Chapter XXXI. Internal Combustion




The Quickstep had arrived in port again before Cappy Ricks and Florry could get away to Europe, so Matt came down by train from Los Medanos and was granted the meager comfort of a farewell with his heart's desire. Thereafter all comfort fled his life, for, with Cappy Ricks away, Mr. Skinner was high and low justice, and he was not long keeping Matt Peasley in ignorance of the fact that it was one thing to skipper a Blue Star ship for Cappy Ricks and quite another thing to skipper the same ship for the Blue Star manager. For Mr. Skinner had never liked Captain Peasley, and, moreover, he never intended to, for the master of the Quickstep was not sufficiently submissive to earn the general manager's approbation as a desirable employee, and Cappy Ricks was the only man with a will and a way of his own who could get along amicably in the same office with the efficient and cold-blooded Mr. Skinner.

Cappy wasn't outside Sandy Hook before Mr. Skinner had Matt on the carpet for daring to bring the Quickstep up river without a pilot. He demanded an explanation.

"I made careful note of all the twists and turns when the pilot took me up the first time," Matt declared. "It isn't a difficult channel, so I decided to save forty-five dollars the next time and take her up myself."

"Suppose you'd buried her nose in the mud and we'd had to lighter her deckload to get her off," Mr. Skinner suggested.

Matt grinned. "If your aunt was a man she'd be your uncle, wouldn't she?" he parried. He had made up his mind not to take Mr. Skinner seriously. Mr. Skinner flushed, looked dangerous, but concluded not to pursue the investigation further.

Three weeks later, when making up to a dock at San Pedro, a strong ebb tide and a mistake in judgment swung the bow of the Quickstep into the end of the dock and a dolphin was torn out. In the fullness of time the Blue Star Navigation Company was in receipt of a bill for $112 dock repairs, whereupon Mr. Skinner wrote Matt, prefacing his letter with the query: "Referring to inclosed bill--how did this happen?" Then he went on to scold Matt bitterly for his inability to handle his ship properly in making up to a dock.

Matt promptly returned Mr. Skinner his own letter, with this penciled memorandum at the bottom of the page: "Referring to inclosed bill for dock repairs--the dock happened to be in my course. That's the only way I can account for it."

For some time, whenever the Quickstep carried shingle cargoes for the Shingle Association, there had been disputes over her freight bill, due to continued discrepancies between the tally in and the tally out, and Mr. Skinner had instructed Matt to tally his next cargo into the ship himself and then tally it out again. Matt engaged a certified lumber surveyor at five dollars a day to do the tallying at the various mills, but at Los Medanos he tallied the cargo out personally. To a shingle it agreed with the mill tally. Subsequently the manager of the drying yard reported a shortage of eight thousand shingles, and again Mr. Skinner wrote Matt for an explanation, to which Matt replied as follows:

"Do not pay any attention to the yard manager's tally. Ours is right. A certified tallyman counted 11,487,250 in, and I counted 11,487,250 out, as I have already reported. Sorry I cannot reverse my decision. However, I have an idea which may account for the shortage: After the vessel is reported down river, the stevedores gather on the dock, and while waiting for us to arrive and commence discharging they whittle shingles to pass the time away. I give you this information for what it may be worth."

Mr. Skinner had the grace to see that he had been rebuked and left standing in a very poor light for one of his noted efficiency, so he did not pursue the subject further; but the next time Matt came to the office he jumped on him for carrying a dead-head passenger from San Pedro in the first cabin.

"Of course I carried him," Matt replied. "When I was before the mast in the Annabel Lee he was her skipper, so when I met him in Pedro minus his ticket and stony broke I gave him a lift to San Francisco. Mr. Ricks informed me that I would be permitted these little courtesies within the bounds of reason."

"When Captain Kjellin had the Quickstep," Mr. Skinner answered, "he never carried dead-heads."

"You mean he didn't have the courage to put the name on the passenger list and write D. H. after it. However, please do not compare me with Captain Kjellin."

"Well, you're not making the time he made in the Quickstep."

"I know it, sir. My policy is to make haste slowly. Kjellin hurried--and see what happened to him. He'll never be fast again, either, with that short leg of his."

"Captain Peasley, I am opposed to your levity."

"Do you want me to worry and stew just because you do not happen to like me and keep picking on me, Mr. Skinner? Why don't you be a sport and give me a fair chance, sir? You have all the best of it in any argument--so why argue?"

"No more dead-heads," Mr. Skinner warned. "Hereafter, pay for your guests."

With the coming on of winter, however, Matt's troubles with Mr. Skinner really commenced, although, in all justice to Skinner, the general manager was merely following out his theory of efficiency, and in respect to the matter upon which he deviled Matt Peasley most he did not differ vastly from many managing owners of steam schooners on the Pacific Coast. The trouble lay in the fact that the Quickstep carried passengers. While she was a cargo boat, and hence had no regular run or sailing schedule, her cabin accommodations were really very good and her steward's department excelled that of the regular passenger boats. By cutting the regular passenger rates from twenty-five to forty per cent. and advertising the vessel to sail at a certain hour on a certain date from a certain pier, free-lance ticket brokers found no difficulty in getting her a fair complement of passengers each trip. There was a moderate profit in this passenger traffic, and Mr. Skinner was anxious to increase it.

The difficulty surrounding the passenger business in the steam-schooner trade, however, lies in the uncertainty of a vessel's arrival and departure. It is all guesswork. Thus Matt Peasley, with his cargo half discharged at San Pedro, would estimate that he would sail from that port, northbound via San Francisco to some Oregon or Washington port for another cargo, at noon on the following day. Accordingly, he would wire his owners, who would immediately advertise the sailing of the vessel from San Francisco forty hours later, the Quickstep's average running time between San Pedro and San Francisco being about thirty-eight hours. If the master's estimate proved correct and there were no strong head winds to retard the vessel, she would sail within an hour or two of the advertised time, whereas a delay of six to eight hours in the arrival of the vessel at San Francisco might mean the loss of all the passenger business garnered for that trip; for competition was keen, and the ticket agents, selling on a commission of one dollar per ticket, would switch the traffic to some other vessel sailing earlier rather than have the tickets canceled and thus lose the commission.

When through delay or miscalculation the vessel lost passenger traffic out of a port other than San Francisco, Mr. Skinner did not feel discouraged. To lose passengers out of San Francisco, where the home office of the Blue Star Navigation Company was located, however, savored of a reflection on his efficiency, and caused him much bitter anguish. Consequently, when Matt Peasley, with a full passenger list from Eureka to San Francisco, wired Mr. Skinner that he would leave his loading port at two P. M. on Wednesday, Mr. Skinner allowed him twenty-two hours for landing his passengers from Eureka to San Francisco and taking on another load for San Pedro, whither the Quickstep was bound on that voyage. As a result the Quickstep was advertised to sail from San Francisco on Thursday at two P. M., and the agents were notified to commence selling tickets. Judge of Mr. Skinner's perturbation, therefore, when he received the following wireless from Matt Peasley at five o'clock on Wednesday:

Bar breaking heavily. At anchor inside. Will cross out as soon as I judge it safe to do so.

Three hours' delay, already, with the prospects exceedingly bright for the Quickstep's lurking inside Humboldt Bar all night! Mr. Skinner saw his passenger traffic gone to glory for that trip, so he sent a reply to Matt Peasley by wireless, as follows:

You are advertised to sail from here for San Pedro at two o'clock to-morrow. Hope you will permit nothing to militate against the preservation of that schedule. Answer.

"That's what comes of having an inexperienced man in the vessel," he complained to the cashier. "That fellow Peasley sees a few white caps on the bar, and he's afraid to cross out. Damn! Kjellin had her three years and never hung behind a bar once. Many a time he's come down to Humboldt Bar and found half a dozen steam schooners at anchor inside, waiting for a chance to duck out. Did Kjellin drop anchor too? He did not. Out he went and bucked right through it."

Mr. Skinner waited at the office until six o'clock to get Matt Peasley's answer. He got it--between the eyes:

I have no jurisdiction over Humboldt Bar.

The Quickstep crossed out next morning, and Mr. Skinner wirelessed her master this message:

Your timidity has spoiled San Pedro passenger business. Drop Eureka passengers at Meiggs Wharf and continue your voyage.

Now it does not please any mariner to be told that he is timid, and, while Matt Peasley made no reply, nevertheless, he chalked up a black mark against Mr. Skinner and commenced to plan against the day of reckoning.

That was an unusually severe winter. Four times Matt Peasley came down to the entrance to Humboldt Bar and came to anchor. Three times he tried to cross out and was forced to change his mind; seven times did Mr. Skinner upbraid him. The eighth time that Matt Peasley's caution knocked the San Francisco passenger traffic into a deficit, Mr. Skinner sent him this message where the Quickstep lay behind Coos Bay Bar:

What is the matter with you? Your predecessor always managed to negotiate that bar, and this company expects same of you.

"He's bound to run me out of this ship," Matt soliloquized when he read that terse aerogram, "but I promised Cappy I'd stick six months and I'll do it. That penny-pinching Skinner wants me to cut corners and get myself into trouble so he can fire me. I'll not tell him the things I want to tell him, so I guess I won't say anything--much."

He didn't. He just wired Mr. Skinner as follows:

Any time you want to commit suicide I will furnish a pistol.

About the beginning of March Mr. Skinner opened his cold heart long enough to let in a little human love and get married, and shortly thereafter he found it necessary to make a business trip to the redwood mill of the Ricks Lumber and Logging Company on Humboldt Bay. He went up on the regular P. C. passenger boat and took his bride with him, and while he was at the mill Matt Peasley came nosing in with the Quickstep and loaded a cargo of redwood lumber. He finished loading on the same day that Mr. Skinner discovered he had no further excuse for remaining away from the office, in consequence of which the latter decided to return to San Francisco on the Quickstep. This for several very good reasons: The food on the Quickstep was better than the food on the regular liner, the accommodations were fully as good, the vessel was loaded deeply and would ride steadily--and Mr. Skinner and his bride would travel without charge.

The sight of the Skinners coming aboard was not a pleasing one to Matt Peasley. He did not like Mr. Skinner well enough to care to eat at the same table with him, and he bethought him now of all the mean, nagging complaints of the past six months. In particular he recalled Mr. Skinner's instructions to him anent the carrying of dead-head passengers--and suddenly he had a brilliant idea. He sent for his wireless operator and ordered him to send this message:

Blue Star Navigation Company, San Francisco, Cal.

Please accept my resignation as master of your steamer Quickstep, said resignation to take effect immediately upon my arrival in San Francisco. Kindly have somebody on hand to relieve me.

Matthew Peasley.

Matt had just remembered that his six months in the Quickstep were up. His next move was to call on the steward.

"Go into Stateroom 7," he ordered, "and collect fifteen dollars from that man and woman in there. They came aboard without tickets."

Two minutes later the steward was back with word that the passengers in question were dead-heads, being none other than the manager of the Blue Star Navigation Company and his wife.

"Steward, you go back and tell that man Skinner that Captain Peasley never carries any dead-heads on the Quickstep. Tell him that when Captain Peasley wants to carry a guest he pays the guest's passage out of his own pocket."

"But he'll fire me, sir."

"Do as I order; he will not fire you. I'm the only man that has that privilege, and I'll exercise it if you don't obey me."

Two more minutes elapsed; then Mr. Skinner presented himself at the captain's stateroom.

"Peasley," he said sharply, "what nonsense is this?"

"No dead-heads on this ship, Mr. Skinner. Your own orders, sir. Fifteen dollars, if you please. You're not my guests."

"Of course," said Mr. Skinner, "I shall do nothing of the sort."

"Then get off the ship."

"Sir, are you crazy?"

"No, I am not; I'm just disgusted with you. Fifteen dollars here and now before I cast off the lines, or I'll run you off the ship. Don't tempt me, Skinner. If I ever lay violent hands on you there'll be work for a doctor."

Mr. Skinner was speechless, but he laid fifteen dollars on the captain's desk and returned to his stateroom. His silence was ominous. Five minutes later the Quickstep backed out from the mill wharf and headed down the bay. As she plowed along, the rain commenced falling and a stiff southeast breeze warned Matt that he was in for a wet crossing. He was further convinced of this when the bar tug Ranger met him a mile inside the entrance. She steamed alongside, and, as she passed, her captain hailed Matt.

"Don't try to cross out, Peasley," he shouted. "The bar is breaking."

"The Quickstep doesn't mind it," Matt answered.

"Don't try it, I tell you. I've been twenty years on Humboldt Bar and I know it, Peasley. I've never seen it so bad as it is this minute."

"Oh, we'll cross out without any fuss," Matt called back cheerfully, and rang for full speed ahead. They were down at the entrance, and the Quickstep had just lifted to the dead water from the first big green roller, when Mr. Skinner came up and touched Matt Peasley on the arm.

"Well, sir?" Matt demanded irritably.

"Drop anchor inside, captain. That bar is too rough to attempt to cross out."

"Oh, nonsense!" Matt declared.

"But didn't you hear what that tug-boat captain said? He said it was breaking worse than he had known it for twenty years."

"Bah! What does he know about it?"

"I don't care what he knows, Captain Peasley; I order you not to attempt to cross out. My wife is aboard and I'll take no chances. Come to anchor and wait for the bar to settle."

"You order me?" Matt sneered. "Who in blazes are you to give orders on my ship? I'm at sea, you understand, and you have nothing to say. You'll give your orders and I'll obey them when I'm at the dock, but crossing Humboldt Bar, I'm the master of ceremonies. I can't turn back now. I'd lose my rudder as I came about. Get out. Who invited you up here?"

"How dare you, sir?" Mr. Skinner cried furiously. "Man, have you lost your mind? Obey me, I say."

Matt Peasley laughed blithely. "You miserable, cold-blooded, nagging old woman," he said, and took Mr. Skinner by the nape and shook him. "I've prayed for this day. Do you remember the time you wired me at Coos Bay that my timidity had lost you some passenger traffic? You impugned my courage then, you whelp, and now I'm going to give you a sample of it. All winter long you've been hounding me, trying to make me take chances crossing this bar, just so the vessel might pick up a couple of hundred dollars extra in passenger money. It didn't matter to you what risks other men's wives ran when you were snug in your office, did it? You never thought of the passengers I had aboard, or the lives of my crew or me, did you? You wanted me to cut corners and risk human lives for the sake of your reputation as an efficient manager, you--" And he shook Mr. Skinner until the manager's teeth rattled. "Now you're aboard yourself with your blushing bride, and how do you like it, eh? How do you like it? You know all about navigation, don't you? Well, you and your wife are the only passengers this trip, and I'm going to give you a taste of salt water you'll remember till your dying day," and with a shove he sent Mr. Skinner flying aft until he collided with the funnel.

"You're fired!" Skinner screamed, beside himself with fear and rage. But Matt Peasley was devoting all of his attention to the Quickstep now; and it was well that he did. The vessel rose on the crest of a green comber thirty feet high, and plunged with the speed of an express elevator into the valley between that wave and the next.

A tremendous sea boiled in over the knight heads and swept aft, burying the Quickstep until nothing showed but her upper works. But she was a sturdy craft and came up from under it, rode the succeeding three seas and was comparatively free of water when she shipped the next one. The crest of it came in along the little promenade deck, carrying away the companion that led to the bridge, staving in the doors and windows of all the staterooms on the port side and carrying away the rails and stanchions. There was two feet of water in Stateroom 7, where Mrs. Skinner clung to her husband, screaming hysterically.

But despite the awful buffeting she was receiving the Quickstep never faltered. On she plowed, riding the green billows like a gull, and shipping a sea only occasionally. The deckload, double-lashed, held, although the deckhouse groaned and twisted until Matt Peasley regretted the impulse that had impelled him to do this foolish thing for the sake of satisfying a grudge.

"She'll make it, sir," the man at the wheel called up; but Matt's face was a little white and serious as he tried to smile back.

Another sea came ramping aboard and snatched the port lifeboat out of the davits, smashed in the door of the dining saloon and flooded it, gutted the galley, and drove the cook and the steward to the protection of the engine room. The chief called up through the speaking tube:

"How's the boss making it, captain?"

"It's a wet passage for him, chief. I can hear his wife scream every time we ship one."

"Serves her right for marrying the pest," the chief growled, and turned away.

They crossed out, but at a cost that made Matt Peasley shudder, when he left the bridge in charge of the mate and went below to take stock of the damage. A new boat and four days' work for a carpenter gang--perhaps eighteen hundred dollars' worth of damage, not counting the demurrage! It was a big price to pay for one brief moment of triumph, but Matt Peasley felt that it would have been cheap at twice the money. He passed round on the starboard side of the vessel and found Mr. Skinner wet to the skin and shivering.

"We're over," Matt announced cheerfully. "How did you like the going?"

"You villain!" Skinner cried passionately. "You'll never command another ship in the Blue Star fleet, I'll promise you that."

"I know it, Skinner. But if I were you I'd go down in the engine room and dry out while the cook and the steward straighten things round."

"I'll discharge you the moment we tie up at the dock in San Francisco," Skinner stormed.

"Oh, no, you won't," Matt assured him. "I've beaten you to it. I resigned by wireless before we left the dock at Eureka."

That was a long, cold, cheerless trip for the Skinner family. The Quickstep bucked a howling southeaster all the way down the coast, and the Skinners were knocked from one end of their wet stateroom to the other and slept not a wink. It was a frightful experience, and to add to the discomfort of the trip Mrs. Skinner wept all the way. Eventually, however, the Quickstep tied up at the wharf in San Francisco, and the minute she was fast Matt Peasley, his accounts all made up to date and his clothes and personal effects packed, sprang out on the dock.

"There's your ship, Skinner," he called to the general manager. "I'm through." And he hastened away to the Blue Star office to settle up with the cashier, while Mr. Skinner and his bride entered a taxicab and were driven to their home. And two hours later when Mr. Skinner, warm and dry at last, came down to the office to attend to the task of selecting a new master for the Quickstep, he found Cappy Ricks was back from Europe and on the job.

"I hear you've been having some experience," said Cappy cheerfully as he shook hands with his manager. "Peasley was telling me what he did to you, and all the disrespectful things he said to you. Skinner, my dear fellow, that was an outrageous way for him to act."

"I fired him," said Skinner waspishly. "And while we're on the subject let me declare myself about this man Peasley; as long as I remain in your employ, Mr. Ricks, that man must never command another Blue Star vessel. Do I make myself sufficiently clear?"

"You do, Skinner; you do, indeed," Cappy answered. "I warned Matt that if you ever fired him, I'd have to back you up--and I'll do it, Skinner. I'll sustain your decision, my boy. As long as you're my manager that fellow can never go to sea under the Blue Star flag. The scoundrel!"

"And I wouldn't recommend him to any other owner either," Mr. Skinner suggested.

"I'll not, Skinner. He will never go to sea again. I'm not going to have his license taken away from him--er-- Hum! Ahem! Harump-h-h-h! But I'll see that he doesn't use it again. The fact is, Skinner, I'm er--getting--old--and--er--you're pretty hard-worked in the lumber department, so I've--Hum! Harump-h-h-h! decided to relieve you of the shipping entirely and hire Matt for our port captain. He's on the pay roll at three hundred a month. And--er--Skinner, try to be friendly with the boy for my sake. The young rascal is engaged to marry my daughter, and I--er--it's barely possible he'll take up the business--Hum! Ahem! I'll stick round another year and break him into the landward side of shipping and then, Skinner, d'ye know what I'm going to do then?"

"What?" Mr. Skinner asked dully.

"I'm going to learn to play golf," said Cappy.



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