another hour would settle it, and send them back to Hakodate with a fuller hold than ever they had had yet, or else—

“By gum,” muttered O'Hara, “it's thicker than a mud hedge.”

The skipper stirred uneasily. There was a little break in the clouds, and for one second a bright star twinkled down on them.

“Good luck to you,” said O'Hara.

“Dom you for a scatter-brained Irish fule!” broke in the skipper angrily. “I dinna like the luik of it at all. The infernal rain's takin' off, a' think. If there's trouble, ma lads, ye'll juist shelter under the bulwarks an' tak' na notice.”

“Trouble,” scoffed O'Hara.

“The rain's takin' off, a' tell ye.”

The skipper was right. The rain that had come down so steadily and persistently since they had left the fog, was just taking off when they needed it most. If it had only held on another hour—but it was not going


  ― 234 ―
to hold on another hour. The crew leaning over the bulwarks saw first the sea, then the rocks, the beach, and the sand hillocks behind the beach, clearly outlined. They could see their boat and the men at work among the seals. One cursed, one spit in the water. O'Hara, with Irish optimism, opined it would be all right, and then on the sandhills one or two figures appeared for a second and disappeared. The men could be seen running through the seals towards the boat.

The skipper raised his voice and cursed the mate, and cursed the men by all his gods. Then he turned to O'Hara.

“Guve me the wheel. Juist pass up they rifles out of the cabin an' put some ammuneetion on the skylight. Quick, now! Look lively! If yon Rusky has a bang at me maybe it wouldna be ceevil no to return it.”

O'Hara looked at him a second, then jumped to obey him, and hardly was he back again than above the roar of the seals came the short, sharp bark of the Winchesters.

“Up wi' ye. Hoist the fores'le. Let draw the head sheets,” roared the skipper, as the fusillade increased.

One or two men dropped by the boat, whether wounded or to take cover they could not tell. Others frantically endeavoured to get her afloat, while the subagent's people, evidently in force, were firing from the tops of the sandhills.

The skipper's attention was taken off for a moment by the necessity for giving his undivided attention to getting sail on the ship with his limited crew, and when he again looked the boat was afloat, drifting before the wind, no sign of life in her, and there were one or two dark figures on the outer rocks which might have been dead seals, but looked suspiciously like men.

He spun the wheel hard up and shouted to the men to slack away the main sheets. He was no coward, but he had been dragged into this against his will.

“It's na guid, it's na guid,” he shouted. “Yon lot's done for. We maun juist save our ain skins.”




  ― 235 ―

Not even O'Hara made any remonstrance. He was captain of his own ship once more. By this time the schooner was attracting the enemy's fire, but the bullets fell short.

“There's a seal—no—it's a man swimming toward us. It's one of them Flat-noses, Boney, I reckon,” shouted O'Hara.

The skipper hesitated one second.

“We'll go back for him,” he said. “Put your helm down. Haud aft your sheets.”

Smartly the schooner came up to the wind, and in a few minutes Boney was on board. His cheek was laid open by a bullet, and he gesticulated wildly. As far as he knew four or five men were among the seals; the rest were in the boat, most of them hit more or less. The sub-agent's men were too many for them. They hadn't had a chance. The mate had a broken arm.

The schooner was rapidly coming into the fire zone, and the bullets were coming their way again, though they were still falling short, and they could see a boat being rapidly hauled over the sandhills. Not one of them but knew what that meant. If they in their crippled condition were caught by the sub-agent and his well-armed men it was good-bye to the girls of Hakodate and San Francisco for many a long day to come. It was absolute ruin to the skipper.

“Are you goin' afther the mate?” asked O'Hara.

“Aye,” came the answer promptly; “a'll no see a man sent to the mines if a' can help it. Get a grapnel along the starboard side, O'Hara. You stand by to chuck it into the boat as we pass. The rest of you lie close under the weather bulwarks, an' fire on yon sandhills. Ye'll maybe not hit much but sand, but perhaips ye'll deemoralise their fire.”

The lead was now coming in earnest. “Zip! zip! zip!” splinters of wood in all directions. The schooner held on gallantly, the only man on her decks visible being McPhail, who was kneeling by the wheel, which raised him just high enough to see over the


  ― 236 ―
bulwarks. It would be a very close call if she got through, for his boat lay within thirty yards of the visible rocks, and probably among lots of invisible ones, and it also would bring him within about one hundred and fifty yards of the riflemen on the sandhills.

The hard Scotchman wondered for a moment was it good enough. What was he doing this for? The mate had brought it on himself, even if he were not already dead, and for the others that might be living, what did they matter, one gaol was pretty much the same as another. A spin of the wheel, and in a few minutes he would be in safety, heading away for Hakodate with no obstacle now between him and O Hannah San. He had everything to lose and nothing to gain, and this sentiment was not business. But he held on.

“Zip!” and he felt a pain in his shoulder, but it was not until he saw the red stain coming out on his flannel shirt that it dawned on him he had been hit.

They were rapidly closing down on the boat.

“Stand by!” he shouted to O'Hara, “an' the rest of ye pump lead for all ye're worth.”

The rocks looked as if the schooner must strike them, so narrow did the little stretch of water between seem.

“Bang!” came the boat alongside the schooner.

“Heave!” shouted McPhail.

For one second O'Hara's head and arm appeared above the sheltering bulwarks. The grapnel took a firm hold against the thwart of the boat, and almost the same instant the mate appeared over the side, one arm hanging limp, and he rushed aft and crouched down on the deck.

“Whizz!” went the wheel.

The skipper's voice rang out. “Slack away every—”

He half rose and pitched forward on his face, with his hands outstretched. The mate, with his one hand grabbing at the wheel mechanically, noticed the little trickle of blood reddening the damp deck.

“Here you, O'Hara,” he shouted, “give a hand to the cap'en.”




  ― 237 ―

But no one could help the skipper now. He had given his last order. He had fought his last fight. A brave if lawless sailor had gone to his own place—his place till the sea shall give up her dead, and the smart little ship, towing her boat with its dead and wounded alongside, swung round on her course like a graceful seabird heading for the open sea.

previous
no next