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When Matt Peasley's Yankee combativeness, coupled with the accident of birth in the old home town of Cappy Ricks, gained for him command of the Blue Star Navigation Company's big barkentine, Retriever, he lacked eight days of his twenty-first birthday. He had slightly less beard than the average youth of his years; and, despite the fact that he had been exposed almost constantly to salty gales since his fourteenth birthday, he did not look his age. And of all the ridiculous sights ashore or afloat the most ridiculous is a sea captain with the body of a Hercules and the immature features of an eighteen-year-old boy.
Indeed, such a great, soft, innocent baby type was Matt Peasley that even the limited sense of humor possessed by his motley crew forbade their reference to him, after custom immemorial, as the Old Man. The formal title of captain seemed equally absurd; so they compromised by dubbing him Mother's Darling.
"If," quoth Mr. Michael Murphy, chief kicker of the Retriever, over a quiet pipe with Mr. Angus MacLean, the second mate, as the vessel lay at anchor in Grays Harbor, "Cappy Ricks had laid eyes on Mother's Darling before ordering him to Seattle to go up for his master's ticket, the old fox would have scuttled the ship sooner than trust that baby with her."
"Ye'll nae be denying the lad kens his business," Mr. MacLean declared.
"Aye! True enough, Mac; but 'twould be hard to convince Cappy Ricks o' that. Every skipper in his employ is a graybeard."
"Mayhap," the canny MacLean retorted. "That's because t'owd boy's skippers have held their berths ower long."
But Mr. Murphy shook his head. He had come up from before the mast in the ships of the Blue Star Navigation Company, and since he had ambitions he had been at some pains to acquaint himself with the peculiarities of the president of that corporation.
"Give Cappy Ricks one look into Matt Peasley's face and I'll be skippering the Retriever," he declared.
And in this he was more than half right, for Cappy Ricks had never met Matt Peasley, and when the Old Man made up his mind that he wanted the boy to skipper his barkentine, the Retriever, he was acting entirely on instinct. He only knew that in Matt Peasley he had a man who had shipped out before the mast and returned from the voyage in command of the ship, and naturally such an exploit challenged recognition of the most signal nature--particularly when, in its performance, the object of Cappy's admiration had demonstrated that he was possessed of certain sterling attributes which are commonly supposed to make for success in any walk of life.
Since Matt Peasley had accomplished a man's work it never occurred to Cappy Ricks to consider that the object of his interest might be a boy. Young he knew him to be--that is to say, Cappy figured the rascal to be somewhere between thirty and thirty-five.
Had he known, however, that his prospective captain had but recently attained his majority the Old Man would have ascribed Matt Peasley's record-breaking voyage from Cape Town to Grays Harbor as sheer luck, and forthwith would have set Master Matthew down for a five-year apprenticeship as first mate; for Cappy was the product of an older day, and held that gray hairs and experience are the prime requisites for a berth as master.
Any young upstart can run coastwise, put in his service sailing a ship from headland to headland, and then take a course in a navigation school, where in six weeks he can cram sufficient navigation into his thick head to pass the inspectors and get a master's ticket; but for offshore cruising Cappy Ricks demanded a real sailor and a thorough business man rolled into one.
Mother's Darling had returned to Grays Harbor from a flying visit to Seattle, where two grizzled old ex-salts, the local inspectors, had put him through a severe examination to ascertain what he knew of Bowditch on Navigation and Nichols on Seamanship. Naturally he did not know as much as they thought he should; but, out of sheer salt-water pride in the exploit of a stripling and in deference to a letter from Cappy Ricks requesting them to waive further probation as chief mate and issue Mr. Peasley his master's license if they found him at all competent--this in order that the said Peasley might take command of his barkentine, the Retriever, forthwith--the inspectors concluded to override the rules of the Department of Commerce, and gave Matt Peasley his master's license.
Upon his return from Seattle, Matt called at the telegraph office in Hoquiam and received his loading instructions from the owners. His heart beat high with youthful importance and the joy of victory as he almost ran to the water front and engaged a big gasoline launch to take him aboard the Retriever and then kick her into the mill dock at Cosmopolis. His ship was not where he had left her, however, and after an hour's search he discovered her several miles up the Chehalis river. Murphy was on deck, gazing wistfully at the house and wishing he had some white paint, when Matt Peasley came aboard. Even before the latter leaped to the deck Mr. Murphy knew the glad tidings--knew them, in fact, the very instant the boy's shining countenance appeared above the rail. The skipper was grinning fatuously and Mr. Murphy grinned back at him.
"Well, sir," he greeted young Matt, "I see you're the permanent skipper. I congratulate you."
"Thank you, Mike. And I hope you will have no objection to continuing in your berth as first mate. I realize I'm pretty young for an old sailor like you to be taking orders from--"
"Bless your soul, sir," Mr. Murphy protested; "of course I'll stick with you! Didn't you whale the big Swede Cappy Ricks sent to Cape Town to kick you out of your just due?" He reaffirmed his loyalty with a contemptuous grunt.
"What are you doing way up the river?" the captain demanded.
"Oh, that's a little liberty I took," the mate declared. "You're new to this coast; and, of course, when they ordered us to Grays Harbor I knew we weren't going to be able to go on dry dock, because there isn't any dry dock here. So, while you were in Seattle, I had a gasoline tug tow us up-river. We've been lying in fresh water four days, sir, and that'll kill most of the worms on her bottom."
"Hereafter," said Matt Peasley, "you get ten dollars a month above the scale. Thank you."
Mr. Murphy acknowledged his appreciation.
"Any orders, sir?" he continued.
Matt Peasley showed him Cappy Ricks' telegram and Mr. Murphy nodded his approval. He had been in port nearly a week and the whine of the sawmills and the reek of river water had begun to get on his nerves. He was ready for the dark blue again.
"There's something wrong about our cargo, I think," Matt remarked presently.
"Why, down at the telegraph office this morning I met the master of the schooner, Carrier Dove, and when I told him my orders he snickered."
"Huh! Well, he ought to know what he snickered about, sir. The Carrier Dove just finished loading at Weatherby's mill," Mr. Murphy replied. "She's a Blue Star craft and bound for Antofagasta also. Her skipper's Salvation Pete Hansen, and it would be just like that squarehead to dodge a deckload of piling and leave it for us."
"Well, whatever it was it amused him greatly. It must be worse than a deckload of piling."
"There's nothing worse in the timber line, unless it's a load underdeck, sir. You take a sixty-foot pile with a fourteen-inch butt and try to shove it down through the hatch, and you've got a job on your hands. And after the hold is half filled you've got to quit loading through the hatch, cut ports in your bows, and shove the sticks in that way. It's the slowest loading and discharging in the world; and unless you drive her between ports and make up for the lost time you don't make a good showing with your owners--and then your job's in danger. Ship owners never consider anything except results."
"Well," the captain answered, "in order not to waste any more time than is absolutely necessary, call Mr. MacLean and the cook, and we'll go for'd and break out the anchor."
Immediately on his arrival from Cape Town, Matt Peasley had paid off all his foremast hands, leaving the two mates and the cook the only men aboard the vessel. He joined them now in a walk around the capstan; the launch hooked on and the Retriever was snaked across the harbor to Weatherby's mill. And, while they were still three cables' length from the mill dock, Mr. Murphy, who had taken up his position on the topgallant forecastle, to be ready with a heaving line, suddenly raised his head and sniffed upwind.
The captain had the wheel and Mr. MacLean was standing aft waiting to do his duty by the stern line. Presently he, too, raised his head and sniffed.
"I see you got it too, Mac," Mr. Murphy bawled.
"Aw, weel," Mr. MacLean replied; "Why worrit aboot a bridge till ye hae to cross it? D'ye ken 'tis oors?"
"What are you two fellows talking about and why are you sniffing?" Matt Peasley demanded.
"I'm sniffing at the same thing Salvation Pete Hansen laughed about," the mate answered. "I'll bet you a uniform cap we're stuck with a cargo of creosoted piling--and hell hath no fury like a creosoted pile."
When the vessel had been made fast to the mill dock Matt Peasley walked forward to meet his mate.
"What about this cargo of ours?" he demanded. "Remember, I'm new to the lumber trade on this coast. I have never handled any kind of piling."
"Then, sir, you're going to get your education like the boa constrictor that swallowed the nigger--all in one long, slimy bite."
He gazed at his boyish skipper appraisingly.
"No," he murmured to himself; "I can't do it. I like you for the way you whaled that big Swede in Cape Town, but this is too much."
"Why, I don't find the odor so very unpleasant," the master declared; "in fact, I rather like it, and I know it's healthy, because I remember, when my brother Ezra had pneumonia, they burned creosote in the room."
"Oh, nobody objects to the smell particularly, sir, though it's been my experience that anybody can cheapen a good thing by overuse--and we have three months of that smell ahead of us. It's the taste that busts my bobstay."
"Why, what do you mean?"
"Well, you see, sir, the odor of creosote is so heavy it won't float in the air, but just settles down over everything, like mildew on a pair of boots. So it gets in the stores and you taste it. You can store flour below deck aft and creosoted piling on deck for'd--and you won't be out two weeks before that flour is spoiled. Same way with the tea, coffee, sugar, mush, salt-horse--everything. It all tastes of creosote; and then the damned stuff rubs off on the ship and ruins the paintwork. And if the crew happen to have any cuts or abrasions on their hands they're almost certain to get infected with the awful stuff, and you'll be kept busy doctoring them. Then, the first thing, along comes a gale and you're shorthanded, and there's the devil to pay."
"Aye!" Mr. MacLean interrupted solemnly. "I dinna care for creosote mysel', sir; so, wi' your kind permission, I'll hae ma time--an' I'll hae it noo."
Matt Peasley bent upon the recalcitrant Scotchman a withering glare. "Very well, Mr. MacLean," he said presently, "I never could sail in the same ship with a quitter; so you might as well go now, when we can part good friends." He turned to Mr. Murphy. "How about you, Mike? Are you going to run out on me, too?"
Now, as between the Irish and the Scotch, history records no preponderance of courage in either, for both are Gaels and a comparison is difficult.
However, Scotchmen are a conservative race and will walk round a fight rather than be forced into it, while all that is necessary to make an Irishman fight is to impugn his courage.
Mr. Murphy had seen the fight ahead of the Retriever and he did not blame Mr. MacLean for side-stepping it. Indeed, he had intended pursuing the same course; but Matt Peasley, by his latest remark, had rendered that impossible. To desert now would savor of dishonor; and, moreover, Matt Peasley, though master, had called him by his Christian name. Mr. Murphy touched his forelock respectfully.
"I am not Scotch," he announced, with a slight emphasis on the pronoun. "Shame on you, Angus MacLean--ditching the skipper like that!"
"Sticks an' stones may break ma bones, but names'll never hur-rt me," Mr. MacLean retorted. "I tell ye I dinna care for creosote in ma porridge." And he followed Matt Peasley aft, where the latter paid him off and gave him five minutes to pack and get off the ship. Immediately after supper the cook followed the second mate; but, since the former was a Jap and probably the worst marine cook in the world, his departure occasioned no heartache.
"We'll board at the mill cook-house until we're loaded, Mike," Matt Peasley informed the mate. "They have a good Chink up there."
Mr. Murphy sighed as he loaded his pipe and struck a match for it.
"It does look to me, sir," he replied, with that touch of conscious superiority so noticeable in the Celt, "as though Cappy Ricks might have slipped this cargo to a Dutchman."
The Retriever commenced taking on cargo at seven o'clock the following morning, with Mr. Murphy on shipboard and Matt Peasley on the dock superintending the gang of stevedores. Ordinarily the masters of lumber freighters ship their crews before commencing to load, in order that sailors at forty dollars a month may obviate the employment of an equal number of stevedores at forty cents an hour; but Mr. Murphy, out of his profound experience, advised against this course, as tending to spread the news of the Retriever's misfortune and militate against securing a crew when the vessel should be loaded and lying in the stream ready for sea. Men employed now, he explained, would only desert. The thing to do was to let a Seattle crimp furnish the crew, sign them on before the shipping commissioner in Seattle, bring them aboard drunk, tow to sea, and let the rascals make the best of a bad bargain.
The hold was about half filled, and the ship carpenters were at work cutting ports in the Retriever's bows, when Matt Peasley discovered that the mill did not have in hand any order for lumber to be used as stowage to snug up the cumbersome cargo below decks and keep it from rolling and working in a seaway. Accordingly he wired his owners as follows:
Cosmopolis, Washington, July 7, 19--.
Blue Star Navigation Company,
258 California St.,
San Francisco, California.
Cappy Ricks having deliberately conspired to hang a series of dirty cargoes on his newest skipper, for the dual purpose of teaching Matt Peasley his place and discovering whether he was worthy of it, grinned evilly when he received that two-word message; and, not to be out-done in brevity, he dictated this answer:
San Francisco, California, July 7, 19--.
Captain Matthew Peasley,
Master Barkentine Retriever,
Care Weatherby's mill, Cosmopolis, Wash.
Blue Star Navigation Company.
Matt Peasley's cheeks burned when he read that message. Indeed, could Cappy Ricks have been privileged to hear the terse remarks his telegram elicited, there is no doubt he would have sent Mr. Skinner up to the custom-house immediately to file a certificate of change of master.
"Ha!" Mr. Murphy snorted when Matt showed him the message. "I get the old sinner now. This is to be a grudge fight, Captain Matt. You wished yourself onto him in Cape Town against his will, and now he's made up his mind that so long as you wanted the job it's yours--only he'll make you curse the day you ever moved your sea chest into the skipper's cabin. He's going to send us into dogholes to load and open roadsteads to discharge; and if he can find a dirty cargo anywhere we'll get it. But it's carrying a grudge too far not to give us stowage."
"Well, it's his ship," Matt Peabody declared passionately. "If the old thief can gamble on good weather I guess I can gamble on my seamanship--and yours."
The mate inclined his head at the delicate compliment; and Matt, observing this, decided that a few more of the same from time to time would do much to alleviate a diet of creosote.
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